I recently decided to leave Ishtar, a middle-eastern belly-dance band I had been working with for the past 3 or 4 years. This was a difficult decision, but one I needed to make. In August of 2017, I have a solo exhibition planned at Nutting Gallery at West Liberty University. The show would mark the end of a roughly ten-year hiatus from doing any solo exhibitions as a “visual” artist, in gallery or museum setting. The timeframe is not as far off as it might sound with relationship to preparing artworks for exhibition. Deadlines have a funny way of arriving too early.
While playing music with Ishtar, I had the opportunity to learn a great repertoire of music, including songs from Egyptian, Turkish, Balkan and other cultures. Rarely have I had a chance to play such culturally diverse music for such a variety of audiences. The band’s director, Melissa Murphey, does an incredible job bringing this music to a wider audience, who might not have otherwise heard the music or been exposed to its history and traditions.
Belly Dance Community
Ishtar connects to a far-reaching community of belly dancers. These groups are found throughout the United States and represent the burgeoning popularity of this art form. They are comprised of predominantly, but not exclusively, female troupes. The spirit of these women is supportive, welcoming and enthusiastic. The dancers are really children of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Many of them are dance instructors, veterans who dance into their 70’s and 80’s. Some dancers are as young as 4 to 5 years old. Most of them are somewhere in-between. Many of them bring their families to performances. Some seem to find a community of like-minded women for the first time, that support them in doing something they are passionate about. I was always impressed with the courage many of these women had with getting up in front of an audience and performing, often for the very first time.
You Two Get Along
My involvement in playing music with Ishtar was my small contribution to bringing about an understanding of the world’s music and culture. A style of music or guitar-playing that I was developing in my collaborations with Ishtar was something I liked to call “you two get along.”
The music we played will often go from some of the middle-eastern scales that give the music its unique sound, to some more western sounding passages. To my ear, this was an opportunity to mix a wide range of musical styles. That mix of middle-east and west was what opened the door for the “you two get along” style. For the middle-eastern parts, I was able to bring in some very unusual jazz chords (raised 9ths, diminished, flat five major chords, etc.), which I felt gave the music a fusion-style atmosphere. Since much of the music is in an odd time signature, it lends itself to pulling on the Jazz Fusion of the 70’s, much of which was influenced by Indian, Persian and Mediterranean music.
In case you haven't noticed, calling this style "you two get along" is my little peace protest. At some point the west and the middle-east will have to learn how to get along with each other. Music is a great way to begin visualizing this.
The other aspect of “you two get along” would go straight from the middle-eastern Jazz Fusion style, straight over to American Country Rock. If you’ve ever listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ-Top, or Black Crowes (the list could go on), you’d know what I’m talking about. This other part of the style invokes a lot of bluesy chord progressions, bendy low notes, and dominant 7ths.
I would often switch between these two modes when soloing as well. It’s amazing how well you can switch between a middle eastern scale and a pentatonic and change the mood. It really changes the feeling you can bring out of a piece of music! I think the first time I heard that happen was on “Off the Wall” (Michael Jackson), although at the time, I don’t think I knew what I was hearing. That was also the first guitar I heard, David Williams. I would play the end of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” over and over again. Incredible stuff. You can also hear “you two get along” mode in “Little Wing,” Stevie Ray Vaughan version.
An overarching goal for me is to create art that addresses the interactive relationship between the psyche and the totality of human sensory experience in some way. That might sound like a tall order, but it’s been a long-term objective for my work. There are traditions in visual and auditory arts (art and music) which are cornerstones of the work I do.
The exhibition in August will bring together some works that are accessible via interaction with a smartphone. Some are physically interactive (they can be animated by touch or other human interaction). Many combine music with sculpture, animation and video. Other works are encrypted, invisible to the naked eye and exploit the reflective characteristics of pigment chemicals, only to be seen by using a smartphone.
The rest of this year, I will be involved in producing art works that fit the previous description. If I had the opportunity to play music with Ishtar for you, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! For a taste of our sound, check out Istanburgh, an album we recorded together (another one is on the way). If you would like to hear about future exhibitions, shows or other artworks in progress, sign up for my newsletter!