Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Zoukfest 08 02: pedal-to-the-metal

Zoukfest, Day 02.

At a music camp, opening Monday is typically "shopping day"--the first chance that people get to actually walk in and experience the hour-by-hour schedule and classes they been poring over for months. Typically, they want to cram-in as much and as immersive an experience as possible: take a class every hour, ask for materials or perhaps audio-recordings of the classes they're unable due to conflicts to attend, and so forth. This is understandable and, in the abstract, commendable: the fundamental rhetorical question folks typically ask themselves is "why would I not cram in every bit of data and experience I can, to take away and carry me over the next 51 weeks?"

So there's a lot of shopping on that first day: people attending classes, assessing their alternatives, and trying to suss-out which combination will maximize their exposure and their input. The ZF staff know this and are usually at pains to convey to attendees that such shopping, on Day 01, is OK and advisable: after all, we want everybody to be in that individual schedule of classes they are most excited about.

But by Tuesday morning it begins to be important for people to commit to classes they'll stick with through the week. This is more important for the individual student, really, than for the instructor or the other students: in a given class, over five days we're going to do what we're going to do, without a lot of impact from those who might drop in occasionally. It's really no problem from an instructor's or class-concentration point-of-view: being able to concentrate on the music, past such distractions, is a pretty essential part of being an improvising musician.

One year at ZF, when we were housed at the Sagebrush Inn on the highway south of Taos, we had a good facility, the lodgings were fine, and the teaching spaces were reasonably recently refurbished (the very-well-attended motorcycle convention--full of posturing podiatrists and lawyers in "biker leathers"--which blew in at the end of the week was a bit more of a distraction). During "monsoon" season in Taos, you could almost set your watch by the weather patterns: clear and cold in the morning, clouding over by noon or so, torrential rain between about 2:00 and 4:30, and then crystalline mild afternoons and starry nights. I taught one of my classes in a back function room at the end, and every day, promptly about 25 minutes into the class, the sanitation truck would come around to empty the dumpster not far from our back window.

I made a habit of not interrupting class or my presentations during the resultant clattering and clanking. Which kind of drove some of the students in the class crazy: I could see them scowl, lean in, cup their ears, and/or throw up their hands in disgust because of the noise/distraction.

Group concentration is a funny thing: it is, potentially, much more powerful for teaching than individual-to-individual concentration--because, when a class is working right, everyone else in the room is pulling for that person who's struggling to execute something, and everyone else in the room is simultaneously gassed and enlightened when somebody plays something unexpected and great. On the other hand, group concentration can be much more fragile, and much more difficult to recover once lost.

When the sanitation guys came around, 25 minutes into my class, the last thing I wanted to do was to interrupt myself (musicologists hate to interrupt their own soliloquies), or act put out, or even simply tell the class "hold that thought, hold your concentration, don't let your attention wander while we wait for the clattering to end." Because I knew how hard it is to regain such a group's concentration, particularly when most people in the room are operating in new, cognitively and behaviorally unfamiliar territory.

So I'd keep talking, keep playing, keep eliciting responses, and try to tease the group into concentrating past the interruption and the resultant irritation. If anybody explicitly objected, saying "I can't concentrate with that outside noise," my response tended to be "Hey, look: playing music in an improvised setting is a pretty damned distracting situation. Maybe we should welcome the distraction because it gives us a chance to hone our attention and ability to concentrate."

The great martial arts master, flute player, and Zen roshi Watazumido Shuso, a wandering teacher who would regularly change his name and relocate to a new country, "so that he would only be found by those students with a truly deep desire to study," used to practice his flute in the busiest traffic interchanges in Tokyo, because it honed his concentration. He didn't resent or avoid the distractions of samsara (the temporal, flawed world of existence: traffic, pollution, politics, altitude, ego, intimidation, the sub-human monsters who wield power)--he embraced them. And found a voice for his music within that phenomenal world.

At Zoukfest, as musicians and as incipient humans, we should too.

Last night's opening concert certainly did. It was a cavalcade of three long-time comrades-in-music and one new member of the tribe.

Don Richmond is nearly as close to a resident Zen master (Colorado cowboy lineage) as Zoukfest will get. A brilliant multi-instrumentalist and record producer, with hundreds of recording sessions to his credit, on every one of which he made other people sound even greater than they had realized they were, he is also a fine singer and songwriter and a deep, wise, and kind man. He's the musical big brother that a lot of Zoukfest people only realize they've yearned for after they've met him, and thought, "Ohhhh.....that's what I was looking for." He writes beautiful, remarkably open and embracing songs about very specific places and experiences: the northern New Mexico/southern Colorado landscapes that he knows so well. The music has that sense of space, of clarity, and of wonder at this natural world. He wrote a book, and teaches a class, called Getting Your Music Past the Fear, and both the book, the class, the songs, and Don's presence evoke that same sense of matter-of-fact, enlightening relief, when you say, "Ohhh.....so this is what it feels like not to be afraid anymore."

Chipper Thompson, a frequent partner and collaborator of Don's, also provides a wonderful corollary to his musical and personal presence. If Don brings the clarity, the generosity, and the sheer sense of invigorating space to the Zoukfest table, then the Reverend brings The Funk. Singing songs of his own divising, in his inimitable North Alabama howl, laying out the greasiest, funkiest, most lard-ridden licks imaginable, the Rev reminds us that another, equally essential part of human existence in the phenomenal world is Pure-D chaos: the dark at the edge of the firelight, the clatter of the slide on the mandolin's metal frets, the twisting keening bends at the ends of vocal phrases (there are few people whose melodic vocabulary so perfectly matches his speaking voice). It was great to see old friends Chipper and Mason Brown, joined by mad-Professor Doug Goodhart's polyrhythmic Appalachian fiddle, recreating some of the songs from their matchless Am I Born to Die, and to see them being reminded, right there on stage, of just how, and how much, they loved and missed making music together.

Mason Brown picked it up where Chipper put it down: singing his own songs, and arrangements of traditional songs, from his wonderful new solo disc, long a-borning, called When Humans Walked the Earth. Hearing Mason singing "Will you go to Flanders?" or his own ode to his great-uncle, Brownie's Lament (best line: "he always carried a gun. And a knife"), was like hearing a lost 78 of Dock Boggs--if Dock's life and religious training had given him a little more room for redemption. Or maybe if, like Mason, he'd ever had the chance to sit zazen. Past loss is despair. Past despair is detachment. Past detachment is perspective. Past that? I think maybe that's where joy lives.

The new member joining the tribe, Moira Smiley, batted cleanup on this particular evening, and all in attendance were pretty much in agreement that she knocked it out of the park. Singing Anglo-Celtic, Appalachian, Balkan, and original songs, playing accordion and clawhammer banjo, and closing with a remarkable, virtuosic (and audience-participation-inviting) performance of the dancing body percussion called "hambone," Moira--an old friend to Dharmonia and me from Bloomington's Early Music --was a new find for the Zoukfest audience, but she didn't feel like any kind of stranger. More like a baby sister coming home.

Day 03 looms.

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