Sunday, June 01, 2008

Short one on the day of "rest"

Setting patterns here for the balance of the semester: writing regimen (two articles, book MS), exercise regimen (28 minutes on the elliptical 35 minutes/day), house stuff (laying stone pathways, garden upkeep etc), continuity heading into fall semester. Still processing China trip (and jet-lagged to prove it) but will try to persuade Dharmonia to post an anonymized version of her legendary trip notes in lieu of my own more cursory descriptions.

First meeting of the Celtic Ensemble "summer band" tonight. Working on some different skills, and a smaller body of repertoire, with the expanded time and absence of concert obligations available in summer. CE becomes an interesting meeting ground of repertoires and player-backgrounds--it's definitely not a "classical" ensemble (play by ear, improvise, seek different/idiomatic playing techniques, tone, and phrasing), but it's also not really a "trad" ensemble either--if only because there can be 12 to 15 players in the room at a time. Instead, it becomes this meeting ground, trying to develop an individual and intuitive way of playing that accommodates both groups' comfort zones but also seeks to expand them. It's a bit more like Gunther Schuller's "Third Stream" experiments at New England Conservatory, when he, Gerry Mulligan, and a few others sought out a meeting ground between classical music and jazz. Third Stream was ultimately, in my opinion, an unsuccessful experiment, but really only because it chose to sacrifice some of the key elements that make jazz what it is (especially tone, phrasing, and improvisational freedom) in favor of the compositional rigidity and the hierarchized markers of value (especially tone, complexity, and visual framing) conferred by classical music's "legitimacy". And, anything that Charles Mingus ever wrote in the same period kicks Third Stream's collective ass.

So in that sense we're doing something rather different: we are trying to take a large ensemble, with a large percentage of classically-trained musicians and a few folk-trained people, as close to traditional musical practices, sounds, and impacts as we can. This means not only teaching the practices to those previously unfamiliar with them, but also (to an extent) inventing a large-ensemble approach in a music that doesn't have one. Insofar as Celtic trad musics have used large ensembles (with the exception of the Shetland fiddle bands), they've tended to borrow the practices of other musics: in the case of Irish ceili bands, those of 1920s and '30s jazz styles (vamping piano, drumset, saxophones and clarinets next to the fiddles and accordions); in the case of the Scottish fiddle orchestras, those of classical music. Conversely, attempts by classical musicians to play "folk" style, unless those classical players are trained in the folk music as well, as usually really really poor: witness Kronos's collaborations with various rock and folk musicians; kudos to them for being receptive to other musics, but they need to realize that you have to know those other musics to play them credibly.

So, in the past, the tendency has been for the classical approaches, techniques, mindsets, priorities, and overall "vibe" to predominate. We're trying to do something different, for which I don't know too many precursors except the Chieftains (way too lite-classical chamber orchestra style) and the more "trad" experiments of Donal Lunny (who in the early '80s put together a large group--massed fiddles, pipers, accordions--to play Chieftains-style counterpoint but with multiple players on a part). It's a challenge and we're still learning how. Requires a lot of learning and a good deal of adaptation and compromise. Fortunately, my guys have four semesters under their belts of learning and adapting to new techniques so they don't fight me on it now (much).

Should be a fun challenge.
Now playing: Charles Mingus - II B.S. (Edit)
via FoxyTunes

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