Interview with Ernesto Diaz-Infante
1. I know you and your music for nearly 20 years now, dear man. It’s been a vast amount of time and space to observe your development but also gave me food for thought and inspiration to discover all the shades and hues and details that your work is shaped from. Where did it all start? What’s your background?
Thank you, Hubert.
I grew up in the Salinas Valley of California, in the small towns of Salinas and Prunedale. It’s known for the writer John Steinbeck. It’s also known for street gangs. Theres’s very little to do there and I often was bored. It is an agricultural town, so lots of farmland and lots of jobs in the fields. My father was an inventor of agricultural machinery and he made me work in the fields one summer to get sense of it, to see exactly how hard work the work was and motivate me to do something else with my life. To pass my time I started making home recordings, lo-fi songs and instrumentals. I started making cassette tapes under the moniker of Nicté-Ha (the Mayan legend, means"Flower of the Water"). I was restless and I knew I wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as I could.
I come from a religious Catholic family and I went to Church a couple of times a week as a child. I was an altar boy, and ended up playing the church organ. A Mexican rock band (Cielo Azul) heard about my playing and they needed a keyboard player, and they visited the Church to hear my playing. They then asked my parents if I could join their band, and my parents thought it was okay if I wanted to go. I was only thirteen years old, a freshmen in high school, and in retrospect it seems pretty crazy that my parents would let me drop out of school. I think they meant well, wanted to encourage me to “follow my dream” or whatever. So I travelled around with this regional band that played a blend of Latin and Rock En Español music to mostly Mexican audiences at bars. It was fun for awhile, but they got me hooked on cocaine. One night I called my Mom crying to come and get me, and she did. So that threw my high school education years off. Life can be forgiving, too. I eventually made my way to a community college— Hartnell College Music Department in Salinas, California and studied with Dr. Carl Christensen. Then I later transferred and got my B.A. in Music Composition from University of California Santa Barbara, College of Creative Studies where I studied with Dr. Margaret Mayer and Dr. Jeremy Haladyna. They encouraged me to apply for a MFA in Music Composition from California Institute of the Arts. I got to study with Stephen Mosko and Wadada Leo Smith. I felt so lucky to get in, which I was, but I’m still paying off those loans.
After that I spent many years doing artist residencies, which were wonderful, and just trying to play and record as much as possible in lots of different configurations. I had to take a step back in recent years, partially due to having kids and time constraints, but I spent a lot of time also trying to promote and increase the audience for experimental music. In 1997, I created the music label Pax Recordings, where I released a lot of my own and others’ work. I also organized The Big Sur Experimental Music Festival for some years (1999-2004) and I have a lot of special memories from that period. I moved to San Francisco in 2000, and as soon as I arrived, I started a stint of curating Creative Music Thursdays series at the Luggage Store Gallery. This also overlapped when I co-founded the San Francisco Alternative Music Festival (SFAlt) (2001-2004) with John Lee at BayImproviser.com and saxophonist Rent Romus. I almost forget sometimes that I was so involved, but it’s fun to reminisce about like seeing an old favorite snapshot.
2. How would you describe your technique and what were/are your inspirations?
After some initial guitar classes where I learned the basics, I’m mostly self-taught. I would describe my technique as structured improvisation with spectral fingerpicking, strumming, and stream of consciousness playing.
My main inspirations have been Wadada Leo Smith, Alice Coltrane, and Morton Feldman. I’ve also been inspired by guitarists and composers like Derek Bailey, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Elliot Sharp. Lately, I’ve been listening to Olaf Rupp. I enjoy improvising to different types of music while listening with headphones. For instance, it’s a real exercise in counterpoint to try and play along with Renaissance vocal music! I’m a fan of automatism, trying let the muses come and go, and playing as relaxed and free as possible. That’s what I’m always shooting for even if I don’t always get there.
I’m a pretty obsessive and avid reader of books on music. Lately what has inspired me— Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music by Joe Morris; IrRational Music by Elliot Sharp; A Power Stronger Than Itself by George E. Lewis; Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey American Guitarist by Steve Lowenthal; Keith Rowe: The Room Extended by Brian Olewnick; Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice by Pauline Oliveros; Inflamed Invisible by David Toop; and Garcia: An American Life by Blair Jackson.
3. There is certain contents to your work that has a cultural and even political aspect to it. It’s quite intellectual but has a deep sense of humanism. How do you feel about it?
Those summers that I worked as a farmworker, harvesting and packing lettuce in Salinas, laid the foundation for me to become politicized as a college student in the late 80’s at Hartnell College through M.E.CH.A (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan). That group shared a philosophy of self-determination through higher education, culture and history that has stuck with me. They also shed light on how colonization and imperialism are playing out. I am really appreciative that I was able to get an education and have a much easier life, but have never been able to shake the unfair conditions and low pay for these farmworkers. It’s really hard labor, like factory work. So, yeah, once you see it in one place, you start to see the exploitation in lots of places. Bernie Sanders’ movement and campaign for presidency is hopeful. I never seen anything like it in my lifetime. Usually, the state of the world hangs heavy on a lot of us. The only part of my Catholic upbringing that has stuck with me is this sense that we should be of service. So I guess it’s inevitable that it would make its way into my music somehow. It often doesn’t feel like all that much, or enough, honestly.
4. The best bit, in my opinion, to the type of your version of improvised music is very much the present rhythmical side that has both important role to the narrative of your compositions.
You’re right. Despite being interested in noise, blurring melodies/harmonies, field recordings, and minimalism for years, it is always rhythm that I continually return to— mantra strumming. I think it’s a need for something soothing and primitive. Meditative. My solo fingerpicking mantra recording For M.F. explores this in a new way. Over time it has been morphing into a conversational dynamic with other sounds and instruments.
5. As many artists who improvise – you also take part in collaborations. Which ones do you treasure most and how does it feel to be part of it?
Of course, all of my collaborations are precious in one way or another, and obviously the ones where we’ve remained close friends are more precious. Most of my times these days are spent collaborating with my partner filmmaker Marjorie Sturm just through discussions around art, films, books, politics and life. As you know, we’re also collaborating with raising our two kids together which is a 24/7 project so I’m just appreciative to be around someone who is also passionate about my interests and shares sensibilities. I worked with a number of different musicians on Marjorie’s documentary, “The Cult of JT LeRoy” and I’ve continued to collaborate with some more recently. For instance, the percussionist Lisa Cameron out of Austin, Texas (who I met through poet Bill Shute) was a pleasure to work with her on our last recording Water is Life on Sister Skull Rekkids. Helena Espvall, the Swedish cellist based out of Lisbon, has been a good friend for a long time and am thankful that she has had great opportunities to come to San Francisco.
Over the last number of years, San Antonio poet Bill Shute has been wonderfully supportive of my music and gave me this relaxed permission to create releases on his now defunct Kendra Steiner Editions label. I put out a number of recordings there, about one or so a year, where I explored different ideas—Tunnels, The Lovers Escape/Los Amantes Escapan, wistful entrance, wistful exit, Manitas, and Emilio (reissued on Bandcamp). It was great to just know that someone was going to put them out and it wasn’t going to be me. I really treasure all of them, these documents of my development. Sound paintings.
6. How would you feel if you had to highlight what’s most important in the improvisation?
My interest in guitar improvisation is about erasing the history of guitar (melody, harmony, conventional rhythm) and create something that is more spectral in essence.
Listening is the most important element in improvisation, but it’s more than that. It really takes an interest in learning or creating an aural sonic language. It’s easy to fall into habits and think you are improvising, so I strive to push myself out of anything knee-jerk and make new pathways. It’s a lot of practicing.
7. What will keep you going in the far and near future? Any plans?
Portugal is my fantasy, visiting Lisbon and spending time on the beach and playing with other musicians (Helena Espvall, Ernesto Rodrigues and Manuel Mota are all there). Like other people lately, I’ve been questioning air travel. Yet, I really love it. It’s such a renewal to the spirit. It would be great if more ecological ways developed to do so.
I was feeling more ready to play shows lately, wasn’t feeling it for awhile, but everything is shifting so quickly especially now with the Corona virus. So I’m not sure when I’ll be playing shows or traveling. Thankfully, I feel some peace hanging in my home environment/studio. So I’ll just keep developing my guitar playing, keep recording and releasing recordings on digital media. I have two solo Glissentar unreleased recordings that I’ll mostly like release on Bandcamp some time soon. Fairly recently, I played a solo live set on Day of Noise 2020 down at KZSU Stanford, California. It’s also up on Bandcamp. As well, I am also working on music for a new film of Marjorie’s. That also keeps me going, keeps me recording.
Overall, my goal always just comes back to staying sane and raising my kids in a way that keeps them feeling safe, inspired and grounded. Today’s world makes that more and more challenging. I really believe in a “less is more” type of lifestyle until that “less” gets pushed over the edge and the month to month surviving is causing its own stress. Yet generally, I always come back to valuing time over money. It’s that extended space that provides a lot of fertility for creativity. I take in my quotient of news for the day, but I’m trying to stay disciplined because being creative is so lifting from moment to moment.