Name: Josh Sinton
Occupation: Composer/ Saxophonist / Bass Clarinetist / Improviser
Current Release: making bones, taking draughts, bearing unstable millstones pridefully, idiotically, prosaically on Iluso Records
Recommendations: The number one reason I can think of to have a blu-ray player is the recent editions of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies. At the very least, seeing a well-made print of his version of Solaris or the movie Stalker makes it abundantly clear why he is so revered by cinephiles / Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. Good lord is that a remarkable text / Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles issued by ECM. Jazz most certainly *did not* die in the 1970’s.
Website/Contact: Visit Josh’s website joshsinton.com for more information on his music and tours.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Music I started at age 8 on the piano (got lessons as a birthday present). Baritone saxophone I started playing in my mid-20’s when I woke up in bed one day and literally realized I needed to stop screwing around with alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, etc. Bass clarinet I started playing in my early-thirties when I did graduate work at New England Conservatory and they had a bass clarinet I could learn on.
I was born in 1971, so most of the music I grew up listening to was singing, drums and strings (mainly guitars). I’m terrified of singing, I never even considered drums and string instruments make no sense to me. All I ever wanted to play was the saxophone. The intense assortment of keys, switches and levers was (and is) mesmerizing. I loved music, but I also loved performing in all of its manifestations. Initially I studied a lot of theatre (about 10 years’ worth), but then I switched to music (which I had always played and listened to) because I had the mistaken idea that you didn’t need to work with other people nearly as much as the theatre to engage in it. I still find music endlessly interesting and frustrating and it is fractionally easier to work on it by myself as compared to theatre, so I’ve stuck with it.
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 relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
My development has been weird, backward, shamefully long and slow, illuminating, occasionally instructive. I’ve never been good at emulating others. Like, ever. I’ve tried. And the results were never, ever, even remotely acceptable. So, the “vocabulary” method of playing creative music (learn other folks’ phrases, learn to accurately parrot them and then, magpie-like, build an artistic nest from them) never worked for me. And that’s just about the only method that’s taught here in the U.S. even among avant-garders. Because frankly, if you don’t remind the listener of someone they’ve heard before (even unconsciously), then chances are they just won’t warm to you. All I ever had was my own voice. I just wasn’t good at rhythmically articulating my voice and (until recently) couldn’t wipe away my uneasiness about the strangeness of my voice. I could copy people, but I simply couldn’t remind anyone (including myself) of other artists, certainly not other saxophonists. I’m fine with that now and I have the added bonus that I can go on copying people in private to learn things and I don’t stress too much about sounding like them in public.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
The biggest challenge when I started was that I had a terrible sense of pitch and an awful rhythmic sense. In two words: I sucked. And I’m not being humble. Find anyone who heard me play in the 90’s or 00’s and they’ll tell you: I was at best, a severely mediocre player and composer. I might have had good ideas, but I didn’t have any of the skills necessary for bringing those ideas to fruition. Now, while I still suck at certain things, I both suck less and I care less about those things. I still work on improving my skills, but it’s no longer my sole area of focus. And some of my skills have just about caught up to where they need to be to render some of my ideas. Today, the biggest challenge is to discipline myself enough to sit down regularly and consider what my artistic personality is and determine the best, clearest way to articulate my personality and its concerns. These days I’m concerned with style more than technique.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?
I have two instruments. One (the baritone saxophone) I have a troubled relationship with. The other (the bass clarinet), I’m ashamed to admit (because others find it troublesome), is a bit of a lark. The baritone saxophone literally chose me and I can’t seem to drop the damn thing. I’m closer to hearing and executing what I want it to do/be. But, as I’ve never heard anyone else produce on it what I’m searching for, I’m still in the dark with it.
I do know that it has a lot of flexibility (both dynamically and timbrally) and a lot of unexplored areas (not too many practitioners). I probably try too hard when I’m playing baritone saxophone as I’m always trying to test its limits as well as demonstrate its abilities. With the bass clarinet, I’m perfectly content toying with what has already been discovered on it. Frankly, if I play even remotely like Eric Dolphy (or Louis Sclavis, or Jason Stein, or Bennie Maupin), I’m not just satisfied, but happy with what I’ve done. So, while I play the instrument in a more relaxed way (compared to baritone saxophone), I don’t think I’ve unearthed anything radical or different or unique about the instrument. I’m just rummaging around in other folks’ discoveries.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
I agree with his perspective, but I have taken his terms to refer to a psychologic dimension rather than any kind of phenomenology. That is, it’s the search that’s the point of focus for me. If I prepare well (don’t get too attached, but stay interested), am at the right time and place (don’t get distracted, but stay relaxed), then all sorts of things are transformable, are stimulating. By “all sorts,” I mean material that I might never predict to be of interest at a previous time, and even afterwards might scratch my head about. But at the specified moment, they hold me. My current litmus test for these materials is their repeatability. If I want to return to some material, then it’s worth my time. If I don’t, I drop it and move on.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
To the first question: they aren’t connected, except for the fact that I am the constant in both situations. But then again, concerts are not necessarily connected either. Each event has to be respected in regards to its unique parameters.
The second question: Personally, I’m thankful beyond words that I get an opportunity to make art for people in either of those formats. Even at my most petty moments, I still remain grateful (beforehand, I am *always* supremely stoked).
Thirdly: Everything is improvised, it just exists on a continuum of more-restricted, to less-restricted; from “interpretation” to “free-form.” So, it is all of a piece.
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?
Currently I’m trying to create a daily routine. It’s hard as I’m a night-owl by habit and inclination, and this makes it harder for me to fit in with the rhythms of American life as it’s currently lived and expressed. But the creation of a daily routine is needed simply because I rarely tour or perform these days and I’m trying to find a way to feel semi-productive.
I make sure to pick up one of my two horns every day, even if it’s only for 10 minutes, I make plans a week in advance (“on Monday I’ll write in the morning, play a horn in the afternoon and cook dinner for the family in the evening” etc.). I regularly forgive myself for lapses in commitments (to myself, never to others). I always have regular activities that I have to do for my part-time retail job and for my family (a wife and a daughter). The rest of my activities are up to me to do (or not) as I see fit.