Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan and the NY Philhormonic

I recently came across this article in the NYT about the guest conducting of Mahler's 2nd by Gilbert Kaplan. I was quite surprised at the public nature of the criticism against Kaplan by members of the NY Phil, particularly the blog post by David Finlayson. The controversy is about Mr. Kaplan having created a reputation for conducting Mahler's 2nd with, in my opinion, only limited qualifications as a conductor. The deeper controversy is about funding for the arts. Should a patron like Mr. Kaplan (who donates around $10K per year to the Phil) be able to "buy" a shot at conducting for a night? I guess it depends on the priorities and resources available to the orchestra. However, I think this sets a bad precedent. While I'm in favor of trying to make classical music more accessible and attracting larger audiences, allowing an individual to "play conductor" at an actual performance seems a bit disrespectful to the musicians who have honed and rehearsed their parts. Who will the next donor/conductor be? What will the next major donor ask for in return for their monies? If I give some money will the NY Phil play one of my pieces?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Unanswered Musical Quesitons

This is the link. My favorites (i.e., the ones I think about the most and discuss most with others) are the questions on harmony.

Sound Problems

Over the last couple of weeks I've been gigging regularly, averaging three gigs and one rehearsal per week. At a gig a couple of weeks ago, an awful high-end buzzing noise started coming from my amp. I tried everything to isolate the cause or get rid of the sound: switching cables, bypassing my pre-amp, using a different speaker. Needing to play anyway, I EQ-ed much of the high-end out and tried to avoid the notes that seemed to aggravate the buzz. After the first gig, I brought my gear home and tried to recreate the sound as much as I could. However, I couldn't get that noise no matter what combination of EQ, volume and playing style I tried.

The following week, the sound was back. The worse thing was note the noise itself (I had found ways to EQ and play in such a way as to minimize it), but rather the look in the eyes of the other players I was working with. They looked at me as if I were some unprofessional goof, not taking care of or not knowing how to manage his equipment.

Again, the sound was intermittent and I was unable to track down a cause. FInally, at a gig this week I decided just to take my whole rig into a technician and play for the technician until we found the problem. I scheduled an appointment for Monday and had one last Saturday night gig to play.

Show time came. I went to tune up and there was the sound again. However, as I looked at my tuner, I noticed my amp was not on. How could I be hearing the noise without my amp on? I stared at my instrument and slowly my eyes focused on the culprit.

For years I've been using Underwood pickups. I think they provide the most full sound for my style of playing and have a lot of versatility (e.g., moving the pickup around on the bridge can give very different sounds, the pickup can be easily removed and switched to another instrument). The pickup itself is held to the tailpiece by a plastic cable tie. As I stared at the pickup, I noticed that the end of the cable tie was touching the body of the bass. Whenever I gave the G-string a good slap, the end of the cable tie vibrated against the body, producing a sound that, when amplified by the piezo pickup, sounded as if my amp was shorting out or the crossover in my cabinet was shot.

I borrowed someone's knife and in about 5 seconds eliminated the noise (i.e., cut the cable tie so that the end would not touch the soundboard). Cost of fixing the problem: zero; cost to my sanity and already high levels of stress: priceless.

I'm always surprised how easy it is to overlook the easiest of solutions to these kind of problems. It reminds me that oftentimes the problems we have with our sound are not due to equipment failures, but often to our instruments themselves or our personal playing style.

NYT Article on Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden has always been one of my favorite bassists. As many may already know, he's moved into more of a country/roots music style from his freer jazz moments with, among others, Ornette Coleman. Yet, being such an accomplished player with such a rich reputation, he appears to have been able to make this transition without too much of the scorn of critics. The complete article is here. This is my favorite part:

Mr. Haden still maintains traces of both his hillbilly and hipster sides, speaking with a flat Midwestern inflection but in a jazz musician’s argot. His aesthetic has been shaped in large part by sympathy for what he calls “the struggle of the poor people,” which allows him to draw a connective thread between the music of his birthright and the music of his calling.

“The beauty of it is that this music is from the earth of the country,” he said. “The old hillbilly music, along with gospel and spirituals and blues and jazz.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Google archiving Life Magazine

Google now hosts the photo archive of Life Magazine.There are lots of great photos, including these of Slam Stewart: photo one, photo two.

Sound in Motion (David McGill)

I recently finished reading Sound in Motion by David McGill. This is a great book. Originally written for wind players, the book discusses the fine points of phrasing and performance. The central theme on phrasing generally follows that put forth in Thurmond's Note Groupings, but in a more enjoyable and clear presentation. My read on McGill's directive of putting motion in your playing is that one should focus on grouping notes much as one groups words into sentences when speaking. In doing so, one must not look to the bar lines as indicating the end of a phrase (just as one would not look to the end of a line of written text when grouping words into sentences), but to the natural completion of the musical idea. In Thurmond's book, he focuses the reader/player on looking at the upbeats in a phrase as indicating the demarcation points of phrases and notes that should be emphasized. McGill presents this idea in a more illustrative way, with many clear examples.

As a bassist who spends most of his time accompanying others with walking lines, I found McGill's book an enjoyable and insightful read. After having finished the book, I tried to implement some of the ideas in the coarsest form: at a gig I tried guiding my playing by playing the root on the down beat of each phrase (I was playing with a jump blues group) and used the rest of the bar to phrase a line that moved towards the next chord. This a musical phrase was not walking over a chord, but rather a series of notes that brought me to the start of a new chord. This did not always mean playing other notes in the chords. In fact, I tried to avoid playing the other notes in the chord by focusing exclusively on creating a series of notes (starting on the second beat of the measure) which formed a complete phrase ending on the root of the next measure (first beat of subsequent measure).

The results were mixed. While the guys in the band commented that I sounded great that night (a noteworthy event as these guys are pretty short on complements) there were some grinder blues numbers that it did not work. In retrospect, I know why... and should have known at the time. That said, the gig was a success: I got a complement from the band, learned something, nobody got hurt, nothing got broken.

The Cherry Lounge, Grande Prairie Alberta

Over the weekend I was in Grande Prairie AB. We played a show and had dinner at the Chery Lounge (10833 100 Street, Grande Prairie, AB T8V 2M7, (780) 832-0494‎). The food here is exceptional, a real fine dining experience. Our first meal was steak, served with cucumber infused mashed potatoes. Our second meal (the next day) was bison steak with braised cabbage. Very creative menu, excellent food. If you're in Grande Prairie, check it out.