Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The first 11 months

I intended to start blogging soon after I moved here from Seattle in March. So this first blog is going to be a long one, to sum up the first 11 months here. I moved here, like countless others, to enrich myself and be an active participant in New York's artistic community. It's not one community of course but hundreds. And often communities intersect in surprising ways and sometimes they clash. I play a wide variety of music; one night I might play with a punk rock band, the next night a string quartet, and then maybe experimental music for Butoh dance. I had been hearing about the trend in NYC of musicians spanning diverse musical worlds. This is becoming more and more normal and, I admit, I was a bit dismayed to find out just how un-unique I am. But I do think that being versatile and open minded is a healthy approach to music and to life and that there is room in the world for more than one jazz/rock/classical/country/experimental violinist/pianist/composer.

I stayed first with my friends Matt and Adam who live in South Park Slope. Matt and I went to a club about block from their apartment called Lola's. At about one in the morning they have a Latin band playing there that is absolutely amazing. All the members are in Salsa bands and have well paying gigs every Saturday. They come to Lola's afterhours to really play. It was the some of the most powerful music I have ever heard. There were three trombonists, one looked like he was a student of one of the others, all of the traditional percussion instruments and rhythm section. And they played with vitality and intensity. Part of it came, I believe, from the fact that these guys really wanted to be there. This was for themselves and their friends at the bar. This was not a wedding or club gig. Matt and I were the only white people and definitely outsiders. We really did not belong but they tolerated us. I did not feel uncomfortable although I got a few questioning looks. But the music was so great it obliterated any discomfort I might have felt.

In April I played my first gig in New York at the Beacon Theatre with Guster. I arranged some string parts for my cellist friend Jody and I to play. It was sold out- about 3,000 people each night. Needless to say it's all downhill from there. I doubt I will be playing to that many people again unless I play another show with Guster! I went to college with the guys in that band and played on their first record. They've spent the last 15 years touring across the country so they have really worked to build the following that they have.

I found a great apartment on Craigslist with a backyard and a cool roomate with a terrific CD collection; she used to work for a big record label. I spent a lot of May listening to her CD's and transcribing and arranging the music for string orchestra. Everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Charles Mingus to The Carter Family to Slayer (that CD I actually bought myself).

I also spent May busking with Matt on congas. We played all over the city. It is so satisfying to get appreciative feedback from people on the street walking by on their way to work and not expecting musicians to be there. You really know that you are affecting people because you can see the looks on their faces. Often they thank you. There is do doubt, when this happens, that you are doing something positive.

I spent June to August in Connecticut as head of music at Buck's Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp. This is a place where kids can be in a musical, make ceramic bowls, paint, blow glass or just hang out on the lawn. The most rewarding part of that job, for me, was working with the orchestra. These were kids who really wanted to be there doing exactly what we were doing. We worked on the Bach Double and Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusic every day. Not very adventurous programming on my part. But really working on those pieces every day for a few weeks solidified the music. And it never got boring. I worked with some really great kids there who were totally dedicated and genuinely loved what they were doing. And they actually took advantage of everything the camp had to offer- they were just as motivated to work in the batik or painting shop. I will never forget one day we were rehearsing pit band for the musical. The band was mostly music staff who by this point in the summer were completely sick of playing in the pit band. But we had a couple of very motivated campers. One day our violinist, Halley, had gotten a nasty bug bite on her eye and she still showed up to rehearsal. She had an ice pack for her eye and she had to lean her head back to keep the ice on her eye and look at the music with her other eye. Now that is dedication!

In the fall I got the string group together and we performed my arrangements at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. It was difficult to get all 11 people in the same place for a rehearsal. But all things considered it went very well. The day after that I started working for a music contractor playing violin and piano for upscale weddings in Manhattan and Long Island on the weekends. This is a Union job so I joined Local 802. All of the new union members sign a giant book in the office. I felt very much a part of history putting my name in the same book as all of those famous musicians who have played in New York. I wanted to flip through the pages and see if I could see any famous names. Of course, they're probably in a different book.

Playing these wedding gigs, called "club dates," is a very interesting experience. It is quite old fashioned having live musicians playing showtunes and other popular melodies as background music for the cocktail hour. It's encouraging that at least there are a few instances where live musicians haven't been replaced by a DJ. Everything must be memorized. We usually have two violins (myself and the leader of the group), saxophone, and piano. It is an interesting intersection of musical communities. Sandra is usually the leader when I play and she is an excellent Juilliard trained violinist who has years of experience as a concert violinist as well as a club date musician. She prefers we stick to the music as it was originally written whereas the jazz musicians we play with take much more liberties with the tune itself and then take solos. This conflict of approaches is as old as jazz itself. Many jazz musicians made their living playing shows where they had to stick to the chart and then afterhours were free to play their own music. Given a chance, for example playing background music at a cocktail party, any jazz musician would take the opportunity to make up their own notes as opposed to playing someone elses. But most people at a cocktail party, if they are listening to the music at all, would probably prefer hearing a recognizable tune. It's not only the tunes themselves but the style they are played in- there is a specific performance tradition for these older standards and showtunes, and Sandra is interested in preserving that by playing this music as it was originally intended to be heard.

The most memorable gig for me was not a wedding but a 70th Anniversary Party on Long Island. It was so moving seeing this couple in their 90's who were so full of energy and all of their kids (in their 70's), grandkids, great and great-great grandkids all celebrating this amazing couple. I played in the band this time. A traditional big band line up with two violins added. It used to be quite common to have a string section with a band. It was especially meaningful to play this kind of music for these people because this is the music they were listening to at the time they were married. Although the husband said for their wedding they hired a local violin teacher who played Flight of the Bumblebee! He said that was a little hard to dance to.

I have attended several great new music concerts. One was a group called Anti-Social music playing the music of composer Pat Muchmore. That was exactly the kind of vibe I like for a new music concert. It was downstairs at a Ukrainian restaurant. The music was varied, challenging and full of vitality. The musicians were excellent- I'll never forget the intense look on the violinist's face- she was fully in the music. And the vibe was very laid back yet the audience was listening intently and absorbing the music.
I saw Elliott Carter's opera What Next? He is celebrating his 100th birthday this year. Much of his music is dramatic and the instruments take on roles like characters in a play, so it made a lot of sense for him to finally compose an opera. Each character had a specific style that they sang in. I am intrigued by this approach- although it's not new, Mozart did the same thing. I like the idea of taking that even further by writing roles for singers from completely different traditions- Broadway, rock, opera, folk, for example. Carter's music, though atonal, is singable and memorable. I even heard someone humming one of the motives on their way out of the theater- although this may have been an orchestra member. I also attended a concert of George Crumb's music. It was practically sold out. He was there and they had an informal interview with him. He is a very personable guy and also one of the most influential composers of the last 40 years. He said that most of the music he hears live these days is other pieces on concerts of his music. I guess he attends a lot of concerts of his own music. Other than that he said he listens to the classical radio station. I thought that was interesting that he isn't out there absorbing new music every second. I go through different phases of listening myself. Sometimes I really get into something and other times I will barely listen to any music for months at a time. One of his pieces was an arrangement of folk songs where the singer sang the songs in a very traditional style and the ensemble's accompaniment was more like Crumb's other music. So that the composition really happened around the melodies. I thought maybe the singer was actually a folk singer, but reading her bio I saw that she is a highly accomplished singer who teaches at the Manhattan School and specializes in contemporary music.

I am taking this time to try out new things in music. I have scored a couple of short student films. And I am writing music for two musicals. All of these opportunites I got through Craigslist. There is always someone who needs a composer so it is not hard to find work, although ot all of it pays well, or at all. I have met some very talented interesting people in the process. The experience of actually writing a musical, even if the style is not really my own, is an unbeatable way to learn how to write for theatre. And I am willing to write in any style. Ultimately I want to find my own voice as a composer. In some ways anything I write is going to be my style since it's me writing it, but I have yet to really hit on music that I feel is 100% me. I am also playing all kinds of music. Some of it at churches, some at museums, some in subways, some at tiny clubs in the lower east side- some of it improvised, some of it notated and much of it somewhere in between.