Interview with a Viper
Musician Michael Chorney sheds his snake skin for a more "composed" life
Photo: Calen Kenna
It was a snowy ride out to Lincoln when I went to check in with Michael Chorney, one of Vermonts most creative and committed musicians, at a turning point in his career. Six years ago, the saxophonist organized a gaggle of central and northern Vermont musicians into viper House a high-octane, cosmo-funk mini-orchestra interpreting the music of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra and Duke Ellington, as well as Chorneys own compositions. ViperHouse had a fresh, contemporary groove-jazz flavor.
In the ensuing years, the nine-piece earned an enthusiastic following in Burlington and beyond, playing hundreds of live concerts up and down the Atlantic Coast and as far west as Colorado. They shared stages with such friends as Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and the lamentably late clown prince of free jazz, Lester Bowie. The honorary viper, who had been an artist in residence in Vermont before his untimely death from cancer in November 1999, said of the band, Theres a spirit of joy and fun in their music thats highly contagious. I believe I have been infected.
When rumors of the bands dissolution began circulating in January this year, I was surprised and disappointed. Following the departure of a few members the previous summer, the remaining sextet seemed to be the tightest and most potent lineup yet. And at a time when more and more college-aged listeners are opening up to such creative music, the sky should have been the limit for the accessibly groovy, acid-jazz spasm band, as the vipers called themselves. Theres something to be said for going out on a high note, but without a final show or any sort of formal announcement, closing the door on viperHouse felt like a good friend had moved out of town without saying goodbye.
A recent opportunity to check out Chorneys free-improv quartet at the Compost Art Center in Hardwick, however, reminded me that while bands come and go, musicians themselves remain to brighten another day. The audience at Compost was small for The Ephemorons, but the music was large, and quite a departure from anything Id heard the vipers play. The music was far less groove-oriented, with the quartet developing a more abstract, impressionistic sense of rhythm and melody. It seemed strongly influenced by Chicagos Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians Collective, and their progeny.
By the time I arrived at the goose-coop-turned-charming-mountain-hideaway where Chorney, now 45, makes his home with his wife and two young daughters, Id realized that for him this is not an ending but the beginning of the next stage in a rich musical life. Settling in for a chat in his cozy studio amidst a collection of records, instruments and piles of manuscript paper, the bearded and overalled Chorney projected palpable excitement about the music hes been composing and arranging since viperHouses final gig in December.
Seven Days: ViperHouse disbanded so quietly that many people reading this probably arent aware that the group is no longer active. What was behind the decision to call it quits when things seemed to be going so well?
Michael Chorney: Well, at the end of last year, wed just completed a season of touring hard touring, lots of long drives. We were at a place where wed been working with the new lineup, the sextet, for about six months, and the next step would have been to record the material wed been working out on the road for a new album. In fact Id been making the preliminary arrangements to do that with whom and where, getting it lined up. But the implications of doing another recording would have meant everyone re-committing to the project for at least nine months to a year, because if youre going to put out a record, you have to tour and promote it.
We were going ahead with that in mind, but towards the end of last year a confluence of factors really called into question how viable that commitment could be, and whether or not it could be met and adhered to in the right way. Some of it was just attrition; you know, over the course of the last two years, 250 shows, thats a lot. So there was the fatigue factor, and some of it was my own personal fatigue. There really is a lot of energy expended attempting to be an effective band leader
Wed made this big transition last spring and had done our final concert with Heloise [Williams], Brian [Boyes], Dan [Mallach] and P.J. [Davidian], and had pretty successfully transitioned into the new lineup. The music was wonderful; there was some really compelling stuff. But a number of personal factors, really major life changes, occurred over the course of like two or three weeks It seemed like the best thing to do was to say, well, were done.
I was primarily responsible for wanting to do it quietly. I felt that after the big hoopla in June to try and revisit any experience even slightly akin to that didnt feel right. We didnt make an announcement at all. We didnt do a final show, so to speak, just sort of quietly went home.
SD: Did you consider putting the band on a more temporary hiatus?
MC: We were thinking about taking a big chunk of the winter off, but some of the things that were going on with folks called into question whether they were going to be able to do the band at all I could have put together viperHouse 3, or 4 or 5, but five of the six of us had been working together for five and a half years, and although viperHouse had started off as my vision, what happens over the course of time, with any group, is that it becomes more of a collaboration. A band to me is defined by when the chemistry between the players is as prominent a feature of what happens on stage as the compositions or the execution of them. Thats a great strength, but it can also be a weakness: It works both ways. We had certainly evolved into being much more of a collective, and I didnt feel like it was my choice to say, All right, heres another viperHouse.
SD: Whats been most satisfying about your experience with the group?
MC: Well, there are specific things. Working with Lester was certainly a wonderful thing, and there are certain concerts I remember, and the recording sessions, putting out four great albums as far as the bands history, theres a lot to be proud of. But overall, what was really most enriching and fulfilling was the process itself, and this ongoing thread in our creative lives that fed me, fed all of us. Coming towards the end, that was in the balance and, in any kind of endeavor, if things are unhealthy to any degree, and you have some capacity to change it, thats the thing to do. Defining whats healthy and unhealthy for yourself, well, thats what livings about.
SD: Nicely put. Lets talk about what youve been up to over the winter. You went out on a short tour in January with a small combo supporting an improvised dance project.
MC: Ive been working at Middlebury College for many years, collaborating with Penny Campbell, one of the dance professors there. Shes a proponent of a method of improvising which is really very interesting and deep work. Its really very rigorous, just the opposite of make it up as you go along.
SD: A popular misconception about improvisation.
MC: Yes, it is. Penny has engendered a lot of these methodologies and points of view in me, regarding improvising. So this winter, she was directing the dance company at Middlebury. They have this thing called J-term which is kind of a basket weaving month for the students there, so to speak, except for these dancers. Theyd worked really hard for the entire fall, and in January we did a small tour of schools around the Northeast, and a few performance spaces. The musical component was myself, Rob Morse from viperHouse on bass, Jared Baird, whos a Middlebury graduate, on drums, and Darren Case on alto sax, whos going to graduate this spring.
Both Jared and Darren had taken an improvisation class I taught last year. There were some great musicians in it, but these two were really outstanding, and from what I understand, that class really changed their outlook on music in a big way; we worked together very well. So we went off in January and did a lot of music, all of it improvised. Seven dancers, four musicians. We did some great work, and we did some not-so-great work; thats the nature of it. It reminded me, with viperHouse having just concluded, about the nature of process and being able to embrace process on its own terms.
Then the four of us went on to perform up in Hardwick a few times, and weve got a show coming up at the Bristol Bakery in April. Im not sure how long or how often well perform from here on out, as some of the guys are moving away, but its something I hope we continue to do. For myself, it only satisfies a certain aspect of what I like to do musically. I really value improvisation, but to do it exclusively I would find unfulfilling, because I love composing. Thats what Ive been doing here all winter.
What Ive found since the band ended and I was really unaware this was even going on was that my creative energies were being spent so largely on each nights show, and focusing all sorts of other kinds of energy on just keeping the thing going. Since then, Ive just been in this room. . . Ive just been working on all this stuff. Ive done more compositional and creative work in the last three months than I had in the entire last year. And its great to do it without deadlines. Ive been writing original music for an ensemble that doesnt even exist yet; I dont even know what the instrumentation will be like. Talk about doing something for the sake of process!
SD: I know youve also been working independently on some arrangements.
MC: Right, my other big project right now is arranging all this music by Kurt Weill and Nino Rota, with a few other pieces thrown in Im maybe halfway through the Kurt Weill charts, the Nino Rota is pretty much done. Of all things, Im including some Bob Marley pieces, though not for the sake of irony I have no interest in irony at all.
Its been a great way to focus my energies, and its nice to have these different outlets. If Im in a fairly inspired melodic mode, I might work on my solo piece or my original compositions. If Im in more of a nuts and bolts mode, I might work on writing out these charts and working on the arrangements. Im definitely interpreting the music, and its wonderful stuff, the Weill and Rota. Whats so great about it is that both of these composers, their tonal language is in certain ways similar and very complementary, but ones Germanic and the others Italian, so you get a nice yin-yang there. What they both did was to use rhythmic elements as icons, in an iconographic way. They may use certain beats, maybe an oompah beat or a kind of blowsy jazz feel, things like that, so the listener has a way into the music, like these little doorways. But they dont do it to be arch, or clever. I hate things that are clever.
I think two or three tunes from The Threepenny Opera well be playing almost verbatim, in some of the others Im using short phrases as launching pads for improvisation. Ive spoken with all of the musicians at this point; itll be an eight-piece ensemble. The instrumentation should be pretty amazing. If it all works out itll be bass, tuba, drums, electric guitar, accordion, viola, trombone, tenor sax, flute, alto and baritone saxes. These are all people doubling on different instruments.
Ill have all the charts prepared in advance, and the musicians will have them ahead of time, so it shouldnt take too many rehearsals, because I have a pretty clear idea about how its gonna go. Over the course of a month, probably during the summer, Ill try to organize five, maybe six concerts. Well record during that time, possibly in the studio, possibly live, and thats it. At the end of the run, its done, and onto the next thing... Id like to do The Rite of Spring at some point!
These musicians are excited about doing it, but theyre glad theyre not joining a band. Its just doing a project. There are folks wholl be involved in this who were in viperHouse, people that I hope to work with in various incarnations for the rest of my days. Its good to feel at ease enough inside myself that Im not compelled to rush these things through or get em out right away.
Im really enjoying not playing smoky bars and driving around endlessly. There were certain aspects of that lifestyle that were wonderful, and other aspects that were absolutely brutal. For right now, this winter, its been great to be right here at home, working and feeling really satisfied, fulfilled and self-reliant.
SD: Well, it looks to me like you and your wife have a situation out here in Lincoln that would be the envy of a lot of musicians and artists.
MC: Its taken an incredible amount of fortitude and sacrifice in order to cultivate a lifestyle where our work is of such importance and were able to keep doing it Thats why Ive learned to become such a good car mechanic!
I realized at one point that its not a choice. For me, its a calling of some sort, not to get too lofty about it. And there were certainly some moments after viperHouse folded that my confidence was called into question. But that simply went away as soon as I started working on the music again.