Name: Tasha Smith Godinez
Occupation: Harpist, composer, improviser
Recent release: Tasha Smith Godinez's Out of the Desert is out now via Ennanga Music.
Recommendation: Two of my favorite albums – Dorothy Ashby’s Afro Harping and Egberto Gismonti’s Folksongs with Jan Garbarek and Charlie Haden.
If you enjoyed this interview with Tasha Smith Godinez and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I began my musical journey as a child and have always been surrounded by musicians and making music.
My early experiences as a musician and through my college years were heavily focussed on studying the art of European classical music. I can’t quite name what drew me to music, I’ve just always been a musician – since I was three years old.
I didn’t start composing until 2020. I think it was a simple transition from my classical studies, avant-garde playing, learning to improvising and then to composing. I now feel freer as a musician than ever – as if I can play anything I can imagine.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
Music evokes deep emotions, creates moods and makes people think. I understand music as a form of universal communication. We can tell people what we feel and think without speaking the same verbal language. We can also create a sound picture for our audience.
My approach to composing typically starts with a topic or emotion I want to address. Then it becomes a musical theme or sound pallet.
An example of this is the song, “The Path”, from my new album Out of the Desert. It started as a cell phone recording of my son and I playing on the beach. I recorded us on a whim and when listening back, I had this feeling of needing to hold on to that moment forever. I wrote the music while deep in that emotion of grasping on to a precious moment while life is passing by so quickly.
For my piece, “El Amanecer (en el desierto de Baja California)”, translated as “Dawn in the Baja California Desert”, I tried to create an aural description of the desert at dawn, of nocturnal animals calming and others awakening, of the sun touching the landscape as the sky changes color and comes to life.
Music for me is an emotion, mental experience.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Spending my life as a musician is an evolutionary journey.
From my rigorous classical studies, through a period of pursuing avant-garde music, learning to improvise, to finally writing my own music. I am currently at an interesting point – I’ve opened a new door in my musical life and have had a sort of breakthrough. I feel like I can now be the musician I’ve always dreamed of and it’s a combination of everything I’ve learned so far. It’s a lot of fun.
I can attribute this breakthrough partly to a dear friend of mine and my duo partner, Christopher Garcia.
When we met I didn’t improvise. I was scared to not be reading what was on the page. The classical musicians’ training of ‘if it’s not on the page, it’s wrong.’ First, he wrote out all my solos for his music then little by little he encouraged me and gave me parameters for improvising. I have to say that first time I improvised during one of our concerts was terrifying! After that I was hooked. I just started working on it until I felt like I could hold my own – I’m still working at it and hopefully I will still be learning until old age.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all been easy – in fact, it’s been a lot of hard work, a lifetime (35 years to be exact) of practicing, many moments of frustration and a continuous effort to overcome nerves and performance anxiety.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
When I was younger, I thought a lot about my racial identity – or rather people brought it up often and caused me to think about it. It was the all too frequent question of “what are you” which would be followed by “you don’t look like what you say you are”. It would bother me.
Eventually I realized that my identity is not tied to race or my appearance, but rather just who I am as a person. I think this has transferred into my creativity as an artist. I am no longer concerned with what people will think about my music – the music I write and choose to play represents who I am and expresses my message to the world.
As a listener, I suppose I am influenced by my identity as an American and by having lived so close to the border or Mexico for most of my life. My identity is mixed with multiple cultures and it shows in the music I write, play and listen to.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
It is important to me to help bring the harp into the 21st century.
The general public still sees the harp as an antiquated instrument or only suitable for weddings, funerals and in the orchestra. My goal, shared with many other contemporary harp players, is to shed new light on the capabilities of the instrument in both the jazz and avant-garde arenas.
It is also just to continue to fill the world with beauty.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Perfection is something we should always work for – if not we fall to mediocrity and our art suffers.
This being said, none of us are perfect, nor is music / art built on perfection. I think innovation should grow naturally out from tradition. I don’t need to innovate just to be different but rather to find a sound that fits what I am hearing (while composing or improvising).
I use a lot of ‘extended techniques’ in my harp playing, however these should not be used just to be different – they need to be intentional and have purpose sonically.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I play both the harp and the violin.
While the harp is my main instrument, the knowledge and musicality I gained through the years of violin studies have been integral into my playing. The way I understand phrasing, melodies, intonation and even the use of my violin bow on the harp – these are not always natural to harpists.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
My life right now is crazy busy. It is a balancing act between my music, teaching, performing, composing and my family life.
I typically wake around 5am to exercise and get my day started and then switch into mom-mode and help my three kids get ready for school. While they’re in school I’m teaching music lessons, rehearsing, composing – whatever the day calls for. Then I spend the afternoon picking up the kids, teaching more music lessons and going to baseball games.
Usually I’ll get back into my studio around 9pm to work at the harp for an hour or two. Nearly every minute of my day is scheduled and at times it’s overwhelming, however I wouldn’t change it. I’m living both my dreams – motherhood and musician.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Music is a great storyteller. Sometimes when I am composing I’ll start with a story – a specific person, place or experience that I want to describe to the listener. Other times, I’ll start by creating a melody or sound and then let it tell the story to me as it progresses.
The project most dear to me is my most recent album, Out of the Desert. It consists of 13 pieces I wrote between 2020 and 2021. Each piece on the album was inspired by either a person or place important to me. In other words – the people and places that gave me refuge during the turmoil of that time and those who have inspired me to keep moving forward always.
Often when I am composing, I’ll start with a feeling and sound that seem to go together. Something I want to say or convey through sound.
A great example of this is my song “Come back to me ...” I was thinking about someone I know who has struggled with addiction for many years. How his family has been there for him all these years, still loving him and still hoping for him. It got me thinking about how our heavenly father is always present, even in our darkest moments and through our struggles, calling us back to Him.
The improvisation in the middle section of “Come back to me …” is representative of our struggles – the viola and percussion pushing through their inner struggles, while the harp, representing God, is constant and never changing. The piece ends peacefully – we’ve found our way.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
For me, music is both private and collaborative, depending on the piece itself. There are some solo pieces I’ve written or like to play that are like private moments – even when playing for an audience. When I am playing this music, I am transported to a place that no one else can be.
On the flip side of that, other music is an obvious collaboration with other musicians. All performances are a collaboration with the audience itself. It is all part of the purpose of music and it’s all good.
My preference is small ensemble playing. Two to four musicians. This allows for a type of deep communication and relaying between the musicians that is not possible as a soloist or in large ensembles.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Music’s role in society is different in every culture, however I don’t know of a culture void of music. I see music as the ultimate form of communication. Additionally, there are many purposes for music – ceremonial, entertainment, worship, communication, meditation.
No matter what music I am playing, my purpose with music is to both give beauty and creativity to this world and to thank the creator for giving us music.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
I believe that music is both a means of communication and a healing force. Through music we can communicate what words may not adequately convey, whether it be joy, pain, calm or even fury. This allows us to express our emotions more completely.
Playing or experiencing certain music during our times of grief can also help to heal our emotional wounds. Numerous times people have approached me after a performance and explained how the music I played gave them what they perceived as a supernatural healing. It may be the sounds themselves, the emotion I was communicating, the physical vibrations in the air or all the above that allowed the person to look within and feel peace.
One notable instance was the first in-person concert I played in after the pandemic in 2020. It was an outdoor show in a private patio and garden. We had all been through so much up to that point at the end of summer and as we (Domenico Hueso and I) shared our music, something changed in the air. We could all feel it. It was like the angst and pain from the past 6 months was melting away and the energy completely changed.
We could physically feel people letting go of the fear and challenges they’d been holding on to, at least for the time being, and allowing themselves to be touched by the music. It was incredible.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
This is a very interesting topic! Music in some form has always existed, in every culture for all time. Somehow we all seem to know that music is integral to our human experience. Now, through the field of neuromusicology, we can actually see the effects on the brain of listening to and playing music. Apparently, it’s a full brain experience. It is even thought that playing an instrument throughout one’s life can help decrease the onset of dementia. It is also known now that musician’s brains are typically healthier, with larger corpus callosum and stronger connections.
I think the more we learn about how music effects the brain and body, we will continue to be amazed by how important music is to our health and wellness!
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Writing and playing music is absolutely different from everyday tasks – even if we make an incredible cup of coffee!
Music is art. Nowadays it seems like many things can be called “art” however I think we all know that there need to be certain characteristics present for true art. Art makes us think and feel.
When experiencing art, we should be contemplating the meaning – sometimes even to the extent of deeper things like the meaning of life itself. A great cup of coffee or other ‘mundane’ tasks that can be done ‘artfully’ are just done better than everyday mediocrity.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I think music transcends the logical, meaning that we cannot actually explain why we can tell stories, communicate emotions and as you say “transmit potentially deep messages”.
The closest I can get to an understanding of how it works is my belief that it is a spiritual gift. This is why some music is deemed superior to other music, why some composers and musicians are remembered hundreds of years after they’ve died.
Music that is truly art, truly good music, transcends the physical, logical human ability and is more than just notes and vibrations.