Listening between the Notes and Looking beyond the Images

When I spoke with my dear friend, Kitty Norris on Mendocino Public Radio (Iridium Radio) in April of this year, I recounted parts of the journey that the Native American flute had ‘invited’ me to take. I can’t say that I resisted that invitation, but I was amused that the flute had ‘chosen’ me. If someone had put out a selection of musical instruments to choose, it would have ranked a step or two below the tuba. But receiving the Creator Rites from Q’ero elder Don Francisco six years ago helped me to uncover a well-spring of creative urges buried deep in my subconscious, and for some reason the Native American flute and the single-lens reflex (SLR) camera became the instruments with which to realize those creative urges. But it goes deeper than that.

Like anyone who enjoys the Beatles, I have played musical instruments over the years, including the guitar and keyboard if for nothing more than to explore constructive pass-times. But wind instruments never really interested me that much – perhaps because they required the lengthy development of an embouchure (the muscles of the face that facilitate the precise control of the mouth for directed use of the breath). I played trumpet as a boy, but quickly lost my embouchure when I gave it up in the 10th grade … something about needing braces. I tried in vain to pick it up again during Air Force basic training, because it would have excused me from K-P duties if I were to participate in the squadron marching band. I quickly moved therefore to Plan B, the Glockenspiel (which is another story that I will table for the moment).

Playing trumpet in High School (Center-Front)

The other tool – a camera – has been in my hand throughout my life. But I have been asleep behind it for years – until just recently. By chance I became aware of a cadre of young photographers, including Jesh De Rox (I don’t think his name is for sale) who are seeking deeper meaning in their lives through ‘experiential photography.’ The late photographic master Monte Zucker taught me about lighting, feelings and the unbridled joy of image-making. But now I have been challenged by the Beloved Experiential Photography Movement to consider, understand and be able to say “why” I do what I do, not just “what” I do and “how” I do it. And what’s more, to say it then in the form of a Blog! And as I have done that, I find that so much of the “why” springs from a personal place of deep, disregarded emotion. A place that represents what was for me the untimely and unexpected death of my father when I was a teenager. It brought with it an emotional deflation that resists the sharing. The impact is palpable; I have known at least two clairvoyants (I know, it’s a little New Age) who have stopped what they were doing, looked at me with wrinkled faces and asked, “what happened to you when you were 19? Whom did you lose? You know, it shifted the whole course of your life!” My answer: “I know.”

Later, at the right time, some divine breath carried me away from an engineering career and dropped me at the edge of the forest to pursue my heart’s longing. So, I make images of loving couples and families because I have so few images of my father and me – and because making these images for the people that I meet may comfort their families and loved-ones for generations. This is a comfort that I lack. So I recreate it for others as often as possible. And that comfort fills my spaces that need filling.

Kitty and Creek Norris

But that does not seem to answer why I now gravitate to the Native American flute and why I record it so prolifically. And then it came to me – the other night in a dream (… was it a dream?) — the memory of lying on the living room floor listening to the stereo with my late father. I was 16 at the time and happy to be spending some quiet moments with him — they were rare. He was wearing a corduroy jumpsuit (it was cool then) and listening to, I believe a recording of jazz great, Stan Kenton. I remember that the jazz seemed complicated to me, with notes so close together in the same octave. As Kenton’s big band came to a musical retard on the closing chords, my dad took out a small toy flute from his pocket and started to play. I was shocked as he played arpeggio after arpeggio in perfect tempo and key. On his final note, he made some funny expression with his eyebrows that made his face look like one of the actors’ masks on the Screen Actor’s Guild logo.

SAG Logo

I blurted out, “how’d you do that? I didn’t know you could play!” He just smiled and put the toy flute back in his pocket.

So there it is – the “Why.” Every time that I play the flute or make an image, something fills up inside my heart with the warm feeling of a father’s love gone but not forgotten.

With thanks to a passer-by.


(In memoriam, William T. Leyden, Jr. (1917-1970) and Terry J. Smith (1950-1998), who is playing the trombone front-right in the marching band image)
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