Michael Zerang: “There is always something new to discover”

American drummer and percussionist of Syrian roots, composer, guitarist, singer and puppeteer Michael Zerang is one of the key figures of the contemporary jazz and improvised scene in Chicago for the last four decades. The scene – which emerged in the eighties and developed in parallel with the honorable AACM organization – has given us numerous musicians such as Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake, Jim Baker, Jim O’Rourke, Joshua Abrams, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jeb Bishop, Kevin Drumm, Kent Kessler and many others. In the eighties he led a concert series and later played in numerous ensembles. Among them are Joe McPhee’s Survival Unit III, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble, The Lightbox Orchestra, duo with Joe McPhee, trio with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Jeb Bishop, and a longtime duo with Hamid Drake in which the duo through improvisation intensively explores different percussion traditions. At international level he plays with Axel Dörner, Mats Gustafsson, John Butcher, Elisabeth Harnik and Dave Rempis, Tashi Dorji and C. Spencer Yeh, Geoff Farina and Massimo Pupillo (Karate and ZU), Mazen Kerbaj, Irena Z. Tomažin, and in the Egyptian-Lebanese-Turkish-American band Karkhana. Outside of contemporary jazz and free improvised music he recorded and played with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Bobby Conn, and with Ben Vida in The Bird Show. In recent years he has been teaching improvisational workshops internationally. He is known as a broad drummer, incorporating traditions from jazz, blues, folk, rock, free improvisation and traditional Eastern rhythms. This broadness enriches his already highly diversified approach to improvisations in various music practices. Micheal Zerang is leading this year’s three-day workshop at Sound Disobedience festival where he will also perform in duo with Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik. We talked with him about how he approaches and experiences music workshops.

Luka T. Zagoričnik: Workshop as a format seems to go a long way in free improvised music, I remember those LP’s from Wuppertal Workshop Ensemble, Brötzmann and others from the eighties, but they were used as a from for creating ‘creative environment’ for improvisers even before. They are not so much learning ground but especially in the group context. How do you approach them?

Michael Zerang: “For me, in the context of a workshop for improvised music, I usually try to break things down to the most elemental levels which means the first thing that is dealt with is listening and hearing, internally and externally, breathing and physical posture to facilitate an awareness of the body and to help center each individual separately and as a group, and to develop an awareness of each other in the given space. All of this happen even before we take up our instruments. Once the instruments are used, we begin by exploring the basic materials of each instrument: how they resonate, what their range of frequency is, their tamboral qualities etc.  Then it is a matter of becoming aware of the acoustical properties of the space we are in – how each of our instruments speak in a given acoustic environment. Depending of the duration of the workshop, this may be a full day effort, that could be augmented by other listening excersices that can be done alone after the workshop ends. Only after all of this has been explored to we attempt to make group improvisations together.”

Luka T. Zagoričnik: Many see workshops in the context of a teacher-pupil relationship where one learns from the other, but I think that in the field of free improvisation many times the communication and learning process goes both ways. What do you personally get from them as an artist, and how this enriches your music making?

Michael Zerang: “Certainly there is much to learn and share in this context, even between musicians that have different experience levels, abilities etc. Since most of what transpires in these workshops is exploratory, everyone is making discoveries and trying to go past what they already know and are comfortable with. As a facilitator, the challenge becomes to step in and out of the process by engaging musically but also by highlighting aspects and tendencies as they appear in the groups’ work. Through the use of specific excersises, the goal is to help participants prepare to improvise rather than to teach someone to improvise, which is really impossible. Each person has to come to their own way finding their unique voice and engaging with others. In this regard, the facilitator is no different than the participants, and there is always something new to discover!”

Luka T. Zagoričnik: There are different musicians on workshops coming from various musical backgrounds, some have already accomplished and well versed in free improvising, others are new or relatively unexperienced in it. How do you create a balance in the group context in these situations?

Michael Zerang: “As I mentioned, each player brings their own voice to the process and the overriding idea is to always go beyond what we already know. The wonderful thing about improvisation is that there is always something new to discover and that is true for someone who is just beginning, as well as for someone who has many years of stage experience. You never ‘arrive’ to a level of mastery if you perceive that you can always go further. There is never an end point when you can say: Ah okay, I know how to do this now, so I can just do what I always do.”

Photo: Marcandrea

Luka T. Zagoričnik: You do also workshops that are more based on learning different techniques of playing percussion and different percussive traditions. Do you sometimes implement them also on your improv workshops, and if so, how does that work, creating an enviroment where a genre, form and tradition meet more open sound evnironments?

Michael Zerang: “In the past, I have given what I call ‘lessons’ on various percussion instruments. This practice for me is very different than the improvised music workshops in that it has only to do with musical techniques and approaches – a way finding efficiency on a specific instrument. Here the results can be more finite and clearer to establish since we are dealing with the basic techniques of different styles and genres. With improvised music, techniques can be pushed, explored and expanded into something that is there to serve the context and expand ones vocabulary. Both approaches are important.”

Luka T. Zagoričnik: Many people from the scenes of jazz, free jazz and free improvisation are very suspicius, or even harsh towards jazz and improvisation entering the institutional educational systems all over the world. What is your take on that, and have you be able to teach or do workshops in that environment?

Michael Zerang: “I have been invited to enter music conservatories with the practice of improvisation a few times. But with rare exceptions, these are usually places where people learn what is already known as opposed to creating something that is outside of previous knowledge through exploration. When I was a student at the music conservatory in my younger years, I was very happy to learn the pedagogy and traditional approaches to the different genres of music. I think this basic study is important and understanding the rules is essential, especially if the goal is to ultimately break the rules – I am old fashioned that way… But I do believe that the way music is taught, especially to children, could involve more basic exploration. For instance, a child at their first piano lesson is taught to sit up straight, place the thumb of their right hand on middle ‘c’, and move up and down the keyboard with their five fingers. They also may be shown where these notes are on the music ledger. This seems premature to me as a first lesson. The first thing that should happen is that the lid of the piano should be raised, the child’s head pushed inside of the piano – gently, of course – and clusters of notes should be banged out, from the high register to the low, so that the child can see and hear what is actually happening – how vibrations are created and sustained, and how the quality of sound can actually be felt. Once the child has experienced this basic functioning and mechanics of the instrument, then we can sit with our thumb on middle ‘c’. At least a very fundamental understanding of the phenomena of sound and vibration can be understood before learning the rudiments of the instrument.”

Luka T. Zagoričnik: To end this interview you have played many times in Slovenia, as a member of Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, in duo with Hamid Drake, as a member of Karkhana etc. But last year you also played a concert with Slovenian improviser and vocalist Irena Z. Tomažin in Beirut at Irtijal Festival. Can you tell us more about this collaboration?

Michael Zerang: “This wonderful collaboration with Irena was put together by the organizers of Irtijal. I was aware of Irena before we met, but had never performed with her. So our first musical encounter was on the stage of this festival. Since it was a duo performance – a very intimate setting -, it was very simple in a way. We simply listened to each other and brought the energies together: she using her voice and physical gestures, and me using a single snare drum. We were able to focus our energies very quickly, and over the course of a 45-minute set we were also able to reach deeply into our range of expressions and, I think, go to some new places together. It was a very satisfying first effort for both of us and I hope we will have many more chances to go beyond what we already did.”