Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The Music I Make" Jeff Phillips

I began to play trumpet in the seventh grade when I was 13, then I switched to tuba/sousaphone in the tenth grade; consequently, I learned to read and play both treble and bass-clef music. My participation in band stopped after high school. Then, in 1978, a couple years after I had quit college, I bought a classical guitar (the only instrument I have ever owned other than a shaker egg or drum-sticks!). I took one classical guitar lesson. Then I decided I would teach myself guitar and piano. Now, 25 years later, I have developed a certain level of proficiency on guitar and piano, as well as drums and bass. But I’m really more of a composer than a player. I am by no means whatsoever anywhere approaching virtuoso-level abilities on any instrument, but I can do some cool stuff on them. I am probably as good as or better than a good rock band, myself. I cannot tell you much I love music, both to listen and to play. To me, practicing and playing has always been the same thing. My favorite instrument is a nice grand piano…there’s nothing like it. I would have to say that my earliest and biggest inspiration here was Keith Emerson then maybe Elton John and Keith Jarrett. I also liked Stevie Winwood’s piano, and the guys in Supertramp.

It’s funny, I have a lot of friends who are musicians of various kinds, and some of them quite good. Most of them have a lot of respect for what I do, although sometimes the more technically oriented might have a good laugh at how I play! Which is all well and good, as I have never taken making music “seriously.” This does NOT mean that I do not put my best efforts into what I do; au contraire, that is ALL I do. It DOES mean that I have never taken myself over-seriously as a musical artist; I do not dwell on technical perfection in terms of notes and I am not into repeated takes which diminish spontaneity. My playing has been compared to people as diverse as Keith Emerson, Keith Jarrett, Lyle Mays, George Winston, Elton John, Stevie Winwood and composers Bach, Chopin, DeBussy, and Steve Reich. I am nowhere nearly as good technically as most of these guys, and could never hope to be; it’s the spirit of the music that I am all about…not the notes, the technical precision, the stucture of the composition or the chord progressions…but the music in the music.

My basic philosophy of music is that LISTENING is by far the most important aspect of the musical experience. If you can’t hear or aren’t listening, you are completely missing the boat. Even if you can’t play a note on anything, the entire universe of sound is available to you through your ears and through modern technologies of recording and transmission. Even when you are PLAYNG music, listening is STILL the most important aspect; only through acute listening do you know what the other musicians are doing and in fact what YOU are doing, and how it all fits together. Really good music can be made from extremely simple parts played by several people, which fit together well. It’s really what you DON’T play as much as it is what you PLAY. And I put a lot of emphasis on “play.” Why is it called “playing” music? Because…AND DON’T EVER FORGET IT!…it’s supposed to be FUN! That’s what playing is all about…it’s fun and you don’t take it too seriously. This helps you keep the clear and open spiritual orientation needed to play good music. All too many very talented musicians totally lose touch with the “fun” dimension as they plow deeper into the ruts of “success”, fame and celebrity, and related problem areas like molecular dependencies and having too much money in general. All of this distracts you from PLAYING MUSIC. It’s the music that I love, not all this other stuff.

Over the years I have tended to do two basic things in terms of making music, other than playing piano or guitar alone whenever I can. I have done several studio recordings, where I play mostly everything myself but then have say some flute or lead guitar put in by the owner of the studio. The first of my studio recordings were a pair of “post-industrial techno-rap” songs, “Threshold/Infotoxin” and “Einstein’s Brain”, done in Atlanta in the spring of 1985. These songs got airplay on maybe a dozen college radio stations over the next year. I was big-time!!!! The first time I ever played “live” in front of an audience was that first Widespread Panic show in Athens in June of 1985.

Through the rest of the 80’s and all through the 90’s I would on occasion do a studio recording here and there, depending where I was or who I might meet. I would also do an occasional live gig, mainly in either Athens or Boulder, where I would pull together some of who I considered to be excellent local talent, then we would just do a spontaneous live jam on stage. These always turned out extremely well. We did a few in Boulder that people said sounded like Miles Davis and Weather Report; in November of 1989, we did one at Quigley’s, a coffee-shop at CU-Boulder, where we showed the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and jammed an alternative sound-track for it, in honor of the peak in the sunspot cycle happening at that time. Probably the best live gig we ever did was an outdoor jam for Earth Day 1992 at the University of Georgia in Athens. The feedback was great; but the guitarist forgot to turn on the DAT machine, so the show went totally unrecorded.

In 1985 I had decided to use the name The Brink for all of my musical projects. I thought it summed up the state-of-the-world at the time…the Reagan administration threatening to nuke the Soviet Union’s “evil empire.” And being an ecological and information activist I was acutely aware of the many problems confronting humanity as one of many life-forms on the Earth. I realized that the word “brink” has a heavy connotation to most people…the “brink of doom”, the “brink of destruction”, the “brink of extinction.” But I defined the brink as the limit of our perception, the horizon of navigation…not an edge we can fall off of! Many people had told me that I should do the sound-track for a science-fiction movie, based on how my music sounded. The Brink sounded like a good name to use.

In 1998 I recorded what was to become my first cd, The White Electric Dog Transmissions. I did it in Portland, Oregon on July 23, the date of the Egyptian new year, after flying over to Salt Lake City and hitching down into the Four-corners area, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado all meet, to gather energy and inspiration. According to the Hopi Indians, this area is the “navel of the Earth” and is a major planetary vortex. This recording consists of nine grand piano improvisations, and is so-called because according to Jose Arguelles’ Mayan calendar, that day was the “white electric world-bridger”, and the Egyptian new year was when the star Sirius, the “dog star”, became visible again after 70 days of being in conjunction with the sun. This music expresses a lot of feelings I have; it’s not about the notes or technical ability or lack thereof. It’s about conveying a sense of the cosmos…and the uncertainty of the human condition and the sadness of Mother Earth at what we are doing to her.

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