Is It Repeating or Listening?

The hardest thing is for me is to stay and repeat an idea until it transforms. I don’t want to be one of those players who rehash the same ideas or rely on “licks” to structure a solo. I have to keep reminding myself of the times that I stayed with an idea until I heard (or felt) something change and how that served me better than letting my fingers run amuck.

The first time was when I was writing Syukhtun. Anne LaBerge asked me to write her a piece for the extended technique of singing while playing. I was getting my masters in composition at CalArts at the time. I started the piece in the summer after I had studied with Mel Powell for a year. I was into all this conceptual organizing. I took what I had started into my private lesson with Morton Subotnick, who was my second year composition teacher.

“You didn’t hear this,” he exclaimed. Mort was not interested in my heady explanation of my process. “This week I don’t want you to write anything. Just listen and see what you hear.”

I based this solo on a Chumash Indian melody that I had transcribed from an historical recording that I got from Santa Barbara’s History Museum. “Syukhtun” was the Chumash name for Santa Barbara. Syukhtun means where the trail divides because it was at that California coast where one had to decide if they were going to stay on the mainland or go to the Channel Islands. I thought that was a perfect metaphor for a piece where the flute and voice would split apart.

Being a somewhat dutiful student, I sat in my chair at home and listened. I heard that five beat melody over and over for an hour. I couldn’t take it any more. I got up and did something else. The next day I sat in my chair to listen. Again, for an hour, all I heard was the same melody. Day three the same thing. Day four…it broke and all of a sudden I heard the piece. I didn’t think the piece. I didn’t structure the piece. I felt it. It lived within me. So, I started writing down what I heard. (You can hear me play it on my audio-clips on this site.) I don’t think this solo would be so alive and vibrant if I hadn’t let it run through me like a fever does when you’re sick. It felt exactly the same! When I’m sick, I think it’s going to last forever and then at one instance, it breaks and I’m better.

The second most powerful experience was when I got up to jam with a folk singer in a British pub. He had been singing and playing guitar to a noisy bunch in a somewhat dark and dank pub with ceilings so low I could almost touch them. I didn’t really know if I would be able to hear myself over the din. The singer pulled out his Bodhrán and he called me up on stage. I didn’t know him or how he played—he was a friend of my then in-laws. “Ok,” I thought, “I’m not going to playing anything that I don’t hear.” He started playing. I took a deep breath and played my favorite note “D.” I held it waiting to hear something else, but nothing came. I took another breath and all I heard was that same “D.” I had nothing to lose or gain, so I kept holding that one note while the drum played behind me. Then the room got quiet. The talking had stopped and all attention was on the flute and drum sounds coming out of the corner. It was then that a melody bubbled up through my fingers and we had a wonderful duet played to an attentive audience.

I don’t think they would have ever gotten quiet if I had started with a note-filled melody.

Last weekend I played with Dave Williams and his “Majic Bullet Theory” band for Long Beach’s First Friday. It was a great band! All of the players inspired me to reach for the impossible, so some lucky mistakes (made by the outrageous reaches) spurred my creative soul. In the third set, Slam, the vibraphonist, was just striking one note, right on the beat, over and over, until it broke organically into an inspired solo.

Hearing Slam reminded me of staying with what you are hearing/feeling.

Last night I played with Jeff Schwartz and Andrea Centazzo in Andrea’s “West Coast Chamber Jazz Trio” at Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro. What a space–the intimacy, and the sound system was inspiring. It was a joy to be able to hear all the nuances from my musical partners. The musical conversations we had were some of our best. It’s amazing what you can play when you can hear!! I started one alto flute solo with a note that I bent down. I felt the sigh in that note and stayed with it as long as that sigh could say it all. When finally that sigh could no longer express everything I want to say, I felt the need for other notes.

As much as I don’t want to do the same patterns, my tendencies, what interests me, my musical language developed from years of playing and the tendencies of the instrument I play—it’s register and what acoustical role it is given in an ensemble is with me as much as the color of my eyes. But each breath that I take is fresh, different from the one before and the one following. The emotion I feel right now is most likely different from the one I felt this morning, or even a few hours ago. I constantly strive to be present and honest with where I am. In that striving, I am listening, I am feeling and I am closer to my truest sonic voice.