In 2015, guitarist / composer Randy Armstrong released his World Music classic Beyond Borders and in 2016 he returned again with new music for the soundtrack to the theater / dance production of The Conference Of The Birds. The 24 track CD to The Conference Of The Birds features an all original musical score by Randy that highlights his patently superb guitar playing, while receiving significant support by notable Armstrong musical associates, including Volker Nahrmann (bass, cello, keys) along with a number of musicians who each add in a range of exotic World Beat flavors. Putting a global spin on his music is Armstrong’s forte and on The Conference Of The Birds he manages to unite the world at large under his wide-ranging musical umbrella. The director of music and dance, Antara Bhardwaj describes Randy’s musical score for The Conference Of The Birds as being “An incredible music score that captures the vibrant spirit of eleven different cultures, yet with a common thread that connects them all.” The sheer number of musical instruments Randy uses on this CD soundtrack is most impressive—from synth guitars and electric guitars to sitars, drums and exotic percussion and a range of electronic keyboard sounds. With his truly incredible sounding musical soundtrack for The Conference Of The Birds, Randy Armstrong brings his synthesis of New Age, neoclassical and World Music to a much higher level of pan-global magnificence. www.randyarmstrong.com
mwe3: The Conference Of The Birds is an incredible achievement and your pinnacle recording. Do you consider it as one of your solo albums or as you say more of a theatrical soundtrack album? How did you become involved with the production as well as working with Production Director Vinita Belani? What did Vinita bring to the album sound and vision and how did you join forces with her and who was the catalyst of the project so to speak?
Randy Armstrong: The Conference Of The Birds is a theater and dance score composed as a solo project and recorded at Beauty Hill Recording Studio in my home in Barrington, New Hampshire. There are cameo performances by seven musicians, including longtime music associates Volker Nahrmann and Marty Quinn. It was recorded over a 12 month period which featured music for eleven international dance traditions. It included over 50 actors and dancers ages 4 to 84.
In 2014, I performed sitar for the performance of the epic poem of India, “The Mahabharata”, with Academy Award winning actor and playwright Jean Claude Carriere. Vinita Belani was touring with Jean-Claude and attended the concert at Phillips Exeter Academy. After the performance we met and discussed creating an original score for The Conference Of The Birds project she would be directing for her theater company, EnActe Inc. in the San Francisco Bay area in the upcoming 2015-2016 season. I was very familiar with the Persian masterpiece, The Conference Of The Birds, and was excited about creating an original score. Vinita was the director of theater for the production. I worked hand in hand with Antara Bhardwaj, the director of dance and music for the production. It was an East / West coast production with many, many hours of consultation and music file exchanges via the internet. I did not meet the dancers, actors or even Antara until I flew out to San Jose, California for the premiere production in September 2016. Certainly a labor of love and many hours in the studio that produced the finish recorded score. It was a joy to sit in the audience and experience the actors and dancers bring this sublime story to life with my music.
mwe3: How would you compare The Conference Of The Birds with your 2015 album with Volker Nahrmann called Beyond Borders? Are they two distinct projects?There are 24 pieces of music on The Conference Of The Birds while on Beyond Borders there were eleven tracks featuring 35 musicians playing on it so both albums have either large groups of musicians or a large number of tracks. Were there more musicians on Beyond Borders? Not counting the dozens of dancers on The Conference Of The Birds.
Randy Armstrong: Yes, they are two distinct projects. Beyond Borders was co-produced and recorded by Volker Nahrmann and myself over a 5 year period featuring over 35 musicians from around the world including the members of Do’a Word Music Ensemble and our former group, Unu Mondo. The Conference Of The Birds score began just after the release of Beyond Borders and I recorded and performed most of the 50 instruments myself with appearances by seven other musicians including Volker Nahrmann, Marty Quinn, Cynthia Chatis, Antara Bhardwaj, Brett DesChenes, Raghav Bhat, Vidya Bhat and by my former Do’a World Music Ensemble co-founder and music partner, the late great Ken LaRoche from a previously recorded track from our album, Ornament Of Hope on Philo/Rounder Records.
The Conference Of The Birds was a creatively challenging project and album that required meeting the expectations of the eleven international dance groups. The styles ranged from Persian Sufi, Chinese, North African/Middle Eastern, Western Classical, Hawaiian Hula, Azteca, Mexican Folklorico, North and South Indian and Afro-Caribbean Haitian music and rhythms. Thankfully, I have a collection of over 300 instruments from around the world that I have acquired over the past 4 decades.
mwe3: Was working with so many musicians and dancers a challenge on The Conference Of The Birds and how do the dancers correspond with your music? Is there a DVD or video of the dance troupes dancing to your music? How many dancers took part in the live production of The Conference Of The Birds?
Randy Armstrong: It was a challenging project to communicate and to compose music that inspired the vast array of dance traditions. There were many reviews and comments on the music by the choreographers, then I was back in the studio to make adjustments and edits until the final piece of music was realized and recorded. I had to be very sensitive to the cultural context and traditions of each dance style. For the North and South Indian styles, I had to create music for Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Odissi to accompany the dances while keeping the emotional feel consistent with the theater production and message of the story. My many years of World Music study and performance came in handy for this project.
The production with over 30 dancers was filmed but it is not available at this time. Hopefully, in the future.
mwe3: What was it about the concept behind The Conference Of The Birds that made it so compelling for you to work on a musical score and how does the original work by the Persian poet Farid ud-Di Attar compare with the adaptation of the play by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière? Isn’t there also a kind of Indian music influence running throughout the album especially with all of the sitar playing
Randy Armstrong: Of course, the original work was an epic Persian poem and very long compared to the theatrical script. Jean Claude-Carrière and Peter Brook did a wonderful adaptation and Vinita Belani created a magnificent production that included international dance and actors. I became familiar with The Conference Of The Birds through a mystic Baha’i writing entitled, The Seven Valleys authored by Baha’ullah, the prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith. It is the journey of the soul in the quest to find God within.
The reason for the Indian influence throughout is that three of the many birds represented in the story also represent three different East Indian dance traditions. Sitar and tabla are staples of the music of North India as well as the mridangam drum from South India. You hear and experience all these influences on the album and in the live performance.
mwe3: How does track one “Awaken My Soul – Sufi Dance” set the tone for the album? The instrumentation in that song has such a unique tone. It sounds like a Kantele, from Finland.
Randy Armstrong: “Awaken My Soul” is the music for the opening dance scene performed by the spellbinding Sahar Dehghan, originally from Iran, now living in Paris. She created a stunningly beautiful Sufi dance in the style of a sacred whirling dervish. The song features the Persian santour, flute and cello. When I saw the opening dance for the first time, as the lights followed Sahar’s movement over the stage, it actually brought me to tears. It was quite moving to experience the culmination of a piece of music I poured my heart and soul into and have it so beautifully brought to life by her gorgeous and uplifting dance.
mwe3: Track two on The Conference Of The Birds is an extensive, near ten minute track called “World Gathering Of The Birds”. Wow, now that’s impressive sounding. It sounds very Asian. Is that a koto? Also the playing flute on that track is brilliant sounding. The track also goes into Hawaiian music. Then of course there’s the Greek music influence and of course the sitar part that closes out the track. It’s a real multipart trip-tik.
Randy Armstrong: “World Gathering Of The Birds” is one of the opening scenes that introduces the birds portrayed by the international dance troupes. You hear the Chinese Gu-Zhesg, Egyptian Oud, Turkish Darbuka, classical cuitar, concert & alto flute, Hawaiian ukulele, slide guitar, slack-key acoustic guitar as well as Ipu Heke, Afro-Haitian Voudon drumming, alter-tuned acoustic guitar, Indian sitar and tabla, Mexican Folklorico trumpet, guitar and xylophone in the mix. The exquisite flute playing was by my former partner and co-founder of Do’a World Music Ensemble, Ken LaRoche. These pieces were recorded before his untimely passing. His virtuoso playing brings back so many memories for me. We toured the world together. He is missed.
mwe3: Volker Nahrmann once again plays quite well on The Conference Of The Birds. Volker and the other musicians in your core band, including Marty Quinn, Ken LaRoche and Cynthia Chatis, each adds a lot to the overall sound.
Randy Armstrong: The musicians all contributed their beautiful and masterful playing to fulfill the sonic tapestry of instruments and sounds to the score. They are all wonderful musicians. Volker has an acute musical sensibility and intuition. Cynthia has an amazing improvisational style and of course, Ken LaRoche offers his virtuoso flute playing.
mwe3: The album is very colorfully packaged. How did you choose the cover art and how did you meet up with painter Maggy Pierre-Pelissier?
Randy Armstrong: Maggy Pierre-Pelissier is an artist from France who currently lives in upstate New York. She is an amazing artist who created original artwork for the entire production. She had prints of the incredible depiction of the birds and when I saw the peacock, I knew it had to be the cover art. The peacock in the production was portrayed by the Chinese dancers. She is an exquisite and talented artist and I encourage everyone to look her up online.
mwe3: You play so many instruments on The Conference Of The Birds it’s enough to make your head spin with delight. Were many of the same guitars that you played on Beyond Borders once again featured on The Conference Of The Birds album? Last time you had spoken favorably about the Michael Jacobson Hardy guitars and the 1948 Gibson cutaway jazz guitar. Is there any other guitar news to mention as it applies to The Conference Of The Birds album or other fascinating instruments that came to light on The Conference Of The Birds album?
Randy Armstrong: The big addition to my musical instrument collection for The Conference Of The Birds was a Persian santour. The santour is similar to the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, but has moveable bridges in order to play Persian scales/modes or datsgahs. This is the instrument you hear in the opening song, “Awaken My Soul”. In my early years of World Music study, I had the great honor of studying the Persian datsgahs with Iranian violinist and santour player, Dr. M. Taraz. It was a wonderful experience and you can hear his playing on the song “The Valley Of Search” on the Do’a album, Ornament Of Hope.
On the the classical style pieces I played my handmade Guillermo Del Pilar classical guitar and handmade Radha Krishna Sharma 1970’s sitar. I also played my handmade Michael Jacobson-Hardy acoustic. It has tiger maple back and sides with aged spruce top and I played in an altered-tuning.
mwe3: The sitar also plays a prominent role throughout The Conference Of The Birds album, most noticeably on track four “Princess And The Slave” which contrasts nicely with the orchestral string sounds. Is that Raghav Bhat on strings? It sounds like a full orchestra.
Randy Armstrong: Raghav adds his Carnatic violin but the core of the sound for the strings are Bollywood synth-string samples played in octaves.
mwe3: Track 20, “The Valley Of Detachment And Annihilation” is pure electronica. What synths do you use on that?
Randy Armstrong: I used a Korg Triton Workstation, Roland JV-1010 module and an old Korg M-1 all run through SFX in Ableton Live. I also use processed gongs and sampled wind sounds.
mwe3: With so much trouble in the world today are you still confident in the power of music to make the world a bigger, better and more inclusive place to exist? How can that happen in your eyes?
Randy Armstrong: Absolutely, music can be a powerful voice for the upliftment of humankind. I am an eternal optimist and believe deep in my soul that humanity is in the last throws of decline and headed toward the ascent to a more unified existence. It is not easy to go through all the troubles but as has been said so many times, “it is always darkest before the dawn”. I have great faith in the collective good of the human spirit and that light is more powerful than darkness. That is why I do projects like The Conference Of The Birds. The message is clear. I plan to spend all my time until my final days on this earth promoting the unity and goodness of people through music. Love is more powerful all the hate in the world.
mwe3: Tell us about other plans you have for this year and into 2018. You were saying how busy your schedule is with live work. What concerts are you performing now?
Randy Armstrong: I have been asked to be the artist in the residence with the Portsmouth Symphony for their 2017-2018 season. It is a great honor and I performed my piece, “Tribute In Courage” on November 5th, 2017. Four additional concerts are scheduled. Also, I was awarded awarded the 2017 Governor’s Arts Award for Arts Education for my work with students throughout my home state of New Hampshire. I am deeply humbled and grateful for the award. Also, Volker Nahrmann and I, with our new band, Beyond Borders are planning future tours and concerts.
Opening night speech and narrative presented by Usha Srinivasan:
“Over 800 years ago, in a land of Persia, lived the son of a wealthy chemist. He had received excellent education in many fields including theology and practiced the profession of his father. Over the years, he served large numbers of customers who came to him seeking cures for their ills and confided in him their deepest sorrows and greatest fears. This had a profound impact on the man – he gave up his profession and traveled far and wide across Asia, from India to Arabia and Turkistan. Along the way he met many scholars and mystics. He returned home an enlightened man and went on to become one of the greatest Sufi thinkers and poets of all time. His name was Farid ud-Din Attar. Indeed, Attar dandled a young Rumi on his knees and given him the book Asrar Nama – which greatly influenced Rumi’s spiritual development. Attar’s most famous work is Mantiq al tayr – The Conference of the Birds. This 4500 line poem tells the universal story of the soul’s search for truth. It has stood the test of time and transcended geographical and cultural boundaries. In 1972, Peter Brook & Jean-Claude Carriere traveled across Sub-Saharan Africa with a troupe of 20 actors that included a young Helen Mirren. They used the parables in the poem to stage plays in villages. The result of this 8500 mile journey was the play, The Conference Of The Birds.
Today, we stand before you humbly to present an interpretation of the play that is a result of a different, yet significant journey. One that began over 2 years ago and brought together artists from many different cultures and walks of life—united by a mission to create a work of art that not only entertains but also educates and elevates.
This is a complex, multilayered play. There is something in this for everyone. Some of you may find resonance in the Sufi philosophy that underlies it. Others may be drawn to the music and dance. It is our fervent hope that all of you discover today the breathtaking beauty of the cultures that call our great nation home. We may not all be birds of the same feather. But if we flock together, we can soar!”