Encountering Microgrooves: A Q&A With John Corbett

Guest Article by: 
Alexander Whelan

It may have taken John Corbett twenty years to release a proper follow-up to his seminal collection of music writing, EXTENDED PLAY: SOUNDING OFF FROM JOHN CAGE TO DR. FUNKENSTEIN (1994), but you wouldn’t accuse him of resting on his laurels. Between EXTENDED PLAY and the publication of Corbett’s newest book, MICROGROOVE, the author/musician penned dozens of pieces for music magazines and academic journals, performed alongside many of the world’s finest musicians, taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, curated the Unheard Music Series for Chicago’s Atavistic Records, opened an art gallery, and still found time to prepare two books set to be published next year after the MICROGROOVE promotional cycle. Needless to say, he’s one of those Renaissance humans.

In conversation, though, Corbett just comes off as music’s biggest fan. MICROGROOVE begins with the statement, “Everything starts as an encounter,” and it’s this earnest palpability that distinguishes Corbett’s writing from the woozy adjectival gymnastics of other music essayists. For Corbett, the ineffable transcendence of jazz or contemporary classical music is simply tethered to the process of its creation, “something concrete, material.” Keep in mind that this is a man who, in order to feel authorized to write about improvised music, learned to play and eventually perform improvised music. In MICROGROOVE, Corbett extends this approachability to everyone from Liz Phair and Ornette Coleman to Sun Ra, the latter being a recurring figure in the book and the progenitor of an oeuvre that lesser writers might resign to lob theory and abstractions at.

I spoke with Corbett over the phone last month as he prepared for an event at his art space, Corbett vs. Dempsey.


Brazos Bookstore: You talk about length in the introduction about the prolonged journey of the book, and I know that you’ve written extensively beyond the material compiled for MICROGROOVE. Over a twenty year span, how did you determine which pieces should be grouped together in book form?

John Corbett: A lot of the material was published previously, but the process for this book had to do with two things: What made sense for a book? And, what has the staying power? My experience was that with EXTENDED PLAY, there were a couple pieces that felt more ephemeral, more keyed to an event or a sense of addressing an issue at that moment and which might not have long-term relevance. Even if there are ideas that you want to hang on to, being willing to sacrifice those things.

A lot of it also had to do with getting the distance to have a sense of all the things I’ve written. Rather than grouping by writing modality like in EXTENDED PLAY, I really grouped them into loose thematic sections. For instance, once I realized I had talked to a lot of horn players, I put them all together as the “Horn Section.”

Different musics require different skill sets, and I think there is fantastic music made by people who know absolutely nothing about what they’re doing.

BB: In your afterword, you say something to the effect of, “The laziest thing one can say about improvised music is that it comes out of thin air.” How do you think your approach to characterizing improvisation, and the complexities of its process, has evolved?

JC: Well, I have a lot more experience listening to it. One of the things I was really focused on when I was writing twenty, thirty years ago, was that any kind of documentation about it—including writing—in a way turned something that is improvised into something that is not improvised anymore. That paradox for me is true but paralyzing. If you’re constantly aware of that paradox, then you can’t move forward in terms of describing. It ends up putting the brakes on all writing activities. I tried to be more relaxed with this book. The writing I’m doing now is more personal. Some comes closer to memoir or really looking at the personal experience of listening, and maybe that has to do with not working in an academic context anymore. I stopped teaching two years ago, and I’ve found that those tools I was using to write in academia are of less use to me now.

BB: I was struck by what you wrote about the fixation with “esoteric” art, and how there must be more than raw rarity at play when it comes to seeking new music. Do you think this type of collection for collection’s sake has become more problematic as the content has become more accessible?

JC: We’re dealing with a lot of paradoxes. It’s true that it’s easier to get more esoteric stuff, but by the same token, that material is less and less esoteric. It’s an incredible world of materials to explore. What I’m really getting at is that I’m still also interested in the qualities that the music has. Esoteric for its own sake is okay—I understand that’s a valid thing to pursue and collect—but for me I’m trying to find music that’s really interesting in one way or another.

BB: I’d like to talk about a few of the specific pieces in the collection. “Aural Sex: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” which is the only essay in the book which you co-authored [with Terri Kapsalis], was originally published in the mid-‘90s. How did the process of co-authorship compare to your usual style, and what made you reach back to it for MICROGROOVE?

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JC: Well, I co-authored that with my wife, which was both interesting and fun and a potentially fraught situation. It was a fascinating experience for us; we went to the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington to do research. They had very little in the way of audio, so we were able to dig into all of the audio they had and use that as part of what we were writing about. For us, it came out of observations that both of us had made that there were these funny discrepancies of how sex was represented in popular music, vis-a-vis men and vis-a-vis women. The process was literally sitting side-by-side, one of us saying, “How about this?” Terri and I played improvised music together for a while as well, so I think the experience of playing music together put us in a conspiratorial mode.

BB: You include a conversation from 1994 between Liz Phair and Lou Barlow, and at one point Phair says, “Branford Marsalis loathes my music because of the lack of musicianship, but there’s a certain amount of conceptual musicianship . . . So what’s the difference? The lo-fi thing: indie rock humbled us.” Do you think there is a danger to mandating a certain level of musicianship, or perhaps in humbling that idea?

JC: I think it’s much too easy when discussing musicians to inevitably come to the term “technique.” When I grew up, the term that came up about rock musicians was, “Oh, he’s classically trained.” But that doesn’t mean you have any idea how to play rock and roll! Different musics require different skill sets, and I think there is fantastic music made by people who know absolutely nothing about what they’re doing. The idea that we fetishize technique or musicianship . . . I think Liz Phair is completely right. Now, there’s conceptual and raw musicianship—and I didn’t used to believe this but now I do—and people are really suited with different levels of raw talent. It’s a dangerous thing to get too far into, but it’s definitely true. If you hear someone who’s not capable of playing certain music, musicianship is called into question. But criticizing someone else doing a different thing from you . . . it’s crucial to be sensitive to the context in which the comment is made.

BB: I know that you’re a performing musician yourself, and you actually use that as a framing device for your discussion of Guillermo Gregorio’s work. How do you approach writing about playing music differently than say, listening to it or watching others play music?

JC: For me, I realized pretty quickly that my perspective would have less validity if I didn’t have the experience of doing it. Not just doing it in my parlor, either, but doing it in front of people with other people. One has to be able to put oneself in the position of someone you’re writing about. Also to be generous. I don’t take delight in skewering something, because most of the time great energy and soul have been put into making whatever it is that you’re writing about. Writing about improvised music comes out of understanding what thought processes are going on while the music is being made.

BB: For people who aren’t necessarily equipped with the understanding or the experience of improvising, is there a particular way of encountering improvised music you could recommend?

JC: It’s funny you should ask that! I’ve got another book coming out in February from the University of Chicago Press, A LISTENER’S GUIDE TO FREE IMPROVISATION, which is me in as much of an unfettered and unpretentious way as I can giving tips on how to listen. There are some very well-meaning people who would like to know how to listen that just don’t have a way in. Ultimately the book says, “If you don’t find something of value in it, don’t listen to it.” I dislike very much that people should feel obliged to pay attention to something because they’re told it’s good for them. I do think improvised music has a beneficial side to it; if approached a certain way, it can help model certain types of socialization that I think are really interesting, utopian in a way, that have to do with constantly relating to what it is you’re doing in the context in which you find yourself. It’s anarchic in that sense, being without an overarching sense of rules, but that means there’s a great responsibility to everything recognizing the consequences of what they’re doing.

It’s not a secret how to listen to this music. Maybe you’ll get more out of a certain type of jazz if you understand how the soloist relates to the support and so on. But in improvised music, you don’t necessarily have to know those things to get the same level of nutrients.


Alexander Whelan is an MSLIS candidate at Pratt Institute in New York. He is pursuing a concentration in archives, with a focus on moving image preservation and small-gauge film librarianship. His writing on music/literature has been published online by the University of Arizona Daily Wildcat and Akashic Books.


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