How a Saxophonist Became Versatile in Music Composition

A Conversation with Ken Field

Interview conducted by Sean Packard

Sean Packard: What was the inspiration behind the music, concept, and costumes of your group Revolutionary Snake Ensemble?

Ken Field: The project got started very casually as a spontaneous improvisational group to play for a party, without any repertoire.  Just a bunch of people getting together with horns and percussion to do something a little unusual I guess - not a traditional jazz group but more free improvisation and rhythmically based ideas. It developed over many years and took a couple of specific directions - it didn’t start out with a focus on New Orleans second line brass band music, but that's where it ended up by a process of evolution.  The New Orleans culture was a separate interest of mine and the instrumentation matched what people in New Orleans brass bands were doing, so it was, in some ways, a natural progression.  I have an interest in Latin American and African rhythms, and so that also was a good fit with second line and funk grooves.. Free improv and some other modern compositional elements have entered into Revolutionary Snake Ensemble's style from my work with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and with other improvisationally-based projects.


SP: What is the composition process for this group like?  Is it primarily composed or improvised?

KF: It’s a combination. I bring in pieces, some of which are traditional tunes or unusual covers, and some of which are my originals.  I often arrange the non-original pieces by first composing a new bass line and maybe some harmonic modifications.  I use a similar process for the pieces I write - I’ll come up with a bass line, a melody, and changes, but the arrangements of the piece tend to be spontaneous in performance or in a recording session.  I don’t specify a full-fledged arrangement in most cases, but instead I listen to how the piece is developing in performance and make real-time decisions.  I’ll sometimes include melodic harmonies on the charts, but often leave that open to allow for spontaneous creativity on the part of the musicians, which makes it a very fun project for them. We typically have four or five horns, bass and/or tuba, and drums.  Because there’s no chording instrument, there is tremendous flexibility harmonically. There’s no restraint based on the voicings a keyboardist or guitarist would be playing, so we create our own harmonic structures that might be different every time we perform the piece. While the individual musicians have a lot of freedom, I direct the improvisation in terms of who’s playing at a particular time, what kind of rhythms they’re playing, or whether it’s an energetic part or a legato part - and that can be very different each time we perform a particular piece.


SP: It sounds very spontaneous and organic.

KF: It makes it fun and wide open for the musicians because we’re not playing the same thing over and over. I enjoy it and the musicians that I’ve worked with have said that they really dig this project.


SP: Well it certainly shows in the music and the videos I’ve checked out, it looks like a really fun group.

KF: One of the musicians who has played with us called it "fun yet deep".  I like that.  It’s interesting for me because it contrasts with some of my other projects like Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, which is very compositionally based.


SP: I was reading about this particular project in Venice, Ken Field’s Eleven Saxophones: Space & Time.  As I understand it was inspired by the architecture of the site you will be performing in…

KF: Yes very much so. I visited this space coincidentally. I have a history of layering saxophones and also performing in resonant spaces, and this space seemed to have a lot of potential. I realized that it is big enough so the people who are performing, if I spread them all around the space, wouldn’t all hear each other. I thought it would be an interesting concept to have a performance where the performers don’t actually all hear each other, but hear each other indirectly:  each player would hear their neighbors, and then the neighbors will hear their neighbors, so indirectly everyone is influenced by every other musician.


SP: That’s a very interesting idea.


KF: There aren’t a lot of spaces where this is the case.  It took about a year before I was able to talk to the people over there, and they were very interested in doing it and gave me the go ahead a few weeks later.

I’m not reinventing any thing here but I think it has some validity in terms of being a little bit different. - Ken Field 


SP: So how is this composition process different from some of the other stuff that you’ve been doing? How did you conceive this idea?

KF: Well it remains to be seen because I still have a lot of work to do on it, but I have gathered some key ideas. Because everyone won’t hear each other there are some very significant problems that need to be addressed. How do you compose a piece for people that won’t all hear each other?

One idea I had was that each musician has an iPhone with a metronome, and they’re all communicating by Wi-Fi or bluetooth so they can see the pulse on their iPhone, but I decided I didn’t want to risk potential technological issues the night of the performance.  I also thought that it would not be a good fit for this kind of open and resonant space, and that using a more open compositional approach might be better.

I will give each performer a series of melodic phrases, similar to the Terry Riley piece, In C, but each performer will have a different set of melodic phrases, some of which will just be long tones.  They’ll be able to decide during the performance when they proceed to the next melodic phrase based on what they are hearing around them - what they are hearing their neighbors playing. So the compositional process will be coming up with that series of melodic phrases for each of the eleven performers and coming up with them in such a way that a) they all work together no matter when they’re played, but b) they’re not boring and there’s some development in the piece from start to finish.

It will be challenging to do that, and it will also be challenging because I won’t be able to hear the piece until we’re there performing it.  It remains to be seen how successful this will be, but I’m very optimistic.  I have some very specific ideas about the music and the specific players that I want to invite to help me realize this concept. It’s experimental, and with any kind of experiment you don’t know what’s going to happen until you do it, so that makes it exciting. 


SP: A very cool idea that I suppose hasn’t been fully explored yet…

KF: I don’t think I’m the first person to think of doing something like this, but I think it has some validity in terms of being a little bit different.


SP: You have another very cool gig that’s pretty unique, this being the Sesame Street soundtracks. What was this project like and how did it come about?

KF: That’s something that I’m not doing anymore but happened for about ten years. I was fortunate to write quite a number of pieces for Sesame Street - musical pieces that accompanied short animations. I’ll tell you first that it’s incredibly fun and gratifying just as you’d imagine, and part of the reason is that the producer there specifically said, ‘don’t write music (and said the same thing about the animation actually) that will talk down to the kids, treat them as if they’re adults. Write how you normally do.’  So the music I wrote was music that I would write for adults, and I have adapted some of the music for Revolutionary Snake Ensemble or put on some of my solo CDs.  It was really fun and I feel very fortunate to have done it.

It came about through my wife, animator Karen Aqua. She sadly passed away in 2011. She was asked to do animation for Sesame Street and asked me to work with her on the soundtracks as I had done on many of her films. We did roughly twenty pieces, mostly during the 90’s. 


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