david parsons

“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” It was the Grateful Dead who sang that line, but it’s David Parsons who has actually lived it. Starting as a young jazz drummer in New Zealand, Parsons’ career has taken a circuitous route which has seen him become an electronic music pioneer, and then a globetrotting world music producer, recording the award-winning 17-CD series The Music Of Islam (19907-2) for Celestial Harmonies, as well as ground-breaking projects in Cambodia (19902), Armenia (19909-2), Vietnam (19903-2), Indonesia (19905-2)and the Himalayas (17074-2, 17079-2, 13132-2).

His unusual journey began when Parsons was 19. It was the early 60s, and the young, self-taught drummer started playing professionally. His first musical hero was Joe Morello, the gifted drummer in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. But after a few years, Parsons tired of the drummer’s lot—it wasn’t just the jokes about “drummers hanging out with musicians”; Parsons wanted to play a melodic instrument. He cast about for a suitable instrument, but without success. “It’s an effort to learn an instrument if you don’t have a passion for it,” Parsons points out. “I actually almost gave up music for scuba diving at that time.” But then he came across an unexpected detour: an early visit to New Zealand by the legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.

In the days before the Beatles, Shankar’s concerts outside India were usually attended largely by expatriate Indians. The New Zealand concert, Parsons recalls, was probably in 1965, just before the Beatles/sitar explosion, and barely attended at all—“the hall was half empty, just the local Indians and me.” Parsons had heard that Indian drummers, like Shankar’s tabla player Alla Rakha, were great, but he had never seen or heard a sitar before. “It was,” he says, “love at first sight. This was what I was looking for.” Parsons bought a sitar and began to teach himself, and over the course of the next seven years, he studiously developed a lot of bad habits. “I remember when I finally went to India to study, they just rolled about on the floor laughing. I spent most of my time there unlearning what I’d taught myself.”

It was while he was in India in 1975, studying proper sitar technique with Krishna Chakravarty, that David Parsons heard the other sound that would change his life. Perhaps it was poetic justice that the man who heard sitar music in New Zealand would now hear synthesizer music in India; in any event, that’s how it happened. “Kay (David’s wife, who figures later in this story too) and I were in our house in India, and it was 44 or 45 degrees Celsius (about 111 degrees Fahrenheit)—it was like sitting in an oven. We’d put on Wendy Carlos’s record Sonic Seasonings, especially the one called Winter, with all those icy sounds and wolf calls, and it kept us cool.” At least figuratively. When he returned to New Zealand, Parsons bought a Roland synthesizer. Between Carlos’s sonic inspiration and the nearby sounds of a stream and birds, Parsons soon got the idea to mix the electronic and natural sounds together. And he began to mix in the sounds of his sitar as well. He was using a tape deck that had a so-called 'bounce' function: it allowed one track of music to be re-recorded on the tape deck’s second track, with new material added on top, and then 'bounced' back to its original track with yet another layer of sound on top. It was a simple way to build up layers of music (and of tape hiss), but, as Parsons admits, he didn’t have a grand scheme in mind. “I was just guessing; one track suggested another. I didn’t go into it with any pre-conceived notion.”

David Parsons had given up his advertising job in 1974 in order to go to India to study, and after returning to New Zealand in late 1975 he went to work for the National Film Library. To this day he continues to compose music for films and television, but even his early homemade tapes had an almost cinematic sweep. In 1980, he put some of those homemade tape pieces on a cassette, and called it Sounds of the Mothership (17013-2). What happened next is something that Parsons is still trying to figure out almost a quarter century later. “Somehow a bookshop in Los Angeles heard of me, and they wrote to a local distributor who wanted to put my music out, and they requested 10 cassettes.” One of those cassettes was purchased by a man named Ethan Edgecombe, who was running a fledgling New Age music label called Fortuna Records. Not knowing anything about David Parsons other than that he lived in New Zealand, Edgecombe began calling around New Zealand—and found him.

With an American label now interested in his music, Parsons moved up to the next generation of synthesizers. “They were evolving into something much more musical,” he says. They were now polyphonic—capable of playing chords instead of a series of single notes. Inspired by the new technology, Parsons created his second recording, Tibetan Plateau (17013-2). “I remember turning on my Korg synthesizer one night around 11 pm, and playing two chords. An hour and a half later, I was finished.” Parsons’ lack of classical training and his intuitive approach gave him pause: “I still couldn’t believe people wanted this,” he says—but in fact they did want it. Although he never studied Western harmony in any formal way, he was able to draw on an equally profound tradition of music: North Indian classical music. Parsons likens his early records to the alap, the long, slow introduction of an Indian raga performance, where the musician will gradually unfold the notes of the raga scale, exploring the emotional hues of the various notes and phrases. “The ideas and feelings of alap were the main inspiration,” he says. “It was about bathing in the sound.”

Even during the rise of New Age music in the 1980s, David Parsons stood apart. There was, he acknowledges, a darker side to his music, a suggestion of hidden depths that did in fact echo the sounds of the deep night ragas of India. His double album Yatra (18072-2), whose title means 'journey' in Sanskrit, was a journey through India—an inner journey, as he puts it, although it has some moments that are literally quite nocturnal. “Some of the sound effects were basically done by me leaping off a train in the middle of the night with the tape recorder going.” And so the musical cries of vendors hawking their wares in the train stations became part of the aural diary Parsons created.

In 1989, his road took another abrupt turn, although in retrospect, one can see that the composer of Tibetan Plateau (17013-2) and the later Himalaya (17059-2) was simply going back to the well: with his wife Kay, he went to visit with a group of Tibetan monks living in exile in northern India, staying with them off and on for about three months. He brought along a portable digital recorder, “just for inspiration.” After recording bits and pieces of the chanting and the deep, rumbling horns of the monks in the Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery, Parsons decided to ask permission to record some complete ceremonies. By this time, Fortuna Records' distribution had been taken over by Celestial Harmonies, whose executive producer, Eckart Rahn, had already shown an interest in traditional Asian music. “I thought, maybe I can record some of this and see if Eckart wants it,” Parsons recalls. “The monks didn’t believe anyone would want it, but they let me record anyway. Well, Eckart released it, it did very well, and we ended up doing three CDs with them.” In fact, portions of the the first volume, Sacred Ceremonies: Ritual Music of Tibetan Buddhism (17074-2), were used by directors Oliver Stone in his film Heaven & Earth and Bernardo Bertolucci in Little Buddha. It was an auspicious beginning for what would become a second career for David Parsons.

In 1992, the Parsons family—David, Kay, and 6-month old Anna—went off to Cambodia to record the 3 volume Music of Cambodia (19902-2) series for Celestial Harmonies. Each of them had specific duties which would help the team through a nearly 5-year tour of the Islamic world, South and Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus Mountains. David produced the recordings, Kay took the photographs, and Anna was Public Relations. “Everywhere we went,” David Parsons recalls, “people just adored children; it was part of the culture. If you have a two- or three-year-old daughter, you’re in. There’s no suspicion.” Quite the opposite, as the Parsons parents found. In Cambodia, where David was recording the villagers around the famed temple complex of Angkor Wat, Anna would regularly be taken by the local women, and her bemused parents would find her hours later in a village home surrounded by toys. In Cairo, while recording a volume for the large-scale Music of Islam (19907-2) collection, Parsons recounts a day when the family was in the street when a police car came by. “A policeman got out of the car, scooped up Anna, who was two at the time, and they took off with their lights and siren blasting. We could hear them going around the block, and they came up right behind us again, got out, gave her back to us, and went off. They just wanted to give her a ride in the police car, apparently.”

The Cambodian recordings were done far from most Western amenities, and in a part of the world still reeling from internal civil war. Gunfire, distant but audible, was an occasional reminder of the country’s grim recent past. But Angkor Wat and the otherwise unknown '9-gong gamelan' (13074-2) music played by the local farmers were enduring reminders of the country’s glittering medieval past. David Parsons was no more a trained musicologist than he was a composer, but again, his instincts and his ears served him well.

With the Cambodian project complete, Eckart Rahn of Celestial Harmonies began asking if the Parsons mobile recording team would make a few recordings over the next few years. Rahn had hoped to make a series of “politically incorrect” recordings—featuring the music of Vietnam, Iran, and Libya. Getting into Libya would prove an elusive goal; but the other two would become part of the Parsons/Celestial Harmonies catalogue. The Music of Vietnam (19903-2) seemed like a natural progression after the Cambodian project, but the two neighbors have starkly different musical traditions, a fact made clear by the three volumes of folk and imperial court music that Parsons produced. As for Iran, it became simply one stop in an epic journey through the Islamic world, a belt of countries girding the world from Morocco to Indonesia. The Music of Islam (19907-2), originally slated to be a 6-volume set, grew into a remarkable 17-volume document that is quite possibly the definitive collection of music from the Islamic world.

Of course, even here there were detours: Iraq proved impossible to enter, but many leading Iraqi musicians were living in exile in Qatar. Following the route the United States Army would take in 2003, Parsons went to Doha, Qatar, to record the Iraqi (13143-2) volume of The Music of Islam (19907-2). And while they were in the Middle East, Eckart Rahn asked if Parsons would be willing to take a side trip to Armenia, to record the choral music of the Armenian church. Again, the results exceeded expectation. Visiting both Armenia proper and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Parsons stayed for four months and made an extraordinary series of recordings of choral music, medieval songs, instrumental works from the folk and classical traditions, and contemporary folk songs from the oldest Christian country in the world.

There is an old Italian saying: I viaggi formano la gioventu—traveling forms youth. It seems to work well for older folks too. “Travel is even more inspiring than music,” David Parsons asserts. “It’s the best thing anyone can do, because it opens your eyes to other people’s cultures; it promotes so much understanding. In Iran, the people there wouldn’t let us pay for anything; we had the best time. And you realize, there’s no Evil Empire. Evil regimes, maybe, but people everywhere want the same things: a safe home for their children, enough food and water.”

After nearly five years of traveling, including 11 months on the road in one year, the Parsons family returned to New Zealand in 1997. Parsons finally returned to his own music. Consciously, he says, his approach hadn’t changed. He was still working intuitively, still picking up the sitar when he needed a burst of inspiration. But subconsciously, he suspects a profound influence. “I couldn’t believe the precision of the rhythms we heard while we were traveling,” he says. “So my approach didn’t change, but the materials and ideas did.” Drawing on the melodies and instruments he had recorded around the Eastern Hemisphere, Parsons set to work on a project that would bring the amazing experience of the world’s ancient acoustic traditions into an electronic setting. It would become the record Ngaio Gamelan (13171-2).

Using samples of his hours of recordings of instruments like the Armenian duduk (an oboe made of apricot wood), the Iranian kemanche (a spike fiddle), and the sarangi (the Indian box cello), Parsons created a sound world that was enriched by his years of travel. The trademark darkness that colored his prior recordings was leavened somewhat by the brilliant chimes of the Indonesian gamelan, the metal percussion orchestras of Java (13134-2) and Bali (19905-2). “I knew the duduk would fit with the Balinese gamelan,” he says. But the practicalities of bringing those two tunings and traditions together would have been difficult to do without electronics. After spending so much time with some of the world’s great acoustic traditions, Parsons says, “it was hard to warm up to synthesizers again. But if you use them for what they can do, not what they can’t do, it works out. The synthesizer is good at aural landscapes and sound sculptingcreating sounds you’ve never heard before.” Since Balinese gamelans are tuned to specific scales, Parsons had to play the sounds into his sampler and then 'temper' the sampled sounds to fit into the scale needed for the Ngaio Gamelan (13171-2) material.

Parsons’ next two albums brought him full circle. Shaman (13181-2) was an electronic imagining of a gathering of mystics, done at a time when Parsons was again looking for a change in his music. Shaman (13181-2) followed up on the idea of creating sounds that have never been heard before. Instead of being satisfied with the sounds that are pre-programmed into all electronic keyboards, Parsons has followed in the footsteps of Wendy Carlos, another pioneer in programming keyboards to make sounds they weren’t necessarily built to make. “I reprogram every piece of equipment I get,” Parsons explains. “Maybe 60% or more of the music is in the programming rather than the execution.” On the double album Parikrama (14202-2), he returned, musically at least, to the Himalayas, mixing his sitar and sampled Buddhist chant with some of his deepest, darkest electronic music yet.

Parsons’ current projects show the range of his musical palette. The piece Dhauladhar Dreaming, (CD 1, track 4), comes from a recording of the same name, which is quite rhythmicParsons surprised even himself by using a drum machine along with Indian percussion. On it, he plays the Indian esraj, a fretted cello, and the South Indian vina, an instrument that looks vaguely like a sitar, as he evokes the Dhauladhar range of mountains, the first of the Himalayan ranges one reaches heading north from Delhi and the current home of the Dalai Lama. Another project, called Inner Places, was unexpectedly inspired by the computer games Myst and Exile, and by the ambient music that accompanies them. “It transports you to another place,” he says, “only these are places of the mind.” And the third is called Atma Yatra, or Soul Journey, which Parsons winningly describes as a darker cousin of Ngaio Gamelan (13171-2).

David Parsons continues to live in New Zealand (or Middle Earth, as he has taken to calling it since his homeland became the cinematic home for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), and still writes music for television and film. But his experiences traveling through Central Asia have given Parsons new insight into his own music. The darkness that has remained a defining element of his sound to this day is, he says, “not darkness, really. It's more like a sense of awe. You go to the Himalayas and you hear the rumble of the ice, and the low long horns of the monastery. Tibetan Buddhism has that darkness: it’s not evil, it’s the awesome power of the universe, the sound of Om. That’s the darkness I’m drawn to.”

February 2004
John Schaefer (based on conversations with David Parsons)
New Sounds
WNYC-FM, New York City