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The Creative & Spiritual Process with Ike Sturm | Everyday Spirituality | connect.faith
A conversation with Ike Sturm – highlighting the creative and spiritual process he embraced as he composed “Let the River Flow.”
Every day Spirituality with Ike Sturm
[00:00:00] This is Everyday Spirituality,
[00:00:03] a podcast where we explore the stories of people whose spiritual practices fill them up for the journey of everyday life. I’m Pastor Debbie Bronkema, leader of an online community called connect.faith
[00:00:17] where creativity, spirituality, and justice meet. Music and production by Evan Closser.
[00:00:27] Debbie Bronkema: This is Everyday Spirituality with connect.faith. I’m Debbie Bronkema and I’m here today with Ike Sturm. Ike is our connect.faith resident who’s been involved with this project since the beginning. He’s known beyond our ministry as a fantastic jazz musician, bassist, teacher,
[00:00:47] group leader, community builder, and composer.
[00:00:51] As well as being a husband, a dad and a great friend. So, welcome!
[00:00:57] Ike Sturm: Thanks Debbie, great to be here!
[00:00:59] Debbie Bronkema: It’s great to have you. So the reason I particularly wanted you to be with me here today is to talk about this piece of music that you’ve been writing and have just finished called "Let The River Flow" and all about your process and the creativity and spirituality that kind of came together in that project.
[00:01:18] So could you just start by telling people what it is?
[00:01:23] Ike Sturm: Yeah! I have this wish to just hand over the entire process or piece, because it’s hard to describe everything. All the elements and all the pieces that make it up. But, I think what comes to mind for me first is that I was really fortunate that about a little less than a year ago, a friend of mine named Adam Waite who’s out at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, he had talked about possibly doing a jazz mass piece that I had written years ago. And I was excited about doing that. But he kind of took it one step further and said, "I think that in this time of so much uncertainty and change and everything that we’ve been experiencing in our world, that we need a new piece that sort of honors where we are right now." And so he asked me to write a piece for strings and choir and my band. Out there it ended up being about 120 people that were performing. It was incredible. I got so excited and that timing was really interesting because I had chosen to resign from my St. Peter’s job that I had done for 17 years.
[00:02:24] And I had a long kind of time of discerning if that was the right move for me to make. And I eventually realized that was where I wanted to go. And as sort of an amazing affirmation, about two days after it, not about, it was exactly two days after I resigned, I got this amazing commission from Adam out in Denver and it was just incredible timing.
[00:02:46] And, and for me really felt like, "Okay, this is where things are moving and flowing." Early on I spoke with you about it, Debbie, to tell you what we were doing. And we started a brainstorm about what this might look like as kind of a collaboration.
[00:03:00] I knew right away that I wanted to engage my friend Chanda Rule to write the text because Chanda is amazing. And I feel like when Chanda is involved, I just know what to do in terms of writing music. The text just tells me exactly what I need to know. And so I pushed early on to engage Chanda and they were very open about that.
[00:03:22] And I think they didn’t quite know where the text was gonna go, but I did. I mean, I couldn’t have known exactly where it was gonna go, but I knew Chanda would do a great job. And so we engaged her as part of the process. She wrote a gorgeous text and I entered into the music and wrote the music for four months of really intense writing from January to April.
[00:03:42] And we just premiered the piece a month ago or so.
[00:03:44] Debbie Bronkema: Amazing. And there is, you said, 120 musicians. What does that include?
[00:03:50] What does that mean?
[00:03:52] Ike Sturm: Yes. 74 Kazoos and, uh, yeah, that’ll be the next one. But no, they have an 80-100 voice choir that’s out in Denver. And so that was gonna be the core group of this piece. And then they also had twenty string players from the Colorado Symphony that played, and it was such a wonderful group. And then I brought a few of my favorite musicians out to be part of it. My dear friend, Jesse Lewis, who’s part of our Endless Field band and some other really good friends that made the trip.
[00:04:22] So it was really, really fun. But, yeah, such an adventure hearing that all come together.
[00:04:29] Debbie Bronkema: Yeah. That must have been quite a moment. Hearing everybody play together, what you had spent these months writing. So how did you do it? How did you start?
[00:04:40] Ike Sturm: Yeah, yeah. Well there were a lot of question marks and I think looking back on it,
[00:04:45] I think that it would’ve been much easier had we taken a more traditional approach. Grabbing an existing text. Which is, I think, what they were thinking about. You know, you could grab any number of incredible historic, beautiful poems or texts and write a certain amount of movements, or a full piece and hand it to them. And everything’s all done. And Adam actually laughed when I sent him the final piece, he said, "Boy, you didn’t take the easy way out on this one!" Because I think he thought as a jazz player, that we would create some improvised sections and more might be left up to the imagination. Or less writing would’ve been done.
[00:05:20] And I think for me as a jazz musician, I saw the challenge of, "I wanna do it. I really want to go all in and write it the way I’m imagining and kind of learn from the process myself." But early on, I think that the easy way out would’ve been to just decide what we were gonna do and hand them something and be done with.
[00:05:39] And I think as soon as I brought Chanda in on it, I knew what I was doing in terms of the way Chanda creates. And I should say, the way she welcomes community. Early on, I said something to Chanda about creating community. And she goes, "Oh, you don’t create community. You experience it or you welcome it."
[00:05:56] And I just thought, "Yeah, that’s right. That is what I’ve experienced." Not only living in community, but also with Chanda. The way that she kind of holds those situations. And so we started to talk. We had like a weekly meeting for several months. We started talking about music and different writing and we kind of set up this process. And Chanda and I think it would probably drive some people absolutely bananas because we both think very generally.
[00:06:21] And we think in really broad strokes and big picture type of ideas. And I can just imagine some business executives sitting down and just pulling their hair out. Like, "What are these guys talking about?" Or, "What are they doing?" But I think for Chanda and I, I really need that period of imagining and letting things kind of percolate or marinate.
[00:06:39] I remember we had this one conversation. I was getting my base repaired and I was in Dumbo in Brooklyn. And just out on the street, like with my bass and it was like this very uncomfortable, funny spot where I was waiting, but I was so curious about what we were talking about. You know, Chanda’s in Vienna so with the time difference, that was when we could connect. And we started to talk. Somehow something came up about a river. And we started to talk about a process that would involve the choir in a collaborative kind of way. Like a listening type of way. And when I told Adam the director about this, he goes, "Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna work."
[00:07:15] You know, because this is not the way you do projects like this. Someone comes in and writes something and hands it off. And as I said, we knew that we weren’t gonna do it that way. I went out in person and met the choir and did this retreat where we listened and played some music together.
[00:07:31] Basically got to know each other a little bit more. And we did this sort of listening process as a group. I sort of let them know what I was doing. What my process looked like. And this idea of a river ended up coming up, you know, as Chanda and I had spoken. And so I started to design what this piece would look like and what the process would be as I set up my January to April window. I decided that every morning I would go to the river near my house, which is the Croton river, and just set aside some time just to listen. And I did some meditating, but mainly for me, it was just time to just kind of sit there and take it in and take in this beautiful place.
[00:08:11] It’s a really special, very small place. And I get really moved by the texture of the kind of visual and also the sonic texture of the river. I hear a lot of things in that and it relaxes me. It helps me feel at ease and it also gives me a grander perspective on, in this case, on a music project.
[00:08:34] None of this is conscious really. It’s just all, like, I’m just sort of sitting there with all of it and I make sense of it in hindsight, but in the moment, it’s just like, it’s just a moment. I loved having that daily practice of like every morning I would go there and just listen.
[00:08:49] And sometimes it was winter, so it’s really cold. So sometimes it would be, you know, 10 minutes or something and sometimes it’d be quite a bit longer. But I’d always head down there every morning. And so anyways, I had been engaged in this process a little bit but there was this really weird "coincidence" that happened with a mutual friend of ours that said, "Let the river flow."
[00:09:11] And as she mentioned that, I remembered that I had actually done a drawing of a piece I actually put on Instagram, like several years ago. And it was during the pandemic. It was during this difficult time that here Chanda and I were trying to write about later, you know after the fact.
[00:09:26] But I had drawn this picture that just says, "Let the river flow." I was down in my basement, it was the middle of the pandemic. It was a difficult time. And I remember that sort of title and that drawing and that concept being really important to me and needing to express that. And so the fact that this came, all of these things were kind of concentric circles and resonating at the same time.
[00:09:49] And it was odd, the timing of it and how this stuff came up. And so I knew that when I start hearing that stuff, I know that something is brewing and there’s something that I need to pay attention to. So I started noticing that all these pieces were kind of coming together. And when we got together in person, out in Denver, I had an opportunity to play for maybe 60 people or so gathered from the choir. And we hadn’t really met, and I was doing some kind of vulnerable, tricky stuff of like improvising and asking people to envision what they’re hearing and listen, and sort of share some of those things. And so it felt a little on edge. I played this improvisation, something that I just made up in that moment. In the back of my mind, I had this conversation with Chanda about the river and about this piece.
[00:10:35] I asked people to take a listen to this thing and then share with me. And so after I finished my improvisation, I just asked for a show of hands. I said, " Does anyone want to share kind of a place or an image that they experienced during that piece.
[00:10:50] And nobody raised their hand for a second. I thought, "Okay, here we go. No one wants to share in a situation like that." And after just a moment, a woman raised her hand and said, "I saw a river." And it was the very first thing anybody said, and I couldn’t believe it. I just like, I didn’t know how to react because I, there was no way I could convey…
[00:11:12] I actually said to them, I said, "You guys are gonna think that I’m trying to pull some kind of parlor trick or something here, but I have to be honest with you." And I explained that we had been thinking about this river piece. And so it was a really eerie, wild, resonant connection.
[00:11:28] And that was the beginning of it. And then from there, there were just many more things like that that started to open. The same day, like just an hour after that, there were a bunch of things in the discussion that felt like this that really connected people and helped us feel like we were in this very spiritual place.
[00:11:45] And one of the things that happened was, an elder that’s there, this really kind gentleman came up to me and said, "Please take a walk out in the garden. We have this meditation garden that’s outside the church." And I should back up a second and say that morning, you know, Chanda had been sending me all of these river related texts. So, Isaiah 43 or these images about water and things that we experience. Many people are familiar with Psalm 23 but there are obviously many Psalms and many places in scripture where water is referenced.
[00:12:19] And so we had been looking at all of those different texts and Chanda had been discerning what was jumping out at her and then she would take the text and reimagine it and write a poem based on that. That particular Psalm or that particular verse in scripture. This is sort of outside of our scope but that morning, she said, "I’m noticing this beautiful verse in Romans, "Neither height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation can separate us from the love of God." And I’ve always loved that verse so it really jumped off the page at me when I saw her message, because I thought, "Wow, that’s really a powerful verse."
[00:12:54] That is obviously really well known and people are aware of that and talk about that a lot. Such strong imagery and such a strong message for us. But the interesting thing to me was she wrote that to me and it was outside of our artistic context. It was not really related to rivers or water in a very literal type of way.
[00:13:13] And so anyways, this guy said, "Hey, you have to go out and walk in the garden." And I walked out. And so that was the verse that had come that morning from Chanda and I walk out and etched in this big, beautiful stone, the center of their garden. It says, "Neither height nor depth…" you know, the Romans verse is there and I just was like, "Holy cow!" like after the river thing had happened, there were multiple things like that that happened in one morning. And this was sort of the first morning that we had gathered about this piece. And so I have goosebumps right now thinking about it because it really felt like we really didn’t know where it was going at all, but we knew that there was a lot brewing around this piece or this moment or this gathering or, you know, community.
[00:13:59] Debbie Bronkema: Connection, community
[00:14:00] Ike Sturm: yeah, yeah. All of those things. So it was just really wild to see how that emerged.
[00:14:05] Debbie Bronkema: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. Well, it, yeah, it kind of made you feel like I’m in the right place. In the right time, connecting with the right people to do something, and then just open the door and see what it is.
[00:14:19] I wonder if your habit of going [to the river] every day, did it feel like it got your mind going before you were even aware it was going? Do you know what I mean? Do you feel like it stoked the fire of the creative spirit?
[00:14:34] Ike Sturm: Yeah, it really did. And I think when I look back on it… so I should be honest and say that I’ve never written a project or a piece like this with like really firm boundaries around it. I mean, in one sense, it’s boundless. There was no limit put on in terms of what the content was or what it would look like. But I had this window that was starting to close. I had another commission that I was doing for Notre Dame.
[00:14:57] And at the end of last year we wrote a passion together. And we actually just got to record that in Israel, which was amazing. So this year has been this kind of like crazy collection of things that have come up. But this piece got sort of sandwiched into the beginning of January from New Year’s and it was due at the end of April and actually the scores with the choir and piano were due, what was it, at the end of February? Is that possible? Yeah, my goodness. I’m scared thinking back on it because it was such a crazy deadline, but I knew that I needed to get through all of this. I had this set amount of time. And Adam actually… there was sort of this grace in the structure. Basically I had a month to write all the songs, which was January. February,
[00:15:41] I wrote all of the choir parts. March, I wrote all the string parts and then April, I was preparing all the band parts. And so there was this very clear delineation of like, "Here’s what needs to happen." But in in order for that to work in January, Chanda had written 16 poems, which I had to write about 50 minutes of music.
[00:16:01] And when she handed it in, they’re absolutely gorgeous. And it’s an incredible piece that she wrote, all these poems. But I said, "Chanda, 16 poems? Like, what am I supposed to do with that? Like, that’s too many poems, you know?" And so we had this, this funny back and forth about it. And at first she was very generous and said, "Oh, well, of course I know it’s too many. So just pick the ones you like and write those." Which is difficult to do. But I thought, "Well, maybe I’ll just try a bunch of different things and see where it goes." And then later when we talked she said, "Yeah, you can’t leave any of ’em out. They’re all like little children, you have to use all of the…" you know, and I was like, "What am I gonna do?"
[00:16:37] But I actually came to find the same thing. I didn’t know how I was gonna not include any of them. But I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be able to write that much music or that, "I know I can write a lot of music, but that it wouldn’t be good." Or that I wouldn’t feel like this is the thing. This is the magic piece.
[00:16:54] And I can usually get kind of a little vibration or a little feeling around that when that feels like it’s the right thing. And so I usually know. I kind of feel like I always know that. So anyways, I put a lot of energy into the process, hoping that it would have some kind of result. I had told Jesse," Man, I’m really freaked out about this."
[00:17:10] We took a run together and he was like, "Well, you know, good luck, today’s your first day of writing!" And I was like, "Oh man…"
[00:17:16] So I had done this time at the river and I came home and I just sat down at the piano and "The Gathering Song", that’s the first piece that’s part of River, just literally just came out like I played it as if it was just a song, like in one shot, it was like an improvisation. And I just was like, "Holy cow, that’s weird." And I was singing it, I had written Chanda’s text out on a little piece of paper and I just sang it and played it. And then I made a recording on my phone.
[00:17:43] And that was that. That was the demo that I used for everything from that point onward. And so I was like, "Okay, well, that was lucky. Good, I got one of ’em done." And so I made a sandwich or something and then sat back down. And then the second one, "Reformation," same thing. Just came straight out in the same day.
[00:18:01] So I was like, "Okay, I did two of ’em the first day. That’s good. My math is checking out so far." But I still felt very afraid because even after that, the next day you’re like, "But today I won’t be able to do it. Today’s not gonna work." And then same thing the second day, I think one or two more right away the second day.
[00:18:19] And I was sending them to Jesse and he was like, "Man," he’s like, "the hits keep coming" or something. And I was like, "Okay, well, only three of ’em. There was a lot left, you know?" And I kept feeling that sense of like, "But I don’t know if it’s gonna work now. I don’t know if it’s gonna work now."
[00:18:31] And they kept coming and what I noticed that was in keeping with the message of the piece, this "Let the river flow," that the pieces came out very quickly. Usually in one kind of shot, like almost fully formed. Sometimes I have to do a little more work to figure out a bridge or figure out some little part, but like the core feeling or energy of the piece was always there.
[00:18:55] Like it presented itself. And I was talking with my therapist about this actually, just about this whole experience and what it felt like. And he just laughed and he just said, "Yeah, like, of course. This stuff is all inside of you and you’ve just been listening and now it came out and I was like, "Huh, that’s…"
[00:19:14] Debbie Bronkema: That’s really interesting.
[00:19:16] Ike Sturm: "Do I believe that? I don’t know." I was thinking about it. And I think there’s something to that. And I think for me, maybe it is inside me and I hear that, but I also feel like it’s coming from an external place too, of like it’s something that sort of comes through us and if you can get rid of enough of our stuff that I carry around, then the mechanism is freed up to just become a vehicle for material to come through us, you know?
[00:19:43] Debbie Bronkema: Oh, I love that. And you’re right. The whole sense of flow. That it was flowing out of you the same way the river was flowing by. It’s really a beautiful, beautiful story and a beautiful experience. I love hearing it. And I think it’s really interesting to think about. Is it outside of us coming through or is it in us and we have to get out of the way? I think both of those images can be really helpful when we feel blocked creatively. To kind of say, "What do I need to get out of the way? Or is it just me that needs to get out of the way and let it come out?" Yeah. That’s really powerful. Really powerful. So what was the surprise that came along the way?
[00:20:25] What was the thing that was the most surprising to you beyond the fact that you got full pieces coming out of your hands in one shot? Were there other parts of this journey that were surprising?
[00:20:37] Ike Sturm: So many, so many surprises.
[00:20:40] I get emotional thinking about some of them. I had a funny moment that I’ll always remember with this piece. I’m looking at my computer. I have a big computer monitor here where I do my composing. One of the pieces that Chanda wrote has a line that says, "There’s a glimer inside of me."
[00:20:57] So I had written, "glim-mer" and I was voicing it out for choir. So there are many parts. Six or eight parts. Big lines that go up and down and I was copying and pasting. So it said "glim-mer" all the way down, like in every line.
[00:21:14] And I was copying and pasting different things and experimenting with some parts and sometimes the way it works on my computer software, you can copy and paste an entire line and it shows up somewhere else. And sometimes it has a mind of its own and it, you know, something happenes. So I had accidentally copied something and pasted it and it mistakenly wrote the syllable of "Mer" all the way down. It was like an entire screen. It just said "Mer" all over the screen. I think one of the deepest things about this piece for me has been the connection to my dad, who is an incredible composer and arranger. And when I wrote my jazz mass, we wrote that really together.
[00:21:51] And I think in my mind, when I think back on it, I feel like he wrote a lot of that. Or that I couldn’t have done it without him. And there’s this whole narrative of like, "I couldn’t do it" or "I can’t, I’m afraid of this" or, you know, all those types of messages. My dad passed away eight years ago. And so I’ve been really afraid to go into writing a piece for strings, or like a piece on this scale because I’ve missed him. And I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it actually. Quite honestly. And then I was just asked to do it, and then I became really freaked out that like, "Wow, everybody’s gonna figure out that I don’t know how to do this." And you know, the whole thing. And I really discovered as this music started to flow, I was like, "Oh, I have done this before." And of course I had my dad’s support and care and interest and curiosity and help. But I did write that other piece. And more importantly, he and many other people have given me the toolbox that I need to be able to realize where this is going now.
[00:22:53] I started to experience what I found as beauty in this music. And so it was really encouraging to me. You know, I’ve processed a lot of grief and this whole journey with losing my dad and the deep connection that he has to my work, the things that I love so much, and the music.
[00:23:09] Anyways, all that’s to say that my nickname for my dad, it goes back. It’s a long story, but he had a joke name for his dad that was "Herkimer." And his dad would say that we had this funny thing and I got my dad this hat that said "Herkimer" and this whole thing, but I would shorten it.
[00:23:24] And I called him "Mer." That was his nickname. And so when I copied and pasted this thing, I was totally thinking about something else. Just working on the music and literally all over the page, it just appears and just says "Mer" like 50 times on the screen. And, and I just, I, uh, I get emotional thinking about it now, but I laughed out loud when I saw it.
[00:23:47] And then I just burst into tears because it was like, it was such a beautiful image, you know? And such a beautiful…
[00:23:56] Debbie Bronkema: Like a blessing. Like a blessing from him.
[00:23:58] Ike Sturm: What are you going to say about that? It’s just wild.
[00:24:01] Debbie Bronkema: And how great that it was so healing for you. It sounds like writing this whole piece gave you all this space to heal and to grieve in a healthy way and acknowledge. That’s really wonderful.
[00:24:17] Ike Sturm: It was so wonderful. It was.
[00:24:19] It felt like a celebration of like, maybe you don’t go from grief, but grief ends up being rolled into this sort of celebration of people that you love and things you can be thankful for. I really felt like he was part of this whole thing and would’ve really loved experiencing it.
[00:24:37] And I think he probably did somehow. So when we got to play it, I felt some of that energy and that was an interesting experience. While I was playing it, when we got together, It didn’t really work the first day. I mean, it was really chaotic and it’s a lot of people, it’s very complicated.
[00:24:54] It’s a big space. And there were a lot of things that were rough around the edges. In my mind, I just thought, "Oh my gosh, my worst fears are coming true. It’s not gonna work." And I think in the past, this kind of always happens because everyone’s learning it. It’s like, you know, putting a book and mixing up all the chapter orders or something.
[00:25:14] It doesn’t make any sense when we first ingest it. And then we came back the second day and everything started to coalesce and then the performance felt so great. So it’s interesting to experience that over and over. This idea of, "Oh my gosh, it’s not gonna work. I’m bad, I’m terrible, I’m getting scared." Whatever, all that stuff. And then like, "Oh wait, right, it worked out."
[00:25:36] Debbie Bronkema: It did work out and you do have it, and it is a part of who you are. Well, I’m so glad that you came and told us this story today. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I feel like I really understand the piece even more from hearing you talk about it.
[00:25:54] Where can people find out more about you? Where could they maybe hear this piece when it comes out?
[00:26:02] Ike Sturm: Yeah, thank you for saying that. Yeah, we’re really excited because we’re hoping to record it late this fall or early winter, in New York. So we’re trying to assemble all the crazy forces that we need to get this together.
[00:26:14] I was just talking with somebody about it yesterday. So there will be a recording, God willing, coming out of this piece. And so we’ll keep people posted, but if people follow my social media stuff under Ike Sturm or look at my website, IkeSturm.com that has a lot of this info.
[00:26:30] But yeah, we’re really excited about hopefully sharing all this when the time comes.
[00:26:36] Debbie Bronkema: Thank you so much. This has been Every Day Spirituality with connect.faith. We’re so glad that you’ve joined us and we welcome you to listen wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you have someone that you think would like to hear the stories you heard today, please share. Thanks again!
[00:27:03] Debbie Bronkema: