Bob’s interview with Jonathan Latta

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I really want to thank you for doing this with me. As you will see from my questioning I tried to take a perspective of the “Bob the Performer” and “Bob the Composer” and combine the two. If you find that you answer one question in a previous answer and want to omit a question or want to add information to any of the questions feel free, the interesting thing for my readers will be a true insight to you as both performer and composer and how the two aspects relate to each other.

Jonathan Latta
November, 2007

1) What were some of your most memorable/rewarding early performing experiences?

The first performances I can recall were marimba solos for my local church and Sunday school. I would have been eight to ten years old. They were rewarding in the sense that I received positive feedback from an audience and I began to get accustomed to playing in public. When I was 14, I made my ‘debut’ as marimba soloist with the Allentown Band. That was a pretty big deal, as Allentown, with four professional concert bands, is still recognized as the ‘Band Capital’ of the United States. The Allentown Band is the major one, and it was thrilling to perform with them in front of a large audience. I also received a fee for that performance. Later, in 1964, I was a winner in the Allentown Symphony’s youth soloist competition, and so I performed as marimba soloist with an orchestra for the first time. At the same time, I was beginning to perform, along with my teacher James S. Betz, in the percussion section of that orchestra. My first experiences playing in a full symphony orchestra, under the conductor Donald Voorhees, were profound and magical. None of the public schools I attended had orchestras, and so that sound was something I only knew from recordings. Being right there, inside it, was beautiful and mysterious. I still remember hearing and playing Bolero, Polovitsian Dances, Golden Age Polka, Finlandia, Marche Slav, and many other classics for the first time.

2) How did these experiences shape your current career?

I can’t say they did much to shape my career right now, but I do carry with me a sense of those magical experiences that made me want to pursue music seriously. There were mysteries about music and about sound that I wanted to explore and understand. If my career has been ‘about’ anything, it is that. When I was younger, I seriously thought it was possible to reach a point in music when I could say ‘now I understand and can do that particular thing’ – a great snare drum roll, a pure drumset groove, a perfect tabla technique… I believe there are gifted people in the world who do achieve this kind of ability. For me, that has never happened, and so I live in a musical world where the mysteries never really disappear. That’s the beauty and the agony of musical performance.

3) You have many many musical “lives”, let’s see if we can look at just a few of them. How did you first get interested in the xylophone and how did your interest lead you to become one of the world’s most prolific xylophonists?

I think this one is already answered in detail in other places.

4) Having graduated from Eastman, known mostly as a conservatory, how did you gain your interest in the music of other cultures? What music from other cultures have you studied during your career?

I attended the Eastman School of Music from 1965 to 1969, and then again from 1970 to 1971. At that time, the school had no courses or instruction in music outside of the western European classical tradition, although there was an underground, unofficial, and very strong jazz performance movement among the students. During the time I was at Eastman, non-western music styles and traditions were beginning to be heard more broadly (not only on anthologies of anthropological field recordings). They were ‘in the air’ so to speak. The Beatles’ use of Indian instruments, Ravi Shankar, Olatunji, Dizzy Gillespie’s latin jazz are all examples. Composers like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phil Glass were incorporating elements of African, Indonesian and Indian musical structures in their work. Specialty music stores and import shops were beginning to sell exotic instruments from foreign cultures.

By 1969 I had heard recordings of Indian classical music and tabla solos. I’ve explained in other articles how the sound of the tabla, as opposed to its technique or repertoire, was the thing that attracted me to study it. I was able to purchase a set of tabla in New York City, and then, by luck, was able to enroll in a one-time North Indian music program at the University of Rochester (not the Eastman School of Music) during the summer of 1970. I took a course in classical music appreciation and a practical course in tabla instruction. Fortunately for me, both courses were taught by outstanding teachers – Harold S. Powers and Gnan Prakash Ghosh. Later that year, also in Rochester, I heard a concert of Indian classical music by the sarodist Amjad Ali Khan and the tabla artist Pandit Sharda Sahai. Sharda Sahai was subsequently invited to a visiting artist position at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The world music program at this school, under the leadership of Robert Brown, was pioneering a paradigm shift in ethnomusicology by emphasizing performance ability along with pure analysis and transcription. Visiting artists from many cultures were assembled to create a unique music department. Of course, as soon as one leaves western European culture, one finds percussion instruments in the musical forefront, and so this department became one of the most exciting percussion resources in the country during the early 1970s.

After finishing my master’s at Eastman in 1971, I went in the fall to Wesleyan and spent the next four years studying there. During that time I was able to study Korean chang-go, many styles of Ghanaian dance-drumming, North Indian tabla, South Indian mrdangam, Shona mbira, and Javanese gamelan. Also, being in the vicinity of both Boston and New York City gave access to other musicians working in the same vein, and so I established many friendships and collaborations. Russ Hartenberger, Steve Gorn, Peter Row, Paul Winter and Steve Reich are some of the musicians I worked with regularly at that time.

5) Today, what are some of the different areas of music that one might see Bob Becker doing a performance?

This summer (2007) I was involved in several percussion seminars: my annual ragtime institute at the University of Delaware, the NEXUS seminar in Toronto, and my seminar in African drum ensemble music at the Eastman School of Music. I spent most of September in Japan performing with several different percussion groups. The concerts included solos (marimba and mbira), duos (improvisations with Shonosuke Okura, a performer of the tsuzumi drum), and ensemble pieces (some of my own compositions and also commissioned works by Japanese composers). Later that month NEXUS gave the US premier of a newly discovered piece by John Cage (Dance Music for Elfrid Ide) at Bard College. Earlier this month I was on tour in France with Steve Reich’s ensemble performing his music theater work The Cave. Last week NEXUS did a series of young people’s concerts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

6) Where did you first gain your interest in composition?

My first interest and experience was with arranging. For me, composition came later. But I think the initial reasons for becoming involved in both disciplines were the same: a desire to play, seriously, various styles and forms of music, whether from the orchestra repertoire or elsewhere, on percussion instruments; and a desire to explore further the sounds and techniques of the instruments I was already familiar with. When I was in high school and college in the 1960s, there was little published repertoire of this kind available. For example, for the marimba, there were three concertos, a few solo suites and sonatas, and a small group of etudes and preludes by Clair Musser and his students. Everything else was either a transcription, an arrangement, and/or based in older popular music styles. The percussion ensemble repertoire was similar at the time, at least in relation to what was ‘available’. Most of the great American work from the 1930s and 1940s was not in the libraries and not on the percussion radar in the 1960s, at least not where I was studying. Even Ionisation was considered a novelty by many of us – we only knew it because it was in the Goldenberg book. I had found and performed John Cage and Lou Harrison’s Double Music in 1970, but when I first heard Cage’s Third Construction in 1976 (on a bootleg Blackearth tape recording), I was shocked. Where had something like this been hiding? For that matter, I could have said the same thing about every one of George Hamilton Green’s xylophone compositions. In fact, I did say that about Green’s music, and I spent several years tracking down all of it.

7) What were some of the first pieces you wrote and who were they written for?

My first compositions were snare drum solos, and they were written for me. In 1966, during my freshman summer at Eastman, I studied snare drum with William Schinstine in Pottstown, PA. As you know, he was a very prolific composer for percussion instruments, and he made composition part of my lessons right away. I expect most percussionists write snare drum solos at some time in their life – in fact, I’m still doing it. After that, my first real compositions were done as assignments in music theory classes – pieces in classic forms and styles. They were basically exercises, although I took them quite seriously. I also took composition courses at Eastman, and the pieces I wrote for them were more ambitious, and more personal, but still used assigned forms and orchestrations. I think the only piece I’ve kept from that time (1968) is The Firefly Hunt, a small duet for marimba and soprano. I also wrote a few pieces in larger percussion orchestrations, and John H. Beck was very encouraging by programming some of them on Eastman Percussion Ensemble concerts. The Eastman Marimba Ensemble was also a great forum for me, although everything I did in that medium was an arrangement.

I don’t consider any composing that I did prior to around 1975 to be of any real significance, except for myself. In 1974 I was working on translating tabla repertoire to snare drum – finding a way to move a hand/finger technique on two drums over to two sticks on one drum. I knew a few percussionists who had tried transferring tabla pieces to drumset by assigning specific tabla sounds to specific drums and/or cymbals in a standard set. Russ Hartenberger did something similar with mrdangam material and a multi-setup. It’s an interesting exploration, but I wanted to be able to play tabla repertoire on an instrument I knew well with a technique that was comfortable and part of my background. I didn’t want to have to read a new kind of notation or start from scratch technically. I could see a pretty clear link between tabla playing, which is metric and always specifically measured, and rudimental snare drumming. By that time, I was pretty advanced as a tabla player, and so I was able to ‘feel’ connections between various common tabla phrases and standard snare drum rudiments. When I played tabla, I often had a kind of subliminal awareness of playing something similar with two sticks, and so I tried to work from that sensation rather than devising an arbitrary system of tabla stroke equals drum sound, or this finger equals that stick. Remarkably, I found that I could also do the reverse, and my tabla teacher was interested to hear how I played some traditional rudimental drum solos on tabla. The result of this work was the solo Lahara, which was finished in 1975 and is now published by KPP.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but this process of cultural cross-referencing of musical systems is a powerful creative force. It’s a very old phenomenon of course, but what is significant now is the speed at which it is taking place, and because of that, the potential intensity of the experience. For example, in the 17th century, Europeans heard the music and musical instruments of the Turkish janissary mehter ensembles when the Turkish army repeatedly attacked Vienna. Composers later began using those exotic sounds and instruments in some of their music to create a military, or a generally ‘eastern’ atmosphere, but none of them studied or used the underlying structures – either rhythmic or melodic – of middle eastern music, except possibly in the most simplistic ways. Learning how to perform that music at that time would probably have required a life-long, and very possibly life-threatening commitment from a 17th century composer. Today, however, it is possible not only to hear the sounds of, say, North Indian classical music through thousands of CDs or music downloads; it is possible (with a certain amount of effort of course) to learn to play the instruments and to understand and function in the musical structures. This is a phenomenon that is, in general, only a few decades old. When Colin McPhee undertook to study the music of Bali in the 1930s, he had to commit a heroic amount of time, money and effort to travel to Indonesia by boat, learn a language, determine by himself what was happening in the music, and so forth. Now one can develop a firm understanding of basic principles and also a serviceable performing ability in musical styles from many world music cultures by participating in committed groups of English-speaking students at universities all over North America. What McPhee needed a decade to figure out can be learned in a few semesters. The university right here in Toronto has, within a Euro-centric classical curriculum, courses in Javanese gamelan, North Indian tabla, West African drumming, Japanese taiko, Trinidadian steel pan, and Afro-American jazz. A pan-cultural atmosphere like that was only available at one or two schools in the whole world in 1970.

The musical language presently found in my music has been evolving since as long ago as 1982 with Palta, a kind of concerto for the North Indian tabla accompanied by traditional western percussion instruments. The approach became explicit in 1990 with the percussion quintet Mudra, where the idea was to extract a functional harmony from a purely melodic source: specific ragas of Hindustani classical music. The term rag was once succinctly defined by the musicologist Harold S. Powers as ‘a generalized scale, a particularized mode’, although Indian musicians usually give the word a more poetic meaning: ‘that which colours the mind’. Even though Indian music is generally characterized as being elaborately melodic with no harmony (by western European definitions) whatsoever, my personal experience has always been one of subliminally perceived harmonic movement, a sensation that is clearly related to my cultural background and musical training. This kind of cross-referencing is always experienced when one strong cultural expression encounters another and, in my opinion, this perceptual phenomenon will be the defining issue in all of the arts and politics of the twenty-first century. Musically, I have found this effect to be most pronounced in ragas containing relatively few tones. The pentatonic modes containing no fifth scale degree (for example, the ragas Malkauns, Chandrakauns and others) have, to my ear, the most ambiguous and intriguing harmonic implications. Rag Chandrakauns – traditionally linked to the full moon and late-night hours and with the scale degrees tonic, minor third, fourth, minor sixth, major seventh – has always attracted me. I have applied a variety of compositional and mathematical devices to these interval relationships to determine both the melodic and harmonic content of all of my music for the past twelve years. Most recently, I have used a matrix of four non-transposable nine tone scales to derive the same interval relationships, resulting in a further expanded harmonic landscape. In 1971 the Montréal poet Louis Dudek wrote the following short but penetrating verse, which seems to go to the heart of this method of working:

We make our freedom in the laws we make,
And they contain us as the laws we break
Contained a remnant of an ancient music
That a new music in its laws contains.

(this last info is from the blurb on my Compositions page on the website)

8) How do you see the influence of “Bob the Performer” in your compositions?

The cross-referencing just described is something I experience as a performer, and also as a listener informed by my training in various musical disciplines and cultural formats. I doubt my experience with this phenomenon would be as strong if I were not physically and emotionally involved in actual performance. Of course most of my compositions feature, or use exclusively percussion instruments. My abilities as a performer certainly help make my percussion writing characteristic and playable, just as a composer who is trained as a pianist or as a violinist can write music for those instruments that is more compelling and technically assured. Since I’ve played for so many years in a professional percussion ensemble, I’m also able to hear subtleties of percussion orchestration that might be difficult for non-percussionist composers to imagine.

9) Can we take a moment and see how your understanding of the music of other cultures and your experiences as a chamber musician have influenced your work directly? Let us take two examples, if we can, Mudra and Turning Point, and discuss how North Indian tabla drumming as well as your understanding of well-crafted chamber music (and any other influences you feel are important to mention) had helped you to create these two works.

Mudra was a pivotal piece for me, not so much because of the overt connection to Indian music, but because it was the beginning of the method of working that I described previously. Perceiving, in my mind, harmonic progressions within a form that has no functional harmony had been a pleasant curiosity for me up until this time. I experienced the effect often, both listening to Indian music performances, and even more intensely when I was performing myself. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that I could communicate these very personal abstract perceptions in a specific form with concrete structure.

Mudra is, in fact, an edited concert suite of music from a much longer work, UrbhanaMudra, which was composed in 1990 to accompany a choreography by the Canadian dancer/choreographer Joan Phillips. It was inspiring for me to work with Joan, because she was trained in classical modern dance and also had studied Kathak, one of the major classical dance styles of North India. She took a very interesting approach to creating UrbhanaMudra by assembling a small company of dancers, half of whom were well-trained modern dancers, and half of whom were trained in Kathak. None of the dancers had knowledge of both styles, but Joan created specific movements in both genres, and made the Kathak dancers do the modern moves, and the modern dancers do the traditional Kathak movements. All of the dancers were strong performers, and so they were able to assimilate the choreography well, but inevitably they came out dancing ‘with an accent’ based on their respective traditions. This perfectly suited the rather political issues addressed in the choreography, which dealt with tensions and conflicts in a modern urban multi-cultural society like we have here in Toronto.

Kathak, which is traditionally a solo dance, is at least as rhythmically sophisticated as any other forms in classical North Indian music, and Joan made things even more complex by incorporating rhythmic polyphony and canon in her choreography. The standard music accompaniment for a Kathak dance recital is a solo drum, usually the tabla; an accompanying melodic instrument, which plays a repeating cyclic melody; and a drone instrument, typical of all Indian classical music. This is also the standard ensemble in a tabla solo performance, and it is exactly the instrumentation I used in Lahara, except there a western-style drum is used instead of tabla. At first, Joan wanted me to use traditional Indian instruments for an accompaniment, but I was interested in addressing both the rhythmic complexity and the multi-cultural issues in the music as well. That meant an ensemble with more than one instrument that would be capable of articulating elaborate rhythmic patterns, and non-Indian instruments that could perform traditional Indian modal melodies. I went with keyboard percussion instruments, since I know them well, and a solo rudimental drum, since I had worked with that medium previously.

Initially, I thought I would use the keyboard ensemble heterophonically and contrapuntally, but not homophonically or harmonically. But as soon as I started working I heard harmony popping up all over the place, and so I started exploring it. I was using the pentatonic rag Chandrakauns as the basis for all of the interval relationships, and the most obvious thing to do first was to stack up the intervals of the mode vertically on each successive note of the mode. This immediately gives five ‘chords’, each with five tones, and covers all twelve chromatic notes. If you require that any simultaneous different tones fit at least one of these chords, you get a very definite, yet somewhat flexible, harmonic system. This is basically what I used throughout UrbhanaMudra. Rhythmically, the music is directly connected to the dance movements. I have worked often with dancers and choreographers, and I generally avoid the suggestion to develop the dance and the music simultaneously: “You bring some instruments and I’ll come with a few ideas and we can see where it goes”. I won’t work that way. I am happy to compose a piece that will then be choreographed, or I am willing to compose the music to an existing, well-structured dance. UrbhanaMudra is an example of the latter approach, which is really very similar to composing music for film. Almost all of the complex rhythmic elements in Mudra were presented to me in the choreography before I began to create the music.

The quintet Turning Point was composed in 1993. Although I specifically had NEXUS in mind to perform it, the piece was not requested or commissioned. Mudra was commissioned and later won a monetary award, and both Noodrem and Music On The Moon were commissioned works. Everything else that I have composed has been done on my own time at my own expense, because I’m interested in following the development in the work. I’ve often refused requests and potential commissions because they were for specific orchestrations or forms that did not suit the next step in my compositional process. Composition is an important part of my musical life, but it is not a full-time occupation for me, and so I have been very selective about what kind of piece to write and when to write it. Sometimes a piece has forced itself on me as a response to an intense emotional experience, as with Cryin’ Time or Unseen Child. At other times, there has been a kind of imperative in the work itself that created the pressure to write the next piece. Never in Word and Time in the Rock are examples of that.

Turning Point directly followed a trio piece, Prisoners of the Image Factory, which was based on music composed to accompany a short film. The structure of Prisoners was completely based on the rhythmic and rapid cutting technique used in the film. In addition, the use of the low range of the marimba combined with the low range of the piano explored an interesting timbre of overtone combination. Wooden bars with third partial tuning and the very long strings at the bottom of a grand piano both create pronounced harmonics, and I was interested in the effects that result when they are played together. Both of these elements carried over into Turning Point, although the latter piece is twice as long and with a much less asymmetrical structure. Where Prisoners is concrete, reflecting a definite narrative, Turning Point is abstract, reflecting an imagined sequence of dance tableaus. Prisoners is a miniature tone poem. Turning Point is a miniature ballet suite. Although Turning Point is still based on the interval relationships and resulting harmonies derived from the rag Chandrakauns, it has little relationship to Indian music per se, except for the use, twice, of a rhythmic cadence effect called a ti hai (a three-fold repeat of a specific rhythmic pattern). The use of quintuple meter throughout the piece was not an Indian music influence, but rather a device to add ambiguity to music with a relentless, steady pulse.

10) What words do you have for performers that approach your works? What message would you like to convey to those that perform your works and also what message would you like the performer to present to their audience?

My sense of composers and performers is that they have similar, but distinct roles. A composer is an explorer – someone who goes off alone to remote, difficult, sometimes dangerous places and takes risks to bring back something new and amazing to show everyone back home. You don’t set off on expeditions like this without the proper training and equipment if you plan to return alive. A performer is more of an adventurer, or tour guide – someone who goes out and learns the terrain, gets all of the necessary gear organized, and then takes a party of people off to experience something spectacular. Unexpected things can happen on these trips, and that is part of the excitement and fun. Sometimes, everyone (including the guide) might witness something extraordinary.

11) Are you still composing today, and if so, what influences are there in your current compositions?

The principal influences in my current compositions are all of my previous compositions. The systems of scales and the approaches to harmony are still developing, and so those are the areas of interest and exploration for me. I’m also very interested in collaboration – either with another artist (poet, film maker, choreographer) – or with myself. Collaboration with oneself is an interesting concept, and the best example I can give of this idea is the painter Claude Monet, who created both his subject matter (his garden) and then the artistic work (his paintings). For a composer, creating subject matter can be concrete – for example, writing lyrics or poetic text and then setting it. This, in my experience, is rather dangerous. I’ve heard many examples that made me cringe. But I think it is possible to create subject matter that is personal and yet completely abstract, and which does not appear explicitly in the composed work, but informs the underlying structure.

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