AN OPEN LETTER TO STEF-ON
 I do not have your email address and cannot find a specific web site for you
http://www.stefonharris.com says reserved for the future.
The message I would like to relay is this:
I loved everything you said in your Border's interview...I finally found someone else who truly understands the music-physics thing and sounds as crazy as me when trying to describe the phenomena!  Wouldn't you know it would be someone who chooses to play vibes and marimbas, and would dedicate the project to Milt Jackson?  Total agreement with what you said about kids being exposed to violence and redeemed through music or at least "forced to draw on a different side of their personalities, which they may not even realize existed”.  It is cool that zin-zang hope is everywhere.
 Peace and happy "big 3-oh yes" bday to you soon. Becky

 

STEFON'S VIBE -- Stefon Harris says that when the Troy Music Hall in New York offered to commission a new work from him, he hadn't been focusing on the musical side of his life. In fact, he says he was more engrossed in such seemingly disparate disciplines as physics, poetry, and Spanish, but he was actively seeking a conduit with which to channel his many interests. Dedicated to the late Milt Jackson, The Grand Unification Theory provides just that, as the young vibraphone and marimba master skillfully guides an agile 12-member ensemble. In this interview, Harris discusses his magnum opus.


 

Grand Unification Theory
Stefon Harris

 

 

 

 

Unity of Spirit: A Conversation with Stefon Harris
Conducted by Tim Pulice

Stefon HarrisStefon Harris says that his decision to concentrate on vibraphone and marimba was a random one. Growing up in Albany, New York, Harris learned to play everything from piano to clarinet to drums, eventually earning a spot in the percussion section of the Empire State Youth Orchestra and hoping to become timpanist for the New York Philharmonic. But once he heard the music of Charlie Parker, Harris says, he was blown away not only by the saxophonist's astonishing technique but also by his spiritual liberation, hooking Harris on the possibilities inherent in jazz.

The jazz world finds itself hooked on Harris, too, the 29-year old's recordings consistently turning the heads of critics and devotees. Commissioned by the Troy Music Hall, he led a 12-member ensemble into the studio for his latest composition, an exploration of some heady subject matter: The Grand Unification Theory. The title derives from a concept in physics that postulates links between gravity, electromagnetic energy, strong nuclear energy, and weak nuclear energy. "Physicists believe that if they can find some connection between all these forces, they'll have the answers to our creation and our history," he says.


How long had you been planning such an ambitious, sweeping project, and what first got you interested in this theory?

Stefon Harris: At the time I was offered the commission, I was studying a variety of subjects besides music: physics, poetry, Spanish. I have very eclectic interests. At first, I was thinking about not taking it because I hadn't been focusing much on music. But then I came across this theory in quantum physics, which basically says that, for example, gravity and electromagnetic energy are the same force; they just appear to be different at different energy levels. I found that to be a very spiritual concept. So I started to apply that to my own situation—studying Spanish and physics and all these different subjects—and I tried to find the way to bring all of those things together so that they could be expressed through one idiom. And that idiom is music, of course. It made a lot of sense to see things in a more holistic manner.

There's an Einstein quote: "All religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling the man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom."

What's better: the composing or the improvising?

SH: Hey, that's a good question. I don't know if I can compare the two. Philosophically, I look at them as the same. Composition is a slower form of improvisation. I've had moments where it's so clear that the music is revealed to you when you're on the bandstand. You don't have to think of something you're going to play; when you're hot and everything is on, you can hear exactly where you want the music to get louder, exactly what harmonic things to do. You want to think as little as possible [Laughing.] and become a vehicle for the music.

Generally when composing, I'm out of bed first thing in the morning and go right to my piano. My mind is at its freshest. The first two minutes will tell me if something's going to come out or not. But for The Grand Unification Theory, I was striving to unify all these various interests in my life. I would pick a topic and meditate on that topic, sit at the piano and wouldn't play, try to get myself in that mood. I focused on visual things—dance movements—and tried to capture them sonically as well as emotionally.

When you're just observing everyday life—say, a car drives down the street or the wind rustles a tree—is that an inspiration for the way you write music?

SH: I actually practice things like that. I'll go to a crowded environment and I'll sit and listen to the various things that are going on around me and try to absorb all of them, and try to maintain clarity of all of them. If I'm sitting in a park and someone's having a conversation behind me, I'm trying to listen to that conversation and understand what they're saying. And then, as a bus goes by, I'm hearing the sound of that bus traveling and I'm trying to focus on that and maintain the content of the conversation behind me as a new element is introduced. What that does for me is heighten my sense of awareness so that when I go up on the bandstand, I can keep track of all the things that are happening. I'm hearing so much detail now because I focused on listening. Jazz to me is one of the greatest examples of democracy. In my quartet there'll be four individuals of different religious and socio/economic backgrounds, and all of that is totally irrelevant. Everyone brings something to the table; we trust one another and respect one another so that, if someone makes a statement that's a little different, we don't walk away. We all take that leap of faith with them and go in that direction.

Why did you stick with vibraphone and marimba as opposed to the many other instruments you've tried?

SH: Instruments aren't that important to me. Ultimately, it's the story that you have to tell, and as you're playing one instrument or another it may highlight different sides of your personality. Like if you're a very center-of-attention type, you might play trumpet because it's a more vociferous instrument. I tend to be more subtle and the vibraphone ended up being appropriate for my personality. I'm very energetic but it's not that I want to be loud and the center of attention all the time. The vibraphone can give you that because it has the percussive side but then it's such a beautiful, warm, almost glassy-sounding instrument. If you play it the right way, it creates this warm blanket of sound around the entire ensemble.

When you're playing, and especially when you're improvising, are you speaking to yourself or to people who are listening? In other words, when you're striking the bars with your mallets, are you hearing words in your mind that tell a story?

SH: Absolutely. One of the most essential parts of music for me, is it's the art of communication. You're not necessarily communicating in a verbal language but, ultimately, the goal is to take something from within yourself and have that communicated to the audience. So I'm thinking in terms of communication. When I'm playing, if people look closely they'll notice a lot of times I'm mouthing sentences except I'm taking the words away. So I'm taking the rhythmic cadence of the English language because that's the language I speak most comfortably [Laughing.] and I'm using those rhythms because I think we use all the elements of music when we're speaking to one another. My whole approach to music is very natural [Laughing]. Even when I'm teaching music, I don't think it's my responsibility to teach someone something; my responsibility is to help them realize what they already have.

How has your relationship with jazz changed over the years, especially as you've become a bandleader yourself? Is it still the same liberating experience as when you first began?

SH: My relationship with jazz has changed. It's gotten back to the initial impact it had on me. It's like this cycle in life; the older I get, psychologically the closer I get to the way I thought when I was a child. My introduction to jazz was that I heard liberation; I heard the individuality of a Charlie Parker. I was fascinated with that. But then, when I began to study in college, and they're telling me that I have to learn someone else's style and have to play bebop, I sort of lost some of myself in jazz. All through college, I was writing my own music and kept doing my own thing but after I got out of school and had a record contract and my own band, I was able to refocus. Jazz took on a far greater meaning for me, apart from studying the history of it and recreating sounds from the past. It is a representation of my inner spirit.

Many musicians talk about the similarities between sports and music. Are you a sports fan, and do you see the connection between what athletes are doing and what you and your colleagues are doing on stage or in a recording studio?

SH: [Laughing.] Absolutely. Boxing is my favorite sport so I don't want to see too many similarities between boxing and music. We don't want to beat each other up. But I'm a big New Jersey Nets fan. You look at Jason Kidd and, without even looking, he knows exactly where his teammates are going to be and can get the basketball to them. It’s truly a collective effect. I see a lot of very direct connections.

I used to be a wrestler myself so I'm really into watching people who have great instincts. It's amazing to me that someone can see something coming that fast, get out of the way, and respond at the same time. That type of intellect is very impressive, something that's important in jazz. It's a team effort on the bandstand; you're sharing the ideas, you're passing the ball. My name may be on the marquee but there are thousands of decisions made in an hour when you're on the bandstand and I'm certainly making less than 50% of those decisions. I've realized that the overall output is going to be far greater if you can utilize the strengths of everyone around you, as opposed to having a band where it's my band and I'm going to do things exactly the way I want them. With my ensembles, you are hearing me but you're also hearing several other individuals; you're hearing how all of these people interact. It's truly a democracy.

You've also played on several classical recordings. Do you have a favorite composer?

SH: My favorite has always been Stravinsky. He's so colorful and able to change moods at the drop of a dime. He can take you from the most intense feeling to the gentlest feeling in a matter of five seconds and you don't notice that it's different. [Laughing.] That's magical. I like to look at musicians as emotional engineers. That's something that I aspire to, to be able to play a piece like "Rebirth," on The Grand Unification Theory and have people understand it without words, understand it in their own way but to be with you on the edge of their seats. You're almost controlling them, even though it's not you; it's the music.

What do you think music does for an average listener—for people who aren't in the business of making music? What does music do for you?

SH: It's kind of complicated because I'm reaching a point where I've been able to be more of a listener to jazz. Most of the years I've been studying. Every day I had to practice, had to listen, wanted to learn more and more. But I found that I was such an active listener that I was always listening for, "Oh, what is that? Maybe I can utilize that.'" I think the experience for me may be different. For someone who doesn't hear those types of intricate details it could mean anything. The best compliment that I ever got was from a woman who had had brain surgery and the doctors said that she needed to go in for another; she had a 50/50 chance of making it. She was at one of my shows and heard a song I wrote called "After the Day is Done." She came up to me after the concert and said, "Can I get a recording of this? I'm allowed to listen to music as they're wheeling me into the operating room and that's the piece of music I'd like to hear."

What it meant for that woman, I can only speculate. But as for what it can do for kids… I think we miss the mark in the arts community because we're so focused on creating audiences, or creating musicians. The real gift that art gives us is self-realization, especially in tougher environments where kids are growing up; they're exposed to so much violence. They may grow up in a situation where they're forced to be tough. You have to be callous to survive that atmosphere, and spend the bulk of your time carrying that attitude. Then you pick up a clarinet or a violin and play "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. This is a piece that is so gentle, so elegant and has moments where the music absolutely dwindles away to absolute silence. That's going to force kids to draw on a different side of their personalities, which they may not even realize existed. I think music actually makes better doctors and lawyers, because, in the end, you have a better idea of who you are. [Laughing.] It's not about, "I should be a doctor," or "I should be a lawyer." You discover your passion and what's most natural for you—not to mention learning how to communicate. When you get into jazz and have such freedom in your individual voice, it's absolutely phenomenal.