Name: David Torn
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer, guitarist, producer
Current Release: Tranceportation (Volume 1) with SONAR on Rarenoise

Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with David Torn, visit his website to find out more about his work. For insights from Stephan Thelen, whom Torn worked with on his current release Tranceportation, see our Stephan Thelen interview here on 15 Questions.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I think I began composing, informally and in reality, when I realized that I could improvise on the piano instead of practicing what was on-the-page, and that my (musician)-Mom was none the wiser for it; in fact, she would pop-in regularly to tell me what a nice piece it was that I’d been playing. I was probably 9 years old, at that point.

Every time I compose, I begin composing again: whether in my head, on a computer, on guitar and looping-devices: each piece requires a kind of “new beginning”. Every time I enter an improvisational state, I begin composing.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

I gotta preface my answer to this question with a caveat: I don’t honestly know if i’m truly original or not, nor if that’s even important, in light of a musician’s service to music, to community, to the ephemeral; I only know that I’ve assiduously followed what I thought was my own ‘path’.

Anyway, I see music as a continuum: It seems we all need to learn from and copy our great heroes, our peers, whatever we might hope future music will bring, etc, while continuously coaxing forth (and simply allowing) our own, individual natures to suffuse the foundations of our work with the soul of imagination.

What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?

The challenges for me seem not to change: knowing the motivation & cultivating it, not presuming it will simply be great immediately (or, ever), sitting down and doing the work ... or, better, working-in-the-background almost constantly, as life inspires & requires new music.

But, there’s that other challenge: for me, there’s not often music without my immersion in the everythings of life. Of course, writing for a film-score presents challenges pretty different than those that drive new, utterly personal music.

Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

My studio-workspace is kind of a comfortable-for-me mess, very often getting on the verge of being uncomfortable (when I’m working on multiple projects, which is … normal, here): instruments and electronics and pedals and notebooks and odd little things are all over the place.

Of course, it is also a very functional place for me: it sounds good. I straighten things up as much as possible when folks visit, so there’s space to sit and walk around.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I get up early, read, meditate. I often take a short nap, when other folks are getting up, usually after 1 or 2 espressi doppio. I do a lot in the course of a day; I’m writing this at 0300h, after transposing some music from Concert instruments to Bb instruments. I don’t have a very regular sleep schedule, except when I fly: I usually sleep through airline flights, or most of them.
somehow, my life seems filled with feedback loops: love, family, music, friends, animals, food, health or not-health, planning, gigs, practising, etc: life feeds music, music feeds life.

Maybe when they begin to poison each other, it seems a good idea to make the efforts towards finding new perspectives & approaches, ¿non?

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Exercising the will to “let go” seems critical to sh*t happening, sometimes; as well, exercising the will to go do the freaking work is also functional. setting goals can be very, very helpful. Each of us is capable of learning our own distractions, or so I’ve been told, lol.

Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art? 

I can’t truthfully step through the process, as asked ... I can’t do it. I can point to little facts, though, like:

I isolate myself, when the writing begins;
I often walk in nature, around my property, or the lake, or in the woods.
I write in my head, and have a personal system of mnemonics for recovery of ideas when back in the studio.
I can utilize boring travel the same way as walking: especially trains, and solo-driving in cars.
Of course, I also write while playing guitars, piano, oud, pump organ, electronics etc.

Focus is key.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

Musicians are born technologists: our instruments are, to an extent, machines ... especially those of us who have some focus on electric and electronic instruments! Like me, yup.

In my life, technology plays a huge role, and always has done so: looping devices (how many have I advised on? damn, a lot. stilling it!), sound modifiers (the same), recording devices, mixing & mastering technologies. I still advise or consult to some music technology folks.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?

Just as every note and rhythm and sound in a piece is critical, so is every musician taking part in it: everything is important.

I both relish working with others — I’m not only a composer, I’m a working musician, somehow known of army sound(s) etc — and relish working on my own.

If I had to choose between the two, I’d stick with working with others ... the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the should been greater than the hum of its parts.

How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?

It’s quite different to have your music performed by others than to also be playing in that music with others; I certainly enjoy working on film-scores & interacting with the musicians who are playing my written music, and I love improvisation more than anything ... which means that I bring improv to everything, even to the scores, and even to the other musicians in the written music, albeit much less so than in my typically 100% improvising bands, like Prezens or Sun of Goldfinger; hell, when I joined SONAR, I joined because I was asked only to improvise while they play Stephan Thelan’s primarily through-composed music! We do still interact, though.

My life requires friends who are valuable improvisational partners, cohorts: whether it's Tim Berne or David Bowie, etc.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

No-one talks about time? Every musician - in the current worlds of music, especially - is concerned with, talking about and utilizing time: there’s no music without time; even arhythmic, non-metrically-marked pieces depend upon time (as the partner to space); every breath of phrasing, even playing rubato or freely, conveys the relationship of human life with time.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

Personally, I imagine music and sound together; occasionally, the sound comes to me as first priority (in a list of priorities): this has been at the very core of my life, my own playing and the music I write and/or improvise for 6 decades.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

The critical thing to me is that sound is fundamentally transformative, its outermost borders notwithstanding; that’s true most especially in service to the making of music; maybe that’s what is most important to me, the taking responsibility for certain qualities of musical expressivity to the purpose of relieving some little portion of normal human suffering.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I am my music; if the music is art, fine. If it is not, still fine! In any case, I’ll be making it until I can’t.

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?

I’m one of many who are in the vehicle that drives us into a unknown future, but music’s purpose is already made clear: music represents for magic, for a kind of shamanism that offers some relief for the suffering of those of us with cluttery spirit & shuttered mind, for an imaginably better future.

I don’t believe that will change, only that music changes in order to help us arrive nearer to those goals; true, if a little corny, but ... true.

David TORN
12th february 2020
NY (in a truly beleaguered USA)