Interview with Tom Varner about Heaven and Hell (OmniTone 12210)
with Frank Tafuri in August 2009

Tom Varner photo by Daniel Sheehan
Photo by Daniel Sheehan

Tafuri:  So, what's behind the title "Heaven and Hell?"  (I'm guessing this doesn't have anything to do with the non-Ozzy Ozbourne-led incarnation of Black Sabbath.)

Varner:  Yes, nothing at all to do with Black Sabbath, though younger musicians have already asked me about that reference … of which I know nothing!  I was simply referring to the "combo platter" in life that seems to grow stronger the older we get — the good and the bad that is all around us.  More specifically, Heaven and Hell is a reflection on the "hell" that was 9/11 in NYC and, ten days later, the "heaven" of becoming a parent when we adopted our son Jack in Hanoi, Vietnam.  And now, I hear Jack (now 8) and his sister Hope (now 6) dancing to Horace Silver upstairs and smashing the floor with their exuberance!

Tafuri:  How early in the process did the title Heaven and Hell come to you, and how much — if any — did it influence the music you created?

Varner:  Actually, it was quite late in the process.  The title hit me when the whole piece was finalized and ready for recording.  Heaven and Hell is a "looking back" at an almost-eight-year process of thinking about, composing, organizing, and executing the music, during a time of huge changes in the world and personally, as well, for many folks.

Tafuri:  When you told me the title of the piece a few years ago, the first thing that popped into my Italian-American mind is Dante's Divine Comedy with its various realms: heaven, hell, and purgatory.  Your previous recordings have made known your fascination with the history of the early Christians and of the weird bedfellows made at the time of faith, religion, secularism, and banality.  How does Heaven and Hell fit into that … and is there any room in this musical world for purgatory?

Varner:  A fair question, given my past titles and interests, but this time, at least, I wasn't consciously thinking of those issues.  Heaven and Hell gets more to the "immediate extremes" that surround us every day.  However, looking back, waiting to adopt a child is certainly a kind of purgatory, 9/11 was hell for sure, and my wife and I holding our son in our arms 10 days later was heaven.  As for music, well, Ellington, Bird, Stravinsky are heaven, any bad music is hell and, well, any "blah" music is purgatory.

Tafuri: But why such a grandiose title as Heaven and Hell, then, when talking about the "immediate extremes that surround us every day?"  I mean you could have called it Everyday Vignettes or The Trials and Tribulations of Everyday Life,or (in the vein of The Truman Show) TV TV.  But you tagged it Heaven and Hell.  Did writing for a tentet or the size and scope of works by composers like Messiaen and Mahler, for example, who you've mentioned to me previously who you had in mind while working on the project, have any bearing on the piece?

Varner:  (Well, TVTV was already on my first LP!)  Looking back, the title came after the fact, like Mystery of Compassion and Martian Heartache and Swimming.  At the time of starting it, I just wanted to write a big, varied, melodic improvisatory work for a tentet — actually, for the Swimming quintet plus five more instruments.  At the outset, I wasn't thinking of world or personal events — just listening to Mingus, Miles, Messaien, and going from there. Later, I was thinking about the "little heavens and hells" that we all go through, and the title just stuck for me. 

Tafuri:  Every year that passes since 2001, "the world" — that is, people who weren't living in New York or weren't directly or indirectly affected by the 9/11 attacks —  seem to be getting exponentially more humdrum about what happened in New York and how it changed things.  Both you and I were living in New York when the 9/11 attacks happened, and neither of us are living have been living there for a few years now, in August 2009.  But knowing you, I think it's gonna take you — like me — a lot longer than others to get over what happened.   You've been working on this project for a few years and I certainly understand how long it sometimes takes for record company to release a recording project these days, but now, eight years post-9/11, what messages would you like to think Heaven and Hell carries with it?

Varner:  I wasn't consciously thinking of these issues when I seriously got to work on this project in February 2003, during a much-needed stay at the MacDowell Colony.  At that point, I just wanted to get to work on a wild tentet piece, the same piece I mentioned in the "what's next?" interview section for Swimming.  Then, to paraphrase John Lennon, "life happened as we were making plans," and life took over.  My wife and I adopted our daughter in 2004 and moved to Seattle in 2005 and, only later, with some perspective, I saw a bigger picture.  Yes, the sadness and rage of many NYers  — "This happened here!" and "Why is there a war now in the wrong country?"— are in the music.  It's impossible for them not to be there.  The bigger message?   It sounds pretty trite, but simply put: "Be aware of the bad; embrace and savor the good."

Tafuri:  Is the piece programmatic and, if so, could you tell us a little bit about the overall journey (and stops along the way) that might enhance a listener's experience of the music?  Many of the parts have typically interesting — even, intriguing — (dare I say?) "Varneresque" titles…

Varner: Well, as I've done now for several projects, once I try to establish a wide range of moods by choosing and ordering takes for a CD, the work gets a "dramatic arc" to it.  Our premiere of the piece at the Seattle Art Museum — two days before the recording — had a different sequence and, so, a different arc.  I guess, for me, the "programmatic" aspect comes later. 

Sometimes it just occurs to me and might make me laugh.  For example, "The Daily Dance" made me think of the morning scramble of getting kids to school, with its odd meter section and, of course, it has my "dancing girls on the Corvette" boogaloo section too!  

"Overview" is a kind of "far away panning-in shot," like in the beginning of a big movie.  

"Waltz for the Proud Tired Worriers" is a "new parents at 3:00 AM" snapshot.

And "Structure Down" made me think the most of 9/11 though, at the time of writing it, I just wanted to expand more fully on the same "Ornette-like" melodic motif that's in "Overview" and "Queen Tai."  "Structure Down" was simply called "G section" for a long time.

And, all the short interludes are thought of as "quiet reflections," bits of staring into space, between more heavy events.  They're all incredible trio improvisations, in different combinations, by these great players.

But I want to emphasize—these "programmatic thoughts" all came after the fact, and I would hope that any listener would have their own inner narrative to go with this music as well, or just enjoy it as "pure music" — whatever that means!

Tafuri: How big of a part does "color" play in your music, particularly in musical vehicles you write for certain instrumental voices or, since you mentioned Ellington earlier, even individual players?

Varner:  Well, one of the main points of writing this piece with this instrumentation it has was expanding the range of colors to have a more "vertical" harmonic sense.  I had originally thought that I would add a clarinet, violin, trumpet, trombone, and cello to my NY quintet (Tony Malaby, Steve Wilson, Cameron Brown, Tom Rainey).  But then, as I said, life took over; I moved to Seattle and had the opportunity to realize this piece.  The violin became a dedicated soprano sax, and the cello became a baritone sax and, voila, I had a "do-able" working new music/jazz tentet with a huge coloristic range.  Immediately, I did think of individual personal sounds, a la Ellington, and some sections are simply "color etudes."

Tafuri: Are there any particular pivotal moments in the piece?  Where do you feel the most "heaven" and the most "hell" is and why?

Varner:  After the fact, I'd say the most "hell" is "Structure Down," and the most "heaven" is "Waltz for the Proud Tired Worriers." And all the short interludes are pretty heavenly to my ears; Mark Taylor and Russ Johnson's solos on "Queen Tai" are heaven too.  I also think of the whole piece rather cinematically, with lots of jump-cuts from different moments in time, often from a reflective present to a turbulent past.  "The Trilling Clouds" signals a heightened awareness, and the final "Postlude: Nine Years Later" is a kind of "sigh from the future."

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