A newsletter for the Portland area Didjeridu player......Nov  2000 Volume 6 Issue 11

An Interview with Martin Schiff

by Ed Drury

 Several years ago, I was having a converstation with Rob Thomas of Inlakesh about the future. "Someday, people will be able to choose the tracks they want, buy them on line and make their own CD's. That is the future!", he told me. Well the future is here, has been in fact for awhile. Artists such as Martin have their feet firmly place in the present tense with their eyes upon the future musically.  

 Here's an interview I hope you will enjoy reading as much as I did doing. - Ed

 [Ed]  I was wondering how you got into the didjeridu and what your music background was prior to learning that instrument?

[Martin]  I got involved with the didjeridu just after my 50th birthday last March. I was aware of it previously, but never knew anyone that played didge. A friend of mine told me that he played, and I let him know that I was very interested. He invited my wife and I to go with him to hear a friend of his who plays didge and Native American flute (not at the same time [grin]). I agreed, and we went to the gig. I knew right away that I had to have a didge, and bought one from the performer (David Lyle, www.mp3.com/circularity) at the show. It is a PVC F# that looks like wood.

 Having played trombone for about 15 years when I was younger, I was able to get the drone right away. Circular breathing, however, was more problematic. My friend was able to describe it to me, but my mind just did not want to believe yet that it was possible. So I read everything I could on the internet about the didge, listened to all the samples of different techniques, read all the descriptions about how to circular breathe (what's with that straw in the water glass thing anyway? I still can't do that [grin]), and still could not do it. Finally I said to myself, I know this is possible, so I am not going to stop till I get it. That night, I managed to put together a drone with about 3 breaths, and I was on my way.

I heard on the internet that Randy Graves was doing a didge workshop in Ft. Myers, Florida (I am in the Orlando area), and decided, after listening to all his music on mp3.com (www.mp3.com/randygraves) that I would attend the workshop. This was about 3 weeks after I had started playing. That was the best move I could possibly have made. I advanced light years during and immediately after the workshop, and began practicing constantly. I discovered the Slide Didge, and promptly bought some for myself and friends.

Being able to play in any key, really helped me when I would try a fixed pitch didge. I already knew what it felt like to play low B, or E or high A. I had also subscribed to both didge lists by that time, and got lots of great help there.

With the Slide Didge, I started buying CDs and jamming with them. Since it plays in every key, I could play with every track. So I tried to imitate the rhythms and sounds I was hearing. I also connected with people from the didge lists who were traveling to Florida, and I would invite them over to jam. I learned a lot that way as well.

Since I have a recording studio in my house, I was able to record my playing, to listen, and refine my technique. By this time, I was using didgeridoo in my compositions, and as I would improve my playing, I would use didge more and more.

I have a pretty extensive background in music. I first took piano lessons as a child, and then as a teenager, taught myself guitar and played in a rock and roll band (Can you spell Beatles?) while in Junior High School. Throughout Junior High and High School, I also played trombone in the band, and continued to play trombone into college and community jazz and concert bands after that. Then a period of about 15 years elapsed where I did not play any music at all. Just listened.

When my eldest son was old enough, he started taking piano lessons, and we bought a really nice 100 year old Mason & Hamlin grand piano. This inspired me to start playing piano again. Not long after, I started playing with sequencing programs on the computer, and began making music. I got more and more involved with that, and decided that the guitar would be a good addition. So I began jamming and learning from a friend of mine named Stoyan Ivanov, who is a performing musician and an excellent guitarist. He taught me to improvise (something I had never really developed) and that opened up a new world for me. At this point, I was 49 years old, and composing music for the first time in my life. Finally, I could let the music of my soul out! It was a revelation. That continued for a number of months until I picked up the didge. Then I found that the really inner stuff was just beginning. My friend Stoyan couldn't figure out why I was neglecting the guitar for a hollow log, but we didge players know!

[Ed] I see that you do play out. What's your gig set up like? What do you packup and what kind of sets do you play when you perform?

[Martin] Yes, I just started playing live about 3 months ago, and the response has been very gratifying. I am one half of a duo called Orion Starbirth, which is made up of The Orion Syndrome (Dave Hearn - www.mp3.com/orionsyndrome) and Starbirth (www.mp3.com/starbirth) which is me. We play songs from both of our mp3.com sites. Since there are only two of us, we can't possibly play every instrument in the songs, so we create new mixes on minidisc that leave out the parts that we play. I play mostly the didge parts live, and also have started using Native American flute and Tibetan bells and singing bowls in our performances, and Dave plays 6 and 12 string guitar, and a Yamaha wind synthesizer. We do jams sometimes as well. Last Saturday, we did a really great jam with Bruce Gosey playing the djembe. For instance, our first set was "Chuff Stuff" (a jam song), "Journey to Mars", "Amphibian Walkabout", "Astrophoto", "War Dance", and "Meteor Storm". All but the first song are available on one or the other of our mp3.com sites.

Interestingly enough, Dave and I played backup for Dominic Gaudious (www.mp3.com/dominicg) at 4 gigs here in Central Florida, and that gave both of us the bug to perform our own songs.

I asked lots of questions on the didge lists, and based my gig set up on much of the information and recommendations I received there, and from a good friend of mine who is in the music equipment business and performs with his wife as a duo. I have a 6 space rack with a Crate CSM802 8 channel mixer, a Lexicon MPX-100 effects processor, and a dBX 160X compressor/limiter. For the Slide Didge, I use an AKG C419 clip on mike, for fixed pitch didges, I use a Shure SM57, and for vocals a Samson S12. I run the output from my mixer to Dave's mixer, and that goes into his Peavey 800w PA amp, and that feeds 2 Klipsch Pro 12" 2 way PA monitors. In his rack, Dave has 3 synthesizers (for the wind synth), a guitar processor, an effects processor, a compressor/limiter and a noise gate. I use my Sharp minidisc deck to play the backing tracks. We use one of the new Samson EX-20 powered 12" PA cabinets for sound monitoring inside. I use a folding oak table that I got very inexpensively at Beds, Bath and Beyond for resting the end of my fixed pitch didges. It also brightens up the sound nicely.

I used 6 different didges in my last performance, The Slide Didge from Scott Dunbar, a nice E and A that I got from Peter Brady, a D agave from Jason Strazzabosco, an F agave that I got from Jeff Yost, and a mahogany pentagon shaped C that I got from Walter Alter. The Native American flute is a Bm Guillermo Martinez that I got from Bob Bellus, who performed at the recent 2000 Joshua Tree Festival, and the 200 year old Tibetan singing bowl, two sets of tingshas and a singing bell which I got from Rain Gray at www.bodhisattva.com.

Fortunately, we have a minivan to carry all this stuff [smile].

[Ed] Tell me about the name "Starbirth"? Where did it come from and what does it mean to you now?

[Martin] Actually, that is a pretty simple one. When the Hubbel Space Telescope was refurbished, and it started to send back really fantastic pictures, I saw the picture that I use for my Starbirth band picture of the birth of stars in the Eagle Nebula (M16) and was blown away by it. Later when I started composing music, and putting it on mp3.com, I decided that was the picture to use on my site, and came up with the name Starbirth. I am involved with astronomy, so I have used pictures from the Hubbel (they are public domain [smile]) on my mp3.com site, and many of my songs have a space theme. My friend, Dave Hearn, who is my band partner, is the past president of the astronomy club here in Orlando, so we are both very interested in space, and use that theme a lot.

It is not lost on me (though not intended) that "star" has another meaning related to show business. I hope it works out that way as well, but that did not even occur to me until after I had named my project.

[Ed] When I listen to your compositions I sometimes have the feeling that you start with the didj track and build around it, but not always. Can you talk a little about your process in the Starbirth project?

[Martin] I have various ways of creating songs. Your feeling is correct. Sometimes I start with the didge (as in Agave Meditation), and other times, I have most of the song complete before I add the didge (like Journey to Mars, which got the didge track added at the very end). There is a method to my madness. If the song is going to be rhythmic, then I usually put down at least the rhythm track first and add the didge later so it fits perfectly. Even when I am doing a jam with someone, I usually like to put on a rhythm track loop, just so that it is perfectly in time, in case I want to go back later and add other tracks. With Agave Meditation, I laid down the entire didge track in one take, and then started adding parts one by one until I felt it was "finished". I was so inspired by Joshua Tree in general, my new agave didge from Jason Strazzabosco, and by meeting and spending time with Phillip Peris and listening to him play and attending his workshop, that the song just came out. I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted when the first sound came out of the didge.

I use a program from Sonic Foundry called Acid Pro to do most of my songs. It is a fantastic program for combining loops and recording new material (and even creating your own loops or "one shots"). I must admit to not being able to play every instrument that is used in my songs (surprised? [grin]), so I take advantage of loops created by professional musicians that I can license to use in my own music. Frequently I use these loops for percussion, some synth parts, and even some vocal parts, and then I record the didge, keyboard, guitar and other instruments I play on top of it. So if loops are going to be involved, there is always at least a percussion track first so that I play the didge part in perfect time. Then I may add other parts from loops, and from live recording.

For instance, Amphibian Walkabout, which is one of my most popular songs, was done by first recording the frogs in my backyard on a minidisc recorder.

I moved that digitally over to my music workstation (a standard computer) and mastered it so that the volume level was more even and laid down that track. Then I deleted some long silent parts, and tried to find some sort of structure. At that point, I played around with the Slide Didge to see what kind of sounds that I could get that were "frog" related. I came up with the buzzing flies at the beginning, a sliding ribbit kind of lick, and a rhythmic kind of organic droning part. I also decided that during the parts where the frogs were doing their version of Kargyraa throat singing, I would do some toots. Then, I came up with some percussion and rhythm parts that I liked (no didge recorded yet, just playing around) and laid down some tracks that would keep it in time throughout. Next, I recorded the didge parts (4 separate tracks) and added the throat singing (which I did) and the rest of the instrumentation. You might notice that the toot notes are in a key which matches the key of the song. That was done by recording the toots from a different key on the Slide Didge so it sounded perfectly in tune, rather than just using the toot that was in the key of the didge parts. So, although each song is done differently, this is the basic process that is used in many of my songs.

[Ed] Well this would seem a good time to ask about the future of Starbirth. You've talked a bit about influences and inspirations. In the short time I've been following your project, I've been struck with how responsive your music is to various imput from your communications and I would guess life experience. So in that way, I suppose it's an unfair question to ask about the future. But I will ask about the imediate future. What's next for you musically?

[Martin] My immediate plans include a lot more playing live, and expanding the locations where we play. In the studio, I am planning a new CD called Meditations that will include my two new meditations songs, and about 4 more. I want to expand the use of the Native American flute, and do more acoustic stuff. That doesn't mean that I will stop with the electronic music, I plan to do a lot more of that as well.

I do find that since I have started composing music, almost everything gives me ideas for new songs. So I would say that life experience is indeed my inspiration. There is so much information available on the internet, and I spend a lot of time there, so it is also a major source of ideas. You know the saying, "I'm not getting older, I'm getting better". Well, at age 50,  I am more inspired than ever.

Martin's music can be heard at http://www.mp3.com/starbirth

And of course, mine can be heard at http://www.mp3.com/EdDrury

Questions about this and other articles should be sent to Ed Drury