A Chat with

Fred Lonberg-Holm


Fred Lonberg-Holm has a new album out, First Meetings and it’s performed by his Lightbox Orchestra, a changing line-up of players ranging from the laptop players in TV Pow to the trombone-playing of Jeb Bishop. The piece, which has been performed on a fairly regular basis for almost six years now, involves players being instigated to play when a correlating lightbulb is switched on. First Meetings, self-evidentially, is the first release of this material.

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These recordings are around four years old, what prompted the decision to release specifically archival material, and why at this point in time?

I guess its in keeping with my ass-backward forward looking sensibility. When Dawson from Locust approached me about the LBO, I at first thought of the most recent stuff, but since I have been recording just about every gig since the first, I thought it might be interesting to make the first disc a collection of some of my favorite stuff from the first year or so… that way as I release more tapes – and I am planning to – they will be contextualized. In a way, this disc is the band – for want of a better word – in its early stages. Yes, the music has improved since then, but I am not embarrased by the early efforts. I think the next disc will either continue the archive exploration – the next years – or be a studio version not yet recorded – when I get the money together, lookout!

Anyway, why now? Because it took a while to get asked – I didn’t pursue a label, figuring when it was right, it would happen – and then after Locust wanted to do it, it took me forever to decide on the cuts. There also is a Lightbox version on the Brotzman Tentet disc Short Visit to Nowhere and a bootleg of the Tentet doing one at Saalfelden shows up on eBay from time to time.

You selected four pieces, with dramatically different line-ups, but all maintaining a sense of similarity to them. This may be due to the structure of the pieces, which, from what the liner notes seem to indicate, essentially exercises control on when players play, and occasionally includes the addition of stylistic suggestions. With this degree of focus on some semblance order, it seems that you’re trying to achieve something specifically.

Hmmm. Well, I don’t think of them as being that similar, but maybe my perspective is a bit screwed. Each piece starts out as a possible anything. In the end, it becomes what it is and works itself out and ends. Sort of like when a child is born, it can be anything, but somehow it becomes a human, those who know the human well can see the differences between humans, but if an alien ever comes here, they might have a lot of trouble telling humans apart.

Anyway, yes, I invite the players for the gig and then invite the players to play at specific times, and make additional suggestions before they enter. But I try not to micromanage them once they are playing. The cards I use to communicate with them also are rarely stylistic indications. Instead they focus on more objective suggestions – high, low, loud, soft, etc. – or are so vague that they are almost Rorschachian. For instance, one is a drawing of a chicken, another is a scattering of triangles, another says “like a section would.” But yes, I am trying to make a piece of music with my friends that follows the direction the sounds they make suggest.

Like John Zorn’s Cobra, another structured improvisatory piece that you were involved with, themes like authorship (you list yourself primarily as “Lightbox Operator”), cohesive group improvisation, and diversity seem to come into play. How do you see the Lightbox Orchestra falling into this tradition and what amount of personal expression do you place on it?

First, Cobra, while superficially resembling the Lightbox (a guy in the front of a bunch of musicians holding up cards from time to time) is psychologically very different. In Cobra, the players make suggestions to the prompter about what card should come next. If you have never played Cobra, it might be hard to imagine how much testosterone starts flying around once ten or so people are all trying to get there agendas going – I•ve been in groups that make the NYSE look low key, although the better groups reduce it quite a bit – but still, everyone is trying to come up with a strategy, and when you compound this with the guerrilla sub-systems found in Cobra, well… if you recall junior high homeroom, it’s sort of like that.

In the Lightbox, the free market is shunned. Instead, I am the dictator. I try to be an enlightened (bad pun) one, but probably end up imposing my sensibility on the band more than I might prefer if I was a player/citizen of the ensemble.

It’s here that the work of Butch Morris relates more to the project. He says that he is trying to take in as much as he gives out being a “conductor” in the electrical sense. But he does it with a stick and some pretty wild gestures. Also, when he points at you, you must play. I am trying to reduce the impact of the gesture and the resulting energy by placing a machine between me and the players and leaving the option open to not make sounds if no sounds are coming to the player at that instant. Either way, though, the pieces, no matter who is in the group, bear a certain overriding sense that would be totally different if someone else were operating the box.

Former LBO member Bob Marsh has been doing his own Lightbox gigs on the West Coast. So far I haven’t gotten any discs from him, so I don’t know how its going, but maybe someday. I have a feeling they will sound totally different, and not just because of the players. One thing I can say, though, is that while I have thought about having guest operators, I like to feel that one should build one’s own box and spend the time thinking about it and not just show up and flip some switches and see what happens. Maybe someday, though, who knows?

You talk about imposing your sensibility on the LBO when you conduct. I realize that it’s a hard thing to describe precisely in language, which is probably why you’re working in music, but as you’ve been working in your field pretty rigorously, I’m curious as to whether you have a way of describing it to someone who hasn’t heard you before, or even to someone who has.

Wish I did. Or at least wish I could in a coherent way so that people could dig it. I could probably start with a description of what it isn’t, but I don’t really like to limit myself or other peoples perceptions of the work. I do tend to like scratchy, messy, disjointed stuff and on the other hand find room for all sorts of sounds within the experience. It’s probably more a question of balance or scale. How much of one thing versus another. “Scratchy” sounds moreso when framed with smooth… etc. – sort of like sweet and sour sauce. Putting an exact ratio on the board though wouldn’t really be very feasible since its an open structure and the parameters are endlessly permutable.

Anyway, I like things to be what they are, and about the only thing I would say to a person who hasn’t heard it is, “it is what it is.” Some people who have heard some of this stuff could be reminded of that, too. Myself, I continue to try to remember that and not get too caught up in inference extensions.


It’s understandable that you don’t want to get caught up in inference extensions, but where do you feel your work fits in to the scheme of things culturally? Where do you see yourself in the traditions of improvised music and pop music? You may not feel it’s particularly relevant to your work, but does it factor in to the choices you make?

I have perhaps a too small amount of the grand scheme idea. In fact, the fact that I have gotten to do as much as I am without the vision thing is probably slightly remarkable. In my case its probably a bit more like the paraphrased Darwin quote about it being 90% “showing up.” When I studied with Anthony Braxton, he was always encouraging us to draw up plans for projects we couldn’t possibly do with less than a million dollars – operas, symphonies, interplanetary jam sessions, etc. I figured I could maybe talk somebody someday into backing such a thing, but I didn’t want to spend that much energy asking them for it, so I keep it modest – probably to my own detriment, but what the hell, at least I have had a good time!

That said, though, I feel like I fit into a subculture that has very little time or money to pursue entertainment or art, and so I rarely get to play for my “peeps.” I have this fantasy that eventually the dust will settle and a lot of folks who would find it – the music I have been a part of – interesting will hear it and in their own way get something out of it, but for now, I don’t really worry too much about the audience question.

As far as the traditions go, I guess I am both entirely immersed in it and as a result stand outside of it. Some projects focus on certain areas that some people can recognize as belonging to particular lines, but when you listen to a few different things – let’s say Terminal 4, Pillow, the trios with Zerang and Axel, Sten, Jaap or Butcher, and the Lightbox, not to mention the records with Simon Joner, Lofty Pillars, Boxhead Ensemble, etc. – you realize that I don’t want to make myself into a predictable type of musician carrying out the implications of an established “school.” There are a lot of us out here adrift, so to speak, and for that, I am grateful. I grew up listening to a lot of types of music, and want to be a part of as many of them as possible. Perhaps that makes me a transitional figure towards a synthesis I can’t even imagine yet, but in the meanwhile, I just try to do what I can as well as I can.

You’ve been working with Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustaffson, Jeb Bishop, Hamid Drake; a large cast of rather established musicians in the Brotzmann Tenet. You’re given space as a composer, an improviser, and a performer of other people’s works, all of which occasionally bleed together. I’m curious as to how the band dynamic works. How does working with a musician with a 40-year career affect your approach to music?

I guess I am just too stupid to think about those things. I was lucky to have known musicians throughout my life who have been playing forever, or so it seems. When I got a chance to document some pieces back in the late ’80s, Braxton was nice enough to play on the disc. I didn’t think it was so strange – and I also didn’t think it was because I was so remarkable – merely that musicians have always played across generations and been up for new stuff.

Now I am 40, and I am happy to play with people half my age. Yes, I might have logged a few more hours in the pit, but they are bringing themselves to the music and we are all trying to work together. A lot of times, the younger ones more than make up for lack of experience by freshness on the conceptual or attentiveness fronts. I assume when you say 40-year careers, you mean Peter and Joe and maybe Hamid, since Jeb, Ken, and Mats aren’t even that old and Hamid would have started his “career” at the ripe old age of 10 – but he is the Mozart of the drums, so…

Anyway, the senior cats have treated us “youngsters” very well and never played any kind of age or experience cards on any of us, except maybe the cards we offer them freely. Peter calls us colleagues. He could, if he liked, lead me over a cliff, and I wouldn’t look back, but so far, he hasn’t asked anything like that. In the Tentet, we can all bring in work, but Peter has final say about the program. He has asked for the Lightbox a bunch of times, and liked my “Six Gun Territory” enough to put it into about half the gigs we did this last run.

On the other hand, I wrote a more traditional chart that he didn’t seem to love, and so I withdrew it before the tour began – actually before the band had learned it. It wasn’t any more trad than some of the other things we do, but I could tell he felt like we had enough of that vocabulary and I felt there was no reason for me to make a push to tip the scales. This sort of stuff though has little to do with age or status. It is, after all, the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, and as the leader, he should have the final say about the repertoire. Whether he’s 20, 40 or 80, I would feel the same. Otherwise, get out of the band – start your own damn band! Maybe its because I have spent some time in the leader chair and I expect the same, even if the players ARE older and wiser.

Here’s a little anecdotal bit. A few years ago, I played in Mats G’s Nu Ensemble with a bunch of heavy and distinguished cats like Gunther Christmann and Barry Guy, and they never said, “I was making records while you were forming fingers, so… blah blah.” Instead, it’s, “OK, Mats, how do you want this to sound?” I would like to be like that when I get to be their age. Maybe its just luck on my part, but I have gotten to work with or at least meet a lot of great – and veteran – musicians while on this planet, and most of them have been very cool.

The Teenbeat Section

What was the last great meal you had?

Rattlesnake sausage at Hot-Dougs here in Chicago.

Tell me about an experience you had where you put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, one where you were almost completely unable to manage.

All the time. Would rather not go into details, but look before you leap is my advice to the kids.

What was the last music you purchased that you were entirely impressed by?

Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalog.

What was the last job you worked in a non-musical field?

Still do… part time preparator at the local contemporary art museum (Chicago MCA).

Any future plans, musically or otherwise?

Trying to learn how to play the cello.

Do you have any closing comments?

While I never felt very comfortable with America and its politics, am becoming increasingly disconcerted with the Bush regime and the way that my fellow Americans are supporting it. Have considered applying for amnesty on another planet. Any suggestions?

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