Music for the 21st Century?
Interview With prime Time sublime Community Orchestra's Paul Minotto
A butcher, a baker, a mortician, a housewife, a plumber and other nonprofessional musicians dressed up as clowns performing contemporary classical "new music?" Well, yes. Why not? The prime Time sublime Community Orchestra is not really a community orchestra; that is, if you think of a community orchestra as a group of Sunday musicians who play in tune most of the time, getting together to murder the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart for the shallow entertainment of unenlightened listeners. This group plays original "tunes," or rather "pieces" that cover most of the major genres of 20th Century music and then some, all encapsulated in a contemporary classical, "avant-garde" (is there such a thing?) framework. From popular music genres to various folk music to film score and cartoon soundtracks, any style is fair game.
The artistic director for this multi-genre, new music ensemble is Paul Minotto. I spoke with him in his home studio in New Jersey.
[D.C. Ruiz] How did you first get interested in music?
Paul Minotto I had always liked music as a kid, starting around 7- or 8-years-old with my Bubblegum Pop records by groups such as the Ohio Express, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Archies. When I was 12, I saw a commercial for a set of records called "Superstars of the 70s" by Ronco on TV. One of the excerpts they played was "Foxy Lady" by Jimi Hendrix. I literally had an epiphany or some kind of spiritual orgasm. I went to Kmart and got the 45 of "Foxy Lady" and on the other side was "Purple Haze." I was hooked. After buying all the Hendrix records I could find, I wanted to learn the guitar.
[D.C. Ruiz] How did you get interested in orchestral music and other genres?
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Paul Minotto After Hendrix, I was introduced to the music of Frank Zappa. Through Zappa’s influence my tastes in music became much more varied. I played contrabass clarinet in the school Concert Band, guitar in the Jazz Big Band, percussion in the school orchestra and I began to write music. After high school, I taught myself piano and saxophone and worked in Top 40 bands around Atlanta and the southeast.
[D.C. Ruiz] Playing saxophone?
Paul Minotto Yes, and keyboards.
[D.C. Ruiz] You are also an accomplished abstract painter. Did you always like Art? When did you start painting?
Paul Minotto In school, I never liked art class. I always thought it was a waste of time. After I had worked in Top 40 bands a few years, I went to Boson to the Berklee College of Music. This was 1985. I graduated with a Bachelors degree in Composition in 2½ years. Unintentionally, I lived one block from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, so I would often wander over there. Just before my last year, I saw an exhibit at MIT of Alexander Calderís Mobiles. At the time, I was writing music for large ensembles that emphasized texture, timbre and rhythm over melody and harmony, very influenced by Penderecki and Ligeti. The interplay of shapes moving in space reminded me of the graphic scores of 20th Century music. I wanted to learn more about art and its relationship to music, so I enrolled in a drawing class at the Boston Museum School. During my last year at Berklee, I was studying music during the day and studying painting at night. Having a background in music gave me a jumpstart on painting and the composition of shapes, textures, colors and lines, all elements of music as well, than a non-musician.
[D.C. Ruiz] I know absolutely nothing about art or ART? What is the relationship between the visual arts and music?
Paul Minotto Well, there is quite a lot if you look for it. Do you want to get into it?
[D.C. Ruiz] Ahh … no. What did you do after Berklee?
Paul Minotto I got a partial scholarship to go to the Museum School. For a year, I went to art school part-time and painted houses the rest of the time to make some money. I didn’t see the point in getting another degree, so I stayed in Boston playing saxophone in Jazz groups and making paintings in my studio. I worked in various art galleries to pay the bills and I started to get my work into exhibits around Boston. After about five years, I decided to move to Manhattan to pursue my painting career.
[D.C. Ruiz] Were you still writing music during this time?
Paul Minotto No. For me, paintings were musical compositions without the need for musicians to realize the ideas. During my last two years in Boston, I had stopped playing music, as well.
[D.C. Ruiz] So, you are in New York, making paintings, showing in galleries, etc. How does music come back?
Paul Minotto I bought a computer. I wasn’t interested in it so much as to how it might aid in making paintings. I was intrigued by the sounds one could produce with it. I wanted to take everything I learned as a painter and apply it to music. I started writing again and eventually it won out over painting.
[D.C. Ruiz] Does being a painter give you a different perspective on writing music than a musician who isn’t involved with the visual arts?
Paul Minotto Maybe, I think so. Most musicians are visually illiterate and many visual artists are tone deaf, or at least have small ears. Any person working in one medium whether it is music, painting, dance, poetry or whatever, could only benefit creatively if they learn about the other modes of expression. Then one can see how it is all related with a broader perspective on the creative process.
[D.C. Ruiz] How did you get involved with the Bastard Children of Bozo?
Paul Minotto I was at a party in a painter friend’s loft in Chelsea where I lived at the time. We had a show together in Philadelphia and he was celebrating by getting very drunk. One of his friends was sitting alone in the corner eating candy corn; this was just before Halloween of 1997. He called himself Jimbo and claimed to be a distant relative of Bozo the Clown, you know the famous clown from 1960s TV. I thought he was just drunk. He said he was a piano player and directed a small orchestra in Greenwich Village. We talked a while and he invited me to a rehearsal.
[D.C. Ruiz] So that’s why the clown getups.
Paul Minotto Yes.
[D.C. Ruiz] Did you play an instrument with the Bastard Children of Bozo?
Paul Minotto Sometimes I would play percussion, but most of the time my function was writing charts for the group and trying to gather everyone up for rehearsals.
[D.C. Ruiz] Tell me more about Jimbo and some of the other members.
Paul Minotto Jimbo was a manic-depressive who was in and out of institutions. He had a drug problem and could out drink anyone I ever met. And he was an incredible pianist. He could imitate many people: Jarrett, Corea, Tyner, Taylor, Errol Gardner, Monk; but he wasnít very good at managing people much less a band. The other members were patients from the neighborhood drug clinic, ex-convicts, professional and non-professional musicians. Personnel were constantly changing.
[D.C. Ruiz] Where did you perform? Did you perform outside Manhattan at all?
Paul Minotto No, only in Manhattan. Given the size of the group, most clubs could not accommodate us. Concert halls were out of the question, so we ended up giving concerts mostly in public schools. We did have an extended gig once a week at an after-hours club called Save the Robots. We used half the group playing from 2 a.m. to about 6 a.m. That lasted about three months. We were sounding at our best. Jimbo stopped drinking; everyone was feeling good. Towards the end celebrities were stopping in. One night, Tony Clifton, famous New York Talent Agent, heard us and offered to be our manager. Jimbo thought this was some kind of big break; that we were going to be famous and be on Letterman or something, even though none of us ever heard of Tony Clifton. Well, three days later Clifton was hit by a taxicab and died. We also lost the gig at this time and Jimbo started drinking again.
[D.C. Ruiz] What led to the break up of the group?
Paul Minotto A week later, lawyers for the corporation that own the trademark BOZO sent Jimbo a "cease and desist" letter. They threatened us with a lawsuit if we continued to use the name Bozo. Imagine, a relative can’t even use the name. This was just too much for Jimbo. Due to stress and other personal problems, he checked himself into an institution and The Bastard Children of Bozo dissolved.
[D.C. Ruiz] Were you still painting at this time?
Paul Minotto Yes. After the Bastards broke up two years ago, I decided to move to New Jersey. I still had my studio for a year after that, but I was concentrating totally on music. It was during this time that I formed the primeTime sublime Community Orchestra.
[D.C. Ruiz] How did you come up with the name the primeTime sublime Community Orchestra?
Paul Minotto It is derived from the title of one of my large paintings, "Why Something of the primeTime sublime?"
[D.C. Ruiz] What does the prime-time sublime refer to?
Paul Minotto It’s all explained very laterally, not literally, on the web site www.primetimesublime.com.
[D.C. Ruiz] How is the primeTime sublime Community Orchestra different than The Bastard Children of Bozo?
Paul Minotto Well, for one thing the music is stylistically much more varied. With the Bastards, the music clearly fit within the 20th Century "avant-garde" emphasizing improvisation. Now the music doesn’t entirely fit in any one category, plus there’s the integration of non-orchestral instruments and computers as a fifth section in the orchestra. The other difference is that many of the musicians live in the suburbs and tend to be a bit more psychologically balanced.
[D.C. Ruiz] I think a little insanity can be good for the creative process.
Paul Minotto True. And good PR. Van Gogh cutting off his ear turned out to be a brilliant publicity stunt just as much as an act of insanity.
[D.C. Ruiz] Right. Just how are computers utilized in a community orchestra?
Paul Minotto The computers provide sound effects, synthesizers, and various samples or recordings. They are played in real time with a keyboard controller and accessed through MIDI, a protocol that enables electronic instruments and computers to communicate with one another.
[D.C. Ruiz] Where has the primeTime sublime Community Orchestra performed?
Paul Minotto During the first year, we did a concert In Amsterdam since some of the musicians have connections over there and were able to get some financial assistance. I used mostly musicians from Holland. At the same time, I was rehearsing in New Jersey with musicians from New Jersey and New York City for a concert at a high school where I live. All expenditures are out of my pocket, so renting a hall was impractical. Since money is an issue, I thought it would be best to spend the next year writing and recording a CD as well as designing some kind of merchandise that could be sold to generate revenue.
[D.C. Ruiz] Which brings us up to the present. Tell me about the CD, titled "( )".
Paul Minotto The music is all from the prior year of concerts so the musicians were already familiar with their parts. I recorded parts of the orchestra live and later added overdubs; that way I didn’t need to have everyone there at the same time. I then mixed the entire record in my home studio and added minimal sweetening where needed. I then hired Scott Hull at Classic Sound Studios in New York City to do the mastering. He has worked with many famous people in the Pop/Jazz fields as well as major symphony orchestras, so he was perfect for a multi-genre project such as this. I designed the CD cover artwork and a company called ESP in Buffalo manufactured the whole thing.
[D.C. Ruiz] Is the cover from one of your paintings?
Paul Minotto No. I did everything in the digital domain using images from the Internet, but most of it was from my head. The photo of the baggage claim carousel on the tray card was taken at Newark Airport. I was snapping pictures of empty ticket counters, baggage carousels, etc., to be used as a basis for a photomontage for the CD artwork. This was just after the 9/11 tragedy. The few people around at that time were staring at me like I was a terrorist collecting information. Someone must have said something because the security came by and questioned me. They inspected my camera and made me leave.
[D.C. Ruiz] That sounds kind of scary. At least they didn’t confiscate your camera, handcuff you and subject you to an excruciating interrogation in a bright white room.
Paul Minotto Yeah.
[D.C. Ruiz] What is planned for the future of the primeTime sublime Community Orchestra?
Paul Minotto I am currently marketing and promoting the orchestra via the CD. I hope to begin rehearsals again by the end of the year and book a tour for next year. The CD is now available on our web site at www.primetimesublime.com, along with additional merchandise such as a "CURB YOUR GOD" T-shirt and a prime Time sublime Native Tourist Manual.
[D.C. Ruiz] A what?
Paul Minotto Never mind.