Oct 20, 2018
Charcoal drawing by Christophe Pons
(This article was originally posted in January 2017. Update: The CD from this adventure — Larry Ochs + Gerald Cleaver: Songs of the Wild Cave — has now (October 2018) released on RogueArt (ROG 0084) and is available from the discography on this website, or at the Ochs Bandcamp site. The following is the January 2017 story.)
In spring 2014, I received an email from Alban Jacques in Toulouse, France. He had recently explored a “privately owned cave” near Toulouse at the invitation of the owner, a cave that held some 150 prehistoric man-made cave paintings. Would I be interested to record in the cave with saxophones and see what happens? Two and a half years later – Gerald Cleaver, Larry Ochs and an official exploration crew – organized by Alban Jacques and Rogue Art CD producer Michel Dorbon – wended its way down into this wild cave. My experience was unforgettable. What follows is an attempt to describe it. The music that came out of the experience will become public later. (Released October 2018.)
It was only upon my return to California, and the subsequent receiving of the live recordings from our just-completed journey to the secret cave, that I was able to stop feeling tragically about this adventure. I thought I had blown the entire mission; that I’d missed “grokking” the cave; missed taking the time to “get with the vibe” of this wild place; set my priorities all wrong and failed to connect with the cave’s untrammeled natural environment. But when I heard the first minute of the raw recording I realized immediately and happily that “the cave was there with us the whole time”; it made us a part of it immediately. This wild place had in fact been the third participant – and the main participant – in a three-way music-improvisation that also included Gerald Cleaver on his (partial) drum-kit, and myself on saxophones.
My wife made the comment a week or so ago that it’s only after the fact upon reflection that she begins to understand extraordinary events. I didn’t go into this trip thinking about any of this because as usual I didn’t have time to pause and reflect on what was coming. In my world, it’s almost always about managing the day in front of you and being present for the immediate event. Sure… there is a planning stage where I usually list the events in order and where I go down that list and focus on each situation in its expected order. But, this project was unique. So different from all others that there was no anticipating much of it. I had been in caves before. But never in a truly wild cave where few humans per year are even allowed to enter. So even if I’d taken that time to mentally prepare, even if I’d looked more closely at the list of activities and tried to imagine them, I didn’t have the experience to anticipate them. I still regret (as I write this) not having another day there. Just one. But then, that’s after the revelation of the recordings. If that third day in the cave had been scheduled / allowed by the cave’s owners, would we have actually listened to the recordings from Day 2 before going back? Would we have actually taken advantage of that extra day “to go deeper?”
New York based drummer Gerald Cleaver and I had arrived in Paris on separate planes on September 28. On the 29th we performed our first duo concert in 3 years at a fantastic privately-owned art gallery on the outskirts of Paris. We were thinking of it as a warm-up for the cave concerts to come. As the music went by, it was startling; improvised music is a wonderful and unsolvable mystery, at least to me. Where is this music coming from? What’s being tapped into between these 2 players (or however many players are involved) that makes this set unique and more importantly, particular to the specific musicians involved as well as to the specific vibe in the specific room full of listeners? Why is it that, if we added another skilled practitioner of improvised music, that the entire character of the music might radically change? So after the Paris set was over, while I felt good about it, I did wonder about how playing together in a cave would effect our music.
On September 30 we flew to Toulouse with producer and confederate Michel Dorbon, who was very involved with us in planning this journey to a cave (that must remain unnamed) near Toulouse. We met the instigator of this adventure, Alban Jacques, at Toulouse airport. Alban had read something that I said in an interview about how I loved the challenge of playing music in unusual environments, and had subsequently, in spring of 2014, invited me to record solo in a wild cave near to Toulouse. I love crazy ideas like this; but I did immediately request a change in the idea; namely: that I had to have a percussionist with me. And then there was the reality of finding the funds to do this. That process took the next 2 years to figure out.
Just below, photo of the cave’s entrance in the side of a hill, which one crawls thru before descending into the pitch-black darkness:
Day 1 at ‘secret cave’ was super, and super-intense. There was a distinct sense of losing one's bearings down there. A veritable "fish out of water" situation. There were distinct issues leading to a sense of complete disorientation, however it wasn't totally obvious that this disorientation was happening while we were down in the hole. It’s hard to explain, but let’s say that it wasn’t like we were going to the moon. If you’re going to the moon, then I imagine you “know” that you will be disoriented and that all your senses will need time to adjust. But we were still on earth, and we were still on land, and I had been in caves before. So when we went underground here and became disoriented, my mind didn’t adjust. Issues: 1. the total darkness everywhere except where one’s own or a confederate’s directional headlamp was pointing / and 2. the general sense that the floors beneath you were completely unstable more than half the time aka loose rocks of a size that made it impossible to stand on them even as you couldn't avoid stepping on them (too numerous to avoid). So one had to point his headlamp down to see the rocks below while at the same time needing to see the often narrowing walls or the lowering ceilings of the way ahead. 3. Then there was the slipperiness of the descents...not all descents but most of them seemed to be somewhat wet, so that the walls' clay-composition was a bit wet or the calcite(?) was smooth while footholds were too infrequent. Both Cleaver and I had the distinct impression that a slip could lead to a serious face-plant into the rock wall - on descents always right in front of your face - with a simultaneously out-of-control slide down the wall, with your chin and nose hitting off rocks all the way down.
Once we were essentially in there, we still had to deal with similar sensations. Balance seemed to be an ever-present issue. In the first of three proposed chambers or halls that we looked at as possible recording rooms, the floor was absurdly unstable. That eliminated the room completely from consideration, even though the acoustics of this first larger space were the best of all the rooms. The sopranino sax, which I hauled in for this purpose, had a beautiful sound in chamber 1. (At times I could not fit down the “hole” and also carry the sopranino, which is extraordinary because the sopranino case is relatively small, but still, it made negotiating the descent too difficult, so we would pass the case down from one person to another.) But not only was the floor unstable, but at the other end of this first chamber from where we entered, maybe 15 to 20 feet across from where I stood (?- pretty hard to gauge distance down there...), there was also like a 10-foot drop into an equally large chamber that essentially opened out from the first, and acted like a reverb room would in a studio, except that there was nothing artificial about the reverb in this cave. Happily the reverb was also perfect, rather than overwhelming with a long, long time delay; instead it was very rich and with a very slight time-delay on it. So it made the horn sound great. Anyway, that drop into space from chamber 1 into its “reverb room”, combined with that floor's size and instability kind of made all of us want to flee. In fact everyone else split quickly, but I stayed around to check the sound. (I see now that Gerald was there videoing me on sopranino and checking out the sound.)
The next potential recording chamber we hit was much bigger, but best of all the floor was a sticky-feeling clay, and most all the rocks were embedded in that clay. Thus more stability. This chamber also had a few places to sit that were either dry or big enough to feel comfortable, or both, and stable. The sound was not quite as rich as in chamber 1, but an adjoining large room or two made the sound seem excellent, and again no major or exaggerated echo/reverb.
We did see quite a few of the Paleolithic cave paintings that first day. The ceilings in rooms 2 and 3 were probably about 9 to 15 feet above us - but that's another guess, looking back. For sure it might have been higher as many of the paintings were above our reach and sometimes even made on an inner wall behind a second or faux wall. These essentially hidden paintings could be looked at with headlamps thru natural spaces / openings between the two walls. There was an especially cool set of deer antlers behind one of these inner walls. Never thought to ask which was there first, the painting or the front / inner wall.
A human stick-figure painting was said by our guide to be the oldest such prehistoric painting known in the world, about 24 thousand years old. A “classic” large bison was visible on a real wall leading to room 2. A classic horse painting on another… And even if there had been time to make these notes just after being in the space I don't think I would remember much more, or could be more certain of room dimensions. Would have loved to have been able to write impressions before re-entering on Day 2 because right at that moment I would have been hip to what I was missing or not understanding. And then I might have have been sure to note these imprecise recollections and look to get more precise on Day 2. So it goes.
We actually were only down inside for maybe 3 hours on Day 1 because we were delayed in getting in there by 90 minutes, and then as we approached 8 PM, our Toulouse producer wanted to start the ascent and exit in time to eat at a reasonable time for his wife, waiting at his home to feed us. (But we only arrived after 10 Pm anyway. And please note: our host-organizer prepared the meal during the day; his wife heated it up just before we arrived...). But we were beat. The ascent was easier than the entry, but the parts involving scaling walls using only a rope to hold you was again "exciting" and a bit stressful...the ascents were rarely 90 degrees. More like 45 to 60 degrees, but again, there was little foothold / traction on the fairly smooth rock walls, and thus the need for ropes to pull ourselves up with, usually attached around very wide stalagmites protruding from the rock walls. When we finally reached the top and crawled thru the hillside hole called "doorway" and back into our world, it was quite a feeling. We had entered late afternoon and came out in the dark, and as we crawled thru the doorway, both the temperature, and the humidity and air quality changed dramatically. Plus although dark, there was more natural light outside than we had had for 3 or 4 hours… This was a stunning moment, in that your senses realized maybe for the first time that they had been feeling tentative, like a fish out of water, for the last few hours.
Day 2 at the secret cave. First thing to say is that everything about the entry back into the cave was for me a lot easier on Day 2. Distances down seemed shorter; footholds seemed easier to find; the detour to chamber 1 didn't happen again, leading to a much shorter trip into the recording space aka chamber 2. Cleaver in fact thought that we had only just entered chamber 1 and wondered aloud why the engineer had set up in room 1. He then was sure that they were kidding him after the engineer answered that in fact he and I were in room 2. So partly we were better acclimated. But we were definitely not completely acclimated; more on that later.
The original plan for day 2 had included a further tour of more distant cave paintings found beyond chamber 3... for the 2 artists prior to recording. To feel the vibe of the place more completely. But we were delayed a bit in getting into the cave, and felt an urgent need to hit (to make music happen) as soon as we got into that chamber where all the recording gear was set up. I was ready before that. Even upstairs in daylight. And I didn't want to expend the best energy of the day on a lot of caving; too risky. I immediately suggested to the cave owner (and cave guide) that we would be happy to see more after the recording. I wasn't sure that would be true, but I wanted him to be happy, or anyway not insulted... I figured there was no way he would be into the actual music. Very nice gentleman by the way. But there is our reality: that most people, whenever first exposed to improvised music, haven't a clue. And here we were in a Cave... hardly a place where improvised music has much of a foothold. (Of course, now that I think of it, almost everyone in this party of 10 or 11, other than the cave owner, were only there because of their appreciation of improvised music.)
So we went at it. Despite this being the best room, everything was a serious challenge. Where I was to get my horns out of their casesin fact consisted of a relatively level area. Hardly level, and hardly smooth or flat, but better than other spots. My spot was to the right of the “drums area.” The microphones were placed to right and left a foot or more away, most of the time. (The engineer actually moved them between takes.) But then there was a set of mics on the other side of the room, close to the natural reverb room. The engineer’s assistant Morgan also moved a Zoom around, sometimes locating that all the way in to chamber 3, sometimes close in on the drums. Anyway, the wall just behind me was what I would have laid the tenor case up against, but that wall was visibly wet. So I pulled the case more in to the room at maybe 9 inches from wall, where on sticky clay and some rocks.. Yes: the tenor lay in the case when not in use. My sax stands were back at the hotel as there was simply no trusting them not to tilt over on the rocky floor.
I also had to negotiate how I stood on the floor. Chamber 2 was much better than chamber 1, but my feet and legs were not all that impressed. Although I did have about an area of 3x 4 feet to move within, there were really only two positions that I could place my feet and feel stable. And those positions did feel very good during the 2 hours I stood up. I play standing up always, which was a good thing. No place to sit here.
As a result there was just not much possibility to change instruments during a piece. Had to be too careful bending down to place horn on case etc. Changed instruments only one time other than between pieces…
What else? The air in this chamber was extraordinary. The best I have ever experienced. Completely fresh but also cool and at the same time humid, or clearly having a perfect amount of moisture in it. (Always 55 degrees in the cave. And no breeze at all, no sense of current.) I don't know how to describe the feeling. But by the end of the second improvisational piece I noticed that my nasal passages felt completely open and clean. They never ever feel that way.
Cleaver had…gee, I realize now that I didn't get a good photo of his set up. There were two drums—snare and 12-inch tom. Then there’s the 10-inch drum, normally attached to this set’s kick drum; but, neither the kick-drum, nor the larger tom, would fit down the hole from the outside, or anyway at some point were not passable into the recording chamber. So the 10-inch tom had been ingeniously attached to a mere cymbal stand. There was one cymbal on another stand. He placed a larger cymbal on his drum seat for one piece—I remember that. He had various bells and small percussion. And remember: the floor was not level, so each piece of the set was at its own unique angle to the floor! Wow, and still, he made some great music. Genius!
Probably really got started at only about 3:45 pm and ran out of gas around 5:15. Just an extraordinary amount of energy and adrenaline involved from every one. And given that I’d gotten very little good sleep since arriving in Paris two days earlier, focus remained really good. Music was all improvised. Standing the whole time, even in breaks between pieces. By the second to last piece, parts of my right arm were cramping, and in a strange way that I chose to ignore, I felt this deep throbbing of my upper right arm from holding saxophones for 90 minutes straight. Bizarre… Every so often I would, while playing, look upwards and see in someone’s headlamp the ceiling of the cave. Exhilarating! …What else? The silence in the cave was profound. (According to one of the artists making drawings of the event, it was the silence within the pieces, or perhaps the silences at the end of them, that most moved her, and I was very thankful for this observation later on, when I was back outside the cave.) As a result of this feeling of the silence — most physical in nature — I remember being a bit surprised at the two high-energy pieces we recorded. I had the thought during one of them that this sound-area didn't seem appropriate to the space. But I definitely was open to rolling with where the music flowed to, rather than trying to force a pre-conceived concept in. (I did in fact spontaneously think of an idea to put into the music twice. Those totally failed.)
I went thru what I had considered three great reeds in the 2 hours (due to the very high humidity; in fact the next day I discovered that all of the eight reeds I had made ready in San Francisco were all completely useless). And we only got about 60 minutes of recorded sound. If we had not had a time limit, then I would have taken a break at 5:15 and gone for more, but as the set-up of all the equipment, including “load-in” (funny to think of that term down in the cave) had taken 2 hours, we were informed at 5 that we had to quit in 30 minutes. Bad news to get without warning.
But the 8 witnesses were absolutely blown away by the music, so I hope that translates to the recorded medium. Getting high on the oxygen in the room might have been a big part of their reaction, or perhaps just being down there as this spontaneous reaction to the cavern took place. We shall see what the mixes tell us.
Luckily the engineer was not only way into making this project a success, but he seemed to be a brilliant guy. Being the tallest of the group by a good 3 inches and without a hard hat, he was also the one person to literally crack his skull on the cave’s ceilings, and more than a couple of times. Was bleeding rather dramatically in fact when he appeared outside for the picnic on Day 2. (The musicians waited “upstairs” for a couple of hours while everyone else prepared for the recording; I am still amazed even now at the energy that all 8 of the other witnesses brought to this adventure. It’s not something I am at all used to being the beneficiary of. So I appreciate it that much more.)
The artists' drawings in the cave captured the feeling in the chamber better than any one photo I saw could capture it. Especially the artist drawing in charcoals seemed to get the feeling of being down in that cave for me. (Note: as of this rewrite I have seen many more photos and there are quite a few great ones.)
I am sad not to have had time to be in the cave for an hour or two without responsibility, prior to the recording. I feel like that experience might have led to a profounder music. I have this grief, even, that a unique opportunity (…literally unique; the owner said he could never risk this incursion into the cave’s atmosphere again; the thing is that the Paleolithic paintings might be degraded by the change in the air quality what with so much human breath and assorted activity taking place …) that a unique opportunity just got away from me on that level. But having noted the regret only in hindsight, I can't honestly see how we would have known to rethink the sequence of in-cave events before the fact of the 2 days, as it spooled out. While my feeling of regret, or even loss, hit me almost as soon as I re-entered planet earth’s atmosphere on Day 2 about 7 PM, while I was sure that I had not connected with the cave ambience fully, It was only in the days following, when certain aspects of the experience became clear to me thru brief conversations with the witnesses on the trip, that I felt certain I had, after all, not immersed completely into the cave’s world. But then, it’s very possible that immersion was impossible, or that there was nothing to immerse in to… Still: it went by way too fast. Couldn’t keep up with the speed of events and in addition perform the music, recover from that, and also be open to receiving the input of the cave art.
I did try to experience “pitch black darkness” by going into chamber 3 after the recording and turning off my Headlamp while no one else was in there. But part of true total blackout would include total silence, and that wasn't happening at that moment as the packing in chamber 2 could be faintly heard. Nevertheless, the darkness was pitch black. But having just recently recorded and packed, having just expended a full supply of energy towards the goal of nailing the recording, I couldn’t get centered on the darkness, or couldn’t get “into it” and beyond…
But then the recordings arrived as a download here. I had impressions of them of course. But as I tentatively dug in to the first track, I was overwhelmed to discover that the reverb of the cavern I had heard was or seemed to be more than merely a room acoustic in the recording. In fact, the cavern space felt like it was a full partner, if not the main partner, in the improvisation. Rather than a duo, it was Cleaver and I negotiating our way into a trio with the space. But not just with the reverb of the space. As I said earlier, in a large church such as Grace Cathedral, the physical acoustics of the room completely dominate the improvised interactions; you can’t ignore it. In fact, you must frame everything to fit in to the church’s “sound.” The church rules.
In the cave, the cave didn’t rule. It allowed us to take all kinds of improvised angles; it was rather an equal partner, and a generous one at that since, at least speaking for myself, the cave made everything easier, and I felt like everything sounded good, physically speaking, at least until the final piece we created (which as of my 3rd listening now turns out to be a beautiful piece after all…) …What a relief! There will be some documentation from this adventure. I can feel now like we did it. I think all of us would now like another crack at this. As if we met someone really special and wanted another meeting, ASAP! But at least we had a nice hit that first time. All was not lost even as “we” typically (in this day-to-day life in 21st century) tried to squeeze too much into too short a time-period.
When the first mix arrived here from France, it took me a few days to be willing to listen at all, and then I could only take in one track a day for the first 3 days. So much emotional investment involved; you dig? But, as I conclude my listenings now, I’m excited about the music we got. Just hoping others will hear the Cave as a co-equal in these musical creations. For sure, Gerald and I went to a number of musical places that we haven’t inhabited before or since that day in the secret cave.
Alban Jacques (organizer), Vincent Mahey (engineer), Morgan Beaulieu (assistant engineer), and Mr. Cleaver
And massive thanks to Michel Dorbon, as well, for helping big-time to make all of this possible. Funding the recording side, coming on the adventure with us, hauling materials into the cave in his form-fitting jump-suit. Very cool character straight out of a classic French arts scene.