ROBERT SPALDING NEWCOMB / JAMES AIKMAN / KEN KOZORA
Light Of Life: A Summer Solstice Concert
To The Passage Of Time
(Partial Music)

 

Back in 2011, mwe3.com featured an interview with multi-instrumentalist Robert Spalding Newcomb centered around his double CD set called Anastasia Of The Gardens. Even though Newcomb is a first-rate classical guitarist and sitar player, he also flexes his musical might as a purveyor of all thing electronic. Electronic music in this case means avant-gardeand not in the spirit of New Age music. One look at Newcomb’s musical influences offers a tell tale sign of his manifold approach to 20th and 21st century music. Among Newcomb’s influences are Robert Fripp, Harry Partch and Ravi Shankar. Catching up with Robert Spalding Newcomb after a couple years, mwe3.com finally had some listening time with his CD release of To The Passage Of Time - an album Newcomb recorded with fellow composer James Aikman. In the spirit of Robert Spalding Newcomb’s Anastasia double CD, To The Passage Of Time is actually a superbly recorded live album, filled with depth-defying electronic sounds very much in the spirit of Wendy Carlos and even the late 1960s sound of Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio. Recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan between May and December 2012, in rehearsal for the 12/21/2012 Winter Solstice concert, To The Passage Of Time features liner notes by James Aikman that goes into detail on the wide-ranging music within. Following the CD release of To The Passage Of Time, in 2013 Robert Spalding Newcomb released Light Of Life: A Summer Solstice Concert - recorded live on June 22nd 2013 and featuring Newcomb on guitar and sitar performing live alongside James Aikman’s keyboards and Ken Kozora on percussion, flutes and horn. More varied than To The Passage Of Time, the Light Of Life CD is accompanied by a DVD of the live performance along with other scenic footage featuring contributions by Grace Chung and Mike Halerz. With these impressive releases, Robert Spalding Newcomb continues to take experimental guitar, sitar sounds and avant gard electronic instrumental music to new heights. Keep an eye out for Robert Spalding Newcomb’s next sitar album due for release on CD in late 2015. www.PartialMusic.com



 


mwe3.com presents an interview with
ROBERT SPALDING NEWCOMB



mwe3: Tell us how your Solstice Concerts started and how you met up with James Aikman and Ken Kozora. Have you done only two Solstice concerts? What’s the musical chemistry like between you, James and Ken and are you still working together? Also you worked with James on To The Passage Of Time as well, so you have an impressive history with him. Can you compare the two Solstice Concert releases?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: For most of my musical career I have been a solo improvisational performer and solitary composer/programmer of electronic and computer based music.

In 2011 I did a solo Winter Solstice Concert at Ann Arbor’s premier independent showcase venue, Kerrytown Concert House. After that, I had the idea of a Winter Solstice concert with friends, doing duos and ensemble work, interleaved with some solo pieces. The 2012 Winter Solstice Concert became this reality. I have known James Aikman for almost 20 years and always admired his work. He is currently Composer-in-Residence for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. James and I worked for a few months on what we thought would be a single structured improvisational piece for that show.

After the show, James and I brainstormed using takes from our rehearsals as a possible CD, themed as a progression of ideas from midsummer and culminating in the December concert performance. What we discovered was quite intriguing, and as you can see from James’ liner notes, the title “To The Passage Of Time” evolved very naturally to describe the evolution of the composition. On a broader scale, we share similar perspectives on life trajectories, and how we traverse decades of searching for and discovering expressive techniques as composers and thinkers.

I met Ken Kozora around the time of that concert, while I was working with the southeast Michigan based dance company, PeopleDancing, on a piece featuring me doing live guitar improvisation as the dance choreography unfolded, also improvised to a high degree. Ken is the Composer-in-Residence for PeopleDancing.

I invited Ken to join James and me to see what material we could develop. The 2013 Summer Solstice Concert was the result of the next six months of playing together. We had the great good fortune of enlisting another colleague, Mike Halerz, in joining forces as videographer, and so the ‘Light Of Life’ project was born. We continued to work together and presented another Winter Solstice Concert that year, and a 2014 Summer Solstice Concert in the same outdoor venue as we used in 2013. Though James, Ken and I are not actively working together now, Mike and I are collaborating on the upcoming sitar CD release and concert.

mwe3: On the 2013 CD/DVD release of Light Of Life – A Summer Solstice Concert you play several instruments and cover a lot of ground. What guitars and sitars are you playing on the CD / DVD? Did you and James play the same instruments on To The Passage Of Time as well? Have there been some new developments in the gear world for you over the past few years?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: On both releases, I play a Godin Grand Concert SA nylon string MIDI electric guitar. The ‘several instruments’ you hear are achieved through sound design within the Apple Logic Pro architecture. On Light Of Life, I use that guitar and two sitars – a single gourd model for “Light Of Life”, and a double gourd (extra tomba) model for “Leaving Varanasi.” James plays a Kurzweil K2500 keyboard on both releases.

On “Light Of Life”, Ken utilizes a wide array of acoustic and electronic percussion instruments, including the Zen Drum. He is also a masterful flautist and trumpet player, and listening closely one will hear a conch shell as well.

mwe3: How did you approach the music on both the CD/DVD of Light Of Life and the To The Passage Of Time CD? Was most of music improvised spontaneously or was some written and determined before the concert? Is there more magic in the spontaneity of music?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: I am always improvisation based, and my collaborators on these two projects are both master improvisers. The “Passage” piece evolved from scratch, and the eventual performance structure, both as a duo with James and as a trio with Ken, resolved into a structured improvisation with some general sectional transitions. These carry us through similar but still unique emotional journeys each time we play the piece.

The sitar based pieces – “Leaving Varanasi” and “Light Of Life” are original pieces that I have been playing for years in solo settings. “Light Of Life” appears on my CD, Undiscovered (2007). We adapted these to the trio instrumentation, and they simply worked.

“Insects” and “Roots” are two pieces that grew organically out of our rehearsals, each drawing from our respective decades deep sonic toolkits.

mwe3: Your beautiful wife Grace is also in the Light Of Life DVD. Tell us something about Grace, how you met her and tell us about her artistic contributions to your music over the years.

Robert Spalding Newcomb: A little background - Grace and I grew up next door to each other in Ann Arbor, parted ways at age 10-11 as our families relocated, then reconnected decades later. We have been married for three years now.

After we shot the 2013 Summer Solstice Concert, in the beautiful University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Mike and I set out on a design path that would interweave video footage of the concert with additional video material from the gardens and the many enchanting woodland and prairie areas within the grounds. Including Grace as ‘woman of the woods and gardens’ seemed to be a natural next step and it allowed us to add more of a characterization and a storyboard of themes to distinguish the five musical pieces.

Grace has a background that spans theater, musical theater, dance, martial arts, yoga, piano, ukulele and choral ensembles. She is now avidly studying tabla and percussion. We have also collaborated in the performance of a dance piece with PeopleDancing director Christina Sears-Etter - sitar, tabla and tap dance.

mwe3: Who else was involved in the production of the Light Of Life CD and DVD as well as To The Passage Of Time and who helped you get such an excellent recorded sound on the CD and video quality on the DVD? I saw the name Mike Halerz in the credits of the CD/DVD. There’s so much great background footage in the DVD. Is that mostly from India?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: I have known Mike Halerz for 20 years, as our paths crossed at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, when I was Director of IT and Mike was completing his degree studies. We recently reconnected and soon found projects of mutual interest. Mike is a tremendous audio/video engineer, multi-media designer and producer, working freelance on commercial projects for small and large business clients. I am blessed that he has chosen to make time for side ‘art’ projects such as mine.

For ‘Passage’, Mike mastered the audio, which involved working only with stereo AIF files that were rough rehearsal mixes of both James and me, spanning several months. This required a serious command of post-production techniques.

The Light Of Life project upped the complexity level considerably, but since Mike was involved from the outset, we were able to control the many variables and create a ‘music video’ that we are all proud of.

“Leaving Varanasi” was set against a photo collage I created from my 2005 tour to India with Steve Rush, supported by the University of Michigan and the US Embassy in Delhi.

Otherwise, all background footage was shot on subsequent beautiful summer evenings at the botanical gardens.

mwe3: We spoke back in 2011 and you were telling mwe3 about the difficulty for an independent artist to break through these days. Has that gotten a little more or less difficult nowadays? What do you make of all the free music given away on youtube and through the streaming music sites and how can we make the artists kings again?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: This is a tough topic. My double-edged strategy has been to maintain a career outside the creative arts that is steady and income producing. In my case, this turned out to be IT. The breaking through aspect of a creative arts career can take many twists and turns based on choices made about genre, networking, mentors, location, instrument choice, etc. I have small pockets of followers who may be most interested in my computer music, or the sitar, or are pure experimental guitar devotees. I have had to reconcile myself to being on the edge, since I have worked very hard to be there, and accept that financial reward and fame may not be in the cards for me this time through life.

Social media is of course transforming distribution, much as personal studios and the minimization of hardware into software transformed media creation and production. I believe that very soon, it will become affordable to live stream our own concerts from small venues, even from a basement or rooftop, and collect a fan base that is immediately loyal and supportive. Fittingly, we will become as close to face-to-face with our audience as we can be once again. Much of my music can be appreciated in a non-live situation, but there really is nothing like being in the same room as the performer, as the music is created.

mwe3: Are you still involved in the computer world doing technical work like designing system software etc? Where do you see the future of the computer world and specifically where do you see the internet going in the future? Are there any limits on technology?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: For the past two years I have been Associate Director at the U-M Digital Media Commons. For the last year I was also Interim Studios Manager, managing state-of-the-art audio, video and electronic music studios. In a higher education culture, at the crossroads of engineering and the arts, I encounter many brilliant professionals and students building the future of technology and its’ application to the media arts. From what I can see, there are no limits to creativity and imagination, and no boundaries of physics which cannot be explored and perhaps pushed outward.

mwe3: You’ve lived all over the country and have visited a number of other countries. Tell us about life in Ann Arbor and what makes it a special place? Do you miss other places you have lived, like New York City for instance? Is the size of our country (let alone the world) an impediment to getting exposure and even doing concerts?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: Ann Arbor (A2) is my hometown, and is of course home to the University of Michigan main campus. There is a constant influx of new ideas, cultural perspectives, and most importantly, fresh energy. The arts and music scene here is intense, covering all styles and genres. The competition for audience is a constant. It is a concert goers’ paradise. We have a high level of musicianship in general, and the more or less affordable high standard of living has given a lot of artists reason to settle here rather than in an urban climate like NYC, LA, Chicago or Boston.

I miss every place I have lived, and I have moved quite often. I can reflect on how the places we live shape us to some degree. For instance, when I visit NYC, it really is so different now, as I am, that I would not have any reason to live there. I was there when I was meant to be, the late ‘70s to early ‘90s. We have to live somewhere, and our life path will use that location/climate/society/culture matrix as it will. My own lifestyle has not for many years allowed frequent live performing, and even less so much opportunity for touring. The logistics don’t work for me – that double edged strategy I mentioned. That may change...

mwe3: So I guess we’re all gearing up for your new CD coming soon in 2015. Can you give us a little update on the name of the new album and what else fans can expect to hear and see from you in the coming months?

Robert Spalding Newcomb: The new CD is called Confluence Of Elders – New Sitar Music for the 21st Century. It consists of three original sitar compositions/improvisations recorded from 2007-2014. I have spent about 14 years playing sitar. I have been lucky to have a few teachers from the Indian classical music tradition guide my technique and understanding of the underlying theory of Hindustani musical structures, but I have always kept myself on course to retain my individual artistic vision for the instrument and its profoundly intimate sound world.

This CD represents an offering of some of the treasures I have unearthed along the way. I hopefully have expanded the scope of what a listener will expect from the instrument, as well as what they might identify as authentic work coming from a contemporary composer/improviser.

For this next concert, my first solo one in four years, I am releasing the new CD, and have decided to give it away as part of the ticket price rather than simply offer it for sale at the event. To me, the point of doing all this art, music, writing and software, is to communicate with my fellow travelers on the planet. Handing a nice newly produced CD to good friends and curious strangers coming out to experience my performance seems the perfect gesture.




 

 
   
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