Thursday, July 31, 2008

Notes from GALA 2008: The Slash Chorus Chickenz

I don't know what it is. There's just something envigorating about performing with a bunch of chickens.  Here I find myself backstage at Ziff Ballet Opera House on the rehearsal stage.  The chickens and the Slash Chorus, LGCSF, the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, are running through some moves before going onstage before a house of 2,454 seats.  From the stage, Artistic Director Stephanie Lynne Smith offers the costumes to any takers after the show. Before they even get to the lobby they are all taken.  Except one, which the Chorus will keep for their records, as a maquette, in case they revive June Bonacich's musical Group Therapy. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Notes from GALA 2008: Kislev Cowboys

July 13, 2008. Knight Concert Hall, Miami.  Captain Smartypants.  I loved their set, and in particular this number!  Behold "Kislev Cowboys," if you didn't catch it at GALA.

One of the many challenges facing the GALA choral movement is ethnic diversity.  

I could see this in quite a few large choruses, from highly diversified regions of the United States, which underrepresented people of color, especially African Americans.  It certainly wasn't for lack of trying, as evident in their programming; these groups routinely and respectfully attempted multicultural material.  But by and large at GALA, it seems the Africans have rhythm and bang on things, the Natives (American Indian, Maori, Polynesian and otherwise) are happy, and the Jews are miserable and sing about peace.  I am reticent to cite musical selections, because doing so would identify the choruses in question.  (Trust me, I have a list.)  These choruses are all fine groups which do not deserve to be raked over the coals for honest attempts at inclusion and musical variety, many of which were effective crowd pleasers.

To be fair, there is a history in the gay community of "Village People" type multiculturalism, celebrating diversity through stereotypes reduced to well-intentioned sexual objectification. Perhaps that's fine, but will it encourage African Americans and people of color to join the chorus?  Now, as far as the Jew material, I feel I am entitled to comment.  Please buckle your seat belt.

I want to address why "Kislev Cowboys" is funny.  Writing about humor is not amusing or witty, so this may sting a little.  "Kislev Cowboys" is not funny because there's no such thing as a Jewish cowboy.  No.  Maybe that's why you laughed.  Fine.  That's not the joke.  That's like laughing at the final verse of "Zip Coon" because obviously a Negro could never run for President.  (apropos, huh?  If you are lost, google "Zip Coon.")

"Kislev Cowboys" is funny because dreidel is a stupid, boring game.  It's on par with Candyland.  No one likes to play dreidel.  The joke is that these fun-loving cowboys would want to play dreidel.  

Let's parse this a bit.  What are the funniest moments of the song?  The best is certainly when the cowboys play dreidel on stage.  Why?  You can see how lame it is.  It is a fitting non-sequitur to both the active life of the macho cowboy and the quiet stillness of the prairie. Why the blazes would cowboys play dreidel? Well, what else is there to do?  The Pony Express must be late with the Netflix again.  Or, maybe it's how cowboys determine who gets to be in the saddle.

The other highlight is any prominent solo line like "I made it out of clay" or "Dreidel I will play" delivered all hammed up with cowboy shtick.  This is because one set of musical conventions has been substituted for another, and it works completely.  To do "Dreidel" as the sing-song childish nursery rhyme it is would be appalling.  To substitute another equally appalling but unexpected cliché is funny.  Get it?  It's not your Bubby's dreidel, but it's still cheesy!  It's all about the cheese!  (Oi that's a milchigte luau!)

Captain Smartypants got it right.  I don't need to be pandered to with some weepy fiddle and shalom this and that.  Give me a break.  Or how about some nice I - N6 - I - N6 - I - N6 - iv - I ?  As Morrissey put so eloquently, "It says nothing to me about my life."  Hey, why don't you buy a copy of Heeb magazine and get a little up to date?

At a bleary 10am on Saturday July 19, Eric Lane Barnes held a master class workshop for small ensembles.  The composer of "Kislev Cowboys" made a salient comment: if you don't have a good Hanukah number, don't insult the Jews by doing a bad one. I applauded.  And I think this applies to all attempts at multicultural programming.

Come Inside

Recognize this? Bet you didn't know there was such a beautiful, sincere, touching artsong hiding beneath all that obvious innuendo and hyperactive SAW production. Still don't get it? Here's the original.

Notes from GALA 2008: Every Sign is Sacred

July 15, 2008, Knight Concert Hall, Miami. 
Anna Crusis Women’s Choir from Philadelphia had performed an awesome set, including the Kinsey Sicks’ “I Wanna Be a Republican” and the amusing “Madrigals for the Information Age.” James Rowe, their ASL interpreter, did an amazing job entertaining the audience at large.   The signage at GALA doesn’t look like regular sign language. It is closer to interpretive dance.  This becomes quite a show, especially with larger choruses who aren’t as able to incorporate a lot of movement into their presentation.  I thought Rowe had done the biggest ASL performance I’d seen. Until the next act came on.

Seattle Men’s Chorus did a strong set of crowd-pleasing material. I found myself captivated by their ASL interpreter.  He was a small, spritely twink type who bounded around the stage. As my Polari-fluent Belfast native friend “Wozzeck” says, “Oh, I’m in love.”  Here’s the youngest ASL interpreter at the festival, and I could feel the concert hall watching him as well. He must be twenty at most. I’m not sitting close, and the hall holds 2,500 people. So I can’t tell for sure.

Off program, Seattle Men’s Chorus added Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” (1983, Howman/Jacquemin/Palin/Jones) which of course I recognized from the first line, “There are Jews in the world.” There was quite a delay of recognition in the hall until we got to the chorus. Many people I know were practically raised on Monty Python, and my old cabaret trio Larry, Hall, and Jack did plenty of it.  Even the Winsome Griffles could turn a Python tune into a hill billy number.

Kevin Gallagher, the ASL interpreter, had the audience in stitches with this number. If he had come close to upstaging the chorus earlier, here he definitely did. Kevin even had a brief but prominent surprise solo vocal: the final “and mine” normally given to a bass voice.  (If you don’t get the joke here, watch The Meaning of Life.)

At the GALA Legacy Awards Reception, Kevin Gallagher was an honoree and recipient. It turns out Kevin has already been signing for the Seattle Men’s Chorus for twenty-eight years. Shocking! I was amazed. At the closing night party, thrown at the Hyatt by SFGMC, I had the pleasure of meeting this Kevin Gallagher in person. He was much taller than he looked on stage. He was very nice, a little soft-spoken, and rail slender. Very dashing. I am impressed by his transcendence of age. I have seen it in a few dancers, like Kathy Mata at San Francisco Dance Center. At top is a pic of Kevin and me at the party.

Everyone left the Seattle show with, if nothing else, a lasting impression of how to make the sign for ‘ejaculation’ or ‘ejaculate.’

Our ASL interpreter, for the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco (a.k.a. The Slash Chorus or LGCSF) which performed my music at GALA, was Ethan. He had giant hands well suited for signing. I asked him if the pun in my piece “Magic Snow” made sense in sign language as well. Yes it did. Ethan was later seen at the closing night party go-go dancing. Here’s a pic of Ethan rehearsing backstage at the Ziff Ballet Opera House with The Slash Chorus, LGCSF.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Yazoo at Paramount Theatre Oakland, or Vince Clarke, Master of Counterpoint

Monday, July 7, 2008.

This was the concert we had waited 25 years for.  Appropriately, it happened on the stage of the Paramount Theatre, home to Maestro Michael Morgan's Oakland East Bay Symphony, with the two performers dressed in concert black.  

The stage was empty except for two risers; even the wedge monitors were nicely concealed.  Behind it two giant, transparent, low resolution video arrays shone gritty stylized animations forward, lighting the performers in silhouette.

Alison Moyet still has the pipes.  No problem there.  Every note and inflection managed effortlessly.  Occasionally some harmony parts were added from audio backing tracks, but that really wasn't necessary.  It is amazing to see Moyet sing live.  She is hardly a showman, but she can sing.

One of my entourage remarked, as one often hears, "What is Vince doing up there?" Vince is famously shy about his own voice and steadfast in leaving any florid or critical keyboard parts to sequenced perfection.  There's a little bit of singing through a vocoder.  Maybe he's doing something in Ableton live; maybe Reaktor, who knows.  Does Vince need to do anything?  This is the man who walked away from Depeche Mode.  This is the man who provided Stock Aikman Waterman, New Order, and countless others nearly all their production and sequencing ideas, and did it with far greater taste and economy.

Vince can take a progression as simple and common as he employs in "Only You" (I, V6, vi, V, IV, I6, II, V) and make it absolutely fresh and compelling by the strength of melody, arrangement, and counterpoint.  Not to mention seductive synth sounds meticulously sculpted.  Vince pays more heed to horizontal movement than vertical progression.  Witness the detailed precision of "Too Pieces."  Chirpy lines dart and interweave, hypnotizing, until the bass kicks in, and oh! but it's all really just I, IV, I, IV.  

Or hear the dreamy, modal magic of "Winter Kills."  Minor with a trippy raised 6th scale degree; then the bass descends like a baroque ground bass, with the lowered 6th.  Absolutely beautiful with Moyet's voice, and simple yet startlingly fresh.

By the time Vince got to working with Andy Bell, his compositions became polished and polite.  They still sparkled, but they were free of the happy accidents, artistic tension, and stylistic collisions which marked his work with Moyet.  

A highlight of the show was "I Before E Except After C," something of a musique concrete / tape manipulation piece.  In a bit of theatre (since nobody knows where the sounds are actually coming from these days), Vince himself wheeled out an old reel to reel tape player to center stage, and the performers left while the reels spun and the piece played.  Vince updated the piece with some drum cutups and stutter edits that would have made bt or Autechre proud.

The audience was fairly well aged and padded.  No one was dressed fun except me, to my surprise and disappointment.  I wore a shirt I made myself, back in the day before Villains, Lip Service, and off-the-rack rock star clothes.  I dressed in monochrome, of course, this being the 82/83 era.  I was a little surprised that young people were not there in force; they seem to know about Kraftwerk and Devo and attend those shows.  I wonder what the crowd will be like in their four nights in Los Angeles, where Yazoo singles once lived in heavy rotation at KROQ.