Beth Fleenor photo by Daniel Sheehan.
By Paul Rauch
If one defines artistry as a simple expression of artistic ability, the surface is barely scratched in terms of what motivates passion for that expression. If artistry is defined as a discipline of being—as a way to find one’s pathway to self-realization and come to terms with one’s own humanity—then you’ve defined the day-to-day practice of sonic sensory clarinetist and vocalist Beth Fleenor.
Fleenor has a tendency to gather her creative impulses over a period of time, and release them through her two main projects: Crystal Beth and the Boom Boom Band, and her solo persona as simply Crystal Beth.
In both incarnations, Fleenor uses her clarinet and bass clarinet as direct extensions of herself, in ways that offer an unexpected divergence from the lineage of jazz or classical clarinetists. Employing electronics to create her own sonic universe, Fleenor has established an unbeaten trail that fluctuates between electronic modernism and neo-acoustic virtuosity.
“It’s an extension of me as much as any other part of my body,” says Fleenor referring to her instruments. It’s as if she is routinely setting foot in a tonal universe previously undisturbed.
Though mostly inspired by guitarists and drummers, Fleenor’s work on bass clarinet draws on the language of her instrument’s contemporaries, most notably, the late Eric Dolphy, who died tragically at the age of 36. Fleenor dedicates a new composition to him entitled simply “Dolphy,” on her new independent Crystal Beth release, Push Thru
“On my new record, there is a piece ‘Dolphy’, which is completely for him. I wrote it around my 36th birthday, because I was having that realization of where I am in the process. Here’s what I’m doing and here’s what’s going on in my life,” she says.
The music that Fleenor has sensed within her from the beginning is a confluence of many turbulent musical tributaries. It is the delta where improvisation and composition flow together into one powerful, energetic flow.
“At my core, I’m an improviser. The best improvisations sound like definitive compositions, the best composed works are rendered with the fire of an improvisation, they’re inextricably linked. It’s not like there’s one or the other, in my opinion,” she says.
Fleenor’s vocal style is a soul-deep wail, developed long after her relationship with the clarinet was established. At a young age, Fleenor heard artists like Frank Zappa who sparked an interest in a new musical direction, igniting what was already dwelling dormant in her creative imagination. “Oh, that’s it, she thought. “That’s the merger of my two heads.” Making her voice come to life however, required some serious soul searching.
“I gave myself permission to sing in public for the first time in 2007. It was bursting to come out. There’s a huge range of emotion that you can get to with the human voice that is different than with the instrument,” she recalls.
Since that first vocal performance, Fleenor has developed her own syllabic language to perform with, removing repetitive lyricism from the musical premise.
“I sing in a syllabic language that’s my own intentionally, because we have all these associations with words and what they mean. I bypass that and go straight to the emotional center,” she explains.
Fleenor’s artistic vision is like a huge universal embrace of what she remembers, what she knows is certain, and what she can sense is beyond her understanding. She spent her summers as a child with her father, the curator of a planetarium in South Florida. In many ways, the vastness of the universe and its creative potential was gifted to her within the confines of one small room. That open mindedness accompanied her to Seattle and her studies at Cornish College of the Arts, in particular those with Seattle saxophone legend, Denney Goodhew.
Fleenor had left Seattle to recover from a medical condition that affected nerve activity in her jaw, severely impacting her ability to play with any semblance of proper embouchure.Goodhew guided her on the path to rediscovering her sound and—in doing so—creating something beautiful with it.
“I started studying with Denney, right after my nerve damage when I returned to Seattle after two years of recovery. It was a moment of ‘the student’s ready, so the master appears.’ His understanding of what I was going through physically, as well as the fire and passion that was there internally unable to make its way out, handed me all the tools to open all the gates and let it come through,” she recalls thoughtfully.
Fleenor received her alternative identity of Crystal Beth from comments made by friends referring to her vibrant energy and her relentless drive and discipline as an artist. It’s an identity she can relate to and find solace within.
“I feel like people need a way to deal with themselves so that we can deal with each other. For me, Crystal Beth is how I deal with myself. It’s how I stay healthy. It’s just a way to get right with myself.” she says.
Fleenor’s decision to stay and make Seattle her home came from her feeling that the city accepts humanity on its own terms and allows its inhabitants to be who they are in an uninhibited fashion. For Fleenor, discovering Seattle felt as if it were simply meant to be.
“There’s a revolutionary community here, of people being themselves and being able to be themselves,” she states emphatically.
The audience for Fleenor’s music spans the fertile rock scene in Seattle, the engaged experimental and improvised music community, and the vibrant modern jazz scene. She is as much herself as any artist can be. While she is undoubtedly blessed with a wondrous sound, great facility, and uncommon intuition, her projects are truly driven by an impressive fearlessness. It’s a fearlessness that is torn down to the studs. Artistically, it shifts from space to space, from shape to shape strongly, while revealing a certain vulnerability. It’s the thread that ties, the discipline of being, from emotional center to artistic output.
Crystal Beth & the Boom Boom Band perform Thursday, January 23 at the Columbia City Theater. Crystal Beth (solo) performs at the Art Martyrs Showcase on Saturday, January 25 at the Sunset Tavern.