Andrea Centazzo

The New York City Jazz Record Interview
By Ken Waxman

Founder in the late ‘70s of ICTUS, one of the first European artist-run labels that recorded free music, Italian-American percussionist, composer and multi-media artist Andrea Centazzo is celebrating the label 35th anniversary at The Stone this month. The festival showcases the many genres of experimental music Udine, Italy-born Centazzo, 64, has been involved with over the years. On hand will be many of his collaborators from the US and Italy. Centazzo’s musical scope is so large that some of his other musical ventures, such as composing for film, theatre and large non-jazz ensembles, could barely be mentioned in the conversation below.

The New York City Jazz Record: Since ICTUS was based for many years in Italy, then re-located to Long Beach CA when you moved there in 2006, why celebrate its 35th anniversary in New York?

Andrea Centazzo: In 2010 I had a successful duo reunion concert with John Zorn at The Stone and he invited me to bring the ICTUS celebration to New York. Besides the Stone concerts, the festival will also take place this year in Italy and LA but with different programs and at a smaller scale. From 1978 to 1980 I had a [platonic] ‘love affair’ with Zorn, playing and recording with him as part of the rising Downtown Music Scene. He was also featured in my first composition for ensemble Environment for Sextet [1978, reissued as The New York Tapes]. We didn’t see each for over 30 years due to my change of direction. But in 2009 I was invited to conduct a John Cage Concerto for piano and orchestra in New York, the same night John was performing with his group. We met and we decided to revive the collaboration. As matter of fact on April 15 we’ll play again together [with others as part of The Stone’s Marathon Improv Benefit] and more is to come.

TNYCJR: A while ago you said you preferred to be described as ‘a composer who plays percussion … but it could be a film maker composing, or as a percussionist conducting an orchestra’. Have you since settled on a definition?

AC: Professionally I was born as percussionist, actually a drummer, but I always considered myself a composer playing percussion more than a drummer/percussionist. Probably this started with my fascination for solo percussion, presenting a complete musical expression, but I had to carefully plan, structure and compose the program. Now 35 years later I still love to perform but mostly my own compositions and improvisations. Except for collective improvisation I’m not interested in playing somebody else’s music.

I have to say that the experience that changed my life was the summer jazz clinic in Wengen [Switzerland] in 1970. It’s not that I learned much in 10 days, but drummers Pierre Favre, Peter Giger and Stu Martin “discovered” me and pushed me to turn professional. I was attending the The University of Trieste and had been playing for five years but straightahead jazz with combos and big bands or in rock bands. In Wengen I had the chance to listen live to some of the most prominent jazz players of that time, I even jammed with Johnny Griffin – I was just shaking – and make friends. It was there I understood that I was born not to be an attorney like my father and grandfather but a musician. Later I studied with Pierre, who I still adore for his immense talent and originality.

When I started to compose I could barely read orchestral music but I had the urge to express myself in an organized form so I started to seriously study composition by myself. Later a couple of great Italian composers, Bussotti and Gentilucci, taught me fundamentals, but I always composed as if I was in a trance. I remember in 1982 when I got the commission for my Andrea Centazzo Mitteleuropa Orchestra for a concert celebrating 1,000 years of Udine. I started to write and I finished it without any problem with the music flooding the pages. Composing is what I like the best along with filming. I think that everything in my life depends on Karma. I didn’t plan anything, but just followed the flow of the life events. Working with video came about in the same way. In 1984 out of the blue I decided to shoot my first video, Tiara, a journey to chilhood places. Yet the video won major awards at festivals around the world and I started to do that professionally.

I moved to Los Angles in 1990 and ever since the situation has never changed. I came with an exclusive agreement as composer with Warner Chappell, but my personality, a bit of misfortune and personal problems never gave me the opportunity to score for major movies. I did small independent movies.

Wengen was the beginning of the discovery. But that was still kind of traditional jazz environment. In 1972 I started listening to more advanced jazz and improvised music recordings and quickly made the transition. At the same time I was avidly listening to Balinese and contemporary classic music. That formed my peculiar musical personality. Transitions for me were easy, but unfortunately critics and audience didn’t follow and didn’t understand, so it has been really hard making a living being an improviser one day and the next day a composer, especially when I composed operas; or one day being a video maker and the next a multi-media artist.

TNYCJR: Back in Italy in the 1970s, how did you start playing with non-Italian musicians like Evan Parker, Gunter Hampel etc.? Was it a conscious decision? And outside of Americans – or musicians living in the US – do you still play with ‘foreigners’ today?

A.C.: Music is a universal language and has nothing to do in our era with nationality. I never considered Hampel a German or Parker an Englishman, just musicians with their treasures of experiences. I’ve lived in the US for 22 years and been an American citizen for 15 years, so what kind of ‘foreigners’ I wonder? I guess that the answer is yes, I still play with ‘foreigners’ today, but in this case Italians.

TNYCJR: During the ICTUS Records festival there are going to be three tribute nights, to Derek Bailey April 6; to Colin McPhee April 10; and to Steve Lacy April 13. Can you describe what influence each had on you?

A.C.: In 1976 after having spent three yeaars playing leftish political concerts in factories, in psychiatric hospitals, in public squares with pianist Giorgio Gaslini’s quartet I went to Paris and met Steve Lacy. I consider that encounter the beginning of my second life. We did a duo tour immediately after and the year later another with the addition of bassist Kent Carter. I remember vividly the first time we had an afternoon rehearsal. Working with Gaslini, I was used to follow rigidly the rules of the sideman and read a score. So to start, since we had no scores, or knew what we were going to play, I timidly asked, ‘Steve what you want me to do?’ He looked at me and placidly said: ‘Play what you feel.’ I’ll never forgot that moment in all my career. There was when the improvising percussionist was born. From that experience I have three great ICTUS albums (121,123,131), now re-mastered. Still fresh and interesting, since Lacy music is always exciting.

Derek Bailey was also very important but the collaboration was much shorter, resulting in the Drops CD. The tribute to Derek is geared toward the fact that after him I played and recorded with the best guitar player of improvised music such as Henry Kaiser, Eugne Chadbourne, Elliott Saharp, Fred Frith, Davey Williams ... you name it, And the idea to have some of them at the Stone was appealing since improvised guitar music wouldn’t be possible today without Derek’s work.

[Canadian composer and musicologist] Colin McPhee [(1900-1964)] was the man who brought Balinese music to the West and wrote compositions inspired by it. He was also the first to transcribe complex Balinese music. Since the beginning I have been attracted by Balinese minimalism and the sound of gongs and metallophones. Of course I was not the only one, Glass, Reiley, Reich and all the so-called minimal music school came from that music. When in 2002 I had the chance to do my Sacred Shadows [a multimedia project for gamelon ensemble and video images] with Balinese musicians I was in heaven. Finally I had the opportunity to write music for the originators of my artistic musical experience. I still consider that experience one of the best of my life.

TNYCJR: How and why did you found ICTUS in 1976, and why did it cease operation in 1984? How you were able to resuscitate the label in 2006?

TNYCJR: In 1976 my-then wife Carla Lugli and I started the label to free my music from the major labels that at that time were the only ones making records. It was a crazy but exciting experience. We were, together with Incus in Great Britain, FMP in Germany and ICP in Holland, one of the first avant-garde labels owned and operated by musicians. With ICTUS I had the chance, and especially the freedom, to record with the best musicians of that genre and experiment with all kind of crazy combinations from solo to orchestra. Due to financial reasons and also to the divorce from Carla, who ran the administrative side of the label, ICTUS collapsed in 1984. Then in 2006, thanks to Cezary Lerski of Polishjazz.com who was interested in a partnership, I had the chance to get the operation running again. The new catalogue is quite impressive since I have incorporated all my recording in it in the hope of having an logical archive of all my work. Cezary left two years ago and now I’m the only one doing everything. It’s kind of difficult again But with new technologies and the Internet, it’s certainly easier than it was in the ‘80s.

TNYCJR: Does ICTUS mean anything in particular, by the way?

A.C.: It means ‘downbeat’ in Latin

TNYCJR: Will any of your notated compositions, which are represented in the ICTUS catalogue be performed at the Stone? How did you get involved with composing by the way?

A.C.: Some will be presented during my sets on April 1, 10 and 12, and the string quartet of violinists Jessica Pavone and Concetta Abate, violist Liz Meredith and cellist Janel Leppin will play more of my compositions on April 4. The involvement in composing came out of my insatiable curiosity and open mind. I never cease to try something new. For me it could be deadly boring still sitting behind the drums and playing like 45 years ago.

TNYCJR: On April 7 you’ll present two sets by the 12-piece Italian Invasion Orchestra made up of top American and Italian players. Is this ad-hoc group a hommage to your Mitteleuropa Orchestra, which existed from 1980 to 1984?

A.C.: The Italian Invasion Orchestra is evidently an homage to my Andrea Centazzo Mitteleuropa Orchestra, but I doubt that we’ll have time to rehearse many of my compositions due to the Stone’s structure and program. But I’ll certainly pull out some easy pieces I played with the first band and we’ll improvise around them. I founded the orchestra in 1980 when the 15-piece ensemble was commissioned by the Cultural Affairs department of the city of Bologna to give a series of concerts. It lived four years, playing all over Italy and Austria. It was the first Italian ensemble of that kind and together with the Globe Unity Orchestra the only ones in Europe playing that kind of music. Great international improvisers along with young musicians were involved in it, including musicians who later became famous in Italy, such as saxophonists Roberto Ottaviano, Carlo Actis Dato, Gianlugi Trovesi and trumpeter Guido Mazzon as well as European and US players like violinist Carlos Zingaro, trumpeter Franz Koglmann, trombonist Radu Malfatti, bassist Mark Dresser etc. I love this definition of Mitteleuropa: ‘... Sort of like Braxton meets Xenakis meets Zappa’.

TNYCJR: Many of ICTUS’ newest CDs have you playing with experimental musicians such as Joe Giardullo [at the Stone April 1 and 14], Dave Ballou [at the Stone April 7 and 14] and Nobu Stowe, with whom you hadn’t worked with before. How did these associations come about and will they continue?

A.C.: In 2006 I had a call from pianist Nobu Stowe, a fan of my music, asking for collaboration. He organized a small East Coast tour with Perry Robinson and that was the occasion for my return to the improvised music scene. I’m really grateful to Nobu since he was the one who again started my career in this music. When that happened people started to say ‘Wow this guy isn’t dead. He’s still around. Well, let’s see if he can still hold his mallets…’ And all came along again.

TNYCJR: What about your experiments with so-called ethnic and especially so-called New Age music? How do you feel about being classified as a pioneering ‘New Age’ musician?

A.C.: I never asked for that label. But I still don’t know how to classify my music. I’ve made so many changes over the years, but I think that I still retain my own personality in all my experiments. I suspect that the Cetacea Project in 1990, a concert for ensemble and video images designed to sensitize people about the potential extinction of marine mammals in the Mediterranean, may be the origin for that ‘New Age’ label. But the music is certainly not ‘incense New Age’ background music. Actually Actis Dato has a couple of solos blowing like crazy on it.

TNYCJR: You also do multi-media work using video etc. It would appear that the Stone’s small space precludes any similar undertaking. Does that disappoint you?

A.C.: In the Tribute to Colin McPhee I have in the program Mandala, inspired by the Buddhist Universe, a solo multimedia work that combines percussion, digital percussion and computer sequencing with videos. Most of the solo concerts I’m playing now are based on a digital percussion Keyboard Kat mallet connected to an Apple Mac and I do looping and live playing. It seems that the Stone has a screen, but I’m still looking for a projector. If I find it I’ll probably perform the show. Certainly it’s not the perfect environment for such a project.

TNYCJR: Finally, as someone with a PhD in Ancient Music from the University of Bologna who has done educational work over the years, have you ever yearned to do more teaching?

A.C.: Actually at one point I was looking for an academic position. But it seems that in the US nobody really cares for me doing that, even with a PhD. I never had a fixed teaching job, but I always did it randomly in seminars, workshops and lectures. I still do so when somebody asks. Recently though the University of Bologna, which is the oldest in the world, instituted a Fondo Centazzo as a section of the performing arts library dedicated to me, where all my works, books, articles, media and my consistent collection of musical books are organically preserved for student studies. So yes, it’s kind of funny that I have no academic position

—For New York City Jazz Record April 2012