Douglas Spotted Eagle is not your average new-ageish Native American flute
player. He was the first one to combine the Native American flute with
electronic and orchestral instruments and has developed the skills of a
composer of classical music (skills that are on display in his contributions
to movie soundtracks).
Spotted Eagle was raised in a small rural town in Iowa, but grew up in Utah.
Music was in his blood, but it was only in 1988, at the age of 26, that he
found his artistic mission.
"It took me a divorce, a very bitter one. I had lost everything I loved, and the flute was basically what was left of my previous life. I stuck to the flute to kill the time and help survive the emotions of that time. A friend's friend made a tape of my music and sent it to a record label. The record label called me up and asked me to make a record. It came out in January 1989. It was titled Sacred Feelings (SOAR, 1989). I am still proud of it, if nothing else because it was the very first time that anybody had combined the synthesizer and the Native American flute. Actually, the true reason why I used the synthesizer is that I didn't feel comfortable as a flute player. I didn't feel that I was such a good Native American flute player to make an album of solo flute music. I needed to support my flute playing with other sounds, whether natural sounds or electronic sounds. In retrospect, I still like all of those early (eleven) albums. One thing that I have learned over the course of my career is that when I listen to my old music I remember the feelings of that time. I find emotions that I had forgotten about."
Therefore, music originally was like a medium to heal for you? Did it work?
"It worked pretty well. Today I am a happy man."
What are you? A solo flute performed, or a classical composer, or a jazz
"Yes to all of them! I think I have the potential to be a great musician, but it's locked somewhere deep inside me. I have played in so many different settings and contexts: I played my flute in heavymetal settings, in jazz settings, in country settings, in pop settings, in film score settings... I don't know if there is any limitation in what I can do. Other than myself... I am my gretest enemy, in the sense that when I have a great idea I get afraid of it. I am very much afraid that I'd put something out that the rest of the world would not like, that would embarass me. I believe in taking the instrument as far as I possibly can. That is the real challenge for anybody playing this instrument. The Native American flute doesn't have a lot of notes, actually it only has seven or eight. But, still, you can always do a lot of things with those eight notes and that's the challenge: to come up with something new every time you play those eight notes. It's much easier with the guitar (which has 12 notes spanned over 3 octaves) or the piano (12 notes over 8 octaves!)."
How do you see yourself evolving? As a virtuoso of the instrument? Or as an
"Probably as an orchestrator. The music I'm working on for my next record will be even more mainstream than Pray, it will border on what people classify as mainstream jazz. I am also working on a film which will be very ambitious in terms of the orchestration. For this I am going to use several instruments of the orchestra. One thing that electronic instruments can't cover is orchestral instruments. The human touch is still very important."
How do you position yourself in the growing ranks of Native American flute
"I think we just happen to play the same instrument, but have very little else in common. In my opinion, Carlos Nakai is one of the few flute players who are doing something exceptional, but comparing me and Carlos is like comparing Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton just because they both play the guitar: we have two completely different styles. Actually, if I am influenced by the others is only in negative terms: I tend to move in the opposite direction. The SOAR recordings were trying to match the flute with the synthesizer, then with the guitar, and then with the piano, and then with the orchestra. Nobody else was doing something like that. I have tried the Native American flute in different settings. I guess one advantage for me was also that I was not trying to be the virtuoso of the instrument... sometimes ignorance is bliss!"
Where do you get your inspiration from?
"Everything. On "Pray" I was inspired by a train driving by as I was sitting in a restaurant, by a teenage prostitute and drug addict whom I met last year in India, by the birth of my daughter and so forth. I am inspired by nature, by people, by family, by public events... Everything in the world has a voice, even the rocks have something to say. One has to learn to sit down and shut up and listen."
Would you consider yourself a poet?
"No, not a poet. I am a little too blunt to be a poet. I see things as they are, I say them as I see them. I see poetry as beauty. There is some beauty in me, but there is also power. My male side is very strong: I race horses, I work a lot with animals. There is strength in my hand and quickness in my tongue..."
Would you consider yourself a painter?
"Yes, a painter, yes. My music is a painting in my head. Music is perhaps always a mental painting. The miracle of music is that I can paint a picture for myself but what you see is not the same, something that wasn't there ever. The music allows creator and listener to be artistic in our own ways. Every one is going to conjure up an image from the sounds. Actually, I think that the primary motive of any artist is to cause people to think, and an artist is successful if it can attach an emotion to the music, facilitate an emotion in someone."
Would you consider yourself a philosopher?
"I guess I also am a bit of a philosopher..."
What is the main achievement of the new album?
"It's the first time in many years that I was able to say what i wanted to say, that I had no boundaries to work with. The label just told me "we like your music, just make music". It's the first time that's happened in many years. So this is the most personal record I've made in 7/8 years. It allowed me to experience emotions I wanted to experience, I had no pressure to write a specific type of song, or worry about anything in particular. There was no preconceived concept. As a concept album, it touches the base emotions. Praying is not getting on your knees and talking to a God. Praying is getting in touch with your own self. We're all born with some truth inside us and praying is not a way to grasp an abstract truth but a way to reach for that inner truth. Some religions teach that touching that truth is simply recognizing yourself. I spent my time trying to touch that truth inside me, that God that is inside me. My philosophy is that I come from a creator, I was created and I was allowed to touch my soul. The album reflects that philosophy".
That could strengthen the stereotype of Native Americans as sad and depressed
"I know, white people have all sorts of misconceptions about Indians! Native Americans are humourous people, almost the opposite of what they are perceived to be through Hollywood movies. Laughter is actually a form of praying for us. When we get together, we love to tell jokes, and we have lots of jokes against non-Indians... Indian people are funny people, and it's a mystery why the stereotype paints a completely misleading picture of us. For us everything is a prayer, but in particular laughter is a prayer. When we have a baby, the baby's first laugh is celebrated in a formal and joyous way and the person who makes that baby laugh for the first time will be respected as a sacred person. We even have sort of professional clowns, whose job is to make people laugh during the hard times, to remind them that there are also good times. Because even when we laugh we are praying. Praying is the most ubiquitous act of our lives".