1. You’re a multi-instrumentalist; what instruments do you play? Do you have a favorite?
For Middle Eastern repertoire I mostly play octave mandolin, oud, and shawm. Octave mandolin is extremely versatile and so it tends to be my primary instrument of choice for Middle Eastern dance. I also perform a lot on Jazz upright bass.
2. You first became interested in medieval music when your professor pointed out that jazz and medieval monophonic music utilize the same improvisational skills (and you’re teaching a class on Middle Eastern melody improvisation at TribalCon!). What is it about improvising music that you love?
I love being creative and coming up with melodies on the spot that are, for that moment, truly an expression of me. It’s such a rush to play something that is based upon the parameters of the original tune and scale, and then create counter melodies that compliment the original tune and show off my skill as a music writer.
3. When did you first realize that you were a musician? Was there a particular, pivotal moment or influence?
My first inspiration came at the age of 16 in the form of was a big band jazz clarinetist named Benny Goodman. I soon took up Clarinet, but switched to upright bass when I was in college. In graduate school, I got into medieval music and learned to play a lot of different early period music instruments. I love playing instruments that are very unique; it really brings out the true rebel in me.
Al Cofrin earned a BA in Jazz Theory & Composition at the University of Texas in the early 1980s. He became interested in medieval music when a professor pointed out that both jazz and medieval monophonic music utilize similar improvisation skills. He continued graduate music studies and worked on a thesis project of medieval monophonic songs and dances resulting in the 1995 publication of pre-15th century transcriptions and a collection of Renaissance dance music. The publication of his work led to the desire to perform the music he had worked with for so long. Istanpitta was born in 1994 and continues to play for concert venues and universities across the country. Al’s studies in Early Music Performance including tutoring from well known teachers; Shira Kammen, Tom Zajac, Hanna Goodwin, and Robert Mealy. He has been on faculty for several Early Music related workshops including San Francisco Early Music Workshop.
Multi-instrumentalist Al Cofrin is the director of Istanpitta Early Music Ensemble. In 2006 Al began playing with the Celtic band, Clandestine, who has performed worldwide. His performance in the folk Celtic genre brings a high energy drive to the stage which has become a perfect match for Clandestine’s unique sound. He is also member of Teribus Pipe Band which performs at numerous Scottish Festivals around the US. He is also the director of the local Houston mixed quartet, Allegro Non Troppo, which performs for local functions in the Houston Metroplex area including weddings, receptions and local concert series. Al has been a professional jazz musician in the Houston area for 15 years and was the principal clarinettist for the Houston area’s Pasadena Symphony.
Al Cofrin is by day a NASA flight controller for the Shuttle Program in which he is designated as a Flight Activities Officer (FAO) working in the front room of Mission Control during Shuttle flights. When Al Cofrin was 13 years old, he watched a movie called “Marooned” which was a Science Fiction drama that was related to the NASA Skylab missions but was written in 1969. The film was based upon an Apollo spacecraft that was unable to fire its Deorbit engine to return to earth and was stuck in orbit. The rescue work of the NASA Houston flight controllers fascinated Al and from that point a goal was in place to become a NASA flight control for all manned space flight projects. At the same a strong interest in music had developed and he was also interested in pursuing a music career as well. Al went into college with the intent on getting a double degree in two somewhat unrelated fields. Aerospace Engineering and Musicology. This involved 6 years of college to complete and a significant school loan debt. But in the end, Al become a NASA flight controller and was working on the weekend as a professional musician. The musical aspects become a creative outlet in contrast to the nerd world of NASA. Al was a front room mission flight controller for the shuttle program for 20 years and is now a back room operator for the Experiment planning division for NASA. He is also a professional Jazz upright bassist for the Houston and Galveston areas, as well as the director of Istanpitta Early Music Ensemble that tours and provides musicology lectures and concerts to Universities in the North American continent. Al is also on faculty for several different workshops dealing with early music, Celtic and Middle Eastern music.
Classes with Al Cofrin
Middle Eastern Melody Improvisation 1 & 2:
Class will cover step progression of methods towards learning how to work with modal scales to develop melodies to form a dance tunes. Forms and techniques will be covered in order to allow the a melody player to provide appropriate melody support for middle eastern dance. These methods are based upon melody applications used during the 12-14th c. lower Europe. Prerequisites: Students will need to be using acoustic melody producing instruments and must be familiar with the instrument. (this will not be class on how to play your instrument). Pitch standard to be used is A=440.