TCO Profile: Carl Testa

After a very busy October, we’re back on the blog.  Energies, Ideas, Intuitions: The Tri-Centric Music of Anthony Braxton was an awesome experience for musicians and audience alike – see for yourself on the TCF Facebook page.  I’m very pleased to share a new interview with bassist Carl Testa.  Carl was featured in The New York Times last month for his work producing The Uncertainty Music Series in New Haven CT, which features quite a few folks from Tri-Centric Orchestra community.  I encourage you to visit that series if you can; and if you’re not on the East Coast, have a listen to one of the many albums on Carl’s website – he’s working hard to document his music, collaborate with others and find new ways support his creative community.  Pretty impressive!

When did you start playing?
I started playing in 7th or 8th grade; I guess I was 13 or so.   I started playing on the electric bass because I found one in my attic.  It was my dad’s and it was a very nice one.  A 1968 Fender P-Bass.  I still have it and play it.

Carl Testa / photo by Jason Guthartz

How did improvisation become part of your musical experience?
Improvisation has sort of always been there, in a way.  I would pick up an instrument and start improvising, just trying to figure things out.  Once I became more interested in music, my dad (a sociology professor) would go down to the basement and play The Doors’ Light My Fire on the keyboard and improvise into the solo section.  I was fascinated by how he could elaborate on the melody and come up with all of these new combinations in the improvisation.  Soon afterwards my dad showed me the connection between the solo section in Light My Fire and John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things.  That set me on the path of exploring improvisation more deeply as it related to jazz.

What composers/musicians most influence your work?
I would say that John Coltrane’s music certainly started to push me in the direction of taking music very seriously.  Music didn’t become the thing for me until I was 17 years old.  Mwata Bowden at the University of Chicago had organized a conference called Trading Fours. There was a performance by the University of Chicago Jazz X-Tet with Bowden conducting, featuring Tatsu AokiDouglas Ewart and George Lewis. They performed pieces by Wadada Leo Smith, Mwata and Douglas. I was blown away, to say the least. I knew that I wanted to be involved in that music. So, obviously the AACM became a huge influence. When I began thinking about colleges, Mwata suggested I check out Wesleyan University because Anthony Braxton was there. It just so happened that my dad went to Wesleyan and was already pushing me in that direction.

Today, I am most influenced by my peers and collaborators when making music. Other key influences include John Coltrane, Conlon Nancarrow, Anthony Braxton, Erik SatieAutechre, Arcangelo Corelli, Eric Dolphy and the AACM in general.

What current projects and ensembles are you involved in?
In addition to the Anthony Braxton Septet and 12+(1,2,3)tet, I perform/collaborate with a number of artists. Collaboration has become very important to me in the past couple of years. I collaborate with my wife, vocalist Anne Rhodes, in the duo Bruxism. I work with choreographer Rachel Bernsen on her pieces and in my piece Waver. I also play in duos and various groups with the composers Adam Matlock, Nathan Bontrager, Brian Parks, Christopher Riggs and Lou Guarino. I also perform quite a bit on solo electronics with laptop. I am currently working on pieces for solo bass and granular synthesis that I hope to start touring with next year.

What recent releases or upcoming events events do you have on the horizon?
A new EP of duos with guitarist Christopher Riggs is now available to download at my website. This EP is a collection of 3 improvisations recorded in April of this year. I am particularly happy with this EP because it incorporates Chris’s noisy, rhythmic and textural playing with some of my more lyrical, harmonic and timbral playing.  On November 13th I will perform some of my solo music for bass and granular synthesis in Brooklyn at the Willow Place Auditorium.

My big project for the fall includes a performance of my piece Spectra for voice, vibraphone, cello, electronics and lighting. Spectra is a theater piece that incorporates the use of sets, electronic and acoustic music and dynamic lighting that is composed as part of the musical score. The ensemble for this performance will include Anne Rhodes, vibraphonist Bill Solomon and cellist Nathan Bontrager. The performance takes place Saturday December 3rd as part of the Take Your Time series at Rachel Bernsen’s The BIG ROOM.

What are you currently listening to?
At the moment, definitely the new “Trillium E“, Jeremiah Cymerman’s Under a Blue Grey Sky, Oren Ambarchi, The Twin Peaks soundtrack and New Order.

How has working with Anthony Braxton shaped your musical experience?
How hasn’t it shaped my musical experience? I was fortunate to be exposed to his music relatively early on, at 17 years old or so. I bought the album “Three Compositions of New Jazz” but I didn’t necessarily understand it. What that album did was pique my curiosity. I began reading a lot about Braxton’s music, and by the time I got to Wesleyan and had a chance to play in his ensemble class, I possessed some idea for what his music was, but I had no idea how expansive it was. Anthony doesn’t flat-out reject anything. He has taught me that everything has to be acknowledged and dealt with on its own terms. That has been a really important lesson for me. It means that any kind of music can be relevant to one’s experience, and that if something doesn’t click right away, that just means that you have to give it more time, or come back to it later. Even if you don’t incorporate that new idea into your work, you may come to understand it better, and that alone is fine. Anthony has taught me that you have to be open to an idea. That openness and willingness to try anything in pursuit of making music has been most inspiring to me. My favorite quote from Anthony is probably when he said that “the challenge of creativity . . . is to move towards the greatest thought you can think of.”

What impact has the Tri-Centric Orchestra had on your concept of the orchestra as an entity?
Even in its infancy, the Tri-Centric Orchestra has shown that an orchestra can be made up of strong individuals with their own identities and still come together to produce a collective vision. There are numerous orchestral entities that have demonstrated this in the past, but I feel that the Tri-Centric Orchestra (with its combination of dynamic individuals and strong leadership) is in a good position to be a force in the musical world because Anthony has the insight and generosity to not only make the orchestra about his music but also about the music of its members. Opportunities to produce large works that might not have been possible in the past will start to open up in the future. I find that to be very exciting.

What’s your favorite food?
Hmm, probably french fries. Yeah.

4 responses to “TCO Profile: Carl Testa

  1. Pingback: Carl Testa Profiled | Avant Music News

  2. Pingback: Monsieur Délire Reviews | Avant Music News

  3. Pingback: George Lewis, Composer Portrait, at Miller Theater | Avant Music News

  4. Pingback: Upcoming Uncertainty Music Series | Avant Music News

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