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The well-dressed woman who interrupted Michael Masleys sidewalk cymbalom solo looked friendly enough when she asked, Can you play and talk at the same time?
Not really, admitted Masley, pausing in his ten-fingered attack on the instrument a large, chromatic version of the traditional hammer dulcimer set up before him in the balmy sunshine of San Franciscos Fishermans Wharf area. He waited expectantly for one of the curious questions that his innovative music tends to inspire. Suddenly the woman remarked, I hope you get the chance to play this music before your Creator someday. The long-haired, streetwise musician from Berkeley smiled and nodded politely. And then the lady pronounced a startling judgment: Because I know that New Age music is the work of Satan!
Masley counts this Church Lady reaction as the negative extreme of all the impromptu and mostly admiring reviews hes received in nearly twenty years of playing for a living under the open sky. I first heard what Masley calls his Turkish steambath of overtones while walking down Berkeleys Telegraph Avenue. Drawn by the unmistakable ringing of the hammer dulcimer a favorite instrument of my Appalachian forebears I joined the crowd on the street corner to get a close look at the musician. He was seated before a hammer dulcimer, all right but what exactly was he doing to it?
As I looked closer I could see that Masley had abandoned the traditional two-handed, two-hammer approach to the instrument in favor of a style involving eight smaller hammers, each one independently attached by extension to a finger, with two thumbpicks thrown in for good measure. In addition, he had modified the plain wooden surface of the hammers by attaching short, padded sections of bow hair, normally used for the bow of a violin bass. As Masley explains, this combination of hammer, bow, and pick gives him the capacity to use all three techniques available to string musicians: plucking, striking, and bowing. This innovation earned Masley a note in the prestigious Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (8th edition) for inventing the ten-fingered finger-hammer technique of playing the cymbalom.
Over the years Masley has developed the capacity to combine any two of the pluck, bow, or string attacks on the taut wires of the cymbalom, and says he may be working the rest of my life on getting all three going in sync. But he doesnt go for the triple-threat in his improvisational outdoor gigs. That seems like a wise precaution; any more open-air innovation and Masley might have a pack of exorcists after him.
After all, hes had enough trouble playing on the streets as it is. Once he was carted off to the Berkeley slammer for failing to procure a business license to sell cassettes out of an open case during his performances. Masleys abduction by the authorities drew protests from a number of Telegraph Avenue vendors and bystanders, including a supporter who cried out, This is like arresting Beethoven!
Around the same time, the plashing, shamanic soundwaves issuing from Masleys instrument were arresting enough to catch the ear of famed musician Ry Cooder when he was fishing around in a box of audiotapes for just the right mystical resonance to round out the soundtrack for the feature film Geronimo. Playing cymbalom, Lakota flute, and water pipes for a couple of movie minutes, Masley made a few bucks and saw his musical contribution excerpted for use on CBS broadcast of the 1994 Winter Olympics, on NBCs Entertainment Tonight, and in an HBO special. Masleys professional prospects were beginning to look limitless. But when Sony issued the Geronimo soundtrack, everyone received their due credits for composition except Masley. After lengthy legal wrangling, Sony coughed up an out-of-court settlement and issued a letter recognizing Masleys full contributions to the movie soundtrack. Masley has also jammed with the likes of blues-moody singer Tom Waits and Butch Vig of the multi-platinum group Garbage, and was featured on National Public Radios All Things Considered in 1995, leading to the inclusion of his music in the NPR collection All Songs Considered.
Masley came to California from his native Michigan in 1982 after devising his unique instrumentation and soon hit the streets. Despite his increasing studio work and indoor performance opportunities, he still plays a variety of northern California open-air venues, usually drawing a deep pool of fascinated listeners from the endless stream of passersby. With Masley they get something unusual even for the free-spirited world of street music: an instrumental wunderkind who improvises for the duration of a demanding three-to-four-hour gig. I try to follow the instrument itself, says Masley. I dont think of myself as in command. You have to get under your own ego, in a sense, and see what happens in almost a mischievous way.
Each cymbalom concert is thus a kind of expressive meditation that necessarily includes a peripheral awareness of Masleys money box nearby, where people can toss in contributions or make their own change for Masleys CD (order below). His work seems to sell to every kind of listener except, perhaps, Church Ladies. Its a curious reaction, Masley says of the suspiciousness that meditative music occasionally inspires in the righteous. Its not like this music implies any sort of Satanism or occultism, which heavy metal groups have always played around with. If anything, the implied values of this music are the values of the New Testament. Masley isnt even sensitive about his work being played as auditory wallpaper; one of his CD selections is entitled Music to Look for Something Lost By.
How long this Beethoven of the streets will continue to play for free is anybodys guess. But for now, the cymbaloms unique bells-and-shadows sound can still be heard ringing out over the sidewalks and plazas of the San Francisco Bay area. Thats where you can find Michael Masley sharing his meditation in sound with the passersby, presumably within the full view and earshot of his Creator.
See Michael Masleys website at www.artistgeneral.com.
Michael Masley’s music also appears on the unabridged audio version of
A LITTLE BOOK OF FORGIVENESS.
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