Max ZT on the relevance of the hammered dulcimer and the essence of cross-genre fusion
Max Zbiral-Teller is one of the few musicians in the world who specialises in playing the hammered dulcimer (a variant of the santoor, which was said to have originated in the Iran-Persian region around 5,000 years ago). Max himself got introduced to the instrument at a very young age, and has done nothing else since then, but playing and innovating with the instrument, whilst sharing his knowledge about its history and musical relevance in today’s contemporary era.
In town for a couple of private performances and a workshop at KM Conservatory, organised by the US Consulate (as a precursor to their upcoming Water Matters exhibition next month), Max spoke to us at length about what makes the hammered dulcimer a beautiful instrument and what has his contribution been in sustaining its legacy. Excerpts from the interaction:
It’s wonderful to see you in Chennai! What do you intend to present during your stay here?
I am thrilled to be able to bring my music to Chennai for the first time! For the past ten years, I have been studying with the great santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma ji, and I plan to perform and discuss his influence on my music. Before becoming Guruji’s disciple, I lived in Senegal, West Africa, for many years where I studied the compositional and improvisational techniques of Mandinko people. And before that, I learnt the folk, Celtic, and Jazz traditions of the US. In Chennai, I will discuss the influence of all these traditions on my music.
The biography on your website is beautifully written and the Jimi Hendrix reference is on point. Looking back, what would you say are the biggest highlights of your career? Are there any unfulfilled goals that you wish to fulfil in the future?
Ah yes! The Jimi Hendrix quote was from a great interview a long time ago. Opening and touring around the world with Snarky Puppy with my band House of Waters has been pretty special. But one of my favourite memories is performing at NH7 last year; 15,000 people! In terms of unfulfilled goals for the future…I tend not to think along those lines. Music has become a practice of presentness, and I just try and stay in the moment, and spread the joy and harmony that I get when I perform as much I can.
What have been the most significant innovations that you have incorporated into the hammered dulcimer?
There are a few areas where I have found new ground on this instrument. There is a tremendous amount of technical aspects of course, but changing the content is something that I am quite proud of. Generally, in the US, this instrument is used in a folk or Celtic context. This was my background, and I’m not judging the genre, but because of the instrument’s natural musical qualities (sustenance, rhythm and resonance), I felt that there was a lot of untouched ground ahead of me.
What’s the most special aspect of this instrument?
There is nothing like the sound that it produces, its warmth is unparalleled. There are times when you get to feel its resonance growing and if you take a step back, new sounds come out of its space. I often think of it as a glorified tanpura.
For someone keen to learn this instrument, what key points must they keep in mind?
Well, as with any other instrument — one needs to practice. As it is true with anything that someone wants to find joy from, one must dedicate time to learn the language of what they are pursuing.
How did the KM Conservatory workshop happen?
It was arranged by the US Consulate, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. In terms of what I will be teaching, it will really depend on the setup of the class. I have a pretty unique background in my musical upbringing, and I intend to share my experiences and talk about what all I have learned.
Speaking of your band House of Waters, how much has the group’s musical style evolved over the years?
Oh, quite a bit! House of Waters started as a five-piece band, which eventually ended up being a trio. We shifted percussionists for a while before we brought on board Argentinian drummer, Ignacio Rivas Bixio. Japanese bassist Moto Fukushima and I started this group almost twelve years ago, and we are thrilled with its current lineup. This is by far the best incantation of the group. We have really begun to find our voice.
Coming to your latest album Rising, when was it launched? How would you describe its soundscape, and what kind of themes do its songs touch upon?
Rising was released last February, on GroundUP Music (Snarky Puppy’s label). We really wanted to focus on the trio sound, so we didn’t do any overdubs, and just kept it raw and untouched. The music in the album is about the challenges in life that we all face — the ups and downs, and our camaraderie throughout these struggles, as a trio and as friends.
In this age of cross-genre fusion, how do you try to innovate musically?
Cross-genre fusion is about honesty, immersion, and intention. One needs to fully immerse themselves in the traditions of that music’s past and present, and find a way to have it through an honest and open window into one’s heart and mind. It has to speak musically to and for one’s self. Each style of music has something for someone, and if you can locate the area that speaks to you, and place that aspect into your music, then the new music you create can be truly unique and compelling.
Who were the most important people who guided and helped you during your early days as a musician? What were the challenges you faced along the way?
I am deeply indebted to my parents to have supported my dreams of becoming a musician. Generally, worldwide, there needs to be more family support for this line of work. I am also deeply indebted to my teachers Kat Eggleston, Sankoum Cissoko, Fode Cissoko, Boubacar Cissoko, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, and my colleagues and contemporaries that I perform with today; I learn quite a lot from my bandmates and collaborators. In terms of challenges: It is indeed very difficult to take this somewhat obscure folk instrument and try and bring it into a modern context. Each style of music that I have studied comes with its own bag of struggles and difficulties, but I don’t judge these difficulties as unique. Everything in life is hard. So why should this path be any different!
What inspires you to make new music?
If music is about connection, then it is important to be constantly growing and to allow for influence from outside your own comfort zone. The conversation can’t just stay the same! There is no end to this journey, and it can be a bit daunting to forge ahead when one hits a plateau. The moment however when one moves past that plateau is a feeling that I can only describe as ecstasy.
You are constantly on the move for your concerts. How do you keep up your energy levels while travelling?
Ha! I don’t really know! I do know though that once I got on stage and I had the instrument in front of me, a big burst comes forward and propels me into a state of energy, regardless of how tired I think I am. Maybe it’s the muscle memory that ignites something, or maybe our energy tank is quite conservative and will show ‘empty’ even when there is still a decent amount of gas left in the tank. One just needs to access it!
Workshop at KM Conservatory on January 30. Water Matters exhibition from February 10 onwards at Government College of Fine Arts, Periamet.
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