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Beth Fleenor: The Discipline Of Being

Jack Gold-Molina By

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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.
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