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Julien Brocal: Shared Beauty

Julien Brocal: Shared Beauty

January 2, 2020

What is it about landscape and nature that brings us back to center? In his artist residency at Tippet Rise, pianist and composer, Julien Brocal, composes and shares two new piano pieces inspired by this uniquely personal, yet universal, experience.

Poetry: Peter Halstead
Mixing engineers: Jim Ruberto and Monte Nickles
Photo: Billy Collins
Producer and narrator: Zachary Patten

Songbirdsongs, V. Mourning Dove John Luther Adams

Julien Brocal plays Ravel

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00:10 JULIEN BROCAL: What I felt the first time I came here, I think it was five years ago, is that it’s an untouched land. It means this authenticity of the land is like a mirror to your own authenticity somehow, and it’s shaking up your habits, let’s say, in order to bring you back to this present moment where you feel the land is like a magnet. It talks to you in a way that I’ve never seen before in my entire life. Like this big sky, the millions of stars at night, this incredible sunrise and sunset.

1:04 ZACHARY PATTEN: There are moments in music where we are struck by phenomenon beyond the ordinary. Where, suddenly, the gap between experience and emotion is bridged. This bridge connects us, person to person, through the shared beauty of these sensations. These moments often happen in places that are remote, that are removed from life’s worries. Montana mountains conjure up visions of spiritual quests and personal renewal. We see our own shadow extend over a valley, patterns in the clouds become clear, and the fences we carry around with us expand to the horizon.

01:48 JB: The first time I came here, I didn’t miss any sunrise or sunset because they were unique in a way. And it was sacred for me to witness it - sacred. I use this word because that’s what it is. In your regular life, you don’t see it as sacred. You might notice is if you go for holiday and there is a nice sky or nice sunset, nice colors. But, in your everyday life, you don’t see these details. These details that are not details but are the main thing. How does it affect you? How is your relationship with these elements that you’re apart of that in your regular life, in your daily life, you don’t notice those things, because you’re too busy. I’m too busy considering other things.

02:54 ZP: In last month’s episode of the Tippet Rise podcast, pianist and composer, Julien Brocal, faced the unfortunate consequence of what happens when people separate themselves with borders and boundaries. When he arrived in Montana for his shortened residency, the experience inspired him to take a different approach through his music. One of openness and sharing, without boundary.

03:24 JB: I have the feeling this land and this place offered me the possibility to just come back to the essential and contemplation. Contemplation is a secret door to inner peace.

03:44 ZP: What is it about land and nature that brings us back to center, renewed and fulfilled? Sparking creativity, sharing, and personal connection, being immersed in it teaches us about care, and from that, how we can care for each other.

04:04 JB: This is one of the reasons why this place is so special to me, because it’s a reminder of these basics, of what is around you. Pay attention. We are in winter, I didn’t hear this silence, which is not silence because there is the sound of the wind and the sound of the river. These are not details. You figure this is the main score, this is the main thing happening, and you belong to that. You are apart of it, but you belong to the land. And, somehow, in the big cities and when you are crowded by all the elements: pollution, publicity, advertisement - everywhere. I believe you don’t expect such simplicity to be exactly what you need.

05:10 ZP: In this episode of the Tippet Rise podcast, we’ll hear about Julien’s compositional process of two new piano pieces inspired by the effects of nature. Julien also had the opportunity to play for young students at several local schools and even gave an impromptu performance at the Fishtail General Store. Music, somehow, captures translucent and untranslatable moments in our lives and sharing music inspired by nature, may simply be exactly what we need.

05:50 ZP: In your preparation for this residency, how were you imagining its beginning and how was that different from what actually occurred?

05:58 JB: That was kind of tricky because of the way I expected it to happen was to arrive with a totally free mind, let go of everything else, and just focus on the music, but that was not the case. That was really not the case. I arrived knowing that I might leave earlier and that my plan, the plan of the three weeks, wouldn’t work. I was so tired when I arrived. During this travel, I didn’t sleep and I stayed at the airport. I slept on the floor for two hours before coming to Montana, after this long journey from Canada. So when I arrived here in Montana, driving to Tippet Rise with this new landscape full of snow and ice, I reached the point of no expectation. Let’s start from no expectations because it’s so. That was my first sensation of Montana when I arrived.

07:03 ZP: So because of those events at the border, you began your residency without expectation. Once you were in Montana and at Tippet Rise, how did your first days of the residency progress?

07:26 JB: The first day was kind of, for me, the experience of just settling down and getting back to myself - getting to peace. Settling down with myself. I had this idea because I saw the sunset and the sunrise and the kind of experiences from my first journey here at Tippet Rise. I remembered this part of the day and evening, magical moments. I have pictures, I must tell you like I’ve never had such beautiful pictures of a sunset or a sunrise. So, I thought because my way of writing music is through improvisation, I started to imagine improvisation sessions as a ritual. Like to create a kind of ritual every day where I come and sit at the piano with the sunrise and I close the session in the evening with a sunset improvisation session, every day. It doesn’t matter if I’m inspired or not, that’s what I’m going to do. And putting into these improvisations the impressions of the day or of the night. You know, daydreams or the experience of the day. One experience that we’ve had is going out into nature during the day, and then come back to the piano for the sunset sessions, and putting that experience and impressions into motion, into music, into sounds - rhythm, colors. It’s like being out on the land with a notebook and just trying to capture the moment.

09:52 I think it was already the second day of my residency here, and it’s kind of the moment when I started settling and getting back to myself, getting back to my peace. And when I sat at the piano for the sunset session, there was this golden light coming through the window that was making the interior of the barn glow. It was a miraculous light. I still can see it, this beautiful golden light. As I was sitting at the piano I was contemplating this light and I saw by the window, the movement of one specific branch of the tree that was beating in exact tempo. I don’t know how long I watched this branch, but it didn’t take long because there was an urgency - I wanted to play the piano, I wanted to express that straight away and start from that to tell the story of the sunset. What I tell now with words, was completely unconscious in the moment that it happened. It’s just now that I can put words on that because there is the experience of living it.

11:47 ZP: Tippet Rise co-founder, Peter Halstead, said of the piece, “Bright, golden light paints an almost floating world picture of frozen ice on a window. You hear the ice crack, heal, and expand in the overtone series. Melodies flutter past in the tonalities, although it’s the repetitions of the chords which are really the point, not the passing melodies. The tones climb and then descend for the final dip of the sun. It’s a piece being composed in front of the listener. The harmonic shift between branches in the trees, between gradations of light.

12:51 JB: And for the second piece, that happened the next day, we kind of figured the ingredients for that to come, which was the experience of the land, first, and then transcribing it to actual musical material. Having this consciousness about what could be the ingredients made it not less natural, but it was a thought. It was something we decided to do and the first piece was not something I decided to do, it just happened. This, somehow, should be the piece of music in the end. It should become the river or should become the mountain or the experience of it should become the sunset. But, the starting point should be something you can witness on a small scale, a very small element that you can follow in the moment, on the spot.

14:16 Watching in the river, these eddies, these wheels that were coming exactly in tempo, like slow movement. And I just watched that and focused on that and my breathing. We sat on a rock and listened to the river. We figured when we arrived that there was a specific pitch, specific notes, like two notes, a G# and a D# that were coming out of this chaos. What’s beautiful about these two notes is that they bring an interval, when you play them together, that is completely neutral, it has no color. We meditated there. Time completely disappeared. And that moment is what I tried to express afterwards when I came back to the barn, when I sat at the piano. Like I could hear, already, the turbulence of the water, the movement and shimmering of the water. Like if you were in the middle of these two cliffs and the sound of the water resonating and vibrating with the cliff. This is what, for me, is the theme. That’s my starting point.

15:52 ZP: The muted string water wheels, clear, unmuted melodies between the mutes, fast trills being the cascading rills of the river. And imitations in the ice in higher octaves. With subtly, unobtrusive drips between the trills. Notes that are beautiful variants on that G# and D# trellis around which the river swirls. The trills enlarge while at the same time frenetic and virtuosic, but growing darker as the river deepens into evening, ending with the muted notes surrounded by unmuted, vibrating octaves. And the final high trills fading away into infinity. Flowing water at sunset.

16:57 JB: So this came without any consciousness of what I was doing and that was my marble rock that I started to shape afterwards everyday. And getting more in touch and conscious about the form that it created through me. So that’s the ingredients that I used for these improvisation sessions and that’s how these two pieces are born.

17:29 ZP: As part of your residency, you got to spend some time with students from the surrounding schools. What are your thoughts on sharing your music with them and also getting to know them?

17:40 JB: When I was a kid growing up in the small town where I was born, I never had the chance to discover music like they might have done in the last few days. Like to have someone come and play and sharing a musical moment, these are things that I would have wanted for my own journey and that I never had. I never expected them because I didn’t know it existed. I didn’t know it was a possibility and maybe that’s what they figured too. After this experience of me coming and playing for them and sharing this musical moment, they didn’t expect it. Maybe they didn’t think that would happen one day. But yet, here I am spending this time and sharing with them.

18:37 ZP: It takes a wonderful and passionate host to make that happen and Debbie Seibert is the music specialist for all Absarokee schools, including bands, choirs, and anything music related.

18:49 DEBBIE SEIBERT: He is so welcoming and accepting. These students were ready to sit down for an hour and tell him their whole life story. But that’s how welcoming and open Julien was and the students sense it. They know that he cares and he does want to hear their stories. These kiddos, not all of them, but a great majority of them have really rough home lives and that’s their retreat, that’s their escape, that’s their strength. That’s what keeps them going is listening to music.

19:23 ZP: Students from four local schools had the chance to listen to Julien’s performance and to also make music together.

19:33 DS: They were in awe of his skill. Now his story, that’s the story for almost all of them, it doesn’t have to be a music story, but it’s a story for all of them that whatever they might choose to do. And what I would like to do with them is plant the seed that you’re a lifelong musician. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your career. It does not have to be how you make your living. But it’s something you will be connected to your entire life. And the more that you know and the more that you learn how to play or listen and appreciate, it will make your life richer. In whatever you end up doing, you will be better at it because you are a musician. I appreciate the fact that Tippet Rise has done so much for the area. It’s not like we’re here and we’ve got our little lighthouse for the world, but they are sharing the world experience that they have going on there with our little sheltered community of children of miners, farmers, and store keepers. And Julien was perfect, he was perfect for these kids. He was not over their head. He was like a kid himself.

20:54 JB: I’m the one that is learning from this community. I’m not here to teach anyone anything, actually, but just share the beauty of this place. Share it together with the people that belong here. And when I’m here, I belong here too, you know? What I witness here for the first time, that they’re used to, it doesn’t mean it’s not sacred anymore for them. It’s like sharing the beauty.

21:30 ZP: Another opportunity to share music and the beauty of this land came at the Fishtail General Store, which is owned and operated by Katy Martin.

21:40 KATY MARTIN: The store has always been a major part of the community because it’s a meeting place. Most towns that are bigger have a chamber of commerce and that’s kind of what the Fishtail General Store is. We take care of all kinds of things, all kinds of problems, people up country. If there’s a problem, call us and we spread the word. If there’s a cow on the road, they call us and we call the people. In Fishtail, everybody takes care of everybody. So it’s really a hub and we’re open for a lot of hours and makes it really convenient for people to leave things here or leave messages for people. If somebody comes in and they need to call somebody we try and do that. So it’s just kind of like home where you can go and see your mom and have a good time.

22:28 ZP: Katy has a way of making everyone feel welcomed and Julien was no exception.

22:33 JB: She came to me. I was a new face there in town and she was very kind and looking forward to really meet me. She asked, “Who are you, I never saw you before.” So I said, “I’m Julien, I’m at Tippet Rise for a residency.” And she was really interested in what I was doing. I told her that I was a musician and she started to ask questions about where I’m from and she was really interested in making a bond with me, so I really appreciated that. It’s not common where I come from.

23:11 KM: Well, you know the community is so wonderful because everybody will help everybody and that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with Montana. Even if you don’t like somebody so much and you don’t get along, if they’re in trouble, the community will come together and help them. And I think it’s because we care about each other as human beings.

23:30 JB: I like this enthusiasm of reaching out to the new people, not getting scared. It’s totally the opposite of what you could feel. But here, in one of the smallest towns I’ve ever been to, this sense of welcoming that I experienced, it gives you the will to share part of your culture, part of what you do.

24:01 KM: I think that music is a part of our soul. I don’t care what kind it is. I’m a little off heavy metal! But, you know, you can listen to everything. When Julien came in, he was so warm and so talented. I mean you can just see how much he loves what he does. And whether you’re a piano player or you’re a miner, or you’re a guy that delivers to us, if you have a passion for what you do, people can tell that and I think that makes it easier for us to welcome him. Wow, some of the stuff he played was just phenomenal. I have to be honest, I’m not a classical person. I mean I never was exposed to that when I was young, but his music was part of his soul. The feeling of Tippet Rise, when they first came here, you know anything new, people get kind of henkie about. But, Tippet Rise has brought so many wonderful things to this community and the fact that they can bring music that will enter your soul and make you a better person, or even happier for that moment, wow, you can’t ask for anything better than that!

24:49 JB: What I tried to achieve here with this residency is I tried to transcribe how important this relationship is with this land because it’s the land that made me witness how I was affected on a core level. I tried to transcribe that into sounds, into atmospheres, and I use music as a tool to get back to these sensations. The chance that my parents gave me to discover music because they figured I liked it, for me, it’s the same level of gratefulness that I consider to Peter and Cathy Halstead. This frame and this story, it’s not only my story, but it’s our story. This piece is not my piece, it’s our piece. It’s the piece of Tippet Rise, it’s the piece of Peter and Cathy, it’s the piece of the people living here. That’s the way I see music and that’s the way I see how Tippet Rise is allowing that possibility happen. I can tell you it’s unique to have this chance and, for me, these pieces of music can exist as a summary of this relationship and this bond. You know, it’s born through care, and care is the path to humanity. This is a good example of what is humanity out there.