Pianist/composer and Guggenheim fellow Myra Melford’s latest instrumental project, Snowy Egret (Enja/Yellowbird) (reviewed here), was inspired by the late Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy. In response to the Uruguayan author’s masterpiece, Melford created a multimedia piece, Language of Dreams, which she then distilled into 10 instrumental tracks, featuring Ron Miles (trumpet), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Stomu Takeishi (bass), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). This week, she is bringing that top-drawer collection of musicians to the Outpost, and I had the
opportunity to speak with her about the music and related topics. She has a ready laugh and a rushing need to answer questions fully and completely—in an almost girlish speaking voice that, like her music, carries a permanent sense of wonder.
Musically Speaking: I understand that the band’s name and album’s title, Snowy Egret, came from an interesting dream you had. Would you recount that dream?
Melford: What happened was, in early winter in 2012, I had organized a gig for this new band at the Jazz Gallery in New York, and I got a phone call—I guess in early January—from someone at the Gallery asking for a name for the project, and I hadn’t come up with one yet, hadn’t even thought about it. But the night before she called, I had a dream that I was watching a snowy egret that was up on an electrical or telephone wire. I could tell by the posture that it had that it was in tadasana, which is the mountain pose in yoga. So it was a very kind of meditative,
Then, it took off from the wire and flew down, and I thought it was going to land in a shallow pool of water at my feet. But instead of landing, it turned out that the pool was very, very deep, and it was diving deeper and deeper into it, and I was thinking, I don’t think egrets swim, so maybe I should dive in and see if I can save it. Then I quickly realized that that was probably not going to work, so I thought, Well, maybe it’ll get down to the bottom and push off and come back up, and that’s exactly what happened. It came shooting out of the water, and as it came out of the water, it turned into—it assumed the size of—a woman with white wings, like an angel, like a bird woman or something, and took off into the stratosphere.
I remember feeling so excited and ecstatic about this dream that when this woman called me to ask me what I wanted to call the project, I just said, “Snowy Egret.”
Melford: I know. It really is.
Musically Speaking: Do you do that a lot?
Melford: Not a lot. I’ve had a few of those, but that was a very special one.
Musically Speaking: Thank you. One thing that strikes me: I think you must be raiding my private library, because a couple of things that you’ve used for inspiration are very close to my heart. Galeano is one of them, and then there was The Myth of Sisyphus by Mr. Camus. I’m struck by the inspiration you take from
literature and the visual arts [Life Carries me This Way, reviewed here, was inspired by the
paintings of the late Don Reich], and I wonder if you could tell me about how that process works.
Melford: As you say, I often am inspired by extra-musical things—particularly art, different
media, different kinds of artwork—and I would say, across the board, there’s a similar thing
going on. I think of it more as a dialogue or a musical response rather than an attempt to
translate or create that work in another medium.
So what happens is, I get inspired when I experience this other artwork, whatever it is. Let’s take Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, for instance. You know, it might be, in some cases, the structure he used—you know, the big structure he used for those books, which was these little individual chapters from many different points of view, of all the different peoples and
experiences and types of land and communities and resources and everything in the Americas. By telling these short little stories from all over from many points of view, it adds up to this
incredible picture of the many stories that really tell the story of the Americas. That really
impressed me as a structure, by telling these short stories that are developed through
improvisation and the individual voices of my players that also add up to a bigger picture of my experience of Galeano’s work and of being an American and what that means.
Musically Speaking: Being an American in a much larger sense, too.
Melford: Yes, American in the hemispheric sense. Yeah. But it could be the imagery, it could also be the title that catches my imagination, a title of an individual chapter. It could be the rhythm of the words. Some of those chapters as you know are incredibly poetic. It’s not just one thing. It’s whatever kind of captures my imagination, and I want to respond through music. I read that, I feel something, and my impulse is to play this. It’s really not an attempt to translate.
Musically Speaking: I don’t get the sense that it is. It’s certainly not program music, but at the same time, it’s very evocative. I think about how different the pieces are on Snowy Egret, and how you’re talking about the structure. Those pieces are just so different, and yet they create a larger whole.
Melford: You know, when we perform it—the record is just an instrumental concert
performance of the music—but when we do it with dance and video and the text interwoven, it becomes even more like the Galeano in the sense that one thing is segueing into the next and the next, and they’re all linked by improvisation or some sort of other story being told in
another medium. It’s even less like discrete pieces.
Musically Speaking: Has that project been videoed, Myra?
Melford: Well, we did a documentation-style video, but I am really hoping to get a video of the performance, with multiple cameras and so on. I’m not finished with the piece. I’m happy with what it was for the premiere. I felt like it really came together really beautifully, but I’ve edited it and can’t wait to do it again. I’ve got some possibilities here at UC Berkeley and at UCLA next year. I’m hoping a few other venues, as well.
Musically Speaking: Well, it’s not likely to get to Albuquerque, so I hope you get that video done so we can see it.
Melford: I also made a handmade book. I had six copies made by a local bookmaker here that includes the score and screenshots of the video and the documentary video. Anyway, I put this really beautiful book together and gave one of the copies to Eduardo before he died, so I was really happy to do that.
Musically Speaking: OK, so now you’ve gone through this process of responding musically. How did you come to choose the people who are in Snowy Egret, and were you thinking of them
before or did they come to you along the way?
Melford: They came to me along the way. I actually started writing the music several years ago and had shown it to Stomu, the bassist in my band, and we played it together with some younger musicians in New York. You know, I tried it with several different groups of people
before I settled on this group. So certain things became clear to me, though: that I was really
interested in the very particular kind of sound for the band. I wanted it to be acoustic and kind of multidimensional and very vibrant and yet kind of veering away from my interest in or use of electronic or amplified instruments that I had in earlier projects like Be Bread and things like that.
I knew I wanted instrumentalists who had just got a beautiful sound on their instruments. That was part of their voice. I wanted people who had a very personal vocabulary, who would bring something of their own to the project, their own voice. I don’t know—I just had a feeling about this group. In some ways, I was just lucky that it came together. But when I thought about each member of the band, it was because I thought they would fit this beautiful sound and bring something beautiful. Everyone is a consummate player but no one is showy. It was really that their personalities were about making something together.
Musically Speaking: Well, they do just a stunning job on the recording, breathtaking at times, just kind of stop-and-make-the-hair-stand-up-on-your-arms kind of stuff that they do. As you say, there’s no Look at me about it, but there is tremendous musicality, and the command of their instruments is a little bit scary.
Melford: Yeah, I know. They’re all virtuosic players. There’s no question about it, but it’s always about what’s best for the music. That first concert we played in 2012 was really special from the get-go, and I was thrilled to be able to continue to work with them.
Musically Speaking: So they’re all coming, that entire original group is coming with you to
Musically Speaking: Ah, excellent, terrific. Now, I’ve seen you live a handful of times, and one thing that really struck me was how low you sit at the piano. Can you tell me how that
Melford: Well, for one thing I’m short, right? And I am most comfortable at the piano with the joints at right angles, so I want to be sitting at the same level as my knees basically. So that
already presupposes that I’m going to sit kind of low.
The other thing is that around 2000, I developed a really difficult repetitive stress injury called focal dystonia, which is damage to the nerves having to do with fine motor coordination. So I’d be zipping through my scales, and all of a sudden, my hand would curl up and come off the
So I had to completely rework my technique. Instead of playing from my fingers and my hands, I had to learn to play from my back and my shoulder, and one of the things that helped me with that was really feeling the weight of my arm. I could use my body weight to help drop the keys rather than any kind of forcing them, pushing them from above. So keeping my weight just a
little bit—my arm weight, my forearm weight—just a little bit below the keyboard is actually the most comfortable way for me to play, and that circumvents that other problem from kicking in.
I worked with a really fantastic teacher in New York named Sophia Rosoff as I was rehabilitating. Fred Hersch had turned me on to her. Ethan Iverson also worked with her, and she also helped a lot of classical pianists who were either recovering from strokes or repetitive stress injuries and that kind of thing. So she was fabulous, and she was the one who helped me discover that. You know it was very typical of Glenn Gould to sit that way.
Musically Speaking: That’s the only other pianist that I’ve seen sit that way. I have another
technique question for you. I’ve shaken your hand, and it’s smaller than mine, and I’m a pretty small guy. Now, McCoy Tyner can probably reach a span of a twelfth with no problem. I can barely reach a ninth, and I suspect that you’re about the same as I am. How do you
accommodate such a big instrument with such small hands?
Melford: Well, I think a couple things. I tend toward voicings where I can split them up a wide distance, I can split [them] up between the two hands. I do a lot of techniques where my hands work in tandem, so if I’m going for a bigger sound, I’ll use both hands together across the
keyboard. It did mean that at a certain age, I stopped playing certain kinds of repertoire
because my hands just weren’t big enough. I was never going to play a tenth, but I could break it up. I could do it in a more kind of stride style. But I really just developed other techniques to work around that.
Musically Speaking: Well, listening to you, I don’t get the sense that the smallness of your hands handicaps your playing. You get a big sound from the instrument, and a lot of different kinds of sounds.
One last question, completely unrelated to Snowy Egret. I understand that you and Ben
Goldberg are working on a duo piece.
Melford: Yes, yes. We have finished the record, and it is coming out in— We’re waiting for the date from the distributor, but I think we’re aiming for January 12 or sometime early in 2016.
Musically Speaking: Great. I’m looking forward to hearing that.
Melford: Cool. Thank you.
Musically Speaking: Thank you so much for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing you again and seeing this group. I just love this group.
Melford: Cool. Well, thank you for your time and for doing this, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to say hello when we’re there.
Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret
Friday, October 16, 7:30 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $20 general/$15 members and students
For tickets or more information, go here, or call 505-268-0044.