Learning that my studio sits on the site where Galileo gave his famed “optical instrument” demonstration to the Lincean Society on April 14, 1611 set the stage for my year, and has been the grand metaphor for nearly everything I’ve done in Rome. He trained his telescope towards the moons of Jupiter and the ring of Saturn, but also to inscriptions on churches within Rome for purposes of comparison and verification. He turned his gaze locally, to give a perspective on the celestial bodies that he was reaching out to with his instruments, his towering intellect, his imagination, and his keen sense of observation. He searched himself spiritually to make sense of the religious/political system that sought to repress his ideas founded upon observed evidence, even as he continued to question an establishment, its dogma and the comfortable ideals of the time in which he experimented. I have read his struggle from the distance of time, but also his warning: to beware of the complacency of dogma, whether scientific, political, psychological or religious.

Dogma is dead…Santa Maria del Popolo

This inspiration led, literally, to a piece commissioned by the AAR for the 400th Anniversary Cabaret in April. “At Rome Around Jovian Moons” was the result of a collaboration with violist Erika Eckert, who came to Rome to co-create a composition on the very site, in Casa Rustica, during six days around the turn of 2011. We had fun playing with sounds from the Cassini, Voyager and the Galileo space probes (from the University of Iowa Physics Lab), recordings from Mass in Santa Maria del Popolo, fireworks from Rome’s remarkable New Years Eve blast, and sounds my brother, a pro amateur radio operator sent along for the mix. All of these sounds, to me, range from subtle to blatant metaphors for stars, ideas, travel, invention, and exploration. The most unexpected gift during the compositional process was when Erika happened onto the protestant doxology (“Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…”), a tune that we used to close worship with in church every Sunday when I was a kid growing up with a Mennonite Minister Father. The words by Thomas Ken in 1674, were originally written for his students to sing only in their rooms alone, since it was forbidden for anything other than scripture to be sung as hymns. Thomas Ken, like Galileo, also had a rebellious streak, and so this tune becomes the grand metaphor for, and warning against, dogma.

Dogma 2

2012 Stories

I came to work on my CD Series called 2012 Stories, and indeed, finished the 5th CD “Cannac” (Mayan for “there is no form without spirit”) in time to premier the first half on the Nuova Consonanza Marathon Concert November 7th. This performance included sounds I’ve recorded all over the world that I play along with on percussion, toys, whistles and voice. I made my ukulele debut playing and singing “Hey diddle diddle.” I still have no idea what that song means, but it was a good way to bring the moon into the music! That CD also features Tiziana del Grosso and Alessandro Lima performing the “wine glass cart” after lunch one day, Case Brown reading a passage from Huck Finn, and folk music given to me by Fausto Sebastiani, President of Nuova Consonanza. I went to Rotterdam in mid-May to record the live components of Cannac at Grrr, a public art work by Paola Pivi and Rotterdam Sculpture International. In have also completed the 6th CD “Kinan” (Mayan for “solar force”), a collaboration with Taos Gong Artist Heidi Svoboda. I hope to release both CD’s sometime this summer, to join the current 4 already on iTunes with hard copies to follow.

Audio: Cannac "There is no form without spirit"; Track 3: "Messenger particles: peculiar gravity" (excerpt)

Hey diddle diddle…

Photo Credit: Ersela Kripa
In January I had the great pleasure to work with the Scharoun Ensemble from the Berlin Philharmonic. These folks are real: fantastic musicians, wonderful to have dinner and play pool with, and relax over a digestivo in the evening. I wrote a work for them using fixed media (recorded sounds) and improvisation. Roman tableaux (for fixed media and unfixed ensemble) consisted of four uninterrupted movements inspired by famous landmarks in Rome: I) Gianicolo: Air; II) Colosseo: Fire; III) Acquedotto: Water; and IV) Foro Romano: Earth. I was delighted when all 11 of them wanted to play on it for the premier at which they surrounded the audience and beautifully melded with the fixed media sounds immersing the audience in sonic caviar!

Offering plate: Villa d’Este

Photo Credit: Laurie Rush

Roman Tableaux

A year ago, I was commissioned for a multi-media dance project in Kansas City called WE! (Jane Gotch, choreographer and Mark Southerland, Musician). So, in January and February, I set about creating three short works for that innovative performance. Basically, there are four rooms, each with one dancer, and one audience member at a time. There are sculptures, lighting and props in each room, and I did the sound for two of them. The last weekend of February, after a gig in Florence at Tempo Reale, I traveled to Arezzo with a handful of other fellows. I was delighted by the escalators behind the cathedral, and got some great recordings of them. On the morning of March 3, I composed one of the pieces for WE! based on one of these sounds as the rhythmic and harmonic “band” and improvised a short melody over it. It is my favorite piece of music to date, and it warms my heart that the original sound came from the place where Guido d’Arezzo basically invented Western musical notation nearly 1,000 years ago.

Audio: "Death's Thin Melody" (Up/Down)

Not all my work uses recorded sound, though, and I’m also working on completing a concerto for sax great Bobby Watson. First task is to complete the wind symphony version and then do a version for orchestra. You can hear what will eventually be the last movement of that on my web site called “Finally…”

Audio: "Finally..."

(Peformance by Bobby Watson, Alto Sax and the UMKC Wind Symphony, Steve Davis, Conductor)

This seems like a lot, but really, it’s pretty “business as usual.” I do my best work when I’m in a new setting, and have concentrated time. It’s not really work at all…it’s infinite play in the imagination of space/time and sound. What was new though was all of the collaboration with amazing people at the Academy. It started with the Christmas play for the staff. I have to say that for many years to come, I will look back on our Christmas play as one of the fondest times at the Academy. Everyone pitched in and did their share and we had an awesome time. My contribution was the live sound effects. That was a hoot!

Shortly after that, I started playing live music for yoga sessions organized by Fritz Haeg. The sessions were open to anyone who needed that little extra motivation of having the time and place listed on their calendar. It was wonderful practice playing drums, toys, singing bowls, and vocalizing. My favorite instrument became a stainless steel water bottle that I brought with me: infinite variety of sounds, and I can drink from it too!

One of the more unique things I’ve been doing is a collaboration with classical Indian Dancer Aparna Keshaviah. I have very little drumming technique, but tons of experience with improvisation (it’s very much how I live life…). She has amazing classical Indian dance technique (she did a show in January that was nothing short of AMAZING), but little experience with improvisation. It’s been tremendous to bring our strengths and foster new things in each other. We're presenting the fruit of our collaboration on the Trustees week concert at the end of May.

In April I collaborated with Jennifer Scappitone and the AGENCY duo of Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller. That project X-Locus involved projected sound and word, spoken word, and images inspired by the idea of dislocation, which we’ve all experienced in varying degrees throughout our lives, and even at the Academy. As Adele Chatfield-Taylor said at the beginning of the year, when we all come together it’s a bit like a shipwreck. We are marooned here with people we don’t know, but have to find ways to get along. And perhaps that has been the biggest collaboration of all: a continuous unfolding project from breakfast in the common kitchens to formal dinner at night with regulars, guests and all manner of amazing people sharing a space together 24/7. Everyone at the Academy is amazing and humbling to be around!

Oh, and there’s one other project that’s out there in the ether…a joint venture with Felipe Dulzaides in a small town of Campagna (Salerno), that will involve a site-specific work involving the whole town and performance of 2012 Stories during the “Chiena” water festival in August. Stay tuned for more details and keep your fingers crossed, as it is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of.

Collaboration: Felipe Dulzaides

Photo Credit: Gayle Barklie
On a personal note, I came to Rome in the wake of a Vision Quest in Taos, New Mexico, where my connection with the land and Mother Earth became intensely intimate and personal. And so, I have brought that relationship with me to the Bass Garden at the AAR, where my daily routine includes singing, chanting and meditating to the Earth in my Casa Rustica studio. With the help of Jana van der Goot, Micheal Ezban, and Andrea Clearfield (Visiting Artists), we began a New Moon and Full Moon Circle that has evolved into chanting, praying, singing, music-making, and communal support with an ever shifting group of folks from all across the Academy.

Ceremony in CR

Photo Credit: Jana Van der Goot
This year has been a mountain of blessings. Getting to know Rome and Italy, eating the amazing food of the Rome Sustainable Food Project (and volunteering in the kitchen to work with Mona and the crew!), wandering and wondering, has been a bounty beyond description. The community that was shipwrecked here has been inspiring, humbling and a joy to be a part of. I will always remember how everyone helped everyone else, shared ideas freely, pitched in, gave freely of themselves, and kept energy flowing, imagination glowing and creativity growing.

Chilling with Frank

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