Ted Zook is primarily a nylon-string guitarist, but he also plays basscello through digital signal processors and a variety of digitally-processed, non-traditional analog instruments such as bowls, rainsticks, slidewhistle, whistle-flutes, oceanharp, etc. He began his study of the guitar in Chile and Uruguay (the latter under the guidance of Luis Acosta), and continued upon his return to the U.S. in the early 1960s under Sophocles Papas. Currently, Ted plays regularly plays experimental music in the Baltimore / Washington DC area.
Recently, Ted took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. In doing so, he has produced a fairly comprehensive overview of his local scene.
You have been studying and playing various types of improv and creative music for quite some time. Can you tell us about your background and how you came to be doing what you do today?
Early attempts at the piano in the mid-1950’s were fruitless, probably due to my lack of application (compounded by a lack of a “fire in the belly”). I was in second grade at the time and, truth be told, more interested in electric trains…
We relocated to Chile in 1957 (my dad was in the Foreign Service) and I began classroom guitar lessons around 1959 or so. Oddly, the first lesson was “Oh Susannah”! In 1961, he was reassigned to Uruguay, where I progressed to private lessons with Luis Acosta, whose business card is clipped to my music stand to this very day. Sr. Acosta got me started with reading music (something that I’ve never truly mastered) with more focus on classical technique. Clipped next to Sr. Acosta’s card is that of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, who was a fellow-voyager on a 2-week Delta Line passenger-freighter voyage (the DEL NORTE) from Montevideo to New Orleans. Although the ship had a piano, it was in horrible shape, so Maestro Ginastera had a 2-week vacation from his drawing board as well. At the age of 66, it is sobering that Maestro Ginastera passed away at the age of 67 . . .
The major influence on my development as a guitarist was the late Sophocles Papas, whose students included Charlie Byrd, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Mama Cass Elliot and Sharon Isbin. I also studied jazz guitar under the late great Frank Mullen, who performed with Wes Montgomery, Charlie Byrd, Larry Elgart, Herb Ellis, John Hartman Dick Meldonian, Les Elgart, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eddie Fisher, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sergio Franchi, Marvin Gaye, Bob Hope, Tom Jones, Horace Heidt, Carol Lawrence, Ed McMahan, Sandler and Young, Rip Taylor, Tony Martin, Julie Andrews, Steve Allen, Barbara McNair, Bobby Rydell, Bill Conti, and Skitch Henderson. Modest fellow that he was, Mr. Mullen never mentioned this to me — he was probably the least affected and coolest person I’ve ever met.
In later years, I came to the realization that a great teacher, even if no longer on this plane, is always at one’s elbow offering mute guidance to the sincere student.
Shortly after graduating from college (VA Tech; BA in Political Science), I began a project with Larry Buck, a phenomenal B-3 and piano player and vocalist. Although it was very satisfying from an artistic standpoint, we never got commercial traction and, after giving it our best shot, went our separate ways.
I then took an extended hiatus. Fatherhood and the attendant responsibilities, followed by an extended series of eldercare obligations, resulted in my guitar having long hibernations in its case, although I’d get it out once every blue moon or so.
In 1999, my daughter Rebecca, a cellist, got me interested in the Music for People improvisational association then led by David Darling I have attended somewhere between 60 and 70 MfP workshops (I’ve lost exact count) since then, and have been conferred the title of Honorary Graduate by that organization.
The Baltimore / DC scene is smaller than that of say, New York or Chicago, but still seems vibrant. How has it evolved over the last decade or so?
The local scene has been pretty much the same over the past decade, at least as far as I can tell. Music-wise, Baltimore/DC is a scene of incredible diversity and depth. There’s a tremendous classical presence, with the Kennedy Center’s Symphony Hall, Opera House and Eisenhower Theater; the concert series at the National Gallery of Art and the recitals at the Phillips Collection, not to speak of the cultural outreach programs by the many embassies located in DC .
The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage offers free performances every night of the year; I was privileged to perform there a few years ago in the Twenty-first Century Chamber Ensemble in the Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music. In addition to its annual festival, Sonic Circuits also hosts performances throughout the year; the Lost Civilizations experimental music project, one of the projects in which I perform, is scheduled to perform in a Sonic Circuits event on January 24, 2015.
The following just scratches the surface; a comprehensive listing of performances in the DC area is posted at http://www.showlistdc.com/.
There are also a number of locations that feature experimental music from time to time: Arlington’s Galaxy Hut, IOTA Club and Café and CD Cellar; in Alexandria there is St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub; in DC there are the Black Cat, Velvet Lounge, DC9, the Black Squirrel (where I’ve been curating a “Third Sunday” residency in the Indie Adams Morgan series), Green Island (where I’m curating a fifth Saturday residency in the Indie Adams Morgan series), Ebenezers Coffee House; in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, there’s the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, which generously lets the Sonic Circuits community use its gallery on a frequent basis.
In Baltimore, there is the High Zero Festival of Improvised Experimental Music, which also has performances spaced throughout the year at its Red Room venue, addition to its annual Festival at Baltimore’s Theater Project. The High Zero collective also hosts monthly improvisation sessions at its Red Room performance venue, usually on the first Sunday of each month. I’ve had the good fortune to perform at the Red Room with pedal steel virtuoso Susan Alcorn and Mike Sebastian, my collaborator in the Lost Civilizations experimental music project (here’s a link to a free download of that performance: http://goo.gl/OaXF9).
Baltimore’s An die Musik recital hall is a marvelous institution, which offers a comprehensive program that includes experimental music. The Lost Civilizations experimental music project has performed there three times so far — and we’re looking forward to a return engagement. Here are links to free downloads of our An die Musik performances: http://bit.ly/K8IJu6; http://goo.gl/BTOls; http://goo.gl/Q66fxW.
Although I’ve been involved with both scenes to one degree or another over the past decade, there haven’t been any significant changes. Between the two, there is a steady offering of the best in improvisational and experimental music by artists from all over the world.
You spent quite a bit of time studying with David Darling. How has that influenced your playing?
David Darling has had a profound influence on my development as a musician, not so much in terms of cello technique (although I perform on a NS Design Basscello/Omni Bass, I’m not a cellist), but in terms of musicality and more fully opening my soul to the Muse. His encouragement has changed the course of my development and enabled me to leap into the arms of the Muse in ways I would have never envisioned prior to my path crossing his.
David Darling’s philosophical outlook has provided invaluable guiding principles for my journey:
-Music is the only source of energy that I have known in my life that gives humans a chance to be instantly transformed into spirit.
-The Spiritual Significance of Music: I believe that the the spiritual significance of music is an intelligence, and consciousness that we are all given by our life. Babies in the womb respond to music and as our ears our emptied of the water at birth sounds/music begin their profound influence on our life. Music is the highest spiritual entity that I know about in my life. Music transforms our daily life moment by moment. We walk, run, dance, sing, chant. whistle, hum, groove to music our entire life. We are moved to tears by music and of course it is the key element in all rituals of the human experience. We are born into musical sound, and we pass to the next dimension with music as our friend and guide. One of the sadness I feel about modern civilization is that the birth right to be musical has been taken away from many humans who have suffered from very narrow minded and uninformed teachers of music as well as society in general when there is criticism of any human of failing to sing or groove to some artificial standard. What we know about music is that it comes to each individual in a personal way and when our outpouring of singing or grooving is approved of and encouraged great things happen for each individual. All of us succeed when we are surrounded by love rather than negative action.
-Human beings need to express themselves daily in a way that invites physical and emotional release.
-Musical self-expression is a joyful and healthy means of communication available to absolutely everyone.
-There are as many different ways to make music as there are people.
-The human voice is the most natural and powerful vehicle for musical self-expression. The differences in our voices add richness and depth to music.
-Sincerely expressed emotion is at the root of meaningful musical expression.
-Your music is more authentically expressed when your body is involved in your musical expression.
-The European tradition of music is only one sound. All other cultures and traditions deserve equal attention.
-Any combination of people and instruments can make music together.
-There are no “unmusical” people, only those with no musical experience.
-Music improvisation is a unique and positive way to build skills for life-expression.
-In improvisation as in life, we must be responsible for the vibrations we send one another.
You seem to have embraced the digital era, releasing many of your performances digitally and for free rather than go through the formal process of an album release. Why have you chosen this approach? Do you think that this is how music will be distributed in the future?
I’ve witnessed the transition from shellac 78’s (which were still being manufactured in Uruguay when I lived there, because the country’s grid didn’t reach far into rural areas at the time and wind-up record players were still being used, along with Kerosene-fueled refrigerators) to 33-1/3 LPs & 45s (although both are “microgrooves”, they initially required incompatible playback equipment) to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to DVDs to mp3s to BluRays — I guess 1-bit/DSDs are next, and as matters seem to be evolving, back to vinyl!
I’m very fortunate in that digital technology enables me to record, with reasonable quality and a very little expense, all of the performances in which I’m involved and to share that which the Muse brings through me and my collaborators as widely as possible, free-of-charge. At this point in my trajectory, my view is that the gifts of the Muse are not “mine” to keep, much less monetize; rather, because they were shared with me I feel an implicit obligation to share them widely. Of course, were I to be approached about releasing this material commercially, well, I have a lot of bills to pay — and I’m eyeing a jazz guitar (and appropriate amp)!
My work with Emily Chimiak, an amazing vocalist and violinst (http://avec-la-muse.tumblr.com/), is on a trajectory hopefully leading to a release sometime in the future. In this project, we are setting poetic musings of Emily’s French great-grandmother to song, in French, together with some more contemporaneous material, also original.
A serendipitous stroke of good fortune was Massimo Croce finding out about the Lost Civilizations experimental music project. His Italy-based Ozky e-sound netlabel has released three of our recordings to date. There’s an interesting backstory to this: Sig. Croce lived in Cairo for several years, drawn by the wonderful streetsound panorama there, which provided the sonic palette for his personal sounddesign work. Sig. Croce is a prominent scholar/musician in the field of experimental music and biographer of the trailblazing Luigi Russolo. Sig. Croce somehow found the Lost Civilizations experimental music project on the Internet, which led to him releasing Lost Civilizations VII @ http://www.archive.org/details/oz033. Sig. Croce subsequently released The Lost Civilizations experimental music project with Angela Morrish — Live at Arlington’s CD Cellar, then, Live at Audiofest 2012, which was published on the prestigious Modisti website Sig. Croce has also released a solo work, T. A. Zook Basscello, which has been published on Modisti.
Your work with the Lost Civilizations experimental music project are unscored, unrehearsed and completely improvised. Is there a “bag of tricks” that you and your collaborators fall back on during these performances or is it more of a free-for-all?
Although my collaborator Mike Sebstian does introduce favorite themes from time to time, our performances are more of a free-for-all. By “free-for-all” I don’t mean chaotic; rather, we are attentive listeners to each other as an improvisation develops, carefully focusing on dynamics and freely giving the “gift of silence” when it seems right to do so.
If you had the ability to do any one thing of your choosing in music, what would it be (e.g., playing or recording with particular individuals, playing in a certain location, etc.)?
The predicate of this question, “any one thing”, makes it hard to answer. I by no means wish to imply that it’s an unfair question at all; rather, it’s one requiring considerable thought. I guess that the best response would be to record a release of one of the projects in which I’m involved, produced by David Darling, who has a studio in Goshen CT.
Wrapping things up, I thought that I’d take the opportunity to share a few more quotes.
My teacher’s teacher, the great Andrés Segovia, whose insight into the essence of music is revealed in the following:
… sonority and its infinite shadings are not the result of stubborn will power but spring from the innate excellence of the spirit.
Eduardo Falú, an Argentine who is my favorite singer/songwriter of all time:
Composing . . . there is nothing more beautiful and difficult … I wander and wander with the guitar until that moment I am waiting for arrives. One has to be ready to grasp inspiration from the air because it is very elusive and can slip away so easily.
Chilean artist Alberto Ludwig Urquieta:
El universo es tremendamente creativo, lo que nos obliga a abrirnos a lo desconocido… (The universe is tremendously creative, which obliges us to open ourselves to the unknown …)
A very thought-provoking observation shared by Renato Ciunfrini:
Life is more ancient than death.
Every human being should have a musical instrument.
From “The New Atlantis” by Sir Francis Bacon (written in 1624!) with thanks to Sound on Sound’s April 2008 issue and in tribute to the late Daphne Oram of BBC’s The Radiophonic Workshop:
We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmony which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.
An excerpt from an address to parents of the incoming freshman class at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of the music division at Boston Conservatory (brought to my attention by the incomparable oboist, english horn player and singer-songwriter Marianne Oisel):
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.
To me, it feels as though there’s a kind of aesthetic thread running through the improvisational musics of the world … if you’re alive and your heart is beating, you’ll find it, and that’s what makes the relationship between you and the world.
Opportunities multiply as they are seized
— to which I add has been very true indeed in my experience!
Finally, here are a few of the thoughts that keep bubbling up when my mind wanders:
The less I think, the better I play; I play the best when I think the least.
The older I get, the less I understand and the more firmly I embrace that realization.
The older I get, the less time I have . . .
Thank you very much for affording me this opportunity to share my journey!