Life

This House, Those Dreams

  A project of late is to order memories, secure them, put them in some sort of firm chronology, and yes, write about them.I will admit to a sort of low grade middle aged crisis with this, in that I have been mostly complacent and in a blur for a few years now, but the sudden acceleration of mortality of those around me has shaken me from the stupor, and I realize that many things I used to have at easy command in my memory bank are slipping away.A few years ago, while co-chairing one of the largest music conferences in the country, people working closely with me commented on my “mind like a steel trap” as I had the entire map of hundreds of events, all the costs, all the details, right there for instant access. Names, amounts, sizes of each room, each stage, all there.In the personal realm, it was much the same.Everything was still new, still fresh- every detail of school life, every detail of growing up, everything about getting married, down to the level of where everyone sat and what everyone said.I had it all in the steel trap.

That trap eroded, and I am not sure when, or why, or how, but here we are.  It is now a leaky sieve that things go in- a few things stick, other things leak.

I call it, for lack of better term, the fours.  In our youngest days, we care about what happens in four minutes.  Then we grow older, and what happens in four days starts to matter, then four years, and so on- you get the picture.  The last in this list is important in that four years of college provide so much fodder for memories that are vivid- right at that stage when your frontal cortex is starting to really gel, well, that is right when you fall in love the first time, right when you can procreate for the first time, right when you learn to dismiss authority, in short, right when life really matters, that is when everything is a beautiful Technicolor, and you relish this wonderful reality and cling to every last thing.  And remember every last thing.  Those of you around my age who engage almost daily with your college friends on Facebook know exactly what I mean.

But as life sweeps along, days get longer, periods of time stretch out, and the blur sets in.  If you are not careful, you wake up one day and realize that 3-5 years have passed, especially when you see something as simple as an unreached goal, e.g. I will paint that window frame as it is chipping, some day.  And that day keeps slipping.  And then that unpainted window is a sudden, jarring reminder of the passage of time and an existential crisis that hits you as you herd your kids out the back door for school and you haven’t had coffee yet.

Suddenly you find yourself in a state of suspended time where everything returns to Technicolor.  You are sitting in a quiet hospice room with a loved one, looking out at the bird feeder and you see every movement of every bird, and each moment sears itself into your memory.  You read an email about a colleague, released due to budget cuts.  You see your son limping after a simple ankle twist on the playground and your life, your vision, all focuses with preternatural hyper reality.  And in those moments you also see the past in sharper focus, and you want everything to be aligned in perfect order, and you panic, maybe a lot, when the alignment is not as clear, when the moments are going away, or quite simply, gone.

What does that have to do with this photo?  Almost a year ago now, I visited the small PA town of my youth.  As I was taking pictures of the house where my family lived for many years, I gravitated to this porch.  One memory persistently called to me, and I wondered if by looking at that space, if I would regain something I lost.  Spoiler alert: I did not. On this porch, we had an old and beat up piece of furniture we referred to as a “davenport”.  I wanted to reengage with this spot as I thought it might carry some sort of spiritual or at least deeply personal significance in that when I was 14 or so, I found a copy of The Catcher in the Rye on a bookshelf in my oldest brother’s room, and for some reason, I picked it up, went out on that porch and sat down on that davenport, and for the first time in my life, I read an entire book in one sitting.  Incidentally, I know that the second book I read in one sitting was Bronstein’s Children by Jurek Becker, and I know the exact spot- the middle of the soccer field at Interlochen- where I sat on a Thursday afternoon and read it without pause.  I remember the class, the teacher, the essay I wrote about the book, the questions about it I stayed after class to ask the teacher, etc.  It is all vivid. I remember asking my parents to find me more books by that author in the pre internet days, and their efforts to track some down by driving to bookstores a couple hours away to ask in person if they knew of any, and the constant search in bookstores in NYC, Ann Arbor, and other spots when I was roaming about in college.  I miss those days when an author and a book could be a mystery that took years to unpack.  Google has taken away a certain amount of magic in our lives.

Anyway, I thought that if I stood near that porch and stared at it, I would suddenly be in touch with that 14 year old boy who fell down a well the first time he read Salinger and has struggled ever since to climb out.  I did not.  I also remembered the little boy who stood at the screen door at one of these doors when lightening hit nearby, and how he jumped and ran, scared out of his mind. (that same boy has been within 500 feet of lightening strikes three times in life, but I digress) I remembered my grandfather sitting on that porch smoking a pipe before dinner, and the brand of tobacco he used from a store in New Haven, CT, and only there as he was a man of habits, something that I now can claim for good or ill- (Owl Tobacco, and I can still see the orange and white canister it was stored in, sitting on a shelf in the butler’s pantry of that house) and so on.

I want to order memory, but it is a cloud we cannot grasp in our hands, a shifting world that will come to us in fragments, and in dreams.

And only in dreams.  

So where are you from?

I am not one for small talk. Weather is only moderately interesting, local politics
will always be the same, I do not watch TV, nobody will ever be happy with local
snow removal, gas prices suck, and while I care a little about the local sports team as
a fun diversion, I have no firmly held opinions about their future success. Most of
what we call civilized talk is a shadow puppet display that simply says, “I will
pretend nominal interest in you” while we try to move on to the next, or worse still,
the only things we have to say to each other are patently pathetic as we do not have
much else of merit or interest to say. Sometimes the shit-eating grin and manly
handshake is sincere, and that is even more frightening.

Put two people in close proximity in airplane seats and small talk seems to be
implied. If one of these happens to be a wannabe alpha male seated in business or
first class, a world that has been thrust on me simply because 1) I am huge and no
longer fit in regular airline seats and 2) my career has calmed down to a point I do
not fly much, so when I do, I can afford, some of the time, a fancy seat, well, then I
am stuck making small talk.

So imagine the corporate VP, the real estate investor, the shower curtain ring
salesman with an absurd amount of skymiles, the stereotype of the alpha who thinks
he belongs there, thinks he is something special (yes, always a male) and thinks that
he has something to prove. Imagine he sits next to me, and the opening salvo is “So
what do you do?”

I’m a flute professor.

I know better now than to say that. I usually put forth a fart cloud of obfuscation. If
my “don’t talk to me, I’m tired” vibe is not clear, I try to bob and weave and say
things about “non profit consulting” or another false path. It usually works.
But then the question about “where are you from” floats to the surface. Suddenly it’s
not an uncomfortable couple hours on a plane, it’s like every small talk effort at
every party, ever- from the getting to know you awkward college world to the even
more ridiculous world of adult cocktail parties decades later. It is a question I
despise.

Where am I from?

It’s complicated.

The simple answer is Yellow Springs, Ohio. I have lived here since 2006. Before
that, I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. I never imagined this would happen, but I have lived
most of my adult life in Ohio, and have lived here more than anywhere else.

But the question usually probes into your childhood. But -where are you FROM.
Where did you grow up? What is the formative world that launched you into the
present?

In the present, most people assume I am from Michigan somehow. I live there in the
summer, my father lives there, and I suppose I pass as someone who could be from
Michigan, and my four years of boarding school in northern Michigan sort of seal the
deal. I don’t have any discernable accent, but I do slip into an “eh” at the end of a
sentence once in awhile, and the word “car” does come out of my nose on occasion,
so I could be from Michigan.

I usually allow for the water to be muddied like this. And when I was younger, I
made it even worse. People would ask, and I would intentionally mislead. I would
try to avoid the obvious. I was from New York, Michigan, or any number of places.

Just not the truth. Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The place I moved to when I was in
kindergarten. A place that I tried, for various reasons, to leave as soon as possible.
A place I did leave for high school and beyond. The home that I had as a kid, a place
that remains in my memory as home, yet a place that makes me mad, sort of happy,
sort of sad, and everything else all at once.

A place that I can still remember. A place where adults praised and tormented me in
equal amounts. A place where I was a preachers kid. A talented kid. Maybe a
troubled kid. A pressure cooker, in other words. A place where kids on the bus spit
on me. A place where I wanted to play baseball, but was so inept I was first cut from
a team and then sat on the bench, and where practices were an ongoing torment of
other kids teasing, bullying, and otherwise being terrible. The son of a local lawyer,
not incidentally, a member of my father’s church, who teased me every time I was
up for batting practice, saying I looked “constipated” in my stance.

The place I am from is real. Wonderful, and terrible all at once. There are
wonderful memories. But they are eclipsed by the rest.

I went back in 2005 when my father retired. That is an essay in itself. Then I went
back with my family in 2017. There is no revelation, no truth, no epiphany in these
visits. A look down a big black hole, and a bit of anger certainly.

What you see in the picture is the church. For 150 or so years, a mainline
Presbyterian church. Flawed, certainly, but familiar. Trained theologians at the
helm. In the last decade, it has been radicalized and turned into an evangelical
stronghold. Nary a seminarian, at least in the traditional sense, in sight. The past is
obliterated to make room for the radical, and yes, the stupid and mindless.

There is a beautiful contradiction in life. Here is one- Classical music is dead,
long live Classical music. Another- burn it all down, let it live again.

I have a lot more to say about where I am from. About clergy abuse. About bullying.
About the joy and agony of small towns.

I am a preachers kid from Honesdale, PA. That is where I am from. That is who I
am.

There is more to come here.

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!"

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…

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.

A Classical Nerd at Coachella: Day 2

After a marathon day one, we made a rather later entrance on day two. None of us particularly wanted to sit in 95 degree sunshine, especially since we were all different degrees of hazy hangovers. We showed up at about 4:00 after some vigorous pre-gaming. This time we actually showed up at the proper entrance and made the long hike into the site. It takes about 25 minutes to walk the paths and get through security, which is cursory at best.

I was feeling pretty good. As we entered, we passed at tent that was booming the loudest techno music of all time. I wanted absolutely no part of it. The last tent in or out? The end of the line. No thanks.

There were thousands and thousands and thousands of people walking through. All colors, shapes, sizes, outfits, costumes. That kind of scene is bewildering to me under the best of circumstances. In this case, I just decided to hang with the flow and not be concerned. Not so easy. Eventually the crush of people coming through the entrance began to lighten up and then we were here:

Milky Chance was finishing their set as we arrived. The lead singer was quite ill and apologized for not being able to sing, so we didn't feel too bad about getting there late. Then it was another amazing crush to get into the beer garden - hundreds of sweaty people fighting through a chokepoint for alcohol, the smell of pot literally everywhere. I went on autopilot and tried to make sure not to trample any tiny women, who were surely getting the worst of it in the exchange. As the logjam hit its peak, we realized they were turning people back who had "over 21" wristbands from the day before, making the salmon ladder much, much worse. We started to boo the people who were being turned back, until I suddenly realized they were my guys, and so then I shut up.

We lost everyone in the crush, so bit by bit we found each other (and beer) and sat down to wait for Hozier.

By the way, I know a lot of these pictures are from similar angles, but once you get inside the beer garden, you pretty much don't want to go back out into the fray. Anyway, I liked it OK. The crowd, much more sedate today, really enjoyed it, lots of singing along, girls on shoulders, stuff like that. For me it fell short of being really good - there was the pretense of sophisticated music-making, but every time they went for something I could feel the seams come apart a bit.

Back to the crowd. Friday's crowd seemed somewhat overcharged. Lots of jostling and bumping, spilled beers, kids passing out and falling over (amateurs). Today's crowd was older, more well-heeled, and there was more convivial vibe, and even though it seemed like there were more people there overall it felt more relaxed and somehow felt like there was more personal space overall.

While my friends got food and wandered around, I decided to go check out something called the Corporate Headquarters, where there are guys in suits and hippo masks doing random shit all day. Looks like this:

The lines of balloons in the background are pretty cool. They have human anchors, and the anchors move around in different configurations all day. I thought it was my imagination. The balloons plus the enormous caterpillar that prowls the grounds add up to a somewhat otherworldly experience, whatever was happening in my bloodstream notwithstanding.

We got back together as a group to hit alt-J.

Honestly, at this point I have to admit that I don't remember much of this show. I think I thought it was cool, and they used the video screens on the sides of the stage to great effect. My focus hit the wall for a bit, and I spent the set looking around at this:

Pictures can't really do justice to the vivid scene. it's absolutely otherworldly, like some strange desert planet where everyone has gathered to not give a fuck about anything for three days. There were lots of colored lights, including neon-lit palm trees that would change colors throughout the evening. Just beautiful, and something I'll never forget.

When alt-J was done, we wandered over the food tents for some much-needed sustainance (pizza and beer, obv), then chilled out on the lawn. I had wanted to see Tyler the Creator, who started at the same time as Jack White. When he came out on stage, shouting incoherently into the mic with a day-glo Romper Room set and like 1,000 guys with him, my crew immediately turned on the idea. One of my guys called it "angry Nickelodeon". At that moment, a huge explosion of sound came over us from the other side. It was Jack White, and we made our way over with a quickness.

Holy. Shit.

It was like a bomb of absolute awesomeness exploded in the crowd. Everyone around me was flipping out, totally into the set. From time to time, it seemed like people holding onto their heads to keep them from flying off from the onslaught of badassery.

It was, honestly, one of the best shows of any genre I've ever seen. He and his (fucking killer) band hauled ass through the whole output of his career, from heavy rock through four-on-the-floor country to childrens songs. It was extraordinary. When I was a college professor I saw the White Stripes in Raleigh at a small club called the Disco Rodeo, and that was also a great show, but always obviously limited by Meg's rudimentary but essential drumming. Now, surrounded by really badass players at every position, I really felt the full flowering of an idea, a through-line that became almost impossibly great. The band communicates (verbally and non-) constantly. I loved it on every level.

We walked out slightly early to beat the huge traffic rush, and looking back I took this shot:

Pretty much looks like my memory. Making more tomorrow. My last from this evening is walking outside, pulling the screen door behind me, then turning directly back around and walking right into the screen. Winning.

A classical nerd at coachella: prelude

So, I find myself at the Coachella music festival, as part of my brother-in-law's bachelor party. Over the next three days, I'll see (hopefully) any number of killer acts and ingest (definitely) any number of illicit substances, and reporting in this space about both of those things. In my mind, these blogs will hopefully have an almost anthropological bent - I've never been to a major music festival before (though I've been to plenty of shows), and I quite literally have no idea what to expect. I'll be live tweeting @ChrisGrymes and recapping each day here. Fear and loathing in Palm Springs.

Five years gone

Five years gone

I hate this time of year. This year I hate it the most.

Mom died February 25, 2010 after a brutal and punishing three-month ordeal. She'd been diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer in December 2009, and I had watched her terrible end knowing it was coming - she was not going to survive; it was just a matter of how long. Still, we tried our best, my brother, father, and me, to make decisions that were good for her. It was never going to be enough, and she died, her head half-shaven and full of scars from staples and sutures, a wasted shell and ghost of a woman who had been the smile-iest person you would ever meet - now a terrified husk that was mercifully delivered from her suffering (and ours) before she truly lingered.