From cofounding the iconoclastic jazz and bluegrass band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to the futuristic funk-rock of his 15 recordings as a band leader, Victor L. Wooten is one of the most dynamic and eclectic musicians of his generation. Wooten’s new book, The Spirit of Music: The Lesson Continues, which will be published by Vintage Books this month, is an idiosyncratic, sometimes contradictory, lament about the decline of live music in contemporary life and the insidious impact of electronic devices on our collective ability to fully experience the power of music.
This unusual book takes the form of an allegorical memoir-fable featuring Wooten and three musicians of widely differing musical backgrounds who have been mysteriously transported to Nashville to prevent the phasers—a shadowy group who wear special headphones that cancel any music in the surrounding area—from killing music all over the world. PW talked with Wooten about writing the book, and harnessing the power of music.
Publishers Weekly: Your new book is both an extension and departure from your previous book, The Music Lesson, which was published in 2006.
Victor L. Wooten: In the first book, I wanted to make everybody feel good, and feel happy, and realize that whether you play an instrument or not, you still have a relationship with music, and to show how music is easy to play. And I also want people to see the relationship between music and life. Music isn’t about music, it’s about life. In The Spirit of Music, I wanted to continue with a thought that I introduced in the first book. The narrator—which is sort of my character—has a conversation with music itself, and music says that she’s sick. She’s dying. She says people don’t feel me anymore. Music says to me that I have more of a relationship with computers than I do with humans anymore.
How do you deal with that problem in the new book?
In The Spirit of Music we go further with that point. Music is disappearing around the world. And these few characters: my character, Victor, a guy from Africa named Ali, and a woman from Japan named Seiko, they just meet up, some kind of way; maybe music brings them together. But they know that they're on a journey somewhere, sent to help save music. And so the story continues with that, but throughout the book, I'm hopefully calling on the reader to join in this crusade.
What do those three characters represent?
Well, the characters represent what I see happening in real life. There have been a lot of studies, showing the benefit of learning music at a very young age. They know when to talk and how to listen. And it's been proven that learning music at a young age will help you in all the other subjects. Music is about math, we deal with numbers. We build relationships in the motor skills that it takes to play. Kids learning piano have all their digits working. There’s a whole lot going on.
We may be losing live music, but at the same time, by using the computer, music is available everywhere. How do you explain that dichotomy?
It’s the same way as saying food is everywhere. But if it's only fast food, and genetically modified food, we have to question how healthy is the food. So it's the same with music. Everything on the radio is pitch-corrected [by software] and quantized, which means all the rhythms are also corrected by software, but it also means we've lost the musical frequencies as well as everything that's compressed. So we're not getting all the dynamics of the music. So yes, we're hearing it and there's more music that you can find everywhere. But when you find it, you listen to it by yourself, not in a group. And are you really receiving the music? That's the question I’m raising.
In the book the fictional villains you present are called the phasers (who use music-nullifying headphones), who function as an allegorical device in your critique of technology. Can you tell us more about the phasers?
The phasers have a goal to eradicate music, because they understand the power of music, even more than most of us musicians. Music brings people together. Music is power, but that is threatening to the phasers. So they have some kind of headphones that can be used to put the music out of phase in the immediate area around them so that it literally disappears. And then there's a few characters in there that understand and recognize these phasers and are trying to eradicate them.
We know about your musical influences, but for the purposes of writing this book, who, or what are your literary influences?
My brothers grew up reading interesting things, including The Bible. But then they started reading spiritual books, like, Autobiography of a Yogi, books by Richard Bach and this whole spiritual course called A Course in Miracles, and different things like quantum physics. And so me being the youngest of five brothers, I just always followed them, which allowed me to get into these kinds of books very early on. They started pointing out books to me. And that led me into my love of nature. I started reading about the outdoors, On Walden Pond, and [I became interested in] a great man Tom Brown Jr. and his book The Tracker. I studied the outdoors and nature skills for 10 years with him and that influenced my music. A lot of things influenced me, but the literary part of it started with me following my brothers.
Can you compare the experience of composing with words to write this book to composing music?
They’re kind of both the same. But they do have their differences. If I only compose notes, I can say what I want to say. And you don't have to understand what I'm saying, if the music just makes you groove or move, then that's cool. That's enough. But as soon as I say a word, I understand that words can be misconstrued or misunderstood. But, you know, it's just like adding another room onto your house. It's more you’ve got to deal with, more you got to build and more you got to clean. So in other words, I have to be better [when I’m using words]. I have to be twice as good if I'm going to add music and words together.
With music venues cancelling shows and closed because of the pandemic, your book is both timely and uncanny.
I started writing this book in 2011. But I wasn't feeling it, so I put it down. I started rewriting the book again in 2017 and finished it in 2019. And then the pandemic hit in 2020. And I'm like, wow: something's lining up here. This book is needed.