Sunday, June 26, 2011

Though your sins be as Scarlet

I've been toying around with different stage/pen names over the past year, trying on different dresses to see which fits. And, while Virginia BK has served me somewhat to this point, I don't think it's quite "it" for me. It's too limp. Innocuous. Considering the things I have to say and the places I want to go, I need something bold. A name that gives me license to do and sing as I please.

Then I thought about it: Alaska's best friend, Don Gato, nicknamed me "Scarlet" some time ago and, you know what? I think that's it.

It's audacious. I like the associations:

Scarlet fever. Hot, sweaty, delusional, slightly old-timey America, throwback. Little Women.

The Scarlet Letter
. Audacity, secrecy, intensity. Women being out of line, suspicious, witchy. America.

"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Blood. Sin. Whiskey. Sex. Dancing. Christianity. Southern gospel hymns. America.

Scarlett O'Hara. Spoiled, rebellious, Southern, woman. America.

Scarlet (the actual color). Even though it's technically halfway between red and orange, I picture something much more bloody in hue. (See above.) I love bold, saturated colors. Persia. (OK fine. Whatever.)

"If love's a red dress / I wanna walk in the rain."

Scarlet. Scarlet Knight. Seeing if this dress fits.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pictures of Me Doing It

Some handsome reward!

Many of you know that I picked up my French horn again this past year, took a few recovery lessons with Peter Reit last summer (thanks, Peter!) and have been getting my chops back by playing at PSUMC, some rock bands. When I signed up via the MATA Festival to play horn with TILT Brass (pros!) as part of Super Critical Mass' sound installation, SWELTER, I was able to allow myself to believe that I could participate without anyone seeing or hearing me. Until the day before Tuesday's Make Music New York performance around Central Park Lake, when I saw the press list: NPR Classical, The New York Times, The Big City/Classical TV, the New Jersey Star-Ledger.  UM!

I didn't bail, though I was tempted to. Lemon Peele and Alaska talked me down from the ledge, so I showed up hyper and ready. And the funny thing is, once I got there and saw the critics it honestly just felt nice to see them. I mean, I like them. They're good peoples. Musicians themselves and music lovers, so Hey! Thanks for coming! Right? Right. Plus, it felt so good to be playing with others again that my focus was there.

I knew that our French horn formation on the rocks would give photographers some interesting visual content, and was aware of the cluster of folks snapping shots of us throughout, so I wasn't completely surprised to see us on the NPR Classical blog or The New York Times Arts page but — this is some handsome reward for my first time out in a decade!

Here is Anastasia Tsioulcas's Make Music New York wrap on NPR Classical (see photo #4 in the slideshow complete with My Real Name):

And the photo, gigantic and wall-to-wall above the fold on the cover of yesterday's New York Times Arts section. (!!) Click to read Tony Tommasini's full review.

I am doing it. And I've got pictures to prove it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Doing "It"

Again, speaking with my biz partner (who henceforth will be known by his NPR name, Stenven Rheinsberg) after an event, (this an intimate gathering hosted by Sō Percussion with Tristan Perich's glorious and sonically brilliant number for crotales and electronics (Observations), Daniel Wohl's graceful and lyrical St. Arc — I heard Bach Cello Suites infused with Webern — played by the darling Ashley Bathgate, and Sō Percussion's thumping Extremes, which only renewed my commitment to incorporate drumline elements into my own songwriting) we were talking about the generous composer commentary on my previous blog post, especially Matt Marks's brutal but liberating philosophy.

I always thought that songwriters, composers, and professional musicians were so because they were either born with marks on their foreheads or because, at some point between the ages of 6 and 16, someone had emphatically dubbed them so. And since neither seemed to be the case with me, I subconsciously surmised around the age of 17 that I was not one of them and that my only option, as a music lover, was to teach music.

But in past months, as I've made the decision to take my music-making seriously, I have discovered a miraculous truth: there is no mark or naming — songwriters are self-appointed. They take their own ideas seriously. And the real dividing line, the absolutely critical distinction between those who are songwriters/composers/performers and those who are not is this:

Those Who Are Doing It / Those Who Are Not

(Just like high school. (Nevermind.))

Because, if you are doing it then you are taking it seriously.  You may be overwhelmed but you are getting your questions answered. You are racing, and pacing, and plotting the course, fighting, and biting, and riding on your horse. You are setting up whatever lessons, performances, networks, framework, studio space, funds necessary in order to make the music you want to be making at the highest caliber possible/necessary to succeed. Maybe that means studying composition formally, maybe that means vocal coaching, maybe that means moving, maybe that means finding people who've put out a successful album and asking them how they fundraised, found a producer, dealt with the brass, etc.

And the amazing thing is, now that I have appointed myself a songwriter/performer, friends, acquaintances, critics, and fellow performers seem quick and happy to call me that as well.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

i will grow old and grow apart from all that's dear to me

Naturally, my biz partner and I were discussing religion and the impermanence of life on the F train on the way home from the MATA Festival last month, when he paraphrased a mantra from his vipassana meditation that first broke my heart before I saw its beauty and peace:

"I will grow old and grow apart from all that is dear to me."

Immediately, the phrase had a melody to me. I raced home, flew into the basement, and recorded myself singing some ideas and plunking chords at the piano. It's an a cappella Southern gospel hymn. It has to be.

I will grow old. I will grow old. It's true. This is as young as I'll ever be and I'll not loop back this way again. But all of this awareness of my transience sure doesn't seem to be helping me get this music-making done any faster. Or, at least, not in any helpful way. I just feel anxious.

As of June 1, I am on summer break. Spring projects finished, reports delivered. High fives exchanged. I wanted this. I constructed my whole season in order that it would be interesting and satisfying and then come to a distinct and recognizable END. And for the first time in my entire life, if someone asks me "What are you doing today/this week/this month/this summer" my answer is "Writing music."

That's it. I am composing. I am songwriting.

And now that I am here I have a big fat question to ask anyone who might capably give me an answer:  "HOW THE EFF DOES A PERSON GO ABOUT DOING THAT?"

I have never had a composition lesson.  In college I took an educational arranging course as part of my music ed degree for which I did a wind symphony arrangement of an Indigo Girls song. (That was a Terrible Idea.) Otherwise, songs have always kind of written themselves at me accidentally. I don't understand where the ideas come from or why they come to me. Many of them are unfinished songs because I get ideas I really like but I lose my way because there are no rules for what to do first, second, and third. There is no doing it right. There are no rules for what to do when you don't know what you want to do next. Or when you want to do something but you don't know how to do it.

I am floundering.

But I have spent a great deal of time around composers over the past few years. And so I take some comfort in having witnessed "Today's Most Important Composers" go through similar aimless flopping and self-doubt when beginning a new piece. I once asked John Adams how a new piece was coming along and he said it was like "feeling your way around in the dark." I saw it with Steve Reich. The frustration when starting a new piece, not knowing where he wanted to go with it. But in both of those cases, I know that they sat down in their studios every day, tried things, trashed them, until one day came a CLICK followed by a white hot period of fierce and inspired composition until BAM I was sitting in the audience at the premiere.

At Ojai a few years ago, Steven Mackey said that he finds most composition students don't need a teacher, they need a therapist. In which case I need to look into some kind of amazing musical health insurance.

For now, I will self-medicate with a list of admonitions (rules?) I've gathered from those I've observed:

1. Show up at the studio regardless of how inspired you feel.
2. Don't "listen up" for far away ideas, just "write down" the ones that are already there.
3. Follow the thread. Doesn't matter where it goes, or whether you don't think it's going anywhere, or whether you end up tossing it all in the end. You can't skip steps.
4. Play around with whatever seems musically fun/attractive, even if that means doing something "unproductive" like singing along with Bonnie Raitt for 6 days in a row without writing a single new note.
5. See #3. You can't skip steps. You may end up throwing away the first week of work but you can't write the second week's work until you've written and thrown away the first. (Suck! I want to skip steps! I want to skip steps!!)
6. Study, copy, steal. Listen to and note (study) things that other composers/songwriters have done that you really like. Practice doing those things with your own music.

To those capable and more experienced composers/songwriters who may be reading this, I turn the question to you: HOW IN THE WORLD DOES A PERSON GO ABOUT COMPOSING?

Any words of wisdom for a very late beginner will be much appreciated.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Composers & Candy

We are back from our Summerversary vacation! Alaska's work took us to Hamburg whereas generalized Wanderlust took us to Berlin. I just realized upon returning home that I have only two photos: composers & candy.

And then there's this one, snapped by Alaska at my request.

Telling. Fortunately, the professional documented much more of our trip than I did.