Making Medeski, Martin & Wood's Omnisphere: An Interview with Billy Martin
Words & photos by James Sissler
Medeski, Martin & Wood recently released a genre-defying live album in collaboration with chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. Entitled Omnisphere, the record features new experimental compositions that combine the organ trio’s familiar instrumentation with the sonic richness of a full chamber ensemble, as well as orchestral interpretations of a couple Medeski, Martin & Wood classics. I sat down with the group’s drummer/percussionist, composer and visual artist Billy Martin at his cozy music and art space, The Herman House Gallery, to get the scoop on how this collaboration came to be and what it means for the future of the beloved trio.
James: So maybe you could start by telling me how this collaboration between Medeski, Martin & Wood and Alarm Will Sound initially came about.
Billy: Well John [Medeski] had a schoolmate at New England Conservatory who ended up becoming a booking agent for Alarm Will Sound. So somehow they crossed paths and that’s where the idea of a Medeski, Martin & Wood/Alarm Will Sound collaboration began. John, Chris and I all share a deep love of chamber music. We used to drive around in the van or the RV listening to all kinds of classical music and sharing really interesting modern music with each other. And John and Chris went to New England Conservatory, which of course is a place where they teach classical music. John actually went to New England Conservatory as a classical pianist and then got more into jazz at the end of his time there.
So dates were set almost two years in advance for back-to-back concerts in Denver and Boulder. I think Alarm Will Sound and this booking agent had a relationship where they could set up dates like that. And then as we got closer to those dates, maybe six months in, I met this guy Michael Watt. He’s the owner of Ronnie Scott’s, a club in London. We were playing Ronnie Scott's, just the trio, and he took us out to lunch and we talked, and he gave me some CDs. He told me about how he was supporting certain musicians and made records with them, like with the London Symphony and all this stuff, and I was like, "Wow, that’s really interesting." I took those CDs home and after a while it dawned on me, maybe I should see if he’d want to support a recording of this concert like he did with the London Symphony and these other musicians. So we talked and he agreed to help us record everything, which is very expensive.
James: I’m sure. You already addressed my second question which is about Medeski, Martin & Wood’s background in classical/chamber music.
Billy: Yeah, well John and Chris had their New England Conservatory experience. I’m not sure if Chris played in any orchestra; I don’t think he did. But just playing the double bass, you have to learn techniques and things. And he’s just a musical guy, so he loves it, you know. And John I think was really a classical piano prodigy. He could have been the next Glenn Gould! But he knew it was going to be a very narrow path for him and he wanted to be expansive. He wanted to expand like Jimi Hendrix and Oscar Peterson and Cecil Taylor. As soon as he heard them he knew, Oh, there are other ways!
For me, it was growing up with my dad, who was a violinist. He played in the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera. He was in a famous string quartet called the Beaux Arts String Quartet. They actually played on the Stan Getz Focus record, which was a historic record where they blended classical with jazz, which is called third stream. Actually at New England Conservatory that was the name of the division in which John and Chris studied, the third stream department, which was bridging together classical and jazz.
James: I’m not super familiar with third stream.
Billy: Yeah, Gunther Schuller I think was the one who created that term. He was a composer and conductor and he was involved in both jazz and classical. And he kind of pushed that movement forward, bringing together classical and jazz, finding ways to bring those two worlds together.
James: Is that how you would categorize this record, as a third stream record?
Billy: You know, we never talked about it as that, but I am now. So this will be your exclusive first quote: It’s like revisiting third stream, without intentionally thinking that way. It’s just a part of the vocabulary. You hear these things. No one uses “third stream,” as far as I know, to promote their music or anything, but it’s coming out of that.
James: Yeah, actually my next question was about the composition process and specifically the trio’s role in the writing process, since going through the record I definitely did catch that those two were arrangements of MMW songs, whereas the rest seem to be complete departures from what you three might normally do.
Billy: Yeah! They all are, besides those two. Basically some of the musicians from Alarm Will Sound wrote music knowing that we were in the band, and they kind of had their very different vocabulary than ours. And then John and I were the only two out of the trio who wrote, and those pieces were also very different because we were thinking, How exciting to work with an orchestra! What am I going to do with this opportunity?
James: So it was all original for this project, besides those two MMW arrangements?
Billy: Yeah, this music was. I actually had something that was already sort of written. It was like a recorded double piano experiment that I did, and I already had it transcribed. And then I handed that manuscript over to the trumpet player in the orchestra and he created a score where the orchestra could basically have just these blocks of time where they would play these notes that I had played that were transcribed—no specific rhythms, no groove, you know. And I liked that. It was more like a sort of pastoral kind of impressionistic thing, and that was “Coral Sea.”
There’s a little bit of a story behind that title. It comes from my experience when I was nine years old and my parents took me to Bermuda, which is an island out in the Atlantic. I went snorkeling in these beautiful tropical waters and got to see all these colorful fish and it was a life changing moment for me. And I just kind of took the feeling of that music and applied it to what it was like to be underwater swimming and being in this magical world like Nemo.
James: You mentioned that you left some things up to the musicians in that piece. Was there a lot of improvisation on the part of the orchestra? Or on the part of the trio? And there was a conductor, right? Did they improvise at all?
Billy: Yeah, so Alan Pierson is the conductor and the leader, so he’s the one who has to really lead the orchestra, including us, to just make sure everything is together. He’s got to make lots of cues because everyone is reading, but there are these improvisational moments within the time frame of the score of your part. Each of us had our way of leaving things open, but not a lot left open. Like John left a lot open for us, for Chris and me, to improvise. He didn’t write out anything for us. He never does. And the same for me. I didn’t write anything out for those guys. I was just like, “Play over this stuff. When you hear it, you’ll know.” But everybody else in the orchestra have specific notes that they should be playing. And there are a couple of moments where the orchestra members also wrote areas where, like, I would solo. I had to have a drum solo in the opening track—it was really a duet with the other drummer.
James: Yeah, I was struggling to hear, but I thought there was another drummer playing with you.
Billy: Yeah, it’s easily mistaken, but there was another drummer. We were just sort of trading and soloing together. That piece was actually written by a percussionist, Peyton MacDonald. "Kid Dao Mammal," I think, is the name of that one. “Northern Lights” is another, written by a bass player in the orchestra. It’s kind of an odd time, with a little more of a jazzy kind of groove. He really wanted me to find a groove, and Chris—he was open to the trio just kind of being the rhythm section and playing through it, and then having the melody and everything that he wrote, all the colors and textures.
James: It sounds like the conductor doesn’t really improvise then?
Billy: No, he doesn’t improvise. He leaves that up to everybody else.
James: And within Alarm Will Sound, does everyone write original compositions?
Billy: Well that’s a good question. I don’t know if they all consider themselves composers. I don’t think they’re all composers.
James: But different members contributed different songs?
Billy: Right yeah, well there’s like three or four who contributed and then two that arranged our Medeski, Martin & Wood compositions from another record. They just transcribed and arranged those. And then John and I delivered our music. So it was a collective, you know.
James: How many performances went into the recording?
Billy: One. There were two performances and we recorded both. We recorded in Denver and we recorded in Boulder. And then we ended up using just the Denver concert, which was the first night.
James: You mentioned this being a direction that the band might go in. Could you say more about that? Obviously it’s a departure from the sound that you’re known for.
Billy: Well, we went in that direction. It’s not like the next record is going to be further in that direction. The next record is going to be a studio record, just the three of us. And that’s already recorded, but not mixed or nearly finished. So as a band, I’m not sure we’re going to continue to go in this direction. I mean we have a performance in January with Alarm Will Sound. If we have other opportunities to expand on that direction, I think that that might be explored. But it’s very expensive, and it’s a lot of energy. And you know we miss just the three of us playing together. So I would say it’s more like we went in that direction and maybe someday we’ll continue, but that’s not something that we’re looking at at all. We did that and we’re moving on.
James: Is it just one performance you have booked with Alarm Will Sound?
Billy: Yes. Just the one. It’s too expensive. If someone offered something that was worth it we would do it. We were thinking we might do something in Europe with a different orchestra since it would be too expensive to have Alarm Will Sound travel. Imagine flying twenty one people to do one gig. Just the flights alone! How could you pay for that gig?
James: Yeah, it’s a lot easier as a trio.
James: How much rehearsal went into the performances? It seems like you’re all so busy with your own projects these days. It must have been difficult getting everyone together.
Billy: Yeah, it was a little tricky. So the first thing we did before we even composed was to get together with a few of the orchestra members in New York. Alarm Will Sound is like an organization or a community of musicians that met in Eastman School of Music. They were all going to school there like fifteen years ago and Steve Reich was there working with them and he told them, “You guys should start your own group that premieres only new music,” and they did. And that’s what Alarm Will Sound’s mission is—to perform only new music. So they’re all over the place, like Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Georgia and wherever. But there’s a handful of musicians that live in New York City, so what we did was, John and I, Chris was not available, but John and I got together with them in a small rehearsal space—it was like an apartment actually, a large apartment, but a small rehearsal space—and we kind of just improvised together and experimented, and we recorded it and filmed it. I brought my “Stridulations” piece out and we improvised with that, which sounded great. And a lot of the things that came out of that were really interesting.
This was when we had set the dates two years in advance. So we had that initial thing to help us get some ideas of how we can write together for this, but it didn’t lead to any compositions. So everybody got our own stuff together and met in St. Louis in residence. Alarm Will Sound has like a patron there that puts them up and they can work on all their music. And so we were flown out—they were already there working on a bunch of other material—and we came in for a couple of days and rehearsed with them and we went over all the music that we were gonna do for this performance.
James: So all the music was written between the first meeting and that St. Louis rehearsal?
Billy: Yeah, yeah. That was the first time we were looking at everything and setting up with the full orchestra with music in front of our faces. It was quite a bit of work, working through it all with Alan conducting us through all these things. It wasn’t easy. It was hard for me because I hate reading music. And I also was pretty shy; I had to get comfortable with someone conducting something that I had played on the piano that didn’t sound anything like what I'd played except that the notes were in there harmonically. So I had to learn, and it took a couple days, even up to the gigs. We rehearsed a day before—did we rehearse a day before, I’m not sure—but we rehearsed at our soundchecks in Denver and Boulder. Denver was the big rehearsal day.
So we had two days of rehearsal and ran through everything, and then two months or a month later, I’m not sure, we went to Denver and it was crazy because not only were we soundchecking and rehearsing for the last time before we performed it in front of an audience, but we also had a truck with like forty microphones with cables and people testing everything while we were rehearsing. It was a huge production. But we got through and that’s the record! [laughs]
James: So not a lot of rehearsal then!
Billy: Not a lot. I mean when you have a conductor and good players that can read, and you have good improvisers, it’s going to work. But it still takes time, just enough time. And we’re going to rehearse again for the performance in January. We’re going rehearse a couple days actually. They want rehearse two days! I don’t think we need that much time.
James: You kind of alluded to this already, but what styles if any would you say you are drawing from on this record?
Billy: Yeah, it’s not really about style. I think it’s more about individual expression, like exploring what an orchestra can do and pushing that idea of what that is for each of us as an individual. So for me it’s like, how can they realize my double piano piece with the help of an arranger who can score it all out, but not every little detail. There’s no style in that. It’s just really creating a construct, you know, a system, an open system in a way. And then in rehearsal we can realize something, you know, get comfortable with what that might be, and I actually ended up adding something in the rehearsal. It’s a little bit of “Stridulations,” one section. But no, stylistically there wasn’t any. I mean I think if you listen to John’s “Eye of Ra” you can hear so many styles that he was drawing from, and it’s really him, because he has so many different styles to express from. If you listen to the other music you may go, "Oh, I hear a little bit of this composer, that composer, but in general these sound original to me, you know." They don’t sound like a copy of some other composer. They really do sound original. So it’s really more about experimental music, you know, experimenting with what an orchestra could do with Medeski, Martin & Wood and vice versa.
James: Okay, last question. Do you have any recommendations for how people should listen to this record? And what do you think their reaction will or should be?
Billy: I think it’s always important to be in a space that’s without distraction. There are a lot of dynamics, so you should be able to hear a leaf drop on the floor when you’re listening. The room should be very quiet. You should have a really nice stereo [laughs], or have some good headphones, and just try to get through the whole record, or just at least concentrate on one composition without turning it off. That’s what every composer or musician hopes their listener would do. I know that it’s not that easy. It’s a different time. But yeah, I would say just try to listen to it undistracted, and get carried away with your own interpretation of it, you know. Come up with your own idea of what you felt when you were listening to it.
*Medeski, Martin & Wood perform with Alarm Will Sound tonight (January 9) at Brooklyn Steel in Brooklyn, New York. Visit medeskimartinandwood.com for updates on the band’s upcoming release and tour schedule.