An Interview with Norman Bolter and Carol Viera

By Douglas Yeo • September 01, 1998 • 22 min read

Norman Bolter and the Frequency BandWe can thank Mr. Greenjeans of the "Captain Kangaroo" television show for providing the catalyst that led Norman Bolter, at the age of nine, to put a trombone to his lips. Since that time, he has cultivated a unique musical personality which has developed in the professional world not only as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (since 1975, at the age of 20) but as a member of the Empire Brass Quintet during the time the group won the prestigious Naumberg Chamber Music Prize. As a teacher (at New England Conservatory of Music) he is well known, but in recent years he has embarked, in many cases in collaboration with his wife, Dr. Carol Viera, on a series of new musical activities including composition.

Since I joined the Boston Symphony in 1985, I have sat next to Norman in the orchestra, and more than being simply colleagues, we are friends. He has been a great influence on my own playing in many ways, and we have spent many hours discussing the deeper levels of music and music making. Carol's company, Air-ev Productions has organized and produced many concerts of Norman's music as well as master classes and clinics. I have been privileged to be a part of many of these undertakings which I believe have the potential to significantly change the way we think about music in all of its aspects. The recent establishment of the Air-ev Productions website and the publication of many of Norman's compositions has brought these important ideas to a wider public.

The release, in October 1998 of the live concert recording Experiments In Music and in November 1998 of Norman's solo trombone album, Anew At Home led to the following discussion of the what and why behind the unique music making experience of Norman Bolter and Carol Viera. When read and considered carefully with an open mind, their words and thoughts carry potent possibilities not only to raise musical awareness to a new level, but to even help rescue music from a cynicism and self-destructive spiral that is in desperate need of reversal.

This interview was conducted in September and October 1998. As they are very much a "team" in their collaborative efforts, some of the questions are answered by Norman and Carol individually and others by them collectively.

Douglas Yeo (DY) - Norman, after nearly 25 years in the Boston Symphony, you have recently turned to composition and, in an extraordinary flurry of activity, have written over 60 works, most including trombone. How did this compositional outburst come upon you?

Norman Bolter (NB) - The truth is that I was very interested in composing when I was very young and used to write a lot of melodies then. The Song of King David was first composed when I was 12 years old. At that time, someone thought it would be a good idea for me to take theory and composition lessons. That killed my interest for awhile! But in September 1993, "it" started strongly and there was a huge expressive explosion of work coming from the results of living life, including the fact of my always being very caught by the purpose of life. This has led me on an incredible journey of discovery into the natural worlds, the human enigma, and other related territories! Music, as my life-long companion, naturally seemed the best way to anchor and transmit this into the world.

DY - Your music seems always to be informed by either personal experience or personal thought, often focused on nature or noble concepts such as persevering against the odds, chivalry, and integrity. Why?

NB - One of my discoveries over the years has been that there is a simple truth that all things have a place somewhere on a bar from "course to fine." We humans were given the gift of choice. My choice is to try to connect to the finer qualities (as part of my work to try to develop these more in myself) since, in my view, these finer qualities seem to be on the decline in the world we live in.

My personal experiences are not the main objective in the music. It is "what" these experiences are connected to that I am interested in. One of the great natural laws is that things either grow or wither, live or die. We all try to find meaning, purpose, richness, and value in our lives, each in our own way. This music is an attempt to find and grow value for my own life's experience, noble events from history, aspects of nature, and similar natural things, and by this, promote, and transfer some of the vital nutrients that deepen, enrich, naturalize and assist the human journey here on this planet. In this way, I hope to help ensure that these things do not die.

DY - The concept of "essence music" is inseparable from any discussion of your compositions and collaborations. Could you more fully develop your thoughts on that?

NB and Carol Viera (CV) - One of the things we are confronted with in this interview format is that we are having to summarize the results of years of research and workshop practice into very few words, which cannot be done. This is especially the case because the process of bringing someone inside of a living engagement takes time. If someone wants to grow a garden, that doesn't happen by reading the package of seeds. It takes months, and it takes years of experience before that to learn the ways of plants and the planet that are invitational to "what" causes a garden. So, this may all sound obvious, but we want to say these responses are actually glimpses of answers that we hope convey some of the "essence" of what we are attempting to do in this endeavour.

So, in the spirit of providing "snap shots," let's talk about "essence music"...

One of the ways that "essence music" can be described simply is: It is to do with the fundamental energy, vibration and life force of "what" wrote the music. We firmly believe that it is more important to know "what" wrote a piece of music than "who" wrote the music. So, this "what" is the living life of the music at its core and "essence music" is an attempt to put this across in ways that we can hear and feel.

All music is connected to something. Our intention is to make "what" that connection is as deliberate and conscious as we can and, from that deliberate connection, we attempt to create music that will uplift, inspire and change a person's life for the better. It's a living, atmospheric event. This is one way to think about what we mean by "essence music."

Air-Ev LogoDY - Carol's company Air-ev Productions appears to be far more than simply a music publishing business. Let's talk a bit about the kinds of activities you are involved in through Air-ev, and, if you will, explain for readers what "Air-ev" and your motto, "Evolutary music influencing now" mean.

CV - "Experiments in Music," which is more than just the title of the new CD of Norman's music, but also is actually the name we have given to the domain of our personal music researches, is an attempt to pioneer the music of the future. Why would we want to do that? Because we are very interested in whether or not humans will have a future and what that future will be. It is about casting a template into a time when we will no longer be alive, a template of belief, hope, values and means and ways to progress these things. We believe that music is a powerful medium for conveying a very real influence that can change a human life, giving it ways to go on. And we believe we can choose what we would like to pass on and we also believe we can project ways that will grow and deepen and evolve in the face of genuineness. As well, we believe we can set that signal for the future in place now. Air-ev Productions is the practical vehicle for launching this endeavour into the world. It would take some time to explain what "Air-ev" and the Air-ev symbol mean, but it comes out of this sentiment.

The motto, "Evolutary music influencing now," is a reminder of what we want to do and how we want to do it. It is an ever present link to our intention and it sets a standard that we do not wish to fall below. In the middle ages, knights bore "standards" into battle. In this way, they could fortify and align themselves to the reason why they were fighting and what they were fighting for. And, by this "standard," they could be identified by others at a distance. So, this banner declared to themselves and others who they were and what they stood for. By flying the Air-ev "colours" (the Air-ev motto and symbol), we attempt to inform others about who we are and what we stand for and, by that declaration, we make ourselves more accountable to upholding that intention.

So, Air-ev Productions seeks, in any way it can, to promote the futuristic vision which has just been described. And this includes attempting to identify and promote the talents and skills of those people who are wishing to be a part of this endeavour, and to do so from a place of value not only for their skills but also for their lives. It's a fraternal human development journey through music with the products being the results of what that human journey creates - written music, recordings, concerts, commissions, instructional materials, masterclasses, collaborations with other artists and so on. It is an ongoing real life adventure with a purpose.

Frequency Band LogoDY - The "Frequency Band" Endeavor seems to be a way to connect performers to that which is most important in music. This must be difficult to accomplish given the "rush" of this world. Do you find musicians responding to your call to concentrate on the "essence" of music?

NB and CV - The "rush" of this world and all that that is connected to is exactly what can block a person from connecting to the "essence" of the music, which is the most important part in playing music.

The musicians that are open to the "Frequency Band" Endeavour often know that the "professional world" has a different agenda than "essence connection," and these musicians are hungry and, often times, a bit desperate to satisfy the fundamental human need that live essence connection offers. They recognize that one of the reasons for the "Frequency Band" Endeavour is to offer the opportunity for musicians to try to come to greater depth, meaning and fulfillment in their musical lives. And they welcome the opportunity to have music happen for them in this way.

Experiments in MusicDY - The release of your new CD recording Experiments in Music gives listeners a snapshot into the "Frequency Band" Endeavour. What do you feel is uniquely captured in this recording of a "live" event?

NB - "Live" event! That's one of the fundamental qualities that come out of the "Frequency Band" Endeavour. It is live! And it takes work to be alive, even though in another way, it is totally natural. I've been to many "live" concerts that were totally dead! Even with no missed notes, great blend, and huge volume contrasts. These things are in the "easy to see and hear" worlds. But if the performers and conductors are not connected to a potent "live" frequency that is sympathetic to "what" wrote the piece, it won't be very alive. It will be "disconnected."

When something is alive, it is beyond personal like and dislike. It breathes, pulsates, tries, does something to you. The recording Experiments in Music is of a live concert about experiments in "essence music" - the composition of the music and the performance of the music. And the fact of it happening at all, and then also being captured on disc, is unique. There are no edits or enhancements. It is the untouched recording of this event, including "living program notes"! Do we think it is the ultimate take on all of these works? Not necessarily. Every day is different. Something different would happen on another day. But what is important is that "it" happened as best as it could, given all the circumstances, and it's like life itself - the beautiful, the bumpy, the exciting, the coarser aspects, the fine moments, all wrapped up in one living event. That is why "it" happened. It was real!

DY - What kind of implications do you see in performers reaching beyond the typical level of performance experience to this much deeper level?

NB and CV - It is interesting and important to note that not all people are "open" to reaching "beyond" certain parameters of music into this kind of pursuit. That is a personal choice and we understand that. Technique - such as speed, range, volume, complex and difficult patterns, accuracy, and so on - can be "easy to see and hear." Reaching "beyond" this aspect of our training and attempting to connect to more "unseen" factors (such as, for example, reconnecting back to when one was a child at which time personal bias and judgment about what is and is not "real" and "important" were not such imposing factors and we may have had a very pure and natural love of music - and life - for its own sake) is much subtler and can seem more abstract, although this is not more abstract really. It is, however, not necessarily so "easy to see" because, in fact, we are talking about what is going on in the "unseen" part of our playing - and life.

Interestingly, we recognize, give credence to and respond to "unseen" aspects of life all the time. So, it's not that the "unseen" is "mysterious" or just our "imagination." For example, most of us have people in our lives whom we love - how do you measure "love"? It is part of the "unseen" but not the "unfelt"! It is clear that anyone of us could take the time and list many "unseen" things that we register and which influence our lives in profound ways. Look, if it were not for the unseen electrical signals that keep our heart going and brain going and every cell in our bodies going, we would be dead. If your heart stopped beating, you would certainly hope the paramedics would send an "unseen" electrical signal into it to get it beating again, rather than use, say, an "easy to see" monkey wrench!

Much of formal music "training" has formed in each of us an assembly that may assist our playing in certain ways (it is useful to be able to play the notes!), but also may arrest one's actual music making - and one's life. This often has happened because of our need to survive in our competitive, digitized, "professional" world. But it is not the only option, which sometimes is difficult to remember.

So, what are the implications of opening up one's life - and through this, one's playing - to ways and means that help one to connect to things, "essences," that form up the life force of oneself and everything else? Well, we would have to say that the implications are unlimited because the mind and what it can connect to is unlimited. The range one may achieve on a musical instrument, ultimately, can only be limited. The speed with which one can play, ultimately, can only be limited. While these things are useful means by which to make music, they are only tools to facilitate what the living part of one's life can connect to and express. For us, they are not an end in themselves.

When someone with whom we are working is "open" and if they actually recognize that the "Frequency Band" Endeavour does attempt to offer a sanctuary and a safety for them and their love of music and that this ecology is an opportunity to re-connect to "what" caused them to be in music in the first place and to connect to all kinds of other living "essences" as well, then nothing less than extraordinary things can happen (to the music being played and to the person) - which we have witnessed many times. For the person, there often are feelings such as a sense of "freedom," "feeling alive again," "inspiration," "humility," "awe," and a sense of something "unique" happening, including, of course, unique musical experiences, such as experiencing amazing intonation in a totally different way than they are used to as a result of being "in tune" with something other than a Bb or some other note.

There is so much we could say about this and the implications it can have for a person's life and their playing, but that's a beginning.

Anew at HomeDY - Norman, Experiments in Music is being released in October 1998; it is truly an extraordinary snapshot into your many musical facets: you are at once composer, soloist, conductor, orchestra contractor and program commentator. I can't recall ever seeing or hearing a recording in which one person played so many roles. Following the release of Experiments in Music, you have another album, Anew at Home coming out in November 1998. I was present at the concert which Experiments in Music documents and had a good idea of the impact the recording would make on me. However Anew at Home - an album that is made up entirely of your music performed by you on trombone - was something completely new to me, and it made a powerful and lasting impression on me when I first heard it. You've never recorded a solo album before. Why now?

NB - Actually, about 10 years ago, I did make a solo recording. Someone asked me to do it and we thought it would be a good idea to have a "record" of my musical playing accomplishments. Good music. I think one work on it actually was written for trombone! It was a very good record I think. But something never took off with it. Something in us couldn't quite finish it for release. We thought finances prevented it, but, in retrospect, it wasn't that. It just didn't feel right. And once the composing started and the number of compositions began to grow, it became clear as to why we had hesitated.

DY - The "Frequency Band" Endeavor has a potent saying in that "Your mistakes cost you nothing in the 'Frequency Band'". What a freeing concept! Can you elaborate a bit on that freedom and perhaps some of the unexpected results that can occur from that sentiment.

NB and CV - It's very interesting because someone could think "Your mistakes cost you nothing" means "anything goes" but this is not what it means to us or to anyone coming inside of the "Frequency Band" Endeavour. It means, from within a genuine intention to put forward your best, you will not be punished, humiliated or penalized for mistakes in performance or behaviour. It means there is a dedicated attempt to develop an ecology where no one feels lesser and where we can all learn what it means to "refine as we go."

The freedom lies in the fact that this allows us to engage other parts of ourselves that get cut off when preoccupation with technique and worry about not making mistakes is the focus. A richer, more whole experience with finer balances and sensitivities is often the result.

DY - Carol, you have had a very rich life in fields as diverse as science and the arts. Now you find yourself involved in music and in helping people develop their thinking to make their musicianship be truly special. What led you on this journey to music and how is music influencing you?

CV - Actually, music has been a part of my life from the start and always has influenced my life, whereas a love of discovery from childhood led me to science later on. My mother is one of those people who can look at an instrument and say, "I'd like to play that." then pick it up and play it and within a short time, play it well! She has always loved singing and playing a variety of musical instruments and she still performs in schools, hospitals and religious services to this day. So, I grew up in a home where there was a great natural love of music and where music was always heard, sung and played.

My own "formal" musical training started when I was very young. And I was performing from age 6. Some of the ways of this training seemed very foreign to the way music lived in me. For example, I just couldn't understand what that confining metronome on the piano ticking away had to do with music, not at that age anyway because I was given no reason! So, it just felt like it separated me from the music. This kind of thing caused a certain distancing in me from the "formal" music world for awhile. Nevertheless, musical study and expression have always been a part of my life.

My science background is in cognitive neuroscience, both research and clinical work. I think the human mind is an extraordinary instrument that has as much to do with making music as technical ability and "musical" ability. I am absolutely delighted that my life is such that now I can bring my backgrounds in science and music together in a meaningful, natural way. It is like having the two hemispheres of my brain united at last! Seriously, the coming together of these seemingly separate backgrounds, in companionship with my personal philosophical pursuits, causes the feeling that the whole of my life can be of service and of some account. And that's what I want my life to be.

DY - Air-ev Productions is now only 2 years old. What future plans do you have, both compositionally and maybe in terms of written works and events that can further your mission?

NB and CV - Air-ev Productions houses a live affair. We don't know everything that will happen until we get there. We are actually endeavouring to "boldly go" into yet unknown territory from our live, unfolding researches. We would assume this would include more compositions, concerts, writings, recordings and other such things! What would be unchanging in this endeavour is the criterion and sentiment that what we do continues to champion vital human qualities of a fine nature into the future. This includes humour, one of the medicines of the gods! This also includes allowance for real life to go on, such as freedom from the pressured expectation that you'll never split a note or get ketchup on your white shirt.

DY - Joseph Alessi has recently commissioned and recorded one of Norman's pieces which will appear on a new CD of his. How did that come about, and what did that process entail?

NB and CV - In certain ways, the process was unique (not only because the creation of each piece is unique but also in other ways particular to this piece that would take too long to get into here) but the process was not at odds with how all the compositions are born - trying to connect to the life of "what" the music is intended to be about by immersion into that territory.

The story line is: One day, Joe called and asked about playing one of Norman's pieces. This led to the proposition of writing a piece for him. After speaking with Joe, which included asking him about what things in life caught him, we worked intensively to see what territory in the natural worlds seemed to light up. What territory would naturally marry to Joe's life and unique playing abilities? We went back and forth for some time and then Carol said, "The Arctic!" This struck a chord in both of us. Thinking this amazing place on the planet - which combined stark simplicity and brilliant, complex life forms - might be something Joe could naturally capture very well, we totally immersed ourselves in researching its various forms and frequencies until we felt a strong connection to "what" the Arctic is had been made. At that point, music began to appear and Norman then absorbed himself in the writing of Arctic Emanations until it was completed. Curiously, Norman felt best writing this work in the basement, which is not usually the case for other pieces. Who knows why this happened? Maybe it was the cold and the fact that it was like an enclosed shelter with no sunlight!

While many stories lie inside this process, one particularly interesting occurrence is that when Joe was told what the piece was about, including what scenes were depicted in the music, he said that, in fact, he had spent a lot of time in Northern Canada and had direct experience of the Aurora Borealis (which is one scene in Arctic Emanations). We didn't know this beforehand.

We were very pleased when Joe let us know that he really liked the piece and we also are glad that many people who have heard him play it are very caught by both the specialness of the piece and the way in which Joe seemed totally immersed in it.

DY - This has been a fascinating exploration into the life you both have together as you journey through music, music making and the important principles which underlie both. Thank you for your candor and clear expression. For those who resonate with your music and activities, including The "Frequency Band" Endeavor and the whole subject of "essence music," is it possible for people to contact you, not only for commissions, but to have you work with them in masterclasses, lectures, "Frequency Band" workshops and clinics?

NB and CV - Yes, most definitely. We'd welcome it.