the album that was not to be – providence – a tribute to John Orsi, musician

I never met John Orsi in the “real world”.  I can’t really say we were close friends – although, in the relatively short time I knew him, we did get to know each other fairly well, and, as time progressed, we had developed an ongoing conversation – and as it would always be with John, it was mostly a conversation about…music.  That conversation, which began online and then spilled out into that very same “real world”; often, in the form of long, intense, handwritten letters from John, was a very important one to me.  We were of a similar disposition, we enjoyed similar music, and we found as the conversation went on, that we had much in common.  It was good to meet someone with similar views to my own, and similar musical interests too.

John Orsi was a musician’s musician, an extraordinary percussionist and drummer with a very unique style, and an even more unique vision of music as he saw it, as made real under the auspices of the music and art collective that he helped to found, “It’s Twilight Time” – which also served as the de facto record label for many of the bands that John was involved in.  John was very possibly the only percussionist I know who could play “ambient percussion”. His drum kits were no longer “standard”, and he was always dreaming up new and better ways to configure his unusual percussion set-ups. He was also always involved in several musical projects at any given time, including the bands knitting by twilight and incandescent sky, among many others.

I met John through a mutual on-line acquaintance of ours, the good Ian Stewart, who expressed the wish, openly, to both of us, that we make an album together – saying something like “you are two of my favourite musicians, I wish you’d make an album together”.  so – we decided, after an initial conversation, that we would.  it was that simple.

So the “Orsi-Stafford” project was born.  At first, we struggled a bit with the usual questions that any new band has to deal with, what are we called? (clearly, “the orsi-stafford project” was never going to do as a band name); what music are we going to make? and similar important questions.  As they always do, these essential details sorted themselves out over time, and we then moved onto to the details of the music itself, and the correspondence proper began.

I felt that for John, that he didn’t want to do anything in half-measures; he wanted this project to be done properly, and with a full commitment from both of us; so, it was agreed that the fruits of our musical labour would be released on “It’s Twilight Time” in the US, and for Europe, on pureambient, my label.

I was happy enough with this arrangement, so the next little detail was…the music itself.  I sat down one weekend, which I’d set aside specifically to make sketches for the new  band, which by then, bore the name “providence” – after the King Crimson song of the same name, and also, in honour of providence, rhode island, which is the area that John lived in, and also where, in 1974, King Crimson played said song…and I began.

I decided that since John’s work was of a calibre above most, that I wanted to present something to him that was more serious, more classically oriented (not anything predictable, like an ambient ebow loop – or other types of ambient music normally associated with Dave Stafford and his music) – so I, to challenge myself, and to go against what would have been predictable – I decided that the bulk of the material I would sketch out for John to listen to, would be piano based; and as a twist, I also recorded (at the same time) a mellotron track for each one of the piano pieces, so we could mix and match between grand piano and the more exotic sounds of the mellotron.  Normally, I would have played ebow guitar, ambient guitar, synth, but for some reason, I felt very strongly, that this project demanded – piano.  And piano like I’d never played piano before.  Not technically difficult or challenging, but, with an ear for beauty, looking for simple, lovely melodies – and by chance, with some luck, finding them.

I recorded a vast number of sketches on the piano, with three main musical themes, which were “grace”, “providence” and “intransigence”.  The music that appeared, surprised me, because it was so serious, so very classical sounding, and also, it was surprisingly beautiful – if I do say so myself. It was really, really quite lovely, and I was happy enough with what I eventually sent to John.

I then went on and recorded some guitar sketches, using the guitar synth, and while one or two of these were of interest, the bulk of the guitar work, while acceptable, did not knock me out as much as the large library of piano / mellotron works I did early on in the session (in all, 87 of these piano / mellotron takes were recorded !!).  There were some notable bits of quiet, Fripp-like jazz guitar that I wanted to incorporate, but mostly, I concentrated on those haunting piano themes.

I then spent some considerable time, taking the three themes, and arranging them into various test mixes, sometimes alone, sometimes combined with each other to create longer pieces, and I burned it all to a DVD and mailed it off to John…a mass of material, it was a lot of takes, and I sent him the whole lot, all the raw takes, in piano form; all the raw takes, in mellotron form; all the raw takes, piano + mellotron mixed together; and then, several long form test mixes, of various imagined thematic arrangements of the takes…

Some time later (after suitable time to digest this massive number of musical sketches), John wrote back, effusive about my sketches, and the test mixes; excited, and he paid me some really significant compliments, saying about one of the pieces that it was “already finished, I wouldn’t dare overdub it, it’s perfect just as it is” – which is high praise indeed.  His reaction to my sketches was altogether positive, and I heaved a sigh of relief – I’d done something good enough that he would want to continue the collaboration, and now, it would be his turn to produce some sketches of his own to contribute to the band’s pool of music.

We exchanged letters again, I, typing them on the computer because writing cursive is too painful for my elderly, tired old guitarist / keyboardist hands, while John always, always preferred to write out his letters long hand, which were a pleasure to receive and read. I liked that about him, he had an inherent dislike of technology that was really refreshing – it was something, in 2012, to meet someone who still preferred to write letters in long hand, on paper, with a pen.  Unusual.

I looked forward to his letters, which he would often write at the seaside, he would drive out to some lonely spot and then wax effusive about music, music and more music – we did converse about other things besides music, but not often and not much, we were wholly focussed on the task at hand, and we were both very excited about the prospect of building the “providence” album, and working together to create a work of real quality.

I was very excited about working with John, and I really felt that this would become a superb collaborative effort, because both of us were experienced musicians, with different strengths that were entirely complimentary.  John could compose and play the percussion parts that I could not, and I could compose and play the piano, mellotron, guitar and ebow parts that he could not – so the two of us had the right complimentary skill sets, to make an amazing album, each playing to our own musical strengths, and letting the other fill in the parts that we ourselves, could not, or could not easily, do.

Various ideas and approaches were discussed: we would merge sketches, if possible; or, John would overdub my sketches and return them to me for another pass; or, I would overdub John’s sketches – we didn’t feel we needed to stick to one working methodology; we were both open to…whatever worked the best, and I was really looking forward to receiving John’s sketches to assess, play on, and work with.

I suggested that we keep an open mind – maybe, for example, the album would end up with five tracks of John’s overdubbed by me, and five tracks of mine, overdubbed by John.  That was just one idea that was suggested, we didn’t want to burden ourselves by making too many hard decisions about the final form of the album, but the ideas were flowing thick and fast, and it was a very exciting time for me, for both of us, I hope – I was really immersed in the process, I am accustomed to these long-distance collaborations (having done more than a few over time, drone forest, scorched by the sun, and so on), but this one was of a distinctly high quality; and I sensed and fervently hoped that the music that we eventually would make, would be most excellent.  Unfortunately, though…I never got to find out.

I had also promised John that we would absolutely work energy bow guitar into the final release, because ebow is really my signature sound, and John had worked with ebow players before, and we both loved the sound of the device.  He’d said that he wanted me to play energy bow guitar on the album, so I agreed that somehow, once the pieces were blocked out, we would find a way to incorporate some really beautiful ambient ebow loops or solos, into the finished record.  Unfortunately, we never got far enough along for me to even test this theory out, so there are no recordings of these proposed ebow pieces – they never materialised.

It’s at this point my recollection gets a bit hazy; I believe John said he was working on some ideas, playing some percussion with “providence” in mind, but I do not know if he recorded anything or not.  He very possibly did…but, sadly, I never received the promised sketches – while letters did arrive, more and more infrequently – no tapes ever appeared.

I thought nothing of this, sometimes, many weeks would pass without any contact between us, but I was not concerned, as I knew that John had my sketches in hand, and was happy enough with them; and that he was working on sketches to send to me, so it would just be a matter of time…or so I believed.  I just waited patiently, unworried, knowing that the ball was in John’s court, confident that he was busy working away on his set of sketches for the project…

Then – life happened.  My own life sometimes takes these twists and turns that mean my attention is drawn away, or must be focussed on other issues.  Time passed.  Then more time passed.  Suddenly I realised, it had been many months since I had heard from John.  I guessed that, perhaps, he was struggling with the material; that maybe, he hadn’t managed to record any sketches he was happy with, and I wondered if he had perhaps wanted to give up on the project, and work on his own music instead – I really didn’t know.  I said to myself, I must write to John and see what is going on, find out if he wants to proceed with the work on “providence” or not…

Again – more life happened, I didn’t act, I didn’t write – still more time passed, until last night, when suddenly Carrie Hodges appeared on Facebook, messaging me (so I knew something was up) with the news of John’s passing.

The John Orsi that I got to know, through his long, beautifully handwritten letters, and occasional on-line conversations, was a man of grace.  He was kind, quiet, and passionate about music, and I could feel his great love of music through his letters and in his words – and in the extraordinary music that he himself made, too.

For both John and myself, our favourite drummer was Bill Bruford.  We also both loved the work of guitarist Bill Nelson, who for many years was my hero, and my inspiration for picking up the ebow and using it instead of a plectrum or pick.

For whatever reason, “providence” caused me to play some very, very serious and moving music.  It just flowed out, as if I’d been storing it up for years on end, and then suddenly, there was a call for it – and there it was.  This was some of the first real classical music I ever composed – and I am incredibly proud of it.  It would not exist if it were not for John Orsi, and Ian Stewart before him. Strangely, by coincidence, since I hadn’t heard it for a long time, just a few days ago, I listened to a large section of the sessions, to remind myself of the quality of the music of providence, and wondered again why I hadn’t heard from John for so long…and now I know why.

Realising and respecting that John was a very private person, I didn’t want to intrude or ask too many questions (sometimes, people need space to work through their issues, whatever those might be), and by now, so many months had gone by that I was fairly certain the collaboration was not going to happen – but I assumed it was, perhaps, because John was having problems with the music, or he just wasn’t inspired, or perhaps other personal troubles were preventing him from playing – I didn’t know, but I did not want to intrude or bother him – I was, as they say “giving him space”.

There is no way no to turn back the hands of time, I wish I had intruded, that I had written – because I never got to say goodbye to my friend.  I didn’t even know he was ill, he was very careful to conceal that from me. He never said a word, or let on with any hints or other indications that anything was amiss.  Then, suddenly – he was gone.

Now I have to do that farewell, here and now, from my blog; I have to eulogise and remember my friend, my partner in “Providence”; kind, gentle, thoughtful John Orsi –

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

~~~  sending peace and love to Karen Orsi and the family ~~~

4 responses to “the album that was not to be – providence – a tribute to John Orsi, musician

  1. Thank you Dave for your very nice post. I had met John at an Earthworks concert in Boston in 1992. He overhead that I attended the some of the first Guitar Craft courses, we exchanged addresses, and I subsequently was invited in as a core member of the Knitting by Twilight collective in 1994. Just so you understand, John was very fond of your collaboration as he discussed it with me and was very excited about it. Thank you for your post as it explains a lot of what your intention was and I will be listening to your suite in the very near future.

    John had always been very private about certain aspects of his life, and please do not think that his behavior had anything to do with you, because that was the way John was. Upon his dis-engagement in 1994 (which inspired the first Knitting by Twilight CD) and the death of his mother, I did not hear from John for months. I only found out about John’s cancer only days before he passed because Manny Silva, another one of the Knitting by Twilight collaborators, just happened to meet a friend of Karen, his wife. Otherwise I would not have known about it. John and I traded text messages and he wanted to call me to chat when he had the energy, but it never came to be. As you could imagine, we were all stunned as he was just 59. I did not even know his age after working with him for close to two decades because that he kept private as well.

    John was one of the most talented musicians I ever met, and he traveled his own path. He was a joy to work with, as he put up with all of my hair-brained ideas on what to do with his music with a lot of patience. He always wanted options, and I gave him plenty of them. I am eternally grateful for allowing me to participate in his projects.

    A favorite memory of mine in the studio is John picking up a screwdriver and glass ball (both of which I use on the guitar in unconventional ways, thanks to Fred Frith) and started attacking my Gibson ES-335, which had plenty of fuzztone on it. I think he asked permission, but it didn’t matter, he was by far the gentlest person you would ever meet, except when it came to attacking percussion or my guitar. He had a look of pure glee on his face that was priceless. The assault was probably the first time he had exhibited this behavior and we wound up using the “music” (or “sound” maybe?) on a track called “Splinter,” which was by far the most barbaric thing KbT ever did. That started his foray into his Evelyn Glennie approach to guitar playing, which he did on later KbT tracks. I can say that my guitar survived the assault just fine.

    So I imagine that right now John is at that Great Gig in the Sky and is getting a master class. He always was searching for new ideas.

    My heartfelt condolences and very best wishes for your future work,

    Mike

    • Hello Mike,

      Thank you very much for your reply and for your very kind comments, your words have really helped me to know my friend John a little bit better, and has clarified a few things that I was less than clear on – you’ve brought me a lot of clarity, and for that in particular I am thankful. It’s an unusual situation, the one I’m in, because our collaboration never went past the “discussion phase”, I never received a note of music physically from John (which was for a long time, a difficult thing to realise, and a difficult thing to bear) – the work held so much promise, and like John, I was very excited about the collaboration – I believed wholeheartedly in it, John was an incredibly sincere person, and even though we didn’t get past the discussion phase – for me, that phase alone was worth the trip.

      I will always cherish the correspondence John and I had, and the sharing of ideas, sure, those ideas were mainly musical, but in such “discussions” you can’t really wholly avoid other, more human and more personal issues, and our conversations, sooner rather than later, strayed into other areas of life. I knew and know that John was a very private person, which I therefore feel doubly honoured that he felt comfortable opening up to me on paper – and it literally was on paper – it was an unusual correspondence in that John always took the time to sit down and put pen to paper, something I really can no longer do (conditioned, as I am, to typing everything after 15 years as a data analyst in my other life) so I would type up long missives, to which John would respond with long, hand-written letters.

      Since John passed, I have not yet been back to revisit those conversations, but I don’t yet feel the need, as they are pretty fresh in my memory – at some point, I do plan to sit down and go through our entire correspondence, but currently, I would possibly find that a bit distressing – it’s still too soon. But it’s a comfort too, to know they are there, and I can work through the “discussion phase” again, any time I care to re-live it…and for me, since I am absolutely a man of many words, I almost would have to say that I often enjoy the discussion phase as much as, or in some rare cases, even more than, the actual act of music – because in the discussion phase, anything is possible; ideas flow from all sides; and well – the sky’s the limit.

      I felt that with Providence, that the sky was the limit, drums and percussion being the one area of music that I am not particularly well-versed in, I can just about script a decent drum part now in Native Instruments, but that’s the limit of my abilities, and I certainly have about zero skill with percussion in the sense that John did – I was absolutely fascinated with his descriptions of his unusual drum kits, and I could for the first time probably, put myself into the shoes of a drummer who is moving towards a new kind of kit that breaks away from the restraints placed upon drummers by this “hi-hat, snare, toms, cymbals” – “standard drum kit” – arrangement, as John described how he was assembling his new kit, I could almost “see” the kit being built, the old being taken away, the standard kit laid to rest, and a new kit, with all new elements, for making a new music, coming into being.

      For me, this “discussion phase” was and remains an integral part of the experience of collaboration, of course I have experienced this same type of discussion with my long-time musical partner bryan helm, and bryan and I – well, we began our first band in 1988, an acoustic Crafty duo, working in NST, so we had to develop an entire new language just to be able to discuss the physical playing of the songs – which was fantastic. A few years later, we set “The Dozey Lumps” aside, and re-invented ourselves as “Bindlestiff” – a live ambient looping duo (sans MIDI or any sync – we each played our own unsynced loops, manually syncing with each other – not easy, sometimes!) – playing electric and electronic instruments – so from Crafty duo, with our Crafty vocabulary, we then had to develop a whole new vocabulary to discuss how the music of Bindlestiff would work – I was now playing ebow guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, loops and synth, while Bryan had the more difficult job of drum machine, keyboards, loops, acoustic guitar. Of course, much of what we did, couldn’t be planned, couldn’t be decided during a discussion – it just had to happen, and we would just start playing, without speaking, and still, the music arrived…so these “planning discussions” are so important, and in fact, I think in some respects, it’s how well we communicate with other musicians, that directly reflects in how well we play together, which of course decides what the music will sound like…

      Clearly, the “discussion phase” is very close to my heart, and to have a new band, Providence, and to be engaging in this phase with a musician as clearly talented and as capable as John, was a great honour and a great delight – I will always cherish our correspondence, and the plans we had for the band – well, just because they were not realised in the real world, doesn’t mean that we didn’t share a very clear vision of what they should be – we knew what the new project was demanding of us, and I think my demos, made specifically for the project, do give some idea where at least, my “half” of the project was headed – strangely, since I was the ambient loop guitarist in the band, that when it came time to record my sketches for John to contemplate, that of course, I would want to play classical piano. I didn’t want to do anything obvious or predictable – and had I sent a bunch of looped ebows, I knew it just wouldn’t be the right way to begin.

      I have no idea why, but, that is what I did, because I knew that only on the piano, could I come up with the kinds of themes and chord progressions that would do the “Providence provenance” justice. I knew, somehow, what we needed. I could not for the life of me, imagine how on earth, John could “play along” to what I recorded, but I also knew that John would find a way, that I need not worry about that.

      I was fortunate, at least, that John actually received my sketches, that he was able to listen to them, and comment on them, which then gave the “discussion phase” something concrete, rather than abstract, to consider. John’s feedback was very positive, and he paid me the ultimate compliment by telling me that one of the pieces was so perfect, that it should be included on the album “as-is” – it required no input whatsoever from the good Mr. Orsi. That really was such a wonderful and amazing thing to hear, I knew that particular take was pretty good, I was truly blessed that day with the piano, things just went right, and John was able to confirm this to me via his comments on my demos – I was really pleased by that – so there was one track done, sans percussion. The rest – well, John told me that he had ideas for his sketches, and as far as I know, he began working on them, but what I do not know, is if anything was ever committed to tape – if so; of course, I’d love to hear that – if it exists. I have no idea. It’s also possible, that he was unable to commit even one sound to tape for the project – and, not knowing, I had to proceed with producing the suite somehow, without his input.

      So I undertook the decision to release the music on my classical album, as a suite of piano pieces bearing the name “Providence” – so the band name, became the songs’ communal name, sadly, I had to present these pieces as dave stafford solo works, when really, they are just half of the music of a band called “Providence”. I couldn’t see that I had any other choice, being fairly certain that there was either no, or if any, very little, in the way of recorded sketches for the “Providence” project from John, it seemed to me I had two choices: do nothing, release nothing – which did not seem like a valid choice to me, given the circumstances – or, release the music in some other form, while making as clear as possible, that this music was inspired by and influenced by and produced as part of a collaboration with john, for a new band called “Providence”, that now could not go forward.

      I really hope you will have a listen, I spent the better part of two whole days, recording these piano pieces, and, along with them, thanks to the magic of MIDI, various other interesting “mellotron” based versions of the pieces, and I feel that given that I am really a guitarist, these piano pieces work quite well – they are simple, in some ways, they are certainly not the works of a piano virtuoso, they just aspire to having a feel and an emotion that John could connect to, and that listeners could connect to – I wanted something simple yet compelling.

      For my part, I have only my imagination, and the existing music that John made with the collective, to inform any possible answers to the unanswerable question “what would this music have sounded like overdubbed by John’s percussion”? – we will never know now, but I could imagine, that as with everything, he would have approached the work with a true sensitivity to the needs of the music, and what would have emerged, would have been a true collaboration in every sense of the word, the music would be about feeling and emotion and peace and love and longing and yearning and everything that human beings feel and live through. I know it would have, I knew it would – so when I played my sketch, that was what I was trying to put into it. whether I succeeded in that aspiration, it is difficult to say.

      Just as our discussions often touched on those very human issues, the music itself, I feel, would have done the same, and while we can only guess, I think that when you listen to “my half” of the music (that seems strange to say, but there it is) that you can catch a glimpse, at least, what the real band, the full band, piano and percussion, with ebows to come – later…might have sounded like. we had also on several occasions, talked about more pieces involving the use of loops and ebows, two things I’ve been doing for a long, long time – but that was for later, at first, I felt it was important that these piano pieces be the beginning – what happened afterwards, would only be the icing on the cake.

      It’s strange, because on the day of the first session, I began by making some guitar recordings, but I didn’t feel that they were going all that well, so I switched to piano – and suddenly, all the pieces fell into place – and the music of Providence was born.

      I am glad that I made the decision to go ahead and release the suite under the guise of dave stafford tracks – if I had had even one John Orsi sketch, I might have been able to make an album of some kind, but in this case, since it is just me – it’s just me. But to me, it’s not just me, because I never would have made this music, if it were not for the chance meeting and friendship that developed out of it…I would never have made this music, if it were not for John Orsi, who indeed, was a gentle and kind soul, not to mention a real gentleman – someone I will never forget.

      Thank you again, Mike, for your kind words and your condolences, which I am afraid I must re-affirm right back to you – I only knew John for a relatively short time, while you had the honour of working with him for twenty years, you must be feeling the loss keenly indeed. Will KbT continue in any form? Will the remaining members continue to make music? It would seem a shame to stop to my mind, and I would think that John would very much have wanted KbT to continue without him. That’s just a feeling I have.

      Mike, thank you so much for writing, it’s really touched me and I really appreciate learning a little bit more about my friend and collaborator, the redoubtable John Orsi – there is really no one else quite like him.

      all the very best,

      keep looking to the skies…

      dave

  2. A very beautiful blog entry. I got here by coincidence searching for a solution to some wifi midi clock sync issues for ios devices. For some reason I just kept reading the entire blog entry. It flows and takes you along. A piece of disarming honesty it feels. Despite the sad circumstances that motivated it it radiates calm. Thank you for that break in the hectic search for solutions to self-made problems. I believe you achieved what you set out to do with this blog entry, at least to me it feels that way… and you made me curious about your work…

    • Hello – thank you for your very thoughtful comment – it makes a lot of good points, and it is an incredible compliment – thanks!

      John and I had plans, we worked hard on what the band’s identity and brand would be, how distribution would be handled, all that stuff. Then that music arrived, for me, two long but incredibly fruitful sessions – one on March 4, 2012, the second on March 24, 2012. I am actually now engaged in reviewing the Providence material, in the hopes of putting together the very best of it for a release on my classical eternal album on bandcamp, and this music – well, it is strangely animated and inspired, the quality of it is something like the qualities I feel in both the blog and your response to it…so I am hopeful that even though John won’t be playing on it, I can publish the work of Providence, in his honour, and at least we will have half of what the band should have been. John’s passing was a shock and a surprise, and I basically sat down the next morning, and wrote the blog straight from the heart. I am happy that it struck a useful and positive chord with you. Thank you again for your excellent comment, please feel free to participate/comment get involved at any time – your thoughts and words are more than welcome!

      all the very best,

      dave

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