glenn o / glenn smith
Glenn has performed for audiences at theatrical performances, dance jams, cafes, yoga classes, raves, art openings, and schools since the 1990's. Glenn also leads participatory vocal circles for the community (with his Vocal Voyagers program) and through schools (with his Instant Choir program). Starting on drumset in 1981, Glenn has added piano, guitar, and other instruments to the mix. The voice, however, has emerged as his primary instrument because of it's flexibility and simplicity, especially in group settings. Glenn's CD's showcase the range of his work, from more recent songwriting work and vocal looping improvisations, to his earlier ambient guitar and piano work. Glenn continues to mix performance with facilitation of group singing, often with an emphasis on improvisation. Glenn aims to make music a more communal activity, and hopes to lead the way with his own creations.
the story - so far
(my life in music)
I have been playing music since 1981, when I began my musical journey as a drummer in a teenage rock band. Over the years, I have explored many forms of music on many instruments with many people, finding my own voice along the way. Learning to trust my intuition has been perhaps the greatest lesson from my years of playing music. For me, playing music is my form of meditation, and perhaps my salvation. I play in many different situations - for theatrical performances, free-form dance jams, contact dancers, yoga classes, cafes, raves, art openings, and even kindergartens. I feel fortunate to have no musical training at all - except for a few drum lessons long ago. Having no training, I have no rules, and have developed an approach to playing that has been borne out of my own experimentation, exploration, and listening. So I continue to work on finding the essence beneath the layers, and play away in the meantime.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
After some false starts (lip-synching to barry manilow in the 4th grade talent show), I began making musical noise in the 9th grade - 1981 in Billings, Montana. My friends recruited me as the drummer for their band, The Sniperz, despite the fact that i didn't know how to play (they said they'd teach me). We were a little bit country, and a little bit punk rock, with a repertoire ranging from Adam & The Ants to Waylon Jennings. After our most talented member - Kels Koch - departed, we carried on as Double Exposure, rocking the 4H Talent Show. I followed Kels to my next band, which we soon named Mental Ward. We played our punk, new wave, and rock favorites of the day - The Clash, The Jam, The Police, Split Enz, Elvis Costello, Wall of Voodoo, DEVO, and even Depeche Mode. I sometimes stepped up front as the lead vocalist, including my moment of fame at the West High Pep Assembly singing "Every Breath You Take" in front of the whole cheering high school. And I made a little-noticed solo recording debut as the "Glenn Smith Fusion Project," singing about teenage concerns like pizza bread and vector problems over my own crudely overdubbed drums, guitar, and vocals.
During my college years, I was recruited as the drummer for The Vegetables, who played the lucrative Stanford party circuit for whoever would have us. In addition to a handful of our own songs, we covered the likes of Johnny Cash, Camper Van Beethoven, Saccharine Trust, Seals and Crofts, The Stooges, and Husker Du. After the demise of The Vegetables, The Pilotfish rose from the ashes, garnering one review from a campus concert booker - "Do not rehire. Absolutely do not rehire." During these years, I started to tinker around on the grand pianos conveniently located in the lounges of my student residences. I soon discovered that playing only the white keys sounded pretty good, and my playing inspired comparisons to certain "new-age" pianists. At the time, my punk-rock self thought that was not very cool, so I didn't take it too seriously. I did consider sending a demo to the locally-based Windham Hill Records, but never did ... I also began to thrash away on the guitar, inspired mainly by my new guitar heroes - Sonic Youth. The Glenn Smith Fusion Project was back in action, recording for a select few.
Throughout my 20's I made music (and noise) with an assortment of friends and strangers, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was Acoustic Youth, a duo with Jonathan Traugott, where Sonic Youth and post-folk intersected. There were random front-porch, backyard and garage jams with the neighborhood gang, which included Polly Wood, Cello Joe, Molly Michaels, and Tony Khalife.. Drum jams here and there. And some solo, mostly improvised songs, trying to make some sense of this confusing life. By 1996, I found myself in 3 bands, one of which signalled a serious new direction.I briefly joined the Indestructable Beat of Palo Alto, spearheaded by Jamie Stewart (now of Xiu Xiu). I continued my hip / punk deconstructionist tendencies in the band MuMu Cat, a noisy quartet later reduced to the trio Ultra 8, both of which included Brad Purvis (later of Caesura).. We had a pretty rockin' sound, but unfortunately never made it out into the light of day (or the dark of clubs). On the other hand, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for the formation of a new entity. Some folks I knew through drum jams (including Neville Harson of Mandible Chatter, with whom I occasionally played), organized a night of improvised explorations at a cafe, and following the success of the first, we did a second, and third, and before we knew it, we were a "band" with a name - Stella Luna. We continued to play completely improvised shows, and in fact, never played together except in a live setting. I mostly played hand drums, though our instumentation was very fluid and i sometimes played some strings. This was not a "jam band." We did jam, but our jams were comprised of dreamy drones, otherwordly and sometimes jarring tape loops and effects, and some space rock when we wanted to go for a ride. Our musical journeys were a combination of dark and light, delving into both worlds with equal intensity. We developed a visual element to our shows, with friends contributing costumes, torches, giant puppets, ... We connected with the dance scene and played at several big parties in the "chill" zone. On the verge of really becoming "known," we dispersed in different life directions, but we would meet again . . . A CD (or two) documenting the live Stella Luna will hopefully soon be available. Several live videos document the group circa 1996, including this live Stella Luna video compilation.
I eventually decided in 1998 to make a bold leap up to the coast of Humboldt County and a town called Arcata - a womb-like watery world populated by all sorts of characters, as well as a whole lot of university students. I knew this area from some stints working on farms in these parts, and I soon connected with multi-instrumentalist Bob Tripp, forming a group called Hearth, whose membership was fluid and ever-changing. We started as mostly a guitar duo playing extended modal jams, but soon added more elements to the mix. We started to play completely improvised shows, utilizing many instruments from around the world - African percussion, balalaika, banjo, gamelan, all kinds of flutes . . . basically anything and everything, in new and unusual combinations. We sometimes took on the name Elementals for a slightly different identity, including providing music for shadow puppet shows. For 9 of the last 10 years, we have been the hosts of the "Hearth Tent" at the Mateel Summer Arts and Music Festival at Benbow in southern Humboldt. This is a tent that we fill up with all kinds of instruments, and then jam the weekend away with any interested fair-goers. Many people have enjoyed the opportunity to play at the festival instead of just watching other people play, and some have added immensely to the musical experience. We have enjoyed the opportunity to create a musical happening with a random group of strangers, a temporary community bounded by musical exploration.
In Arcata I grew more and more interested in dance and movement, first through an event called Dance Medicine (created by Pamela Becker), which opened new doorways, both musically (making connections in our free-form improvised jams), and in dance, where we explored ways to move together and apart. I also discovered the world of contact improvisation through some wonderfully sensitive facilitators - Robert Funk and Catherine Duncan. I eventually was inspired to do a solo dance performance at a local dance performance event, and for musical accompaniment, I chose myself. I recorded solo piano pieces for the performance, and issued the best of these as my first CD - Piano. Jandy Bergman, a dance instructor at Humboldt State University who saw the show, invited me to her Bodyworks class, which was a wonderful exploration of all kinds of individual and collective movement. I eventually started to play piano to accompany some of the classes, which was a great experience, sometimes requiring me to play extremely quietly to accompany Feldenkrais, Pilates, and yoga sessions. I decided to record a CD of this quieter, sparser piano to be used in such environments - yoga, massage, etc., and titled it Heart Melts Mask, a reference to the capacity of the heart to dissolve all artificiality we place on ourselves.
My guitar compositions have recently evolved with the purchase of a looping device, allowing me to lay down a base and play over myself. Shortly after buying this tool in December of 2003, I recorded tracks that would become my first guitar CD, Winter Warming, a collection of mostly gentle guitar meditations. I was greatly inspired by the looping technology, and vowed to record a CD every month from then on. I soon followed with April Showers, a more varied guitar collection which explored a greater range of sonic possibilities. Trying to stick to my monthly schedule, I experimented with piano loops, and put together a combination of live and looped pieces for the CD May Flowers, mostly recorded in May 2004. While I have grown quite fond of using the loops for guitar work, I seem to prefer live piano over looped. But its an ongoing experiment. My CD-a-month concept did not quite take hold, but I did manage to put together one more CD in 2004 - Night - a journey into the still of darkness, with a more complex layering of sounds.
I continued my involvement in the local dance world through the Arcata Community Dance Jam, a weekly event where old friends and new friends gather to move. For over a year, I facilitated live music for the dance jam twice a month, bringing together a handful of people for an improvised journey. Some nights were better than others, but it was good just to come together and create some community, and hopefully some inspiring music. The old members of Hearth and the Elementals reconvened as The Elemental Orkestra, rebirthing after our yearly weekend of music at the Mateel Summer Arts & Music Festival in June 2005. At this festival, I had the opportunity to play solo before hundreds of people, my largest audience yet (and it wasn't a disaster!). I also contributed some music and dance for performances in a newly-created monthly cabaret, a wonderful gathering of people who are taking the time to explore new combinations of visual arts, music, dance, and theatre with others.
I was fortunate to have a musical partner, Sarah Nelson, a great songwriter and vocalist. Together, we stumbled upon the idea of writing songs for kids, and eventually made a CD together called Roosters, Ravens, and Redwood Trees. This CD inspired us to start performing at kindergartens and preschools in the area, and eventually at the local Natural History Museum, libraries, and other events for kids. I also explored a more interactive process with the kids, both with vocals and instruments. I created an "organic orchestra" for the kids using natural instruments like a driftwood marimba, horsetail flute, and rock and shell percussion. But mostly I found it easier to focus on vocal-based work with kids, creating an instant "kid's choir" with some improvisational tools. I am still faciliating kids in the schools with the "Instant Choir" program.
The first CD of 2005, Journeys, turned into a double-CD with the addition of some pieces created for dance performances. One of the performances was held for 6 nights in April in the largest theatre in town, realizing my dream of playing a grand piano in such a grandiose setting. These are my most complex recordings to date, using multiple layers and multiple instruments, with many pieces extending beyond 10 minutes. Some more groove-oriented recordings from the same period have been compiled for Dances & Trances, a mix of soul/funk/jazz/rock/space jams, with the emphasis on the beat for more high-energy movement.
I had the pleasure of collaborating with cellist Les Shiaman in 2005. With Les on cello and me on piano, we quickly found some common ground for improvisation. Soon after starting to play together, I compliled Duets, a CD of pieces from home recordings and a live performance in May 2005.
The most exciting recent development for me has been my rediscovery of the joys and simplicity of using voice alone. I had been involved in an ongoing improvised singing circle in 2001, and then an improvised voice and movement circle facilitated by a friend, but I had not focused exclusively on voice for a while. The idea had been gelling in my head to record an all-vocal CD for quite a while, so when I finally sat down to do it in late July 2005, the CD Voices was complete in just a few days. This has reinspired my desire to bring together people for improvised singing circles. The beauty of this form is that it invites participation from all, since we all have a voice. The voice is the only "instrument" that is inside of us, and for this reason it has tremendous potential for inner transformation as well as community-building. I also believe that a group of voices is capable of creating sound just as beautiful and complex as any combination of instruments. The human voice can become like any instrument, being incredibly flexible and creative. I have since compiled several more all-vocal CD's - Voices 4 and Voices 5 in 2006.
I settled into the area of Santa Cruz, California in the fall of 2005, first arriving to play with a performance troupe organized by Rob (Ra So), a frequent Humboldt collaborator, at the Symbiosis Festival in the Santa Cruz mountains. In the summer of '06, I facilitated vocal improv circles at the Rainbow Gathering and Burning Man. Beginning in September of 2006, I started a weekly gathering in Santa Cruz for group vocal improvisational journeys. I called the gathering Vocal Voyagers, which continued weekly through 2007, and has continued since in various California locations. I also convened the Voice Funk Orchestra to play with groove-oriented improv and integrate poets, freestylers, and beatboxers. I concieved of the Acoustic Space Choir to make sound in resonant chambers such as stairwells, tunnels, hallways, caves, and other acoustically rich spaces. This happens sporadically when inspiration strikes. Instrumentally, I had several unusual ongoing gigs - one playing piano for a community massage clinic at the local 418 Project in Santa Cruz. The only recording from this can be heard on the Still CD from Christmas Eve 2008. In 2010 I played frequently for a qi gong class taught by Lee Holden. Though I always played guitar for the class, I recorded some piano pieces that were intended to be used in Lee's Qi Gong special on PBS. Though the recordings were not used after all, they can be heard on the Chi CD.
Throughout the years I had been playing some loosely-knit songs. I began performing more solo shows in 2008 at Asana Tea House in Santa Cruz, where I played every other month through 2009. These shows forced me to focus on my songs, as I usually played for nearly 2 hours. I always included improvisation in the mix, but gradually developed more solid songs. In early 2009, I decided to gather old songs and new ones for a CD entitled Songs for Souls. Inspired by the RPM Challenge (a contest where participants are asked to record an entire CD in the month of February), I settled into the Dead Cow Gallery, a musicians' cooperative, and recorded live takes with guitar and vocals, adding a few piano tracks at the end. The recording did focus my songwriting energies, and I have found a nice middle ground between songwriting and improvisation. During 2009, I also realized a way to involve groups of people in spontaneous song creation. By playing simple repetitive melodies (mostly created in the moment), I lay down a base over which others can easily sing. I often encourage wordless vocalization, which allows for a wider range of expression. Since finding this easy pathway to group creation, I have played with groups of people at festivals, gatherings, and parties. I have recently written a bunch of songs with simple words for group participation - Calling the Choir, which means that I need a choir of willing people to sing these songs to their fullest. Another CD of more contemplative songs featuring piano is being compiled for a CD called Hymns for Hearts. And for a completely different audience, I have made my first lullaby CD, Sleepytime Serenades. I hope that many a baby (and some adults too) are lulled to dreamland by this collection.
Many new songs which have not found their way onto CD can be found at my soundcloud page.