Outside the Echo Chamber, Pt. IV: Stranded Silver

    To put on concerts beyond the standard solo or studio recital while in school is certainly a cool thing to do. Taking the initiative to start your own “band” while in school and taking that band out into the world is another level of awesome that is not attempted nearly enough. Enter Stranded Silver, a flute quartet comprised of four East Carolina students and (recent) alumni - Mary Gheen, Willie Santiago, Jackie Traish, and Benjamin Sledge. The group was initially brought together by Mary and Willie with the intention of playing as a for-credit chamber ensemble. However, when their teacher informed them that she simply had too much on her plate (22 students will do that) to handle another quartet, the four of them decided to try and make some noise on their own.

    That November, after roughly two months of rehearsing, they booked their first performance at a local nursing home and played almost entirely standard classical repertoire. The concert was well received, as most concerts for the ever-amiable Golden Generation tend to be; and it significantly boosted the group’s confidence in their ability to act on their own. They quickly followed this first performance by booking ECU’s recital hall for a January concert of their own and submitted recordings for consideration to perform at the National Flute Association’s annual convention in Chicago.

    Now, it’s very important to keep in mind that these guys were planning both a show and a trip to Chicago during the back half of their fall semester. That meant finding time for rehearsals and weighing travel costs at whatever time of day was available amidst preparation for exams and performances. Choosing audition pieces from the traditional material they had showcased in their first concert proved a quick fix to circumvent the lack of chemistry and identity that any two-month old group would almost inevitably face; however, as they sent the recordings off to be judged, they suspected that their musical vision in its current unrealized state might not grant them a performance slot (or the ability to apply for a school grant to cover the cost of travel). Rather than sitting idly by to await their fate, however, they decided to try and raise money for the trip on their own through crowd funding site GoFundMe and fundraising performances. Although the band generally divides managerial duties between the four of them (Ben handles business coordination and social media, Jackie handles logistics, etc.), these fundraising performances required each band member to sift through their connections and organize opportunities. The concerts were generally a more effective fundraising tool because they involved in-person interaction. Additionally, Jackie says, “If people are more willing to hand you money than to use a website, no percentage comes out of it.”

Left to Right: Willie, Jackie, Ben, and Mary

    I need to back up a bit. As I mentioned, Stranded Silver’s winter months were spent focused on two goals (convention and concert); and their evolution during this time was hardly linear. All four members had begun to sense a natural tendency within the group toward more contemporary music soon after that first concert. As Jackie tells it, “We liked some of that [traditional rep], but then we started adventuring into more contemporary flute quartet music…and pieces with extended techniques; and we realized as a group that we really liked those kinds of pieces a lot more than the classical.” It became apparent that they wanted to have a significantly expanded repertoire when their concert rolled around in January. To find new music to play, they used traditional sources (school music library, online chamber music databases) and Youtube before ultimately directing the search toward individual composer catalogs. Composers who had written extensively for flute or had written a piece that a Stranded Silver member had previously enjoyed playing drew the group’s immediate attention. Willie describes the search for new music as a “hit or miss” process but reiterates that “just looking through Youtube isn’t necessarily enough because when you look through Youtube, a lot of the same things will come up…a lot of these [newer] pieces aren’t widely performed.”

    Once they decided that they wanted a piece of music, it was necessary to either directly contact the composer or to contact the composer’s publisher. (Side note: If a composer is represented by a publisher, that information should be available on their website or through a simple Google search of “[composer name] publisher.” This is hardly a road block to be feared.) When it comes to speaking directly with composers to purchase music, Jackie says “I’ve had positive reactions almost every time.” In the case of Tim Sutton’s Grace, which has become somewhat of a signature piece for Stranded Silver, East Carolina actually purchased the piece for them at the band’s request; and that piece is now part of the music library. This sort of school support for student creativity cannot be applauded enough.

    So the audition recordings were en route to the NFA, fundraising efforts were underway, and the quartet was sitting on a bevy of new music to sift through for their concert in just over a month. Now they needed to not only choose and rehearse the music but also promote themselves and their concert. Ben made the apparently executive decision to dive into social media and create not only a Facebook event for the concert but also an artist page for the band. I say executive decision because this move was a complete surprise to the rest of the group, though they welcomed it. When I ask about the social media strategy early on, Willie quickly responds, “The strategy was to invite everyone we know.” They invited all of their collective Facebook friends to like the artist page and, Jackie says, “We nagged everyone to come to the concert. We made flyers. ‘We made food. You’ve got to come!’ And they were great to say ‘Well, these are my friends, so I guess I’ll go.’ Then, at the end of the concert we had a lot of people come backstage to say ‘That was awesome!’ Some even said they enjoyed the concert so much that they would have paid money to see it.” That concert featured older pieces by Anton Reicha alongside newer pieces by Eric Ewazen and Ian Clarke. More importantly, it drew a crowd of over 70 people and nearly filled the room to capacity.

    Over the next few months, the band was given the disappointing news that they had not been selected to perform at the NFA convention, but their fundraising allowed them to fly to Chicago anyways in order to soak up as much knowledge and experience as they could. Since then, they have performed for multiple school functions, including appearances at an ECU Excels event and at ECU’s annual band camp. The quartet has even made appearances at a handful of high schools in the Greenville area on their own volition. Towards the end of that same spring semester (and in the middle of recital season), they staged a second concert in the school’s recital hall which drew an audience of roughly fifty people, despite a serious tornado warning hanging over the area. They donned face makeup and masks to perform Tim Sutton’s Grace at that year’s Frequencies concert. Both Ben and Jackie cited this particular performance as a turning point for the group’s identity. Says Jackie, “[We were thinking] this is either going to go really well, or we’re going to have to change everything that we’re doing…We got a standing ovation as the first group to play. So that was the moment that we thought ‘That’s it. This is what we have to do. It’s what we like, and it seems apparent that it’s a positive experience for others, too.’” Although the group’s face makeup has not seen too many appearances since then, the conservative music selection that defined the first months of their journey is almost certainly a thing of the past.

    I ask Jackie what is next for a group that now faces the challenge of having two members graduated, including one who no longer lives in the immediate area. Although she admits that scheduling will become more difficult, her response shows clear enthusiasm for what the future might hold: “Every semester brings the struggle of needing to do even more music. Going to the [NFA] convention was a big moment for us to decide what kind of things we look forward to doing next. So we started with classical rep. The next semester we did more contemporary things and added some multimedia. Now we’re in a place where maybe we want to compose a piece. Maybe we want to do arrangements of pieces that are more popular. Maybe we want to do more media or choreography…We’ve tried a lot of things and we like a lot of things. So now it’s a new semester; and we’re still trying to figure out ‘Okay, what’s next?’”

    It’s very important to me when interviewing anyone for this blog to ask them what advice they would give to anyone who is interested in attempting something similar. In this case, as in the case of Frequencies, that something is the fulfillment of a creative vision that goes beyond a student’s required curricular activities. To each member of Stranded Silver, I posed this question, and I do not believe that the similarity of their answers is in any way coincidental. I will close with their advice in their own words.

Mary: “We’re such a fast-paced group. Most people don’t want to do things until they’re absolutely certain that it’s going to work, but we choose to move really quickly.”

Willie: “If you have an idea, roll with it.”

Jackie: “You can’t tell yourself that no one would ever be okay with [your idea], no one wants to listen to that, or that you don’t have time for it.”

Ben: “Every single thing that we’ve done has been a jump of faith…I think the biggest thing is just go and do it.”

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Be sure to check out Stranded Silver on:

Facebook

Soundcloud

YouTube

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Open G is taking over Spotify!

And by "taking over," we mean "doing our best to carve a small niche." If you're interested in what we do and what we're checking out here at Open G, give our account a follow, or you can follow playlists like the one below. They're managed by Chris, but feature recommended music from all of our podcast guests, artists, and friends. Check it out!

P.S.- We're aware that that grey ghost man avatar is about as exciting as a Kenny G concert in the corn fields of Nebraska. Spotify won't let you change avatars unless you link to a Facebook account. We don't have an actual Facebook account. You see the problem here. Thanks for not holding it against us.

Outside the Echo Chamber, Pt. III: Frequencies

    In my previous post, I spoke of the need for young musicians who are interested in a career in classical music to venture beyond what is accepted tradition and create unique musical experiences of their own while they are still within the safety net of their music school, their parents, or both. This process can be really frustrating at times, as it involves lots of trial and error. However, the lessons learned through that effort are an exceptional complement to formal classroom work; and spending time each day working with your friends to create something of your own can be a huge relief from the everyday stresses of music school.  

    As I was writing that post, I tried to find websites or articles for various student-led ensembles across the country that I could hold up as examples. Unfortunately, finding those examples proved to be too much even for the mighty Google. So this week, I decided to take some initiative and throw a spotlight onto two groups from my own alma mater that are doing some very cool work outside the lines of their assigned curriculum. One of these stories is below, and the other will be posted later this week.


    Today I’m going to highlight a group founded by clarinetist Wesley Rhodes, who is in his final semester of study at East Carolina before he heads to Colorado State to pursue a Master’s degree in performance. Wesley founded Frequencies two years ago as part of ECU’s New Music Festival, which occurs each spring. The idea was to put on a concert where students could select modern chamber music that appealed to their own musical tastes and perform that music for their peers and faculty. As Wesley puts it, “For me, the goal was getting the students to be aware that these pieces are out there, get them aware that they can actually do them, and then getting the faculty aware that we, the students, can do them in front of people.” If you’re currently a music student who is reading this and wondering why I’m making a fuss about this, think of all that goes into planning a recital for yourself, then imagine adding four or five other groups to that recital and not having your professor help you pick out the music from start to finish. Hopefully that puts in perspective how cool this undertaking was, particularly at a school where this sort of thing was not really happening.

    The first step to turn this idea into a reality actually did involve a faculty member. Specifically, Wesley had to get the blessing of Ed Jacobs, who is the director of the New Music Festival, as well as a dear friend and collaborator of ours here at Open G. What was Eddie’s response when a student came forward and said he wanted to organize a concert by students and for students? As Wesley tells the story, Eddie’s first words were “I’ve been waiting thirteen years for someone to do this.” Teachers: that is the perfect response to a student telling you that they want to try and create something of their own. Students: if you have an idea, don’t automatically assume your teachers will shoot it down and tell you to stop distracting yourself from that Bach partita.

Wesley Rhodes, Founder of the  Frequencies  concert series at East Carolina University

Wesley Rhodes, Founder of the Frequencies concert series at East Carolina University

        From that initial conversation onward, Eddie let the kids play but was there to offer advice if they ever needed it. “Dr. Jacobs was kind of like a facilitator making sure I wasn’t taking on too much or too little,” Wesley says. “I was really lucky to have that.” The two traded a long series of emails to find the perfect name for the concert while Wesley began the tedious work of filling out the bill with other performers. When I ask about his mindset in deciding performers and repertoire, Wesley tells me that he tried to find willing performers before worrying about rep because “It’s easier to get the people together than it is to say ‘I want to do this piece’ and get very close to the end and not have what you need.” The first concert featured performances of Ian Clarke’s Orange Dawn (flute and piano), Krzysztof Penderecki’s Capriccio (solo tuba), Leon Kirchner’s Five Pieces for Piano (solo piano), V.J. Manzo’s Discourse for Clarinet and Interactive Software (Eb clarinet and electronics), Antal Dorati’s Cinq Pieces pour Oboe (solo oboe), and Gregory Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata (clarinet and alto saxophone).

    The hardest part of the whole process as he relates it was scheduling proper rehearsal time for each of the groups to play together amidst the chaos that can be music school in the spring. For the concert this past year, Wesley estimates that no more than seven rehearsals occurred, so it was absolutely important that each rehearsal run in a smooth and focused way.

    They found pieces to play predominately over the internet and on occasion had to contact a composer directly in order to acquire the actual sheet music. “Some of the pieces written after 2002 are more of a case where you’d have to actually email the composer and say ‘I have this event going and I’d like to put your piece on it.’ And so you’d have to sort of wait a little bit and hope that they’d get back to you. More often than not, they would, which is really awesome.” Google’s ability to find music and the proper contact for acquiring that music truly knows few limitations.

    Frequencies has now been a part of ECU’s New Music Festival (now the North Carolina New Music Initiative) for two years and is gearing up for its third. Their performance this spring will be on March 20 at 7:00 pm, in the event that any of my readers are in the eastern North Carolina area.    Wesley is set to graduate and move to Colorado this winter, at which point the leadership of Frequencies will be passed on to junior flutist Benjamin Sledge (remember that name for my next post). When I ask Wesley if he feels the group has met their goals, he emphatically replies, “I think we met them splendidly. There’s always a little bit of fear with any recital you give that someone or something is just going to crash and burn, and we didn’t have that either time. It was amazing. It was well received, and the faculty wanted to see it again; and people from the community who came out were very excited to see that it was a younger crowd making these things happen. I think, in the long run, it’s going to help draw in a bigger crowd.”

 

    If I haven’t made my point painstakingly obvious by this point, it is simply that we young folk are highly capable of creating things at any point in our schooling or not-quite-yet-professional careers. The sooner we start, the better for each of us in the long run. I am very excited to see how this group develops beyond Wesley’s tenure and am confident that it will continue to be a staple in the already exceptional new music scene at ECU. 

    I’ll close with a quote from Wesley when I asked him if he had any specific advice for students who had an idea but weren’t sure they knew how to begin realizing that idea and making it a reality. “Just don’t be afraid to jump in the water. It could crash and burn, but there’s a good chance that it won’t. Before I approached Dr. Jacobs, I was a little skeptical of it, because I was thinking ‘What if he says no, or what if he says yes but I can’t get anyone [to play] and we have to withdraw the whole thing?’ So it’s just something where you have to be ready to jump in the water; and if there’s a shark in the water, you deal with it.”

 

William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Masters degree in music business. He can be reached at will@opengrecords.com.

Open G Podcast #4: Xiao-Dong Wang

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Xiao-Dong Wang (better known as "X") is one of the finest string chamber musicians in the world. In this episode, X talks to Chris Grymes about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, when it was forbidden to listen to Western music, much less practice it. Through sheer talent, X emerged from China to win two major international competitions as an unknown, and was eventually recruited by Dorothy DeLay to join her in New York at the Juilliard School. X's story is fascinating and he is a wise and insightful interview subject. Enjoy!

Outside the Echo Chamber, Part II: Killing our idols

            I recently read a Playboy article (SFW) where the author laments a stranglehold that he perceives nostalgia has on the output of Hollywoods biggest movie studios. Im going to spare you any jokes about Michael Bays obsession with ruining 90s-era television shows and simply point out that there is a real trend here that is equally prevalent in our world of classical music. It is a difficult argument to make that the upcoming release schedules for classical musics largest record labels - Decca and Deutsche Grammophone - will generate any buzz whatsoever outside of conservatory music libraries just dying to catalog another edition of Dvoraks cello concerto. If you look at the recent programming of premier orchestras, you will see a similar pattern: long-dead composers dominate, and movie karaoke performances of black-and-white Hitchcock films are seen as edgy attempts to woo the general public. It seems that we, too, in the classical music community have a serious nostalgia problem.

            Now, there is rarely a less productive discussion than the one that seeks to assign blame for a complex issue. Truthfully, the woes of the classical music industry largely reflect those facing the music industry as a whole; and if we really want to understand what ails the broader music industry, we have to acknowledge a world where the average disposable income is shrinking and global industry has become obscenely consolidated. If we set aside these larger questions for now, we are left with the task of finding ways for creators of classical music to combat the aging of our audience and inspire new generations to become loyal listeners. This problem is fairly specific to our niche within the industry and is one that I optimistically believe is manageable.

            This brings me back to that original Playboy article. Its obviously true that programming classical classics is a proven way for orchestras to attract more conservative donors; and I certainly dont mean to insinuate that Mozart and Brahms should be forever abandoned to obscurity. Students in conservatories certainly need a foundation in this standard repertoire; but it seems also imperative that young musicians and writers be empowered to shape the future of music in their own unique way that moves beyond what is standard. After all, a foundation is only as enticing and worthwhile as whatever you build on top of it.

            If were going to shape a future of concert music that is exciting to others, as well as ourselves, we have to insist on an environment of creation and collaboration that doesnt necessarily stop at the boundaries of the classical community. I dont think Im being unreasonable when I say that the burden for this falls predominately on the shoulders of my own generation (well say 18-26 year olds) and those who serve as our teachers and mentors. If we want people our age to take an interest in the music that we play, we have to stop relying so disproportionately on what has already been done a thousand times. The reality is that all young musicians can benefit from working with their peers to create and market a musical experience that is all their own. Teachers who encourage this sort of experimentation and provide opportunities for their students to collaborate with each other will be providing their students with invaluable experience and perspective for the rest of their careers. When the youth within the classical community begin to universally adopt a forward-thinking mentality and the release schedules of Decca and DG start to resemble those of smaller labels - such as New Amersterdam and Nonesuch Records - the future for classical music will be bright, indeed.

 

William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Masters degree in music business. He can be reached at will@opengrecords.com.

Outside the Echo Chamber, part I: Introduction

            For those who dont know me, my name is William Carrigan, and I am in charge of operations and business strategy here at Open G Records. You are currently reading the first of a series of blog entries that I am writing to advance a concept that plays an important role in our strategy at Open G, and is also important for anyone seeking to make a meaningful and successful statement in their artistic career. This concept is a phenomenon called the ideological echo chamber; and although it is most often associated with political and religious groups, it can just as easily be used to describe groups within the art world, particularly those possessing a rich tradition. (Side bar: If I ever start to seriously use phrases like that, shoot to kill.)  Put simply, an echo chamber is a group of people who think alike, primarily share ideas amongst themselves, and rarely venture outside of their group to seek the counsel of others. Though my comments will generally be directed at those who would identify themselves as classical musicians (after all, this is a classical record labels blog), artists from all art forms and genres will hopefully find ideas in these entries that they can use to avoid artistic echo chambers and further their own unique vision in new and exciting ways.

            We live in a time when most major universities in the United States have a freestanding music school that offers degrees in classical music and jazz music. I dont think its absurd to predict that as soon as the traditions of rock and hip hop have been quantified and shaped into a curriculum that can be shoveled into the mouths of eager students, degree programs for these genres will come to exist in many of the same schools. In all of these programs, students will spend hours learning everything they could ever forget about the rich tradition of their chosen style of music. They will stay up late cramming for exams and having deep conversations wondering what they will do after they have graduated into a world where people dont seem to care about their art. Many will graduate without an answer to this question and will postpone the real world by going on to get their graduate degrees. Those who are truly enamored with academia will spend even more time in school getting their doctorates. When graduation can no longer be avoided, a select few may go out into the world and pursue a career creating and performing, though the majority will fall back on non-musical jobs or become professors. These professors will go on to teach the next generation of students, and the cycle will begin again.

            Now, I dont mean to imply that school is horrible and that music with historical traditions should just keel over and be dead already. Personally, I am grateful for the time I was able to spend studying music during my undergraduate years, and the general knowledge that I now have of the Western musical tradition has proven to be helpful in my practice and in my playing. What concerns me, however, is that those of us who care about historical music face a cultural dead end if we continue to close ourselves off within self-feeding collectives stubbornly adhering only to our selective enlightened traditions. After all, if  real music died in 1897 (Brahms) or 1955 (Charlie Parker) or 1970 (Jimi Hendrix) or even 2006 (J Dilla), then what the hell is the point of being a musician anymore? Nobody really gets THAT excited about a cover band.

            No, Ill be writing these blogs in hopes that they will be a starting point for those who are looking for ways to break through the crushing mold of tradition to create something that inspires both their own artistic spirit and, I believe more importantly, the imagination of the community around them. Along the way, I will point out people and groups that I believe are doing exciting work in this regard; and I welcome any and all suggestions of artists who have inspired you through my email which is listed below. I hope that these blogs will prove as challenging to your own artistic beliefs and priorities as the process of writing them will be for my own.

 

Until next time,

William

 

William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Masters degree in music business. He can be reached at will@opengrecords.com.

Last day in St. Louis

So, I'm just about done with my trip. So far I've gathered a lot of video and audio of Nina and Scott warming up, rehearsing, and performing. Today I'll gather some shots of their life with their family and sit them down for a short interview about the project.

I feel good about what we've done. All of this will be edited for a short film to be part of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the record and build the Open G community. It's exciting and scary. I've never done anything like this before, and it's so far outside of my comfort zone that I just have to try not to doubt myself.

Scott and Nina are so much fun to hang with and listen to. I just know that the ethos of this project and the Open G concept are both beautiful and strong, and I truly believe that people will want to be a part of this and future projects.

Day one down, day two up

Yesterday was really productive with Scott and Nina. I did a brief interview with Scott in his car while he drove to an afternoon performance with the St. Louis Symphony for the St. Louis Opera. (Sidebar - The Elixir of Love ain't no feminist manifesto). After that, Nina and Scott rehearsed for about an hour in their home while I filmed and recorded them with good equipment. I've already converted and edited the video, and today I'll work on matching the good audio with the good video.

Today we're going to the Steinway showroom here in St. Louis, where I'll film and record Nina and Scott as they play the 2nd movement of the Brahms sonata in Eb. Then we'll sit down for an interview before Scott has to play for the opera again this evening.

So far, so good. Just making it happen.

Starting work on the next one...

I flew to St. Louis yesterday to begin work with Open G artists Nina Ferrigno Andrews and Scott Andrews. Today I'll be filming and taping Nina and Scott as they rehearse, as well as laying down a podcast later this evening after Scott plays an opera with the St. Louis Symphony.

I can't lie: I'm a little nervous about all of this. It's one thing to have done all of this for my own project. It's another entirely to do it for someone else, much less my lifelong best friend. This project begins the real flowering of the idea for Open G Records, and as such it's important for me to make it great. Now all I have to do is do it.

Updates in the coming days, including some footage of what we're doing.

Open G + GoPro = Awesome

Recently four Open G artists (Xak, Zvi, X, and myself) got together to rehearse and perform Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for The End of Time". I set up my GoPro on a headmount and took a couple of brief rehearsal clips from my vantage point. The results ended up being pretty cool!

The first clip is from the end of our second day of rehearsal. We were completely tired out, but I convinced the guys to play the last few minutes of the sixth movement ("Dance of Fury, of The Seven Trumpets") for the camera. I'm really glad I did! The second clip is from our first day of rehearsals, and is probably the second run at the fourth movement ("Interlude").

Why Open G?

Good question. Let’s get the name out of the way:

  1. “Open G is the first note I learned to play on the clarinet. No fingers, just air: open G.
  2. There is an open G string on every stringed instrument.
  3. My last name starts with G.

So there you go.

I started Open G with the idea of creating an artist-driven indie classical label, but the idea soon became much larger than that. What I realized is that there are a lot of people out there who (like me) love music, but (again like me) find the traditional classical industry to be hopelessly old-fashioned at best. To that end, Open G Records (opengrecords.com) is an attempt to create and nurture a community of musicians, artists, thinkers, and fans. Its my fervent hope that as the idea grows the fans and artists will together shape content from the label, choosing projects and directions as a community. In addition, beyond creating great new recordings with a roster of world-class musicians, Open G Records is a home for podcast interviews with musicians, composers, actors, and other interesting people, as well as a place where you can find essays about music and life written by myself and others. Open G Records is a place for music and ideas.

I believe that the people who make art are often as interesting as the art itself. Showing the process of making and recording music is a vital part of the mission of Open G Records, and as such youll meet and become fans of great artists as we put together projects from beginning to end. I want to break down the wall between performer and audience, allowing both to invest in each other in new, deep, and meaningful ways. I mean, really, the gulf between people sitting on stage in tuxedos and the audience sitting in uncomfortable chairs for a couple of hours is enormous, and I want to do away with it. A big part of that will be bringing the artists directly to the audience, through podcast interviews, live Q & A sessions, livestreams of rehearsals and recording sessions, and as many other ways as we can think of.

Recently, there have been articles and books proclaiming the death of classical music. They arent far off. Its been choking itself off for the better part of a hundred years. Open G Records isnt trying to save classical music. Thats too big of a job. Rather, we want to envision it in a new way, to reimagine tradition, to create new ideas wherein musicians and the people who love what they do create art together, and do so in new and meaningful ways. I hope the idea is as exciting to you as it is to me, and I hope youll want to join us in making something great. 

Losing My Religion

It wasn’t until I left religion behind completely that I was able to save myself.

When you a child and are told by literally every adult you know and trust that something is true, you believe it. I believed it. I don’t believe it now. And it often hurts like I lost a member of my family.

I think my father probably believes that he failed my brother and me somehow - that the fact that we both rejected religion outright in our adulthood is his failure as an example. As a point of fact, his own religious awakening came from a personal experience, something he and other people I love and respect count as part of faith – a “you know it when you experience it” kind of thing. I had the opposite conversion. My enlightenment, though, has been a slow one, one where it occasionally dawns on me that religion is complete horseshit and how it crippled me emotionally and intellectually for the first 40 years of my life. My brother feels our parents made the gravest mistake you can make when raising religious children: they taught us to think for ourselves. And when I am able to step outside of it and really, truly leave it behind the clarity rushes on so hard that I literally have to catch my breath.

From as early as I can remember through high school I went to church pretty much every Sunday (and some Wednesdays, Fridays, holidays...you get the idea). After a while you pretty much get the gist of what they’re going to say to you. Honestly, it’s pretty limited subject matter. I mean once you get past “we praise you” and “you saved me even though I’m totally worthless and don’t deserve it” you’ve pretty much run out. I usually entertained myself by reading whatever I could find interesting in the pew bible, most often the book of Revelation, which was by far the most interesting book to me. I was endlessly fascinated by how fucked up the language was, and I sat wondering how I would recognize the anti-christ or would I miss the signs leading to Armageddon. I understood that the imagery itself wasn’t literal. Still, that’s some wicked scary shit. The bible doesn’t really deliver on the fire-and-brimstone porn that drives the modern Christian idea of hell. I guess we can pretty much thank Dante and Milton for most of that, helped in this age by evangelists and such. It’s more interesting, I guess, than talking about helping poor people and loving each other.

Several times over the course of my teenage years I was herded into a sanctuary or a tent with other Christian kids and lectured (usually with a super-sweet video production) on the evils of rock music. I really can’t believe adults talked to kids like that now. Stuff like satanic messages recorded backward, the name of the band KISS meaning “Kids in Satan’s Service”. Showing the demons on heavy metal albums and telling us it will all lead us to hell. Also, John Lennon is evil. Pretty scary stuff for a 13-year-old. And I bought it, because why wouldn’t I? It was all I knew and so I believed it. It amazes me that people, adult people, think this stuff is real enough to drill it into children. It’s so silly and stupid and just so childish. And guess what? I discovered all of that music in my adolescent and adult life, and most of it is awesome. The direct contrast between the words I had heard and the music I experienced was just another brick in the wall.

When I left my parents’ house and got to college, I still attended church a bit, especially since my long-time girlfriend (who had gone to Indiana with me) was quite evangelical, and devotedly so. After a while this stopped working for me, mostly because I hate waking up in the morning. Like, with a fiery passion. Also, the church I attended was roughly familiar for me, with lots of college students and young couples as well as a pretty conservative bent. One particular morning the pastor really got on the college students, how if we were having sex with each other we were defiling ourselves, and more to the point, our partners. And this wasn’t some old guy, this was a pretty young pastor who had seemed fairly cool up until that point. It was a harrowing half hour, especially when I looked over at my girlfriend and saw that her face was ashen. I knew it had really gotten to her, and it had. It was the kind of moment when you just go “oh, shit, I’m going to be dealing with this for the rest of the day”, and I did. Obviously we had been having sex. I was a 20-year-old college sophomore and I had been with my girlfriend since the end of my sophomore year of high school (true story). I loved her. We had a long-term exclusive relationship and we had gone to college together with the intention of staying together (LOL!). At any rate, why was that so fucking wrong? Why do I have to be scolded for doing what comes the most naturally of all with someone I truly care about and am in a committed, exclusive relationship with? That was probably the moment where it started, sitting on a wooden bench outside of my apartment with mascara running down my girlfriend’s face and me thinking “fuck roughly all of this”. And in my heart I believed I was writing a ticket to hell.

 

See, it’s not like I just stopped believing all of it. I rejected it, but in my heart I believed that I was going to pay dearly for doing so. For me, it was and is a bit like Huckleberry Finn, out on the river with Jim. Everyone Huck had ever known had told him it was a mortal sin to hide a slave, that to help Jim escape his life of bondage was an evil act, and one that would doom him to an eternity in the fiery put of hell. And he believed it. At one point, Huck writes a letter to confess and turn in his friend Jim, as he thought he must. It comes time to send the letter:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.

I cannot read that without feeling my heart squeeze a bit in my chest. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. When I walked away from what I’d basically always believed it felt just like that.

And so I spent my 20s and 30s wrestling with this, really hurting and feeling lied to. And still believing somewhere inside that I was really still going to hell. Angry about all of it. I would look at devout Christians, most of whom aren’t a whole lot of fun, and with whom I probably wouldn’t hang out, and say “I’m supposed to look forward to eternity with YOU people? No thanks”. I still railed at the unfairness of the idea itself: these people get to have joy and bliss forever and I get to suffer? For what? Am I really that bad? Am I rotten? Am I not worth it? Then, one evening early on in my relationship with Rachel, we were watching TV and something came on about hell. I mentioned that I still sometimes really worried that I would spend an awfully long time there. After a silent beat or so, I realized that she was looking at me. She stared at me for a second and said, “you know that’s not real, right?”. I paused a moment, sighed, and said “I hope not”. She laughed. Then she said, “oh, they got you good, boy. They really got you good”. And suddenly I realized that I was not really afraid so much, like I had been waiting for someone to give me permission to finally put that down.

Anyway, that’s where I am. I can’t pretend that I don’t miss the idea of being safe, that someone out there loves me completely and in the end everything is going to be OK. But that is childish shit. Everything is not going to be OK. But you have a brief moment to experience the world before you’re gone and you should take advantage of it. This is what you’re going to get. And it’s proving to be good enough, especially if you don’t wait for the promised land you won’t even be conscious to miss. I don’t help people because a book told me to. I am not a moral person because I expect a reward for it. There is real purity in that. My mind is not stained by the idea that I and other people are doomed for being born. And I am free.

I got saved by not being saved.

My Dog Shits in Crosswalks

My dog shits in crosswalks. Well, to be honest, Fanny is not actually technically my dog. Fanny is a pug, half of a matched pair which belonged to my wife for 13 years before she met me. The other pug is Felix, who is pretty much the dumbest pug on the planet (for real – he loses his train of thought while pooping). Felix, though, as completely unable to learn as he is, knows enough to not shit in the crosswalk. Not our girl Fanny, who will circle and poop with great glee and purpose smack in the direct middle of the crosswalk as the DO NOT WALK hand angrily blinks red, cabs and dump trucks creeping eagerly forward in the expectation of the green light. I wonder where else she might decide to take a shit: on the deck of an aircraft carrier? On the Jersey Turnpike? During a walk on hot coals? I can only sense her demented pleasure as I scramble for the doody-bag in my pocket and scoop the poop up, flinging the pugs into my arms in one motion, and make for the safety of the corner while I cringe in expectation of the car horns. Nobody ever honks at me, but I never stop believing they will. I have, therefore, adopted a strategy. I will never, ever, ever start across a crosswalk unless I see the little WALK guy light up with my own eyes. This proves to me that I can outsmart a 13-year-old dog.

So fuck her. I win.

* Fanny and Felix died in 2013. R.I.P., guys.