Category Archives: sabbatical journal

Tai Chi Cha Cha and the Left-Hand Pizz Stress Challenge

(Or just give me a Xanax with a scotch on the rocks.)

So first the universe said to me, “and you will greatly expand your left-hand pizzicato skills this week.”

Last week and into this scores have been arriving via email for this coming Sunday’s 7:30 PM International Street Cannibals Tai Chi Cha Cha (how could you miss that?) concert at St. Mark’s in the Bowery in Manhattan.  (The New York one.  We probably have an Indiana one somewhere, along with our own Brazil and Poland.) It’s Fall Break, a whole week, at DePauw, and, having played on two of the Cannibals concerts while on sabbatical in New York last winter/spring, I invited myself to play in this one.  So I’m flying up there in the morning.

Two of the pieces have lots of left hand pizzicato.  If you’re not a string player, pizzicato is the fancy-pants Italian word for plucking.  (Classical musicians still use Italian terminology with each other because in the the 1600s opera started in Italy and became really popular.) 95% or more of the time we pluck with the right hand, the one that holds the bow.  But sometimes we are playing a note, or notes, with the bow and pluck other strings with the left hand, which is also holding down a string or strings.  This is just about as difficult as it sounds.  Maybe a bit more, especially if you haven’t done a lot of it for a while.

One of these pieces almost put me over the edge yesterday.  I can’t play this a voice said somewhere in me.  Keep calm answered another.  First learn the slightly awkward double stops and then figure out how to add in the pizzicatos. 

Took a break.  Laid down on the couch and Figaro, one of my cats, plopped down on my belly.  “Help!” I posted on Facebook.  “I took a practice break and now there’s a cat on my belly and I can’t get up.”  A friend added a comment to the effect that cat therapy is good for the playing.  Eventually the cat moved on, I got up, and returned to the cello.

Just did everything in  s  l  o  w    m  o t  i  o  n.

Very, very calmly.

My thoughts went quickly to Dale Stuckenbruck, the wonderful violinist (and musical saw player) who was my RA when I was a 16-year-old high school junior at the North Carolina Schoolof the Arts.  Dale would help me practice, bless him, and he taught me more about practicing (calmly, intelligently, methodically, and focused) than anyone else.  Thank you, Dale! (Isn’t that great . . . we can still be learning from our earlier mentors 35 years later?)

It’s going to be alright, it turns out. Just have to work out the choreography–which finger will pluck which string when.  And then it will speed up on its own. (And it just occurred to me that I’m practicing in tai chi-like slow motion for the Tai Chi Cha Cha concert.  Neat, huh?)

So that was handled.

Then the universe said, and you will be humbled.

I made a quick trip to the DePauw recording studio this afternoon, to record the Prelude and Gigue of the Bach G Major Suite for a doctor friend who is making some educational videos and needs some music for them.  Oh, I’ve played these movements a zillion times, it will be a piece of cake.  Ha!  As I listened to the playback of the takes, I kept thinking, man, I’d like to give this guy a lesson!  We’ve got something useable, and I may like it better a year from now, but I really need to do a lot more recording of myself. Holy fuck, this music is amazing and needs something more than me winging it.

OK, now back to practicing that left-hand pizzicato.

 

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Filed under International Street Cannibals, North Carolina School of the Arts, practice techniques, sabbatical journal

GETFOOG, and learning how to balance

Elaine Fine announced she was taking time off from blogging and two days later started right back up again.  Whew!  Because hers is my favorite blog related to classical music. When I read her “I’m taking quitting, ok, taking time off” post, one of my first thoughts was, “I better start blogging again to help fill in the gap.”  (Interesting reaction.)

And Roger Bourland, another favorite blogger, recently wrote about how little he’s been blogging as he’s gone through professional and personal transitions and started a sabbatical. And then his blogging picked up.

I just looked at my list of posts and realized how little I’ve blogged since last spring.  It was so exciting, writing about my explorations in New York, and then once I came back home to Greencastle (I’d been on sabbatical) I found it hard to write. While school’s in session, I find it hard to summon the mental energy to write blog posts–there’s usually just too much to do and I am stressed by all the things that seem at times more than I can handle.

It was hard to write even before I left, though, because I’d fallen so in love with New York I was sad about coming back and, frankly, depressed.

Now I’ve just begun 9 days of fall break, counting the two weekends, and find myself in a reflective mood.  The end of the sabbatical from teaching brought a sabbatical from blogging, I see.  So who knows how long this will last.

One thing I’ll say is that I’m happier than I can remember being.  A year off from teaching, and when I started again I discovered, to my delighted post-burnout surprise, just how much genuinely I love it. I love teaching cello and teaching classes, and that there’s a special magic in sharing with others the special magic of playing in and leading drum circles, and in improvising music in a supportive environment.  My job is great.  Much of this fall I’ve felt, “I have the best job in the world!”

I absolutely love New York and for quite a while I was dreading going back to the small town of Greencastle, the supposed “nowhere” which is an hour’s drive from the “somewheres” of Indianapolist and Bloomington, which many people regard as “nowheres” anyway.  But Greencastle is a wonderful small town and it has gives one what New York can’t–a sense of true community, where almost everyone knows everyone else, and where you can run into friends wherever you go (while delightful, this can be annoying , it turns out, to someone you’re dating who is new to Greencastle and can get a little impatient when nearly every dinner out or trip to the market is interrupted). And it’s not insanely, absurdly expensive, like Manhattan, where I rented a large room with a private bath, in a large Upper West Side apartment, and paid, at a slightly below-market rate, more than my mortgage, taxes, and insurance combined for my nearly 3000 sq. ft. 1888 house in Indiana.

What I’ve found is the secret is balance.  I love small-town life and need the big city, too.  So I’ve started what I call my “GETFOOG” project: Get Eric The F–k Out of Greencastle.  Just now and then.  Labor Day weekend I spent in New York.  A couple weeks later, an overnight trip (with a wonderful friend) to Chicago.  Later this week, 5 nights in NYC, including playing a concert.  (Which, I guess, will make it all tax deductible, too.)

Sabbaticals are wonderful things, a colleague mentioned to me after asking how mine had been, and I’d told him both how stimulating the sabbatical experiences themselves were and how much I was enjoying being back.  Among other things, it brought me a clearer sense of who I am, clarity about what I love doing and am good at, a renewed sense of purpose, and an understanding of what kind of balance I need in my life.

More, I hope, to come.

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Filed under and everything, sabbatical journal

“New York State of Mind” and “Union Square Pillow Fight” (James Bernal videos)

I discovered young photographer/filmmaker James Bernal through Andrew Sullivan’s posting of the “New York State of Mind” video below. James must have moved to NY  about the same time I did (I’m here temporarily and will be back in Indiana this summer). This video made me realize how deeply in love I’ve fallen with NYC.  And, along with the Bill Cunningham New York documentary (which is such an inspiring look at a man who is the joy that is his work), how much I love taking photos and videos–albeit on a much more amateur level than what James does.  But it’s still fun.  So now when I’m bored during the day I realize I can go out and explore what’s going on.  Camera in hand, it feels like a project rather than just goofing off or avoiding harder work.   I’m especially fascinated by all the music going on in parks, on streets, and in the subway.

Definitely click on the icon between “hd” and “vimeo” to watch in full screen mode.

This one is great, too.  My daughter and I showed up in Union Square just about an hour after the pillow fight was over.  Oh, well.

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Filed under Bill Cunningham, Filmmakers/Videographers/Photographers, New York life, sabbatical journal, videos

Davidovsky and the ICE at Miller Theatre

Mario Davidovsky, whose work was the subject of last night’s Composer Portrait at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, was a leader in the development of electronic and electro-acoustic music. That genre consists of carefully worked-out sound collages, music which shocked and alienated many early audiences, which many traditional classical musicians (and musicians) still detest, and which I happen to really enjoy.

So why do I like it when so many years later so few others do?  It may well have to do with my mother, who, when I was a child, had me lie down, close my eyes, and listen to a recording of Vares’s Ionisation. Let your imagination go, she told me.  Tell me what you see.  She may have had me draw pictures.  Varese called his music “organized sound” and that early immersion in that one piece made me open to so much.  (It’s funny.  I don’t remember her having any other interest in avant-garde music.)

I’ll admit it, I had never heard of Davidovsky before I read about this concert. I’m not a new-music maniac like my friend, former student, and admired colleague Jon Silpayamanant, who could probably do an hour or two on Davidovsky off the top of his head. And I knew nothing about him and his work before I sat down and started reading the excellent program notes [pdf] by Paul Griffiths.  I loved the concert, including the on-stage conversation between him and Melissa Smey, the Miller Theatre’s director.  Here’s Davidovsky in another interview:

 

So why did I go? To hear the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).  Who cares what they’re playing? I knew it would be good. Besides the group’s incredible reputation, the flutist Eric Lamb, who attended DePauw for a while, is one of the members, and I really have been wanting to hear him perform.  I’d missed their concert which opened the Tully Scope series, in order to hear Meridith Monk speak at Symphony Space, and when I read about this concert, I made it my top priority.

I’m going to all these concerts and writing them, giving myself a new education, as I prepare a course or courses for DePauw music majors on career issues in the developing classical/post-classical music world.  Look at the schedules of the ICE and Eric.  They are great models for what can be done separate from the slowly dying win-a-competition, win-an-orchestra-job traditional world.  The ICE has a tremendously strong, visionary leader in Claire Chase, and uses musicians of extraordinary accomplishment, like Eric and the trumpeter Gareth Flowers (whom I met when he performed as half of The Batteries Duo at the Chamber Music America conference).

A lesson here is that if you develop extraordinary ability in a niche about which you’re passionate and develop a great reputation, people will come to whatever you do.  You’ll build your own audience.  It’s a point Frances-Marie Uitti made to me after I heard her play at LPR.  She has a huge career performing all over the world with a repertoire of avant-garde cello music that not even many cellists don’t know or care about it.  It’s devoting yourself to something you’re passionate about she told me.  You can knock yourself out for a while seeing who can play the Brahms F Major Sonata better, but that’s not what the world needs or wants.

OK, back to the Davidovsky concert.  Terrific, fascinating, extraordinary music, performed incredibly well.  Davidovsky the first or one of the first to combine recorded, electronically-generated sounds with live performers.  The program began and end with two such works, Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) with violinist David Bowlin, and Synchronisms No. 12 (2007) with clarinetist Joshua Rubin.  The rest of the program consisted of purely acoustic works which the motivic interplay was fascinating. (You can read the details in the program notes linked to above.) One of the musicians told me Davidovsky’s music (with which he was not previously familiar, either), reminded him of Webern’s, with the short motives and the hocketing.  “A lot like Webern,” I replied, “but longer.”  We had a laugh.

Here’s a different performance of the Synchronisms No. 9:

Walking home the 23 blocks to my apartment (I was seduced by the Ben and Jerry’s shop, don’t tell my trainer, but as long as I gave in to temptation I decided to really enjoy it), I was thinking about this sort of well-attended concert, dedicated to the work of a single, obscure-to-the-general-public composer, could only happen in a few places.  A performing arts series at a great university, in a large city, in a neighborhood with a lot of urban intellectuals, also accessed easily by public transportation.  The Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series is really quite something.  It’s the kind of thing that can happen at a university which can afford to present events that aren’t part of the new populist trends in classical music.  While I have nothing to do with Columbia, I did feel proud to be part of what we call “the academy”–the community of colleges and universities.

(By the way, I forgot to add the “SJ” for “Sabbatical Journal” number in a recent posts, and so I’m not going to number them anymore.  Unless someone demands it!)

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Filed under Claire Chase, CMA 2011 Conference, Composers, Ensembles, Eric Lamb (flute), Frances-Marie Uitti, future of college/university music education, Gareth Flowers (trumpet), International Contemporary Ensemble, Le Poisson Rouge, Mario Davidovsky, sabbatical journal, The Batteries Duo, The Batteries Duo, Young Performers

Three Guys with a Mission (SJ XI)

My New York sojourn began with the Chamber Music America Annual Conference, which marked my first real involvement with this marvelous organization, which does so much to promote small-ensemble music making and networking among musicians and managers, publicists, educators, journalists, etc..  Since the conference, where in a few days I probably got enough material to design my new course on career skills for young classically-trained musicians, I’ve attended two CMA grant-writing workshops and two free “First Tuesday” events, presented each month at St. Peter’s Church in the Citigroup building.

February’s session was a fascinating talk by Adrian Ellis [pdf], the Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who exudes a deep sense of mission as he articulates its importance.  So do Steve Smith (Time Out New York music editor, New York Times classical critic, and blogger) and Nate Chinen (pop/jazz critic at the Times), the panelists at yesterday’s (March 1) event, “Meet the Music Press.”

We all know these are challenging times for the arts, not only because of the general economy but because, as controversial NEA head Rocco Landesman has infamously observed, supply outstrips demand.  Ellis emphasized the danger of organizations devolving into survival mode and losing sight of their missions, the importance of which he returned to many times.  He elaborated on a variety of topics, outreach being perhaps the most critical.  With much of country “two to three generations beyond routine arts education,” the task falls to arts organizations.  Jazz at Lincoln Center, he said, is “basically an education machine with programming.”

Chinen and Smith don’t refer to themselves as arts educators, but they are, roses-by-another name, working in a for-profit world.  Both spoke of their roles as advocates for music and musicians.

They started out by discussing how event listings (Time Out; find the Times ‘Week in Music” listings in the center column here).  Heck, I thought that would take just a few minutes:  send your stuff in by the deadline and the interns will take care of it.  Turns out these guys are passionate about and take great pride in the listings they prepare–letting people know about what is going on seems to be their mutual raison d’être. It’s not a get-it-in-on-time-or-you’re-out-of-luck thing;  in addition to the emails and physical press releases they receive, each proactively scours the web.

They covered reviews more quickly–the real passion of each obviously lies elsewhere. FYI, at the Times, classical reviews are assigned by the editor and chief music critic; the four jazz/pop writers, on the other hand,  pretty much manage themselves, deciding what to cover and who will cover it.  For these tasks and others, Chinen said there’s a collective “sense of stewardship” for their area.  The best way to get reviewed, besides being famous and important, is to catch the attention of one of the individual critics (even among the classical staff).

Feature articles, including profiles, are what seemed to really turn these guys on.  Chinen likes to write stories “that make you interested in something you didn’t know you were interested in.” (Hope I wrote that down right, Nate.) When Smith pitches a feature article to the Times, its has to be something he believes in so strongly that “perspective as an advocate” comes through.  What really engages him? The “people who are keeping classical music from being a dusty graveyard.”  It’s an “exciting, creative time,” and he wants people to now about it.

So what about negative reviews?  “Disputative criticism” (a term new to me) is fine with the culture is healthy.  Space is limited;  why waste it on sharpening knives over an emerging artist? Not that they don’t write critical reviews from time to time or that even feature articles may contain critical assessments.  But Chinen says, “Often times I exercise my critical urge by means of omission.”

Three men on a mission.  Glad they’re around.

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Filed under Chamber Music America (CMA), CMA 2011 Conference, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Music Writers, Nate Chinen, sabbatical journal, Steve Smith

LPR: A Destination Shuffle Venue? (SJ IX)

“Let me ask you something,” said the bartender at [le] poisson rouge to my daughter and I.  The Dueling Fiddlers concert (which I blogged about here) had finished, and I was paying our tab.  “Did you come specifically to hear this show, or did you just come to be at the club?”*

That surprised me.  Not only had we come for that event, we’d each left our respective Super Bowl parties early to get there on time.  (If you’ve ever lived in Wisconsin and the Packers are in the Super Bowl, you’re a big football fan, even if it’s for that night only.)  “The reason I’m asking,” he explained, “is that we’re finding that people are starting to come just to be at the club.  They’ve been here before, or have heard it’s really cool, so they just show up and see whatever is going on. They’ll even pay a $30 cover.” (Many LPR shows are much less than that.)

Fascinating.  The venue itself is becoming the attraction. A place where you know you can show up, have a good drink and/or some food, and know something interesting will be happening.  Hey, what do you want to do tonight?  Let’s just go to LPR.

That hadn’t occurred to me.  If it’s really working out that way, then not only are the LPR staff doing a great job, but the eclectic spirit of the club is meeting an equally (or near-equally) eclectic spirit among it’s patron base.

You can’t say LPR is a classical club or a rock club or a jazz club or a hip-hop club or a whatever club, because it presents all those things.  What I’d assumed up until that conversation was that LPR serves a wide array of mostly separate audiences, with some overlap–a view shaped, I’m sure, by my age and background.  But why shouldn’t the screw-genres, we-like-everything spirit of composer/performers like Missy Mazzoli and Gabriel Kahane (my comments on their Chamber Music America panel discussion are here) be present in their audiences as well?

We live in iPod shuffle times.  For those living life without small music player, filled with all sorts of different music tracks, the “shuffle” feature will, at your request, play individual pieces, movements, songs, etc., in random order.  I found it annoying as hell when I first turned it on by accident, and rarely use it myself.  But millions of (mostly younger) people love it.  What are you going to hear next?  It’s a surprise. That’s the fun of it.

And so why not a club, like LPR, serving as an institutional shuffle device?  Show up and take what you get. Maybe–perhaps even preferably–something you wouldn’t have chosen on your own.

Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.

————-

*I wasn’t recording that conversation, so it’s reconstructed from memory.  But I’m quite sure I have the gist of it right.

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Filed under Le Poisson Rouge, sabbatical journal

Chamber Music, Dancers, and a Blue Moon Valentine’s Day Show (Sabbatical Journal VII)

OK, catching up on my musical adventures.

The last event I wrote about was the Dueling Fiddlers at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) on Sunday Feb. 6. After a flurry of attending something virtually every night since I arrived in NY mid-January, I took a few nights off.  I was moving from one place to another, and perhaps there are only so many events one can attend without a bit of time to mentally relax.

Thursday Feb. 10 made for a difficult choice.  Richard Stolzman was performing at LPR, and there was an Ecstatic Music Festival show at Merkin, both of which I really wanted to experience.  I opted for making music myself, and accepted an invitation to read string quartets with three fine New York freelance musicians.  Each around my age (50s), each getting a lot less work than before.  None seemed bitter, though, and all four of us were happy to sit in a living room, reading Haydn, Schumann, and Beethoven.  The others have played together for years, and there was the kind of old-friends bickering about how the chairs should be arranged, where the lamps should go, which volume of Haydn to start with, etc.  There are so many Haydn quartets that few of us who don’t play string quartets for a living are familiar with all 68 of them.  There was such joy among us, as twists and turns, unexpected modulations and surprising dynamics presented themselves.  “Oh, wow!”  “That’s fantastic!”  Whatever life’s challenges, professional or personal, playing chamber music with friends (old or new) seems to make it all better, at least for a while.

I was playing the cello again on the evening of Friday Feb. 11–improvisation and Bach as part of the music for Robin Becker’s Into Sunlight work-in-progress modern dance showing at the 92nd St. Y.  Playing for dancers, watching and responding to them, is such a stimulating experience, very different than playing a concert.  A blog post about that difference is in the works.

So it was Saturday Feb. 12 when I again heard others perform.  Back at Drom in the East Village, I had dinner while listening to the Blue Moon Ensemble perform what the club billed as a St. Valentine’s Day Special, with music “dedicated to love and lovers.”  “Mashups” (here less the overlap of multiple, formerly discreet pieces, and more the close juxtaposition of music from differnt genres) and “remixes” were the spirit of the evening. Early jazz, progressive jazz, traditional classical music, Byzantine chant (arranged for instruments) . . . a wonderful array, played with enthusiasm.  The Blue Moon combines the forces of a traditional jazz sextet (trumpet, sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) with violin, cello, and clarinet.  It makes for lots of interesting combinations.

I got there after the show had started, but thankfully there were several empty tables, including one with no “reserved” seat sign on it, so I didn’t have to stand or sit at the bar.  This being New York, though, the empty tables didn’t stop the waiter, once he finally noticed me, from asking if I had a reservation, and, when I said no, saying he would need to move me to another spot.  I pointed out the empty tables with “reserved” signs on them, and he somewhat sheepishly relented.  That was OK, but what really irritated me was that Drom doesn’t serve tap water, and charges $5.00 for a bottle of water.  I was quite thirsty, was going to get a glass or two of wine anyway, and found this annoying and inhospitable.  It’s the only place I’ve been in New York, or anywhere else, where they won’t serve you water along with whatever else you order.  I enjoyed the music but left irritated with the venue, which undoubtedly will influence my decision-making process when there’s a which-of-the-four-things-I’d-like-to-attend night in the future.

There was also another music-in-clubs phenomenon: overly loud people at the next table. As the evening progressed, a group of four very expensively (leather, fur) and fashionably-dressed middle-aged women formed at the table next to me.  They were excited to see one another, and once the fourth arrived, their conversation, in an Eastern-European language (Turkish? Armenian?), got so loud that to hear the music I left my seat and went and stood in another part of the room for a while.  They noticed, I think, and lowered their voices.

The social contract in a club is obviously different than in a concert hall.  A certain level of sound, not from the stage, is inevitable, expected, accepted, and generally not bothersome.  And usually people don’t talk, or keep their voices very low, while the music is being performed.  So this was unusual.  They were so obviously excited to be in one another’s company that they lost awareness of the rest of the room, it seemed.  When I moved so I could hear, they noticed, and became appropriately considerate.  And so I returned to my hard-won seat.

I like Drom. I’ll be back.  I do wonder if the irritation not serving free water triggers doesn’t outweigh the short-term benefits of the markup on bottled water (I did pop for a Pellegrino and at least one glass of wine).  But heck, it’s their business model, not mine.

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Filed under Blue Moon Ensemble, Drom, Robin Becker, sabbatical journal