Inside "Begin Again" with Steven Banks and Matthew Hepburn

Steven Banks

Artist Propulsion Lab - S1 E9 - Inside Begin Again

Release Date: October 27, 2022


John Schaefer: You’re listening to the final episode from the Artist Propulsion Lab class of 2022. I’m John Schaefer. To wrap things up, composer and saxophonist Steven Banks, and his collaborator, meditation and dharma teacher Matthew Hepburn, take us behind the scenes of Begin Again, their collaboration that they created just for the Artist Propulsion Lab.

Begin Again is a composition for baritone saxophone, cello, piano, and meditation guide, in which the meditation and the music are equally supportive partners. It received its world premiere in the Greene Space on October 18, 2022. 

First, we’ll hear from Steven and Matthew about what makes this piece special, and then, we’ll hear Begin Again in its entirety. Here are Steven Banks and Matthew Hepburn.

Steven Banks: My name is Stephen Banks. I'm a saxophonist and a composer and  one of the creators of Begin Again.

Matthew Hepburn: Hey, I'm Matthew Hepburn. I'm a dharma teacher and meditation coach.

Steven Banks: I knew about Matthew Hepburn, before he knew about me. During the pandemic like so many people, just everything really was going wrong, basically.

I had just gotten out of a really long term relationship. I had moved to a new place. I was at the end of my first year teaching at a new university and then everything shut down and I was already kind of burnt out from being a new professor. And there was so much political unrest going on that was just really messing with me. I was having a lot of sleepless nights and just not really able to function the way that I was supposed to.

around this time I found the Ten Percent Happier app that Matthew is a part of. And it’s been completely transformative. I was meditating with his guidance pretty frequently, 

So I thought that this would absolutely be the right person to go into dreamland with me in creating this piece 

Matthew Hepburn: This is a collaborative piece of music that is meant to help people use contemplative practices to explore their relationship to their direct experience, to find more agency, more wellbeing, more balance.

Steven Banks: the instrumentation is, uh, baritone saxophone, cello, piano, and meditation guide. the meditation guide is not just a separate thing. In this case, the guidance is actually written into the score. So, um, it's very much a part of the chamber music experience. and also I, I wanted to work with these musicians. with Andrew Yee, uh, Cellist and Xak Bjerken, who's a long time collaborator of mine. I just thought it would be fun to have these instruments with these people.

Matthew Hepburn: We were kind of confronted by the blank canvas, you know, or the potential of what we could do. And it took us a while to actually build some momentum in the face of how kind of daunting the blank canvas was.

Steven Banks: As a composer, I also really had to think a lot about how much of this is going to feel. Like a specifically musical experience and how is it going to feel like a meditation experience. And we went back and forth on that kind of stuff a lot.

Matthew Hepburn: One of the things that we realized pretty early on is that, you know, in a typical piece of chamber music, your audience are listeners. And in this piece they're participants.

It's almost like the audience member is another member of the ensemble because they have something to do too. For them to be able to, uh, the listener, to be able to engage with the meditation content and listen and receive and experience everything, the guidance and the musical content is something that we need to take into consideration.

First Movement - citta

Steven Banks: Steven Banks: The first bar starts. The cello and baritone saxophone are doing this low undulating fifth.

The piano gives you this sense that you're not particularly going anywhere, but you're also not static. That's what I was trying to use to create that sense of stasis, but also to mimic the feeling of our thoughts flashing everywhere in these unrelated ways.

The first movement is called Citta, which translates to “mind.” Citta is from the ancient language of Pali, which is the language that the Buddhist teachings were originally written down in.

This movement is meant to be sort of like walking into the beginning meditator's mind, and  meeting them wherever they are when they show up.

Matthew Hepburn: The style of meditation that Steven and I have really bonded over is not a style that just wants to calm you down and relax you and soothe you. It's a style that is willing to point you right towards discomfort.

Steven Banks: To begin the experience do we immediately try to shift their perspective or do we meet them where they are and sort of gradually unwind them?

It gets to be simpler and simpler, and by the time we get to the most simple iteration the music feels actually a little bit more settled.

Matthew Hepburn: So Stephen has created this kind of field to walk into and to begin to settle into, uh, musically at the opening of the piece.

Steven Banks: Once we get to that, point, we we sort of fade out in the instruments and Matthew invites us to experience silence.

Begin Again: “Allow a quiet space to develop, feel the silence broadening.”

Matthew Hepburn: When I come in, there's a gentle but very clear directive that encourages people that they've got something to do. it's to take three deep breaths. So it should be pretty relaxing and enjoyable for most people. But I call them in to actually engage with the piece.

And then the music and the meditation begin to come together, each are guides for the listener's experience.

Steven Banks: Right after Matthew invites us to take the first few deep breaths, I bring back this, um, sort of shimmering high register, um, fifth idea, um, in the, in the piano that is also the same shimmering high register, fifth thing that started the entire piece. Um, and that fifth is in some ways a very. Fundamental aspect of the entire piece.

BEGIN AGAIN: “And begin listening with your whole body”

One of the early concepts that, um, Matthew and I came up with was that we wanted something about the beginning of the guidance to inspire the audience to feel like they were going on a journey, like they were leaving home.

One of the images that, um, Matthew guides us towards is a boat, leaving the dock. So in the music, I wanted to create a texture that felt a little bit waterlike, sounds that would feel other worldly. 

And so the way that we do that is I invite the performers to play any of the notes that I've printed there and to create what I call timbre trill. Playing that note, but using, whether it's different fingerings or, um, on the cello, you can produce it on different strings and which gives it a slightly different sound. So we end up with this sound that's sort of like – 

Timbre trill

I grew up, um, in the Baptist Church, and my grandfather was a pastor. So, spirituals are something that have always been really core to me as a musician.

So along with the idea of starting a journey, I thought that it could be sweet to bless the journey that you're about to go on.

Begin Again - Take My Hand Precious Lord

This spiritual, which is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” I came to from a recording of Mahalia Jackson, who is probably my favorite musician, maybe ever? I don’t know…

I was thinking about the fact that we're about to go on this journey together and this idea of asking for, um, asking for someone to be holding your hand. You know, it just feels very intimate and real. I heard it in rehearsal for the first time with Andrew playing, and I literally started crying, it just felt so tender and vulnerable.

Matthew Hepburn: It took me back to being maybe 10 or 11 years old and being in my family's living room and hearing my dad put on Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord.”

To have that sense of beautiful vulnerability and a trust, an expression of trust, baked into the piece, that I had my own personal connection to, was really touching. 

Steven Banks: At the end of the first movement I want the audience to be really in their present experience. One of the ways that I try to make that clear is by making the music extremely, extremely simple at the end.

So that fifth from the beginning comes back and is repeated five times and then we gradually lose one note. So then it's just a unison octave five times, and then just one note five times. So I think it's just a moment for the meditation aspect to really be the central focus.

There's no beautiful melody happening. They are just there, focused, feeling the aliveness of simplicity.

Begin Again - “Right here the body and mind are alive, sensitive to sensations”

Second Movement - mula

Matthew Hepburn: The second movement is called “mula” and that means root. We started talking about this teaching that comes from the Buddhist tradition that all mind states of struggle are rooted in one of three core kind of roots or gestures of the mind. 

Steven Banks: When Matthew and I were trying to conceive of the second movement, I knew that I wanted it to be like a typical second movement actually of a four movement piece, like a scherzo or something with rhythmic drive.

Excerpt - “mula” from Begin Again

Steven Banks: So I was just sort of throwing questions at Matthew, like I want. To think about some of Matthew's musical influences and likes and dislikes too. So I was just like, “Hey, Matthew, what are you listening to? Like what kind of music do you like?” 

Matthew Hepburn: I mentioned that I. Just really been into listening to Afrobeat recently. I had gotten really into Cuban music when I was younger, and as I said that to Steven, we're on Zoom with each other and I just see this like light bulb go off over Steven's head.

We knew that we gotten the listener to transition into a place of some more collected presence. And what happens for people when they start to get collected and present is it seems like someone turns up the dial on your internal experience. 

We knew that one of the takeaways we wanted our listeners to have in this moment was a direct and intimate exploration of impermanence as it’s experienced from one moment to the next.

Steven and I were talking about the meditative experience of feeling and seeing and recognizing impermanence once you started to get a little bit collected, a little bit steady, a little bit focused. And we talked about how invariably people notice the ways that they struggle.

Steven Banks: I found this tradition of West African drumming, and I will probably mess up the pronunciation, but I believe it's Ewe.

E-W-E. And in this tradition, I just found it completely fascinating because there are lots of different ways that they break up the beat. And each way that they do that, um, has a sort of philosophical, um, purpose to it.

So I didn't get too geeky into the fact that exactly what they mean in this tradition, but I then tried to take these feelings that we were trying to create through the, the three on wholesome roots and sort of map them on to these rhythmic values and see if I could create those feelings using this concept.

Each unwholesome root has both a rhythmic representation and a pitch or harmonic representation.

Matthew Hepburn: One is wanting, craving, desire, greed. The original word is pali. There are lots of different translations. It's dissatisfaction that comes from not being satisfied with how things are and wanting something that we don't have.

Steven Banks: It feels like it's sort of holding back the beat from happening 

Harmonically speaking. Um, this is a little bit on the nose, but it's sort of Piazzola or tango-inspired to sort of give the connotations of love or lust or something like that.


Matthew Hepburn: The second un wholesome route is – 

Steven Banks: – Hatred or aversion, which feels very striking. It really feels like someone's just coming in there and messing everything up


Matthew Hepburn: It's wanting to push away what's already here or wanting to get ourselves farther away from something that we perceive, whether imagined or real.

The third is delusion or confusion or ignorance, which is when we feel kind of checked out or disconnected from our experience. Boredom, apathy, not caring.

Steven Banks: The pitch representation of delusion is this extremely chromatic theme that uses a rhythmic ostinato, but is then broken down. So there's 16th notes happening throughout the entire thing, so da, da, da…


Matthew Hepburn: One of the things that the second movement is encouraging people to play with, is to recognize how both captivating and disorienting constant change can feel. And to see if they can start to explore establishing some sense of internal ground in the midst of a landscape that's constantly pushing and pulling and changing, and shifting and grabbing for our attention.

Steven Banks: To bridge the gap between the philosophical traditions of Ewe drumming and chamber music, I thought that it would be cool and helpful actually for our purposes, in Begin Again to have some, um,percussive effects that were happening that made the rhythm feel like the most important thing. There are places in this movement where we are stomping; in the saxophone I'm doing key clicks in six and I am playing a low A with a slap-tongue.

In the cello, we have some percussive effects as well. Since we're all playing these sort of percussive soft effects, Matthew can then speak over these things. 

So it ends up being, um, a vamp that we use to allow the guidance to happen even in this movement that is really, um, quite loud in some places and, and, and pretty crazy.


Cadenza of Meditative Silence

Steven Banks: The cadenza of meditative silence, it's sort of like an in-between space. The reason I use the word cadenza is that I still think it's supposed to be active musically. The way that we use silence and space and time as musicians is an inherent part of being a musician and an inherent part of music. Because really what we're trying to do is just shape a listeners or audience member's experience. 

Matthew Hepburn: It's as if, because all of the other external sources of sound have been turned off, a listener's inner experience, it feels like the volume dial goes way up

Steven Banks: I wanted to play with the dichotomy of how anxious and crazed people are going to feel at the end of the second movement and then pass it over to Matthew to allow him to guide the listeners. To be aware of that on their own and be like, “Oh my goodness, there's so much unnecessary tension in my body.” Their brains are just gonna be firing like crazy, just noticing things. And I wanted the music to not be one of those things that they're being drawn to.

Third Movement - kaya

Steven Banks: The third movement is called “kaya,” which translates to “body.” 

This is a very simple movement. I think that when people think, “Oh, there's a piece involving meditation,” this is probably the movement that they were thinking about the whole time. 

I'm trying to create a space for people to practice for, for people to tune into their bodies. We eventually invite The audience to vocalize with us and to literally participate in the experience again.

I wanted for them to be able to use their inner vibrations, um, to tune into their body even more. 

There's a melodic theme that is presented in the piano at the beginning.

Third movement theme

Repeated by the cello and saxophone almost like a cannon. that theme, I should say, the first time I used it was in a piece, that I dedicated to my grandfather who was one of my most, you know, formative people.

And so, when he passed, I wrote a piece called Before You Rest. This melody comes from that piece. And so I like to use it in moments like this where I think people similarly to the first movement, like they need a little bit of tenderness.

Excerpt from “kaya,”

Excerpt from “vipasana”

Fourth Movement - vipassana

Matthew Hepburn: The last movement is titled “vipassana” and that translates to “insight.”

I think what's happening in the fourth movement is that we are recognizing that we, and I say we as kind of an audience and guide and musicians all together, have been through a whole range of human experiences.

Steven Banks: That same fifth that started the piece and has come back in all these different sections stays there in the saxophone and cello. And we hold it the entire time, as if we've finally found our focus and we've finally been able to not only have that moment of sparkling awareness last for a quick second, but we can hold our awareness for an entire however many minutes it is. 

Matthew Hepburn: This movement is really encouraging the audience to recognize that the capacity to remember the value of being in non-contention with our direct experience, however it is, is available to us at any time.

Steven Banks: When we meditate or when we tune in through mindfulness, we're not changing the things that happen to us, but we can, through this awareness, be able to see them very clearly for what they are and hmm, feel the implication of this chord or of this experience.

Go on to the next one. Feel the implication of that experience. 

I think that for me as a meditator, that is actually the thing that has been the most helpful for me is understanding that this is the way things are like this is life, this is how it is. And through my internal experience and the way that I relate to those things internally, I can have agency in the way that I deal with those things, but it doesn't change the things.

Matthew Hepburn: At the end of the piece, I'll ring a traditional Japanese meditation bell. People are encouraged to bring their awareness along with them, through the transition from being in the piece, to just being in the room.


Steven Banks: I really wanted that experience of the piece to feel like it then becomes real life again, so that they're not leaving behind the things that we've talked about and experienced during the piece. 

The more that I've practiced, um, the more I can feel aware and feel present in every moment.


John Schaefer: Composer and saxophonist Steven Banks, and meditation and dharma teacher Matthew Hepburn. After the break, we’ll hear Begin Again in its entirety. 


Begin Again

John Schaefer: Begin Again by Steven Banks and Matthew Hepburn, performed by Steven Banks, Matthew Hepburn, cellist Andrew Yee, and pianist Xak Bjerken.

This episode was produced by Steven Banks, Max Fine, and Laura Boyman, and edited by Matt Frassica, with engineering by George Wellington. Additional production assistance from Jade Jiang and Hanako Yamaguchi. Special thanks to Jen Poyant and Ten Percent Happier. I’m John Schaefer, see you in 2023 with the next class of the Artist Propulsion Lab.

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