Thursday, February 28, 2008


On the way home from the airport this morning, my car spun out of control and collided with another car on the freeway. I was lucky that I had already turned almost completely around, so that he hit my passenger side, crushing in the door and a lot of the frame on that side. I was momentarily stunned, then realized I was still parked in the middle of the freeway at an awkward angle, so I slowly drove onto the shoulder.

After I had gotten the car to a somewhat safe position, I ran back to see the other guy. He had also pulled off the road, right in front of an exit sign, and was talking on his cell phone. It was around 5:30 am, so traffic on Dearfoot Trail was just starting to get heavy -- the snow had dumped in around 4, accompanied with some blustery freezing winds, which had created the nasty road conditions.

We sat down in his car while he made another phone call, trying to get a replacement at work. Just then, another car hit us -- this time, on the rear driver's side, and spun his car into the exit lane. Luckily, by this time a fire truck had pulled up and they quickly set up some cones to block off the area. We spent another hour waiting for police and tow trucks, and in the meantime two other minor collisions happened right behind us, thankfully also without injuries.

I just got home on a slow but uneventful bus ride, still reeling from all of this. My car, I'm pretty sure, is totaled -- and maybe my bank account too, after the insurance gets sorted out! The side of my car was so deeply impacted that I couldn't pry the glove compartment open, so I've only just been able to call my insurance company now to report it.

Luckily though, no one was hurt. I just have a couple bruises, and the driver who hit me bumped his head in the second collision, but not seriously. It was not a good morning to be on the freeway going south, apparently.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Knowing a thing does not always allow us to prevent it, but at least the things we know, we hold, if not in our hands, at any rate in our minds, where we can arrange them as we like, which gives us the illusion of a sort of power over them.

- Marcel Proust, from Swann's Way, trans. Lydia Davis, p. 327

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

getting split

In ashtanga yoga, "getting split" is when you stop doing the full primary series and instead go right into the intermediate series. There might be another, cooler-sounding Sanskrit term for it. I've only heard it referred to this way though, making it sound like I've just been cracked in half. Actually, there are quite a few poses (in both primary and intermediate series) which do feel quite a bit like getting split in half.

By the time you get split, you've already been doing the full primary and half of the intermediate series, which means a very long practice. I would take nearly 2 hours, sometimes longer when I was feeling sluggish. So getting split should be a nice relief, cutting at least 30 minutes off your practice. It wasn't a nice relief though, at least at first -- I felt tight, weird, and out of sorts. It felt like going through physical withdrawal, as though my body was craving primary series.

And maybe some ego withdrawal, too. Primary series is all stuff I've worked on a long time, and gotten somewhat capable at doing. Intermediate series is all the poses where I flop around like a fish out of water. So getting split meant getting tossed right out of my comfort zone, and into my asphyxiating fish zone.

Well, maybe not quite that bad. It is nice to get finished a bit earlier, and we still do full primary on Fridays. Mostly, I think it's the shock of doing something new, after being in the same routine for so long.

The same principle applies to practicing a musical instrument, I think. We have to follow a routine, work on the same exercises consistently for months or sometimes years. But just as important is knowing when to move on, to replace it with something new -- and not get too attached to that heady feeling of competence. Because once you've mastered an exercise, it's only going to plateau, and then become self-indulgent. It's no longer training the mind, just stoking the ego.

And an overly-stoked ego means it's time to get split.

Monday, February 18, 2008

crazy Dane goes mainstream

Music critic and blogger Alex Ross has a new article about Carl Nielsen in next week's New Yorker, titled "Inextinguishable." Ross points out that a lot of the hot young phenoms of the orchestral world -- Gustavo Dudamel, Paavo Jarvi, Alan Gilbert -- have been recording and advocating the Danish composer. Which means a lot of orchestra players are going to have to shed some nasty pages:
Orchestral players, percussionists excepted, tend to groan a little when Nielsen shows up on their music stands; his habit of writing furiously fast figures, and then passing them from one section to another, relay style, can make even an ensemble of virtuosos sound like a mess. Audiences, for their part, often go away from Nielsen performances pleased but a little dazed, not sure what hit them.

I've always had a great time playing Nielsen symphonies, and his "Oriental Festive March" from Aladdin is one of my favorite unknown pieces ever. I know what Ross means about those groan-inducing passages, though. Each Nielsen symphony seems to have a page or two of just random, blindingly fast 16th-notes. And they're often unison with all the strings, so any mistakes will sound extra-gnarly.

Ross makes the point that a frenzied, feisty quality -- maybe a bit gnarly, even -- is needed in this music. He reviews a "startlingly polished" performance of the 3rd Symphony by the Curtis Institute's orchestra, conducted by Alan Gilbert, which sounded "oddly, too professional". Well, perhaps that's not so odd -- Curtis has some amazing players, and the last way they want to sound, especially for the music-director-elect of the New York Philharmonic, is unprofessional.

Still, I think there's a certain quality of reckless (but still precise and unified) abandon that's needed in this music, as in the music of Mahler or Sibelius. Abandon with precision -- it's a tricky sort of alchemy. Maybe as orchestras get more familiar with Nielsen, we'll all become a little more precisely unhinged, and master that controlled-frenzy quality.

Read Alex Ross' article "Inextinguishable" here.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Persepolis and Proust

I just saw the movie Persepolis, which is based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It's a coming-of-age story narrated by a character also named Marjane Satrapi, about her childhood in Iran under the Shah, and the subsequent Islamic revolution.

The story itself possibly couldn't be less like Marcel Proust's novel -- though politics do find their way into In search of lost time, amid all the love stories and dinner parties. Still, that was the work that kept coming to mind as I was watching Persepolis. There's the eponymous narrator, of course, and also the movie is in French -- beyond that, both are about young artists trying to live creative lives in an uncooperative world. And both are ultimately success stories, the proof of which is their very existence.

The form of a graphic novel turned into a movie -- which I'd never seen done quite like this -- really propelled the story. The subjective reality of Marji comes out more directly and immediately than it could in live action. In one scene, she has just broken up with her boyfriend after catching him cheating on her. As she re-imagines the history of their relationship, we see the same scenes we just watched, redrawn -- meeting at a party, him driving her home, etc. -- but where before they were idyllic and joyful, they've now been transformed to show all his ugly qualities. It's a brilliant way of dramatizing the reversals of perception and memory, and one of which Proust would have completely approved.

Friday, February 15, 2008

fishing for complements

The other week On the Media had a fascinating interview with Clive Thomson, talking about connectors and trend-setters. One of the most catchy ideas in the marketing world has been that a tiny group of highly influential people exists -- Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point calls them 'connectors' -- and that these connectors can basically determine what jeans you'll be wearing or music you'll be listening to next year. Thomson argues that this whole influence business is a lot more dispersed, and a lot more random, than that model would suggest:
[T]here were no all-important Connector hubs. Only five percent of the messages went through highly connected people. The rest of them just went, oh, sort of democratically through people that were weakly connected together. The data seem to show that those Connectors really are not out there in the way that they're supposed to be.

What [Columbia network researcher Duncan] Watts seems to have found and what he argues is that it’s not how influential each person is. It’s how influenceable everyone else is. So to put it another way, if society is sort of ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start it.

It's kind of a powerful idea, and way more empowering than this whole connector business. Anyone can start the next big thing, and lift a fashion, book, or band into the spotlight -- you just need to have the right ideas at the right time. And beyond that, you don't have to look to some flashy elitist media type to know what's cool -- the answer might be anywhere, on your friend's iPod, or your mom's bookshelf, or maybe the idea you just came up with in the shower. We're all connectors, or rather we're conduits for ideas that are bigger than us, and those ideas don't play favorites.

I've been thinking a lot about marketing lately, since I was asked to help out writing program blurbs for the CPO's brochures next year. We were given the full season schedule, or as much of it as has been finalized, and asked to title each of the programs and write a 40-word description to be used on posters and ads. If you go to the CPO website you'll see the one for this week:

Romeo & Juliet

Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet: Overture-Fantasy
Schumann, Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Elgar, Enigma Variations, Op. 36

A Valentine bouquet of symphonic delights! Tchaikovsky’s soaring Romeo and Juliet is complimented by Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a fascinating masterpiece that was an expression of affection towards his wife and friends. Pianist Jean Louis Steuermann joins the CPO in Schumann’s passionate and romantic Piano Concerto in A Minor.

It's quite a trick writing one of these things -- so little space to work with, and you need something that will catch people's attention, with some style and sparkle, but still accessible and aimed towards a general audience. And oh yeah, it might be nice to actually convey some factual information about the music!

This one works pretty well I think -- it certainly gets the 'romantic' message across. My only criticism is that I think 'complimented' should have been 'complemented'. That's not a huge thing, but I know people who get very annoyed by misuse of the word 'complimented.' And many of them are very passionate, romantic people who I hope would still want to attend this concert!

I won't put any of my blurbs here yet, but maybe if they're approved and published I'll take responsibility for my work. That way everyone can complement me, or just make fun of me.

Monday, February 11, 2008

"willing to do almost anything"

In one of Miranda July's short stories, "Mon Plaisir," she writes about trying to become a movie extra:

On the third day of the rest of Carl's life, and the eleventh of mine, I began calling the number. explained that your willingness to hit redial for hours at a time is the screening process. This is the actual, professional way that one applies for this job, in the manner of a person trying to win tickets off the radio. The directors are looking for people who are willing to do almost anything, but will happily do almost nothing, for hours....

-- Miranda July, for the short story collection No one belongs here more than you, p. 161

If only auditioning for orchestras were just a matter of hitting redial. It might still be a nameless, faceless, de-humanizing experience, but it least you'd have a quick, impersonal decision:

Busy signal. Click.

I spent a lot of time discussing the problems and injustices of the audition process, back before I has hired at an audition, and now I seem to spend a lot of time talking about the same thing. No one is really satisfied with the process, on either side of the screen. But as much as we rail against auditions for being awkward, wasteful, tedious, unfair, evil rituals of despair, it's hard to argue the one point: they produce people who are willing to do almost anything.

Well, except maybe tap-dancing. A bassist colleague of mine had an illuminating dream recently, in which he discovered the limits of his personal tolerance for humiliation. My new favorite tag-line is now: "Motherfucking tapdancing!?"

Rejection and humiliation do seem to be part of our actual, professional career path though -- just like busy signals and cattle calls for movie extras. Some orchestras seem to go out of their way to make things as logistically difficult as possible: strange application questions; relentlessly long, unspecific lists; rounds scheduled weeks or months apart; or the dreaded tape round. I suppose we could tell ourselves they just do it to weed out the less committed, organized, or desperate candidates. And isn't there a certain pride in being that committed, organized, and/or desperate?

Until they hand you the tap-dancing shoes. Then all your dignity is lost.