Part 2

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

Most every day of my life is unique and different. I do not really have a set routine. I do so many different things for income, as well as engage in other activities that are not income-driven at all. So, each day is its own special combination of elements, in no particular sequence, and with no particular time schedule. I like it that way.          

Invariably my week will have many tours, healing sessions, ceremonies, and other scheduled activities with clients that I have committed to in advance. Then around those scheduled activities I have to fit in time for food, sleep, self-care, exercise, socializing, housework, office work, AND the big projects that are on deadlines. These days many of my big projects are art commissions, as I am also a painter. So where does music fit into all this? Mostly as part of the land tours, ceremonies and healing sessions that I do, plus the occasional small concerts here and there. Sometimes I also guide drum circles at a remote ranch in Arizona. And occasionally I do ethnomusicology programs for museums. This crazy, eclectic life of mine is really quite interesting and fun. And one way or another, music finds its way into every day.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
For sure I would say that my breakthrough work as a composer is my “Psalms of RA”, which is essentially an oratorio set to ancient Egyptian and Hebrew texts and scored with both symphonic and ancient instruments. For me it represents the pinnacle of my creative expression thus far, both in its sophistication and purity, its complexity and lyricism. The project was born out of a time of personal tragedy, when both my parents died within 9 months of each other. Yet through the creation of this music, I was able to transform my sorrow into a celebration of life and weave a universal message for all people about the journey of the soul.

I also wanted this project to be a statement about the common spiritual roots of Near Eastern civilizations, and in so doing illuminate an alternative view of identity for a Middle East in perpetual conflict and useless endless cycles of revenge. It was my way of making a stand for Peace. So, I brought together musicians of many ethnic backgrounds to both create and record this music. We were Jewish and Egyptian, Palestinian, and Lebanese, Iranian and Chinese, Chilean, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, African American and European American, among others.

The music for “The Psalms of RA” was mostly composed, recorded and mixed between 2000 and 2002, although the inspiration and musical themes for much of it were initially born over the course of five visits to Egypt and Sudan between 1987 and 1997. Then, in 1999, I synchronistically connected with the management of Skywalker Sound in Northern California. This opened an opportunity to record at this world famous sound studio, and thus “The Psalms of RA” was born. Never before had I had the chance to lay down music at such a world class facility, or with such brilliant engineers. Another blessing was being able to pull together so many of my favorite singers and instrumentalists from all across North America, many of these fellow artists being people I had known and worked with for decades. Plus, I had some outstanding members of the San Francisco Symphony and Opera orchestras as part of my ensemble, along with renowned local jazz musicians. In total we were 46 performers.

Of course it took quite a bit of money to make this all happen, and that financing never would have been possible without the inheritance I received after the passing of my parents. This was the ultimate bittersweet reality of my breakthrough creative project. There were tears for me on so many occasions in that studio, wondering why it took the death of my parents to give birth to this amazing music.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I once found this quote from Leonard Bernstein on the inside of a cap for an ice tea bottle ..... “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” This quote really struck me, because so many times in my creative life, my best work has come through situations where I was under a lot of stress and pressure to complete a project, and when it felt like the time I had to actually do it was way too short. This is an irony that I struggle with to this day. I don’t like deadlines or stress or feeling the angst of “not enough time”. I prefer to create my music or art at an easy pace, and allow the momentum to come where it may, rather than to force it to come because I am running out of time. And yet I also know that deadlines can compel me to get the job done. By forcing me to focus and remove all other distractions, I often achieve a state where wonderful ideas and results flow easily and naturally, and a powerful momentum builds that carries me to the finish line.

Nonetheless, I still do feel that the ideal state of mind for being creative is relaxed and focused, peaceful while passionate, surrounded by things that are inspirational, and free from other external pressures. If I don’t have to think about working any jobs for money or doing all the food-related things like shopping, cooking and cleaning up afterwards, or taking care of other mundane matters, THEN I can truly focus on an artistic endeavor, give it my all, and I LOVE how that feels. The times when I have actually been able to do this are rare, but some of my best work has also come in THOSE times.

If I look at the common denominator between these two very different situations for doing the best work, the word that pops out at me is “focus”. A deadline with the stress of “not enough time” forces me to focus by pushing aside all the other stuff that needs to get done. For the time being that stuff may just not happen. Too bad. On the other side, if a stretch of financial abundance allows me the luxury to just work on the creative project at hand, and to pay for help with the food and other mundane matters, then once again I can focus on my art, and that focus makes all the difference. One way or the other, the removal of distractions seems to be the key for me to creative success.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

I use music in my healing work all the time. For example, many of the musical instruments that I have from around the world have been specifically designed as tools for healing. To me this is not just an intellectual curiosity. To the contrary, I play these instruments for this purpose and that is why I have them. Music and healing go together in a multitude of ways. I trace this all back to the shamanic roots of human culture, from medicine to the performing arts. In Ancient Greece, the Asklepion was a place of healing, especially through psychological healing and working with dreams. These healing temples were traditionally built beside the amphitheaters where drama and music were performed. There is a reason these functions go together. Sound is key. It can unlock trapped emotions, transport the listener into other dimensions, chase out dark energies, and open new pathways of consciousness. Different tones and different scales resonate with our bodies and psyches in different ways. There is a science to all this too, and I am by no means an expert on it to the degree that some others are. But I instinctively and intuitively feel into what is needed with sound as a healing tool, whether it is working with somebody one on one, or designing a musical composition for a large audience with the purpose of transporting and transforming them in some way.

These days, we have a very ill society. The illness is not just physical. It is a mental, emotional, and spiritual illness as well. We humans are sick to the core. Tragically. My life experience has shown me that music and sound have the power to shake up our fixed beliefs and ideologies, shatter the things that divide us, melt the things that trouble us, and raise us out of darkness to a new vibration that is more life-affirming. It remains to be seen whether we can transform ourselves sufficiently to shift our self-destructive trajectory as a species. If we do, it will be in no small part because music helped us to get there.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

This is a very important topic, and a very relevant one to the work I do as an ethnomusicologist, composer, and performer, as well as for my work in other art forms, such as painting. My life work has been deeply involved with ancient and indigenous traditions worldwide for the past fifty years. In that pursuit I have always seen myself first and foremost as a human being. That comes before being male, white, American by birth, Jewish by heritage, etc, etc. I am enthralled with the diversity of human civilization, and the richness of artistry and spirituality to be found on every continent. As such, I consider this full range of human civilization to be MY heritage. And to engage with any part of that, I consider it MY responsibility to honor and respect these cultural ways. That means learning about them with a focused mind and an open heart, because if I am later to share any of this with others, I need to be specific and accurate, but with more than just a dry intellect. I need to feel into these ways from the inside out as profoundly as possible.

Colonialism and imperialism have devastated indigenous traditions across our planet over the past five hundred years. Organized religions like Christianity and Islam have been eradicating native ways and peoples for between one and two thousand years. Humans can be horribly cruel to each other, and their self-righteousness can leave deep scars in the collective consciousness of subjugated cultures. So it is no wonder that many individuals of these subjugated cultures, who are determined to defend and protect them from any further assault, can be highly suspicious of “outsiders”, questioning their motivations and challenging their involvements. That is why navigating through these worlds requires great sensitivity and compassion, and a solidarity to defend not only cultural and religious rights, but rights to sacred lands and waters, and to life itself. I see my engagement as a creative artist with these cultures as a commitment to that solidarity. For me it is inseparable from the art I do that is inspired by native and ancient roots.

IF I perform a traditional song, dance or ceremony from a specific culture, then I should do it well, be accurate, and honor the one(s)who taught it to me. I take the extra time to give credit to the creators and teachers of traditions because they deserve it and because THAT is my responsibility. As a composer I certainly would not want somebody to perform a piece I wrote and not give me credit. As artists we must have mutual respect for each other, regardless of our “identities”. Some form of compensation is also appropriate when works of others are performed. We have copyright laws for that, but of course there are many works that are in the “public domain” that do not technically require compensation. With indigenous content this issue becomes more nuanced. Some cultures do credit the specific creators of certain content, but more often we see content as the expression of the collective. So how do we give back as modern people living in a multi-cultural world? There can be many ways, from personal monetary compensation to a broader donation that supports a community or group. AND as has often been the way for me, we can give back through engagement with a culture or community to support the movements that keep their cultures alive and their people strong and their “message to the world” more visible.

Sometimes I am saddened by the hard resistance I occasionally see from certain people who are of a certain culture to anyone who is not of that certain culture expressing anything at all that relates in any way to their cultural tradition. The reality is that cultures are not static or stagnant. They are alive and evolving over time. Every culture has appropriated certain other cultural traditions that they get exposed to and has found unique ways to “make it their own”. As humans we naturally influence each other. We are curious creatures. We love to incorporate new materials and sounds into what we do. For me the most wonderful and perfect example of this is jazz music. It evolved in America through the encounter of separate musical traditions from both Europe and Africa. In so doing it did not in any way desecrate or diminish the traditional musical forms of the European or African continents. Rather, it bequeathed to the world an entirely new musical style. It enriched our collective human heritage not by replacing anything, but by adding something new and wonderful. Now what could be better than that?
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

I think the primary connections for the sense of hearing are with the sense of sight, and with the “sense” of physical movement, which is not quite the same as the more classically defined sense of touch. As a musician these are hugely important connections for me because I am also a painter and a dancer. When I paint, I am usually listening to music, and choosing the right music for creating an art piece definitely helps to set the mood. I also recognize the “music” in some of my paintings, whether it is a percussive quality or a lyrical one, for example. Some paintings feel symphonic - there is a big story being told, and it is in many sections, each with its own themes and characters. Other paintings feel more minimalist - just a few simple elements leave space for the viewer, as for the listener, to bring their own imagination to the experience. Color is another major factor in visual art and relates to the varying timbres and textures and tonalities that we find in music. For the composer/arranger, this usually means finding what musical instruments you want to include and combine. For the painter, it means choosing your shades and colors.

There is a spiritual or even mystical dimension to this sonic/visual connection, as I see it. The most exquisite expression I know of this is in an ancient, very short Aztec poem .......

       “I sing the pictures of the book, and see them propagating.
        I am a graceful bird, because I can make the books speak
        within the house of the paintings.”

The connection between music and movement is of course more obvious. Most of us imagine dance as always being accompanied by music, although there are some modern dance pieces that don’t necessarily use “music”. They may instead employ “sounds”, and on occasion, silence. As a composer, I definitely FEEL the music in my body when I am working on it. This may give me specific choreographic ideas that need to go with that music. That process can also be reciprocal in that I start to get certain ideas for movement and choreography which in turn affects the music I compose. As a dance performer, I most certainly am guided by what I hear to move in precise ways that fit the sounds and musical gestures of a given composition.

For the sense of touch, music can also have a significant affect. I have worked part time as a massage therapist for over thirty years. I always do my massages to music, and select that music very intentionally to fit the client, the time of day, the massage style, etc. Sometimes even the strokes I do seem to coincide with the movements in the music. Music helps to get me “in the flow”.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

 “Artists are the conscience of the world”. So many of us have heard that phrase before, or some version of it. And while it may seem a cliche, there is in fact a lot of truth in it. Throughout history, artists have been among the leading commentators on the topics of their time, the issues of their day, the struggles in their societies, and the purveyors of the search for the meaning of life itself. In our more recent history of the last few hundred years, artists have certainly been key leaders in challenging authority and the status quo, and in initiating new movements for social change. We have been the vanguards of countless political movements, the engagers of activism, and the fuel for the passionate fires of so many kinds of revolutions and evolutions.
As a musician, a writer, a performer, and a creator of live theater, I consider it my personal responsibility to use my talents to awaken consciousness, to questions assumptions, to critically re-evaluate historical narratives, and to illuminate and empower the kinds of changes I want to see in the world. I am a fighter, in the non-violent sense of that word, and I use my “fighting spirit” to speak out where and when I must. Most of my “big works” are full of critique about the direction of our society, whether it be relating to the past, the present, the future, or all of the above. In many cases, the primary reason I do these creative works is rooted in what I have to say about a given topic.

My first “big work” was my opera “Buffalo Nation”, and it is highly critical of what the United States government and military did to Native Americans in its imperialistic conquest of territory and resources. One of my more recent major works, still in progress, is my musical theater piece, “The First Light”. It takes a hard look at the history of the Nuclear Age, at the deadly and defining role that the United States has played in that, at the dangers of nuclear power, and the travesty of war. For me as an American, I carry a deep passion to challenge the myth of the United States as a beacon of freedom and justice in the world, because there is another side to that story that is very, very dark and disturbing. I feel it is my responsibility to dismantle that myth in whatever ways I can, and my creative work is often how I choose to do that.

On another front, my oratorio/CD release entitled “The Psalms of RA”, is among other things, a call for peace in the Middle East by asking the listener to reconsider notions of identity and the divisions that arise from rigid identifications. As a man of Jewish heritage, I felt (like I did as an American) a call to challenge some common assumptions of a group I was born into. But really I wanted to challenge the assumptions of all sides, and to shine my creative light on a different angle of viewing the whole entrenched situation.

Now, in this year, I am called to challenge something entirely different as an artist. Strangely, this time it is in part my fellow artists, members of my own global “creative family”, to whom I feel the need to offer an alternative viewpoint. The mess that Covid has brought humanity on so many levels has led to many Draconian restrictions in many countries. I am very, very sad to see so many artists and arts organizations embracing that - orchestras, concert halls, theaters, theater companies, etc that are requiring and/or mandating Covid vaccines for either their performers, their audiences, or both. In my view the decision of whether to get vaccinated or not is a personal choice and should not become the basis of a new form of discrimination. So once again, as an artist I am speaking out.

What can music express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
The intersection of life and death is profoundly paradoxical and bittersweet.. It can be full of angst and plunge a person into the depths of sorrow. Yet it can also be transcendent and liberating. Music absolutely has the ability to express the emotional and spiritual nuances of the life/death juxtaposition. And it can do so in the most exquisite of ways. But at the same time it can also express intensely dramatic, harrowing, and devastating aspects of the journey from life to death and into the “afterlife”. In many ways the non-verbal language of music is well suited for these themes because it can bypass ideology and dogma to directly reach into our raw emotions.

Nonetheless, I do think that there are other art forms that can fulfill these same functions just as effectively when it comes to the life/death theme. Visual arts, dance, theater, and film all have amazing strengths and qualities for reaching into this sensitive topic in non-verbal ways. And words, when they rise to the level of true art, as in some poetry, can also provide a poignant entry into the exploration of the life/death journey.  In the end, I think it is the creative gifts of the artist more than the specific artistic form which determines whether the expression of the life/death theme has attained the level of great art.

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