October Artist Spotlight: Didgeridoo Gurus, Steve Sklar & Johnna Morrow

* Hi Steve & Johnna, thank you for taking the time to do this interview! Can you tell us what your art forms are?

In the COMPAS context, we are focused on music; Johnna is also a visual artist.

* How did you become interested in throat singing, the didgeridoo and harmonics? Can you describe each for us.

We get asked “How did we get into that?” and while it’s a reasonable question, what really happened is that “it” got into us. Just like other interests people have, when you get exposed to something, it either resonates or it doesn’t. If it resonates strongly enough, then one is motivated to learn more. For some, it can be a real immersion process.

Since we’re musicians with open ears and a taste for “exotic” sounds, we get exposed to a lot of stuff that the average person may not be aware of.  We feel fortunate, and love to spread that good fortune. And many of these instruments and singing styles have common elements, in the ways they sound, the feelings they evoke, sometimes the way the sounds are produced, and often even the intentions behind them.

Singing bowls and gongs, didgeridoos and throat-singing, etc., have very different qualities than most musical instruments such as pianos, violins or clarinets. Those instruments produce sounds that have comparatively simple tonal characteristics, intended to be played in sequences and combinations to create familiar melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. The attention of the listener is drawn to the macro, exterior perceptions, the musical performance.

With many of our instruments, the sound and its effects are very different. While they aren’t well-suited for most popular musical forms, they produce very complex tones and textures with shifting, swelling and receding and morphing harmonics. Notes aren’t arranged in usual patterns; instead a single or few notes focus the attention. This is micro listening, and has the effect of drawing the listener inward, to inner channels of perception and exploration. 

Happily, most people find that they sound really cool, and fun!

* When you do programs together, how do you divide up the work?

It depends on the program; while so far we’ve specialized in performance; there have been a lot of variations. And that helps keeps things interesting for us. When teaching, Steve may do a lot of the talking and explaining, while Johnna focuses on demonstrating, but it varies. In performance, who plays what is largely determine on what pieces we’ll do, and that tends to reflect the interests of the presenting organization. So, there’s a lot of thematic input, but it may be about Australia studies, or science, or music…

* Does teaching have an effect on the creation or production of your personal art?

Of course! One may know how to do something but it’s a very different matter to teach. Perhaps it’s a matter of breadth more than depth, since a performer must have performance skills, but a teacher must understand history, contexts, and other details. To develop such an understanding requires the teacher to explore different aspects of the art form, and how to convey that information and inspiration. And as COMPAS artists, we have quite a diverse set of audiences, with differing interests, abilities, and cultures.

Naturally, all those experiences also serve to inform and influence our own artistic expression.

* What do you hope participants of your programs learn or come away with?

Smiles! Seriously, a number of things: We hope that our audiences will have a greater interest in other peoples and other places, and the planet. All these cool instruments and vocalizations didn’t come from nowhere and nobody, you know? They have histories, of people and places and materials, and layers of meaning. 

Take the didgeridoo: this seemingly simple Aboriginal Australian instrument is the product of a complex and dynamic symbiotic relationship between the planet, a eucalyptus tree, a community of termites, and, lastly people. It’s a lovely symbol. Not only that, but the sounds of the didgeridoo can provide fertile ground for the study of mathematics and physics!

* What does being a COMPAS artist mean to you?

We’ve recently completed our first year on the COMPAS roster, and it’s been a great experience. We’re grateful to be able to share our art with more of Minnesota; while we’ve done school programs in the past, we’re visiting many more and also broadening our audience to include other settings and communities. It’s a beautiful thing.

* Final question, why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

Well, we certainly are in favor of arts education. And we’ve all seen the statistics: students who are engaged in arts and music curriculum tend to have higher test scored in math, science, writing, etc. But we shouldn’t forget the intrinsic value of art itself: it represents, it IS the ability and skill of taking inner experience, be it an idea or concept, a feeling, a hope, an image, an invention…. inspiration… and expressing it in the 3-D, physical world. This is an extremely important need, now more than ever, and other subjects don’t teach that.