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Dangerous Odds

Interviewed by Vivian Lee
Interview with Art Durkee of Dangerous Odds from 2000

MSJ: How did you learn to do improvisational music?
Self-taught. After turning my back on Western music after graduating from music school, during many years of playing Javanese gamelan, I started to learn to play jazz. As usual, since I started on piano at age 6, I started learning to improv on piano. I really sucked for awhile. Then I starting play solo bamboo flutes in the stairwells and parking garages of Ann Arbor, late at night. Later on, I studied jazz at the University of Wisconsin under Joan Wildman--one of the best classes I ever took. That was in 1990, about the same time I got my first Chapman Stick, which has become my main instrument.
MSJ: What does a project like Dangerous Odds do for a musician?
Completely spoil you for anything else! Actually, because Odds functions as an improv group, with no rehearsal and almost no discussion of what we're going to do musically, it teaches you to think on your feet, to LISTEN to the other players--one of the most important components of making music that many folks somehow overlook--and to get over whatever lingering tendencies towards being a control freak that one harbors. It's so unpredictable, you can't afford to get bent out of shape if it doesn't do what you wanted--you learn to go with the flow. Since Odds has been playing together for several years, we've gotten used to playing with each other on a level that can approach telepathic. It's really amazing, sometimes, when we all suddenly stop on a dime without any signals being given.
MSJ: What do you bring back to your solo work from something like Dangerous Odds?
A tendency to not to want to notate mur your ear-training: you learn to hear things in the mix that you might not have noticed before. You learn to pay attention, in other words. In my own solo work, I also relay very strongly on my improv skills. Most pieces on my solo CD "The Western Lands" are not composed so much as structured improvs. I had a groove, an idea, and/or a concept, and we took it from there. Very little of the CD was actually notated beforehand, and several of the tracks are first takes. When I write as a chamber music composer, I know what I'm going for gesturally and emotionally and conceptually, but sometimes the actual notes are improvised until the moment they are written down, or recorded. And sometimes a piece is built on one melody or phrase that comes into my head without warning. "Minimal Dub Quartet (Walk the Good Red Road" was like that.)
MSJ: What can you tell me about future Dangerous Odds projects?
Unpredictable. We are looking at doing some recording with smaller ensembles at this time, such as those tracks found on the web as RealMedia files. (Remember? is the location.) Al and Ron and I have talked about doing more CD releases of older Odds material, too; Ron is currently listening through our back catalog and transferring some tracks to computer for mastering. We might still release a "Best of Odds, Volume 1," but then again, maybe not. We'll see.
MSJ: I've heard your Stick/Gamelan work. Any similar projects in the pipeline?
Maybe. I will probably play some more with Chris Parker, improvising gamelan musician. I'd like to do some Stick pattern music with gamelan instruments, matching the tunings a little more exactly. Since I was so immersed in gamelan for so many years, it deeply infuses everything I do. My whole concept of music these days tends to be built using layered cyclic melodies, structurally heterophonic, with almost no interest in traditional Western chord structure or harmonic theory. (Western music theory is actually very limiting.) The last two or three chamber music pieces I've written, for example, all of which were commissions, all use repetitive gradual-process structures. (Steve Reich is indeed one of my favorites composers, and has inspired my own work, but I share his distaste for the term "minimal" music. The music is actually maximal, if you think about it--expanding a phrase until you see it from all facets. I much prefer Reich's phrase "gradual process music.") Last September my piece "The Times" was premiered in Madison, a setting for voice and chamber ensemble of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. The piece goes through three sections that are musically distinct, but there is a single repetitive bass line, five bars of descending quarter notes, that never changes, that holds it all together. (The ensemble is soprano, violin, clarinet, French horn, contrabass, piano, drums and sawblades.)
MSJ: You work with Dangerous Odds, and you do solo projects. What would you see as the differences and similarities between working with Dangerous Odds and working solo, or with other artists?
No real difference. Conceptually, my music is about melody and rhythm rather than harmony. I tend to have the same mindset, no matter what ensemble I am performing in. My approach is chiefly melodic, groove-based, and/or gestural. I almost never think in terms of chords or jazz changes, but rather in terms of mode and tension-and-release. Because of my experience studying the music of other cultures and the avant-garde such as John Cage, I have discovered that I don't hear music the way many others do--I don't, for example, hear dissonance in the same way as most jazz players. A cluster of notes that might seem dissonant to many folks sounds the same to me as a cluster of notes that make up a minor triad. I listen more for direction--where is this going?--and gesture, than regular tonal theory allows for. (I don't know if I can explain this any better, sorry.) Also, I like working with a variety of collaborators. Even my so-called "solo projects" tend to be my concepts executed by a small group of players. The fact is, I LIKE to work with other folks. In the other projects I work with, such as the Minneapolis Improv Group and the Barbaric Yawps, I am one of the band but someone else writes most of the music. MIG of course is largely improvised, but we often do structures invented by Tim Donahue, the group's main organizer. Most of the Yawps tunes are written by Tom Lachmund, though I've written a few, too. Many Yawps tunes are really heads that are jumping-off points for long improvs over grooves. I am planning a true solo project at some point, however, where I will play all the instruments and multitrack all the parts. Basically, it will be a labor of love, as I plan to record some actual songs that I love, such as Joni Mitchell's "A Strange Boy." Someday. I am also planning to do some Stick and drums duo work in the near future with one of my favorite drummers, Eddie Estrin, here in the Twin Cities. Eddie and I also play with alto saxophonist Bob Schrepel in a free-jazz trio.
MSJ: What other musicians would you like to work with?
I can't really answer that, because I like the people I work with regularly, so I hope that will continue. If the question is referring to musicians famous in the music industry, the only person I ever fantasize about working with is bassist/producer Bill Laswell. Adrian Belew sat in with Dangerous Odds once as featured guest, as have Jim Schwall, Joan Wildman, and some other "big names" in music. Maybe Hamza el Din or the Kronos Quartet. I'd like to someday write a piece for Stick ensemble and gamelan. I've used Stick in two chamber music pieces written in the last three years, so I might do that again. (Yes, I played the Stick parts myself.)
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought?
J.S. Bach: "St. Matthew's Passion" Elliott Sharp and DJ Soulslinger: "Rwong Territory" Henryk Gorecki: "Good Night" Soul Coughing: "Irresistable Bliss" John Coltrane: "Meditations" Am I eclectic, or what?
MSJ: What was the last concert you attended?
Pistol Pete & Popgun Paul (two brilliant queer singer/songwriters from N'Orleans)
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 5 at
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