Monday, September 22, 2014

Gimme Shelter

If you've listened to any rock n roll music in the last four decades odds are you're at least passing familiar with Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones. Written in 1969, the song simmers with a sense of unrest, capturing the turbulent times. It's dark. It's foreboding. It's really good. And according to many, including Rolling Stone magazine, it's the band's best song:
"That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse; the whole record's like that," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995, describing "Gimme Shelter." Like nothing else in rock & roll, the song embodies the physical experience of living through a tumultuous historical moment. It's the Stones' perfect storm: the ultimate Sixties eulogy and rock's greatest bad-trip anthem, with the gathering power of soul music and a chaotic drive to beat any punk rock. [Owen's note: not so sure about the punk rock thing, RS]
And wouldn't you know, it's also the inspiration behind a brand new work by composer Ravi Kittappa. Ravi and I have been good friends since we hit it off at the 2010 Bang on a Can Summer Festival and it didn't take me long to learn that he is a walking encyclopedia of rock history, with emphasis on the British Invasion. Even British bands that didn't so much invade. So it's no surprise that despite training at Columbia University with notable spectralist composer Tristan Murail and his penchant for infusing compositions with Indian Carnatic elements (be it via droning sruti boxes or electronic samples) that this is the second piece of his I've played that is a ripping good deconstruction of a song by a powerhouse British rock band. (The first was a crazed solo percussion/voice meltdown of War Pigs by Black Sabbath that requires its own due here one of these days...)

For his new piece Shelter, Ravi has created an open-ended composition--the target ballpark for the premiere is 15-20 minutes--from the first 42 seconds of the song. That's just the intro! Go ahead, give it a listen at this Youtube vid chock-full of appropriately 1960's iconography.

By the time Charlie Watts kicks in the drums we're Done Dundee, and that's what makes this piece work so well. Ever heard of doing more with less? Without giving too much away, Shelter is an ingeniously simple construction that interminably stretches the notes and rhythms laid down by the 'Stones with an improvisatory flair that allows the musicians to breathe and shape the time, gradually gaining steam all the while. And in this case, the musicians are the combined ensembles of interstellar Brooklyn percussion trio TIGUE and my beloved trio Concert Black. Although I'm sorely biased, it's an absolutely ideal assemblage of players for this project, given everyone's range of talents in executing notated music, writing it themselves, and improvising [read: jamming, man]. Sweet band, Ravi! Har.

And you can hear us give it a spin this very weekend! The world premiere is happening on Saturday, 9/27 at the Dimenna Center for Classical Music alongside two incredible pieces by Robert Honstein. Plus it's the season opener for Permutations NYC. In fact, it's the start of a beautiful new special friendship between TIGUE and Concert Black that will see coast to coast performances of Shelter and a split album of Honstein jams. As always, further bulletins as events warrant.

In the meantime, keep this close to your heart:

8pm sharp | Saturday, September 27, 2014
The DiMenna Center | Benzaquen Hall
450 W. 37th St. New York, NY 10018 
Tickets at the door $15 // $10 for students


Friday, September 27, 2013

Remember, Remember

To hop back on the Word Writing Wagon I wanted to tip my hat to a great blog post by Adam Sliwinski of SO Percussion on a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately: memorizing music. Committing music to memory has been big for me lately, so his writing on the subject was especially timely. I urge you to read Adam's blog about it, and then stick around for a couple anecdotes.

I used to memorize music all the time. I think it was necessary since I wasn't very good at reading notes on a page so I defaulted to muscle memory and rote learning. Somewhere along the way I stopped memorizing music. Maybe as I improved at reading music I relied more on that skill, or maybe I was taking on too much music at one time to store in my brain. In any case, this Summer (which is now actually Fall) has seen a personal boom of memorizing music. And the funny thing is it was by accident. Well, not entirely, but I'll explain. I had a couple big projects to work on. The first was learning Timber, Michael Gordon's hour-long work for amplified simantras (in this case, that's a fancy word for 2x4's). I had joined the percussion sextet Mantra and performing Timber is a large part of what they (we) do. The second was preparing music written for Concert Black by Robert Honstein for an Email Songs recording session.

With Timber I was well aware that Mantra performs the piece from memory. Daunting. However, early in the rehearsal process the guys made it clear that no one actually expected me to memorize an hour of complex polyrhythmic music for my first performance. Boy was I relieved. But, the music was so dang hard I wound up learning it better than I had anticipated in order to play it at all. With nasty rhythms played in unison by six people there is no room for inaccuracy—the music had to be learned cold. In fact, at rehearsal the night before my first performance of Timber I realized that I didn't need to look at the score or my cheat sheet after all*. I could play it from memory simply because I knew it well enough. Believe me, I was the most surprised of all.

With Robert's Email Songs, memorization again came into play as a byproduct of learning something so thoroughly that it couldn't help but work it's way into my brain. The percussion part is devilishly tricky, with 20 instruments doubled or in off-kilter counterpoint with a glockenspiel. This cluttered array of small objects (small targets) makes the piece nearly impossible to read anyway, so making certain one is actually hitting the correct bottle/bell/etc. takes the slow, methodical process that memorization naturally follows. For now, the music is still a work in memorizing progress, but I'm continually surprised by the large swathes I can play without the score.
Instrument key for one of Robert Honstein’s Email Songs

The difficulty of reading complex multiple percussion music favors and promotes memorization, a phenomenon discussed in Steven Schick's book (mentioned here before), The Percussionist's Art:
In trying to understand the practical side of learning and memorizing music, I have drawn widely on personal experience. For the past thirty years I have made a practice of learning all solo works from memory. My process involves memorizing as the very first step in the learning process. I never play a piece from the score and then gradually concert it to memory. I never sight-read ahead to see what things will sound like (in very complex music by Xenakis, Ferneyhough, and James Dillon, for example, sight-reading is not an option anyway).  
Duh, just as I've always known, he memorizes everything because of this simple truth and here I am, finally getting around to it. Better late to the party than never, I suppose. It's just funny that for years I thought I didn't have the time to memorize music, but if you take away that safety net of a music stand you might be surprised at what you can RECALL.

*ok, I had a tiny slip of paper with a couple of extra tricky rhythms notated, but that's it!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Teaching Dogs to Drive

Fun news:  we’re making Memory Palace into an album!  Chris and I have had a couple wonderful recording sessions at Oktaven Audio in the heart of Downtown Yonkers with resident Pro Tour level Wizard of Recorded Sound, Ryan Streber.  Updates on its release will eventually follow, but first…

It was Calvin (Bill Watterson’s Calvin) who said, "The problem with being avant-garde is knowing who's putting on who."  

We composers and performers of new classical music tend to put outrageous demands on ourselves, and others. We are willing to do almost anything for the sake of our art and we often take ourselves too seriously in the process (show of hands, nerd friends, if you’ve done it or seen it happen).  At the end of our last session I had a moment of clarity followed by self-doubt and then reassurance.  Perspective:  it’s a powerful weapon in the arsenal of Self Awareness, or Not Being a Tool.

Take after take after take I was blowing into carefully water-tuned beer bottles, trying to achieve something resembling “cantabile” with smooth switches from bottle to bottle, note to note. 

“Wait, I gotta do that again,” I would say, “I cheated the end of the phrase.  Need to breathe from the diaphragm”  

Suddenly I got (unsurprisingly) light headed, like I might float away or pass out.  I held out my arms, said I needed a moment. I took off my headphones, leaned back on my stool and waited for the unbearable lightness to dispel.   I saw a table covered with beer bottles that contained no beer, and several very expensive microphones floating before me in space.  I felt ridiculous.

I peered into the booth at Ryan, asking, “Do you ever open your eyes and wonder ‘what on Earth am I doing?’“

He laughed and said it reminded him of a video he had seen where, in New Zealand, people were training dogs to drive cars.  He imagined of all the time and money that had been invested in the machine shop building custom dog-sized autos, weeks upon weeks of training and, in the end, for what? So that dogs could drive cars.
I found that video and yes, it’s totally absurd (and cute).

[Edit: turns out the driving dog operation is a marketing campaign advocating the adoption of rescued dogs. That's a good thing! But still completely bonkers.]

Ladies and Gentlemen, soapbox time:
Find comfort where you can, folks.  Art is hard, weird, sometimes awkward, and the world at large wants you to feel like it’s a useless endeavor. I may have engaged in an objectively silly activity, but I know full well it was in the service of making really, really pretty music that I will no doubt share with you when the time comes.  Perspective: I know we’re not saving lives here, but if we don’t go out on a limb to make the Nice Things, who will?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sooooo, I'm moving to Brooklyn.  I could go on and on about the rich musical tradition of this borough but I humbly offer this, the most slamming BK jam I can think of. Ladies and gentlemen, Definition by Blackstar (Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, formerly known at Mos Def).  Don't miss Grand Army Plaza right off the bat!  

Friday, May 18, 2012

MN Nice

As I’m always happy to report, I’m on a plane to Minnesota.
No gigs, just a long-anticipated week of family and friends following a particularly harrowing (final!) school semester with two doctoral recitals and lots of road-warrior-style concerts.  Thanks to my leisurely MN itinerary I travelled light.  No mallet bags or mixing bowls.  No suitcases of scrap metal, snake’s den of cables, or anything called a “beater”.  The most exotic item in my luggage was a baseball glove, packed for the Bemidji backyard.  For once I sailed through airport security.
And she came, too!

However, upon my return life ramps up with three fun events rounding out the month of May, heralding June and True Summer.

May 27th
Long-distance relationships are tough, but I’m really pleased that Concert Black has remained active, albeit intermittent, this year despite my awkward Connecticut residence. You can find our fair trio performing our wonderful Robert Honstein commission RE: You as well as a group-composed, quasi-improvisational response to his work on Music With a View 2012.
Sunday, 5/27, 3pm, The Flea theater, free

May 29th
I’m very happy to once again join the daring and gifted Bang on a Can pianist Vicky Chow at The Stone to perform Daniel Wohl’s gleefully glitchy duet for piano, percussion, and electronics, Pixelated.  For more details on her solo recital program, have a look on Facebook.  If you have not seen her shrug off this challenging music like it’s no biggie, I suggest that you do.
Tuesday, 5/29, 10pm, The Stone, $10

June 2nd

After a successful U.S. premiere and subsequent tour of their co-commissioned, mind-altering work by Michael Gordon, Timber (seriously, give it a listen), Mantra Percussion is back at it with an ambitious three night stand, each of which focuses on the music of a single composer in a so-called “portrait concert”. 
Some of my favorite Dudes Who Drum, I’m especially excited to join Mantra on a brand new work by Ted Hearne playing, of all things, electric guitar. 
[editor’s note: This is also my birthday!  JUNE 2, !!!]
Saturday, 6/2, 7:30pm, First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, $10

The rest of the summer looks bright.  When not job hunting/gathering and planning a move to The City, it will be filled with a massive Inuksuit recording project, a world-premiere of Memory Palace by Chris Cerrone, Amy Garapic-inspired Make Music New York hijinks, and a couple outrageously fun festivals with Concert Black.  To quote a favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, “further bulletins as events warrant”.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Memory Palace

One thing I've been meaning to mention is an ongoing collaboration with Brooklynite composer Chris Cerrone.  When I met Chris at a picnic table outside of MassMoCA in the summer of 2010 he immediately recognized the IFARM sticker that adorned my old laptop. That's notable because to this day no single other person has that distinction.  Sure I'm into obscure thrashers but come on, people.  Get with it.

In the year that followed I heard several performances of Chris' music.  Most memorable was the large-scale production of his opera Invisible Cities at Columbia University and the small-scale production of How to Breathe Underwater, performed by Loadbang Ensemble at a tiny violin shop in New Haven.    

The haunting, reflective, lyrical qualities of these works stuck with me and I began to think of them as qualities lacking in percussion music, known more for its bombast than coloristic subtlety.  I was keen to hear how Chris would treat a percussive medium, and the process has been one of continual discovery.  However, I wasn't much help.  
     "No big instruments," I said.  "No marimbas."  
     "How about vibraphone?"  
     "Dude, you are killing me." 

When commissioning composers I tend to get obsessed with keeping things small and "tour-able". This runs the risk of inhibiting the sonic scope of a piece, but Chris picked up that creative gauntlet and got crafty.  No marimba?  No big deal.  Instead, he prescribed that I cut and sand seven boards, fine-tuning them to specific pitches.  In our recent test run of two movements at Fast Forward Austin we close mic'd the planks, added reverb, and the electronic component of the piece did the rest.  The result?  Humming drones from the boards, with the amplification and electronics acting as the resonators of our "marimba".  Other melodic instrument workaround experiments have included tuning metal pipes, plucking pianos, autoharps and zithers, tuning glass bowls with water, and some surprises I'd like to keep under my hat just yet.

The title of the piece is Memory Palace, a reference to the method in which medieval monks constructed imaginary buildings in their mind's eye as a means to mentally store information.  The finished work will span five movements with twenty or so minutes of music within a full premiere slated for June 20th at the Stone as part of a Sleeping Giant Collective bash. However, just as with FFA we're thrilled to offer a preview at next Saturday's Hartford New Music Festival.  See below!

Memory Palace at Fast Forward Austin.  Photo: Elisa Ferrari

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This week (my week) at SXSW

When the dust settled from booking SXSW and Beyond shows I was surprised to find that starting this Thursday (tomorrow!) I’m playing 6 out of the next 8 nights in various capacities.  Since my natural state is tour-mode I’m extra excited since this is the closest thing to a tour I’ve been on since Sofakindom took the West Coast and our livers by storm back in ’05 (neither coast organs have been the same since).

The hot, hot dates!

Thursday, 3/15
Big Star Tribute
I’m playing in a small orchestra (with maestro Brent Baldwin at the helm) as part of a SXSW recreation of legendary indie band Big Star’s album Third.  As I have learned, Big Star was a huge influence on R.E.M. so as I play timpani, steel drum, and cowbell this Thursday at the Paramount actual members of R.E.M. will comprise the orchestra’s rock and roll section (historically, which emerged shortly after the demise of the basso continuo keyboard conductor in the classical era, famously rising to prominence as Beethoven’s hearing diminished).
But seriously, whoa. Actual famous rock star dudes.
Check it out here.

Friday. 3/16
Nonclassical Records Showcase
This year, London’s Nonclassical label joined forces with local boys done good Fast Forward Austin for an intercontinental indie-classical love-in featuring line upon line, Bel Coure, Peter Gregson (UK), P. Kellach Waddle and more.
For my part I’m performing Tristan Perich’s Observations with Adam Bedell (line upon line), a work for amplified sculpture by Lisa Coons wherin I alternately caress and assault a spiny hunk of twisted, welded rebar with all manner of implements, and Ian Dicke’s throwback loop-romp Eight Oh Eight.

Saturday, 3/17
Innova Records Showcase
It’s high time I met the nice folks at Innova Records because they are from Minnesota and so am I.  Hell, my mom is from St. Paul, where Innova is based.  Well, I finally get my chance when I sit in on drums with Austin renegade classical heroes Golden Hornet Project as we put the “rok” in Prokofiev.  I am really excited that also on that show are the masterfully innovative composer-performers Sxip Shirey and Todd Reynolds: Fiddle Wizard.  Does the fun ever stop?  No, it does not and please don’t talk with your mouth full of tacos like that.

Sunday, 3/18
Texas Lutheran University Perucssion Festival
This marks the first of 3 post-SXSW university stops.  The TLU visit is an especially exciting reunion since I was on faculty there, teaching percussion before I moved to the East Coast for love. These things happen, but I’m really excited to see the gang again. 
Again, I’ll play music by Tristan Perich, Lisa Coons, and Ian Dicke, but also Javier Alvarez, and Steve Snowden.  Professor Bedell has put together a great festival lineup of line upon line, Chris Lizak working his marimba magic, and the percussion groups of TLU and UT Austin.  So many old drum friends in one place it’s unreal.

Wednesday, 3/21
University of Texas San Antonio
I’m taking my electro-percussion show for a visit to my dear friend and Prince Edward Island native Dr. Graeme Francis and the UTSA percussion studio for a recital and open discussion about commissioning works and collaborating with composers.

Thursday, 3/22
Southwestern University
The final salvo in This Wild Week brings me to Southwestern University, where the wonderful Erin Martysz hosts me for a recital.  Of note is that Ian Dicke himself is also on faculty at SU, lending EXTRA GRAVITAS to my performance of his piece.

So if you’re in Austin come out to a show and say hi!  Or, can find me Saturday afternoon at Lovejoy’s, furiously bobbing my head at the Brooklyn Vegan heavy metal extravaganza.