When Todd Green steps on stage, he never quite knows what to expect. He seats himself in the center of an assortment of instruments, which at first glance look like guitars or drums or flutes, but are alien upon closer inspection. Once the auditorium dims and the stage lights go up, his one-man band begins.
Green thinks of himself as a musician, composer and artist. For the last several decades, he has traveled across the United States, sharing his passion for world music with diverse communities. Each concert, Green plays 30 acoustic string, flute and percussion instruments, using his electronic looper system to blend the vibrant harmonies and melodies of the Middle East, Central Asia, Far East and South America. Green’s mission is to educate people about foreign cultures by exposing the musical DNA of each region, a pursuit with increasingly higher stakes.
In addition to concerts, he teaches classes from kindergarten all the way up to the master’s level at universities. Green has spent the last 10 days in the Northwoods, performing at the local elementary schools — Lac du Flambeau, MHLT, and Arbor Vitae-Woodruff — as well as Lakeland Union High School. During his 60-minute sessions, Green played over 20 instruments, demonstrating traditional playing techniques and giving kids a brief history lesson.
Green believes younger generations are key in establishing an openness toward diverse cultures and peoples.
“They hear cool stuff. That’s all they know, and so hopefully it ignites a little fire,” he said. “They don’t have to play the instruments, but they’ll have respect for the music and the cultures.”
Green’s residency in the Northwoods culminated with a performance at the Campanile Center for the Arts last night. The longer concert time allowed him to show off additional instruments, 30 in total, but his repertoire includes more. Though the public concert was more focused on the music, it still involved some discussion about the instruments and their origins.
The musician’s visit was made possible thanks to the executive director of the Campanile Center Sandra Madden, who applied for a Challenge America Grant, which aims to bring unique art to underserved small or mid-sized communities. Madden and the Campanile won the highly competitive grant and were awarded $10,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Green’s road to Minocqua has been a long one.
He found his calling in life at an early age, experiencing his first musical awakening listening to the Beatles’ sophomore album “Meet the Beatles!” Inspired by the rhythmic beats of Ringo Star, Green decided he wanted to become a drummer. Horrified by the idea of having a child banging on a drumset all day, his mother told him no. Green settled for the guitar.
His second musical awakening occurred when he heard “Sunshine of Your Love” by the classic psychedelic rock band Cream. To the adolescent Green, Cream’s blues rock sounded like an entirely new genre.
From there, he began writing his own music, having some bands and performing at small gigs and talent shows. He started studying classical and jazz guitar and was skilled enough to be accepted into Berklee School of Music, where he studied composition, arrangement and performance. After living in Boston for about five years, he decided to return to his roots, moving to New York City.
“Growing up around New York, I felt that’s where I needed to be,” he said.
New York, in all its glory, offered a rich music scene. It was there Green’s interests began to shift outward toward a global picture, beginning with the music of India. Although he had taken a class on Indian music at Berklee, it wasn’t until moving to New York that something clicked and he became completely fascinated.
Green was not simply interested in learning about different cultures’ music, he wanted to fully immerse himself in each unique music scene by mastering traditional instruments using traditional techniques. Up until that point, Green only played guitar, but he soon expanded his instrument resume by studying with two western experts, first the Bansuri, which is a bamboo flute, and then the tablas, which are Indian drums. (Turns out Green was able to fulfill his dream of playing drums after all.)
It didn’t stop there. Green has continued learning to play more and more strange instruments with hard-to-pronounce names and hypnotic sounds, clearly earning the title of multi-instrumentalist.
Playing with purpose
Throughout his early music career, Green experimented with genre, but one element remained constant: improvisation. He may not have been conscious of it at the time, but Green asserts looking back that improvisation is the connective thread in the evolution of his musical interests from blues to jazz to world music. He is now a firm believer the skill is critical for fledgling musicians.
Green has come to notice the West is especially dependant on the eyes when playing music.
“Music with dots on the page, as I call it, is used pretty much everywhere,” he said.
Green believes a well-balanced musician must master what he calls the “Three Pillars” in order to circumvent this dependency. The first of these pillars includes the basic skill of playing one’s instrument and the ability to read sheet music. The second is the ability to improvise a tune or harmonize with another musician. The third is identifying one of these improvised melodies and recording it. Put simply, these three pillars are playing, improvising and composing.
Green views these as interconnected processes.
“The composer is the creator of music,” he said. “The players that are in the orchestra, they’re only interpreters of the music.”
In educational sessions with young music students, Green encourages them to hone these three pillars immediately or the second and third skills could be lost.
“The more you practice, the better you get at practicing,” he said.
The musician’s own appetite for continual learning and revelation is insatiable. It is not uncommon for him to awaken long before the crack of dawn to practice his craft. Normal practice days can start at 2 or 3 a.m. and include 14 hours of focused practice.
And yet, during those 14 hours, Green never practices a setlist. This is because a setlist doesn’t exist for any of his concerts: they are all improvised.
Though Green plans out the general flow of each performance, deciding which instruments and melodies he will use at different points in the program, his pieces remain in flux.
“I look at it as happy accidents because when you improvise, there are no mistakes,” Green said. “Every performance has something that pops up or something that I hear that’s different from the way I’ve done it.”
This is what makes his performances exciting: the process of discovery is simultaneously experienced by artist and audience.
The audience’s sense of discovery is twofold. In addition to hearing sounds they’ve never heard before, the audience is also seeing instruments that they never knew existed. Even music experts could not claim to recognize every single instrument in Green’s collection, as he has collaborated with luthier Fred Carlson to create six custom instruments, combining elements of existing ones. Green showcased two of these custom instruments during his performance at the Campanile yesterday.
It is somewhat ironic that Green’s ability to innovate new sounds is facilitated through technology. Green was at the forefront of musical looping electronics in the early 90s. In fact, it was the invention of looping systems that eliminated his reliance on band members and enabled him to become a one-man band. In many ways, the looping technology has allowed him to incorporate effects that he would be unable to achieve with a full band.
While technology has freed him in some respects, it has limited him in others. Green has had to navigate the tension between the organic sounds of his instruments and inherent artificiality of his electronic recordings.
“I say what I do is a combination of the ancient and the modern. It’s taking the ancient instruments and utilizing the modern technology to present the ancient instruments,” he explained.
At first, Green experimented with incorporating synthesized sounds into his songs, but he said, “I’ve dropped all that and I just do the acoustic instruments because they’re more beautiful: they look gorgeous, they sound amazing and the synthesized sound of one is never going to be as good.”
In order to give audiences the most authentic experience Green insists on becoming a master of each and every instrument he plays in concert.
It’s not every day that the strumming of a lute or the whistle of a bansuri flute can be heard lilting through the hallways of local schools or the streets of downtown Minocqua. Green hopes his appearances in the Northwoods have helped expand some people’s views on foreign cultures.
“My feeling is the music really shows you how beautiful they are because only a beautiful culture or beautiful people could create some of this music,” he said.
Green moved out of New York in 1988, first to Montana and then to the Lake Tahoe area where he currently resides. From his home in Nevada, he has easy access to the dynamic music scene of the Bay Area, which features its own pool of skilled world musicians. He plans to continue traveling across the country — as both student and teacher — speaking a language recognized by all.
This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.