Fine Line

(Not) Another image-mongering ploy: Milo Fine

(Not) Another image-mongering ploy: Milo Fine

Milo Fine doesn't know when to shut up. "It doesn't take much to get me going," admits the compulsively self-aware, avant-garde musician and self-confessed "cheap interview." Just as the cure for the abuse of free speech is more free speech, the king of the clarification calls back numerous times to add nuance to his already measured and qualified statements. But when Fine is on a roll, this 47-year-old multi-instrumentalist's discursive improvisation can be as fascinating as any musical excursion he has committed to disc.

"Frankly, the avant-garde is just another genre," he warns me during our hourlong conversation. "It's prone to the same dilettantes and bandwagon hoppers you find anywhere else. I certainly don't promote myself as a carte blanche champion of the avant-garde." He pauses. "God, I hope I don't promote myself at all."

Fine is one of a handful of Twin Cities musicians whose local anonymity belies his international reputation. He has performed and collaborated across the nation and in France, Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain, and Austria. Born in Minneapolis and raised in Bloomington, he started playing out on drums during the counterculture's late-Sixties zenith, christening his jazzy power trio (with guitarist Scott Munsell and bassist Steve Dokken) Blue Freedom after holding a name-the-band contest in a local junior high school. Playing what he terms "overtly rock-based inflections" of contemporary classical music, Fine drew on John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Captain Beefheart before lunging headlong into free jazz. As the band changed names--first to Blue Freedom's New Art Transformation, then to the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble--the bandleader sought to purify his improvisational technique until, as he puts it, "not only did any obvious link to rock fall by the wayside, but [so did] any semblance of formal structure."

Today Fine remains an aesthetic absolutist who, upon seeing unfamiliar faces in the audience, will indulge fears of being reduced to a novelty act for avant-garde tourists. As a result, he seems to have deliberately estranged himself from the mainstream. "Pop music by its very nature feeds on the deeper streams of creativity," he explains, "And by its very nature, which is parasitical, it doesn't do those streams justice." But, as Fine suggests, the avant-garde is equally suspect. Having knitted the highbrow in its own image, institutional art is subject to the same pitfalls as any commerce. For Fine, postmodernism is pop writ large, favoring pastiche over depth. And so he instead occupies a prematurely discarded modernist space that he seeks to insulate from both commercial and political influences.

"A genuine avant-garde meets with resistance, and that's what I'd like to think that I stand for," he says. "I'm doing my damnedest to hold a mirror up to the status quo and, in the healthiest sense of the word, to be in opposition."

But Fine's positions--and disposition--have led to his estrangement from the arts community. "This town is terribly provincial," he says. "It's not a receptive area--if I may be so bold--to people who are unwilling to bend to fashion, who don't play the game. There's nothing inherently wrong with networking, but there's a degree of cronyism, that, to me, has little to do with the pursuit of art. I've seen too many people sniffing out a possible collaboration even if they don't particularly like the person's work."

Though well-known among European free-jazz fans, Fine confines most of his public performances to bimonthly appearances in a cramped room at the West Bank School of Music, the small jazz-centric institution where Fine regularly teaches. But the musician has had a slightly higher profile of late. A year ago one appreciative regular at the Ensemble's gigs, Michael Mann, instigated Fine's first performances in recent memory to be held in a large hall. The results were two nights of the Ensemble's improvisational and experimental music, recorded in the Sateren Auditorium at Augsburg College and preserved on Fine's recently released album, Surges/Suspensions, Comme Toujours. This fall, Fusetron will put out a solo clarinet and electronics album, Frequency Etchings (Ongoing Celebrations of Insignificance). And the modernist skeptic has even launched his own Web site,, the better to spin his aesthetic theories at length and self-edit at will.

Fine sees the contortions of his conversational style as a kind of moral calisthenics. "It's a matter of learning to think and act and behave in a way different than you've been conditioned to," Fine explains, comparing the process to the behavior modification necessary for a recovering alcoholic. Almost instantly, he apologizes for the "histrionics" of such a comparison, just as he did earlier when he compared compromising artists to Nazi sympathizers.

"It becomes more and more difficult to express this stuff, because more and more one is just regarded as a crank or a bitter old man," Fine sighs. So is it possible to evolve from angry young man to mature iconoclast without taking a detour to embittered irrelevance? Fine strikes a characteristic pose of unrelenting ambivalence. "I don't want to sound like I'm trying to earn my merit badge for artistic integrity. That would be just another image-mongering ploy. I'm just trying to keep a few steps away from becoming a typically mendacious hypocrite."