Into the Cave of Mystery

BEOWULF co-creator Larry Ochs of Rova Saxophone Quartet experienced a magical recording session in a prehistoric cave in France...

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.

Larry Ochs - Photo by Lauren Matley

Larry Ochs - Photo by Lauren Matley

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 one usually lists the events in order and gets mentally ready to go down that list and nail each situation in its expected order. But, this project was different. So different 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 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 allowed, 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 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 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 an unnamed 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.

Larry Ochs - Photo by Lauren Matley

Larry Ochs - Photo by Lauren Matley

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. 
Nice image.
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 we looked at as possible recording rooms, the floor was absurdly unstable. It 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. 
The next potential recording chamber we hit was a lot 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. 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.

Early BEOWULF rehearsal - photo by Lauren Matley

Early BEOWULF rehearsal - photo by Lauren Matley

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...
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 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. 

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 cases in fact consisted of a relatively level area. Hardly level, and hardly smooth or flat, but better than other spots. I 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. 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. 

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 water 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 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 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: floor 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.
Focus was really good though... 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 the upper arm. Bizarre... Every so often I would while playing look upwards and see in someone’s headlamp the ceiling of the cave. Exhilarating! 

The silence in the cave was profound. As a result of this feeling of the silence – almost 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 definitely was open to rolling with where the music flowed to, rather than trying to force a pre-conceived concept in. 
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.
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. 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.  

BEOWULF Cast Spotlight: Larry Ochs

A killer saxophonist and all around great guy, Larry is another of Rova's founding members. We love collaborating with him; when you see his answers, we think you'll understand why!


Have there been any specific challenges or funny/interesting stories working outside and in the chapel for BEOWULF?


  • Never have played before with a flagpole sticking to my back and the bay winds whipping around the flag on that pole, which is kind of knocking me to the left or right or backwards as I’m trying to focus on playing the music. 
  • One of the greatest perks of all time; walking in costume down towards the stairs to the bay and enjoying the view west to Golden Gate Bridge just before each show starts
  • Very much enjoying the exchange of sound between the two conch players, as there is what seems to be a long delay between Jon’s conch sound on land and the reply from Albert out in the bay.
  • Also digging the symphony of ambient sounds wafting around us as we perform outside. There is the challenge of hearing our cue at The Battery event to come wailing out of hiding. Ava plays this bell -  slowly- until the time we are to rise up; then quickly; that’s the cue.. But yesterday there was an off-shore bell that sounded exactly like our own, and discerning between the two amongst the recorded music from one direction and the fog horn from another, and the wind… yeah; a challenge but all of it in fun...
  • Except yesterday maybe, when some guy threw a bottle over the wall that i am hiding behind and playing. It smashed a good distance from me, but did make me a bit paranoid as he and his cohorts were just a bit inebriated, and thus seemed capable of sending more projectiles over the wall. Did not happen… all’s well that ends well.
  • The weather!  This we expected to be our big challenge, even renting an entire set of saxophones for the outdoor portion of the piece; obtaining ponchos to cover ourselves and the saxophones; having an entire set of alternate capes created for the outdoor shows in the rain which we could discard upon arrival at the chapel for the longer more intimate and intense  indoor part of the show. But somehow through all that rain in February we never got wet. And now the weather seems turned completely beautiful; spring is here... Knock wood!

Beowulf in four words?


Share a favorite artistic experience- how did it impact you and affect your life and work afterwards?

Larry: There are so many...

  • Stumbling out of a Fugs’ concert in the East Village in summer 1966, rounding the corner and seeing a sign for John Coltrane at the Village Gate. walking in for the 2nd set and listening with an audience of maybe 2 dozen. Quite likely less. Never had experienced anything that intense in such a small space.
  • Stumbling out of my tent on Monday morning, early, to find with my ears that someone was still playing music, even though the festival- Woodstock- should have ended about midnight; some 7 hours before that. It was Hendrix, whom I had seen live before. But what he was doing that morning, the part I saw, was off the charts.
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago in Berkeley in 1973 or 74. By this time I was committed to the avant garde, and this concert confirmed that the direction I was headed was the right one for me. 
  • Diamanda Galas at Moers Jazz Festival 1981. Her debut in Europe. 5000- as in ‘five thousand’- wet audience members... it had been raining all weekend at this outdoor festival, but more and more people showed up each day anyway. You know: well known avant garde jazz groups played this festival. But on this Saturday afternoon, safe to say that almost no one familiar with Diamanda’s music was out there in the audience. She’s there to sing solo; no support onstage. And she has complicated tech; and it’s 1981, and she can’t explain how it works technically; her normal tech person was not flown in. The festival engineer comes up to me almost crying…”can you help? I don’t know what she wants, but whatever that is,  it’s not working.”
  • Diamanda standing resolutely behind her microphone in a raincoat adamantly shaking her head;  the concert does not start- for about an hour- and by then the audience is yelling at her to start; the engineer is throwing up his hands from the control booth situated out in the audience; and I know she’s about to ‘play’ something quite unlike the normal fare delivered… And yet, when she finally gets what she needs onstage,  she walks offstage, to more boos, and returns without the raincoat and DELIVERS. Solo, no help, for an hour. Completely wins over this hostile, miserably-wet crowd. A tour-de-force of performance power. Taught me some things I’ve never forgotten.
  • Hearing John Cage and David Tudor et al, creating music for the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe. That first time stands out in a huge crowd of major concerts that set my mind off and helps me solve my own creative problems..