Winter Fest 2014: Exclusive Interview with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Pt. I) - San Jose Jazz

Winter Fest 2014: Exclusive Interview with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Pt. I)

Violist, band leader, soloist, arranger, composer, educator (and human) Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is a musician who defies musical boundaries. If you ask him, it’s just an outgrowth of his upbringing, which involved hearing classical masters while still in his crib and being exposed to the ever-more-diverse catalogues his family members compiled as they chased their own music geekdom. As such, Atwood-Ferguson is a musical master of sorts, but more simply, he’s a product of his environment. At the age of 12, Atwood-Ferguson had the pleasure of watching his “Serenade in D Major” be performed by the Pacific Palisades Symphony. Since then, he’s become one of the music industry’s secret weapons. Browsing his Web site, you become overwhelmed by his massive resume of collaborations. A far-from-definitive short list includes everyone from Mayer Hawthorne, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Sonnymoon and Thundercat to Barry Manilow, Joss Stone and Ray Charles. Additionally, he’s performed with Rihanna and Hall & Oates, recorded with and Dr. Dre, and been a featured soloist for Billy Higgins, Saul Williams, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and Ravi Coltrane. We’re pleased to hear him speak at our artist talk back and perform two sets Saturday, March 1 for Winter Fest 2014. Considering his wealth of expertise in a number of musical arenas, we had plenty to cover. In part one of our exclusive interview with Atwood-Ferguson, we asked him to recall how he started on the viola, revisited what it was like to witness an orchestra performing your composition at the ripe age of 12, and inquired why Los Angeles seems to be churning out a wealth of thought-provoking music at the moment. Viola is your main instrument, correct? Yeah. What attracted you to the viola specifically? I started on violin when I was four, and I still play it now and love it. I play cello as well. The cello’s actually my favorite instrument, but I haven’t spent as much time on it. When I went to junior high school, they had a music program there with an orchestra. I was really excited because, at that time, I was already pretty proficient on the violin. I’d spent some years on it and had already started composing orchestral music. I had planned to play cello in the program they had there at the middle school, but they needed viola. My teacher at the middle school said they really needed me on viola and that the viola actually was really a great instrument to play. That was just around the time around the world where the viola started becoming popular, or more popular I should say. Around that time – this is roughly around 1992 I’m talking about – there began an influx of amazing viola players. I’m talking predominantly in the classical world. It allowed me to get full scholarships to many schools and summer programs, and even college. Now, there’s a wealth of great violists around the world. While you were in middle school, you got to witness the Pacific Palisades Symphony perform your “Serenade in D Major.” You mentioned you started composing when you were pretty proficient at a young age on violin. When did you start composing, and recall for me what it was like being granted an opportunity like that at such a young age – having the symphony perform your composition. It was so fun. I can still remember the feeling, and I still feel that way. It’s such an extreme honor and pleasure to hear your music played by any great ensemble small or large, but to get a large ensemble together, it’s just sheer magic. I was probably around 12 when that piece was performed. It was absolutely enthralling. I started composing small pieces and orchestral pieces a couple years before then, but that was the first piece I heard played by an actual orchestra with some professional players. I’ll never forget that feeling. It’s like kissing the moon and conversing with the cosmos. And you asked how did I get into composing music, or composing orchestral music? Yeah. It’s fascinating to me, a middle schooler who’s interested in composing symphonies. You just don’t hear about that as a popular pastime. What made you appreciate them? I guess it linked to my dad. I come from a family of educators and audiophiles. My dad is a genius composer [and] multi-instrumentalist, and he has a good 10,000 CDs. My uncle had the largest vinyl collection of jazz on the West Coast at one point. I grew up with my parents and I was around my dad every day, who, like me, is this big music geek. We speak and eat and breathe music. It’s our lifeline, and my dad not only likes classical music, he deeply loves, every genre of music. That was normal to me. My mom loves music quite a lot as well. They were playing repeat tapes for me as an infant when I’d be in my room alone in my crib [playing] people like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart or Chopin. That’s second nature to me. Not that I am a master of that music or anything, but in terms of emotionally connecting to it, that was the foundation for me in terms of being a human being and getting in touch with my own emotions. I had this soundtrack to my life that was very diverse and definitely very orchestral. I was ten years old when I first played in a professional orchestra and it was amazingly fun. There’s nothing like seeing an orchestral concert or actually being inside an orchestra, playing one of the instruments. It’s absolutely enthralling. Swimming in the ocean is kind of a similar feeling. It’s challenging you in every way – physically, emotionally, spiritually in – and it’s rewarding in every way. I was also really into sports, but this orchestral experience just presented, and still presents to this day, this amazing opportunity to meet the infinite. An orchestra is so representative of society, of the world. You have all these different people coming together to make the best that they can in that moment, hopefully setting aside any selfishness or anything that’s not going to serve the whole. There's so many different flavors and directions that people have with orchestral music, [but] I’d always had this feeling like “Wow, I’m hearing all these great compositions, and I love them all, but there’s something missing: the music that I want to hear, that I want to compose.” Really, that’s what I’ve spent my life doing – trying to become a better, more proficient musician, and trying to get my life and career to a place where I can continually go around the world playing my music and celebrating the music of others. It sounds like your upbringing really led you to appreciate music without boundaries. Do you think that helps inform why your musical career has been so eclectic and multi-faceted, because you don’t necessarily envision a musical world with borders? Yeah. You’re absolutely right. I actually care about the world as well, and I think that’s a huge defining factor of what inspires me to create in the ways that I create. It can be really beneficial for people to just sometimes shut out the world and just concentrate on what they want to create. Maybe there’s a time and place for that, but I’ve taken lots of light in doing that combined with a sincere desire to want to create things that will have some positive place in the world to hopefully empower others and just let people know that everyone has the seed of genius in them, that everyone has something infinitely awesome in their life. It’s their life itself, and regardless of anything, everyone has amazing perspectives that are of great value. That’s definitely something that I am very passionate about. Directly or indirectly through my life and my music, I definitely want to fuel those flames in other people very much. That’s definitely helped me create what I create, but that diversity thing is also connected to that. I’m mixed – that also makes a difference. My father is essentially black and my mom is essentially white. I was lucky enough to be raised with an appreciation for all cultures and all ideologies. I’m really thankful for that. It’s definitely helped me continue to grow and get to a place of wanting to continue to grow for the rest of my life and never get dogmatic or small-minded or arrogant. I’ve been very fascinated with what’s currently happening musically in LA. Winter Fest 2014 seems like a bit of an LA takeover. You’ll be here. Thundercat will be here. Moses Sumney will be here. Recent Grammy® winners La Santa Cecilia will be present as well. There’s a lot of people making progressive, thought-provoking music that looks to transcend musical boundaries, which is quite reminiscent of what you do. What is it about the scene at the moment that’s breeding this wealth of thought-provoking music in a number of musical avenues? That’s a really, really great question. In no particular order, I think it has to do with a lot of things, one of them being simply technology and the state of the “music business.” I personally don’t necessarily see myself as part of the music business or music industry. I am, but I’m not necessarily trying to fit in. I’m just trying to make the most interesting music I can. I bring that up because, as we all know, the music industry and technology [are still] constantly shifting. People say this and that about the music industry, and from all the varying perspectives and viewpoints I’ve heard people [call] the music industry very confusing and very difficult, and I think there is often a lot of truth in what people say. Combine that with the fact that we now have technology that allows pretty much anyone in the world to create whenever they want, and then share their music all around the world in a way that people can enjoy and experience over and over again. Those two things combined have led to people that are disciplined and have the will power just to create continually, to take that ball and go with it. Combine all I just said with the fact that Los Angeles is such a huge, and extremely diverse, place. It has the history of having all these recording studios and is a breeding ground for the immediacy of connection between people physically. It’s this ripe breeding ground. You said your official debut will be coming out on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint. Is that still correct? Yeah. It’s just been taking forever because I’m taking on all these creative project that don’t pay me anything, so I’m struggling just to even pay my rent, and then I have to take gigs just to pay my rent. But yes, that’s definitely happening. The only question is when that will be done. Why Brainfeeder? Why is it significant for you to make sure your first release comes out on that imprint? I did get a serious offer with Blue Note to release a series of albums. Whether it still stands is in question. The last time I talked to the president of Blue Note, he was still completely interested, but things are always changing. I’ve had other offers, but I really do love Los Angeles, and I really do love Flying Lotus. I love his label. I love the artists on it. I love the fact that it’s independent. I love the fact that I’m different than the other artists on that label, and I feel that there’s something that I add to the dialogue of that roster. I recognize that that label is highly regarded around the world in many circles, but definitely by the youth. Yes, I’m interested in making a living and all that stuff [laughs], but ultimately, like I mentioned before indirectly, I want to add to the energy of freedom. I think there’s something with Brainfeeder that represents freedom. There’s a lot of creativity there. I think it represents freedom for young people. I want to connect with that fan base and hopefully be a positive light in that community. Then after this debut album, hopefully Blue Note is still interested. If not Blue Note, it’ll be another label. Or I’ll just release it myself. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson appears at San Jose Jazz Winter Fest 2014 Saturday, March 1 at Theatre on San Pedro Square. You can purchase tickets here. For more info on Miguel, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, or visit  San Jose Jazz's education programs are supported by Southwest Airlines. SouthwestAirlines_small_124

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