NO STARS, NO SOLOS – JUST SOUND, MOTION, AND ENERGY: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN GRUNTFEST

By Stevphen Shukaitis, 10 December 2015

Given the ephemeral nature of improvised music, it is easily forgotten after the performance. Despite that, the work of saxophonist, poet, and musical event organiser, John Gruntfest, is almost criminally overlooked. Stretching over four decades, Gruntfest has played saxophone in a huge number of ensembles, as well as collaborating with political art and theatre groups such as the Pageant Players, the Motherfuckers, Bread and Puppet Theatre and the Living Theatre. His work has varied from small-scale performances to the arranging of immense forums and events for collective improvisation.

Gruntfest led the Ritual Band and Free Orchestra in the seventies and eighties as well as the Free Orchestra’s thirtieth anniversary in 2009, The Raven Free Orchestra. His first albums, Live at Pangea 1 & 2, were voted best improvised albums of the year by Cadence Magazine in 1977. Gruntfest played at the Berlin Wall when it came down in 1989. He was part of the SF punk funk scene in the 80s, playing with The Appliances and touring with Indoor Live, Tuxedo Moon, and Snakefinger. His record label, Independent Records, was one of the first indie record producers of alternative music. He is one of the foremost proponents of improvised and experimental music in the San Francisco alternative music scene

Stevphen Shukaitis recently had the chance to meet up with Gruntfest and ask him about the politics of his art and performances.

Stevphen Shukaitis (SS): How do you understand the relationship between art and politics? Not only in a general sense, but also in the ways that you’ve worked through that relationship in your own practices?

John Gruntfest (JG): It is not possible to live in a world of dualities, dichotomies, dialectics, dissections, interrogation, and analysis. There is only one life and we are it. What is politics but the absence of imagination? What is art but the absence of life? If energy is to be preserved, then we must use fluctuations in the quantum field to create a force that is ongoing, life enhancing, joyous, creative, mind expanding, futuristic, hopeless, all pervasive, transcendent, and yet rooted in the present moment. When one works through the relationship of art and politics, one comes out the other side and finds that there is nothing there. Alone, left to one’s own devices, assume the worst has already happened and take the next step. Jump off into the void and embrace infinite possibility.

SS: I’m interested in your attempts to recover the images and ideas of Che and the hammer and sickle. What motivates this? What infinite possibilities do you see in that? What do you hope to accomplish by doing so?

JG: There was an idea – an attempt – to create the new woman and man, true revolutionaries whose heart pumped with the blood of love, whose aspirations were built on a love of the people. Che was at that time an embodiment of that new man – our revolutionary hero / anti-hero. And yet, he was someone with all the failings and successes of a man. The Cuban revolution, like so many other revolutions, embodied all the successes, failures and contradictions of human behaviour. But – get this – the health indexes of Cuba are the highest in the Americas, better than Uncle Sammy’s United States. So Che is both hero and anti-hero. Future Che attempts to take the new man-woman to another level where we can live devoid of capital’s strangulations, enchantments, delusions, illusions, contusions: that material cesspool sold to the masses as freedom.

I’m a red diaper baby. I grew up under those images of revolution, communism, socialism, as embodied in the hammer and sickle. During the McCarthy era, that image, those books were hidden in my house. My grandparents, parents, cousins were communists, socialists, even anarchists, although their dogmatism was hard to take and still is. I wanted to free up that image and make it mine, so I began a series of hammer and sickles to focus on revolution, solidarity, internationalism – all those things which we seem to have lost. The PCP in Portugal would chain big signs up in the middle of busy intersections denouncing the bank bailouts, the selling off of public lands, and that was considered a legitimate form of free expression. Signs like that would never last long in the US. So the painting Nao arose out of that desire to have free expression in the most public of places. It is what graffiti wants to achieve but fails to most of the time. We need a collective we to express our disgust for the way things are. So that is it: hammer and sickle – revolution, solidarity, internationalism; all our lost hopes and failures to change the system of capital. Let us give the collective finger to capital with this lost and betrayed image.

SS: Can you describe the evolution of your work over the past forty years? What has inspired you to change your approach (or not, for that matter)?

JG: Complete dissatisfaction with things as they are, my work as it is. What I have created in the past does not interest me so much as what is happening right now, although I will confess to having some favourites like ‘July 4, 1979’ and Future Che. Always pushing for the new to emerge. There has got to be a way to express something different and new; some vibration that really sets the energy moving, freeing the creative and getting healthier, artistically wealthier, visionarily stealthier. Blasted out of my complacency and examining the minute detail of the complete voidness of my existence. Embracing death as a lover.

SS: How do you understand the relationship between poetry and music? I’m asking as, while you have previously released a number of recordings of your music and the projects you’ve been involved with, it’s not until quite recently that you’ve published any of your poetry.

JG: Chant Incantation Vachel Lindsay Whitman Kerouac Ginsberg Sitwell Yevtouchenko.

The magic of sound rhythm
Trance being into art being into life being
Into being life
Sound magic moving through the body
Healing the body
Hearing the body
We sing of ourselves celebrate ourselves
Jump for joy
Jump and stomp
Pump and grind
Shout flout Fleeing normative confines
Sound and rhythm music poetry
Pulse drive thrive strive
Jive no jive
Flowing growing glowing
Breathing ourselves into being

SS: Can you describe your approach to collaboration and collaborative practices? I’m interested both in the period when you were involved in Bread and Puppet Theatre and the Motherfuckers, as well as the large group improvisations you orchestrated, like the Raven Free Orchestra…

JG: What really knocked me out as a kid was playing in big bands and orchestras. There was an amazing energy to being part of a big sound. Something special happens in a large group when a musical wave of such force is created that it takes folks right out of their bodies (with Count Basie Band Live, you could stand in front of them and feel the force of the wave actually hit you). You can feel the wave in your body. All of my orchestras and big bands have operated on the principles of escape velocity and critical mass. The ecstasy and joy is something that can transcend the moment in the same way that large groups can overcome the limitations of the individual. These events are unpredictable and not repeatable. You set the wave in motion and hope for the best.

One needs willing collaborators. I have been lucky that way since folks have been willing to go for it. As a conductor I try and get into some kind of open state of mind – Buddha Mind – where I am just a vehicle for the energy of the group. Plus there has got to be a willingness to allow folks to feel part of the whole process. The Raven Free Orchestra had energy of its own that no one person could control. People arrived early, began warming up with energy, started early, and finished early. It followed its own pulse, with everyone having a lot of fun.