Sunday, October 28, 2007

With All the Souls

Halloween's ok, I guess, but November 1st reigns as one of my favorite days of the year. It is All Souls' Day--I hush saying the three words--and this year, I am pleased to announce that I will be playing mass in the Old Mission for what is, indeed, a holy day of obligation. (What!? You forgot? You're glad I reminded you, right?) Mission Dolores is dear to me not just because I work there but also because it features significantly in one of my favorite movies of all time. Maybe I love Vertigo because it is so San Francisco; maybe I love it for its odd quirks, scenic details, and on-the-money Wagnerian score. Or maybe I love it because Kim Novak's character visits a gravesite in the cemetary that is, yes, what I sometimes refer to as "my back yard." And this Thursday, at 7pm, I get to create the soundtrack for all the lost souls. Oooo! All souls are welcome. See you there!

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Saying Yes to the Mistake

yellow_stringI have clocked far too many three and four and two in the mornings recently. (Four is really the worst.) The upcoming performances in New York generate excitement and nervousness, and so I've been back to work on this summer's video patches. I really do want the images to look as clean as possible, but high fidelity comes with a price, as yesterday I wrote to A--
Now that I'm looking at this new version, I'm starting to worry that it is "too correct." Seeing the videomix without so many dropped frames...I don't know? I'm starting to feel that the "big mistake" (the dropped frames, the lurching and jerking playback rate, the slightly frayed edges) was somehow much better, closer to the aesthetic of the actual content. We lived with the flaws for so long--for this whole summer--and now that I've "fixed" things, well...I have an eerie feeling we are going to miss the way it looked, even if that was imperfect, even if I expressed frustration with the picture clarity on numerous occasions, even if it was technically a "mistake." Does this happen to you in the audio world? You think you're working towards correcting a mistake, and then when you "fix" it, you decide the mistake was a whole lot more interesting?
fingersThere are two video projects in question: my dear butterflies, of course, and then a new mix, all shadowy and brilliantly lit, of Miss Hannah making string figures. Hannah looks great (thanks to some sage advice) but fails to run at a smooth, continuous rate, while the butterflies (in this new version) flip and flutter around the screen with seamless speed but look fuzzy, ragged, and pixellated. The mistake was so much better! What am I doing trying to make things "right?" I like my butterflies when they look great, even if they "fly" in completely stunted, artificial spurts. The dropped frames give a stop motion effect to this project, and the scissors are definitely more ominous when they look about to snip but then (drop frame, drop frame, drop frame) falter and halt and leap ahead. The deed gets done (snip snip!) but you never actually see the completed motion of the act... (Hmm, and does anyone else notice how the butterflies like to be fed at four in the morning?)

The problem is...I feel the exact opposite for Hannah, though I should admit that she never existed as a midsummer's mistake, and so I never grew used to her in an "imperfect" or mistaken version. She was on my drafting board, of course, but her time is now, or at least, very soon, and I turn my intentions on her with a firm and deliberate idea about the relationship between thematic content and visual clarity. I am willing to sacrifice pristine image quality if she would only "play" at a rate that compares to the original video footage! Play fair, honey! Play with rhythm and grace! Play well! None of these dropped frames, dammit! (See what wee hours of the morning can do to a person?) So it's back to the drawing board for the next few days, except for tonight. Tonight, I sleep.

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What We Did on Our Summer Vacation

Or, more accurately, how Sidecar ended this summer's "vacation." We built transmitters with the folks of Neighborhood Public Radio out at the Headlands Center for the Arts! And gave a little performance, which you can hear! (You may have to dig through the NPR archives to find us.)

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Sunday, October 21, 2007


[cue: ominous whistling]

"Energetic, eccentric, engaging Pianist/Vocalist or Solo Pianist to work part time nights in a modern, upscale, N.W. Portland, OR restaurant. We are looking for somebody to play an eclectic mix of music during dinner service, including covers as well as original songs.

Examples of "covers" range from classical to opera to Tom Waits ... Radio Head, Magnetic Fields, John Cage, John Cale, Talking Heads, & Leonard Cohen.

We are not looking for soft rock or hard rock."

This is true ad--you can scour the Craigslist for yourself! --Ed.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sidecar's Last Stand

[cue music: steel guitar and harmonica square off in grande duet, two characters from some old spaghetti western...]

Sidecar presents The Children's Hour on the east coast.

Monday November 5th
58 N 3rd St (btw Kent & Wythe)
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
one show! 8:30pm

Tuesday November 6th
Princeton University's "ffmup"
(the graduate music students' avant-guerre performance event)
62 Washington Rd, Princeton NJ, 9pm

Thursday November 8th
VIM music series, curated by Judd Greenstein
Gallerie Icosahedron
27 N Moore St
New York City
(there's an art opening after...oolala!)

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Waiting, Patiently

Patience brings one to an ending. Or, rather, patience hinges the end--tightly--to a new beginning. And finally, patience sets one free on a new path. What a nice tripartite structure.

Patience brings me to tonight's recital, which I began preparing for in earnest after the Fauré concert back in June. Four months of practice and expectancy, occasional laziness and consequent recommitment ... whew, it's been an interesting ride. This idea of the hinge, though, of the drawing out of time, of waiting patiently (sometimes pained, and with great longing) and then swinging on the hinge and starting something new... That's my mental image, my visual preparation, for tonight. The musically etherized moments in between songs--particularly, in between the songs of a self-contained set--are so fragile. For the performer, this (non)playing is almost more difficult than the actual playing of notes on the page. The in-between time demands patience before it can swing free into the next piece. Patience. A hinge. Swing. Something new. My mantra while Sven sings.

And finally: Patience has brought my two dear friends something new as well. In the Wings welcomes Calliope Alexandra, born October 12, 2007.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

And the Next Morning...

Friday. 8pm. Old First Church. You are all going to be there, right?

Here's a teaser, though, in proper GRE analogy style:
Virgil Thomson : Marianne Moore = dental floss : teeth

Be there! I have a pretty new shirt! (Not as pretty as the last concert, but very classical, very black.) You just have to come!

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How to Write It

I walked into class Monday night and found this scrawled on the board:
Once upon a time there was...
and everyday...
until one day...
and because of that...
and because of that...
until finally...
and ever since that day...
(and the moral of the story is...)
I started writing my life post-ellipses. And I felt better. And then I rewrote the story. And felt sad. There is great beauty in the simplicity and circuitousness of this structure--it works--and perhaps I'll play around with the form, musically speaking.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Not Before Noon, Dear

I stared at her and wondered if she was speaking Klingon:
Heather, let me tell you. When I got a job teaching music in the schools, all I could think was: hooray! No more late nights! A day job! I'm a musician with a day job! Yes, finally!
Hmm. I have one job, and one job only, for which I do not mind getting up early, and that is Sunday's service at Mission Dolores. Sunday mornings are special, so much more still and quiet than weekday mornings, and even if I am ... recuperating ... from a late Saturday night, I drive across the bridge feeling as if I own the whole of the bay. There is something extra-beautiful about everything on Sunday morning, and that is enough to make me not mind that my fingers are at work at 9am.

As for the rest of it, well, I recently decided that there should be no piano playing before noon. At least, not for anyone besides myself. It's not that I hate mornings. I'll get up and swim for an hour, I'll do laundry, I'll put in the hours of solo practice. But I do not want to deal with anyone else before noon. After noon? Great! Conductors, I'm awake and limber and thinking. Let's teach these kids their do re mis! Singers, I've put the teakettle on and can pepper a four hour marathon rehearsal with lots of silly gossip. (A good vocal coach must also be an entertaining storyteller.) Finally, I arrive at the very best time of the day: the 7-10pm rehearsal. This is when all the best work gets done! And after rehearsal? I need my unwind time, a glass of wine at my favorite bar, and maybe some funny conversation before finding my pillow at some blurred hour after midnight.

Unfortunately, I haven't quite figured out how to make a living as a "p.m." pianist. I still must take what work I can get, and that usually means a school job and a classroom full of boisterous teenagers. At 8am.

But someday. Someday, between the day musicians and the night musicians, we'll get this all worked out. I'm sure of it.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Soundtrack 22

Henryk Górecki, Third Symphony
Brahms, second movement of the Trio Op. 114
Sherman & Sherman, "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins
Sondheim, "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Knowing How Gold Feels

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
--Whose soul is sense--cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

--John Donne, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Story (part II)

The scars from love affairs that fail to take flight are similar to the ones from childhood piano lessons: they run pretty deep, no one else can see them, and they never fade. Such scars are not at all like the stripe running down my left ring finger which, after two decades, is now barely visible. But those other scars, the internal ones...ah, I am sympathetic to both examples. I meet many adults who speak of "the trauma" of piano lessons. These are usually people with an amazing appreciation for art or music; who aspired to pianistic greatness but perhaps lacked coordination or innate musicality; and whose memories include the spectre of Dixon Ticonderoga. (The pencil is every mean piano teacher's weapon, you know, so useful for rapping knuckles or keeping time in metronomic jolts against the music rack.) Adults who carry around this trauma often speak wistfully of studying piano again, but then they look at me warily, as if trying to determine what scare tactics I might use if a student fails to play scales "hands together."

Scars, whether from lost love, broken bones, or studying piano, do make good stories. Piano lessons (until I turned nineteen) were never a source of psychological drama, but I do have a musical scar. Oddly, it is actually because of story, because of my constant love for and pursuit of music as well as life, and because of my passionate desire to create myths and tales and abstractly designed narratives out of anything audio/visual that I compose and/or perform.

I have always created stories when I play music. Haydn or Mozart? I invent stories set in clock shops or architectural design firms, where automata become animated, where all the gears and wheels and precise wooden technologies and AutoCAD files suddenly develop a consciousness of their own. Brahms or Schumann? That is too easy. Alone in the collegiate practice room (or, even growing up, practicing in the dining room where I still managed to feel quite the solitary spirit) I place myself in the starring role: the lost, confused, but heart-in-the-right-pace hero. Ruinous in love affairs, but only because I pursue my art with such intensity. Ruinous in art, but only because I can not let go of the thought of the love affairs I've left behind. I am a perfect Romantic (this was resoundly confirmed even as recently as September the 3rd, although the genre is not the music I play best). Schoenberg or Fred Frith? Oo, more complicated. Now the stories tend to revolve around pitch (the pitch as character) or "episodes of pitches" or a certain chord (a chord!?). A particular "episode of pitches" might return, then return varied, then what I can only call an "it's the same because it's the polar opposite" form, and finally return again, and I turn that activity--departures and flights of fancy and returns home--into its own little story. The story may differ for every listener, but I have a story. I do. I commit to a story. And I'm the performer, so there.

When I went to Mills College for graduate studies, I very quickly realized that talking about stories was a very, very, very bad thing. People were not into narrative. They were not into semiotics. They did not consider music a language. They did not wish to communicate anything about themselves, about outside imaginings, about time, place, circumstance, or desire. These were people--astonishing and engaging performers--who very much wanted to talk about music for its own sake. John Cage reigned as a hero (in fact, he is one of mine) and yet I thought the influence was taken too literally. Even Cage had a story to tell. He was a masterful, masterful storyteller. You just go read.

Sidecar was a product of my years as a graduate student, and at first it felt somewhat illicit. We were concerned with creating an over-arching "story" for the listener. Although we did not actually want to tell the story, to bash you over the head with who the characters were, or what the setting was, we did at least want to suggest, in our through-composed performance, that our settings of various songs had a complete and "storied" intent. At one point, I described Sidecar's work as a "suggested narrative." I give you scissors, butterflies, and the fleeting reference to a nursery rhyme...and you--viewer, listener--put something together in your head that resembles or approaches a story, for you, in 2007. There have been moments when this works gloriously. The highest compliment I received this summer was from someone who viewed one of Sidecar's performances and remarked, "I felt that there was a story...I can't quite tell you what it was...but I didn't really care either." That was exactly my intent!

After two years at Mills, I shied away from talking about story for a very long time, in the way that those of us who have loved openly and wildly are afraid to love again, in the way that adults who had bad experiences studying piano as children are afraid to take it up again. This summer, however, between Sidecar and The Children's Hour and a secret inspiration, I returned to story with unashamed commitment. The old scar runs deep, much deeper than that one on my finger, but the story is worth it, worth every reminder.

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Monday, October 01, 2007


Even when the bird is walking we know that it has wings.
--Victor Hugo

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