Supermarket Trip

Today on the way home, I impulsively stopped at the new grocery store- you know,
the one built right next to the old one, but twice the size. It’s surreal to begin with
just looking at the old store, which I always thought was more than sufficient, yet to
be torn down, already showing signs of decay, while right next door is a massive
new structure.

Stores like this tend to make my head spin. If you take just a minute to think about
the abundance on display, and what it really means to go from one massive aisle to
the next and see all the products (the SKUs, in retail parlance) on display, you can’t
help but think that the world is equal parts amazing and pushing into levels of
sickening consumption unparalleled in human history. Salmon from Chile, soybeans
from Vietnam, avocado from Mexico, canned goods from god knows where, piles of
cheaply made non-comestibles like plates and glassware, all made in massive
factories overseas, and so on. All of that plus hundreds of thousands of more things,
all there for the taking. And here is the kicker- the same corporation also operates a
store just like it, less than ten miles away! And another ten miles west of that! On and
on, endless consumption, anything and everything you want, all at your doorstep or
pretty darn close. It was pushing 90 degrees outside but people working in the store
were wearing sweaters because the AC was so strong. Tell me how THAT is a
sustainable use of electricity. Again, think about that replicated several times over
in every direction. It is a massive undertaking to be sure, sadly impermanent as we
see when nature throws storms and other such at us, an accomplishment of moving
materials like food across vast distances, but ultimately a testament to our callous
disregard for the world we inhabit.

These are the thoughts rolling thru my head as I walked in the door. But then it hit
me. This is the reality we have created. This is the privilege we make available – to
some, not to all- that past generations have fought for. This is the freedom we
gained, of a sort- not to tell people the proper way to respect artificial and
problematic symbols of patriotism, but to live in a world of abundance, free
from want. So how is it that some people living in this comfortable world, where
they are literally consuming themselves to death, can go home from this
exaggerated beast of a grocery wonderland and sit down and think, “our country is
not great?” And how is it that some of those same people are so blind to all those
who see the abundance and ask, “what bootstraps can I grab to get some of that
when all I see are barriers?”

So I guess I will stick to my family run grocery store in walking distance from my
house, where I know the owner by name, and where they might have far less to offer
but I can still find more than I will ever really need.

On Writing. On Silence.

In spring of 2002, as I was crashing and burning in a job that did not suit me, and as
I wrestled with the ramifications of that tailspin – I was employed at one of the best
music schools in the world, I was making my mark in a way that attracted attention,
I had mentors, serious mofos in the business, telling me that if I could stick to it for
20 years or so, I could claim any top job I wanted at a major American music school,
and despite the future I could clearly see, the clear path in front of me, I was not
happy.

While I thought about leaving, I had a vision. The job I had required nearly non-stop
talking to people, and what I saw, on more than one occasion, was a day where I was
sitting quietly, with nothing to say. I saw hours of silence, I saw myself surrounded
by people but disengaged, quiet, and I felt a silence brewing within that I could not
name or describe- a point where there were no more words coming from me, a
point where nothing sounded right, a point where I simply sat still, silent.
I thought when I left the job in May 2002 that I would lapse into that silence. I did
not. True, I fell into a major depression that lasted for months, perhaps a year, and
there were many days I did not leave our apartment. But I was full of words. They
were all ready to come out. And come out they did, once the stars re-aligned and I
had the chance to talk, and write again. From Fall 2004 on, I was a non-stop babble
machine. Hundreds of essays in American Record Guide, DPO program notes, hours
and hours of lectures both at school and in public, papers, thoughts, basically,
constant energy. Once unleashed, I did not stop.

Even when I slowed down, I still cranked out blog posts here on Open G. Notes,
ideas, thoughts, letters, and in the classroom and studio, hours and hours of talking.
If you know me, you know I don’t engage in brevity. An hour lesson block is barely
enough to cover everything. Hell, even my Facebook posts push the 500 word mark
a lot.

But that silence I saw back in 2002? It has finally crept in. I can go for days where I
have little, if anything to say. I sit down to write, and I can only stare. I wish I had
an explanation, e.g. I have worn myself out, or I finally realized I have little of value
to add, or something profound. But I can’t say that. I still crave the 500 word essay
spilling effortlessly from my fingers with Mozartian grace. I crave the attention, the
accolades, the feedback. But there is nothing.

So I propose that it is time to re-launch my blog presence. I need to explain the silence. I need to push back against it. I need the babble. I can revel in the quiet as it makes me happy at times, but I can’t be quiet for good, especially as the world pushes to new levels of precarious balance, as all I hold dear is under threat, and on a personal level, as I continue to struggle with the deaths of family and close friends. Maybe I have been saving up a howl at the moon. Maybe my vision of quiet was the worse case scenario- a vision of where I could be if I gave up.

I’m not going to do that yet.

Peace.

 

Chris Chaffee is a flutist, a professor at Wright State University, and Vice President of Keepin' It Real for Open G Records

Zero to Sixty: The Short Camp

In this previous blog, I compared the way I prepare for performances to a boxer's training camp. Well, this time I have something a little different: a short camp.

In late January I went to the doctor with pain in my side. Turns out I had three significant kidney stones - one on my left side and two in my right. This means I had to undergo two consecutive surgeries to correct them, which means it's been about two and a half months since I last played my horn.

I have a performance next Friday night.

Can I beg out? Sure. I even have my replacement lined up (the supremely talented Mark Dover), but I really want to do this one. Actually, I really only need to do one piece, but even that is a tall order to do in front of an audience when you've been off the horn for so long. I'm also determined to play this piece (more on that later). 

So how am I going to get to speed in just over a week? Once again, I think of boxing: sometimes fighters will take on bouts with very short notice - someone gets injured, gets popped for drugs, any number of reasons. It only works if you were in good shape to start out with. You can't come from LESS than zero. So I'm going to lean on my go-to routine, the method. This means lots and lots of fundamentals - getting back to the roots. I will take the method and expand it over five days until I'm as close to 100% as I possibly can get. The first day I will barely play an hour. By day five, I should be ready to play a full three hour rehearsal. How? I will literally show you.

Tune in to Open G Records' YouTube channel, where I will be sweating and suffering live for both my and your benefit.

So now let me tell you why I'm motivated to torture myself to get into quick shape. This piece, Moonset No. 2 for soprano and clarinet, is by my dear friend David Glaser. The first time I performed it was also the first time I met David. I played his piece at East Carolina University with a soprano who just murdered the piece, and I don't mean in a good way. David had come down from New York to hear the performance, and I was so fucking angry and embarrassed. Here I was, in North Carolina, trying my hardest to be great and then giving a shitty performance in front of a New York guy. It was almost unbearable. It was also clearly not my fault - normally I take it for the team, but this was really egregious. After the performance, I apologized to David and I said, "listen, man. Write something for me and I'll make sure it gets done right". Well, he took me seriously, and a couple of years later I premiered his clarinet concerto, the first concerto anyone ever wrote for me. This will be my first opportunity to play the David's Moonset since that fateful Carolina day, and that's why I'm so determined to be able to do it. I do love a challenge - it's a bit like "Fuck me? Hey, fuck YOU!"

Open G Podcast #10: John Harbison

In this episode, Chris interviews noted American composer John Harbison. In this wide-ranging, almost two hour interview, Harbison talks about his music, his work, and his life, including his time in Jackson, MS in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights struggle. Check out an incredible concert of Harbison's piano music, January 25 at National Sawdust. More info here.

The Method, Part One: Longtones and warmups

The Method, Part One: Longtones and warmups

We've all heard people do freakish things behind practice room doors. The thing is, I never see those players make the finals of high-level auditions. I call them "practice room heroes". Don't be them. You want to build practical, even, reliable technique that will allow you to play even the most difficult music with musicality and fluidity. Plus, showing off is for suckers.

Notes for Steve

Here we share our program notes from last night's Steven Stucky celebration. Thank you, Jeremy Gill, for your incredibly moving and beautiful words.

 

IN CELEBRATION OF STEVEN STUCKY

“One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past, to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind. I am the kind who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have cleared the path ahead.” — Steven Stucky

Tonight we celebrate the life and music of Steven Stucky in a program that comprises music by Stucky, some of the composers he loved and admired most—on whose shoulders he proudly, unrepentantly stood—and a few of the myriad younger composers he championed and guided.

Itʼs impossible not to hear the deep and manifold connections that bind the works on tonightʼs program together, which form an uninterrupted stream of artistic creativity from Brahms through today. The cascading thirds of Brahmsʼs Op. 119, No. 1 tonight can be heard as foreshadowing the “tall tertian chords” Stucky so lovingly documented in his early study of Lutosławskiʼs music, and that permeate the fast sections of his own Sonata for Piano that closes tonightʼs program.

“Sereno, luminoso” from Stuckyʼs Album Leaves (written for and dedicated to tonightʼs pianist, Xak Bjerken), is a masterful miniature: seven (or is it eight?) phrases that can be heard as first, shortening, then broadly expanding,then reprising (a fifth higher); or, as a simple expansion of register from the center to middle-outer registers of thepiano, pulling expressively against the only dynamic indication in the movement: piano sempre ed intimo.Throughout the texture is homophonic but densely chromatic, mixing the texture of chorale and the resonance of distant bells.

Clanging bells announce Christopher Starkʼs in memory, composed for tonightʼs concert. Stark memorializes his teacher in the time-honored tradition, by converting S(teven) E(dward) S(tucky) into the pitches E-flat–E–E-flat, which sound, first hammered in the lowest register of the piano, and then, after a restless, harmonically cyclical interlude, high up in the register of the workʼs opening bells. The piece ends in a gentle wash of complementary tonalities (tonal, whole-tone), with S–E–S continuing to sound in the center of it all, as well as ensconced in the now distant bells. The bell chords themselves come from the end of Les noces, and Stark notes that his last correspondence with Stucky included “us sharing our admiration for that ending.”

Three of the composers on tonightʼs program—Bartok, Lutosławski, and Stucky himself—openly acknowledged their debt to Debussy. His Syrinx, composed in 1913 (the year of Lutoławskiʼs birth), makes it clear why: with its masterful mixing of tonalities (the 3-note chromatic cells, pentatonic flourishes, and—saved for the very end—a simple descending whole-tone scale), it unfolds in what Stucky has called a “stream-of-consciousness narrative,” and presents a post-functional manner by which to organize harmonically viable forms, something all three composers exploited in their own music.

“Since an early age,” Stucky also harbored a love for the Spanish Songbook of Hugo Wolf, and in 2008 he arranged a set of eight of its songs for various singers with orchestra. His version of “Bedeckt mich mit Blumen” was dedicated to Rachel Calloway, who sings it tonight in Wolfʼs original version. For Rachel, this song “reflects Steveʼs love for his friends, music, life, and the world around him.” In the great romantic tradition, Wolf sustains an understated ecstasy by reserving for the final bars, after the singer has finished, the songʼs only cadence in the tonic.

The German lieder tradition suffuses Aus der Jugendzeit, into which Stucky weaves music by Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire) and Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde), creating what he calls “the fabric of yearning for a time and a musical language long past.” And though we tend to think of the German and French traditions as polar opposites, Stucky reminds us that, at least in the twentieth century, they are not so: he notes that Debussy had a copy of Pierrot Lunaire on his piano when he died, suggesting “it was one of the last scores he was studying.” Although fixated on the past, Aus der Jugendzeit was a piece for beginnings, too: it marked Stuckyʼs first collaboration with the Dolce Suono Ensemble and instigated a lasting artistic partnership with DSE and its founder Mimi Stillman, who performs it tonight.

Stucky has referred to his extant piano catalog, with characteristic humility, as “vanishingly small.” When he set to writing his Album Leaves, he wrote short pieces that each depend “on the clarity, pungency, and immediacy of a single, arresting sound-image.” He also leaned heavily on the two twentieth-century composers that reinvented the piano the most: Debussy and Bartok. Itʼs easy to hear how the perfumed arabesques of Debussyʼs Voiles and the biting, percussive dissonances of Bartokʼs Free Variations are each reflected and refracted in the selections fromAlbum Leaves paired with them tonight, as if Stucky is holding a private conversation with each, calling down the decades that separate them. As a centerpiece interrupting this glimpse into the composerʼs studio is the haunting and —incredibly, given its brevity—transfiguring Dirge by Bartok.

Lutosławskiʼs Grave for cello and piano was composed in memoriam the Polish musicologist and Debussy specialist Stefan Jarociński, and begins by quoting the first four notes of Pelléas et Mélisande. These opening four “white” notes are immediately contrasted with a handful of “black” notes, and the entire work, which Lutosławski crafts to provide “the illusion of a quickening tempo,” springs from this juxtaposition.

So, too, Stuckyʼs Dialoghi for solo cello. He begins with a set of six, rising “white” notes that spell “ELINOR” (Frey—the workʼs dedicatee), and immediately falls down through a soft fluttering of “black” notes. Both these elements—the name-theme and juxtaposition of “white” and “black” notes—permeate the seven variations that follow, and the work ends with a registerally (not literally) inverted restatement of the name-theme. The title Dialoghi is lovely in tonightʼs context, as we hear this piece beside Lutosławskiʼs Grave, but Stucky also stresses in his notes the “dialogues” that exist in friendship, in “conversations about books, music, paintings, films, psychology, religion, food, and all things Italian (hence the Italian title).”

The “white” notes that serve as the starting point for Lutosławskiʼs Grave and Stuckyʼs Dialoghi are spun into the principal sound world of Harold Meltzerʼs Two Songs from Silas Marner. Friendship is at the heart of these songs, too: Meltzer recalls that this was the first piece of his that Stucky heard, and he reached out to him, initiating a long friendship. Reflecting on George Eliotʼs tale tonight, Iʼm struck by the easy analogy between the solitary work of the composer and the miserly weaver, spinning out the stuff of his precious gold in solitude.

James Mathesonʼs “Clouds ripped open” features a restless piano part, with triads constantly morphing one into another, their borders blurred as in a rainbow. Ringing bells have been present in many of tonightʼs works, and they return here at the beginning of “Is my soul asleep?” Matheson (who studied with Stucky) describes Machadoʼs poems as “urgent, modern, and sometimes devastating in the sheer loneliness of their perspective,” but not without hope: the two stanzas of this last song are given lovely poetic tempi, first “Lost,” and then “Found; slower,” and the music aspires to eternity in its closing tintinnabulations.

It is astonishing to hear Stuckyʼs Sonata for Piano tonight in such close proximity to his Album Leaves. Though following it by a dozen years, the Sonata is his only subsequent foray into writing for solo piano, and any reservations Stucky had about writing for the piano seem to have been completely overcome. Stucky identifies the primary materials of the work: the opening “grim, gruff music” juxtaposed with “a tiny wisp of arioso melody,” and a repeating, “tolling bell.” From these he fashions a powerful, monumental structure, the centerpiece of which is an imposing chorale that literally takes over the work. Stucky describes the ending of the Sonata:

If one thought of a piece like this as a struggle between opposing musics—turbulent vs. lyrical vs. calm vs. light-hearted—then one might interpret the close as a somber outcome. But I prefer to think of it as what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The exuberant fast sections and the luminous chorale really are the twin hearts of the piece for me. Thus for me, despite the substantial quantity of dark music, the light carries the day.

The Sonata is dedicated, simply, “to my wife Kristen.”

In the days and now weeks since Steveʼs death there has been a constant stream of tributes and reminiscences online and in print. These remembrances—professional and personal—are a testament to the far-reaching impact he has had. Running through them all is a constant thread: Steveʼs humility, his graciousness, his willingness to help, advocate, and praise when he could. He was a great citizen of the American musical community, “a man,” his son Matthew has beautifully written, “of bottomless kindness and empathy,” and we are inestimably poorer without him. One canʼt help but wonder why these qualities of his, so universally praised and admired, are nonetheless so rare. Kristen Frey Stucky has poignantly urged us to “honor Steveʼs life by continuing to appreciate his music and the kindness that he conveyed to all.” Let us also honor him in this way: by going and doing likewise.

— Jeremy Gill

Squaring the Circle

I wasn’t with Mom when she died. My last time with her was about a week before her death. I had come from my home in North Carolina to Virginia for the weekend, as I had every weekend since my mother’s diagnosis of stage 4 brain cancer three months earlier.

It must have been a Sunday and therefore time to make the drive back, because I had my clarinets with me in the hospital room. Mom lay there dying, for all real purposes comatose – her brain function had slowed tremendously and her body had begun to shut down. All throughout that day the machines monitoring my mother’s condition continuously beeped and hummed, a monotonous and terrible metronome that kept ticking down the time as we all sat waiting for nothing. As the time came close for me to leave, one of Mom’s nurses noticed that I had brought my horns with me and asked if I would play something. Now, in a normal situation I would automatically decline that request. This was not a normal situation. After a moment of hesitation I put together one of my instruments, an A clarinet that my Mom had bought for me at the beginning of my professional career, and began to play from memory. I played the piece I and every clarinetist know the best, the Mozart clarinet concerto.

I played. It was quiet. I could hear the sound of my instrument bouncing and echoing down the hallway and into open doors. I listened as the floor quieted. Then: at first ever-so-slightly, then more and more obviously the beeps which had been keeping time so steadily all afternoon began to quicken. Several machines ramped up their activity – her heartrate began to rise, her brain activity picked up slightly but obviously, and she began to breathe just so slightly faster. I played as though suspended in time, the notes coming to my fingers without effort. This continued through the time I continued to play – it seemed like a half-hour, but I know the music is only about five or six minutes worth. Slowly again everything began to return to as it had been before I started playing, and then it was the same. During it all my mother never opened her eyes or made any other physical indication that she had heard me, but I believe she had. I think she had. It was the last time I saw her alive, and the last time I communicated with her in any way. I have some comfort at least that she knew I had been there.

 

Now, coming on four years later, I am a father of a one year old son named Saul. A few months before Saul was born, I got a new instrument to replace the one I had played for my mother. I still have the old one, but unfortunately clarinets have a shelf-life and this one had just run its course and then some – it was hard to let it go. Nonetheless, it’s always exciting to get a new horn and this was even more exciting, a new instrument made by hand just for me. I hurried home after getting the instrument. Right away I sat Rachel down, in theory for her to listen and give her opinion, but really just to tell me how great it sounded and soothe my buyer’s nerves. As I played, Rachel jumped in her chair. It was Saul in her belly, moving and kicking inside of her. As I played he continued to bounce and turn, his gestures reflecting the loudness or softness of what I was playing, until I finished.

            I put my horn down. It was quiet. I stood there quietly too. It was distinct: in that moment I felt and, I think, understood the connection that had just been made. There was, for just a moment, a bridge between two people who would never meet each other: my unconscious mother and my not-yet-conscious boy. It was almost too much to feel – the end of one life and the beginning of another, connected through me in a way I immediately recognized. It is a thing I feel lucky to have experienced and a thing I will carry with me until I die myself. Maybe Saul will be there to play for me.

Dealing with Disaster

There are moments in a performing artist's career that are truly terrifying. It is part of the essence of live performance that anything can happen - from sublime moments of absolute genius to complete and abject failures, all happening in real-time. When an audience is there to see you perform, and especially when they've paid for that experience, there aren't any real second chances. Oh, sure, every now and again you'll hear of a performance that gets off to a terrible start and everyone agrees to just begin again, but that's truly rare. For the most part, performances go roughly as expected - there are things you would like to have another shot at and such - bobbles, intervals you didn't quite make seamless. etc. - but usually you get to the end with no real harm, everyone claps, and it's on to the next one.

Sometimes disaster strikes.

In the past year or so, I had two moments of real disaster. Both were during the most important concerts of my life, and on both occasions I had to come back and play a show of equal importance the very next day. The first involved a memory slip and the second a technology problem and both needed to be overcome, or the next days' shows were going to be absolute hell. What happened and how did I deal with it? Well, let's get to it, shall we?

In November of 2014, I gave the world premiere of Jeremy Gill's "Notturno Concertante", a concerto for solo clarinet and large orchestra. There was a Saturday night show, and then a repeat performance Sunday afternoon. Jeremy and I did a podcast about this here - it's one of my favorites. Because I am an idiot, and an aggressive one at that, I decided that giving the premiere of a brand-new super-difficult 23-minute concerto from memory was truly prodigious, and so I went for it. I had a lot of time and a big memory, plus I would absolutely play Mozart or Nielsen from memory, so why not this? I drilled and drilled and drilled. I made a strict work schedule: a serious workout of a warmup in the morning, a long session working on the technical spots and smaller sections, and then one more session later which was all runs of longs sections (and, for the last month or so, the whole concerto) from memory. In fact, as soon as possible I was practicing without the music all the time, even for detailed technique work. I would say I spent the last two months without looking at the music. I had it cold.

Rehearsals with the orchestra went well, though I immediately decided that I would never ever try to memorize a concerto premiere again. It was almost unbearably intense. I thought the nerves would come from standing in front of an audience, but in fact it came from standing in front of the orchestra, in front of a hundred or so of my peers. They were totally cool, by the way. As any orchestra would, they approached a new piece and an unfamiliar soloist somewhat gingerly at first, but the piece is really great, and I'm not an asshole and clearly knew the piece in and out and was tagging the shit out of it, so we got along just fine. Still, I did not expect the level of pressure from myself to do well in front of my colleagues. It's hard to explain.

Saturday night comes. I'm ready. Dress rehearsal had gone well. Let's do this. I had to wait through the opener, Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story".  Great stuff, only I'm not listening, really, besides noting where they were and how much time I had left. Got my focus on, repeating a mantra I've had for a while which slows me down and gets my head in the zone: "focused, and in control". I say it a few times to myself. Focused, and in control. I hear the Bernstein end, the applause. It's on.

I go out, and I'm sailing through. I have this thing where I don't remember details of my best performances - I mean, I know I was there, and I know what generally happened, but I won't be able to recall whole movements or any specific moments. I don't remember shit about the first half of the performance, so I think it was going well.

And then my memory failed.

It was somewhere in here, a section in 9/8 which moves out at an insane 100 clicks on the metronome:

Bitch

Bitch

My non-musician friends can probably look at that and generally tell that's an unfriendly section. My musician and clarinet friends can tell that it's even more unfriendly than you think, due to the chromatic AND wholetone stuff, plus a lot of going over the top break, and oh yeah it's fast. 

Anyway, somewhere in there I fucked up.

I have no idea what happened. None. I do know that I found myself on stage with literally no idea where to put my next entrance or, after a second or two, what notes to play at all - it just happened so fast, and I was just there, going Oh My God. What do I do? I noodled. I know it was 10 to 15 seconds, tops, but it felt like fucking forever. I recall my thought process somewhat:

Oh shit.

Where am I?

I don't know.

What should I do?

I dunno, do something!

Ok, how about this?

That does not appear to be working. Try something else

How about this?

I don't know, maybe?

I knew the long whole tone run at the bottom was coming up. Does it end on a double high Bb? You bet your ass it does, and thank god for it. I decided the timing felt right and went for the whole tone run, knowing there was a big orchestra moment there, and if I was right we'd hit it and if not, I was going to hang on to that high Bb until they caught me. Lo and behold, I'd guessed right and thankfully I joined the orchestra correctly. Doubly thankfully, I only had about another 45 seconds of playing before a long break. Then I'd have a little while to recover, maybe as long as a couple of minutes. I made it, hanging on for dear life.

I still had 10 minutes left.

I caught my breath. I drank some water. And then I had to straighten myself out but quick. I had to forget it. One of the things I lean on heavily is sports psychology. High-level athletes deal with incredibly high levels of competition and pressure to succeed. What separates the great from the good is the head game, the ability to be mentally stronger and better-prepared than your opponent - or even yourself. In that moment, I thought, "Tiger Woods would forget this (I was obviously thinking of Tiger in his prime - an incredibly focused athlete). A great cornerback would forget this". Great athletes do completely whiff sometimes. But if you dwell on that whiff, another is sure to follow, and then another behind that, and then you're done. Tiger would occasionally shank a drive, Richard Sherman gets burned for touchdowns. It's bound to happen when you're doing difficult shit on a high level. What makes an athlete like Tiger in his prime special is the ability to truly leave mistakes behind. So, say Tiger borks a drive into the woods on the left. When he approaches that ball, it has become its own singular and particular problem. It no longer matters how the ball got there. It's there. How do you solve this problem that now presents itself? In the same vein, a cornerback or safety must let go of a great play or a blown coverage, because the opposition will assuredly test you again, and you'd best be ready.

So forget it. And I did. Played the rest, went fine. Took my applause, sat in the audience for the second half like a good boy, and got the fuck back to my hotel room.

I was devastated. I had spent so much time, and LOVE on this thing, and I couldn't believe I had dropped it like that. I called my wife, and I broke down and wept. I felt like I had let Jeremy down. I left like I'd let myself down. I had truly done everything I knew how to prepare for the moment, and I had dropped the ball. I couldn't believe it.

And I had to do it again tomorrow.

How? How should I prepare myself to overcome the memory slip and go out and tag it in my only other opportunity? Sports psychology had saved me in the moment, so I returned to it. The first person to enter my mind was Lebron James. Say what you will about him, but Lebron exists (and excels) on the highest plane of high level athletes. Yet he will miss more game-winning shots in his career than he will hit. He will occasionally have a 12 or so point playoff game, which for Lebron is throwing a big bag of bricks down a well. But an NBA player has an 82-game regular season, not to mention Lebron is usually playing in the finals, so add another 20-odd games onto that. That is a ridiculous number of times to have to get ready, be prepared, and have your head straight. So, I thought, what would Lebron do after a poor game in, say, game 2 of the NBA finals? He's going to have to come out well in game 3, especially with the opposition trying to seize an opportunity to take control of the series. I thought, he probably trusts his preparation. He probably trusts his routine. Everyone has an off night. Shooters keep shooting. That was it. Shooters keep shooting. The ball will go in. I thought, here's what you do. You forget about tonight. You get a good night's sleep. You get up, you get a good breakfast, you do your routine because you trust it, you check out the spot you failed on, but not too much: you actually know it, so just make sure the corners are swept out, and then just go do it. You know it. You didn't leave any work behind. Go do it.

And you know what? I did! I'm not going to say that no bricks were shat as the moment approached and then....PASSED! I definitely gave myself a big mental high-five, and the tiniest fist-pump on earth, and then got back to the business of finishing the piece off proper-like, which I did. It was a great success. Jeremy was happy. I was, for a moment, happy. More than anything, I was proud of my mental game for getting past the disaster of the previous night and delivering like I knew I could. I'm not sure I could have done that a few years ago.

Cut to this past October. I had two opening nights for Open G Records at National Sawdust, which, I'm proud to say, has become one of "the" places to play here in the city. It was a huge opportunity. I had two full variety shows of my favorite players, the guys on my label. All living American composers, some of whom were there including Mario Davidovsky, Steven Stucky, and my dear friend Ed Jacobs, who will become central to this story. Full lighting and amplification setup, two-time classical Grammy winning producer Adam Abeshouse running the live sound. I set up the concerts, I had four of my players from the label in town for the show, plus I played during the shows as well as emceed the entire evenings from a microphone at the side of the stage. In short, a big deal.

The setup for the show. I mean, LOOK at this place!

The setup for the show. I mean, LOOK at this place!

One of the pieces I played was by the aforementioned Ed Jacobs - a piece he'd written for me called Aural History, which I had premiered and recorded, and was very excited to give the New York premiere of. This is it here, with me and my boy Xak:

So, the piece has a lot of pages, which I often spread across a few stands. In this case, we were making a film of the concert, so in order to present a cleaner look for video, I transferred the piece onto an iPad with a page turning app, which I connected to a bluetooth pedal.

This one right here. NOTICE ANYTHING?

I had gotten the pedal some time before the show in order to get used to it, and it did take some getting used to. It's a pretty simple idea though, right pedal turns forward, left turns back. You could read a book this way if you wanted to. After a while it became second nature, plus it worked like a dream. I was a total convert.

Cut to the middle of the first show. It's going great. It's a long, super crazy day, especially to be in charge of, but it's really going. I play Reich's New York Counterpoint, which I'd just recorded with Adam Abeshouse, we have the New York Premiere of Stucky's violin/piano sonata, I do a bit with my friend Jason, and then it's time to play Eddie's piece. It's a hard piece, but I really love it, and I'm pretty sure that I've spent more time overall on it than any other piece in my lifetime. Xak and I had recorded the piece and know it well and we're both ready to go, especially after I hit the gas pedal hard and really rocket us into the start of it. 

It's pacing along really well - Ed marks the beginning "on the edge", and I think we're really living on that edge. That's where I want it to be, and I had put in another level of work on the piece to make it so. First page turn comes, no problem. Kick some more ass, looking to rain down fire in the 3rd page. I have three measures of rest at the bottom of page two. I hit the pedal.

Nothing.

I hit it again. Nothing. Oh, man, this is real trouble. Still, you can turn the page with your finger. I do so during the rest. There is no rest on the bottom of page 3.

What. Do. I. Do. Now?

I play, trying to not lose focus whilst navigating a briar patch of notes and gestures, much of which happens in unison with the piano - not exactly a good time to collect my thoughts, much less formulate a plan. I'm just hoping the pedal had a hiccup and it'll be no harm, no foul and let's get to the end. Here comes the bottom of page three, and...

Nothing.

Xak goes on. He has to. That's what the piece does, it goes on. But I'm hopelessly fucked now, because I've had to take a couple of seconds to swipe the page (to my recollection it took two tries) and then get my hands back on my horn, and then where the fuck am I? I know I'm on the top of page four out of five pages of continuous 16th and 32nd notes. Other than that, you got me. I have to stop Xak. "Let's just go at the top of that section", I say. A quick look confirms my knowledge that there is a two-measure rest at the bottom, and I'll be able to finish this movement without another incident. I know I will not be so lucky for the next two. I finish the movement.

Fuck. I have to figure this out (or not) right now in front of an audience. What can I do? This is happening right now whether I like it or not. I'm a little fortunate in that I'm generally a funny guy who can at least be somewhat witty when the chips are down. The chips are down. I'm not sure what I say, but I say something like, "hey, sorry folks. Excuse me for a second while I check out a technical issue I'm having". And then I pick up the pedal. Seems fine. I press the pedal down with my finger. Nothing. I try the page back. Works fine. Try the forward again. Nothing. Wiggle it a little bit. Nothing. I put it to my mouth and blow on it, which is a call-back to part of the bit I had done earlier with Jason (clarinet players are always blowing shit out of their horns in rehearsals and performances - it's kind of our calling card). Secretly, I'm hoping it actually works. It doesn't. OK. So now I've spent about a minute doing this and that's about all I can afford, especially as I can't seem to even start troubleshooting the issue. I have to go on.

I go on. Second movement is slow. I still have a page turn. I deal with it as best I can. I know the third movement is fast, at least two fast page turns. Fuck. I stumble through them, the last coming before maybe 20 last seconds of music, all of which is pure hell, just one of those times where you know you aren't on but there's not a damned thing you can do about it, so have a big bite of that shit sandwich for the road.

Pretty much like this

It's done. Xak and I take the applause, I point to Ed so he can get some applause. I walk over to the microphone to introduce my friend Scott, who's getting ready to play some Boulez; and also to vamp a little bit while the crew moved the piano offstage and did some resetting in the hall. So, now I have to spend four or five minutes chatting with these folks when really, truly I'd rather be in the green room throwing up. My instincts say to address the problem, but I have no idea what I'm going to say. I just start talking. I say something like, "hey, everyone, thank you. So, I had a little technical SNAFU there, I'm sure you noticed. Trying something new with new technology, sometimes that happens." Then I smile a bit and say, "if you'd like to hear a COMPLETE performance of that piece, you can hear it on my CD, available for sale in the lobby!". 

I'm gonna switch back to past tense now, ok? So I finished my spiel about Scott: best friends forever, great player, good dude, yadayada. I was trying my best not to really look at Eddie - it was too hard. I caught a glance or two. There he was, all supportive looking and smiling. That made it worse. 

Even after I finished speaking, I STILL had to stay out in the hall, because I was assisting Adam with the quite extensive technical part with the Boulez that Scott was playing. No hiding for me; not one moment yet offstage to even sigh. I sat there, trying to focus intently on the music, trying to be at my best for Adam and Scott (and Boulez). I did my best, I really did, and it was fine. But humming behind my eyes was a brewing sadness. Of all the pieces to have a problem, the last one I wanted was for it to be Ed's. See, Eddie is special to me. When I showed up at East Carolina as an interim professor in August of 2001 (I'd get the job outright the following year) Eddie was the first person to try to connect with me - in fact, he took me to dinner my very first day on campus. I latched on to that, and we became fast friends. We played poker, we lunched several times a week, we got high and listened to Radiohead (sorry, Eddie, hope that don't cause problems for you, but you're a full professor - fuck em), he shepherded me through the ends of a couple of disastrous relationships. Real friends. And we made music together, the cornerstone of which was the piece that had just eaten some shit on its New York premiere. Damn. Damn damn damn. As I sat through the twenty-odd minutes of the Boulez, I sank further and further into a plush couch made of melancholy. I knew it wasn't truly my fault, but it had happened. I had let Eddie down. I have an interesting artifact from that moment. As I mentioned, we were making a film of all of this, and the crew had placed a small camera on Adam's desk.

I know I'm probably not showing what I was feeling. I can look at myself, though, and really feel it. Damn.

So, the concert finished. Had to shake hands, meet and greet, do the thing, be the guy. Stayed at the front because Ed was in the back. Eventually I made my way back there. He was talking to a couple of people I knew had shown up just to hear his piece. Damn. I shook his hand, told him I was sorry. He was cool and totally supportive, as I knew he would have been even if it HAD been totally my fault. It didn't make me feel any better. I knew it had to be a disappointment, even if he wasn't really going to show me. I tried to believe everyone when they said I dealt with it with elegance and humor. I guess I did, but again, it didn't make me feel any better. To this day I have trouble dealing with it. Eddie and I normally speak or text quite regularly - maybe every couple of days, at least weekly. Since the concert I have basically ghosted the shit out of him. It's hard for me to get over. I feel the disappointment still.

I shook more hands, I went to the bar, I got all my guys into a car back to Manhattan, and then I Googled the living fuck out of the pedal issue until about 2:00 in the morning. It was working again. What the hell? I decided that it was a bluetooth pairing issue, and that it had tried to randomly pair with someone phone and somehow screwed my connection. See, here's the problem: I had to come back the next day and play another show. I had planned to use the pedal because the piece I was playing (Davidovsky - Synchronism 12) stretches across five stands when using paper (it's not some odd format or anything, it's just that it's 14 pages over six minutes, and no time to turn pages - you just have to kind of lay them all out in a row). Again, that looks like shit on video. I fixed the problem with the pedal. I tried it over and over. 100% success rate. I went to bed. I woke up. I tried it a few more times. 100%. OK, the bluetooth was the problem. I'd just add a part to my talk where I ask everyone to turn off the bluetooth on their phones, boom. Problem solved.

Cut to 5:00. Show's at 7. It's been another crazy long day. I only have time to run through the Davidovksy, because we've spent all day getting good takes of Boulez with Scott. It's important, the run-through, because the Davidovsky has electronics and there are always issues of balance, etc. Check the pedal again. No problem. Sweet. Start the rehearsal, it's going fine. I go for the first page turn.

Nothing.

I lose it. I really lose it. Not AT anyone. Not TO anyone. But the emotions of the last couple of days, not to mention the months of planning that had gone into the damned thing, erupt out of me in the form of a lengthy, deeply blue, and oddly specific FUCK YOU to the gods, to the universe, to anything you might have on hand. Even on everyday occasions, I can swear with the best of them. Now I really pop the top off, like a barrel full of illegal fireworks. I have to get out of there for a second. I go out onto the street. A late October wisp of a mist is in the air, and it feels good. I take a few deep breaths, walk up and down the block. I gotta figure this out. I call my wife, tell her to bring my sheet music. I walk back in.

While I've been gone, the crew has figured out a jury-rigged solution to the problem: the left, or "page back" pedal, has always worked. They disconnect the cable from the right pedal, extend it a bit, and run it to the left. It works like a charm. That's the solution (and the source of the big "X" in gaffer tape on the photo at the top of the page) Should I trust it? I did mention before that I'm an idiot, right? Meanwhile it's 6:15 and Davidovsky has arrived and he'd like to hear the piece, because of course he would. Well, here's a chance for at least a real-world test. I play it, everything works fine. I'm rightly nervous about the tech, and it shows a little, but basically everything works. He tells me to play softer in spots. Cool. He doesn't know there was a problem. What problem? Time for the show.

Show starts and it's going well. It's becoming apparent, actually, that it's going REALLY well. It's like the stress and effort of the past couple of days fall away and we all say "fuck it" and just go out and play, and that's when the good stuff usually happens. The time approaches for Davidovsky. I wait backstage, clutching my horn and my pedal. Please work. One time.

I go out, make an intro at the mic, and then walk to center stage to do the thing. I start by myself. The electronics enter. The first page turn comes really fast. I cross my fingers (figuratively, obv) and hit the pedal with my foot.

yes

Oops. I make a mistake because the fucking thing actually works! Can't do that. I turn my focus to executing the piece, and everything turns out well. Everyone seems happy with it. I am relieved. I hit the mic again, introduce Scott, and sit down to assist with Adam. As I do, I see Eddie in the audience. He comes to both nights even though his piece is one on the first, because he's a mensch. I put a big smear of regret across my relief. Still, the concert finishes well and is an actual good time (I know, at a classical show! Shock!)

Cut to now. I return to speaking in past tense. So that's what happened. Two instances where I had to deal with truly difficult issues pretty much in real-time. The first key to overcoming things like that is preparation. Without hard, dedicated preparation you can never really get to the second key, which is trusting yourself. Without those two things, you can't achieve the end, which is to be able to forget mistakes or problems and be the best player and person you can. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure I could have gotten past those things so quickly when I was younger. I find that it's a skill like any other, and gets better with practice. Be prepared, leave mistakes behind, and be better in every moment moving forward.

I'm going to finish this one with a thought that's so good I wish it was mine. It's actually from Adam Neiman, who is a fabulous and wise pianist. As part of his preparation, he does as many full runs of pieces (that is to say, he starts at the beginning and plays all the way to the end without stopping) as possible. For some pieces, including concertos that run 30 to 45 minutes, his full-run repetitions number in the thousands. Pianists. . .Anyway, that is (almost literally) insanely prodigious. So I asked him about why he goes for that level of prep. He said (and I'm paraphrasing - it's been a few years), "well, everyone gets to that spot in a performance where you go 'oh, shit. What's next?'. The thing is to have the answer to that question".

The thing is to have the answer to that question.

And, Eddie, I'm not done with our piece in New York. Not by a damned sight. It's the next thing to overcome.

Four Prayers: #1

If I spend enough time with the empty blue sky in front of me, will I stop dwelling in the darkest corners of my dreams?

 

January 15, 2015.  2 PM. I found myself staring at the Ohio River from the balcony of a room in the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta, Ohio.  The Lafayette, as the writer Jim Harrison would have it, is one of my “panic holes,” a place to hide for a good head clearing, purging, to hell with it all day or two.  Since I’ve already revealed one of my secret hiding spots, I might as well mention that there are two rooms with covered balconies and panoramic views of the river.  It has free parking, decent restaurants nearby-basically, all the anti-social comfort of deep woods off the grid anonymity, but with the trappings of an historic hotel with a friendly staff. As long as you don’t let the idea that you are sitting in the gateway to European expansion across the west and the ensuing genocide bother you, Marietta is a nice quiet spot.

 

I had a bottle of scotch on hand, an empty legal pad in case a coherent thought or two should drift into my head, and one goal.  I wanted to watch barges go by.

 

 How did I end up in such a place on a Thursday afternoon? The day before, Schall (the badass engineer) sent me the huge file of recording session raw material from the previous week. After I helped get the kids in bed, I opened it and had a listen. 

 

I did not make it past the first ten seconds of the first take.  The first note of the Gaubert Sonata was slightly flat. Tight. The vibrato lacked the exact color I wanted. The rest of the phrase lacked warmth, shape, and direction. I completely flipped out, convinced that I had torpedoed months of preparation, wasted thousands of dollars, and potentially ruined a defining moment in my artistic career. 

 

So I ran away to go watch barges.

 

Now it is ten months later, and you know the obvious punchline.  I came home from the panic hole, listened to more, and found plenty of much better material for the record. We released it in August, a handful of people have purchased it, and quite a few of those tell me they like it. 

 

But the January jaunt to the river still haunts me. On the surface, of course, it is nothing more than the behavior of a self-centered asshole with disposable income and a propensity for taking himself far too seriously. Like most moments in my life where I lose control, I look on it now with a deep sense of embarrassment. Yes- I over-reacted, high standards and high strung don’t mix, it all worked out in the end, that sort of thing. 

 

What lingers is simple: doubt. Not the concern that I could do better-of course that will always be true, and I have made my peace with that.  As I tell my students, to be an artist you have to strive for perfection, but you have to acknowledge that you will never be perfect.  Reconciling that koan-like riddle is your life long struggle. It is a different kind of doubt- a nagging thought that despite all the hard work, despite the deep sense of pride when seeing the completed project, despite the warm reception, there is something missing. 

 

When I listen to it now- never complete, just a track here and there- I still have little moments of cringing, but many moments of satisfaction.  I wonder, however, if my initial reaction was about more than a flat note.  We make music with our entire being. Maybe I wanted to hear an idealized vision of myself as an artist, not the one I really am.   I am at my best when I crawl into the music itself and inhabit different places- e.g. the opening phrases of Rorem take me to a painfully lonely young version of myself walking alone on a snowy day in Northern Michigan.  Gaubert makes me embrace the joyful part of me, the one that cried when eating a simple lavender sorbet in a restaurant in Metz, France as I realized that there are moments of profound beauty in this world.  And so on.

 

I am still trying to decide if that artist is the one you hear on Four Prayers, or if I fell short. Incidentally, I only saw one barge in Marietta. It did not have the calming effect I was seeking.  The empty blue sky on my walk today did not either. 

 

Nothing erases doubt. Maybe it is time for a new koan-  “Your Doubts and your Light are the same.”  Or something.  Suggestions welcome…

Art Matters, Part Two: A Function of Memory

Art Matters, Part Two: A Function of Memory

It wasn't until I had a finished CD in my hand that the idea for Open G Records came. It came from my engineer, Adam Abeshouse.  We had just finished listening to the master, and Adam was burning the master CD. I said, "so what now? Who should I give this to?". Adam said, "honestly, Chris, in 2012 (which it was) I don't know why you need to give it to anybody." By the time I had arrived back in the city, perhaps a half hour on the Metro North from Pelham, I had basically decided on the idea that would become Open G Records. You can read more about that process in one of my very first blogs right here.

Gaming is My Refuge

Gaming is My Refuge

When I was about 8 or 9, I had my first true taste of freedom. I was allowed to cross a major thoroughfare (really just a 2-lane road) on my bike. This previously impassable obstacle rendered moot, I knew exactly where I would go. Across that road, past my elementary school, to the strip mall about a quarter mile past I would heed the clarion call and find my childhood Shangri-La, the brand-new local video arcade nestled right next to the Giant supermarket.

Fresh Eggs: A Response from The City

My dear colleague Mr. Chaffee asked me to respond to his piece, "Fresh Eggs". I think he's hoping that he might engage me in some sort of back-and-forth. OK, I'll play.

I don't know any farmers. I don't think about farmers, except that I might stumble upon an outdoor market in Manhattan every now and again and think, "I wonder where their farm is". That's pretty much the extent of it, though my wife insists on shopping organic and I suppose that stuff has to come from somewhere. Mostly, fresh produce appears as if by magic, and even my corner bodega has 3 kinds of organic eggs. So, I guess you could say I don't think about it much.

Your central premise does hit close, though, to my overall, unifying, why-people-are-crazy-as-fuck-these-days theory. And for me, the timeline goes back way further than 10,000 years. I think our genes have some sort of imprint of memory and fear - perhaps that's what instinct is - we innately know to fear and recoil from things we have never encountered. In that instinct is the memory of our long wind through evolution. For literally millions of years, through all of our development, we have had extremely basic and vital needs: eating today, finding somewhere safe to sleep tonight, and getting our fuck on. Let's assume for the sake of argument that we've always managed to have that last third bit on lockdown. So, about the first two...

Sometimes I feel like a time machine in that my grandfather was born in 1900, and through family stories and institutional memory my own vague experience stretches back before human flight. My grandfather's lifestyle in rural Virginia was not that different from that of many societies for the 10,000 years Chaffee mentioned, and his daily needs were not that different from the ones listed above: eating, a roof over his family's head, and the third thing, which seems fine because I exist. So even up to roughly 100 years ago, again for millions of years, we've been encoded with very serious and pressing external worries. Like, "worry about this shit or you will die" external worries. 

Now I go to the supermarket and there are literally 50 kinds of bread, maybe more. Aisles of milk, meat, and cheese. And if they run out, a nice young person will go in the back and get more! All but the most poor and unfortunate at least have a place to stay and a roof over their heads. And the third thing again seems to be fine. 

So what the fuck are we supposed to worry about? If we're even the most basic of good boys and girls, we're likely to eat and sleep well for the foreseeable future. All of that external worry has nowhere to go but inward, and so we become balls of stress that treat each other poorly and worry about the iPad charging fast enough. Millenia of necessary stress turned into unnecessary stress has made us nuts. What's the most basic solution? Turn the energy outward again and be nice to other people. LOL! Like that will ever happen!

So there's your response, Mr. Chaffee. Your turn.

Fresh Eggs

Earlier today, I stopped by a local farm to pick up some eggs. For reasons that are perhaps genetic, I fail at small talk in every arena except when I’m chatting it up about weather with a farmer. There’s something natural about the conversation- the staring off into the middle distance, the long pauses between phrases, the quiet yet satisfying rhythm of give and take. (No, I will not prattle on about becoming just like my father here, but it is a subtext, I suppose.)

We have had a lot of rain lately in this corner of Ohio. We are under our third flood warning this week.  For me, it is a minor annoyance.  The wildflowers I planted to attract butterflies rotted away in a flash flood. My basement is damp. The tomato and lettuce plants are rotting at the root from standing in water. I can’t take my kids to the pool because of all the rain.  That sort of thing.

For my farmer friend, it is far worse. Most of their corn crop has been destroyed in the last week.  They had a shot at producing the best and most bountiful- hence profitable in farmstand and high-end restaurant sales- crop of organic corn to date. If you know about corn and pests, you know that they were onto something. That’s not easy- usually it’s all about chemicals. Several other crops are in jeopardy. Last year the freakishly extreme poles of hot and cold in spring followed by unusual cold and dry summer created near disaster. Rather than stand still and mutter quietly about the day, my farmer friend paced nervously and almost yelled about the pouring rain- another 4+ inches expected this weekend.  I was alarmed and saddened by the concern. There are only so many bad seasons a farmer can endure.

As I drove home, I returned to a long-standing pet theory of mine. The background- One hundred years ago, we were still a predominantly agrarian society.  Then we flipped to the opposite. In my little town, I can still see solid evidence of this- in less than a block from my house in different directions stand three barns, throwbacks to a time when even those that chose to live in a village, and likely worked at the nearby college (Antioch) or local industries (small factories producing all manner of things) still had a hand in subsistence farming. There were cows, pigs, and chickens in the yards and streets. The vast majority of Americans still lived according to an agrarian, seasonal cycle.  By extension, what is now a trend for yuppie assholes like me- the local foods movement- was a way of life. Think of this- we had fresh pineapple for lunch today.  Think of what that meant a century ago- it would have been a rare occasion at best for most. Imagine what progress we have made in global commerce and transportation to make this possible. It’s staggering, really.  But I digress.

Back to my theory. The industrial revolution pulled us out of an agrarian lifestyle that was in place for, oh, let’s just say about 10,000 years. With that lifestyle is a daily ball of anxiety. That’s in the short term- will it rain today? Will it be too hot today? What about pests?

What about the long term- what if we have 1, maybe 2, or heaven forefend 3 bad YEARS in a row.  That is ruin for my entire tribe.  Really.  Any way you look at it, worry is a predominant way of life in agrarian cultures.  It is inevitable when dealing with something as chaotic and uncontrollable as the Earth.  So here’s the theory- we are hardwired now to worry about things.  In just one short century or so, we have made astounding progress in ways that removed some, and in some cases, all of that worry.  We should be grateful, we should be relaxing, we should be finger-painting, maybe even writing a poem or two for fun, but we aren’t.  We are still worrying.  And what’s worse- the heart of my theory- when we have no reasons to worry, we manufacture them.  We are so hard-wired to think – somewhere in our basic being- that one big storm could take away our food, maybe even our shelter, and make our life miserable, or maybe even take it away.  So, when the photocopier jams at work, we lose our shit. That becomes the worry.  We treat these modern inconveniences with the same gravity we would have treated a lost corn crop in the near past.

The world changed faster than we did.  I need to remind myself of these things when, say, my iPad wont charge fast enough, or I run out of printer ink, I can’t get new tube socks from Amazon in 2 days or the like. I’m still wired to worry.  You are, too.  Let’s all try to get over it, shall we?  I wonder what wonders we could create if we really did.