Bob’s interview with Justin DeHart

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Dear Bob,

It was great to talk to you the other day, and have the opportunity to hang out with you while here in Banff. Thanks again for your willingness to answer some questions for my doctoral dissertation and larger project to collect anecdotes and interviews from various important senior/accomplished percussionists in our field. Your contribution will surely enhance my understanding of the field as well as the many others who will get to read them. Below are the questions. They are arranged with “sub-questions” beneath each question to further clarify and expound the area of inquiry. Feel free to ignore or elaborate further on any of the following topics.

Justin DeHart

(The questions were answered during October, 2009)

1) What are some of your recent goals in the field of percussion? Directions you would like to explore, develop, etc.

BB: Not to be glib about this question, but for any performer my age (I’m 62) a primary goal is to not get too much worse every year. It’s probably difficult for any mature artist to set grand, long-term kinds of goals. The management of time and energy within a performance career is difficult enough from day to day, let alone over more extended periods, and so the luxury of exploring and developing new concepts and ideas becomes increasingly rare. The great percussionist Alan Abel once told me about the “career triangle” – the three elements necessary for a financially successful life in music: the symphony job, the college teaching position, and the instrument/mallet manufacturing or music publication association. For most musicians of Mr. Abel’s generation, that equation also included a home and family. In my own life, I have tried to maintain a commitment to time for personal reflection, experimentation and composition. In a practical sense, this requires limiting activities that are creatively draining such as teaching, managing a business or administrating. The result is available time, but then also constraints on financial security, capital and personal relationships.

As a recent example, I wanted to understand the mathematical principles underlying the organization of patterns that are used for stickings, rhythmic groupings and polyrhythms. I invested quite a lot of time in study and research over two years. Certain things required technical practice, and I also focused on composing eight etudes incorporating what were, for me, some new concepts. The whole endeavor took on a life of its own, and the outcome was a 200 page book, Rudimental Arithmetic. No one asked me to write a book like that and no one paid me for my time. Nevertheless, the result was both conceptual and technical growth for me, and perhaps a useful, possibly inspiring, source of information for others. It’s unlikely I could have completed a project like that while balancing a performing career, teaching position, manufacturing connection and a traditional family life.

2) Explain your relationship to the idea of “competition” in music and how it has helped to serve or hinder your development as a musician and human being. This is in reaction to: Peak Performance: “Then I go out and try to kick butt.” LHS interview: “Make dust or eat dust!”

BB: That first statement is simply an expression for adopting a “performance attitude”, or “finding the zone”. Any good performer – be they musician, actor, dancer – knows about the importance, and the beauty, of being “there” while on stage. To me, this is not about competition, except perhaps with oneself. It’s about exploration of a kind that only really happens with the cooperation of an audience. When I play any music, and particularly pieces that I am playing repeatedly, I want to go deeper, or at least someplace new, every time. To the extent I can do this, I feel rewarded and satisfied. In fact, I believe that discovering and illuminating new aspects of the music is my principal job as a performer. Whether I succeed in doing this is far more critical than how accurately I play every note. Of course, there’s an obvious balance between those two things that must be maintained when playing composed music. If you’re not playing the notes, then you’re not equipped to be exploring the piece in the first place.

The second comment I made kind of spontaneously in answer to Leigh Stevens’ question about what advice I would give to young percussionists, and his limiting my answer to no more than eleven words. I wasn’t being entirely facetious – it has been every generation’s role to push the envelope that has been defined previously for any discipline. At the present time in history there is, additionally, a technological imperative that has rather changed the generational mandate. Now, and more and more in the future, the responsibility will be to alter radically, or even recreate the envelope itself. And I’ll go further than that – if a generation doesn’t agree to undertake, or can’t accept the responsibility to make and embrace the new paradigms, the transformations will, nevertheless, still occur, and those who don’t commit to them will be left behind in a kind of evolutionary limbo.

3) How has the fundamental meaning of what you wish to share/represent in music changed over your career? What do you strive most to represent in your art?

BB: “Represent” is an interesting word to use in relation to musical expression. In games like poker, people speak of “representing a hand” – in the sense of betting as if one holds much better cards than were actually dealt. In music performance, of course, you can’t get very far on a bluff – in a concert you have to deliver the goods, and then any sophisticated audience will know immediately what kind of hand you’re playing. When I was a student I usually presented myself, and the music I played, in ways I was shown by my teachers or by performers I was trying to emulate. That approach to performance is very much in keeping with representation, in the sense of acting or standing for something or someone else. It’s a very common attitude, even among professionals, and many musicians can’t get away from it.

Somewhat later in my career, after exploring a number of music cultures outside of the western classical and jazz traditions, and after being involved with the creation of an improvisation ensemble like NEXUS, I came to understand that, for me, exploration and adventure – as real-time performance activities – were what I wanted to share with colleagues as well as with audiences. I also realized that this kind of attitude was not only applicable in “free” improvisation, but in every style of music, including the most structured classical forms. It’s a risky approach, and you have to be willing to accept the grotesque and pathetic along with the brilliant, but, for better or worse, it’s the way I’ve lived most of my musical life.

4) Describe a major discovery or breakthrough you have had in your musical career that changed or greatly enhanced your understanding of the field. Was there any particular moment/circumstance where you had a confirmation of the musical direction you were taking? Can you give an example of a musical experience during your career that greatly illuminated your understanding of daily life, or the universe at large? What has your practice of percussion taught you about life? Or, alternatively, what has life taught you about percussion?

BB: These are really wonderful questions. Unfortunately, I can’t think of an answer for any one of them. I can say that percussion instruments, percussion music, percussion technique, and performing together with other percussionists constitute my career, but they are not my life. To understand anything about the universe at large, I would have to know, with certainty, something about it. Belief is not interesting to me. You either know something, or you don’t, and I don’t know anything with certainty. Nevertheless, to function in the world, I have to accept – on faith – two principles: cause and effect (i.e., this reliably results in that); and continuity (e.g., if I wake up again tomorrow, I will still recognize myself as being me). And I’m not sure I really buy them either.

5) Relationship with past, present, and future: how do you see your practice of percussion functioning between these various musical directions as a performer and/or teacher? What is your attitude in general about the movement or need towards innovation in percussion where it conflicts or leaves behind tradition? Is there a point in which the traditional methods of percussion hinder the growth of the field? Or innovative methods destroying important tradition? If so, where is that point for you?

BB: Innovation doesn’t destroy anything – people forget things. All “traditional” methods were innovations at some time in the past, and there is great truth in the cliché “there is nothing new under the sun”. Musicians in general, and especially percussionists, should understand that. Now that we can effortlessly look and listen around the world, we can see how our ways compare to their ways. Music that was considered primitive by westerners two centuries ago is understood today to be complex in the extreme. Some of our “advanced” techniques are found to have been developed five hundred years ago in music cultures half way around the globe.

There is, however, a new order of innovation that has recently become significant in the music world, as well as in the world at large, and that is digital technology in all of its present and future manifestations. In my opinion, this phenomenon is transformative and unprecedented – revolutionary in its explosive growth. Several years ago Lindsay Haughton asked me in an interview: “Where do you think music is heading?” I’ll just quote my answer to her.

“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’.”

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