Rhonda Larson’s Flute For Thought

Life has been full and rich since the last time I have written my ‘Flute For Thought’. I hardly know where to begin, but probably the likely place would be that we moved to a new location (somewhere in the fall season of 2009), nearer to civilization. Mind you, I loved most things about the remote location in which we lived, but having had an enormously rainy spring that season which continued to flood our basement several times, I was finally willing to leave without hesitation…

In our new location, I am first struck by that wonderful word called “convenience”…the convenience to consumer-ism, I suppose. I no longer use up half a day just to get groceries, or a full day just doing business in town—trips which were carefully planned so the most activities could be accomplished on one trip. (Probably not unlike the horse-and-buggy days). Here in our new place, the only downside for me is hearing the unfamiliar, far-off ebb and flow of traffic. Delicate as it may be, I’m simply not used to its blood-through-veins drone.

We moved to a place that had creative, inventive first-owners: the house was built in the 1940’s, and has great space inside, in readiness of entertaining visitors. But what makes this place completely unique is that directly in the back yard, at the beginning of our 11 acres, there is a cabin that is replica of a 1600’s Williamsburg Cabin. I have never been to Williamsburg, so am behind the lure, here. But I know many friends who have been seduced and hooked by its wonderful representation. What I do know is that every time I walk through that door, I am stunned. Another time zone, here, silent and simple, exquisitely placid. (Cabins are a recurring theme in my life and writings). There is a hearth at the far end extending from one side of the room to the other—a spit ‘big enough for a cow’, as we say. I think of this serene cabin as a ‘writer’s cabin’, and I have proven this true. Besides sleeping there most summer nights, we have used cooler fall nights to sit in front of the fire. Sometimes Lee and I grill Bratworst as we sit there in a, should we say, ‘siamo contenti’ world. Then Lee brings out his mandolin, rocking in the appropriate chair while cooing out bluegrass or folk music with a smile across his big mustache. Life is good, and this kind of quiet, simple living is food for the body, mind, and spirit.

As if that were not enough, across the yard from this is a genuine one-room schoolhouse built in 1878. This building stands regally, in full “mountain” pose [yoga], as if to say, “You who are curious, come in and learn new things!” As the story goes, the original owners owned a salvage company, and created wonderful worlds/surroundings with their findings—they built a small village around themselves that supported and reflected the passions of their lives. The husband had the schoolhouse moved here IN TOTAL from a location about 20 miles away, as it was a 50th wedding present for his wife, who had been a career school teacher. That sounds like love to me! So this schoolhouse is where I now get to hone my craft, day after day, learning how to play the flute, and to live as one who practices Art as a being in a constant mode of PRACTICE. (Isn’t all life this? We can only ‘practice’ who we wish to be, and hope we can deliver this in the final delivery, at every moment, out in the world). See more pictures and info about my masterclass in the schoolhouse here.

Without meaning this to sound clichéd or trite, it is simply true that I feel so blessed to live in such a place! Everything here teems with abundance and possibility, and not a day goes by that we don’t recognize how fortunate we are, how fortunate I am. That recognition becomes more prevalent as we find the season changing from summer to fall, where the long winter is never far behind.

Since moving here, I’ve been hustling and bustling around, all to the gracious service of being a performing musician. It is challenging to remember all the wonderful places I have been since we moved here, but off the top of my head, there are some which immediately spring to mind. The first is Poland. I gave a concert just outside of Warsaw last summer, and fell in love with the place and its people. It is always a great privilege to enter into a culture not my own—as if to dip ones toe into someone else’s beautiful lake. Here in Poland, I experienced a soft, quiet empathy due to all they have suffered and endured in their history—that suffering was palpable to me, but in a form like someone walking silently through the woods.

My concert was in a beautiful, ancient church, lighted brilliantly with blue/lavender hues, all for the performance—a modern, yet ‘you-are-in-heaven-NOW’ touch. The whole event felt sacred and mystical. Perhaps it helped that in the front row of this audience were five priests, all fully identifiable from their clothing, and peaceful faces. By start time, the concert had standing room only. What is more, they listened far more deeply and intently than American audiences. You could have heard a pin drop the entire night. It was stunning. In between pieces there was enthusiastic applause followed by unison chanted words I did not recognize from a language not my own. These kinds of auspicious events never cease to amaze me in that I am permitted this richness in doing what I do out in the world. By the end, we saw many, many people with tears rolling down their faces. It was a more poignant concert than it may have normally been given that just weeks before we arrived, their president had died in the plane crash in Russia. I fought tears myself when playing a particularly lamenting piece which I dedicated to them in sharing their tragedy. What I realized is that tragedy itself is universal in its depth of pain. The form in which tragedy appears becomes specific to place, event, and circumstances. Music is a constant healer in these circumstances. And it is obvious that the love and mystery of music is profound in this culture. I will forever feel a special place for this country and its people.

I find it difficult here to transition to another subject, so let us see it as if walking a mountain range, high and low, winds blowing and ceasing, and now you find yourself in an entirely new territory…a different vista, sun peeking out through colorful clouds…

In July, 2010, I attended the International Native American Flute Association (INAFA), held last year in Wisconsin. All my life I have felt as if I were a Native People—or certainly thought I should be considered one. Not just because of being born and raised in a mountainous canyon outside Bozeman, Montana, but because my entire upbringing had more to do with my grounding and happiness in the mountains and woods than with what I viewed even then as the rather un-natural ways of society in which I found myself. I used to say, as a child of thirteen or so, that “the woods raised me”. It sounds humorous, now, but it was deeply true for me in that I valued everything about nature, as I first learned was true with our First Peoples.

For example, I honor the fact that we are at nature’s mercy in all its unpredictability (this takes us out of our human narcissism); it provides us with food though we must labor on that front and exercise genuine gratitude that we live another day (teaching us to savor life); that nature may seem, at first glance, like chaos and happenstance, but in fact everything is ordered in a divine, life-perpetuating measure; and that Nature Speaks. This last point has always been the most important part for me—it not only speaks and teaches, but speaks directly to me, or its hearer, should we care to hear. This is the voice I now call the Benevolent Force, God, if you will—whose gentle voice I have found loudest in nature.

So it was with a bit of trepidation yet hopeful expectation that I came to this convention to perform what I have to offer for this organization of people whose heritage was initially grounded in the freedom of the natural world. (As an aside, I must say that I also resonate profoundly with the historical and present suffering of these people—that they were America’s first ‘occupied’ subjects. To this day, I believe we still have not dealt with this injustice in a public manner. Even slavery has received its public apology from the highest, presidential platform, but not so with these First Peoples. I long to see that day come…

Back to the convention: EVERYTHING about this happy gathering was deeply gratifying. Many performers presented themselves in full native costume, which were as magnificent to look at as they were to hear and experience. (I found myself collecting all the loose, costume-less feathers back stage—I could not let them just stay there, floating around, so I have a small hand-full of colorful feathers by which to remember this weekend!) One performer came all the way from Australia (Jeremy Donovan), and performed on the didgeridoo, scantily clad with beautifully painted flesh. He blew our minds and took us on a performance journey into the mystical, haunting aboriginal world. It was an indelible performance for me. In the end, I felt that all of us in attendance at this convention shared much in common, not least of which was the love of flute, in its various forms. This event was a great embrace in the LARGEST possible circle (I think of the symbol of the tipi, here).

February 2011 we found ourselves at a Victorian castle in northern Scotland. It was procured by our friend Adrian to celebrate his 50th birthday, with his friends from around the world. There were the kilt-wearers, the lovers of football, the priests and those trained by priests, professors, the gourmet cooks and fine wine connoisseurs and those of us who benefited from the same, business people, friends and ex-es, and of course—there’s at least one in every crowd—a musician (who could not play her flute due to some bronchial incapacitation that happened on the day of arrival!). It was one of the finest times I’ve ever had: the shared company, the location, the food, and the daily pace. We were all there for several days in this estate castle that had, if memory serves me, nine kitchens, 33 rooms, a sauna, and views to live for, overlooking the Isle of Mull. One day we took a ferry to Iona, something I had longed to do. The ancient church was worth the whole trip, and though I could barely breathe properly, I did sing a few lines in this reverberant space—giving me a feeling of leaving something for them, while taking something from there with me. It is difficult for me to describe this trip to Scotland, because it is more how it made me feel. There was a consistently prevalent, gentle, misting rain the whole time we were there, which gave everything an effervescent golden hue. I filmed everything, everywhere. This is simply how I carry on these days, hoping to capture such timeless beauty, never to forget.

In March, I drove 12 hours to Tennessee. (I like seeing the country by way of car, getting to know the overall landscape from one hour to the next—and prefer driving to flying whenever time allows for such). I worked with flute students in Cookeville, and performed in Nashville. Then I repeated the drive all over again the next week, farther east this time, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, performing at James Madison University. All were wonderful events and people, with some happy re-acquaintances and many new friends entirely.

In June, a 16-hours drive, first to Boston, to rehearse with my pianist Tim Ray (who played for many years with Lyle Lovett). Tim is an amazing player—he’s far more quiet than me, mind you (I’m a talker and laugher), but he speaks through the keyboard all that needs be said. We rehearsed at the Berklee School of Music, where Tim teaches.

Now the drive back to Connecticut, which is the concert we made the trip for. Just outside of Litchfield is my beloved Milton territory, my second home (where I lived for 14 years in this general area). It may surprise you to learn I have my own mountain there—and it is always waiting for me every time I return. It is usually the first place I go when I arrive back in this territory. Of course, I’m the one who designated it ‘my’ mountain; it is my prayer mountain, though its official name is “Prospect Mountain”. I know every tree along that trail, and know when anything has changed even slightly. We went there as soon as we arrived in the territory, as is to be expected…(I have no pictures that do this place justice).
Two days later, Tim Ray and I performed at Milton’s Trinity Church (where I ‘breathed and moved and had my practice-being’ for six years.)It could not have been a more glorious summer day, with the sun streaming in at what I always used to call the “gloaming hour”—golden light through stain-glassed windows at just the right time of day. It was a “good day to die” as the saying goes—happy, full, content, surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world. (But I’m happy to report that I lived and flourished the next day, also…)

Another 12-13 hours drive in late July to rehearse with the trio version of my band in Asheville, North Carolina. A great, productive week and deepening friendships with noble musicians and their spices (spouses), followed by an elating hike in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (old growth trees) on our trip back.

The summer season finished off with Rhonda Larson & Ventus performing for the National Flute Association annual convention, held this year in Charlotte, NC. (Way back in 1985, I won their Young Artist Competition). What a great time, as these events always are! We performed in the Belk Theater, one of the most beautiful theaters I have performed in. The first half of the concert was given by the incomparable Turkish ney (end blown middle-eastern flute) player, Omar Faruk Tekbilek. It has taken me literally two years to get a proper sound on the ney, and yet, it is still not ready for the stage…But Omar sings from his soul on the instrument…For our performance, I felt blessed to have the fantastic band of musicians joining me: Tim Ray (Boston) on piano; Chris Rosser (Asheville) on guitar and keyboards; Eliot Wadopian (Asheville) on bass [we’ve known one another since my Consort days]; River Guerguerian (Asheville), percussion; and my long-time friend and colleague at the sound board, Les Kahn—someone who can either make or break your show, and he always MAKES our show! [I have known Les since 1986, when I first joined the Consort].

I will finish with what I think is one of my most meaningful moments at this year’s NFA convention for me. A flute player who is originally from Belarus, Gene, came up to me at the Pearl booth (my brand of flute, so I hang there because I love them). He heard that Rhonda Larson & Ventus would soon be performing in Minsk, Belarus. He had written out a lullaby for my use that he said is well-known in the country. Not wanting to just look at the written notes, I had him play it for me on flute, and I immediately got goose-bumps! Since then, I have been LIVING this melody, it is so beautiful and haunting, yet simple and memorable, and a melody that has the richness of coming from another culture. Day after day, when I’m not working on the melody, it plays itself through my head. We will indeed play it in Minsk, for sure! If we do it well, they will be weeping! Well, I hope so, for the right reasons, anyway. It is good to know that in music you hope to make people weep—for overwhelming beauty touching a soul. When else can this ever be the case, on so positive a soul-level? This trip is coming up very soon. October 11! Then I’m solo to Latvia for a week of performing and teaching! A new culture, yet again, then a short stint in Italy. I cannot wait! These are the events I live and ‘play’ for.

Thanks for enduring my long-winded writing, and I send you the gentle sound of crickets and the few remaining cicadas from our quiet place here in these exquisite early fall days of Michigan.

— Rhonda
September 19, 2011

Rhonda Larson