By Jessica Freeman-Bertapelle
Sometimes it’s a screech, other times a whine. It may even resemble a human voice.
For saxophonist Geoffrey Deibel, making noise is a passion.
Deibel, assistant professor of saxophone and the new jazz studies director at Wichita State University, says pushing musical boundaries and experimenting with sound provides an “artistic high.”
It’s something he has worked at as an artist, most recently spending part of summer in Europe collaborating with composers Jesse Ronneau and Martin Iddon on separate projects that use saxophone in novel ways. These were the first steps to develop a series of new compositions, he says.
“This was sort of getting together and doing some experimentation,” Deibel says. “A lot of it is sometimes using the saxophone in a very unconventional way to make some very different types of sounds.”
At WSU, Deibel says he’s constantly trying to broaden his students’ musical horizons. Though he says providing a solid foundation in traditional classical and jazz repertoires is essential, he also emphasizes the importance of contemporary works. Much of the cultural changes of the 20th century have not been digested yet and should be explored by artists and musicians, he says.
Thus, he provides students recordings of avant-garde and other lesser-known musical genres. He also requires them to spend time searching websites like Spotify to discover new sounds.
Path to a career
Becoming a musician in today’s world no longer just requires playing the right notes, he says. Instead, he believes it necessitates innovation and carving out a niche.
“There are people out there doing all this different stuff, and [students] need to know about it,” he says. “In order to be noticed and successful as a musician today, you can’t just jump through hoops. You can’t just try to fit into a box that’s prescribed for you.”
But, being a cutting-edge musician wasn’t always an apparent path for Deibel.
In fact, he says his introduction to the instrument was quite conventional. He discovered the saxophone some time around fifth grade through his school’s band program. He says it wasn’t until the end of high school that he started playing seriously. Not long after, he landed a spot at the prestigious Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, studying with renowned saxophonist Frederick Hemke.
Yet, he says a music career wasn’t a foregone conclusion. He double-majored in music and history and after graduation took an internship at the Center for Strategic and International studies, a D.C. think tank.
Still, music beckoned. And something about the art, the people on the music scene, just felt right, he says.
“I like the people in music,” he says. “They tend to be creative and spontaneous and mostly nice. It’s a certain type of person, I think, that’s in music, which I liked quite a lot.”
He decided to earn a master’s in saxophone performance at Northwestern and a doctorate in musical arts from Michigan State University.
Last year, he moved to Wichita from a job at the University of Florida.
Inspiring fearlessness in students
Deibel, a Maryland native, says he had never been here until he arrived last August in his U-Haul.
He wasn’t sure what to expect but says the city grew on him quickly. The arts scene here is one fruitful with collaboration and recent growth, he says. He’s also been impressed by Wichitans’ response to his experimental music and says most are neither strict traditionalists nor ultra-modernists.
“When you’re in a place like Chicago or New York or something like that, I think that people have a really defined set of values or tastes when it comes to music,” he says. “I think people are perhaps more open here. That’s something that is very helpful.”
Deibel’s move has been a fortuitous one. This year, he was named jazz studies director after Craig Owens retired from the position. He serves as principal saxophonist for Wichita Symphony and is closer to the other members of his award-winning chamber ensemble, the h2 quartet, who all now live in nearby Oklahoma.
He’s also forged collaborations with colleagues, including Mark Foley, WSU professor of double and electric bass. The two recently worked together on the Fisch Haus Tuesday Night Jazz Series, fusing jazz with hip-hop, beats, sampling and electric music.
“Geoff is an incredible musician — fearless,” Foley says. “On a whim, I threw out the idea of having him acting as a DJ on turntables, as well as playing sax. He accepted the challenge and brought down the house.”
Don-Paul Kahl, Deibel’s former student at University of Florida, says Deibel inspires that fearlessness in his students. Kahl, who with Deibel’s help won a scholarship to study in Paris, says his guidance helped him realize the importance of furthering the saxophone in contemporary music.
“I know that he will be a person in which many students will find inspiration in,” Kahl says. “For him, music is unrestricted by common or prejudiced accepted norms. He is not afraid to try something new; in fact, he jumps at the opportunity to try anything outside the box.”