Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 03

Early morning (7:30am) of the mid-point day.

There's a kind of biorhythm to every music camp: certain patterns, phenomena, concerns, or breakthroughs that seem to manifest themselves on a reasonably consistent schedule at each annual iteration of that particular camp.

On the arrival day (here at ZF, last Sunday), there's huge excitement, and maybe some trepidation for first-time attendees, that tends to manifest in mammoth partying after the official business is done--big sprawling sessions, lots of hanging-out, maybe extensive intake of Potable Beverages. The more hardy, experienced, or mordant types may opt out of the Opening Night sessions, husbanding their stamina for the week ahead.

At First Day classes (here at ZF, Monday), there is a lot of window-shopping and you can see many of the students mentally rearranging the dominoes of their own schedules: Do I take just the one class that I initially came for, and spend the rest of the time practicing, or seeing the sights, or (if accompanied by family members) seek to avoid turning my spouse into a "session widow"? Or, having seen the amazing people teaching and playing musics I know nothing about, and given that this is one week out of 52, do I fill in my schedule blocks with all this other amazing stuff that seems just too cool to pass up?

So Second Day classes (Tuesday) are when attendance and enrollment tends to settle down--that's when you tend to see the list stabilize and when you can begin to count on people being there for the balance of the week.

Balance of Tuesday was terrific: great followup in Doug Goodhart's WV fiddle class--and participants who hung tough in the face of those second-day struggles. Doug's a wonderful teacher: incredibly meticulous; very thoughtful and articulate about what makes the music work the way it does, but also very clear in his insistence that some things have to be learned by rote, by hearing, and by imitation--not be explication. This can be tough for students, particularly those who have lots of experience and accomplishment at learning in a more verbal, linear, incremental, or "talky" way.

Much of what is most important about music--what makes it beautiful, unique, and distinctive--cannot be put into words; or, perhaps better stated, cannot be assimilated through the medium of words. As I said in a casual conversation last night, you can't "think" your way into playing something. You can think about playing, you can be reflective and self-critical and verbal and analytical about why something sounds the way it does. But music is ultimately and inescapably a product of the body, the ears, and the heart--not the cerebral cortex. You have to hear and feel the music right, before you can play it right. So opening the ears and the heart becomes very very important, even if it is alien to your "comfort zone" approach to learning. It's OK to be a beginner--and open.

Beautiful inspiring solo concert by John Carty last night: fantastic Sligo-style fiddling, with Carty's signature variation approach (the man has an astonishing ability to improvise from within the heart of the fiddle melodic vocabulary), topped with great subtle banjo playing, and (an unexpected bonus), a couple of tunes on the flute, for which he was joined by ZF's "go-to hillbilly," Chipper Thompson, on bodhran.

Second set was a magnificent high-wire act of bluegrass and country duets featured two mandolin virtuosi, Steve Smith and Sharon Gilchrist, reprising their ZF 2005 duo performance. Fantastic bluegrass singin' and gittar-pickin', and absolutely blinding, blazing mandolin duets. One of the great joys of hearing great musicians who share a common musical language is hearing them improvise together, putting together music on the bandstand and "off the cuff" as Steve was heard to say. Two players who've almost never played together (Steve and Sharon) or who come from different countries (John and Chipper), but who share a common musical language, and the confidence, command, and facility to let us in on the beauty of their moment-by-moment artistic conversation.

Today, Third Day (Wednesday) is often the "hump day", when the late nights, potable beverages, extensive engagement in class-sampling, incredible music, and just overall extensive input can begin to be overwhelming. Last night, I made the analogy to Chipper Thompson that it's like circuits being over-amped: there's so much fantastic stuff coming in, so many new ideas and tunes and musics and insights and inspirations, that the mental-emotional circuits get saturated. We react to it, and that psycho-emotional saturation has to come out somewhere: sometimes in joy, sometimes in tears, sometimes just in nervous energy. Chipper said "yes, it's like riding that wave between 'I'm going to practice the mandolin for the rest of my life,' and 'I'm never going to play the mandolin again.'"

Fortunately, if you've attended or taught at a summer camp before (or, for that matter, been on a Buddhist retreat or a high-effort backpacking trip), you recognize these psycho/bio-rhythms, and you expect that at a certain point you'll freak out, or start laughing hysterically, or burst into tears, or stay up all night playing. So you're not blind-sided by the experience when it happens, and you know to be patient and ride it out.

And if you do, there's a kind of serenity that emerges. There's only so much time in this hour, this day, this week--in this life; there's only so much input you can take; there's only so many tunes to learn or notes to play. So however much you experience, however much you can take in--it's enough. In the words of St Julian of Norwich, words of great spiritual comfort, if you think about them:

"All shall be well
and all shall be well
and all manner of things shall be well."

Or, of the old gospel hymn:

"Everything gonna be all right. This mornin'."

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