Molly Sheridan: Your life did include traveling back and forth between Israel and New York and having all these sound experiences, and this seems to be present in the music. Are there specific things you’re trying to say about these places, or is this just the part of who you are and what you’ve absorbed?
Raz Mesinai: Well, there are millions of people who have been to Israel and New York and back and forth, and they don’t make the music I make. They’re great musicians, but they do different things. I couldn’t really say, but I feel that to me, especially the Badawi stuff, I’m trying to work out situations I went through where I wasn’t accepted in certain places. Sometimes I feel inside of me that I’m trying to work that out through the music.
MS: Anything specifically that you’re comfortable talking about?
RM: War in general is the biggest influence in my music, war and being isolated from other people. So, Kafka. I do have experience with war—now most Americans do, too. I find that when I make music, I feel there’s a solution in the music, and it’s only in the music. And that has a lot to do with what I’m saying about the separatism in music between different genres. If you have that, then you’re going to have separatism in life. If even music can’t be joined, then how is the rest of the world? It’s easier done in music than in real life, obviously. So I do feel like there’s something there, but I also feel like I just want to put people in my head. Some of it isn’t really about what’s going on right now. It’s more about fantasy and dreams, visions, or just seeing something strange. More and more as I’m getting older and less naïve, I’m getting away from my childhood, because I’m starting to feel I shouldn’t inflict that on everyone. And really I should focus on making a really new music.
MS: Well, you’re going to have to follow up on that.
RM: Well, that’s what I mean, I guess, by learning my instruments myself, learning to compose myself. It’s just the only way to do what I want to do, and what that is I don’t really know because it’s not fully done yet.
MS: I want to go back. I know you studied religion very seriously for a time and then switched and focused on music rather abruptly. But yet listening to your show recently at the Issue Project Room, it seemed very spiritual, if not exactly religious. Is that something that’s still very important? Is that what you’re trying to express there?
RM: I’m not religious and I don’t like religion too much, but I had to learn that the hard way by really being very religious. There are aspects of religion I really like, and most of those aspects are spiritual aspects. Spirituality to me is definitely a part of my music, and I guess it’s kind of hard to define. I think everybody knows what it is and it definitely is what I’ve put into music, but I think that’s all I can say about that. I think also mythology is a big part of it, too. There’s a link between spirituality and mythology and storytelling and sound, but the spirituality aspect is something that I guess it matters who’s listening.
MS: Well, even the association of the instruments and the sounds you’re using—I grew up as a Protestant Ohioan, but it still has that sense for me, the emotional trigger of it.
RM: Well, it’s interesting because I was just thinking about a bowed cymbal used in a horror film. A horror film might be scary, but it’s also spiritual and about spirits. And almost always they do this sound when something enters, or some sort of cluster, a dissonance or some harmonics. When you bow a cymbal, it vibrates and then out comes a sound. It doesn’t happen when you strike it—it’s there, too—but when you bow it, it rings for this long time and they apply it to this angel or demon. I guess I do a similar thing, but I hope that that becomes wider, the idea of what is spiritual should be everything, really. Everything is spiritual, and all music is spiritual.
MS: You seem very interested in telling stories with your discs. And I know you’re interested in film music. You have the imaginary film music disc, but now you’re working on more films.
RM: I love doing it because I love thinking about the whole story and the characters and then applying instruments. It’s exactly like what I was saying with Before the Law; it’s the exact same process for film. Applying a certain emotion to how you play a melody; it’s more than the melody, it’s how you play it and how you’re feeling when you play it. And then it will be effective in the film, because it’s either with the character or against it, whatever it is you’re trying to do, but it’s amazing how it works.
When I started Badawi, I was doing a comic book called Badawi. Then I started doing music to the comic book and then I just stopped doing the comic book. So I do have a story with that. And eventually maybe I’ll make a movie of it or something. I don’t know. And then the music will be in it and that will be that. That’s probably the best idea I could do with that, just to get it over with.
MS: It’s that adolescent project that you have to carry with you.
RM: Yeah, it was like an imaginary hero who I used to see in my mind and draw. It was a story that takes place way in the future, but so much in the future that it’s actually ancient at the same time. And I’m actually interested in just looking at both of those and seeing a real future in music. The people who play know about these different characters I have, and they start to get it or at least appease me. And they play different roles. There’s the Etherics and then the Heretics, the Clones and the False Prophets. And it’s applied to improvisation as well so you can be a False Prophet and proclaim something in the middle. We’re all having a musical interaction and someone stands up and does something. The Etherics are people who are thinking outside their mind, whether through hallucinogenics or meditation, or holding their head under water for five minutes. And that’s a big part of it, too.
MS: It sounds complicated, and very well developed, like a whole world you’ve created in several art forms.
RM: Yeah, it’s totally weird, I think, but I have to do it.
MS: And you can dance to it, too. [laughs]
RM: Yeah, I used to go to clubs and I’d DJ. I do all this experimental music but sometimes I stop myself and say, “No one can dance to this!”
MS: I was actually really curious about how that works out for you. How do you leave the energy and the immediate gratification of some of the beats that you make?
RM: There’s a way and I’m working on that. That’s where the notation is coming in. I’m finding that people really respond to that, but that can be applied to a string quartet. It’s just knowing rhythms and not being afraid to use them. I think a lot of new music got a little bit away from that where it was, “Eww, you can’t stick to that rhythm over and over again. Then you’re doing minimalism.” But I think sometimes you’ve got to make people dance and give them what they need. It’s almost illegal to dance in New York these days, so that’s all the more reason to make dance music.
MS: Is there something to be gained, though, by not relying on the beat or using that as sort of an instant drug?
RM: Yeah. I’m working on this piece for The Kitchen with a rapper who’s going to be doing this interpretation of this myth of Inanna’s decent to the netherworld. I gave him some beats and he rapped on them and gave them back to me, and then I took the beats away and did all sound design. So I try to mess around with it a little bit.
MS: I was really fascinated by the Reanimator track you tucked onto Cyborg Acoustics. It seems like the ultimate completely aural game for an improviser. Is John Zorn still the big scorer?
RM: Well, no one else has played it. [laughs] It’s a labyrinth of sound an improviser is placed in, and that’s a lot of the way I get people to do what I want. I place them on headphones in this—basically, a war zone of processed improvisers attacking you from all directions, and you need to react and place your sound somewhere in there without clashing with everything else that’s going on. John is one of the greatest improvisers I’ve ever seen, so he pulled it off. It’s just a funny idea I had. I think that piece is really just for him.