A conversation with guitarist and composer Neil Haverstick
Neil Haverstick is well-known in Denver, CO and beyond as an adventurous guitarist, composer, instructor, and author. Starting the guitar in 1965, he has decades of performing experience, and highlights include backing Judy Collins and Bernadette Peters, as well as opening for the likes of B.B. King and Steve Miller. But perhaps it is forging his own path in the study of microtonality and its applications to his own creativity where he has blossomed the most, having recorded 10 CDs of original material which makes full use of these possibilities. Guitar Player magazine said of his compositions: "Bold and daring, Haverstick ventures into distant aural galaxies". For more about Neil, visit his website. Our conversation with Neil catches us up with his recent activities and gives us a glimpse into his vision. -Aaron Krister Johnson
UnTwelve: Hi Neil, would you tell us about what you have been up to recently?
NH: Okie...starting with Microstock 10, September of 2015...We brought guitarist Nicolas Meier in for the guest slot. Nic had been touring with Jeff Beck for about 3 years, and had appeared on Beck's Live in Tokyo DVD, as well as his last CD (don't recall the title). Nic plays fretless guitar as well as the usual 12 tone eq axe, and is a helluva composer. He studied in Turkey at one point, and has a knowledge of the Turkish tuning concepts. My trio backed him up at the gig (Thomas Blomster, drums...Ron Bland, bass), and I thought they were excellent. I believe we have some vids, I can find out. Small turnout, one of those things. I also played with Nic on the Django Reinhardt piece Nuages, a real honor. We've all kept in touch, and Nic wants to come back to Denver in 2017...finding a spot, however, is not so easy...club owners are a tough bunch to deal with. Nic's new CD Infinity is out on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label...Vinny Colaiuta on drums, Jimmy Haslip on bass. Nic is poised to have a great solo career, check him out.
Since then, my main project was finishing my book, Harmonics and Spirals, The Code of Music. Just out, and the first review is up at www.unfretted.com. I have long felt that much microtonal theory is way way too complex for most musicians. Hell, many musicians don't even know what the 12-tone equal tempered system is, so we need to start with that realization in mind when trying to teach about the vast field of tunings. The book has a simple premise...looking at the harmonic series, and spiral of 5ths, from a completely musical viewpoint. So, I went up to the 32nd Harmonic, and looked at the intervals that are formed by the series, and then talked about how they can be used to...yup, create music. I have read much on tunings, and the math alone is usually very intimidating. I believe, unfortunately, that many musicians are afraid to take on tunings cause they think it's only for eggheads. And too many folks in the micro field reinforce that. My hope is to make it more accessible for everyone...and that's why I wrote the book.
Oh yeah...my article The Oud, Ancient to Modern, also appeared in Vintage Guitar mag in the Nov 2015 issue. A lot of research and time went into writing it, and I think it came out pretty well. It's a brief overview of the oud's long history, some of its many great maestros, the maqam phenomenon, and some of the tuning concepts used in playing it. I first heard the oud on an LP by the Devil's Anvil, Hard Rock from the Middle East in 1967, and immediately loved its deep mysterious sound. The album is still in print on CD, and I highly recommend it. Totally uncontrived, it features great musicians and creative arrangements...in my top 10 all time recordings, get it.
I have barely touched a guitar since Microstock 2015, cept to play gigs or teach. I do practice oud, and after 9 years can sometimes do something musical with it. I use it on gigs and sessions, so it's becoming a part of what I do. I am not studying Middle Eastern or Turkish Maqamat...there are so many great players that do that, and hey, at 65 it's a bit late in the game to start from scratch. I am creating my own pieces, and having some luck coming up with things I like. As far as intonation...at this stage, I am simply looking for the notes that resonate as perfectly as possible...which means, I guess, I'm trying to nail pure harmonics. Again...not trying to learn Eastern tuning concepts, but I am well aware of their depth and complexity. I am looking for something, and am finding it. I've been friends with Iraqi oud great Rahim Alhaj since 2009, and have spent many hours listening to him informally play, in his living room or mine...not to mention many shows I've attended. He is a great inspiration, and has a great sense of humor as well. Just absorbing some of the things I hear him do has, hopefully, rubbed off a bit. I have a 7 part oud suite planned, and have actually begun composing some of the pieces. That will hopefully appear down the road.
Okie, what else? I also have a new CD ready...several live tracks from the last year or so, and a number of pieces from past bands that I really like. It's not as important as the book right now, so not sure when I'll release it. At my age, I have played thousands of gigs, done hundreds of sessions, taught countless students, and am still pretty active playing around Denver. I also teach a lot still, and really enjoy it, regardless of age or experience. I love to see students "get it;" that moment when understanding dawns. I have had many great teachers of my own over the years, who have helped me immensely...so I like passing all that on. And speaking of teachers...we just lost Ervin Wilson, one of the greatest geniuses I've known. Erv sent me a lotta papers over the years, mostly on how natural phenomenon like spirals and geometrical shapes can be used as a basis for tunings. He was a super nice cat, and the correspondence we had means an awful lot to me. I was fortunate to be a part of his spiritual family, as I (and others) see it. There's a section on him in my book. Never be another like him.
We also just finished Microstock 11, with fretless guitarist Ned Evett and his wife Kim Philley as guests. I met Ned in NY city in 2006at Michael Vick's fretless fest, He's a helluva player, has toured extensively with Joe Satriani, and has also worked on Joe's videos. Pretty good turnout this year. I just recorded some tracks for fretless guitarist Jack Mazzenga's new project. I played oud, saz, and fretless guitar. Jack's a helluva creative player, this is my 3rd CD with him...hopefully more to come. I play in numerous bands in the area, including the Bill Hill Quintet, with the finest jazz/freelance cats in town. Bill has played timpani with the Colorado Symphony for 35 years, is a phenomenal percussionist, and the best composer I know right now. Playing his charts is tough for me, as I'm not that good a reader...and man, can he write some shit. I also play rockabilly, blues, and numerous jazz duos and trios, depending on the occasion. Somehow, I still pay the rent, and am very grateful that, after 45 years in the biz, I'm still putzing along.
UnTwelve: You mentioned that you are shifting your focus these days to more oud playing, but are not really trying to go the route of authentic Maqamat. Can you say more about what you _are_ doing with the oud in more detail? It sounds like a type of free Just Intonation system? And do you find that there are, or may be, interesting points of intersection between what you are exploring and the Turkish tradition, even if by accident?
NH: Well, I am going to compose my own pieces for oud, primarily. I've listened to a helluva lot of oud playing over the years. I actually played with belly dancers for years, but on guitar. I'd just sorta improvise Eastern sounding things...it was fun, and I played in Arabic type restaurants, so you were always hearing the oud, but much more as well. I was playing in an Iranian restaurant when the hostages were taken, in 1979. They treated me fine, no problems. I am familiar with the maqam concepts, and of course have studied Eastern tunings for many years. There are zillions of great Arabic, Turkish, and North African oud players, so I believe I can make my best impact musically with my own stuff. And, composing is the most important thing for me at this time anyway.
You know, I grew up in America, so Middle Eastern music is not my natural mode of expression, of course. Yet, I've loved that sound ever since I heard the [previously mentioned] LP Hard Rock from the Middle East by the Devil's Anvil, in 1967. I still love that album, it was brilliantly done. A cat played oud, and sang in Arabic; there was also Turkish and Greek singing. I saw Ravi Shankar in 1968, so Eastern sounds have always intrigued me. I got an oud about 9 years ago, then took a lesson from the great Rahim Alhaj in 2009. He got me a great Farhan Hassan oud from Baghdad; I play it a lot. I have really practiced a great deal since I met Rahim, and just being around him informally, as I have many times, is an amazing experience. Hearing him improvising for hours, that's hard to beat. And, it also made me realize that there's no time for me to waste, trying to play things from a 6000 year old culture, when they can, um, do it a bit better than I ever will. My time had best be spent creating my own music, being influenced by all of the great Maestros, but utilizing all of my own many varied experiences. Any music, of course, is tied to its culture; the land, the languages, the myths and legends, their stories. I have been deeply influenced by Arabic culture, and try to let that influence mesh with all of the many styles of music I've played over the years, but without trying to emulate what the great Maestros have already done so well.
Far as tuning, I'm basically looking for the most resonant notes, in whatever song I'm playing. I think of it as harmonic tuning; I never liked the term "Just Intonation" much, a little cold. I want to hear frequencies lining up; I don't really want to think about it mathematically, although it can be seen in that way. It's just sorta simple for me...something I can hear, and also feel in my fingers when I hit the right notes. And that's real interesting...as I've gotten better at oud, I really can tell when I'm on the right note, right in the fingers. My years of playing fretless guitar have helped as well. The oud does not give itself up easily; just getting a good sound is difficult, and vibrato and sustain are also very hard to master.
I have a number of compositions now, and have started playing Misirlou at my shows. It's an old Eastern melody, and Dick Dale did it surf style. I just do my own arrangement on oud, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. I have a 7 piece suite for oud planned, and have already come up with a number of ideas. I also have a piece using the diminished scale, almost Bartokish in places, and maybe not surprisingly, the oud is great for blues, so I have several pieces which use the blues scale and its variations. I plan on using it more in my concerts. I just the other day got a gig playing oud in a beautiful church on Sunday evenings for the next month, with keyboard, percussion and vocals. I really enjoy doing it, as I get to improvise during certain parts of the service.
As far as Turkish music goes, I would say I know little about it. I have CD's of it, and some great oud maestros, such as Udi Hrant and Yorgo Bacanos, have influenced me. I have studied the tunings a bit; Erkan Ogur said that they used 53 komas, which is of course 53-equal. But I believe there are many regional variations, as there are all over the Middle Eastern countries. Love to see Istanbul someday, have long been intrigued by that city.
UnTwelve: Can you flesh out the kinds of concepts and chapters you are covering in your book?
NH: My book Harmonics and Spirals, The Code of Music, is a sort of user's manual for the harmonic series and spiral of 5ths. I look at those phenomenon as templates for constructing tunings, and show just how that has happened many times over the millennia, in numerous cultures. I am not a mathematician, and neither are many musicians. What I really wanted to do in this book is get folks to realize just how simple the construction of the harmonic series is. I believe many musicians are intimidated to try and understand the series, precisely because it's often looked at as a sort of scientific problem of some sort, with a lot of math and frequency talk. I instead show some of the many musical intervals that are formed in the series, and how our ideas of the octave, 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and all other intervals are present in the series, as well as scales and chords. I stick to the ratios at first, and add cents later, because that's the way it went historically. People always thought in terms of ratios, until Ellis came up with the cents concept in Helmholtz's book.
I show how to build scales from the pure harmonics, and then how to do the same from the spiral of 5ths. Again, I am making these sometimes abstract ideas rather simple...because musically, they are. A very important concept I also point out is how enharmonic notes, such as C#-Db, are really two separate notes, and I show how that occurs in the series. I talk a bit about meantone and well-temps [ed: well-temperaments], a little Bach, a section on scales I came up with, and finish off with a chapter on Erv Wilson, with a number of his diagrams, and papers he had sent me. I didn't know this, but I have some stuff that very few others do. I would send Erv interesting things I saw, and he'd mess with them and send me the results. He did some work on a paper I sent him about frequencies in our DNA. As might be expected, it was mind-blowing. Erv was a big influence on me; he send me a ton of papers, I'll be staring at them forever.
Finally, there's a big bibliography, where I discuss the books I recommend. I think reading is so important; I have read a lot of books and papers on tuning ideas. I am hoping my book will open some doors up for curious musicians; it's a vast field, and with plenty of places to create individual worlds of sound. I hope more musicians do.
UnTwelve: In your own creative work, what do you feel is the relationship between improvisation and composition? Where does one begin and another end? Or is it typically a fluid boundary?
NH: That of course is the big question. My concept is rather simple; I say "Infinite variations on infinite themes." Meaning, once I have an idea, a fragment of a melody, or whatever else it might be, I am able to spin off other ideas to create compositions. I've never had much problem composing, interestingly enough. I seem to be able to finish one project, and have another one (or two or three) coming along after. I would say yes, I usually improvise, and find new ideas from doing that. Then, I have ways to develop those basic ideas. Sometimes it's inspiration, but I've also analyzed a zillion songs from many genres, so I see how different composers have used certain compositional devices to keep the piece moving forward. J.S. Bach is my primary influence; I've seen no one in Western music come close to his stature. His ability to constantly create new variations, over and over and over, is awe inspiring. Plus, he had great spiritual depth and astonishing technique...to me, a perfect musician.
Bach was known for his prodigious improvisational skills; the Musical Offering is a perfect example of a piece he first improvised (at the behest of the King), and then later worked on, writing a great masterpiece. I figure if it's good enough for Bach, it's good enough for me. When I improvise at home, I feel no pressure to prove anything, so I can let unexpected things happen. I'll try ideas and techniques, just to see if they work. And when they do, I can then take what I did and turn it into a more structured work. I've done this for many years. Yeah, occasionally I can just be taking a walk, and "hear" something in my consciousness; that is also very cool. But, overall I am an improviser, and feel very comfortable in that realm.
UnTwelve: Do you have a creative regimen to your day, or is something you respond to when inspiration hits?
NH: I do have certain times I like to do things with music. Generally, when I play/practice late at night, that's when the best things happen. I am NOT a morning feller; that's for waking up, getting going, reading the news, emailing if I want, coffee with the newspaper, then reality, ha. I used to play a lot in the afternoon, back in the 80's. That has shifted, and living alone also means I can really play whenever I wish. I have a flexible schedule these days, with teaching setting a lot of my times. I have guitars and ouds always sitting out, so I can just pick something up and play. If I start playing oud late, I can easily go an hour or so. Before a concert, I'll take one evening (sometimes day), smoke a bowl, and improvise around the songs I'm planning on playing. I find that really opens me up, and gets me ready to try some new ideas. I get quite bored playing a piece the same way; I'm always changing things around. That way, unexpected surprises can happen on a show. And that's when I am really at my happiest with music.