Roland Young Blog V5

In Conversation with Roland P. Young

By Jacob Gorchov

Nov 18, 2019

On November 21, renowned jazz clarinetist Roland P. Young will take the stage for a rare solo performance—his first in over ten years—as part of a double bill with the band L’Rain presented by The Kitchen at Public Records. 

Born in Kansas City, Young was trained in both jazz and classical clarinet and began his professional music career in San Francisco in the 1960s as a radio DJ and performer. While in San Francisco, Young recorded albums both with the improvisation ensemble Infinite Sound and as a solo act. Young moved to New York in 1979 and continued to create music solo and in various bands, including The Offs.

Young’s first solo record, Isophonic Boogie Woogie (1980), incorporated both electronic and acoustic instruments (including clarinet, saxophone, kalimba, and bells), establishing a distinctive style he has termed “Afro-spiritual minimal electronic space music.” His later records—including Istet Serenade (2009), Mystiphonic (2013), and Confluences (2015) on the Japanese label EM Records—build on his method of “isophonics,” or composed improvisations.

Several of his albums have been reissued in recent years, including Isophonic Boogie Woogie on EM in 2005 and Hearsay I-Land (a combination of his records I-Land from 1984 and Hearsay Evidence from 1987) on Palto Flats in 2013. The formation of the label Palto Flats in fact was inspired by Young; DJ Jacob Gorchov came across Hearsay Evidence at a record store in 2007 and, after listening to it, decided to contact Young. Their conversations proved to be fruitful and led to Gorchov’s founding of the label and the 2013 album release.

Palto Flats collaborated with The Kitchen to organize the concert at Public Records. In advance of the performance, Gorchov spoke with Young about his process as a musician, his trajectory working on various projects across different cities, and his plans for the future.

I wanted to talk about the San Francisco days. You were in Infinite Sound, you were a radio DJ, and you were involved in many different things like poetry and writing.

Yes. In fact, I went through my work recently and looked at everything I did going back to 1977—all of my writings, books, literary writings, and music writings. That was a time when all of that was inspired in the Bay Area, of course. And, working on the rock radio station, because rock and roll was really happening, was great too. The station I was on, KSAN, had mixed genres of music. They encouraged that, so I was blessed to be able to do that.

I was going to ask you about your programming: what did it look like for your radio show? You mixed all of these different sounds from around the world.

Creedence Clearwater; Sly and the Family Stone; Crosby, Stills & Nash; London Symphony Orchestra; North Indian classical music; African drum music; blues, a lot of blues. B.B. King was one of the main guys at the time, and I interviewed him on my show. He was really a nice guy. Santana, the Grateful Dead—all of it. It was just exploding. And no one criticized the kind of music I was playing because I did things that were different. Back then, the differences were embraced very enthusiastically.

During the Infinite Sound period I also worked on a solo music concept, because there were several of us in the new music genre at the time who were working on solo concepts and exploring what we could do with sound itself. We had taken the song form to a certain level, and we wanted to disperse the song form into a so-called milieu of sound and investigate the different sound patterns we could make with our instruments. 

And so I did solo performances while I was with Infinite Sound. I did interesting things with Infinite Sound. I got a chance to explore what I was playing on the radio through my group, and then it led me into a sound area. That’s where the name Infinite Sound came from—the idea that sound is infinite, and if you put yourself into it, then you’ll realize that. So I got very interested in solo music, and, in fact, it started taking much more of my time than even group work because I started getting involved in electronics at the same time. And I added an electronic component to my acoustic component, and it was a blend that was really wonderful. To this day, I’m still working on that concept.

How did you originally become interested and involved in using electronic music and electronic instruments? I see a lot of similarities in the recorded material you have from Isophonic Boogie Woogie to your more recent releases that are more free-form, spiritual, and electronic sounding, with an otherworldly quality to them. How do you think your work from the late 1970s and early 1980s compares to your work now? Do you see it a natural transition between these periods?

I feel it’s a natural transition from it. And I think what I’m doing now is an extension of what I was doing then, and I’m just exploring it more. I got involved in electronics because at the time I was also playing in other groups. I was influenced by many different electronic composers in Europe—Iannis Xenakis was one of them, and Karlheinz Stockhausen was another. There were many other players exploring the synthesizer who came to be around the early ’60s, and it continues to be used today. 

Really, it went off in different directions, and people used the synthesizer in different kinds of music. But I was really inspired by the tonal qualities that it could make and by how close it could come to the voice—the voice itself almost becomes an electronic component, a natural electrical component. When I realized that, I realized that the electrical aspect of the music was part of the whole stream of sound, combing voice, electronic instruments, and acoustic instruments, blending them into one sound, one feeling, and one aspiration.

You have a remarkable ability, I think, to blend voice, acoustic, electronic, and electro-acoustic sound. It’s a key component of your present work and the sounds that you’re exploring. How has present contemporary software aided your ability to work in that medium? I believe you use Ableton.

I do, Ableton and others, but Ableton is my main digital audio workstation (DAW). When I started with the electronic sound I would perform, and I had an attachment to my bass clarinet that would create echoes and layers on top of the sound, and for drone I had an old piano, organ-like instrument. I used to put rocks on it to get a drone sound. And I would put these two together, and I would begin to hear different vibrations and what those vibrations represented.

I understood that some of the electronic music I heard was going in a direction that was not exactly suitable to what I was interested in. I heard people using electronics as kind of backdrop to what they were doing, as opposed to a component of what they were doing. And what I’m reaching for is being a component, and to play the electronics as I’m playing everything else. So there’s not really much separation from the other—there’s just one combination. You’re not really listening to electronic music. You’re not necessarily listening to acoustic music. You’re listening to music with various components that you could put in those areas.

Can you tell me a little about when you moved to New York from San Francisco? I believe you also had been in a punk-funk group in the early ’80s, and then you recorded the material that comprises your record, Hearsay I-Land. Can you tell me a little about that time in your life?

That period was influenced a lot by the 1980s in New York. When I came to New York in 1979, I was blown away by the things that were going on. And I really liked what I saw in terms of the styles, in terms of the way that music was mixed together in clubs that I used to go to and frequent for so many hours. The clubs became my laboratory for study—both people and their styles and also the music that emanated from those styles. 

So I joined a group called The Offs and they recorded on 415 Records, and they had made a few records before. I joined the group, and Richard Edson and I—he played trumpet and I played saxophone—joined the outfit on tour. And we toured around the country and actually ended up making a record called First Record, which Jean-Michel Basquiat did the cover for.

And when I met you, you were in New York, but you’ve been moving around a bit in the last several years. From New York you went to Tel Aviv; from Tel Aviv you went back to San Francisco after being away for 35 years. And now you’re in Philadelphia. Do you see yourself settling in Philadelphia for a while?

I don’t think so. I think that there’s another adventure.

I do love that even as you’ve gotten older, you still are seeking out different experiences and different contexts and situations. Somehow related to that, can you tell me, when was the last time that you performed solo?

I performed solo about ten years ago on the radio, on WFMU. And I also performed live in Newark, New Jersey. I think that was about 12 years ago. And then I did a performance in Tel Aviv and other places.

What’s next for you do you think?

Continuing moving around the planet, being informed by things that I haven’t been informed by. There are some places I still want to go; there are some places I want to reinvestigate; there are some things I want to do—so that’s the way my life is going to be continuing. And hopefully I will meet people who like what I do and can be part of it continuing to grow.

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