Ran Blake: From Music to Film and Back
AAJ: I wanted to talk a little bit about the Contemporary Improvisation department, formerly known as the Third Stream department, at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts that you’ve been involved with since...
RB: Since its inception in '72. Gunther [Schuller] is probably one of the most important people in my life and he defined third stream as a combination [of musics]. The original definition was [a combination of] classical and jazz and then I thought what about making it a verb to "third stream"---why can it not be Joao Gilberto of Brazil mixed in with [Claude] Debussy, French harmony and then somebody might add a Cuban rhythm or a Ugandan rhythmyou can also have bad mixtures like chocolate ice-cream over pasta ---maybe that would be somebody’s idea of a good meal. I got fascinated by the ear and internalization. I had started when I first began to work at [the] conservatory after the year of helping John Wulp, and delivering mail ,and I helped [the] community services [department].[editor's note Ran was first employed at the conservatory as a mailroom employee] which was very unique in '68 , now everyplace has it. I noticed that some musicians began to play deeper if they really owned some of the music and I thought why do people have trouble memorizing? Maybe it's because they’re learning it visually. So I got to be a champion, maybe a little bit to rigid a doctrinaire, [but] I got to be a champion of really investigating the ear and I started to work on the primacy of the ear book a few years later and I suddenly found a young man-[reedist]- Hankus Netskywho [I thought] would be fabulous about bringing his culture into the department. And there were also [vocalist] Dominique Eade, [sitarist] Peter Row from India and Scott Sandvik [from] the [American] delta; then we had Rocky Birigwa from Uganda he had to leave after a while. We had many infusions and at that point young people weren’t in such a hurry to get a cd out so there was time to bring this idea of long term memory into focus and this of course was borrowed from Africa and Asia; I didn’t invent this, but I don’t think many schools developed a curriculum around it at the time.
AAJ: What do you mean borrowed from Africa or Asia?
RB: Well Africa, India, you might not have tape recorders keeping a log and doing it ala “Ran Blake”; they certainly don’t know me there, but grandfather to granddaughter—learned by the oral tradition and even though every generation would add things there would be the general brain idea that would be kept from grandparent to grandchild . The European tradition --- I love Europe there’s a great traditionbut it began to be purely visual there after a while.
AAJ: So the basic tenet of developing the primacy of the ear has to do with what you call long-term melodic memory?
RB: And [long-term] harmonic [memory]. A lot of people have rhythmical pulse but are they melodic? Matana there are some things we can do better than othersnot everybody is gonna be into noir; I don’t want to imprint the “Ran Blake” god forbid I hope they enjoy it a little bit but everybody should graduate with their own story, their own portrait.
AAJ: What’s the difference between long-term harmonic memory and long term melodic memory?
RB: Well long term harmonic? I feel there’s a lot of ways of holding three note chords in the ear like [my composition] Memphis [ Something to Live For, Hatology 527] has a major chord going to another major chord a sixth up and that’s not your Charlie Parker II, V, I [progression][ which doesn’t mean we don’t want Charlie Parker too--- some people like certain guitar players leap to that and they find other people who like it tooit’s a skill that they do. But you’re not meant to hear harmonically. Some people may hear a beat or a bass line more than an upper melody. Long term training whether its harmony or rhythm I mean a couple people call it bullshit now because people are in a hurry but it helps you. There are going to be some things you remember better. That’s why I think the study of film and looking back, not just only being obsessed by yourself but looking back at other people and saying to yourself “how did they grow?” [Having] a whole sense of history the whole thing can broaden not just the musical stuff. This takes a great deal of time but you do find your personality because after a while your teacher doesn’t say " I want you to do these eight things this week" [because] you began to pick your repertoire whether its Chris Connor, Roscoe Mitchell, Billie Holiday, [or Bela] Bartok. The whole field really has not been explored in classical music and of course conductors will need scores. But a lot of people like Gunther [Schuller] can look at a score and can hear it. I mean there's some people, some people don’t need this, but it is a way once you get pass that early stage, it really is a wonderful way of maturing and it does take time and it means if you are doing five gigs a week or somebody’s wedding you might have to slow down; I mean it seems not to be terribly relevant to some people now. It sounds grandiose but I really want the department to persevere.