BRATTLEBORO — In this time of social distancing, restricted travel and forced isolation, there's no denying the appeal of a more expansive approach to music, opening up to new sounds from around the world and beyond, reaching out to the cosmos. That's the space which Aura Shards explores.
Aura Shards is a world fusion project formed by Jed Blume and Anders Burrows which utilizes the entrancing sound of the hand pan, a relative newcomer on the percussion scene, accompanied by a variety of rhythmic and tonal instruments, such as the didgeridoo, djembe, tabla and electro-organic a-frame drum.
Blume, 32, is a New Jersey native who first came to the area for the School for International Training graduate program. He is a new age and world music composer, percussionist and hand pan soloist. Burrows, 38, is a Brattleboro native who played piano and horns at an early age, attended film school in Boston, then returned to Vermont to play in local jazz and Afrobeat ensembles.
The duo has performed over the last six years at area farmers markets, festivals, restaurants and music venues, including Next Stage Arts Project and The Stone Church. In its all original compositions, Aura Shards blends a harmonic and rhythmically complex sound that is at once soothing and engaging.
On June 1, Aura Shards will release its first full-length CD, “Rhythm in Totality,” recorded mainly in Long Island City, N.Y., with tracking done by Phil Duke in New York and mixing and mastering done by Dan Richardson in Brattleboro. The album cover art is by Burrows.
With in-person conversations limited right now because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Reformer interviewed Blume and Burrows via Zoom about their music, the instrumentation and the new CD.
Q: What is a hand pan?
A: Burrows: The hand pan certainly has some of its inspiration from Caribbean-style instruments like the steel drum. But it was actually originally created in Bern, Switzerland, right around the turn of the century. It kind of looks like a metal UFO, or two woks melded together with some bumps on it. And you play it with your hands instead of sticks. It's very similar to that classic steel drum thing, only with a mellower kind of tone to it, and a little bit more range in tones, because it's not just the notes on the top of the hand pan that resonate, it's the whole pan itself that resonates as you play it. So really anywhere you hit, whether it's on a note or between notes, will have its own kind of unique sound and subtlety to it, which can all be worked into the songs and compositions.
Q: What is the process for writing songs using the hand pan?
A: Blume: I'm a percussionist, and we are both hand pan players, and what we do is we accompany each other's compositions. I write a song, and then Anders will play either djembe or didgeridoo to accompany that song, or he'll write a song and I'll play tabla, djembe or the a-frame drum to accompany his composition. It makes for a really interesting contrast, because I've been a rhythmic player my whole life and Anders has the jazz background and also plays the horn, and a handful of other instruments that are more melodic oriented. It's a pretty big range of stylistic ground that we cover between our two approaches and how we complement each other.
Q: How would you categorize or describe the music?
A: Burrows: That's one of the challenges we've had. A lot of the time we just kind of default back into saying it's hand pan music, because it is so centered around this very unique sound of the hand pan. It's rhythmic and complex but it's also meditative and tranquil. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the hand pan ends and the tabla begins. They're both very tonal and both very rhythmic. That was the original core of the group and we kind of expanded it out. Jed is quite a talented player on (the tabla). I also play the didgeridoo that creates a rhythmic drone, so these tones and rhythms marry together in complex patterns that are engaging but also very relaxing and mellow. This is one of the reasons why we've had so much success at farmers markets and whatnot, where we're kind of creating a mood or a scene which people can engage with as much as they want to or as little as they want to.
Blume: All the instruments are part of the world fusion approach, but it's also like New Age fusion, because it takes these very new instruments such as the hand pans and the electro-organic a-frame drum and blends and balances them with very old instruments like the tabla, the djembe and the didgeridoo. We also explore a lot of odd meters, which is one thing that makes our music engaging. People listening to it can really relax to it, but if you kind of tune into the rhythm and try to count it out, you're like, "Oh, wait a second, they're in nine or something weird." We've had musicians approach us after some of our songs that are in odd meters, and they're like, "So, was that in 19, or am I just crazy?" And we're like, "Yeah, actually, you nailed it there."
Q: How does this music lend itself to live performance?
A: Burrows: It's pretty locked down at this point. The songs are sculpted, they are written out, they are played the same each time. Sometimes, depending on the gig we might extend a section a little bit, but it's definitely not like an improvised thing. It's definitely very written.
Blume: Generally the person playing the pan leads, so even if there are subtle variations, it's very easy for the accompanists to follow. We've really done pretty much every farmers market in our region, but we've also done a lot of fairy festivals, where we are really well received.
Burrows: They're like slightly less hardcore Renaissance festivals, with lots of cool costumes and stuff.
Blume: We do a lot of the outdoor open-air, busking style. And then we also do the Next Stage type of show where we put on our button-downs instead of our dragon shirts, and present the music in a chamber kind of approach as opposed to like a fun and festive environment.
Burrows: It's very different when you have 40-plus people sitting in chairs staring at you the whole time. That being said, that attention really accelerates the craft of the song to another level. And when we feel the energy, we give that energy back and that's where we've had some of our most amazing moments, where we get to the end of a song and hit the last note, and there's just a moment of dead silence, and then the applause. That's a pretty amazing feeling. You know you did something right when you get that kind of reaction.
Q: A lot of live performance plans were put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. What's next for Aura Shards?
A: Blume: We're going to do a digital release of the CD on June 1 through all the major online platforms, like Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube and so forth. We have a band Facebook page where we post all the latest info, and you can also learn more about us at jedblume.com. We are planning to do a CD release event at Next Stage (in Putney), whenever we're allowed to have a concert there, potentially over the summer. Also as part of that concert, we're inviting local musician John Hughes to be part of the bill.
Q: One last thing: Where did you come up with the band name, Aura Shards? It's kind of mysterious.
A: Blume: The band name is an obscure reference to the greatest game ever made, let's leave it at that.
Burrows (laughing): It's kind of a good litmus test to see what your nerd creds are.