SA5: The Philadelphia Issue

What is the personality of a city? What allows us, acting as citizens or visitors, to relate to it as a separate evolving organism? Even if we’ve never set foot in a given city, we approach it on equal footing—as its own being, equal to and different from us. I’m currently on a plane to Mexico City, a place I’ve never been, and I have already been grappling with my personal preconceptions of it as a city crammed with people, somehow slow and fast at the same time. Yet I’ve traveled enough to anticipate being disabused of these notions when I land. Discovering a city is like meeting someone for the first time, an enthused search for points of mutual consonance and dissonance. Philadelphia is a city I continue to grapple with, though as a 12-year resident of New Jersey it’s well within striking distance. I’ve visited often. I’ve done what those not from Philadelphia are supposed to: consumed a cheesesteak, visited the colonial attractions, mounted the steps of the Museum of Art. I’ve wandered the hardware and electronics stores in North Philly, and come to accept its derision of my New Jersey license plates. But we had no true relationship, Philadelphia and I, and so I undertook this issue of Sound American with the excitement of first exposure to another’s heart and mind. Vijay Iyer recently published an article for the Red Bull Music School connecting the idea of social systems, history, and the physical infrastructure of a city (New York, in his example) with the architecture and process of music, specifically improvisation. It is a fascinating idea that might be applied to Philadelphia: the seeming insularity of its neighborhoods, multiple campus centers, and history of class and racial strife have surely affected the way people make their music. Yet I’ve chosen a different approach. Rather than analyze the specific historic, social and cultural systems of Philadelphia as brought to bear on its creative inhabitants, this issue will focus on the creative inhabitants. The hope is to take information of a cross-section and find the common denominators—the personal and musical qualities that anecdotally rise to the surface when taking each artist at face value and in their own words and sounds. Through the conversations presented in this issue I came to better understand the nature of artistic practice in Philadelphia, while avoiding a form of urban chauvinism that elides the individual even as it attempts to define what makes a city unique. While there are trends amongst these interviewees—musical eclecticism, a certain satisfaction in being left alone to their work, a DIY aesthetic mixed with liberal application of the concept of mutual aid—there is no fixed Philadelphia archetype, but rather a collectively sustained environment within which they create their personal statements. No issue comes without regrets on my part. By the time I’m writing this opening salvo, I am already battling the voices in my head, wishing I had been able to include this piece of music or that composer. The Philadelphia issue is especially sensitive in this respect. Due to the size and scope of the project, there are many facets of the city’s musical culture and history that are not included here, either due to my own inability to grasp its heritage in one three month period, lack of space, or polite refusals of subjects to take part. The most glaring omission, is the complete lack of voices from Philadelphia's African-American community; a community that makes up almost half the population of the city and is THE major source of its cultural milieu. This is a great loss to the conversation, one that I understand and feel, and hope to rectify in a future issue. Sound American Issue 5 was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. They have been a generous collaborator, allowing me to find my way among the musicians of the city and learn by experience, rather than via a set of guidelines that might have resulted in a discovery process more touristic than artistic. I’m grateful for their sensitivity.

Dan Blacksberg

Dan Blacksberg has found a way to achieve something that has eluded all but a handful of musicians. He inhabits two musical worlds simultaneously without having to present his work in terms of artistic fusion. Few musicians could be conversant in both cutting edge avant-gardism and the traditions of Klezmer music without combining the two in some way to create a third-stream persona. Dan seems to easily cohabit both musical tradition and anti-tradition in a way that seems second nature, and his voice is that much more refreshing for it. After growing up in Philadelphia, where his first musical experiences came from taking part in playing music in his synagogue, Dan went to New England Conservatory to explore his passion for non-traditional playing and improvisation. Sidestepping a move to New York, he returned home to Philadelphia where he's been able to indulge in both sides of his musical personality without having to define himself solely as a musical polyglot. In this podcast, which features music from the improvising collective The Psychotic Quartet, he talks about how he has stayed true to his bifurcated self-definition and how living in Philadelphia has made that possible. Alongside Nick Millevoi, Dan also runs the improvised music series, Archer Spade, in West Philly. He talks about his generation's impetus to organize and the perks of carving out his niche as a life-long Philadelphian.

An Interview with Dan Blacksberg

Jesse Kudler

Jesse Kudler is one of those artists that every city needs. He's skeptical, passionately argumentative, and possesses a rational mind prone to grappling with irrational subjects. Since moving to Philadelphia from New England, Jesse has consistently been a calm center for the burgeoning experimental music scene that started just before the inaugural concerts of Dustin Hurt's Bowerbird Music series and is now proliferating into a handful of well curated small music venues operating in West Philadelphia. Kudler's own Philadelphia Sound Forum, managed alongside fellow electronicist and duo partner Ian Fraser, stands amongst other presenters such as Archer Spade and Ars Nova Workshop, which concentrate primarily on improvised music. His electronic work, heard throughout the interview in excerpts from his duo with fellow guitarist Tim Albro, runs from austere single sine-tones to complex and raw waves of electronic clatter. Jesse's music exhibits a sense of thoughtfulness and order that isn't always present behind a table full of seemingly random wires. He filtered his answers to the interview questions through that same prism of logic and consideration. What is presented is a small portion of an interview at Kudler's apartment in West Philadelphia; a discussion that became less like an interview and more like a dialectic as the evening progressed. Alongside the squeakiest chair in the history of recorded discussion, Kudler talks about his early studies of guitar, how he ended up in Philly from Connecticut, the role of organizational thinking in the arts in a city like Philadelphia, and a brief psycho-sociological look into the mind of the city's artists.

Interview with Jesse Kudler

Nick Millevoi

One can't help noticing the dichotomies that exist between Nick Millevoi's music and his personality. His precise solo guitar music or his high-voltage work with power-prog trio Many Arms tends to play in counterbalance to the soft-spoken and jovial autodidact that fell in love with the guitar watching Wayne's World as a kid in a suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia. Nick is unusual, in comparison to peers of his featured in this issue, in that he didn't arrive in Philadelphia from some other city, nor did he return after exploring other options in a different place. He has stayed in town, finding a place for growth and serenity in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. In this interview, recorded at Nick's apartment on a rainy Monday afternoon, he talks about the path he has taken on guitar, how he builds his solo work and his history with Many Arms. The conversation then moves to the Archer Spade concert series, which he co-curates with Dan Blacksberg and how his generation in Philadelphia is coming together to embrace mutual aid as presenters and performers.

Interview with Nick Millevoi