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Peter Phippen’s new album, “Into the Ancient,” is available digitally today.

EAU CLAIRE — In early March of 1987, local musician Peter Phippen came across a basket of Indian bamboo penny whistles at an old Oakwood Mall store. He was sofa shopping with his wife at the time, and wandered into the World Bazaar Gift Shop out of boredom.

He chose one from the basket and brought it to his lips.

“The first one I picked up had this really odd mode,” Phippen reminisced from his booth at Acoustic Café. “I failed recorder in the fifth grade, but the funny thing is, that day … I picked that thing up and I could just play it.”

Phippen dug through the 25 cent whistles in search of any that played in a diatonic scale. He found a few and purchased them, but he kept finding himself most intrigued by the first one, with the strange scale.

Phippen performed as a bass guitarist at the time. A week or two after finding the penny whistle, Phippen did a show alongside local artist Tiit Raid. During a performance break, Phippen pulled the small flute from his jacket pocket and began to play, earning an odd look from Raid.

The next day, Raid woke Phippen at 8 a.m. — “the middle of night for a rock musician” — and presented him with a big, long bamboo flute from India.

“If you’re going to play flute, play this one,” Raid said.

And that’s where it all started.

Shortly thereafter, Phippen was presented with another bamboo flute by keyboardist Jon Douglas Dixon. While touring in St. Louis, Miss., Phippen had that old, cracked, used flute repaired at a downtown shop.

“At the end of the week when we got ready to leave, I went down and picked it up,” Phippen said. “The first couple notes I played on that thing — the lightbulb went off and it was like, ‘I don’t need these guys. I don’t need a band. The whole song is in this bamboo tube.’ ”

Today, decades and a Grammy Award nomination later, Phippen’s 23rd flute album, titled “Into the Ancient” and co-produced by Ivar Lunde Jr., drops virtually on Spotify and other streaming platforms.

Ancient music come alive

“(‘Into the Ancient’) is a little different than anything else I’ve done, I think, because of the tuning systems I’m using,” Phippen explained. “I’m using really old antique flutes from the early-to-mid-19th century, or maybe even the late 18th century, and they’re from Japan, South America and Africa — the really old ones. And then, I have museum replicas of flutes from Pueblo Bonito and the other four corners, regions, of the United States — so ancient, ancient Pueblo flutes.”

Phippen said around 10 flutes and Lunde’s synthesizer were used to produce the 12-track album.

In a unique approach, Phippen’s flute was recorded first for “Into the Ancient.” Lunde’s synthesizer was then recorded against it. In other words, the flute was not altered to match the synthesizer, the synthesizer was altered to match the flute.

“Into the Ancient” is not an album of traditional flute music from the aforementioned cultures, Phippen emphasized. He said his goal in producing the album was to use ancient notes — notes that don’t match the pitch, scale or tune of modern musical standards.

Since picking up the flute in the 80’s, Phippen has made it his mission to learn about “the origin of the origin of the origin of flute music.” The library became his best friend as he studied books on ancient instruments and listened to vinyl recordings of different flute styles.

“I want to sound like a caveman,” Phippen said. “We don’t know what they were playing. We find all these objects, these musical objects, but wonder what they were playing on them. So you take your best educated guess after you’ve noodled around with your instrument for a month or two.”

He added: “Since I play non-traditionally, anyway, there are traditional Japanese flutists that play circles around me. Same with North Indian flutists and South American flutists and African flutists. I’m not trying to play what they’re playing. I want to use these antique objects and replicas of very, very old flutes to do my own thing, for right or wrong, for better or worse.”

Phippen cautioned that this style of playing may be a bit “ear-bending” for Western ears, but that’s what fascinates him.

To add to the authenticity of his music, Phippen did not alter anything; he let things stand as they were. And aside from some brief pre-recording warm-up, none of the songs on the album were pre-planned or written. He allowed the flute to speak through him in the moment. And all of the songs on the album are first takes.

“I just let the flute be what it is,” he said, “and I didn’t conform to Western pitch. … The first take, for better or worse, has all the emotion. I didn’t want to beat it to death.”

“Into the Ancient” is a product of Projekt Records, based in Portland, Ore. Sam Rosenthal, label manager, said the album is different from a lot of the music Projekt typically produces.

“I think Projekt in general is a little bit less melodic than Peter’s music, so it presents an overall more melodic sound than many of the artists, but not all of them,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “To me, that’s enjoyable just because I like the label having a variety of different things people can listen to.”

Rosenthal has worked with Phippen on past projects, and he said he’s happy to bring more attention to the flutist’s work.

“I think Peter has done music over a long period of time, but it’s been awhile since he’s had something on a label, doing promotion, so I think it’s an opportunity for both the people who know his music and new people to discover what he’s working on,” Rosenthal said. “I just think it’s cool that we’ll get it to a larger audience than the self-release kind of stuff or some of the other labels he’s worked with lately.”

Embracing the ‘blue notes’

Phippen’s philosophy, passed onto him by his mentors over the years, is that there is no right or wrong way to play a note.

“When you find those — we’ll call them (stray notes) ‘blue notes,’ because there are no wrong notes — you turn them up. That adds humanity. And plus everybody will know that I’m not using autotune,” he explained with a laugh. “Some of these instruments — they want to play these notes. I don’t like controlling my music.”

“I just channel whatever’s in the air around me. I don’t even control the flutes themselves. I don’t control the music I’m channeling. It’s, ‘No thinking, no mind; no mind, no problem.’ Pretty Daoist approach.”

For Phippen, playing the flute offers a spiritual experience. In flute playing, there is no “me, my, I,” he explained. There is no such thing as a “master musician” — Phippen maintains that we will always remain a student. If the flute wants to speak through the flutist, it will speak. Everything he plays is unique, unrepeatable and has been allowed by the instrument itself.

And what is Phippen’s key to channeling the music? Play “nothing.”

“I’ve always tried to play nothing,” Phippen said. “Just pull it out of the air. And there are good days and bad days, of course. … The more you play these instruments, the more they’ll respond to you. And if you don’t play them for a long time, they’ll punish you, you know? Music is a cruel mistress. These old, antique bamboo flutes demand constant attention.

“I’m just following the music,” he added. “I’m trying to get out of the way of the music. If I impose my will on the improvisation, then I’ve ruined it. And I’ll actually stop if I catch myself doing that. … That’s me, that’s not the music. So there can be no, ‘Take yourself out of it.’ When I listen to these songs, I can’t even say they’re my songs. I can’t even say they’re songs. I don’t know what they are.”

Mentorship and partnership

Phippen said he has two main mentors in music: Raid and Lunde.

Phippen has worked alongside Lunde on various songs and albums for over 15 years. Lunde is a 20th century experimental electronic and classical music composer and music professor emeritus at UW-Eau Claire. He was educated at the Conservatory of Music in Oslo, Norway, and at the Mozareaum in Salzburg, Austria.

“What (Phippen) has going for him, which is very admirable, is that he has a natural talent for making music. It’s well proportioned and it really sings,” Lunde said in a previous Leader-Telegram story. “His heart is in it, and that makes a difference. What I can say in a short way is that he is a natural.”

Though the pair differ significantly in style and their approach to music, Phippen says their collaborations just work.

“Somehow we meet in the middle,” Phippen said. “I owe a lot to Ivar, he’s taught me a lot in the last 15 years.”

Phippen says collaboration is an important part of his music. Musicians like Raid, Lunde, Victoria Shoemaker, Brian Reidinger, Rahbi Crawford and many others help drive his creative process and sharpen his abilities as an artist.

Phippen says he and Crawford are currently working on a new project. Rosenthal said he and Phippen are also planning his next collaboration with Projekt Records.