North Coast Journal A & E Editor Bob Doran spoke with Myra Melford by phone last week for a lovely sidebar that ran in the January 28, 2010 edition. But a lot of their conversation wound up, of necessity, on the cutting-room floor. Here's a more complete version:
Myra Melford was having a busy week. A new Be Bread album, The Whole Tree Gone, came out on January 19. She'd just come off sabbatical and it was the first week of the new semester for her UC Berkeley lecture class, Topics in Contemporary Improvised Music. In addition to preparing for a short Be Bread tour, she was firming up plans for a telematic concert with colleagues at a couple of UC campuses. "My head is swimming," she told me. After talk about topics she'll cover in lectures (women in improvised music, the AACM, improvisation in mixed media collaborations) we moved on to telematics.
Myra: I just got off a conference call with two colleagues, Mark Dresser who's at UCSD, and Michael Dessen at UC Irvine. We're doing a telematic concert later this spring and there's a lot of logistics involved in getting that together.
Bob: What's a telematic concert?
It's where we're communicating through the Internet, so we're each going to perform on our own campus and it will be like a virtual concert hall.
So you'll have musicians playing simultaneously in different places?
Yes. It's been around for a while now, but it's still in nascent stages. The audio works pretty well, with very little perceivable delay, but the video is still an issue. You'll hear someone play something, but on the screen they won't actually make the gesture until a moment after you've heard what they played.
You see that on the TV news a lot with remote reports. It would seem like a crucial thing with the timing required for music.
As I said, the audio technology is pretty great. When we sit down to play together, we can play some tricky rhythmic material and do it right together, but you know it's the video thing that's still an issue. That whole project involves getting grant money for equipment and it involves a lot of people, and of course that's difficult with the California state budget -- all of us have had funding cuts. Altogether you could say I have my fingers in a lot of different pies at the moment.
And you're getting ready for a Be Bread tour.
That's the real priority for the moment.
I've been listening to the new record, The Whole Tree Gone. Reading on your website about the project, it says the group was created to do music based on your harmonium studies in India. There does not seem to be any harmonium at all on the new record, it's all piano. Isn't it?
There's no harmonium this time; there was on the first record. I put the group together when I came back from India where I had been studying Hindustani or North Indian music and the harmonium.
I know you played it when you were here with Jenny Scheinman.
And I've been using it on a lot of my projects. And when I wrote the music we ended up recording [for The Whole Tree Gone] there were 11 pieces and two were on the harmonium, but it was too much music for one record and I decided to focus on music for piano for this recording. I wanted it to be the same instrument throughout. But I would say there is still influence from my studies in India in the compositions, just not the harmonium itself. And I will be playing harmonium in the concerts. We'll play two sets, so there's more time, so I will be playing it in Arcata.
What do you see as your role in Be Bread? You are the leader, and you write the pieces?
Right. And I play the piano and the harmonium.
Do you tell the musicians with you exactly what to play? Or do you just provide the framework for improvisation? How does that work?
I would say more the later. My compositions are notated in traditional Western notation. You could call that the framework or the architectural underpinning. And I give them guidelines on what I'm looking for in the improvisation based on the pre-composed material.
The parts are written out...
Everybody's part is written out. Everybody has a chart and in some cases it shows how their part intersects with other people's parts if there's some complicated hookup, otherwise they just have a lead sheet. If necessary I'll give some verbal directions on what I'm looking for in the improvisation, but with these guys — I've been playing with them a long time now — a lot of the music was written for them. In part the structure of the improvisation is based around what I know of their playing and what's they'll bring to the music. I don't tell them what to play, although I may give them guidelines. I've chosen these players because I love the way they improvise on my music.
You were saying this is music based on what you learned in India, and non-western meters and modalities. How does that change things? What's non-western about it?
Indian music is based on a series of modes called ragas. It's just another approach to modal music — you know it's not like it's really a new idea. Modal jazz has been around since the late '50s, early '60s when Miles Davis, Coltrane and people like that started listening to Indian music and incorporating those ideas into jazz. I guess I'm putting my own spin on it. American music is full of hybrids.
In the title of the course you're teaching, you don't use the word, "jazz." I noticed a Jazz Times reviewer referred to your music as "post-jazz." I know it's a semantics thing, but have we moved beyond jazz?
I don't think it's passé. Whatever you call it, whether it's creative improvised music or improvised music that comes from the jazz tradition or just jazz or "post-jazz" — although I don't know what that person meant — I would suppose that it's meant as a signal to the listener that this is not mainstream, not following the conventions of jazz that were popular in the '40s and '50s and are still employed by people like Wynton Marsalis who stay pretty close to the post-bop model of jazz. In my opinion, jazz has always been a music of hybrids. It's always brought together music from different sources and traditions. And if you have an open-minded, inclusive definition of jazz or what jazz can be, then I have no problem calling my music jazz.
A group called Chamber Music America commissioned the title track for Whole Tree Gone. That seems to raise another semantic question: What is chamber music?
Chamber Music America is a service organization for chamber music ensembles, linking them up with composers and so on. They were given money by the Doris Duke Foundation, which is very vested in supporting jazz, to run a jazz program. I think it took a while to sort out the relationship.
They seem to be trying to expand the definition of chamber music beyond the classical repertoire, perhaps looking at it more as a way music is presented.
It's generally small ensembles, often in small rooms, though it doesn't have to be. It's mainly a small ensemble that doesn't require a conductor, where the musicians are conducting themselves. Historically it's implied that it's meant to be more intimate than a large orchestra concert in a big hall. I think a lot of jazz easily fits into that category. I just got one review of the new record that says, "This is chamber music with attitude." As a composer, since I'm interested in new music of all kinds, thinking of my music as chamber music that includes improvisation and elements of jazz and elements of blues and world music really make a lot of sense.
I also see chamber music as a way of listening, where the audience is paying close attention.
It also sort of implies a different kind of interaction amongst the players. It's very much about listening to one another, especially where everything isn't written out and people are going to play things you can't possibly expect in advance. Then to really make the music coherent, everybody has to be listening with a really high level of attention so they can respond in the moment to whatever idea is being introduced.
Is that what you teach when you teach improvisation?
One of the major skills an improviser has to have is the ability to listen. Then there's the ability to listen and respond at the same time.
So it's about learning how to have a conversation.
Yes. And it's about learning to follow your own impulse, listen inside yourself for what music wants to come through or what the situation calls for. You do that while listening to the people around you, the other players and the audience, then you let that inform your own response. It's really about listening inside and listening outside and negotiating that as a player.
(Photo of Myra Melford courtesy of Daniel Sheehan)