The Bureau: Musician and Composer, Peter Zummo

The Bureau: Musician and Composer, Peter Zummo

 

Words and photography by Cedric Bardawil

 

Peter Zummo is a composer and trombonist. An important exponent of American Contemporary music, he’s known for creating the distinctive trombone sound on Arthur Russell’s records. Peter has also collaborated across disciplines with dance choreographer Trisha Brown and visual artist Donald Judd on Lateral Pass. In February 2020 he performed with Peace on Earth (Robert Stillman, Tom Skinner and Tom Herbert), organised by Fourth Sounds. In the following conversation with Cedric Bardawil, he discusses his early memories of music, his illustrious career, various collaborations and the importance of getting dressed to perform. Pictured wearing Drake’s at The Standard, London.

 

Cedric Bardawil: Did you always want to be a musician?

 

Peter Zummo: No, although my family were musical, my sisters and I were sent for music lessons and there was a piano in the living room. My father was a musician, a piano player, and my mother sang. She was in an amateur singing group called the “Mother Singers”. 

There was one experience when I was quite young: my father was in the musicians’ union in Cleveland and played commercial gigs, and he also did radio in Pittsburgh before that, in which he played piano live on the air and accompanied acts, because they weren’t really playing records then. In Cleveland he was playing in combos, and one day the ensemble came over – this would have been in the early 1950s – four or five guys came to our house to rehearse and I remember being stunned at how large the men were, how large the instruments were and how big the sound was! It’s analogous to the first time I went to a train station to pick somebody up, I saw a locomotive train for the first time up close. I was so impressed. That’s one moment that was influential.

Later I came to realise that I’ve always been on stage. Before playing music at school, I was drafted into a play in elementary school – I was the prince and wore a Shakespearean costume. Then I was in the church choirs, the youth choir and the adult choir as soon as my voice was right because I could read music and had good rhythm. I started playing trumpet around 5th grade, I was in the little orchestra. Music was just something I did.

Going to Wesleyan University, everything exploded musically – I learnt about contemporary composers, world music, electronic music. Suddenly I was in the big band, playing trumpet and studying with great musicians: Makanda Ken McIntyre, Sam Rivers and learning trombone from Daoud A. Haroon. My intention was to be a physics major, but I didn’t have the calculus, so I became a music major. Still, at that point I didn’t expect to have a career as a working musician, let alone a creative.

 

CB: When did your career take off, what was the big break?

 

PZ: First of all, having this extraordinary free-thinking education in college, which I took very seriously. It was stochastic, academic, going through all the trappings of what it means to be aesthetic. It set me up to understand art, creativity and culture.

When I moved to New York City, it was the beginning of the end of the session musician heyday. Stephanie, who is now my wife, moved to be a dance choreographer. We knew downtown was the place to be, so we found a loft on 22nd street between 6th and 7th Avenue. The creative community was so much smaller then, we went to concerts – we knew who the artists were for the most part and kept discovering more, we would meet people and they would respect you for what you did. It was this spirit in New York City at the time that led me to meet and work with musicians: Arthur Russell and Peter Gordon, also dance choreographer Trisha Brown and visual artist Donald Judd.

CB: Could you speak a bit about your experience working between disciplines?

 

PZ: Trisha Brown called me after seeing Stephanie Woodard and Wendy Perron’s choreography for the series Art on the Beach, which I did the music for. She said the music was perfect for the place and the dance, and asked whether I’d write music for her. One thing led to another. I was invited to her loft on 541 Broadway, part of which was converted to a dance studio. We discussed the piece, whether it could have a beat: that led to the last two movements of Lateral Pass. I’d then record material with an ensemble and play it back to Trisha, one of the recordings is titled Frame Loop. There was quite a dialogue over a period of around a year, it then premiered at New York City Centre.

 

CB: At the time of working with Trisha Brown on Lateral Pass, you also worked with Donald Judd.

 

PZ: Right. Donald Judd had this concept for solid colour panels and that there would be a steady state droning music turning on and off, but he didn’t know how to do it. Donald had been working with Trisha, and somehow I got the call and remember him sending me sketches for the stage of Lateral Pass

I studied up on him, we then spoke a lot. I had dinner at his place on Spring and Mercer Street, which is now The Judd Foundation. Then I went to Marfa, Donald’s place in Texas for about a week. I was practicing trombone in a little army fort, there were pillbox style ammunition structures. Artists who create an aesthetic environment to live in influenced me – Donald treated his surroundings as architecture or sculpture. He would talk about the importance of being absolutely pure, true to your vision and that the establishment could not bastardise your work by moving it.

Then I adopted Donald’s method of the sketches: dating them, which has to do with valuing your ideas. I’ve found the hardest thing to teach students is to believe in their own ideas. So, writing ideas and dating them, means that you recognise their potential value. It’s what the poet calls the gift, the line that comes out of the blue – that you write down and figure out how to construct a song or a poem, or a movie out of. That’s become my basic method of working.

 

CB: That’s interesting, are there any other concepts that have stayed with you?

 

PZ: In graduate school, I was reading philosophy in relation to understanding aesthetics and creativity. I learned the idea of objectification. You make the thing concrete by writing it down, recording it, painting it, drawing it, sculpting it, taking a picture. Then it’s an object which you can look at, turn upside down, photocopy, cut up, paste.

 

CB: Have you ever been approached to produce music for fashion?

PZ: Not personally, although there was one experience where Peter Gordon was working with streetwear pioneer, Willi Smith for costuming. Peter’s band was asked to perform for Williwear during fashion week and I was part of the band at the time. I remember setting up on both sides of the runway at about 10am. Fashion week was nothing like it is now, but that was still a moment.

 

CB: How important is it for you to get dressed for the stage?

 

PZ: It is important and something I think about. Whether it’s a t-shirt, or a suit. Look at jazz over the years, those wonderful suits. People go to concerts to have a good time, they want to look at something as well as listen to music. There’s also an aspect of professionalism, being prepared. Finally taking care of your appearance helps how you feel, particularly when walking up to the stage.

CB: What was it like working with Arthur Russell?

 

PZ: It was what it was, we got along. He was advanced in music and more consciously involved in the art world than I was at that stage. He encouraged me to write more, I was relying on my sessions without developing them. He’d tell me it’s very important to date your work: take credit for it, because someone could steal it or do the same thing later. He also took me further with my engagement with technology.

Similarly, I know I influenced him with some of my ideas, specifically my exploration of what I called improvising serial music, he called it: “do your chromatic thing”, which is what he asked me to do on [Dinosaur L’s 24>24 track] “Go Bang”.

He would often take instructions beyond the described boundaries, for example on Zummo With an X, he played it with a faster tempo, but it worked! 

As a character, he was funny. It’s always hard for me to talk about what it was like playing together. We both played tenor instruments, he was very rhythmical, we could both read music accurately, we were each on our own path but there was a large area of crossover. 

 

CB: More recently, how did you meet the band Peace on Earth?

 

PZ: I first met Tom Skinner when he was in New York. I invited him over to my studio and we spent the afternoon together, and several years later that resulted in us working on [Hello Skinny album] Watermelon Sun together. I met Tom Herbert shortly after at a recording studio. Then Robert Stillman came in through Hello Skinny. The first time we all played together was in Canterbury, then the recent Fourth Sounds gig in London. They are great to play with: I was looking forward to that gig all week!

 

CB: That was a great performance, there was an incredible energy in the room! 

What are you currently working on?

 

PZ: I’m finishing a record for Tin Angel: a session from The Village in Copenhagen earlier this year with the string trio I had at Kings Place. I’ve just done a remix for Vula Viel. I’m doing a track for Chris Cummings. Then the conceptual art project with Jonas Pequeno.

 

Shop Suits