IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 97
INTERVIEW with Michael DeMaria
I'm very pleased to have Michael as our interviewee for this issue... I first reviewed his works two or three issues back, and (according to him), that may have had something to do with his CD receiving awards. That's not the important part, though... he's a musician that uses his talents to help heal the world, and I can attest to that being a very real thing... you can get lots more information at his primary site - http://www.ontos.org/ Now, with our thanks to him for taking the time & without further ado... here's Michael!
Zzaj: I've been highly impressed with your ability to share your training in psychology with others through music... please give us a mini-bio that explains where you were originally from, where you went from there & how you got where you are today.
Michael: Thank you for your thoughtful words Dick. I'm originally from New England (Wilton, CT) and grew up with a love of nature, music and people. My parents tell me from a young age I loved to listen to everything around me - to people, sounds, music and in particular the sounds of nature. They love to tell the story about how I would sit at the family piano and hit a single note and close my eyes and relish the sound appearing and then disappearing into silence before I'd hit another note. Years later I realized, as a psychologist, I was engaging in a form of music therapy for myself for healing from trauma I experienced as a result of surgeries I had as a child. It was a form of self-soothing. Some people would call it putting myself into a trance of sorts - to me it was my way of touching eternity – that is the timeless. I would literally lose track of time sitting there.
I am still awed and amazed at how a sound arises and disappears off into infinity and eternity. Music and sound have always been a gateway to the timeless for me. It has been that way for me as long as I can remember being on the planet. I grew up playing piano and percussion in elementary and middle school, then in my late teens and early twenties I discovered indigenous music and synthesizers. I began to explore more deeply and seriously music that altered consciousness and took you on a journey. I had a whole collection of very unique recordings - everything from Japanese Shakuhachi and Buddhist Exorcism Rituals to Hungarian Gypsy music and African Poly-rhythms. I enjoyed all of them very much and used to do my homework to them. I couldn't get enough of them. Although I wanted to major in music, specifically ethnomusicology, my father was an Italian immigrant and told me in no uncertain terms, "You're the son of an immigrant, you need to be a doctor or a lawyer, your kids can be artists or musicians if you want them to be." I began researching different careers and discovered the area of expressive arts therapy where music, art and other creative processes are used in the process of healing in psychotherapy. This was a perfect combination for me – I could be a ‘doctor’ for my father and still be an artist and musician. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I also had a gift for 'listening' as a psychologist and it went well with my natural love of people - and it seemed to actually stimulate my creativity to work with people who were in need of healing and understanding. Over the years I've found many different ways to weave my love of nature, creativity (particularly music) and people into my work as a psychologist, composer and musician. So you see, my life has come full circle to my very early loves I had as a child. I feel very fortunate Dick to be doing what I love and having so many opportunities to share this love of nature, people and music with others.
Zzaj: The thing that impresses me the most about your music is how deeply it penetrates through to my lower levels of consciousness (without being "pretentious", as some New Age/Meditation artists tend to do). Is there any special technique you use to draw this kind of music out of yourself? Also, is there anything special you must do (technique-wise) to ensure that your intent comes across to the listener the way you need it to?
Michael: Your words mean a lot to me Dick. From the beginning I've appreciated your sensitivity to this dimension of my work. My music is fundamentally a form of meditation and prayer wrought out of a deep reverence for life and the sacred journey of living a life. There is a deep humility in what I try to do and I so appreciate you 'getting' that. It took me a long time to learn to be 'simple' with my music - I even try to always remind myself to play simply - not hide and not show off - but really just try to show up and be present to this moment and share just what needs to be shared. One of my favorite philosophies of life is, 'less is more'. When I compose and record it's also a ritual for me. I try to create a sacred space – in fact my whole recording studio is an altar of sorts where I’m surrounded by the things I love and that have deep meaning for me. It's a healing process for me from start to finish. I am there to serve the music, the journey and the listener. In fact, much like many indigenous musicians the music for me is all around us and the goal of the musician is to really listen and try to express this 'music' by letting it flow through me - so it feels less like I'm 'creating' the music as much as allowing it to flow through me. I often say to parents, our children come through us, not from us. If feel the same way about any creative process - particularly music. I'm not interested in impressing anyone - I'm interested in linking up/connecting with the spirit, energy, the great mystery, whatever you want to call it - that is, the field of being from of which all things arise and to which all things return. Just like those notes I played as a child - arising, dissolving.... appearing... disappearing... it's a feeling of being in alignment with the flow of that process – which is much like breathing - and it is being in alignment with that flow that brings me peace, joy and healing.
Zzaj: I've noted in the bios I've already read about you that you've worked with abused children a lot... I would imagine that translates into many inspiring musical sketches... not that you would "use" their experiences in a negative way, but is there any truth to that? Do the stories of the folks you've worked with (especially kids) touch you in ways that make your emotions "play" their stories?
Michael: That's the deepest question I've been asked about my music Dick. Yes, by all means. I first heard the sound of the Native American flute on a vision quest 16 years ago - and it was during a very difficult time in my life where I was suffering from what I have come to call 'compassion fatigue'. I cried for a few days straight. I had been deeply impacted by those hundreds of abused children I had worked through for so many years – I realized I was in danger of my heart permanently hardening to protect myself from the reality of the suffering I had worked with. I needed to cleanse myself by letting my heart cry for all the wounded/injured innocents I had witnessed.
The feelings I had were too big for words - but when I began playing the Native American flute for the first time - I was finally able to express the inexpressible pain, horror, terror, anguish I felt. The flute helped me cry and helped me heal. I will never forget that. I didn't go anywhere without a flute for years - I still don't. Of course, now it's more of a choice - back then I literally had to have my flute with me. It was healing to me to hear much Native American wisdom that did more for me than all my formal higher education - gems of wisdom like, "The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears", or "You can't trust someone until they have had their heart broken, because a broken heart is an open heart and the origin of compassion." I do feel today that I am able to honor the tragic stories I have listened to and witnessed through my flute songs and music. One of my teachers often would say, "If suffering could make a sound we couldn't hear anything else." There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world today. We all suffer - to be alive is to suffer. Indigenous people knew music was one of the most powerful ways of transforming that suffering into wisdom and compassion.
There is no doubt that although I have experienced and continue to experience healing from my music - it's an ongoing process. I've moved from working with abused children to working primarily with adults in transition - many of whom were abused as children. I continue to find that there is something about being in touch with suffering that does deepen my creative expression. It forces me to put my heart into it - and there is no doubt my heart has been deepened and opened by working so closely with human suffering over the last 25 years. Now I can let the feelings flow through my heart – like a river instead of creating a log jam by trying to remain, ‘above’ the suffering – it’s all about allowing it to flow through us without creating log jams.
Zzaj: I've told you before that my own experiences with treatment lead me to believe that music CAN be the "best friend" so many of us never had (or never realized, anyway). What are your views on that, especially on the ability of music to help heal folks around the world?
Michael: Music heals. There are no two ways about it. I also believe music carries an energy we don't fully understand. To me music is the language of the soul, and as such yes, it is a friend - a soul friend. I know people who listen to music to help prevent them from drinking, getting high, gambling or getting angry - it is a constant companion - it has been for me since I can remember. I remember even as a teenager after many a serious wound, trauma or breakup going to my music to gain comfort, to be soothed, or to work my way through a feeling - the Greeks knew this too. A story near and dear to my heart is the story of Orpheus - who not only could heal people with his music – but could touch the animals, rocks and trees. It was the music of the spheres - the music that connects all things. There is a saying that there was a time all things spoke the same language - and that was the language of the heart - most beautifully expressed in music. In this way, music connects us with all things - creation itself - perhaps even the origin of the universe - the pure vibration of consciousness...and compassion. It reminds us that we are all connected and that is what healing is about. Wounding, trauma and suffering is about being disconnected, lost and alone - healing is about connection and love (not being alone) - and music reminds us of that connection like nothing else.
Zzaj: What were some of your earliest experiences with the creation of music? What did you play on? Did you play with others, or were those earlier times pretty much solo?
Michael: As I mentioned before, my very earliest experiences were of self-soothing at the piano solo playing new age music WAY before the genre existed at the age of 6! I think my parents just thought I was autistic. Then I was entranced by percussion and drumming - again because of the way it could alter my consciousness - and I started playing in the school band. Most of my experiences though were solo. During difficult times - particularly in college and graduate school when I was dealing with a grueling study schedule, comprehensive exams, writing a dissertation - I would head to the practice rooms at the musical school and improvise for hours – before a big test, after an exhausting exam - it was my therapy. I also would spend hours with my synthesizers, keyboards and voice to create tapes for my best friends. I actually created 5 albums of music I never shared with anyone but family and friends - because I just had to create to stay sane. So I encourage people no matter how little equipment they may have, how little experience they might have - if they have something inside of them dying to be expressed - DO IT!!!
Zzaj: I first started out doing live poetry & spoken word, because I was too shy (at the time) to play the keyboards in front of folks... though I've grown into the playing role, I feel that I learned a great deal about how to express myself through spoken word. How does spoken word or poetry affect your own music? Or does it?
Michael: That's awesome Dick! I didn't know you were a poet and are sharing your poetry with others - it's such a gift. And yes, sometimes we need a stepping stone. Next to music, poetry is my favorite creative outlet and is nearest and dearest to my heart. I just published last year my first book of poetry, Moments, and we are looking at doing a spoken word/audio play of Siyotanka next year. I have written and performed in a number of plays and I see the process as very similar to music - they both are arts that deal with time. I also have a free offering on my new website which just launched this last week - the Healing Meditation Page - that has a cut from Ocean, "Moonlit Sea," an amazing special effects video I created, and a meditation I guide the listener through. As much as I love all instruments - the human voice to me is the most intimate and beautiful instrument on the planet - if used in the right way. Words are packets of sound energy laden with meaning - a form of music - and when people realize the power of the voice I think people would be much more conscious of what they say and how they say it. After this next album Earth that will be released in late 2010 - my next project is called, "Voices" - and will be almost entirely my voice used in some very non-traditional ways. I'm very excited about it!
Zzaj: Everyone (I believe) has a player who "inspired" them more than others did... who was that for you? If there are too many to itemize, just pick the 1 or 2 who are at the top of your list.
Michael: Yes, there are many - I'll share with you three. There have been three times I’ve been stopped dead in my tracks by the sound of a musician. Keith Jarrett was the first one that totally blew open my mind and heart to what music could be. I had no idea it could be so free. I'll never forget hearing 'Facing You' for the first time. I was coming in from a grueling chemistry class and my roommate Bill Schulz a guitarist was playing Keith Jarrett's Facing You - and it literally brought tears to my eyes - and had me laughing and giggling like a little kid at the same time. Since I was a kid I improvised at the piano and his music validated the power and importance of playing in the moment out of nothing...I still get emotional thinking about it. The second time was when I first heard the Native American Flute - it was on a little cassette of R. Carlos Nakai called Earth Spirit. I was heading up to do this very traditional vision quest in Alberta Canada and I found this cassette in one of the lodges in Glacier National Park - again tears flowed as I drove through this amazing landscape and saw eagles flying in the sky hearing Nakai play this instrument that pierced my heart like an arrow and began the healing process I mentioned earlier. Finally, David Darling's music, friendship and mentorship has inspired me in ways I can't even put into words - and when David plays the cello I am just reduced to a puddle.
Zzaj: I have some friends who fancy themselves to be "musical therapists", using drum circles and other group-based activities to draw folks out of themselves. Have you done any of that? If so, please tell us a bit about how you do it, what instruments you like to work with & what you find to be the most effective ways to reach people. If you haven't, as an educator/musician, tell us if you think such groups have merit & value, please.
Michael: Yes, it's central to a lot of my work. I've presented workshops, guided retreats and facilitated drum circles for well over a decade integrating music and spirituality in the healing process. These workshops over the years have become more and more about using sound and music - particularly spontaneously created improvisational music as a form of therapy and consciousness raising. The results and response have been remarkable. I'm actually a certified Music Improvisation Teacher certified through David Darling's amazing program, Music for People.
Zzaj: How do you approach the "ugly" aspects of being a player, like marketing, live performance, etc? Or do you let someone else handle that for you?
Michael: Balance is the key Dick. It's so easy to become overwhelmed and/or discouraged by it. I think having the maturity of a few decades under my belt helps a lot. I’ve had a career as a psychologist where I have run my own practice now for over 25 years which helps me take it in stride. I do a lot myself, but I’m fortunate to have some good people who help me out as well. When it gets to be too much - I sit down with my flutes, djembe or piano and just play - and immediately I remember the reason I'm doing this - I'm living my dream - sharing with others my love of music - and taking them on sonic journey for the soul - a vision I had as a child. You can endure a lot when you're living your dream - when you're following your heart - and you're doing what truly gives you joy. Music was my first love - and to share that love with others is a great gift - so that helps me keep it all in perspective.
Zzaj: One of my strongest personal beliefs is that music should be at the top of our educators' lists for tools to "get the world right"; that if we taught more music & less civics/politics, the world would be a better place... if you share that belief, please give us a bit of your vision on how that could/should be done... if not, tell us why, please.
Michael: Amen brother, amen!! My most formative and important early educational experiences were in my music classes in elementary school in Wilton, Connecticut. That is where it started for me. My first grade music teacher told my parents I had a gift for music and they should support me in developing that gift. If I hadn't had that music class they wouldn't have known that. I don't come from a family of musicians - and even with my teacher telling me that - my parents had their hesitancy and resistance about it - but it was watering that seed inside me that has given rise to so much joy in my life. Music provides a form of healing, community building, emotional release and connection that we are in desperate need of today - and yes to me it is every bit as important as reading, writing and arithmetic - perhaps more so. I like your phrase a tool for ‘getting the world right’ – again it is the language of connection – and when we feel connected we feel more at peace and are less likely to blow each other up.