A New Year, A New Road
copyright 2020 – Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music
Music is all about indulging our creativity. We have infinite capacity as humans and as players and singers. The only limit on our creativity, is whether or not we continue our journey of exploration. And that is up to us. No matter what level you play at, or sing at, no matter how minimalist or virtuosic your efforts may be, there is always something to explore with music. Johannes Brahms once said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but one lifetime is not enough for music.” Indeed.
I wish I could give a gift to every musician I know, from my professional colleagues to the gifted adult for whom it is an avocation, to the person or child who is just starting out. That gift would be this: a total lack of self-consciousness when it comes to exploring our instruments, our creativity, and our own potential.
I have been enamored by good symphonies my whole life. Even though I was a Vocal Performance major at conservatory, I loved symphonies. I loved chamber ensembles. I loved brass quintets. I loved solo cello recitals and Early Music wind ensembles every bit as much as I loved Folk and Jazz. In fact, I spent way more time in the listening library at the university with my head buried in symphonies than I did exploring other genres. Someday, I would like to compose for strings. And brass. And large choirs. I’ve scratched the itch on a few of my recordings by bringing in strings and brass, and I have been pleased with the results. But I want I want to know more, and I want to do more. I want to listen to a large ensemble of gifted musicians play something I composed.
A couple of years ago, I was privileged to perform at Merle Fest in North Carolina. It is an extraordinary music festival. While one would presume that it is specifically a Blue Grass festival, it encompasses a more diverse assembly of talent than perhaps any other festival at which I have been billed or have attended. And I think the reason for this marvelous rainbow of genres, is that the festival presents pretty much any quality music that flows downstream from the intersection of various traditions in Appalachia. Mountain music, Blues Grass, Dixieland, swing bands, Funk bands, Jazz, banjo players fronting orchestras, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn playing arrangements on two banjos that were nearly classical in their melodic interplay and counter melodies. Sam Bush - the legendary mandolin player – offering a set of Tom Petty songs on a Mando-Stratocaster (with full-on distortion and delays) remembering Petty’s contributions to art and culture, and people’s lives.
Of course there were a multitude of traditional Appalachian, Blue Grass, and Country acts there as well – ranging in style from the mid-1800s on up through Patsy Cline, to modern hipster urban New Grass. It was astonishing. An African American Funk band from Chicago, complete with a rhythm section and a stunning 7-piece horn line, was perhaps the biggest non-sequitur at first listen. But then I thought about the ways in which music from Appalachia came north during WWII – as people came north to work in factories – and it merged with other cultural forms in the cities of the north in ways that cultural bias would have prevented in the south. And I could see how deeply Funk was connected to other musical forms from the mountains. Merle Fest celebrates all of it. The many generations that have each taken the trad. music, and done something new with it.
But my most delighted moment at the festival was in listening to the Kruger Brothers. Jens and Uwe Kruger (pronounced Yens and Oo-veh), are well educated and practiced musicians. They grew up in Germany, and are accomplished in many regards. But they always loved Doc Watson’s music. And Jens learned to play the banjo like a true virtuoso, and Uwe learned to play guitar just like good ole Doc did. And they have created a stunningly inventive form of Blue Grass. Jens is also a composer. And as you listen to the Kruger Brothers play music together with their Bassist, Joel Landsberg, what you hear – were it transferred to strings - would be a piece of music to rival the finest of Bach’s concertos and string quartets. Stunning.
I was sitting on a hillside listening, and a guy came up to me and said, “Well those boys can sure play!” Which is absolutely true. But I am pretty sure he and I were not listening in the same way. I was listening to the extraordinary compositional expressions, the focused intent of the genuinely well developed and interleaved melodic lines, merging together in such complex sophistication, as to become a truly sublime sonic tapestry. But at break-neck Blue Grass speeds. One could play those same lines together on any other instruments – and they would still be as intricately beautiful. In fact, The Kruger Brothers have a concerto they perform regularly in collaboration with symphonies around the world, where the three of them front the orchestra in stunning fashion. I was blessed to hear them in Chicago in the summer of 2018.
There was a Merle Fest after party at Jens Kruger’s studio in NC, where I ended up in a nearly hour-long conversation with Jens. We discussed the music, the compositions, the specific themes and motifs and the ways that they were developed. We spoke of our favorite composers, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Copeland, Vaughn Williams, Berlioz and more. And I shared with Jens my secret desire to compose for strings and brass, and to write a larger symphonic work someday. He listened with excitement and joy.
And then he said, “If you have so many musical ideas, why aren’t you writing? I write in pieces. It never comes all at once, it comes a few lines here and there, and then you put it all together and then you orchestrate it. It’s very possible for you to do this thing. Why have you not done it already? Why have you not begun?”
And I explained my lack of formal education in compositional methods and techniques specifically for orchestral instruments. I talked about how much time I spend on the road, I talked about my performance schedule and various obligations, etc.
Jens listened very kindly. And then he reached across the table and took both of my hands into his own, with the tenderness one might use to console a child who is distraught. Then Jens said to me with the utmost compassion, “The job of an artist is to make art. Why are you making excuses? You hear the music in your head all the time, so you think other people hear it too. But they don’t. Not everyone goes through the world with music moving in their own head all day long. You must write it down! That way other people can enjoy it too.”
I was gob smacked. He was so kind, and so gentle, but so precise in his observation. I do make assumptions that other people have a self-generated 24-7-365 music station playing in their heads. It was the first time in my life that I had considered the possibility that it was not an accurate assumption. And Jens invited me to take on more challenging compositions. He offered to look over some scores when I have them ready for critique, and offered to help guide me whenever I am ready to dive into the deep end of that pool.
Have I done it yet? No. But that was only 18 months ago. And I have been busy on the road, and I have had family and community members in need, and… well… you know.
So… It is a new year. And I have a chance to walk a new road, along-side the one I now travel. Building a recording and composition space, working on a new album, educating myself on the limitless possibilities of writing for other instruments, producing records for other musicians and songsters, these are just a few of the long-term dreams. And I am only limited by my willingness or unwillingness to risk making mistakes and doing things poorly before I do them better. Anything is possible if I am willing to take the time and effort to explore and see what lies within.
What manner of creativity have you been forestalling? What would you be doing if it weren’t for job, kids, grandkids, parents, spouse, living situation, time, money, space, etc.?
One form of creativity leads to other forms of creativity. Cooking leads to melodies. Melodies lead to paintings. Paintings lead to songs, songs lead to other forms of expression, poetry, sculpture, and the cycle continues. The fact that we have our creative hat on leads to trying a new food, and a new spice, and that leads to lighting candles for dinner. That small effort leads to picking out an album you have not listened to in a LONG time, and that leads to a conversation with a friend who invites you over to a “paint your own pottery” party. And while you’re working with the clay… POW. There was another idea for a line in a song. Creativity begets creativity. It’s absolutely true.
So take a risk in the New Year. Do something creative that you have been stalling on for years. Take a risk at being bad at something just to shake it up. Try a new instrument, buy some paints and a few cheap canvases. Give it a whirl. Take a culinary class. Take dance lessons. Whatever gets the ball rolling on letting creativity be how we live, not just a thing we do. That is the new road for the New Year. Creativity in all things. (Except for taxes and accounting. You should probably be reasonably precise in those.) But in everything else – let exploration and a lack of self-consciousness be your guiding spirits. A new road, a new year, a new idea. It is already inside of us waiting to come out. I’ll take the plunge. Want to come along?
~ Joe Jencks