Bill Cole: The Path I have Taken and the Instruments I Play
“ By then I knew that these instruments could fit into any musical situation that I was working on. I now had the sona, hojok, shenai, a bamboo flute from Ghana, and a newly acquired nagaswarm from India. ”
On October 11, 2002 I turned 65. To celebrate I took my ensemble the Untempered Ensemble into the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. At the beginning of the second half all the members of the Ensemble played double reed horns that come from Asia. After the performance Anton Reid, long a strong supporter of musicians, mentioned to me that when I first came to New York, playing the instruments I play, people laughed at me. Now I had everyone in the Ensemble playing them. Beside having a good laugh I began thinking about the path I have taken and the instruments I play.
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. Rarely did musicians from outside of the European tradition play there. I earned two degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and, with the exception of my last semester in my Master's program, all of it was in some aspect of European Art music. I learned theory, composition and history of music but it was all European. Simultaneously I was taking in the music of my own people in the bars, and the far too infrequent concerts that came to Pittsburgh.
I left Pittsburgh in 1970 to attend Wesleyan University and the World Music Program. At Wesleyan a whole new door of music opened for me. At that time they had visiting artists from West Africa, Indonesia, North and South India, and Japan, and African-Americans and Native Americans. Music was a constant and my ears were exposed to sounds which I never heard before.
My advisor and mentor at Wesleyan was trombonist/cornetist Clifford Thornton. He was the visiting artist in African-American music. I learned more from him about music than could ever be explained in words. He showed me how to listen to players and how to home in on different artists in ensembles. The most important thing he did for me was to give me a Chinese sona and a Korean hojok and told me 'learn how to play them.' I had never played a reed instrument let alone double reed, but I was so taken by the sound of these instruments that I had to master them.
My journey had started. Clifford played the East Indian shenai and I would go to his house and watch him practice. With Clifford everything was self discovery. Everything stemmed from the desire of the individual to learn. One learned from Clifford by following him around and getting tips and information on the run. He was not in any sense of the word a conventional teacher. Learning music from him was a life experience, a living experience. At the beginning of my second year at Wesleyan, Sam Rivers was brought to the campus as Visiting Artist and he began a big band. I played in that band and at the same time learned a totally different way of composing music. Sam's approach was to have members of the band write small parts which he strung together to form one piece with sections of free improvisation.
I was becoming better at playing the sona and hojok and I bought a shenai, but it would take years before I really mastered them. There was so much to learn and I began with a totally blank mind about the instruments and the cultures they came from. I have never been one that believes that a person can play another culture's music. I was learning how to play these instruments and developing ways to play them from my own cultural background.
In the spring of 1972 Clifford organized an African-American Music Jubilee at Wesleyan. It was a spectacular event. It included every aspect of African-American music, and historians and other scholars speaking about the music. This was the first time I heard Chief Fela Sowande speak. This was my first time hearing an African talk about his music, the tradition it comes from, and its place in the community. I spoke to him briefly after his presentation and we exchanged address information. Our association lasted for fifteen years and he shared with me everything he knew about music, life and his numerous writings gave me information about the traditional lifestyle of my ancestors.
I spent two years teaching at Amherst College and by the time I got to Dartmouth College in 1974 I was practicing eight hours a day. By then I knew that these instruments could fit into any musical situation that I was working on. I now had the sona, hojok, shenai, a bamboo flute from Ghana, and a newly acquired nagaswarm from India.