Following are the questions I’d like you to answer. You may take your time – the paper isn’t due until December 11th, 2007.
As a percussionist, you often play music and musical instruments from around the world. What are your thoughts on performing music that is not part of your culture?
This is a complex issue, and my answer will vary depending on the particular ‘culture’ we’re talking about. For example, a common sensibility in India views music hierarchically, similar to the way it is viewed in western European culture. That is, music can be classified into categories like folk music, religious music, popular music, and classical music, and most people understand the difference. In this view, ‘classical’ music implies a specific genre, with very high expectations for technical prowess, knowledge of a large composed repertoire, and a well-defined concert protocol and etiquette. In my experience, most cultures that acknowledge a classical music of this kind reserve that music for a small minority of people who have, through some means, attained a certain degree of expertise in appreciating it. There is often an upper-level social status element present in audiences for this music as well.
Classical music of this kind is much less culture-specific than some other kinds of very social, co-operative music-making such as is found throughout many African cultures. For example, Midori, a Japanese violinist, is acknowledged as a great exponent of western European art music. Zubin Mehta, an Indian conductor, leads the great symphony orchestras of the world. If I study tabla with a great master, learn the repertoire, practice assiduously for 15 years, and manage to get sufficient performing experience, I can confidently perform this music anywhere, even though I didn’t grow up in India. I can accept payment for concerts, and I can be judged alongside other professional Indian musicians. Yo Yo Ma is judged side-by-side with Janos Starker. Lang Lang is judged by the same standards as Emanuel Ax.
It would be far more difficult, if not impossible, for me to represent myself as a bona-fide representative of deep Hindu religious/spiritual music, even though the same instrument – tabla – is found in this context too. That music doesn’t have a systematic training system and Hinduism is not a religion that one can convert to. The extra-musical elements involved in this musical tradition would be exceedingly difficult for a non-Hindu to learn, and probably impossible to express in a genuine way. Music associated with various African spirit-possession rituals would be another genre of this kind. I would never try to represent myself as someone adept at performing this music. However, learning to play, with a certain facility, specific instruments from these genres of music is a thornier issue. I often perform, for example, a type of mbira that is associated with Shona culture in a deep way. However, I feel that I have personalized my approach to an expression using this instrument that is persuasive and, perhaps, moving in an abstract musical way. By the same token, musicians in many African cultures have appropriated western musical instruments – piano, guitar, horns, drumset. I and many westerners appreciate and approve of their use of these instruments. In my opinion, fair is fair.
You were part of a revival of “novelty” xylophone music in the 1970s. How do you think this influenced music and musicians since this revival?
I can’t think of any way it has influenced music and musicians outside of the narrow confines of the percussion world. I am aware that audiences, of all ages, still respond very positively to an instrument and style that has been passé for over 80 years, and that is probably the main reason NEXUS and I continue to perform this music. I also think it’s very nice that most percussion teachers and many percussion students again have some sense of where the development of keyboard percussion technique in North America began.
How has percussion evolved in your lifetime?
The principal developments have been: 1) the explosive creation of a large and serious repertoire for the marimba, along with the development of a functional multi-mallet technique and appropriate instruments to play it; 2) the remarkable evolution of drumset performance since the bebop era; 3) (to my dismay) the present infatuation with multi-media, amplified, theatrical display that is quickly diluting previous abilities, by both performers and audiences, to concentrate attentively on the complex beauty of natural, acoustic sounds.
Who are some musicians that have influenced you?
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to study with many great teachers, and all of them have been profoundly influential. Specific performers who have inspired and influenced me would include all of the members of NEXUS, Steve Gadd, Fred D. Hinger, Joe Morello, and, of course, George Hamilton Green. Musicians from outside the percussion world who have been significant include Jascha Heifitz, Glenn Gould, and Ali Akbar Khan. Composers who have had a major impact on me include John Cage, Steve Reich, and Toru Takemitsu.
During your time as a performer of many kinds of music, you have probably seen your share of ‘hybridization’ with regard to instrumentation and musical styles in composition. Where do you think music is heading?
Prophecy is the surest way to appear foolish in the future. However, I see the human species, and therefore all of its endeavors including the arts, to be approaching a transformative leap in this century. There is a logical and inevitable evolutionary step to take when technology reaches a certain critical level of development, and it is non-Darwinian in the sense that it is not based on mutation and selection, but rather on conscious choices made by the species itself. I can’t predict exactly what choices will be made, but I’m certain that human beings will ultimately internalize, or be internalized by, digital technologies, which are currently represented by things like the world wide web and personal computers. All of the ways technology is used by people at present involve interfaces (headphones, keyboards, monitors, musical instruments, etc.), and the use of interfaces, no matter how sophisticated, is part of the continuum of ancient history. In the not too distant future, music will probably be created and experienced purely in an electronic domain, and will be communicated directly from mind to mind, whether these minds are contained in human brains or in intelligent, and possibly conscious, ‘machines’.
That’s it! Thank you again for your time and effort!