7 Questions for… Han-earl Park (extended version)

UPDATE: October 2018
In the run up to the release of the Eris 136199 album, Han-earl Park’s fellow ‘Erisians’ – Catherine Sikora and Nick Didkovsky – graciously supplied a couple of pretty fascinating 7 Questions interviews (tubular gates, sniper skills, guitar duos freefalling from orbit… the usual). For his part, the equally gracious Mr Park has added an 8th question to his previous 2017 interview, delving into how a literary influence informed the mixing of an album. Feel to skip to Q8 or simply read on and enjoy the original interview too…

Han-earl Park has been called a musical philosopher. Han-earl Park plays guitar. Han-earl Park improvises. Han-earl Park invents machines that improvise (seriously, it’s called io 0.0.1 beta++). Han-earl Park is difficult to describe, so here’s what it says on his own website, “Improviser, guitarist and constructor Han-earl Park (박한얼) has been crossing borders and performing fuzzily idiomatic, on occasion experimental, always traditional, open improvised musics for twenty years.”

I stumbled across his playing via the “Anomic Aphasia” album (SLAM Productions) which has two tracks by Eris 136199 (H-eP plus Nick Didkovsky on guitar, and Catherine Sikora on saxophones) and two using his METIS 9 playbook of improvisative tactics. It’s weird, fun and endlessly fascinating. I doubt I understand it. His latest disc is “Sirene 1009”, described as, “the cyborg virtuosity of Han-earl Park, the indomitable low-end growl of Dominic Lash, the unstoppable hits and clangs of Mark Sanders, and the controlled vocal mayhem of Caroline Pugh.” The album will be released at the end of January on Bandcamp, with just two preview tracks available before then BUT…, Han-earl Park has made the opening track – Psychohistory III (very Asimov!) – exclusively available to aJazzNoise readers (hear it here and nowhere else, folks) for this interview. So click PLAY and read on…

[Incidentally, huge shout-out to sound artist Owen Green who helped with the technical side of embedding this exclusive player – the technical incompetence was all mine, the solutions were all his and Han-earl Park’s. Thanks – Ed.]

1. Name an experience that contributed to your becoming a musician?
One experience? Nope. Not going to give you that one I’m afraid.

But….

I think there’s a disproportionate number of musicians who are either extrovert or socially awkward. Musical practices, I think, especially those of traditions that center around the, to varying degrees, freewheeling pedagogical space of the session (jam or otherwise), give many of us some kind of non- or semi-formal space to express and perform sociality without the usual protocols of small-talk and polite conversation.

2. Who or what are you listening to at the moment?
Having spent the last twelve months, on-and-off, mixing and mastering a couple of recordings, in order to anchor my ears to some kind of audio reference point (or coordinate system), I’ve had a few albums on heavy rotation: Ingrid Laubrock’s “Sleepthief”; the first Bass Desires album; Braxton/Frith, “Duo” (Victoriaville) 2005; and Crispell/Hemingway’s Knitting Factory duo.

The last few things I’ve been listening to seriously outside this? Coates/Mwamba/Sanders/Dunmall/Bennett/Shaw, “Six-In-One”. In terms of my (self-directed) studies: Butcher’s “Bell Trove Spools”, and Coltrane/Ali’s “Interstellar Space”.

And I have those two Roscoe Mitchell CDs that I need to find time, dammit, to sit down and listen. Need to find the time….

By the way, have you heard Nick Didkovsky’s “Phantom Words”? It. Is. Phenomenal. You should go and download it. Right now. Nothing like guitar as I would imagine it. Music to lose yourself in (in the best possible way). You find yourself melting right into it. I’ve been listening to Nick’s music for twenty-years, and, just when you least expect it, he always seems to find a way to knock your socks off. Get it now. [If you feel like doing as you’re told, you can go listen here. – Ed.]

3. What’s the balance of preparation vs. improvisation for the average live set or recording?
Short answer: 100% prepared; 100% improvised.

4. What are your non-musical influences?
Politics.

Even in these so-called cynical times I find politics (in, for example, the interactions between basement-level activism, and the, to quote Zappa, ‘Entertainment division of the military-industrial complex’; in the friction between good, sometimes great, journalism, and the for-profit-lubricated popularity-contest we call publishing) inspiring.

Other things?

Art (often dubbed ‘conceptual,’ but need not be) that encapsulates some idea or… meaning in a ridiculously efficient (perhaps humorous or whimsical, or irreverent, playful or poetic) way. An encapsulation that makes you go, ‘well, yes, of course,’ but it’s retrospective obviousness is only really about how blind we were to those things mundane, or taken-for-granted, or unspoken or hegemonic.

Animators whose subject matter are things like movement, weight, physics, physiology, intent, volition, presence, personality, empathy, when their materials, in many respects, are working against those expressions. It helps to remind those of us who work in practices where it is too easy to take those same things—movement, weight, physics, physiology, etc.—for granted because they are so effortlessly part of the form.

Cinema, but could be other things, that understands genre (e.g. Sicario), and the modes and tropes of the form (Inland Empire), and/or that purports or pretends to be one thing, but is really about something else (Audition).

I’ve been intrigued by the Southern Reach Trilogy which I recently finished reading. What did I find so compelling? Virtuosic understanding of, and manipulations of the expectations of, genre and genre tropes; unreliable narrators, and the necessity of style and voice as elements in manipulating the reader/audience; the necessity, and knowledge that, stories are always partial and must be incomplete; the journey is more important than the answers, the results, or truth; skating around that which is beyond the descriptive (and the pleasure of reading the failure of description).
(For more on how Jeff VandeMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy influenced the Sirene 1009 album, see Question 8 below – yes, 8!)

5. What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?
Imagination, skill and reliability. In that order.

Probably.

Someone who has a levelheaded understanding (consciously or not) of their niche within the transnational improvised music ecology.

I said earlier that my music is 100% prepared, 100% improvised. What I meant, maybe, is that I gravitate towards improvisers who are always prepared for that which is, in a way, unforeseeable.

Also people who can patch the holes and weaknesses in my musical skill-set. So, thinking about those three-quarters of Sirene 1009, I think: Dom Lash’s assured, steady-handed control of his technique and sound-making; Mark Sanders’ range, seemingly boundless imagination, ability anticipate anything and everything, and ability to make sense musically regardless of what surrounds him; and Caroline Pugh’s handle and knowledge of genre, and how she seemingly can just jump in regardless of context. I think the various ways we move—our bodies and their relationship with the instruments, say—complement each other.

(I’ve said this before, but getting a group together is a kind of composition.)

6. Where do you stand on the streaming/downloading/file-sharing/musicians-not-getting-paid-for-their-music debate?
Availability is not the same thing as accessibility. Ubiquity is not accessibility. To ‘like’ is not to comprehend. A click-thru is not engagement. Hoarding is not connoisseurship. Support is not patronage.

So… are we happy living in the late-capitalist (spotified, airbnbified, uberized) bootleg economy? And if you, for a moment, think that this gutting of the ‘gross-inefficiencies’ of the labor-intensive aspects of music production isn’t coming to your own line of work (and I don’t care if you’re an accountant or a lawyer), I think you’re about to get an unpleasant surprise.

I’ve said it before, but, in retrospect, those of us who invested in the open culture project in its early years played our hand badly. Too often we were not clear enough that ‘free’ was not as in ‘free beer.’ So we find ourselves in a situation in which much of this ‘free stuff’ is managed freedom; managed by media gate keepers, and paid for by your consumer worth (advertising) and your identity (personal/marketing data).

I really think, however, that we can learn from our mistakes, and build and fashion alternatives.

7. If money and time were no object, what would your next project be?
One of these days I would love to put together a twenty-piece improvising ensemble. To rehearse, to train, and to manage such an ensemble would be a challenge (artistically, logistically, materially), but one that I’d be very excited about. Those all-too-brief occasions when I’ve worked in such ensembles made me see possibilities; have a sense of where the escape hatches were; the exit signs, the back doors of group improvisation. I know of very few other situations which amplify inequalities and differences (of power, of influence) than large, heterogeneous groups. We often ignore those inequalities, or often talk about them as antithetical to ensemble improvisation, but I think they offer challenges—good and bad—to how we do things, and illuminate who we are—good and bad—who we desire to be, and who we might be.

Short of that, I’m looking to take the transatlantic trio Eris 136199 on the road.

Eris may be the closest to how I think music should sound like… or how I would like to _imagine_ a music.

I read an article in Nautilus on ‘privileged information’; about how intelligence and knowledge has to embrace the irreducibility of complexity of the world. And that kind of complexity—resisting easy reduction—is the kind of complexity I gravitate towards in improvisative play.

Within Eris, there’s a constant struggle about how much stability or instability is ever expressed; between idiom and the unintelligible—or what exactly might be idiomatic or intelligible. Even a struggle (and I mean that in its most playful sense) about what it might mean to interact. For me, in Eris’ play… the subject is musicality and interactivity (culture and sociality) itself; musicality and interactivity tightly knotted together.

UPDATE: added October 2018 – call it a bonus track!

8. Did the Southern Reach Trilogy affect how the Sirene 1009 album was mixed?
Yes, particularly Annihilation, the first book in the series, and in very specific ways.

So, I was reading those books in parallel with the mixing of that album, and the books not only suggested creative choices, but also possible solutions to thorny technical issues.

As I said previously, I was fascinated by Jeff VanderMeer’s ability to manipulate the reader; how he could selectively reveal or obscure details, and thus invoke suspense, say, or dread, and thus drive that narrative. I was also intrigued by how he’d subtly change the narrative voice or shape the POV, and also manipulate genre tropes and the styles associated with genres, to drive suspense, dread, fear, etc. It was fascinating thinking about how the form of the piece—the craft and mechanical aspects—was used to drive the narrative by subtly manipulating the reader.

Aspects of VanderMeer’s writing compelled me to push the Sirene 1009 mix away from the vérité that is the vernacular of recorded free improvisation. I’d broken with that vernacular previously (chiefly when mixing io 0.0.1 beta++), but this time, with Sirene 1009, the process was almost extreme (bordering on vulgar). Or at least that how it felt to me when I was mixing the album, but only perhaps because the free improv vernacular expects a documentary aesthetic (all this is very tame by present-day pop production standards).

The aforementioned thorny technical issues included the bass-heavy nature of the quartet; with Mark, Dom and I variously occupying the low-mids, bass, and the sub-bass. That heavy, at times thundering, booming bass worked wonders on stage (and was so much a part of that group’s sound at the time), but, when recorded, conspired to rob all the clarity and snap especially when played on a domestic sound system.

There was also the issue of Caroline’s mic technique (she used two to three microphones simultaneously) which included throwing her voice in the stereo panorama, using different mics for different tonal effects, etc. And, again, that works great in the live environment in which the audience shares the same space, and thus has context in which to parse what is happening, but on record? Robbed of that context? It reads a little too odd to the ear (ironically it sounds too much like postproduction effects even though it’s all performed live by the vocalist).

The solution turned out to be to ratchet up the artifice of the recording. This involved creating, for example, four separate imaginary environments in which this music takes place. So at times the music might take place in a more traditional club-like environment, say, and at other times the music might take place in larger, more reverberant space in which the voice and drums might be a little more distant, while the bass and guitar remain in the middle distance. The differences and transitions are, hopefully, subtle enough that the listener are not consciously jolted out of the moment, but it weaves an extra narrative. Like VanderMeer’s manipulations in writing craft, genre, etc., I was working to accentuate, through the mixing process, the improvisative journey taken by the ensemble in performance-time.

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