Sonic painting with Caterpillar Hedge
What is musical freedom? Thomasville-based saxophonist and performer Justin Holt is exploring that proposition with his ever-morphing improvisational outfit Caterpillar Hedge.
I spoke with Holt by phone last week in advance of Caterpillar Hedge’s upcoming free show at Earshot Music in Winston-Salem on Aug. 4 at 4 p.m.
Freedom means different things, depending on the context. On one level it means the opposite of being enslaved, bound, constrained or controlled. In certain settings, total individual freedom can appear to approach anarchy. But in other situations, freedom means the liberty to abide by the rules. We live in a society of laws; we’re free, but that doesn’t mean we can do anything we want.
Free improvisation is a style of playing — extrapolated from the jazz tradition — that largely does away with the rules and guideposts of harmony, melody, rhythm, and even of pattern altogether. But, you might reasonably ask, if you abandon harmony, rhythm and melody, are you still left with music? Holt doesn’t particularly mind if, for some people, the answer is no.
“When I put people together, the goal is really non-musical,” he said.
Caterpillar Hedge has evolved from an alto-sax-and-drums duo, with drummer Mike Gese, to a trio with the addition of Greensboro improviser and avant-gardist Gary Heidt. And now the ensemble regularly includes Winston-Salem-based multi-instrumentalist and wide-ranging experimenter Michael Thomas Jackson. Others rotate in and out as well.
Holt, 27, says it helps him to talk about the sounds that he and the group make almost as if it were visual art.
“I started thinking of it in terms of texture and shape, instead of music,” Holt said. “That’s the way I approach sonic playing.”
The sound that Caterpillar Hedge generates can be fairly abrasive to some ears, with shrieking and honking horns, whistling and siren sounds, car-horn-esque blasts, shrill upper-register attacks, cymbals, snares and kick drums all sizzling and skittering in a state of near eruption. Sometimes bass, guitar, or keyboards make slashing or lurching bursts, and other times everything hovers in a state of anticipation, a murmuring cloud. There’s keening and howling. The music often has a powerful force of will, like someone trying to go from treading water to lifting off and flying through the air purely by frantically moving their arms and legs. But the dynamics aren’t always set at full-throttle, sometimes things subside and breathe. The mood can go from spastic to static.
Holt sort of stumbled onto the avant-garde. He had been playing blues guitar, learning Mike Bloomfield riffs, and trying to replicate a feeling, a sound and a style. But at some point, he came to the realization that he was just working to copy pre-existing patterns, and that didn’t seem like how he wanted to direct his creative impulses.
“I just wanted to do my own thing,” he said.
Through some reading and research, he became interested in the idea of doing away with tradition altogether. Holt eventually tracked down a copy of Ornette Coleman’s landmark 1961 album Free Jazz, which consists of two quartets improvising at the same time. Holt was really excited to dig in and listen to the record, but, when he did, he found he could hardly stand it.
“What the hell?” he asked himself.
Still, the recording presented a challenge, and he kept exploring the genre, eventually getting galvanized by John Coltrane’s Om, recorded in 1965.
In conversation, Holt will mention “musical conditioning,” suggesting that our musical preferences are the result of cultural programming, not some innate sense of what is and what isn’t musical.
Some of the music under the free-improvisation umbrella is made with an explicit spiritual intention, to let one’s inhibitions go, to explore the extremes of sonic possibility, to push into a realm where the vibrations of sound waves have the potential of actually altering the physical reality around us. It’s far out, but it’s not unlike the thinking behind movements like Primal Scream Therapy, which assumed that the strictures of civilization and society leave individuals hampered by oppressive forces that keep us from our true natures.
For Holt, some of the language of meditation, spirituality and mindfulness practices seep into how he talks about the project.
“It’s all improvised, it’s just based right on the moment — the present, right now — what you have to offer and let pass through you,” he said.
In the same way that the practice of drawing or painting can give artists the sense of intensifying the way in which they see things, simply playing improvised music — trying to be extemporaneous on an instrument — can give the player the feeling that the act of listening is deepened.
Holt, who works as a landscaper by day, has started releasing some recordings of Caterpillar Hedge and of other improvisational projects on his Pink Lady Apple House page on Bandcamp. The recordings document the expansions and contractions of the ensemble, with trumpet, keyboards, guitar, electronics, and extra drummers, saxes, and basses showing up. The performance at Earshot is set to include two reeds, two drummers, two bassists, something approaching the double quartet of that Ornette Coleman record that got Holt started on his quest for freedom and in-the-moment catharsis.
It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re open to exploring the full spectrum of sound — and noise — and if you believe that maybe when it comes to taste and convention, we’re often shaped by the power of conformity and conditioning as much as by any universal aesthetic truth, Holt and Caterpillar Hedge are ready to push into whatever zone that the big spirit moves them.
“I really see Caterpillar Hedge as kind of like a community rather than a band, or an awareness or a consciousness rather than a band,” Holt said. “The point is to let your inner weird out, and if we all do that collectively, then in my mind we’re creating some kind of sonic paintings.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Caterpillar Hedge at Earshot Music, 3254 Silas Creek Pkwy., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, Aug. 4 at 4 p.m. For more information call 336-765-2009.