Diminishing Doughnuts of Phil Minton
Come hear Phil Minton with Torsten Muller and Dylan van der Schyff and local improvisers:
NOW INsphere session #1 November 12! details here
Interview by Allan MacInnis
One of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen was a small, free “Feral Choir” concert conducted in February of 2007 led by the UK’s Phil Minton at Vancouver’s Carnegie Center – located at Main and Hastings, the “Ground Zero” of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside slum. Various locals – often exhausted by a combination of poverty, drugs, alcohol, mental illness and misery – would shuffle into the tiny hall, filling up on free coffee and peering, occasionally, in various states of confusion and annoyance, at what was going on at front. Some stayed, and some left after about a minute shaking their heads. Of those, some came back to peer a little more intently a few minutes later, re-filling their coffees en route, as the bespectacled improviser led six Vancouver non-professionals through an ever-shifting series of trills, burbles, bleeps, moans, and chants. Each member of the choir – from a tiny plump white-haired woman adorned with brightly-coloured scarves and an expressive style that suggested Wallace Shawn, to a hugely bearded beanpole in a bandana – performed with his or her own distinct style, producing something organic, beautiful, and utterly bizarre over the course of a single thirty minute improv. The only false note was when one straightish woman attempted to inject a Bob and Doug McKenzie “cu-ru-cu-cu” into the proceedings; in the case of music already so infused with playfulness and joy, there isn’t much need to force humor onto the stage.
Minton would perform again during that trip to Vancouver, at the Ironworks, as part of a rotating ensemble organized by Coastal Jazz and Blues, modelled on Derek Bailey’s “company weeks,” in which varied combinations of gifted improvisers were mixed and matched over the course of several nights. Said company included violinist Eyvind Kang, UK saxophonist John Butcher, Toronto drummer Harris Eisenstadt, Dutch pianist Cor Fuhler, and Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen (who more often than not played his guitar with a bow or a slinky). Local cellist Peggy Lee and transplanted bassist Torsten Muller rounded out the pool and did Vancouver proud. As gifted as these musicians are, when he took the stage, the seated Minton stole the show, performing at a remarkable level of physical intensity, his entire body called into play; anyone watching his twitches, jerks, leans and lolls in another context might assume that Minton was quite nuts, or perhaps attempting an eccentric form of theatre, but his physical immersion in producing sound really betokens nothing more than his total devotion to his craft.
Thanks to Coastal Jazz’s Ken Pickering (who is an aficionado of the art of vocal improv, and often brings exponents of the form to our jazz fest), I’d seen Minton several times previous, both as part of the Dedication Orchestra and in a small group improv with Muller, Lee, and the delightful Maggie Nicols (who says of Phil, “I adore him and he's easily my favourite male singer.”) I was too intimidated by Minton’s unique and oddly charismatic presence to approach him about an interview until the February concerts, but when we finally got talking, I found him warm and tolerant of my at-times overlong, intensely inquisitive questions. When I stumbled once in my nervousness – calling him “Mr. Dutton,” thinking of Canada’s own master of vocal improv, Paul Dutton – he responded with a bizarrely guttural, but playful, growl that will remain ever untranslatable (which is probably for the best!). What resulted was an interesting, but brief, glimpse into the career of a most unusual performer. Those wanting more are encouraged to visit Minton’s homepage, http://www.philminton.co.uk/.
By the way, we Canadians spell it “donut,” too. I have followed Mr. Minton’s lead.
Phil: Hullo there.
Allan: Hello, Mr. Minton, it’s Allan MacInnis calling.
Phil: Hullo, Allan.
Allan: Is now a good time?
Allan: Great... Let me start by asking you about a quote from Paul Dutton in the liner notes to your solo CD, A Doughnut in One Hand, that you “eschew personal emotions” in your work, but that nonetheless “there’s an emotional content of riveting intensity, an exploration of feelings that elude ready (or perhaps any) verbal articulation, feelings sensed but not seized.” Everyone playing last night seemed to be working primarily with sound, but because you’re a vocal artist, it’s really difficult not to see you as expressing emotion, as well.
Allan: How do you feel about that sort of thing?
Phil: Well, there are so many sort of subjective associations with vocal sounds... I’ve just got to listen to them in an abstract way. I can’t get involved with the emotional associations. Most sounds I find are pretty positive, actually – I don’t actually use many negative sounds. I’m just hearing it just as sound and music, actually. I have to disassociate myself from any of the emotional associations.
Allan: How do you feel about audiences imposing those things on you? Anyone who sees you may talk about stuttering or stammering or trying to articulate inexpressible things – I’ve read praises of your performances like this. Do you think they’re on the wrong track?
Phil (chuckles): I’m probably not hearing it as “stuttering” – I’m probably hearing it as some sort of rhythmic riff, almost completely musically!
Allan: What’s happening inside you when you’re performing? You become very physical – I gather when you were a younger man you used to writhe about onstage.
Phil (laughing): I did do a bit more moving about. I’ve seen some videos and stuff of myself, and – I don’t like myself when I’m standing up, actually. I use my body to get out all of the sounds. I can’t get those sounds unless I move my body in a certain way. That’s why I move.
Allan: It looks like you’re playing yourself – moving your feet, moving your hands, like they’re part of your instrument. It’s quite fascinating. What’s going on in your mind when you’re doing that? Are you lost to the world, or -?
Phil: Yeah, but there’s degrees of lostness...
Allan: Do you have to consciously stop and listen to what people are doing, or is it more of an intuitive process?
Phil: I’m listening all the time.
Allan: And consciously deciding to do this-or-that, or...?
Phil: I make the decisions at the time, it’s spontaneous. There’s a whole repertoire of stuff that I can find somewhere... I think my brain is like a synthesizer. I have to find the sound that I want. Often I don’t find it, so I take on like a physical... uh... like a deep breath, perhaps, and I’ll do the body manipulations to get a certain sound, from changing the shape of my mouth, the shape of my larynx, and putting the voice to a different area in my body...
Phil: And sometimes it doesn’t actually happen. I get something completely different from what I intended, and I have to work with that material. There’s a lot of the time when new things actually happen. But, uh – it’s all intuitive. I don’t have any set plan when I sit down, nothing at all.
Allan: You’ve said that improvising is the most honest form of performance.
Phil (laughs): Yeah! It can be, without any plans at all. If I ever have plans I forget them in the heat of the moment.
Allan: I read that you started out being interested in improvised music by looking at Jackson Pollock.
Allan: And you were goofing around in choir, doing strange things.
Phil: I was in church choirs, yeah. I sort of left that at quite an early age, as my voice broke – or I probably said my voice was breaking! (chuckles). When it ended, my voice was breaking. It didn’t suit me at all, being in choirs. I started to get interested in music again when I heard jazz, actually. Especially Coltrane, was very powerful – he had that incredible energy. And some friend of mine who was an art student showed me some photographs of Pollock’s paintings, you know, and it just seemed to have some of the same energy. It was really a challenging form. The music at the time was hard bop and that, it was very classically crafted music, and somehow I didn’t feel I wanted to get into that sort of world. I could hear something after that incredible discipline, y’know – that it was about finding things inside your own body and your own instrument. And Jackson Pollock seemed like the visual counterpart of the sounds I was seeing. You just sort of think, and then you wait til you find other people who are thinking the same things, you know, a few years later – and you meet up... Of course, then there was a whole movement...
Phil: But I was never particularly involved, in the very early days, actually, of the London improvising scene. I was living in Sweden, at this period, with a family, working in a dance band.
Allan: Playing trumpet?
Phil: Yeah, and singing covers.
Allan: Conventional songs.
Allan: When did you start doing vocal improv in a serious way?
Phil: I would say in the late 60s. I was playing trumpet and working with some Swedish musicians, in Northern Sweden. As I was working in the dance band, I was also playing with the free improvisers, around the area at the time. There was a fantastic sax player called Lars Göran Ulander. I did a recording with this group in 1969 (Blue Tower CD07, Up Umeå, released in 1999). I think that’s the first time you’ll hear me doing what might be called voice improvising.
Allan: And it was done alongside trumpet playing?
Phil: I did both. It sounds pretty conventional, these days.
Allan: Were there other people around who you saw as antecedents? Kurt Schwitters, or...?
Phil: I didn’t know anything about Kurt Schwitters. I think Paul Dutton was the first person to introduce me to Kurt Schwitters. That would have been in the early 1980’s. I didn’t know much about the sound poetry scene. I was more into listening to saxophone players than voices.
Allan: How did the Feral Choir get started?
Phil: Well, I started doing some workshops with young musicians in Sweden, I think. It must have been fifteen years ago. There’s some musicians, some dancers, some actors – and then I started to get asked to do more of these workshops. I’d been told by somebody years ago that I was sort of a “feral singer,” and I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I found out about it. I rather liked this idea. And then I was asked once to do a workshop and they said, “Could we do a concert afterwards?” And they said, “What could we call the choir?” and I said, “We’ll call it the Feral Choir.” And then it started from there. I’ve done about fifty or sixty now, workshops through the years.
Phil: I do about three or four a year. Quite large groups sometimes – I have done up to about 200 kids. And now I’ve worked in lots and lots of situations with homeless people, people in prisons, and – people from quite unlikely backgrounds. I did one recently with postgraduate scientists, which was quite interesting.
Allan: Where was that?
Phil: That was in England... What I’ve been trying to do is broaden it out. There’s a word for it – outreach, it’s called, these days, where you take art into the community. Because I was feeling pretty isolated, going around the world, and doing these workshops for, well, quite interesting people, but they were all into the music, you know? They weren’t the general public, and I just wanted to open it up and do it with ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds. A lot of people have said how much they enjoyed being part of such a thing. It’s not hard, and it’s for people who can’t sing – or say they can’t sing. I think if anybody can make some sort of positive sounds, it’s singing, as far as I’m concerned.
Allan: There’s a really egalitarian nature to it – everyone has a mouth.
Phil: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Allan: When working with prisoners – I know there’s not meant to be a cathartic or emotional element in your own singing, but do you ever try to tap into their emotions?
Phil: People do get quite emotional, yeah. I often start the workshops with laughter, because it’s like the most extreme thing the voice does, and it’s really vocally quite wild sometimes. So I start with laughter, and I start to explore what we do with our voices when we laugh, and a lot of people can get quite hysterical when we start on this.
Allan: Do you try to stick with more positive emotions, or do people ever explore screaming, primal scream, that sort of thing?
Phil: I don’t deal with that, no. People do it, though. I wouldn’t... I’ve never worked with psychotic people either, I wouldn’t trust myself on that level.
Phil: But for mildly neurotic people it seems great! People come up and say they hadn’t laughed for five years or things like that, or they’ve never tried to pitch a note before. They’ve never sung at all, hummed or anything, and they’ve started to do it after being in these workshops. There you go – for some people, it’s great. And it’s a great kick for me.
Allan: The performance seemed very liberating. There’s an element of play in it – it’s very serious, but so are the most earnest forms of play. When children are playing, for instance...
Phil: Yeah. I mean – it’s great. Seven middle aged and almost elderly people doing some of those things – God, I thought it was great! They were a great little bunch, actually, last night.
Allan: I was sitting in the audience, and quite a few of people listening were quite poor and down and out. There were some really different reactions around me. I could hear one rather gruff old man behind me saying, “Ah, they’re a bunch of cuckoos!”
Phil (laughs): Yeah...
Allan: But he stayed. And then there was this woman at the end who turned to me at the end and said, “I LIKED it,” but in this very, “I-don’t-care-what-anyone-thinks” kind of way.
Phil (laughs): Yeah, well... that’s rather good!
Allan: Do you do anything special to practice your singing?
Phil: I’m trying to do that all the time, much to the annoyance of my family. I’m yeah – it was – huuuuuummmnjoooe. I’m always aware of my voice! I can’t let it go. I practice in the middle of the night, apparently. Yeah.
Allan: Do you have any particular techniques that you use?
Phil: Just finding if I can hit things I’m hearing at a certain time. And I always use this yodel technique as a way of keeping my voice flexible. (Demonstrates): Eiuuuweuuuweeiuuu. Apparently I do this all the time at home, and I’m always being told off about it.
Allan: Is that something you devised specifically, or -?
Phil: It seems good for me. I don’t know if it’s good for other people.
Allan: But is it an actual official-type yodelling technique?
Phil: I don’t know if it’s “official.” I just always wanted to yodel as a kid. I’ve never heard of it as any particular practice for vocalists. If you want to yodel, practising yodelling – I don’t think it does much else.
Allan: Do you practice in public? Do you ever get funny looks from strangers?
Phil: Of course, yeah. All the time. I forget about it. And I’ve got to be careful in airports, especially in queues, when you’re not thinking about much, you know. I suddenly start with ooommmmmmuuuwooommuuuuuuwm or something. And I often mimic sounds around me – if I hear electronic stuff going on. (Whistles in imitation of an electronic beeping sound). Doing it along with it – different pitches that I hear all the time, I’m often joining in. Yeah.
Allan: Your whistling last night in performance was extraordinary to hear. You can do a lot more than most people with your mouth! I tried to imitate some of the sounds you were making, and I felt baffled by how developed your mouth is.
Phil: I don’t think it’s just the mouth... There’s a whole load of things going on.
Allan: Okay. Sorry! I don’t know what questions to ask, because it’s such a remarkable and small field, what you do...
Phil: There seems to be more people getting interested. There are people exploring these sort of things. I think I do it in a more – perhaps not an academic way, but there’s been some academic people researching voice sounds. I suppose I’m quite show-bizzy in that way, because I actually do it as performance, but I think other people are doing it in academic circles.
Allan: Have phoneticians or linguists ever shown interest in what you do?
Phil: Oh yeah... There’s a guy that’s written a book called 21st Century Voice, that sort of deals with this area of vocalese, or whatever it might be called.
Allan: And he spoke to you?
Allan: Okay... let me ask you about your solo voice albums, A Doughnut in Both Hands and A Doughnut in One Hand – is there a third doughnut album?
Phil: There will be: No Doughnuts in Hand. It’s a trilogy. I hope it will be released this year sometime.
Allan: Those albums are entirely untreated, right – no electronics?
Phil: Yeah, yeah.
Allan: Are there other vocal improvisers whose work you particularly like?
Phil: Of course, Maggie Nicols is great, and Jaap and Paul and David Moss, these guys.
Allan: How about performing with other vocal improvisers, versus other instruments? Do you have a preference?
Phil: Nope! Doesn’t matter what the instrument is.
Allan: Americans versus Europeans? You seem to be very European in your approach to improvising - there doesn’t seem to be a lot of the blues in what you’re doing?
Phil: Is the blues like, a flattened third interval? I don’t think I do any of those. But I don’t know if that is the definition of the blues, really... Ah... It’s sort of European, I suppose, but a lot of American improvisers don’t use the blues, either, I would say.
Allan: I’ve read critics say that a lot of Europeans are more interested in sound in a pure way, whereas blues scales are really pervasive in North America...
Phil: Well, last night – we were using stuff in between the notes as well. Stuff that can’t be notated, even – we’re not even on scales!
Allan: How do you feel about people like Maja Ratkje, who treat her voice with electronics?
Phil: I don’t know who she is...
Allan: She’s from Norway. She’s in Spunk and Fe-mail, and has done some vocal improv work with Jaap Blonk. How do you feel about electronics? Do you try to stay away from that?
Phil: Yeah, I’ll stick with my own stuff. It’s another instrument, it’s another way of thinking, but I’m trying to find sounds from my body... I couldn’t put it in a computer and store it and then try to find it. I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I don’t want to do it. I have no interest in it... I find it hard enough to switch on a light!
Allan (laughs). Okay, well – one last question, then. You had said that you wanted to keep things positive, wherever possible, but... do you have any sort of philosophy of art, any particular effect you have on your audience?
Phil: I... (pauses; thinks, and states decisively): I want to be loved.
Allan, Phil: (laughter).
Phil: Just like everybody else, I think... It’s a strange way of going about it....
Fans of vocal improvising might also be interested in knowing that there is an interview with Paul Dutton in the current issue of Musicworks. Phil, meanwhile, reports that No Doughnuts in Hand has yet to be released.