Name: Fifteen Questions Interview with Jim Berenholtz of Xochimoki
Current release: Temple Of The New Sun on Phantom Limb
Recommendations: Rainy Season in the Tropics by Frederic Church /“Concerto for Orchestra” by Bela Bartok
If you enjoyed this interview with Jim Berenholtz, you can can learn more about him on his website www.jimberenholtz.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I began playing the piano at the age of 3 and began formal study of piano at age 7. By age 10 I was composing my own songs at the piano. I was strongly influenced by my exposure to classical music and musical theater, as well as by popular artists like the Beatles. At age 14 I started writing my first opera, entitled “Buffalo Nation”, with the Lakota leader Sitting Bull as the central character. My musical life was focused through this project for the next decade, which also opened my interest into world music generally, and the indigenous music of the Americas more specifically.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I always loved great melodies. To me this is the first and most important part of music that is engaging, and I am VERY old fashioned in that respect. But interesting harmonies, rhythms and textures are also super important to me. So, my love of dissonance, drama and surprise has led me into many worlds, from contemporary classical music to indigenous vocal and instrumental traditions of so many different cultures. I find my musical roots even beyond the human realm, by listening to the sounds of birds, insects, whales, storms, moving water, etc. My greatest creative joy is in blending symphonic instruments of the European orchestral tradition with native instruments and languages and vocal styles of whichever culture I may be focused on for a particular project. Among the composers who have had the strongest influences on me are Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland. But it has never been of interest to me to try to copy the style of any composer, and I would say the same is true in how I feel about indigenous music. There is no reason for me to try to copy this music, which already exists fully in its own realm of integrity. Rather, what excites me is to create new blendings of sounds and styles from across time and space.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I am very much a non-conformist, and I think the same is true for my music. I am a very sexual person too, and I think that comes out in the primal and intensely physical qualities of my music. Passionate, adventurous and unafraid are some other adjectives that come to mind when I think about qualities in my music that reflect qualities in myself. But of course, each of us is a highly complex individual, full of contrasting qualities. I can be super organized, but also improvisational at times. I can be agitated, or meditative. I can be angry or loving. I sometimes feel sadness, and sometimes feel hope. In all these respects, these things are also true of my music.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As a young composer, I sometimes slipped naturally into chord changes, rhythms, or lyrics which were rather predictable, but which felt good at the time. As the years progressed, I developed a more critical and discerning ear. I re-wrote a lot of my early music to satisfy my evolving awareness. Or else I simply moved on to new things. It is not my goal as an artist to be self-consciously unique, or to do anything for the sake of being different. Rather, I continually seek to be free of cultural conditioning that might entrap me in predictable patterns, and to listen for the new voice, the fresh idea, that can be found in the moment. I aim for authenticity. I aim to please my own ear, and hope that in doing so I will also please the ears of many others.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I am completely a non-tech, non-machine person, especially when it comes to my music. I love to work with brilliant recording engineers, but I leave all the tech stuff to them. I, on the other hand, still write my musical scores using paper and a pencil. What HAS changed for me over the years is my expanding abilities on different musical instruments. I started as a pianist and a singer. I think the piano is an awesome instrument that can bring out worlds within worlds. And yet there are still OTHER worlds that it cannot emulate or imitate. My exploration of indigenous wind and percussion instruments from across this planet has allowed me to explore a few of those other worlds and share them with a wider audience. At the same time, my vocal abilities have also stretched and expanded into vastly new and different zones from the ones I initially learned in my musical theater and classical trainings. This gives me a very wide palette as a singer. I absolutely love to reach way into the human voice to draw out sounds that are rare and exotic, ancestral and magical, as much as I love to sing a fine song with hopefully excellent technique.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Yes and yes. Regarding instruments, some of the ancients instruments I use which are made only from natural objects (shells, bones, antlers, seed pods, cocoons, stones, etc) have shown me how music is innately embedded in living organisms and their physical remains. This has opened me to the “organic orchestra” that is available from a multitude of sources. It isn’t just instruments that humans design, shape and build that give us music. It is all living things that give us music.
On the question of how technologies have shaped my making of music, my answer is probably not going to be what the reader is expecting. Nonetheless, here we go. New digital technologies have profoundly changed the way I feel about composing, performing, and recording music because they have largely destroyed so many of the ways I used to earn income through my music. As a result, I have done very little composing or recording of new music over the past decade. To a large degree I have lost my desire to do it. I am profoundly upset, even angry, at how technology companies have manipulated the music marketplace in such a way as to maximize their own profits, with little or no concern for how the artists who make this music get compensated. We are living in a time when the Distributors of Content derive most of the financial benefit of music sales, while the Creators of Content are left with the crumbs under the banquet table at the end of the feast. The downfall began with the I Pod, later downloading and streaming services, and then the disappearance of CD players in cars, CD drives in computers, and the scant availability of new quality machines that play music from some kind of hard copy product.
The big tech corporations that have orchestrated these changes are not the only ones responsible for marginalizing musicians in their ability to earn good income from their work. Consumers have also played a huge role in their embracing of the opportunities to get the music they want without having to pay very much for it, and in being willing to give most of the money they do spend on music to the Distributors instead of the Creators. It continues to baffle me that so many people can claim to love their favorite musicians, but not show that love by supporting their beloved artists with fair financial remuneration for our hard work and talent.
All this being what it is, while the big tech takeover of music distribution has crushed my enthusiasm to compose or record new works, it has also driven me towards the main way that I make music these days. That is out in nature, in the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, with private clients who I help in finding their own spiritual connection with the natural world by playing native flutes, drumming and chanting for them. I am back with the original source of these sounds, and that feels good.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
For me creative collaborations must happen in person. The exception would be if I am working with a lyricist and setting their words to music. In that case they can send me the words and then I will work on my own. Later on we can meet in person to bounce the song back and forth until we get something we both like. But for other sorts of musical collaborations, I cannot do them virtually, whether online, through file sharing, zoom, or anything else like that. It is not enough for me to just see or hear a fellow musician to collaborate. I need to feel their energy in the same space with me, to sense their breath and subtle movements, in order to create music together, whether it be by improvising a performance or for composing new work. I love to collaborate with others in making music as much as I love to do solo performances or compose all on my own. As a composer of music for symphonic instruments, choral works, and musical theater, then I engage in a different kind of collaboration, which is working with performers who collectively can bring my work to life after I have composed it. I find this super exciting, and often in the rehearsal process will discover changes I want to make compositionally based on the insights and skills of the performers I am working with. In such cases, collaboration means being open to suggestions from others who are gifted and knowledgeable with their particular instrument. Mounting live performances and recording sessions with my fellow musicians are among the most fulfilling experiences I have had in life.