A conversation with Dana Reason Part 1

Dana Reason is a Canadian-born pianist, composer, arranger, improviser and music researcher. Reason was part of The Space Between trio with electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros and is documented on over 14 recordings. She has performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Banff Arts Festival, Stanford University, Guelph Jazz Festival, Puopolo Festival (MTL), Mills College, The Stone (NYC), as well as in Europe and Canada. She has written for large and small scale ensembles and has been long-listed for GRAMMY considerations for her albums "Angle of Vision" and "Reasoning" as well as her wind ensemble "Currents."

Reason has worked with and/or performed with an extensive number of incredible musicians including: Fred Frith, Hans Fjellestad,  Barre Phillips, Joe McPhee, Dominic Duval, Kyle Bruckman, Cecil Taylor, Matt Brubeck, Marco Eneidi, Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Peter Kowald, Lisle Ellis, Lisa Mezzacappa, Jon Raskin, im Berne, Joelle Léandre, Jason Robinson, John Savage, Stuart Dempster, Kevin Patton, John Heward, Philip Gelb, Allison Johnson, Ryan Biesack, Catherine Lee, Mike Gao, Aiyun Huang, Ralph Carney, Lori Freedman, Mike Gamble, Jason Robinson, George E. Lewis, Ben Goldberg, Peter Valsamis, Vinnie Golia, Pauline Oliveros, Mark Dresser, Lori Goldston, and Mary Oliver, among others.

Her scholarly research is available on Wesleyan University Press and Columbia Jazz-Studies On-line. Reason holds a B.Mus (McGill University); MA in Composition (Mills College); and Ph.D in Music: Critical Studies/Experimental Practices from the University of California, San Diego. er main teachers include: George E. Lewis, Alvin Curran, Alcides Lanza, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Davis, Julie Steinberg and Aleck Karis.
Reason teaches music at Oregon State University.

This conversation if part one of a multi part series of conversations I had with  Dana Reason about music, identity, freedom, authenticity and composition. Part 1 below deals with issues of our identity, what we are constrained by and how we are free from the restrictions that period and style have confined artists in the past.

DR: I think it's good to recognize the perfectionist notion in all of us and how it can stop anyone from getting anything “done” or “released”. If we always have really high expectations about what can be achieved right now - in this moment - with these conditions -  it might and often does interfere with the process of ‘completion.’ Completion is relative: it is an arbitrary stopping point. There’s always going to be things you like about a work or a recording, and there's things you want to develop more, it’s just a given. So, if 90% of the work is satisfactory or of potential interest to a community, I think one should release it (formally or informally) and move on. Consider the work as a larger part of an artistic life and archive.

KDA: You're absolutely right

DR: Over time, hopefully one has a nice average of  works (writings, compositions, recordings, videos etc.) that are very, very strong. It possible that the collection reflects the ideas in process: some more the experimental, motivic or stylistic tangents; collective research of new and unexplored directions.

KDA: Right

DR: I think that speaks more to how an artist needs a lifetime to unpack and develop their voice. One needs time and distance (history) to be able to get the sense of what was created. With history, one can trace elements of stylistic tendencies; and cellular ideas. It is possible then to see how perhaps you’d been working on some of these things since you were a teenager, and now they are coming to full realization. So you’ve been developing a concept and a voice all along. I think we essentially write one piece of music [it could be epic or it could be a miniature- both are reflections of creativity and a life well spent] in our lives and the rest of the time, we are just iterating.

KDA: There is no doubt about that

DR: There is just one song, and then just getting off your own back about it, and just allowing yourself to be human with it. We can limit ourselves so easily, it's just easy to get in our own way.

KDA: It’s Cake

DR: You know someone looks at us the wrong way and we are shut down, right?

KDA: That’s right

DR: Because artists and creatives can be very sensitive and that sensitivity is key to being awake and creative. We are porous creatures.

KDA: I always say my cross to bear is this idea of like, you know, living in the shadows of the giants. Never even mind anybody from the 20th century.Even just thinking about Beethoven and Bach. We are participating in that same world

DR: Yes, a continuum of sorts.

KDA: I mean I think even more so for you, originally right. Like, I’m not trying to hang this on you. But someone like you who was a concert pianist, or concert pianist track when you were a kid. That kind of pressure. All that responsibility you have right. Like, if you're going to play the hammerklavier, there is this whole group of people who have played it, this certain thing, there's a whole group of critics, and those who say “This is the standard”

DR: Yeah

KDA: And you must stay to this standard.  And its like there is hardly any of you left. Why don’t I build a machine for you guys. You guys can put in the inputs and say this is what you want Beethoven to sound like, and it'll do that. I'm going to go do something else, because I gotta be me. Compositionally, I think,  there really is so much brilliant stuff in Beethoven. Never mind the tonality, because people can get bound up in just diminished resolutions. People get tired of that right. But no, it's more about structure. Taking things that people can't hear. Even like the first sonata right. (I sang the first theme of Beethoven's First Piano sonata).That idea right there alone can cripple you. Because, you think how am I going to come up with such a brilliant simple idea, that moves that way, that answers itself that way? And then, (I sang the resolution to the first 4 bars of the First piano sonata) and then you're like great, I’m supposed to do that? And someone is going to listen to me 200 years from now, and say :”That guy!, that dude!

DR: Yes.

KDA: You can get destroyed, you will get nothing done. If, you cant say I'm going to take this from Beethoven, right, and maybe 80 % works, I like how you say that, and you are going to keep moving on. Like I can't get stuck.

DR: Well yeah and here's the thing when we are young, and we are still youngish here. But when we are children and teens, there is a naivety and perhaps a sense of invisibility:  you're not really taking them on [Music Masters- name your genre of music here], you are  just “doing your thing” and hopefully being encouraged by teachers and mentors and peers to keep on doing “what you do.” Perhaps because you feel like you can and for the most part you haven’t been told otherwise (maybe?)  [perhaps not knowing what you don’t know is an advantage here] ?

KDA: Right Right, absolutely!

DR: As you know more, you realize wow that's there. And the same time then there is courageousness. You have to be courageous to learn anything.

KDA: Yeah

DR: And yes, but there are many people doing and making things (past and present), and there is not a single standard anymore -- there are many standards.

KDA: For sure there is that too.

DR: There is a plurality of styles, that I think is actually freeing for us [as music makers and improvisers]. Because there is such a blurring now. We live in a world that is officially “post genre”. We are post everything, really. And that allows us to experience, dig and reimagine whatever we want: As a creative we can perhaps take a little bit of this phrase from Beethoven, and add in some David Byrne visual art elements [meaning how does a visual artist make music?], and bring in a phrase from saxophonist Stan Getz, or whatever the heck you want. So maybe thats better for everyone-- That we can still be courageous, that we can still be experimental, that we can find out what lives inside ourselves musically, is encouraging. Our musical thumbprint is and always is unique, especially once we recognize and develop our own sound.

KDA: Right Right

DR: Nobody is ever going to put sounds together the way you are going to do.  It's just a fact. At the moment, no technology has the ability to process, synthesize and execute information [artistic or otherwise] like the specific DNA of each of us.

KDA: Any of us right.

DR: So that is very freeing . And yeah, history can kill you [“let the dead bury the living- Nietzsche] but we are in the post of modern and so, I think this is an opportunity to take collective stock of what is available to us at this time and create.

KDA: But I think there is another side to that too. And I have been writing about this and thinking about this book by Charles Taylor. There’s two books, one of them is by Kwame Appiah called The Ethics of Identity. And the other one by Charles Taylor The Authenticity of the Self (The book I am talking about is actually called The Ethics of Authenticity.) He makes an argument and I think this is very powerful, that's the counter to that though.   The fact that we are post everything, and that we have all this freedom, is the fact that, that freedom isolates us. We are not part of anything. Because yes, we can do whatever we want, but then you look in all directions and there is no where to anchor yourself anymore, and there is no way to say I belong to this. Which is really a constituent part of how you come to know your identity There is only so much you can do to form your own identity. It almost doesn't even make sense to say…

DR: Right

KDA: So I think it's a combination of I think I can take from Beethoven, and I think what's really important  is that you realize that your freedom, means you need to take from other people, you need to partially root yourself in other things. If you think you're just going to create everything out of nowhere, you are going to be totally lost. You have no starting point , you will have no way of checking back in .

DR: Yeah, I agree, and still I think maybe we are all part of the plurality, I mean that's how I can belong.

KDA: That’s right, right

DR: You make your sound(s), I’ll make mine, and collectively - the  possibilities can transform the ways in which we hear, experience and create new terrains.  There are certainly new freedoms in music making but with freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility to what: maybe just our own musical imagination.