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Tony Levin, David Torn, Alan White

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with David Torn from 2011

Your music career is sort of unique in that in many ways you've taken the road less traveled. Can you give the readers sort of a synopsis of some of the highlights?

I'm pretty sure that the road that any musician or composer's road is traveled in a truly personal way, though we certainly seem to have and need fellow travelers along our odd way(s)! And, there are so many highlights, for me: the Zobo Funn band, Everyman Band, Don Cherry, Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber, my long-term creative relationships Manfred Eicher and ECM Records, Tim Berne!, PREZENS, Mick Karn, Tony!, David Bowie, Carter Burwell... recording with Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber, B.L.U.E., Craig Street, David Sylvian, KD Lang, Chocolate Genius, John Legend, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tim Bowness, Jeff Beck, Polytown, Laurie Anderson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jarboe, Tori Amos, Matt Chamberlain, Bill Bruford, Will Calhoun, Michael Shrieve and Steve Roach, Andy Rinehart, Matte Henderson, Drew Gress, Robby Aceto and etc...

The film-scores to “Friday Night Lights,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “The Order,” “Saint John of Las Vegas,” “Everything Must Go,” “Jesus Henry Christ,” “The Line,” “Traffic,” “Anvil,” “Teenage Paparazzo,” the scores to which I've contributed, etc...

It's all a bit of creative mish-mash, as far as I’m concerned, which, I suppose, is kind of "how I like it;” that idea and reality of pursuing personal quality and expression in music for whatever I might bring to it, rather than respecting what I perceive as fabricated rigidities vis à vis idiomatic and/or stylistic "boundaries" (Unless, of course, I feel that those "boundaries" really warrant my respect, within the specific music-of-the-moment)


You seem to approach guitar playing differently than a lot of other guitarists. Can you elaborate on that process and your motivation?

Like most musicians, my approach seems to revolve around providing whatever it is that I hear may be "right" for the music  I'm currently absorbed-in. It does seem, though, that I’m amongst that (now, steadily-growing) stream of players who tend towards utilizing a wide set of "sonic" parameters --- orchestrationally, somehow, as it were --- that might appear as whatever breadth of musical/harmonic/rhythmic/sonic tendencies are available to each of us, including a fair use of some potentially less "traditional" mechanical and electronic devices...noise, texture, microtonalities, contemporary harmonic devices, etc.


If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

If I thought I truly could do it, I'd write fiction...


This new project, Torn, Levin, White has some similarities to Bruford Levin Upper Extremities. Other than the obvious lack of horns, what do you see as the differences and did you do anything different in your approach?

Really? Dude. Personally, I don't see them as musically similar, so much, other than Tony and I are both involved. The approach I took, here, was way different for me, in that my focus was not applied towards extending the writing/the tunes, so much as it was on spontaneously providing musical-food-groups of textural and noisome devices and musical "energies,” in order to create odd, moving-beds of atmos and harmonic "vibe" to the band.

What a hoot, it was! And functionally, as I’ve said: a very unusual approach for me, these days.


Having done similar projects with the two Yes drummers (Bill Bruford and Alan White) how would you compare their musical styles and working with them?

Well, the projects seem quite different to me --- as do these two drummers! I love and respect each of these men's work; each for their uniqueness and personal approaches, both sonically and feelically.


Who would you see as your musical influences?

In my reality there are simply too many to list... I've really spent a long time developing my ability to absorb what I enjoy of all kinds of "good" music that I love: all kinds. As far as the guitar goes, the list is too long: John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal, Neil Young, Marc Ducret, Miroslav Tadîc, the Habichuela brothers, Hendrix, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Dr. Know, Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Gabor Szabo, David Lindley, Fred Frith, Phil Keaggy, Michael Landau, etc etc etc... Really, I could just continue, here, maybe forever.

As far as the broader range of music is concerned? It's much the same, but, I would be remiss to point out my most primary musical influences, folks whom affected me so deeply and still do: my parents, Gil Evans, John Abercrombie, Terry Riley, Jon Hassell, Teo Macero, Tim Berne, Charles Mingus, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tigran Mansurian, Paul Hindemith...etc.

In point of fact: I believe that it's my experience and perception of life that most informs what and how I play, what and how I write and what I still seek to do with music.


Will there be any live dates for LTW?

At the moment, it appears not to be so...but, the door remains open, I believe!


What's ahead for you in terms of other musical projects?

Ah, much! I'm currently working on the score to the film, "Backwards,” and planning another, more different recording for ECM Records...

As well, my Sun of Goldfinger project, a trio with Tim Berne and Ches Smith, quartet when adding bassisto Trevor Dunn, is continuing to perform, as is my duo with drumming-musician Dave King, which I'm calling "kingtorn.” Ha!

There has been some talk of guitarist/composer Wayne Krantz and me doing something together, too, amongst other things.

MSJ: I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?

Well, I don't hate it. I just don't do it. It is, practically speaking, impossible. Any clever verbal definition I might come up with would be a lie.


Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?


1) I want to play in a contemporary country band, and

2) yes!


Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

Illegal downloading might, maybe be capable of making my music more well-known, somehow, but the truly negative effect on my income has been substantial.


In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?

I feel "kind of OK" about it, so long as:

a) I receive a "best-possible-audio-quality"-copy of it, first, and

b) I can be assured that no unvetted-by-me creature nor company will ever benefit from it, commercially, without my direct agreement with them.


If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?

I would be Dr. Strange, and would serve as my own arch-nemesis...because!


If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?

I don't seem capable of thinking that way. I'm just thrilled to be alive, with all the great music that occurs with nary a whit of my own input. What an incredible blessing it truly is, all these varied musicians and composers writing and performing their material...


If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

If I curate a festival or club, I’ll let ya know!


What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?

Lately, I've been listening to Estrella Morenté, Leonard Bernstein, Tim Berne, Tigran Mansurian, Arvo Part, Joseph Tawadros, QOTSA, Aphex Twin, Björk and Terje Rypdal.


Have you read any good books lately?

Deep in midst of Iain M. Banks' "Surface Detail", and just starting Neal Stephenson's "Reamde.” Still reading Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity.” Ready to read Jean-Claude Izzo's "A Sun for the Dying,” and quite a few others. I read every day, as I have for more years than I can remember.

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

Well, it was a movie: "Sounds & Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher.”


Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”

No; why would I? I really love music.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at
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