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Steven Lugerner: Jericho and San Francisco

Daniel Lehner By

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Eric Dolphy once mused, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again." Luckily for fellow multi-reedist Steven Lugerner, that's a piece of wisdom that the Bay Area musician did not take at face value. For his release, For We Have Heard, Lugerner devised a means of music making that seriously excited his band mates like Myra Melford and Matt Wilson. "Upon hearing it, they all freaked out," recalls Lugerner. "I didn't really know what to expect, but they were all like 'This is super happening! I've never heard anything like this.' I was actually kind of shock. I was thinking 'Maybe I'm on to something.'"

Essentially, Lugerner took the idea of compositions as vehicles for improvisation and ran it backwards. He recorded solo improvisations done by his fellow band mates, transcribed them, and used them as templates for writing compositions. Lugerner had explored the idea previous to this release with banjo player Angelo Spagnolo wherein short banjo improvisations were notated and flute parts were written over it, released and performed as a "cassingle" (a cassette tape that Lugerner can use to perform the piece live). "I can perform that music live with two amplifiers with a normal cassette player playing the sample. I performed it live and people are really engaged by it and are excited by it." The process has significantly opened up the way that the creative process is tracked. "Somebody put it in terms that it was layers of memory," he explains, "the first being something that you can't change and then you layer one on top of that and that becomes layer two. To my knowledge I don't really know anyone else who's doing this in particular, though they could if they wanted to, of course; it's not like they have a patent on it."

"For We Have Heard" is also an experiment in programmatic and (implied) textual material. Lugerner, raised both Catholic and Jewish but held to neither religion in any sort of dogmatic sense, has brought his thorough studies of Judaic text to create a somewhat singular work. "When I came to New York, I had a bit of an identity crisis, both musically and also spiritually, for lack of a better term. And I really had a hard time connecting with it, why I was spending so much time practicing and spending so much time hustling and all that. I actually began to study with a rabbi to officially convert to Judaism.

"We basically read the Torah and studied and talked about it. Actually at the same time I was studying with the rabbi, I was taking a class at the New School called 'The Hebrew Bible in Context' and that was a class that was geared towards reading the bible in more of a literary point of view, as opposed to a religious text."

The record explores the story of Joshua and Jericho. Though it is a popular story (and one that has its place in music with spirituals like "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"), the minutia and specifics are not often explored in the depth that Lugerner chose to explore. For him, it was a challenge not only of musical depth, but also of religious/political one as well.

"The book of Joshua is the next book outside of the Torah (which is the first five books of Moses). There are a fair amounts of very ancient Torahs that include the book of Joshua, so it's actually like the sixth book of Moses. I was just interested in the story; it's very dramatic and theatrical. It's very different than Numbers or Deuteronomy. It's also kind of controversial. The ancient Israelites go into what was then called the land of Canaan and basically wiped out everyone. It's an interesting time in history whether or not it actually happened. It just presented an opportunity for the creative music making process, seeing if I could really push myself."

Though an "improviser" and a composer in idiomatic modes similar to what would be called "jazz," Lugerner palate is wide and takes from the compositional realm just as much as the improvisatory one. A major, long-standing influence, even down to the aspect of making Jewish-themed music, has been composer Steve Reich.

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