Thursday, March 27, 2008

Canvas presents: 4tet...

Friends Jenn and Donna before the show.

Friends Novella, her husband Jan Willem and Andre.

Before the show (note the kleenexes under the piano. I was still sick as a dog that night.)

Me waxing philosophical about some musical thing or another during the performance.

After the performance, debriefing with Andre.

L to R: Andre, Benjamin Konrad (Hungary), Inger van Vliet (Holland), Maria Ballesteros (Spain), Bernat Teruel (Spain), and me.

A few weeks ago, we hosted our fifth muziekavond (now called "Canvas")...a night of string quartet music.

This account is coming more from memory than from that burst of afterglow from which I usually write, as the evening was the crest in a wave of happenings - including a trip to Seattle to work with Jenn Alexander on a recording project, and enjoying the company of Brenda and Norm in Amsterdam (they came to see the performance).

I had to wait until I was happily washed onto shore before I could stand up and speak.

There are a few musical milestones I've passed in my life that stand out in my memories: Making a huge leap of confidence on that Sunday morning in 1985 when I realized I had improvisation skills. In high school, performing for the first time as a singer/pianist and realizing that experiencing this combination was to be one of the great loves of my life. Launching a dozen new arrangements for a gospel choir...comprised mostly of Korean singers, no less...and liking what I heard.

And now, a new one.

I had the great joy of sitting back in my chair and listening to the realization of my new single-movement piece for string quartet, The Journey Forward.

It felt like giving birth. To have nurtured this child for many months - pouring over every gesture, note and articulation - to hand it over to capable hands to present it to the audience.

It was a profoundly happy moment for me.

The conception of this experience began with the friendship made with Dutch composer Andre Douw. He mentioned to me in September of last year that he was planning to premiere in March of '08 a string quartet he wrote, and would I be interested in writing something for quartet as well?

I decided to expand an 8-bar motive I had played around with when living in Los Angeles and see what I came up with. After countless hours of writing, re-writing, sculpting, hemming and hawing, the end result was this piece.

When hearing it, it's hard not to notice the influence of the French composers from a century ago. Especially Ravel, when it comes to string quartet writing. Both as a listener and performer, the harmonic colors from this chapter in musical history make my favorite kind of palette: One that is both classical and modern. Dramatic and non-emotional. Sitting comfortably within the realm of tonal expectations but at the same time, happy to challenge the ears here and there.

In this piece, these notions of push and pull were my guides. And the steady stream of information that pushes it forward (thanks in great part to Inger - the first violinist in the quartet- who helped put it into words) is what gave me the name.

Andre's piece, Against That Time, he wrote in dedication to his parents who have died in recent years. He wrote the 3-movement piece as a style study from the years surrounding his parent's births, emulating the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern from the '30s. The structure and "language" of the piece is influenced by Shakespeare's sonnet No. 49, which begins with the same words of the title.

The evening was full of variety...from a short film score-esque piece that I wrote to begin the night, to a few arrangements I wrote for quartet, piano and voice (including a Grieg piece I prepared in honor of a special Norwegian guest who flew in for the performance). Then, Andre's piece, which is challenging both for the quartet to play and the audience to hear, with a non-tonal approach and relatively extreme techniques on the instruments. And ending with my little epic.

As ever, the audience displayed champion amounts of flexibility (I have developed the luxury of expecting it from them), and it was another beautiful night of music, eating, drinking, and friendship on the Herengracht.

Andre's encouragement and my commitment to work on a "serious" piece opened up a new world of musical experience for me. And I couldn't be more grateful.

Here's a little slice. There are a few unwanted squeaks and pitch discrepancies here and there. But given the time they had to pull it together, the quartet did a great job capturing the essence.

I'll post more on my upcoming website when I launch it this summer.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Roll over, Sarah and Abraham...

Last week, an Indian friend of mine (who is married to a Dutch man and has been living in Amsterdam for a few decades) celebrated her 50th birthday...her Sarah birthday.

She told me that there is a saying here that when one turns 50, they have "seen Sarah," or Abraham, if it's a man's birthday. Cards for 50th birthdays often have caricatures of these lovable elderly folk from the Old Testament.

As the story from long ago goes, after decades of pleading with the heavens to become pregnant and start a family, Abraham and Sarah, at age 100 and 90 respectively, miraculously conceive and begin their lives as parents. (For the sake of keeping on track with the point of this tradition, I'll leave out the part where Abraham, at the feisty age of 86, decided to give it a go with his slave-girl Hagar, which ended up giving lucky runner-up Sarah an illegitimate son. Talk about tabloid fodder. Or tablet fodder, as the case would've been.)

Anyway, morally questionable decisions about extra-marital activities aside, Sara and Abraham are celebrated as symbols of wisdom. The implication being that, if you have been around long enough to have seen Sarah or Abraham, then you should be celebrated as an asset to society because you are seasoned and wise.

What a paradigm. What a concept. As opposed to being greeted by black ribbons, gravestones and gift certificates to Jenny Craig, those walking into Decade #6 in this neck of the woods are thanked for having made it thus far so that society can benefit from their knowledge.

(Okay...all Americans on three.......1.....2.....HUH?!?!?!)

Could it be possible to yearn for aging? To consider every year an accomplishment, and that the accompanying pounds and wrinkles are simply additional proof? What a contradiction to the notion that the world belongs to the young. It seems like one often has a sense of an approaching deadline or expiration date if you no longer have the body of a 20 year old. There is an urgency - driven by ambition or by enterprise or by the fear of missing an unspoken deadline - to have accomplished things by certain ages. And if those things don't happen within the time frame, one might feel some kind of remorse or failure. I know first hand that for actors and, to a great extent, musicians in LA, there's often a belief that if you haven't "made it" by the time you're 35, your chances of being discovered are going to decrease with each passing year.

Time is the enemy.

Forgive me if I'm placing a cynical filter over things. But I myself had some kind of internal list that I had hoped to have completed before my 30th birthday. Some of which happened, some of it didn't.

And some of it did actually happen, but I just didn't recognize it at the time.

I don't know if it's a Holland thing, an Amsterdam thing, or a European thing in general, but where we live right now is a place that is nearly void of personal expectations aside from being a good citizen and a responsible neighbor. Beyond the basic fundamental implications of the Golden Rule, one can live as they please without condemnation. To march to the beat of any drummer willing to play for them.

This includes expectations of when (or even if) to marry, to have children, or at what age one must stop doing things. There are 80-year-old women in our neighborhood who are in better shape than I am, having walked or biked for all of their daily needs for the greater part of a century. Truly, Amsterdammers in their twilight years are a hearty bunch.

Right or wrong, there is no rush to be the biggest, the best, the greatest, all before the first grey hair grows. And there's no shame in showing your colors as a person upwards of fifty years old. It only makes sense that the wisest and most experienced people in society will be ones to listen to.

All this being said, it wasn't completely surprising to me that the original Hoochie Koochie Man, the one who Hails Rock and Roll each morning for breakfast...Mr. Chuck Berry brought the Heineken Music Hall and its 5000+ audience members to their knees last night in a sold-out performance.

He played his guitar just like ringing a bell.

Nearly 82 years old, Chuck Berry proved himself again as an eternal teenager. Every lick, every move, every lyric celebrated wisdom in such a joyful way, you hardly even noticed you were getting schooled by the Yoda of Rock and Roll. a few beats were skipped. And certain chords and melodies were unarguably microtonal.

But to dance and sing an hour long set up there. To experience the ecstasy of playing rock and roll with other players (one of whom is his only son, Chuck Jr.). To make a joke about a tempo...saying it sounded like a the thunderous applause of the audience. To dance his famous one-legged hop across the stage while singing about his (ahem) Ding-a-Ling. All of this in what looked like the body of a 25 year old, cloaked in a spangly red shirt befitting only a legend.

Can this really be the stuff of our 80s?!

Damn straight, it can.

Here's a giant salute to all the Sarah and Abrahams in our midst. To those who boldly go before us as examples of not only wisdom, but of the joy and celebration that can go with the journey.

I'll see you guys at Madison Square Garden in 2056.