Sunday, November 2, 2008

Musical Questions – Eberle Umbach

We’re kicking off a new series here at Robert Frost’s Banjo—interviews with musician friends. The musicians we’re interviewing are either professionals or semi-professionals, & all of them have extensive performing experience. Many of them have turned their hand to composing, & our questions also address this aspect of the musical life. Our first interviewee—who also helped in formulating the questions, along with our SoCal pal & ace interviewer Audrey Bilger—is my own better half, Eberle Umbach.

Eberle has been involved with music for most of her life. She grew up playing the piano, & later took up the harpsichord, & flute. Although her studies at Oberlin College were mostly centered on writing, she also studied theory & music history at the Conservatory there.

These days, Eberle is proficient on a number of instruments; besides piano & flute (we don’t have a harpsichord), she also plays (in no particular order) marimba, melodica, bass, dulcimer, accordion, djembe & cocktail drum (& any drum she can get hands or sticks on), & all sorts of percussion—& she also messes around at a pretty darned capable level on such diverse items as ukulele, banjo, lap steel, bowed psaltery, steel drum, & yayli tambur. She’s been involved with a number of bands, including a long association with the McCall Chamber Orchestra as harpsichordist & percussionist (to me, “orchestras” are “bands”); the Domestic Orchestra (which she describes below); Tender Buttons (an all-woman drumming band); the Alice in Wonder Band, the Blue Notes (a lounge jazz trio); the Bijou Orchestrette, Five & Dime Jazz & The Spurs of the Moment. Eberle has received Idaho Commission on the Arts funding for her work on scoring two Nell Shipman films, one of which (The Grub Stake) was released on dvd by the Idaho Film Collection, & also for composing scores for two plays: Rootabaga Country & Moominpappa at Sea.

Eberle admitted during the interview that the questions she herself had contributed were kinda hard.

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

When I was in grade school, a musician gave a presentation to the students at an assembly. One of the things he talked about was how all songs contain bits of other songs; the example I’ve always remembered was how the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” includes part of Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus" & the folk song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” You can do this yourself by singing “Hallelujah, bananas, oh bring back my Bonnie to me.” My husband John can attest that this is a lifelong obsession: it’s hard to stop myself from mixing up words & tunes.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

My background & training in classical music was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome—although once I started composing & improvising, that training was also my strongest asset. As a classically trained musician, my relationship with written music seemed to involve a kind of passivity, or a negation of the musical self that ultimately creates. Breaking out of that box meant giving up everything familiar—even traditional instruments—in the 80s I had a great time organizing a group of women who made music using only kitchen utensils. This was the Domestic Orchestra.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

Although this wasn’t a part of my classical music life (up to my 30s), now I always bring a small stuffed buffalo (not a real buffalo) to performances. I wouldn’t feel right without Buffy the buffalo.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?

Melodic line is always at the heart of a musical idea for me. However, I can get ideas for the rhythm of a melody from verbal phrases (for instance, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four”). Also, an atmosphere or landscape can guide the creation of a song, & this is often encapsulated in a title: for instance “Zebra Weather” or “Plum Alley.” Sometimes, I’m inspired by someone else’s music, & will consciously try to imitate a structure or the shape of phrases I’ve heard—for instance Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac. I get inspired by collaboration, too—working with someone else’s ideas moment by moment.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

The qualities that attract me most in songs are authenticity & playfulness. I also like music that expresses nuances of emotion I haven’t heard before—music that evokes the composer’s interior life.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

I love playing timpani, & the McCall Chamber Orchestra has access to a really exciting set of them, which I rarely get to play because there are professional percussionists in the area. So when, on the day of a concert, the orchestra director called me to pinch hit on timpani for a Beethoven piece, I surprised both him & myself by saying yes. The experience of sight-reading & performing a relatively unfamiliar & loud instrument was exhilarating & terrifying in an unforgettable way.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

Listening to my bandmates is what makes me feel the most safe musically, so that’s how I ground myself in performance. If I feel connected to the other musicians, I’m more able to be open to the audience.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

The violin is an instrument I try whenever I get a chance; however, because they tend to be expensive, & are harder than most instruments to “fake your through,” I don’t own one. Anyone interested in melody has got be fascinated by what a violin can do. I feel that way about the saxophone, too, but not as intensely. For many years I longed to play the kazoo publicly, & I consider it own of my successes that I did this, in our Bijou Orchestrette score for The Grub Stake. In some ways, it’s for the same reason, because the kazoo is like a naked voice.

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

I enjoy a lot of music, but when I feel some jealousy I know I really like it. Most recently, hearing Rahsaan Roland Kirk play a flute along with a music box got me going; Mary Lou Williams always; Maria Kaliniemi, a Finnish accordionist; & Red McKenzie, a kazoo player from the 20s. These are all people who have the qualities I mentioned in my answer to question five—Red McKenzie for the authenticity, Maria Kaliniemi for the emotional mood, Rahsaan Roland Kirk for the playfulness, & Mary Lou Williams for everything.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

I won’t say my music right now is unmediated by other people’s expectations, but it’s much less so than in the past. I feel now whatever direction I go, my engagement with music will be a genuine adventure, an adventure with my heart. When I daydream about music now, I’m thinking about opera for finger puppets!

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

I’m very attached to a certain amount of anger against all conventional musical traditions. Music, perhaps more than other art forms, has been affected by a masculinist culture in ways that I find alienating. However, the identity of being a musician riding the margins of tradition is actually the coolest choice.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

For beginning composers: What people want to hear is what you have to say, as yourself, coming from the reality of your interior world. That involves a certain amount of vulnerability, which is a worthwhile adventure in itself. Be brave.

As a performer, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the fear that’s involved, but I have been able to re-interpret the fear as something valuable, & even at times as something exciting.

On the practical side of the question, I think improvisation is the best way to build skills both as a composer & as a performer. I think improvising is to performers & composers what playing scales is to the developing musician. Even the simplest forms of improvisation—working with modes or scales over a basic harmonic progression—will yield remarkable benefits in proportion to the effort involved.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

The question: Why do people buy cds instead of playing music themselves or being involved in community music?

The answer: I don’t really know the answer, but I don’t think people should be willing to accept the experience of purchasing the expression of someone else’s individuality as a substitute for understanding their own.

At this point, the interviewer asked: “Is it ok to buy cds if you play music?”

Eberle answered: My pompous response to this question in the past has been that as a discipline a person could set a percentage for herself—like 80% of my involvement with music is personal or community-based, & 20% listening to/being involved with music that’s not your own or part of your immediate community.

At which point the interviewer asked: “Don’t you want anyone to buy our cds?”
You can hear Eberle perform her piano composition, "Moominamma’s Painted Garden," here.

pic by Enver Sulejman


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