Myra Melford: Mystic Manifestations

Franz A. Matzner BY

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We have the opportunity to draw from a lot of different traditions and find what's common about them and also what's unique about them.
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcome season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

The above lines are from the poem All the Hemispheres , by the Persian mystic poet, Hafiz. Though Myra Melford made no mention of this poem or Hafiz during our recent conversation, after listening to Ms. Melford speak, and returning to her music, these words come to mind.

Perhaps this is natural enough given that Ms. Melford quotes three poems from another Sufi poet—Rumi—on the inside cover of her most recent release, Where the Two Worlds Touch , and is herself a student of yoga and meditation. But I believe the fact that this particular quotation came to mind is more significant than simply a moment of synaptic association.

For one thing, Ms. Melford's music acknowledges no geographic or genre-defined boundary. Emerging equally from the jazz tradition, Hindustani music, Islamic music, and the Western classical tradition, Melford's compositions and performance style blend these radically diverse systems into a form so profoundly personal that, as with all great moments of ecstatic expression, it negates the division between the individual and the universal and becomes transcendental. By exposing the innermost landscape of her experience, Ms. Melford offers a work of timeless beauty.

It was my distinct privilege to speak with Ms. Melford about the genesis of Where the Two Worlds Touch , her recent studies in Northern India, and numerous other topics.

All About Jazz: Let's start at the proverbial beginning. When did you begin studying music?

Myra Melford: Well, I started playing music just on my own when I was really little—like three years old—and then started taking lessons when I was in kindergarten. I couldn't wait to start.

AAJ: Did that come from yourself, or were you guided to it by your parents?

MM: It definitely came from myself. I was the baby by many years in my family. I had older siblings who were in junior high and they were taking piano lessons. I'm sure the fact that there was music in the house made an impression on me. However, I don't remember so much listening to them play—I know my parents loved music and always played it on the radio or the turntable—but my earliest memories are just that I sat down at the piano and started to play and enjoy it. It was this great place to explore and I couldn't wait to start taking piano lessons. Then I was so disappointed when I first took lessons because it wasn't at all what I expected. (Laughing)

AAJ: I wonder how many people lose interest because of things like that?

MM: I don't know. Probably a lot. But fortunately I had a really great teacher who hung in there with me. Then, once he started to get to know me and I made an effort to play the way he was trying to teach me, we ended up having a great relationship for quite a few years when I was in primary school. He got me started on Bach—Bach was my favorite—and a bunch of contemporary composers like Bartok. And he was also a great blues and boogie-woogie player in the Chicago tradition.

AAJ: So right from the beginning you had multiple strands coming in.

MM: Exactly. At the end of the lessons he started to teach me to play the blues. I started improvising. But you know what I was doing before I started taking lessons was actually improvising and writing my own music, just with no context for it. Just my own thing. And I think—in looking back—I would say now that that's really what I came back to later in college. Just trying to figure out how to do my own thing. To use the tools I get from studying to enable me to do that. It never was right for me to try and play somebody else's music.

AAJ: Was it through your teacher or another avenue that you got drawn into jazz?

MM: It was another avenue. After I studied with him I went on to study at the Northwestern University extension program for a few years. I was sort of being pushed into this thing of playing a lot of classical repertoire and really that wasn't right for me. By high school I [had] let that all go and stopped studying. It was in college—I went to Evergreen State College which is an alternative school in Washington state, and it was there—I intended to study environmental science—where I saw this sign for jazz piano lessons up in a local restaurant and I thought, 'I know that has to do with improvisation.' I wasn't listening to jazz, and hadn't grown up listening to jazz, but knew it somehow involved improvisation. It sounded like a fun way to get back into playing music.

AAJ: Had you pretty much stopped playing?

MM: Yeah. I mean, I played a little bit for fun throughout high school, but I'd basically stopped and in my first year of college I had started taking classical lessons again. While I enjoyed it, it still wasn't the right thing to do and I was looking for something else. So when I saw this sign for jazz piano lessons I thought, "Well, I'll just give it a try." And I ended up loving it so much I switched my major to music.

AAJ: How did your interest in Hindustani music develop?

MM: Well, it was probably from two avenues, from two directions. While I was at Evergreen—and I spent one year at a music school in Seattle as well called the Cornish Institute of the Arts—I was really interested in different kinds of world music. I played in a Gamelan group for a while [and] studied African percussion. I was certainly interested in all kinds of music besides Western music. Then, after I moved to New York, I became involved in Yoga and meditation with a teacher in a tradition that comes out of Hinduism. It's not particularly Hinduism, but it comes from that tradition. They do a lot of chanting and playing music, so that drew me to the harmonium and Indian music. At the same time, I had already taken a world music survey course where I had been exposed to Indian music. So I was kind of interested in it from an intellectual, musical standpoint and then also just from a personal and spiritual standpoint.

AAJ: You recently went on a Fullbright Scholarship to study in Calcutta. Can you outline what that study entailed?

MM: I went to study with a really great harmonium player—a master harmonium player—who was particularly interesting to me because he works as a soloist as well as an accompanist. As you probably know, the harmonium is traditionally an accompanying instrument for vocal music. He'd really found ways to make it an interesting solo instrument in its own right, and that's really what I was interested in studying. So I went to study Raga with him—Hindustani classical music for the most part.

I mean there are techniques, ways of playing the harmonium that are specific to Indian music and he'd found ways of really exploiting—that's not the word I want—the potential of the instrument. He could get a wide variety of dynamics and the kind of embellishments...that you hear with a sitar or a vocalist. He had found ways—almost the way Monk or great blues players are able to effect that tone in between the semi-tones that you have on the piano on the harmonium. I wanted to get both his technique as well as a grounding in Raga. And I feel that I got that. On the other hand, I have to say that he turned out to be not a particularly good or nice person. So I ended up studying with him for only a few months, and then I went traveling and studied with as many different people as I could. I studied in Delhi. I met a lot of folk musicians in Rajistan, as well as other places.

AAJ: You may have been lucky that he turned out not to be what you expected.

MM: Right, exactly. Because it broadened my horizons.

AAJ: For those not familiar with Raga and Hindustani music, could you speak a little bit about the breadth of the tradition. If I understand correctly it covers a huge geographic territory at this point, including the Middle East and North Africa.

MM: You also have to remember that those musics themselves—particularly Islamic music—had a huge impact on Raga.

What I would say in a nutshell is that Raga is both a pool of notes, say a scale if you want, with a certain pattern of ascending pitches and a certain pattern of descending pitches, that becomes the material for a composition. The artistry in it is that there are many ways to put those notes together. However, there are also a lot of rules—it's not thoroughly notated like Western classical music. The way that an artist learns the music is by becoming absorbed in the Raga and understanding through repetition, for many, many years of a master player playing the music back, and then understanding how the Raga unfolds. Then there are certain characteristic phrases that will let you know that this is one Raga and not another even thought they may have a very similar pattern of notes going up and down.

AAJ: Obviously for those working within the jazz tradition there are a lot of parallels just from within what you just said.

MM: Yes.

AAJ. It sounds like your experience [with Raga] came out of a very personal involvement, but within the jazz tradition there's been an involvement with not only multi-culturalism in general, but particularly moving into Hindustani and Islamic music. Clearly I'm thinking of Coltrane, who seemed to have spawned that. I was wondering if after you made your own shift, you went back to any of that material?

MM: I have actually. I was aware of it beforehand, and it had new meaning to me once I had studied it and gotten quite involved in my own spiritual quest. Then going back to listening to Coltrane, both his spiritual quest and his interest in Indian music took on a deeper meaning for me because I had my own experience with it.

AAJ: Stepping away from music for a minute. Outside of the studies, how did the experience in India influence you?

MM: It was such an expansive experience. It was my first experience in the so-called third world. It just opened me up—the fact that there are so many different ways that people can live—and choose to live. It was a completely new environment with all kinds of new sensory inputs. Sounds. Tastes. Sights. It was so stimulating. And I met great people. I made some wonderful friends there. I heard so much music, and met so many people who were traveling from all over the world. I got to see what it is that we all share in common despite our cultural differences, and was also able to enjoy sharing those cultural differences. It was really an incredible and expansive experience.

AAJ: Will you return?

MM: I sure hope so.

AAJ: Are there other places or areas of music that you would like to expand into?

MM: I absolutely am very interested in Middle Eastern music and African Music. I'd love to go there. But for some reason India really felt like the place I needed to go at that time in my life. But I would certainly love to travel to the Middle East, thought it doesn't feel like particularly the right time to do that. I also have an interest in African music and Latin American music. So I'm still hoping to do more of that kind of thing.

AAJ: Let's talk about your current release, Where the Two Worlds Touch. All the things we've been talking about clearly inform the album. Could you speak a little about how your studies influenced the album, and how that works with your dedication of the recording to Rumi, a Sufi mystic?

MM: I have to say, when I was applying for a Fulbright I debated trying to go to Pakistan to study Kawali or go to Northern India to study Hindustani music. So there was always an interest in Sufi music. I would say my interest was in musics in general from the Indian sub-continent. My meditation teacher is very fond of Rumi and other Sufi poets, and would often quote him. I would say my interest in Rumi came out of my interest in meditation and my spiritual pursuits, if that is the right way to put it.

AAJ: I'm very interested in the way—particularly in America—the mystical traditions have begun to blend and blur. So you can be studying Yoga and reading Rumi, and then someone will bring up Rinzai. Music seems to make an interesting crossroads.

MM: Exactly. We're living in a time when all of this information—whether recorded or written—is available to us. I think it's a time when a lot of us are making those things meaningful and personal. So it can involve—we have the opportunity to draw from a lot of different traditions and find what's common about them and also what's unique about them. But that's a little off the track.

Oh! The music! Most of this music was written before I went to India. The only thing that was written when I got back was "No News At All", which starts with a recording I made when I was walking around Calcutta one day, and the other piece I wrote post India is "Secrets to Tell You". The rest of them had been written before. Although—the other things I want to say—is my intention in going to India and studying that music was to become absorbed in it and imbibe as much as I could and then wait to see how it came into my own music in an organic way. It was never to become a professional classical player, or to try and imitate that music.

I would say that even though most of this music was written before, I can hear the difference in my playing on say, "Where the Two Worlds Touch", or the first piece, that a certain melodic style and flavor that comes from studying raga is already starting to come through. Certainly the influence of different types of modes and scales is coming through.

Most of the music I've now written since being there—I've just recorded it but it won't be released until later this year—I can feel a big difference in myself between what I did here on this record and what I'm doing now since I've had a chance to digest and assimilate my experience over there.

So, I guess I can already hear a difference in my playing, but not so much in the writing.

AAJ: On the inside album cover, you've quoted three poems by Rumi in full. Including one titled "Music". Clearly, music plays an integral part in Sufism and is deeply connected to expressions of mystical trance such as Sema and the ecstasies of the Whirling Dervishes. Do you have an opinion on what it is in the music that inspires that kind of mystical departure?

MM: I think now I would depart from technical musical discussion and talk more about the power of music to open people's hearts. Because that's what I think it's really about. Generally, music, when it comes from a certain intention in an artist or in a person, has the power to open someone's heart or touch someone's heart. It can be any kind of music that does that. Because of the state of the musician themselves and their intention, or simply their state when they are creating the music. Then there's other music like chanting like ecstatic dance music that primarily its goal is to do that.

AAJ: How literally are you influenced by written work?

MM: I've always had a fascination with how words can be like music. And you can take them either at the face value of how they sound, and then you can add to that what they mean, or possibly multiple meanings. I think because words are sound—when you verbalize them—there's always been a direct connection between the sound of the words and the rhythm of the words and music for me. Certain writers have a way of putting words together that will inspire me both on a musical level and because there's some sort of ambiguity or multiple meaning in the words. I think that becomes a metaphor for my own expression of music. I'm not trying to literally tell someone something, or give someone a particular kind of experience, but rather create a world or an environment in which they can have a meaningful experience, whatever it is that their heart is longing for.

AAJ: What's your most clearly defined childhood memory?

MM: For some reason I'm remembering my first recital. I wouldn't say that this is necessarily my most clearly defined, but it just happens to be on the top of the memory pile right now.

I was at my teacher's parents house and I had written a piece for my father and I got to perform that as well as I was playing a Back minuet. I really was complety at ease. I had no performance anxiety, and really just wanted to share this music that I loved so much. I think my teacher—after I had played the Bach—had forgotten I had this piece that I wanted to play for my dad. So I had to ask to be able to do that—or remind him. It was a very special moment for me. I went through all kinds of stuff after in which I did start to become very self-conscious and shy about playing, but I'm remembering that time when I just loved the music. That was the greatest thing that I could offer people. I felt like that was the best way I could express my love for people. That's still what it is all about.

Visit Myra Melford on the web at www.myramelford.com .

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