MICHAEL (ELEWHALE) LYTLE (Composer) has a Master’s in Composition (electronic music) from the U. of Iowa and has been playing clarinet for 50 years. Well known as an Improvisor and called the “most radical of his generation” by Joachim Berendt, he invented a set of clarinet sonic modulation and performance born of not having access to an electronic music studio for a long period. A short list of his best collaborations have been with Will Parsons, Jon English, George Cartwright, David Moss, Karl Berger, Hans Burgener, Mark Howell, Nick Didkovsky, Gerry Hemingway and have included over 30 recordings.
I learned fast. My piano teacher gave me all the method books at once, i.e. all the #1 books in the major methods, then all the #2 books, and so on, rapidly. She didn’t know what to do with me. I ate everything up. A five year old who loved all the gold and silver stars I could earn! Even then I enjoyed improvisation.
I'm from the small town of Springfield, Missouri (‘heart of the Ozarks’), in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Smallish, but we had a good music organization all the way through High School. (Basically the work of one very dedicated man yrs. ago. I'm quite grateful to him.) In 7th grade, I was ready to play an instrument, so I went to the music store. “I want to play the trumpet”, I said. “Well, young man, we already have a lot of trumpet players in Springfield. How about the flute?” “Ugh, that’s a sissy instrument isn’t it?” “Not really, but how about the clarinet, then?” “Ok.”
I had a great teacher in Roger Crosby. He was first chair in the Springfield Symphony, and he was a smart and good guy. Taught me to push with my diaphragm, open my sinuses; let the sound resonate around in my upper body. Why he was in Springfield, I’ll never know, but he was a composer also, of 12-tone music, as I discovered some years later. His scores were on the top shelf of his closet. Taught Jr. High School Music. Can you believe it? Of course he is gone now, sadly.
I continued improvising on piano in High School, kind of Debussy style. I loved getting carried away. When I got to the University of Wichita, (not a bad music school at all!) I went in wanting to be a conductor, a music historian, a composer and a clarinet player. However; being a professional musician was discouraged there. ‘It’s nice and all but not a way to make a living. You need to get an educational degree’. Well, I was stubborn, no ed degree for me. (Always the troublemaker.) I had a good composition teacher. Studied 12-tone music, Varese, some electronic music. (Stockhausen) I first smoked pot when the laws of Kansas were 12 years for 2 seeds found in your couch. Boy, that was careless, but it was wonderful. I could see Varese! His music moved beneath my eyelids in colored shapes. I loved dissonance and wild beats.
By the time I got to the University of Iowa, I was going to be a composer. Didn’t even tell people I played clarinet. Worked in the electronic music studio before it was a big deal. Spent hours there, improvising, layering. Analogue only those days, Moog mostly, several 2 track Ampex reel to reels. It was fun, but most of all, amazing! The sounds were fresh, unexplored, and impossible. Met George Crumb, John Cage. There was a new music group in residence by virtue of a Rockefeller grant. We went nuts. Started taking LSD and playing for hours in the group’s practice bunker (one of those old metal, semi-circle huts) till our knuckles bled. Shape sounds, color sounds, texture sounds! The air was full. I was the air.
I’m not recommending LSD, of course. Perhaps under controlled conditions, because it certainly has its down side. (‘Pandora’s Box’ is a real thing, you know.) But I think my generation had to ‘blow’ things open and LSD was an important tool. The world was so uptight around us, even more than it is now. "Real life" opened up. Imagine being in class trying to make up 2 credits in music history; my eyes kept going to the perforated acoustical tiles in the ceiling- you know, the ones with holes in them, and the holes kept descending toward me! I’d hear a perfect 5th in Solfege class and I’d say “wow, that’s incredibly beautiful! It beats in colors, it’s a texture!” Needless, to say, I didn’t make it far in “ear training”, but I graduated with good honors regardless (somehow)!
No jobs out there for ‘professionals’. Can't say I wasn't warned. No different now, really, for most of us. Especially a rebel who can’t keep his mouth shut. (Oh to be young again!) Anyway, any one could see the world order was going to fall apart. It’s based on imaginary ideas. For example, like we could own land. You can’t own land! Land belongs to itself! So I learned auto mechanics, gardening, joined a commune in New England, worked hard, drank and smoked way too much.
Went back to Iowa, made a fine record, “Iowa Ear Music”, with Bill Parsons and friends, got great reviews (5 stars!), co-founded a mixed media group, picked up the clarinet again and ended up at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock. Karl Berger. Wonderful man. Stayed there two years. Went w/him to Europe for the first time. Incredible! One Sunday all the bells went off in Zurich at once. I swear I could have jumped out the window and swum in the air.
Moved to New York. Formed a trio with George Cartwright and David Moss. Wonderful music, clouds of sounds. Later good times with Hans Burgener and Swiss friends. Dr. Nerve w/ Nick Didkovsky. One loud rock ruckus.
The clarinet is a very special instrument, you know. Stopped pipe, cylindrical bore, sawtooth waves. After college and residence at a couple studios, missing electronic music, I devised extended techniques to make electronic-like sounds on the instrument. Playing and singing at the same time, teeth on the reed, various ways to play chords, etc. Jumbling all the effects together, I don’t really know what I’m doing anymore; I’ve done it so much. Now I mostly watch it play itself. Playing the three Bb's - soprano, bass (now w/the low C extension!), and contra-bass clarinet.
Sounds. (Have I mentioned I’m into sound?) Swirling, clouds and currents of sounds, usually with irregular rhythms, sometimes with pitches, mostly not, though I might break into a song fragment these days. Cage got me to thinking, a lot of us to thinking, that maybe composing was ego driven. I liked the idea of giving it up for improvisation. Course, maybe that is ego driven as well, or can be. What I like is trying to lose myself in the process. Let go of self too, you know. I think it can be done.
New York City, revised June, 2012