As two of Montana’s most well-known musicians, Philip Aaberg and Eric Funk’s respective careers as composers, performers and supporters of the arts have taken each of them around the world and to separate international acclaim and Emmy-winning performances.
What is a great coincidence of creative serendipity is that Aaberg and Funk both grew up on the Hi-Line, really just a few miles from each other, and they have been fast friends since they met playing in the Chester and Havre high school bands, which makes one wonder about the water up in that part of the state and its ability to foster musical genius.
Aaberg grew up as the son of Chester’s postmistress, a single mother who spotted her son’s talent early on. He began playing music at age 4. By the time he was 15, he traveled on the train 12 hours one-way every two weeks from Chester to Spokane, Wash., so that he could study with Margaret Saunders Ott, a Juilliard-trained pianist and teacher who was chair of the piano department at Whitworth College. He also played in a garage band and performed with symphonies around the state.
Aaberg won a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship to study music at Harvard. Meanwhile, Funk won scholarships to study piano in Portland, Ore. Following college, the two young professional musicians crisscrossed the country on their separate journeys, the two Montana friends often reconnecting and finding a creative touchstone and some hearty belly laughs.
Aaberg found fame as a composer and a keyboardist with some of the world’s most iconic musicians (that’s him playing keyboard on Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around and Fell in Love, for instance). His Windham Hill recordings earned him an international cult following. In 2002 he returned to Chester (where he can breathe better, he says) with his wife, Patty, and their son, Jake, to form Sweetgrass Music. There he records, composes, hosts a monthly public radio show (Of the West) and provides a home base for his bracing performance schedule. Together the Aabergs founded Arts Without Boundaries, a statewide nonprofit that provides music and arts lessons and deepens experiences in the arts for children in Montana communities. Last winter, MSU awarded Aaberg an honorary doctorate in music for his contributions to the Big Sky State.
Funk taught in colleges and community colleges in Oregon and Texas before returning to Montana in 1985. He joined MSU’s School of Music in 2002 and is an award-winning teacher of some of MSU’s most popular classes. He also is known worldwide as a composer, with more than 121 major works that have been played in concert halls throughout the world. He is also the creative force behind the Emmy-winning 11th and Grant with Eric Funk on MontanaPBS, which is called the “premiere outlet for musical performance in Montana.” One of Funk’s most frequent guests is his childhood friend, Philip Aaberg.
The two men have such a deep friendship that they can nearly finish each other’s sentences. Here is one of their recent conversations about Montana, music and creativity. ■
Q & A with Eric Funk and Philip Aaberg
Funk What was it like going from Chester to Harvard?
Aaberg (Today) every student graduating from our high school in Chester visits New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. When I entered Harvard, it was the first time I’d been east of the Mississippi. I remember leaning out my fourth floor window of Straus Hall in The Yard overlooking crazy Harvard Square of 1967 and laughing out loud for five minutes. I had great roommates who are still my friends. We spent a lot of time going to concerts and playing all kinds of music together. That really saved me, because it was tough academically at first, and there really is an Eastern aristocracy that was absolutely foreign to me, coming from the Western meritocracy.
I caught up eventually, but I missed the West with its clean air, long view, and trout streams so much that the first pair of shoes I bought were Justin ropers. I’ve worn cowboy boots ever since.
I immersed myself in performing music and was part of the first performance class in Harvard’s history, Leon Kirchner’s Chamber Music Performance and Analysis class. Boston of the late ’60s and early ’70s was a phenomenal place to be for the breadth and depth of music. The clubs and concert halls of the region were more my classroom than the rows of chairs in the stuffy music building, although I was lucky to have two great teachers in the faculty and many good friends among the graduate students. One of them introduced me to Mrs. James B. Munn, who invited pianists on scholarship to share the two grand pianos and the huge music library in her house across from Radcliffe. It was an oasis, and I was very lucky to know her. It takes a lot of help to stand alone!
Funk Do you wonder what your career and life would have been like if you hadn’t moved back? Have you had any regrets for making the choice that you and your wife, Patty, did?
Aaberg When we moved back to Montana, I thought I’d probably work less, fish more. But because Patty is so creative and adventuresome in running our businesses, I have almost more work than I can handle, and it’s all good!
Right now there are many, many musicians struggling, even languishing in New York, L.A. and Nashville, hoping for their “big break.” It’s true that to be better, you have to play with people who are better than you, and sometimes that means leaving home. But, I see more musicians coming back to Montana, more staying here. The orchestras, the professional chamber music groups, the great jazz musicians, home-grown public radio and TV, 11th and Grant, all have elevated music in Montana. We can do more to appreciate what we have by encouraging musicians economically. If all of those great ones waiting tables and driving cabs moved to smaller towns to enrich the whole world with their gifts, who knows what wonderful music and theater and art we’d all enjoy right here in our own towns?
Funk With all of your experiences in performing music and composing at a very high level, you chose to return to Chester to raise your son.
Aaberg Much of what I do as a composer and performer is solitary. I practice the piano alone, I compose alone, and the less time I have to deal with traffic and distractions, the better. I get more done here.
Our son is having much the kind of childhood I had, and Patty and I both appreciate that. We travel together a lot, and that helps expand his world.
In December, I released our fastest-selling CD yet, got an honorary doctorate from my beloved MSU and had my own Christmas concert on PBS. Soon, a DVD and CD will be released that I made with musicians who have toured with Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman. Next week, I’ll get on a plane to tour with my trio, Three Part Invention, whose other members are Tracy Silverman, the world’s greatest electric violinist, and Mike Block, who plays cello in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and is an innovator in his own right. We may even cast a line on a spring creek. Tell me, what could be better?
Funk Where did the idea for Arts Without Boundaries come from?
Aaberg When we told them we were moving back, some of our California friends said, “Oh, retreating to Montana, huh?” I guess that could be the case for some, but for us, it was consciously about becoming more involved in community in a place where that can be managed. For example, I’ve done workshops and concerts in the schools for 36 years, and although these events were often not organized very well, we kept doing them because we saw a national need to support the arts in public schools. It was Patty’s idea to start Arts Without Boundaries, and she also named it. We were then able to raise funds to help schools bring in a lot of great musicians throughout the country. Darell Tunnicliff of Billings and I were on another board and when we moved to Montana, he got very excited about the idea, and AWB has expanded a lot in the state, providing after-school lessons, art and poetry classes, and instruments. We’ve brought stellar musicians to Montana and we’ll keep doing that. I’ve been so lucky to be involved in a lot of great projects, from the Ozark Club revival in Great Falls, to the Metis heritage concerts. Montana really is a place rich in lost and sleeping traditions that are just waiting for someone to say, “Let’s DO that!”
Read Phil Aaberg’s inspirational charge to MSU’s December, 2013 graduates. Aaberg received an honorary doctorate in music at the ceremonies.
Thank you Dr. Cruzado, dear friends and colleagues. Thank you. The last time I was on this stage was with the Elvin Bishop Band….2 guitars, bass and drums, and keyboards. You might think it would be overwhelming, to be up here all alone without a band. But I’m not. You, my fellow commencers, are MY BAND! And YOU, my friends and family are my band. You, my teachers, are my band. And you, who have passed on into the cloud of witnesses who inform and watch over all of this, ARE MY BAND.
My grandparents, Peter and Elizabeth Kuhry took my brother and me into their home when our father left. They helped raise me from the age of 2. They moved to Montana a hundred years ago. My grandfather spoke 4 languages, yet he had to move his 5 children and his wife into what was known as the Poor House, in Chester, when he couldn’t get work. Every county in Montana had shelter for people who were down on their luck. My mother, Helen Ann, could not finish college because of her family’s poverty, but was one of the smartest people I know, head of the state genealogy society and a fierce bridge player, post master for years in Chester. My Band helps people out. We don’t look down on those who need help. We aren’t ashamed to ask for help when we need it.
It takes a LOT of help, even with “all the rights and privileges” that come with an MSU degree. But there is no App for this life. It takes a lot of help. I could not do what I do without my wife, Patty. And my 12-year-old son, Jake, who keeps me moving. My sons Sean, Mike, and Dan. And my brother, Steve, the world’s best plains paleo-ethno-botanist, who attended MSU and graduated from Cal Berkeley. I would slow to a stop without my friends and family.
There is no App for this life. It takes a lot of help. I share this honor with the MSU Music Department, past, present, and future. When I was in high school, I attended the summer chamber music camps at MSU, and rehearsed in the sheep shearing Quonset huts, and the tiny wooden building that was the music department’s home. Charles Paine and Henry Campbell, MSU faculty pianists helped me a lot. Henry is still teaching 7 days a week in Bozeman at age 87. Music is for life. MSU music has played a powerful role in Montana’s culture, and in that of the world. What would we do without music? My band, think about that when you download music for free, when you ask a musician to play for free. You, MY BAND, are not mere consumers, you encourage the musicians of the future by honoring their profession.
There is no App for this life. Not on your smart phone. Sometimes the distance between point A and B is not a straight line. This is the first college graduation gown I’ve worn. At Harvard, many of us refused to wear the cap and gown, because we were protesting our school’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Sometimes I think this was not the best time to be in college. But because that time in history left a lot of us up in the air, I did not have a blueprint for my future…and in many ways that prepared me for the reality of my life….and the reality is, that THERE IS NO APP FOR THIS, AND THERE NEVER WILL BE.
Why? Because there has never been another person in the history of the world like you. And there NEVER will be. You are not a cliché. You are not a stereotype. In the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. we read that a Stereotype: is A metal printing plate cast from a matrix that is molded from a raised printing surface, such as type. And that Cliché: is from the French and is imitative of the sound made when the matrix is dropped into the molten metal to make a stereotype plate. For you and me, there is no matrix, there is no app.
I’m on the state Tourism Advisory Council, and one of Montana tourism’s slogans is “Get Lost in Montana”. I recommend that! To find yourself, be fearless…. leave the path that others may have planned for you.
We’re here to find out who we are. You are not a stereotype. So, my band, as we commence together, I encourage you to do your best. Be happy. Find out who you are..
Now I have 2 short tunes to play for you. You’ll recognize the first one, and the second is called “Sleighed”. Thank you all very much.