Saturday, September 22, 2007

sign a petition for Jaco

NPR's Melissa Block reported a nice tribute to Jaco Pastorius yesterday, on the 20th anniversary of his death. A native of Fort Lauderdale, Jaco also died there tragically in a fight outside a nightclub.

Jaco's life unfortunately seems to have been a sort of downward spiral, and every remembrance of him seems to be filled with sadness and regret. Still, his music deserves to be celebrated - and it's too bad Florida doesn't really have any memorial to Jaco.

Oh wait, someone online has a petition to build one! Well, I'll sign - there aren't enough public parks dedicated to bass players, in my humble opinion.

The photo shown here is from, his official website, where you can read memorials by musicians who knew and admired Jaco.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ancient wisdom on nerves

My limbs cannot hold me
And my mouth becomes dry
And trembling shakes my whole body
My hair all stands on end.

Gandiva falls from my hand
A fire runs under my skin
And I cannot stand still
My mind whirls as in flame

And, You of Fine Hair,
I see but omens of evil
Nor surely can good ever come
From killing my kinsmen in fight.

- from the Bhagavad Gita, 1.29-31, translated by Ann Stanford

That sounds quite a bit like some auditions I've taken. The rest of the Bhagavad Gita is largely about why Arjuna should overcome his nerves, go ahead and fight, even kill his friends and kinsmen if necessary - big philosophical arguments. But it's surprisingly relevant to anyone competing, auditioning, or just striving to do his or her best.
You have a right to the work alone
But never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits be your motive
Nor set your heart on doing nothing.

Steadfast in the Way, without attachment,
Do your work, Victorious One,
The same in success and misfortune.
This evenness -- that is discipline.

- same translation, 2.47-48

It's a great book, and a reminder that a warrior's struggles are timeless and shared by everyone, musicians included. And just a side note - the word translated as 'discipline' is actually 'yoga'. Its meaning has changed since the writing of the Gita (some time between 500-100BC), but it's still an extraordinary practice to discipline the mind.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

infinite Jason

Most mornings at 7:15 am, I won't have 5 ideas in preparation for blog posts. In fact, I probably won't even remember I have a blog. That's one difference between me and Jason Heath.

Amid Jason's ongoing quest to chronicle, link, interview, video tape, and generally charm the pants off every bass player in existence, it's sometimes possible to forget that Jason is a wickedly awesome bass player himself. Consider this a reminder.

Jason and I go way back - he tells the stories better than I do, though I'm not sure he's done the one about the melting alarm clock yet. Or the late night bass abduction in St. Petersburg. Maybe I'll have to write some content of my own after all.

Jason was also the one who introduced me to the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest - this huge, kaleidoscopic book about psychedelic drugs, film-making, a tennis academy, and I'm not sure what else. In retrospect, the book seems like a sort of model for Jason's blog (though he hasn't started footnoting his footnotes yet). If Jason ever feels the need to rename his blog, I might respectfully suggest "Infinite Bass."

I don't often link to Jason's blog, not for lack of content (obviously) but mostly assuming that anyone reading here is already familiar with his site. If you're not, hurry on over - you've got a lot of catching up to do.

This we have now

This we have now
is not imagination.

This is not
grief or joy.

Not a judging state,
or an elation,
or sadness.

Those come
and go.

This is the presence
that doesn't.

- Rumi, from The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, p. 261

That's one of the few poems I've been able to memorize. I repeat it to myself when I'm starting to freak out about something. Try it yourself, it works wonders!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

think globally, record locally

Recently at the CPO we recorded music for a television production of Nutcracker, to be aired at 8 pm on December 23, on CBC I think. My colleague Jeff did a nice job of chronicling our involvement over three entertaining days. I was right there alongside of him, experiencing both the highs ("We got the top of the harp gliss to sync with the tear drop falling!") and the lows ("Let's try those 300 measures of fff tremolo one more time, there was something ticking in the booth.")

At one point a producer came out to say hello, thank us for our fine work - and then he explained why the music hadn't been licensed from pre-existing recordings, or outsourced to some orchestra in Slovenia. I hadn't realized this, but that is where a lot of film and television scores get recorded, because Eastern European orchestras will work for lower wages. They don't advertise that fact - no movie poster ever boasts "Score recorded in Bucharest!" - but it's a way of cutting some of the costs.

This was the rare case in which a production team really does take pride in using local performers. The dancers, choreographer, and other artistic staff were all based in Alberta; they had insisted that the music should come from Calgary as well. And while most of the music was Tchaikovsky - numbers from Nutcracker as well as bits from the 5th and 6th Symphonies - quite a bit of transitional music was by a local composer, John Estacio, who was on stage with us for the entire session.

Last month I read Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which was where I first heard of this term 'locavore'. It's a person who tries to consume only what is grown locally. So things like avocados, bananas, and olive oil, which are so common in our stores we might think they're local, are off the table. I'm not going to be that strict, but it's definitely altered my approach to shopping and eating. I won't bother looking at asparagus, since it's long out of season here, and a couple weeks ago I canned a huge box of tomatoes, thinking I'll save them for the winter when fresh tomatoes are a distant memory.

I wonder though, if any locavores will ever get as particular about their music as they are with their food. There certainly is a huge difference between live and recorded music - probably as big as the difference between fresh and canned spinach. And it seems important (to me anyway) to support a community of local artists and musicians, as well as farmers and food artisans. Ideally this would include local composers, conductors, instrument makers...

Of course, as this producer talked about these great local ideals, I began to feel a bit like that Ecuadoran banana in the supermarket. I've only lived here in Calgary a few weeks; and I've never played in this particular Nutcracker production; and I'd be hard pressed to name a single Albertan composer (besides John Estacio!). There's a case to be made for the occasional importthough, I think - no chocolate or coffee grows in Calgary, after all. And you can't have a Nutcracker without a few imported nuts.

Friday, September 14, 2007

what I don't know could fill many post-it notes

Over a year ago, Grant had started noticing so many little yellow notes stuck up all over the house. That was not entirely new. Fiona had always written things down—the title of a book she’d heard mentioned on the radio or the jobs she wanted to make sure she got done that day. Even her morning schedule was written down. He found it mystifying and touching in its precision: “7 a.m. yoga. 7:30–7:45 teeth face hair. 7:45– 8:15 walk. 8:15 Grant and breakfast.”

The new notes were different. Stuck onto the kitchen drawers—Cutlery, Dishtowels, Knives. Couldn’t she just open the drawers and see what was inside?

Worse things were coming. She went to town and phoned Grant from a booth to ask him how to drive home. She went for her usual walk across the field into the woods and came home by the fence line—a very long way round. She said that she’d counted on fences always taking you somewhere.

It was hard to figure out. She’d said that about fences as if it were a joke, and she had remembered the phone number without any trouble.

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

- from "The Bear Came Over the Mountain", by Alice Munro, online at The New Yorker website

Wow, that's exactly how I feel today - like I'm losing my mind. Better not to go into all the details here; maybe it's enough to say that I messed things up royally, and when my colossal error was pointed out to me, I had no clue how it could have happened. Actually, I still don't. I sort of felt like Oedipus, in that scene where he realizes he's been completely blind, not solving the world's problems but causing them.

No, I didn't kill anyone or commit incest or anything like that. But I might try using those little yellow notes in the future. And being much, much more careful.

Monday, September 10, 2007

which comes first, the music or the technique?

A book about cello technique encounters one basic difficulty: We must somehow differentiate between the realm of music and the realm of technique. From the standpoint of the player's sensations we cannot divide cello playing into physical, emotional, and mental categories, with technique referring to the physical one. It is obvious that a deficient technique hinders musical expression, since a beautiful artistic concept is lost if it is not transformed into sound. Deficient technique corrupts the resulting sound, and even an imaginative player's concept of the result will be limited if he does not have at his disposal the means to render convincingly the smallest details of phrasing. In addition, physical strain, combined with constant disappointment, eventually creates a state of frustration that precludes an authoritative artistic rendering. Conversely, technical control of one's playing stimulates the search for ever new expressive shadings.

- Gerhard Mantel Cello Technique, Introduction p. xv
When I first read this, I found myself thinking, "Okay, it's easy enough to prove there's no music without technique. But there's certainly technique without music! Walk down any conservatory practice room hall at 9 am, that's what you'll hear."

I know my warm-up routine is pretty unmusical - or at least technique-focused. I'll deliberately avoid confronting any phrasing or expressive issue, preferring to focus on clean shifts, or making sure my bow isn't flopping around wildly. Often I'll crawl through a dozen scales before I even touch a piece of music.

The minimalist approach has some value in learning, but I'm not sure it's the complete answer. Mantel seems to at least suggest that there's no clear dividing line - and I wonder if, even when we're diligently practicing technique, not intending to say anything musical, a little voice is leaking out:
  • I'm incredibly bored right now.
  • How pure and focused can I make my practice today?
  • I really wish I were back in bed.
  • I'm completely absorbed in my instrument's sound.
  • What's the person in the practice room next door playing that sounds so good?
  • How much better in tune can I make this scale?
  • What will I have for lunch?
  • How many different bowings / articulations / fingerings / colors can I improvise to make this study more interesting?
Probably not all of those messages come across in so many words. But I do think you get an incredible sense of focus when you hear excellent musicians warming up. There's a care and precision, rather than a haphazard feeling of letting things fall where they will.

That's what I'm searching for in my practice lately, and I'm finding that this whole technique vs. music mindset often only holds me back. It creates a "no ice cream until you've finished your lima beans!" quality in my practice, in which punish myself with long, tedious drills before I can touch the music I really want to play. And often during those drills, my mind will just check out or shut off - nothing much interesting to think about there.

Treating my practice this way is sort of like trying to housebreak a dog by starving it - you might not find any more surprise deliveries around the house, but you'll definitely find a really sick dog. Why not take a more musical, creative approach to those technical studies? I can't afford to stop practicing scales and etudes, intonation studies and bowing exercises, but I can certainly afford to seek out more variety, color, and life in them.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


notes on playing the double bass with a human body

We bass players do weird things with our bodies. Maybe not as weird as this yoga guy here; but then again, he'll probably hold that posture ("yoga nidrasana") for five breaths and then be done with it. Whereas we'll hold an awkward posture for minutes, even hours at a time - or else we'll go through a series of crazy contortions in a split-second, without time for a single breath. In terms of body weirdness, I'd say yogis and bass players are fairly well matched.

We take pride in the weird things we do - all those extended hand positions, awkward bow strokes, notes far off the fingerboard. We've invested a lot of time and effort into doing them well. Like that yoga guy, we didn't just walk into our first bass lesson being able to do this stuff. It takes will-power, patience, and conditioning.

And as with any conditioned activity - walking, singing, blogging - we can learn to do it better. We can recondition our movements to be more powerful, consistent, graceful, and efficient. After all, our playing can only change and improve when we change our habitual patterns of movement. Unfortunately, we often don't even think about efficient movement until an injury or stress forces the issue.

I'd like to start a series of posts addressing the physical issues of playing the double bass. I'm planning to use a lot of ideas found in Gerhard Mantel's book Cello Technique, translated by Barbara Haimberger Thiem; as well as some ideas I've picked up through practicing yoga; and through my own checkered history of playing a double bass using a human body.

My initial idea is that studying the body doesn't need to be complex, painful, or overwhelming. We don't need to wait until it's broken to start exploring what the body can do - but if something is broken, that's all the more reason to take a closer look. Most of all I want to make this a fun and interesting discussion, about how we can better use our bodies and maximize our efficiency as musicians.

note: I lifted the above image, of bassist Nico Abondolo in fully-splayed glory, from the site, a tribute to LA Studio musicians by Gio Washington-Wright.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

is it lies, or is it Memorex?

Remember when some teacher said you only use 10% of your brain? She was probably just trying to make you feel lazy. But it's hard not to feel a little cheated, reading this:
Whether you know it or not, that compact disc you just copied to your MP3 player is only partially there.

the music contained in these [MP3] computer files represents less than 10 percent of the original music on the CDs. In its journey from CD to MP3 player, the music has been compressed by eliminating data that computer analysis deems redundant, squeezed down until it fits through the Internet pipeline.

When even the full files on the CDs contain less than half the information stored to studio hard drives during recording, these compressed MP3s represent a minuscule fraction of the actual recording. For purists, it's the dark ages of recorded sound.

"You can get used to awful," says record producer Phil Ramone. "You can appreciate nothing. We've done it with fast food."

That's from a recent article at "MP3 music - it's better than it sounds" by Joel Selvin. I found my way there this weekend via this other rather contentious blog.

I suppose I'm a member of "the iPod generation" that writer refers to - especially since I transferred my entire CD collection onto a hard drive, just before moving up to Calgary. I had been pretty reticent to do this - my CDs have always been a major decorating feature, strewn all around my apartment. And I really do like to look at something while I'm listening to a CD, even if it's just a note from the performer thanking his Mom.

It was liberating to leave all those boxes behind, though. And if my listening experiences have been lacking in cathartic magic lately, I figured it was mostly because I haven't hooked up any good speakers yet. Well, maybe I need to rethink this - either send for those CDs I left at my parents' house, or give up this wicked compromise we call recorded music altogether.
"[Digitally compressed music] turns you into an observer," [John] Meyer [of Berkeley Labs] says. "It forces the brain to work harder to solve it all the time. Any compression system is based on the idea you can throw data away, and that's proved tricky because we don't know how the brain works."
My impression is that record engineering is more of an art than a science - an art with many acknowledged masters, such as Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt whom the article quotes. In any art form, some of the hardest decisions are what gets minimized, compressed, or even left out. The performers struggle with those same decisions - we can't stretch out every chord or modulation we really love (especially if we're on a click track!). And the composer has already made many of those choices, giving us places where a note or phrase is just implied, and trusts the performer and audience to fill in the gaps.

Music is a bit of a shell game to begin with, I suppose. We love to guess what's coming, to make a deductive leap, and it's almost more thrilling to find we've been mistaken than to have our guess confirmed. There's an amazing deceptive cadence in the Bruckner 8 slow movement, and no matter how many times I hear it, it still gives me goosebumps. Though I haven't listened to it yet in MP3 - I wonder if they compressed out all the goosebumps?

Our imaginations can't do all the work - even the most dedicated audiophile is bound to discover something new by hearing it live. My question is, at what point is recorded sound not worth the microchips it's printed on? Are we consuming a bland, artificially flavored, frozen-food version of music? Al Schmitt describes what a listening experience should be:
"When you listen to a world-class symphony or a good jazz record," says Schmitt, "and you hear all the nuance in the voices, the fingers touching the string on the bass, the key striking the string on the piano, that's just a wonderful sensation."
I don't think I've heard all that stuff in a recording for a long time. I miss it - and I get to hear the real thing every day!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

wean yourself

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, "The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding."

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.

There is no "other world."
I only know what I've experienced.
You must be hallucinating.

- "Wean Yourself" by Rumi, from The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, p. 70-71

Jelaluddin Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born on September 30, 1207. I was born on September 30, 1977. So we both have important birthdays coming up. Over the next month, I'm planning to post and write about a lot of Rumi's poetry - you won't have to read any of my poetry.

I started reading Rumi several months ago, after hearing this radio program about him, and so far I've only read a small fraction of his work. So if anyone else has read Rumi and wants to suggest a poem, I would be very happy to read it. I'm hoping to get lots of people excited about reading Rumi, and maybe to arrange a little Rumi party to read his poems aloud. And maybe blow out some candles too.