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Beth Fleenor: The Discipline Of Being

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BF: Yes, they are blindfolded etudes. It started with a commission from the Seattle Jazz Composers Ensemble in 2010 for Sounds Outside, that awesome festival that Monktail and the Frank Agency used to do at Cal Anderson (Park, in Seattle). I was working with the idea of how to create a schematic that everybody would memorize and then improvise the content with the form being set, so that everybody in the ensemble knows what the form is, and then you fill in the content with your improvised material.

Originally, the blindfold was introduced as a theatric element to communicate to the audience at this outside festival that the musicians were in some sort of process standing there with their eyes closed. A director friend of mine suggested that. Once the blindfolds were introduced, it was like this whole other universe of information about how we really listen and how we communicate with each other and how your awareness shifts once you really remove the possibility of that particular sense.

That opened the door to creating this series of works. There is going to be 20 of them total, and I am a little over half way through. As an etude book, it is just simply that, a collection of exercises. Each one is a schematic that you memorize, and as an ensemble you play the piece and improvise all of the content. You really have to communicate with each other and depend on each other in real time to move through the form as a unit.

So, maybe it is a soloist, then a duo comes in and then goes out, comes in again while the soloist continues, everybody comes to a crescendo and then stops, and a drum solo starts the minute that ends. Everybody knows that is going to happen and it seems simple enough, but then to actually move however many people—up to 12 is what the workshop ensemble is at its fullest capacity—to get 12 people to move in unison, to make spontaneous decisions like that on the fly is actually really hard. (Laughs)

AAJ: It sounds really challenging.

BF: What I am hoping is that this book of etudes will be something that we learn and we all have them and we can say, "Okay, let's go through number four." Then, ideally, it is a form that could be used in any kind of ensemble, any kind of band, as a way to practice focused intention and group communication, how you clue into each other and listen to each other on a deep level, not just with sound. The interpersonal communication that takes place when you have played with people for a long time, it is a way to try to practice that and deepen that.

I hope to see it unfold with other ensembles too. The Workshop Ensemble is where I get to work with that continually and play through the new etudes.

AAJ: Are you writing this book of etudes and looking to get it published?

BF: Yes. I would love to. That is the hope and plan. Each one of them, once they get introduced into rehearsal, I try to do it in a performance opportunity to then feel what it is like when you add an audience and these other elements. I would like to get through all of them and then revise based on what we learned when we were rehearsing them, and then publish the book as an etude, another available exercise book for working with improvisation as its language.

I also would like to do a blindfolded residency at some point. All of those things, funding is what it hinges on, when and how quickly it could happen. I would like to, in conjunction with the etude book, take a group of musicians and work for 24 hours blindfolded, and be in a more intensive state with it. There are all of these things that I don't know what would happen. I don't know of other people that are doing that kind of work, to be able to say what does happen. We are just trying to find out.

I have gotten super into it. It is another one of those things, talking about those decisions like you think that you have just made this one decision, but then actually it is that now you are on this trajectory. This is where your interests are. I am having the crazy obsessive blindfolded one, where I want to blindfold everybody all the time! (Laughs)

AAJ: It is interesting because you would think that after a few years of improvising, you can handle anything. But this sounds really challenging.

BF: I think that some of it depends on what your instrument is, and some of it depends on what your comfort level with vulnerability is. It is a very vulnerable state, and certain instruments have more logistical challenges than others. It is the hardest for the drummer. You miss things because your instrument is not in your hands the same way as it is for the horn players and the vocalists in the ensemble.


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