Hike-in musical event

September 28, 2014

This morning eight William Paterson University students joined me on my first hike-in musical event.  I’ve been dreaming of doing this for some time and it was every bit as rewarding as I thought it would be.  The premise is simple: hike somewhere with some folks, stop and make music, then hike back.  Here we are in the parking lot:

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Some of these students are in in my Indian Music class, and the others heard about it and decided to join us.  All of them are smart, hard working, and creative.  We talked as we walked, about a forty-minute hike to the top of High Mountain.  They asked me all manner of questions about music, practicing, and life, which I answered as best I could.  I also asked them questions about their lives, which are varied and interesting.  As a professor I am by definition in the business of being a leader and a role model for these young talents, but it’s a position that strangely makes me uncomfortable.  As I go deeper and deeper into music my feeling of humility grows ever stronger.  Although it’s true I’ve built a good career for myself and had many professional experiences that are worth sharing with my students, in some sense that is all superficial.  The real core of music is as mysterious to me now as it was thirty years ago when I embarked on this path.  What do I really know?  Only that I love music as much as ever, and am grateful to be on this journey.

So we hiked.  The weather was gorgeous.  The fall colors shimmered in the slight breeze.  We found a good pace that worked for everyone and soon enough we were at the top of the mountain.  We made ourselves comfortable on a big rock and got underway.  I brought a drone box up to serve as the tanpura, and also a nice silk kurta to complete the picture:

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I sang Raag Todi, one of the most powerful and deep ragas of North Indian Hindustani music.  I sang it in the traditional Dhrupad style, with alaap, jor, jhala, and then the bandish (composition).  The text for the composition was most appropriate.  It’s a very old one about the mystery of music and how people who say they know a lot about music don’t actually know much at all.

I found I was a little nervous.  It took some time for me to calm down and get my voice stable, but the breeze helped smooth things out a bit.  You miss some nuance when you’re not under the microphone, but it’s also a bit more comfortable and less exposed.

As I explored Todi the sun grew ever higher in the sky.  The students could see New York City from their vantage point.  I had my eyes closed most of the time, but when I opened them I noticed that they were attentive and seemed at peace.  Dhrupad is very natural in many ways.  Combining it with natural settings amplifies its power.

After I finished we discussed the raga for a few minutes and then headed back down.  Again we talked and again I was impressed with how committed they are to a life in music.  They know it’s not easy, but they also know that creative music is as important to the human condition as air, water, and sunlight.  It was a wonderful morning; one I will never forget.  I’m honored to have shared it with such extraordinary young people.  The future of creative music bright indeed.

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The Dhrupad Mela is a four-day festival of Dhrupad in Varanasi, U.P., India, usually held in late February around Shiv Ratri.  2014 marked its 39th year.  The concerts start around 7:00 p.m. and go until about 7:00 a.m. the next morning.  They are held under a tent by Tulsi Ghaat, one of the centers of the city, right on the river.

Varanasi is pretty intense.  There is a magical energy to the place, and it has been a bastion of Indic culture and intellectual achievement for millennia, but it is has fallen into serious disrepair in recent years.  The city has a horrendous rubbish problem and the roads are crowded and dirty, with the usual Indian panoply of animals, humans, and vehicles. 

The tent for the Dhrupad Mela holds about 200 people and at times it was jam packed.  Since it is a mela there are different levels of musicians.  None of them were rank beginners, but there were plenty of intermediate-level performers.  While listening to them wasn’t inspiring, it was educational, and I was glad for the opportunity.  The issues that I’m struggling with in my own singing were often on display and it was helpful for me to hear them from outside my body.

Dhrupad is a small field and there are very few performers working at a high level.  As far as male singers go, my gurus the Gundecha Brothers and a handful of others are singing at the highest level.  I heard several other big-name Pandits and Ustads at the Mela but they were horribly out of tune, their voice culture was flimsy, and they were distracted and unfocused.  That’s a big problem for this music.  In the Western classical tradition if a bad orchestra butchers a Beethoven symphony at least Beethoven is lurking in the background; at least there is an incredible work of art in there somewhere.  But with Dhrupad the responsibility is 100% on the performer to maintain every aspect of the artistry, and the most fundamental parameter is singing in tune with the tanpura.  When that is gone, nothing remains but mannerism.  I heard a lot of Dhrupad mannerism, but precious little Dhrupad.

The audience was 90% foreigners, and most of them were young, counter-culture “hippies”.  I’ll explore that phenomenon in another post, but it was interesting to see how few Indians were there. 

Despite how enjoyable the Mela was in many respects, the infrastructure for the venue was poor.  The presenters had put up thin sheets as a “roof”.  When it started raining the second night the sheets immediately soaked through and water started dripping vigorously onto the audience.  We moved around to try to find dry spots, but it was fruitless and after about twenty minutes of this the audience largely cleared out.  Those who stayed were herded into a building in the back where we could stay dry and still see and hear the performers, but the connection with the artists was lost.  Add to this the constant noise of Hindi pop music blaring from neighboring houses, car horns, fireworks (for Shiv Ratri), dogs and monkeys running around the venue, garbage littering the venue, including near the stage, etc., and I felt badly for the artists.  It’s sad to see an artist of the caliber of Uday Bhalwalker having to perform in such sub-standard conditions.  I suspect some of this is partly because Dhrupad as a genre is still somewhat ghettoized compared to Khyal, but it was also largely just typical Varanasi/Indian lousy infrastructure.  As much as I love India and Indian music, I passionately hate the infrastructure problems here.  It is so depressing to see such a rich and deep culture held back so strongly by lack of basic infrastructure. 

The third night the presenters had made somewhat of an effort to offset the impending rain by putting up tarps.  However, they were full of big holes!  By 11:00 p.m. it again started raining heavily and within minutes there were rivers of water pouring through the holes.  The artist at that moment was shrieking away, completely out of tune, and I decided I had had enough.  I went back to my hotel and practiced for a bit and then listened to a recording of Gundecha Brothers.  I had an incredible mystical experience when listening to that recording, which I’ll discuss in the next blog.

Despite my kvetching, I’m very glad I attended the Mela.  I learned a great deal and when the weather was good I had some wonderful moments listening to the top artists.  I applaud the presenters for keeping it going.  I know from personal experience how much work it is to make something like this happen.  But they should work harder to find better financial backing in the future to produce a more professional environment.  The artists deserve better.

First Dhrupad performance

October 8, 2013

Last night I gave my first Dhrupad performance.  It was at a small house concert we organized.  Several of the neighborhood families came over.  They each brought some food and  drink.  Image

We gutted the dining room area and laid down a rug and pillows.  We lined the back walls with chairs for folks who preferred to sit up a bit more.

I sang alaap, jor, jhala in Rag Todi, as well as a composition I wrote that is based on a Walt Whitman poem.  The performance lasted about 25 minutes.  My friend Roman Das accompanied me on pakawaj.  He’s a fabulous player and a great person.  After I sang, one of my fellow Gurukul students also performed.  His name is Vic and though he’s much younger than I am at 23 years old, he’s been studying Dhrupad for four years and is thus a kind of senior student.  He gave a nice performance.

I felt a little keyed up before we started.  Even though it was just a casual house concert, I viewed it as a kind of “midterm” test for the last three months of work here in India.  I think I passed with good grades, though.  When I listened to the recording today I heard a lot of good things.  My voice has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year.  There is still much to do, but of course it’s infinite.

Our neighbors were just wonderful.  All of them have been so nice and welcoming.  Indian hospitality is alive and well here in Lake Pearl Spring and I’m honored to know them. Curiously, though, none of them knew anything about Dhrupad.  So there I was: a white man foreigner from Idaho, U.S.A., explaining the basics of this ancient Indian music to native Indians.  That’s the 21st Century for you!!

Jessica took pictures and managed the kids.  We put the little ones upstairs in front of a movie.  Nonetheless, there were frequent squabbles and crises.  All of which she managed with her characteristic grace and intelligence.

I’m looking forward to more performances down the road, but for the next few months it’s back in the woodshed for lots and lots of practicing.

working with JACK

November 7, 2011

Great gig last week with JACK Quartet in Iowa.  We premiered my new piece Tongues in Trees, which is about 18 minutes and is for dance.  Alan Sener choreographed it.  His dancers did a fabulous job.  We also made a recording of the piece and hope to release it soon.

It seems like almost every day I hear someone complain about how contemporary classical music has no audience. It’s true our audience is small compared to pop music. Even the top new music ensembles like So Percussion or Eighth Blackbird are only getting about 15,000 hits on YouTube. That’s not bad, but compared to 61 million hits for a Britney Spears track it’s small change. But our audience would be bigger if we worked harder at building it. Fortunately, there are some talented musicians doing just that.

Later this week on January 30 I’ll be playing with my dear friends in Alarm Will Sound. I’m a founding member of the ensemble and after 10 years I love it more than ever. We’re playing a concert on the Ecstatic Music Festival, curated by the talented Judd Greenstein. We’re sharing the stage with Face the Music, a collection of courageous teenagers. Pianist Jenny Undercofler and composer Huang Ruo founded the ensemble in 2005 with the mission of bringing great music to younger people. Since that time the group has played at reputable music festivals and played works by major composers like Michael Gordon and John Adams. We’ll be performing Steve Reich’s seminal Tehillim.

Face the Music isn’t the only group of youngsters creating new music. Pianist Katy Luo runs an annual concert called A4TY (Album for the Young), which includes a newly commissioned work by an established composer (I wrote one this past year, other composers have included Elliott Sharp, Caleb Burhans, and Dennis Desantis). The Blooomingdale School supports A4TY, providing students and rehearsal space. The great thing about the A4TY concert is that it includes works by most of the performing musicians, some only five years old!

That’s how you build an audience. From the ground up. Ms. Undercofler and Ms. Luo have realized that gimmicks don’t work. We can’t compete with the fancy light shows and sound systems that major pop acts carry with them. Neither do we have the advertising budget or the support of the popular media. What we can do is realize that young people like creative music, especially teenagers.

Think about it for a minute. The kids are going through a tumultuous period of their lives. Their bodies are changing, their sense of self is solidifying, and they are gradually leaving the nest and embarking upon adulthood. During this process most of them will experience anti-establishment feelings. The Man is school, parents, a flood of media images telling them that they aren’t thin enough, muscular enough, rich enough. What is more anti-establishment than contemporary classical music? It’s creative, committed, and radically individualistic, everything the establishment is not. If you really want to give the finger to The Man, what better way to do it than to throw down on some Steve Reich or Xenakis?

Furthermore, so much contemporary classical music is loud, intense, and amplified. Not so different than a lot of pop music. There is both an aural and a philosophical connection for these kids. With the right leadership, they have a way to channel their creativity and energy, as well as their anger and angst. Some of these kids will end up being professional musicians, but many of them will end up in other professions. But their experience in these ensembles will be enriching and will build a life-long interest in them for contemporary classical music. They will continue to attend concerts, bringing family and friends with them. Congratulations to Ms. Undercofler and Ms. Luo for building a bigger audience with integrity.

New Hampshire marimba tour

November 27, 2010

A quick, two-day Super Marimba tour of New Hampshire. First stop on November 21 was a concert at Dartmouth in Hanover. Doug Perkins hosted me and the concert was fabulous. Great turnout, especially from the community at large. Lots of elderly people and families with kids. I’m never sure what they’ll think when I build up giant walls of noisy distorted marimba sounds, but they loved it. Doug’s three-year-old son Jake was running around the whole time saying “Payton, I am an ice cream cone!” Apparently when you’re wearing two hats you become an ice cream cone. I got a kick out of seeing Doug in Daddy mode, while also balancing being a host. He apologized a few times for the multitasking, but I reassured him that there was nothing to apologize about.

I began the next day with a two-hour trail run in the New Hampshire woods, then drove east to the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. At 11:00 I gave a lecture on the influence of Hindustani music on American Experimental music, then I shared a wonderful lunch with Daniel Beller-McKenna, a smart and engaging musicology professor at UNH. After lunch I wandered around the campus, meditating on endurance sports and experimental music, enjoying the crisp air and the fall sunshine. I wound up in the library and enjoyed some nice quiet time to read and doze on a couch. At 6:00 I unloaded my electronic gear and started setting up and sound checking. I was performing in a large rehearsal room that presented some interesting feedback challenges, most of which I smoothed out, some of which I shrugged my shoulders at. That’s the beauty of my set up. Every room is a new sound world. I respond to my environment, feedback and all.

By 8:00 the space was packed, and the ushers had to create another row of chairs. We dimmed the lights and I began. I started with a few pieces I commissioned from other composers, then improvised freely for a bit, then played the block of Super Marimba music you have here. My energy level was very high, with razor-sharp focus. I felt a real connection with the audience and the long run in the morning in the woods had once again renewed that Sense of Wonder that I prize so highly, the fountainhead of all my artistic activities, the feeling I seek with every note I improvise, compose, and play. A half hour passed very quickly, I completely forgot about where I was or what I was doing. One of the most enjoyable performances of my life.

Special thanks to my dear friend Rob Haskins for hosting me. Thanks also to Daniel Beller-McKenna and Nancy Smith for their hospitality.

This past Sunday Classical Jam and the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra Philharmonic performed my Concerto for Quintet, Orchestra, and Audience at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, Maryland. I’ve known the members of Classical Jam for a few years now as they’ve been performing my little encore piece Devil Dance for a while. They are phenomenal musicians, each of them a virtuoso and collectively a tight and deeply musical chamber ensemble, but this was the first time I really got to hang out with them socially and get to know them better.

Marco is a deeply spiritual person, with a sunny optimism and a kind heart. He is always smiling and obviously at a very special place in his life right now as his lovely wife Lilly is pregnant with their first child. Marco is a graduate of Venezuela’s prized El Sistema program and is equally at home with choro as he is with classical and contemporary music. The flute cadenza I wrote for him is extremely difficult and he just ate it up.

I was glad to spend some time with Justin. We’ve crossed paths in the percussion world and of course know many of the same people, but haven’t had a chance to really get to know one another. He is extremely smart, with some interesting hobbies. (e.g., he’s a New Yorkaphile, and can tell you almost anything about all the major buildings and landmarks in NYC.) In addition to his formidable technique and musicianship as a percussionist he also has a background in theatre and is a committed educator. Last year I heard him speak with a general audience, discussing various sophisticated rhythms, and his presentation was hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Like the others, he had no trouble with his cadenza, despite the relentless athleticism it requires.

Wendy is really the driving force behind Classical Jam. She does the majority of the booking and business work and I think she was the generating force behind founding the ensemble. She’s an exceptional cellist, with a warm, rich tone, and excellent intonation. She also had no trouble with her cadenza, which is quite virtuosic and moves all over the instrument. Wendy has a natural grace and beauty and really looked and sounded quite stunning on stage. Her mother was visiting for the trip and I enjoyed meeting her as well. She even volunteered to be one of the speakers for the piece.

Cyrus is the newest member of the group. He is equally at home on viola and violin. For CJ gigs he mostly plays viola, though I think with the NYC Ballet he plays violin. He has an understated wit and humor, and has a lovely way of being sarcastically funny without being abrasive. His cadenza placed special demands on him as he had to both convey a sense of freedom with the lines while staying with the conductor, which was quite difficult for a lot of reasons. Like the others, his technique and musicianship go deep.

And then there’s Jenny. For some reason Jenny and I always end hanging out during car rides. Since we live near one another I’ve dropped her off at her house three times. Those are some of the most fun car rides in my life. She is as passionate about experimental music as I am and most of the time we hop from one track to another, trading ipods and blasting great music. Then we talk about music, life, our spouses, careers, etc. She enjoys gossiping—a trait I adore in any person as I’m a terrible gossip—but she’s never negative or vindictive. In fact she has a lot of positive energy and is complimentary towards people all the time and is quite excited about life. I respect her amazing musicianship and work ethic. She understands the hustle that goes into a career in creative music, something we talk about a lot. Her cadenza included the option to improvise and she took me up on that and the performance was scintillating.

As for the piece, I need to revise it a bit. The audience was willing to participate, but there are some ways I can make that work better. But people seemed to really like it, and I feel really good about it. It does what I wanted it to do, which is be a virtuoso showcase for CJ, but still communicate with a general audience. And some of my most beautiful writing is in there. Now we just need to figure out how to get more bookings. And the work goes on and on . . .