Few artists are more emblematic of New York City’s downtown music scene, with all its explosive potential for self-invention and unpredictable, unbounded expression, than Ikue Mori. From the time she arrived from Japan as a restless art student in 1977, Mori has been close to the epicenter of avant-garde activity here: initially as a drummer in the crucial No Wave group D.N.A., then as a pioneering drum-machine improviser alongside John Zorn, Jim Staley, Bill Frisell, and other founders of the downtown-music efflorescence; and increasingly as a profoundly versatile, nimble performer on laptop computer—on which she has developed a musical lexicon both distinctive and inimitable.
Already this year, Mori released two new albums that further expanded her creative profile: Highsmith, a gorgeous duo session with the jazz pianist Craig Taborn, and Obelisk, the debut of a new quartet featuring longtime collaborators Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Okkyung Lee on cello, and Jim Black on drums. In November, Mori mounted a weeklong residency at the Stone, Zorn’s Lower East Side arts laboratory, which will close its doors permanently in February 2018.
But where one Stone closes, another one opens: This week, Mori is presenting two concerts at the new Stone at the New School. The first, on Dec. 15, reunites her with the distinguished New York composer Christian Wolff and two mutual comrades, drummer Joey Baron and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky. Then on Dec. 16, she and Taborn reunite, adding guitarist Bill Frisell to the mix. That extended run of significant albums and important concerts earned Mori a cover story in The New York City Jazz Record—a welcome but surprising accolade for a skillful improviser who never has claimed to be a jazz artist.
Over coffee in a small café near the East Village apartment that Mori has called home since 1977, she shared her views on changes in the neighborhood, evolution and continuity within the musical community, current projects, and prospects to come in 2018.
Congratulations on your newfound jazz superstardom! Seriously, it’s exciting to see you on the front cover of the December issue of The New York City Jazz Record. How did that come about?
Well, I’ve always been asked to play in jazz festivals rather than in electronics festivals – I’ve never been invited to be in an electronics festival…
Really? I find that astonishing.
I guess it’s because I’m improvising with a lot of good people… it’s always great musicians in an improvising context. There was this week at the Stone in November, when I was doing all this improvisation, and also this record with Craig Taborn—that’s kind of more in their area of interest.
There’s no question that you’ve worked with any number of tremendous jazz musicians. I still think about the way you integrated yourself into Dave Douglas’s ensemble Witness back in 2001, in a manner both surprising and completely natural. I just found it a pleasant surprise to see that a jazz per se publication would put you on the cover, because what you do, to my ears…
Not jazz! [Laughs]
That’s just it: What you do is so protean and indefinable. All these years later, there’s no way that you can define a box with boundaries and say, “This is what Ikue Mori does”—which is extraordinary. You don’t belong to any stylistic camp, but move compatibly among all of them. Is there a community with which you identify most?
The community is the downtown music improvising scene around John Zorn. From the beginning, 30, 35 years ago, these musicians are still my friends, and who I work with. The community is really downtown, based on this area: Tonic, the Knitting Factory, and then the Stone. That’s my community.
Your week at the Stone in November featured many of your close collaborators and friends from across the years: Mephista, Jim Staley, Zeena Parkins, George Lewis, Fast Forward, and of course John. Did it feel as if you were ending a chapter, since that space will be closing permanently in February?
Not really, because even though they’re closing that downtown location, it’s going to be a new chapter at the New School, which I think is kind of great. John is so happy about moving it there. It will bring another set of problems, but at least a big chunk of the expenses and responsibilities won’t be his.
All the stuff that comes from actually being in charge of a physical place.
Yeah. I work for John at his Hip’s Road organization, the organization that’s an umbrella over Tzadik and the Stone – I’m the bookkeeper, so I know what’s coming in and what it’s paying for. It’s really a lot of money. Even things like tuning… the New School is going to do the tuning of the piano, which cost something like $7,000 a year that John has paid on top of the rent.
For a performer, what are the advantages of the new Stone?
It sounds good! And the speaker is facing the audience, not off to the side.
You don’t hear the traffic outside anymore, or get drowned out by some guy walking past with a boom box?
No. It’s amazing. You see all the glass [facing] the street, but really, you don’t hear anything from outside. It’s much quieter than the old Stone.
Is the change in location significant in any way – even spiritually – not being on the Lower East Side anymore?
For me, it’s still walking distance. [Laughs] If it moved to Brooklyn, that would really be changing. But it’s just moving to the West Village. It’s still downtown.
It’s on the south side of 14th Street, so it’s still okay. You’re on the frontier of downtown. Seriously, though, with Roulette and Issue Project Room and the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn now, it can almost feel like Manhattan has become inhospitable to the very artists that put the city on the map and made it what it is. Do you ever get a sense of a clock ticking in terms of being able simply to live here?
Well, luckily I’m kind of the opposite: I’m a slave of rent stabilization. My rent was always lower than market value. I kind of lost the chance to ever get my own [place], and I can never get out of my apartment. But, you know, I’ve been here for 40 years, almost, and I still love the neighborhood.
This is the same apartment that you’ve been in practically since you first came to New York in 1977.
Yes, since ’77.
The East Village really has changed around you. Is the ambient feel different now that it’s kind of an upscale neighborhood?
Well, it’s always crowded. For me, I was talking with John… we sit in Tompkins Square Park watching red-tailed hawks, which never happened 30 years ago. We appreciate that we can sit in the park. In a way, I’m kind of glad for this peaceful change.
It’s definitely more livable now, but it would be different if you had to contend with real estate at market value. This is probably too vague a question to answer succinctly, but does New York feel different to you now than it did during the previous eras during which your art and the downtown scene took root? Is New York still hospitable to artists?
I think so. I go to the Stone, and a younger generation is coming up after our generation. The people who visit the Stone are young people, and they’re really into it. All sorts of young musicians still come. It’s always the feel of a community and the feel of activity here, in art, in music. That’s never gone, even with a changing audience and changing people living around here.
Let’s talk specifically about the two programs that you’re doing for your weekend at the Stone at the New School, because they’re both really different, and demonstrate the broad range of work that you’re doing. There’s one with Christian Wolff, Joey Baron, and Robyn Schulkowsky, and then another with Craig Taborn and a guitarist who can’t be named.
If this comes out after Monday, we can say.
It’s Bill Frisell, isn’t it?
You couldn’t announce that until after his engagement at the Village Vanguard concluded.
One thing that surprised me – and honestly, nothing that you do should surprise me at this point, because you do everything – is the program featuring Christian Wolff. How did that come about?
I met Christian around 10 years ago through the Merce Cunningham Dance Company – Merce Cunningham was still alive and doing some of his last performances around 10 years ago – and we played together with some small ensembles at DIA Beacon. I had the opportunity to play with him, actually, in a duo at NEC. Joey and Robyn are very close to Christian Wolff. And actually, we played together, the four of us, at Roulette several years ago. Then this February I was doing a tour with the Music for Merce project, which George Lewis and John King put together with all those people who’d been in the company before, like Fast Forward, and we also played a little duo. And then I asked him… I wanted to do something different that I’d never done before. He said yes, but that he would feel more comfortable if Joey and Robyn are also with us.
So you’d approached Christian first.
Yes. And then I asked Joey and Robyn, because we’d always talked about doing a project, a trio. So we had this history from a long time ago. I don’t know the exact instrumentation… I know Christian will play piano and Joey will play drums. But Robyn I’m not sure, because we don’t have a lot of classical percussion there. So there are still things to discuss about it.
Robyn strikes me as somebody who could play on just about anything.
That’s true. But she originally asked for timpani, and I said, I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can get any. [Laughs]
Is the concert doing to be completely improvised, as opposed to Christian bringing in some kind of text or graphic scores?
It will be completely improvised.
On the other evening, you’re highlighting this newer partnership with Craig. How did you come to start working with him?
We were in Dave Douglas’s Witness band together, so we knew each other. When we did the Stone benefit at the Village Vanguard [Dec. 11, 2016], we played together for the first time in a long time—John put us together. And it was nice, and beautiful, and everybody liked it, and John said, you have to do this recording. It was so fast! A few months later, we recorded. And also this year I did Obelisk, early this year.
How did Bill come into the picture?
Through John’s project. I played a ballad, and Bill was there, listening. Then we started talking about doing something together—but of course, he’s busy like 350 days out of the year, so… [Laughs] But he happened to move back to New York, so there’s more chance now to work with him.
Will this be a completely improvised situation, as well?
Yes. It’s going to be beautiful and weird. [Laughs]
I’m sure. What kind of gear and set-up are you using that allows you to keep pace with improvisers like Craig and Bill in real time?
It’s just from training, from playing so many concerts with so many different musicians. Back when I was working with drum machines, that already was a different kind of instrument to play with. For 20 years I’m working on how fast I can react to the other instruments. That’s my focus. And then I’ve developed my laptop in order to play like that. And with laptops, the processing power allows me to do so much more than just keeping beats and manipulating drum machines: colors, textures, melody. That allowed me to do John’s project, the Bagatelles, which is all notated music.
Are you still developing digital visual art to accompany your solo performances? When we spoke about this some years ago, you mentioned being uneasy with the idea of a paying audience assembling to stare at you working on a laptop.
Right. Well, that was then. Now, I’m a little more comfortable. I was developing live audiovisual things; I just did a thing with Craig at the Drawing Center that John put together. And I’m working with my handmade puppets on a staged fairy-tale story—I want to do something for children. For another project, I was approached by this guy Peter Williamson, who’s an English children’s book writer. He also asked me to do some collaboration with music and his books. Eventually I would like to do my own audio-video books made for children. The idea is for children to get to know this kind of weird, strange music—even before pop music. [Laughs]
You mentioned handmade dolls. Can you tell me more about that?
My fascination with making dolls started before I came to New York. I’d made two digital-art projects with audio and video for Tzadik, but lately I’ve wanted to use this more handmade, analog material. I made a stage in my small apartment, and lately I’ve made so many dolls. So using the dolls and the stage, making a video… but it just takes so much time.
You’ve been playing the drums again occasionally in recent years. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get to see you perform with Body/Head.
That’s part of it, too… I think when I hit my 60s, I wanted something from my past along with something new, something back to my original fascinations. And it’s good to know that I can still play. [Laughs] But also, I know my limitations. I still play like I played in D.N.A., that No Wave playing. With Kim Gordon it makes sense, and also with [Boredoms drummer] Yoshimi. I’ll just keep it to very specific situations.
What might we be seeing from you in the year ahead?
I’d like to do more work with this Obelisk quartet with Sylvie Courvoisier, Okkyung Lee, and Jim Black. They’re really supportive because we’re all friends, and they understand my language. I’m really happy about our recording. But it’s so hard to book this band, because everyone’s so busy.
Speaking of which, I have to ask about Mephista, your trio with Sylvie and Susie Ibarra, which truly is a band with a sound all its own. Now that you’ve got a newer band with Sylvie, does Mephista still carry on?
Yes. Any time we’ve got a residency at the Stone, Susie or Sylvie or me, we’ll always bring it back. A few times a year, we still play.
There’s such an extraordinary chemistry between the three of you. Each of you really gets what the others do.
It’s true. It’s some kind of particular thing that we create, the three of us.
Anything else on the near horizon?
Yes, next year I think we’re going to tour with Miller’s Tale, which is another quartet with Sylvie plus Evan Parker and Mark Feldman. We do work with this flamenco dancer… Sylvie’s been working with a flamenco company the last few years, and then some projects came up for improvisers with this nationally recognized flamenco dancer from Spain.
Are things better now for women musicians, and specifically for women improvisers, than they were back when you were getting started?
I think so. For me, it’s always more and more and more young female musicians coming. I think it’s improving.
You recorded with Julianna Barwick, and I know you’ve been working with younger improvisers like Lotte Anker.
And Maja Ratkje. People think I’m working with them because we’re friends. No: I found a great musician who happened to be a great woman, and then became a friend.
Ikue Mori performs at the Stone at the New School Dec. 15 and 16; thestonenyc.com