Into the Ancient: 
 AV talks with Peter Phippen


Peter Phippen

Peter's website

Listen to Peter Phippen






Into the Ancient

AV:  Tell me about your relationship to music in general growing up and how it influenced your perception of your life & how it has evolved the path you were on over the years as you came of age.

PP:  I believe my mother was my first music teacher. Not that she taught me to play anything, she taught me how to listen. I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and when I was about four or five years old she started taking me for picnic lunches into the deep woods. After the little picnic lunch of a sandwich, bag of chips, bottle of Coca Cola and an apple or an orange, she would ask me,”What do you hear?” She would not settle for the easy answers, like the wind in the trees, or the birds singing. She wanted me to listen deeply to hear what many would not be aware of; such as the wind blowing through the tall grass, or if there happened to be a small brook, quarter of a mile away. It was very interesting to me that she taught me this when I was so young. I didn't realize until I started playing the flute how much her listening lessons had affected me. I started paying attention to every little detail. So I believe that my mother was my first music teacher. My perception of music changed once I started playing with other musicians, well before I played the flute. I was always amazed how many musicians would play and not listen to the whole while they were playing.


So my path evolved as a listener and then a player, my main instrument was Fender electric bass. So you had to listen. You had to follow. Be it a singer, guitarist, pianist, whoever you were playing with, you had to follow. That was my role as a musician for many, many years.

AV:  When was it that the flute became your musical focus? What was it about the flute that offered you the perfect way to express your emotions and your musical ideas to the world?

PP:  I started playing the flute in early March 1987 by accident. A bamboo penny whistle from India was my first flute, and the art professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, Tiit Raid, heard me play this little whistle and the next next day he gave me a bansuri bamboo flute from India and told me “Peter, if you're going to play the flute, play this one.” Shortly after that, the Professor of Flute at the University of Eau Claire, Wisconsin gave me a bamboo shakuhachi, a professional one. So I had two really good flutes now and at this point, I thought it'd be a great hobby as a bassist. When the rock band I was a member of embarked on our next tour after my discovery of the flute, my keyboard player found an older, badly cracked bamboo alto flute in Louisville, Kentucky. He bought it for a dollar and gave it to me. It didn't play of course because it was leaking air. At our next stop in St. Louis, Missouri, I took it to a repair shop and had it repaired. When I played that flute for the first time, that's when the light bulb went off in my head. Everything I wanted to express, any emotions, any feelings, any musical ideas that came to me were there.The whole song was in that bamboo tube. That's the flute that started everything off. I began playing it all the time. While on tours, we had 8 to 12 hour van rides, during which I'd sit in the back of the van and play the bamboo flute, much to my bandmates' chagrin. After every show I would play in the hotel, and in the afternoon before soundchecks; any chance I had I'd play that old bamboo flute. I started carrying that flute with me everywhere I went. I still do, it’s never very far away even though I have many flutes now.

AV:  For you though it wasn’t just about the music you were making when you played but you also have spent a considerable amount of time learning about the traditions behind the flute and the many styles of playing that fascinated you as well. Tell me about what your studies of the flute have brought to your understanding and your playing that would not have been there otherwise.   

PP:  Early on, I realized I needed to learn more about each individual flute that came into my collection. Between March 1987 and March 1988, I had been given 40 flutes from all over the world. I started thinking, “Well what do I know about these instruments? I know what they're called in their culture.” So I went to the library and started hitting the books and records of flute recordings from all over the world. I tried to know as much about each aerophone as possible. At this point, it's kind of funny because I was teaching myself how to play these instruments. They say you should have a teacher and I would agree with that. But on the other hand, there are two ways to play: the technical and the spiritual. Since I had no teacher, I relied on the library books and recordings. I began memorizing the traditional folklore stories of the instruments.

I began improvising at this point, really allowing the flutes to play themselves. I also began to approach the flute from a very Taoist philosophy: everyday something is taken away, so if you can say something with one, two, three, or four notes; really say something, then that's good. It slowed down my playing and I found myself playing fewer notes. At this point I noticed when I would play a rock show as a bassist that the more I played the flute the less I would play on the bass. So it started affecting not only my flute playing, but everything. This is still something I'm working on today. Say it with one note. Say it with two notes. My goal is to play something memorable with emotion and immense feeling and never show off.

AV:  Perhaps you could explain some of the more dominant styles that you choose to integrate into your performances and how they came about and why you as an artist feel a kinship with them.

PP:  I think one of the dominant styles of my music would be incorporating nature into my music, which as I previously mentioned was a lesson I learned at a young age from spending time in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. You hear things in nature and you can listen to the stereo field of what's happening all around you. In a way it's like surround sound if you go into the woods, stand there, and close your eyes and listen for that. I've always liked space music. It's interesting. I like to call it that but it's called ambient now or new age. I like to play music on acoustic instruments, this is something that's very important to me. I've had an on and off love affair with the synthesizer since 1975. And if I can get away with not using a synthesizer and still get the same ambient sound then I will always go that route. At this point in time a little synthesizer goes a long way for me. I'm afraid of it dating my music. Whereas a bamboo flute is always going to sound like a bamboo flute.

AV:  There is an impressive photograph of many of the flutes that you have played on your website. Could you explain some of the characteristics of a few of these flutes for our readers as to why you would choose a particular flute over another for a specific performance or to elicit a certain mood in your audience?

PP:  I have a modest collection of flutes for a world flutist. Each one will have their own purpose. Each one will summon a different feeling or emotion. Some are for playing very gentle, mellow, and dreamy and some are for playing edgy, rough, and raw. I find I like playing antique clay ocarinas as ghostly voices in the background of pieces. Each bamboo or wooden flute will have its own voice. They all have their own idiosyncrasies and can catch you by surprise. I do not like thinking about or controlling what I'm playing. I like to allow the music to happen.

AV:  What were some of the motivations for you to share your music with the public either through live performances or via CD’s or digital downloads?


PP:  I was a bassist/singer/songwriter first. I wanted to leave something behind. Art is long, life is brief. So these early non flute recordings became time capsules as to where I was at any given point in time. It is really interesting going through my catalog of material and looking back. There have been a lot of changes. When the bamboo flute came along, it was then I knew that these were the recordings I wanted to leave behind more than anything. Because without saying a single word you can evoke so many emotions, and this music is just much more natural.

AV:  Not only do you perform your music live but you also spend time educating others in a classroom setting via presentations you do or residencies that folks have sponsored you to do. Tell me about what makes these opportunities special to you and what it is that you are trying to impart to those who attend about your music & the history of the flutes that you play.

PP:  I was very fortunate to be able to work with elementary, middle school, high school and college students, due to Smithsonian folkways recording artist Ella Jenkins, who I met completely by accident. I was asked to pick her up and take her to a performance here in Wisconsin. Her performance happened to be for elementary music teachers at the University of Wisconsin Menomonie U-W Stout. Before her performance, I had the good fortune of eating breakfast with Ella and of course I had a few flutes in a case, and she asked me what was in the case. So I opened it up and she said I should play something for her. I played while she ate her breakfast. During her performance, I'm standing backstage and she announces to her audience from all over the northern Midwest that she has met a new friend who played the bamboo flute and invited me to join her for a couple songs, which I did. Within about two weeks after that my phone started ringing for school performances. And this is where what I had done early on really served me well.

The folklore of the flutes came into play. You tell folklore stories and then play something. What I'm trying to impart to students is the joy of music. Can you play by ear? Nothing wrong with that. Should you learn notes and play by sight reading music? Well, yes, you can do that too. There's no right or wrong way. The joy of music you can bring to yourself and others. The style of music is of no consequence. If you love playing space music, great. If you love playing rock-n- roll, great. If you love playing country, great. If you love playing classical music, great. Like I said, the style of music is of no consequence. I just wanted to show my audiences how much I love music and how much music meant to me in hopes that it might spark someone in the audience in turn to follow a similar path.

AV:  Do you consider the time that you spend researching the flute and the various styles to be an essential part of your growth as a musician/composer? Will this seeking of knowledge always be a facet of who you are musically speaking?

PP:  Most definitely. The research of the flutes, learning to play them and knowing their various forms from all over the world is a bottomless rabbit hole. Not only does it affect my flute playing it affects all other music I play in any genre.

AV:  Are there marked differences or similarities between how our ancestors composed & played music on flutes compared to how you or your contemporaries would approach compositions created here in the 21st century?

PP:  Yes, there are differences. If you want to talk about indigenous North American peoples, we know that their flute music was based on the vocal tradition. The indigenous North American flute was brought into the vocal tradition within the Plains cultures. Here, a song would be sung, the flute would play that song, and then the song would again be sung by the vocalist. This was all done by one person. One of the most profound flutists still carrying on this tradition is Kevin Locke (Lakota and Anishnabe). In recent times, some songs that are played on both the indigenous flute and the contemporary Native American-style flute have their foundation in the vocal tradition of the indigenous North American peoples from within the United States. Of course, in Europe, music was notated and played. I would like to think there were improvisors who just played freely, and it is known that many of the cadenzas for concertos and other genres in that time period were improvised, with those cadenzas being a challenge to be both creative and virtuosic.

Then, we go back in time to when there is no written record of what was going on musically. This is that time period that interests me, that of antiquity. What were people doing in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest? What were the Maori people in New Zealand doing in the time when there were no notated musical records? We have specimens of their instruments, but no one knows how or what was played. I am not a technical flutist; rather, I am a spiritual flutist. Of course, the more technique that a player possesses, the more he or she can forget about it. Then, the improvising musician can venture into the zone. I would love to think there were players doing that in antiquity, but we just do not know. Many of my contemporaries are both composing and improvising. So, I do not see why this would not have been taking place in antiquity, as well.

AV:  You’ve shared the stage with some powerful musicians who also are known for their abilities to coax great emotions from their flute playing. Do you feel a connection to these other musicians because you share something that only someone else who plays the flute will understand?

PP:  I've shared the stage with many great musicians. Some were flutists. Some were not. The connection happens in the music at that moment. There have been moments where yes, I felt something magical happened. There were moments when I felt nothing magical happened. Did it sound bad? No. But what sounded better was when magic actually happened and everyone was playing nothing, and that nothing became something - if that makes any sense. That's the part of playing music I love. You can have great musicians with big names on stage and still come up with zip.

Or you can play with great musicians and walk on stage and everybody's in the zone. Together. And then you have magic. Both have happened to me.

AV:  Tell me about your progression once you have enough new material to comprise an album? What kind of undertaking is a project like that and is it something that you have come to enjoy after having gone through the process many times over the past 3 decades?

PP:  I very much enjoy going through the process every time I go into the studio to record. I learn more with every new recording. When it comes to coming up with new material, since I improvise 99.9% of everything now, there's always enough material. The music is always there waiting to be played. The most difficult part is deciding what the concept is and how to pursue that concept while keeping it authentic and true. Then, as the medium to make the right decisions and not think about it too much; rather, feel it. Lastly, having the heart and discipline to go into the studio, play and just know when you're done. In other words knowing that this is as good as you are now and being able to live with it. It's as simple as that.

AV:  You recently released a new album on Projekt Records called Into the Ancient. First off, how did you and Sam Rosenthal connect? At first glance it isn’t the style of albums that I have come to expect from Projekt over the years.

PP:  I became aware of Projekt Records while recording with Byron Metcalf. I approached Sam Rosenthal when I had a concept for a new record. I felt it was a project that was different from anything they've done, but I feel it was also different from anything I've done in the past because I am focusing on antique instruments, and museum replicas. I felt that I needed to break my pattern and do something different. This included pure instinct and my best educated guess as to how these flutes were played in antiquity. I'm always searching. And yes, when I told Byron Metcalf that I was releasing through Projekt. His exact words were, “You're like nothing on their label”. That could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing. I'm pleased with Into the Ancient and how it turned out. I gave myself three hours a day for three days in the studio and really took my time. I left it with my collaborator, Ivar Lunde, Jr., a classical composer from Norway, to come up with the synthesizer parts to support the flute. I did not want to use any modern tools like auto tune. I wanted the flutes to stand on their own. I wanted these old historical temperaments left alone and we did that.

AV:  Tell me about the title of this new release “Into the Ancient”. What does it signify to you and what message does this title communicate to would be listeners as to what they will discover when they pick up a copy?

PP:  For me, the title Into the Ancient is venturing into the past, having the music play itself with the temperaments of these antique and museum replica flutes to their fullest extent in hopes that when someone streams or downloads a copy they will feel that it's coming from another place in time rather than the here and now. That was my hope.

AV:  You worked with Ivar Lunde Jr. on this release.

Do you find it enjoyable working with someone on a project like this instead of going it alone? What did each of you bring to the table on the music that comprises this album or how you approached the recording of it?

PP:  It is very enjoyable to work with Ivar Lunde, Jr. He and I have been working together for 15 or 16 years now on many different projects. We have great debates about high and low art and it's very interesting. I want to sound like a caveman. He wants to sound like a classical composer. So it's good to have a musical partner like that. In a situation like this, I come in and play my heart out, channel whatever's in the air around me that's that. Then, I say “Okay, I'll see you in a few days” and Ivar does what he does best, which is compose. That's what I want him to do. I do not want to stifle his creativity at all. Into the Ancient is as much Ivar’s album as it is mine.

AV:  Do you think that Into the Ancient explored new territory for you in how you performed and produced a collection of your songs? In what ways did you move beyond how you would normally approach a new album?

PP:  Into the Ancient for me was departure from my Western ears. Ivar and I have talked about this, and he thought I should not bring this up. But it has to be brought up. Many of my contemporaries are hung up on Western tuning. I love blue notes and stray notes, so I just let them live. Let them be. Turn them up. The feeling or vibe is the most important thing. In this way, it was a bit of a departure for me because I felt I was taking a chance. Either the album would be successful for this or it wouldn't be successful for this very reason. Will people hear or notice the difference? I'm not sure.

AV:  Would you say your music contains a spiritual component or at the very least allows the listener to use it in meditative settings as a way to ground and center themselves?

PP:  This music is only spiritual. I allow the moment to unfold and I never control it. What I'm playing is simple. I like to say that what I'm playing is nothing. I'm playing the moment I'm allowed to play. Hopefully others will find that pleasing, interesting, and meditative.

AV:  You have been nominated and received awards over the years. Do these recognitions, whether you win or not, let you see that your music has been influential to thousands of people over the years? That it has in fact made a difference in the musical landscape especially in regards to the acceptance of flute music.

PP:  To me, of course, it’s an honor to be nominated for awards. I'm thankful. I would be doing this regardless, because I play music to live. It's in my blood. It's who I am. I'm always surprised when I'm nominated for an award. I think wow, how did that happen? What did I do? I was simply being myself, following my imagination. I'm fortunate to be surrounded with musicians and collaborators who are much better than I am, and I think any smart musician would surround themselves with people who are better than they are.

AV:  Do you still have a love affair with music after all these years & do you still take comfort from having it as an integral part of your life?

PP:  The answer to this question would be yes, as music is my life and music has always been there. It's been the one constant in my life. Although the genre and form may change from time to time, in the end, it's all music.

AV:  Is there anything else you’d like to add about your music or perhaps something that I didn’t touch on but you’d like to say something about it.

PP:  First of all, what to say thank you to Ambient Visions for giving me the opportunity to talk about my music and my new Projekt Records recording Into the Ancient. That means more to me than you could possibly know. Keith Jarrett states, “Music can not be expressed in words”, and he is right. I'm just a musician who's been out there banging away at it since 1968. And, I'm always a student. If I was to say anything, it would be I'm not done yet. If I'm able to share that with the world through the kind support of people like Sam Rosenthal, Robert Doyle, Helen Marrs, Byron Metcalf, Brian Riedinger, Rahbi Crawford, Arja Kastinen, Victoria Shoemaker, and Ivar Lunde Jr. along with so many others, then I am truly thankful and humbled if people take the time to listen to what passes through my instruments.

AV:  Thank you so very much for taking the time to give the readers of AV a look into your thinking about music and how it is that music has influenced your life over the years. We appreciate your musical talent & we hope that we will be hearing your compositions & improvisations for many years to come.


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