My Musical Journey: Electronic Music, Bass Clarinet, Compositional Techniques, and the Shakuhachi Flute

with Cornelius Boots

Interview conducted by Sean Packard

What or who has had the biggest influence on you as a composer and as a performer?

Possibly quite a difficult question…uh, let’s see, well, in fact I could make you a long list that would include the key performers, composers and bands that I listened to, the teachers I have had, all of my colleagues and mentors, various nonmusical influences such as places, writings, experiences…and how each of those areas has shifted and evolved, but actually, there is one answer, one “primary” influence if you will. That would be sound vibrations produced by the breath, and what this feels like as a woodwind player. From the time I started the clarinet in the 4th grade, I could work with that horrible smelling cork grease, learn how to properly assemble the thing, hold it on my too-small thumb and deal with the reed all because it felt really neat to make a low sound and feel my head vibrate. And my fingers. And with the other thumb, you can shift this vibration much higher: wow! What a discovery, and that feels really cool, and quite different. 

So I have rediscovered time and again over the years with all the saxophones, clarinets, flutes and shakuhachi that I play: I have a drive to do it due to this vibrational effect in my head and the triangulation between breath, sound and this vibration. I enjoy singing, chanting and playing drums and percussion, but otherwise, my performance personality and its aspirations have always been tethered to this vibrational sense-experience produced by the breath in connection with some reed instrument or flute (without the lips flapping, I have to add, which keeps me away from didgeridoos, trumpets and sackbuts). 

That’s the main influence on my performing, and about half the influence on my composing: the other half of that is simply the music that isn’t made that I want to hear, so then if I can write it, I can hear it. Simple! Of course, it’s the unpredictable journey of that pursuit that is also interesting. 

What are some of the compositional techniques you employ in your electronic music; specifically your album Robot Music?

Let me hop in my time machine: most of that music was done between 1996-1999 while I was also finishing music school, playing in an orchestra (for pay!), leading a progressive rock band and starting on the arrangements and compositions that would become the seeds of Edmund Welles. In fact, that period was so densely packed that I am still recovering from it in some ways. But the Robot Music material was essentially me exploring new territory with no goals or restrictions: I was just getting the bass clarinet and the electronic effects and my amplifier together and exploring. Mostly it was the same technique I continue to use: responding to the tones and sounds that the instrument wants to play and giving them some structure. It just happened that with the robot bass clarinet I now had new and diverse sounds to respond to. In my mind, even though I had been very influenced by the wind instrument electrification methods of Eddie Harris, Miles Davis and Don Ellis, I didn’t want to think of the effects as an added appendage to the bass clarinet: I wanted to think like an electric guitarist who knows that the amplifier is part of the instrument, even though you hold the guitar and the amp sits nearby, it needs both parts to be the instrument, and only by treating the amplifier part of the equation with equal attention will the player develop their own sound and really have something to express. So this was my approach and I was reading Isaac Asimov’s Robot Novels at the time (wherein the robots are often more respectful of life in general than the human characters) and so I called the instrument the “robot bass clarinet.”

Beyond this foundational perspective, improvisation, looping and layering were the main compositional techniques. I was also working with a sampler and a fourtrack and creating drum beats using sampled sound effects: kitchen gear, static, vocals and other “found sounds,” so this often would form one of the bottom layers. Then some kind of a bass riff, perhaps some rhythmic punctuation or a secondary riff, then either a composed or improvised melody line or solo. One of my favorite tracks on there is the one called “Robot March.” This piece was 100% improvised in a recording studio with a very expensive delay machine and very expensive speakers at the end of the signal chain. I adjusted a few things, started the DAT machine and went on in exploring my very new effect pedal setup and it just so happened that the result was a 3-part composition that sonically told the story of old, wizened and road-weary robots finding themselves on desert cliffs at suns-set, once again engaged in a confrontation with old foes.

What type of equipment do you use for these electronic compositions?

There are a few different contact mics, a very small microphone that screws into the mouthpiece, the Dr. Sample, (back then) the Minidisc 4-track recorder, a handful “stomp-box” guitar effects pedals, a modified CB microphone and a Pignose amplifier, a cookie sheet, sometimes the Buffet bass clarinet but often the Bundy that I use for rock gigs and is generally itself the core of the “robot bass clarinet.” And in the one case mentioned above, some really high-end studio gear that I had access to as an audio student at that time. Two other important things, as I think back on the key ingredients, were stretches of unadulterated solitude, and the absence of a piano. This music was really some of my first dedicated time “composing” music by myself as opposed to coming up with things and crafting with a band or while procrastinating my clarinet practice by messing around on the piano. The 4-track recorder in one form or another really started my brain into composing and structuring riffs I was coming up with, so that and my looping pedal, the Boomerang, were very important at that time to get things going.

You play a wide variety of instruments and styles of music. Who do you think is your primary audience?

That is the one million dollar question, isn’t it? Or at least 99 cent question. I wish I knew! If anyone reading this has some insight into this topic, email me at your earliest convenience. Really though, without dwelling on the marketing riddles I have faced since leaving school, the common thread I see in those that respond favorably to my recordings and live shows over the years since I have been writing and performing would be an adventurous and independent spirit. Some people are voracious for things that are different, but sometimes that appetite only manifests in people for a short phase of their life, and the person that stays in this mindset is more rare, but they do exist. And even within that group, who might embrace Robot Music as well as my recent solo shakuhachi compositions with equal enthusiasm? I’m not sure. There has been very little crossover between my Edmund Welles and Sabbaticus Rex audiences, for instance, with the exception of my close friends and colleagues who are very supportive out here in the Bay Area where I have lived for more than 10 years. As I answer this I suppose it becomes clear that my “exploring with no goals or restrictions” mandate has possibly led me down a kind of narcissistic Moebius loop of creative expression that ends where it began and, perhaps, I myself am my primary audience. Oops! Marketing riddle solved.

What are some of the various flutes that you perform and record with? What inspired you to explore both music and nature with these instruments?

I play the regular Western silver flute, I have 3 bamboo transverse flutes made by Romy Benton that range from small to very big, and then there is the tribe of shakuhachi flutes that I shepherd. The shakuhachi is a Zen flute from about 1000 years ago in Japan. There are numerous myths and legends about its usage and the development of its repertoire, but we can say that it was likely utilized in conjunction with Zen breathing and awareness techniques. It is a thick piece of the root-end of bamboo with 5 holes and a blowing edge, you hold it in front of you like the clarinet. The past century has seen the increase of the Buddhist repertoire for shakuhachi being “performed” in concert settings, although generally these are solo pieces that reflect upon or encourage a connection to Buddhist philosophical concepts, esoteric practices, nature, or other aspects more commonly practiced through chanting.

The sound of the shakuhachi is like no other instrument or voice. I was captivated by the Turkish ney and the Japanese shakuhachi from recordings I owned and pursued both. At the school where I taught in Chicago at the time, someone knew a shakuhachi maker (in fact someone out here in San Francisco) and he knew nothing about how I could get a valid ney flute, so that’s how the shakuhachi found me. That summer, I went to a camp in Colorado where there were some of the best teachers in the world, I met my teacher who lived in Ann Arbor at the time and have been studying with him since then (2001). These flutes, and especially the larger, fat taimu shakuhachi that I compose for and focus on outside of my “traditional” training, really lend themselves to exploring both music and nature. I think that there should be no dogma about this, and even though it’s great that the instrument is so old and rich in cultural heritage and tradition and was used by samurai spies and blah, blah, blah…really it is a personal journey that is available to anyone and I encourage it, especially for other wind players who also respond to “flute-ness” or reed players that would like to play the reed itself as opposed to only “with” the reed. It is an experiential and spiritual cultivation that has augmented and enriched my life and my music making. 

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