Name: Sara Schoenbeck
Occupation: Bassoonist, improviser
Nationality: American
Current release: Sara Schoenbeck's self-titled debut album, featuring Nels Cline, Wayne Horvitz, Matt Mitchell, Harris Eisenstadt, Mark Dresser, Nicole Mitchell, Peggy Lee, and Robin Holcomb is out via Pyroclastic.

[Read our Nels Cline interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Sara Schoenbeck, visit her official homepage for more information.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it?

The bassoon is the beginning of my inspiration, especially the instrument that I have now. It invites me to explore sound through ringing overtones and an open flexibility. Over the years, playing the bassoon, and not just the one I am lucky to have now, has taken precedence over other interests and responsibilities (except that of being a parent).

I love the physicality of playing bassoon. It takes so much full body supported breath, finger coordination and concentration to play. This kind of unified body focus becomes a meditation when the space is taken for it. Also, bassoonists commonly make their own reeds which makes bassoon practice also a craft involving knives and measurements a kind of reflexology of tuning, response and intonation.  

What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

The bassoon is low, has a double reed and a wicked amount of keys, 13 for your thumbs alone. The double reed and small space that the sound travels through creates its unique and very human-like sound. The jumble of keys and strange fingering patterns can be so awkward but it really allows for wonderful exploration beyond the technique of its western classical beginnings. Microtones, alternate fingerings and multiphonics are prolific for the bassoon.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Improvisation can be thought of as spontaneous composition. I think it should be regarded with the same approach, intention and gravitas as composed music written to be interpreted by a performer. Music is about making choices that are meaningful, something a performer or listener can believe in. I especially love written music that involves improvisation.

Improvisation is a common musical tool throughout the ages and throughout the world with each culture using rules, tunings and guidelines to help shape each unique musical language.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

An endless amount of things have been stimulating and inspiring to me as an improviser. I have been endlessly inspired by the sounds of nature and urban life intersecting. Also, being pushed by other musicians’ languages has encouraged my own music to expand and grow. Going through scales and patterns etudes and books like Yusef Lateef’s Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns keeps me learning and moving in my own playing.

In addition, playing written music by living and non-living composers is an endless source of inspiration and technical facility.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

I am in agreement. You should always feel like you can get behind and believe in what you are contributing to an improvising ensemble. Part of playing is not playing. If you are unable to hear how you can contribute in a moment then take pause and listen carefully. That is often the most musical choice that you can make in a moment. Try to stay away from your usual tropes and patterns that you fall into.

Bassoon is a quiet instrument. Or, at least the way that I like to play it is often times quiet. I like to not have to play at the top volume all of the time. There is a whole color world that lives in the quiet, that will get lost in a loud setting. Yet again, sometimes the music needs to swallow up the sound of a quieter music, just not all the time.

When playing solo I do feel that I need to prepare more in my mind. I call it outline composing. I create an outline in my mind of what might be the trajectory of an improvised performance.  What musical idea, composition or technique might I loosely knit together one to the next to create a meaningful composition.

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 for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I need to make sure that my body is not hungry or thirsty when I play bassoon. The minute I am hungry I start second guessing my choices and my playing. Also, nerves can change one’s notion of the passage of time. If I allow for good practice time before an improvised setting then I can usually be more focused, have more intent in my playing and keep my endorphins in check so that I don’t move through ideas too quickly.

The idea that one does not need to practice improvisation is not accurate. Like anything else, the more you practice on your own or as a group the more fluid the language possibilities become.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

The resonance in a room can change a performance experience. It can be a true joy if your sound rings out and the overtones of a note sing. It makes our job easier as a performer.

Also, a receptive audience can help a performer become more focused on the music in the moment.

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?

Working on any challenging piece of music that takes you out of the comfort of your own patterns and scales can only elevate one’s playing going forward. There have been too many compositions and collaborations with other musicians that have pushed me to explore new extended techniques, new found technical facility, a new harmonic language or tuning that one event or composer can not be named.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I have often felt like emotions can be so overwhelming they go beyond words and language. In these times of heightened emotions playing the bassoon will be my tool to work out complex feelings and is a source of calm and understanding.

Music for anyone stimulates many different parts of the brain and not just the frontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus which all really do play such a huge part in emotional stimulation and regulation. It also affects the cerebellum in the back of your brain and auditory cortex. With this unified front of brain activity music can help in so many ways. In fact, it inspires memory and emotions which can drastically help patients with dementia especially when singing directly themselves since it stimulates even more brain function then just being a passive listener.

As a musician to experience this kind of full brain activity can be elevating and healing to say the least.