Interview with Robert Markison
March 12, 1997
r is robert markison, the loquatious doctor.
j is me, justin, sufferer of hand woe and faithful student to many.
a is amy, my intrepid girlfriend and occasionally photographer.
becky typed this up for me, for money.
j - now all these people that you study with, like, when you've decided - i want to learn to make shoes - what do you do? when you decide -i want to learn to make shoes - what do you do?
how to learning
r - you go to the public library and look at the shoe repairman's magazines for the past 15-20 years in hopes of getting something in the classifieds about shoemaking in addition to shoe repairing and then you get onto people in canada or the us or elsewhere, you get to germany where they have these fine little tools so that you can, once you have these various tools that you can work with, you get to sources, primary sources where they forge these things and then you talk to people who actually make things around the world and you say, 'could i come and visit you and see how you make things' and just do it, whether its going and meeting with the cherokee to learn silversmithing...
j - does that mean, when you say meeting with them, that doesn't mean a weekend...that means...?
r - sometimes, yeah, sometimes a weekend, or a day or half a week or something like that, whatever it takes to be absolutely sure that you've gone to a primary source, of somebody who can do something from ground zero. once you are there you know how to get there rapidly, and then you're fine. and it's very reassuring cause i've surrounded myself with people who know how to do things and are infinately positive
j - your patients, or?
r - my patients to a large measure, but my circle of friends: it's comedians, playwrites, actors, actresses, artists, composers,
j - not artisians so much
r - some, some, yeah, certainly some, but people who have really burned a creative fire their whole lifetime despite naysayers intruding. and so the company you keep, assuming you have a solid identity to begin with, is unbelievably important. you want to be with real people who can do real things in a professinal fashion without creative loss and that's what life's about. if you find those people then you have an appropriate group you can call and you can be certain. so if i want to learn the accordian, then i can find somebody to study with and be sure that, you know, i really understand fresh air and so does he. the whole process of learning and being is really one of seeking out the masters on a regular basis.
j - so it seems to me like i'm here because you're a master, like i've never run into anybody who does all this crazy sh... I mean ah, wow. so, you know i think, well, markison should be writing books or should be, you know, talking the, i don't know, should be like showing off his shoes, or something, i don't know, you know, like disseminating this kind of, i don't know, i don't want to turn you into some novel item but, i mean, your world view, your productivity rate, your emphasis on creativity is really something, um, i mean, i guess that's why i'm here writing this article, but it's something that's probably pretty important
r - thank you for your confidence, you know, as far important or not, you know i've been trodded down various venues for show and this is...you know...this is. and primary sources*, right away, you know, you always want to read backwards so if i'm looking at...
j - wow, "the foot and its covering"
r - yeah, this is james dowey*, ok so here it is, 1871 in london. now there's only about 50 of these left in the world. but here's a man, james dowey, who talked about the ideal form of a shoe, ok? the bones of the foot, everything you're going to need to make a wonderful shoe for yourself, or a child or whatever. and so this is exactly where i go, i go to primary sources. if they're in an archival library somewhere in or out of town i go and read exactly what people read 100 or so years ago. i mean, its my obligation to myself if i'm going to be pure in my thought process - going step by step, raw materials to finished goods, on a personal basis - to really look at the ultimate history of everything i'm working on, whether its a clarinet forged in 1825 to its current form or whether its a saxaphone in 1845, aldolph sax, belguim, the evolutionary history of all tools and instruments that i deal with.
j - so i think about- well, wouldn't it be great if you could just take the contents of that book or the study of shoemaking and disseminate it down to its distinct parts or somehow craft some kind of tutorial that boiled it down to, you know, not a cliff's notes necessarily, but serving it up in modern language and easy to understand diagrams and taking advantage of the tools we have today for dissemination and publishing.
r - yes, well i understand exactly what your saying and part of it, and i hope i'm not circumlocuting because you know part of it
j - no, i think you're locuting, you're not circum
r - the idea of tools you know, if i want to learn how to play jazz, charlie parker was the greatest jazz player probably ever on alto sax and so if we wanted to..., what i'm leading up to, is that there's a certain amount of dues that have to be paid. and its a question of how painlessly you can pay dues. and so here's charlie parker, on easy to ride.....and there he was playing 1938
[markison plays a recorder along with bird on cd]
so that's dues, you have to pay dues. so did i listen to charlie parker once, who layed it down in the forties, profoundly for all of the rest of the humans who are willing to listen. so i can use a piece of tubing, one two three four five six seven eight nine holes and an infinite capacity for self-refreshment, soaking up brand new information if you're ready and willing. now could i teach people to do what i just did, of course i could, i could teach them from the time they're learning english as children, but would i also take away the search and the hunt and the joy and the flavor of finding charlie parker, the master alto sax player and just woodshedding it with him on a weekend where i just got all this records that were in print, 78s, LPs, and just closed myself in a room for 18 hours and just listened and finally became a friend who was flying in formation like a bird. then we're fine, then i'm done. i've paid my dues in that little venue.
j - its a membership, you have to keep paying your dues...
r - you've got to keep paying your dues, so i've constantly, in parallel dues and profitted enormously, i'm not talking about money, just spiritually from my unwillingness or willingness to fail countless times en route to minimal sucess.
j - (laughing) what were you like in high school?
r - same way.
j - same way
r - if i wanted to learn how to polevault then i would study the bamboo pole vaulters in china before they got to fiberglass, then i'd go to robert pinnel and bob segrean who had the first fiberglass poles of great controversy in the late 60s , early 70s. and then get a fiberglass pole and then figure out how to pole vault, get higher and higher until it was so death-defying that i felt good that i'd gotten some place and then leave it
j - leave it
r - leave it cause it was dangerous and that's where you understand that as you pay dues there are seasons in life for everything that you're trying to achieve. just like i'd be a fool to start weight lifting at this point in my life. i did it in season, as a child.
j - if you have to take off
a - yeah, i have to go.
j - ok. thanks for taking pictures
a - ok. um
j - i'll see you
a - you'll find me?
j - uh huh
a - ok
j - ok
a - it was a pleasure
r - yeah, sure, i'm not doing anything different from anybody long ago
a - you really inspired me
r - thanks, i did what i could with what was left.
r - but you see, you're getting the point maybe a little bit and i know i don't want to seem mystical about any of this, because its really honestly something i believe fully that we're as good as our capacity to handle thoughts, feelings, and raw materials really well. and so if that's the material of medicine or the material of music or art or tailoring or sculpting or gem work or silversmith, or whatever it is, it's all the same to me, i'm just trying to thoughtfully wend my way through a lot of different media happily.
j - but i mean i guess what's astonishing then is, one your capacity for failure on the way to success.
r - love to fail. enjoy, i truly savor failure. much more than most.
j - but what do you, so is all this, do you have anything to do to relax, i mean what about typical american activities like tv and newspapers and you know, absorbing the stories from other people who
r - oh i'm not ego-centric. i come from very humble place with no arrogance in all of this, i meano i'm not the fount of knowledge, i'm observing stuff all the time, but it's better from a well thought out book, like i showed you, the year 1871, james dowey, then it is from people fighting on cross-fire on CNN. you know what i mean, cause those are people doing some ritual baboon fur picking in a non productive venue, descended the lineage, they're baboons.
j - (laughing) baboons, fur picking, yes
r - right, so i don't like to fur pick and so i always understand where there's true insight, inspiration, cognition, understanding, joy, happiness
j - do you write?
r - yeah, sure.
j - in a diary?
r - no, i just write when i feel like it.
j - moved on a subject
r - yeah
j - what do you do with it?
r - well i published it, i publish stuff and when they ask me to write an article for keyboard magazine, i publish that for keyboards and keep pianists out of trouble. and i've written a lot of informational stuff. i've written also, and, indeed as we talk we can go way back in the history of digital time and look at october 4, '88, nine years ago and see the thing on...and that was a long time ago, i mean that was probably before a lot of the multimedia stuff was coming out and
j - oh, yeah, sure. they're talking about the joy of the coming of the system 7, yeah, that was a long time ago.
r - system 7, yeah right, but its important because of the brief history to get an idea of how its evolved and how its growing on ........533 ok, right, page 20
j - you had a beard?
r - yeah, and by then i had sort of sculpted all of the external internal body anatomy and had all of this scanable stuff available slide onto screen and then digital.
j - oh wow
r - then into three d, two d, digital capture and make little nerve endings look like ju ju bs, but lining it up so that you could do a microsurgical repair of the nerves showing the spread of infections in the hands through stop-frame animation and video works before it became director and a lot of hypercard stacks and all this kind of stuff, to just kind of go as far as i could in the state of the art 1988 anticipating the evolution of digital media for the future. and then, just taking the whole little cabinet of dreams which still exists on various hard disks obviously of lesser capacity than what we've got now and just storing it knowing that i could be a multimedia developer all the way from original art to original music to original text and animated stuff. and i studied animation at sf state, so
j - and then you step back from it
r - you step back, exactly right. and it's not an approach/avoidance. it's approach get deep, get very deep, at the current state of the art, and then back off.
j - dartmouth medical school, alumni magazine, summer '89
r - yeah right, by then i had dissected cadavers from neck to fingertips, and neck to toes, layer by layer and then digitally captured either by video or slides digitally scanned and then went in and did retouches to animate the anatomy and the muscle tendon units and so on and various things and three d sculpted views to show how operations are done in the abdominal cavity
j - in the 80's
r - yeah and so did all the stuff i felt i wanted to and needed to do, and again, that was very productive charcoal drawings scanned in so i had minimal memory requirements cause you remember memory was
j - black and white, bitmaps, sure
r - this time just laying it out for the medical community so if someone wanted to develop multimedia teaching then they'd be able to do that with that current state of the art, which as you can see goes back a ways and so i went this far how to save life or limb in the first 20 minutes of major trauma surgery. saved it, saved it. and so ive got it saved and you're asking why not disseminate and i'm waiting, i'm just waiting to see. so obviously i've written stuff, or stuff's been written about me and the other materials
j - april 1994 keyboard [magazine]
r - right, and the word went out just again from a humble position on my part but with plenty of information about how to hopefully stay out of trouble and the drawings and so on that i did particularly for this and mingled with stories from others about their troubles and all these illustrations
j - wow
r - and then again bringing it out to what does the thumb do on the space bar of a keyboard and so on and you know, preventing trouble; categorically describing all the various maladies of musical limbs and going through it, so they could have it, and
j - its out there
r - yeah, its out there and then as other people have written things, like emil pascarelli and deborah was kind enough to spend a lot of time with
j - you're in the index quite a bit
r - and then, right, so when she writes another book
j - she sends you the proofs, the galleys
r - yeah, so if she wants me to write a little
j - blurb
r - yeah, that's right.
j - so what's the next one called?
r - so this is a forward and this is
j - recovering from RSI
r - so i basically can't, obviously, can't do it all myself but i do a fair amount and all my drawings and this is just what you just looked at and then that book
j - yeah
r - these have been published pretty
j - extensively
r - yeah, i think so
j - we've mentioned a number of arts and you're wearing a lot of art and you've mentioned a lot of art but you've also mentioned pole vaulting and digital media and some of the stuff you've entered more rapidly and withdrawn, so which ones have you maintained throughout?
r - i've maintained art, i've maintained music, i've maintianed craft at a high level and i've maintained an interest in looking at every potentially socially redeeming phenomenon carefully and sometimes becoming a developer within those. but when i really look at the core identity and its formation its again music which is forever, art which is forever, craft which is forever and then everything else is brought through those filters, that view. i will always be doing music, art and craft.
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