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Beth Fleenor: The Discipline Of Being


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If there are 12 of us playing and the soloist steps forward, then that is 11 people who are offering their full presence and support of everything that person is playing and doing.
—Beth Fleenor
Reeds player, multi-instrumentalist sonic manipulator, and founder of the Frank Agency that was "established in an effort to open the lines of communication, dedicated to bridging the spaces between artists, presenters, and audience members," Beth Fleenor strives to move freely between musical genres uninhibited by categorical boundaries. She has worked extensively with musical luminaries including Wayne Horvitz, Gino Yevdjevich and Kultur Shock, and Samantha Boshnack. Adopting the motto that "art is the discipline of being," Fleenor has performed internationally at festivals attended by more than 100,000 people, and at venues across the United States ranging from clubs to concert halls to maximum security prisons.

All About Jazz: How did you get started playing music?

Beth Fleenor: I got into the band in school, on clarinet. I pause when I think about that because I am singing a lot too, and lately I have been thinking about at what point in my life did that start. I was in a church choir briefly when I was in elementary school, but my first instrument was definitely clarinet and that was because of somebody that came around to the schools and had you try out different instruments. It was not the instrument that I wanted to play, but the director thought that my jaw structure would lend itself to the instrument and so he made a deal with me about doing it, and then I totally fell in love with it. It started in beginning band and went through high school.

AAJ: Did you have any other instruments that you played also?

BF: I played percussion in high school as well. I didn't get to develop it as fully as I would have liked, but we had an indoor line and also a percussion ensemble with a really great instructor, so I got a little bit of time in this other area. That was definitely my other interest and something that I wanted to do more of.

I moved to Seattle in '98 to go to Cornish, specifically. When I moved out here I had an alto saxophone and a flute. I had this idea that I played clarinet, I was playing percussion, next I had to learn these other woodwinds to be a doubler. I ended up having this situation where I didn't have rent, and I sold the saxophone and I sold the flute. It was like, I am not going to be a doubler, I am going to be a clarinetist! It was actually a really awesome moment.

Things happen where you are making a decision that seems functional and practical for the time, but it is actually a choice that is a pathway to something else that is really where your focus lies, and that was one of those moments. Clarinet, and then percussion, and voice has now come in as this other entity.

AAJ: What were some of your early musical influences?

BF: My parents were divorced, and my father was a planetarium director in South Florida in the eighties, which basically means laser show central. The favorite past time with people at this point was to go to these psychedelic laser shows at concert level volumes, and it was all classic rock. I grew up being totally absorbed and obsessed with that because I spent three months out of the year in the planetarium watching the same show seven times a weekend, just like the album, and I got really into that.

On my maternal side, I took these trips every weekend with my grandparents. My uncle had a football scholarship so he was playing all up and down the East Coast. I would ride with my grandparents to go to these football games, and they played all of these jazz records. My grandfather was super into the big bands and went to see all of these incredible players when they were touring the colleges, when he was in college. All of these people were on the road at that point, so he had seen all of these bands live and he liked to listen to those recordings.

I was kind of like slung between Nat King Cole and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. (Laughs) That was kind of what my world consisted of. I was growing up in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. There is a lot of Appalachian and bluegrass music in that area, that is what the roots of that area are. So the music that I got into hook, line, and sinker, and also is what led me to want to become a professional musician, was Frank Zappa.

I was playing band literature and I was working at this certain level and was getting more and more into symphonic music. There weren't any orchestras that I could play with so I wasn't doing that, but I was getting to play all of this really thick symphonic material. I was super into rock and I was also into jazz, but I didn't really know that much about improvisation.

Frank Zappa was brought into my life when at 14 years old. That was the gateway to both what I wanted to do and what was possible, and merging all of these different languages and really looking at what people brought to a band and to an ensemble experience and what that meant to conduct these people and to write for all of these people and how much that changed and how one person could then sound all of these different ways. Every record was so incredibly different and outrageous in its own way. Frank. (Laughter) After life in the planetarium, Frank Zappa!

AAJ: Are you playing any other instruments right now besides clarinet and voice?

BF: I do work on percussion on my own and periodically I end up playing it in some capacity. It is one of the things that I love and it is also one of the things that the more I do it the better my playing is on the other instruments definitively. The link between percussion and voice is so crazy influential. I am dumbfounded by how much that translates, about how the more I work, the more I drum every day, how much more articulate and succinct my vocalizations are.

I think about the voice as vocal percussion as well, so the more that I feed that one area, the whole benefits. For three or four years in a row I was doing this tour. It didn't happen this year, but I was working on Balkan music that goes to the prisons. Every year Freehold Theater does a production of Shakespeare that tours prisons with a Balkan score by Gino Yevdjevich, which is awesome, that combination. I have gotten to music direct and be in that several times. That is one where I end up playing kick drum with my foot and playing melodies on clarinet, and tying it all together. But I don't play percussion in any bands, just voice and clarinet, and bass clarinet, which I tie into the clarinet family.

AAJ: Why do you think that voice and percussion tie into each other so well?

BF: I haven't given this any particular investigative thought, but I think it is because it is such a direct body connection in both instances that they relate to each other in a certain way, whereas with a clarinet there is another filter that goes through what keys are being depressed and what pitch that makes. So it is another filter for it to go through, whereas the voice is a direct line and percussion is a direct line too because you have this rhythm happening in your body all the time with your heart pumping your blood in order to live. You are constantly in a rhythmic state, and that impacts when you try to then create other rhythm around you. I think they are both direct line to the source, and so they impact each other more directly.

I certainly notice it with clarinet too, but not quite as readily. And I think too, where it physically affects you with percussion, in terms of where the sound is entering your body, that has a similar impact. I have to be more conscious about moving the clarinet sound further down in my body, whereas instantly the voice feels like it sits in that place, and when I am drumming as well, it feels like it is in that place. My awareness around the sound has changed too. These are all things that I would like to spend a lot more time investigating and studying.

AAJ: What would you say is your focus as a musician?

BF: Right now, as a bandleader, I kind of have two camps with my two projects. That is the Workshop Ensemble, which is a more chamber approach that works within the process of learning these blindfold etudes that I have been working on for the last three years. They started in 2010. That is an ongoing thing, working with focused intention and subtle communication within an ensemble. The way that it manifests sonically, most of the content is being improvised. It is generally acoustic instruments and it has a more chamber feel than Crystal Beth. When you put them in those camps, Crystal Beth is more of a rock band, and it is also the first project that I have had that is playing all of my compositions and isn't improvising predominantly.

I still have Figeater, but Figeater used to be the main vehicle for my projects. It was a combination of those two, where we mostly improvised but then there were some composed works that would get thrown in as pivot points, or islands, or anchors, or catapults into something else.

After years of doing Figeater, this three-disc boxed set with seven different configurations is wrapped up. Now I have these two camps of ensembles that span that whole gamut but are their own vehicles to really explore that side of it more. But I am having a really hard time explaining to people what you call it, or what genre it is, or where you file it.

I work with improvised music as a basis of a process, as an intention. Even in the composed stuff there is still that feeling because it has come out of improvisation in some form at some point. So I often lead with that.

AAJ: Blindfold etudes—that is people playing blindfolded?

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.

The level of focus is incredibly challenging. I have been lucky to work mostly with people who are incredible improvisers. I have done a little bit of playing around when people haven't improvised very much, but most of the work has been with people who are absolutely fantastic improvisers and really anything that they did is going to sound great. I am very curious about it, in its many forms, about how other people at different stages, and different genres too, react to it as a practice. For me it has been this great eye opener in terms of deepening my presence and my listening experience, and my support of other people.

One of the things that we practice in the ensemble is that when you are not playing, in addition to listening and taking everything in, you are conscious of offering your support to the rest of what is happening, if that is one soloist. In the case of the Workshop Ensemble, if there are 12 of us playing and the soloist steps forward, then that is 11 people who are offering their full presence and support of everything that person is playing and doing. It is the most amazing sensation, to be a part of that kind of an organization. It is hard work.

It freaks me out a lot as a leader because, again, it is not like I have answers about this stuff. I hope that 20 or 30 years from now I will have very different feelings about it, but at this point I am three years in and we are kind of stumbling around in the dark with the blindfolds and trying to listen to each other and communicate and learning amazing things in the process.

It is so much easier to move five people than it is 12 people. Each additional person that you add in feels like three or four other people. When it is all moving together it is like a whole other universe. We did blindfold for a Crystal Beth rehearsal which was incredibly intense. I came out on the other side and was like, "I don't really know what just happened!" (Laughter) It felt really heavy and really disorienting, and for me it is so much really visceral and guttural performance and full-on singing.

I went through the whole set and didn't drink any water, which was not good, but I was just in it and listening and kind of caught in this other state. Afterward we wrapped up rehearsal and I went home and slept for like five hours and felt really weird. It was interesting to me because it was because of the blindfold, this really simple thing and there was suddenly all of this extra information. It was very cool at the same time.

AAJ: What were some of the consequences of doing that with Crystal Beth?

BF: I felt like the output wasn't regulated. For me, personally, it was like taking the gate off or something and it was all coming through super strong and super fast. It was exhilarating. There is so much sound because it is all amplified, so there is tons and tons of vibration, and then listening to each other with the full body in this more intensive way, for me, I felt more open at the same time, and then not really taking breaks in between it. We ran straight through continuously, 45 minutes of super thrashy, heavy primal scream music. I felt like I had turned the waterfall on and then cleared it out entirely, whereas, moving through the etudes, it is more paced.

We dropped down into the middle of the maze and then went on turbo charge, driving through it. (Laughs) That's the best way I can describe it. It was disorienting. I would like to do more of it, and I feel like it is also a tool to open up communication. There are all of these hits and things that we normally are clued into each other for and cued into things that I will pause for an undetermined amount of time to hold the sound in a certain space.

It was interesting to do all of those things and what was amazing about it is that it totally worked. We totally felt each other and we were able to still do all of the hits without any of the seeing each other whatsoever, but then it was also a great amount of effort in terms of trying to concentrate and feel that, whereas without the blindfolds we can just rock out and catch things, and it is a little bit lighter. I felt like things got really heavy, energetically, when we put on the blindfolds.

It was like going down into deep territory and hearing all of these things in a way that I hadn't heard them before, which is also exhilarating. I wonder if it, too, is actually because I predominantly sing in that project. I sometimes will sing in the Workshop Ensemble with the blindfold material if I hear something, if an idea comes and it feels like that is the voice that it wants to be on, if it is the voice instead of the clarinet, whereas with Crystal Beth I am singing mostly. This is also the first time that I have mostly just sung at full bore in the blindfold, outside of my living room or by myself.

AAJ: The thing about Crystal Beth is that it is your personality, your musical voice. A lot of people don't have that.

BF: It is something that I am trying to become comfortable with. It is also really vulnerable—yeah, I am going to display my truest self in all its crazy, erratic nature. (Laughs) I sang for the first time in public in 2007 with Figeater. I started Figeater for Sounds Outside, and I was excited to have my first project as a leader.

I gave myself permission to sing and it is interesting how much that has become more and more what is happening. It is because it's easier for me to get to my definitive individual voice through that, I think in some ways because there are not all of these structures around what is good and what is not with the clarinet because I have been studying it for a long time whereas the voice is this wild card thing that is so personal to me. All the songs are happening, and I am trying to ride it out and see what comes of it, where it takes me.

I can't imagine it ever happening where I feel like I have gotten it out of my system. But if somebody says, "Where is that coming from? I knew you 10 years ago and that wasn't what you were doing." What is amazing about it is that it is what I was doing when I was five. The more that I let myself go there, the more that I am like, "This is the person that I have been my entire life. This is my most authentic self." I feel like when I was kid and I was totally illuminated by being yourself, being in the world as yourself and the exhilaration of that.

That is what is happening with Crystal Beth, with that band and those guys and the music that is being made there. It feels like this full activation of my authentic self. I want to continue that at all costs. In terms of surviving as a musician it is incredibly difficult, but that thing is what I have been searching for for a long time.

AAJ: What do you think has influenced you to pursue the Blindfold Etudes, and Crystal Beth, and the Frank Agency?

BF: Ultimately, it is trying to figure out who I am and figure what my contribution as a global citizen is, then what that looks like in every day life. How does that manifest as activities, or what does that look like in terms of a profession? How do I spend my time, how do I accumulate bio-survival tickets, all of those things that are daily living? All of them are a distinct aspect of my personality, and I feel incredibly lucky to live in a place and at a time that I can cobble them all together and create a life for myself. It is really difficult, but it is also amazing that it is even a possibility.

All of them have to do with me trying to manifest my authentic voice and redefine it and commit to it over and over again and explore it and really see where it is going. The Frank component is trying to help other people do that as well and get that information out to more people.

I think everybody has that. Everybody has an authentic individual voice. I harp on that a lot because I think it is something that is underplayed. In our culture especially there is all of this emphasis around people being special. Everybody is special, but the amazing thing is that it is because every single person has something that is totally unique to them. The more that comes out, the happier and healthier people are as well.

There is this whole thing right now around branding and the need for artists to define themselves to be able to sell their product. I honestly have also been on this deep reflective journey with myself where that is so not at all what any of this has anything to do with.

The arts have this definitive role in therapy with the general populace. It is deeply communicative and it is an important conversation and dialogue that takes place, and it has nothing to do with commodity. That is why I am interested in what people's authentic voice is. That changes and that develops, and it looks a lot of different ways and is made up of a lot of different things. No single person is finite in their interests or is one-dimensional.

The more we progress and the more information we have access to, the more complex people become in terms of what their musical interests are or what their hobbies and activities are, or what their political interests are. Everything is incredibly complicated, and I am interested in recognizing that complexity and being okay with it at the same time, being like, "It looks like this right now, so this is how you fully interact with that, and now it looks like this. This is how that system works."

I feel a great amount of frustration with a lot of things that are happening in the world because they don't accommodate that kind of thinking or existence, but I am also like, "What do I have to do with my life other than to be focused on that idea and see where that takes us to and what that plays out as?"

AAJ: Can you tell me about the Frank Agency?

BF: The Frank Agency was started in 2004. Its tag line is "Innovative Arts Management." What that means is that it is a modular company that functions in a lot of different ways for different people and has shifted over time based on what the artists' needs are at any given moment. I started the Frank Agency on my way out of college after assisting a lot of individual artists. I wanted to create a system —a "ship," as in "relationship," a "ship" that can hold all of us and kind of give a support system.

That has changed over the years and continues to change. As I approach the 10-year anniversary I am starting to look at what the next 10 years are going to be. So far it has dealt with concert production, grant writing, strategic planning, booking, marketing, communications, publicity, promotion. Basically all of the administrative logistical details that happen for a person to make something we have gotten involved with in some capacity.

I say "we" because there have been interns over the years. I have had some great interns, but I have always been the sole employee of the Frank Agency. I am just trying to do the same thing for other people, and that is to help them articulate what they are doing and are interested in and amplify that vision to as many people as possible.

I feel like I am still learning how to be Frank for myself as an artist. That has its own process. It is much easier to work on other people's things than it is on your own. That is why other people work with me on their things (laughs). That is why other people bring the Frank Agency in. It is to have this other perspective and have another person.

It has been this amazing way for me to be involved in projects that I am not playing in, as well. As I get busier and busier, which is great as an artist, that becomes more difficult in terms of then what I can work on for the Frank Agency, but what is amazing is that it allows me to support artists that I can't support artistically. Certain composers I do get to do both, but in a lot of instances I am not involved in the project and it is nice to be able to be instrumental in making sure that it comes to fruition and that people hear about it.

For example, watching the B'shnorkestra stuff happen right now, it is so thrilling, and I am super stoked to finally be playing in one of Sam's bands, the Samantha Boshnak Quintet. We just recorded a new record and I am really excited because after years of doing publicity for Reptet and doing publicity and helping with concert promotion, marketing, and production for B'shnorkestra, to finally get to play Sam's music is a huge gift for me—the great amount of gratification that I get from seeing other people get excited about this music or this idea that I am excited about.

Everything that the Frank Agency is involved with is something that I completely support. I love all of these things and fully get behind them 3000 percent. It is a pretty spectacular way to spend the day, listening to Wayne Horvitz's music and working on some things.

AAJ: How would you describe your current musical direction and where do you think it is taking you?

BF: I have no idea where. I wouldn't even wager a guess on that. I know what I am trying to develop in terms of where I am guiding the projects over the next couple of years. With Crystal Beth I would really like to play with that project, in terms of playing out but also play with the format and get to put out a bunch of music. The next step is a series of shows and to try to make a record. I would like to tour with that project, in particular.

The Workshop Ensemble, I would like to do a really intensive residency working with the blindfolded practice, and get the etude book out. As part of the Jack Straw artist support program, we just recorded this conduction piece that I wrote called "SILT" that is a long form sonic meditation. It runs between seven and thirty minutes at any point. We went into the studio and recorded. They were so amazing, actually, over four and-a-half hours of working on this one intensive meditative piece.

But the plan is to release that as its own entity with a visual art piece that is also a meditation of its own so that it is its own kind of artifact. The plan is to have more things like that, more releases like that come with an art piece of some kind, as opposed to just making CDs. I have been working with this idea of a label format that is called Bunny Blasto Records that is about doing hand made limited edition artifacts that all have a sound component with them. "SILT" will be in that category, and then I make these cross stitch sound waves that are part of my "Mother May I" installation.

Those all come with a download, so it is a lot of my visual art and things too that then come with all of the sound art that is created as well. I want to continue to see where they are going and, of course, play on other people's stuff as much as possible.

The "Mother May I" side of things, the next thing that I want to do, is called a catharsis sanctuary. In 2011, I started this installation where I am taking sound recordings of mine, and my mother, who is a third-generation cross stitcher, figured out a way to create a pattern out of the sound waves, like putting them on a grid, and taught me how to do that. Now I can transfer all of my sound waves into cross stitch with fabric and string, so I am making these cross stitch sound waves of recordings that I have done.

In 2011, the installation was this big 14-foot by 7-foot piece that was cross stitch sound waves and string and all of these different emotional excavation processing tags, this art piece that was in the gallery at Jack Straw for a week. I had gallery hours every day for four hours where I invited different people to come in and use the waves as graphics scores.

That has continued with the smaller waves, but what happened over the course of that week was that a lot of people started to come to the space to really emotionally release something. Actually, several people who had just lost someone or had major things happen in their lives were using it as a sanctuary to go and listen and to just be with themselves. I hope to find a space that will let me build a catharsis sanctuary and call it that specifically, and have other sound and visual components that lend themselves to that.

That is what we are working on. Who knows where any of them will lead, what happens on the other side of that? I have a couple of different workstations in my apartment and one of them says, "You just have to put it out there to see what is on the other side." I had to finally write it down as a reminder to myself to not get caught up in, "Well, but you are going to do this and then what is that going to be?" Especially with projects and recording in terms of what kind of monetary investment you can make, it's like, "You are going to do this. What is it going to lead to? What is the return on your investment?"

I have to just be like, "I can't listen to any of that right now." I just will put it out there and see what is on the other side, and reassess in a couple of years as to how things are going because I am firmly obsessed with this collection of ideas. Clearly, they have to be explored or they are not going to go away. (Laughs)

AAJ: How do you feel about what you are doing now, musically?

BF: I am thrilled. I also have a lot of fear, legitimately, honestly, but I am thrilled to have the opportunity to try to find my voice and to try to articulate it. I am incredibly grateful to the people that work with me and are willing to get into that muck, because I certainly am not clear about exactly what I am trying to do. Having people that are willing to stumble around in it and support me in that is really important and also is encouraging to keep going and keep investigating it.

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