John Wunsch, A Humble Man of Music

by Aryo Adhianto

There is a myth, or so we thought, that artists are somehow born knowing that they are artists. Such a myth is perhaps relevant for John Wunsch, a lifelong guitarist, composer, educator, and shop owner, who is somehow certain about his long and fruitful path in arts, long before he even know what arts is.

The young John got interested in playing music by the age of 5, then started to play guitar and became obsessed with it at the age of 11. Even so, he had never thought of it as a career, until he was 27 years old and realized he had been making a living as a guitarist for over a year. Out of a curiosity, he went to a music school as a temporary switch while he was pursuing a career in law and politics in his college years. No one would have expected, perhaps even himself, that he would devote his entire life for music.

John Wunsch begins his first musical training at The North Carolina School of the Arts, with additional training later on at the Manhattan School of Music. As a guitarist and composer, he has performed in Europe, Japan, and the USA. His diverse programs bring together classical guitar technique and repertoire (developed under the tutelage of such masters as Andres Segovia) with blues, hymns, jazz, and his own compositions which exude the influence of appearances with contemporary artists such as B.B. King, Dave Brubeck, Kilimanjaro, and Special EFX. John has appeared not only on the concert stage but at popular venues such as the Newport Jazz festival and the Blue Note. He also has earned myriad recognitions such as from the New York Music Awards and the New York State Council for the Arts

As an educator, he has been a classical and jazz guitar instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy for 15 years, and founded the Interlochen Guitar Festival Workshop, in where he has reached over 4000 students from across the globe. Due to health concerns, he began a transition from the rigors of both teaching and performing in 2008, and fully retired from a career as a composer, performer, and educator in 2010. He became the owner of Strings By Mail since 2009, a web based store for musicians which sells music, accessories, strings and instruments and provides important information and guidance.

John Wunsch’s story is for all of us musicians should take notice on: be humble, and let the heart be the ship to sail this vast musical ocean. From having a brilliant career as a composer, performer, and educator for more than three decades, to go through the transition as the shop owner, John Wunsch has certainly held a unique place in the world of music. 

Listen to the World: For more than two decades you have dived deep into the world of music education—far from the ‘bright spotlights’ of fame—after having walked a brilliant ‘career’ as a performer and recording artist; what made you decide to ‘travel the roads’?

John Wunsch: I think the decision was made for itself. A career in the Arts is something one does because one cannot stay away from it. Another way to say this is that I did it because my heart demanded it, I could feel it was necessary for me to keep my sanity, or health, or happiness. It was not thought out, but felt and known. I did not see it coming but finally when I was there I knew it.

In relation to your experience going through those two worlds (the performing world and the teaching world), can you explain the differences between the two? And in your opinion, is it possible for someone to go through both worlds at the same time, and achieve the same excellent results?

The two are completely intertwined, but very different. The experience is very different in the day to day. During the 20 years when I was only a performer my concentration was purely on performing and creating the music itself better and better. I was absorbed in each day’s performance and preparation for that moment of “playing” the music. Later, when I also was teaching, I found my concentration was diverted to how I communicate that experience and guide another through it. I was not only directly trying to better myself and my life became much more involved in how my students were going to succeed. I had to help them understand what it takes to live well and perform well, because one must live well to perform on the highest level in any sense of totality But now without only directly trying to make myself better it resulted in my becoming a better performer. I did not know it at first but as the years went by it was obvious. By helping the others I came to totally own and understand my skills. Yes one can do both and achieve excellent results, but they will not be the same. One is not necessarily better than the other. But in my case I believe doing both made for better results. Remember musicians such as Bach and Beethoven taught. In some way I think every musician should teach, if you are given the gift of music you ought to share it. 

You have a long experience as an educator, both in the university level and at the university preparation level during your time as a teacher at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Can you explain what challenges you faced at the two levels, especially in addressing the age difference as well as maturity level of your students?

I found it harder on the preparatory level, because they need more support in simply learning how to approach the process of improvement. They needed more help to control all the other parts of life that can interfere, or support learning music. But I liked this even better because it was a chance to get them started with the best habits, and not have to spend so much time changing poor habits in life or in playing. A younger student is more likely to need more, but they are less likely to have problems that you cannot change without greater effort. Of course there are students on the higher level without bad habits and that is a fine student to have as well. 

Regarding the Interlochen Arts Academy, in your opinion what has made the institution so well respected as one of, if not the only, most excellent musical education institute in the world all this time? 

It is simply the environment of passion for excellence. Students and faculty both know when they come there that it is a place with a great history for excellent accomplishment, and so they too want to accomplish things on that high level. And because in addition to maintaining a high artistic standard it also requires very hard work on academic subjects, one can only succeed with the greatest drive that only exists if one becomes passionate. It is hard and it is challenging and that fact encourages and even really requires passion. Finally all these people (students, staff, & faculty) inspire each other with the obvious passion they exhibit so the impact on the entire community is obvious. 

In addition to adequate mastery of playing techniques, what other aspects do you consider basic necessity to become a good musician?

First is the ability to let music actually move you when you perform it. The greatest value of music lies in how it can connect one soul to another. That connection occurs when the performers heart, not just his or her mind and hands, but heart connects to the music. The audience senses this and that triggers their heart to be open to the music. Now there is true communication among souls in that magical language that goes beyond words. Of course there must be a balance, one can be so constantly moved that one does not get the important technical work done and cannot actually learn the music because they are moved beyond concentration. But that is rare. And in addition it is necessary to find health of mind, body, and spirit and this needs to be cultivated always and will improve over a lifetime. But without it there will be serious limits to what a musician can accomplish, so it is a very important skill as well.

Oftentimes a child has incredible talent and enthusiasm to become a musician; but sometimes this comes to a head with the parents’ differing wishes. How do you see this problem? 

Well I have personally experienced this with my students and their parents and I find it is usually just a fear for the future of the student by the parent. There is a fear they will suffer by being in the arts. I have answered this by sharing my understanding that most people are looking at the only “success” in music being the careers of the most famous. They know that it is not likely to be one of the most famous musicians, so they think that the chance of the child making a living and being “successful” is very small. But the fact is many, many musicians make a living and share the gift of music with others while not being famous. Just like a shop owner, a laborer, a doctor, or any other person, a musician can have a quality life without being among the most famous. But society looks at the career of musicians and other artists in a different way than most careers. The tendency is to think if one is not among the famous one is a failure and suffering. Suffering as a musician is like suffering in any career, it can happen but in some way we all have the opportunity to make decisions in what we expect of ourselves that will allow us to avoid the suffering. If we actually enjoy what we do, not the admiration of or status granted to what we do by others, then we avoid the greatest danger to a satisfied life.

The music “industry” has formed the composer/musician into an income generating profession; one of its consequences is that success is measured by the size of income received (and how popular the musician is in public). Motivation to create thus becomes focused on how to create a work which will ‘sell’. Is this a problem for you and the arts education world in the United States?

For education it probably is primarily an issue if it distracts students form considering traditional instrumental education and styles of music for study, so music education could lose importance. So if educators can find relevance in popular forms of music but thereby bring the value of more complex forms of music to the student, then it will be OK. Then I think that for the individual artist it is only as big a problem as we allow it to be. Some individuals will really only truly value the income aspect in their heart, and if so they can be very happy working toward that. Others really value the artistic and spiritual connection music can bring to others and for them they need to be careful of letting the industry machine take them too far from who they are in their hearts. If one can produce something that sells and have true connection to it, true pride in it, and manage to carry a message of value, then I think it can be a fine thing. It is only a problem for the artist if in the end they have no real satisfaction, again like anyone in any field of endeavor, we must be true to ourselves.

Regarding the guitar as a musical instrument, what made you decide to choose the guitar as your main instrument?

It was really not a decision I consciously made, it just happened. I had started with piano, and singing in choirs, and then played trumpet & clarinet. I certainly enjoyed all those, but when I saw a guitar played in person I was mesmerized and it took over, eliminating serious pursuit of any others. I think it was significant that the musician was playing Spanish flamenco influenced music. I know that music touched my spirit and brought me to the guitar.

Can you describe what details must we pay attention to when assessing the quality of an acoustic guitar?

I am most involved with classical guitars, which are an acoustic instrument, but there is also the “acoustic” guitar category, which as opposed to the ”classical” guitar category uses steel strings, not nylon strings. For both there is the playability and there is the sound quality. For any guitar playability can be adjusted to a large extent, In regards to playability the neck needs to not be misshaped by a twist or warped shape, it should be relatively straight with a slight bow, or relief in the neck to allow the strings room to vibrate. But if the strings are just a bit too high or low that can often be easily adjusted. On a classical guitar we tend to use a higher action if we what more sound and so each player makes a choice as to how high to set the action. With a steel string or “acoustic” guitar the action is usually pretty low to accommodate the higher tension of the strings. In regard to sound, while the sound can be adjusted some by the type of strings used it cannot be physically adjusted within the instrument very much. Bracing can be shaved some, but that is a touchy process that is seldom used except by the original maker. But keep in mind a guitar with a spruce top will continue to open up over the years (get louder and have a more open sound) if it is played enough, while a cedar top guitar will not tend to mature or change very much. So we want a guitar that has sound we like and we want a guitar that has a dynamic range. In other words it must be able to have a soft sound or a loud sound. For a classical guitar in particular we must have a range of dynamics to bring the music to life. A guitar that is just always loud or, as is much more common, one that just never can get very loud is limiting. With a good classical guitar we must not only have the ability to project the sound into a hall and have a general color (or timbre) we like, but we also need to produce a variety of colors (or timbres). If you play closer to the bridge does it have a different sound than when you play over the sound hole or over the fingerboard? Then it has a variety of colors to offer.

Next what is your opinion of developments in electric amplification technologies in the repertoire of acoustic instruments during the past five decades or so? And in your opinion has this technological development brought significant changes in the general development of music currently?

Well I think it has had a positive effect overall. As a guitarist I see that the guitar simply could not be in so many ensembles without being electric and amplified. So it has really expanded the possibilities tremendously. And it allows much bigger audiences to hear any given performance. There are some negatives. It has caused some acoustic settings, like the symphony orchestra, to loose support, and that is a shame. The sound and color of an orchestra is a wonderful thing, so I hope it continues to be a significant part of our music culture.. And it has many times encouraged the use of a piezo pickup system rather than microphones in recording which often leads to what I personally feel is a less complex, natural, and expressive sound for the guitar in particular. But I trust the technology will evolve to capture the actual acoustic sound more easily and keep that from eclipsing the natural acoustic sound of the guitar.

When we watch and listen to classical music, compositions created for the guitar instrument can be said to be quite limited in number when compared to the piano and other string based instruments such as the violin and cello. In your opinion, why has this happened?

I think it is caused by two factors. First the guitar has not been fully supported and on the classical scene for as long as some instruments, and second, it was not loud enough for many centuries to be easily heard in a large hall. The problems are now much resoled due to better instruments, strings, and techniques, and due to the use of amplification. So I think we will catch up fast. And of course in popular music the guitar is fully caught up, so the influence of popular music on more “serious” music will continue to help bring the guitar to the fore as time goes forward. 

In your opinion what big challenges are being faced by the world of music education at this time, and in the future?

Education needs to keep up with the times. A student needs to be able to participate in the music of today, so education needs to help with understanding the technology and some of the basics of styles of world music that are a part of the modern industry and culture. The problem I see is that there is a great value in the discipline one gets spending years working to master a traditional instrument. I would not want to see this lost. And there is an important magic in feeling and sharing the physical creation of music on an instrument. And the theory of music is a challenge to the mind which offers a way to interpret and understand the very bedrock principles of life and energy, so learning that has tremendous value. So I sincerely hope that the ability to create musical sounds with computers and programing does not supplant the study of traditional instruments and theory in the education process. So far I do not see that happening, but if educators wait too long to blend the modern in then they may start to lose too many students and overreact, dropping the traditional all together. That would be the greatest problem. So the challenge is to blend keeping up with teaching some technology and modern style while teaching traditional music skills and knowledge.

A further issue is the challenge to good reading skills caused by exposure to direct recording of one’s creations and to videos and recordings which allow more learning by imitation. But imitation has always been a big part of music education, However I think the average player now has less reason to want to read, and that is unfortunate. The reading ability allows the understanding of theory to be taught, and that helps education and the art form to evolve in a more rich and varied fashion. So perhaps the challenge is to be sure that musical literacy is not supplanted by ease of technology.

You have ‘adventured’ as a musician and as a teacher for more than five decades, and currently you are even managing a web based musical supply store which you own & operate; what has motivated you to have done all this? And is there a mission behind all this?

I am motivated by the fact life is amazing. When you work hard and accomplish things you feel this more fully, and that is a great reward. And I am motivated to do whatever comes before me that interests me, offers a me a challenge, and gives me a way to provide something important to other peoples. When I was a young musician I was just trying to understand how to make music, it was great challenge. Then when I could make music I was trying to make a living and gain recognition and encouragement, another great challenge. When I had accomplished that and overcame the challenges it offered however I was suddenly not happy with just continuing to make music and make a living from it, until I discovered I could actually make someone else’s life better with my music. I discovered this when I started playing my music in hospitals. Suddenly it all made great sense. That is because I saw and felt music providing something important for others. And then I understood how being onstage still mattered, because you can provide the meaning of music and use it in an experience of human connection. It was not just getting recognition and making a living. And years later when I stared to teach, the great reward was that I was helping others, and unexpectedly I found teaching made me a better musician. And now I know that the knowledge and availability of products and service that Strings By Mail provides to musicians all around the world is my new challenge and my new say of making a difference for others.

Can you share with us one or two experiences which have touched you the most during your time active as an educator?

It is interesting to me because I am very proud of my many students who have gone to very important top schools like Julliard, or the Royal conservatory among many others. And I have seen them perform so well and been very proud of that. But I have been most moved by a few cases when the student was very troubled when they came to me and I was able to be a part of changing their lives for eh better by the process of learning life skills through studying guitar in my studio. In one case the student was majoring in another instrument and was failing her classes and had been in violation of the rules. She was not going to be allowed to return the next year. But she came to ask if she could study in my studio. I felt she had true love for guitar and music. Therefore I persuaded the administration to let her return the next year to study in my studio. She became a wonderful student who had very good grades and no trouble with the rules and who studied guitar very well. In another case a student from another school applied to study with me at Interlochen. They had many problems with the rules of a school and were doing very poorly, failing the classes. They would not normally be able to enter Interlochen. But after extensive interviews I was persuaded he had the passion for guitar and persuaded the administration to allow him to enter Interlochen. It was a struggle but in the end he established the ability to get good grades and follow the rules and graduate. I felt that in both these cases I was able to be part of changing theses student lives, not just their guitar skills. That is what moved me the most. 

…And any words for Listen To The World?

You have a huge and important mission, representing the important developments in a rich world of music that is often overshadowed by the “industry” of music will help keep the culture alive and vital. We will all benefit by the strength and health of musical diversity, so I encourage you to keep up your good work. 

Thank you very much Mr. Wunsch for your time, your kindness in taking this interview, and most of all, your contribution to music.

Remembering Yazeed Djamin

Yazeed Djamin was born in Jakarta, 1952. He began to earn his piano lessons at the age of nine when he entered the YPM music school, and then studied composition and the piano with Sutarno Sutikno and Frans Haryadi at the Jakarta Institute of Arts. His virtuosity behind the keys had already begun to be heard at a young age when he won the Electone Festival championship in 1972 and 1974. At the period from 1974 to 1988 he continued his studies in composition and the piano at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, USA, where he also studied conducting.

In 1988 he was honored the Otto Ortman Award for composition (1975, 1976) and the Peabody Concerto Competition for piano performance. In 1988, he returned to Indonesia and established his role as a composer, conductor and pianist. He also initiated the Nusantara Chamber Orchestra on the same year, and later became composer-in-residence and supervisor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Malaysia in 1994. He was also awarded first prize at the International Music Festival in Sydney for his orchestral work of Nyi Ronggeng. Yazeed Djamin died in 2001 after a long bout of sickness but left all of us a noble legacy of accountable knowledge, sheer reputation, and a foundation for Indonesian music development.

Ondel-ondel, one of the Indonesian folk song; arrangement by Yazeed Djamin.

In remembrance of his remarkable contribution to musical development in Indonesia, here was the (last) interview with the master himself, conducted by Serrano Sianturi for Listen to the World, back in 2001…

As a musician with a strong background in Western classical music education, do you think of world music as having a strong influence in Western classical music?

It most certainly does. From ancient times, such as medieval church music and others similar to that there is very much an influence [of world music] on the development of Western classical music. And perhaps before their discovery of Asian and African music, I think the Europeans did not think that music could come from those regions, in the sense that at the time they didn’t think there was needed to mimic or adopt them as an element of their creative musical process, because they themselves already have their own playing techniques such as Hungarian Rhapsody, Romanian Rhapsody with their unique style and characteristics, or (Frederic) Chopin with his Mazurka and Polonaise, not to mention music from Russia, which after that you can say it’s been “over-used”. Thus, the 20th century began as a century of exploration for Western Composers, who look for new identities using musical elements, especially music from Asia; whether say from India, Indonesia, Japan or even from China.

What is most prominent is perhaps because (Claude) Debussy heard Balinese music during the Expo Music, then (Olivier) Messiaen also through his piano piece which I have played once, named “Canteyodyaja”, it really is an Indian music which he composed. Contribution from Asian music is most definitely very large on the development of (Western) classical music, yes.

When people talk about ethnic music, in general they immediately associate it with traditional musical instruments; but now you are forming the Indonesian Philharmonic Orchestra, which of course is oriented toward Western approaches and Western musical instruments, but then you want to elevate Indonesian music onto the world level. Can you explain further?

Yes, that’s very true. If I choose the instruments that I use, it is because how wonderful these Western musical instruments are, and they are very varied; many have voices which are just like traditional musical instruments. Except perhaps for the sound of gendang, which then forces us to find a gendang player. But if I have to use other instruments, what creates a gap for me is the difference in intonation. We can use the essence of Indonesian music in an orchestra, so that we do not need to involve players of traditional instruments, because not all orchestras of the world have those instruments. For an example, there was this one time I brought those instruments to Singapore and it was almost hopelessly hard to find a gendang player just to play Ronggeng. And we wound up looking for a Melayu player who didn’t understand anything.

Physical shapes of Bongo, Gendang (one of its shapes), and Conga. Source: gonbops; indoindotraditionalmusic.blogspot; musik-produktiv.

Let’s put it this way: alternatives for those instruments can be found using Western musical instruments. For example by using the conga, or the bongo, and then learning how they play them, until how finally everyone can play. If it was up to me, if we want to become great, we must learn [to be able] to use Indonesian musical material, then transfer them to the orchestra; digest the chords, arrange, construct, I really think we can be on the same level as works from abroad.

Okay then, well while there’s this piano lying around here doing nothing, can you explain the difference in character between the various music, such as what exactly is Light Classical? And what is Baroque, or the Blues, what are they like? Or even Indonesian music?

As for Light Classic, you can say that its something like “Rhapsody in Blue” from (George) Gershwin, or “Summertime” can also be called Light Classic, since it also came from the opera Porgy and Bess; and then there’s the “Warsaw Concerto”, that’s one famous song that was made for film music. All those are Light Classic which were made on the 20th century, where most of those composers at this time don’t play in that context anymore. They now play like this…. (Yazeed plays a sample of 20th century composition)… even a cat can play like that!

Hahaha! I think even I am stupider than a cat!

As for Blues, here’s an easy example, “Summertime” (Yazeed plays Summertime); that’s an example of music using the Blues musical scale. This is Made in America!

And next, “Rhapsody in Blue”, with its very famous theme (Yazeed plays the theme from “Rhapsody in Blue”).

And from the (Johann Sebastian) Bach era; well in classical music we have been talking about things which they would say is taboo, if you don’t play by the rules like how Bach played, then you’re not playing piano. So they say…

Especially within German traditions which consider such music to be their music, and must be played the way Bach played. And then (Ludwig van) Beethoven with his unique trait that goes from loud, then immediately soft. For example… (Yazeed plays a composition by Beethoven) A grandma who was trying to put a thread through a needle, would be immediately startled! Because that is his signature, piano-forte-piano-forte.

And then comes the Impressionist era, a transition, just like my favorite paintings which are the works of Monet; And that was the era of (Joseph-Maurice) Ravel, (Claude) Debussy, (Eric) Satie, for example… (Yazeed plays some compositions from the Impressionist era) things which use Whole tone scale.

Details of Claude Monet’s painting entitled “Nympheas”. Source: intothetravel

Then Classical, the era of (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart (Yazeed plays a Mozart piece) with his unique playing style. To learn classical music, you have to study in school, no way around it; because the way of playing each school of music are each different.

And here, in Indonesia, we have a limited scale. (Yazeed plays the pentatonic scale) What can you make with so few notes? But with cleverness in orchestration, this scale can become very wide (Yazeed demonstrates a development of pentatonic scale), but still with its unique color.

 

Timothy Walker, Strings of Life

by Ginastera Sianturi and Johnathan Wiseman

Timothy Walker, born 1943 at Durban, South Africa, is a world renowned guitar player, composer, and a master-class teacher as well. Being raised in the midst of a musical family -his father played violin and his mother played piano-, he began playing the guitar at the age of 12 and continued to gain knowledge and experiences from guitar masters like Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, and John Williams.

Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, John Williams
Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, John Williams

Timothy Walker has long been settled in London and was the guitarist with the London Sinfonietta and has played with the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Royal Opera Covent Garden along many other orchestras. He has also worked with great conductors like Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze and Walter Susskind.

London Sinfonietta,London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
(from left to right) London Sinfonietta,London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

In addition to his solo career, Tim Walker is recognized as one of the foremost guitarists in the world of chamber music, and has encouraged composers to use the instrument more in ensemble works. He has played groups such as the Melos Ensemble, Ensemble Musique Vivants, the Nash Ensemble, the Lindsay Quartet and many other leading ensembles. He has performed in duo with John Williams, as well as with some of the world’s finest singers and instrumentalists including Robert Tear, Philip Langridge and Sarah Walker.

Now with over 30 recordings of guitar works made on his name, while also serving as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and still continuing to play and perform all over the world, he surely does have some stories to tell. And thanks to our UK’s representatives Ginastera Sianturi and Jonathan, we are very grateful he was willing to share them with us.

Listen to the World: You were born at Durban, South Africa, a region long considered to be among the birth place of African music. What kind of music are you familiar with from the region? Does it have an influence on your musical genre?

Durban, South Africa
Durban, South Africa

Timothy Walker: From South Africa? Phew… really, I don’t know the names, if you had to give them names but like, township, kwella music..?

I remember as a kid hearing a lot of Black African musicians—well, they weren’t really professional musicians, but they would walk to work just strumming a guitar, you know and they had to go miles to get from where they were living to work [to arrive at the place where they work, red.], and they would just strum and sing as they walk the road. And it made, sort of, the journey much easier I guess. Now I don’t know if that has any particular sort of name…

And then you’d also have some groups, some of them playing on street corners, with string and base, you know, just one string and a broom handle, a box, a pennywhistle, other instruments, and someone playing a guitar. I don’t know if that has any particular of name to it, we just call it… folk music. 

Does it have any influence in your musical journey in your early years?

Oh very much so. Quite a few pieces that I’ve played or I’ve composed… I think anybody who’s heard any of this African music of the type that I’ve been talking about will recognize immediately the kind of rhythm, strumming… and usually very simple melodically, but very lovely, beautiful.

Living in the middle of a community rich with wind and percussion musical instruments in your early age, can you share your tale how you chose guitar to be your “partner for life?”

I come from a very musical family; my father played violin, and my mother played the piano. So I was listening to music every day of my life since I can remember, I would listen to Mozart, and Bach, and Beethoven… There was always something in the backdrop. My father was a music critic; he was a general arts critic for a newspaper, for a daily newspaper in Johannesburg. So he would have to review concerts, records, and he would have to make very good writing. But I was more interested in “cowboy music” (sic.), stuff like… I heard Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and I decided then I had to play the guitar. With “Heartbreak Hotel” (laugh).

So, my father got me a guitar, and I strummed a couple of cords, my mother told me I played good music; and then I heard, um… My father, one of the records he had to review for the newspaper was (Andres) Segovia, and I heard these two Handel minuets and I couldn’t believe my ears, so I went from playing “Heartbreak Hotel” to trying to play Handel minuets… That’s how I got into playing music. It was Elvis Presley but, music was always there…

Classical music from its beginning has a deep relationship with the sciences, specifically with astronomy, geometry, mathematics, and architecture. In your opinion, how was the interrelation between these disciplines established?

I’m not sure quite how that relates to me, except, I remember at school I once got 108% for Maths and uh, I figured that one out ­– well, I did [answer] more questions than I actually needed to in the paper. So I kind of liked… adding things together. And the next year I got 8% in mathematics, because the teacher didn’t like me and I didn’t like the teacher.

So I guess I like… I’ve done a lot of modern music where you have to do a lot of ‘calculus,’ so if you’re talking to me personally I like mathematics as a sort of thing. I think mathematics is wonderful, I’ve even watched programs about Einstein’s theory of relativity without understanding at all what’s going on, but I still find it fascinating.

You have experience in performing as a soloist, as well as playing in an orchestra-scale ensemble. Can you describe what meaning and function of each these two experience types for you?

What, playing solo as being different to playing with an orchestra, or just as a person?

Yes as a soloist, and on the other side as an ensemble.

Well the thing is playing with an ensemble, ideally, you are listening to the others [playing] and they should be listening to you. Which is much more—if you like—how we are as people in society, relating to each other ideally as we listen and hear what other people have to say and hopefully they do the same for us. So I think that’s, that’s why we always encourage to do them [playing in an ensemble, red.], and you hear a lot of people saying it is the most, it can be the most satisfying form of music making, because you bounce it off each other. Even if you learn a piece, learn all the notes, and you’ve got yourself a plan of how to do things, of course the weather can make a difference, all sorts of circumstances so you don’t always play it the same, which you don’t as a soloist anyway, either. But it means that when you’re with somebody else, you know you have to play along with them or against them. While when you’re on your own, you can always do what you like and hope that the audience likes what you do, of course, but it doesn’t require the same discipline. I never think it’s quite as rewarding actually in the long run. It’s great indeed, you know, the places, and you get the applause and it’s all for you; but as an all-around experience I think it’s nice if you can do things with other people.

So would you agree that people have very become preoccupied with their solo careers? Because there are, um, far too many excellent, gifted young players around anyway and not all of them can make it, so perhaps it’s either an alternate way of looking at things, while there’s more possibility of a career with an ensemble?

Oh absolutely! For sure, when I started, it was quite long ago now, there were really not that many guitarists, solo guitarists travelling the world; not many. So if you worked hard, obviously, and if you have any talent, there was actually a sort of chance to actually join that group of people travelling the world.

The problem with the guitar is that the solo repertoire is very limited compared to, say, the piano or the violin. And so everyone is playing the same repertoire, or very often if people are playing a different repertoire, the music isn’t of such a high quality, you know and it doesn’t have the audience either. So, now it’s much more difficult than when I started to make it in a solo career. When I started, that’s what I wanted to do, was to be a soloist like Andres Segovia, and Julian Bream, and my teacher the great Narcisso Yepes; but then I kind of fell into playing ensemble music, and I hadn’t realized that, ‘gee, you know I really like doing this’, but today rather than fall into playing ensemble music, it’s something and that’s why at the Royal Academy where you are now, is emphasized quite strongly, and I think absolutely rightly, is that one should learn to play with other people, singers, other… duets and bigger groups.

I mean for example when I, the first time I ever did something with a conductor I got sent this music and a friend of mine, an Australian we used to play duets, we got sent this music to play in a film, it was called ‘The Conductor.’ And we got the music, and it was really pretty easy for us to play, and a lot of rests also because there was some other people coming in. So anyways we arrived for the recording of this music for this film, ‘The Conductor,’ we were late which is, professionally, not the way to start off , ‘Be there on time!’, and we got to the recording studio and there was this orchestra of a hundred people, so suddenly we felt a little bit twitchy. And we sat down, and the conductor went up beat, down beat, and we played down there, and then the orchestra came in, played there. The conductor then said, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ since we were a bit too soon. We had never worked with a conductor before. Now, this is a horrible experience for me. I will never, ever forget it, okay, but if I had come in to a place like the Academy I wouldn’t have had that experience because I would’ve learned what to do.

So, you know, this is what you guys, here, could learn, and also working with other people, what to do, rather than finding yourself in a professional situation and making an idiot of yourselves, you know. I don’t know if that answers your question, maybe not, but anyways, it’s something.

You have also collaborated with various world-class musicians and composers in the past. Can you tell us about one or two in which you gained great experiences from?

I will always remember working with Pierre Boulez; he was an, amazing musician, conductor, and composer. It was at the BBC Orchestra, a huge orchestra, and he was, at one moment, he wanted just to rehearse the strings, double basses. There were eight, or more, double basses, and each one was playing a different line, we weren’t playing together; this was very, very modern music everybody played their own thing. And so they played this section, and when he said, ‘Oh excuse me, double bass number eight, you played that ‘D’ in bar so-and-so at the wrong octave.’ And the double-bass player looks at his part and that part, and said, ‘Oh sorry Mr. Boulez.’ We were playing the correct note, it was a ‘D’ and I really remember the note it was a ‘D,’ but he was playing it at the wrong octave. And this man could hear, even with all this jungle of notes, and he could hear it was the wrong pitch, even with all that….

Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez

So here it is when you work with somebody like that who knows, who really knows what’s going on, it’s fantastic. And yeah, some musicians are like that. And while others, are quite different.

Also, you have created and played various musical compositions from all over the world starting from folk, classical, even to complex modern compositions. Is there something you seek to achieve from these experiences? And how does the public respond to it?

What, playing folk inspired music?

Yes, I mean from different genres, from folk, classical, until the complex modern compositions today.

The only thing I would want to achieve is to… convey to people the pleasure and enjoyment I have received from listening and working at the music. It doesn’t really matter to me if it’s… twelve-tone music or simple folk music …

Sometimes as a professional musician you get asked to play something, and you get the music and you learn it and you play it, and you might not really like it at all, it doesn’t mean anything or doesn’t speak to you personally. But as a professional, you still have to do as good a job of trying to understand what it is the composer is trying to do, and sometimes you do understand but it still doesn’t move you or do anything. But you still have to do a good job….

So there are a lot of pieces that I have played, that I would never, ever choose to play but I get paid to do it so I do it as a professional; you have to make a living.

But that’s one thing actually, I suppose, with playing solos, is that you get to choose the program that you want to play, you know. So it has happened sometimes, you get a job or a condition that you play at least by some, or whatever, but usually you would… choose the pieces that you want to play. And, it might depend… the program one chooses might depend on where, what type of audience that you’re playing for, or you just do, play what you… enjoy playing. And, I suppose if you have a broad range of interests that means that the repertoire you choose will be pretty broad as well.

Well, moving on to a different area: In the context of music industry—

I HATE that expression by the way. Music industry, errghh… I know I, hey I understand that’s what it’s called but, I really don’t like…

…(laugh) what have you seen in the last decades of music business? Are there any changes? And does it have an impact on the classical music “genre”?

Well I think, you know with all the modern technologies these days, with the, going from um…. When I started playing it was just records and of course vinyl and, um CDs and now you can get things off of websites and stuffs like that, people can download – it makes it difficult to make a professional livelihood if you make a CD and somebody could put it on Youtube or whatever it is, and then download it or whatever the expression is, I’m afraid I’m not too supple on those type of things, so they don’t go out and buy your CD, so that, can make a big impact on one’s livelihood.

My son is not in classical music but he does electronic… Unfortunately his type of music is being completely killed by modern technology because, he can’t make any money from people buying these things because people would get it for nothing from, you know, downloading so yes, I’m afraid it’s made a big impact. That’s that but people still like seeing it happening in front of them in the flesh, so…

The live experience, yes.

Yes, there’s still that. And of course as a professional musician there are still other things, one could teach, compose, arrange, there are lots of things that one could do. But on the playing side, making CDs is – one needs to do stuffs like that to get known, but as far as making a living out of it, I don’t think it’s like it used to be.

On the other side, in the musical education sector, in that context has there been changes too? What problems are being faced? And how do you personally face them?

Well I think that, certainly, again just from the guitar point of view, because there are more and more good players and, not everybody actually have the ego, or the ambition, or whatever, to follow that through to, you know become a big time soloist or whatever; it doesn’t mean that there are more and more people who actually teach, who are of a good, or very good, standard. And that obviously has a big effect.

Because you know, a kid could come along and be pretty talented, but for one thing they could be put off doing it at all if they have a lousy teacher; that’s one thing; or, they could have this very dedicated teacher.

Professionally I had a lovely fellow, but he wasn’t a great player by any means; unfortunately he got me started. But then I went to somebody else who was really… quite talented at teaching. Because if I had carried on with the first guy, I know that I was getting into lots and lots of habits which would have taken a lot of work to get out of. You know we all can get into good habits as much as we can get into bad habits, but if you get into a lot of bad habits early on, which can become quite difficult to get out of, it could be very discouraging, disheartening depending on one’s character, whatever…

But these days there are more and more, good and very good players around who obviously perform which wasn’t actually the case.

And this one is particularly my question um, we’ve almost got to the end of the interview; I’m looking at the other side of the world, particularly in Indonesia and surrounding areas. Every parent with a musical child is faced with a dilemma whether to apply pressure, or stories … seeing the willingness of the child to work, or whether to let things take their course with the possibility of equally dire results. And how was persuasion applied in your case?

Yes, that’s a very tricky one because I mean for example I was very lucky. As I said before my father played the violin. And, well I guess, I think I was about five when I said, ‘I want a violin.’ So my dad brought home a small instrument, shortly afterwards I put it under my chin, and I went scrape, scrape with the violin, with the bow. And it was the most diabolical noise, I couldn’t believe what was coming out when I did this. I was always listening to Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, great names of violin, you see, who made rather sweet and wonderful sounds. My father wasn’t a great violinist but, let’s say he could, he made—he had professional music in the dance fair, but he was more interested in classical music—but even though he didn’t make sound like Fritz Kreisler, not by a long run, but he sounded okay. So anyway when I went scrape, scrape it was the most diabolical noise so I said no, I don’t want to play this. Now I was very lucky because he said, “Okay, no problem.” He took the violin, fine. And later on I said, ‘I want to play the guitar.’ Now he could have said, ‘oh, well but you said you like the violin.’ But so okay he got me a guitar and I took to it, okay.

While… I always remember teaching, when I was about 16, teaching… I had these two girls, sisters, came to me for lessons, and I would teach them, and… one week after the next they, they hadn’t made any kind of improvement at all. Now I wasn’t doing this to make a lot of money, I was doing it for purpose… and it was extremely boring for me, I keep on having to repeat myself. And so I said, ‘Sorry girls, I don’t want to teach you anymore,’ and they both, both started crying. I don’t know what to do… And then the parents came to see me and it turned out the parents, they had come to South Africa they were… he was from Ireland, and she was from Yugoslavia or something like that, and neither the parents had any background… when they came back to South Africa—they had successful business, they had a restaurant—and I was taken to see them, to talk about their children, these two girls. And then it turned out the girls, because the parents didn’t have any idea what was going on, their children were going to school, they had ballet lessons, piano lessons, percussion lessons, violin lessons… something else, and guitar. So no wonder—I mean, these poor girls were so overloaded with… the parents are probably trying to give them stuffs which any… most parents would want to do for their child, right, but they were just overloaded which meant that—maybe these girls would’ve loved to play the guitar, may have loved to play the piano, they may have loved to do ballet, all these kinds of stuff, but then… they didn’t have the chance, to find out about any of it. So they were crying to me and I was still going to teach them I wasn’t going to, you know… and, and put that kind of pressure on them. So, yeah finally um, some parents… but perhaps the best will in the world to uh,… give, or make their children—for whatever reason—would do these things, and it’s not a good idea at all… but, but what can you do you can’t choose your parents… I was lucky. I know some other people like these two girls…

I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, it’s a very difficult one because parents so very often do these things with the best of intentions, but they, sometimes would do something stupid with the very best of intentions, while doing it for the wrong reasons. If they really loved their kids, then you know, they will make all these things available that they are able to, and encourage that talent, and… see what happens.

If we should invite you to share your knowledge and do a performance maybe, in Indonesia, would you be willing?

Of course, I would love to. 

Yes so, do you have any words for Listen To The World, and the younger generation?

Do what you love to do.

And if playing music is what you love to do, do it. It’s not easy, but hey, doing anything that is interesting is never easy, you know but um… I think, that’s it.

If you love doing it, I mean you can do it without becoming a professional that’s, that’s one thing too, which is great, you know. I think, ideally, the best professionals are still amateurs at heart. Amateur, from the Latin, ‘lover’; you do it because you love it; so you need to keep that.

That’s why, when you say ‘Industry’, I come to think of this smoke, pouring out into the atmosphere, you know, and making more problems that you don’t really need, and stuffs like that. That’s why I don’t like that (laugh), I don’t see playing a lot of notes as an ‘industry,’ I hear–but I understand perfectly the term, but it’s a terrible… but… that’s all that I would say.

If you love doing it, you’ve got to find out and, if you are able to do what you love to do and make a living from it… and if you can’t make a living from it, I hope that, you know, one could still, find something else that you enjoy doing, and that’s very important, very important to do what you love to do, and be able to do that thing… but if you can’t make a profession out of it, then carry on, and… enjoy doing it.

(AA / FZ / SGS)

Máire Ni Chathasaigh, The Harp’s Desire

Nails to be cut short; the little finger is never used; thumbs always upright; index finger always kept well away, distant from the thumbs. Before beginning of a scale passage, always fix the four fingers on the four strings (from “A simple method of learning to play the old Irish harp” book by Madame Cecilia Praetorius, 1890). The book may be old, but the message is ever present: playing an Irish harp is extremely demanding on discipline, technique, and of course, desire. And fortunately for the world, one Máire Ni Chathasaigh possesses them all.

Born at Cork City, Ireland, in 1956, Máire Ni Chathasaigh (pronounced Moira Nee Ha-ha-sig) has been the Irish harp devotee since she was only 11, and become one of Ireland’s most important and influential traditional musicians. She grew up playing both traditional Irish music and classical music in parallel. Her earliest musical training was with her mother, while the traditional music education was provided within the family and through membership of the Cork Pipers’ Club. Eager to play traditional Irish dance music on the harp – tunes that she had been playing on the tin whistle and fiddle—she developed her own special techniques “a single-handed reinvention of the harp” necessary to perform it in an authentic-sounding style, which she still use to this day. At the age of 21, she had the proper harp tuition when a pedal harpist Denise Kelly came to Cork to teach at the School of Music, and gave her good grounding in classical harping.

As a full grown artist, Máire has performed at many harp festivals around the world. As the only Irish headline performer at the 11th World Harp Congress held in Vancouver in 2011, she represented both the Irish harp and Irish musical traditions. Other notable harp festival appearances have included the 2010 Istanbul Harp Encounter (part of that city’s European City of Culture celebrations), the Edinburgh Harp Festival (on eight occasions), and the World Harp Festival in Cardiff, UK. Máire also holds the First prize in All-Ireland and Pan-Celtic Harp Competitions on a number of occasions. In 2001, she received Irish music’s most prestigious award, that of Traditional Musician of the Year – Gradam Cheoil TG4 – “for the excellence and pioneering force of her music, the remarkable growth she has brought to the music of the harp and for the positive influence she has had on the young generation of harpers”. 

In this day and age, where instrument like the Irish harp is hardly ever noticed by the 21st century children, and where the ‘reality’ no longer stimulates the musician’s excellence in techniques mastery, we are very fortunate to have Máire Ni Chathasaigh, who has long endured, cherished, and desired the Irish Harp’s playing in perfection.

And even more fortunate, she is willing to share her stories and thoughts to us all…

Celtic music is found in many areas across Europe, from Spain, France, England, Wales, Scotland to Ireland. What is the common denominator(s) among them, and what are the unique features of each?

Linguistically, the Celtic languages can be divided into two branches: P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. The languages currently spoken in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, and in the past in the Isle of Man, belong to the Q-Celtic branch and are closely related. Welsh, Cornish and Breton belong to the P-Celtic branch and are closely related. Though there would be no mutual comprehension between the speakers of Irish and Welsh, for example, the languages when examined are similar in grammar and syntax. The civilization of medieval Wales was however similar to that of Ireland in social organization, literature, myth and legend and in the primacy of the harp in musical expression.

Irish and Scottish musical traditions are closely related, but are very different to Welsh, Cornish and Breton musical traditions – certainly in the form in which they’ve survived into modern times. There are no obvious common denominators.

So, strictly speaking, one can speak of Pan-Celtic language, culture, civilization, art – but not of a Pan-Celtic musical language.

In the music market, Celtic is one of the most well-known among the world’s roots music with Latin and African as perhaps the main “competitors”. How do you think Celtic music reaches that level in the world?

Even though “Celtic” is not a good or accurate label artistically or historically, as a commercial construct it has been inspired! It’s the best marketing wheeze ever thought up by a record company.

What Celtic music means to its people? And what it means to you personally?

I can only talk about Irish music, which is immensely important to Irish people and intimately bound up with our sense of self. It is hugely important to me personally and is the conduit through which I choose to express myself artistically.

What kind of influence and/or contribution do you think that Celtic music has given to the world of music?

It has a special aesthetic that even in diluted form sparks the imagination of so many people. Musical languages, like languages, encapsulate and represent the spirit of a people and the greater the number of them that flourish, the more they enrich us all. It’s fascinating to see how our particular musical language has moved from a peripheral and endangered position to a prominent one. I’m sure practitioners of currently obscure forms of music will be heartened by this and will be emboldened to introduce themselves to the wider musical world…

There are quite a few women in Celtic music, but only a handful playing the Celtic Harp that includes you of course. Why is that? What made you decide to take on the harp?

My mother tells me that I’d always wanted to play the harp (though I have no recollection of this), so therefore they bought me one when the opportunity arose. I was eleven at the time.

There are now lots of female harpers in Ireland, but only a handful who play professionally.

How different is the Celtic harp compare to other harps, phisycally? Does it require specific playing techniques as well?

Harp
Celtic Harp (Left): edited from rishempire.org; NeoIrish Harp (Center): 819 by John Egan of Dublin now in the musical instrument collection at the National Trust, Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire (www.national-trust.org.uk); The Welsh Harp (Right): Gift of J.G. Morley, 1915, metmuseum.org

There isn’t really such a thing as a Celtic Harp, historically speaking. A very specific type of harp – usually referred to as the Ancient Irish Harp – was played in Ireland and Scotland for over a thousand years, until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It had several unique features: its forepillar had a pronounced curve and was T-shaped in section; its soundbox was hollowed out of one piece of solid willow attached to a soundboard; it was strung with brass and played with long nails; it was held on the left shoulder; the melody was played with the left hand and the accompaniment with the right; since it was very reverberant, the harpers used very complex stopping techniques to shape phrases. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, this harp was replaced by what is often called the Neo-Irish Harp. This looked superficially like the old Irish harp in that it had a curved forepillar, but it was constructed in a modern manner and played with the pads of the fingers and is the harp, with the addition of modern refinements, that we still play today. It is the harp people normally mean when they refer to the Celtic Harp.

The Welsh harp, by contrast, was always physically very different, and still is so today, though it too was played on the left shoulder.

The Irish/Scottish harp in itself does not require specific performance techniques. However, the stylistically correct performance of Irish dance music does require the use of specific techniques. The techniques I developed for this purpose in the 1970s – there had hitherto been no tradition of dance music performance on the Irish harp – have since then been widely adopted.

Music in general has transformed into a subject that is merely treated as entertaining and income generating activity. Its other roles and functions, along with its ritual side, continue to disappear. Does this happen to Celtic music as well? Shall musicians and societies accept this change as the future way of looking at music?

Traditional Irish music’s “other roles and functions, along with its ritual side” do seem to be “continuing to disappear”. A number of older musicians in Ireland feel despondent about this change, which from their point of view dates from the creation of the “Celtic Music” marketing brand and the subsumation of Irish music into that. I am much more optimistic, however. I know from personal experience that it is possible to be a professional musician (i.e., “entertain and generate income”) and be true to oneself artistically. It’s unfortunately the case that many musicians for whom commercial success is of over-riding importance do abandon any ambition to touch the heart – with the result that music which is heavily hyped and expensively marketed tends so often to lack soul. But I have a lot of faith in people’s capacity to be moved by music and am constantly amazed by it. Music is the most abstract of all art forms, while at the same time being the most emotionally transfixing. I know that certain 17th century Irish harp airs have the capacity to pierce the heart of the most unpromising audience. Such moments can’t be faked or forced and are what make performance so endlessly rewarding.

We must never accept the commodification of music. As artists we must make common cause with and draw strength from others with the same ethic and world view – and remember that the environmental movement was once considered to be hopelessly romantic and impractical!

Fame and fortune also seem to replace passion as the instrument in measuring the “success” of an artist. How do you reply to this matter?

To me, passion is all-important.

How do the young in UK perceives and (un)appreciates Celtic music?

The young in England are generally speaking uninterested in Celtic music. Large numbers of older people like it very much, I’m happy to say, as our concerts in England are usually very well-attended! They are however perhaps not so emotionally attached to it, as England is not a Celtic country. A good percentage of the young in Celtic countries like Scotland and Ireland are very interested and engaged with the music.

Roots music such as Celtic is very much associated with acoustic instruments. Do the growing use of electric instruments and digitalization affect the acoustic features of Celtic music?

I don’t think that the use of electric instruments in any way affects the essence of the music. The equating of “acoustic” with “authentic” is to me a complete red herring. I myself use an electro-acoustic Camac harp in my duo performances with Chris – the harp sounds the same as it does acoustically, only louder! An instrument is just a vehicle which conveys musical thought and feeling and the fetishisation of its acoustic properties by those I dub “acoustic fundamentalists” is to me simply wrong-headed, and largely to miss the point of music…

Chris Newman & Maire Ni Chathasaigh
Chris Newman & Maire Ni Chathasaigh (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

You have travelled distances to perform, and have had many chances in getting acquainted with music of other cultures. Any of them that inspire or impress you more than the others? And why?

Even the most cheerful Irish music often has a melancholy undertow: I love this duality of mood in music, so am naturally attracted to other music which shares these characteristics – Swedish, Old-Time American, Eastern European, Middle- and Far-Eastern… Traditional African music has a gentle, limpid quality that is immensely attractive.

You certainly were born to be an an artist; but at what age did you decide that music is your thing?

When at school, I was interested in everything and studied as wide a range of subjects as I possibly could. I was very fortunate that the school facilitated this, as Irish schools these days would be far too concerned with the accumulation of the maximum number of points towards university entrance to allow me to get such a broad exposure to so many diverse disciplines. I was accepted into the Medical School in University College Cork, but changed my mind on the day of registration when I realised that medical studies would leave very little time for playing music! I decided upon Celtic Studies – the study of Irish, Welsh and early Irish history – instead. After completion of a post-graduate teaching diploma, I embarked on a music degree, but after one year of this my parents “suggested” that I might like to get a job! I taught in a second-level school for three years, during which time I became convinced that the creative life was for me not a choice but a necessity. I therefore resigned from what was a very well-paid position and embarked on the insecure but rewarding career of a professional musician. 

Who influence and/or inspire you the most, and why them?

So many things inspire me – not just music, but poetry, art… I’ve always been drawn to the music of Bach: so intricate and perfectly balanced. In terms of traditional music, I’ve always loved the singing of Máire Áine Nic Dhonncha (d.1991) and the piping of Willie Clancy (d. 1973): their music is endlessly subtle and creative.

Did you have a dream(s) that you have lived it? Anymore is yet you would like to live in?

I have many dreams!

It’s great that you still remember Sacred Rhythm Festival at the Nijo Castle in Kyoto. Would you join again if Sacred Bridge Foundation organized another cultural event?

Absolutely! We would love to take part in another such cultural event! Our trip to Kyoto was extraordinarily memorable, from so many different points of view…

Any messages you would like to say to the audience?

Trust your instincts. Don’t allow marketing men to convince you that black is white: beauty in music is life-enhancing and its absence saps the spirit.

…And any words of wisdom for Listen To The World?

No words of wisdom, I’m afraid! I will simply say that I love Listen to the World’s ethos and its ambition to present the real, the true and the beautiful in music.

Thank you very much Maire for your time, your kindness in taking this interview, and most of all, your contribution to music.

Glen Velez, Bang the Frame Drum

Glen Velez is a frame drum master and percussionist born in Texas, 1949. He is widely regarded as the founding Father of the modern Frame Drum movement and is considered a legendary figure among musicians and audiences world-wide. He has won various awards from many percussion societies, and four Grammy awards for his many recordings. He has collaborated with, among others, Steve Reich, the Paul Winter Consort, Suzanne Vega, Maya Beiser, Tan Dun and Pat Metheny. He received his training from various private teachers and from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and is currently a full time musician and music educator.

Listen to the World.net is very happy to present you this interview session we had with him several weeks ago, on the subject of his art, and the future of Frame Drums and Music in general. Please enjoy.

Glen Velez
Source: glenvelez.com (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

Your name is synonymous with the percussion instrument movement, especially frame drums. First, can you define “movement” for us? And, in your personal opinion, does this movement continue this day? (Please elaborate your answer)

The Frame Drum movement continues to grow, there are several organizations in the US and Europe which are devoted to promoting interest. When I began to study frame drums, I didn’t know there would be so much interest and thought of my studies as an adjunct to my percussion career. Gradually I began to see how I felt very creative on these instruments and focused more and more of my energy on learning more and trying to use the frame drums in all kinds of musical situations. Eventually I began to play exclusively on the frame drums.

Can you elaborate why you “chose” frame drums as your primary media in creating music and culture? Can you tell us a little about the instrument’s origin?

I didn’t consciously chose frame drums, it was a gradual process of becoming aware that these drums gave me the most satisfaction of all the percussion instruments. I also became interested in the history of these drum and found that they are the most pictorially documented of all drums.

Since they were the most popular drum in the ancient Mediterranean world, there are extensive visual representations of the frame drum in Ancient Egypt, Iraq and all over the Middle East. Finding these pictures gave me a strong feeling of connectedness to the frame drummers of the ancient world. Their legacy is what I want to revive. In the Western World there has been a 2000 year pause in the popularity of these drums, so my role is to assist in the re-emergence of this wonderful drum.

1) Iraq’s Relief (Right), source: Collection Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art (clevelandart.org), credit line: Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund.; 2) Egypt Anubis Relief (Center), source: Sorce Satyagraha / Ciorsdan’s Tumblr; 3) Egypt Relief (Left), source: Pinterest / University of Michigan

How do you think the young perceives and practices percussion instruments today?

Even though for most kids the mass media is very influential, I do feel there is a powerful movement among the young to seek out authentic experience in music. That means participating in and sharing the act of playing a musical instrument. The frame drum is a excellent candidate for this experience because it is very portable and user friendly. Each player starts to quickly discover a unique voice in the sound of the frame drum.

How does the future of music look like to you?

I think the overuse of electronic media will lead people back to acoustic instruments. I don’t know how long that will take, but I think it is just a matter of time.

You of course have adventured to almost all corners of this world, and you have sought knowledge and inspiration from music the world over; can you mention some of those places you have traveled to that have impressed on you the most?

In my travels I have most enjoyed wilderness areas. They provide me with a lot inspiration for my music. In other words the sounds and sights of nature are a big aspect of my creative world. I visited the Grand Canyon in the US several times, Lake Baikal in Siberia, Easter Island in the Pacific, copper mines in Sweden, and the rivers of French Brittany have all been highlights of my travels.

And how do you delve into these very local music and have made them “your own” without it seeming like an inferior copy?

I have always regarded traditional music as sacred musical source material. If music is approached with an attitude of respect and reverence, then creativity can flow and change can be accommodated without rancor. But it is necessary sometimes for traditional musicians to object to change. This tension between the old and the new is simply a part of the natural cycles of life.

You are also involved in music education, can you tell us what problems it faces? And how do you go about these problems?

I incorporate teaching into my creative process. Only when I feel that I am learning does my teaching feel successful. For the student/listener to appreciate the nuances of frame drumming, a taste of the experience of playing is very important. So teaching is part of the whole endeavor of spreading the word about the potential of these drums. Another aspect of my teaching is asking the students to see the spiritual side of frame drumming, by guiding them to an experience of focusing through aligning of breathe, movement and pulse. This is part of the teaching style which I call the Handance Method. People respond very well to this way of learning, since it uses all of their senses and engages them in a new perception of music. The main obstacles for the western student revolve around the challenge of slowing down, getting out of their mind and learning patience.

Speaking of technological developments in music creation, with the introduction of music software such as Reason, Cubase, and Sibelius which provide all these possibilities in arranging and composing songs today, in your personal opinion what are the benefits of these methods in the musical process?

I use Sibelius in the writing of music, but only when it is not possible to use simple hand written notes.

You have produced several musical creations through the media of plates, CD, and digital (mp3), which have often been categorized as “world music.” How do you respond to this? Do you personally agree with this “world music” term?

Since it such an ambiguous term, i don’t mind it. It could really mean anything you want it to. Labeling is an ever-present part of the commercial side of music, so I try to see the humor and usefulness of these terms.

Describe your music; what does music mean to you? What is your music all about? and who influences you or your music the most?

My music is an attempt to create a sound world where the frame drum and voice are the generators of all the important architecture of the music. So the most important influences of my music are the sounds and rhythms generated by the connection between the drum and the voice. Another idea which keeps emerging in my music is the interplay between fast and slow. That relationship creates tension, release and all the nuances in between.

You have collaborated with many world class musicians, would you explain one or two events in which you gained great experiences?

Trio Globo
Trio Globo (source: symphonyspace.org)

I play in a Trio with Howard Levy and Eugene Friesen called Trio Globo, they are both great musicians who have influenced me in my approach to ensemble playing by showing the power of selflessness in music making. My duo with vocalist Lori Cotler also has had a major effect on my musicianship. She is a very versatile and gifted improviser and and her connection with the pulse and the related manifestation of pitch, is very inspiring to me.

You are now living in New York. What is the “New York sound” like nowadays? And do these sounds affect you in your music making?

Because I travel mostly to play music, New York is not so much an influence on me currently. In the past New York has been very important to my musical development, because the variety of musical experiences and the tremendous number of small villages of musicians from all over the world allowed me to explore frame drum music in a practical way by actively playing and performing while I was learning.

You came to and performed in Indonesia once; what kind of Indonesian music that you are familiar with? And what do you think of it?

Gamelan music has had a profound effect on my sound world. It taught me about the musical effectiveness of the fast and slow web of relationships.

You participated in an event that Sacred Bridge Foundation organized; would you do it again? Any words for www.listentotheworld.net?

I would greatly enjoy participating in another Sacred Bridge Foundation event, since my previously experience was so inspiring. My experience at the Sacred Bridge Foundation Festival was a highlight of the year 2000. I was able to play for a new audience and hear some great music from different places. It was a wonderful chance to play my drums in a very receptive culture for drumming and music. While I was there I got to go to Ubud and hear some beautiful Gamelan Orchestras.

I feel that www.listentotheworld.net is a true representation of your organizations mission and serves in a exemplary way, the powerful message of musical inclusion and acoustic expansion. I feel a kindred spirit in the work that you are doing and I am very happy to be a part of the healing trajectory of music.

Thank you very much Mr. Velez for your time, your kindness in taking this interview, and most of all, your contribution to music.

It’s my pleasure to contribute to your important work and I look forward our next meeting.