I formed String Power in May, 2007, shortly after moving to Brooklyn. A friend I had known at U.C. Berkeley, Jody Redhage (an excellent cellist and composer), had moved to New York several years before and she introduced me to some great string players. We played together in a string section on a concert with a jazz ensemble led by the great trombonist/composer Alan Ferber at the Tea Lounge. Playing in the section was so enjoyable I thought it would be great to have an ensemble of just string players to highlight the many different sounds, textures and stylistic possibilities in string music. A year prior to moving to Berkeley I put on a concert of my more experimental music featuring the groups I worked with between 2002 and 2006. While the concert was well received, I did get a vitriolic response in the form of a hate mail letter from someone named Brad. I later set Brad’s letter to music and we did several great performances of that piece- Your (so called) ‘Music’ - with String Power and my friend and great spoken word artist Lee Todd Lacks. As much as I hate to admit it, Brad’s letter was influential in my decision to start an ensemble that would be closer to pop music than experimental music. I wanted to draw on all the music that I loved- funk, folk, country, jazz, tango, in addition to classical and experimental music. My original intent was to compose all original music for the group, which drew on these influences. My housemate, Krista, had an amazing CD collection and she was generous enough to let me listen to it. As I sampled various CD’s it occurred to me it would make more sense to transcribe and arrange this music. I figured I could learn more from the process of doing this and perhaps down the road some elements of this music might organically find it’s way into my own composition.
I had been, and continue, to deal with a bit of an artistic (and probably more than just artistic) identity crisis. I wrote a music theater piece about it called This is the Real Me. I call it a distilled opera. Gelsey Bell has done amazing performances of this and my goal is to, at some point, fine tune that score and get it out in the world for other people to perform. As I grow older this identity crisis has started to work itself out. The reality of course is that we are always changing.
I remember back at Berkeley, my friend and professor Catherine Bergeron introduced me to a highly successful young jazz musician she knew. She mentioned the various things I do (compose, play jazz piano, fiddle music, classical music, etc.) and his response was “oh, a dabbler.” I took offense to that dismissive response. But it is true. I’ve dabbled in a lot of things but never really focused all of my energy into one project. Until now.
It started out when my friend violist and original member of String Power Megan Berson, posted an old video of String Power on Facebook last year. It was around that point that I was realizing I needed to just choose one project and really do it. And, after Megan’s post, I realized that String Power was the one project that I felt was strongest and had the most traction. So I went about booking another gig, back at the Tea Lounge, for April. The response to the group was great. Especially rewarding was the fact that the staff of the Tea Lounge enjoyed it. That, to me, says a lot because they are not just there by choice, and they of course, hear a lot of music every night of the week. So we were asked by the booker to do a residency there starting in the fall. This was a huge confidence boost for me. We then played twice a month from September to December when, sadly, the Tea Lounge went out of business. But during that time the group really solidified.
Being a group of professional musicians, schedules change and if the opportunity for a well paying gig comes, we have to take that as opposed to a pass the hat gig at a café, no matter how great the vibe at that café might be. So String Power really is a pool of about 30 or so string players who I draw from for any given performance. Despite that reality, there was enough consistency in the line-up throughout the fall to build up a solid group dynamic. This is what made String Power into a cohesive group, rather than a pick-up group. This cohesion is what really inspired me to take the ensemble to the next level and finally record a CD.
So what is String Power? A novelty/parody act? A vehicle for the performance of my compositions? A jazz string ensemble?
It’s some combination of all those. We have arrangements like Raining Blood (by Slayer) which I would put closer to the novelty act category. I don’t mean to disparage Slayer at all, but the fact of a group of classical musicians playing Raining Blood has an element of humor to it. That being said, I do hope to capture some of the real vibe of that music and not some sort of pristine classical version. I wasn’t familiar with Slayer at all actually. I believe it was a record store proprietor who suggested that Raining Blood would work well with a string group. And it means lot to me that people who are more familiar with Slayer, who perhaps grew up with Slayer, have expressed their approval of the arrangement. It has something to do with not being too precise- and going all out with the force. It’s the “power” in String Power, afterall. But still, I would put this tune in the Parody category.
I would also put our Boogie Wonderland arrangement in that category. It seems to be one of our biggest hits. And one of our regular listeners at the Tea Lounge expressed particular enthusiasm for this one. And he wasn’t familiar with the original Earth, Wind and Fire version. It really is an excellent piece of music with all kinds of interesting compositional things going on in it. And Earth, Wind of Fire of course was made up of some of the top studio musicians and arrangers in the country. And it does work very well with strings. I was a bit disappointed when the contract wedding band I was working for played Boogie Wonderland. The instrumentation was closer to the original, but I think that was about the only difference.
I wanted String Power to have a different feel than a wedding band or one of the many “String Quartet plays [insert genre here]” CD’s out there. Those are great- but there is something generic, or interchangeable about them. What, then, sets String Power apart?
For this CD, I wanted to select material that had more layers, more meaning to it. The arrangement that means the most to me is Charles Mingus’s Fables of Faubus.
FABLES OF FAUBUS
Mingus recorded many versions of this tune. The first was a slick version on Ah-um (on Columbia Records). This is probably the one that most people are familiar with. The next version, actually called “The Original Faubus Fables” (on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, on the independent Candid Label), had lyrics to it and, to me, has a more immediate, visceral quality. There is some debate as to whether the lyrics were originally intended to be included on the first version. There is a possibly apocryphal story about Columbia considering the lyrics too controversial. It is certainly plausible. I would say that if executives at Columbia Records were aware of Mingus’s lyrics they most certainly would consider them too controversial.
Fables of Faubus was written in response to the events of September 4, 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus called in the National Guard to prevent integration of Little Rock Central High School. This was three years after the U.S. Supreme Court (in Brown v. Board of Education) declared segregation unconstitutional. The lyrics being with “Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us.” Sadly, the message is still very relevant today.
It was the story of the first two recordings of this piece that inspired me to make this arrangement. It was also the fact that this is a satirical piece. Parody and satire are similar, of course, but satire makes a comment on society as a whole whereas parody is more of a straight imitation for humor value. Mingus’s Faubus does have humorous elements. The very corny and square way the second, higher theme (to the words “Name me some one who’s ridiculous”) is presented is (to my ears, anyway) making fun of Faubus and people like him. And the musical responses to this (under the the words “Governor Faubus”) are also funny- when I hear them I imagine someone thumbing their nose or making fart noises. But the message of course goes way beyond humor. The song is really about the realities of racial prejudice that Mingus and the members of his band had to face every day of their lives.
While it would make no sense for us to actually sing the lyrics, I wanted the arrangement, and our performance of it, to reflect our frustration that not nearly enough has changed in the 55 years since Mingus wrote it.
Of course the lyrics are the most obvious difference in Mingus’s first two Faubus recordings. But even without the singing, I hear a sense of urgency, purpose and a certain kind of looseness that serves (rather than detracts from) the music in the second recording of Faubus that I don’t hear as much in the first, slicker major-label version. I am aiming for a similar sense of immediacy with String Power. Mingus and his band were all superb musicians, of course. The looseness I am referring to is an intentional looseness. For example, the way Eric Dolphy articulates the musical responses with over-the-top slides and vibrato.
This is also apparent in Mingus’s conception of swing (detailed in his book Beneath the Underdog) where you imagine the beat as the center of a circle and the notes don’t have to fall exactly in the center of the circle but can land anywhere inside it. This is something I think about a lot. This conception of the beat is evident in all of Mingus’s recordings, but it might be true that in the second version of Faubus the “beat circles” are a little bigger than in the first. The challenge for us in String Power is to still know where the center of the circle is and feel that together even if we choose to place our notes within the larger circle.
It’s a fine line to walk between being precise enough to honor the music and yet not so precise as to detract from vitality and the original intent and meaning of it. I just hope that our version of this piece makes musical sense and that we can do this piece, and the great tradition of Mingus, justice.
MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN
I had heard of the 70’s cult TV show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman over the years but I got hooked on it after reading an article about its executive producer Norman Lear and finding episodes on youtube. The show has been described as a soap opera parody but is more in the realm of satire, full of biting critical commentary on the role of television in society (interestingly for a TV show), the role and perceptions of women and much more. It works as a straight soap opera, with engaging plot lines and cliff-hangers that draw the audience in, but it is full of subtle satirical touches as well. Although never a huge hit during its two seasons on the air, it received critical acclaim from the beginning of its run. The theme song features a lush violin melody that is perfectly suited to a soap opera. It is called “Premier Occasion” and was written in 1965 by British composer Robert Charles Kingston, whose pen name was Barry White (not to be confused with Barry White of disco fame). Kingston wrote music for production libraries so it was probably not written for any specific purpose but was selected by the show’s producers. There is a great duo version of this song by Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden on the album Soapsuds. They incorporate the tones of Mary Hartman’s mother whining “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” which is heard in the show’s opening, just before the music begins. Sammy Davis, Jr. also does a version but it is more a song about Mary Hartman that includes just a few bars of the opening before it goes into something entirely different.
In transcribing this sappy theme I actually found quite a few interesting harmonic touches and countermelodies. Some of these have found their way into my violin concerto. We play the Mary Hartman theme relatively straight and then we ham it up quite a bit the second time through with a lot of slides and wide vibrato. I’m currently working on some other ways to stretch out the theme to reflect the spirit of the TV show.
I wrote my first violin concerto 20 years ago when I was a senior at Tufts University. Now that I am approaching middle age, I figured it was a good time to take stock of everything that’s happened to me musically and find a way to incorporate some of that into a violin concerto. Since I’ve been making my living mostly by playing solo on subway platforms for the last six years, my technique has grown in some ways and faltered in others. I’ve also gained more of an appreciation for catchy melodies. My tone, I think, has gotten much fuller, my approach to phrasing has gotten more subtle and I am able to get people’s attention better than I ever have, partly out of necessity. My technical precision would probably benefit more from being alone in a practice room for the number of hours I spend on subway platforms. My intent with the concerto is partly to play to my strengths as a violinist and also to fine-tune some of my technique that’s fallen by the wayside. But most importantly, it’s to find some answers as to what exactly it is that I want to say musically.
My original idea with String Power was to seek out the elements of music that I truly loved and find a way to incorporate them into a musical voice that I could call my own. Having spent the last 7 years arranging and playing music that had an immediate appeal to me and to my largely subway platform and café audience, I want to take these basic building blocks of music- clear, concise, memorable ideas; energetic, propulsive rhythmic drive; melodies that draw in and engage the listener, full rich harmonies; using the most resonant parts of the instruments, etc. All of this is pretty standard fare. No real ground-breaking ideas here. Then there is of course, intentionally not doing any of that; perhaps using the highest note of the cello for a particular effect etc.. There are infinite possibilities in all of this of course, that is the whole point. But at this moment, I like the idea of using these standard aesthetic choices as jumping off points. I also like getting deep into to the characteristics of these styles of music that I love so much- the articulations, the rhythmic feel etc. In the process of writing this concerto I am searching for what it is that is exceptional about my approach to composing.
I was listening to WQXR the other day and a very pretty piece of newly composed music came on. The composer (I believe) is also a director of programming for the BBC. But as I listened I wondered, is this all that this piece is going to do? Is this just a beautiful, not particularly interesting, piece of music? Will there be any conflict or drama? Will an opposing theme come in? Will there be some kind of ironic treatment of this theme? Some kind a wink and nod? Will this opposing theme comment on this beautiful and bland music somehow? And these things I was expecting are nothing new at all- this is, to a large degree, what classical music does. To me, this piece I heard on the radio reminded me of the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman theme in that it was just what it was, the whole time. I imagine that the Mary Hartman composer wrote that kind of music purely for money; and this composer’s authentic style would have been much different. Otherwise, he would not have used a pen name. So, although I don’t make any money from anything String Power does, I think of Boogie Wonderland and Raining Blood as sort of one dimensional, parody pieces that perhaps I might write for money. That being said, I enjoyed writing the arrangements and I enjoy playing them. I’m just not sure that is how I want to represent myself- at least not on a debut CD.
So I wrote some sketches for this concerto. I wanted to write concise, one-minute pieces that could work as a set or even on their own. My main goal was to make them memorable and with clear beginnings and endings. And I wanted the ideas to be concrete and something I could build on and stretch out when I write the concerto.
The first is a sort of romantic ballad, or perhaps a lullaby. I was flattered that a friend of mine’s baby (the same friend, Megan, who initially posted about String Power and got me started thinking about this group again) enjoyed this one. I wanted to write a lush theme. I improvised some things on the violin and came up with something I thought worked. I realized that the opening few notes are not too far from Ellington’s I Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good, that familiarity is probably why I liked it so much. The rest of it sticks pretty close to a descending scale but skips around, mostly in 6ths. When I set out to write the accompanying parts I ended up coming up with jazz harmonies peppered with the requisite ninths, sharp 11ths, 13ths etc., and then arranging the string parts from there. I also altered the theme to make it a bit more interesting after adding these more colorful harmonies. It was challenging to make the accompanying lines work because the melody skips around so much. I also wasn’t sure which rules to follow- I could probably get away with parallel 5ths in this scenario- my main concern is that it sounds full and nothing sticks out in an awkward way or detracts from the main theme. I was quite satisfied with the end result. I was less satisfied with my own slightly out of tune playing on our first performance- but that will improve. I ended up with something similar to the piece I heard on the radio. A pretty - perhaps too smooth - little ballad. The difference will come next- when the ballad gets twisted around and has some adventures.
For the second sketch, I wanted to make use of all the slides and articulations that I use when I play fiddle music. I called it “High Lonesome,” a title I’ve wanted to use for a long time. The term refers specifically to bluegrass musician Bill Monroe’s voice. I came up with something that is really just a stringing together of some stock-phrases in blues and perhaps bluegrass music (whose roots are in blues music, after all). There’s a call and response section in the beginning. At one point I have the bass play one little phrase by itself. I wanted to see what would happen if I took one phrase and put a kind of frame around it, I wanted that one little phrase to acquire a significance that it wouldn’t have if it just appeared as part of the bass line. The great bassist Ken Filiano was gracious enough to join us for our last performance and he of course played it excellently. It’s just a little bluesy line, meant to be played with a heavy, sliding blues feel. I am more interested what is between the notes, the articulation, the feel. Notes themselves are less interesting. And in this piece that is especially true.
What I like about music by composers like Webern and George Crumb is how much significance there is in the tiniest phrases. I’m trying to get to that significance of the phrase- of even one note; to make every sound matter and have meaning. Of course a note does not have any meaning by itself but the context and how it is played are what give it meaning.
There’s a whole argument about meaning. What do I mean by meaning? is it mean to mean meaning? Is meaning mean? What is the mean meaning of this meaning?
What I mean by meaning here is significance. I guess I’ve been using those terms interchangeably. You can repeat something and give it meaning. Someone I know was mentioning a jazz solo where the same idea was repeated over and over and acquired more and more meaning each time. Or I suppose if something stands out- maybe is only heard once- but is memorable. Then that is another way a sound can have meaning. Or it can have meaning if you associate it with something else- either another piece of music, or a memory- an association you might have with a piece of music- or a fragment of a piece of music- or a particular musical style, or the hint of a musical style. All of these things trigger neurons in the brain.
When I play in the subway or at Yellowstone National Park during the summers, I get a lot of requests. When people request songs from musicals, I often imagine they associate that song with an entire set of memories, perhaps going to the show with loved ones, the experience of the show itself, the singers and the costumes and everything, the atmosphere of the theater and perhaps even the whole evening or even the whole trip if it was, for example, a trip to New York. When I hear “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks, I remember my trip to New York with my parents when I was 8, the experience of the dinner theater, seeing the musical and the whole trip. So who I am I to judge people for wanting to relive happy memories by hearing a favorite song? But of course playing requests at a hotel in a National Park is completely different than composing a violin concerto. But I am still trying to find a way to relate these things. I want to compose with an awareness of this effect that music can have on people’s memories. I wanted to start with the basic building blocks of music that is associated with certain styles- hence the writing of a jazz ballad and a bluesy, bluegrassy number.
Again, this sort of approach is nothing new at all. Nearly all composers have at least at some point incorporated folk and popular music. Bartok and Charles Ives are two examples. The hymns and folk tunes Ives used had very specific meanings for him, of course, and the experience of hearing these familiar tunes is powerful. Even if you don’t recognize the tune but only the style, it cannot help but influence your experience of listening because the brain latches on to what it recognizes.
On the other hand, part of me thinks it is less artistically valid to consider the associations the music has. It is far more noble, and of a higher moral standard, to view music only as sound. John Cage often talked about the liberation of sound. He says (I'm paraphrasing here) “can we please just let sounds be themselves without forcing them to tell stories or be beholden to our own little personal histories.” But when I listen to John Cage’s music- even the music generated by the I-Ching or astrological charts, I can’t shake the friendly image of John Cage, the endearing fellow with a quirky sense of humor, going on the talk shows and playing an amplified cactus and so on. In my brain, the neurons connected to John Cage the person fire when I hear John Cage’s music. Which is exactly what he didn’t want. Or at least he said he didn’t want this. He wanted to take the ego out of composition entirely.
I was watching a video about coaching chamber music that I found at my Mom’s house (she is a cellist). One of coaching tips the woman gives is to discuss the historical context of the music and what was going on in the life of the composer at the time of the piece’s composition. Does the fact of Beethoven’s deafness influence the way you play his late String Quartets? In music appreciation class, we of course learn all about the historical context of the music. This is part of the way we “appreciate” music. All of this gives the music more meaning (or significance) in our minds. When I hear a piece of orchestra music that I played, I associate it with all the memories of rehearsing and performing that piece. That’s as much a part of the enjoyment of the piece as the sound of the music itself. I’m not even sure that is something I should admit as a composer.
In the process of doing this album I have connected everything in my mind. I posted photos of my Mom and me as a child, posing with our instruments. I posted photos of myself in my high school chamber orchestra and playing in violin ensembles at my violin recitals. These experiences really did influence String Power so it’s not just that I was using cute photos to try and convince people to contribute to my Indiegogo campaign. And of course when it comes down to it, what matters by far the most really is the sound of the music itself. But still, to me at this moment, I’m thinking of all of it, my whole musical life, the experience of playing with String Power over the past 7 years and particularly the last 5 months in our residencies at the Tea Lounge and our recent and upcoming performances at Branded Saloon (complete with a portrait of a bull and the sounds of people playing pool downstairs) – all of it is context in my mind. And I somehow want to include it all in this album.