Musical Journey

My mother and father were actors who met one year in the mid-1950s while working at Provincetown Playhouse on Cape Cod. Living in New York City before I was born, they became friends with Paddy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers. He had started the Tradition record label, which introduced Odetta and Alan Lomax, as well as the Clancys. Paddy had given my parents a stack of records from the label, so those were some of my earliest musical impressions. One of my strongest early memories is of singing Rambler Gambler from Lomax's Texas Folk Songs record.

My first musical hero was my older brother Richard, a drummer for Seattle-based psychedelic era rock band Fat Jack, who opened shows for the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, etc. Their shows were some of my earliest concert-going experiences. I adopted his habit of beating out rhythms on whatever was at hand: tables, chairs, thighs and torso.

I got my first guitar at age 9 and by the time I was 11 I was writing and performing my own songs. That year we spent the summer on the Oregon Coast where my parents were doing summer theater. At first they had said they were not going to bring the record player to the coast, but at the last minute relented, bringing only a Fred Neil record we had all fallen in love with. I learned several songs from that record, including The Dolphins, so my first recital was a mixture of original songs and Fred Neil covers.

Later that year I became the lead singer of a rock group in Portland, Oregon called Presley Zoom. The other band members were high school kids that were into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. The first record I bought with my own money was Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. I sang with the group off and on in different incarnations for about six years.

I was still writing songs and performing in coffeehouses. This was in the early 1970s, the heyday of the singer-songwriter movement. Bob Dylan had already given people enough to chew on for the next 50 years. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Cat Stevens and Jackson Browne were all producing some of their most indelible work. My songs showed traces of Young and Taylor, along with George Harrison, and Robbie Robertson of The Band.

In this period, I met and co-wrote with another, older songwriter, Dan Zimmerman. One of our songs, The 1964 Beauty Queen of Hawaii, is still remembered fondly by those who heard it.

At age 14, I started learning piano, studying with jazz pianist Barry Lee Barnum. I was attracted to jazz: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and an early Chick Corea trio recording blew my mind. The following year, Keith Jarrettʼs first recordings of improvised solo piano concerts (Bremen/Lausanne) were released, as were Terry Riley's improvised solo organ concerts (Persian Surgery Dervishes). Both of these would have a lasting impact on me.

Around this time I began auditing music courses at Portland State University taught by family friend, composer Robert Moran. Moran exposed me to the chanting of Tibetan monks, and to Karlheinz Stockhausen's vocal work, Stimmung. With his encouragement, I formed a group called The Glass Orchestra, which performed original music on homemade instruments made entirely of glass. (This was three years prior to the formation of an identically named but unrelated group in Toronto.) Among our influences were Javanese Gamelan, of which we in the group had attended a performance in Seattle, and humpback whales, recordings of which were just becoming available.

In 1974, Moran invited John Cage to PSU for a week long celebration of his music. I was invited to participate (performing on glass instruments) in the west coast premier of Cage's work Etcetera, with Cage directing. Another performer in this concert was David Harrington, who had recently founded the Kronos Quartet. I took the idea of Cage's famous "silent piece", 4'33", as instruction for listening meditation and would set aside short blocks of time just to listen to whatever I was hearing around me in daily life as if it were music.

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In September 1976 I attended a workshop in harmonic singing given by David Hykes, who had recently founded the The Harmonic Choir. In January 1977 I appeared in a concert with David and the Choir in New York City, which was given a favorable review by John Rockwell in The New York Times.

I performed with the group through the fall of 1985. During this time we recorded three albums, Hearing Solar Winds, which made the year-end top-ten lists of Newsweek, The New York Times and the Village Voice; Current Circulation for which I was choirmaster; and Harmonic Meetings, a set of solos, duets and trios of which I was co-composer. Writing in The New York Times of this last recording, Robert Palmer singled me out as a "virtuoso of the Tibetan chanting technique." Palmer's review was reprinted in 2009 in a collection of his writing, titled Blues & Chaos (Scribner).

We performed alongside artists such as Steve Reich and Musicians, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Sun Ra and his Arkestra; toured Europe extensively and performed in the Central Park Nuclear Disarmament Rally in 1982, which drew 850,000 people (our brief appearance was between Linda Rondstadt and James Taylor, who approached Hykes afterward, saying, "I used to make sounds like that!" which he proceeded to demonstrate). Our concert series during our residency at New York's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in the early 1980s were well regarded and highly influential. In addition to drawing thousands, we also gave private recitals there for Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Keith Jarrett and Brian Eno.

Some of the Cathedral concerts included solo performances by me of my compositions for solo voice; re-tuned piano; and glass harmonica. Solo for Glass Harmonica was played numerous times on John Schaefer's New Sounds program on WNYC-FM.

The Choir's music has been included in feature films such as Dead Poet's Society, Ghost, Jacob's Ladder, Tree of Life and When the Iron Bird Flies.

A recording of us which aired on National Public Radio attracted the attention of physicist Richard Feynman, who sent us a cassette copy of an LP of Tuvan music in his possession, which in turn led to one of our group's members, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin, to travel to Tuva and become the first American to make field recordings of Tuvan music. He also invited the group Huun-Huur-Tu to tour the US and produced their early recordings, and he wrote the authoritative book on Tuvan music, Where Rivers and Mountains Sing

This period of singing with the Harmonic Choir was a deeply transformative and mind-expanding experience. It required a completely new way of singing and listening, informed not only by one's intellect and feeling, but rooted in a full embodiment of the tones and harmonies, with all of oneself.

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I was active as a pianist during the early 1980s, performing in 1980 with the Chris Massey Group, which included Bill Frisell on guitar. My composition Emergence was performed by the Massey group (though without me) on their 1981 recording Atmospheres. In 1983 I produced a cassette-only edition of my compositions for jazz quartet with myself on piano, titled Tributary.

During this time I entered into a student/mentor relationship with Keith Jarrett which continued for about fifteen years. This was an unusual relationship, not so much about studying piano with him as about studying musicianship in general. It was to have a profound and lasting effect on my vision of what it means to be a musician.

In 1981, I met singer/author Sheila Dhar, who became my first teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music. This was another watershed experience. The training in Hindustani classical vocal music equals or surpasses that of European classical vocal music in rigor, but has greater appeal for me with my folk roots, for as Dhar writes, "The singing voice in Indian music is the earthy, unselfconscious voice of everyday speech, not a musical escape from it."

From 1978 to 1995 I was a student of the Armenian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff's work. I was a member of a choir devoted to performing music of Gurdjieff/DeHartmann, under the direction of Lord John Pentland, president of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York, until his death in 1984, and later with Linda Daniel-Spitz, who co-led the team preparing the official edition of the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann music published by Schott and recorded for Wergo.

In the late 1980s I gave performances of original music for solo voice; fretless guitar; piano, harpsichord, and clavichord in alternate tunings; and "drum choir", at the Knitting Factory and La Mama Galleria in New York City, and also in Toronto, Canada. In 1988 I performed a solo voice piece in an American Festival of Microtonal Music concert in New York, which also featured Odetta.

In the early 1990s I performed and recorded with composer/performers Robert Een and Carter Burwell, and with their group Big Joe.

In 1993 after a seven year hiatus, I resumed performing and recording with David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, a relationship which has lasted to the present day.

In 1995 I was invited to be a member of a house band for an all-star poetry slam tribute to Beat figure Neal Cassidy at Fez Cafe in New York City. The band included budding rock star Jeff Buckley and bassist Tony Maimone (of Pére Ubu). The first poet to take the stage was Allen Ginsberg. I was already a fan of Jeff's, whose eclectic solo performances at the legendary club Sin-é in Manhattan's East Village were an inspiration to me to pick up my guitar again and explore the popular song form as a vehicle for my own wide-ranging explorations. Both he and Ginsberg would pass away a few short years later.

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Earlier in 1995 I had begun performing as a singer-songwriter. After my first performance at Sin-é I was asked to be in a documentary film being made about the club and the music scene in New York's Lower East Side. Some of the other performers in the film included Susan Mckeown and the Chanting House, Dorothy Scott, Jack McKeever, a cameo during my set by singer Katell Keineg, and interview segments about his beginnings there with Jeff Buckley. The film has never been released.

I formed a trio which included bassist Doug Weiss and drummer George Javori. Weiss would go on to become the bassist for drummer Al Foster, a veteran of Miles Davis' bands from 1972 to 1985. Javori would go on to become drummer and music director for Joan Baez, before his untimely death in 2005. We recorded my first album of songs, This Bright World in January 1997.

Later that year I was invited by singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin to regular gatherings of songwriters where we shared our work. Here I met Frank Tedesso, Jane Kelly Williams, Larry John McNally, Amy Correia, Eric Wood, Richard Julian and Jesse Harris. McNally has written hit songs for Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley, among others; Julian and Harris went on to write hit songs for Norah Jones. Some of those songs were premiered in these meetings, as were many of the songs on my second record, The Human Place. The Human Place was recorded in January, 1999, again with Weiss and Javori, this time augmented by Larry John McNally on dobro and cellist Michelle Kinney, with a cameo by wind player Steve Gorn.

Also during the late 1990s I appeared as a guest artist on recordings by alt-rock chanteuse Katell Keineg, Celtic music legend Cathal McConnell, klezmer legend (and soloist on the Schindler's List soundtrack) Giora Feidman, new age maven Gabrielle Roth, free jazz drummer Franklin Kiermyer, and singer-songwriters Dorothy Scott and Jane Kelly Williams.

I performed in clubs around New York City and the Northeast United States. Aside from solo engagements I also appeared as an opener for Martha Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Freedy Johnston, Katell Keineg and Susan McKeown. A tour of the Northeast with Rebecca Martin and Frank Tedesso yielded a recording, Live at The Outlook.

In January, 2001 I made my third record, Spirit's Body, featuring guitarists Jason Crigler and Chris Cunningham. Later that same year the three of us formed a cooperative band called Cunningham, Crigler & Hill and began work on our debut recording, Too Big for the Business (still in production!)

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The first decade of the new century was for me marked by upheaval, loss, tragedy and change. The attacks of September 11, 2001 a few miles from my apartment (I know: me and millions of other New Yorkers); a divorce from my wife in 2002; the death of my mother in 2003; my bandmate Jason Crigler's brain injury in 2004 (his ordeal and remarkable recovery are chronicled in Eric Daniel Metzgar's powerful documentary, Life.Support.Music.); favored drummer George Javori's untimely death at age 33 in 2005; my long-awaited emigration from New York City to the verdant Hudson Valley at the beginning of 2008; my father's death in 2009.

From the mid-1990s to the present I have continued to perform and record occasionally with David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir. Our concert engagements have brought us to Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Japan, India, Australia, Canada and the US, often in small, focused festivals with some of the world's most renowned ensembles: Kronos Quartet, Hilliard Ensemble, Anonymous 4, The Gundecha Brothers. It is almost a given that at one of these concerts an audience member will approach us and say, "I first heard your music 30 years ago and it changed my life."

In 2003 I performed a set of vocal pieces written for me by Michelle Kinney in a concert of her music at Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. In 2004 I joined Anti-Social Music in a concert celebrating the chamber music of Joe Maneri, conducted by the composer, at Tonic in NYC. The work I performed in, Cain and Abel, was composed in 72-tone equal temperament. In 2005 I was guest vocalist in a tribute to Don Cherry at the Stone in NYC led by Adam Rudolph. In 2007 I sang in Butch MorrisConduction #164 at Rose Live Music in Brooklyn. Morris’ dynamic approach to conducted collective improvisation, called Conduction, demanded rigorous engagement, bringing together musicians of very diverse backgrounds to create something unique and unrepeatable, and was influential and transformative for all those who participated in it.

Around 2006 I began forming the "deep world soul" band Wayfarer, with guitarist/ vocalist Brandon Ross, a veteran of jazz diva Cassandra Wilson's band; bassist Doug Weiss, who appeared on pop diva Lizz Wright's debut recording; and percussionist Jeff Haynes, who is both a veteran of Wilson's band and appeared on Wright's debut. Our debut album is in post-production. In 2007 I joined contemporary gospel band River, led by Jane Kelly Williams. Our debut album is in post-production. Since 2007, Cunningham, Crigler & Hill have managed to meet for a few gigs every year, despite living in three different states.

Between 2007 and 2010 I performed with the Light and Sound Ensemble directed by Julianne Klopotic, in concerts devoted to the music of Gurdjieff/deHartmann. In 2010 I recorded a 47-minute piece for solo voice titled Body of Sound, available as a limited edition CD. This piece is a digest of my 35 years working with harmonic singing. Later that year I was guest vocalist with the band Harriet Tubman + Laaraji in a concert titled Om Supreme: Music and Inspiration of Alice Coltrane, at 92Y Tribeca in NYC.

The "vocal research group" Weave, formed cooperatively in 1997, and including Harmonic Choir alumni Marjorie Johnson and Seth Markel, and Indian singer/percussionist Sanjay Cherubala, continues to meet several times a month as it has done for the last 17 years.

I have been fortunate to lend my talents to the cause of raising funds for refugees in Darfur (in a concert with the band River); recovery efforts in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 (in concerts where I performed solo and with Weave); as well as the 2010 floods in Pakistan (in a benefit recording collaboration with Qawwali singer Dhruv Sangari titled Hope. I contributed a track to the multi-artist, post-Katrina compilation recording For New Orleans, which also features Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls. In 2010 I joined Pete Seeger onstage for the concert finale in a benefit for Habitat For Humanity International. In 2013 I was asked to join the Artist's Committee for the Innocence Project for wrongfully convicted prisoners. Other musicians who have served on the committee include Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Dave Matthews and Yoko Ono.

Always interested in deepening my understanding of music, I have undertaken various studies to that end. Over the years from 1980 to the present, aside from studies already mentioned, these include piano tuning with Lucas Mason; piano with Jim Chrestensen; harpsichord with Gwendolyn Toth; Gregorian chant with Rembert Herbert; African drumming with Ladji Camara; Afro-Cuban drumming with Idalberto Bandera; archaic, non-Western instrument making with Ben Hume; konnakol (Carnatic rhythmic language) with Subash Chandran; ketcak (Balinese Monkey chant) with I Made Bandem; Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in the original Sanskrit with Dolphi Wertenbaker; classes in Hindustani classical vocal music with Michael Harrison, Terry Riley, Mashkoor Ali Khan, Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha, Ajoy Chakrabarty and private stiudies with my current teacher Pandit Vijay Kichlu. In addition I have done a lot of my own research into the history of tuning; voice production; and linguistics/phonetics.

In the last ten years I have been a teacher of singing. I have given many workshops and seminars around the US; presentations at St. Thomas Boys Choir School, Perpich Center for the Arts (Minneapolis), National Council of Choir Directors/Eastern Division, CG Jung Institute; and have been a visiting lecturer at Mt. Holyoke College, McNally Smith College (St. Paul, MN), University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, St. John's University, New York University, and the Bard College Conservatory Graduate Vocal Program under the direction of Dawn Upshaw.

In 2010 I gave my first solo concert on Indian soil at Turquoise Cottage in New Delhi. I returned to New Delhi in 2012 where I gave a joint concert with Madan Gopal Singh and his ensemble Chaar Yaar at The Attic, and was also guest vocalist with Kolkata rockers Skinny Alley.

Besides giving solo performances, I am excited about several fledgling ensembles: Glisten, an improvising chamber music trio with violinist and ECM recording artist Michelle Makarski and guitarist Brandon Ross; and Shapes of the Inner Fire, a duo with vocalist/percussionist/duduk player Federico Parra.

I wrote and performed a song for director Jordan Baynes' 2011 short dramatic feature The Sea Is All I Know, starring Academy Award winning actress Melissa Leo and my uncle, Peter Gerety.

2013 saw the release of David Rothenberg's book/CD Bug Music which features a segment detailing my singing with crickets and katydids in the wild (St. Martin's Press). And, Hachette Book Group released Pete Seeger, The Storm King: Stories, Narratives, Poems, a spoken word with music tribute to the great Pete Seeger, produced by my friend and Wayfarer comrade Jeff Haynes (who is a 2010 Grammy Award recipient for his contributions to the Seeger album Tomorrow's Children) featuring Seeger's recitations of episodes from his life accompanied by a vast array of music, to which I contributed several pieces.

In May 2014 I was invited to Harrison House Music & Arts, a desert retreat built by composer Lou Harrison in Joshua Tree, California, for a solo artist residency. 2014 has also seen the release of Cicada Dream Band, a collaborative project with Pauline Oliveros, David Rothenberg and myself.

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