Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week's archive selection finds us remembering the time Thurston Moore lead an orchestra of twelve-string guitarists and sonic dreamers as in a symphony to the earth and the stars.
Thurston Moore: You know I love the vibration of a city…by the 70s the cities were sort of devoid of money and they were being shut down and it became this urban jungle and in a way there was a new culture of art and music that was sort of embarrassing that wildlife of the city
BE: Back in April 2018, taking inspiration from a power in by Sun Ra, ex-Sonic Youth musician and singer Thurston Moore brought together himself and eleven other equally genre defying guitarists to create an orchestra with Moore as conductor and composer. Thurston Moore's GALAXIES 12 x 12: Music for Twelve String Guitars featuring cosmic projections by Radio Radieux and pondered our place in the universe. So in 2018, Thurston Moore joined me over Skype from his North London HQ.
BE: You've been described as an experimentalist, composer, performer, I mean now where you are in your career, how would you describe yourself?
TM: Well right now I mean, I turned sixty this year, I don't know whether that means anything or not but it's a nice demarcation to sort of take notice of I suppose, personally. I've always considered myself primarily a songwriter but I've always been very informed by free improvisation and I like the aesthetic of free improvisation that considers that discipline to be composition anyway. But composition like in the moment like spontaneous composition and I sort of started playing with a little bit of anxiety when I... with free improvisers in the 90s. It wasn't until the 90s I actually started working with people in New York City like William Hooker was a drummer I was playing with at first. And then John Zorn sort of took note that I was interested in this music which he was extremely devoted to. You know it was a real learning experience for years and years and years of just like the different ideas that were being bandied about. And it sort of came out of my interest in radical music anyway. I mean be it punk rock or be it, just you know experimental music that was either academic or just sort of wild. I think it maybe I had to sort of grow into understanding that language that was always sort of a bit sort of valuable because I felt like a lot of the ways Sonic Youth was working, we were and we had a lot of open ended playing that we would employ in our in our songs especially live. But I never really distinguished it as a music as a genre, like calling it free improvisation, we just called it playing. You know. And it distinguishing it from jamming.
Well I certainly devalue the guitars in the eyes of people who see the guitar as a commodity. You know, you can't really resell my guitars very well because I hot rod them, so to speak. I'll pull out certain electronics and just sort of, you know I'll get rid of... I usually get rid of the tone controls. They just sort of get in the way of the volume [Laughs] I mean originally that's what I was doing. I mean, the guitars we were using, especially the Fender Jazz Master guitars, a lot of their switching was sort of placed above the pick ups in a way where if you weren't playing like Wes Montgomery, if you're playing more like say, Andy Gill, A Gang of Four, you're gonna be like, you're gonna be hitting those switches off and on. So we would rip those out and just wire directly to the volume pot. I don't know if it's disrespectful, I think we were just sort of you know we were just you know, we're adjusting it to our own needs, in that sense. Subsequently, Fender Guitars did two signature guitars, one for me and one for Lee Ranaldo that were that were based on how we had modified these guitars a few years back. And so that was kind of a bit of a comeuppance in that respect.
BE: Do you have a large collection of guitars? Do you focus on the one that is like creating the sound that inspires you at the moment?
TM: Well I I'm not a gear head. I've never really been interested in the gear so much even though I have, you know, a love for guitars and effects pedals and this kind of stuff. But I'm not one who goes into every new town on tour and heads straight to the guitar store. I only need one guitar to work with and I just find it, as strictly just as a tool for me to make sound. I've never really been into guitar lust so much, let's put it that way. The first guitars Sonic Youth were just like, the ones we can afford at the time which were very sort of, cheap charity shop guitars and didn't sound very good in a sort of standard tuning. We would start tuning them differently and they know these cheap guitars would break and they would just... the first songs we wrote are dedicated to how these songs, how these guitar sounded. This is a guitar that was malfunctioning and had to be tossed away or whatever, the song had to be tossed away. I kinda like that in a way there's something really sort of Buddha about that! And then you know, as soon as we got a little more work and our profile started getting a little higher, we are able to sort of have a little more coin in our pocket, one of the first guitars that we've figured we could afford were the Fender Jazz Masters. At that time I'm in the early to mid 80s, they weren't really on the market as sort of highly collectible guitars yet. Fender does the first Jazz Master in 1958, which I love because that was the year I was born. So, I always think there some kind of, this kind of synchronicity there. I have a very early production Jazz Master, two of those. One of those was is a really wonderful guitar that was gifted to me by Patti Smith when Sonic Youth had all their equipment stolen at one point in the late nineties. She had experienced the same thing with her group and she was playing near where I was living at the time and she gifted me this guitar. It was wonderful Jazzmaster that she had and I think sort of was possibly something, was Fred's guitar - her husband, her husband from MC5, who had passed way. So I love this guitar and I play this guitar all the time. And then I have one of my signature guitars as well. And then my girlfriend, Eva, as an early 60th birthday gift presented me with this wonderful Fender twelve string guitar which I've been using to write the electric section of this piece. So... and then I have a twelve string acoustic that I've had for many years, that's a Martin. I've been using to write the acoustic section of the piece. So I'm... you know I have a few guitars but I'm not... and then I have the guitars are hanging up around our flat. And they're mostly things we find in in strange flea markets in our travels, you know on tour. So we have like a very strange shaped Turkish and Ethiopian ukuleles and things like this. Guitars which I don't generally play every day but they're just so aesthetically gorgeous and beautiful and you know guitars make good company. I think. Guitars, books, records, these things you know very important objects! Vibrational objects in the house!
BE: We've started talking about it but let's move on to it - GALAXIES, the piece that you are writing. Were you given a blank sheet of paper? How did you sort of start?
TM: When we had our initial meetings about doing something at the Barbican. I've worked at the Barbican in different contexts through the years. I had done this project with members of the German rock group, Can. I did that, I worked with Beck there, doing a piece that he did. Yes, so I've become quite friendly with a lot of the good people who work there and so we had talked about me doing something in some context. I think the original idea was like working with the London Symphonia. We talked about different ideas that was one of them and I I felt like I'd rather do something that's... that hasn't been done really before. Off the top of my head, I said how about a twelve twelve-string guitar orchestra. And we all sort of looked at each other and smiled and realised, like if you're gonna say that you're gonna have to do it. And I immediately took the challenge. Like, let's do it. It wasn't until the beginning of this new year that really set down, pen to paper, with the instruments around me and started seriously notating what I wanted to do. And it is a notation, it's composition. There are two pieces. I mean that the first piece is acoustic, the second piece is electric, separated by an intermission. And it's all one piece called GALAXIES, the first piece, the acoustic piece, I've subtitled Earth. And the second piece I subtitled Sky. As far as that kind of text I was just sort of looking for, I was looking for some sort of text idea to sort of inform me of how I was feeling about writing this music because the music was just, with no lyrical content. I wanted to have some kind of language that would, that could apply to it so I went through a lot of different texts that I was interested in. Primarily poetry like 20th century poets that I like. For some reason, I just sort of thought about the published poetry of Sun Ra. I kind of went through some of that and there was, there was a very sort of beautiful piece by Sun Ra that dealt with just kind of the idea of nature, the idea of being sort of human and the idea of sort of simple togetherness that was kind of rising above a lot of the miseries of that we deal with. And I thought was a beautiful piece and so I used it as the basis for how I wanted to enter into writing. Just maybe just you know. however, whatever that was sensitivity wise.
It's a poem called 'The Satellites are Spinning' and it goes like this:
The satellites are spinning
A new day is dawning
The galaxies are waiting
For planet Earth’s awakening
Oh we sing this song to
A brave tomorrow.
Oh we sing this song to
The satellites are spinning
A better day is breaking
The galaxies are waiting
For planet Earth’s awakening.
TM: So I just started writing. And I mean just, you know, from morning to night. Just staying indoors, which is hard for me. I like to sort of, prowl around the city! I like sort of engaging with the city lives. It sort of takes me away from doing work like that. I've been pretty hardcore with it since the new year.
BE: You've talked about prowling the city, but what's your sort of relationship between urban settings and the countryside? It sounds like you draw inspiration, as you will, from nature.
TM: Well yeah I mean I see the cities as nature. Because cities are built by humans you know because there are reflections of the vision of a human. You know, I love the vibration of a city. I've lived rurally. I've lived in the countryside in my day but I'm always running to the city. I mean, in a way I feel like it was predicated upon my teenage years and just sort of wondering what was going on in New York City and living very close to it, but not close enough I could just walk to it. So by the time I could drive, I just went screaming towards these places that I had been looking at in these magazines. These black and white photographs of all of the burgeoning CBGB scene and what was going on Max's Kansas City. And these people, you know, who looked more like I felt than any other musicians. People like Patti Smith or Joey Ramone, you know. Tom Verlaine. People who seemed a little not the models of rock and roll's worthiness. That's why I think I was really attracted to the city. I think before that you know the music culture was always about escaping to the country, you know. It was all this going to Woodstock, bare feet, you know, and the commune. Getting away from it all, from the standards of society that have been set up in these cities of money. By the 70s, the cities were sort of devoid of money and they were being, they were being shut down. New York City was was was completely penniless and it became like this urban jungle. And in a way, there was a new culture of art and music that sort of was embracing that. Forget the hippies in the country, we're going to the city and it's going to be our New World to work in. And so I think this would be my initial romance with the city is that I can never sort of you can toss away.
I've always enjoyed industrial noise. I always go towards the noise in the city if there's some construction site around the corner, I'll walk that way! [Laughs] I mean to the point where it's like what do you do with all those industrial noise records you have. You don't really play them. There's enough raw industrial noise on the street. So when people started making records of raw industrial noises as their output it's kind of funny. But you know you can't help but love it, but I never really play that music! I really love... like the early days like in the 80s when Einstürzende Neubauten came out of Berlin, they were just so fantastic. Because they would come out on stage with jackhammers and garbage bins and just throwing around. I just thought... it sounded and it looked, it was great theatre. It was the commentary on just being like the sound of the city you know and putting in a performance which was so great. They did a famous show at the ICA where they started drilling a hole through the back of the venue. I wish I had seen that show! They had to be stopped.
TM: It's more about this idea of just energy and the idea of just sort of like this kind of endless because you know like cosmology that we have to serve only wonder about. And science can take us only so far with this. And I sort of find some energy and just sort of that kind of you know that kind of mystic contemplation. And so I think about that and I have... the one thing I can really believe it has my own feelings and feelings I share with other people, like-minded. There's more to existence than what we're actually able to sort of purview. So I think this electric piece is more about... there's a little more improvisation going on in this piece you know. And the guitars are sort of creating a lot of resultant sounds through this one bit of instruction that I'm giving to the musicians. And so unlike the acoustic piece it's not such a strict composition but it is a composition but it's more based on instructional ideas on the page. About what the musicians should be doing. It gives us our parameter to work in. If it creates any kind of visual, I would hope it would create a visual of some kind of starry sky. I found some symbology I've attached to it, like visual symbology of like a native American sign that supposedly, well, they do, they're emblems of the sky and a visual icon. So I've used these on the faces of the scores for the musicians to look at. Which I think at some point I'll share more readily. Possibly on online. Or as a physical score to share with people. But yes so that's that.[Laughs]
BE: How did you drove the ensemble together? The other eleven guitarists? Friends, musicians you admire?
TM: Yes both of those things. I first asked the two guitarists that I've been playing with for the last number of years here in London. James Sedwards, who's a fantastic guitarist and Deb Googe, who plays bass in our group and, as you may know, with My Bloody Valentine. She's one of the founders of, at least the My Bloody Valentine we all know and love. And there's some other musicians that I've played with in London the last few years and I certainly wanted to involve. David Toop was one of them and Alex Ward was another. I asked other other players, Eugene Coyne is somebody I've never met - that I've yet to meet. And he's a close mate of Debs and she thought he would be a good and I trusted her instincts on that. So I reached out this gentleman Eugene Coyne who has a bit of a recording career of his own right. He's a very interesting musician. I reached out to James McCartney who's an acoustic guitar player, singer songwriter, someone I've been friendly with for a number of years. Even before I moved here to London. I met him at an All Tomorrow's Parties that Sonic Youth had curated and he was there and we just became friendly. And this woman Rachel Aggs, again I've seen her play guitar, electric guitar in a group called Trash Kit. Joseph Coward is a guitarist whose sort of local here in North London and I've actually played on one of his recordings and he's somebody I've always thought was a great songwriter and so reached out to him. I wanted to keep it fairly local. I didn't really think it was necessary to fly people in from all over the world to do this, if we were reaching out for celebrity names. Susan Stenger is a guitarist that I've known from New York City, she's been living over here for quite some time. She's just like a scholar of Cage's music. And she had a group called Band of Susans in New York that was coming out of a lot of the same territory that Sonic Youth was coming out of in the 70s. Jen Chochinov, who I have yet to play with and who I have yet to meet and again I'm looking forward to meeting her and she was recommended to me. Checked her out and she seemed perfect and I gave her a ring and she was happy to do this. And so that I think is it. And David Toop you know, a musicologist, and a really distinctive improviser. A great writer, publisher of books such as Ocean of Sound. I'm really looking forward.. I mean we're going to have three very involved days of rehearsals and I have no idea - I have a feeling it's going to come together fairly quickly. But at the same time as you know they are scores that each piece is about 35 minutes. Plus. So the acoustic guitar piece is going to be more of, a bit of a drone pastoral, you know with movement certainly in it. Certainly a musical trajectory in it, has its own story. The electric piece is a bit more intensified I would say
BE: I wanted to ask and maybe this is more relevant to the electric piece, when you have twelve guitarists on stage, I presume for you it's about the smaller moments as well as the big moments? And the peaks, you know creating the shape...
TM: Yeah the dynamics are going to be very key and sort of having this piece work successfully. I reaised that and I realised that just playing these pieces myself, that a lighter touch is key as well. So I'm hoping that we can sort of find that within the ensemble to sort of keep the dynamic in check and you know, the last thing anybody wants to hear is just, you know, is just a bunch of power chording. Or maybe people do want to hear that! I know that some people are like asking us, should we bring earplugs? Are you gonna blow the roof off the top of this place? And you know, I'd never really thought about that. But I think there's a certain expectation with me coming into the Barbican with twelve electric guitars that it's going to be this searing event. Well I guess maybe some sections can be, I haven't really heard the twelve guitars together yet. It certainly has a propensity to do that. That wasn't something I was really sort of thinking about or considering when I was putting pen to paper is like how am I going to like rip people's heads off with twelve electric guitars making noise! Should I do a feedback symphony? I never really thought about these things.You can rest assured there is some feedback sections. I'm not going there to create a noise storm, let's put it that way. There might be a taste of that.
I will be conducting. I mean, I'm not going to have a baton and I won't be on a podium but I I will be sort of, you know, I will be the one cueing, let's put it that way. Call it what you will, but I am the leader and it will be an arc, a bit of a half moon arc of guitars, facing me and I'm gonna have a couple of, maybe two of the guitarists sort of assist me, in some sort of co-cueing which I think will be necessary. Specifically in the electric piece which is divided into a group A and a group B. As opposed to the acoustic piece which is is a singular sort of ensemble piece. The electric piece is going to be two different factions working together and apart so that's a little more work and so I'm gonna pull in a little bit of assistance in that. But yeah it will be me, sort of given the eyeball to everybody, for sure.
BE: And lastly, an interesting question, and again this may have changed throughout your career, how do you value success? I mean specifically with this piece - what are you looking to achieve or hope to achieve?
TM: Well the primary achievement for me right now is just sort of actually actualizing this piece. And it's not something I've really done before. I did sort of more concurrent with actually writing and writing a piece, writing an essay, or writing a novella or writing a book of poetry or whatever. So to actually write a notated composition on graph paper, it's been extremely rewarding and just like, I love it you know. And I just feel like this is what I want to do now. I kind of want to sort of get more involved with doing extended, expanded pieces of music. All this history I have sort of forming it, it's already a complete success for me. As far as performing in public, that remains to be seen. I have nothing but confidence for it I mean, you know, I'm really extremely confident with the musicians I'm going to be working with. And I like the name GALAXIES, I might just short change my name to GALAXIES and we'll see how it goes. One step at a time.
BE: Thanks to Thurston for speaking to me and reading us that lovely bit of Sun Ra poetry. The performance itself was everything you'd expect - equal measure beautiful, loud and extraordinary. I'm Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive planes and theme series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or whenever you find your podcasts and if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.