Cleve Pozar
Cleve Pozar is a percussionist and composer currently living in Minnesota. Born Robert F. Pozar in 1941, he is schooled in wide breadth of musical styles, including Afro-Cuban, Latin, jazz, free improvisation, classical, avant-garde, funk, country, polka, and more.

In the early '60s, Pozar participated in some of the pivotal events in free jazz and avant-garde classical music, playing with Bill Dixon at the October Revolution in Jazz and with Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Eric Dolphy, and many others at the ONCE Festivals in Ann Arbor. Among Pozar's first appearances on record are some seminal titles: Bob James' Bold Conceptions and Explosions (ESP-Disk), and Bill Dixon’s Intents and Purposes. Dixon also produced Pozar’s first album as a leader, Good Golly Miss Nancy, which was released by Savoy in 1967.

In 1974, he followed it up with a private-press album, Cleve Solo Percussion, which introduced his solo act (and a name change). Largely ignored at the time of its release, in recent years it has steadily become an underground favorite. That record is the focus of this interview, conducted in October 2008. – Adam Lore


cleve pozar playing percussion

cleve I had gone through the Berklee correspondence course on harmony and theory for 2-5-1 changes and all this. I got very good at it but I couldn't get the modal stuff together. I just didn't understand what was going down. So finally one day I was talking to Gene [Ashton, a.k.a. Cooper-Moore] about it, and Gene said, "You know, what you want to know is the Persichetti book [Twentieth Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice]." So Gene lays the book on me. Persichetti has a chapter on modal harmony that was so simple and so clean, it just opened up everything for me.

So I started doing a piece for every mode and that's how this all got started. The only thing I had was percussion instruments. You know, I'm not a horn player, so it wasn’t that Cleve Solo Percussion was really approached as Cleve Solo Percussion. I was a composer and I played percussion, so what else would I have except a vibraphone and a marimba and my organ and stuff? So each piece is a different study in a different kind of modal thing.

[The song] "Changes" are really changes. In the Berklee course in harmony you learn 2-5-1 substitutes, right? I learned to manipulate the living hell out of 'em. I can't remember exactly what I did, but there’s 2-5-2-5-1, which is very common in jazz, and what I did is I went 2-5-7 to 2, which was really 1; 2-5-7 resolving to 1, right? Then I took one of the 5-7’s and used a flat five substitution, which is a Charlie Parker chord. So I had these changes worked out. Then when you play on changes, every chord has a chord scale. Well, what the chord scales really are is modes. Like, if you have a minor-7 chord, what you really have is a Dorian mode. If you have a 5-7 chord, what you really have is the Mixolydian mode. If you have the one chord, you have the major scale or the major mode, right? So rather than using chords as chords, I used the modes and I set the modes up in sequences, which inferred the chords, you understand?

On part number one of "Changes," where you hear the choir coming in and stuff…You saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, right? There’s this thing called "Requiem" that was written by a composer called Ligeti [where] he used a 150 piece choir. I've seen the score and he actually wrote out every note. So what I did is I made lines that either went from important notes in the mode to other important notes in the mode, made fragmented lines, had Stephen Whynott sing ’em for me, and made tape loops. I must've done about 25, 30 tape loops, and I put 'em all together. So you think that you're hearing a sheet of sound, but you're not. You're hearing 25 modal lines in the Dorian mode all put together and it sounds like a sheet of sound because it’s so dense, but what it does, because [of] where I stop and begin the lines, it sets up a tonality.

Same thing with the carillon. I wrote a carillon line in this mode and I had foot pedals where I played the melodies on the carillon with my feet and played tablas up on top. [Whynott] played bowed guitar and so we found all the notes in the scale that were important and I had him bow lines, even if there were two notes, and we edited them in [and] made an electronic tape out of that. So each section is in this different mode.

The third section where the bicycle wheel is? It’s a tuned bicycle wheel, man. I tuned the bicycle wheel to the pitches of the mode. I sat there with a strolochon and adjusted the spokes. So as I was playing, I could just flip the bicycle wheel because I made a stand, upside-down, for the bicycle wheel. I welded a plate on it where I could clip on a playing card. So it wasn’t me actually sticking my sticks in it, because on my sticks I was doing something else.

The last part is tuned glasses that I played with my finger. And the weird trip was I needed this one note and we had to keep on filling up the glass and filling up the glass. It was almost overflowing in order for me to get this one note. If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear almost buzzes or burps in it. It’s not the recording – it’s the tuned glass, because I was overloading it.

So "Changes" is a whole electronic piece by itself with four sections to it and they are chord changes. I just used the modes of the chord changes. Then the problem became, I knew what I was gonna do with the carillon, I knew the lines I was gonna make, I knew I was gonna make the marimba loops at the end on the Echoplex. It was all worked out except for the choir section, the first section, and I couldn't figure out what to do with it. So my wife Nancy heard it and she said, "Why don’t you use the double-bass thing with tom-toms?" And I just got totally pissed off and I said, “Nanny, that is the most stupid idea I've ever heard in my life" and I started yelling at her. So I said, "After dinner, we're going downstairs and I'm going to show you how stupid you are!" I put on the electronic tape with the choir, right, started playing double-bass drums and tom-tom. Man, I played about three notes and I said, "Holy cow, man – she’s on the money!" So it was Nanny’s idea. It was a great idea. I felt so bad about dumping on her about it because it was just terrific.

If it wasn’t for Nancy there would have been no Cleve Solo Percussion. She not only encouraged me with the music and had a lot of input (she had an exceptional ear) but financially supported a lot of my projects, especially this one. Many a time I dragged her out of bed in the middle of the night to hear a new piece when she had to get up early and do her job and get [our son] Mingus ready for school.

solo "Cosmic Piece" is one pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale has only five notes and I wanted to know if you could create a five-note piece that made sense instead of just wandering around or playing African music that isn’t necessarily wandering around, but it’s very limited. So the electro-vibes has pick-ups built into it and they weren’t as efficient as the vibraphone pick-ups of now, so when you play on the real high bars, the attacks would sound different than on the lower bars. So in the beginning of it, I was able to roll four mallet technique pentatonic lines and then hit these other notes in it. And the other notes, because I was playing them an octave higher, actually sounded like another line. And it wasn’t – that’s just what the electro-vibes do.

Then I did a straight-ahead pentatonic melody. I wrote a piano figure that I wanted as a vamp, then I played tablas as a drum part, and then I played that line up above it. When I was doing it live, I'd play the four mallet thing on vibes and I had a pre-recorded tape of the piano and tablas. I had a double volume pedal …so as you press down on it, one track would get lower while the other track would get higher. So I had it off and one track was going into an Echoplex from the electro-vibes. I had it off and the electro-vibes on, but I didn’t have the Echoplex on when I did the first section. When I was fading out the first section, I actually faded it out physically, with my foot. As I was fading it out, the piano and the tabla came in, which gave me enough time to go over to the marimba to play the lines. After I was done with playing the marimba on the line, I had the foot pedal there and I just faded it out. I had these Echoplex things recorded of just pentatonic notes but I had the Echoplex and slapback so you heard three or four notes. So it gave me enough time to get to the vibes and it had already started the Echoplex loop so that I could press the Echoplex on "record" and continue on with the loop. That’s how you get those little bubbly things at the end.

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"Echo Afrika" is self-explanatory. What I said on the back of the album, that’s exactly what I was doing. "The Echoplex is set so that I can play a 1/8th note ostinato figure which overlaps itself, because of echo repeats. This allows me to play a melody and drum fills at the same time. When I have stated the melody, I punch out the record button on the Echoplex and the Echoplex plays what I have just played. During this time I play a long vibes line over the Echoplex. The Echoplex is faded and I play a vibes cadenza. The Echoplex is brought back after the cadenza is over and the melody is then reinstated and the piece ends."

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"The Winged Coyote" was "The Exorcist" but then they came out with the movie so I decided to call it "The Winged Coyote" because [that’s what] Peter Ivers used to call me. (laughs)

I found out when you’re playing real fast, like Max Roach’s "Cherokee" and all that, you get to the point where it all just becomes chromatic and there's kind of like touch point notes that you're using. So I started messing around on the vibraphone, just playing as fast as possible, thinking about the touch notes to play my lines, and just playing chromatically anything I damn well please, but playing eighth notes as fast as I could. That’s how that beginning vibraphone comes in. You’ll hear accented notes that are really melodically correct in sequence, like in "Changes," but it's chromatic on purpose. Took the Echoplex, laid down the vibes line, punched the vibes line out so it continued on. Sat down with another Echoplex and recorded the cymbals and the gongs and all that stuff you heard. What’s happening with the cymbals and the gongs and all that stuff, if you listen real carefully, you hear me just playing be-bop time on the cymbals. It’s straight-out be-bop against this vibraphone line, because that’s how I was looking at it. I was not looking at it as avant-garde music. I was looking at it as a be-bop line. I substituted the ratchets and the woodblocks for snare drums and tom-tom fills, and I substituted the gongs for bass drum parts.

[My son] Mingus, when he was really little, like pre-school, could imitate high-pitched whale songs and porpoises, and I knew all that was gonna be lost when he became bigger and his voice would change. He always had hung around studios ever since he was a baby, so if I took him in, he was in control. So we went into the studio and Mingus knew my engineer very, very well so there was no problem. Zed [McLarnon] set Mingus up on a high barstool with a superconductor mic and we just recorded Mingus’ whale and porpoise songs.

In the last part of "The Winged Coyote" are sections of the whale tape. Now, that tape is being played all the time once I got to that section. It's just that I'm punching the tape in and out. So I'm playing a marimba line, punching the tape in, playing the marimba line, punching the tape in, until finally the tape ends the whole thing. The marimba and the whales opposed each other [and] were supposed to represent the devil and the guy fighting, and finally the devil wins at the end. (laughs) And that’s what that was all about. But, you understand, I couldn't say "The Exorcist" because the movie came out at that time, and it was just a coincidence. At the time I was into a lot of macabre stuff because of my alcoholism. You know, it was the squirrels talking to me. (laughs)

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"Magistrate Lousvart." Lousvart Chepson was a friend of mine who became the boss in the machine shop of Boston Design. Her boyfriend owned Boston Design and was my friend that I went to work with in the machine shop. She came in, took over because he was doing other things, and we went crazy because she went into her OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) routine. We had tarps laid all over the floor, steel…I mean, we’re making circular staircases and stuff. You know, you’re talking about 20-foot lengths of 4-inch pipes and stuff – what are you gonna do with it? (laughs) She’s totally bent out of shape about how we’re conducting our machine shop activities and she made us re-do everything which drove us all crazy because we're just used to, you know, wheelin' and dealin'. Well, she was right and it turned out to be a much more efficient thing. So there were still people in the shop that were angry with her and when she’d ask them to do something, they wouldn’t do it her way. So she went out learned how to weld! One day she was talking to this guy and she said, you know, I want this done this way and he’s sort of ignoring her, so she puts on the hood and picks up the welding rod and she welds it and she said, "I want that!" (laughs) She was a terrific lady, absolutely terrific lady. Anyway, so I called her Magistrate Lousvart.

What it is, I had the Farfisa organ and the electro-vibes and I had this line written out with modal chords, like in Persichetti again, split between two mallets in one hand and me playing the keyboard in the other hand. Again, on the Echoplex I can play that line live, the whole thing. … After the line was done, I punched it out and I had a pre-recorded tape with the cluster that you hear where it goes (sings line). Because that gave me enough time to get to the drum set, had that cluster come in until the last peak hit, and then it came in (laughs), I took a guitar and I put bass strings on it and tuned the guitar to four notes because, you know, I don't have any chops, and put that through an Echoplex with slapback, which was the tonal center of the line that I played. Then I started just playing free on the drum set. But in one hand I had an orchestra bell mallet, a brass-tipped mallet, and I worked out sticking combinations so I had a set of orchestra bells by where I put my hi-hat. As I was playing the drum set, I could hit the orchestra bell. So I was actually playing the orchestra bells and the drum set simultaneously. It was just a question of sticking patterns. And underneath that is this bass happening, right? So you hear these orchestra bell lines which, again, are within that mode, the bass laying down the tonal centers of that mode, and when the organ and stuff would come in, what I wanted was the effect of big band things coming in, like Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite with the choir, because I was very, very influenced behind that. That whole line was recorded on the Echoplex, so all I had to do was take my hi-hat foot and punch in the Echoplex. So as I’m playing the drum set, I punch in the Echoplex and all of a sudden you hear (sings line) and I punch it out again. The line was constructed so no matter where and how long I punched it in, it would sound like kicks behind the orchestra bells. So those fragments that you hear are actually fragments of the melody which, in a big band and in Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and stuff, is exactly what the choir is doing.

percussion So when you were writing and recording all these pieces, were you composing it with the notion of having an album that you were going to release yourself?

Absolutely not. I was composing these pieces as solo pieces with modes because, like I said, that’s what I was interested in doing. It was irrelevant how the pieces turned out. I would just sit down one day and say, "OK, I’m gonna work with this mode." I just started writing and playing and let it develop because I wanted to see how the things worked. So every day I would work on it and the pieces evolved within themselves. It was not the point to record an album. It was the point to work out solo percussion pieces so that I could go onstage and perform Cleve Solo Percussion.

So in the meantime, Ashton [Cooper-Moore] comes over and he hears this and he says, "You ought to do this live, man." I said, "Yeah, I want to but I’m still working out the bugs." So he calls me up the next day and he says, "OK man, we're booked at the Cyclorama Building." I said, "What??" He said, "Well, you said you wanted to do it live, right? So I booked us!" (laughs) That was our first double solo concert. He’d play a piece, then I'd play a piece, and then we'd play a piece together. Then he'd play a piece, then I'd play a piece. But the thing was for me to do it live. One of the problems is, it took a 14-foot van, totally packed, to take this stuff around. It took half a day to set up and mix. So it was really not worth the bread or the results I was getting from the audiences to do this. I mean, the audiences would just sit there and say, "So what?" All you guys now are saying, "Wow, man – Cleve Solo Percussion!" [Back] then, I got dumped on for doing Cleve Solo Percussion, big time, by the critics and everybody else. As a matter of fact, like I told you about "Cosmic Piece" being pentatonic, the object was to see if I could create a long piece and do something with it with one pentatonic scale. I'd get reviews saying, "This guy is really lame, man. He wrote this one piece, all he did is play one pentatonic scale." That’s like saying, "Wagner is really a drag. He doesn’t use any conventional harmony like Beethoven." My trip is, you know, if you look at the overture to Das Rheingold, it’s basically built on one whole chord and the thing lasts about ten minutes. You go out, wiseass, and write ten minutes of music based on one thing and sound that good, because I'd love to sound like Richie Wagner! (laughs) The guy was a master, you know?

So I was continuously dumped on for doing this stuff. And it never sold. The record never sold.

So how did you get to putting it out as a record?

So what happened was I was working with an engineer, Zed McLarnon, at Intermedia Studio. I was doing things with Roger Powell there and then I started working on Zed's music for him. We would trade off hours. Like say I was recording with Roger or something and the studio was getting paid, when I was done recording, I would bring what Zed needed. Then when everybody went home, after hours, Zed and I would work on his music. In return, I decided I wanted good recordings of Cleve Solo Percussion. So Zed recorded Cleve Solo Percussion for me, little by little. So it finally turned out where I almost had an album and I finished off the pieces that I didn’t have and we made it into Cleve Solo Percussion.

Was it distributed at all?

Yes, it was distributed through New Music Distribution Service. That’s what was so weird, because Carla Bley really liked it. People would come in, like dancers and stuff, and say, "I’m looking for an album to do a dance piece with," and Carla would say, "Listen, I got just the thing, man – it’s called Cleve Solo Percussion." They would say, "No no, we don’t want any drum stuff." Carla would say, "It’s not about drum stuff. This guy’s a percussionist. Look at the back of the album. He’s using marimba and everything." No one would even listen to it and Carla really tried, man. ... It just didn’t do it.

How many gigs did you do?

I worked a couple years doing it, then I finally just gave it up. I said, "This is fruitless." I always considered it a failure. One day, I was telling somebody that I did Cleve Solo Percussion and I failed. Mingus Pozar looked at me and said, "You didn't fail. You quit!" (laughs) And he's right. … But it was such a hassle to do it and I was getting so little out of it, it just wasn’t worth my time. And besides, I got what I wanted out of my modes, and that was the point. I always make music for Cleve.

Was there something in particular that attracted you to working with all these different materials? I mean, you’re tuning a bicycle wheel…Just that whole mindset.

That comes from two things. One, I worked several years as a percussionist with the ONCE festivals. Not only was I playing with the Ann Arbor composers, but I was playing with John Cage and Morton Feldman. The Ann Arbor ONCE festivals were really big, man. That was the center of 20th century music at that time in the United States. So I was exposed to enormous amounts of different techniques. I think I learned to bow cymbals from a piece that Roger Reynolds wrote for flute and percussion, which extended over to bowing my gongs. I learned to use knitting needles on cymbals from things that I was working out with Bob James at the time, who was also playing all the ONCE festivals. Bob James and I were continuously working with Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley so we were continuously working with electronic tape. Gordon built most of the electronics that he did. He was an electrical engineer. So I got to hang out with Gordon and Gordon showed me how his fun toys worked, you understand? So I was there while this was happening. It wasn’t like I read it out of a book or I learned it in college. I mean, I was in college, but I was there when these things were done, and I played pieces that asked for certain special percussion effects. And also, because I was involved with the ONCE festivals, Don Scavarda and George Cacioppo and Roger Reynolds, several others, they worked with me on percussion sounds while I was playing with Bob James. We actually got together and worked on the sounds for pieces that they were writing and they would want a certain sound and say, "Is there a way to do this?" So I worked out a lot of that stuff while I was working as a 20th century percussionist, not as a jazz drummer. It had nothing to do with jazz at all. It had to do with classical percussion.

And also, I’m a skilled builder and designer from my father. So when I wanted something, I could make it or I could do something about it.

So this thing developed between Bob James and the ONCE festivals. Also, there were things like, I was playing glass wind chimes with Bob James. I’m gonna play these wind chimes, man, and they gotta keep on going and I gotta play that drum set at the same time – it’s drivin’ me nuts! So I did the most practical thing you could do – I put the wind chimes aside, with a fan on it. When I wanted the wind chimes, I just pressed a button and the fan turned on and made the wind chimes happen. (laughs) So all that stuff evolved from me being uncomfortable with the set-up that I had.

There was a piece that we premiered "Wedge" by Roger Reynolds. It was written for four percussionists. Couldn’t get four percussionists, so two of us had to play the parts. The percussionists at the University of Michigan, everybody looked at it and said, "This is impossible to play with four percussionists." And of course, that’s why two percussionists played the whole piece and didn’t leave out one damn note.

So the problem that we had was that we had [only] one gong. Both of us had to use that gong and there was this one run in the piece that was very, very important, where the other percussionist was playing mallet instruments, keyboard mallet, and he was doing a run down the vibraphone. He was doing a run and I had to hit the gong, but before that, he had to hit the gong. So there was no way [to] set the gong up so both of us had access to it. So while he was making this run, I was playing multiple percussion with woodblocks and snare drum and stuff like that. At the end of this figure that I was playing, I had to hit the gong. And it was the crux of the piece. Well, how are you going to hit the gong if it’s ten feet away from you? So I finally came up with the idea that I could throw a tennis ball at it. Everybody else watching the ONCE festivals and the Bob James Trio thought I was crazy, but nobody who was in the Bob James Trio or in the ONCE festival thought I was crazy at all. Everybody knew what I was going for. So I said, “Look man, I know it’s a mad dog idea, but the only way I’m gonna pull this off is I’m gonna have to throw a tennis ball at it.” And the reason I picked a tennis ball, when the tennis ball hit it was like the sound of a mallet.

So the conductor and I, believe it or not, rehearsed for a month with me throwing a tennis ball at a gong. I was watching him conducting and playing my other parts and timing my throw of the tennis ball so my tennis ball would come down with the way he was conducting, in time. And it’s insanity! We were continuously having to work out physical problems like that.

So it was very complex, what we were doing. And now the young boys who use their samples and know everything there is to know about computers, now the young boys can press a little button. And if they ever had to do what we did, they’d piss in their pants! And you can quote me on that!

cleve posar