Painting Music in Open Spaces: A Conversation with ZRL
ZRL, the trio of clarinetist Zachary Good, cellist Lia Kohl and percussionist Ryan Packard, stretch the already spontaneous and democratic practices of group improvisation out into a collective blanket of inter-artistic care and respect. For their new release, Our Savings, ZRL spent three days holed up in Edgar Miller‘s Glasner Studio recording the sessions from which they compiled this succinct and electrifying record. In the world of improvisation, ZRL’s sound—rhythmically and timbrally playful, pregnant with space and patience—abolishes ego and domineering intent, building off the trio’s communal goodwill for a shapeshifting amalgam of ambiguity brimming with sonic and emotional uniqueness. Find links to the album and a conversation with ZRL below.
SLUG: In what ways do you feel like the architecture and history of Glasner Studio space was able to inspire you? How did those elements influence what you’re doing on Our Savings?
RP: We learned quite a bit about Edgar Miller. One of the most interesting things for me is that he’s a bit of a polymath with a DIY sort of aesthetic. Literally nothing is hands off. He did pretty much everything—the interior, the exterior—with great detail. Very expressive stained glass with this Americana-meets-Medieval-meets–Prairie School style. It’s an amalgamation of tons of historical things and patterns. It’s very maximalist in some ways, too. Just saturated with colors, fantastic wood-workings, as well … How to even describe the amount of detail? Every single element of this place is carved and crafted. When you walk into a building like that, at least for us, it was like, “Wow, everything is inspiration to this dude.” So everything took from that and became inspiration.
LK: People always say that about residencies: “Oh it’s so great to have the time.” I think I didn’t really know that until we did this one. Sometimes it’s hard for us to get together and to really have time to explore. The first day of recording we only used around five minutes out of six hours. The second day we were like, “Oh, now we’re in here.” So it was about the space, but it was also about the time.
ZG: One other things I’ve been thinking about has been the functionality of everything in [Miller]’s work. Everything’s so beautiful and ornate, but everything has a function—everything has a purpose. When you’re walking in to the front door, there’s a railing, but if you look closely it’s a snake. There are all these levels to the building, and every floor has a purpose or Edgar had an idea for that space and how to use it.
LK: There’s also this warmth that comes with being in a space that someone has made. A warmth and a specific kind of inspiration. Of course it’s inspiring to play on a big stage, but there was something so inspiring about being in a space that someone had made and feeling like everything is possible here. Knowing that so many kinds of making are possible.
RP: This was also summertime, like extremely hot and direct sunlight. We’re all sweating our asses off and there’s beams of light blasting through these beautiful stained glass windows with turquoise and mauve meeting crazy shades of red and yellow. You get this sort of synesthesia around it as well, like this color saturation [that] faded into the music.
SLUG: There are a few tracks on Our Savings, like “Remarkable Savings” and “Hardly Slept,” that almost have a sort of off-kilter groove. When you were performing and recording, how do you feel like a sense of rhythm and movement permeated your music?
RP: The thing that I think draws us together … is not only a connected timbral sense, but also connecting through shared interests. We love pop music—like, a lot. On the way over here we were jamming to some Janka Nabay. I feel like maybe it’s just subconsciously [that] we want that, but not just to do that verbatim. It just creeps in anyway.
LK: We also all play different kinds of music. We’re all classically trained, but I play strings with a lot of rock bands. I’m only speaking about my own practice, but everyone has a really wide range of things that they do. I think those things creep in, too.
RP: I do like the idea of having free playing that is borderline existing abstractly rhythmically and also kind of locked into these abstract grooves. We’re all far too gone with whatever we heard and now it’s just coming out and we can’t help it.
SLUG: With all those competing influences, when you do sit down together, what makes ZRL, ZRL?
RP: At the beginning, we did discuss a lot about things we liked and didn’t like about what we were doing. We were very honest with each other. In a lot of improvised settings, people don’t get to that point. They don’t want to offend someone by curtailing their choices, and I totally understand that. There have been many situations where I would never comment on something because I think it’s fair to have the expression just as it is. But our sound comes out of vulnerability and honesty and our shared friendship. It sounds kind of vague, but it makes a really huge difference and it’s quite directly connected. We sound the way we are because we spend a lot of time figuring it out emotionally and verbally and metaphysically between us.
LK: There’s also a lot of focus on texture and creating something that’s all of a piece. There’s a lot of imitation. I feel like I learned to improvise from these two. A lot of that has to do with, “Oh, how can I actually sound like a clarinet? How can I sound like percussion?” And not just general percussive things—how can I sound like Ryan? I think there’s a lot of feeling like we’re going forward balancing. I spend a lot of time when we’re improvising thinking about, “Ok, what does this need?” As if it’s a dish we’re making together and there’s not enough crunch.
ZG: It feels very safe for me … Maybe safe isn’t the right word, but comfortable?
LK: I think safety is a great word. Safety in the sense of love and feeling like I can say something and it’s ok.
ZG: Yeah. When you listen to a track of ours, one of us might pop out, but for the most part, what were we saying, a three-person … ?
LK: A three-person canoe!
ZG: A three-person canoe. There is a very collective, cohesive sound that is us but isn’t about any one of us.
RP: We’re like a floating collective object. It’s like we’re this planet that has this ecosystem inside of it that just hovers. There’s detail inside when you parse it out, but it’s more or less a composite whole that makes the sound what it is.
SLUG: I really appreciate the use of temporal space and musical space on Our Savings. Can you talk about what musical space and silence mean to you as performers and how that interacts with your music as ZRL?
LK: We all like to spend a lot of time on things. We all like music that does that.
RP: For this trio, it comes back to that trust and safety thing. You really trust someone to stay there. You can trust someone not to take up too much space. You can hold ideas in a way [where] they form naturally so that when they go, they don’t go because you’re worried about changing—they go because it falls easily. I feel like space, especially in music, is what can inform things to exist. If you take up too much space, then it’s an action. Which is totally valid—that’s a whole state of being, just constant movement. But for us, it’s more about [how] we can observe it compositionally from above and allow each other to breathe within that space. The bird’s-eye view is easier when people allow things to be heard and not take over.
ZG: Something that I learned recording our first album and mixing and mastering it was paying close attention to what we made. When you improvise, you think back and you’re like, “What happened back there?” When you listen back with a critical ear and you hear all these amazing details in what we’re all doing, I think that makes us more hungry to create even more subtleties in our playing. When you listen back, there are all these little easter eggs that we’ve given each other. We like subtlety, we like details and we like impressing each other too, I think.
RP: Yeah, kinda! I wouldn’t say we’re trying to impress anyone outside of our little world.
ZG: It’s for us.
RP: It’s true. Like, Zach does these multiphonics that I’m obsessed with. Whenever he blends with vibraphone parts or things, he’s able to find the eighth-tone or quarter-tone in between and work with the speed of the beating pattern. That hyper-attention to detail and that thing that you can do with someone that is totally there and is totally super–stupid good at their instrument … there’s endless variety when you zoom in and when you zoom out.
LK: The one-color painting. In another group that Zach and I are in, we’re doing some studying of restorative justice, circular conversation–style. The thing that I’ve noticed about that is that if you know that you get to talk, then you take much more time and there’s not this sense of urgency or needing to be as loud as possible. In ZRL, I know that I’m gonna be able to have the space to make sound here, so I might take a long time to do it and that’s ok.
SLUG: Right. Knowing you’re going to be heard means you don’t need to shout.
LK: Exactly. Or if we shout, then maybe we shout all together!
SLUG: To you, what is the biggest challenge in playing improvised music? How does ZRL respond to or engage with this challenge?
RP: Sometimes when you play with someone for a really long time, you can fall into tropes.
LK: Your “role.”
RP: Yeah, your role. Which, in many cases, can be fantastic. That’s what made [Peter] Brötzmann a thing. You knew what Brötzmann’s thing was. He’s developed this world, and there’s a lot of detail in that role that he plays and he does an incredible job of it. But sometimes when you’re formed in a group, you have things that you can fall into, and that can be frustrating. So we often are aware of that and make sure we still keep it fresh and have variety and clarity with what we’re trying to do. You always want to be present. The more present you are, the less that you’ll default to something.
LK: [to RP] I think you do a lot for that. Ryan’s a percussionist, right? That means that every time he brings some other instrument. Even for the recording session, I didn’t know what he was gonna bring.
RP: Yeah, I don’t tell anyone what I’m gonna bring.
LK: There’s always these new elements. Sometimes we’re like, “Yeah, bring the vibraphone, we love the vibraphone.”
ZG: Or DON’T bring the vibraphone.
LK: But mostly you just bring a totally new palette, which makes it really exciting for the two of us who mostly bring the same instrument. Then there’s a whole new thing for us to respond to.
ZG: Improvising is hard. It’s just hard. When we’re performing, you can kind of let go because it doesn’t really matter.
LK: Well, it’s ephemeral.
ZG: Yeah, but when you’re recording, it feels overly precious. We’re all kind of perfectionists in our own way. At least for me, that can kind of get in the way of letting go. That’s why it took us two days to get to a point in our recording of Our Savings to really produce things that felt good for all of us. We tricked ourselves into treating it like a performance, rather than a recording session. That was really helpful.
LK: I can definitely get in my head like, “Oh this is gonna be on the record. Is it gonna sound cool? Is it interesting?”
LK: You can’t improvise if you’re thinking … It’s like having a conversation and thinking if anything that you’re saying makes sense (which now I’m doing).
RP: Too much of the external or internal commentary from your brain really isn’t healthy. There’s a little bit of that, but don’t overthink it … but don’t underthink it.
Our Savings is out now via American Dreams Records.