Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: Big Country

I think there's a point in life when you almost feel as though you've heard everything you can hear.

Sure, there will be new stuff. Composers gonna compose, writers gonna write, musicians gonna...musish? But for me it came when I turned on the radio and heard the same conglomeration of chords arranged over a drum track with various effects and over-processed mixing thrown in. And after a while it all begins to sound the same. Literally and figuratively.

And it's not specific to genre! No, no! Each genre and station has its own cycle, predetermined I would imagine by some devious oligarchy behind the doors of iHeartRadio and Clear Channel. "This is what the masses need!" To me, listening to the radio becomes a chore of finding something that I haven't heard before that doesn't suck (sorry college radio, I really don't care about your brother's sister's counsin's grandfather's great-nephew's uncle's band he started in the back of a Waffle House with a guy on Theremin who used to be a roadie for Slipknot).

And it's not all bad music. A good song can turn into an annoying one very quickly if you hear it three or four times per day every time you get into the car. Where's the variety? I know that many radio stations simply record 4 hour chunks of airtime so that they can easily replicate a set of songs complete with announcements and introductions, but only have to have the on-air personality in studio once. 

But where can we go for a break from the norm? Where is this tightrope where musicians who skirt the line between sucking and radio fame walk precariously in between? Well, one place I've found it is with an American banjo player named Béla Fleck (b. 1958).

We came to your planet in the 18th century bearing the Ophicleide.  Sorry 'bout that one.

Fleck is widely known as one of the most technically gifted and innovative banjo players in the world. He is mostly commonly associated with the group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, comprised of himself, Victor Wooten, Futureman, and Howard Levy. The group has added in many members for special tours and performances over its existence as well, often incorporating odd juxtapositions of instruments from many varied cultures and genres. One of my favorite albums by them, "Live at the Quick" features several additional performers ranging from steel and tabla drums to bassoon and oboe to Tuvan throat singing. The odd part being not just that it works, but how well it works together. One of the main themes the group seems to embody is that if you put enough talent into a box, it doesn't matter where it came from originally. Good stuff will come out.

In the accompanying video for the album, "Live at the Quick", Fleck talks about his own experience in writing music. He explains about a trick where as an idea strikes him he'll call his answering machine and sing the melody into the phone, preserving it for a time later when he can jot down more about it. If he waits, the music is gone, the idea is lost. It's in that fleeting moment where suddenly a bit of magic is uncovered and preserved in order to be harvested and grown into something truly amazing. I've often wondered where that "magic" originates from. We've all experienced it in some facet of our lives or another I would suspect. Most often for me it comes just as I'm waking up. I've taken to jotting down these fleeting thoughts before I fully enter consciousness and lose them. Most of the time these are the leftovers from dreams that only exist in that moment between awake and asleep and will instantly be forgotten.  I don't usually remember writing them.

Every so often I find particularly odd notes about things crazy people in subway stations might yell, for example here's one from a few months ago:

Pool Game: Stabbing knives through a horizontal piece of foil in a pool. Two people on either side, half of the time you yell, "Flamingo!", especially when you make a hit.

Surprise!  No one wins.

I honestly can't remember this dream or writing this down. It looks about as insane and troubling to me as it probably does to you. However in performing this journaling, sometimes I find ideas that I can work into something I'm actually doing or an idea that can give impulse to something I want to write. For example, one other waking idea came from this thought:

Father playing at a park with son. Other patrons at park become increasingly aware of his actions, act strangely concerned about his presence. Father continues to play with son uninhibited by growing concern around him. Eventually, police are called. Father is escorted away, protesting. His son is left behind crying and alone, father violently resists as he is arrested and thrown into a police car.

At some point after being interviewed by police he is made aware that his son was not with him at the playground and in fact, his son died 2 years previously. The father firmly believes this to be false, but as he continues to uncover information he finds himself in a radically different present than what he previously knew.

So there's a neat and surreal prompt for an interesting short story or what have you. The subconscious mind is rife and teeming with these sorts of ideas, we just have to allow our conscious mind to be aware of and embrace them.

But back to Fleck! This gem plucked from the fleeting moment is of course, Big Country. It's hard for me to categorize this tune. Within it are the obvious elements of bluegrass and jazz, but in some moments I can hear Aaron Copland flowing through. Or even Charles Ives. Or Miles Davis. There is a certain American quality to this piece, but at the same time it's not patriotic nor nationalistic. It to me expresses a certain quality of living that embraces every aspect of our being and encompasses it all within the combined human experience. 

It's open in Big Country. 

Everyone is welcome to come and share what they have.  More importantly, in that moment of sharing we're liable to hear something new, something we've never heard before.  That's important.

As such, there are many renditions of this wonderful piece that have been recorded. I will share with you today two of my favorites. The first being a "Celtic" arrangement of the work and the second being the excerpt from "Live at the Quick" with an introduction to the piece by Fleck.

Homework: Make a dream journal. Write down whatever is in your mind the moment you awake. An easy way to do this is to type it into the notepad on your phone.

See you next Friday.


Flamingo picture is of Don Featherstone, an employee of Union Products and designer of the pink flamingo
Picture of "Bruce Dickinson" belongs to NBC
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones image and videos obviously belong to them