Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Coloring Outside the Lines of Tunes

Traditional music is like a coloring book.  Rather than starting from a blank sketch pad, as original songwriters and composers do, the interpreter of traditional music is working from a pre-existing template that has already been partially outlined.  Flexibility comes from the materials you use to fill in that outline, what hues you choose to color it with, and how inside or outside the lines you choose to go. 

In their natural habitat, oldtime jams and Irish sessions both rely on unison melody playing, so you have to keep your tune mutations within the realm of conformity.  However, unlike classical music where the musician’s job is to perform the piece without letting too much of his or her identity get in the way, with traditional music you are allowed a certain amount of leeway.  Part of the fun is seeing where you can take that while still remaining within the group mind. 

In my mid to late 20’s, before I ever even considered playing a musical instrument, I used to write these abstract journal entries.  I would fill up a notebook page – on an almost daily basis  with a stream of consciousness flow of written words; trying not to be overly cognizant of what I was putting on the page and purposely shifting course whenever I thought too far in advance.  After filling an entire page I would then close the diary without really knowing what I had written.  Later – weeks, months, years later – I would go back and look at random pages and try to make poetic sense of it. 

I didn’t over analyze this activity or try to assign it an identity.  I simply opened the notebook having no preconceived notions of what I would write, said “go”, tried not to pause at any point while writing, stopping only when I got to the bottom of the page.  Always the same exercise but never the same result. 

I’ve recently resumed this writing practice after a decade plus lapse and the freedom of this kind of open thinking is complementing the tunes I am playing.  I’m not really drawn toward musical ornamentation/experimentation when playing.  I might play a tune several times through with pretty much the exact same notes and get off on the repetition.  Variation could seep in by fooling with the timing and emphasis – prolonging something by a little bit here or there and/or adding an accent to a place where it normally is not.  I leave the true improvisation for the page, where I give myself one chance per day to open that spout and let whatever is waiting there to pour through.

There is no right or wrong, criticism, pressure or audience for these abstract journal entries.  It’s just me, a pen and a blank page about to be filled with ink.  That’s kind of the way I’m starting to look at the open air – silence – before the notes are played in a tune.  The air is the blank page and the notes are the words that color it.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Baron Collins-Hill's MandoLessons site and Patreon page

Baron Collins-Hill
Have you checked out Baron Collins-Hill's MandoLessons site?  On it he's posted quite a few fiddle tunes, including Bill Cheatham, Cooley's Reel, Blackberry Blossom, Swinging on a Gate, Spotted Pony, Road to Lisdoonvarna and more.  Each tune has a video where he plays the tune and then breaks it down phrase by phrase.  Baron encourages you to learn simply by watching the video and using your ear, but he also provide pdf mandolin tabs for the tunes on the site.  The MandoLessons are absolutely free - at no cost to the end user.  However...

Associated with his MandoLessons site is a Patreon page where for as low as $1 a month you can become a Patron and help support his MandoLessons initiative.  Patreon is kind of like Kickstarter, but instead of helping fund a one-time project, Patreon allows you to help sustain an artist's ongoing work by contributing at a "name your price" level on a monthly basis.  On Baron's Patreon page he offers varying incentives to Patrons who donate $5, $10, $15 or $20 or more per month.  For example, Baron will give the next five donors at the $10 per month level a one on one lesson in person or via Skype or Google Hangout.  I took him up on this and really enjoyed the lesson and the generous amount of time Baron spent with me.

Baron's YouTube channel is even more extensive, with a wide selection of 150+ fiddle tunes in a variety of styles including Irish jigs and reels, oldtime, Quebecois and Cape Breton, Scandinavian, contradance tunes, original compositions and more.  I particularly like his videos of the tunes Road to Malvern and a special version of the Irish tune Morning Star in F (usually it's in G).
Baron is one half of the instrumental duo Velocipede (check out their album here) and is also a regular instructor at the esteemed Maine Fiddle Camp.  His partner in Velocipede, fiddler Julia Plumb, also has a pretty nifty YouTube profile with some fiddle instruction videos and she also teaches at Maine Fiddle Camp.  As a recent fan of their music and teaching style, I can tell you that Baron and Julia are two young traditional musicians to watch out for!

The fact that Baron's MandoLessons site is free is a great thing, for sure.  It provides a resource for those on a tight budget to learn more about playing music.  Although, if you can afford to make a contribution, you might consider becoming a patron to help support this great work he is doing.  Even at $1 or $5 a month you're helping make a difference without breaking the bank!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Phish's new album Fuego - a song by song review

NPR got the scoop on the new Phish album Fuego earlier this week by allowing listeners to stream it as part of their First Listen series.  I've listened to it a lot since then. 

Fuego is Phish’s first studio album in 5 years, and the 12th of their career.  Although known primarily as a live band, Phish has always also made quality studio albums.  Fuego might be one of the best.  It’s certainly the tops from a production standpoint.  

Any batch of new Phish songs – like the kind that surfaces on a new album – will be immediately scrutinized and placed in the context of their entire body of work, with most of the speculation and analysis centered around how these pieces will fit in the puzzle of a live concert experience.

Producer Bob Ezrin worked with the band to create an album that has both a contemporary sound and a 1970’s feel, bringing forth the strengths we have come to expect from classic Phish while also tapping into subterranean emotions that the band may not have not mined before.
The album’s opening track – the aptly titled Fuego – could certainly serve as a show opener.  It features an organically pieced-together structure that leaves a lot of room for bending at the whimsy of the band.  Various different sections could be opened up and explored as their own individual worlds.  Or it could just be a no brainer crowd pleaser on certain nights if the moon is right.  Even during dry spells between adding new songs to the set list, Phish has always continued to create on a nightly basis.  Before there was a Birds of a Feather, there was a Chalkdust Torture.  Either song can be a means to get to, you know, THAT PLACE, and now we have the song Fuego which can also knock on that door. Point is, new songs can go to the same place the old ones did, or visit new vistas, or vice versa.  World's greatest (band).

Track 2 is called The Line.  Using basketball metaphors Trey tries to express the gravity of trying and perhaps failing (Coventry?) in a high pressure setting.  He succeeds.  The Line fills the same void that a song such as Limb By Limb does.  Like John Fishman’s woodblock (cowbell?) hits during the intro to Fuego, the happy sounding jam at the end of The Line reminds you that you are listening to Phish.  That little segment could have been spontaneously inserted into a Down with Disease jam or as the outro to Bouncing Around the Room, but here it is as part of a new song.

The 3rd song Devotion to a Dream is a perfect example of the excellent production found throughout the album, melding both modern and retro influences.  The song has a deceptively radio-friendly hookiness to it, which is only accentuated when the technicolor paisley chorus of “it’s today…” chimes in.  An observation could be drawn to the fact that Devotion to a Dream sounds like something off the throwaway Party Time Joy Box bonus disc, but whose rule is Trey breaking if he goes back to the songwriting table to improve upon an idea that wasn’t fully fleshed out before?  The result is a very strong, catchy song.
When it comes to track 4, Halfway to the Moon, the term “Page song” obviously and immediately comes to mind.  In recent years it seems as though Page’s self-penned songs haven’t quite melded into the fold as well as they could have.  There was another song Page was doing for a little while called Beauty of a Broken Heart from his solo album that never really took hold.  This song might as well be that one.  However, familiarity breeds acceptance and after it’s been around a while Halfway to the Moon might reveal itself to be a song with a unique identity and a valuable addition to the rotation.  I wonder what came first - Duluth or the truth?

Winterqueen – song number 5 – has an airy, Caribbean quality to it that is reminiscent of something off the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah album, especially Crazy Fingers.  The subtle addition of the horns during the track adds a nostalgic melancholy that I can’t quite put my finger on but is akin to early childhood déjà vu.  I actually see a lot of potential with this song as a mid-to-late 1st set summertime dalliance; a light-hearted retort when preceded by something much darker. 
Unless your name is Monica, you might not have an instant relationship with Sing Monica, the 6th song on Fuego.  Still, I foresee this as a song that could catch the jaded concert goer off guard.  Phish is often regarded as being great musicians, composers and improvisers, but are usually written off as lyricists.  I would argue that many Phish lyrics which appear to be trivial are actually working at a higher artistic level.  If you think of Phish lyrics as Russell Edson prose poems put to music, then a cachet gets added.

Much like how Halfway to the Moon is the “Page Song”, track number 7, which is called 555, can be thought of as the “Mike song”.  555 has that loping, Little Feat esque nature to it that a lot of Mike’s more recent work has had.  Last summer Mike introduced a song called Say Something which I thought would have been good for the new album.  Instead, we get 555.  The horns added to 555 don’t seem to have quite the same significance as they do on Winterqueen, but it's a cool song nonetheless.  I can't help but wonder if 555 is a reference to something or is it just some Mike Gordon thing? I think it's just some Mike Gordon thing.

Track 8, Waiting All Night, was the first song Phish released from Fuego so it’s the one I’ve heard the most.  Waiting All Night could have gone either way.  Is it fluffy “dad rock” like some recent Wilco albums have been criticized of being, or is it a new, confident path for Phish to be taking?  Even during my first listen to the song I was siding with the latter perspective.  Phish is a band in its 30th year and most people would pinpoint their heyday or glory years as being somewhere between 1995 and 1999.  I think Phish realizes this and isn’t trying to recapture their youth, nor are they settling into early retirement as a nostalgia act.  Like all the songs on Fuego, Waiting All Night is a declaration by the members of Phish that they are continuing to grow as people and musicians, that they still care, and that they have an unflinching desire to keep doing the best they can while constantly redefining what it means to do their best.  Inside the Fuego, they keep it rolling.

We’re not done yet because track 9 is Wombat.  Had to have that.  I’m so glad they left in the words “it’s kinda like the theme to the Phish TV show, you know, with Abe Vigoda” in the song.  Wombat shows that Phish is still in touch with their wacky side.  Not everything has to be sentimental and poignant.  Sometimes you just want it to be cuddly but muscular.  But what’s more carnivorous, a wombat or an ocelot?

Wingsuit is the last song on Fuego.  Track 10.  It’s going to take me a while to warm to the “you never win a major only shooting par” lyric.  Golf references just don’t seem to work in Phish songs, unless that song is Kung.  I do like the rest of the song, though.  Sometimes the simplest, most pedestrian thoughts and expressions are more profound than overly intellectual digressions.  It’s time to put your Wingsuit on.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

KITHFOLK, a Digital Quarterly Roots Music Magazine

The folks at Hearth Music have put out their 2nd issue of KITHFOLK, a digital quarterly roots music magazine.  I paged through the first issue as well, and so far I have been very impressed by the broad, yet somehow focused, reach of the magazine.


This isn’t some wimpy, online ‘zine.  KITHFOLK is a graphically pleasing, content-rich periodical covering trad/folk/roots music and musicians from all around the globe.  The current issue features over 20 articles.  Check out this list of KITHFOLK Issue 2 Highlights:

-Exclusive interview with roots blues bad boy Scott H. Biram

-Exclusive pictures from the set of Inside Llewyn Davis

-Pictures and stories from the first tour of China by Louisiana Cajun artists Joel Savoy & Jesse Lege

-No-holds-barred interviews with emo icon turned folk hero Chris Carrabba of Twin Forks and Irish punk trad band Lynched

-Thoughts on the misfit outsider Americana culture of Hurray for the Riff Raff

-Exclusive stories of New Mexican accordion music and the birth of chicken scratch (Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca)

-Thoughts on hip-hop traditions from noted scribe/DJ Larry Mizell, Jr(Pass It On)

-The secrets behind a great duet from Mandolin Orange and Pharis & Jason Romero

-The mysterious disappearance of guitar alchemist/time travelerWilburn Burchette (I Am The Center)

-Haitian music meets the poetry of Langston Hughes (Leyla McCalla)

-Exclusive interview on the return of The Duhks' frontwoman Jessee Havey

-Primordial Swedish music from Groupa 

-Lost forest music of Oregon via Timberbound 

-New Female Voices ofRussian Folk Music

-Almost 20 reviews of new albums20+ Feature Articles!

 KITHFOLK is available online and also for iPhones and iPads (and tablets) via the Creatavist App (download the app and search for "KITHFOLK).  Share with your friends if you do enjoy the magazine!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Do You Find Your Instrument or Does Your Instrument Find You?

I must really, really love playing melodies.  This is probably why I’ve gravitated towards fiddle tunes, Irish trad and other instrumental folk music.  I had a broad, hungry and obsessive taste in music long before I ever decided to play an instrument, so the fact that I’m pretty much only interested in playing fiddle tunes and folk melodies has come as a bit of a surprise.

I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead and Phish in my 20’s, and this sponge-like nucleus of sound spawned pathways toward jazz in the form of Miles Davis, Medeski Martin and Wood, Bill Frisell and Grant Green, toward the bluegrass/Americana of Norman Blake, Hot Rize, New Grass Revival, Yonder Mountain String Band and John Hartford, “No Depression” style alt. country ala The Flatlanders, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, undefinable instrumental bands such as Tortoise, Laika and the Cosmonauts, and Sound Tribe Sector 9, singer-songwriters like John Prine, Gillian Welch, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, contemporary rock bands My Morning Jacket, Dawes and Dr. Dog, “new” classical ensembles and composers Uakti, Bang on a Can Allstars, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, roots-fucking reggae in the form of Culture and Augustus Pablo, progressive acoustic instrumentalists including Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Akira Satake, and Leo Kottke, and trippy bands like The Meat Puppets, The Flaming Lips and Ween.

I name checked all these cool groups and musicians simply to demonstrate where I might have been coming from when I first picked up an instrument (tenor banjo) 8 years ago, back in June, 2006.  Note that NONE of the music I liked up to that point is what you would call Irish or oldtime, except for maybe Norman Blake.  

I assumed that I’d be wanting to strum chords and sing John Prine, Neil Young and Grateful Dead covers, but I didn’t enjoy that at all.  (Maybe the fact that I hadn't chosen a guitar would have been an early indicator.)  Then I was introduced to some fiddle tunes like Arkansas Traveler and Silver Spear and I was hooked right away!  It probably helped that tenor banjo was an instrument more suited to picking melodies than accompanying songs, at least to my ears. 

Tenor banjo was my first choice, primarily to be different, but I wonder if I inherently knew that it was the right choice at that time?  Now that I’m kind of switching over to mandolin, the world of music is continuing to open up - both forwards and backwards.  

I still am all about playing melodies but as I continue to work on developing my ear, there’s the opportunity to learn a portion of a Phish jam or a riff from a Medeski, Martin and Wood composition, for example.  Not everything from my music listening past will lend itself to this treatment, but anything you can whistle you can play on mandolin.  I also want to be open to any influence this old favorite music might have on the interpretations of traditional music.  It's all the same language.

Playing mandolin is definitely going to continue to dictate the type of music that I play.  The mando's consistent, standard tuning of GDAE, coupled with the fact that it's fairly easy to play in any key, as well as its melodic range and friendliness toward melodic notes, allows for me to broaden my search for tunes to all the corners of the globe where music is part of a cultural tradition.  

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

You Can Learn A Lot From Reading Interviews With Poet Russell Edson

Russell Edson
All it took was reading one of Russell Edson’s prose poems to know that he was going to be my favorite poet (apologies to Robinson Jeffers and Charles Bukowski).  Reading more of Edson's work over the last few weeks has only confirmed that. 

I had never heard of Russell Edson until coming across some examples of his work in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones last month.  I immediately ordered a used copy of The Tunnel, Edson’s book of selected poems.  After receiving the book I Googled his name to learn more about my new favorite poet, only to discover that he had passed away on 4/29/14.

Edson's "poems" are not like poems in the conventional sense.  For example, they don't rhyme or follow any kind of structure or meter, but instead tread the subconscious like real-life dream sequences.  Here are four of his poems, followed by my favorite quotes from the interviews I've been able to find online.  Edson's interview responses are so good you don't even need to know what the question was.

Waiting for the Signal Man
A woman said to her mother, where is my daughter?
Her mother said, up you and through me and out of grandmother; coming all the way down through all women like a railway train, trailing her brunette hair, which streams back grey into white; waiting for the signal man to raise his light so she can come through.
What she waiting for? said the woman.
For the signal man to raise his light, so she can see to come through.

The Automobile
A man had just married an automobile.
But I mean to say, said his father, that the automobile is not a person because it is something different.
For instance, compare it to your mother.  Do you see how it is different from your mother?  Somehow it seems wider, doesn't it?  And besides, your mother wears her hair differently.
You ought to try to find something in the world that looks like mother.
I have mother, isn't that enough that looks like mother?  Do I have to gather more mothers?
They are all old ladies who do not in the least excite any wish to procreate, said the son.
But you cannot procreate with an automobile, said father.
The son shows father an ignition key.  See, here is a special penis which does with the automobile as the man with the woman; and the automobile gives birth to a place far from this place, dropping its puppy miles as it goes.
Does that make me a grandfather? said father.
That makes you where you are when I am far away, said the son.
Father and mother watch an automobile with a just married sign on it growing smaller in a road.

The Fall
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.
To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.

A Cottage in the Wood
He has built himself a cottage in a wood, near where the insect rubs its wings in song.
Yet, without measure, or proper sense of scale, he has made the cottage too small.  He realizes this when only his hand will fit through the door.  He tries the stairs to the second floor with his fingers, but his arm wedges in the entrance.  He wonders how he will cook his dinner.  He might get his hands through the kitchen window.  But even so, he will not be able to cook enough on such a tiny stove.
He shall also lie unsheltered in the night, even though a bed with its covers turned down waits for him in the cottage.
He lies down and curls himself around the cottage, listening to the insect that rubs its wings in song.
Russell Edson quotes:

I don't work with preconceived ideas about reality.

Writing for me is the fun of discovery. Which means I want to discover something I didn't know forming on the page. Experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream.  The poem is the experience no matter the background of experience it is drawn from.

I sit down to write with a blank page and a blank mind. Wherever the organ of reality (the brain) wants to go I follow with the blue pencil of consciousness.

I have no formal background in anything. I just make up things as I go along without a program. It's more fun that way.

Just get something on the page, you have nothing to lose except your life, which you're going to lose anyway.

In poetry the patterns of rhythm and rhyme give distraction that the dream brain might be free to dream.

What do I do outside of the tunnel?  Is there an outside?

Just being able to write a sentence, or a group of them into a paragraph, means something has happened.

At best the poem is an impersonal amusement where the writer and the reader laugh together at finding once again that only reality is the reality of the brain thinking about reality.

The prose poem allows the individual to create his or her own boundaries.

The good writer tries to write beyond genre.
What name one gives or doesn't give to his or her writing is far less important than the work itself. But fables are message stories, and I don't like messages. Fairy tales say in their openings, we're not real, but we're fun.  My purpose has always been reality, and it still is.  I learned to write by writing; but with an intuition for a way that wasn't more than what I could bring to it.
For me the spirit of the prose poem is writing without genre; to go naked with only one's imagination.

Pure poetry, for instance, is silence.  It was fiction that taught poetry how to speak.
Words are the enemy of poetry.

The poet has to create into language something that has no language.

The best advice I can give is to ignore advice.  Life is just too short to be distracted by the opinions of others.  The main thing is to get going with your work however you see it.  The beginning writer has only to write to find his art.  It's not a matter of talent.  We're all talented.  Desire and patience takes us where we want to go.

I write to be entertained, which means surprised.  A good many poets write out of what they call experience.  This seems deadened.  For me the poem itself, the act of writing it, is the experience, not all the dark crap behind it.

If I've done anything special, and of course I have, it's just by doing what anybody could have if they thought it worth doing.

I like making something out of almost nothing at all.  It leaves room to imagine rather than retelling what one already knows.  I think of myself more as an inventor than a decorator.

There's only the writing, which I admit to knowing very little about.

My best pieces seem written by someone, or something, else.

We work best when our intellects and imaginations are in harmony at the time of the writing.  I like to go real fast before I ruin what I'm writing by thinking about it.  It's looking for the shape of thought more than the particulars of the little narrative.

My ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness.

Insanity is always at the elbow, and so I try for order on the page.

One shouldn't have to explain anything to the reader.
Unless one is describing something entirely different than what one knows of the given world, description is deadly to a prose poem.

I never liked the term "experimental writing," but what else is a prose poem?  Having written a number of them, I still don't know how they're written.

I write for amusement, not to change others.

I write as a reader, not knowing what the author will say next.

One sometimes needs a vacation from the idea of oneself.  The prose poem is the perfect vacation spot.  I've been going there for years.

Movements bore me.  They're usually peopled by those needing umbrellas even when it's not raining

I always write what needs to be written at the time of its writing.

Anybody could write like Edson if they wanted to.  I find myself doing it all the time.

Prose poems look easy precisely because they are.  The hardest part for many who would write them is accepting how easy they are to write, and having the courage to write them in spite of that.

In that the prose poem is a critique of the very act of writing, it's probably so surprised that anybody would be writing it that it almost giggles as it finds itself on the page.

An influence, if it has any positive meaning, is really a kind of permission that allows us to open something in ourselves.

It was possible to make things out of almost nothing at all. That's a very creative feeling, starting from almost zero and being able to make something that's at least trivial.  And sometimes to make something somewhat more than trivial.  But trivial will do.  At least it's more than the zero of nothing.  People tend to aspire to more than they need, when in the end they turn out to be just another corpse belonging to the general ecology.

The idea of someone bravely speaking in public with a pronounced speech defect can be quite touching, particularly to people out for an evening of culture.

No one is a poet for all of his or her life.  One is a poet when one is engaging that way of mind; that is to say, when one is writing.  I would say to a son or daughter, ‘go ahead, it’s as good as anything else; your days are numbered anyway no matter what you do - have fun’.

Anybody who says that his art takes all his time is probably someone whose time doesn’t mean very much.  My advice is to schedule one’s ‘artistic works’ with a job that pays.  This gives time edge and purpose.

The problem with poetry is that it spends so much time scene setting, locating.  Most of my pieces are not really located.  They just happen.

I never write for people, for the unseen audience.  I just write what comes.

A lot of poets would do themselves a lot of good if they had another art they messed with - be it painting or whatever.  A lot of our poets, they write, they teach, they write blurbs, they write some criticism, but they never get out of language. To be able to do something else is a nice thing.