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Progressive Rock Interviews

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Ken Field of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic from 2004
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.


How did you come up with the name of the band?
By the time I joined Birdsongs in 1988, the group's name was well-known, so I didn't think too much about it. But the story is that Roger Miller and Martin Swope (the two original Birdsongs members who have left the group) were listening to (and watching the rotation of) a vinyl LP of "Birdsongs of America", and the latter part of the name got transformed while they were trying to read the spinning label. I think that the concept of two guys listening to a recording of bird songs says a lot about the unique vision and creativity that went into the creation of the group!
MSJ: I have seen your music called everything from jazz to rock meets chamber music, prog, etc..., etc... I know musicians hate to be pigeonholed, but how would you describe it?
I call it instrumental modern music. We are not a jazz group, since my definition of jazz includes a significant amount of improvisation, and we are mostly a compositionally-based group. For most people, the fact that we don't have a live drummer differentiates us from most rock groups. And we're not really a chamber ensemble, due to our use of electric guitar, synthesizer, and laptop. A lot of "progressive" music actually is quite retro, but I do hope that our music really is progressive in the truest sense of the word. The prog community embraced us after our performance at NEARfest in 2001, and we are proud to be considered a part of that genre, which is surprisingly broad and encompassing.
MSJ: Who would you see as your influences - as a band and individually?
As a group we are influenced by many genre-bending ensembles, including the Kronos Quartet, Forever Einstein, and the Tin Hat Trio, as well as musicians from the minimalist tradition. Our individual backgrounds and influences are quite diverse. I grew up listening to early Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, and Van Morrison, which in retrospect is a pretty diverse collection in itself. Later I became acquainted with jazz, and Gato Barbieri was one of my favorites. It's interesting that almost all of these musicians were doing very interesting things early in their careers, in their first few releases, but I think that their later releases, once they became commercially successful, are much less interesting. Hmmm...
MSJ: For those who have not had the chance to catch your live act, how would you describe it?
We are four guys immersed in playing difficult music that we love.
MSJ: What did you do musically before Birdsongs?
I played sax for several years with an innovative Boston-based psychedelic funk band called Skin. We had a local hit called "Troubled Sleep", and released an LP called "Skinsanity". I also played with a few jazz and R&B groups in Boston. And I spent a few years playing Senegalese music with Ibrahima Camara's group, which later included Birdsongs' current guitarist Michael Bierylo. But my introduction to playing interesting music was much earlier in Providence, where I went to college at Brown. I played with the RISD Orchestra, a very creative ensemble led by saxophonist Barry Miller. And later I played with a fusion group called Forecast, with brothers Mike and Bill Moran from Fall River, MA, who were incredibly talented, and bassist Barry Peckham, who remains a good friend. I also played jazz with the Brown Stage Band. I studied privately and for a few years at Berklee with the late and legendary Joe Viola. While in Boston, I spent some time studying improvisation with another teaching legend, Charlie Banacos.

MSJ: What other projects have you been involved in, and do you have any on the horizon?
I am currently active with my street beat & funk brass band the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. Our debut CD "Year of the Snake" was included in best-of-year lists in NYC, New Orleans, and Milan. We will be performing at the Puffin Forum in Teaneck, NJ on Feb 4, 2005, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cafe on Feb 5. Our website is http://www.RevolutionarySnakeEnsemble.org. I play with a tone-row based trio of 2 saxes and drums called the Leda Row Trio, playing mostly music by saxophonist Andrew Hickman. I released two solo CDs of my music for multiple alto saxophones, and perform this music live occasionally with my Alto Sax Project. My website is http://www.kenfield.org. I also perform sometimes with the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, and spent many years doing a weekly gig with the Bad Art Ensemble, both of which are humorous, warped takes on alternative/pop/dixieland music led by brilliant frontmen. Another group that played weekly for about 6 years at the Middle East in Cambridge was the Board of Education, an improvisational funk band, which sometimes served as a workshop for the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. Through Birdsongs' principal composer and pianist Erik Lindgren, I was introduced to Willie Loco Alexander, and performed and recorded with his Persistence of Memory Orchestra for many years and 2 CDs. Willie is a Boston rock and punk legend, and deservedly so. Through Willie, I met Peter Wolf, and played on one of his recent releases.

I periodically write, produce, and play music for Sesame Street in collaboration with my wife, animator Karen Aqua. Last year we also wrote and recorded 10 pop songs for a Mexican educational project that was used to teach English to Mexican kids. That was a gas, and I was shocked that I could actually write some decent pop music.

A recent collaboration with artist Robin Masi resulted in original sound art and music for a 9/11 anniversary installation called The Witness Project, which was shown at the Fitchburg (MA) Museum last year, and will be at Regis College next month.

I am particularly excited by a commission I have received to write 30 minutes of music for an upcoming NYC dance performance by the Bridgman/Packer Dance Company. They are very innovative dancers who use video and lighting to highlight their amazing duo movements. The piece will debut in March 2005.

MSJ: Are there any musicians with whom you would like to work?
This might seem dumb, but I've always wanted to play with Van Morrison (despite the fact that he played for Bush's 2001 inaugural party, which saddened me...). I'd love to eventually have an opportunity to work with my 14-year-old niece Zoe Aqua, who is an amazing violinist, and who I think will do great things.
MSJ: What is up next for the band?
We are working on a CD with Atlanta-based vocalist Oral Moses. Oral sings very traditional African-American spirituals, and we (mostly Erik) have arranged our own style of instrumental backdrops for his incredible bass-baritone voice. The project, which we debuted live last year to a sold-out audience in Boston, is called Extreme Spirituals. We also are anticipating the release of our past collaboration with Duplex Planet publisher and storyteller David Greenberger, called 1001 Real Apes.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, and/or, what have you been listening to lately?
About a year ago I started doing a weekly radio show on WMBR in Cambridge. .The show is called The New Edge, and I play creative instrumental music that is not jazz, not classical, not world, and not rock or pop. It would be a perfect place to play Birdsongs and some of my solo music, except that I do not play any music that I have been involved in creating. Some of the artists I've been listening to and playing on my show have included Anaour Brahem, Philip Glass, Steve Peters, Christian Vieussens, and much of the material released on Jim Fox's Cold Blue label. The website for the show is http://newedge.home.att.net.
MSJ: What was the last concert you attended as a fan?
I really enjoyed a recent concert by guitarist Tisziji Munoz.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Has to be Birdsongs' European festival debut, at a great prog festival in Portugal. We had a great time, but our concert, which was outdoors on a huge stage, was essentially rained out, even though a small number of devoted fans stood in the rain to hear us.
 
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