A Concert for Peace: Q&A with Michael Cain
This season’s MacPhail Presents! includes a special performance, A Concert for Peace, featuring all original compositions. MacPhail and EKWE.app are co-sponsoring the performance at MacPhail’s Antonello Hall on Saturday, March 23.
Michael Cain, the events curator, co-composer, and performer, answers questions about the performance, MacPhail’s EMRA program, and EKWE.
Tell us about your musical background. How did you get into music? What have you done all these years?
Michael Cain: Sure. I’m a musical lifer. My father was a professional musician in LA in the sixties. He was a very active studio musician and did a lot of recording on albums and TV dates. He was a part of the collective called the Wrecking Crew, the first-call, top-notch LA Studio musicians at the time. I started playing the piano when I was about four, and after taking my first few lessons, I was all the way; this was what I wanted to do. I grew up in Las Vegas, where I had access to great teachers and players. Las Vegas has a vibrant musical community. I was around a ton of incredible professional working musicians, which was a great influence on me. I played classical, jazz, pop, and rock, a wide range of styles early on. For college, I went to North Texas for a while in the early eighties, and I arrived back in LA by the mid-1980s, which is when my professional career started. I was lucky to play with some local jazz legends then, including Marlena Shaw, a great jazz vocalist, and the Gerald Wilson big band. Gerald was a living legend in big bands, a contemporary of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. I started touring in Europe in the late eighties with James Newton, the flute player, then moved to New York in 1990 and continued to play. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do a lot of touring and recording throughout my life.
You’ve been a teacher as well?
Yes, it’s been close to 40 years or so of being a professional musician. Still, for roughly 30 years, I’ve been a professor of music, teaching jazz and contemporary piano at the Eastman School of Music, New England Conservatory, and Brandon University in Canada. So, it’s been a combination of being a professional performing musician and an academic.
Tell me about your role at MacPhail, especially with the EMRA (Electronic Music and Recording Arts) program.
I’m the founding director of the Electronic Music and Recording Arts (EMRA) program, which was ultimately created to be responsive to the needs of today’s students. People who want to learn about music that exists outside traditional music pedagogy, which typically places folks into one of two large classifications, classical and jazz, jazz being the term for “everything, not classical.” EMRA offers instruction in various kinds of popular music, hip hop, pop, etc., and the key skills that underpin them, which include recording, mixing, mastering, beat-making, all those kinds of things. Our program deals with the entire contemporary world of music-making, and as such, we’re stylistically genre-agnostic. Our students run the gamut of working in all kinds of styles and interests. I think the core of what our students do is they are creators, they are producers, they want to continue to get better at making and creating their music.
Tell us about Ekwe. What is it? and how did you and your colleagues start it?
Ekwe is a music creation app. It is a unique digital tool that re-imagines music-making by bringing a new level of ease and accessibility to digital music creation.
We’ve combined a library of 150 sampled authentic musical instruments from around the world with contemporary electronic loops and instruments, accessed through an intuitive compositional canvas; creators can easily explore, edit, create, collaborate, and share their compositions.
So, you don’t have to think like a recording engineer to create and make music, and you can be an absolute beginner. Ekwe is designed to live at the intersection of playing, creating, and learning. Many teachers are adopting it and using it in their classrooms and curriculums, and professionals use it as a creation and collaboration tool.
(All attendees at the Peach Concert will receive a complimentary license to download the Ekwe music app.)
You mentioned the ALS Association is using EKWE. Can you elaborate on that?
Ekwe has partnered with the ALS Association, providing free licenses and music creation instruction to people with ALS. Because of Ekwe’s ease of use, it’s been proving to be a viable tool for folks who might be losing the ability to use their hands to continue creating and making music. We launched a pilot with the regional chapter of the ALS Association, originally in five of the Midwest states, and we will be building out the program nationally in the coming months.
Let’s talk about the concert. Why a peace concert? What is music’s power in bringing people together?
Music has been called the universal language. It’s foundational to being a human being. It provides an opportunity where we can all connect regardless of our backgrounds. In this day and age, where there are so many divisions either politically, culturally, and socially, a concert that focuses on peace, where the music is intended to remind folks of the fact that we are all a part of the same human family, speaks to the very important role music can play in society.
Part of the reason we’re centering that around the frame drum is that it is one of the oldest instruments on the planet. It’s really the first drum, being around 3,000 years old. Notably, the frame drum exists in virtually all cultures. If we wanted to go back and think about an instrument that is the most ubiquitous and unifying, I can’t think of a better instrument than the frame drum. And Yousif Sheronick is a frame drum master. He’s one of the contributing artists on Ekwe, one of the artists we sampled. When I was reaching out to him about doing this concert and coming to MacPhail as a visiting artist, he mentioned he’s been doing a lot of work with the drum in a healing context, whether it’s yoga or other types of environments. As he said, it triggered the idea of making peace and healing, the central idea of the concert. The frame drum is the perfect instrument for that theme of peace and healing. Once Yousif signed on, it was very easy for me to reach out to other musicians and tell them about the concept and what we were doing, and everyone eagerly wanted to join that cause.
How did you meet Yousif Sheronick?
I originally met through an old friend of mine from Cal Arts. I did my graduate studies there in LA, which has a great world music program. One of the teachers at the time was Adam Rudolph, with whom I’ve stayed in touch over the years. Adam helped us at Ekwe a great deal by bringing us a lot of musicians from around the world when we were seeking to build a library for Ekwe. One of them was Yousif Sheronick.
Since new music compositions are key to this concert, tell us about the compositions you and Barbara Cohen are working on.
Barbara Cohen is also one of the EMRA faculty; Barbara’s an excellent singer and composer, a prolific film and TV scorer, and has lived in LA for many years. I’ve long wanted to collaborate with her, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. We are both very much aligned with the concept and the theme. The music we’re composing, with Yousif’s frame drum at the center, will have African and Middle Eastern elements and other elements from around the world. It will be very global in perspective. I might describe it as Afrobeat, jazz, dance, celebration, joy, and music. Everything we’re thinking about is creating an experience from the idea of a beautiful, encompassing, embracing, fun, celebratory musical experience.
When an attendee leaves this concert, we don’t want them to walk out of the hall; we want them to float out on cloud nine. We want them to be so moved and touched in their hearts that it reminds them that the heart is the muscle for us to be empathetic with others. To remember the gift of being alive and that we are sharing space and time with others. If the music elevates that celebratory spirit, which carries on into how we think about others, how we think about social awareness, and how we experience the world, then that would be a success. I might describe the music this way: it’s going to be a celebration, it’s going to be a party, and it’s going to be very moving. And that’s what Barbara and I keep in our minds as we compose this music.
And it will also include a composition from an Ekwe scholar in India, right?
Ekwe has a scholarship program at KM Music Conservatory in Chennai, India, where we support a woman in technology and music production student in finishing their third and last year of study. Our inaugural recipient is Aaina Padiath, an incredible singer, composer, and producer. She is going to be composing a piece using Ekwe. She’ll be in India while she composes it, but she’s writing it to be triggered/performed live in the hall, and we’ll have live musicians accompanying.
Can you just briefly describe the other musicians?
We have two guitarists, Zacc Harris and David Feily. Both are truly incredible local musicians. I’ve been a fan of both for many years. We have Abinnet Berhanu on drums, an excellent drummer originally from Ethiopia. JD Steele, of course. The Steeles are local royalty, and JD has worked with Prince and a host of others, along with his siblings.
Paul Babcock is on drum set with the group he directs at MacPhail, Rimshots! Paul Babcock is the President/COO of MacPhail, which is his administrative role. At the same time, he’s been a drummer, percussionist, and teacher for over 30 years.
Joe Strachan is our most recent EMRA faculty hire as well. He’ll be teaching jazz piano at MacPhail.
We talked about a gift the audience members receive at the end. How will that work?
On the program and available in the hall will be a QR code to download a complimentary license of Ekwe. It’s just a way of saying thank you for coming.
After moving to New York in 1990, Michael Cain became a first-call pianist, working with drum legend Jack DeJohnette for nine years, as well as Dave Holland, Steps Ahead, Ravi Coltrane, Bobby McFerrin, Stanley Turrentine, Lauren Hill, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, Charles Neville, Christian McBride, John Scofield, Robin Eubanks, and Meshell N’degeocello, among others.
His numerous awards include a 2006 Grammy nomination for Dance of the Infidel, Meshell N’degeocello’s release on which Michael is pianist and co-arranger. He has recorded several records as a leader, including Circa, a 1996 ECM release featuring Ralph Alessi and Peter Epstein, and served as producer for several recordings, including Ron Blake’s Shariya and Brian Landrus’ Traverse and Capsule.
Other Notable projects include serving as musical director for the Jose Limon Dance Company, scoring the films Maybe and Real With Me, by director Carl Ford for Black Nexxus Films, and composing the music for the Broadway play View from 151st Street, which ran at the George Papp Public Theater in New York in the fall of 2007. Most recent, Michael produced the Western Canadian recording “Rebirth of the Cool” for Cellar Live Records. During the summer of 2018 Michael toured with legendary trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.
As an educator Michael has been a Professor at the Eastman School of Music, the New England Conservatory of Music, the University of Minnesota, and Brandon University in Brandon, MB, Canada. Michael is the founding Director of EMRA (Electronic Music Recording Arts) at MacPhail.
Michael’s latest release is entitled Hoo Doo and is available on iTunes and other platforms.