Journeying into the World of
by Julia R. DeStefano
Noise: We’ll start at the beginning. What led you to pursue music? Was there a catalyst?
Ken: My parents started me playing clarinet when I was in the fourth grade. At that age, I didn’t really have much of a say in it, but I was diligent about practicing and it became a major focus in my life. When I got to college in Providence, I was all set to major in physics, but that didn’t work out, so I switched over to computer science. During my freshman year, I had a little accident and busted my front tooth. I couldn’t play clarinet after that. It put a damper on things, but I ended up borrowing my sister’s old flute. From there, I met some local people who were doing what was, at the time, referred to as fusion music. They knew a lot about jazz and I didn’t know anything about jazz. They knew a lot about music and I didn’t know much about music. I knew how to push the buttons and play the notes that were on the page, but I really didn’t know anything about improvisation, composition, or theory. Eventually, I picked up a saxophone, which has a different embouchure than a clarinet, so it was possible for me to play it. Soon I began coming up to Boston once a week to study with “the” sax teacher, Joe Viola. I decided to take some time off from my job and become a student again, this time at Berklee. It is a challenge to make a living playing music, but I’m just so fortunate to be able to get involved with projects that are interesting, things that I can really be creative in, perhaps that are challenging. I’m not changing the world by any means, just doing things that I think are fresh, but now the pressure’s on to just be good at music.
Noise: On the topic of being multi-faceted, can you share your involvement in past bands, perhaps your musical history?
Ken: When I finished Berklee, I ended up joining Skin, a psychedelic funk band. In the ’80s, the rock scene was divided into guitar bands and funk bands, and they didn’t really get together. Unlike what’s going on now, where the scene is pretty unified, it was fragmented back then. Musically, the band opened up my eyes and culturally, I got to see a part of life that I hadn’t been exposed to before. We did pretty well, traveled a little bit, and put out a single that was on top of the radio charts for a while. After we put out an album, we decided to break up, which was kind of how things worked back then. Later, I ran into Roger Miller after having played a gig at Tower Records, an in-store, final gig with Skin. He asked, “Hey, do you read music?” and of course, I had studied music for years and read it well. I ended up auditioning for Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and then joined, which was very formative for me. I only knew that they had made a splash. I was intrigued. Since 1989, I’ve learned a lot about composing music, have done some of my own composition for the group, even expanded my own playing and listening. We have had opportunities to tour, record on an ongoing basis, and release CDs on a label that has pretty wide distribution. I have had my music heard and made lifelong friends.
Noise: From Birdsongs, did the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble come about, or something else?
Ken: Yeah, though the Snake Ensemble came about in a very different way. Birdsongs is very compositional, though that’s changing. The Ensemble formed in about 1990 and began as an improvised project for a little party. We were playing percussion, getting some horns together, and being crazy doing African-inspired rhythms with different instruments. Soon it took on a life of its own. The thing that you least expect, people tend to respond to. We were hired to play club dates and well-known weekly music series in town, where it solidified. As a horn and percussion band, along with my personal interest in New Orleans, it became New Orleans-influenced and a group with several points of reference. In addition, funk came out of my time spent with Skin, while free jazz and modern composition was partly from Birdsongs. Free improvisation came from another place entirely. I had done an improvised concert in Japan that got recorded and was released when I got back to Boston, Tokyo in F. These elements came together with the Snake Ensemble.
Noise: How many members were in the Snake Ensemble to begin with, and how many now?
Ken: It varies a lot because the nature of the music is such that it can and also because we don’t rehearse. The music is relatively simple, though can be challenging. Many arrangements are improvised, so I’ll conduct the band onstage and call who’s going to take a solo where. Much of it has to do with group improvisation, which comes out of the New Orleans tradition. On top of all that, there is a funk groove and compositional elements that we integrate within it. The full group is eight people: two drummers, two bass players, and four horn players. However, I can play some of this material with as few as three people. Each configuration is appropriate for different situations. It gives it a lot more flexibility to have the group perform with six people versus eight depending on the venue, how big it is, and who’s available.
Noise: It keeps it fresh for you and the other musicians involved. If you keep the same lineup and you’re constantly playing the same compositions, it has the potential to become stale.
Ken: It could. Of course, with the same people you get to know each other’s styles and might end up working together really well. Still, the variety makes it interesting.
Noise: In addition to the New Orleans brass band, who or what are your influences? How do you incorporate these into your music, live performance, even clothing. Your costuming takes the experience to another level.
Ken: Multiple melodic instruments playing simultaneously, along with improvising has always appealed to me. With New Orleans brass bands, you have several horns, drums, and a tuba playing the bass line, all of which are outlining the chords by playing melodies at the same time. That approach really resonates with me because it is something that I love to do. Back in 1996, I released a CD, Subterranean, in which I layer myself via multi-track recording that I recorded in an underground room in New Mexico. It wasn’t a new thing to hear the New Orleans approach, but it really resonated with me. They’re doing unique things, music that comes out of a fusion of Caribbean style, Haitian, and Cuban rhythms that meet up with western harmonies. I’ve always liked straight, funky, Latin rhythms as opposed to jazzy, swing ones. The funk that I did with Skin also had an impact on me, as did the experimental stuff from Birdsongs. It’s all a big pot and you throw it in and see what comes out. Another big influence has been my wife, Karen Aqua, and her widely screened animated films that I do the soundtracks for, as well as our work for Sesame Street. With regard to the clothing, it’s interesting because if you go down to New Orleans, they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing what we wear! However, there is a tradition in the black communities, the Mardi Gras Indians, in which people get very dressed up. A lot of what we do bears on that and on Mardi Gras, as well as some American traditions like the Art Ensemble in Chicago and Sun Ra.
Noise: How do you write your compositions?
Ken: For the most part, I write music melodically. I start with a melody, bass line, or drum pattern and build on that. I build the composition one layer at a time, as opposed to people who come up with a chord progression and thread a melody through. I start with a thread, not a web. I think of the bass line as a critical component to a song. For me, the song is really the bass line and melody, followed by the chord progression that might come out of that.
Noise: It’s no surprise that you have a multitude of things going on…
Ken: I am hoping to record some upcoming shows with the Snake Ensemble in New York and get material for the next CD. Birdsongs is going in a new direction, a more improvisational and fun one. We’ve been collaborating with an electronic beat musician, Encanti, along with another artist, JK. We’re doing low-key, low-profile performances around town. I’m also doing a project with all-alto saxophones; both improvised and composed music called the Alto Army. In addition, I’m working with Gabrielle Agachiko, who has an amazing voice. We’re doing material inspired by Nina Simone alongside some amazing musicians in which I play the flute, my true love. Another is an Armenian American Project with composer, arranger, and piano player, Ara Sarkissian, which focuses on the traditional music of Armenia and the Balkans. Ara has taken that music and built on it, moving it into evocative places through the incorporation of traditional western instruments and Armenian instruments. I’m also working on a new project with Karen, a film called Taxonomy, in which I will be composing a soundtrack that includes sound samples and sound manipulation solely using the saxophone.
On May 30th, 2011, Ken Field lost his long-time wife and creative partner, Karen Aqua, to her decade-long battle with cancer. The Boston music and film scene will miss her presence. There will be a memorial for Karen on July 10 beginning at 2pm at the Armory (191 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA), where Ken and many of their friends will be performing. The Noise sends our deepest condolences to Ken, his friends, and family.