Note: This interview was conducted in 2001 by ‘Sleen’ (otherwise known as JLA) for the first incarnation of Sonikmatter. We will be bringing back more of the old content as we find it!
Lyle Mays passed away at the age of 66 on Feb 10, 2020. RIP.
Composer extraordinaire Lyle Mays answered some questions recently for a 'virtual' interview via the internet. For those of you not familiar with his work, you may know him from the Pat Metheny Group with whom he composes and tours. Besides being a remarkable improviser (live composer), his work with synthesizers over the years has produced some truly unique textures for the PMG and also for his own albums. Lyle recently released an album based on his improvisations and orchestrated for synthesizers with a Yamaha Disklavier system, titled, Solo.
Jonathan: First of all, congratulations on your latest album, Solo. Has this album changed your approach to any Lyle Mays releases in the future?
Lyle: No single album should change anyone's attitude about the future. Albums are like pieces of a puzzle.
Jonathan: I was hoping for another improvisation-based project having enjoyed the last one. Any chance of taking a similar approach?
Lyle: Jazz always involves improvisation. Whether there is too much or too little is a matter for the critics to decide.
Jonathan: Are you currently engaged in any writing or recording projects?
Lyle: I am always engaged. If a project will come of it is not for me to say.
Jonathan: Any chance of us hearing the result of that work?
Lyle: It depends on funding
Jonathan: What kinds of things are influencing what you write about these days?
Lyle: I am writing and phoning about the annoying habits of sport's journalists. Why does Phil Sims ALWAYS put unnecessary pronouns in his speech?
Jonathan: That’s cool! So what kinds of things are influencing what you are composing these days? Concerning Phil Simms, could you give an example?
Lyle: Bartok and Stravinsky are still my main musical influences. As for Phil Simms; It annoys me to no end when he utters "The Miami Dolphins. They've struggled all year with the passing game." Why can't he simply leave out that pronoun? That would eliminate most of his incomplete sentences. Why can't he say, "The Miami Dolphins have struggled all year with the passing game?" He sounds like an idiot to me and I wonder if anyone at CBS has ever pointed out this annoying habit of his to him. Of course, he's not the only culprit, but I think he's the worst.
Jonathan: What artistic (meaning the whole spectrum) individuals would you cite as having a major influence on your life?
Lyle: FLW is probably the main one, followed by Jung, and then the pantheon of classical composers, and after that the mix of jazz and popular music I grew up with.
Jonathan: What is your favorite FLW piece? I had the pleasure of visiting Robie House.
Lyle: My fave remains Falling Water; not just for the location but also the execution. But, beyond that, FLW practically invented the open floorplan. Almost all houses built today have this flow of rooms. If an idea stands up for a century, I would say it is important.
Jonathan: Other than your own albums, what is in Lyle's cd player?
Lyle: Oregon in Moscow, The Emerson Quartet recording of Bartok's string quartets, and anything that Pat has done recently.
Jonathan: A question that I ask everyone just to see what happens: What is music?
Lyle: Greater minds than mine have tackled this very question. Evidently, the designers of the first Voyager probe concluded that music provided its own description.
Jonathan: And how do you feel about their selection?
Lyle: They probably knew far more about aliens than I do, so I'm fine with the selection.
Jonathan: When do great ideas come to you? Always at the instrument? If not, how do you capture the inspiration?
Lyle: So far, no great idea has come to me. I would also say that inspiration is an illusion.
Jonathan: On what level are you satisfied with your work?
Lyle: The cute thing to say is that "I'm never satisfied." But that's almost never true. If it were, records would never be released. You ask a very pertinent question regarding the LEVEL of my satisfaction. I would say that the level is low but just high enough to think that the rest of the world might want want to hear what I was thinking.
Jonathan: Have you ever been listening to the radio or an album and been surprised to hear one of your ideas in the music (notes/sounds)? Who have been notable culprits if any?
Lyle: CNN is the worst and the best.
Jonathan: Have you ever seen another group or individual perform your work? What was that like?
Lyle: As a composer, I have obviously heard (and seen) others perform my works. Mostly, I have been impressed. Check out the Debussy Trio.
Jonathan: I have listened to Solo quite a bit recently and marvel at how you were able to get such a sympathetic interaction between the piano, and your synthesizers. How was this achieved?
Lyle: Duh! I simply used the notes I improvised.
Jonathan: Was there a goal in mind when mixing in the synths? Or was this part of the process also an improvisation?
Lyle: Of course, there was a goal. It was there from the start, and it was to illuminate the compositional process.
Jonathan: With Solo you have successfully orchestrated your improvisations. How did you capture the original midi data?
Lyle: I hired an over-rated NYC synth guy that didn't even get the first piece RECORDED.
Jonathan: Did he even test the rig first? How do you find this kind of talent?
Lyle: The fault lies with me since I simply accepted his reputation.
Jonathan: On top of your musical prowess, it is amazing how accomplished and dedicated you are to developing your own textural palette, synthesizers in particular. How did you become interested in synths?
Lyle: I have no prowess and I hate synths. The only explanation I have in regards to your question is that because I find the synth world so unmusical, I may have worked hard and long at making the beasts playable.
Jonathan: Is it safe to say that you practice writing good electronic instruments?
Lyle: I'm sorry, that question makes no sense to me.
Jonathan: What equipment did you use in the production of Solo?
Lyle: Pat Metheny, Steve Rodby, Rob Eaton, David Oakes, etc, the gear is meaningless.
Jonathan: You have worked with these people on other projects. What did they do on SOLO?
Lyle: They did too many things to mention. Let me simply say that we work well together as a team and I love those guys.
Jonathan: It seems certain design motifs come and go with synthesizers. And in the last decade, these instruments have been combined with sampling, DSP, sequencing, and effects capabilities. For you, what capabilities or design would the perfect synthesizer have?
Lyle: There will never be a perfect synthesizer because the real world can never be synthesized.
Jonathan: Agreed. How would you improve on current designs?
Lyle: I can only point to areas that I would like to see examined. For instance, when I play two notes at the same time on the piano, the resultant sound is DIFFERENT from the sound of samples of those notes played together. It's richer because of the interaction going on. This would be something interesting to model now that our computers are becoming so powerful.
Jonathan: All said and done, and the piano aside; what is your favorite and most called upon synthesizer?
Lyle: Despite my earlier comments, the beast I turn to is my trusted K2500.
Jonathan: Do you handle the OS upgrades, or do you hire someone for that?
Lyle: I try to hire people for that kind of stuff. I understand it, I just don't like doing it.
Jonathan: Have you ever checked Napster to see what Lyle Mays recordings are being made available for download? If you found that some of your recordings ARE out there, how would you react? What's your take on digital music distribution over the internet?
Lyle: First, I doubt the kids even care about this music, second, I don't know that I could do a thing about it. But, in general, it's a bad thing for the business.
Jonathan: Recently some data has been published that shows Napster users on average purchase more CDs. Just out of curiosity, what data has influenced your opinion that Napster is bad for 'the business'?
Lyle: Napster users do buy more CDs, but that's only because young people buy more CDs and Napster users tend to be young. This data proves nothing. The fact remains that Napster prevents musicians from receiving royalties.
Jonathan: Further down, the advice you give to curious young musicians is to get their hands on all the music they can. Is Napster bad for the business, but good for young musicians?
Lyle: Young musicians should use ethical means to acquire their music.
Jonathan: What kinds of things do you avoid to keep your music from sounding 'dated'?
Lyle: Wah-wah pedals, paisley shirts and the like will always date you. My advice is to avoid the trends.
Jonathan: Should this also apply to producers and engineers?
Lyle: It depends on the producer or engineer in question.. Technicians can transcend trends too.
Jonathan: When you want to come up with some synthesizer patches or new sounds, how do you approach this task? Do you generally use only your own sounds, or do you dip into factory presets? If someone else out there has helped you in designing sounds, who would you mention?
Lyle: I have always used factory sounds and I have always modified them. I also record my own samples and Rich Breen recorded some wonderful samples for the SOLO record.
Jonathan: Whose factory data has impressed you, if ever?
Lyle: The Miroslav orchestral library impressed me.
Jonathan: Over the years, you must have developed a collection of samples and program data. Would you ever consider releasing these as the Lyle Mays collection?
Lyle: I may have a wealth of data, yet again it may be worthless.
Jonathan: And we will never know? There are a few things you have done with synths that dial-up my curiosity knob to 11! I can tell you listen very closely to good ensembles and this has influenced your own instruments. The 'gear' thing aside, what IS it that makes synths so SUCK and unmusical?
Lyle: You answered your own question: it's the ensemble that's the key, not any particular patch. I have tried to blend different brands of synths rather than search for a "killer" patch on any specific synth. As a matter of fact, the main "programing" work on SOLO was done in my sequencer by applying a variety of performance tweaking ideas to the various tracks. Just as each member of a string section plays the part slightly differently, my sequencer tracks play their parts slightly differently. I aspire to make the results musical, (as I'm sure most string players do), but there is richness in variety. The reason synths suck is that there is no innate personality to the sound. It takes FOREVER to try to add some.
Jonathan: How do you like Yamaha pianos?
Lyle: The new ones are fantastic!!!
Jonathan: Better than the DX-7? Seriously, what do you like about them?
Lyle: I simply meant that I feel they are serious concert-quality instruments. I'm talking about the new ACOUSTIC Yamaha pianos that also have midi features.
Jonathan: Some of the members of Sonikmatter use Kurzweil synthesizers more so than other equipment. Addressing their interest, how was it working with the K2500 in the making of Solo?
Lyle: As I said before, the K2500 is the beast that I prefer - it bends to my will, but all synths suck.
Jonathan: I could imagine some serious sound ideas in the Lyle Mays imagination. You ever think a synthesizer will render them without a struggle?
Lyle: Evidently, they won't in my hands. Maybe it's just my destiny to struggle.
Jonathan: What’s your favorite trick with FUNS?
Lyle: I have no favorite. But the idea was brilliant and a step in the right direction.
Jonathan: What is the most nerve-racking experience you ever had trying to make equipment work?
Lyle: During the laying of the synth tracks on SOLO, my DW2000 just broke, I had to program a pad that was up to my standards on the synths that were available. It may not sound like much, but at $200/hour, the pressure is on!
Jonathan: So, right guard or old spice? Don't tell me- all-natural. That must have been a nightmare, though you probably whipped up something great. Right then and there with different synths and parameters, what in terms of oscillators, filters, envelopes, LFOs, and controllers did you attempt to translate? I KNOW you did not have time for trial and error by ear...
Lyle: I seem to remember it as being "trial and error by ear" towards the end. I wouldn't call the result great though - simply serviceable.
Jonathan: Do you play every day?
Lyle: No, I almost never play
Jonathan: What besides keyboard instruments do you play?
Lyle: I play enough of most instruments to write for them.
Jonathan: When it’s time to give direction to someone playing your music who is obviously more disciplined on a particular instrument, how far do you typically go to mirror the internal/mental concept? Do you give these performers a lot of room?
Lyle: The best players deserve lots of room. And the best of the best seem to be jazz musicians.
Jonathan: Some of the music you perform live involves tough time signatures. Do you practice improvising in these time sigs separately, or just practice the composition specifically?
Lyle: As I've said before, I don't practice.
Jonathan: Do you spend isolated time listening closely to certain pieces as an exercise? If so, what pieces/recordings are a good warm-up?
Lyle: Each individual should find those pieces that speak to him or her. I suppose Bach and Miles wouldn't be a bad place to start.
Jonathan: I have seen various incarnations of your live rig. What do you generally keep in mind when setting up your instruments for a live show?
Lyle: Hey, it's whatever keeps the show on the road.
Jonathan: You have a very strong left hand and sometimes I think you look like two people playing one piano. What do you do to develop and maintain such independence?
Lyle: Strong? I am a weak person. I thank you for the compliment but it is entirely undeserved.
Jonathan: It’s not uncommon to see you perform on more than one keyboard at the same time. Was this something that came from piano technique, or just many years of having to do it?
Lyle: It's mostly organ technique, and it came from 3rd grade.
Jonathan: What organ pieces were you playing then? Did you have some favorites? What kind of settings if any were you performing in i.e. recitals, church, home?
Lyle: I wasn't playing anything heavy; I was just learning simple techniques.
Jonathan: What kinds of things in your life or in an ensemble inspire you toward a great performance?
Lyle: A great audience.
Jonathan: When I saw you on the fictionary tour I could not move and my mouth was slightly ajar. Is this the kind of response you look for? Or stated differently, is it enough for us to merely be polite and let you play?
Lyle: Great audiences are both polite and enthusiastic and know when to express themselves.
Jonathan: Listening to your writing and watching you play live I have often wondered about something. Do you have 'perfect' pitch?
Lyle: It used to be "perfecct" (sic) but aging has decayed the perfection.
Jonathan: How did you find out you had perfect pitch, and how could this decay?
Lyle: I don't know and I don't know.
Jonathan: Is it true that all horses have perfect pitch?
Lyle: I have no idea. How could one even measure this?
Jonathan: Did you have a musical childhood?
Lyle: In the best sense! Both parents always playing music live - it was magical.
Jonathan: What instruments do they play? Would you say you have a musical family?
Lyle: My dad plays guitar, my mom plays piano, both my sisters play keyboards (and in high school played the flute and clarinet respectively) and they all sing much better than I do. I would call this a musical family because we all enjoyed playing music regardless of our levels of accomplishment.
Jonathan: Often times musicians had help getting started in music. Who helped you in exploring your musical potential?
Lyle: See previous answer.
Jonathan: Read any good books lately?
Lyle: I only read good books. Recently I reread Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.
Jonathan: Would you ever sit in with a late-night talk show band? If so, which one? More importantly, if invited to be a musical guest for such a program, would you consider it?
Lyle: Conan is the only one I would consider. The rest just suck.
Jonathan: Another question I often ask people: If given the choice of one or two individuals from all of history that you could have a conversation with or play music with: Who would they be?
Lyle: FLW, and maybe Stravinsky, but not to "play" with, but to talk.
Jonathan: What does Lyle do for fun?
Lyle: Besides designing frisbee golf courses and building lego cities?
Jonathan: How about that Kenny G?
Lyle: I hope Pat becomes famous for his trashing of that idiot.
Jonathan: As opposed to the alternative? Some of Pat's songs are a little on the soft side. Don't you think his critique is ironic?
Lyle: Pat has ranged from simple to complex. Mr. G has not demonstrated anything close to this range. A simplistic idea played with speed is still a simplistic idea.
Jonathan: What advice would you give a young musician looking to expand their musical experience?
Lyle: Listen to everything you can get your hands on.
Jonathan: Where should people go to get your music, tour dates, and other information? Do you have a website?
Lyle: Evidently I have a website, but it's not from me.
Jonathan: If you were elected president, how would you address the body you serve?
Lyle: Yo, somebody's made a huge mistake here... Seriously, I have no desire to govern. I would point you to the manifesto on the first Weather Report record. I read that as "We can all lead, and nobody should lead." This idea points to a more perfect democracy than any of us have ever experienced, but it may be the most subversive of all the jazz ideals.
Thank you to the Wayback Machine!!!