Monday, June 30, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 097 (observation and experience edition), and Fuzzy People 34

I learned a long time ago--and continue to be reminded--of the tremendous egocentricity that being a "scholar", and, especially, being a college professor can bring. You spend most of your time engaging very intensely with subjects you've had years to study, think about, and with which to develop expertise, and don't have to spend a lot of time with things you don't know about, and you derive a decent income and very flexible work circumstances from imparting this expertise to young people who, by very virtue of the university dynamic, have neither the knowledge nor the power that you do. It becomes very easy to indulge oneself with a degree of pontification, or what old friend Quantzalcoatl calls "fog and pomposity." You don't very often get questioned on very egalitarian terms, and when you do, typically by a colleague, the lack of overlap between your areas of expertise can make for mutual incomprehension. And when you screw up--particularly if you are tenured--there are almost no concrete consequences: you don't lose your job for "having an unproductive quarter," or for making bad command decisions, or for engaging in the most ridiculously impractical committee decisions, and so on. For academics, about the only criteria for putting forth the vast additional effort that makes the difference between "Meets Expectations" and "Exceeds Expectations" pretty much has to be internally-n, because there are few externals that have much impact. This can lead to situations that make adminstrators tear out their hair, and to the general public propogating ill-informed prejudices about academics in "ivory towers" (which is horseshit--academics are some of the hardest-working, most idealistic people I know: who takes a job like this because of the money?!?).

But it also reminds me of the importance of self-reflection and a good deal of self-debunking. So when somebody asks my advice (give a musicologist a platform to hold forth, and s/he will), I try to always remember to preface that advice with the proviso "In my observation and experience..."

It is so easy to think that, because people constantly ask your advice and follow it, that you know about more different topics than you do, or that your experience or opinions can be vastly overgeneralized to reflect those of most persons, when in fact they mostly reflect your own, (as an academic) rather isolated or unique experience. Any expert--academic, corporate, legal, medical, and so on--is prety to this kind of hubris: you make analyses and take decisions based upon very detailed and extensive knowledge and experience, and (in some cases) those decisions and advice can have a very profound impact on peoples' lives. It is very easy to generalize that, because you can provide sound, expert advice in one topic area, you are therefore more intellectually/analytically able in many topic areas: that somehow, "knowing how to think" can trump a lack of factual data and experience in areas you don't otherwise know about.

This is a major risk and a bad mistake, and it's one reason when, asked for advice or feedback, I will tend to preface with "In my observation and experience..."--it's a reminder to both the other person and myself that my advice is ultimately, like that of every other human, limited by what I know, have seen, or have experienced.

It is easier to remember and to be convinced of the importance of this disclaimer/proviso when you have experienced a lot. It is harder to do this if you have not had the opportunity to experience very much. My particular clientele tends to include a large percentage of young people between the ages of, say 17 and 25. It is only to be expected--and hoped!--that such young people will not yet have experienced some of the events that greater years make inevitable: death, injury, the loss of love, the cycles of joy and sorrow. For example: it's not uncommon that, between the ages of 17 and 25, a young person might experience the death of a grandparent, or a loved one of the grandparent's generation. One hopes that this particular experience will not have happened earlier (e.g., "too soon"), and so as a teacher one tries to help a young person experiencing such a loss for the first time to cope with it. Age does not of itself confer any additional knowledge, insight, analytical ability, or wisdom. But age--sheer accumulation of years--can provide wise insight if you pay attention to what has happened to you. If you have experienced certain life situations or opportunities, but only understood their implications or impact in hindsight, you can still apply those lessons when analogous situations recur.

It's true that way with joyful experiences as well. At the age of 17, I met a remarkable group of people who were involved with the first startup of the "Freshman Year Program" at the New School. They were the right people at the right time for me, and it absolutely transformed my life. I had hated my high-school years-not least because I broadcast to my contemporaries how much I was hating the experience--and that 10 months in '76-'77 on the Lower East Side were absolutely transformative. It happened for Dharmonia and me again at the Guitar Workshop around 1980-81. It happened for us again at Tom Binkley's Early Music Institute around 1988-89. It happened again--and again and again and again--at Zoukfest.

After enough years, even the dumbest, most egocentric, most in-love-with-the-sound-of-his-own-voice musicologist (that would realizes that magical, joyful, inspiring times end. And, with some age and some hindsight and some reflection and, maybe, belated and reluctant "wisdom", you learn to recognize those times as they're happening, maybe even before they end. Your "observation and experience" tells you, "hey, Dim-O: pay attention here: this is another one of those situations."

And that's when gratitude begins. It's why, again and again and again, in these pages I talk about love;, which comes when you gain a little bit of observation, and perspective, and experience, and the ability to step outside both yourself and your expectations, and you realize that it's worth driving 840 miles round-trip in 48 hours, to play three hours of music and break bread with friends.

Below the jump: Sally, reminding us that, even if we were sleeping in Chipper & Kim's guest room (the "Guitarchive"), the bed still belongs to her.

Thanks to the Rev the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Nice pub session tonight--always nice when there's a bunch of friends in the house, and we can observe a few anniversaries. In about 9 hours we leave to drive 6 hours for another session, followed by about 9 hours return on Sunday. Worth it, for the companionship.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chris Bowers is my hero

He's a brilliant numbers and analysis wonk, but he can also turn a phrase (or a 'graf) about the fear-world that hard-core conservatives want everyone to live in:

It must be really scary to be a conservative. To be one, you must live in constant fear of terrorists nuking the United States, of gay people on the verge of convincing you that you really enjoy sodomy, of Spanish becoming the official language of the United States next week, of every African-American voting seven or eight times in the next election, of radical Islam suddenly becoming the latest hip thing among kids across the country, of perpetual lesbian orgies in girls bathrooms in high schools across America, of liberals forcing everyone to become a vegan, of Christians being rounded up into concentration camps, and of Democrats outlawing private property if they were to ever take power again.

"The Office" (workstation series) 096 (punching the clock edition)

For at least 21 or 22 years--at the very least, since Dharmonia and I first moved to Bloomington for graduate school--I have sought regular gigs: weekly, monthly, whatever (cue the old joke about the accordion band, re-hired after the last set for "next year's New Year's", who say "Can we just leave our gear set up?"). This is in keeping with my general preference to set up schedules and more-or-less standard procedures for everything from cooking to building a website to building a lecture to working-out a concert program: my brain just works better if I'm not constantly reinventing the methods by which I get stuff done: by working out a standard system, I obviate the necessity of having to think up a new one at every iteration. So whether I'm making guacamole or framing a wall, creating a podcast or packing a car full of instruments, I tend to follow the same procedures. And when I'm learning a new skill--whether it's rendering a recipe or a piece of software, the big watershed is when I can go "off the book" and follow the process from memory. A standard procedure speeds up the moment this watershed appears--even when it's things I don't want to do (the elliptical comes to mind), doing things the same way at the same time of day increases the odds that they'll get done.

I've written before about the other merits of this approach: the way that it reconnects us to older ways of knowing, the way it shifts the focus from the abstract/imagined end-result and toward the process of making, the way--certainly in a musical situation--that it gets our noses out of the score and into the communicative dynamic between the players. A regular gig has a lot of the same merits: knowing you have to be there every week constructively removes the whiney five-year-old "but I don't feel like it!" soundtrack in your head. It's a lot easier to be productive if you recognize that the line between "do or don't do" has fuck-all to do with "want to." It's like having a workout partner who'll nag you if you don't show up: you're going to be there because people are expecting you to be there.

And, it's a very useful way to move incrementally toward longer-term goals. At least 4 years ago, I decided that I wanted to get some of my acoustic-blues/roots chops back. I knew that, given the demands of my day job, exercise, research & creative activity, and the fact that I was teaching and playing Irish trad music at least 4 days a week (and continuing to try to build my own skills--to be perfectly honest--to a world-class level in that music), any recovery of blues chops was going to have to go slowly and gradually. Which in turn meant that I needed some kind of regular situation that would keep me working at it: not the 2 hours/day I try for with the principal music, maybe not even every day--but some kind of schedule that would rebuild the blues thing.

So, when we were offered a Thursday-night regular gig at a coffeeshop in town (along with the Friday pub session, and the Saturday teaching session, and the Sunday night rehearsal), I took it, but proposed that we trade off, week-by-week, between Irish trad music and blues. Trad night would be Dharmonia, buddy Steve (flute) and myself, plus whoever we invited, but blues night would be the "Juke Band"--umbrella term for myself and fiddle, second guitar, percussion or whatever else. I'll play National steel or mandolin, and it's around my own versions of things that the other players fall in.

It's been interesting to revisit these repertoires--these specific songs--many of which I at least first heard, if not learned, literally 30 years ago, from my great heroes Martin Grosswendt, Geoff Bartley, Bob Franke, Paul Rishell, Spider John Koerner, and Paul Geremia. However, I make a conscious effort to avoid the approach I tried to employ all those years ago, of copping exactly the arrangements and versions of those players' I admired--great though I still think they are.

Instead, I try to treat them more like "folksongs"--as songs I know, have heard for years, used to play, but which I'm now going to play the way that I hear and play them now. This has advantages: it helps me rediscover these things, rather than trying to "recreate" them; it keeps things loose and improvisational and lets me lead the other players through versions; and finally, I think it takes me closer to the way that some of the first-generation acoustic blues guys played. A second-generation acoustic bluesman like Robert Johnson was demonstrably borrowing, imitating, and elaborating the songs and arrangements he learned, and when he recorded in '36 and '37, he was quite consciously creating set-pieces that were specifically (and brilliantly) tailored for the short duration of the 78-rpm record.

But the first generation players, like Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, and Henry Thomas, were much more concerned with being able to hold down a groove and blast out enough volume, while maintaining his stamina for 4 or 5 or 6 hours in a juke joint. Those guys were not so involved with elaborate set-pieces; they were more concerned with creating an environment in which the drinking and dicing and dancing could go on along with the music. I'm pretty-well convinced that they improvised a lot, just riding that groove (and, in Patton's case anyway, drank a lot of free booze and sneaked away with other people's women).

Playing a lot, on a regular basis, and especially (or even if) the audience isn't paying much attention, is a really good workshop.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 095 (fine-tuning the focus edition)

I write this blog for a number of reasons, almost none of which were clear when I began it--that was more a product of blind fury at the criminality of the incompetent buffoons and greed-poisoned CEOs in the Bush Administration. After about a year of posting that was, I belatedly realized, entirely too angry, too reactive, and too redundant compared to the genius of various other bloggers, I decided to shift the tone and consciously hone in on specific targets (see the Blooger Personal Inventory in the side-bar for a more detailed exegesis). That enumeration of topics (see the banner above for the keywords) brought things much more into focus.

But what really finalized the focus, I think, was arriving at a conception of the target audience for whom I thought I was writing. That is not to say that other individuals and groups might not find the thing useful--at least I hope so--but that, as a writer and a coach of writing, I knew that I could further focus by having a reasonably clear visualization of who the writing was targeting. I realized that I might have most tangible, conscious, intentional, insightful things to say about the day-to-day craft of being a public intellectual: in the classroom, in the public prints, in scholarly research and publication, and in the fora of public opinion; that is, the stuff I do every day. That in turn suggested that the potential audiences might include those for whom this information and commentary might be engaging, educational, or useful: fellow educators; others working at the nexus of education, public policy, and political/community activism; a circle of friends and contemporaries with whom I share some past history; and, perhaps most important to me personally, those who might describe themselves as my students: graduate students, junior contemporaries, and so on.

I don't worry too much about who might read this blog--if I were worried about that, or the nefarious or vindictive purposes to which someone might put that information, or if I were not yet tenured, I would maintain a far higher level of anonymity (my current benchmark is essentially "minimal deniability by my employers"). But I definitely think about who I hope reads the blog, and that is those who might benefit by whatever experience, observation, and insights I can bring to bear.

That's the genesis for several of the principle themes: the theme of "how do you be a public intellectual committed to major socio-political change, and also keep your job?" (the "radical politics" tags); the theme of "how do you maintain some kind of a research identity and work-stream while also being a teaching professor?" (the "Office" series); the theme of "how does it actually work, day-after-day, teaching your way through an academic year or semester?" (the "In the trenches" series).

I learned, long before I was able to so articulate the insight, that my highest level of centered satisfaction came from a life that involved a healthy combination of teaching, playing, and creative activity. I learned to articulate that as "make sure, each day, that you make something and that you teach something." Those are necessarily defined very broadly: consider myself to be "making something", whether it's a radio program, a lecture, a pub session, a tune, a blog post, a scholarly article, a transcription, or a meal, and consider myself to be "teaching something" if it's a lesson, a class, or, again and overlapping, a radio program or (certain) blog posts.

Some colleagues and close friends rib me about it: "Oh, jeez, there he goes teaching somebody something again" (I heard this more than once in China), and I recognize that there are myriad social interactions in which the pedagogical impulse just needs to be shut off. That's usually when I shift to "making" as opposed to "teaching".

But these/those are the ways that I create human value in the world. It's how I give back.

Being a teacher, then--in the medium of the classroom, teaching studio, radio program, or, hell, even a thinly-anonymized blog--feels to me like an enormous gift. I am privileged beyond measure that the Universe permits me to do this.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 094 ("Is it Summer yet?" edition) and, Fuzzy People 33

Finally into the saddle--I hope!--for the summer's work, and the damned thing is half over. I've been pecking away at writing projects (described below) on half-days here and there, ever since school let out May 7, but there have been so many big-chunk away days that I haven't been able to get much into the groove. Or, as Steinbeck put it, "squirmed down into the writing chair."

Here's what the past 5 weeks brought:

May 5-9: final exams, final grades, inevitable hysteria by Those who Had Not Done What They Ought to Have Done;

May 9-16: prep for China trip; try to bang out some writing; meet with students working on summer projects; write recommendations referrals job-tasks etc; yard-work and home-improvements; woodshed and try to get my chops up

May 17-29: China tour with friend's university wind ensemble; 4 concerts in 10 days (immediately following the 3 days of Official Mourning for the eighty-thousand people estimated to have died in the Szechuan earthquakes); hard-traveling at times, to be documented in Dharmonia's trip notes, but also including the Great Wall, a visit to Han Shan's Cold Mountain temple and the most astonishing Buddhist carvings I've ever seen, plus a panicked cross-city walk in Yanchou in 100-degree heat, only to be rescued by 5 youthful Chinese angels in a Smart Car, and possibly the most foul distilled liquors I've ever imbibed;

May 30-June 6: right back into the saddle in Lubbock--we made our regular pub session within 20 hours of touching down, after a 30-hour journey from Beijing (don't ever fly United airlines!!!); "First Monday" ceili dance on June 2; meet with students; paperwork paperwork paperwork; second meeting with Celtic Ensemble "Summer Band" (a very informal, off-the-cuff weekly jam-and-rehearsal session with those CE members who are in town and bored - needing - something - to - do over the summer; more on that in a subsequent post); prep for Zoukfest;

June 7-15: Zoukfest. Consistently, now, one of the high-points of our annual calendar, and reliably one of the most intense artistic, personal, and spiritual experiences I've ever had. I said it 10 years ago after ZF I in Weston MO, and it's never more true than right now. For a week, it feels a little bit like it must have felt like to be in Paris in the '20s with Joyce and Hemingway, or Harlem in 1916 with James Reese Europe, Eubie Blake and James Weldon Johnson, or San Fran in '56 at the Six Gallery Reading, or courts of the Burgundian nobility in the 15th century, or hell, even Paris in 1100 when Perotin was scribbling notes in Leonin's composition classes: you just feel lucky to be there, alive and participating at a magical time.

June 16-22: recording with old friends (bit of overlap with ZF: tenor David arrived at our house in Lubbock before we even did). Breaking our necks to live up to mentor Peter Burkholder's expectations (justifiable or not) regarding what we're capable of, in re-recording for the venerable Norton Anthology. Also rehearsing Summer Band, woodshedding on an new baby (5-string tenor guitar by GD Armstrong, more on that later too), teaching and then leading English Country Dance for colleague Susan's Kodaly teaching workshop (in a country line-dancing bar, and chased home by massive softball-sized hail). Also cranking out additional prose and student essay questions for a music appreciation text I'm co-authoring (see below).

June 23: meetings all day (meatspace and virtual) with students needing mentoring and colleagues/supervisors problem-solving for Fall 2008 semester.

But, as of today (June 24), that is about to change, for around 4 weeks: I don't have to travel again until around July 27. Dharmonia is off to Bloomington to help celebrate 10-year anniversary of old friends' and revered teachers' monastic foundation, but I've begged off--airline fuel prices being so high and the caliber of the airline experience so horrifically low. Here's the writing I'm hoping to do in the next 4 weeks--or at least get as far as I can:

Essay for a collection called Lost Colonies, on the theme of the immigrant Irish in the American South. My particular topic is the interaction of Irish and African-American performance arts (music and dance) in the riverine and maritime environments of New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston. Reading a hell of a lot on immigration and demographics in those cities, as well as the history and primary literature on canal construction (and the workers who did it) on the Old Frontiers of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, and finding out that, once again, the received history about who lived there, what work they did, and the extent of their interaction, are all dreadfully incomplete in the scholarship. This is to be expected--there are so many different possible readings of existing primary data that any solid new research question is likely to uncover new patterns not previously recognized because not previously sought. This obviously ties in with the large-scale minstrelsy project, but very usefully kills two birds with one stone by requiring that I deepen my own understanding of black-white musical interaction in other maritime/riverine areas than Long Island. Research on this one well begun.

Essay for a collection (and conference) on 16th century (e.g., "early modern") Ireland. My particular topic is on the intersection of "early modern" (e.g., Continental) and essentially medieval (e.g., Gaelic) harmonic conceptions in tunes from this period, some of the first tunes that are documented--that is, written down--in the Irish tradition. I've suspected for years that the tunes of this period, some of which are clearly organized on modal (that is, medieval church-music) harmonic principles, and others clearly on triadic (that is, post-Buxtehude/Bach) principles, reveal the collision of two different musical traditions and the working-out of their synthesis in composed melodies. This essay and conference paper are a chance to try out that hypothesis. Research on this just started, but it's one I've thought about (and experienced, as a player) a lot over the years so I don't anticipate too much trouble in cranking it out. I expect my copy of Fleischmann's Sources of Irish Traditional Music, which I snagged at an outrageous discount at the AMS meetings about 6 years ago, will get quite a workout.

Conference paper for national meetings of Society for Ethnomusicology, held in my old friend Matthew Allen's old stomping grounds of Wesleyan university. I'm on a panel exploring the uses of music to create community and contexts in the Irish Diaspora. Haven't even begun this conference text, but I've presented on my own on this topic at various conferences, and published, and I've got fifteen years practical experience at using the music for precisely this purpose, so I expect that writing to proceed pretty freely and intuitively.

Writing review questions for publisher of a new music-appreciation textbook. This is contract writing, which pays a pittance, but it's a good thing to do, both for the CV and because it helps sharpen a critical eye one can apply to one's own writing--which is never wasted investment of time.

Continuing to work on my part of the co-authored music-appreciation text for Prentice-Hall. I've been recruited as the author for "Rock" sections (not the topic I would have selected myself--I'd be more comfortable with "Jazz" or "World", but "Rock" is what they had open). It's the first time I've worked on an entire book MS with multiple authors and with a team of editors, and it's proving to be an interesting discipline, to write to order (which I've done a lot), according to another party's multiple and occasionally shifting timetables (which I've done less), and according to a working- and text-organizing-method which is not my own (which I've done very little). Have to (a) try to leave space in the daily writing schedule to respond to editorial requests and (b) refrain from feeling obligated to crank out specific items within 24 hours of their being requested. I don't like having stuff sitting on my desk's (or desktop's) "Inbox"--am much happier "clearing to empty" as the Getting Things Done folks call it--but this compulsion can work against me if I drop other stuff I'm in the middle of.

And, all of that above leaves aside the garden stone I want to lay, the 2-hours-minimum of daily practicing, the 40 daily minutes on the elliptical, and all the other stuff I "told myself" I was going to do this summer.

Gotta get to work.

Below the jump: His Highness sleeping peacefully, post-tranquillized haircut and shearing (he picks up burrs easily but will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid having the resultant mats combed or cut). Below that, the "no papparazzi please" shot. One of the things I like about cats--and you can see it in this shot--is that they're never really tamed; they are always essential feral. And if you die, they'll eat you without compunction.

I like that.

[thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cheating post: iTunes "most played" selection

I got stuff but no time to post. So, from another task I was doing, is a cheater's cut & paste post of the top 107 "most played" in this particular laptop's iTunes. Pretty much every single artist on this list is brilliant and eminently worth your attention:

Albert Collins, Albert King, Albion Band, Allman Brothers, Altan, Aly Bain & Ale Möller, Andy Irvine, Angelina Carberry & Martin Quinn, Arcady, Ashley Hutchings, Baltimore Consort, Battlefield Band, Begley & Cooney, Berrogüeto, Bess Cronin, Big Bill Broonzy, Bohola, Bothy Band, Brass Monkey, Brendan Larrissey, Brian McNamara, Bukka White, Carlos Nunez, Cathal McConnell, Charlie Piggot & Gerry Harrington, Charlie Wells, Chulrua, Cran, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Band, Darach Ó Catháin, Dave Swarbrick, Davie Stewart, De Dannan, Derek Trucks Band, Dervish, Dick Gaughan, Dolores Keane & John Faulkner, Elvis Presley, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, Frank Harte, Frankie Gavin, Grey Larsen & Andre Marchand, Guitar Slim, Howlin' Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, J. Geils Band, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy McBeath, Jimmy Reed, Joe Heaney, John Carty, John Hiatt, John Kirkpatrick, June Tabor, Koun, La Musgaña, Len Graham, Leon Rosselson, Little Richard, Los Lobos, Lou Reed, Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Mason Brown & Chipper Thompson, Memphis Minnie, Milladoiro, Nic Jones, NRBQ, Paddy Tunney, Pancho Alvarez, Patrick Street, Paul Brady, Paul Brock & Enda Scahill, Paul Butterfield, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, Paul Simon, Peter Bellamy, Peter Carberry, Angelina Carberry, John Blake, Pierre Bensusan, Planxty, Professor Longhair, Randal Bays, Richard Thompson, Robin Williamson, Solas, Steeleye Span, Stockton's Wing, Stravinsky Igor, Susana Seivane, The Band, The Irish Tradition, The Morris On Band, The Tulla Ceili Band, The Watersons, Tommy Johnson, Tony Cuffe, Unknown, Various Artists, Willie Clancy, Zappa

The Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television

Carlin RIP.

The man loved America--more than any of those jerkwads who thought his language was "inappropriate."

On baseball:

On white folks appropriating black culture:

They called Twain a pessimist, too.

The Good Grey Lady agrees

Well, now I know it's not just punk-rockers and DIY exponents who've realized that you can't download or bootleg an in-person performance: the Paper of Record gets it too:

Live Music Thrives as CDs Fade

A little over a week ago, Patterson Hood, a guitarist and singer in the Drive-By Truckers, stood in front of a sleepy but amped noon crowd at Bonnaroo, the music festival in Manchester, Tenn., explaining profanely that it was time to, um, wake up....Like much of Bonnaroo, the set was a display of the fealty between band and audience so thunderous that you barely hear the sound of a dying business. Yes, the traditional music industry is in the tank — record sales are off another 10 percent this year and the Virgin Megastore in Times Square is closing, according to a Reuters report, joining a host of other record stores. That would seem to be bad news all around for music fans — 70,000 of whom showed up in this remote place to watch 158 bands play — and for Mr. Hood and his band.

Not so, he says.

“The collapse of the record business has been good for us, if anything. It’s leveled the playing field in a way where we can keep slugging it out and finding our fans,” he said while toweling himself off after the set.
It also makes for a hell of a lot better long-term job security, because the fundamental human need (and skills) for live music have endured a hell of a lot longer. Oh, and by the way? It does some young person who's never heard live music about six times as much good to play a show for them as to sell a CD (or a download) to 'em. If you as a musician need additional motivation to get out there and be a musician (as opposed to a "recording artist"), think about how much more good you're doing in the world.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Medieval maw Day 05

Day 05, hoping it's the closing day (pub session tonight and various parties hope to Drink Heavily in celebration).

[12:30am, after an epic pub session--and six pints apiece for some old friends]

Done. Mixing tomorrow.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Medieval maw Day 04

One piece down, two to go. Started with the easiest, though not the shortest, so as to familiarize ourselves with this particular combination in this particular facility. You can have really good musicians, a really good studio (gear and rooms), and a really good engineer, and unless and until they're worked together, they still can't know the best way to proceed. Several years ago, when my buddy Steve took delivery of a new wooden flute, he went out to the cotton-fields-in-the-middle-of-nowhere studio where we record and laid out the bucks for a few hours' recording time, just purely in order to be able to try out sounds and approaches before the major multi-day projects came down the pike. These few hours of "no goals" experimentation paid off big-time when he and the engineer went to lay down tracks for our most recent project.

This is not so readily available when the members of our medieval band live at some remove from one another. Dharmonia and I are in Lubbock, but bowed-string player Jann is in Waco and tenor David is in Lansing MI. So we don't have the luxury of meeting once or twice a week to rehearse at somebody's house (back in the Day--the early 1990s--that is precisely how we got our ensemble concept together: through playing together on a daily basis); instead, we meet up once or twice a year to research, rehearse, and record material. We don't the luxury of being off-handed anymore: on those once-yearly windows of two or three or four days, we have to flipping focus.

I used to hate it when professors would say (or just imply) to us poor starving graduate students that someday we would look back and those brutal days wouldn't seem so bad. Well, there were that bad and that hard and that broke. I'm not sorry to have health insurance, home equity, and some job security (not to mention old friends scattered around the world).

But, looking back to those days when we were broke and hungry, but also creative, and ambitious, and had time for each other--I miss the immediacy of the bond.

Fuzzy people 32

Kim sends along the following: her shot of a litter of prairie dog kits following their mama out of the burrow:

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Medieval maw Day 03

Last day of rehearsals, first of recording (tonight). Historically, medieval music (like most Renaissance and Baroque and other classical repertoires) has been recorded "live" to 2-track--all players in a resonant room together, balancing the audio sound that the stereo pair of microphones here via physical location. Half the engineer/producer's art was in locating the players, "tuning" the room and the orientation of the microphones, and in getting good sound, both for the sake of the master tape, and to maximize the players' ability to communicate and get good musical processes going. This is still the way in which most classical recording is undertaken.

But that does not mean that what you hear on the CD is precisely what was played in the room. On the contrary: a second large part of the engineer/producer's art was in the editing process, the process--as our old friend the master engineer Peter Nothnagle put it--of "putting two 8th notes next to each other." This meant recording all sections of all pieces (e.g., "covering" the pieces), ideally in single, complete, and contiguous takes, in such a fashion that both the expression inherent in the particular performance, the notes being sounded, and the quality of the sounds going to tape, all coincided. This is the ideal, and historically it's precisely the way that most jazz "blowing sessions" (and old-school Irish music recordings) were made: book three hours in a good studio with good instruments and top-notch players, "blow" for three hours on familiar repertoire, with a couple of takes on each piece, and walk out at the end of three hours, leaving the producer to select (and occasionally to perform minimal edits upon) the best takes.

But the reality is that most classical recordings are not realized in this way. Yes, everybody typically plays together in a room at the same time, with the engineer employing some combination of "ambient" (e.g., relatively distant mics "hearing" both the instruments and the room's sound) and "close" (e.g., next to and isolating specific instruments) microphone placement. But even if they do play single complete and contiguous takes, it is very very uncommon for a single take to appear unadulterated or unedited on a final CD release; far more common is to select the best bits from multiple iterations ("takes") and then have the engineer digitally marry those bits together into a single, composite, and unnaturally highly-polished performance. That is simply the expectation of classical music CD listeners anymore: that the performance will be both sonically and technically without flaw, while at the same time achieving some kind of "unique" interpretation, even though the version on the CD was never actually played all at the same time.

This is impossible and unrealistic, and the result is that listener expectations are superhuman and unnatural: the typical classical CD fan hears a performance from another, pre-editing era, and says "why are there all the wrong notes? why doesn't it sound perfect?" This is not the fault of the fan, but of the technology--because technology changes the way we listen. Most people who consume most of their music from pre-recorded sources have little idea what music--even that same music--actually sounds like in a room. Which is sad, because those imperfections, asymmetries, moment-by-moment unexpected choices, are precisely what make both errors and repairs, struggle and transcendence, possible in a musical performance. The reason that we listen to music made by humans (those of us who think about human versus machine issues) is because we value that human imperfection, and the unique experiences it makes possible.

Thus, the aural expectations set up by superhuman technical perfection limit the possibilities for experience that come from listening to recordings, but present a tremendous potential opportunity in the realm of live music. If practitioners of various niche musics can shift the way they market their music, and the music's unique appeal in performance, then there is a chance that they can likewise shift audience expectations. And that the unexpected, the unique, even the ways in which live players get themselves into and out of predicaments, can become a selling point, rather than a handicap.

20 years ago, at the magazine's request, I wrote an article for the principle early music organization's newsletter about this newfangled phenomenon called the "World Wide Web," and the DIY (from punk rock: "Do It Yourself"; e.g., to quote a touring publication of the period, Book Your Own Fucking Life") ethos that early music people could stand to learn from touring folk, punk, and jazz musicians. I argued that the great strengths of early music performance (especially the medieval repertoires, but also Renaissance and Baroque) lay not in their sonic similarity to classical music--which is the way, over the '80s and '90s, they were marketed: as a safely-and-slightly "exotic" experience closely aurally allied with what the symphony and string-quartet audiences already knew--but rather in the way that their procedures, and the experience of seeing those procedures in live concerts, linked early music to these other, more vital, more immediate, less object- and more process-oriented, niche musics. I argued that the Web's self-marketing and -presentation capacities, and the "live music is better" philosophies of these other niche repertoires, presented a far more vital, immediate, far-reaching, inspiring, and, oh by the way, realistic set of possibilities for early music.

Sadly, it didn't take. The Early Music Boom went bust, around 1992, as the Baroque and early-Classical repertoires and performers got swept into the maw of subsidized "it sounds like Mozart so it doesn't intimidate me" recording, and pretty much every festival, agency, and radio programmer ignored anything that didn't sound like Mozart. Some of the best experiences we ever had playing medieval music live were either in Europe (where, as Dharmonia puts it, it is their folk music) or at folk- or world-music festivals in the USA (where the audience was prepared to hear medieval repertoire as simply one more "world" music). And then the entire record industry went bust (hint: do not invest in any record companies) and it became both mandatory and preferable for artists to release their own recordings, on CD, or mp3, or some permutation of the above.

It--and we--are still out there though. Live, improvisational musical performance, players communicating directly and with immediacy with audiences and one another, is still a unique and uniquely rewarding experience, one that cannot be objectified, bought, sold, or copied. If you're a "recording artist" and you're worried about people bootlegging your CDs, you are, to quote Dharmonia's favorite lolcats website "Doon it Rong." Recordings are like calling cards--they let people know that you're out there, and pique their curiousity about coming to hear you live. Once you have them in the room, it's your job--your ancient and eternal job--as a musician to give them an experience so vital, so unique, so emotionally and viscerally satisfying, that you convert them to returning the next time.

Audio recording has been around for a little over 130 years. Live musical performance has been around for about 40,000 years. When the chips are down and the economy slumps, which one do you want to count on for your daily crust?

I know my answer.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008



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Medieval maw Day 02

Old friends and colleagues in town, reuniting our medieval band, for rehearsal and recording, and then more rehearsal.

We're re-doing a bunch of tracks from the old Norton CD (formerly LP) anthology which accompanied the Grout/Palisca History of Western Music, now edited (really, entirely recreated and improved) by my dissertation adviser Peter Burkholder. In addition to the particular realizations of specific pedagogical examples Peter is seeking, we are particularly interested in redressing bad memories We of a Certain Generation might have had about some of those versions recorded in the 1960s, versions which didn't particularly seem to reflect the conviction that the music might actually have sounded good, been enjoyable to play, or much relationship to the texts being sung. If you're of a Certain Generation, and went through a US-based university music program, you are likely to remember some of these now-antiquated versions. The chance to re-approach these repertoires, in the context of this most august of music history textbooks, feels like a long-deferred but still-welcome opportunity.

We started demo'ing some of these pieces in Peter Burkholder's undergraduate 400-level music history review courses almost 20 years ago, and are flattered that still, all this time later, he prefers our versions-as-remembered. I am quite certain that these will be the first recordings of medieval music using historical performance practice ever recorded in Lubbock County. Kind of reminds me of the question that we got after tearing the house down at our Boston Early Music Festival concert in a sweltering submarine of a church sanctuary just off of Harvard Square in 1991: "What the hell is going on out in Indiana?!?" Just move along, friend; nothin' here to see. You keep monopolizing the federal grant money and the media visibility and booking your friends and getting re-booked by them and presuming that anybody who lives outside the Left and Right Coasts must be a clueless hillbilly with nothing to offer to your own august and more sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and metrosexual artistic self. And then we'll come out of the MW cornfields (or the NPW rain forests, or the sweltering Southern river bottoms, or the freshwater red-brick universities) where we've been working our asses off and we'll play this music better than you ever imagined.

I hate privilege. Or individuals' presumption thereof.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Back from ZF: into the maw of the medieval beast

Back from Zoukfest--still processing. A beautiful shout-out to the Usual Suspects at Rev Thompson's blog (and the bastard made me cry with the Tolkien reference). Jump-starting straight into another musical world: that of medieval performance, which we all learned at the feet of Tom Binkley. At the behest of another musical mentor, the great Peter Burkholder, we're redoing some of the medieval pieces for the magnum opus music history textbook, Grout/Palisca. Will try to blog the process of rehearsing and recording, but no guarantees.

Taking off from a joke that Roger Landes made during his ZF solo concert (and upon which both Randal Bays and Stanley Greenthal picked up) we all more-or-less did meet in one line-up or another.

It was all the cops' fault. You don't put guys like us into a room together.

Now playing: Andy Irvine - Forgotten Hero
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zoukfest in the rear-view mirror

Most apposite line from "Tom Joad" at Andy Irvine's epic solo concert at Gig Performance space--two hours and nine minutes; unaccompanied songs; a lengthy imitation of his musical-comedy-actress mother singing "Sunny"; an extended, expanded, and improvisational version of "Plains of Kildare", and a 66th birthday cake:

Ever'body might be just one big soul
Well it looks that -a-way to me.
With Zoukfest in the rear-view mirror as we load up, mount up, turn our eyes toward the skyline, and say "Farewell" to the Rendezvous, it looks that way to us too.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Zoukfest 08 05: at the Center

Zoukfest 2008 Day 05.

Sitting here on the floor of the Benildus Center, listening to Steve Smith (mandolin virtuoso) and Doug Goodhart (fiddle--and everything else--virtuoso) teaching each other Appalachian tunes, I can hear the friendship that musical conversation is forging. Dale Kennedy just went by and said to me "do you realize you're typing in time to the music? It sounds like you're typing out the notes." Not really--although, considering what those guys are capable of producing, if I could type that fast my books would already be written. I'm not even frantically recording their impromptu recital, obsessing on "capturing" the tunes so I can learn them myself--though I sure do like 'em. Sometimes it's better to just sit inside the center of the universe that the music creates, be thankful for its presence and engage with its beautiful ephemerality, and let it end.

Because that's where we find ourselves. Here: where altitude, emotions, input, exertion all flutter like flags in the wind. Where we enter a liminal space of beauty, intensity, community (and a few meltdowns), right outside the known universe, brick by brick build a shared experience, and then--if we're smart and addressing the world as it is rather than the world as we imagine it to be--we acknowledge, and perhaps even celebrate, the fact that it will end.

Dharmonia and I were invited to sit in on Don Richmond's Getting Your Music Past the Fear (a/k/a, "the 'Fear' class), based upon his book of the same name; Roger joked that he--a legendary hard-ass--should be the one "teaching fear." Or maybe that he and Coyote (a/k/a, Shite Bheag agus Shite Mohr, a play on the Carolan tune Sheebeg and Sheemore) should teach it together--like a team ("we could wear Mexican wrestlers' masks! And tell people there's 'no crying in Irish music!'").

Don's version is a small, intimate, and remarkably open environment, in which students engage, via wrestling with issues like performance anxiety and expectations, with some very deep psychological and even spiritual elements. They spend time talking about visualization, and attachment: attachment to an idea of how the song should go, or how great we should play it, or how impressed the listeners will be, or how cool or sensitive or smart or worthwhile our playing will make listeners think we are. None of which actually exist. None of these exist: they are all purely imaginary, the unreal world of Maya that we think we inhabit, but which in fact blinds us to the reality of the perfection that is already around us and within us.

Yesterday was one of those transcending events, one of those events that Zoukfest has been building toward for the past ten years: Andy Irvine's solo recital in the intimate and unamplified space of O'Shaughnessy performance hall. We've been hearing fantastic music all week long and certainly every night in the staff performances. But this was even bigger, in the Zoukfest imagination, than the great music previously played. This was about meeting someone who you might have idolized for nearly your entire musical life, the sense of overwhelming excitement at the prospect, and, in a small unspoken place, the fear that perhaps this person might not live up to your anticipation--because who could?

And then to meet the man, and hear him play, and watch the students responding, and to realize that--as I've said about the Planxty reunion--this was a case when you said to yourself "Goddamn. I wasn't wrong at age 18 when I hoped I could grow up to be like Andy Irvine. He really is as great a man and musician as I hoped he'd be."

There was so much to thank him for: the way he built an entire life in the original songs he played, the greatest autobiographical oral history we could ever have asked for. The focus with which he plays and the generosity with which he offers his music. The astonishing orchestral virtuosity of his solo arrangements. His storytelling, which you knew would have to be beyond brilliant, just because of the stories within the songs: the particularly hilarious story about stalking Rambling Jack Elliott in London in the late 1950s, trying to get as close to the Woody Guthrie wellspring as a kid actor across the ocean from East Orange could get.

There as also the sense that this week Andy has also been discovering something he'd not previously encountered. Surely he's encountered awestruck ("gobsmacked") fans around the world for many years. But he's maybe not encountered an entire community of avocational musicians whose desire to abandon the role of passive listener, and to become active players, was so directly catalyzed by his inspiring example: as bouzouki/mandolin player, surely; but also as singer, songwriter, and social activist. I certainly know that he (along with a few others) has been a role model for me, since at least 1979, for how to be a musician, a man, and a human being--and I know there were many others in the room who feel the same.

But I'm not quite sure that Andy realized, until arriving in Santa Fe, just how tangible his inspiration has been. That someone like Luke Plumb would go through the massive effort to friggin' transcribe the Planxty Black album, writing out the parts in score the way that friends of mine in Indiana were tasked with transcribing the parts for the early Ellington pieces whose scores had been lost, or perhaps never existed. Because my mentor David Baker realized that, Ellington was our classical music, our canonic repertoire, the cornerstone for how we jazz musicians conceived music to function. Likewise, in the world of Irish music, with Planxty: they literally, and indirectly, taught us what our music could be and could do. Luke gets that, and has the focus, chops, and dedication to sweat the work of hearing and writing out those parts. To treat our canon with the meticulous (loaded word) scholarship its genius deserves.

The author and Zen student Natalie Goldberg, a Santa Fe resident and occasional Zoukfest concert attendee, has observed (in her masterpiece Long Quiet Highway, a eulogy for her beloved teacher Dainen Katagiri Roshi), that "gratitude is the final gift given to the student by the teacher." The really great teachers will give you everything they can, without expectation of recompense. Because the music and the life wisdom is bigger than any kind of mercantile exchange could reflect. And the really greatest teachers are able to, as Natalie said, "pull that kind of love out of you."

In experiencing gratitude, the student's attachment to worry, intimidation, anxiety, ego and specific results is broken. Those are all manifestations of the self, or the imagined self, or the self that we project outward and see reflected back from Maya. That self is not real (the Zen master says "show me this Self who is talking!"), but we can become deeply, delusionally attached to it: a mirror of a mirror of a mirror of a cloud passing.

But gratitude is real. It forgets the self and embraces the teacher and the priceless jewels of irreplaceable experience that the teacher gives. As Natalie says "the heart opens, and gratitude pours out. 'Thank you. Thank you. I know what I have been given.'"

At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien's magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, the two central characters, who have slogged thousands of miles (and tens of thousands of words--Tolkien had a very leisurely sense of pacing) to destroy a weapon so deadly it can't be allowed to continue to exist, find themselves marooned, near death, in the middle of a volcanic eruption at what they believe to be the apocalyptic end of creation. And one says to the other, "I am glad to be here with you. Here at the end of all things."

All things end. Letting go of Maya requires accepting the impermanence of everything: events, places, experiences, joy, sorrow, people, and life itself. And when you do, you begin to experience gratitude, and you begin to say "Thank you." And when you surrender to that, as the students in the "Fear" class, and Andy's classes, and all the classes, and the lessons, and the impromptu recitals of magnificent, generous music that break out all over campus, and most transcendently in Andy's concert last night, you get a little glimpse past the curtain of Maya and you experience gratitude. And union.

Kate Bush put it this way:

Well, if it's so deep you don't think
that you can speak about it,
Just remember to reach out and touch
the past and the future.
Well, if it's so deep you don't
think you can speak about it,
Don't ever think that you can't
change the past and the future.
You might not, not think so now,
But just you wait and see--someone will come to help you.
Andy articulated gratitude this way:
Willie Clancy and the County Clare
I'm ever in your debt
For the sights and sounds of yesterday
Are shining memories yet.
We are too, Andy.

Forever in your debt.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Zoukfest 08 04: Bringing it all Back Home

Zoukfest 08 Day 04

Yesterday afternoon, O'Shaugnessy Performance Space at the College of Santa Fe, a chilly, high-ceiling room with great acoustics. 24 bouzouki players in concentric circles in a room, instruments in hand and audio recorders at the ready. Luke Plumb, the Aussie mandolin virtuoso who's been solid as a rock for three Zoukfests running, and who's assembled a remarkable, meticulous collection of transcriptions of Planxty's seminal debut, the "Black" album, off to one side, nodding and laughing his distinctive deep chuckle. Roger Landes, commander-in-chief at Zoukfest HQ, sitting next to him, grinning from ear to ear.

And on the stage, 8 feet away from a circle of players some of whom have been imprinting on the Black album for as much as 30 years, Andy Irvine launched into his titanic solo version of "The Plains of Kildare," the tour-de-force that is the opener and the centerpiece of the watershed 1976 Andy Irvine / Paul Brady record.

Nine years of Zoukfest snapped into focus at that moment. Because this, this concatenation of players and instruments and musics and plans and hopes and dreams, was always, in Roger's head (I'm convinced) intended to come to fruition in this way. To put this man, whose music many of us grew up as musicians upon, even while tearing out our hair at its complexity and at the impossibility of hearing everything that was going on in those LPs (not all of us are Luke Plumb, that's for sure), on a stage in front of those beginner and intermediate players. To see them holding their breaths; to see their eyes get bigger; to see their conceptions of the limits upon their instrument shattered. To hear him say, "well, this is my teaching piece. I've taught this piece to so many people: Paul Brady, De Dannan, Gerry O Beirne", and to know the emotional impact upon the students of realizing that they were about to enter the same lineage.

Many years ago I hosted a symposium of West Texas songwriters, during a symposium, and I hit the jackpot with the cast: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, Jo Carol Pierce, Marshall Crenshaw, and Peter Guralnick as moderator. At one point, someone asked "What is it about West Texas? How come so many great musicians come from there?" It's a common question and all the artists on stage had their own pet answers: Ely said "it's the wind," Terry said: "it's from following the DDT-spraying trucks on our bikes in the '50s."

But the best answer came from Tommy X Hancock, the cowboy dance-band guru who gave Buddy Holly his first gigs, introduced Jimmie Dale to Zen Buddhism, and for 30 years has led his "Supernatural Family Band" at dance-hall gigs around the world.

In response to the question "How did this great music happen here?", Tommy X said simply:

"I think it's luck. Or maybe Grace."

That is the motherfuckin' truth.

Last night's concerts brought more of that same grace: the goofy, gentle poetry of Stanley Greenthal's stage presence, the generosity and selflessness with which he played guitar, lavta, and lauoto (and, as a bonus, covered what is surely one of Robin Williamson's most beautiful love songs), joined by wife Kip and Zoukfest stalwarts Polly Ferber (percussion) and Paul Brown (double bass). There is so little ego in Stanley's stage presentation that it's almost as if he's standing next to the stage himself as he plays, equally humbled by and grateful for the beauty of the music as is the audience. For a man of such comic self-deprecatory skills (ask him sometime about his gypsy-jazz guitarist alter ego "Ringo Djanghardt"), he plays some firebreathing music nevertheless, and never more so than the closing set from his disc Melodie, for which he was joined by mandolin maestro Landes.

Second set came from Kaila Flexer, bowed-string dynamo, returning for her second Zoukfest in a row, once again wielding her arsenal of Turkish, Greek, and original compositions. Kaila is kind of Zoukfest's Earth Mother, who makes everyone in her classes feel safe; to feel as if they actually can learn and execute the spooky, twisting curlicues of the tunes she brings; to feel that if they love and care about the music with the depth and clarity she does, that music will take them the kinds of places it has brought her. Kaila provided a shout-out to Paul Brown, CSF faculty member, double-bassist, general technology and internet trouble-shooter, describing his printing, editing, chauffeuring, and money-lending for her most recent grant proposal as confirming his status as a "true mensch." Paul is more than a mensch: he's a musician of such depth, humility, and generosity that he makes everyone he plays with sound like that much more of a virtuosa. When I heard Paul play Kaila's tunes with Polly and vocalist Moira Smiley, all I could think of was the great double-bassist Charlie Haden, who found a way to marry the Baptist hymns of his Iowa childhood with the outest-of-out harmonic conceptions of Ornette Coleman. Paul's playing is that deep, that generous, that magical. Kaila was right: he is a true mensch. And she's one too. Kaila makes people safe and loved, just as they are. And then she pushes their musicianship to places they didn't know they had within them.

Third set (after the much-needed potty- and input-break) was mad-Professor Doug Goodhart, who of all the Zoukfest faculty might be persuasively and convincingly dedicated to the widest variety of musics. Cajun accordion, West Virginia long-bow fiddle, 16th century English lute songs, Afro-Cuban clave, Ewe percussion music of Ghana, Irish trad music, and, most crucially, the sheer human joy that links them: they are all grist for Dr Goodhart's mill. Particularly beautiful about Doug's set was that, for all that he commands such a wide diversity of music, he opted to play in more-or-less just one: inviting up the frighteningly brilliant old-time and bluegrass mandolin virtuoso Steve Smith, and our old friend Mason Brown on banjo and guitar, he played a magnificent set of Appalachian fiddle music. It was wonderful, and wonderfully evocative of a certain kind of deep-rooted calm, to hear a whole set of one kind of music, played with the groove, fire, and funk of which it's capable.

There's a certain kind of centering that results from hearing (or playing) simple music well. Those old-time tunes are not complicated, and precisely because they are not, the players--and the audience--can zero in on a whole host of other parameters. Most primordial in this music is simply the question: "does it feel good? Does it make me want to dance, in the face of Satan, hellfire-and-brimstone preachers, poverty, ignorance, and prejudice of all kinds"

Well, as a matter of damned fact: yes it does by-God make us want to dance. Even on the brink of the precipice.

F0urth set was that of Steve Smith, picking-up the baton from where Professor Goodhart put it down. There's a kind of freedom that emerges at the upper limits of virtuosity. Our old friend Dean Magraw could do it (didn't matter how much he'd smoked--in fact, the smoke just relaxed him and made him play with that much freedom); Jimi Hendrix could do it (you never really thought Jimi was worrying about how to execute something--he thought it and he played it), and Steve can do it too. When that level of pure-D technical facility obtains, you're not listening to the technique anymore ("what technique? I'm just thinking out loud over here"); you're hearing the ideas--and, really, the heart and soul and personhood of the player--flowing freely, unimpeded, hearts connecting as one.

[Finishing up at 1:15am--an early night for Zoukfest--after a pretty-much-transcendent concert and interview by the man of the hour. Sometimes, words cannot convey the profundity of an experience. But they can hint at it.]

Yesterday afternoon at O'Shaughnessy hall, watching those 24 bouzouki players as Andy led them, in the kindest and most gentlemanly way possible (the man is a master teacher), into playing something that most of them probably thought they'd never learn--much less learn from him--was to experience what happens when effort, Right Intentions, coming to each other's Aid, and using music as a way to try to help each other become human, all finally reach fruition. It wasn't luck that yielded Zoukfest, Andy's presence, and it wasn't coincidence that provided the tears of pure gratitude in their eyes as they played "The Plains of Kildare."

It was Grace.

It was to know that the life of every single person in that room had been permanently changed and enriched by this man's music, and to feel the pure, almost religious sense of gratitude that he was finally here--that was worth the last nine years.

In fact, it was a bargain.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Zoukfest 08 03: Andy in the House!

Zoukfest 08, Day 03.

Hump day, when the lack of sleep, increased altitude, enhanced intake (physical, musical. mental, and psychological), and overall intensity begin to take effect. It's a bit of a rolling buzz: you're all there, and having a great time (mostly), but your motor skills tend to erode a bit, you leave things in places you can't recall, and you catch yourself singing or playing one tune while thinking of another one (or ten).

Wednesday of Zoukfest is also, historically, when some people hit the wall emotionally, and experience a bit of crisis. It's understandable really: for many people, particularly those who have not attended ZF in the past, the anticipation and excitement are so high, the hopes and expectations for the week so great, that along about Wednesday, when the initial rush of nervous adrenaline has passed, and you're overwhelmed with new ideas, new music, new people, and (especially) new musical and personal challenges, you might veer into thinking "I can't do this...I just can't do it!"

Fortunately, at ZF the level of wisdom and tolerance is really remarkably high. The returning staff, faculty, and students have seen, and often experienced, it all before, and they can help somebody navigate the sleep deprivation and emotional overload. They know not to take the quiet freak-outs or unexpected tears personally, they know that folks will weather these storms, and they know that acceptance goes a long way toward building community. Any community, by definition, depends upon a shared sense of value, set of behaviors, and conceptions of being human. For this 8 days, most everyone present has stepped right out of their familiar worlds, and have been forced (whether anticipated or unanticipated) to surrender to a very different environment. It's mostly a better, more tolerant, more inspiring environment than we encounter the other 51 weeks out of the year--but even a better environment can be profoundly disorienting. The ZF community know that the Wednesday break-downs as personal or permanent (see Kaila Flexer's heroic example at last year's Wednesday concert) and that everyone will come through unscathed--even if the parties in question do not. The staff are remarkably gentle and good-natured, even with the intensity, cross-questioning, unexpected problems-to-be-solved, and general stress.

In a late-night hang yesterday with the Reverend Mister Thompson, web-wizard and general internet-gunslinger John Farr, and a few of the other Usual Suspects, we talked about the way that, if you travel a lot, you develop a "Road Metabolism" which is quite different from your Home Metabolism. If at home you get 8 hours of sleep nightly, on the Road you learn to make do with 4. If at home, you're used to being able to cook your own meals (a crucial part of my own personal general equilibrium), on the Road you learn to pick and choose amongst what's available in a fashion that'll do you the least nutritional damage (thank the Universe for College of Santa Fe's excellent catering). If at home you drink lightly, or not at all, then on the Road you may find yourself in playing or social situations in which a whole hell of a lot more imbibing goes on. You learn to pace yourself, to anticipate and ride-out your own freakouts, and to be tolerant with others'.

And, you learn to really cherish the unique and magnificent experiences that the Road provides. Last night, it was the chance to hear Eliot Grasso and Dave Cory, back to back in solo and duo acoustic performances. Eliot, playing a beautiful set of "flat" uilleann pipes (that is, lower-than the standard fundamental of concert D), gave a masterful recital of the solo piper's art, what was, in Ireland's West, the classical, high-art listening music of the Gaelic nobility. Pipers wouldn't play for just anyone and they wouldn't play just anywhere: they expected courtly treatment and informed attention. It's remarkably complex and rewarding music to hear, full of nuance, complex figuration, elegant (and challenging) manipulations of tone and dissonance, and it stands, in Eliot's hands, complete and on its own. Almost no-one is asked to record a solo disc of unaccompanied piping by the piper's organization called Na Piobairi Uilleann (a notoriously tough-minded and rigorous advocacy group), but when they are--as Eliot was--that's the highest stamp of approval from the guardians of the tradition. He's also a superb flute and whistle player...and if that were not enough, he's a top-notch pianist and scholar. He'd be singularly intimidating if he weren't so damned kind and such a fine teacher (Mac Tire had a lesson this morning on flute and was walking a foot off the ground afterward), and even in the midst of the week's intensity, he keeps his temper: when the end-cap of his pipes basically exploded in Santa Fe's minimal humidity (the instrument is held together by corked joints, like a clarinet--and when cork gets dry, it shrinks--and Things Move), he just made the joke, re-assembled, and continued. A beautiful recital of an Ceol Piobairi.

He shared a few tunes in the overlap between solo mini-sets with his musical partner Dave Cory, a terrific banjo and guitar player, late of the music sessions at Boston's legendary pub the Burren and the Magic Square recordings that come out of those, and now relocated, like Eliot, to the Pacific North West. My home town's loss is Seattle's gain, for sure: Dave's a wonderful musician and friendly, self-effacing guitar, who has that ability, like some few other musicians I've known and have written about, to stand up on stage, banjo in hand and backwards-baseball-capped, introduce the tune, and then, from the first couple of notes, just go someplace else: to (at least seemingly, from the outside) shut off all the anxiety about execution, reception, or where the party is after the gig, and just get lost in the music. Son House could do it; some great gospel singers could do it; Keith Jarrett solo did it regularly; my old friend Dean Magraw showed me how to do it (when I could--once in a while--get out of the way of my own ego).

Such a performance as Dave's is by no means oblivious to the audience or the situation--it's rather that, the commitment to and engagement with the music is so deep, the player simply hears the music as so important, that she or he doesn't need to give any space to the ego or even to much sense of self. The music just flows, and all the thousands of hours of practice and learning tunes and playing with others seem to simultaneously fall away and also flow together, the course of the planets, the pattern of waves, or the whorls of a whelk's shell all swirl together into a singular one-pointed attention in which the music pours out, remarkably unconstrained and free.

And then the tune ends, the music stops, the applause erupts, and he (and we) come back to the world. What a privilege to take that kind of journey together. What a gift that he gives to us.

Sitting in on Kaila Flexer's great "Turkish and Greek Music" class, in a free hour when I'm not otherwise teaching. A chance to begin to learn to play the lavta that I brought from Samir Azar of Syria. Dharmonia and I heard Roger Landes's Samir lavta--a long-necked Arabic lute with tied quarter-tone frets--and both immediately flashed on the long-necked lute our mentor Tom Binkley had played. I knew I had to get one.

But, it's hard to learn an instrument in a vacuum, particularly if there are no players around you to inspire you (or kick you in the butt, as the case may be). It's possible to learn from recordings, but it can be damned difficult even to do that if you have no idea which recordings might be the most useful. So the opportunity generously extended to ZF staff, to sit in on others' classes, was one I couldn't pass up. Kaila is a wonderful violinist and composer, well-loved by the ZF community, and she creates a remarkably inspiring, safe, and rewarding environment in the classroom (any teacher who can put up with Coyotebanjo and a precocious eight-year-old percussionist in the same room, and provide space for that range of personalities, is remarkable), and the sheer joy and humility with which she approaches the music she loves set a wonderful example. And, it's a sovereign remedy for any teacher, and especially any college professor, and especially any tenured musicology college professor, to damned well go back to being a beginner: to be barely capable of finding the notes on the instrument (OK, some slack: the modes of Turkish and Greekl music are singularly different than those of the West, and those damned quarter-tones, specific and unique to specific modes or compositions, are pretty challenging). It's a very useful and constructive reminder to be on the other side of the skilled/unskilled continuum and to be reminded of what the students you are teaching are grappling with.

Second half of the Tuesday concert was Dharmonia and self, playing a grab-bag of repertoire, which at least in intent sought to find the connections between the diverse musics that we both play and have played, and to provide space for old friends to join in.

Here's the set-list:

"Short Jacket and White Trousers": a comic "cross-dressing sailor song" from A.L. (Bert) Lloyd by way of June Tabor;

"Reynardine": one of many versions of a shape-shifting tale about a fox and a girl--or a girl and a fox--which we have from various sources, but in Dharmonia's mighty pipes, anyway, pays homage to that earth-mother pagan folk-rocker Sandy Denny;

"Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore" / "The Month of January" / "The Humors of Ballyloughlin"
Two songs and a tune, in medley format. The stunning mixolydian melody that was borrowed not only for both of these songs (one of immigration from Old World to New, the second of Appalachian love lost) but also for Francie Mooney for his great Gaelic ode to his home, Gleanntan Glas Gaoith Dobhairn. Mason Brown (on pardessus viol) and Chipper Thompson (on bouzouki) joined us, Coyote sang "Paddy's", Chip gave us "January", and Mason led us into the titanic D mixolydian piping jig of "Ballyloughlin." We were elbow-to-elbow on that tiny stage, but that just made it feel more like old friends around the hearth.

"Rally 'Round the Flag"
I'm still working on that goddamned minstrelsy book (I'm going to finish it or die trying) and I thought it'd be nice to have at least one song--on National steel guitar--from that time. This is one of dozens of gorgeous Civil War-era melodies, but unlike many others, its text has actually worn reasonably well: sure, it's full of some of the naive triumphalism that made all those 19-year-old think, in 1861, that the traitors would be defeated and the Union saved by 1862--a presumption that damned sure didn't survive past then--but in hindsight it's just infinitely sad, whispering to us like the voices of ghosts at Shiloh or Chancellorsville. And, the line about how we'll "sweep that fascist crew from the land we love the best" seems to resonate now more than ever.

"So Early in the Spring" / "La Lamento di Tristano" / "La Rotta"
Something else that Dharmonia and I share with Zoukfest Generalissimo Roger Landes is that we all came to serious-business medieval music performance through the same medium--the overwhelming presence and inspiration of Tom Binkley--Roger through the medium of recordings, Dharmonia and myself through recordings first, and then later through working directly with him, a story I've told elsewhere. This arrangement, of the old Anglo-Celtic chestnut "So Early," was developed for the Coyotebanjo record as a three-way nod to Tom's influence on all our lives and music. We followed it with two tunes (slow-tune/fast-tune, a time-honored strategy, as Dave Cory had previously commented) that are surely part of the medieval Top Ten Hits. Joined here also by the mighty Mason Brown and Zoukfest's go-to hand-drummer, the great Polly Ferber. Rehearsal? We don't need no stinkin' rehearsal!

Finished up with a shout-out for two greats we lost two soon: Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips, singer, writer, labor activist, street-corner rabble-rouser, Ani DiFranco collaborator, keeper of Joe Hill's eternal flame, and the last of the true Wobblies, the anarcho-syndicalists who intended to build One Big Union, avoiding the cynical factional divisions which the rich always seek to impose upon the poor; and Ellas McDaniel, the mighty Bo Diddley, who famously said of the rock 'n' rollers who came after him, "I opened the door, and them boys went through and left me holdin' the knob."

There's an image that's come up in my minstrelsy research, a crude anonymous folk drawing from before the Civil War, called "Dancing for Eels 1822 Catharine Market." It depicts a black man, dressed in nautical clothing, dancing hard-shoe on a ships' wharf while another man pats hambone, and a group of "Bowery B'hoys"--the hard-hatted Irish toughs depicted in gangs of New York--smoke cigars and look on. That's where American popular music begins. Right there. Right Then. That's the moment that--at least in our music, and in our imagination of our nation's possibilities-- realized the possibility that we could all become one.

Bo found a way to take the ancient, ancient, hambone rhythm, the one that reaches all the way back to the wharves and canals where blacks and Irish first encountered one another and where American popular music was born, and bring it all the way up to the present. So Professor Goodhart laid down the bell pattern, yours truly came in on the hambone (the 3-2 clave that is the virtual heartbeat of most African music in the Americas), Rev Thompson slapped on the greasy slide licks that came from India via Hawaii and the Sears Roebuck catalog to Mississippi (and North Alabama), Mason Brown added-in the "weedly-weedly" guitar licks on the pardessus, and we sent this one out for Mr Landes:

I walked 47 miles of barbed wire,
Used a cobra snake for a neck tie.
Got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made out of rattlesnake hide.
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of human skulls.
Now come on darling let's take a little walk, tell me,
Who do you love,
Who do you love, Who do you love, Who do you love...

I wanna tell you how its gonna be
Youre gonna give your love to me
Im gonna love you night and day
Love is love and not fade away
And my love is bigger than a cadillac
Ill try to show it if you drive me back

Your love for me has got to be real
Before youd have noticed how I feel
Love real not fade away
Well love real not fade away

Every day I get in the queue (Too much, the Magic Bus)
To get on the bus that takes me to you (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
Your house is only another mile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
Thank you, driver, for getting me here (Too much, the Magic Bus)
You'll be an inspector, have no fear (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I don't want to cause no fuss (Too much, the Magic Bus)
But can I buy your Magic Bus? (Too much, the Magic Bus)

I 've got spurs that jingle jangle jingle,
as I go riden merrily along,...

Hush, little baby, don't say a word.
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass...
If Zoukfest teaches us anything, it's that All Music--and All of Us--are One.

Thanks Rog.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Zoukfest 08 02: pedal-to-the-metal

Zoukfest, Day 02.

At a music camp, opening Monday is typically "shopping day"--the first chance that people get to actually walk in and experience the hour-by-hour schedule and classes they been poring over for months. Typically, they want to cram-in as much and as immersive an experience as possible: take a class every hour, ask for materials or perhaps audio-recordings of the classes they're unable due to conflicts to attend, and so forth. This is understandable and, in the abstract, commendable: the fundamental rhetorical question folks typically ask themselves is "why would I not cram in every bit of data and experience I can, to take away and carry me over the next 51 weeks?"

So there's a lot of shopping on that first day: people attending classes, assessing their alternatives, and trying to suss-out which combination will maximize their exposure and their input. The ZF staff know this and are usually at pains to convey to attendees that such shopping, on Day 01, is OK and advisable: after all, we want everybody to be in that individual schedule of classes they are most excited about.

But by Tuesday morning it begins to be important for people to commit to classes they'll stick with through the week. This is more important for the individual student, really, than for the instructor or the other students: in a given class, over five days we're going to do what we're going to do, without a lot of impact from those who might drop in occasionally. It's really no problem from an instructor's or class-concentration point-of-view: being able to concentrate on the music, past such distractions, is a pretty essential part of being an improvising musician.

One year at ZF, when we were housed at the Sagebrush Inn on the highway south of Taos, we had a good facility, the lodgings were fine, and the teaching spaces were reasonably recently refurbished (the very-well-attended motorcycle convention--full of posturing podiatrists and lawyers in "biker leathers"--which blew in at the end of the week was a bit more of a distraction). During "monsoon" season in Taos, you could almost set your watch by the weather patterns: clear and cold in the morning, clouding over by noon or so, torrential rain between about 2:00 and 4:30, and then crystalline mild afternoons and starry nights. I taught one of my classes in a back function room at the end, and every day, promptly about 25 minutes into the class, the sanitation truck would come around to empty the dumpster not far from our back window.

I made a habit of not interrupting class or my presentations during the resultant clattering and clanking. Which kind of drove some of the students in the class crazy: I could see them scowl, lean in, cup their ears, and/or throw up their hands in disgust because of the noise/distraction.

Group concentration is a funny thing: it is, potentially, much more powerful for teaching than individual-to-individual concentration--because, when a class is working right, everyone else in the room is pulling for that person who's struggling to execute something, and everyone else in the room is simultaneously gassed and enlightened when somebody plays something unexpected and great. On the other hand, group concentration can be much more fragile, and much more difficult to recover once lost.

When the sanitation guys came around, 25 minutes into my class, the last thing I wanted to do was to interrupt myself (musicologists hate to interrupt their own soliloquies), or act put out, or even simply tell the class "hold that thought, hold your concentration, don't let your attention wander while we wait for the clattering to end." Because I knew how hard it is to regain such a group's concentration, particularly when most people in the room are operating in new, cognitively and behaviorally unfamiliar territory.

So I'd keep talking, keep playing, keep eliciting responses, and try to tease the group into concentrating past the interruption and the resultant irritation. If anybody explicitly objected, saying "I can't concentrate with that outside noise," my response tended to be "Hey, look: playing music in an improvised setting is a pretty damned distracting situation. Maybe we should welcome the distraction because it gives us a chance to hone our attention and ability to concentrate."

The great martial arts master, flute player, and Zen roshi Watazumido Shuso, a wandering teacher who would regularly change his name and relocate to a new country, "so that he would only be found by those students with a truly deep desire to study," used to practice his flute in the busiest traffic interchanges in Tokyo, because it honed his concentration. He didn't resent or avoid the distractions of samsara (the temporal, flawed world of existence: traffic, pollution, politics, altitude, ego, intimidation, the sub-human monsters who wield power)--he embraced them. And found a voice for his music within that phenomenal world.

At Zoukfest, as musicians and as incipient humans, we should too.

Last night's opening concert certainly did. It was a cavalcade of three long-time comrades-in-music and one new member of the tribe.

Don Richmond is nearly as close to a resident Zen master (Colorado cowboy lineage) as Zoukfest will get. A brilliant multi-instrumentalist and record producer, with hundreds of recording sessions to his credit, on every one of which he made other people sound even greater than they had realized they were, he is also a fine singer and songwriter and a deep, wise, and kind man. He's the musical big brother that a lot of Zoukfest people only realize they've yearned for after they've met him, and thought, "Ohhhh.....that's what I was looking for." He writes beautiful, remarkably open and embracing songs about very specific places and experiences: the northern New Mexico/southern Colorado landscapes that he knows so well. The music has that sense of space, of clarity, and of wonder at this natural world. He wrote a book, and teaches a class, called Getting Your Music Past the Fear, and both the book, the class, the songs, and Don's presence evoke that same sense of matter-of-fact, enlightening relief, when you say, " this is what it feels like not to be afraid anymore."

Chipper Thompson, a frequent partner and collaborator of Don's, also provides a wonderful corollary to his musical and personal presence. If Don brings the clarity, the generosity, and the sheer sense of invigorating space to the Zoukfest table, then the Reverend brings The Funk. Singing songs of his own divising, in his inimitable North Alabama howl, laying out the greasiest, funkiest, most lard-ridden licks imaginable, the Rev reminds us that another, equally essential part of human existence in the phenomenal world is Pure-D chaos: the dark at the edge of the firelight, the clatter of the slide on the mandolin's metal frets, the twisting keening bends at the ends of vocal phrases (there are few people whose melodic vocabulary so perfectly matches his speaking voice). It was great to see old friends Chipper and Mason Brown, joined by mad-Professor Doug Goodhart's polyrhythmic Appalachian fiddle, recreating some of the songs from their matchless Am I Born to Die, and to see them being reminded, right there on stage, of just how, and how much, they loved and missed making music together.

Mason Brown picked it up where Chipper put it down: singing his own songs, and arrangements of traditional songs, from his wonderful new solo disc, long a-borning, called When Humans Walked the Earth. Hearing Mason singing "Will you go to Flanders?" or his own ode to his great-uncle, Brownie's Lament (best line: "he always carried a gun. And a knife"), was like hearing a lost 78 of Dock Boggs--if Dock's life and religious training had given him a little more room for redemption. Or maybe if, like Mason, he'd ever had the chance to sit zazen. Past loss is despair. Past despair is detachment. Past detachment is perspective. Past that? I think maybe that's where joy lives.

The new member joining the tribe, Moira Smiley, batted cleanup on this particular evening, and all in attendance were pretty much in agreement that she knocked it out of the park. Singing Anglo-Celtic, Appalachian, Balkan, and original songs, playing accordion and clawhammer banjo, and closing with a remarkable, virtuosic (and audience-participation-inviting) performance of the dancing body percussion called "hambone," Moira--an old friend to Dharmonia and me from Bloomington's Early Music --was a new find for the Zoukfest audience, but she didn't feel like any kind of stranger. More like a baby sister coming home.

Day 03 looms.