Old Man and the Screen

On Thursday morning we performed at a private home for a man who is no longer able to leave the house for luxuries such as concerts. A director of over two hundred films, you've undoubtedly seen his name listed near the top of a set of end credits as they scroll up and out of sight. Lest you assume this was some display of vanity, summoning a quartet to his home, our outing was at the request of the family for a father/grandfather/husband nearing the end of his life. One whose love of music is profound. A director who during his career frequently insisted on hiring a film composer and orchestra for his projects' soundtracks. Let's call him The Director.

The Director is infirm, but there are no IV carts or humming machines inhibiting his movement or the subtle one-corner-of-the-mouth smile that appears when the incorrigible violist of said quartet makes a crack about how "This house is great, but it could really use a painting or two" (we played beneath a Miró not one but two Siquieroses). Sitting beneath a towering, 12' totem as the family and guests absconded for post-concert sandwiches, The Director guided my questions about his work toward discussions of the music within them. Then we agreed that Stephen Daldry's 2002 picture, The Hours, was only The Hours because of the architecture of the Phillip Glass score buoying it. A family friend rounded the couch to ask, without malice (or understanding), if our intention was to "Do this music full-time." The Director's knowing smile squelched any desire on my part for a snide retort. Had The Director and I been at some high-society soiree back in his more agile days, we would have snuck in a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and one-upped each other on disparaging the collagen-jobs parading around the room.

The gratitude of The Director's wife and two adult children was heartfelt and earnest, and as we headed down the front steps, my thoughts began to coalesce: this Haydn and Brahms and Ravel could very well be the last bit of live Kammermusik The Director will experience. It's perhaps morbid to say, and yet the fact remains that this man misses concerts so deeply that his family was ultimately inspired to make the request. Music is vital to more than just musicians.

The only people likely to read this are the proverbial preached-to choir, but I'd venture to guess that this thought has surfaced, epiphany-like, for you as well at some singular moment. Hopefully, and likely, more than once.

Spektral has made every effort to create an event in Theatre of War that moves the dynamic of the concert as temporally-restricted art-moment to something with more tenacity. From the donation of ticket proceeds to the Vet Art Project to the post-concert interviews to the impact of each piece included on the program, it's all built to be like a handprint in hardening concrete. The kind of performance that moves beyond Holy-shit-how-do-they-play-in-parallel-minor-2nds into Holy-shit-I-had-no-idea-and-now-I-must-act.

Thanks to The Director for reminding me that this is the kind of music I want to make.

Realistic Statistic

In the months preparing for our May 23rd/24th performances of Theatre of War, I’ve necessarily been scouring the newspapers and government websites for information on military and civilian stories, not to mention casualty stats, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project may have leapt out of a giddy desire to perform George Crumb’s seminal “Black Angels,” but it has grown into something far greater than I think anything Spektral imagined. Let me take you down the rabbit hole with me for a minute:
10,000 Veterans Affairs suicide hotline calls per month. (Army Times: Apr 22, 2010)
In 2008, an estimated 300,000 returning soldiers are classified as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. (Los Angeles Times: May 11, 2011)
In the first three years of the Iraq War, the World Health Organization estimated 151,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. (Time: Jan 10, 2008)
The benefit of statistics is seeing the macro. The peril is missing the micro. In this case the micro is the human, and when a stat like “18 veterans commit suicide every day” (a Veterans Affairs-reported number), the brain goes sideways at the enormity of it all. 
To put it in perspective: What did I stress out about this week? Learning the viola part for Bernhard Lang’s Schrift/Bild/Schrift. A gouge left on my bumper by a careless parallel-park-er. Improper usage of “their” vs. “its.” 
While Theatre of War won’t be preaching from any pillory, it does intend to open this conversation about the effects of war for soldiers and civilians. What we’re hoping as artists is that for two nights this May, the current wars will become personal…and not just an evening news statistic.

Unprohibited Prophylactic

Ok, new music nerds and fellow compulsives: You’re staring at that 16-3/8” x 20-1/2” Black Angels part and the dark, ominous-looking clouds staining the sky and wondering how you’re going to make it to rehearsal without this $50 score transforming into a dimpled mess. Or perhaps you’re just fastidious about your sheet music like I am, to the point that you have a proprietary category in your task-list app dedicated to the music you’ve loaned out and to whom. Whatever the case, I have, after thoroughly scouring the art-supply stores, found the answer: the Start 2 portfolio by Prat.
It’s black in color, handsome, and…wait for it…has a waterproof cover (*swoon). What’s more, the larger inner pocket fits the Crumb like a Spandex aerobics unitard and the smaller pocket fits standard music perfectly.
Where’s my fainting couch?
Unlike many other portfolios, the handles on this one are very comfortable, and at only an inch wide, it won’t feel like you’re headed into a pitch meeting with Frank Gehry. With the untold fortunes we’ve all spent on printed music, some admittedly more dubious than others (looking at you, International), this was the best $40-or-so clams I’ve spent in a while. After spending more hours than I care to admit in Blick and Utrecht et al, I can tell you that there are options far more and far less expensive, but this one is the proverbial bees knees.
Now to figure out where to have this monogrammed…

You Want Loops With That Shake?

This week I’m back on principal duties with the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami for, among other works, John Adams’ ubiquitous Shaker Loops. Completed the same year I was born, 1978, this string orchestra score was instrumental [sic] in moving the genre of minimalism beyond its strictest forms through a more fluid treatment of tempo. This is by far my favorite selection from the Adams oeuvre, and as with most pieces of the idiom, it is deceptively difficult. The natural inclination is to pulse with the bow at the quarter-note level to ground the oft-running sixteenth notes, but this tendency also interrupts the musical flow on which the piece is hinged.
What stands out to me in this, my second performance of Shaker Loops (the first being a wild romp with ensemble dal niente), is the distinctly different way in which the player is required to concentrate. After our initial performance on Wednesday, the first comment from a player after the final bow was, “I think I blinked three times, max!” With the nerves of an opening night show, most eyes were buried in parts for fear of losing place on the page. The experience is something like a street-side game of Three Card Monty. Take your eyes away for even a split second and all is lost until the next meter change or penciled-in cue…for the first concert at least.
Back to the brain, though, I discovered an interesting phenomenon in rehearsing this piece which is that focusing the eyes too acutely within each measure has the same disorienting effects as losing concentration all together. The balance that seems to result in the most consistency, for me at least, is put only about 30% of available brain power on the measure itself, another 30% on the overall phrase (say eight measures or so) and the final 40% on phrasing and musicality. Performance nerves seem to skew this ratio toward a hyper-focus on 1-3 measures of music, but in this approach sight begins to blur not unlike staring at patterned wallpaper too closely. Committing to the rough percentages above of course happens more naturally over time, but with an abbreviated rehearsal schedule it requires nothing short of a vow.
Our Firebird bassist, Logan Coale, tracked down a documentary featuring the composer himself rehearsing and conducting the septet version at the 2002 La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, entitled A Precise Process. Some interview answer grandiosity aside, it is a compelling examination of what Adams’ priorities are in the well-known score. Ensemble issues in these rehearsals highlight pitfalls inherent within the piece, as well as the impulse to nudge larger beats in the effort to keep everyone on the train. My goal for the next four performances? To shake it not like a Polaroid picture, but like a Zen monk.

Star Power Part 3: Conclusion

Referring to this exercise of rating my iTunes Library as “quixotic” would be generous, with three weeks of effort barely making a dent in this monstrous catalogue. Two conclusions have been reached, though, which I’ve found enlightening. The first is that one’s disposition at the time of listening is paramount. 
Mr. Fuzzybuns recently leapt out your 57th-floor window? That Chromeo album is probably not going to fare to well, star-wise.
The love of your life just said yes? I would postpone apportioning stars to anything from the oeuvre of Ian Curtis for now.
Obvious, right? But doesn’t it raise the question of the validity of concert reviews to some extent? That’s a query for a future post and/or dissertation, but for now, let’s just agree that for these ratings to mean anything at all, multiple listens over a span of time are a necessity. 
The second conclusion involves the metamorphosis that takes place when one listens critically. Have you ever had that experience of falling in love with a new song, finding yourself vibrating with the expectation of sharing it with friends…only to realize upon playing it for them that the so-awesome-I-suddenly-know-Karate-and-can-kick-ass build doesn’t actually exist? This is perhaps what changes when listening with a critical ear, even for something as simple as rating your own beloved tunes. Here’s where the 5-star rating is actually useful. If you’re not writing a 600-word review for a major publication, it actually can be as simple as I hate it / It’s ok / I like it / I really like it / I want to have its babies. Listening with this particular pair of ears encourages a more thorough aural experience, in my opinion. Not because music should be reduced to one of five responses, but because it inspires the question, “Exactly what about this do I love?” 
With that, I’ll leave you with a few results from my foray. Feel free to comment on my horrendous, or horrendously good, choices.

The Old Man and the C: Decision Time (Part 2)

Now that the star system has been established, it’s on to what I believe Plato dubbed “The Nitty Gritty.” At least I think it was Plato. In any case, the next level of filtering is driven by one’s listening habits. I am of the persuasion that if the artist went to the trouble of assembling an album, painstakingly selecting the seconds-worth of silence between numbers as well as the overall trajectory of the record, track-by-track, then it is my duty not to surgically stitch together a playlist. I listen top to bottom. 
Here lies the quandary: am I rating each track against the other tracks on the album, or against all music since the genesis of recorded musical history? “Shake Your Rump” from the Beastie Boys 1989 album Paul’s Boutique receives a solid five stars because it compels me to what I call “dance,” and what others generally refer to as “have a grand mal seizure.” Can those be the same five stars that are awarded to Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic as they absolutely destroy with the overture to Tannhäuser, sending feverish chills up and down my spinal column even on the 103rd listen? 
We have entered a territory in which the Twitter and Facebook trolls do dwell. Suffice it to say, genre-comparisons are a futile exercise, and when all is said and done, late-80’s NYC hip hop can be every bit as glorious as mythic Gesamtkunstwerk. It just depends on the hour of the day.
That’s the brilliance of this rating effort, though, isn’t it? We don’t have to defend our choices, or justify why Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” is one of the most wonderfully tortured love songs of all time. There exists no table of be-Zinfandel-ed dinner guests trading blows over where The Stooges self-titled LP stacks up in the punk hierarchy.
Next week: Results (Part 3: Conclusion)

Old Man and the C: Star Power (Part 1)

This week marks the beginning of an arduous and vitally important process: The Rating of the iTunes Library. You might think that as a music reviewer/writer this may be a relatively simple process, but you would be very wrong. I’ve always found the star rating system reductive, minimizing hundreds or thousands of hours of artistic sweat down to a cartoonish, linear constellation. On the other hand, every time I return to the 16,382 tracks currently engorging my hard drive (I reduced the collection by 60-some-odd-percent recently), the experience feels a bit like setting foot in the Smithsonian for the first time. Where do I even start?

So against artistic instinct, King Diamond, John Fahey and William Primrose are all now sporting the equivalent of stickers on a kindergarten “Good Behavior” chart. 

What does 4/5 stars mean, you ask? I’ve decided to use the Netflix model (loosely) as a launch point. Here’s my version:

1 star: Causes compulsion to lance eardrums with rusty, Civil War-era bayonets

2 stars: Inspires constant eye-rolling and as such, dangerous while operating a motor vehicle

3 stars: Goooood

4 stars: I don your band’s t-shirt

5 stars: Face. Melted.

Next week on Old Man and the C: Decision Time

The Old Man and the C: La alegría en la música

Spektral has been deep in the sweaty task of excavating Gb Maj (among others) in Ravel’s sumptuous and stupefying quartet, and admittedly it has not been without its frustrations. For instance, finding that perfect fingering for the alto melody near the top of the 3rd movement, with its hurdles of sourdine, register and string crossings may or may not have resulted in the extemporaneous utterance: “Hang cur, hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!” Wait no, that was Shakespeare.

In any case, the outrageously talented teens of the Albany Park Theatre Project inadvertently offered me a respite this weekend with Home/Land. First things first, it is one of the best pieces I’ve seen on stage and it’s been extended through April 28th, so you need to buy those tickets pronto (all previous shows have sold out). Devised by the actors and their APTP mentors from interviews with undocumented immigrants in Chicago, Home/Land weaves the real-life and often harrowing narratives of families broken apart, by among other factors, deportation. I’ll go ahead and admit that both myself and my three companions were doing the head-tilted-slightly-back-finger-dabbing-at-corner-of-eye dance throughout, in part because of the humanity at the center of each story, but also because of the imagination brought to the staging. In one scene, a father in his orange prison jumper presses upward on a disembodied door as his son scampers up the other side, clutching at the shadow behind it.

Seriously, go see this show.

So how does this relate to Ravel? At the end of the play, with the audience at this point stunned silent and emotionally exhausted, the characters produce instruments from the many suitcases of which the stage is comprised. Some stomp-dance a beat as a viola and violin take up the melody. Then a trombone and french horn appear downstage. The entire cast [more ethnically diverse than any play you’ve ever seen, by the way] is jubilant, the music ricocheting off the angled, attic-level Laura Wiley Theater ceiling as faces begin to light up around the space. In that moment, music is not about tuning gnarly sevenths or matching tremolo strokes. 

It’s about joy. Just joy.

The Old Man and the C: Sheiks Not of the "Iron" Variety

For this week's Old Man and the C, I would like to congratulate the Northwestern University cast and crew for a spirited production of Spring Awakening. Having only recently developed a fondness for musical theatre, I'll leave the reviews to those more qualified, but the high level of singing and staging for last Sunday's final performance was nothing short of remarkable. Keeping audience focus (mine, at least) off songwriter/composer Duncan Sheik's poetically pedestrian lyrics ("Still your heart says/The shadows bring the starlight/And everything you've ever been is still there in the dark night")
is a feat unto itself, and the demanding falsetto on display by tenors Max Cove (Moritz) and Alex Nee (Melchior) was impressively executed.

Also, there is a zesty number entitled, "Totally Fucked."

I may not be as drawn to Sheik's rock-ish score as most, and I did have to sit, mentally squirming, beside a septuagenarian as undergrads graphically simulated coitus, but the timeliness of a show about repression is undeniable. Most importantly, the excellent acting by the NU cast left me curious as to the play of the same title penned by German playwright Frank Wedekind from which the musical is derived. So thank you, Northwestern musical theatre department, for a memorable Sunday...and inspiring yet another trek to the Book Cellar.

The Old Man and the C: Come Get Psalm

There is so much more to an album than what fits in a 250-word review. In the case of Philip Blackburn's Ghostly Psalms, this is particularly distressing because of the immensity of the project and the sound universe within. The director of the excellent recording label Innova describes his inspiration for the titular work as follows:

"Ghostly Psalms sprang from the recurring anxiety dreams of an ex-chorister. But not the usual ones of being left behind on tour, singing a spectacular false entry, or holding the music upside down in front of a paying audience. This memorable one, from 1982, was about crawling uphill through a rocky desert with a crystalline trickle of clear water flowing uphill, entering a fortified mediaeval village (like Conques, perhaps) on the hilltop through a culvert, and walking into the abbey while voices played all around. The ceremony highlighted several ways of parsing the universe and making sense of how it all worked: through pure harmonic number ratios, dynamic ecosystems, vibration, brain activity, memory, order, and chaos: organic, mechanical, mystical."

This reminds me, tangentially, of the nightmarish sequences in Tarsem Singh's terrifying 2000 film, "The Cell". While Blackburn's writing is less likely to keep me checking and re-checking the front door locks at 2am, the music here is no less expansive in scope.

My favorite track on the album, truth be told, is Duluth Harbor Serenade (2011). I grew up spending summers on Lake Superior in Bayfield, WI, and the sounds of nearby Duluth recorded here are intimately familiar. Driving north toward Bayfield, you'll pass through Superior, where the steel is rusty and the ships are a constant fixture. Take a listen, and get lost in a symphony of lift bridges and chain saws. Not THOSE chain saws.

Here's my TimeOut review.