Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tingle Tangle at Bubble Lounge

Wednesday, August 27, 2008.  I prefer going out on a weeknight.  As the saying goes, going out on a weekend is for amateurs.  And these people, Earl Dax and crew from NYC, they are no amateurs.  Reeking of filthy glamour, old school lower east side east village grit, drag, grant money, and performance art, equally at home in a squalid bôite de nuit or an endowed museum like the Weimer New York show at SFMOMA, their worldly entourage recalls a day when Klubstitute reigned supreme over San Francisco's theatrical underbelly.  But ensconced in the yuppified, gentrified, bottles-on-the-wall Bubble Lounge, beside $40 entrée sidewalk café Zagat rated tourist spots, (and the Scientology Center, as Mike Albo noted), what could one expect other than an internationally known promoter being ejected from his own event?  

A cavalcade of performers, LaJohn Joseph, drag artistes, that skinny boy (who sang with Justin Bond at Weimar New York) with a Hank Williams croon, all circulated and performed and transported me to earlier decades.  Their power exulted, making high and low art cross, intersect, intertwine, and become indistinguishable.  Here are people who could rock Trannyshack but have long CVs and NY Times reviews to their credit.  And this little Bubble Lounge tries to court the art scene and doesn't know when they've got it for real.  

There was free drag too.  And a wide variety of looks in the crowd, from flapper to dapper to calamity.  I hope this night continues, at any venue in San Francisco.  Maybe Oakland.  This dessicated city, where people flyer their websites, needs this kind of live performance blood.  And it brought out people I'd not seen in ages, who could smell something interesting and essential going on, enough to head out to North Beach.  Again, by forcing people to make some effort to go out, it gets people dressing up again and excited about an evening of entertainment.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Nico Muhly at Swedish American Hall

Monday, August 18th, 2008.  Look at this crowd!  Rarely have I seen such a mix of people: hippie intellectuals and super-young music scenesters.  Not anyone I recognized from sfSound or the improv scene or from SF Conservatory, although my drummer/percussionist Fred Morgan did.  The house was full but not sold out; it depressed me for an instant to think that you could be Talk of the Town and not sell out the Swedish American Hall.  Nevertheless, I found the crowd remarkable.  Where did they come from?  The elders must be from Mill Valley, and the youngsters must all must have moved here last week from Brooklyn.  I took it on myself to inquire, how did these people hear about this?  Why were they there?  

Besides the obligatory "my girlfriend brought me here," people of all ages claimed to have known about Nico Muhly for as long as two years either from friends, living in NYC (natch), the New Yorker write up, or from blogs; the one blog uniformly mentioned being Alex Ross.  

I first heard about Nico Muhly in March 2008 when my soundtrack label, Movie Score Media, released Muhly's score to Joshua.  Turns out Nico and I are labelmates on Movie Score Media, who distribute my Rock Haven soundtrack.  The wonderful Mikael Carlsson who runs the label from Sweden regularly sends out emails about new releases, and the young prodigy's bio and sound samples piqued my interest.  Right after that, I happened across the New Yorker piece, and next thing ya know, his name seems to be everywhere.

Nico is touring with two other names I'll admit I was completely unfamiliar with, although a minimum of internet research reveals they have labels and publicists of their own.  It was nice to see "Sam" playing banjo.  As my cohorts in The Winsome Griffles will attest, I've been playing banjo (or attempting to play banjo) way before it was hip.  

In addition to Nico, Sam, and Doveman were a violist and a drummer, as well as an occasional guest electric guitarist.  (And, on one Doveman number, a guest singer who sat terrified onstage and sang deliberately off mic, looking askance. "Awkward!")  The three principals of the concert traded off pieces more or less round robin.  It was enjoyable when the music drifted and you didn't notice where one piece ended and another began.  It amused me that the group covered the keyboard's manufacturer (I'm guessing CASIO) with gaffer tape, but the Apple logo was left unaltered.  (Especially since the sounds were coming from the Apple not the controller.)  Most segments of the show were a bit on the poppy side, as Nico is travelling with two pop musicians in the twee / canadian / quiet is the new loud / brooklyn vegan vein of things.

Doveman and Nico were physically very close onstage.  They shared a piano bench.  Nico bonked him with his nose once, and brushed his hair, on mic, as a percussion instrument for one song.  As Nico is now a famous homosexual, I had to wonder if they were special friends, or if they were just exhibiting the small personal space that young people are more comfortable with, like puppies or kittens.  (Ou des minets.)

Nico's own music was the most interesting and dynamic of the concert.  It is evident he is a talented conductor and ensemble player from his eye contact and head movement.

Nico's music bears similarities to that of mentor Philip Glass, particularly a foldness for 2 against 3 in his piano music, hemiolas, irregular rhythms and accents.  One number early in the first set featured bright, sharp piano/vla accents, which it was fun to watch them synchronize.  More than a few times you could see some counting going on.  Nico's music fits well with current trends in both popular music and contemporary new music.  His music requires a high but attainable level of musicianship.  His piano solos seem at first repetitive and easy, but with metric modulations, and then you realize they are not all that easy, and yet not too difficult either.  Nico's use of electronics (his published solo pieces often use prerecorded CDs as accompaniment) appears effortless and natural.  While pieces of concert music incorporating tape have been around for decades, Nico's don't feel as much experimental as something he's fully integrated, having grown up in a world where pop music has already been electronic.  Thus his pieces using electro accompaniment bridge the worlds of concert and pop music very well.

The concert closed with Nico's tripartite "The Only Tune" (Two Sisters/Old Mill Pond/The Only Tune) from Mothertongue, which features Sam singing in his folksy voice.  This was a high point of the evening.  Nico's original music has more dynamics than his tourmates' compositions.  "The Only Tune" bridges genres, being a personal take on folk music, the song cycle, electro acoustic music, and new music.  Nico's strength is not merely his hybridization of genres, but his ability to pick and choose their best aspects, and reconstruct and perform them with strong musicianship and confidence.  Nico skillfully combines his exposure to many things: pop music, David Bowie, classical, concert music, church music, tape and electronic music, opera, folk, emo, all these different worlds coming together successfully.

I feel obligated to write a little about Nico Muhly the phenomenon.  

There is a line of cute gay student composers from here to the beach in conservatories.  Nico is very fortunate.  He is talented too.  He is doing things the right way: he is pursuing opportunities with vigor and performing with his friends.  It's not clear what direction will claim him most.  He could be a pop star.  He could write more soundtracks, like Eliot Goldenthal, another Corigliano protégé.  He could focus on his classical commissions.  He could get a DMA, a Pulitzer, or a Grawmeyer, and become a high profile Professor of Composition like Thomas Adès did.  If he can preserve his involvement in diverse areas, in my mind, that is the best.  In this tour he shows that he likes to make music with his friends, and that is a powerful and honest thing for anyone to do.

As far as the flak he's received for his good fortune at receiving a commission from the Met, that sure is grist for the mill.  Some comments indicate Muhly is too young, undeserving, or not fully formed enough to merit such an opportunity.  We all end up shamed about some things we did or composed in our 20s.  It is too early to know which ones they'll be, or how his style will develop.  Well ya know what?  Nico writes serviceable music and the story concept, with libretto by Craig Lucas, is interesting and topical.  This is today.  This is vibrant.  This is about our culture.  This is what opera is supposed to be.  It's not a dead art form yet.  As long as it's living, let it be truly alive.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Eisenhower Farewell Address: My Musical Typewriter.

Thanks to a generous colleague and collector, I have borrowed a manual typewriter for the October 5, 2008 world premiere of my Eisenhower Farewell Address.  The Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra has been rehearsing the half-hour composition for a couple weeks now.  They've added a larger brass section, and Scott Budman from NBC 11 is the orator.  Josh Cohen conducts.
This typewriter was chosen from the private collection for its volume, reliability, condition, and the swift action of the keys.  It's a Royal "Aristocrat" portable from about 1954.

There are already several musical compositions employing typewriter. The most famous is Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter." (1950) You can hear it here. And here's a video:

Anderson's typewriter part is the most difficult and challenging out there.  The issues for this piece, especially for today, are that the carriage return and bell must be in perfect working order, and the typist must have control over speed and dexterity.  It's a very showy part.  The success of "The Typewriter" depends entirely upon the skill of the typist.

The typewriter doesn't need to be used this way.  It can be used to create an environmental effect, without the pyrotechnics Anderson employs.

Rachel Portman uses the typewriter suitably in the businessman's number in her fanciful opera, The Little Prince.  Portman also used typewriters in her score to Amelie.

Dolly Parton evokes the office environment with typewriter in "9 to 5"!

Frank Loesser uses a typewriter in "A Secretary is not a Toy" from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1961).

There is also some kind of "Boston Typewriter Orchestra" but it looks like it may have been a one-time novelty performance.

I'm sure there's other uses of typewriter, and I'd like to hear about them, especially if they're in significant classical/orchestral repertoire.  

I hope you will come to the premiere, and hear the sound of this beautiful mechanical marvel.

Friday, August 8, 2008

"Signals" Video

This is a video for "Signals" from the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble I CD. "Signals" was recorded live in the studio without overdubs. This is only two people, Fred Morgan and I, playing together live!

The track begins with an extended solo cadenza on Roland Jupiter 6 analog synthesizer. The lights you see in this video are the lights from the Roland Jupiter 6. From about 5:53 you will also see the lights from a Roland TR 808. The 808 was not used in this recording, but it looked good for the video!

Notes from GALA 2008: River City Gender Blender

One of the nice surprises of the festival was from the River City Mixed Chorus of Omaha, Nebraska.  The program listed one piece, "Gender Blender," by Mark Kurtz, unpublished.  Mark turns out to be the group's own Music Director.  The piece was remarkably fresh lyrically (despite the overly wry title), and its politics were as well-informed as anything coming from a coastal metropolis.  Numerous chorus members bemoaned, "oh, we had to cut one of the pieces, you really should have heard it."  Clearly, the singers were proud of the piece and their chorus.  This performance illustrated many things about culture in this country.  For starters, as I was once told in Mississippi, everyone gets Showtime.  Nebraska, or any other orthagonal state, is not necessarily a cultural or sexual backwater.  It can be a fertile ground for interesting, cutting-edge, original work.  Nor will a group from such an area necessarily fall victim to self-censorship, or fear of performing such work.  I do wonder if Omaha is really an open, welcoming place filled with heartwarming trannies, or if the sensibility was copped from visits elsewhere.  I also think it's good to have original music which is upbeat, witty, and positive.  I hope the Chorus gets a lot of mileage out of Kurtz's piece.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Gentle Wind" Video

This is a video for "Gentle Wind" from the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble I CD.  You're hearing just Fred Morgan and me, on drums and Roland Jupiter 6, recorded live in studio with no overdubs.  I shot and edited this video myself.  (Unfortunately, YouTube degrades the audio.  I've been reading about that online.  I'm not going to fight their janky compression algorithm.  So here it is in mono with artifacts, despite the high quality of the source file.)  

We titled these compositions after the fact.  I caught all the images of things moving in the breeze and the birds by happy accident.  And I think this video has a good daytime look which stylistically matches the album cover designed by Ben Coopersmith.  The album is also available on iTunes.  One interesting feature of this track is the meter.  9/8.  It's a fairly uncommon meter, although it is in no way bizarre.