Crawling Into Marta Ulvaeus’s Roots to the Source
When I showed up at the KCSB studio, I saw piles of CDs spread out all the way across the control room’s counters and onto its couch: some Alice Coltrane here, some Ornette Coleman there; a Bobby Bradford album on one end, and one from Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the other. There’s a unifying sensibility here, but what to call it? The answer is harder to pin down than it seems.
Dedicated listeners—and this show’s are dedicated indeed—could surely tell just by those artists’ names that I came to sit in on Roots to the Source. A Sunday-afternoon musical excursion that runs to three hours in the summer, the program has explored its own niche, however it’s defined, since 2001 on KCSB. The schedule calls it a jazz show. Some listeners might say it sticks to “avant-garde” jazz, or “experimental” jazz, or “free” jazz. But what does its host think?
“I think terms like ‘avant-garde’ are limiting,” said Marta Ulvaeus, who developed the first version of Roots to the Source in 1983 in Davis and helms it still today. “The artists I love are so inside they’re outside, or they’re so outside they’re inside. I like ensemble playing. I like musicians who really listen to each other, when there’s a chemistry that happens. I’m interested in unusual arrangements and instrumentation. I love to play adventurous music, though I know a lot of people think, ‘I can’t stand this stuff!’ But in the music I play, there’s always something it returns to. As difficult as it might seem, there’s always, say, a certain chord you can hang with.”
Back in her days on UC Davis’s KDVS, she answered a call from one dissatisfied listener whose means of complaint was making a series of honking and squealing noises. Yet, as she’s striven to share her own love of the music she plays and open up a radio gateway into it for all interested parties, she’s received many more positive responses than negative ones. This is apparent in the kinds of calls she gets on the studio line, from listeners deeply engaged in the music and interested in hearing about which musicians she’s seen lately, whose records she’ll be playing next, or what she’s been up to in general.
It’s fitting that Ulvaeus connects so strongly with her listeners, since her own love of the jazz she plays came originally from radio. Upon first joining up with KDVS, she began exploring the station’s music archives. “They had this phenomenal vinyl library there,” she remembered. “I spent a certain number of hours each week in their listening rooms, just listening to it all, A through Z. That shaped my musical tastes.” Steering the show into a Thelonious Monk cover by the saxophonist Arthur Blythe, she illustrated her story sonically. “I heard this guy’s sound, and it was so beautiful to me. I looked for who he played with, then who they played with, then who they played with. All of a sudden, it catapulted me into another world.”
When Roots to the Source caught the right ears at Berkeley’s KPFA, the well-known station invited Ulvaeus to do a number of guest shows over seven years. While there, she enjoyed direct exposure to some of the hosts who had inspired her, including Jim Bennett of Forms and Feelings and Art Sato of In Your Ear. All the while, she remained at KDVS, putting in time as the station’s music director and eventually becoming its “informal jazz director.” Though the schedule was more known for its punk shows than anything else, Ulvaeus managed to win even the hardcore-loving general manager to her kind of music: “He tuned into my show, then started branching out to Ornette and Anthony Braxton.”
Yet the call of the live scene grew stronger and stronger, eventually drawing her to New York in 1994. “I wanted to be near the music,” she said. “I did graduate work at NYU, in their master’s and PhD program in performance studies. I wanted to investigate music and sound as a discursive layer, since it seems the visual is always so privileged. It was a phenomenal time. I worked as an editor while I was there, a job I got through music. I knew a clarinetist who was also an environmental philosopher, and I did editing for him.”
Though her New York years didn’t offer much in the way of radio, Ulvaeus found her skills developing there in other ways: “Since I immersed myself in live performance, I got this whole other sensibility. I was looking through these various theoretical prisms and befriending these incredible creative spirits.” Getting to know the music’s creators, she thinks, has given her a deeper perspective on the material itself and how she can use it on the air. “Having had interactions and friendships with musicians,” she explained, “makes me feel so much closer to the music.”
Moving to Santa Barbara in 2001—though with musically focused trips back to New York every three months since—Ulvaeus was quick to resume her radio career on KCSB. “I got involved with AmeriCorps, a national service program, and ended up working at a school. I fell in love with teaching, and I put together a program that involved radio.” Asking KCSB staff advisor Elizabeth Robinson if she could bring her students in for a tour of the station, Robinson suggested that she start a show of her own. She has thus continued what she calls the “refining and meandering” of the show, taking it in whichever directions seem promising. The very nature of jazz, and especially Roots to the Source’s kind of jazz, makes this easy. “I love the way so-called jazz converses so readily and weaves so beautifully with other genres,” she said. “A professor of mine once called jazz a ‘promiscuous idiom’ that ‘flirts with other genres.’”
“The time goes by so fast, even when it’s three hours,” Ulvaeus observed as the show drew to a close. “I’m so grateful for this music. You just crawl into it. For me, it’s prayerful meditation, a way to connect with something bigger, and I love that. It’s constantly evolving, growing, changing. It accommodates me as much as I accommodate it. The music is improvisatory, but even doing the show is an improvisatory activity. One time, a listener called—I’ve forgotten what he or she said—and the comment made me realize this listener just completely got the subtext coming through the music. That’s because they listened to the flow of the show. They listened to it as a whole piece.”
Roots to the Source airs Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.