Ruth Roland and I would get together and play mostly Scandinavian music together, especially music by a glorious 5-fiddle group from Finland called JPP. One day in the fall of 2000, Ruth said to me "Why don't we play YOUR music?"
With that encouragement, the early incarnation of Water Bear was born. We called ourselves "Open Strings" and performed as a duo. Around the same time I had the idea of creating music to honor people based on their names, and came up with the scheme to map the alphabet to pitches on the violin. I started writing melodies that began with the pitches for the letters in a name, starting with "Ann" - a short one, I figured I couldn't get into too much trouble. Once I got going, the melodies for various names just seemed to flow from me, and in short order I had composed 20 Name Music pieces, with melody and harmony lines. I was also taking composition lessons with Hank Roberts at the time, and of course just loved his playing, so I asked him to join Ruth and me and record the Name Music pieces.
We recorded at REP Studio in Ithaca, and Tim Reppert was the recording, mixing, and sound engineer. He seemed to really like our music, which I appreciated hearing. I saw an acoustic bass in the corner, and one day I asked him if that was his bass, and did he play. Yes, and so I asked him to play on "Jill", a commissioned piece. He sounded great, so then our group was four strong string players. My own JPP dream come true!
Hank's story of our origin: "Water Bear lies dormant and is born as grey haired lake with song heart and a duo adventure with sturdy bear, calls out to spirit song of rainbow haired poetic momma of little talker, and eccentric soul-cello dancer. Big a maraca brings in some serious bottom, works the starship console, and expresses yoda… and all the while, the avocado circus inspires and nourishes us."
In 2002 Hank left Water Bear to pursue his own projects, and soon Chris White, cello, and Nate Richardson, guitar joined the line-up, with Bill Cowdery, piano, completing the ensemble. When Ruth moved to Baton Rouge, a succession of violinists named Ben (Ben Smith and Ben Blechman) fulfilled the signature two violin string section we craved, with Ben Blechman recording the Live at the Congo CD with us.
In 2022 I am still composing and recording Name Music pieces at a pretty steady clip, although I’ve also been working on four French horns and piano arrangements of Celebration of the Deep and Mountains Swimming. Every so often, Water Bear members get together and play, which is always a deep joy.
About Mer (Pantaleoni) Boel
The name “Pantaleoni” has always been associated with music for me, ever since I came to Oneonta as a young teacher/musician and met the multi-talented Pantaleoni family. Hewitt, the father, was a member of SUNY Oneonta’s Music Department faculty, where he pioneered studies in ethnomusicology. Mrs. Patricia Pantaleoni was (and still is) an extraordinarily talented concert pianist and chamber musician, and she is also one of Oneonta’s most respected attorneys, practicing law with one of her daughters, Lucy Bernier, who is also one of Oneonta’s two City Court Judges.
It was no surprise that the Pantaleoni children would inherit the intelligence and musical flair of their parents, but it is not always easy to predict what young people will do with the talents they have been given. Would the children follow the example of their parents? I was very pleased to have the chance to talk with one of Pantaleoni children, Mer (Mary) Pantaleoni Boel, now grown with a family and career of her own. Mer’s childhood musical experiences in Oneonta reminded me how rich our community is in creative opportunities and how important that can be for children.
Here is Mer (Pantaleoni) Boels’ story:
Growing up in Music
Growing up in a musical family was great for me. My father had wide-ranging interests, from Ghanaian drumming and dancing to Balinese Gamelan, folk guitar, and madrigal singing. My mother, trained as a classical pianist as well as playing by ear ever since she was a child, played in various groups in Oneonta. We had two pianos at our house, in separate rooms, and I have memories of playing underneath each of them while listening to the music, as well as inventing all sorts of pieces on them. My siblings are all musical as well, and we would play musical imitation games and sang madrigals together after dinner, led by my father, who taught us our parts by ear. Our house was always full of music, with my brother Tim playing drums, singing, and leading the West Kortright Center choir, and sister Maud playing the piano and singing, me playing the violin, my sister Lucy the flute, and my sister Alice the ukelele, then banjo, then bass & voice.
I relished singing in chorus first at Bugbee, then at Oneonta High, and took violin lessons with local violinist Byron Green, where I developed the joy of singing while playing the violin so that I could perform both parts in the duets in my method book all by myself. I danced and drummed in my father’s African drumming group. As a senior in high school I played in the Catskill Symphony Orchestra, and that was a big treat being surrounded by all the wonderful sounds of the orchestral instruments. For three years I took up the 12-string guitar, and became a folk-singer; for one summer I played recorder, during another semester and summer I played viola da gamba. The year I attended Phillips Exeter my violin teacher Carol Block gave me a book of traditional Irish fiddle tunes, which I quickly set about memorizing.
College in NYC
When I enrolled at City College in New York, it was as a jazz vocal major, but I also played violin in several ensembles, including a string quartet led by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and studied jazz violin with Matt Glaser. I studied jazz theory and arranging, and received both jazz and classical vocal training. However, when I graduated, it was not immediately clear to me how to make a living with the skills I had. I tried auditioning as a jingle
singer and backup singer, and did gigs backing up a vocalist, singing as a church choir soloist, etc. But this was in New York City in the early 80s, and it was too discouraging to me to get rejected routinely, and the City was a tough place to live then – lots of crime and tensions.
Second Career Idea
So I put my idea of having a musical career aside and went to get a degree in computer science. I ended up going to Binghamton University, and my studies there prepared me very well for work as a programmer, systems designer, and project manager. However I still continued music on the side, with the violin as my primary instrument. I played in a bluegrass band, and soon found myself writing lots of fiddle tunes. In fact, one of these tunes, The Wild One, has appeared on several CDs of contra dance bands, and every so often I get a royalty check in the mail.
Back to Music!
In 1999 I felt an intense desire to put much more of my attention towards music, and I began to seriously try to compose pieces, initially for solo violin, mostly fiddle tunes, but also some pieces for violin and voice; I would improvise vocally over the violin lines I was playing. I took private composition lessons and wrote a couple of pieces for handbell choir, which were premiered in Ithaca in 2000/2001. Gradually I built up complexity in what I wanted to compose, in what I wanted to hear, and I spent more and more time on music. I quit my computer job for a bit to concentrate on my string group Water Bear (initially a trio: two violins and cello), and we released our first CD in 2001. However, it is a lot of pressure to try to make it as a performing group, and my saved up funds were quickly being depleted. I contacted several likely record labels and distributors with materials, and didn’t receive any indications of market interest.
Both Careers at Once
So I returned to my “day job” but mostly now it is part-time and consists of consulting to programming companies, and I get to spend a fair amount of time composing pieces for my string group Water Bear (somewhat flexible instrumentation), writing string arrangements for local roots-rock groups CDs (John Brown’s Body, Sim Redmond Band, Crow Greenspun), scoring plays and a film, plus writing pieces for other chamber groups, and even string and chamber orchestra. The orchestral work has been a wonderful learning opportunity for me, since I never studied much about instrument ranges, strengths or weaknesses, and as a string player was a bit fuzzy about woodwinds and brass! Almost all of my compositions incorporate improvisation, even the orchestra pieces, and it is exciting to hear players in a symphony, many of whom are improvisers in other settings, play out in this arena.
For me, composing starts off being very much like improvising, no matter what instrument I try to do it on. I might be trying out ideas on the violin, the piano, an accordion, panpipes or a kalimba, but basically I’m just noodling, making things up. The actual sound is important to me, which is why I don’t often start off composing on the computer, although I use it extensively for development as well as checking my rhythms to see if I’ve notated what I intended! But often I start with a pattern that I can repeat, and if it is appealing to me, I want to sing over it, and often that is the starting point for me. Sometimes I have a structured idea for the shape of a piece, and I visualize it being played, and that is the entrance into the piece.
Once I have enough of it scribbled down on notepaper, I transfer what I have to my Sibelius software, and play it back with my Audigy Soundblaster sound card, using the Kontakt Player digitally sampled string sounds. Then I develop the piece further, usually over several days and weeks. The way I can tell if a piece needs more work or isn’t right is from a feeling I get in my gut, so I continue until my body feels comfortable with it while listening back. The next step is to hear it with live players, especially if the improvisation sections need particular instructions, I want to find out what sorts of playing the piece seems to inspire before I try to put any more definitions on it.
Sometimes I have the notes in the chord written out, but am not sure just what chord it is or what is the most useful to call it, until I meet with the group that will be playing the piece. Of course this is a luxury that I don’t always have! But I try to run it by some of my music friends to check how it will come across on the page.
Name Music Mapping System
I also invented a violin-centric pitch-to-alphabet mapping scheme in 2000 that allows me to spell out names in music, or even entire sentences. You might think that this would lead to a very abstract sort of sound, but I think it depends very much with the intention is. And always, I intend for my music to be uplifting, even if it goes through some trauma or sadness to get there. This scheme is very helpful to get me started on a piece with melodic or harmonic material; I use the pitches that spell out the name to indicate chords, bass notes, melody notes, or repeating patterns. I’ve gotten many commissions for these Name Music pieces over the years, and in fact this system has led to me being called “prolific”.
Importance of early involvement in music
I think all the sounds I heard growing up prepared me for being able to compose even though there was a 20-year gap when I felt like I wasn't doing much with music, compared to what I do now. Still I think my early upbringing in an eclectic musical household and the opportunities I had to participate in groups in Oneonta, like the Catskill Symphony, the high school choir, the High Street Boys, Sultans of Swing, all somehow contributed to the development of my musical brain, which is what I draw upon now. Also I’m very fortunate in having the support of another source of income while I develop the music… and it is building more and more.
What am I doing now?
One of the most satisfying recent composing I’ve done was for a collaboration with evolutionist David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University for a presentation entitled “Who Are We” for the Light in Winter Festival just this last January in Ithaca. David and I met and talked about how we might use music to illustrate evolutionary ideas about humans as a species, and after reading his book “Evolution for Everyone” and discussing it further with him and with Barbara Mink, the artistic director, I wrote three pieces based on our identities as individuals, what some of the characteristic traits are for how we relate in a community, and who we are in a larger, planetary sense. Each piece has written out melody and harmony lines, as well as sections with chord changes that we improvised over.
Last Saturday, I had the final recording session for a piece commissioned by a local man for his father. At the session, this man asked me to write and record another piece, this time for his mother. I’ve got the first draft done of a 5-6 minute piece for Cello Big Band that will be played at the New Directions Cello Festival this June in Ithaca. I’m big on pieces that involve
improvisation, because I think it is such fun, everyone should do it! A group of Octet Instruments (newviolinfamily.org) hopefully will play this year a composition called “Carleen Octet” I wrote for them, honoring their founder, Carleen Hutchinson, and featuring the bass overall as well as in the improvisation section. These instruments are all sized like violins, and the sound is quite striking – I am especially taken with how clear the lower voices become, which is what inspired the piece.
Ruth Roland and I are putting together string quartet versions of pieces that my group Water Bear has played, with lots of great written-out solos and counterpoint, but also with sections with chord symbols for the players to put forth their own ideas. We’ve got about 10 of these done so far, and are looking for publishers for them. One of these Name Music arrangements done by Ruth Roland, “Ann”, was played at the NYSSMA conference at SUCO this past November by the string orchestra, led by Cayenna Ponchione.
I’m also looking for ways to promote the recordings I’ve already done, for example through a TAXI membership, and music libraries, and finding ways to market the scoring for plays to other theatrical productions of the same play. It often comes down to a question of time, where to spend the time that I have to devote to music, and since I get so much joy from composing it is hard not to just compose as much as I can. Quite a juggling act, I think!
Mer Boel has already had success in finding groups to perform her music and use her compositions in many media. She helped her musical career grow by joining ASCAP, a performance rights society that will collect royalties for performances of her works. She has also joined TAXI ,www.taxi.com, an organization that helps unsigned bands, artists and songwriters get record deals, publishing deals and placement in films and TV shows. She has recorded her own CDs and owns her own master recordings. That’s great!
She might consider joining NARAS, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, because this group is a helpful source of industry information, and she should consider making better use of her membership with ASCAP, (www.ascap.com) an organization that can be a gold mine of industry information and contacts. To learn more about Mer Boel and to hear her music, visit her website!
The Name Music pieces of Water Bear are inspired by people's names, and the desire to honor people through music.
Mer Boel explains her composing process:
"Usually what happens is that I find myself thinking about a particular person, reflecting on the qualities they seem to have, both inner and outer qualities. I recall what makes the person laugh, what their vulnerabilities are, how they approach life, or perhaps I am struck by some recent events in their life. Maybe we've had a conversation that has resonated with me. I become curious to hear how the music for their name would sound, and that's it, I'm off and running.
"So I write out the pitches, in order, for the letters in the name, based on the correspondence system I developed where the alphabet fits the first position range on the violin. I play around on my violin with these pitches, trying out different rhythms, styles, and seeing if a particular direction feels right for this person. Usually I pluck my violin, but sometimes I use the bow also during this phase. What are the next parts of the melody for this name? Or should the name pitches be a sort of repeating ground motif? I see what inspirations come, and write them down in pencil (this is smarter than using pen, which I also sometimes do) on some music notation paper.
"Sometimes a whole section of melody will come to me as one piece, flowing very easily, and I have a sensation of knowing that this is right for the name, for the person. Other times I try several versions, and it takes a while to choose between them, or decide how to combine parts of one with parts of another. If I know more than one person with a particular name I'll be thinking/feeling about the qualities they have in common, sensing whether this music could fit them, describe them in some way.
"Once I have written the melody or repeating ground part, I usually work on the chord progression, or sometimes I work on a harmony line first. It seems that often the chords for the piece have been in my head while developing the melody, so it is more a matter of trying to figure out which chords I am hearing, and writing them down.
"I also take breaks, sometimes even for days or weeks, and work on other pieces. When I come back to playing the piece, I see how it feels: is it still right? What needs fixing? What am I hearing that I haven't gotten down on paper yet? Sometimes I play one line while singing the harmony, or I sing the melody and play the chords on the violin. Usually I enter the piece into a computer music notation program (I use Noteworthy Composer and Sibelius), and listen again to the harmonies.
"And then, I take the piece to our band rehearsal, and we play through it, improvise on it, and find ways to bring out the character of the music, the person. Once we are comfortable with the piece, we perform it for the recording, doing several takes. The performance includes improvisation of melodic material, solos over the chord progression, inventive ways to accompany the melody, adding textures and bowing sounds, and other ideas that occur to us in the moment we are playing. This performing/recording phase is very satisfying to me - it is the piece coming to life, the qualities of the name and the person being expressed musically. We don't do any overdubbing or re-recording, although sometimes the final recorded version uses sections of different takes strung together."
"Thank you so much for sending me Water Bear... very unique sound... a blend of classical, new age and avant-garde with a touch of jazz ;-)"
-Laney Goodman, host/producer of Women in Music, a nationally syndicated public radio show, February 2003.
"Well, it was certainly worth waiting for. Your CD is marvelously creative, musical, sensitive, clever, humorous and flawless. I enjoyed every cut which is really rare. The tunes are charming, the rhythms engaging and the counterpoint...I know I didn't teach you that. Congratulations. Thank you for sending me such an appealing gift. Thank you for producing such wonderful music."
-Stan Persky, former faculty of City College of NY, via email, February 2003.
"Water Bear's music is Joyful, Transporting and truly OUT THERE! What a pleasure to listen to Water Bear's Skinnydipping! It is like it's title... a dive into the glorious unknown of a cool deep musical pond and emerging at the surface with that exhilerating gasp of YES! when every molecule in your body is alive with sound and feeling. I love the diversity of sound on this CD. I am transported to different realms as I close my eyes, listen and allow myself to move. I highly recommend this music to anyone because it covers so many styles and sounds but it is always uniquely itself. WATERBEAR...a group unlike any string quartet you have ever experienced. Jump into Skinnydipping and float on the sound. "
-Ellen Booth Church, early childhood educator, August 2002.
"Water Bear is a string band and a string quartet, a new music ensemble and a folk music function, an improvising group and the presentation of a compositional modus. They sound like European folk musics, like Central and South American musics, like chamber or classical music, and like rural music from our own puddingstone of a country. Nevertheless, they sound like themselves."
-Ithaca Times, Bert Patterns, August, 2001
"Water Bear breaks the mold for string quartets: part classical, part jazz, part folk, they're in a class by themselves, making music that's as subtle as it is adventurous. Led by violinist Mer Boel, with Ruth Roland (violin), Hank Roberts (cello) and Tim Reppert (bass) completing the quartet, they're first-rate improvisors, top-shelf ensemble players and smart, sophisticated composers, creating music for laughing, listening, and (occasionally) dancing. It's a heady mix, filled with unlikely starts and stops, crossing borders from minimalist to reggae, folk to baroque, ambient to post-bop.
"Each of the 13 tunes here begins with a simple theme, matching the letters in a person's name to a series of notes on the scale; from there, as the row of tones determines the key, the composer writes the variations, and the players improvise their embellishments. It's the perfect middle ground between thinking and being, and playing live the band has created an incredible sense of ensemble, sympathy, synchronicity. They can sound as simple as a duo, or as complex as a sextet, capturing whatever the piece dictates: meditative or spirited, stately or syncopated, somber or lighthearted.
"On bass, Reppert keeps getting better, finding the harmonic beauty between the notes, while Roberts keeps reaching deeper, exploring the space between silence and sound, tranquility and restlessness. On violin, Roland adds classical perfection, blending beautifully with Boel, whose composing vision keeps getting sronger, richer, more singular. The songs sound like Medieval canons, like Swedish folk fiddling, like avant-jazz - but most of all, they sound fully human, lived in, listened to, beautifully timeless and perfectly of the moment."
-Kenny Berkowitz, Ithaca Times, August 21, 2002
"Much of the music composed by Water Bear, which in any given piece can sound like chamber or classical music, folk melodies or the music of the Americas, is based on a system called Name Music. The result is a rich weaving of tones and improvisation into musical compositions both passionate and expressive."
-Sally Grubb, Tompkins County Public Library