Interview with René Mogensen, Composer, Saxophonist (En)

(23. 10. 2021 Interview made by Ellen Moysan in Ascea, Italia, transcribed and edited by Joel and Dana Boyer)


Interviewer: Ellen Moysan

Interviewee: René Mogensen, Music Technology Tutor at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Lecturer at the University of Rome Tor Vergata in the Master in Sonic Arts programme. He is a composer, musician, researcher, and producer, and has completed composer residencies at STEIM in Amsterdam, NADINE in Brussels, Logos in Ghent, Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, California, the NYU summer school in Pisa, EMU Cyrpus, and the Damascus Circus School project. His research-interests include computational creativity in music, artificial intelligence in music, analysis of human-computer relations in music, music composition, sonic art, improvisation, notation, as well as music education.


Ellen Moysan: The first question is always the same. [Do you think that the expression “inner song” is good, and if you have a better one, what would it be?] It’s a translated expression so if it’s also used in your culture if there’s another one that would be more suitable. You told me ‘aural…

René Mogensen: Yes, aural imagination. Aural as in auditory. Aural imagination. I think that’s a bit more idiomatic for English.

E.M.: And what changes? What does it bring, to use this expression instead of the other one?

R.M.: Well, like we discussed in the conference, when you say ‘song’ and you say ‘inner,’ it’s sort of an internal singing, I guess, whereas aural imagination seems wider. It can cover much more, because it could be any kind of sound. It’s not a song. It doesn’t have to be a linear, Western, melodic idea with the notes from the piano. ‘Song,’ when you say that, it really limits what it could be. Whereas if you say aural imagination, it could be any kind of imaginary sonic something that you can have in your head.

E.M.: But it would still keep… One of the things that I like with this expression, as it is used in French, it’s because it is something that professors use when they teach students to practice music.

R.M.: What is it again in French?

E.M.: Chant intérieur.

R.M.: Yes. It’s sort of like if you do solfège, right, you would try to sing it inside your head. But in an American Conservatoire, in my experience, anyway, which is in the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and New York University—it’s a long time ago now, but I’m pretty sure we used the expression ‘aural imagination.’ If you try to imagine an orchestration, not just a single line, not just an instrument, or if you’re trying to imagine something electronic that isn’t in note form that’s more like a sound cloud or a texture that you can’t really transcribe onto traditional notation, so either way, aural imagination can cover all of that and can be much more complex. But, you know, it’s also a term that’s used, so most people would understand what you mean by aural imagination, whereas, in English, inner song seems much more specific and it’s not what you would use if you’re teaching or studying as a composer. If you’re thinking of an inner song then you’re thinking very specifically of a song, I think.

E.M.: Yes, well, it’s a cellist who used it.

R.M.: Yes, if you’re thinking single line, linear, standard notation types of things, then you could use that, I guess. So, it depends on what your focus wants to be.

E.M.: I think I would like my focus to be on the relationship between this specific phantasy object and the practice. In phenomenology, Husserl differentiates between imagination and phantasy. I use phantasy because it’s more suitable. So, it would become aural phantasy. But then, what matters for me is to say that this is not just any kind of musical imagination, it’s the object with which the musician works when practicing, composing, improvising. It’s something that plays a role in the practice. I like the fact that it’s connected with the process—we spoke of the process and the project—I liked the notion of process and I think, when a composer composes, when a musician practices an instrument, improvisation—as we saw during the weekend, it’s confusing for me because now I’m thinking ‘Hmm… Does it work really’ But I guess we have this kind of vision—musical vision or anticipation of what we would like to play.

R.M.: The inner song is specifically about a performance practice of playing an instrument, rather than a general notion of imagination of aural stuff?

E.M.: Yes, in my dissertation, I focus on the process of practicing music…

R.M.: Like, performing music—specifically cello, or…?

E.M.: Not necessarily. But the process of making music, you know?

R.M.: As a performer?

E.M.: Yes, as a performer. I used the point of view of the performer, because usually in philosophy we work from the point of view of the listener and I was interested in working from the point of view of the performer, and then, I was more interested in the process of making music—so, practicing regularly, rehearsing at home, exactly what Philip Read says in his papers when he describes what he was doing—correcting, editing, throwing away, restarting. So, I think that behind this series of modifications: there’s this vision or this anticipation of what we would like to hear that is in constant modification, because, of course, you don’t start with a very accurate idea of what you want and then just make it happen. I think it’s a process of changing your vision, editing your vision, and through the practice. For example, as a cellist, I read the score, I try to get the rhythm, the pitch, and all of that, and then I sing it and then I practice it. And then I’m like, ‘well, the intonation is not good,’ so I stop, I correct, I restart. And then I think ‘it should not be attacked in this way,’ and then I thought ‘maybe this kind of understanding I had doesn’t work that well,’ so I edit it. I’m interested in the making of the final project and in what happened before in the process of editing, correcting, changing. And I think we can do that because we have a vision of what it should be and it’s not a fixed one; it’s something that constantly evolves and there’s a process, I think, at the beginning, when it’s obscure, not very clear, kind of a sketch, and then it becomes more accurate.

R.M.: Is that the inner song?

E.M.: Yes, the definition I give to ‘inner song’ is this thing that is edited.

R.M.: Oh, so it’s an imagination of a piece that evolves; and it’s also an embodied practice of that piece.

E.M.: Yes, and that’s why I’m interested in what you do, because you don’t have the same bodily contact with the instrument—I mean, yes, with the saxophone, yes, but not with the machines that you work with. But I think when you, in this vision—it’s hard to use another term that is not visual—but in this inner song, I think there’s also the how I want to make it, how I want to touch my instrument, what kind of pressure I want to give, all these feelings, you know…

R.M.: So, there’s a lot of contact. There’s a lot of touch, muscle activity, and what is sometimes called haptic feedback—what the instrument gives you back; you do something to it and there’s a resistance or something that happens. That whole experience… When you practice a piece, maybe you could say that you have a very abstract idea of the piece—if it’s from a score, you have a relatively abstract idea of the piece; you have a visual impression; you use notes and you have a somewhat abstract notion of what it sounds like—maybe you’ve heard someone else play it as well, and you can read the score like a solfège which is sort of somewhat abstract in a sense. You’re not actually doing it on the instrument yet. It’s an imaginary sounding of it. Then you’re adding, by practicing it on the instrument, the muscle memory, the haptic feedback, the experience of it as a physical event, not just a mental event, right? When you do solfège, it’s a mental event.

E.M.: But sometimes—and I think that’s also an interesting part of it—sometimes it starts with the instrument and then the imagination develops. I think especially for less-trained musicians, I would say.

R.M.: You mean, you look at the score and you try to play it, and then you gradually figure out what it’s supposed to sound like, rather than having an idea of what it should sound like and then try to make it.

E.M.: I think there are two kinds of musicians. I think some musicians need to have this contact with the instrument in order to get the piece and some others need first—like my brother, who I interviewed, he is a more abstract guy: he imagines and visualizes everything and then he goes to the instrument. And, I guess, for composers it’s the same: some composers start with ideas at the piano and some others visualize a piece and then they try it out.

R.M.: Maybe some people prefer it one way, but it probably depends on the piece. Because sometimes it seems to me that I can have a lot of ideas that are—like you said, like your brother—an abstract idea of the whole piece and then I try to do it. Other times I just have some very vague things and I play around, physically, with the instrument and that helps develop it. So, it probably depends on personality, I suppose, but sometimes it’s easier to go different routes to whatever thing you’re doing, I think.

E.M.: Yes, I think that’s what we were saying with your father when he said, ‘I don’t need to think about something before saying it.’

R.M.: [Laughs] Yes, yea.

E.M.: That’s this idea. At the beginning, I thought that the inner song was the idea of the piece. But actually, some musicians answered my first question by saying that it’s a musical idea.

R.M.: Well, if you look at a score, it is a musical idea, I guess. It probably depends. Sometimes you look at it—if it’s a score for an instrument that you’re very practiced on, and then you imagine it physically at the same time, it’s not so abstract. You imagine actually doing it, what your fingers can do, you sort of experience virtual muscle movement and haptic feedback from your instrument, even if you don’t have your instrument in your hand. So, for me, if it’s a saxophone solo or a saxophone part, then it’s already kind of physical when you’re looking at it. If I’m working with other instruments, like a violin—I don’t play the violin, I’ve tried it, or a cello—it’s not the same thing; I think it’s more abstract.

E.M.: Yes, that’s why I think we have an instrumental bias in some way. Now, I am at the final stage of my dissertation, so I have written everything and I’m editing, you know? I have the first part on the attitude, and that’s one thing I would like to go back to. You said, this morning, that we kind of abstract from everything in order to focus on the playing. I think there’s this conversion of attention and so then my second part is to distinguish the sound that I hear from what I am playing and the imaginative object. The third one is on the body, as you say, the sensation and the haptic feedback—I really like the haptic feedback. I didn’t know this expression. It’s a really good one.

R.M.: Yes, you can find lots of literature on it, people experimenting…

E.M.: And then the fourth part is on the instrument, because I think we have an instrumental bias and I think that even composers have one.

R.M.: Sure.

E.M.: I definitely have one—when I read a score for singers, because I sang for a long time, and for the cello. I cannot read a score for drums, for example. But then I think that even when I listen to music, I tend to hear more the bass line because, I think, I am a cellist. Or when I invent second voices, if I hear somebody singing a melody and I want to invent something at the same time, I usually take the lower voice and I tend to do something that I’m used to. I think that the habits of playing the instrument really gives a bias to the hearing and to the performing.

R.M.: Yes, I suppose. If you spend a lot of time in a role within a musical texture, then you will tend to focus on that role. In a musical texture with however many voices and instrumentation and so on. But I don’t think you have to. You can learn to listen to the whole thing or focus on different parts. That’s part of what you try to train people to do in a conservatoire.

E.M.: I do think that the instrumental bias is a problem. For example, I don’t have a very good harmonic ear, because I don’t play the piano or the organ or any instrument that requires me to hear a chord, you know, instead of hearing a melody.

R.M.: But that’s something you can learn. It’s not like ‘you’re a cellist so you can’t do that.’ It’s just something that you have to learn as part of musicianship. But in my opinion, anybody can learn, so it’s just a matter of trying and playing some piano. The piano, the keyboard, has been such an important tool for many, many composers in the Western tradition.

E.M.: So, what kinds of parameters would you see in the inner song. There are obviously the parameters of sound, like rhythm and pitch and I don’t know about the four parameters, intensity, timbre…

R.M.: But timbre is an interesting thing because it’s hard to define because it’s many things. I mean, it’s also connected to dynamics when you play, at least from my view as a composer, not being a string player, when you ask the string players to play loud, if it’s a solo, it gets louder, it’s more the timbre that changes rather than the loudness, per se. Timbre is a very, very complex thing. It’s a lot about how we perceive the frequency spectrum of the sound. Any note on any instrument is a whole distribution of frequencies and there are a few that are much louder than the others. But there’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s a lot of noise in the sound. It’s really much more complex than when we talk about a note or a pitch. That really simplifies it. It’s a whole, very complex thing. And timbre is related to that distribution of frequencies. That’s why an A on an oboe sounds different than an A on a clarinet. It’s because of the timbre. It’s because of the frequency spectrum is different with different overtones with different intensities and some of them are missing in some instruments depending on the shape of them and so on.

E.M.: I think the specificity of this phantasy object is that there is the physical dimension added to it. So, instead of just hearing a sound, I hear an embodied sound. I am still trying to understand the various components. For example, I will hear a sound as I would play it, but with some musicians who are singing while playing to rehearse, they imitate the sound of the instrument, so a cellist would be vocalizing, and a saxophonist would use different kinds of vocalizations and so on…

R.M.: The problem with a wind instrument is that you have to use your mouth to play it, so you can sing while playing, you know, you can hum and then play, but you can’t do the same thing that the pianist can do who has a mouth free to sing.

E.M.: But you can still stop and sing.

R.M.: You vocalize. And on saxophone, you actually vocalize the note in a sense. You are sort of singing or speaking in a way, but you’re shaping a note; you vocalize the notes in a way, which is a hard kind of thing to explain. But you’re not just blowing, you’re also shaping it with your whole cavity, your embouchure, but also everything in your throat—a bit like a singer, but obviously you’re not hearing the voice in the same way as you hear a singer sing it, you’re hearing the saxophone sound, but the saxophone sound is partly a vocalization in some funny way. It’s a kind of thing that a saxophone teacher would try to get their students to vocalize—not just blow and not just have the embouchure and have the tuning right but also vocalize it in a certain sense.

E.M.: Do you think the voice would always play a role in the imaginative object in the inner song, in the auralization? Like, whatever you play, the voice always comes into play when we are imagining how we want it to sound and so on, or not necessarily? Do you think we can just go from the phantasy to the instrument?

R.M.: You can hear more. When you’re singing, you know, some people can do a kind of multiphonic singing, but if you hear more than one voice, you have to switch between them to sing it. It’s more than just a vocal expression that you hear in your head, if that makes sense. You can hear a chord. I can arpeggiate a chord, but I cannot sing the whole chord as a chord.

E.M.: Maybe that’s also a bias of the expression because the cello is not only a melodic instrument, it’s an instrument that matches the voice. It’s easier to sing whatever you are rehearsing to, it helps to use the voice to help. I think it was an oboist who said that he copies the sound of tenor singers when he plays.

R.M.: That’s probably a way to help him vocalize the air column—to shape it. It helps to think that you’re actually vocalizing it. I mean, it’s a tricky one. I don’t really have a performance theory about that. I haven’t been teaching much saxophone for years. But it is a thing for wind instruments. I don’t really know for oboists. I never really played the oboe; I’m not a double reed person, but I would think that they also need to vocalize the airflow.

E.M.: I’m just wondering if the voice is always… The inner song is a phantasy object, so it’s happening in my mind.

R.M.: When you say ‘phantasy object, you are saying it’s an abstraction, it seems to me. You’re saying it’s an imaginary thing, and so it could be anything and it doesn’t have to correspond to any kind of physical thing.

E.M.: Yes, the expression is an issue. But what I want to say is that there’s what I play, so it’s a sound that I can hear and then there’s what I hear in imagination. And I was wondering if the voice—which is actually my capacity to externalize—always plays a role or not, or if it’s just some specific situations. I’m wondering because many musicians say the voice is the most natural instrument, and all of that.

R.M.: That’s what we’re taught. I mean, that’s what teachers tell you. So that’s what people will tend to grab on to. But there’s so much stuff in my head that has nothing to do with my voice. Some of it I try to vocalize, but it’s not the only kind of sound in one’s head, for sure, and so to try and vocalize it seems a bit pointless. That’s why you would use, or make something for, other instruments where you can’t sing, like high instruments or very low instruments, I can’t sing it. I mean, just the timbres of them, I can’t sing. You can sing an abstraction, you can sing a melody line, but the timbres of the different instruments are essential to the sound of that, and I can imagine it and I can sing the melody, maybe, if it’s a line, but I can’t really do the timbres of those instruments, so it doesn’t really sound like the instrument when I sing it. I can do the rhythm; I can do the pitch, you know, I can…

E.M.: It’s not an embodiment… the interesting thing with the voice is that it embodies. When I first started to work, I thought the voice is the first degree of embodiment of this vision.

R.M.: Well, I think that’s very embedded in the western music tradition. Everyone needs to sing in the beginning.

E.M.: Well, Indians do it, and folk musicians do it too.

R.M.: Well, maybe all… Maybe it’s for humans all together.

E.M.: That’s why I think there’s also an anthropological question here: is the voice always the first degree of embodiment and then we have the instrument, and then we would be with electronic music and all of that kind of stuff, we would be so far beyond this primary kind of embodiment that now we are not using it as much because now we have much more to say. But I’m still wondering, because this process of making music is a process of embodying something, you know. And maybe not exactly like when you write a dissertation, but you make something, you realize something, you make it real, you embody it so that it’s accessible, then, to everybody else.

R.M.: Isn’t that environment… is externalizing it, you’re putting it outside yourself, right? Like when you’re writing your dissertation, you have all this stuff in your head and you’re putting it on paper or on some kind of record, so you’re putting it outside of yourself. I mean, that’s a really important step that you do. When you’re playing an instrument, you’re sort of putting the sound outside of yourself.

E.M.: And that’s what some musicians say: they say the instrument is the speaker of the inner song. Some musicians told me that.

R.M.: Yes, I mean, I kind of mentioned that physicality of speakers is very different from playing an instrument. And, for computer musicians, for people who play on laptops or keyboards or synthesizers, they have an interface—I mean, they have a keyboard, or they have knobs and sliders, or a mouse and a computer keyboard—they code or whatever, but the sound is coming out of the speakers, so they don’t have a direct physical engagement with the sound production. They have an electronic interface. And there are lots of people building or experimenting with or building more interesting interfaces. Like the haptic feedback idea is from people building electronic instruments that do stuff physically in order for it to become more like a physical instrument where you press something, and a sound comes but it gives resistance and it gives vibrations.

E.M.: So, there’s also this haptic feedback with electronic instruments.

R.M.: Yes, yes. There are people working on making it more—I don’t know what all the motivations are—but it makes it more of a physical experience. A theme in computer music, if you’re making something for a human to control—the instrumental computer music rather than the player—if you’re making something that’s an instrument or an extension of an instrument, then that physical interaction is missing, a lot of times. That’s why, if you have a nice keyboard, then the keys are weighted. If you have a cheaper one, then it doesn’t really give you the same certain kind of haptic feedback. The weighting of the keys makes a real difference in how it feels to play it. It’s much nicer to play on a weighted keyboard. And it’s an electronic instrument so you’re not actually making the sound the way the weight of the keys on a piano is because of the mechanism. It’s mechanical in the way it’s constructed, the hammering—or if it’s a harpsichord, the plucking—it’s a mechanical system that gives haptic feedback. But in electronic music, you don’t have to have any haptic feedback. In some instruments, like an infrared sensor, you move your hands around and you can do all the same stuff; you don’t touch anything.

E.M.: Yes, there’s the theremin, for example.

R.M.: The theremin is a kind of… There’s no actual contact when you’re playing that. It’s moving in and out of these fields that change electric signals. And there’s no right or wrong; it’s just that there’s a theme in some computer music where you want to have it become more of a physical instrument. I don’t know if that’s relevant to you.

E.M.: Yes, it’s very relevant actually, because I’m interested in the body aspect.

R.M.: I think you should look into literature on haptic feedback.

E.M.: I have never heard this expression, even in all my previous interviews, it was never mentioned. I interviewed a couple of electronic musicians, actually, three or four. And one described how he tries to embody the sound when he’s doing it, so he said ‘I have some imagination of what I want to do, but I’m trying to embody the rhythm, and…’ So, he explained how even if it’s electronic, for him it needs to go through the body first, at least up to a certain level… I’s not so abstract. At the beginning, we think ‘well, you can just stay like this in front of your laptop and do stuff, but…’

R.M.: Well, I’ve certainly experienced plenty of performers where that’s the case. People sit and do stuff on the computer and all kinds of electronic stuff is happening and it’s almost like they’re not moving, they’re just sitting, doing it. Some people object to that and say it’s really boring. There’s something missing. There’s no sort of physical engagement by the performer. And I don’t know if it’s necessary. I just think it’s a different kind of performance, maybe. But then, for some people, it’s okay to perform that way, I guess; they don’t mind. And others, you can see it with dance type electronica people. They’re jumping around and dancing some kind of pulse that’s part of the music. They’re very much trying to keep a sort of a physical connection to the rhythm or whatever it is that they’re doing. But the instrument that they’re using isn’t giving it. A lot of them will use Ableton Live—you know that software—it’s very popular with the kind of electronica, DJ-ish, experimental DJ or many variations of electronica—so that’s—well, you can have controllers and buttons, and some people probably make some more physical interfaces, but they want to keep engaged in it they need to move around.

E.M.: So, you could have some music that is totally abstract then, if the body doesn’t engage with it anymore?

R.M.: Yes, I can ask, if they’re just sitting like this and doing like that, like live coding kind of music—basically they are coding a system, there’s a whole genre or subgenre called live coding which is computer music where you program it as you go, and it evolves as you program it. And you basically have to sit and type in code. You’re not jumping around like you would if you were playing with Ableton and you’re putting these grooves and loops in. But is that more abstract?

E.M.: What guides that? What would be the inner song of that when you do the decision making of what comes next and, etc.

R.M.: I think maybe it’s very different from what you’re working from with an instrument and learning a piece and learning how to, like you were saying, gradually developing how it should sound and how it feels to play it. The mastery of the piece is totally connected with embodying it in the action of performing it—if that makes sense. Live coding is a very improvisational genre. It’s not something that I do; I’ve observed it and I know people who do it, and all that, but it might be that they all have stock things that they know; they have done it and so they have habits.

E.M.: So, there’s training.

R.M.: There’s lots of preparation. Usually, unless they’ve just started out, then who knows.

E.M.: I think you need preparation. You need to know coding, at least.

R.M.: Yes, you need to know what you’re doing. It’s about working with material. Maybe it’s a bit like a painter who works with color and then tries, like the painter of our conference was saying, he uses a color and then his sense or artistic personality says ‘okay, I think this color should go over there,’ or it calls for that color is how he describes it. It’s his own introspective description of it. There’s something going on that is making decisions about what should happen. Maybe he’s really improvising with colors and the live coding person is improvising with code. He has an idea of what that means in terms of sound and how it fits together but the medium is different from the paint. And if you’re improvising with an instrument that you know really well, and knowing what you can do with it is, I guess, it can be a bit like a painter: you’re playing something and then, from having experience, you make the judgment, ‘Okay, I think I should play this now and that would add…’ or whatever. You make judgments and they can obviously be… Well, then you come into the question of ‘well, are they the subconscious or the conscious ones. I don’t really know, it’s so hard to say. It’s really difficult to say whether it’s subconscious or conscious. And what does that mean? Is there even really much of a distinction? I’m not sure.

E.M.: Yes, what I intend by ‘inner song’ is this thing that guides the decision making, you know? And which is constant evolution, in constant modification, because you can start—and there’s what Philip was saying, you start with an idea and then you change and then the next day you don’t like it anymore. But I am interested in the fact that there’s something guiding the decision making that evolves and that at some point, you can decide that there’s nothing more to say. You know, when I was hearing you yesterday, I was watching you play with Hugh, and I was thinking, ‘what makes them stop at some point and decide that there is nothing more to add to what we have been doing, so we stop and do something else and then we will start playing track two,’ you know?

R.M.: [Laughs] How many tracks were there? I didn’t really…

E.M.: There were some sequences. I mean, you were not playing all the way from the beginning to the end of the evening. And I think that there’s a decision making that’s going on, guided by something. I think, yesterday, Hugh started with a chord or something that looks like it’s tuning the instrument, and then you go on and, at some point, there’s nothing more to add and you do something else. So, I’m interested in this thing that doesn’t really have a name, that guides the decision making.

R.M.: Yes, yes. So, we have an aural imagination. That’s not the same thing as what you’re talking about. What you’re talking about, you need an aural imagination, but then you need a decision. So, you could think about this predictive processing idea, which is this idea where you’re sort of looking forward. The theory, in summary, as I understand it, is that humans are constantly expecting, making predictions about what’s going to happen next. I am predicting that if I move my hand like this, it won’t hit the wall, let’s say. And if it does hit the wall, ‘Oh, I’m closer to the wall than I thought.’ And so, I adjust so if I need to do this movement, I won’t go as far next time. So, you’re constantly adjusting your expectation or your prediction. I think it’s a very interesting theory and there’s a whole bunch of stuff around it, but I sat in on a conference and it’s interesting that maybe the decision making is something that is informed by this life-long process of adjusting our error-minimizing predictions. We’re trying to minimize our errors of prediction.

E.M.: I think there’s a very interesting time process which is anticipation, reusing what has already been learned, reusing embodied habits, and putting them in the present. So, for example, I anticipate something, I will use what I already know, and now I will play. And it’s a sort of constant loop that does something like this where you predict, you use what you know and then you do. I think it’s the way it’s modified, so that’s why I don’t think it’s like an image that gets realized but I think it’s a temporal process that plays between anticipation, retention of past memories, and the present of the action.

R.M.: There’s also experiential learning. Dewey is a philosopher, a pragmatist. And then there’s a more recent philosopher, I’ve read, named Kolb who uses Dewey and talks about experiential learning as a kind of iterative process of a cycle through four segments.




E.M.: But you see what I mean when I say that I think it’s in our imagination that is unfolding in time. If you quit the static definition of it and focus on the temporal process, you can see that there is definitely anticipation with a fulfillment or a disappointment of the anticipation. And habits also.

R.M.: Are you talking about or assuming that you know what you’re doing on the instrument? You’re not talking about trying something on the instrument and it doesn’t work? Because you can think of it as playing something, like when I’m playing with Hugh, I am playing something and how is he responding to what I’m playing, is he going to latch on to it in some way? Is he going to join in so that we become a concerted rhythm with some kind of counterpoint that is very harmonic or is he going to be more dissonant or is he going to do something that adds a different kind of figure to the texture that we’re doing together? So, there, I try something, and I look for what happens, so I don’t think I have definite expectations, but it’s very interesting and it’s important for me, what the other people engaging in this particular music making, what are they doing and how are they reacting not just from what I’m playing but from what’s being played as a whole? What are people doing to it or with it or against it? There’s not really satisfying terms to use, but what’s going on and when I do something what does that do to the whole thing, and if I’m doing something then how does that seem to affect what the other people are doing? I mean, this is more about playing with other people rather than playing a piece to learned.

E.M.: But I think also when you work on one specific piece, you have this kind of process going on; it’s just that it doesn’t exactly work the same way. But you also watch how it sounds, how it sounds in the room, so I think that between composition, interpretation, and improvisation, the temporal process is the same but is more or less extended in the sense that improvisation is short- and long-term memory with short-term expectations that are constantly modified, but when you are interpreting you have more time and so it’s more elastic. I’m trying to get this process of what’s happening temporally when this vision or this aural imagination gets modified.

R.M.: What do you mean by ‘temporally’? I’m not really sure I understand clearly what you mean.

E.M.: Yes, it’s my phenomenological bias, but…

R.M.: You talk more and more about how the inner song changes over time.

E.M.: Yes, but changes over time as you play, as you practice.

R.M.: Yes, if you play… I used to play transcriptions of like the Bach Cello Suites on saxophone.

And so, it definitely changes over time, how I hear it and how I play the notes. Listening to some cellists playing it—like a recording of Yo-Yo Ma playing it

Then I have a friend of mine, a Belgian, Nicolas Deletaille, he’s a cellist who also recorded it

These are very different recordings, and it certainly affects how I play it on saxophone. It’s the same, I mean it’s transcribed, obviously I can’t do the exact same thing but in the abstract, it’s the same music, but the way I would phrase things or the kind of timbre I would try to get out of the saxophone, playing it certainly changed from experience and from thinking about it. There are other saxophonists who have done it very seriously and recorded the stuff. I’ve done Bach mostly for fun, for practicing, and stuff like that, you know, I mean, I’ve played it in some small, informal settings, but it’s not my primary performance stuff. Then I’ve sort of done some contemporary solo pieces and for other composers on saxophone

You have to learn it and if you’re playing in a group setting, it evolves. If you’re rehearsing with some kind of group, a score piece, nothing improvised, when it’s all sounding together, that affects how you would play your part. You practice it in one way, but then when you’re actually putting it all together, the whole context—even if you know what the piece is, you might hear a recording or you have the score—it’s a different context that’s more physical so you adjust a lot of nuances. Obviously, you want to fit in with the group, in a sense.

E.M.: Do you think we should distinguish various types of aural imagination? Like, it would be an umbrella of various types where the one from improvisation would not be same as what’s going on when you interpret a score, which is not the same as what is going when there is a composition?

R.M.: Yes, I think they’d be using the same categories of internal mechanisms, whatever they are. But maybe you don’t need all of them for everything.

E.M.: Yes, I’m trying to identify the ones that are always there in order to then say that this is what I am describing. I am describing what is always there. And so, I need to distinguish what are specific practices or training and from what is always part of this aural imagination—to find the essence of it. Maybe the body does not always play a role. Or maybe, yes, it does. Or maybe, it’s constituted also of this haptic feedback and sensations. I’m trying to go to the most elementary ones that are common to making music.

R.M.: Yes, I get it, or I think I get it. Maybe the musicality concept is useful. Where musicality is something very basic in people—this is my version of musicality. I think of a very biologically based one where one of the things that makes music inevitable or necessary for people is because our bodies are just full of it, we have pulse, we have rhythms, we have timbre in our systems. There is a spectrum of sounds in our minds or in our whole existence. I’m not sure everyone thinks of it as sound, but you listen to your heartbeat or, if you’re in a very quiet place, you might hear some of the electrical signals that are going on in your system or feeling your muscles or hearing how you move and even if you move very slightly, there’s rhythm, there’s frequency spectrum, there’s some kind of music all of the time. And that seems to be the basic necessity of music or, well, not necessity, but you just can’t avoid it. It’s just part of us.

E.M.: Yes, that’s what I call inner rhythm

R.M.: There’s no way of being alive and not having it. That’s the kind of musicality and maybe it’s useful to think of musicianship as something else, as learning how to deal with musicality in some way. How do you deal with being alive. If you get a musical education, a performer’s education, then you need to deal with musicality, at least in part, by putting it into an instrument, right? You need the musicianship that will allow you to perform on the instrument. If that’s in a traditional acoustic instrument, then it’s a physical activity where you have to manipulate some kind of mechanical system, some kind of pneumatic system, an air system. For mechanical, it will be strings, it will be drums, and for pneumatic will be wind instruments—which also have some mechanical parts, usually—you have to learn that and that’s a physical thing where you need, part of doing that well is being very sensitive to the haptic feedback that it gives you—whatever instrument it is. Musicianship, in that case, is, you’ve got your musicality, you can’t really avoid it, but you need to be able to…

E.M.: Channel it.

R.M.: Channel it. Yes, that’s a common metaphor anyway. But you’re putting it into the instrument. The idea of musicianship technique is to be able to put it into the instrument or be able to manipulate the instrument in such a way that the musicality is expressed in a way that conforms to the musical tradition that you’re in—whether that’s Western music or any other culture. So, then if your instrument is a laptop and you’re using Ableton or you’re doing live recording, maybe that physicality is just not part of the instrument and so it’s not necessary to learn to manipulate a mechanical instrument—you have to be able to type or do whatever you need to do for it, but it’s a different set of physical skills that you need to acquire, so it’s a different set of musicianship techniques that you need. That seems to me to be quite basic. If you can think of these that interact so your musicality may be very specific to you.

E.M.: Yes, I do think so. I think there’s this inner rhythm that is all of what you just described as musicality. And then from this base, you can channel, in a more specific way, the energy, the rhythm, the pulse, and whatever is going on and then you have the instrument that can channel it.

R.M.: I think your experience of being alive gives you the basic musicality. And then, of course, listening to other music beyond yourself gives you experience as well. So, there’s the basic physical thing of being alive and then well, you do learn by listening to music, or listening to sound, listening to the birds, listening to…

E.M.: Yes, that’s part of the culture–acquiring a culture.

R.M.: Yes, acquiring a culture—maybe that’s part of musicianship rather than musicality.

E.M.: I think so. I mean, not rather than, but I would say, in addition to.

R.M.: Maybe they’re not so separate. Maybe the basic thing is being alive and everything else builds on that. It sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it? You have to be alive or else you’re not going to make any music.

E.M.: Yes, yes. No, but I think that it’s not just being alive; it’s also having the feeling of it. I think that’s why not everybody can be a musician. You need to be able to grasp this.

R.M.: Yes, you have to be aware of it at some level or accept that you can’t avoid it in some way.

E.M.: You have to be able to use it at least to bring energy to what you are playing. I remember in my own training, having had to learn that because I was a shy musician, and I would not be able to bring the energy that I imagined into my playing and then I had to learn to embody my interpretation so I could channel. At some point, I did a master class and the guy told me that I had to restart everything as sometimes happens. But I had a very important question that came at this point: I was thinking ‘am I musical or not?’ because I had so much in my head. And apparently what I was playing was very different—kind of flat and all of that. So, I wondered what was wrong. So, I changed my professor and my second professor made me sing. And she was like, ‘obviously, you are musical, but there’s something happening in between this and the instrument.’ So, in the process of being able to channel that inner song, I had to get in touch with embodying the music—dancing it, moving it with the body, and kind of free something that was there but was not channeled. That’s why I think it’s certainly always there, but I don’t think it’s always grasped by the student. And I think it’s part of being a musician is to learn how to embody, to connect, to open the box and free these energies. And some musicians—and I think it’s part of the culture—some cultures are more repressing this and some others are encouraging to free this.

R.M.: Yes, personally I sometimes think of the idea of opening the floodgates, in a way. I don’t think it’s universally applicable, but I think I have a metaphor about my own existence and sense that there’s the sound that is always going on—a river of sound or a network that is always going on, and then, when I have an instrument or if I’m working on a score or on electronic stuff, I sort of allow some of that river to motivate what I do. So, it’s a kind of opening up of that stuff, that information or whatever it is. That river idea is just a metaphor. It’s not literal in any sense, but it does work with the idea of being alive and that you’re going through this period of being alive and things are changing constantly throughout that time.

E.M.: I think that’s really what makes a difference. I mean, when you watch musicians, some of them feel—it feels as if it’s direct and there’s no obstacle and it’s just freeing something. One of the musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra spoke a lot during the interview about joy and generosity and all of those more ethical categories. And sometimes you watch child prodigies, and some of them are actually, really at the top at ten years old or something. And I think every time you watch great musicians, something comes directly. One of the musicians told me, ‘I am lucky because I can express my inner song very easily.’ He’s a top soloist. He’s a top cellist, international soloist, so I was like ‘you have the training to be able to do that.’ But I think that making music is freeing and expressing it as clearly as you can so that it becomes what you visualize and what you want and it’s just there.

R.M.: Yes, I think of it more that I need to adapt it to the situation. I guess it’s very personal, but I feel like it’s too big to just let it all out in a public space. It’s more that you need—when we were playing yesterday, it’s a context and that context matters to me. There, I definitely had motivation that I want to do something that’s sort of going to make it a happy experience for everyone. I want to contribute in a way that—well, I guess that’s usually what I want to do—but that means that you’re kind of moderating that flow of stuff. There are things that you say ‘no, I don’t want to do that because that’s going to go in a way that maybe isn’t what I want to happen.’ I mean, I hope it doesn’t sound ominous or whatever, but I think it really is about a lot of editing going on and shaping it and fitting it into a particular context. Because I’ve also played—I used to play a lot more than I do now: like when I lived in New York, I played in all kinds of ensembles of different types. Some of it was free stuff—very open. Some of it electronic. Some of it was playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and jazz stuff and I did some composer friends works—all kinds of stuff. So, these are all different contexts where different kinds of things need to happen, and you want to…

E.M.: Well, to make a conversation, you don’t say the same thing to your best friend and to a stranger. But do you think that in the process of decision making there is a repression and an expression of stuff?

R.M.: Well, it’s part of the choosing. How do you make choices, right? So, part of the choosing is—I tend to prioritize the context a lot. And that really guides or does a lot to my choosing what to do. I’ve played with different people, and I choose to do different things with those people because it seems to me—it doesn’t mean I’m doing the right thing—but that error correcting predictive process, I try to do the best I can in some way, so maybe I’m over-editing sometimes or restricting in wrong ways or…

E.M.: Maybe when you work on a score, this process is more internal to the score and so you adjust less to the context and more to what the music is supposed to be, and when you improvise—especially when you have a free improvisation—then it’s the context that is guiding the decision making much more than this internal structure of the piece because you don’t know it already.

R.M.: Well, yes and no. I mean, when we were improvising yesterday, both Hugh and I were both drawing on structures that are not that new. We were doing stuff that is very recognizable—rhythmic patterns, melodic— Hugh was bringing in a lot of known melodies. And then, I tend to do a lot of patterns and then develop them in these kinds of ways and just changing them a little bit over time. So, you do some kind of pattern and add something or switch some things around and you make these minimalistic developments. And so, in some ways, it was really free, but we were using a lot of very…

E.M.: Well, when you do it, you improvise with what you already know. One drummer told me, ‘even if I really like it, I cannot use it unless I am really good at playing it. I integrate into my improvisation what I learn to do.’

R.M.: Yes, there are things you can do but it seems like it would shift the whole…

E.M.: atmosphere

R.M.: Yea, it would shift the whole thing. And I’m not sure that I’m confident that people would jump on it.

E.M.: A DJ that I interviewed said that there’s a kind of curve in the evening, so there’s a peak and so he needs to play this kind of music, but then if he plays this or that kind of stuff it will drop the energy, so you need to be able to control. Even folk musicians say that they need to make sure that the dancer can follow them.

R.M.: Yes, I guess, in some sense. I wasn’t trying to make an overall arc in the whole evening. I wasn’t sure how long it would be going on.

E.M.: Yes, but you want to make sure you are not losing the people.

R.M.: Yes, if you do some—I mean, I find it hard to get out of these very groovy rhythms. I sort of did a little bit and I didn’t feel anybody jumping on that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I felt like I was caught in very jazz oriented rhythms with a kind of groove, and if I had gone into something more non-pulse—well, everyone was doing pulses, so you just have to go with it. I don’t want to destroy that. But maybe I should have tried more and seen what would have happened. But I felt also like Hugh was doing all those melodies, the standards stuff, so it’s setting up all this stuff; there’s so much baggage in that with all those quotations that it just became that. Also, we’d been talking about free jazz, and jazz is so imposing so maybe we just go with it. We didn’t really have to do that. But then there was Alessandro going on using the wood stick. [Both laugh] It was great! There was joy in it. That’s a nice thing. You want that to happen. But I’ve played with other people who don’t want anything that sounds like jazz. It’s a completely different attitude. I’m not going to play what I did yesterday with that context. There really is a difference in the context and, when you’re playing in a group, it’s not so much about what I want to do but it’s about what will make this the best possible thing or how can I help this happen as a musical thing. So, there is a kind of ethical idea in that that you want it to be good in some way.

E.M.: I’m thinking I want to reduce a lot what I want to describe because, otherwise, it will get…

R.M.: Oh, it’s nine-thirty already. I have to go

E.M.: Yes, yes. I think it’s good.


The present interview is dedicated to the Professor Lars Aagaard Mogensen (†), without whom this encounter would have never taken place