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.
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