An Inteview with Gregory Acker
Gregory Acker has worked as an artist-in-residence in schools, community centers, and churches for almost a decade now, helping groups explore various world musics, instrument-building, and music and storytelling performance. His current efforts utilize a homemade set of tuned percussion instruments called Gamelan Amadindas (modeled after the gamelan music of Indonesia and the multiple-player xylophone tradition of Uganda), and a homemade Ewe (West African) family of drums.
Gregory Acker is a Master Artist with Very Special Arts Indiana, and a long-term Kentucky Arts Council artist-in-residence. He has received the KAC's Al Smith Fellowship, as well as grants from the NEA, Southern Arts Federation, Greater Louisville Fund for the Arts, and the City of Louisville. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and Togo, he has also studied flute and percussion in South India. Mr. Acker recently received his MA in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
What were your first instruments, and favorite instrumental leanings. What inspired you to start building musical instruments?
I know my first instruments were the pots and pans, but that's an old story...my musical experiences while living in Africa were transformative. A disgruntled classical and jazz player (I found the forms constricting, arbitrary, and the social aspects of making music were competitive and hierarchical), I was ready for new forms of musico-social interaction. I had really never seen (or appreciated seeing) music made live which did not require written music. The sheer joy of the participants involved in the interlocking relationship between the percussion, voices, and movement was obvious, and my revelation was that, at least within the circles I previously moved, this "joy of music" familiar to many improvisers was largely absent. I began to have far more interest in both improvisation, especially as it related to flute playing, and in general to the word "play" at all.
Curiously, I also began to have a parallel interest in the interlocking percussion traditions of African and Indonesian music. They can be very rigid, but they both provide an amazing palette for observing how one player's minute variation can affect a whole group rhythm, or how one person can affect an entire community.
When I returned from the Peace Corps, I sought out improvisors and those interested in world music. A major influence, and my first recording collaborator, was Mark Englert, who is an incredibly inventive improvisor and instrument-builder. Mark's building aesthetic, enforced by a low-income lifestyle, incorporates many found objects. I learned a great deal from him.
I began by building drums, which was the one type of instrument Mark did not build. I expanded to string instruments, built using driftwood from the Ohio River, amplified using contact mics, and later experimented with simple wind instruments like didgeridoos and struck aerophones. While at graduate school, I researched and developed a Karnatak flute-making process, and I continue to provide the instruments for Tanjore Viswanathan (the South Indian flute/vocal teacher at Wesleyan).
The majority of my instruments have evolved to further my interests in community music participation. I build many instruments, which can be played by more than one player at a time, and have also developed instrument-building workshops to help people make their own.
Most recently, I have been working with homemade gamelan-style instruments, and have built several sets for schools, community groups, and a church. I've also recently completed a PVC Ewe drum set, and just finished using these for the first time in an artist residency this month. My approach in building these instruments--and in developing the teaching processes I use when working as an artist-in-residence--has been to offer groups an affordable, accessible entry into these musical cultures.
I must confess to another reason for making my own instruments. When I returned from Africa, I stumbled into the huge debate over "authenticity." I now defer to John Cage on this subject, who commented:
once anything happens, it authentically is
Authenticity is a sharp razor, but in my opinion it is not always appropriate in the arts, where we could use a few more good hoes and lots more fertilizer.
But by making my own instruments, no one could tell me how they were supposed to be played; I could develop my own traditions with them. This only became an issue when I was fully aware of the impossibility of "mastering" any of the musical traditions of other cultures which drew me. Lately, it has seemed to me like a well-rounded musician, familiar and comfortable with many different musical styles and forms--but master of none--might be one definition of mastery in our multicultural society.
What have been your traditional influences?
The clarity of the ethnomusicological approach (on issues like instrument organology and documentation of performance practice, anyway) has helped me to describe the background of techniques which influence my instrumental and musical creations more accurately. Perhaps it has been most helpful in helping me to say what it is I am not doing. Naturally though, intense study with teachers from Ghana, Java, and South India has given me more to say in teaching about these musics, and about teaching in general. In terms of providing instruments which are reasonable facsimiles of the instruments from these cultures, so that people in my circles can begin to experience different ways of musical connection, I always laugh when people ask me about "the real instruments." The ones I didn't make.
As long as I've known you, you've been a teacher. What were the evolutionary steps in your teaching aspirations? What motivates you to teach?
When I was a college student, I figured out four things that I wanted to do in my life: music, theater, writing, and teaching. I assumed for some time that these would be discreet activities. But it has turned out much better--I do them all at once. My professional work consistently involves storytelling (writing/theater/movement), music, and then teaching others to do these things in a group setting. I think the reason I teach the way I do--aspiring to maximum group participation--is a direct result of experiencing social participation in the arts/rituals in Africa.
Lately, I have begun to view non-institutionalized opportunities more seriously. Today, three kids from the neighborhood stopped by to see if I had any popsicles (it is February, but unseasonably warm). I told them I was working on some drums, and they wanted to meet "the family." We jammed for quite a while, and I shared some rhythms with them, and then let them lead me in "George, George, George of the jungle..." Of course, it is hard to be available for things like this consistently, when the evil god Lakkamani is lurking around every corner.
Describe the project with the kids in the juvenile detention center.
My gamelan set is designed to be maximally inclusive--to enable people who claim not to be musicians or composers to compose and perform group music quickly, in the hopes that early satisfaction will lead to more musical activity. The instruments are easy to play, and composition is facilitated by numbering the keys of the instruments. We use compositional structures modeled on Javanese gamelan music: basic melodies punctuated by colotomic (time-keeping) instruments. Generally, 2nd graders can learn to play the instruments and compose a piece in an hour or less. With more time, players generally memorize the basic structure of the pieces, and are then free to expand improvisationally upon what they composed, with the ability to revert back to the basic part if they "get lost" or over-reach. The colotomic parts (gongs, lower chimes) give players a reference point for rejoining the main melody at any time.
As a result of the accessibility of the instruments and the music-making processes, I have had a lot of interest from Very Special Arts programs (a national organization with state branches, which fund arts for people with disabilities). Through VSA, residencies featuring the gamelan and accompanying shadow-puppet shows have occurred in youth day treatment centers, special education classrooms, as a university practicum, and lately with detained juveniles.
Youth in detention are a special population. They are mostly very smart, very disenfranchised from "regular" society, suspicious of authority (I could be describing a few free improvisors I know:-).
During my two one-week residencies with them, I adopted the following approach: I suggested that my instruments and processes could be viewed by them as tools to deliver a message to the outside world, which was ignoring them because they were teenagers, and incarcerated ones at that. I asked them to choose an intended audience that they could teach, and they chose young kids. Through brainstorming, discussion, and consensual decision-making, we developed 6 shadow-show advice videos with gamelan music. The topics they covered included: don't steal, don't do drugs, stay in school, don't join a gang, question peer pressure, and wait to have sex. The detention center staff allowed the youth to really explore these topics, which helped a great deal, though of course it resulted in puppets with "crack pipes" and semi-automatic weapons.
What other types of residencies have you done?
Other residencies have occurred with local arts councils, business associations, churches, and city/county-funded summer youth camps, all of which want a youth arts activity that kids really enjoy, and which includes a performance element to demonstrate the value of the activity to parents and community funding sources.
How does Puppetmaking tie in with improvisation?
Involving shadow puppetry along with the gamelan music, an Indonesian tradition, means that students can participate in a wide variety of artistic disciplines. This includes music, both instrumental as well as singing, visual arts, and movement. I use multiple puppeteers, and they develop an intricate, improvised "ballet" behind the screen, playing with shadow size, drama, improvising or writing scenes for the puppets. The entire experience feels very complete to me. It is also one of the few instances in residency work where I have been able to really play with my students; I usually do the main drumming for the gamelan, and no holds barred! My polyrhythmic explorations actually seem to inspire the students to include rhythmic variations on their parts, which helps give the music more texture and is also more fun for them. I also sometimes play suling (Javanese flute), with one or more students improvising along with me.
Tell us some highlights in your work. Did the kids write the script or did you? what was the ratio of music, text, improv theatre, character building, rehearsing vs. creating vs. performing... Can you include some text from some of the events?
The juvenile detention work is probably the most satisfying combination of art and social activism I've done to date. My own agenda with the work was that the youth would take their own messages seriously enough to develop them carefully. Also, that they would find satisfaction in giving back to the community in a positive, helpful way, and that they would begin to abandon destructive and self-destructive patterns of behavior as a result. I also wanted to prepare the youth to discuss this project with their judges and probation officers--to give them something positive to say about themselves. By encouraging individual contributions to a group product, I felt I was offering the youth the opportunity to both "fit-in" as well as retain their individuality. I wanted them to question "the way things are" and to live with the questions--to let the questions be a part of our work together.
That's very positive. What about difficulties?
Most of the difficulties during this project stemmed from the opposite approaches necessitated by collaborative arts projects and "behavior management" facilities.
Collaborative arts projects work best when participants feel free to contribute any idea or direction for the work--especially at the start--when discussion is unbounded, and where participants' feelings about the content of the work and about the process are elicited in order to begin shaping the work. As the project evolves, participants must then "take ownership" of what we have developed, honor the decisions made by the group along the way, and concentrate more completely on the agreed-upon activities/directions. There is a narrowing of freedom in this sense.
The "behavioral management" approaches most commonly used in detention begin with little or no freedom for new detainees, whose good behavior under these circumstances results in increased freedom. After the heady initial experience of some artistic/personal freedom, a few students were reluctant to restrict their behavior in order to achieve a coherent final group product. This may have been especially so because the work focused on the reasons that many of the youth were in the Center to begin with. This focus made the work extremely personal, and raised many difficult emotions for all of us. (I was a juvenile offender once myself).
One rather amusing incident occurred during the writing of the "Wait to Have Sex" segment. After my careful explanation of the elements I thought would make a memorable little song (good rhythm to the words, and an end-rhyme), one student volunteered, "Cover your stump before you hump." It was one of the few contributions from this particular youth, the class loved it, and I just knew it would never make it in the door of the elementary school. But how was I to bring him to realize this? It took me a while to remember that the focus of the piece was on waiting to have sex, not on having safe sex, and our song evolved later into "If you wait to date, things will turn out great; understand the plan--it's hugs and holding hands." Perhaps dating does lead to sex.
This work of the youth in detention is currently being edited for a videotape to be distributed through the public schools in Southern Indiana.
How did you become involved with a multi-generational church gamelan project? What's that all about?
While I was in graduate school, I gave a presentation about my work with the homemade gamelan instruments, and one of the attendees was the music director at a local church. He and his wife hoped to start a youth program, and asked me to do some workshops. Gamelan proved popular not just with youth, but with entire families, who could all participate in this music-making approach. We developed two gamelan church services, including gamelan versions of traditional hymns, and new songs that we composed. The church leaders were impressed enough by this multi-generational involvement that they earmarked funds to buy a set of instruments from me. The accessibility of the instruments proved itself again in this context because one of the parishioners is blind, and he was able to drum and play gong with the group.
Are your after-school projects funded? Do you write the grants and run them through non-profit organizations, or do the administrators write them and then hire you?
It works both ways. Financially, I am unable to offer any of my work for free, so grants or fundraising are mandatory. Often, I do work in advance of receiving the money, which is sometimes a bit risky, but it usually comes out all right sooner or later. I generally co-write my grants with organizers, so that their needs are addressed appropriately, and my approaches are clearly delineated. Each project has different goals, different participants, and a different time-frame, but the essentials (group involvement in collective creativity with individual options) remain the same.
So when you run these gamelan orchestras, and nobody has to be able to read music, how is it organized.
Perhaps I should clarify the "no one has to be able to read music" statement, for we are reading music (at the start anyway), but not Western notation. In most situations, the group composes short, cyclical pieces following a Javanese balungan (musical "skeleton") pattern, which dictates where certain time-keeping instruments will play, and which provides a series of numbers for the musicians. The time-keepers help to orient those who "get lost" (and emphasize inter-dependence), and the drum serves as the tempo indicator. I use certain drum cues to indicate dynamic changes, which are often dictated to me by the needs of the puppet scene being played out (loud and fast for action, soft and slow for dialogue). When these things happen is purely up to the puppeteers, which is why cyclical music, without a set number of repeats, works so well. So there is notation, but most of the pieces are short enough that the players can memorize them within one playing. That's when the fun begins!
I demonstrate lots of possible interlocking parts for various instruments to play, and players often generate their own. When a player is unable to do this in the rhythm of the piece, or falters, I always encourage them to return to the basic balungan (one note per beat) until they feel comfortable enough to branch out again. I have done a few free improv versions of the gamelan, and the tuning of the instruments enables this to sound quite musical even to non-free-improvers, provided the rhythm is stable.
Occasionally, students have composed pieces which incorporate free improvisation, usually creating a mood or natural environment. "Random Raindrops before a Thunderstorm" was one. Another was "Random swooping waves" up and down on the instruments to accompany an underwater scene. Working with adults, I've composed a free improv piece which combined a wind quintet playing only non-gamelan notes with the gamelan finding the pitch generated by the largest instrument and improvising rhythmically on that pitch, once they find it. This piece was part of a two-hour shadow show I wrote while at Wesleyan, which involved about 20 college and community musicians/puppeteers, and an after-school gamelan program of 25 4th and 5th graders.
All of the pieces have elements of free improv, but these are usually reserved for what the Javanese refer to as "flowering instruments"-- instruments like the suling (flute) and celempung (zither) which ornament the basic patterns. The drumming is also usually improvised, though rhythmic. Some times the drumming accentuates the physicality of the puppets.
So far, the mix of composed and improvised opportunities has worked well with most groups, where people want to "fit in" with a large group, but may also want to express their individuality. I also like the fact that the players are free to choose if and when they will go out on the improv limb.
Are you still involved with Ut Gret? What's up with Ut Gret?
Ut Gret, that infamous pan-idiomatic improvising ensemble begun in Santa Cruz, transplanted to Louisville, is still at it! Joee Conroy, the remaining founding member, is still the hub of the wheel, and we perform regularly (though unpredictably) in Louisville and occasionally elsewhere (when invited--Ahem!). We will be playing a rather unusual wedding this spring (our last wedding gig resulted in a rather rapid divorce, but I don't think that was our fault), and we will be presenting our musical approaches to the University of Louisville next month. The ensemble, which swells and shrinks according to musician availability and musical avenues pursued, has recently begun to use more of my homemade instruments. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we will release a CD of my instruments being played by various incarnations of Ut Gret.
In summarizing, what else would you like to say about your work?
One thing I have realized about my work with my homemade versions of gamelan and with the Ewe drums is that it straddles a number of fences. It derives from a traditional or "classical" music, albeit from somewhere else. It is cross-cultural. It has elements of improvisation and composition. And it often mingles with a number of other art forms. This results in many good conversations about the purpose of music in our lives, and the state of the arts in terms of community participation in most environments. I love the fact that in Indonesia, playing in the village, gamelan is considered a form of community service, and I wish that "just doing it" (music, that is) in whatever way--free improv, rock band, orchestra, drum circle--were more prevalent and more relevant to our daily lives here. I love to convince people, through experiences they have with my ensembles, that there are many different ways to carry a tune besides just your standard bucket.