'Shamanic dream jazz?' Dick discusses his music

by Brent Reidy | 1/20/05 6:00am

This Friday, composer, flautist, improviser and inventor (in no particular order) Robert Dick will be performing at Spaulding Auditorium with King Chubby. The concert will include a world premiere of a Hop commissioned piece, "The Sound."

Robert Dick is the emblem of the 21st century multi-talented musician. He has worked to reinvent the flute, most notably with the glissando headjoint, which does for the flute what the whammy bar did for the electric guitar. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship for composition and he has performed with John Zorn and Steve Lacy.

The concert on Friday with the group King Chubby is sure to be interesting. Various attempts have been made to describe their special combination of electronics, percussion, bass, voice, synthesizers and samples. Robert Dick said the closest he has heard is "Shamanic dream jazz" and "ambient-overdrive." I'll offer one more to the growing pile of useless taxonomic endeavors: "Druidic Zappa." Intrigued? Well, that's the point of vague ineffective comparisons.

Robert Dick sat down with The Dartmouth to answer a few questions about his views on music today and his own work.

The Dartmouth: In interview, you've described yourself as having an "eighteenth century attitude," in that you perform, compose and improvise. Do you believe this is something to be strived for? Has it been lost?

Robert Dick: It is something that should be strived for. The reason I say "eighteenth century attitude" was that in the eighteenth century, musicians felt that they could enter into any situation and come up with the music that would work there. Whether they were going to create it, perform it or arrange it ... every musician was kind of a complete package. This specialization, the division of creativity and performance is a nineteenth century artifact and it hasn't served music or humanity very well.

What I do is just a natural thing to do. Separating yourself in different parts is the unnatural thing. I'd rather be the whole bird than the bag of chicken thighs.

The D: A lot changed in the twentieth century. Where do you think we are headed in the twenty-first century? Will people rediscover that "eighteenth century attitude?"

RD: Where it's going to go? The ability to make electronic music at home digitally [is changing everything]. It's the folk art of our times. Laptop computers have a lot more power than the biggest mainframe 25 years ago. There are all these incredible programs one can get and with no training at all in no time you can be making music.

I think it's wonderful. The people who have a deep musical talent and discover it this way will choose to go on; more power to them. It's great that there is an entry level that is so broad and easy for everyone. Especially since governments have eliminated music and arts from public education and many of the places where the kids would first encounter music are gone. It's good that this new thing is here.

One of the things that is already happening and I can only assume will continue is this whole cross-cultural thing. We can hear each other's music in a way we couldn't before, and we can meet each other and play with each other. That seems to be a natural and very healthy and vibrant trend.

The D: People still seem to balk at watching electronic music performances. Do you think that there will be a shift away from the concert hall as technology improves? Was Glenn Gould right? Will the concert hall die this century?

RD: No, people will still see concerts. I see both things happening. I tell all my students that the web may be more their concert home than traditional halls. Why not web cast your graduate recital?

The D: The twentieth century was a ra dical time for extended technique and reinvention, including your own work on the flute. Where do you see this all heading now?

RD: There is a long way to go. I hope when I finally leave things behind I will leave behind quite a different flute than people are playing now. This recent introduction of the glissando headjoint is in the long run going to have a very profound effect, I think. I'm excited to see how other people are going to use this. So far, the only person that has had a chance to score it musically in depth is me.

I have ideas about changing the whole fingering system. I have some radical concepts about control of the overtone structures. There is plenty to do.

The D: What contemporaries do you consider most interesting?

RD: I follow saxophonist Evan Parker, woodwind players like Ned Rothenberg. In the more popular tradition ... people like Steve Vai. There is a big place in my heart for the creative virtuoso, and he sure is one.

I just try to listen broadly and see what old friends are doing and stay abreast of what is happening. It's a weird time because there is less support for music and the arts than ever. Every decade goes by and I think "this has got to the bottom." And then along comes yet another antediluvian government. And it keeps getting worse. It's staggering. And yet, people continue and more people are producing more good CDs and good music than there ever was. It's a challenge to keep even vaguely in touch because there is so much.

The D: What older music do you consider among your favorites?

RD: What's been in my CD player more than anything else has been North Indian classical music and a collection of CDs of African music recorded in the '30s, '40s and '50s. It's really great stuff.

The D: Do you have a musical agenda in your work, or do you just do what you want to do?

RD: No, I don't have an agenda. I'm just trying to follow my ears and go where the music wants me to go. We all have to deal with practical considerations. If I were offered a commission to write a string quartet, I would take it gladly though this moment I haven't been thinking about a string quartet. Mainly, though, I'm just following my ears. I'm just developing my interests.

The D: Can you talk a bit about the piece you are premiering Friday?

RD: It is a piece called "The Sound." It's named that because it uses a poem by my friend Bruce Lawder. He wrote it for me since I've been using more and more words and wanted something really good to say.

At the moment, I've been working on it in two distinct ways. Maybe Friday morning I'll decide which way it's going to go. In the meantime, I'm working in both directions at the same time.

The D: Do you want to set more poems?

RD: I think so. If I could get the funding for it I have a great idea for a chamber opera based on a story by the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. Bruce has already said it's ok. It's just that stupid barrier of money. These days, this market-force mentality of short-term thinking is everywhere. People will be glad to give you money only if they think they will get it back thrice over in three months. A work of art is not the same thing as investing in a plastics factory.