Fredric Lieberman: The Man with the Well-Stretched Ear

February 3, 2014

This is the full text of the Eulogy given by Mickey at Fred's Memorial. 

Nothing was too weird musically for his consummate ear, his appetite for sonic bliss. He was a scholar/student extraordinaire of the world’s music. He was a teacher, a friend and trusted guide to the music cultures of the world. Fred was a passionate portal into the deep heart of music for thousands of students he sheparded through the mysteries of music.

I was in awe of his love of the idiom. The way Fred danced through a stack of reference material was sensual in a way; he glided seamlessly through impenetrable bibliography, his knowledge far reaching in the arcane the edge stuff.

A simple turning of the page by Fred was an event for me. They say it’s in the eyes, but it is also in the way of going. You could sense his reverence for the written word; the value was that lives were spent in the pursuit of this knowledge. It was ballet; it was his honoring the author’s effort in writing such a book. It was very deep respect.

I couldn’t imagine Fred on the dance floor, but with a book in his hand he was Nureyev.

Fred was part of the second wave of ethnomusicologists to investigate the world’s music. Taught by the visionary musicologist Mantle Hood he embodied the technical prowess to go deep into the stacks, relentlessly following wherever the trail would lead. We became friends beyond the student teacher. He would let me be the teacher at times, asking all the questions he could conjure. We then would find our way to the answer, if there was one. We hung out in the Neolithic, the Paleolithic, with the Mongols, with the Tibetan monks chanting their “one laynex, three note style.” Many types of the extended voice were our passion as well. 

For many weeks, months, we would comb archeologist’s findings. This was my kind of day; I couldn’t get enough of finding the sources of things. It was always more fascinating, incredible than anything you could ever make up. And here was Fred who would lead me to the texts, have endless conversation on the subjects and also knew what the written history had left us.  There were the myths and legends and archetypes and all kinds of symbols that had to be interpreted into what their meanings were. The chase was like the grail, the Holy Grail.

We were on the track of the origins of drums and percussion and ritual. If Fred didn’t know where to find a reference book he would say so and then go after it with passion with a stealth-like hunter-gatherer mentality that was magnified by the computer. He now had mastered another tool that the older generation never dreamt of. The Internet was born and Fred was on the bus to never land. He toyed with the early web and got good at it.  He became nimble and was super friendly to any one with a thoughtful question.

We wrote three books together, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Planet Drum, and Spirit into Sound.

The hours spent with Fred were pure nourishment for me.  He was the answer man; he knew much of what I wanted to know…the story of “why drum? Where did drumming come from, and most importantly why am I going crazy chasing this incredible rhythm feeling my whole life?

Like a made man, Fred was connected. If he didn’t know the answer, he knew a friend who was an expert in the field. He introduced me to his entire world of music scholars. Steven Feld, John Blacking, on and on…

We appeared many times at speaking events and it was easy to talk to him about anything music related. He had a way of allowing his knowledge to be known without the usual scholarly crow job. He would lead me back on track gently if I became overstated in my enthusiasm or just plain wrong. I was the very good student, totally motivated and on a common course with Fred. He was an explorer, I was an explorer, and he liked difficult tasks, as did I. We could spend two weeks at the Musée de l'Homme, or the Bishop in Hawaii or at the Bancroft in Berkeley.  We both liked the chase; we liked the adrenaline of opening a personal diary of the man who used the talking machine for the first time in the field in 1890. We had the white gloves, we knew our subject and now we see and study his diary. When the national archive produced the diary, Fred calmly glanced at me and there was this smile that said it all. Not a big smile, just a corner of the mouth smile, which says so much more.

I remember our time in Hawaii, at the bishop museum. The curator was Betty Tartar. The major recorded collection was in ruins, in metal gym like lockers just rotting away from the seaborne climate. He was a musical activist as well. He understood the business of music as he had given classes from all the angles of our world. This is the sort of stuff that NEEDS fighting for he would say.

Recordings he believed preserved the voice and soul of communities, and they should be able to hear their musical heritage in new recordings sonically bathed and properly preserved. Fred became the ethnomusicology consultant for my entire series of recordings from around the world. Without Fred there would never have been an “Endangered Music Project” at the Library of Congress.  All of the recordings from this collection now reside with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

The preservation of our musical legacy was primary. Not only to record but to give access to. Fred, like Percy Grainger before him, believed that the world’s best music should be put into circulation. He was not talking about art music, classical music; he was talking about the world’s music.

He became an expert in “sound marks”, being called by the courts to identify claims of ownership of music and intellectual property. He morphed from the bedrock scholar to the clear informed voice of modern scholar/lover of sound.

I often wondered if any of his students really knew how brilliant Fred was. He was an unassuming, quiet, soft, not a self-promotional kind of guy.  He had 400 students in a serious music class transfixed on the inner workings of the idea that music was a miniature, a model of the workings of the entire universe. Pythagoras would have made a perfect dinner guest for us.