Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Mourning God's Favorite Beefcake

Drew and Joe of God's Favorite Beefcake

I've been away from the blog for a long time, busy with other endeavors. I was beginning to wonder what would bring me back to writing and now I've found out. It is the violent deaths that have shaken us in Seattle in the past month, particularly those of the musicians, among the 5 gunned down, at our lovely musical haven, Cafe Racer.

There is interconnectedness in our community. Symphony musicians play chamber music with freelancers. Improvisers become composers and bring classically trained performers on board for one-off events. Former students grow up and become colleagues. Someone lays down tracks for a CD and the collaboration spawns a huge live event drawing in hundreds of listeners. And after a while, we all become aware of each other's work and can appreciate the web of artistry that exists here in Seattle.

God's Favorite Beefcake is a Seattle band. They are connected to the new vaudeville/burlesque scene playing as house band at the Moisture Festival, a kind of homespun scene where you'd see kooky jugglers, comedians, aerialists, magicians and some uncategorizeable acts like the zipcode guy, who has memorized every zipcode in America and can recite details about local coffee shops and one-of-a-kind theaters. They were also involved in the creation of the now closed Circus Contraption, a slightly risque and downscale Cirque du Soleil...think duct tape, old bed sheets and balls-to-the-walls moxie rather than Vegas-style slickery...

My family first heard Drew (aka Schmootzi the Clod) and Joe (aka Meshuguna Joe) of GFB at the Moisture Festival. Their music was down and dirty and hilarious and beautiful. Once you'd seen these guys, you wouldn't soon forget them. We used to run into Joe or Drew near the Whole Foods, and strike up a conversation, just because we're fans. They were friendly, but they were just busy leading their lives, on and off stage. We were always just a little extra delighted when we'd go out to an event and discover that their band was part of the line-up.

Drew was also the idea man behind the Racer Sessions at Cafe Racer. The cafe is a hang-out spot near said Whole Foods, in the Roosevelt neighborhood. Very chill and welcoming vibe, featuring the OBAMA room (Official Bad Art Museum of Art). One semester long ago, when I used to run a chamber music program at the Seattle Conservatory, we had a very talented high school-aged cellist, David Balatero, play a Martinu trio that I coached. We lost touch, of course, but when I started putting together our improvising orchestra Scrape, with Jim Knapp and Eyvind Kang, someone mentioned that David was around - now in addition to being a cellist, he'd been playing electric bass, creating a few bands, writing music and improvising. David played on our inaugural Scrape concert in September 2010.

David and some other 20-something musicians also knew Drew and hung out at Cafe Racer and started curating the weekly jams known as the Racer Sessions. Some of the folks who play there are proteges of trumpeter/composer/jazz professor Cuong Vu, a longtime collaborator with Pat Metheny. I know Cuong through his wife, Cristina Valdes, a pianist who toured with the Bang On a Can Allstars and with whom I have been privileged to play a number of concerts.

The Racer Sessions invite musical commentary and community participation. The curator either proposes a theme or creates a composition or improvises something, and whoever has brought an instrument can comment or reflect musically on what they've just heard. The session begins promptly at 8 pm and ends at 10. There are high school students, said 20-somethings, folks with grey hair and everyone in between. The few times that I made it over there, I saw Drew. I hear that he sometimes jammed at the Racer Sessions.  If you absolutely had to characterize the genre, you'd be forced to call it free jazz, but there's so much spillover into a realm that is now defining contemporary classical music. You hear guitars, saxophones, keyboards, percussion, cello and bass, singers, violins and electronics...ukuleles and clarinets...

Racer Sessions was written up in a big feature article in the New York Times over a year ago, recognizing the beautiful, welcoming, intense musical incubator it is. It feels very uniquely Seattle, very local.

Cafe Racer is still closed post-tragedy, but Racer Sessions decided to go forward with its Sunday jam, meeting in the alley behind the building. There were so many hundreds of people there: people sat on the ground and stood elbow to elbow - not a familiar experience for Seattleites accustomed to a generous personal space bubble. The 45 minute improvisation the musicians spun out was by turns somber, angry, keening, transporting. A low drone very slowly gave way to fragments that were not quite riffs, rhythmic energies that were not quite grooves, but that might have wanted to be, under different circumstances.  Crescendoes were on a epic scale, both in duration and sheer volume, but the musicians seemed to have a collective understanding that healing was not going to take place only at a fevered pitch. There were troughs of peaceful quiet, and the 12 or so musicians would take time out to listen to their friends play for a spell in smaller combinations. Each performer seemed to exist both in the realm of their own musical decision-making and in a realm governed by a larger consciousness. Everyone looked emotionally drained by the end.

I heard a story that a woman who does body work and lives nearby was having trouble working the day of the shooting, because there was a "thickness" in the air. She said that the victims had died so suddenly and violently that their souls were in shock and confused and lingering at the site. She performed a Native American ritual that she knew and said she felt their souls knew afterward to move on.

It felt like the barrier between the here and the hereafter, usually so definite, became very nearly transparent in that alley last Sunday. We are all connected. Life connects to itself.

Please listen to God's Favorite Beefcake here: Follow Yer Dreams

And immortalized here playing Momma Set the House on Fire.

Love you guys.

Link to NPR's audio postcard of Sunday's Racer Session.

Here is a link to the ChipIn site for donations benefiting the victims' families.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Dr. Faustus...or, who took the cult out of culture?

Thomas Mann, music lover

Reading Thomas Mann's "Dr. Faustus: The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend" was a seminal event in my life. Now, I enjoy the occasional turgid and difficult read as much as the next girl, but that book sat on my bedside bookshelf for many a year before I dared crack it open. Mann's reputation as a dense and complicated writer frankly scared me off. 

At some point I gathered my courage and opened it up, though, and was immediately captivated. I'm fairly certain that had I read this novel as an undergraduate, I would have elected to become a Thomas Mann scholar. Mann manages to speak about music, the music I've immersed myself in as a violist/chamber musician/classical musician, in a way that ties together the personal, the political and the philosophical while spinning a harrowing yarn of choices gone wrong.

Of course, our hero strikes the Faustian bargain: twenty-four years of unheralded compositional brilliance in exchange for his soul. I don't feel a spoiler alert is required here. 

Tomes have been written analyzing this work, and this blog post is not going to pretend to be a scholarly contribution.

There is, however, an observation that I've been wanting to make. 

One facet of the book focuses on the isolation of the creative artist in Western culture. Beethoven, Goethe, Schoenberg and van Gogh would all be fine examples of this. The individual generative artist who lives apart from society to a certain extent, imagining worlds, in touch with the muse, but a tortured soul regarded as strange and "other" by his neighbors. 

There is a wonderful diatribe in Dr. Faustus about how music became divorced from tradition over the years culminating in late 19th/early 20th century Europe, particularly in Germany. A secondary character, a musicologist, expounds on how the "cult", meaning our deep religious, physical, social sense of connection through collective ritual and celebration was gradually erased from "culture" - rendering the musical arts an experience associated with thought, aesthetics, philosophy and high-mindedness (whatever that is!). The musicologist bemoans not only the loss of deep-rooted connection to a common experience, but also the tragedy of the individual composer's experience - cast away on his own deserted island of creativity.

Who took the cult out of culture?

The book becomes an elegy on the downfall of German culture in the 20th century through which we can appreciate the tragedy of the German people and Nazism, and not just the horror. 

I recently watched Werner Herzog's stunning "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" on my computer (therefore, sadly, no 3D for me). This brilliant film is not only about the gorgeous cave painting in the Chauvet Caves of France, but is a meditation on the human experience circa 30,000 years ago. There are beautiful dialogues with the archeologists who painstakingly research the artifacts and paintings in and around the caves and lovingly immerse themselves in imagining lost worlds - seeking to connect with states of mind from pre-history. 

One of the scientists recounts a latter-day experience with an Australian aboriginal who leads him on a tour of rock paintings around the Australian Outback. The aboriginals, whose artistic methods had remained unchanged since the Stone Age until around the 1970's, were in the habit of restoring colors and damaged bits of paintings when they happened upon one another's work. As the scientist and the aboriginal encountered a painting in need of fixing and the man set about his work, the scientist asked him what he was painting. The reply: "I am not painting; it is the spirit who is painting."

This is such a beautiful example of shared spirit, a so-called "primitive" awareness of connection to the muse. We, in Western culture, are hungry and yearning for commonality. There's a lot to recover.

On a side note, flutes made from bone have been found at these French archeological sites. When replicated, they are found to play a pentatonic scale. I am imagining 30,000 year old pentatonic melodies and time is melting away.

Cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger composed the deeply moving score to Herzog's film. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is worth listening to as much as being watched. Here's about fifteen minutes of live performance from the score. This music sounds as modern as it does ancient. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Butch Morris and the anacrusis.

A little over a year ago I met one of this earth's great musicians, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris. He's also a fine example of a human being. He's the kind of guy who always carries a little notebook around and writes down his ideas as they hatch, for future reference and sharing. Butch has been a cornetist, composer, Vietnam vet...and since 1985 has led "Conduction" gatherings. I had the great musical privilege of working with and learning from Butch in his Seattle workshop and performance at the Cornish College of the Arts.

Conduction, a term he coined for musical purposes, is a means of guiding a group improvisation. Not limited to dynamics and speed, he has invented hand gestures that can capture melodic material, indicate accompaniment and set up a structure involving development and repeats. I believe there are five different kinds of repeats!

Butch Morris at Cornish, 2010
Butch resides in New York and works with certain musicians there, but he also travels the world leading mixed groups in his Conduction workshops. By mixed, I mean that he prefers to assemble folks who wouldn't normally be in an ensemble together: orchestral players alongside jazz musicians alongside rock drummers, folk singers, accordionists, you name it.

Here's what Butch has to say about musical commonality:

"As musicians, we all share a common language. We may speak in different dialects, vocabularies, categories or styles, but the language is music. Whatever the tradition from which it springs, music has certain intrinsic properties beyond harmony, melody and rhythm. Although these properties may ultimately resist analysis, music will always allow musicians to communicate from vastly differing perspectives."

His aim is to get everybody off their normal musical modus operandi and move toward truly listening and responding. To let go of the big solo jazz ego. To get away from the virtuosic lick. To depart from genre-based clichés. 

Butch considers himself to be the improviser and the ensemble to be the instrument. You might be tempted to think that sounds a lot like Gustav Mahler's monomaniacal vision of himself as the artiste before the music workers o' the orchestra, but because Butch's system of gestures invite each individual to develop their own idea, including choice of pitches, rhythms, inflections, etc. within the designated structural framework a creative environment ensues where Butch is not dictator but leader, and the musicians are organized in a way that propels them beyond ego to common cause. Even as some players are designated soloists and others accompanists. The thing is, you never know in advance which you might be.

So what about the anacrusis?

Here's a Merriam-Webster definition of anacrusis: "one or more notes or tones preceding the first downbeat of a musical phrase." In other words, a pick-up note, or notes.

In Butch's parlance, though, the anacrusis becomes an extended means of making shape and expression within the phrase. The implementation of an anacrusis indicates the musician's awareness of gathering up energy to point to the arrival in a phrase...a phrase that they are inventing on the fly. So that improvisation is not a matter of "let your fingers do the walking" as my good friend Philippe describes it, but an immersion in the shape of space, with docking stations, flight paths and all that built in.

In other words, how you start, where you're going and what you do when you get there. Sounds like a winning formula for making a phrase come alive, and one that classical musicians and teachers could have a lot of fun with.

The anacrusis talk got me thinking about the term 'appoggiatura', too, and I'm developing my own definition for the musical implications of leaning. But that is for another post and another day.

By the way, my Seattle colleague, the stunning violinist/composer/dancer/improviser Paris Hurley, who also played the Cornish show back in 2010, blogged about Butch on the Degenerate Art Ensemble's website as a guest writer - post from 23rd Nov. 2011.

Addendum, post-publication: HERE is a BBC news clip where you can hear Butch talk about Conduction and see him explain some of the gestures to a group of musicians who have sheet music in front of them - a rarity in the scope of his performances.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gidon speaks out

Gidon Kremer
Gidon Kremer, violin hero and champion of new music for many decades now, has released two letters (one included here) detailing his frustration with the trend toward the "celebritization" of classical musicians. His complaints about fêting "rising stars" and name-dropping at the famous Verbier Festival are making the Internet rounds.

From his comments: "...all of us have something to do with the poisonous development of our music world, in which “stars” count more than creativity, ratings more than genuine talent, numbers more than…. sounds."

I have been thinking about the marketing error which hasn't done our music world any favors; namely, the tendency to conflate the experience of attending a classical concert with being blown away by a rock show. Be dazzled by superstars! Conductors! Soloists! Perhaps in revealing designer gowns! Head-banging and long hair! And even laser light shows. Check out the youTube Symphony Orchestra vids

What I'm missing is the acknowledgment of the individual composer's voice: the person who works largely alone, assembling the sounds that fills his mind and heart into meaningful structures; the musician who sorts what's worthy of staying on the page, struggles with what's meaningful, what's do-able, what deserves to be written and heard, what is schlocky and irrelevant, what may seem banal, but won't get out of her head anyway, and therefore should find its place in the score; the artist whose ideas can only be expressed through his own unique use of musical language.

I actually think this person is as vital to our democratic freedoms as the novelist or the poet. These people wrestle with the ambiguity of reality. A good novel has no stock characters or predictable outcomes. It is an exploration of a story that reveals the many sides of truth and allows the reader to ponder his or her own assumptions. The innermost thoughts of an artist, channeled into his work, reveal the complexity of sorting and sifting it all. This is the opposite of holding black and white views: a practice that makes a blunt instrument of politics.

Great music, which comes from a composer's struggle with his own inner soundscape, is ultimately about us. Creating a personal grammar, an individual sense of inflection, devising structures, conjuring sound colors, imagining worlds that have never existed...these are all in the realm of the composer's charge. As one of my favorite living composers, Osvaldo Golijov, (hear Dawn Upshaw singing "How Slow the Wind") says: music has "the power to build castles of sound in our memories." The truths that these artists uncover have the power to remain in our own hearts, memories and minds, revealing something of ourselves to ourselves. Music causes us to perceive differently, and that is to our benefit.

As a kid, when I was feeling alienated, I often thought of Brahms as my best friend. I wonder how many other people have felt this kind of kinship with another soul through their music? I just think that promoting the performer above the touching of consciousness to consciousness, composer to listener, debases that primary relationship.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Confronting stupid, with thanks to Seth Godin

Seth Godin aims high
Every morning, I get a new post from Seth Godin in my inbox. For those of you familiar with him, I would wager that you've appreciated his wit and insight into the nature of the new economy, what kind of work will be needed from us in the future, and how we can meet the challenges of a drastically and rapidly change global scene. While his comments are coming from a marketing/tech point of view, I have found his words potently germane to my profession.

Here is today's post, in its entirety:

"Some gigs are process oriented: Set up a process correctly and the rest takes care of itself. It's challenging and frightening to get it right, but after that, you merely have to do the hard work of showing up each day. Do the work and you'll get the results.
Other jobs require a different sort of hard work: the guts to be wrong, a confrontation with the risk of being stupid.
The comedian who fears that each new joke might fail, the writer who has to say something new, the leader who must improvise, solving new problems on a regular basis. What makes this work hard is that it might not work.
More and more people now have jobs that require them to confront the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis."

My friend who performs with the Oregon Symphony has been telling me about her term for section string players: "tutti swine". While this may seem derogatory to section string players, it is in fact a gallows humor jab from a consummate insider: an orchestral position can be all risk and no reward.

In Godin's example of confronting "the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis" he presupposes the silver lining that a person just might get it right and reap the benefit of seeming actually quite clever, thereby proceeding, possibly, to scaling up a business plan, making money, having a platform for trotting out new ideas or products, becoming well known, or whatever the next step may be. In an orchestra, once you've won the highest position/chair there is, there is no opportunity for advancement or larger voice in the shaping of the ensemble, artistically speaking. 

In orchestral life it is utterly unacceptable to appear stupid. That is, the player who misses notes, plays out of sync with the section, aims high musically but doesn't quite succeed, will stick out of the larger texture, call attention to himself, and be on the short list for a pink slip. There isn't room for "it might not work" in an orchestra.

To pursue the comparison further, out of a sense of self preservation, an orchestral musician would be well-advised to choose Option 1: set up a process correctly, and show up each the work and get the results. This actually works to a certain extent in an orchestra. Musicians these days are exquisitely trained professionals with extraordinarily fine techniques to rely on. Trouble is, music is not automation. It's a human need, and musicians go into the field because they feel music so deeply, so inextricably as part of their identities.

Can you imagine automating your identity?

The orchestral musicians I know are far from callous beings. They are sensitive, highly trained artists who are doing their best to play at a high level under daunting work conditions. Today, Greg Sandow, who writes about the current state of classical music, quotes extensively from a report authored by Robert Levine, Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. His searing remarks link the myth of the omniscient conductor to the culture of infantilization within the ranks of the orchestra.

Sandow's larger question is how this squelching of artistic identity within the orchestra is linked to the trouble the classical world finds itself in today. That would be evidenced by the folding of many ensembles, the recent bankruptcy filing of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the extended strike at the Detroit Symphony, declining audiences, etc.

So I do ask these questions: Does the rankist (see definition by Robert W. Fuller) symphony orchestra model need to change to reflect our current democratic sensibilities? Do conductors need to change the way they view their job description? Are orchestras squandering their most precious resource, namely the artistry and creative vision of their musicians? Is there a way to make room for risk-taking within the ranks without jeopardizing the artistic cohesion of the ensemble?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting in touch with your Inner Punk.

Flux of Pink Indians

I was never part of the punk scene. The music is too loud and I am not an anarchist at heart. But we classical musicians are missing something in our esthetic.  Punk screams from its own primal creative soup. I am of the belief that it exists in classical compositions - Beethoven was way punk. Listen to the Grosse Fuge. It screams. Check out Bartok's Fourth String Quartet or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. 

I spend a lot of time teaching music. It can be wonderful, and it can be challenging. My students are lovely people, and I enjoy them very much. It takes anyone a ton of devotion, time and work to learn an instrument and they are definitely stepping up to the plate. But it's hard as a teacher to guide them on the path to finding their musical identities, while simultaneously equipping them with the requisite technical skills to support their musicianship.

Balance can be hard to achieve. Some teachers emphasize technique so much that their students seem to have seriously underdeveloped musical sensibilities. On the other hand, students who go out into the musical world (professional world is what I'm thinking) without adequate technical preparation are going to experience severe career disappointments.

I think about musicians on the other side: non-classical, non-conservatory-trained musicians who taught themselves guitar, wrote songs in their bedrooms, learned some chords on a keyboard and sang along...and I think sometimes all of our training to do things at a really high level can get in the way. For instance, I know a lot of superb instrumentalists who are too scared to try improvising. I know I was. It took me six weeks of going to jazz lessons with David Balakrishnan before I was no longer experiencing abject terror at the notion of improvising two bars of music. And for all the immersion in great music we have, very few of us ever try our hand at composing or even arranging.

Back to the students. I try very hard to get my students to play technically correctly, because good technique is what makes it easier to play well. And playing well is the goal, yes? But I wonder if there's something of putting the cart before the horse here. Long ago, I taught a little girl violin. She was a lefty and a real cutie pie, starting at age 5. She came into her second violin lesson and absolutely ripped through the first Twinkle variation. She probably broke a few hairs on that micro-bow, if you know what I mean. She was punk. She struggled to get a handle on technical issues that didn't come as easily as for other students, especially bowing, which, for a lefty, is sometimes counter-intuitive. But she pushed her way through and today is a professional violinist who performs on both modern and baroque instruments.

It's one thing for a youngster like her to show up at age 5 with all that uninhibited verve to tame and focus, but what about older students? Fifth and sixth graders who are just starting out but who are already aware of the need to do things "the right way"? Can we teachers open the door to that room where their inner punk dwells? Do they need to find that door themselves? Or should we be simply giving students permission to explore what's in there? Maybe just knowing it's good to explore is all that is needed. 

Finally, I would like to offer this video  from violinist Nigel Kennedy, who once described the essence of it all as being "animal". When was the last time you saw a performance like this in a concert hall?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Three Levels of Knowing

Architect Matthew Frederick

Returning from St. Martin, I stopped over in Chicago to get some repairs done on my viola (kudos to violinmaker supreme Michael Darnton!), and had some hours free to roam the streets. There's a place I love across from the Art Institute called the Chicago Architecture Foundation - they sponsor tours of local buildings, offer lectures and classes, and they have a fun shop full of books and cool design-ware. My younger son is thinking about going into design of some sort, and I spotted a book called "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School"for him. Flipping through it, I could see it was a keeper. I think my husband and I have spent more time taking in its pearls of wisdom than our 13 year old, but that's another story.

Author Matthew Frederick shares his insights, one per page with a facing illustration, on topics as wide-ranging as how to draw a line, the need to express zeitgeist, or the relative width (in inches) of summer people versus winter people. Page 45 is titled "Three levels of knowing", and I have been playing with this idea in my mind for weeks now.

Here is what Frederick writes:

"SIMPLICITY is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations."

I love this summation of the evolution of awareness. It offers a great framework for considering education, for assessing where a person is at in the course of a project or a creation, or as a way of evaluating musical compositions.

It's an interesting lens through which to view 20th century classical music (yes, I still use the moniker "classical" to define 1000 years of multi-genre, multi-national music). Schoenberg and his tradition-busting 12 tone system cleared the way for some extremely complex compositions. In fact, in many universities, composition students were obliged to embrace complexity and shun vestiges of tonality. Serial approaches that determined not only sequences of pitches, but also durations of notes and dynamics certainly had at their core an iron-clad guiding principle, but could be extremely difficult for a listener to make sense of. As a music student in the 80's I remember playing a lot of student compositions that required me to do mathematical computations to figure out exactly how that measure was supposed to line up. Unfortunately, in too many cases a lack of clarifying pattern and connection often rendered the performing experience woefully unsatisfying. Complexity for the sake of avoiding simplicity is a misguided impulse.

As a side note, I would like to state that I find Schoenberg's own music tremendously compelling. His students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, were masters as well and composed music that is tightly conceived and emotionally rich.

As the century wore on, the backlash against complexity crystallized around minimalism. Composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams wove long musical tapestries from tiny bits of material. Glass is sometimes accused of being boring and simplistic. Having performed several of his string quartets I can say from experience that they are highly effective works that galvanize the listener's attention as the pieces traverse their long arcs. There is a cohesive architecture in play, with truly powerful climaxes and resolutions.

The problem is, the door had now been opened to legitimize dabbling in "faux-minimalism": music that uses but a few chords and lacks a larger vision. I hear too many compositions nowadays that use little and convey little. A simplistic musical view that fails to reach any depth isn't going to do much for the soul.

Grappling with complexity may be a necessary step for emerging from the adolescence of simplicity, whether in the game of life or of music.

May we all have the opportunity to grow through these stages and emerge as informed beings!