Gregory Bruce Campbell interviewed Michael Manring in November of 2006… this was that interview as it was published at that time 😉
GBC: At what level would YOU say that you comprehend music theory? And how often would you suggest to aspiring musicians that you apply it to what you do?
MM: I hope you don’t mind if I take a bit of a detour to say that the term “music theory” has always seemed a little inaccurate to me. What we usually refer to as music theory in the West is mostly the study of tonal harmony, and I think that would probably be a more accurate term for it. We haven’t really done much yet with rhythm here in the West, so that’s usually a pretty small part of most theory curriculums. As far as the other aspects of music go, Western music theory tends to define melody in harmonic terms and pretty much avoids any attempt at a systematic analysis of timbre altogether. Also, to me the word “theory” implies a sense of hypotheses or speculative study and this kind of information is explored more in a field called “psychoacoustics,” which by the way, is a subject that fascinates me. So the term is a little ambiguous to me, but I think I know what you’re getting at and I’ll do my best to give you an answer that works for you.
I love music. I love playing it, listening to it and learning about it, so my whole life I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about music. I’m certainly still learning every day and I hope I continue to do so until the day I die, because music is such a beautiful and infinite discipline. There are many different kinds of thinking about how and why music works. My strongest understandings are in the areas I use the most and I’m a little rustier on specific idioms that don’t apply as much to what I’m doing. I rarely have problems understanding the kinds of music I encounter as a working musician but if I have a question about some specific musical concept I usually know where to go to get the answer. On one level, music theory is actually very simple because after all as they say, there are only twelve notes! But that’s one of the really intriguing things about music — its ability to bridge the dichotomy between simplicity and complexity.
As far as advising folks about applying music theory goes, I think it really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s certainly possible to get a lot of enjoyment out of music without an analytical understanding of it and I’ve enjoyed plenty of music made by folks who probably didn’t analyze what they were doing much at all. However, I would say that in my experience, the more you understand, the more you enjoy. I’m not sure why someone would deny themselves the inherent joy that comes with a deeper insight into something they care about. I know some musicians are concerned that studying music will lessen their emotional connection to it and while that does tend to happen occasionally, it seems to me the much more prevalent problem is that one’s naiveté makes it more likely they’ll fall into cliché or triteness. In my opinion, understanding is probably almost always a benevolent process. If by achieving a better understanding of music a person comes to believe that music they made before that understanding is less valuable, then they haven’t changed the intrinsic value of that music at all — they’ve just come to a deeper perspective. In the end though, it’s all about listening and music theory is just an aide to listening. If a person is able to listen exceptionally well, then music theory won’t be useful for them. However, I’ve never really met anyone whose listening skills are at that high a level.
GBC: Great answer! Ok Michael, Here is a weird one… What is your favorite color? How does color affect YOUR music if at all? I am interested in hearing how color and music relate from your point of view?
MM: That is an odd one! I’m afraid my answer may disappoint you, though. I’m not big on picking favorites of things, especially in something as general as colors, so I really don’t have a favorite. I’m just a lot more interested in the relationships between things than I am in categorizing them, I guess. I’m also sorry to say I don’t really see colors in music. I know some people do and it’s certainly an intriguing idea, but it’s not something I normally do. In fact, I don’t tend to have many visual references at all with music. People often tell me they like to imagine movies or other images to my music and I think that’s great, but I guess I’m just really absorbed with the direct aural experience of music. There is certainly a relationship between color and sound, both metaphorical and literal, as they both have to do with vibrational frequencies.
GBC: What is your take on instruments with excessive quantities of strings (often referred to as Extended Range Instruments, Multi string instruments etc…) how do they affect you, and what you do?
MM: I don’t really know of any instruments that have what I would consider to be an excessive number of strings. I mean, the piano has something like 220, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t advocate taking any of those away! It’s really just a matter of having the tools you need to do what moves you. I think it’s great that folks are adding strings to the bass, merging the concepts of bass and guitar, experimenting and asking questions about the identity of the instrument, because it’s this kind of curiosity that drives creativity and innovation. Of course, all the experiments aren’t going to be successful and in fact, most of them probably won’t be, but the point is that people who play the instrument we call bass are thinking expansively.
I have quite a few basses with more than four strings myself, and I love playing them. I haven’t had much luck playing instruments with more than six (or at least, six courses), because I haven’t developed a technique for damping unwanted string vibration that works to my satisfaction. I am hoping to do more work with my five- and six- and ten-strings in the future, but I love the four too, because it helps me to think expansively in different ways.
GBC: ok, I know you dislike picking favorites, but I really thought about this question before I got your last answer… 😉 Of all the instruments you have owned, if you were stuck on a desert island with one bass that you have already owned, which one would it be? Tell us as much as you can about this instrument, and why you would choose it?
MM: Ooooh, ouch. That is painful. I guess it’d have to be my little fretted bass, Vinny, but I would sure miss the other ones. Vinny is a basic four-string fretted headless with a small body. There’s not much unusual about it other than the fact that it’s more compact than the average bass. Joe Zon and I designed it to make traveling with three basses a little easier for me. The reason I’d choose Vinny is that I feel I have a lot to learn on it and it’s a real joy to play solo. I think perhaps I could keep myself entertained for longer periods of time with that one than the others.
GBC: Tell us about the strings you play, and your experience with strings. How you came about your choice etc…
MM: I use D’Addario EXL 220 light gauge round wounds on most of my basses. They are a good, honest string that has always sounded true and felt comfortable to me. I’ve tried a lot of strings over the years and found many good ones, but I’m very comfortable with the EXL’s so I don’t feel much need to switch. I originally got into using lighter strings because I wanted to have access to a wider range of tunings, but ended up preferring the sound. I know this is contrary to conventional wisdom, but in my experience they seem to have more low end, perhaps because, since they’re looser, the fundamental tends to resonate freely and strongly, as opposed to tighter strings which tend to emphasize harmonics.
Because I do like to experiment with a wide range of tunings, I also use D’Addario EXL 280 piccolo bass strings. Way back in the early eighties I got interested in the idea of trying really light gauge strings, so I asked a friend at the local music store what they had available and he showed me the 280s. I loved them right away and I’ve been using them ever since. I tune them anywhere from about standard (although that’s really loose for them — you wouldn’t want to try to play conventional kinds of bass parts with the bass set up like that!) to about an octave above standard. This means there’s a huge number of tunings I can get out of these strings. In fact, I’ve had so much fun goofing around with them I never have found out what pitches they were designed to be tuned to!
GBC: The next few are some weird systematic question that I developed in a spreadsheet… Please forgive the wording and grammar as I know you will understand what it is I’m after in each of the next few questions…
What, When, Where, Who, and or Why drives you to play bass?
MM: That’s an interesting question and one I don’t know if I can answer fully because I’m not entirely sure, myself. Part of the difficulty in answering a question like this lies in the fact that music fulfills something in us that is beyond words or language. There is something about the sound (or maybe I should say, “sounds”) of the bass that I just find enormously engaging. I think music is an ideal medium through which to explore and experience life — its emotions, ideas, lessons, structures, mysteries, etc.
GBC: What, When, Where, Who, and or Why inspired you to play bass?
MM: Initially it was, again, the sound of the instrument that inspired me to play. When I was a kid there was a TV show on every week that had a little bass break in the theme song (kind of like Barney Miller, but this was way before Barney Miller!). I didn’t much care for the show, the theme song, or even particularly what the bass player was playing, but the sound of the instrument really struck me. It took a while to figure out what instrument it was I was hearing, but once I found out, I was hooked! Since then there have been countless folks who have inspired me to play as well as works of art, ideas, emotions, etc. I feel inspired to play the bass pretty much every day.
GBC: What, When, Where, Who, and or Why luthiers inspire you to play bass?
MM: I’m sure you’ll agree that playing a well-made instrument is always a tremendous inspiration! I’ve been inspired by playing lots of great basses over the years, by hearing the sound of great instruments being played and even by seeing pictures of some I never had the chance to play or hear. I would like to make a special mention of Joe Zon, who through his hard work, dedication and excellence has helped me realize some of my dreams. It’s an honor to work with someone who has as much enthusiasm for, and commitment to expanding the expressive capacity of the instrument as I do.
GBC: What, When, Where, Who, and or Why players inspire you to play bass?
MM: Again, there are so many folks who inspire me to play bass — bass players, certainly, but musicians of all kinds. In fact, these days I seem to draw a bit more inspiration from folks who play other instruments and people who aren’t even musicians than I do from bass players. There are many different kinds of inspiration and sometimes there’s even negative inspiration — you know, where you hear someone and think, “well, that’s definitely not what I want to do!” But, in general I’m inspired by anyone who plays with intelligence, dedication, passion, imagination, creativity and heart.
GBC: So…….. you name your basses? 🙂 What prompted you originally to give a bass a name?
MM: Well, it does make it easier sometimes than saying something like, “the purple fretted four-string Zon headless”! I don’t remember which one got a name first, but they do sort of have personalities, so it seems fitting.
GBC: How do you choose names for the instruments?
MM: I’m afraid it’s not all that exciting a process and usually just comes about from some kind of abbreviation. My Larrivee 5-string fretless acoustic bass guitar usually just gets called Larry, for instance. I suppose the nickname of the Hyperbass, Hyp, is vaguely interesting because it’s also short for Hyperion, the Greek god who was the father of Helios and Selene, after which I named two Hyperbass solo pieces.
GBC: Can you list the names and indicate which bass is named what by describing it for us?
MM: Hyp is the Hyperbass, a 4-string fretless Zon prototype with an extended fingerboard, 6-way multi-output electronics and special detuning bridge and keys.
Vinny is the purple fretted four-string Zon headless.
Junior (so named because he is the “son” of the Hyperbass and my previous main fretless, Bub) is a custom Zon Sonus fretless 4-string with an extended fingerboard and four Hipshots.
Bub is a Zon fretless 4-string Legacy named after its bubinga top.
Larry is the Larrivee mentioned above.
My ten string usually just gets called 10! It’s a Zon Legacy fretted prototype.
I’ve got several more but either they don’t have special names or their names aren’t all that interesting.
GBC: Michael, when you were in Bozeman for the Bozeman bass bash make up clinic after 9/11. I had the honor of going to dinner with you after the clinic… I have always steered very clear of any food that lived in water… You convinced me to try calamari (SP?) before telling me what it was… I still to this day really enjoy calamari! I ended up getting my wife to try it and she loves it now too… Your influence on me has gone so far past music… you’ve also been responsible for my trying new foods! But enough about me… LOL What are some the craziest foods you have tried?
MM: Hey, that’s great! I’m so glad you’re up for trying new things. You’ve touched on a favorite subject of mine — I’m just fascinated by food and nutrition, I think because it’s such a subtle and complex discipline. Some folks even say that food is an art form and although I wouldn’t go quite that far, it does have a lot of artistic qualities. You can certainly get a great feel for a culture from their food and one of my real joys in life is having the opportunity to share a good meal with friends in different parts of the world.
As far as wacky foods go, I’ve tried some strange ones. When I was in Mexico last spring, for instance, I had worm tacos. They use the same worms that are in some tequila bottles and sauté them up with onions and spices and put that in a warm tortilla — tasty! There was also a special delicacy that was in season at the time that comes from a mold that grows on corn. I had it a number of ways including in a dip for bread.
Frankly however, living in Montana you may be better off being a bit wary of seafood! Calamari can range anywhere from delicious to disgusting, so that’s a good one to be cautious about. In Milan I’ve had Risotto al Nero di Seppia, which is rice with squid (cuttlefish, actually) in its own ink, and it was absolutely fantastic and unforgettable, but normally I’ll avoid squid in inland locations. What we had that night must have been pretty good or I wouldn’t have encouraged you!
GBC: And what are some of your favorite foods?
MM: Actually, most of the time I eat pretty simply — a lot of brown rice and fresh vegetables. I’m crazy about artichokes, I love garlic and I’m totally addicted to a kind of date-walnut cookie that’s made at the health food store down the street from me.
GBC: One of my favorite drummers is Tim Alexander; I love the stuff you have done with him! Can you list some of the musicians who have impacted you most by directly working with them? Any stories to go with the names?
MM: Tim is wonderful drummer, isn’t he? I love that he has such a recognizable style and that he’s always thinking creatively. One of the things I love about being a bass player is having the opportunity to work with a lot of different kinds of musicians and I like to try to learn a little something from each person I play with. When you play with someone and get to know them a bit, you have the opportunity to get a feeling for how they think about music and how who they are connects to their creativity. A few lessons I’ve learned that come to mind: my friend John Gorka is fantastic singer-songwriter who generally works with very simple musical materials, but is able to communicate so much. I love listening to how he can establish such a strong feeling with just a few notes. Playing with Michael Hedges was an absolute joy and I learned a lot of lessons from him about performing. I just loved the combination of technical brilliance, folksy friendliness and rocking out that went into his performing style. In playing with Zakir Hussain I was impressed with the fact that no matter how complex the rhythm got, he always made it feel good and inviting. I’ve learned (or perhaps it’s better to say, “I’m learning”) a similar lesson from Paul McCandless — that no matter how complex the harmony you’re working with may be, it’s possible to create truly lyrical improvisations that sound effortless.
GBC: OK this question is a scenario “WHAT IF” type of question… this one may be hard to get the answer I hope for as you are one of the most HUMBLE, diplomatic, and polite bassists that I know! here Is the scenario:
you are not in fact Michael Manring but he does still exist in every capacity that he does now. instead YOU are a HUGE Michael Manring fan who has volunteered to work the merchandise table at a large BASS centric event. i.e.: Bass Quake, Bass up, Bozeman Bass bash… etc… every bassist in existence has their CD on the merchandise table. I come to your table and tell you, I don’t have long to live so this will be my very last CD purchase ever… and I can only afford ONE disc as a souvenir.
what sets MICHAEL MANRING apart from the other bassists in this world?
( I am not asking why you are better or anything like that, not at all trying to put you one the spot)
I just want to know what separates you from the crowd. what makes you different? and why should I choose your disc if it’s the last disc I will ever buy? please let me know if you choose NOT to answer this one as I will definitely respect you all the same however you choose to handle this question.
MM: Thanks for your question. I’m sorry to make you go to such lengths to get the answer you’re looking for! As I suppose you feared, I can think of a lot more important things for someone who hasn’t got long to live to do than buy my CD! But I’ll do my best to answer the question in the spirit I think you intended. I do feel I have a unique, personal style, but I firmly believe everyone does, so that’s not really saying much. As we’ve discussed before, I’m not big on making quantitative comparative judgments in the arts. One of the things I love about art is that’s it’s a place that allows us to get away from the one-dimensional, hierarchical kind of thinking that is so necessary in ordinary, everyday life. While we often try to make comparative judgments in music (the Grammy Awards, magazine polls, music competitions, etc.) and there is some limited sense in doing this, I believe that at its core music confounds our attempts to do so and compels us to open our minds to a deeper consciousness where those kinds of assessments have no real meaning. I guess if I was in the position you described I would do my best to explain what I feel are the important conceptual elements of each artist’s approach so that the theoretical buyer could make up his or her own mind about which CD would be most fulfilling at this critical point in their life. I suppose of my own music I would say that my approach to bass comes from an attempt to search for meaning and beauty in the particular circumstances in which I live and that I use kind of an experimental, expansive-ist approach on the bass to do this. I would probably mention that my background was in jazz, pop, folk and Western art music and I try to use what I learned from those traditions to be part of a what I hope will be a developing movement toward a cultural zeitgeist that adequately reflects and perhaps even contributes to the improvement of the extraordinary nature of our times. Barring that I’d just say my stuff is probably the weirdest on the table!
GBC: there were possibly one or two more questions later… but the interview was lost from my emails due to a PC crash… at that same time what I had saved on my blog at Extendedrangebassist.com also went down due to a server crash! UGH I just wished to put this up as I think the world of Michael. it was an honor to interview him via email. and I think his answers are fresh inspiring and I felt it was STILL worth sharing!
SPECIAL THANKS to Michael for being the one to dig these questions up from his email!
since this interview actually took place: Michael released Soliloquy…
BUY it!!! http://cdbaby.com/cd/manthing
it will change your life!