Carla Bley: On Her Own

Enjoying Independence

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s get to the entrepreneurial stuff…

CARLA BLEY: That stage.

FRANK J. OTERI: WATT Records… First of all, what does WATT mean?

CARLA BLEY: My second husband called it WATT. That’s the meaning…

FRANK J. OTERI: But what does it mean?

CARLA BLEY: It means three different things. The Watts Towers in Los Angeles. It meant Samuel Beckett‘s novel WATT. And it meant “Watt the hell was that?” WATT! It meant three things and so he called it WATT.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m glad I asked ’cause I thought it had another meaning altogether. I was totally wrong.

CARLA BLEY: What did you think?

FRANK J. OTERI: Watt is a unit of electricity.

CARLA BLEY: Oh, isn’t that great! Yes, that too!

FRANK J. OTERI: O.K.!

CARLA BLEY: Four meanings…

FRANK J. OTERI: And now Steve’s stuff is on a label called XtraWATT.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah. Xtra. My publishing company is called Alrac. I sorta like those rude sounding words.

FRANK J. OTERI: What does Alrac mean?

CARLA BLEY: It’s Carla backwards.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, of course.

CARLA BLEY: But it’s got that Al-rac! It’s not “Celestial Harmonies” or something. And WATT is sort of a short stubby word. Xtra is a cheap word, misspelled. I sorta like that. I don’t like anything too fancy.

FRANK J. OTERI: OK, so the first record you put out on your own is the massive, massive three-LP “Chronotransduction,” as you called it, now that’s a big word. What on earth does that mean?

CARLA BLEY: That means time travel. I didn’t make it up; it was made up by a scientist.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is such an unusual recording. I listened again last night. It’s amazing. But I don’t know what to say about it. There’s so much stuff going on in it, so many different kinds of music. One minute you think you’re listening to a jazz record and then it turns into a field recording from somewhere in the Caucasus or it’s a rock record or a Broadway musical…

CARLA BLEY: Wow. Yeah. Well, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I did whatever came up. Anyone who wanted to be in that opera, I said “Fine. You can be in it.” I wasn’t picky about the kinds of music or the people.

FRANK J. OTERI: You consider it an opera but it existed for years as only this recording. About 10 years ago there was a stage production somewhere in Germany.

CARLA BLEY: There were 5 productions. Afterward we toured in France and did the whole summer festival circuit with the live Escalator Over The Hill.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there a video of that anywhere? I’d love to see it.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, I’ll give you one.

FRANK J. OTERI: Please, it’s fascinating. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the theatre works of Richard Foreman, but it strikes me…

CARLA BLEY: Oh! He is so great. I just love him!

FRANK J. OTERI: Maybe it’s the musical sensibility of Richard Foreman? It’s so out there, but it’s fun.

CARLA BLEY: I could never hook up with him. He’s not a very friendly guy. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: No [laughs].

CARLA BLEY: Once I cut my fur coat in two and gave him half. We both had the same kind of a strange fur coat made from an Australian animal. Maybe it was a wallaby or something, I forget. I got mine at a thrift shop and I’m sure he did, too. It was the ugliest fur coat you’ve ever seen, but it was really warm. We both had one. Every time we met at a cultural affair we just looked at each other sideways. Once I saw him without his coat and I said, what happened to your coat? He said it just totally fell apart. I loved him so much that I cut my coat down the middle of the back, put half of it in a box, and sent it to his studio. Then I never heard from him. Next time I saw him he never mentioned it. But when I was thinking about Escalator Over The Hill, people where saying to me that I have to do it with this director; they’d name one after the other. I said I want to do it with Richard Foreman. He probably wouldn’t want to do it. It’s unrequited.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is so interesting. I heard the connection immediately.

CARLA BLEY: Wow, that’s so clever. You’ve caught on to a couple of things that I didn’t even know about. Strange.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that came out, which predates the WATT label but was also a self-produced thing. You have a unique position in the record business. You’ve got your own independent label, WATT. It’s distributed by another independent label, ECM, which in turn is distributed by a major conglomerate. I mean, they keep going from one to another: BMG, before that Warner Brothers, now they’re with Universal. They keep hopping, but they always have a major distributing them, which means they’ll be at every Tower Records, Blockbuster, or where have you. You get to have your cake and eat it, too.

CARLA BLEY: Tell me about it!

FRANK J. OTERI: You’re an indie within an indie, distributed by a major. It’s a very envious position to be in.

CARLA BLEY: And I’m totally protected. I never have to meet those guys at the top. All I have to do is be nice to Manfred [laughs].

FRANK J. OTERI: Many of the members of the American Music Center, which puts out NewMusicBox, and a lot of our readers are composers—classical music composers, jazz composers, composers of all types of what I like to call “dot org” music: non-commercial music—most of us are self-published. We put out our own scores. We’re self-producing in terms of making recordings because that’s the way it is. The majors aren’t interested in this stuff. They’re interested in something that they can sell in 2 weeks and milk to death, but they’re not interested in something that has an independent voice—as you said, the gunpowder tea of music.

CARLA BLEY: How long have you been doing that?

FRANK J. OTERI: The Center has been around since 1939.

CARLA BLEY: Oh! I was going to say that this was in the last 30 years that this has been happening. Before then I think if you wrote something that a label or whatever didn’t want, you would disappear from view.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, it’s very true. Sun Ra was one of the earliest people putting out stuff on his own label. Mingus

CARLA BLEY: Mingus, Stan Kenton

FRANK J. OTERI: Stan Kenton, and Harry Partch.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, Harry Partch. Isn’t that amazing that nobody wanted that? Wow!

FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you look back on it, everybody wants all of those people.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And a lot of people who where put out by the majors at that time have been completely forgotten. How many people listen to Curtis Counce at this point?

CARLA BLEY: I don’t even know who that is.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is the stuff being put out by major jazz labels at that time.

CARLA BLEY: Oh, I remember at the time, when I was with New Music Distribution Service, going to all the executives at the major labels and saying, “Look, we’re your work for you. It’s like a farm. We’ve got these young, weird looking forms of life. We’re distributing them. Why don’t you give us some money to help us do it? Because as soon as they’re ready, you can take them away from us for no charge whatsoever. Just throw a little money in the fertilizer.” I never got a cent from any of them. Yet now, luckily, all those weird looking trees survived. Not all of them I’m sure, but most of them. Turns out they get them anyway. They can discard them or cut them down—to continue the tree metaphor—chop them down and burn them…

FRANK J. OTERI: Turn them into McDonald’s paper hamburger wrappers.

CARLA BLEY: Exactly!