2015, guitarist / composer Randy Armstrong released his World
Music classic Beyond Borders and in 2016 he returned again
with new music for the soundtrack to the theater / dance production
of The Conference Of The Birds. The 24 track
CD to The Conference Of The Birds features an all original
musical score by Randy that highlights his patently superb guitar
playing, while receiving significant support by notable Armstrong
musical associates, including Volker Nahrmann (bass, cello,
keys) along with a number of musicians who each add in a range of
exotic World Beat flavors. Putting a global spin on his music is Armstrongs
forte and on The Conference Of The Birds he manages to unite
the world at large under his wide-ranging musical umbrella. The director
of music and dance, Antara Bhardwaj describes Randys
musical score for The Conference Of The Birds as being An
incredible music score that captures the vibrant spirit of eleven
different cultures, yet with a common thread that connects them all.
The sheer number of musical instruments Randy uses on this CD
soundtrack is most impressivefrom synth guitars and electric
guitars to sitars, drums and exotic percussion and a range of electronic
keyboard sounds. With his truly incredible sounding musical soundtrack
for The Conference Of The Birds, Randy Armstrong brings his
synthesis of New Age, neoclassical and World Music to a much higher
level of pan-global magnificence. www.randyarmstrong.com
mwe3.com presents a new interview with
The Conference Of The Birds
mwe3: The Conference Of The Birds is an incredible
achievement and your pinnacle recording. Do you consider it as one
of your solo albums or as you say more of a theatrical soundtrack
album? How did you become involved with the production as well as
working with Production Director Vinita Belani? What did Vinita bring
to the album sound and vision and how did you join forces with her
and who was the catalyst of the project so to speak?
Armstrong: The Conference Of The Birds is a theater and
dance score composed as a solo project and recorded at Beauty Hill
Recording Studio in my home in Barrington, New Hampshire. There are
cameo performances by seven musicians, including longtime music associates
Volker Nahrmann and Marty Quinn. It was recorded over a 12 month period
which featured music for eleven international dance traditions. It
included over 50 actors and dancers ages 4 to 84.
In 2014, I performed sitar for the performance of the epic poem of
India, "The Mahabharata", with Academy Award winning actor
and playwright Jean Claude Carriere. Vinita Belani was touring with
Jean-Claude and attended the concert at Phillips Exeter Academy. After
the performance we met and discussed creating an original score for
The Conference Of The Birds project she would be directing
for her theater company, EnActe Inc. in the San Francisco Bay area
in the upcoming 2015-2016 season. I was very familiar with the Persian
masterpiece, The Conference Of The Birds, and was excited about
creating an original score. Vinita was the director of theater for
the production. I worked hand in hand with Antara Bhardwaj, the director
of dance and music for the production. It was an East / West coast
production with many, many hours of consultation and music file exchanges
via the internet. I did not meet the dancers, actors or even Antara
until I flew out to San Jose, California for the premiere production
in September 2016. Certainly a labor of love and many hours in the
studio that produced the finish recorded score. It was a joy to sit
in the audience and experience the actors and dancers bring this sublime
story to life with my music.
How would you compare The Conference Of The Birds with your
2015 album with Volker Nahrmann called Beyond Borders? Are
they two distinct projects? There are 24 pieces of music on
The Conference Of The Birds while on Beyond Borders there
were eleven tracks featuring 35 musicians playing on it so both albums
have either large groups of musicians or a large number of tracks.
Were there more musicians on Beyond Borders? Not counting the
dozens of dancers on The Conference Of The Birds.
Randy Armstrong: Yes, they are two distinct projects. Beyond
Borders was co-produced and recorded by Volker Nahrmann and myself
over a 5 year period featuring over 35 musicians from around the world
including the members of Doa Word Music Ensemble and our former
group, Unu Mondo. The Conference Of The Birds score began just
after the release of Beyond Borders and I recorded and performed
most of the 50 instruments myself with appearances by seven other
musicians including Volker Nahrmann, Marty Quinn, Cynthia Chatis,
Antara Bhardwaj, Brett DesChenes, Raghav Bhat, Vidya Bhat and by my
former Doa World Music Ensemble co-founder and music partner,
the late great Ken LaRoche from a previously recorded track from our
album, Ornament Of Hope on Philo/Rounder Records.
The Conference Of The Birds was a creatively challenging project
and album that required meeting the expectations of the eleven international
dance groups. The styles ranged from Persian Sufi, Chinese, North
African/Middle Eastern, Western Classical, Hawaiian Hula, Azteca,
Mexican Folklorico, North and South Indian and Afro-Caribbean Haitian
music and rhythms. Thankfully, I have a collection of over 300 instruments
from around the world that I have acquired over the past 4 decades.
mwe3: Was working with so many musicians and dancers a challenge
on The Conference Of The Birds and how do the dancers correspond
with your music? Is there a DVD or video of the dance troupes dancing
to your music? How many dancers took part in the live production of
The Conference Of The Birds?
Armstrong: It was a challenging project to communicate and to
compose music that inspired the vast array of dance traditions. There
were many reviews and comments on the music by the choreographers,
then I was back in the studio to make adjustments and edits until
the final piece of music was realized and recorded. I had to be very
sensitive to the cultural context and traditions of each dance style.
For the North and South Indian styles, I had to create music for Kathak,
Bharatnatyam and Odissi to accompany the dances while keeping the
emotional feel consistent with the theater production and message
of the story. My many years of World Music study and performance came
in handy for this project.
The production with over 30 dancers was filmed but it is not available
at this time. Hopefully, in the future.
mwe3: What was it about the concept behind The Conference
Of The Birds that made it so compelling for you to work on a musical
score and how does the original work by the Persian poet Farid ud-Di
Attar compare with the adaptation of the play by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude
Carrière? Isnt there also a kind of Indian music influence
running throughout the album especially with all of the sitar playing
Randy Armstrong: Of course, the original work was an epic Persian
poem and very long compared to the theatrical script. Jean Claude-Carrière
and Peter Brook did a wonderful adaptation and Vinita Belani created
a magnificent production that included international dance and actors.
I became familiar with The Conference Of The Birds through
a mystic Bahai writing entitled, The Seven Valleys authored
by Bahaullah, the prophet founder of the Bahai Faith.
It is the journey of the soul in the quest to find God within.
The reason for the Indian influence throughout is that three of the
many birds represented in the story also represent three different
East Indian dance traditions. Sitar and tabla are staples of the music
of North India as well as the mridangam drum from South India. You
hear and experience all these influences on the album and in the live
mwe3: How does track one Awaken My Soul Sufi Dance
set the tone for the album? The instrumentation in that song has such
a unique tone. It sounds like a Kantele, from Finland.
Armstrong: Awaken My Soul is the music for the opening
dance scene performed by the spellbinding Sahar Dehghan, originally
from Iran, now living in Paris. She created a stunningly beautiful
Sufi dance in the style of a sacred whirling dervish. The song features
the Persian santour, flute and cello. When I saw the opening dance
for the first time, as the lights followed Sahars movement over
the stage, it actually brought me to tears. It was quite moving to
experience the culmination of a piece of music I poured my heart and
soul into and have it so beautifully brought to life by her gorgeous
and uplifting dance.
mwe3: Track two on The Conference Of The Birds is an
extensive, near ten minute track called World Gathering Of The
Birds. Wow, now thats impressive sounding. It sounds very
Asian. Is that a koto? Also the playing flute on that track is brilliant
sounding. The track also goes into Hawaiian music. Then of course
theres the Greek music influence and of course the sitar part
that closes out the track. Its a real multipart trip-tik.
Randy Armstrong: World Gathering Of The Birds is
one of the opening scenes that introduces the birds portrayed by the
international dance troupes. You hear the Chinese Gu-Zhesg, Egyptian
Oud, Turkish Darbuka, classical cuitar, concert & alto flute,
Hawaiian ukulele, slide guitar, slack-key acoustic guitar as well
as Ipu Heke, Afro-Haitian Voudon drumming, alter-tuned acoustic guitar,
Indian sitar and tabla, Mexican Folklorico trumpet, guitar and xylophone
in the mix. The exquisite flute playing was by my former partner and
co-founder of Doa World Music Ensemble, Ken LaRoche. These pieces
were recorded before his untimely passing. His virtuoso playing brings
back so many memories for me. We toured the world together. He is
Volker Nahrmann once again plays quite well on The Conference Of
The Birds. Volker and the other musicians in your core band, including
Marty Quinn, Ken LaRoche and Cynthia Chatis, each adds a lot to the
Randy Armstrong: The musicians all contributed their beautiful
and masterful playing to fulfill the sonic tapestry of instruments
and sounds to the score. They are all wonderful musicians. Volker
has an acute musical sensibility and intuition. Cynthia has an amazing
improvisational style and of course, Ken LaRoche offers his virtuoso
mwe3: The album is very colorfully packaged. How did you choose
the cover art and how did you meet up with painter Maggy Pierre-Pelissier?
Randy Armstrong: Maggy Pierre-Pelissier is an artist from France
who currently lives in upstate New York. She is an amazing artist
who created original artwork for the entire production. She had prints
of the incredible depiction of the birds and when I saw the peacock,
I knew it had to be the cover art. The peacock in the production was
portrayed by the Chinese dancers. She is an exquisite and talented
artist and I encourage everyone to look her up online.
You play so many instruments on The Conference Of The Birds its
enough to make your head spin with delight. Were many of the same
guitars that you played on Beyond Borders once again featured
on The Conference Of The Birds album? Last time you had spoken
favorably about the Michael Jacobson Hardy guitars and the 1948 Gibson
cutaway jazz guitar. Is there any other guitar news to mention as
it applies to The Conference Of The Birds album or other fascinating
instruments that came to light on The Conference Of The Birds album?
Randy Armstrong: The big addition to my musical instrument
collection for The Conference Of The Birds was a Persian santour.
The santour is similar to the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, but has
moveable bridges in order to play Persian scales/modes or datsgahs.
This is the instrument you hear in the opening song, Awaken
My Soul. In my early years of World Music study, I had the great
honor of studying the Persian datsgahs with Iranian violinist and
santour player, Dr. M. Taraz. It was a wonderful experience and you
can hear his playing on the song The Valley Of Search
on the Doa album, Ornament Of Hope.
On the the classical style pieces I played my handmade Guillermo
Del Pilar classical guitar and handmade Radha Krishna Sharma 1970s
sitar. I also played my handmade Michael Jacobson-Hardy acoustic.
It has tiger maple back and sides with aged spruce top and I played
in an altered-tuning.
mwe3: The sitar also plays a prominent role throughout The
Conference Of The Birds album, most noticeably on track four Princess
And The Slave which contrasts nicely with the orchestral string
sounds. Is that Raghav Bhat on strings? It sounds like a full orchestra.
Raghav adds his Carnatic violin but the core of the sound for the
strings are Bollywood synth-string samples played in octaves.
mwe3: Track 20, The Valley Of Detachment And Annihilation
is pure electronica. What synths do you use on that?
Randy Armstrong: I used a Korg Triton Workstation, Roland JV-1010
module and an old Korg M-1 all run through SFX in Ableton Live. I
also use processed gongs and sampled wind sounds.
mwe3: With so much trouble in the world today are you still
confident in the power of music to make the world a bigger, better
and more inclusive place to exist? How can that happen in your eyes?
Randy Armstrong: Absolutely, music can be a powerful voice
for the upliftment of humankind. I am an eternal optimist and believe
deep in my soul that humanity is in the last throws of decline and
headed toward the ascent to a more unified existence. It is not easy
to go through all the troubles but as has been said so many times,
it is always darkest before the dawn. I have great
faith in the collective good of the human spirit and that light is
more powerful than darkness. That is why I do projects like The
Conference Of The Birds. The message is clear. I plan to spend
all my time until my final days on this earth promoting the unity
and goodness of people through music. Love is more powerful all the
hate in the world.
mwe3: Tell us about other plans you have for this year and
into 2018. You were saying how busy your schedule is with live work.
What concerts are you performing now?
Randy Armstrong: I have been asked to be the artist in the
residence with the Portsmouth Symphony for their 2017-2018 season.
It is a great honor and I performed my piece, Tribute In Courage
on November 5th, 2017. Four additional concerts are scheduled. Also,
I was awarded awarded the 2017 Governors Arts Award
for Arts Education for my work with students throughout my home state
of New Hampshire. I am deeply humbled and grateful for the award.
Also, Volker Nahrmann and I, with our new band, Beyond Borders are
planning future tours and concerts.
Opening night speech and narrative presented by Usha Srinivasan:
"Over 800 years ago, in a land of Persia, lived the son of a
wealthy chemist. He had received excellent education in many fields
including theology and practiced the profession of his father. Over
the years, he served large numbers of customers who came to him seeking
cures for their ills and confided in him their deepest sorrows and
greatest fears. This had a profound impact on the man he gave
up his profession and traveled far and wide across Asia, from India
to Arabia and Turkistan. Along the way he met many scholars and mystics.
He returned home an enlightened man and went on to become one of the
greatest Sufi thinkers and poets of all time. His name was Farid ud-Din
Attar. Indeed, Attar dandled a young Rumi on his knees and given him
the book Asrar Nama which greatly influenced Rumis spiritual
development. Attars most famous work is Mantiq al tayr
The Conference of the Birds. This 4500 line poem tells the universal
story of the souls search for truth. It has stood the test of
time and transcended geographical and cultural boundaries. In 1972,
Peter Brook & Jean-Claude Carriere traveled across Sub-Saharan
Africa with a troupe of 20 actors that included a young Helen Mirren.
They used the parables in the poem to stage plays in villages. The
result of this 8500 mile journey was the play, The Conference Of The
Today, we stand before you humbly to present an interpretation of
the play that is a result of a different, yet significant journey.
One that began over 2 years ago and brought together artists from
many different cultures and walks of lifeunited by a
mission to create a work of art that not only entertains but also
educates and elevates.
This is a complex, multilayered play. There is something in this for
everyone. Some of you may find resonance in the Sufi philosophy that
underlies it. Others may be drawn to the music and dance. It is our
fervent hope that all of you discover today the breathtaking beauty
of the cultures that call our great nation home. We may not all be
birds of the same feather. But if we flock together, we can soar!"