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Meet a Musician: Dave Doyle finds his home in the symphony and improv

Meet a Musician: Dave Doyle finds his home in the symphony and improv

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Dave Doyle

Dave Doyle plays French horn in the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, took part in the F-Art Ensemble and is the band and orchestra manager at Moore Music.

Dave Doyle describes himself as a sort of “Jekyll and Hyde” in his musical pursuits.

He plays French horn in the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, performing the works of Beethoven, Mahler and Brahms. And he also took part in the F-Art Ensemble, an improvisational group known for what he calls “almost freaky music.”

“I do have to be super-disciplined having been in the symphony for 40 years,” he said. “But, that’s where the Jekyll and Hyde comes in. I go, possibly on the same night, to play with the F-Art Ensemble, and there’s nothing normal about it. It’s very free and open. You play what you want to, not just the notes on the page. I feel I’m so odd, because I do that. I cross boundaries between two very distinct styles of music.”

Doyle, who also works as band and orchestra manager at Moore Music, spoke in a recent interview about his years with the F-Art Ensemble, about how the French horn is a “treacherous instrument” and about dismantling a piano onstage.

How did you get your start in music?

I grew up in Lynchburg, Va. My first instrument was the flutophone. There was a year or two of that, and then band tryouts. I picked the coronet, played that for a year or two, and then got switched by my band director in middle school to French horn.

I went to Tennessee Tech for my undergrad and got my own French horn when I was a junior. That made a big difference. I really put the hours into it, and got better fast when I had my own brand new horn.

And then, I moved to Greensboro for grad school in 1978. I can’t overestimate how big it was coming to Greensboro. That changed my life completely. I discovered that music wasn’t just playing a brass instrument. While I was in school, I made friends and became part of a little jazz quintet playing guitar. I had learned jazz guitar during those college years.

And, me and my friends started the band that has been the most important to me, the F-Art Ensemble.

How did the F-Art Ensemble come about?

It was a free improvisation group. When I came to Greensboro, I was hearing new music that really stretched boundaries, things like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an ensemble of African Americans. Their music was completely free, no pre-set melody.

I also met (guitarist) Eugene Chadbourne, who I’ve been playing with longer than almost anybody. At the time I met him, he was also doing his own version of free improvisational music. And having somebody right there like that, and within a month be playing with them making this almost freaky music, it was so much fun.

Who are some of your influences?

My biggest and first influence, no doubt, is The Beatles. I was the perfect age, 8 years old, to get hooked on the early Beatles tunes. As they developed, I developed and their music was sort of the soundtrack of my life.

Playing the coronet, one of the first things that hit my ear to develop me as a musician, amazingly, was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. He played that coronet, and it was sort of poppy. It wasn’t your typical easy-listening kind of music that people playing trumpet would do back in the day. My mom had the Herb Alpert albums, and I was very impressed with ones like “The Lonely Bull.”

I also found classical music around that time. The symphonies of Mahler, somehow or another I discovered them, and it blew my mind how an orchestra could make such powerful sounds.

In seventh grade, I switched to French horn, one of the biggest, most triumphant things in the Mahler symphonies. I was totally hooked by then.

How would you describe your music?

My music is “we” music. I’m generally an ensemble person. And the ensemble can be as few as three or four people, and as many as 20.

What’s your creative process like?

My creative process is based on the improvisation thing, and it’s a wonderful tool for any musician to learn — to use your ears to be able to play fewer notes and make them fit, like pieces of a puzzle, with other musicians who are doing the same thing. They’re not reading the notes on a page. They’re creating the notes in the air, so to speak. It really helps a lot with your musical development.

Do you incorporate the French horn into your music outside the symphony?

The horn is considered one of the more treacherous instruments of the orchestra to play, because the mouthpiece is really tiny, and the smaller the piece that goes on your mouth, the harder it is to produce the right notes every time.

To me, it’s been a blessing to be able to play that loud instrument for so many years and play in a section with four other people. It’s amazing. But, I also have found a way to use it with the improv group, where I do things like pull slides, so that some of the slides are open. When you blow air through, and there’s no slide, it makes different sounds you would never imagine. I put water in parts of it, or mute it in some ways, so it just comes out as a little squeaky sound.

If you could open a show, or play with any artist, who would it be, and why?

These days, one of my favorite artists I listen to a lot is the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Metheny’s music is all over the map. He never releases two records in a row that sound anything like each other. He does such a variety. He’s even done records that were almost noise records. His last three records have been among the most amazing releases of his career, and his career runs back to the ‘70s.

What would you say is the funniest or weirdest thing that has ever happened at one of your shows?

In the mid-1980s, the F-Art Ensemble played a lot at what was called the Nightshade Cafe, a little basement dive on Tate Street — it’s not there anymore. Every evening was totally different. We would have concepts sometimes for our evening. One of them, one time, was to destroy a piano. And we did.

We took sledgehammers and saws and screwdrivers, and we took two hours to dismantle a piano, until it was nothing but splintered wood and pieces of metal. The people in the place were just rocking and rolling, just loving it. People took pieces home with them.

Sometimes, I’ll be walking in the park, and I’ll see someone I knew from the ‘80s, and they’ll say, “Man, I still have that box of piano parts from that evening at the Nightshade Cafe.” That’s pretty awesome.

What’s next for you?

For musicians, the last year-and-a-half has been like a tragedy unfolding. It’s hard to get together with other people to make music, when just the act of blowing air was against the rules for a time.

The symphony just started again. We went for 14, 15 months without playing a note.

But, for me, I’m struggling to get my head back together to form the F-Art band again in a safe way. It’s been five years since we last played. We played every month at First Friday in Greensboro for 10 years. Then we fell apart when Mack and Mack closed, the store where we played every month.

Within about a month or two, we want to find some kind of regular monthly evening that we can plan more as an event than a concert. We want it to be special.

— As told to Robert C. Lopez,


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