Where Music
Comes From


Nubar Alexanian

Order the Book

Nubar Alexanian



with a musical ear or whether you develop one from your father constantly whistling into it. I can still see myself standing next to our old Magnavox Hi-fi when I was 8 years old. My father stood right next to me, keeping the beat with his finger and whistling the notes to Armenian songs. I ended up in an Armenian band with my cousin who also played clarinet. I did my first solo gig when I was ten years old in a night club in Worcester, Massachusetts, playing Armenian music.

For a first-generation family trying to transmit its culture to their children, music was essential. But I was a second-generation kid growing up in America.

One rainy Saturday morning, I walked down Portland Street in Worcester and purchased a copy of Meet the Beatles. In my family, this was a dramatic decision, taken with some risk. My father, an engineer, was working a second job, but he came home early that day. He walked over to the Magnavox, took the Beatles off, and made it clear he never wanted to hear that in his house again.

In 1968 I entered Boston University. I was assigned three roommates. The four of us shared a three-room suite. The first, the son of a U.S. ambassador, smoked opium every night and carried on about how people didn't like him. The second, an orthodox Jew with whom I shared a room, prayed every morning with tefillin in front of our dorm window and wanted to be an opera star. The third, a tall, bearded guy from Chicago named Charlie, mainly stayed alone in his room. The music coming from under that closed door sounded strange and formidable.

After a few weeks, my hair was well on its way to my shoulders. I'd lie on Charlie's floor, listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Pharoah Sanders. I don't know how many copies of Kind of Blue we went through by the end of our sophomore year, but every note and nuance of that album is engraved into my musical memory. It was a long way from Hava Nagila and Never On a Sunday duets with my cousin. Every so often Charlie and I would fly to Chicago on $29 student airfares and go to blues clubs. We'd sneak into the Newport Jazz Festival and sleep in the bushes. Jazz and the chaotic passions on campus during those times became my formative influences.

But as I grew older, I noticed how much like my father I had become. To this day, before he begins a project, he turns on Armenian music. He always makes sure that music is in his immediate environment. So do I. Certainly, our taste is different. But music is an indispensable part of our lives, and one day I found myself wondering why. I was standing in the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1981, trying to photograph how music made me feel.

What makes music such a powerful force? What was it about Coltrane, Miles, and Billie Holiday that I found so extraordinary?

In places like Egypt, people were often entombed with instruments because they believed that music came from another world, and having one in this "other world" would be essential. Humans everywhere have relied on music to communicate with their deities. It was considered the medium created by the gods for dialogue. I understand why they believed this. Some music speaks to me so universally and powerfully, it does indeed seem other-worldly. It's as if the greatest composers and performers are truly our intermediaries with a divine force. Where Music Comes From is my attempt to separate the spirit of music from the business of music, in order to glimpse the process musicians engage in to produce their sound.

Why these musicians? When you consider artists like Wynton Marsalis, Philip Glass, Paul Simon, and Emmylou Harris, one answer is certainly their considerable achievements. But this book is not simply a survey of famous musicians. For five years, I've had the pleasure of focusing on the people themselves, rather than on their celebrity status, in order to photograph the passions and inspirations that feed the fire inside them. In fact, some of the goals of this project might have been better served by working with obscure musicians, because their struggle to be heard is more visually apparent. However, I was also deeply interested in how excellent musicians continue to grow in spite of their fame, so I decided to include a range of artists.

One of the main problems in photographing the creative process of celebrated musicians was access, even when they consented. In the beginning, I would be informed about what I couldn't do: no photographs on the bus, in hotel rooms, during sound checks, on planes, at home, etc. After that, what was left? I blamed the publicists, managers, the magazine industry and the photographers who came before me, who make a living transmitting the market view of these artists.

Naturally, this frustration was magnified by my own needs and desires. For example, I had always wanted – in fact, I actually needed – to sit in the orchestra in order to photograph a conductor. And always the answer was the same: The orchestra is sacred. Only the musicians are allowed. Like other photographers, I was exiled to the perimeter, far behind the tympani, with a long lens – which is why so many pictures of conductors look the same. At the beginning of my first rehearsal with Blanche Moyse, founder of the Marlboro Music Festival, I was issued the same injunction: the orchestra was off-limits.

When Moyse lifted her hands and began to conduct the first chorale, I took a chance and made my way onto the stage, disappearing between the violins and violas. I was exactly where I wanted to be: facing the conductor, less than ten feet away. As I started photographing, I understood for the first time how symphonic musicians are able to surrender their individual identity to play orchestral music. Sound poured through my body in a way that wholly transcended anything else I'd ever felt or heard. I could feel myself change and submit along with the performers under Moyse's will as we moved through sections of the piece. Even people in the first row never feel this. Only the musicians do. It is, indeed, sacred. Afterward, shaking Blanche's hand, I said I hoped I wasn't too disruptive. "I didn't even see you," she replied. "Where were you?"

To prepare to photograph the musicians in this book, I first bought any of their recordings I did not already own, which led to hundreds of hours of listening. Second, I watched them rehearse and perform, which involved considerable travel. I followed Joseph Shabalala to his home village in South Africa; Philip Glass to India, where, for more than thirty years he's gone repeatedly for inspiration; Wynton Marsalis on tours through Europe and through schools across America; Junior Wells through the Chicago blues circuit and so on. Finally, I hung out with them, which generated some of the most memorable conversations of my life. This interplay between musical, visual and emotional response became the melody in the photographs, upon which I improvised frequently, experimenting and searching to broaden my own understanding of where music comes from.