An Interview with Michael Brant DeMaria by Mary Munarin, a Native American flute player and longtime fan of Michael's music. An abridged version of this interview recently appeared in the December 2009 issue of Voice of the Wind, the magazine of the International Native American Flute Association. Ocean recently posted #1 on the New Age/World/Ambient Charts for the second month in a row. This interview explores the making of Ocean and the fascinating story behind the album.
Prologue: Liner notes from the inside cover of Michael DeMaria's album Ocean:
“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is clearly Ocean.” - Arthur C. Clarke
The Ocean brought all life to this planet. The Ocean is the great mother of the watersheds of earth...without which we could not live. The oceans of the world touch every continent, every people, and every culture on our planet. They accept us all regardless of color, custom, language, or belief.
Much like the ever-flowing rivers of the world, we take on different names and forms until we are ready to go home -- to the place we began -- our One Source -- the Ocean of Being where life can always begin again, with hope, love, and life. These are my tone prayers and sound poems offered up in honor and respect of the wisdom of the ocean waters. This music served to heal me and revive me from the devastating hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 when we lost our home -- so I dedicate them to all who are in need of peace, tranquility, and healing in times of struggle, transition, and transformation. Breathe, release, listen, and let go.
Dr. Michael Brant DeMaria's new CD, Ocean, is one I happily recommend, for meditation, contemplation of individual or universal life, bringing peace to mind and heart , even sliding into sleep on a restless night--or just enjoying for the artistry of it. Completely created and crafted by Michael, it's been five years in the making and is born of significant events and lessons in Michael's life during that time. I love to explore the creation story of all works of art, particularly music, and the story of Ocean is one of the most intriguing I've heard.
Mary Munarin: Michael, your last CD, Siyotanka, was an "outer story," stemming from a Native American legend. Ocean, like your first CD, The River, is an "inner story," expressing your own life's experience.
Michael DeMaria: The last track on The River (the first CD in the Ontos Healing Sound Project) is "The Sea." The liner notes for this track say, “Off in the distance, I hear the river of life coming home to where it began…the place where all rivers meet…the sea.”
For me life is a river. The river symbolizes our soul’s journey through life. The mystery of life and death has plagued and fascinated humanity since the beginning of time, and the river offers a powerful and beautiful way of understanding this paradox. Where did the river (our individual life) begin? In the mountains? In the rain? In the rain cloud? Or in the ocean, where the water first evaporated? Likewise, where did our individual lives begin? With our first breath? In our mother's womb? Or from some far-off distant source where all things begin? We come from some vast other place that while we are living is hidden from us.
As we continue in life, our canoe is like our ego/body, but the river is like our soul. As we travel down the river, the canoe gets rickety and old, the ego gets battered and bruised, but the soul becomes deeper and wider, and more and more sure of its direction and destination. Then when we approach what feels and seems like the ultimate ending, death, the river empties out into the Ocean – the place from which it began. What a journey! Does the river die? Yes, and no – it is no longer a river – but at the same time all the water that was there is still there – it has just changed form.
This insight, this understanding of the life journey as traversing a river we have never been down before is my ground, my cosmology, my story. The vision of this came to me on my first vision quest along the Belly River in Alberta, Canada, on the Blood Reservation, documented in my first book, Ever Flowing On, published in 2001. It is also what led me to compose my album The River, released in 2003. I wanted to take this journey further, to dive into the Ocean itself -- what many Native People call The Big Water -- which felt like a difficult task, because it meant exploring the formless place from where we all began. I started work on this music in 2003 knowing that Ocean would be a follow-up to The River, a natural next step. Ocean would pick up where The River left off. I was intrigued, compelled, and afraid of going into this territory emotionally and musically. Would it have any appeal to others? Would it be too personal, too ethereal, too deep, too formless? As destiny often provides, I had a huge lesson and "kick in the butt" in store for me that would both make composing this music much more difficult, but also much more necessary. It was no longer an interesting idea or an academic exercise, but became a necessity of survival.
Mary: How so?
Michael: On September 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed into our lives when a 15-foot storm surge overtook our home and neighborhood. Ninety percent of the homes in our neighborhood were completely destroyed and those remaining were uninhabitable. Although our structure did not have to be bulldozed and we were able to renovate it, we truly lost our home. The place we had raised our daughter, the home where I taught her to ride her first bike, to sing her first song, where I tended lovingly for over a decade my plants and trees, where I nursed my vegetable garden, and built my daughter's play house. All gone. And the trees! Prior to the storm, we had 67 huge pine trees and 12 gorgeous live oaks on our 1.5 acres of land -- now only seven large pines and three oaks remained.
We had truly lost our home, not just our house. It was a devastating blow to our lives. My daughter was in her senior year of high school. I was recovering from knee surgery, and here we were with our lives brought to a painful halt. We lived for many days in a hotel without electricity, and I remember the strange feeling of no cell phones working, no computers working, certainly no recording equipment working. We couldn't even let friends and family know we were okay for days and weeks in some instances.
Fortunately, my therapy office downtown was in good shape so the three of us moved into the back of the building. Thank goodness I did take a flute with me! It was a trying and difficult time, but it was also a time that polished the soul. It put us in touch with what was of real value and importance – each other, and the sacredness and preciousness of life.
Initially, I all but gave up on Ocean. This nice idea became a painful reality. We had lived on the water, and that relaxing view turned into a threatening and ominous one. How would I compose peaceful, healing music about something that was so overwhelming and devastating? The ocean looked fearful and dangerous, anything but peaceful. It felt as if "She" had betrayed me. Of course, deep down I knew She was teaching me a painful lesson, but it took time for my bruised ego to recover from the actual events and allow my soul to learn the deeper lesson of letting go and opening my heart. The great teaching of impermanence, that we must eventually give away everything (to death). I started researching more about "The Ocean" and found out that the ancient word for Ocean was "Mare." This was also close to the name of the Neolithic Goddess of Old Europe (10,000-1,000 B.C.), "Mari." These came from the root word for Mary and Maria, and I had chill bumps when I realized it was also the root of my last name, DeMaria, "of Mary," or in the Old Latin, "of The Sea/Ocean."
Doing this research made me realize that I was looking into the origins of Creation. That is, the origins of all life began on the planet in the oceans, and the ancient people knew this. That is why the Ocean was called "The Great Mother," and as much as She could give life, She could take it away. She was a goddess who ultimately had the power to transform all things -- to cleanse and purify, but also to destroy.
I began reading about the ancient Goddesses of the Water, and found so many similarities among them. The one who has experienced everything and therefore had the greatest compassion and knew how to forgive everything as well. I realized it was a call for me to be more humble, more grateful, and more in awe of the force and power of Nature than I had previously been. To realize there was something greater guiding my life that I had to be respectful of, and to appreciate each moment and day as precious because it truly could be my last – AND at the same time, that I was never alone and that death was not the end but a new beginning from the perspective of the Ocean of Being and the soul. I realized I had to finish the album.
Mary: Not an easy task, living in your office and facing all the trauma of rebuilding your lives.
Michael: I created a make-shift recording studio by my consulting room – no acoustic tiles, no nice dedicated space like I had in my home, but I did know I had to begin somewhere. The melodies and drone textures took me to a very deep place. I almost felt like I was living under water, even breathing under water, sometimes under tremendous pressure. But in that inner world I began to learn to let go again and float. I began to have dreams of swimming with dolphins and whales, even diving deep and seeing the creatures and beings that lived in the ocean’s depths. In some ways, The River was still about getting somewhere, but the Ocean was about being somewhere – just being, not doing. And so many times in the recovery process that was all I could manage to do, just be and breathe. Over the years of recovery and rebuilding, the music of Ocean was my constant companion. I would listen to tracks in the car, with headphones, as much for my own healing as to compose. It got to the point, I almost didn’t want the composing to end, and an album that I had hoped to complete in a year ended up taking five.
The more I slowly but surely worked on the pieces, the more I realized that I was doing what I had done at a very young age. At seven, I began plucking one note at a time on the piano to heal myself from surgical trauma. This time, I was using piano, synthesizers, flutes, and my own voice to heal myself of the physical surgery on my knees and the emotional surgery that was required by living through Hurricane Ivan and its aftermath.
Mary: Recovery can be a trauma in itself.
Michael: Sometimes, I would start an improvisation and just start crying. I found my voice sounding deeper and more resonant. I didn't have as much capacity for light, melodic improvisations. I found myself drawn to a deeper, more hypnotic kind of sound that honored all I had been through with a depth of compassion, honesty, and mystery. There was nothing to prove, nothing to attain I often heard deep within what I have come to call “The Hum of God,” just one long drone sound full of wisdom, compassion, and healing. If you're very quiet and still, you can hear it, too. You can REALLY hear it in silent places in Nature -- or, of course, underwater. And, ironically, in a desert.
The experience reminded me how much I don’t know, how insignificant we can feel. What better example of that than the Ocean, something that brought all life to be on the planet, but which also is the place we know least about. Many scientists have commented that we know more about the moon than we do about the bottom of the Ocean.
Mary: You not only faced your fears, you embraced their source and drew wisdom from it.
Michael: I actually came to respect the Ocean in a deeper way through composing the music for this album. As in all my albums, this one tells the story of one’s man’s journey through a sonic landscape.
One of the most personal pieces for me on this CD is "Transformation." It starts off slowly, but it for me is the most meaningful piece, similar to “Becoming Takoda” on my album Siyotanka. It is very slow to start, as I was after the hurricane – when sometimes it hurt just to breathe, But over time, this complete dissolution of my identity was given new life through the process of creating and being. By the way, Mary, "Transformation" was featured recently as the centerpiece for an online magazine Quartsaluni, whose issue was the topic of Transformation.
Mary: Getting back to the idea of the "inner" and "outer" stories in your work, I see the connection, the flow, that knits them together.
Michael: As one can see from all my albums, I am most interested in taking the listener on a sonic journey. I envision each album as a voyage, a sonic adventure of sorts. For those interested in deepening their compositions, think of a writer telling a story, not just within one song, but throughout an entire collection of songs. Sometimes musicians get too caught up in riffs and technical proficiency, and then compose pieces to show off a skill. They forget that the origins of music have always been about telling a story or taking a journey, often a healing journey. In fact, our culture is the only one on the planet that has made music primarily a thing of entertainment. For every indigenous culture that has ever existed, music was primarily a way of praying, worshipping, connecting, community building, and most importantly healing.
I like to think of moving from composing songs to composing an album as the difference between writing poems or short stories to then moving to writing an epic or a novel, or even a full-length play. Initially, it is very challenging, but it also forces you to be disciplined about what to keep and what to discard as you progressively build a particular mood for an entire album. A dream I had as a child, besides being a musician, was actually to be a filmmaker (a dream I do plan to fulfill when I grow up!). So I am always visualizing when I compose and play. I like to imagine my songs being soundtracks for the soul's journey. I also see all of this as an apprenticeship to the films I hope to create one day.
Mary: So we might also call you a master storyteller. The River and Ocean are your auditory evidence, and Siyotanka, a stage production for which you co-wrote the script as well as composing the music, represents your move into the visual. In all three, you are telling a story -- your story.
Michael: There is always a journey, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every song, every story proceeds in this fashion. It only makes sense to me to do the same thing with an album. I remember, as a small child, my parents sharing spoken-word recordings that were part story and part music, and we’d go to bed listening to these wonderful albums of children’s stories. I would then dream vividly afterwards. In a way these albums are waking dreams harkening back to those early experiences.
I'm very honored when people say The River or Ocean puts them to sleep -- I take that as a high compliment, because they are made of dream stuff. In my studio, composing my music, I do lots of self-soothing as well as self-exploration. I light candles, lower the lights, and like to create a sacred "dream space" in which to coompose. I love to be surprised and taken into another dimension when I compose and play. It's almost as if each song, each album, each creative project is a shamaic journey of sorts.
When others experience even a touch of this same feeling or resonance, I am very pleased.
Mary: Thank you, Michael. I know I speak for many others in saying, we're pleased, too.
heart beats on...
Emptiness dances me anew...
Cleansed, renewed, transformed,
I am no longer who I used to be.