Paul Amiel is a musical artist, scholar, and philosopher who currently emphasizes the music and instruments of ancient cultures, Turkey and East Asia. He plays exotic instruments like the Turkish ney (a flute) and Chinese guqin (a long horizontal stringed instrument). He “wallows in a constant state of not knowing anything and seeking things to learn and process,” but it is a long path which he enjoys traveling. He is a keen and articulate observer of the music scene with a wry sense of humor.
Click the arrow to listen to Paul’s group, Summer Thunder Chinese Music Ensemble, play Yi Zi Mei while you read:
Growing up in multicultural Los Angeles and now performing a variety of ethnic musics, Paul’s own ancestry, as proven by his participation in the Genographic Project, is Welsh, Basque, French, and Irish. He claims a close genetic link to Cro-Magnon man as well, which makes him very proud.
His first musical experience was at 4 years old when his mother taught him a song on the ukulele. His home was always full of strange instruments that his father, who was not a musician, liked to have lying around. While many kids may have had a piano or guitar in their house, Paul’s home also had flutes, whistles, a xylophone, banjo, ukulele, and baritone as well.
Though Paul first learned flute in elementary school, he fell in love with instruments at that time. He was the student who, if they needed a French horn or oboe player in the band, would take the instrument home, learn how to play it, and come back. He then played the string bass, electric bass and flute in high school. He was a singer and played keyboards in rock and roll bands, but realized that the other guys in the band were not necessarily there for the music. That was when he got out of rock and roll. He continued in mainstream music studying piano at Humboldt State University, but he never liked it. To him, the piano was a big heavy box, a complex machine, with white keys that looked like teeth. He studied it seriously for a while but never enjoyed it, saying it felt “like typing on a xylophone.”
He didn’t like the way music was taught in universities, being virtuoso-centric and competitive. The program’s mind-frame upheld that western classical music was “real” music, jazz was sort of music, and everything else was primitive or deficient. They didn’t teach or celebrate the music of other cultures.
Since Paul lived in multicultural LA, he was around people who were different than standard dominant culture people. Some of his best friends and early collaborators were from ethnic minorities, such as John Feodorov, a Navajo, and Richard Ordubegian, a Persian Armenian. At some point in high school, it struck him that when people of other cultures, Chinese for example, would say their music is beautiful, and he would find it boring or annoying, he realized that he had no right to be the arbiter of taste. At 18 years old, was he able to condemn an entire culture’s music because he didn’t like it? This started him on an exploration of these cultures and their music. He sought them out, listened to them, read about them, and tried to understand why they thought their music was beautiful. Eventually, he experienced music from other cultures moving him deeply. That was enough to convince him to ask himself, “Why do I live in a limited world?”
Being a musician, connecting strongly to these multi-cultural music systems meant not just listening but playing the instruments that produced it. He wanted to learn the structures that made one culture’s music different than another’s, “the aesthetics, the thinking, the grammar of the music.” Paul felt that since the musician is the most deeply involved person in the music of a culture, he would have to learn to play the music and the instruments of those cultures. It took bravado and chutzpah just to think that he could, but the enthusiasm for the endeavor removed any realistic caution and allowed him to progress to proficiency.
Paul studied string and wind instruments intensely, learning multiple instruments from multiple cultures. He found that, similar to learning languages, the “grammars” of music cross over. For example, techniques for one flute could be translated to other wind instruments. A western flute became the dizi in China and the bansuri in India, the ney in the Middle East and the shakuhachi in Japan, with the skills of breath control and finger dexterity translated to other instruments with different embouchures. Historically and physically they were all related to each other (probably coming from some bird bone whistle played by a Neanderthal and stolen by a Cro Magnon). It was the same with stringed instruments. They “thought” in a certain way, and once he had a sense of how they worked, the next one was not that different. Each instrument in each culture had its own way of thinking: you had to learn that way of thinking, or as his shakuhachi teacher told him, “you must find the mind of the bamboo.” The music creates the instrument and the instrument creates the music in a feedback loop, a complex relationship between the structure of the music, the musician, the instrument builders, and the history that determines what the instrument and the music do.
Every one of the instruments Paul plays has extramusical connotations and symbolic meaning within their specific cultural areas. The harp in the west, for example, brings to mind heaven and angels, associated with a spiritual reality; in Japan, the shakuhachi, the Zen Buddhist flute, is used for meditation; the ney, the Turkish flute, is used by the Sufis, particularly the Mevlavi sect, in their religious ceremonies; the Chinese guqin was one of the four arts to be cultivated by the Daoist-Confucian literati. Paul is very interested in instruments that the culture itself says are the ones that do more than entertain or make one feel good, but are seen in and of themselves as access to spiritual realities.
When Paul was getting his degree in Religious Studies, he was very interested in the nexus between music and spirituality. He felt that the way the music was created or composed express a philosophy of the universe, similar to poetry and architecture, revealing deep cultural concepts. It fascinated him to try and “hack into” their systems, as westerners now do not believe the ideas that generated those art forms.
Paul’s first exploration of non-traditional music was medieval European music moving from plain chant to creative reconstruction through the efforts of some incredible scholars and musicians. The beautiful music touched him. It had a different sensibility lyrically and musically. He liked the idea of investigating Europe before harmony and modern structures happened. He learned these musics were not simple “folk songs” but were well considered. After medieval, he came back to American folk culture for a while but quickly moved on to Celtic music. He felt that Celtic was the easiest access to a non-mainstream music. Celtic music carried the nature of medieval music with its modal thinking. He moved on to Chinese music and then Turkish music. The latter has been a lifelong study as it is an extremely complex system. He continued on with other music of the areas under Ottoman influence, and by extension the music of the Arab world, which will likely be an endlessly fascinating puzzle. Then he got very involved with the traditional music of Japan (where he lived for a year with his wife). Recently, he is starting to look into the music of India – the raga (literally color/hue or beauty and melody) system.
When the preserved records of ancient music and many other non-traditional musics are studied, it seems they didn’t record their music very well to tell us exactly how to play their music. For example, guqin music notation has no rhythm indicated, but that is a conscious decision. The notation is simply a sequence of tones, but the originators of the music wanted each player to decide their rhythmic organization. The originators did that on purpose to keep the music alive in the player. Japanese musical notation is beautiful script with sparse markings to indicate how to play it, but the notation is only a rough outline that doesn’t express what the teacher will say about the ways to approach the outline. They felt that too much detail would disturb the teacher-pupil relationship in which the music really lived, and not in the notation.
Although Paul plays the music of many cultures, he speaks little of their languages. When he was living in China or Japan, he contemplated he could either try to learn the language or he could study the music. He decided that the music was what he wanted to take away with him rather than being able to say inane things like, “How much is that book?” He didn’t intend to get to a level where he could use the language in a meaningful way.
Paul studied some of his instruments with native masters. He received a grant to study a seven stringed Chinese instrument called the guqin, one of the oldest instruments in the world. It is an instrument of the Chinese literati – the Mandarin, purported to be as ancient as 3000 years old. It is very difficult to find people who play it, even in China, because it is an extremely esoteric and difficult instrument, which is why Paul was attracted to it. The notation of the music for the guqin is a tablature: the signs in the tablature indicate things like which string is to be played, which finger plucks it, where the string is to be stopped on the soundboard, and what ornamentation is used. It is not only the instrument but also being able to read the tablature that makes it a challenge.
Paul wanted to study the guqin with master Cheng Gongliang in Nanjing. Cheng didn’t usually take students. Paul and his wife showed up at his door unannounced. Paul tried to explain in his limited Chinese why he was there but they had to call in a translator. Paul explained that he knew about Cheng and they had a mutual friend, and begged Cheng to take him on as a student. Cheng thought about it, and kindly, and uncharacteristically, conceded. Paul had tried to learn the guqin by himself, and at the first lesson, the master asked him to play something. Paul played three notes and Cheng said “Stop! This is a finger! You know zero!” Cheng Gongliang is a charming, brilliant professor on the Faculty of the Nanjing University of the Arts, who would devote his time to playing the guqin, interpreting ancient manuscripts, flying kites, and taking photos around China. Paul later studied the shakuhachi – a Japanese end-blown flute – with Katsutoshi Iida in Nagoya, who taught him honkyoku, very revered Buddhist repertoire. His teachers in Turkey are ney teacher Celaleddin Bicer and saz teacher Mehmet Semiz. Paul is deeply indebted to these musicians.
Of those he plays, the historic harp is Paul’s favorite instrument. He came across harps when he was 25 at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, CA. Historic harps are re-creations of old harps, since old harps don’t last because they eventually blow up. The wood weakens and the string tension rips them apart. There are very few harps left from antiquity because they die – which Paul thinks is nice when he thinks about it. He likes it because the harp lays against the player, he uses his fingertips to play it, and the harper has complete contact with the instrument. It is almost another voice coming out of him. In addition, one still can do complicated music with melody and harmony, and the musician can sing along. He also likes his Near Eastern harp called a çeng in Turkey. They were all over Asia.It is called a chang in Persia and a konghou in China. The Mongols had one. It died out everywhere because music got too complex for it,but Paul’s is an interesting revival.
Paul doesn’t earn his living with music. He wouldn’t feel the freedom to follow his interests if he tried to make money at it. He thought about getting a PhD in ethnomusicology, because then he would be around music legitimately. When he looked at ethnomusicology programs, however, they were often concerned with other things he was not – i.e., the social milieu of music or rap in China or hip-hop in the Turkish diaspora. He was more interested in being an ethnomusician than an ethnomusicologist wanting to play music – not talk about it. Instead, for a career he choose ESL – teaching English as a Second Language. Now he has access to many different cultures by teaching English which allows lots of time to study their music while providing enough income to survive. He thinks of himself as a professional musician who is dedicated to music.
Paul also composes music. When he writes, it is a matter of sitting down with an instrument and seeing what bubbles up. Often, an idea comes in a dream. He gets a melodic fragment, wakes up, and writes it down, though often they are trivial fragments. A lot of his writing is solving puzzles or, because he is studying different systems, trying to write within the system or playing with the system. For example, the Turks have a rhythm called karşılama which is a 9/8 rhythm, unusual for western music. It is 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3; 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3. He might write a piece using that rhythm. It doesn’t sound Turkish to Paul because he is used to it, but someone may say, “That sounds foreign because it has a weird rhythm.”
There hasn’t been any great shift in his repertoire for a while but he continues to deepen his proficiency with the instruments he knows. Playing each one of his instruments is a matter of depth. He just keeps burrowing down and learning more and more. This summer he was in Turkey again with his wife and worked with a saz, a long necked string instrument. He has built a harp for himself in order to better play the complexities of Persian music, which his other harps can’t manage. This harp has moveable frets so that it can be tuned very quickly to play all the quarter tones in various tuning systems, as well as having the capacity to change notes during performance.
Paul likes being in music because it uses the medium of time and sequence and tone to create a space. He loves to be able to enter all those imaginary structures that are created through music. Emotional – colorful – violent – abstract, music is able to create all those states wordlessly, between the musician and the audience. When everything is working in a performance – the musicians are working together and the audience is involved – he gets lost in it. He is no longer conscious of what is happening – just participating. That is a real high.
Being an ethnomusician means you work in some unusual venues. In his 30s he played harp for nine months at the biggest cemetery in the world, Rose Hills. He played in the middle of the large lobby surrounded by rooms where families would have memorial. People would come in various states of disorder or sadness. LA is multicultural and he could see the different cultures responding differently to death: Filipinos would come in with food and they would have a party, the Chinese were sent upstairs because of the incense and chanting, the Midwestern people came in subdued and quiet. He really enjoyed playing during all these emotional states but it was very, very strange.
Locally, Paul will play anywhere that anybody wants to hear his kind of music. He has played his guqin for a Tai Chi group while they exercised, played raga music on harp during one of his wife’s yoga classes, and has played ney during worship services.
Paul has a deep emotional attachment to music, and can easily get very emotional when he plays or listens. When he was growing up, he would listen to classical music and be moved to tears constantly. His parents feared for him. There are still some songs that every time he hears them, he wants to bawl. There is a song by a Turkish performer, Sezen Aksu, called “Kavaklar” (Poplar Trees). Even before he knew what she was saying lyrically, it touched him with its beauty. Then when he learned the lyrics, he was overcome with emotion. The music doesn’t have to have lyrics to move him powerfully; in fact, often the lyrics are not as moving as the music itself.
He is cautious about a desire for fame. Fame is double edged. If fame brought more freedom to do the things he wants to do, then it would be a good thing. But if fame meant that he had to act a certain way or there were other expectations to be a certain way, then he wouldn’t want it.
Paul has created a few ethnic music ensembles while living in Tucson: Summer Thunder Chinese Music Ensemble, a 6 member group co-founded with Andrew Wilt, which plays traditional silk and bamboo music; The groups Zamazingo, Seyyah, and Zambuka that played Turkish and Middle Eastern music, featuring several Turkish and local musicians including Bruce Stanley, Robert Villa, and dancer Danielle Von Dobben; and Muso, with Hiroko Coates, that plays traditional Japanese music. Paul also performs regularly with Tucson’s The Rogue Theatre in many of their productions, generally under musical director Harlan Hokin, and with the early music vocal group Musica Sonora, directed by Christina Jarvis. In April 2011 Paul directed a concert called “Music of the Ancient Courts,” featuring some of the oldest known music from around the world: Sumerian (played by Lorna Govier), ancient Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and music of the Ottomans. Paul collected his friends, including Dr. Anne Kilmer, professor of Assyriology, to put on this concert of odd beauty not normally heard, for the Arizona Early Music Society. This concert will be repeated in the fall. Along with these group endeavors, Paul plays guqin, harp, shakuhachi, and ney as a solo instrument in many venues around Tucson.
There is no separation between Paul’s personal life and his life in music. Except for work, the friendships he has, the activities he does, the literature he reads, and his thoughts are all connected to music. Even as a participant in the Genographic Project, when he discovered his ancestors came from the Basques, French, and Welsh, he became fascinated with Bretagne music and is now studying to play it. He says, “Everything is connected in music.”
Paul would like to be involved in teaching and transmitting and performing for those who are interested in his multicultural forms of music, but all these musics are intimate chamber music, not lending themselves well to venues larger than 50 people (the guqin is so quiet that it is made only to be heard by the performer and one other person). Paul has learned it is necessary to show respect to other cultures by appreciating and performing and promoting their music because they are being smothered by the juggernaut of Western culture. Those cultures are learning piano and violin and making orchestras in their countries, becoming engulfed by the ways of the West. In this, Paul feels so much music that is precious, powerful, and intensely meaningful is being lost.
Over the last ten years Paul has lived in several places (California, Ankara, Nanjing, Seattle) before coming to Tucson. He’s here because his beloved was accepted to the Planning Graduate Program at the University of Arizona. When they both came here in 2005, Paul got a job at the university teaching ESL at the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL), an outstanding program. They would like, however, to eventually wander to Seattle or Portland, or go to a bigger city like Chicago or Boston, or perhaps live outside of the US in Canada or Europe. Right now they are enjoying Tucson while they are here, doing as much music as possible, while trying to let the universe help them out.
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