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Interview Morgan Craft

dialog on black american avant-garde

The following interview took place at Rocca AlMiledo Studios, Toscana, Italia. 

Q:  How has the move away from New York, which many would consider the
center of the world, affected your work, your ideas?  I hear you live a
pretty isolated life on a mountain deep in Toscana.

Morgan Craft:  Yeah, very isolated.  The village we live in has a
population of eight hundred people.  It's been three years since we moved
so I can definitely see results.  It's true, most artists still insist on
living in the city.  And most cities now could be interchangeable anyway.
I know there is  the fantasy of going to a megalopolis to meet likeminded
people, have all these experiences, etc. and on a certain level you can.
I spent ten years in NY and I don't regret that.  You can't buy the
lessons of struggling for your art amidst eight million people, trying to
find out who you are and what you believe in.  I even think it's
necessary, if you want to be persuasive as an artist in the twenty first
century, to know what the city life does to one.  But then I'd turn around
and say there is definitely a time to leave.  All of the art I've loved
was about change, trying something new.  And to me, all art comes from the
life you live.  I'm very critical of the new technologies coming out now
but one aspect that is very exciting is the reality of being able to do
what you do no matter where you are.  A laptop and a cell phone can keep
you just as connected as you ever were.  I can't believe more people are
not taking advantage of this.    Then again I can understand why.  Art is
not being developed along the lines of innovation but of business.  Most
people don't want to risk not being on the scene and missing that big
break.  But break into what?  Into the establishment.  But I look out
there and don't see anything I want to waste my time breaking into.  The
relationship between art and nature shouldn't even have to be mentioned
but I can't remember the last time I heard anyone say it.  It's just not
modern enough to talk about essential things like plants and trees and
mountains and oceans.  It seems like everybody is rushing to be cyborgs.
And I can only speak for myself when I say that walking on concrete
between buildings along a grid which never changes just doesn't fulfill
me.  I think for an artist, living within nature is the original well of
inspiration.  Our job is probably the closest to the way nature works than
most other endeavors.  I can't express how important it is for me to wake
up in the country, with fresh air, space and time to really develop.   I
don't feel any contradiction in being concerned with a music of the future
and living a very rustic life.  I chop wood, take long walks through the
forest, tend a garden, live simple, and then walk inside to a fully
operational studio set up.  That, to me, is the future.  Building a
connection with the earth and the body feeds directly into the creativity.
Also, when you're isolated you can't run for the distractions like you
used to, all you've got is the work you say you love to do, but do you
really?  You can't fool yourself.  And I know that is a very scary place
for people, that ledge, that reality away from the fashion, away from the
friends.   So to go back to your question I'll say that moving here has
influenced every single aspect of my life in a beautiful way.

Q:  Do you feel there is a relationship between spirituality
and avant-garde / experimental musics?

MC:  Absolutely.  For me, music / art is a spiritual quest, period.  They
are the same thing.  When you start to ask where inspiration comes from
then you are dealing with spirtual matters.  The breath, flowing
naturally, allowing that energy to work through you, these are matters of
the spirit.  You can see that most people these days refrain from talking
about this, but there was a time when it was much more open.  Something
happened maybe around 1980 that we're still dealing with.  I can't say
what exactly or when exactly but something shifted.  They tried to stop
the progress of all these different musics.  Jazz, rock, pop, all were
rewarded for stopping their progression.  Money got big, keeping it safe
and marketable got big and the media kept up the pressure.  People started
talking about maintaining traditions.  Music that always was about
progress was now told to stop, no more forward motion.  And when you stop
you no longer are spiritual.  Spirit doesn't stop, at least I can't see
any evidence of spirit stopping.  Where does nature come to a stop?  All
is morphing, pushing forward, shedding skin, eating one another.  So when
these people say "we'll pay you to stop", they are trying to keep us away
from spirituality.  It's about control.  Technology also became the focus
at around the same time.  And the thing with electronics and computers is
that they are actually in advance of the people using them.  The machine
is more powerful than the human at that point.  It becomes very easy to
let the machine do the playing because the sound is immediately
gratifying.  I'm not against technology, but it takes time to get inside
of it, just like it takes time to get inside of any instrument.  So the
art moves away from the human and that in turn affects culture because
people are listening to this new music and are being transformed away from
spirituality, away from the human.

Q:  So you're not a big fan of laptop music?

MC:  I've heard plenty of great computer based music.  I'm not critical of
the computer in itself, I'm critical of laziness.  It takes about twenty
years to really start to find out what you and your instrument can do
together, twenty years to get to a symbiosis, and right now this computer
music is not that old.  Obviously the pioneers get all of my respect, back
when it was fresh.  Now, since everyone in the first world can afford a
Mac it's not very exciting.  I've loved the sounds that I've heard and I
let them influence me.  It stretches out your ears, gets them away from
habits, ruts.  But now is the time when we'll see who the real artists
are.  Everybody has heard what these programs can do, now it's time to
hear what the human can do through these programs.  And this is where the
work comes in.  The time you have to put in if you really love something.
I think you'll see a big shift in these next few years once the cat is out
of the bag on how these things work.  Right now it's just fashion, it's
peer pressure and fashion.  You read the magazines or go to the
experimental festivals and they make you feel bad if you're not staring at
a screen.  I don't buy it.

Q:  Even so, don't you think computers are the future instrument?  I mean,
you play the guitar which some might call a dinosaur.  How do you
reconcile wanting to play the music of the future on an old instrument?

MC:  The future is right here in our mind.  An instrument is only a tool
to achieve the impossible.  So you could play a stick and a stone and if
your mind is facing toward the future then you're infinite.  That's one
thing you learn from getting past the steep learning curve of an
instrument, that you have every single sound available to you no matter
what you play.  In the early stages you want to maybe get all this gear to
make strange sounds or something but that's not really futuristic.  In
fact you'll see how dated these gadgets will sound any day now because the
machines are not all of the future.  The future is the soul.  The human is
still the future, still the center of our explorations in conjunction with
the new technologies.  But the first concern is to get the mind free, then
everything else just opens up.  You become much more dangerous and
exciting when you carry the space travel and weapons and truths around in
your head.  For me, I love pushing a traditional instrument into new
territory, because the guitar has a history, and I can really see myself
in relation to greatness in the past.  I'm always aware of how far they
took it which keeps me on my toes to come with something new.

Q:  Are you competetive?

MC:  You know, obviously art cannot be measured in any terms of better or
worse, but I like healthy competition.  I like to be pushed and I like to
push.  I don't think it has to be a bad thing.  See, I come from athletics
first, I'm not one of these frail arty folks who never used their bodies.
I learned alot from sports and I have a great deal of respect for
athletes.  The discipline it takes to learn your art is very closely
related to the discipline needed to be an athlete.  So in terms of
competition I think we can take certain aspects and apply them to art
practices in a healthy, positive way.  I think it's good to have people
who can challenge you, people that force you to get back in the lab.  I'm
just saying we can use it as one particular facet of this process called
art.  I wouldn't want to rely on it completely, I just want it as an

Q:  You say you're an improvisor but your work doesn't really fall into
the niche we have come to associate with improvised music.  I mean,
judging by your new work you obviously love structure, melody, harmony,
rhythm, which free music tends to eschew altogether.  How do you view your

MC:  Oh man, this is really what I want to discuss.  OK, improvisation, as
a word means one thing, as a style of music means something totally
different.  I'm not interested in styles.  I'm an improvisor, which means
every time I sit down I don't know what I'm going to do.  I have no idea
what it's going to sound like.  I don't care one tiny bit about the style
of music called 'improv', in fact I think most of the people who play
'improv' are liars at this point.  They get up there and think they have
to play like what 'improv' is supposed to sound like.  They're liars.  I
have no interest whatsoever in playing an already established sound.  I
view improvisation as standing as near to the spark of creation as humanly
possible.  That's the goal, that's what I'm really trying to do.  Total
improvisation, pure improvisation, no heads no chord charts.  I want to be
free to go in any direction.  If I want to set up a structure, or play a
melody, I can, but I do it in real time.  I feel like it's the next step
after jazz to completely step out on the limb, no net.  But I have to do
it in a way that is honest to who I am.  Everything I've ever heard is in
me in some way or another and might appear in some guise or another.  But
there is also the possibility of playing something new because to play
along with creation, in real time, is to play beyond yourself.  You try
and get beyond your own judgement so that things can happen.  We always
follow inspiration.  Inspiration leads the way and we always follow.  But
if we can get right up to it, then anything can happen.  To me, nothing is
more exciting than playing something for the first time.  That's the rush
right there.  So in analyzing that I realized that every form of music
known to man was initially improvised.  After that they remembered or
wrote it down and it might have become a style or genre, but initially it
was improvised.

I'm focused on finding something new.  And I think the new cannot be
thought into existence.  It's somewhere beyond thought, out there.  Not
everything has not been discovered yet.  The real breakthrough for me was
getting to the point where I saw my life as improvisation.  I went past
just thinking about music or writing all the way down to my actual life,
my whole person.  I thought that for me to really find out what
improvisation was I had to put myself in a position, physically, where
improvisation was the only option.  I bought a one way ticket to an island
in the pacific with $500 in my pocket and ended up staying a year and
leaving with $10,000.  I think that was the frontier I needed to cross,
mentally, spiritually, in order to truly understand what I wanted to do
with music.  I wanted to play within the flow of life.  Every situation
has a flow, an energy, and maybe the best we can do is ride with that.  So
now I live and it's like dipping into a stream for water the way I play or
the way I write.  I try not to think too hard or judge too harshly what
comes out.  I try and allow it to happen rather than forcing it.  And I
believe that if we can exist in that place we'll never run out of ideas,
never run out of energy.

Q:  Obviously the connection between jazz and improvisation must be an
influence, how do you view your work in relation to jazz or blues?

MC:  I'm a Bluesman.  It took me a long time to reach that conclusion
because I wanted to come up with a new term to better describe what I do,
but at the same time I wanted to acknowledge an origin.  The blues is
arguably the original artform in the transition from the African to the
black American.  The blues as emotional zone, not the style it has become
with the twelve bars or whatever, but the blues as emotional landscape.  I
want to feel that connection to the past and at the same time illustrate
the evolution into a futurism.  I want to connect and draw from the
source.  Jazz represented the advanced form of the black American
musician.  That's where I recognized the combination of mental, physical
and spiritual brilliance.  It was the domain of philosophers and
intellectuals and arcane equations.  It had the confidence and poise and
elitism that inspires me to reach as deeply as I can.  That's the
beginning of my interest in improvisation.  But maybe where I feel
differently from other musicians who loved these musics is the fact that I
never actually wanted to play them as a form.  I didn't see the point in
trying to go back in time.  I related to the necessity of finding a way
that was unique to my experience as a human and, obvioulsy, as a black
American.  And if I did that honestly then I knew I wouldn't be betraying
the masters but, in fact, doing exactly what they would need me to do.  I
knew that I would be able to sit down with Braxton and the Art Ensemble of
Chicago and Butch Morris and we'd be speaking the same language.  Black
genius is forever progressing.  There is a line all the way through Robert
Johnson to Charlie Parker to Grandmaster Flash to Goldie.  So I had to
listen to everything, read everything and then develop my own approach to
sound as a logical progression from that essence.  As Cecil Taylor said,
each man is an academy.  You have to create a language out of all the
strands of genius that have come before, mixed with your own unique
experience.  So I just brought it all to the table and never looked back.

Q:  What about Africa?  Obviously the blues is not the beginning, it too
evolved out of something.

MC:  Absolutely, but for my intents and purposes I choose to concentrate
on what I am.  It's not to deny any connection to Africa or Europe or the
connections we will make with Africa and Europe in the future, it's just
that I want to make sure we have a clear, individual, original voice to
bring to the summit as Americans.  We can't come trying to be things that
we're not.  We do have a tradition, albeit a young one.  We do have a
pantheon of masters.  America was and is a petri dish where all kinds of
mutations occur.  Africans who survived slavery and absorbed the European
influences became a new species.  Now, at this remove we are no longer
Africans, we are Americans.  It always amuses me to see these bohemian
American blacks with the beads and kente cloth talking about kings and
queens when they've never even been to Africa.  The temptation is strong
to want to identify with antiquity but I think it's much more important
and exciting to not only come to grips with what we are, but to exacerbate
and revel in this new opportunity.  To turn our pain into genius, which is
what the blues truly is.

Q:  What about your feelings on issues of race?  Do you feel any sense of
responsibility to black culture?

MC:  I do and I'll tell you why.  In America, no matter where I go, I'm
black, period.  There is no discussion or acceptance of me as being
Norwegian and German, that is not yet possible, even though they are as
much a part of me as African.  I'd rather not waste a bunch of time and
energy trying to convince everyone I'm white too.  When I look around and
see who owns all of this stuff, I mean, who owns jazz, blues, hip hop, who
owns the magazines, the books, the films, I realize that we do not control
the means of communication.  It's astonishing to see that even now, with
all the tools we have at our disposal, we still don't have a black owned
creative music magazine.  And I'm talking creative music, not pop or hip
hop.  Of course that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Someone has to be
willing to say that shit is off, totally unbalanced and destructive.
Someone has to ask the black creative sector what they plan on doing.  I
mean, it's great to have other people put up the money and put out your
books and records but it's much bigger than the money.  We have got to
build.  We have got to invest.  We have to plant the seeds and be patient
so that this next phase grows properly and strong.  We have to allow for
constructive criticism.  We have to strive to make brilliant work.  So I
have to think about the future of a brilliant race.  I see that I am part of the

     I see that I am part of the next generation of black people
   in America, being mixed and trying to amplify the strongest  
aspects of both cultures within myself. 



next generation of black people in America, being mixed and trying
to amplify the strongest aspects of both cultures within myself.  This has
nothing to do with reverse racism or superior versus inferior or anything
like that, I love my mom, you know.  But I see what those who are in
control choose to show.   We're being represented by other cultures who
may or may not care to see black Americans being progressive.  Why would
they want that?  Why would they actively encourage us to own our means of
communication?  That would be taking a huge chunk out of their pockets.
How much money do you think these people are making off of what we do?
And not just money, but how much control are these people effecting?  We
have to be the ones showing that our lineage is one of the strongest on
the planet, capable of infinite variety and depth.  I feel very excited
because the world hasn't seen what the black American can really do yet.
It's coming and I have a role to play, absolutely.

Q:  Are you a hip hop fan?





MC:  I think alot about the producers, people like RZA,  DJ Premier, and the Bomb Squad

   I feel that hip hop, like jazz  and blues, is done. 
       It's a form now and as soon as you step outside of  the parameters of
       that form then it's something else.  I want the something else now. 
      The world needs the something else now. 
      I want the stuff you can't pin down.

I don't care about them not playing instruments or not knowing theory, they don't need it.  I say
stick with your MPC and Technics and go all the way deep to the point where you can
do anything. We need them to be virtuosos.  We also need them to not worry about this thing
called hip hop.  When they start breaking through that frontier you won't have to worry about is
it hip hop, it will be great art which exists outside of any category.  Here's the thing, I feel that hip hop,
like jazz and blues, is done.  It's a form now and as soon as you step outside of the parameters of that
form, then it's something else.  I want the something else now.  The world needs the something else now. 
I want the stuff you can't pin down. 

What really is difficult for me is looking out
at my generation and seeing all of this referencing.  So much of the art
now is just taking the surface concerns of the past and putting a new face
on it.  I don't see anyone saying that we have to push into some new
territory now, or that what we're doing isn't good enough.  Where is that
confidence and brashness that says we're gonna do something the world has
never seen before?  I'm so tired of this hero worship.  You can't say that
you want to make music with the same relevancy and intensity as Miles,
Mozart, Monk, or Ellington, without people thinking you're an egomaniac.
It's shameful.  The world is changing so incredibly right now and we need
the music and art to lead the way.  We have to reach deep down to pull up
some truths because the world desperately needs it.  We need to accept the
responsibility of being positive and dedicated to finding new methods.

Q:  How can you remedy this situation, and if you can't, then how do you

MC:  I've had to think long and hard about this, spent many years wishing
for others to appear, wishing for some sort of community, wishing for some
elder to come and annoint me.  Then, I reached a point where there were
only two options;  I could keep going like I was, lamenting all of the
things that were not there or I could embrace the situation and turn it to
my advantage.  I'd say this really hit me about a year ago.  I began to
see the positive aspects of going alone.  I didn't have to wait around for
people, rely on people who maybe didn't care as much as I did about
something, and the most important part, I could move faster.  I sometimes
feel like I'm building a new machine now.  I'm drawing in as much
information as I can and keeping all the parts that resonate and
discarding the rest.  I'm a scavenger.  I'm leaner, I'm not dragging
around all sorts of unnecessary baggage.  I used to go around being
excited about something I was reading or hearing and try to turn others on
to it.  Now I just keep my mouth closed and let that energy circulate
inside of me, I just let it simmer and boil and it drives me.  I love
seeing the connections between all these different elements and I love not
having to convince anyone that they're there.  I'm the proof whether
something fits or not.  How I move through the world is proof of what I'm
feeling.  I'm getting faster, clearer, stronger.  My eyes are open and I'm
trying to give everything a chance.  It's funny though, the age I'm at,
the age my peers are it, this is the transition.  I'm seeing how other
people are evolving and I'm not saying anything.  I'm seeing the work
they're making, seeing what they talk about.  I've let everyone go, I've
stopped trying to carry people.

Q:  What are your views on academia?  Do you think it's possible to learn
creativity in a classroom?

MC:  Well, firstly, I've not had the experience of attending a four year
college so my opinions are based on my observation of others.  I think
we've seen a shift in thought relating to higher education.  We've also
seen a shift in thought about what art is and how you go about doing it.
Having technique now is almost laughed at.  Having ideas is the cutting
edge.  Duchamp kicked the door down and Warhol decorated the room.  Now, I
love both Duchamp and Warhol and Yoko Ono and Fluxus, but the fallout is
that nobody knows what is actually good anymore.  So if there is no
standard and no technique, well, I guess anyone can do it.  So the schools
have become flooded with people who would obviously rather be sipping wine
at their gallery opening than sitting behind a desk selling insurance.
Fine, I understand that, but it doesn't mean that's really what they
should be doing.  On the music side I see all these examples of kids being
lavished and rewarded for adhering to a particular dogma.  They are the
ones in line for the grants and teaching posts.  Calcification is being
held up as the proper standard.  So, at this moment, the work of the
university is just muddying up the waters.  They need the tuitions, the
teachers need jobs, so nobody says anything.  I wonder how many professors
weed out 90% of their students because they can see that art is really not
for them?  I don't think it happens too often.  Art is life.  Art is the
experience of being alive translated into another form.  So how do you
teach someone about life by sitting inside a classroom?  You can't.  The
best you can do is tell the student that they won't be finding it within
those four walls.  But then enrollment drops, people start losing money
and jobs etc.  So my opinion is no, you cannot teach creativity in a

Q:  So how does the information get handed down if there are no universities?

MC:  It has to become less formal, less financial, more personal.  It's
not the concept of teacher and student that feels wrong but the system in
place for the student and teacher to actually interact.  The need is for
elite instruction, think tanks, spaces where one can go to discuss and
access information, getting people to be the best they can be.   Black
people have always had to use informal methods for instruction.  During
the heyday of jazz you just went down to 42nd street and all the masters
were right there.  If you wanted to sit in or learn you had to be ready to
get your head cut.  From what I've heard if you didn't have it together
you'd get tossed out of the club.  These days nobody is being honest
because of the fear of not moving up the ladder of the grant world or the
gig world or the press.  Or maybe it was someone's living room  over
drinks and a smoke.  Discussions were being had, there was some building
going on.  Now those spaces don't seem to exist, or at least I don't know
where they are if they do.  The masters are all spread out across the
planet teaching at the universities.  I don't think this is an accident.
I happen to think it's very smart to keep the black geniuses from getting
in the same room.  Who knows what might happen if they got together?
Maybe they'd figure out a way to get their own money together to build a
situation independent of present day schooling.  Sounds quite dangerous
indeed.  So offer them decent wages and the prestige of being real
university professors and split them up.  That kind of situation they can
just walk into, the structure is already in place.  But to build something
from the ground up takes time.  And there may be a period of invisibilty,
even derision.  We have to be willing and able to forego the gratification
of institutional accolades.  We have to be willing to go underground for a
time.  Not only am I willing to do that, but I'm proposing it.  For
starters I say we get together some of the great minds and just have
dinner.  It's that simple.  Forget composing those impressive salvos and
manifestoes and just have some dinner.  No pressure, no agenda, just
dinner and drinks.

Q:  Dinner and drinks?  That's it?

A:  That's all I ask.  If we could have Cecil Taylor, Outtara Watts, Suzan
Lori Parks, Naomi Klein, Butch Morris, Randy Moss, bell hooks, the Bomb
Squad, Samuel Delany, Kara Walker, Michael Jordan, RZA, Anthony Braxton,
Kodwo Eshun, Tiger Woods, Greg Tate, Adrian Piper, Tricky, Amiri Baraka,
Venus Williams, Meshell Ndegeocello, George Lewis, Serena Williams, Wole
Soyinka, Goldie, Zadie Smith, Vernon Reid, Rob Swift etc. get together
with some of the younger generation for dinner, I think everything would
naturally go to the next level.  Let me make this clear, I'm not just
conceptualizing, I'm serious.  I'm putting the call out right here for
this to actually happen, and I know just the spot.  It's time for the
standards to be set back up to the level of being able to change the
planet.  Standards that can inspire one to action.  To show by example
what it means to operate on that level.  To illustrate the difference
between greatness and fashion.

     The time has come for a black methodology, a black technology. 


The time has come for a black methodology, a black technology.  Cecil
talked about that in the seventies and I don't know of anyone who has
picked up the thread.  I'm not talking about a model of exclusion, you
know, we don't need another era of black nationalism, we must collaborate
with the entire world, but we also must understand who we are and be in
control of our productions.  Pan-Africanism has fallen from our
discussions and our actions and it needs to be back at the forefront.
There are other ways of doing things and I think the future will be about
the combined efforts of all African peoples worldwide, in solidarity and
open to the influences of other cultures to build Africa and explore space
and beyond.