Talks with Ann Licater
Following the Call
CEV: Do you remember when music first became an important part of your life and were there any artists or compositions that you remember as having a motivational effect on you at the time?
AL: Music has always been a part of my life. My parents encouraged all the kids to play an instrument. I don't know why I chose silver flute but it always seemed to be the perfect instrument for me. At that time, the influential flute players were Tim Weisberg, Paul Horn and Ian Anderson so I think the improvisational nature of their playing really affected me. I am naturally attracted to improvisational performances because they are so organic.
CEV: When was it that you started to play an instrument yourself? What instrument did you play and was this your choice and why?
AL: I was ten. I remember choosing between a flute and a violin but I don't know if those were my choices or my parents suggestions.
CEV: Tell me about your formal classical music training. What is it that classical music training imparts to the person who has studied it once they begin experimenting with other musical forms?
AL: I trained at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis and played with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra for a season. My teacher was a principal flutist in a regional orchestra. She did note early on that I liked to play the classical pieces in my own way. During my lessons, I wasn't always playing in metered time which was my natural inclination to "improv" and have the music more my own. Formal musical training gives you the basics so you can create from a solid foundation. My teacher also introduced me to harmonics which was a fascinating thing me-- to play one note and over blow it creating layers and layers of related tones. I still use this technique today.
CEV: Why were you drawn to the more improvisational aspects of music and how did this change your approach to playing as it became more entrenched in your style?
AL: My early influences were flutists who experimented with the traditional approach of playing. Since our household was musical we were also exposed to other genres through recordings and concerts. I heard players like jazz-great Keith Jarrett and was captivated. I loved that a musician could play a piece emotionally and express themselves fully at that moment. I feel the same way about Peter Kater's music, too. When I discovered the Native American flute, I realized that I could express myself through this instrument and make the music my own.
CEV: Once you let go of the more traditional aspects of music where was it that you feel you were being led by your music? And how did deeper listening and connecting to your music change how you perceived what it was that you were doing with your music?
AL: The best word to describe my transition to the Native American flute is becoming comfortable with who I am as a person. When you play solo with just a little reverb through a mic, without any music, it is a very intimate experience. You learn to trust that this authentically personal expression will be appreciated by others. When I listen deeply to my inner-self and express that through the flutes, it becomes the ultimate connection to an audience. In a way, they are experiencing the music at the same time I am.
CEV: Things really changed for you when you attended a Native American powwow at Stanford in 2001. What was it that happened there and exactly how did it change your perception of what you were doing with your music?
AL: The first powwow I attended was at Stanford University in Northern California where I live. I heard the haunting sound of a flute over the crowd and followed it to a booth where I eventually purchased my first flute. I was literally "Following the Call." Since I play silver flute it was easy for me to pick up a Native American flute. What struck me was how the simple act of breathing into a piece of hollowed wood evoked the most incredible, pure sound. Of course I was testing and playing gorgeous hand-crafted instruments so that had a lot to do with it. It just spoke to me. I quickly intuited that this instrument had so much to offer me so the next weekend I went to another powwow and bought two more flutes including one made of clay from the Mayan region of Mexico. I use this flute on two of my tracks: "Numinous Gateway" and "Beloved." It is made by a very special man, Xavier Quijas Yxayotl. All of my flute makers are listed in my liner notes, with contact information for listeners who want to begin a journey with their own flute or just learn more about these beautiful instruments.
CEV: What was it like to trade in the silver flute for the bamboo, redwood and clay flutes that dominated your music after the powwow? Was there any hesitation on your part about making the switch and were there any lingering doubts about giving up something you had been playing for most of your life?
AL: I still play the silver flute and enjoy improvising more on that instrument. I still play chamber music because I love collaborating with others and there is something calming about playing classical music. In fact I recently purchased a silver bass flute which is one octave below a silver flute. I play this in concert with my other Native American and World flutes because the sound is so beautiful.
CEV: As best you can describe in words what new dimensions did this switch add to your music and why is it that this wasn't possible with the silver flute that you used to play?
AL: I really think the natural elements of wood and clay flutes and the simple construction make the sound more pure which allows me to connect more deeply with the audience. This "new" dimension is really an ancient one.
CEV: Your approach to music changed for sure but more to a personal point what changes did this new direction bring about in you as a person not only your approach to music but in how you approached life in general?
AL: At the time I discovered the Native American flute I was in a graduate program at Naropa University studying spirituality with Matthew Fox. It seemed natural that while I was reconnecting with my own spirituality I would find an instrument through which I could improvise and create compositions that felt like my own. This was a perfect union of my inner being with my outward expression and natural talents. The combination of deep spiritual study and discovering an instrument that is so personal to play makes me more authentic in how I approach life.
CEV: Last year you released a CD called Following the Call with a subtitle of Flute Music for Meditation and Inspiration. When did you first started working on this CD, did you have a definite direction in mind for the music that would eventually become a part of this CD?
AL: I had been getting requests for a CD back in 2003 when I was playing a lot in Northern California. It got to a point where people where asking for a CD after every appearance. But the actual concept of Following the Call began about the time I began a week-long intensive at the Renaissance of the Native American Flute co-taught by R. Carlos Nakai. It was here that I realized I have enough material for an album and I can make this happen pretty quickly. About two months later I met my co-producer, Gentle Thunder. We were both attending an International Native American Flute Association (INAFA)conference and I followed my intuition to ask her to help shape the project. I know I made a great choice because Gentle Thunder was then nominated for a GRAMMY for a CD that she not only produced but also was the featured artist. As to the direction, I always felt that my debut CD would be a reflection of both my journey of discovering the flutes (I play different flutes on my CD) and my personal journey of following my call.
CEV: Since you work in a more improvisational style tell me about the process that you go through when writing music for a project such as Following the Call. Is it that much different than someone who would be composing classical music and getting ready to record it?
AL: I want to mention that not all my compositions are improvised. They may begin that way, but once I create a melody line or motif then that becomes a distinct part of a song. I then notate this on staff paper and record through home studio software so I can recall the piece later on. I sent these initial tracks to my engineer and co-producer so they could get a feel for where I was going with the album. For the improvised pieces, I just played whatever felt right at the time. I was so lucky to have an amazing engineer and co-producer (Brian Todd at Rough Giraffe Studios) with a studio situated in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The breathtaking view of Redwood trees from the window was so moving. In fact, one of my favorite songs, Track #8 "Three Graces" was laid down in one take with no previous rehearsal. It was purely inspired by the view out the window. Afterwards, I had to teach myself that song so I could play it in concert because I was not "there" when it was recorded.
CEV: Who was your co producer on this CD and what role did they play in shaping the music that ended up on this disc?
AL: I had two co-producers. I feel very fortunate that GRAMMY-nominated multi-instrumentalist Gentle Thunder agreed to work on the project. She is intuitive, has a keen musical sensibility and is really, really smart. That's a great combination to have in a producer. Brian Todd is so much more than an engineer so I credited him as a co-producer while the album was being created. His ear is phenomenal plus he had some amazing connections in terms of getting the perfect recording equipment for this project.
Native American flutes have many subtle nuances with all their transient, harmonic and sub-harmonic tones so we actually used three different mics to record and would choose each track based on which mic worked best for each particular flute and song. We had many discussions about mic placement, spacing between tracks and length of songs so we ended up with the ideal combination which I think makes this CD so special. Both Gentle Thunder and I were recently nominated in the same category for "Best Native American Album "for the New Age Reporter 2007 LifeStyle Music Awards. Brian Todd engineered both CDs. I feel GT and Brian definitely brought magic to the studio.
CEV: Was it deliberately decided to keep the compositions shorter and to the point rather than let them wander around and become longer pieces and perhaps lose their focus?
AL: Yes, and yes. I wanted to have a CD that expressed a journey and that can be challenging with just one instrument such as a flute. One way we worked around this perceived limitation is to make the body of work textural. So, I used different types of flutes which included varying keys, tones, tonal ranges, materials (wood and clay) and song lengths. We limited the use of effects (other than reverb) to keep the sound natural and direct and to have a continuity among the tracks.
CEV: What are your impressions of the recording process and were you comfortable working in the studio? Does the recording process still allow for the ability to improvise the music and make changes even during the process?
AL: I have been around recording studios all my adult life. I spent many years working in radio and doing voiceovers so I am very comfortable in that environment. I certainly had the opportunity to improvise during the process--it's easier as a solo player. Although some of the songs on "Following the Call" sound like we recorded on multitracks, that is not the case. I am playing drone and double flutes on these. We did bring in a Tibetan Bowl player on Track #5, "Sacred Moon" so this was the only multi-tracked piece. Each song was recorded about three times so I had opportunity to change it up a bit on each take.
CEV: Did the CD that was finally released catch the vision that you had in mind for it when you first started work on the project?
AL: Absolutely. It really is amazing how that happened. Originally, I was inspired to create a body of work that featured a variety of flutes that wove together a story of the Heroes Journey. I imagined the hero following her call on a spiral-journey to the inner world where she connected to her purpose. Along the way she meets her "Beloved." She continues on her path finding old souls and other mentors until she returns to the kingdom with a renewed sense of self-awareness--coming "Full Circle." This determined the flow of music and how the songs were named. What really stood out for me was that the CD came together as a story after we recorded it. It was such an organic process to play certain songs on specific flutes and then choose the order based on the story it was creating sonically. I am delighted at how the CD evolved into the fixed form yet still lives and breathes into new possibilities as listeners go on their own journey when they experience the CD.
CEV: Beyond just the listening experience what are your hopes for those who buy your CD in terms of what it might accomplish in their lives?
AL: This music was designed so that people can have their own deep personal experience. I encourage people to journal or meditate to see what they can uncover about themselves. As I am writing this I opened an email from a mother who heard track #5 on "Sacred Moon" through Soundscapes which is a national cable music station. She said her baby daughter calmed down and fell asleep to the music. She was amazed. I am never surprised when people talk about how the music affects them, their children and even their pets.
I am delighted that everyone has their own experience and they notice it.
This is not background music. It really does move you to another place of being if you are open to it.
CEV: You are also involved in teaching a workshop called Flute for the Soul. What are these all about and what could someone who signed up for one of these expect in terms of what is taught and what goals they might have for taking the workshop?
AL: The purpose of the Flute for the Soul workshop is to help people get into a place of meditation and receptivity so they can explore a question from their "soul" while experiencing their natural creativity through journaling, drawing and collage work. Through this exploration which Matthew Fox calls "Art as Meditation," people can explore a "soul" question such as "What had been calling me lately?" or "Is there something I can let go of which will help me get back on my path?" The use of the Native American flute played live in this workshop helps people tap into their intuitive nature and offers a comfortable environment for self-expression, too. The result will be a more focused understanding of the answer to the questions raised in the workshop and another way to use flute music to get in touch with our inner being. This is why it is a self-discovery class--you take the time to ask these meaningful questions. It is a chance to relax and get in touch with ourselves. The work shop is titled "Flute for the Soul" because it uses the instrument to connect within and transform unconscious thoughts and ideas into manifested form. Amazing creations come out of these workshops such as beautiful poetry (from people who have never written a poem before) drawings of universal symbolism (such as a key or a door) or even a collage of photos that becomes a dream board for someone who envisions a different job or place to live.
CEV: I noticed in your bio that you studied with R. Carlos Nakai as well. What was that like for you?
AL: I had an opportunity to train under R. Carlos Nakai at an intensive called the "Renaissance of the Native American flute." He co-taught this amazing week-long class with scholars, ethnomusicologists and players of the Native American flute. I highly recommend this way to study and encourage anyone reading this who is interested in the flutes to explore this passion. It is exciting to share knowledge in a class setting in the mountains of Montana!
I learned from R. Carlos that knowing yourself and your ancestral roots was as important as mastering technique and breath control. I since have gone on a journey to learn more about my ancestors. In fact, I just learned that my maternal grandmother was a talented accordion player so now I know my musical roots are connected through her.
CEV: How do you see your music or music in general as being tied into spirituality and personal discovery? How does music broach these subjects and help a person to look deeper within?
AL: I believe Native American flute music can instantly transport listeners to another place and time. This gives them an opportunity to open to their intuitive side and to make a deeper connection with themselves and their own spirituality. That has been my personal experience and something I hear over and over through people who listen to Native American flute music.
CEV: And finally what are your plans for the immediate future in terms of your music and your workshops? Anything special coming up that you'd like to share with our readers?
AL: I am very excited and honored to be returning to the Zion Canyon Art and Flute Festival this summer in Utah. Last year I was on their Rising Star Stage and this year I have a full concert scheduled for June 13, 2008. I also plan to be at the INAFA conference held at University of WI- Eau Claire campus in July. This is another wonderful organization. My year will also include appearances in Northern California where I live. I am planning a trip to Chicago and collaborating with an artist who paints to my music. We are thinking about a gallery showing and concert. One of my favorite experiences is playing with other musicians. I have a second album in the works which will include collaboration with other instrumentalists and will continue in my improvisational style. I will certainly keep you posted on that. People can check out my upcoming projects and events at http://www.fluteforthesoul.com or through http://www.myspace.com/annlicater.
CEV: Thank you Ann for taking time out to share your thoughts with the readers of Cutting Edge Voices about your music and how it has been such a large part of your life. I'm sure that there are future chapters to this story and we will be watching and listening to see where you go from here.