Our Stories

Taking the Leap

There's a jump-off edge along the top of the Continental Divide. Face east, and you're looking down rock cliffs and away toward the Atlantic. Turn the other direction, and you're looking through thin air toward the Pacific.

Music Professor Mike Nord is following that ridge this August, walking 200 miles across Montana with his sleeping bag and tent. He and fellow Music Professor Dan Rouslin put on their backpacks each summer and go to the edges, drinking in soaring landscapes.

And then Nord brings the edges back into his music studio and onto stages across the world, where he leaps again and again as an improvisation artist. When his quartet Carr Nord Hofmann Maddox walks onto the stage in front of an expectant audience, they have their instruments -- guitar, violin, electronics, percussion and piano -- but no scores and no pre-arranged direction. "We can do whatever we want, when we want," Nord says. "We don't obey any rules other than intensely listening to each other and working together as an ensemble."

They focus on the musical moment, tuning out the rows of faces, becoming hyperconscious of the sound conversation they're creating. They can't afford not to catch the thread of an emerging melody or rhythm. Their free-form music requires the ability to think on their feet, to allow music to unfold into moods and layers and textures, to go with the flow, whether it leads to abstract ambient noise or a jazz/world beat groove. Downbeat magazine says of the group, "Outcomes are driven by the inspirations and impulses of the participants ... their performances transcend established idioms of jazz, folk or classical music." It's a form of sound painting, Nord says.

For Nord, there is ecstasy in the freedom. But like the maneuver along sky-high mountain ridges, there is also a sense of danger. "Sometimes you panic. When we've built an idea to the point where it starts to sag, you fight to hang on, to keep the moment going. And then the music calms and unfolds in a new direction and you feel a strength and a force. You get into a zone where you hear emotional colors and soundscapes, and the scenes connect to tell a story."

Part of Nord's ease with experimental performance and eclectic music comes from his years as a New York City musician, playing any gig that paid the rent. "I played in every kind of band you can think of -- rock, punk, blues, art rock, jazz, avant-garde, classical, Celtic, bluegrass. If the gig called for cha-cha, you played cha-cha. You had to fake it, as they say in the business, or you didn't eat."

Unlike his gigs as a journeyman musician, Nord's music making at Willamette isn't constrained by commercial concerns. "An academic setting gives one the freedom to pursue an artistic vision without boundaries," he says.

Since his arrival in 2000, Nord has established the Willamette Music Technology Lab, and more recently he and Computer Science Professor Jenny Orr helped write a successful $500,000 W. M. Keck Foundation grant to initiate an arts and technology minor. Students collaborate across disciplines to combine digital music and computer animation. In other words, computers in the sciences talk to computers in the arts, integrating aesthetics with technology.

In an office crowded with guitars, synthesizers and a dirt-splattered mountain bike, Nord continues to compose, running voice and flute and whatever else through his synthesizer -- sound painting, layering and looping. "I'm my own little orchestra," he laughs. And he continues to perform. Carr Nord Hofmann Maddox has appeared live and on broadcasts in Europe, the United States, Japan and Mexico. They've recorded four CDs, including the highly praised Biosphere. They also cross artistic boundaries, like when they performed at Willamette in July with three improvisational dancers from Japan. The collaboration -- Nora Ka Soru Ka at Willamette, or "Take the Leap" in Japanese -- emerged from a live jam session in a Tokyo theatre while the group was on tour last year.

And Nord continues to seek out the mountain peaks where he finds spiritual grounding. On August 1, he and Rouslin laced up their boots and began their annual wilderness trek. Long-distance backpacking is Nord's true and absolute passion -- one that feeds into his other passion. "There's an awakening, an enlightenment that happens out there," he says of the high country. "It's the kind of thing I hope to bring to my music."