Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Stephen Rush is dynamic composer and musician who is also Full Professor of Music at the University of Michigan. His compositions have been performed by Warsaw and Detroit Symphonies and members of the New York and Cleveland Philharmonics, and recently, classical ensembles in Spain, Korea, and Switzerland, and his music appears on over 30 recordings. He has collaborated with Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Grimes, Steve Swell, Eugene Chadbourne, Pauline Oliveros, and his bands include Yuganaut and Listening Music for the Age of the Crystal Moon Cone. He is also the author of Better Get Hit in Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz.
Recently I spoke with Rush about aspects of his career. He is on tour with the trio Dance Naked! -- with Andrew Bishop and Jeremy Edwards -- which performs in Grand Rapids and Chicago later this month. Dance Naked! performs at Surplus of Options (3664 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago) on Friday, January 25, on a bill that also includes Sarah Ritch, Jim Baker, and the Microcosmic Sound Orchestra.
Godston: How did you first get interested in playing music?
Rush: It was all around me in my home. My uncles and aunts sang at every gathering, church 4x a week, everywhere.
Godston: Was there a family member in particular who had a big impact on your early interest in music?
Rush: Yes, most importantly was the fact that my sister was there, taking lessons, and giving me ideas of how to make those black and whites sing.
Godston: Who were some of your early musical influences?
Rush: Well, even though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I heard a fair amount of Memphis Slim and Otis Spann. Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles were my main influences in terms of how I approach the piano...later, of course, I traded Jerry Lee's approach for Cecil's.
Godston: When would you say you started listening to jazz, Cage, and some of the musical influences that have affected you? What do you like about that music, and how did you know you were “on to something."
Rush: Jazz....well, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album was in our house pretty early on, but it was more blues. My brother, 7 years older, was hit hard by the Blues Revelation of the 60s, so Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield....all were in the air (and on the record player). Before that we pretty much stacked up the 45's and went crazy with Motown and the Beatles, about 50/50 on that. Hendrix was in the house a lot, of course. I probably got The Rite of Spring record when I was about 14 or so, and really liked it -- liked the energy especially. I quickly moved from the pop culture of Brubeck to Weather Report, mid-60's Miles (I taped over On the Corner! AUGH! I'm so embarrassed), and really was into Herbie and Chick (with Miles) and beyond that with their own groups, too.
Godston: How did you first get exposed to John Cage's work?
Rush: Cage I first heard about at church. He was demonized as an atheist who was perpetuating the myth of Nihilism by making music with "just sounds." I didn't buy it, but had nothing to compare it with....it was tantalizing though. Cage records weren't easy to find then, so I really didn't hear Cage much until graduate school. Of course now I actually am one of a few people I know that actually LISTENS to Cage a lot......you know, for fun.
I have ever felt like I was really "on to something" per se, although when I wrote my first piece, a crappy little prelude in the style of Bach (sort of!) I really felt proud, amazed, and knew that I could do it. That shocked me. I knew I could play, but write? ...it never occurred to me that I could do it, and certainly didn't know of anyone (other than pop/jazz people) that wrote their own music. I was, I guess shocked. I was 12. Quickly after that I started messing around with strumming the strings on the inside of the piano, and playing with tape recorders...nothing too "creative" in retrospect. I did alot of other things with sound though...like make a 2 octave chromatic cut wine-bottle set (I had a couple of fun collections, including blisters and apple cores...no kidding).
Godston: Who are some of your influences, in terms of composition?
Rush: Well, Cage of course, and not as closely linked as rumored, Lou Harrison. Harrison once said to me (roughly): "I'd rather be an interesting composer than a famous one." I guess my utter lack of consistency (tonal language, etc.) would account for both of their influences on me. I have had dreams where Messiaen is speaking directly to me. Don't judge me...but it's true. Ives has his brand on my psyche...."experimenter" brash, and his love/hate relationship with the church, clearly. Sun Ra is the rock I return to.
Godston: I'm a big fan of Sun Ra's music too. What do you like so much about Sun Ra?
Rush: He's someone who mastered so many kinds of styles. He had it all. I mean....not to diss on anyone in particular, but alot of cats say they can play outside, inside, corny, stride, Monk, Cecilish, and electronics. Not too many could do it with the grace and fluidity he had. Plus, he was, in my opinion, a prophet of both Doom and Hope. Amazing. He is our version of Durga or maybe Kali, perhaps even Shiva.....all in the realm of a jazz prophet. Who can better that?
Godston: You play several keyboard instruments. How do you approach the piano differently from how you approach other electric keyboards?
Rush: Well...different things do different things. I prefer to make the right noise at the right time. I summon different spirits on Rhodes/Farfisa/Piano/Synth.
Synth-the spirit of Ra, no question. (or Milton Babbitt or Pauline Oliveros more like!). The piano I have a lot of things at the ready, and it's so clear. It's just I usually have to try so damn hard to balance with the drummer on acoustic (hence the Rhodes etc. in Yuganaut). But I love the acoustic piano. Im recording a piano/drums album right now and I just feel like it's "all there". Farfisa I can be one with Jimmy Smith, Messiaen and Sun Ra.....or...as I say, pauline Oliveros. The Rhodes has a damn Chick stamp on it, I feel...and I've deeply invested lots of time into Bitches Brew...so it's hard not to riff that way. Some reviewers correctly point this out. I don't care. I'm proud to continue that tradition. In Indian music it's an honor to replicate your teacher's work perfectly....so there's no shame in it in my opinion. I think i have my own sound on Rhodes though....The River from the Sharks album pretty much shows that (although dang it Keith!).
Godston: I still remember fondly that jazz improvisation class that I took from you at UM. That was a great class. What are some things you keep in mind as you teach jazz improvisation? How do you decide which music to introduce to students?
Rush: The main thing I keep in mind is that we don't invent this art form or this music. It is a tradition. It is borrowed, sure, from older people, and in a lot of cases, people that are a lot darker than us (certainly me). Give credit where it is due, and learn from the ancients, man. I teach what I love. I think when you took the class it was 1/2-semester Blues, 1/2-semester-Harmolodics. (I totally forgot to mention Ornette above...but he is my go-to man and now a good friend). Teach what you love. Teach who you are. The rest is utter bullshitting.
Godston: I remember when you did that double prepared piano concert at UM in '89. How did you first get interested in Cage? What do you like about his work?
Rush: Crazy! Yep. I fell in love with the Cage Sonatas and Interludes when I was in graduate school. We listened to them all the time. My daughter (who was 2 at the time) knew and recognized them...it's BEAUTIFUL and FUN! Heck. Now I've done these candle-lit midnight Cage interludes/sonatas Masses for about a decade...last day of school, every single year. It's illegal (for 3 reasons) and wonderful...and TONS of students come out. No one else (maybe 1 faculty member a year...tops. Awesome).
Godston: You’ve been teaching at UM for a while. What are some things that you like about teaching there?
Rush: Well. The students are bright, creative, interesting, and challenging. They get in my face - and that's a good thing. They are receptive, that's even better. I don't have to look to hard to find students who want the kind of thing i'm selling. My colleagues generally drive me bonkers, but there are the good eggs. Close close friends who I've done concerts with, recorded with, written books with and bowl with, of course. CLOSE friends. Intelligent people. I really enjoy, as well, when students graduate, then rope me into their lives, such as my trio with chris peck and jon moniaci. That's a really good band, and we just plain read each others minds. They are still teaching me so much.
Godston: How did you get involved with Yuganaut? That’s a great trio.
Rush: Well...they were staying over at my house. They were on tour with Steve Swell, and I sat in while they were practicing one day. WHOA is what we said. WHOA. We gigged about three months after that in Cinci and in Ann Arbor....and well, we're still together!
Godston: I first heard Yuganaut perform during the “Lost World” tour in '07. Would you describe some of the concept behind that tour? What are some of the highlights of that tour?
Rush: Well...we thought we'd get epic. Most of the stuff we did the first 3 or 4 tours had alot of graphic scores - projected though (that's a rare thing!). We wanted something that we could use as a graphic score that was...well...more of a through line. It was an experiment that we mostly, well, hated. :) Ah well. Live and learn.
Godston: “This Musicship” is a great recording. How did that recording project come together?
Rush: This Musicship (this music's hip!) was recorded in at least 3 different situations, over a year apart. We had tons of material...over 15 hours of pretty good stuff, and we picked and picked and picked at it. We all ranked these different recordings from 1 to 10 and the 10's/9.5's got in. That's how every record works, by the way (including Sharks and the upcoming record with Roscoe Mitchell).
Godston: “Sharks” is a wonderful CD. How did that project come together?
Rush: The same deal as This Musicship...maybe we only had 3 sessions and 10 hours of material...that's a lot for a jazz album though.....
Godston: Yuganaut did an excellent show at the Velvet Lounge, during Chicago Calling 2008. I thought your collaboration with Selina Trepp was really interesting too. What do you recall about that performance?
Rush: Well...we were pretty dead and exhausted...but I loved checking out Selina's stuff out the corner of my eye. There was an incredible synthesis of information between what was going on with the video and the overall energy of the music, which was super super upbeat!
Godston: How did you first get involved with interdisciplinary collaborations. What are some of your recent collaborations?
Rush: Well...I started to work with actors in high school....usual stuff, "Good Man Charlie Brown," etc. Some musicals. Then I formed an avant-garde group as a sophomore in college, with dancers, artists and musicians. We met every sunday night for 2 hours and had a great time. I worked with photographers, dancers, etc. even more in college, and by the time I was in Grad school I was deep in. Now...to be honest, I just don't even think about it. I just Make Art. Whatever I do I do. Whatever They do, They do, you know? And if someone is a freaking Ulysses Grant impersonator, then so be it - which is my recent project (combining him with the Ives' Concord Sonata and video). I'm working with dancer Amy Chavasse and my band Listening Music from the Age of the Crystal Moon Cone (electronics/accordion/guitar/toys). I'm also working with the incredible choreographer Dianne McIntyre (who's worked with Olu Dara and Butch Morris and Cecil Taylor and even Walter Bishop, Jr.). It's all good man!
Godston: How would you say liturgy and improvisation relate to each other?
Rush: Well, that's laid out pretty clearly in the Harmolodics chapter - which I'll write more about elsewhere, I promise. But essentially its Soul or Life force in communication on a lateral plane (human-to-human) and vertical (human-to-divine, or more likely, vice versa). Great improvisation (Louis Armstrong Hot Seven or AECO or whoever) is always this way. It isn't egoistic, it's soul to soul. Pauline Oliveros hits this stuff out of the park. Doesn't that sound like liturgy? - Rather than the hierarchical "I'm a Male! I'll tell you about God" stuff?
Godston: Do you explore other religions in the book?
Rush: Well...we make a case that it doesn't matter what religion you're talking about.....but we happen to be talking about Christianity. Christian liturgies are really the most FLEXIBLE liturgies in the world, though. Way way way more than Judaic or Islamic or Hindu liturgies. I can't see a place for jazz in a Hindu liturgy anytime soon - and I've been to a LOT of Pujas - seriously.
Godston: What would you say are some essential aspects of how improvisation appears in religious services, in music, spoken word, and other forms of expression? For instance, preachers / ministers come up with sermons sometimes by improvising based on the texts, and sometimes the congregation will improvise in harmonies or shouts.
Rush: Exactly. This is all classic "Black Church" stuff, isn't it. Riffing, call and response, it's all there. The point is this -- African music making, hell, African COMMUNICATION came "here" (USA) inadvertently and shamefully enough. Historical reality. Then it gets put in the church, where it's both safe and meaningful at the same time. Fair enough. (I'll let those that want to really get upset about all this refer to the writings of Sun Ra. He lays it out much more boldly!). Then that music reveals itself in the popular (white, that is) domain through Soul Music. I'm not saying that only whites listen to Soul Music! I AM saying that this kind of music became more universally available to whites through the artists you're mentioning like Sam Cook and Ray Charles, etc. I would include, though, Ellington and Armstrong in that bunch as well! Again, Tom Dorsey's interview with Studs Terkel talks about this in a much more literate and experientially authentic way than I could. On the other hand....I did grow up with exactly the same tunes that Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin did, and learned to improvise on these tunes at a very very early age (like 10). It's just that the harmonies were tamed in a bit more, and it was more akin to a Country version of Chopin (that's the best I can make of it), rather than all out Blues and "Gospel" roots. The Blues third was NOT allowed (I got yelled at once, then never did it again), and the swing feel was there, but vastly subdued.
Godston: How does Charles Mingus’ work figure into that book?
Rush: Well...I was on a long walk one day and it hit me....Mingus had said it all in the title of that tune, and the title of the book of course. It was too perfect. There's a certain theme to the book -- that if we don't change the church - it will die (or should!). It's kind of a bully pulpit (pun intended). So the wavering finger of "Better do it!!" is a nice attitude. Of course....the punch line of that tune is "Talking "bout JESUS!!!!!!!"....and we ARE talking about Jesus in the book. Unashamedly. -So did Coltrane and Ayler, incidentally - before people get all too high and mighty. It's okay to talk about Jesus! It's also seriously ok to talk about Allah!
Godston: I always felt that Mingus was one of the first jazz artists to explicitly use gospel music in his jazz. What do you think about that assessment? It seems that “Better Git Hit in Your Soul” (or however it’s been spelled other ways in other recordings, etc.) is one of the first examples of how church music can be seen in jazz. I have a theory that’s the first song that kind of laid the foundation for “soul jazz,” which artists such as Cannonball Adderley and other artists used later. Joseph Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy” is another great example of a gospel music-inspired composition that it seems to me followed in the wake of “Better Git Hit in Your Soul.” Would you agree with that?
Rush: Yeah...this is really slippery slope logic, methinks. The first artist I can really think about in all seriousness is Tom Dorsey (previously "Georgia Tom" who recorded with Tampa Red and others). He simply switched from Blue to Gospel. It was an obvious switch, and it was truly based on his faith. A lot of others have switched the other way (Muddy Waters' son told me his daddy wanted to be a minister 1st), and then there's switch-hitters like Aretha and Al Green. It's all really great music, isn't it -- and I suspect the Great God in the sky (who is undoubtedly hipper than we think he/she is) is digging all this music - in and out of the church. That's the point of the book as well, "why should the devil have all the great music." He doesn't, of course.
Godston: How do you and your co-author Reid Hamilton explore John Coltrane’s music? Have you been to the St. John Coltrane Church in San Francisco? I was there about 14 years ago.
Rush: Coltrane is the basis for the Blues Mass. He was a seeker, a deep deep soul-filled seeker, and "the Love Supreme" is our phrase for God. We do the Love Supreme there all the time, especially, for some reason in the Fall...when students return. It's sort of like St. John Coltrane's Church...although it's a pretty white situation at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, and we believe in lots of Saints...like Malcolm X and C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth of Hungary and Sun Ra and and and...
Godston: How did you come up with the idea for your Blues Mass? What are some of the influences of that? Are you also responding in that composition to other famous masses in classical music?
Rush: The Blues is the ultimate expression of African American suffering....and my faith can be summed up like this: Jesus Suffers With Us. I don't know about "saving us" or all that stuff....but we do not suffer alone. There is an idea of Jesus (you might call it Krishna if you were somewhere else) and that idea/entity/reality suffers with us. The Blues express that wonderfully. As BB (King) says.."the Blues bring you down, then lift you up!" Or John Lee Hooker "The Blues is a Healer". Dig.
Godston: How do you and Hamilton explore Albert Ayler?
Rush: We both are in love with Ayler's faith and humility. His grandness is all about Palm Sunday...Jesus being declared "king" when in essence, he's about to be killed. This is to tragically like Ayler. So horribly like him. And, well, of course Ayler was so NOISY about his Christianity and his Faith. He was not silent, anymore than Trane was...and we love that wild beauty. Obviously....his music is amazing. Nuff said.
Godston: What is your “Bird-Tines” installation?
Rush: It's a riff on a piece i saw on the internet with guitars being "eaten" by birds, making distorted "ugly" sounds. this is a Kalimba or Thumb Piano made by Elliot Bergman (of the band Nomo)...it's electric, so I can plug it right into an efx processor, then put it into a PA....and it's sheer beauty. Esp. when i cover it with seeds and birds eat off from it. It's lovely.
Godston: What other projects have you been working on lately?
Rush: A pretty wild "opera" kind of piece, where I play the Ives Concord sonata with a Ulysses Grant impersonator. I wish I was kidding. I"m also writing a biggish piece for 7 drums and 8 bugles, the Hellcats at West Point...kind of a drum and bass (only drum and trumpet) thing. Dirty Dozen meets Squarepusher, that's what I want anyway.
Dance Naked! performs at Surplus of Options (3664 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago) on Friday, January 25 -- on a double bill that also includes the Microcosmic Sound Orchestra. The show starts at 9 p.m. $10 suggested donation.