Improvising Away the Ghosts With Mark Shippy and Alex Cunningham

There’s always something about unexpected duos (or trios or quartets or… you get the picture) that piques my interest. Surprising combinations often lead to interesting sounds or new ideas and when they come off, as they do in spades on Alex Cunningham and Mark Shippy’s Ghost Note. The guitar and violin improvisations sprawled across that record bend preconceived ideas of what each of those instruments can sound like and what is possible in combination. 

Shippy was a founding member of US Maple, one of my all-time favorite bands, and his snarling, angular guitar playing has been a constant inspiration for the better part of three decades. Cunningham, on the other hand, has an uncanny ability to make a violin sound like anything other than a violin. Together, the duo laugh at the idea of boundaries and, on Ghost Note, push their ideas to the breaking point. It’s an incredible album.

Mark and Alex answered questions through email in July. Ghost Note is out now on Personal Archives.

First off, how have you all been the past year or so?

Alex: I’ve been alright. The beginning of the quarantine was really hard, just continually seeing opportunities fall through and going through some major life changes. Up until recently, the only person I’d had any direct contact with for a year and a half was my partner. I’m just grateful that we both were able to stay healthy this year along with both of our immediate families. That’s really lucky. 

I was able to get out of the kind of mental fog I was in last fall to start working on some creative projects. We were able to finalize the details of this LP and I released some home-recorded material (“Rivaled,” “Armor,” and “Pas de Deux”). Last week I was able to record with people for the first time since recording with Mark, recording as a trio with Lisa Cameron and Damon Smith.

Mark: My partner and I continued working as essential workers, accruing more hours and getting less pay, so I feel really lucky that we are doing okay health-wise as far as the whole covid thing…

I’m just extremely grateful for being able to have completed this record with Alex –– that in itself is a blessing, and I’m very happy with how it turned out, including the artwork! I’m infinitely appreciative of Alex, Bob, Ryan, Jeremy (artwork), and Josh (layout), and everyone else in St Louis and Dubuque who have been so supportive. 

Other than that, musically, I’ve only met up with some friends for a few improv sessions here and there, but that’s about it…All group studio recording sessions that were supposed to happen (i.e. Billington/Wyche/Shippy Trio, Invisible Things, Eat Plastic) had been put on hold indefinitely…so I thought, “I’ll have time to work on stuff at home!”––but alas, re: more work hours and less pay during covid period = less energy and incentive to do stuff, hahaha!… Nonetheless, we’ve been maintaining (to a fair degree, still ‘doing stuff’)…And ready to get back to things like playing shows, seeing shows, being with people.

What were some of your earliest experiences and exposures to improvised music and what is it about improv that draws you to it?

A: When I was a teenager, I got really into Sonic Youth, a very typical “teenager finding their identity” thing to do. I had been really into punk and SST Records kind of stuff, and hearing Sonic Youth really blew me away. It’s funny to look back on, but I remember hearing the middle section of “Silver Rocket” for the first time and thinking “this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!” I kept digging through their discography and started checking out their weirder one-off collaborations. Through that, I had my first exposure to the music of Mats Gustafsson, the Instant Composers Pool, and Merzbow. I started digging around in these artists’ respective discographies, finding new artists exponentially. Not everything that I was checking out stuck with me at first, but I definitely was drawn to the more abrasive American free jazz and European free improvisation I was hearing. After meeting people who were consistently playing improvised music in college, I really dug in and obsessively listened to it. I love the unpredictable nature of the music and also the visceral listening experience of hearing players build abstract sound in real time. Once you’re deep into listening to this music, you can follow how a player’s sound evolved over time, check out your favorite musicians playing with one another, etc. There’s a kind of fun “baseball card collecting” quality to finding recordings of different pairings of players as you’re getting into the music; finding one-off combinations and seeing what groups consistently worked together over decades.

My first consistent playing experiences with improvised music happened after moving to St. Louis for school. There was a venue called the Tavern of Fine Arts that held classical shows and had an open free improv night. You would play in multiple pairings and ensemble sizes over the course of an evening. It was a great way to get experience playing with different musicians and helped me develop my musical voice. Through attending those improv nights, I met players like the phenomenal cellist, Tracy Andreotti. We formed Vernacular String Trio with bassist Josh Weinstein shortly after playing together and from that point on I was consistently playing improvised music. 

The feeling of improvising with someone and hitting a point where you can feel that it’s working, that you’re making something exciting, that draws me in. There are plenty of times where nothing is “happening” in a performance and that makes the times when it actually clicks with someone all the more rewarding. I love the combination of fear and adrenalin that improvising alone gives me and the sense of connection with another person that I get from successfully improvising with others. 

M: I’m not really sure when I first ‘thought’ about improvisational stuff. I guess seeing Frank Zappa or Bill Evans (like more motivic development style) or something like that on TV in the early 1970s. When I first got an electric guitar (I think I was about 10) I would tune the guitar to some open tuning that I thought was interesting and sort of dissonant, and see what kind of feedback I could get by leaning it against the amp, the dresser, on the floor, or on a table, etc, in different ways…but I don’t think I’d call it “improvisation,” since I was seeking out certain sounds.

Before that I’d played piano, and got to the point where I could play some interesting pieces (I compensated; never got to be a ‘great’ sight reader) but rarely did anything improvised that I liked, so I didn’t think much of it for myself. 

Earlier on in childhood I had a band (when I was 8 – 9) years old where I played ‘sort of random’ chords with certain open tunings (by ear — so yeah, fairly atonal)…we sounded like a male version of The Shaggs…but that wasn’t really improv either I guess, since we made ‘songs’…with lyrics about skateboarding and stuff…but yeah sort of improv since we seemed to veer off into whatever-land during significant portions now and again…

Then in middle school, once I’d learned basic blues scales and was able to fake some Hendrix-y/Page-y style riffage, I noodled around a lot with a couple friends who were really good drummers. I guess that’s improv, though we called it “jammin’ around.” Usually the words “jamming,” “math rock,” and “shoegazing” were used disdainfully, so I kept my noodlin’s to a minimum. I’d been borrowing a Ratt pedal, but then soon saved up enough to get the very first Tube Screamer, with which I could get more of a “horn” sound, which I thought was great for “jammin'”…but I didn’t know how to improvise the way more adept Jazz musician friends could. I always loved hearing Wes Montgomery, Otis Redding, John Coltrane on the really great jazz programs (especially on WFMT, WNUR, and one out of College Of DuPage, also) around here when I was growing up, but it wasn’t until hearing stuff like Globe Unity, live Throbbing Gristle, or SPK, and more James Blood Ulmer stuff, that I realized there were other types of improvising, new ways of coming up with free sound construct. 

…It’s funny Alex mentions Sonic Youth — the idea of ‘noise breaks’ was a huge influence for me too. But I really wasn’t into the idea of entirely improv sets until Pat Samson & I attempted to get a freestyle thing going in the late 1990s while we were also doing US Maple; we played with some serious jazzers but it didn’t really gel until we brought the scientist Matt Carson aboard and became Miracle Condition, which was by that point no longer free jazz ideas but rather pure voluminous volitional whorls of sound at the get-go, much like Sunn 0)) or Merzbow or something like that…we used a lot of subwoofers and big amps and played around very loose structures, and we played every other weekend at this performance art /comedy tavern up north in Edgewater. That was a really fun time. But soon we went from a purely live ‘free soundscape’ band, instantly morphing the ‘songs’ to each other’s desires when playing (initially calling ourselves ‘Ape Forward’, which Pat & I still call ourselves during our rare improv performances), to writing structured parts with vocals and so on within a year or so. So I haven’t really done much purely improvised music until recent years, and still, I feel it’s never *fully* improvised for me, since I will usually use ideas I’ve been coming up with, practicing that a bit, and then applying that to whatever new free performance situation I find myself in. 

…So with ‘Ghost Note’ I used a slightly different tuning and tried my hardest to take myself out of that comfort zone, not ‘think’ about stuff too much, so as to not have any preconceived notions when going into the studio. It was more ‘feeling’ our way into a part, into an ‘event’, into changes, into textures, various sound environments /settings (“scenes” if you will). I’m more of a visual person, so it’s helpful if I think of it as us constructing that visual ‘picture’ we want to achieve sonically, or going to a ‘place’ musically, etcetera…

It’s an ongoing learning experience for me. And that’s the fun of it!

So, Mark and Alex, how do you guys know each other and how did you all first meet? 

A: I met Mark through my friend Bob Bucko Jr. Bob is a hyper-prolific musician and runs the Personal Archives label. Bob and Mark were friends who knew each other through DIY touring and booking circles. In April of 2018, I was on tour with Bob and drummer Alexander Adams. We played a show in Chicago as an improvised quartet with Mark sitting in. I’ve been a huge U.S. Maple fan since I was a teenager and I was beyond excited to meet Mark and play together. From that first meeting, I really connected with Mark’s style in an improvised setting and also thought he was an extremely funny, kind person.

M: Yes, ditto Alex – we met (through Bob) when we did a show together here in Chicago at the Slate space in 2018. I was already a fan of Bob’s and isn’t surprising that I’m going to be a fan of people he plays with, as well. I hadn’t heard anyone play like Alex before, so it was obvious how floored I was by his playing. Bob definitely knew that I believe, and I was so happy when he asked us if we wanted to do a record together.  

At what point did you start thinking about doing a record together? Was that kind of always in the cards?

A: A few months after that first show, Bob pitched me the idea of Mark and I recording as a duo for a Personal Archives LP release. He was really into the idea of doing a strings record with an unusual instrument pairing. The label hadn’t really done an LP before, and he wanted that to be the inaugural LP release. Naturally, I was ecstatic. I’ve released a lot of material on Personal Archives across a few different projects and the label felt like the perfect fit for my first LP release.

In the fall of 2019, Mark and I were finally able to line up some time to play a few duo shows and then record together. We played our first show as a duo in Chicago, then drove to Dubuque, Iowa to record with Matt Hohmann of Venereal Crush. I love those recordings, but upon receiving the takes, we realized that not a single piece was short enough for an LP side. We had recorded four half-hour-long improvisations. The pieces were extremely dense musically with virtually no pauses or space of any kind. We spent the winter endlessly sending back possible time stamps for edit points and/or fades, but ultimately soured on the idea of chopping up any of the material. We decided to just record some fresh material as soon as possible. We ended up recording “Ghost Note” in St. Louis in March of 2020 while Mark was in town to play a solo show. We recorded with Ryan Wasoba, a really incredible engineer who’s worked in some capacity on pretty much everything I’ve ever released. I hope to eventually do something with the initial Iowa recordings, hopefully a tape or CD or any format friendlier to such long material.

M: I’m very flattered by Alex’s answer! –especially since I feel very fortunate myself to be able to play with musicians of this caliber. And to get to know such all-around good people. 

Yes, again ditto Alex––Bob asked if we’d like to do an LP release, as a duo, on his label, and I was equally ecstatic to do it!  

I had a great time playing with Bob, Alan, and Alex, and I was so inspired hearing Alex creating sounds in a different way, ways that appeal to me personally, so when Bob asked if I’d be interested in his wanting to do a vinyl release of us as a duo, that was a super easy “Yes” …I had a great feeling going into it, am super happy with what we’ve done this far, and look forward to doing more with Alex.

Two things strike me about Ghost Note – well, there’s a lot more than two, but the two things I keep coming back to… First, these pieces are so visceral and intense, maybe even overwhelming at times to the point I have to take a minute, catch my breath. When you all were recording the record, what was the process like as far as developing these pieces goes? And further, what kinds of thoughts are running through your head that’s getting translated into these heavy recordings?

A: All of the pieces on “Ghost Note” are improvised. Right before we started the session, we talked about wanting to try to play with more space than our previous session and to also have some shorter tracks. Aside from that, there was no other structure to the songs. That said, I think we were both consciously striving for a sense of movement within the pieces rather than static harshness; wanting the harsher moments to hit harder being packaged within odd, quieter moments. I feel like that’s most apparent in the shorter tracks. 

Playing with Mark, I don’t think I realized how “heavy” the music is until listening to the recordings after the session. I find Mark’s playing really beautiful in a lot of ways. He makes really interesting tonal choices underneath layers of murk and grime. There’s a really bombastic tonal moment on “One Way Stairs” that really highlights this aspect of Mark’s playing. It was fantastic working with someone who can switch so quickly between moments like that and just purely alien, textural noise. You can hear that in the U.S. Maple material too. There are really beautiful guitar parts presented within discordant structures. 

M: re: I’m not sure what was running through our minds, but after our first recording session together (with Matt in Dubuque), we still sort of thought in terms of progressing ‘scenes’ of sorts, varying moments where different events happen sound-wise, segue ways, sometimes suspended things that might not reslove perfectly…but with the later session with Ryan I think we made changes happen a bit sooner, as the first session was still sort of hanging on one event for a longer period––there definitely was more idea of ‘drone’/ static sounds on my part, whereas I was still ‘brainstorming’ during our live performances…and I think we had an epiphany during our live performance at Monk’s Cafe in Dubuque in 2019 when we started doing ‘differently frenetic’ (if you will) scenes at a slightly quicker pace (while still giving things some time to build and grow); I think we both come from this film appreciation background where we want to present people with a gratfying “sound-movie” (as Zappa and some others have called it) experience…it’s a matter of feeling our way around with our own sounds, respectively, and exploring different creative possibilities regarding how we blend together or contrast, and how we move to different parts and so on… 

I have much gratification with Alex’s ability to create these indiscernible and very effective sounds, but then yet still have this voicing that is still very much violin, with that very distinct and visceral string sound.

The second thing I keep going back to is how, tonally, there are so many times on the record where I can’t tell what sound is coming from who because it all blurs together in this really incredible way. Was that intentional at all or just the nature of the beast? Alex, seriously – there are so many sounds you get from your violin that I’ve never heard come from a violin… I love trying to wrap my head around it.

A: I know for myself, that was definitely intentional. In the majority of my improvised material, I’m just playing acoustic violin with zero effects or processing. I saw playing with Mark as the perfect outlet to play in a much more blown-out, effects-driven way. I wanted to be able to match his textures and have the overall sound be this thick, sludgy blend rather than having two stark, competing palates. I think the results are quite claustrophobic and I’m really pleased with that. 

I kept my effects set-up really basic to cut out distractions. I used three pedals on the record: distortion and two-octave/pitch shifters cloned. The really low bass frequency sounds on the album are my violin shifted down. A lot of the really strange sounds are extended techniques I’ve used in acoustic settings too. I play the face of my violin with brushes, hum and breathe into the f-hole of my violin, and use plenty of harsh bow-hand sounds too. I definitely thought a lot more in terms of playing texturally than tonally on this recording.

M: Yes, I think we were both trying to go in and out of obscurity at the right moments, in various ways… I have much gratification with Alex’s ability to create these indiscernible and very effective sounds, but then yet still have this voicing that is still very much violin, with that very distinct and visceral string sound. There are those moments of clearer, more corporeal voicings respectively, but it’s so satisfying when we both have this awareness of “consonant ambiance” (if I may)…something less definable, more tactile than pure melody-driven in its emotive quality, and more motivic in a manner of adventure, sonically created environs, atmosphere: purely instrumental storytelling and ‘expedition’ (hopefully that doesn’t sound too pretentious! haha)… 

What were some of your favorite parts of working on this record? Some of the best memories?

A: My favorite part of working on this record was having Mark in town for a long weekend. It was great just having time to hang out. The day before the recording, we checked out this wax museum right on the Mississippi River. It’s completely rundown with zero upkeep on the figures. Pretty much all of the figures are missing fingers and many of them are just leaning against walls, covered in dust. None of the figures really looked like the celebrities they were meant to be, which was hilarious. There were really bizarre exhibits right next to each other. There’s a pretty lackluster hall-of-presidents right next to a very morbid crucifixion scene. It was a really surreal experience. We got some ridiculous photos of us there and used two of them as inserts for the record.  

Mark also played one of my favorite solo sets I’ve ever seen while he was in town. It was the second to last show I saw before the pandemic and it was fantastic.

M: I loved recording with Ryan. Life in Chicago had already become nonstop stress, a lot of not pleasant changes going on (long story) at that time, so it was good being in the right mental and physical state for that session, and even though I felt a little ‘off’ with forcing myself into a new tuning and trying to clear away any thoughts about scales or chords, etc, the spontaneous material we were coming up with felt good right away, and throughout the session. When we listened back to the rough mixed tracks, I immediately felt like these were ‘instant songs!’ as they were, without having to do a ton of editing and so on. I really enjoyed the woodsy setting and some of the crazy sounds we got at Matt’s, too, but was so tired then, and wasn’t quite as ‘on’ with how I felt when listening back to my parts; I feel there were some great moments there though…so, yeah, still looking forward to returning to that material when having time to do so!

I enjoyed that whole time in St Louis in March of 2020 – playing the show that Alex set up (it was an amazing night, and I fondly remember Alex’s set where he was doing this one part where he played with material over the strings and making this beautiful textural sound – I wish I’d remembered to push the record button *twice* on my recording device so that I actually recorded the performance that night!!!), staying in St Louis for a few days there and getting to meet great people and see some old friends, and YES getting to go to the magically bizarre wax museum along the riverfront! That trip really helped me get away from things at home, was a great inspiration in any event let alone a great memory for the coming months, and this record and these sessions have helped keep me going through the lockdown period.   

What about some of the most difficult?

A: The timing of the recording session ended up being quite interesting. We recorded the album on March 8, 2020. Going into that weekend, I had no idea that Mark would be the last person to set foot in my home for over a year or that the recording session would be the last time I played music with another person for a year and a half. I was supposed to leave for a short tour with Claire Rousay about a week later and had some solo touring set for the summer, and within a week of recording with Mark everything I had planned for the year was over and I wouldn’t see another person outside of my partner for quite some time. It’s a really weird time period to look back on. It was such an anxiety-ridden time directly after Mark left. It gives the recording kind of an eerie feeling to me, but I’m grateful to have a document of such an odd, transitional time in my life.

M: I would say that working with the off-tuning I was using while trying to form certain chords was a bit frustrating at times (though ultimately rewarding)––i.e. there were some ‘fuller’ augmented chords I really felt I had to play in certain parts; for instance, during the end of “Please Stand Here”, and some similar chords in other places too…and I wanted to bend the entire chords up, or down, to land on other chords above or below, and I couldn’t help but make the guitar go way out of tune during those intervals…however, that added to the hilarity when we got to our ‘blues jaunt’ in “One Way Stairs,” when it wouldn’t have sounded right if I’d been totally in tune. Thank goodness for little miracles!––because I was about to nix that whole section until I listened back, since, no matter what people may think, I need to be *in tune* when I’m doing my clustery, atonal nonsense.  

As far as technical situations or noise problems, Ryan really had a handle on all that in his studio space, so all that went swimmingly. Again, since I’m not always comfortable with all-out improv, it’s easiest to have all my little technical gremlins all sorted out right away. 

With Alex, we’d grown regarding our ‘own’ spontaneous musical language together by that point. I feel he’s instantly right there with me, and likewise, if he comes up with a direction I feel like I can follow suit in a fairly natural way. 

So honestly, in the end, there really weren’t any real difficulties (for me)! 

How do you all know Bob and Personal Archives and how did the record end up released on the label?

M: I’ve known Bob over the years through various associations in the music scenes, especially here in Chicago and in Dubuque. I’d read articles about, and interviews with, Bob over the years, and have a lot of friends here who are mutual admirers of Bob’s, as well. There’s a very interesting music scene in Dubuque that I’ve come to know through Bob and others, like Rick Eagle. I spent my earliest youth in Dubuque, and have fond memories of landmarks and the amazing natural scenery all around that area…along with nearby oddities, such as House On The Rock. But I didn’t keep in touch with anyone there, since I was so young when my family moved to Chicago. Learning about this very special music scene there was something that happened in more recent years. Bob is one of the most hard-working and most talented people I’ve ever met, and I can’t say enough how fortunate I am to know him. And again, am so very thankful for Bob coming up with the idea for a ‘strings’ series on his label and asking us to do this duo. 

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