Learning Joy from the Blues

B.B. Kings

“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” — B.B. King

There have been thousands of tributes and stories posted today regarding the passing of Blues great B.B. King. Likely a tribute from someone outside the popular music industry will go unnoticed. One from a classical music conductor and college educator is certainly apt to be lost in the shuffle. But considering his legacy today, I am nonetheless inspired to write a few thoughts about how a musician like B.B. King can serve as one of the best teachers for musicians of any genre.

Certainly there is no need here to list the myriad of accomplishments and influences that Mr. King had on the music industry for the past 60+ years. And while, King lacked the movie-star looks of Elvis Presley or the blazing technique of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d argue that he has perhaps had more influence worldwide and across a broader spectrum than his more flashy colleagues. Blues, jazz, country and rock musicians regularly mention how influential he was to the development of their individual style.

His electrifying presence was felt on the music itself. What B.B. King had, and the reason every musician should listen to his playing, was an ability to communicate. Not with outer charisma or flashy stage presence, but through musical gesture. With music. Through music. And for music. His innovation lies in his ability to play chamber music, the most useful skill any musician can have.

It is instructive to listen to B.B. King play alongside other great musicians. But perhaps it is more enlightening to realize that he had the unusual ability to play chamber music with himself. One of his trademarks was, of course, his guitar and her namesake song, Lucille. The personal approach to every note provided B.B. King the ability to have a conversation with himself, not merely accompanying himself, but improvising a conversation and developing a story though music.

“I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.” — B.B. King

Here’s a video of that hallmark song:

It was a career of playing like this that inspired numerous musicians. Future blues and jazz legends listened and learned, and evolved their own voices. Rock icons did the same. Eric Clapton even paid homage in this fun song and video:

But can classical musicians can also learn from this approach? A former Associate Concertmaster with the Utah Symphony and violinist with the Boston Symphony, and respected music teacher Gerald Elias thinks so. His social media post this morning gave clear instructions to his students. And as a respected author as well, Jerry knows a thing or two about communication.

“Violin students: If you want to learn how to play with feeling, listen to B.B. King.” – Gerald Elias

Sure, B.B. King was just playing basic blues scales, and altering them in interesting ways. But he was also making new music with each riff. Composing on the fly. A lively, rapturous creation with each progression. Though he was playing the Blues, one can hear the joy bursting forth.

Can a classical violinist do the same in a series of Carl Flesch Scale Studies, or perhaps use it as inspiration to devise a new cadenza for a concerto? Can the very methods that B.B. King perfected be used to open a new energy in classical performance while staying true to the roots of our traditions–just as King did with the Blues? I’d have to say it is worth a shot. Apparently, so do others. Yo-Yo Ma has branched out, as has Joshua Bell, Richard Stoltzman and many others. Their results have been quite attractive. And now they provide a new thread for us to experience. We must listen with discernment to all of the greats, all traditions, whatever the style may be. New possibilities lie just around the corner.

I never had the good fortune to hear B.B. King live. As close as I got was eating at his place in Memphis (see picture above). His music has inspired me to listen deeper, more critically and more joyfully. And thankfully, he leaves that legacy for all of us through his music. Now it’s our turn.

Thanks, Mr. King. Rest in Peace.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Music as Action: From Baltimore to Baghdad

Don't Keep Calm We’ve heard it (and probably said it) before:

It’s not my job.

They don’t pay me enough to do that.

I’m an ARTIST. I shouldn’t have to be involved in THAT.

That’s “their” problem.

While we are busy complaining about why we shouldn’t get involved in our own professional world (and watching news coverage of other events we are happy to be removed from) it is instructive to remember that some people are faced with a much different reality. For some, the choice of whether or not to get involved is a response beyond a personal need, and in fact produces far greater benefit.

Many of us seem to enjoy quibbling at the minutiae of our careers; things we can’t really do much about, like the temperature of the concert hall stage or less than ideal acoustics. We should remember, however, that we often do so from the comfort of our own complacency. Complaining about things and shifting blame is arguably human nature, but it also has become something we mindlessly aspire to in our comfortable lives. Actually doing something positive about a problem is an apparent rarity.

Kudos to the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop for doing something this past week. They took a step towards healing amidst a volatile situation in Baltimore. Alsop and the BSO provided an outdoor concert for the city, just a few days after the unrest began. They did something for the community. No telling how effective it was, but it certainly was a statement in the right direction: Things that truly matter will continue. The citizens responded with enthusiasm. (I might add, with better attendance than professional sports).

Baltimore Symphony Photo

Photo via Baltimore Symphony Facebook Page

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Photo via Time.com

We are fortunate that so few of us need take real risks to make an artistic statement. My colleague, Karim Wasfi, has been faced with the question of how to take action in his particular reality. Maestro Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and is a professional cellist. In the face of very real, life-threatening danger, Karim and others like him continue to make affirmations about what is truly worthy, thus insuring that the concepts of humanity and beauty remain a part of the conversation.

Perhaps Karim’s recent Facebook post will help bring us back to reality:

“I am stuck at home and imprisoned by the threat of three car bombs around mansur area, lost my Beethoven rehearsal with the symphony…”

Maestro Wasfi, not one to back away from the challenge of presenting classical music in a war-torn country, has made an effort to not be cowed by the threat. While he is undoubtedly careful, surely a survival trait in such a place, Wasfi does what every maestro and musician should do: insure beauty exists in the world. Whatever it takes.

“We have every sect in the orchestra, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, Kurds. I’ve also launched a youth orchestra and an after-school youth academy where we teach music, civics, manners and the like to almost 300 kids. We pay poor kids to attend. Some even come all the way across town from Sadr City. Yes, I’m sure there are fanatics who disapprove of the symphony, but we’ve generated such goodwill that they’re afraid to oppose us publicly. The Institute of Fine Arts lay disused for two years until we made it our home. We brought new life to the area so the entire neighborhood helps keep us safe.” –from a 1/19/2011 Wall Street Journal Interview:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703333504576080452174478650

Responding to conflict with music. History is seemingly repeating itself.

Recently, Karim Wasfi took his cello and visited areas recently bombed by terrorists. It’s reminiscent of Vedran Smailović, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who played in bombed-out buildings during the Bosnian War.  Here is a video of Maestro Wasfi performing cello at the site of a recent car bomb attack:

Music as Action in Iraq. Music as Action in Baltimore. Now let us question why we are not doing the same in our relatively safer communities. The opportunity for leadership surely exists. As does the talent. And, I’ll wager, the need.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

For more info:

The following link is to the Washington Post story about Maestro Wasfi’s recent activities:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/after-car-bombs-an-iraqi-musician-shows-up-with-his-cello/2015/05/06/6daf256a-edf7-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_story.html

NPR story regarding Iraqi artists’ roles in the fight against extremism:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/09/15/348760910/iraqs-artists-defy-extremists-with-bows-brushes-and-a-low-profile

And finally, a story about the Baltimore Symphony Concert amidst the conflicts in that city:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/after-turmoil-baltimore-symphony-plays-free-outdoor-concert/

How Tragedy Influenced a Generation of Music

Devo_Jocko_Homo_Mongoloid

While we enjoy our Star Wars references today (yes, May the Fourth Be With You, and all that…) I am reminded of another galvanizing cultural event of May the 4th, one that changed a generation. In this case, most of America saw the violence on the small screen. And in this case, the violence was real. But included in the aftermath is a generation of art. Musical expression filtered through our anger and shame, that lifted a magnifying glass to our society.  Introspection and commentary is one of the many things the arts can do besides entertain.

May 4, 1970: the U.S. National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio, wounding nine others. While a tragedy, this would also be a pivotal moment for the antiwar effort, bringing a new discernment to the arguments and actions on both sides of the issue. It also would be memorialized in song, Neil Young’s  Ohio, which also personalized the event by asking:

 “What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?”

Naturally, the event would be a life-changing event for anyone at the protest or even on the campus (two of the dead were not even protesters). And for music, the campus event and Neil Young’s song Ohio would be galvanizing for future musical giants as well. This included three who were students at Kent State at the time.  One Kent State student, Chrissie Hynde, would later form the rock group, The Pretenders. Two other Kent State students, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, would later become the founders of the punk/new wave/alternative band, Devo.

Devo’s Jerry Casale said the following about the Kent State Massacre:

“I was a student, I was a member of SDS – an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several antiwar groups. That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day – the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we’re out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 am on May 4th to declare Martial Law, which suspends all first amendment rights of The Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you’re automatically committing a crime. These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that Martial Law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas and some of the more ballsy protesters, while they’re coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo. They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us, down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that 2 of the 4 students killed weren’t part of the demonstration, weren’t part of an antiwar group. They’d just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell’s going on, and they got killed. The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scatter-gun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that’s paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.
I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. My family was poor and I got a scholarship to go to school. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work 3 months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college, the incoming freshman, and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, 2 honor students, and they turn out to be 2 of the 4 killed on May 4th. So I’d known both of them 9 months before this happened, and so when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn’t move.
The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. 2 of them were 18 and 2 of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once Martial Law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system. I don’t think anyone wants to know the truth. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone.”

(From http://calendar.songfacts.com/)

(Complete Devo Interview here on Song Facts blog: http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/devo/)

It is little wonder these incidents influenced a fledgling band to choose the name Devo, originally from a cartoon representing the De-evolution of society. It probably also explains, to some extent, the biting satire apparent in many of their songs. Additionally, it may have been a factor in developing the tough image of Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders.

But one thing is for certain, these events have regularly galvanized and changed artists into new creative energies. Indeed, as Leonard Bernstein famously said:

“This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.”

More devotedly.

Devo-tedly.

Indeed.

May the Memory of the Fourth Be With Us Always.

Cross-posted on Weird Music History blog.

A Power in Sharing

Quill pen

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” – Goethe

I’m emerging form the pit for a couple of weeks, having just completed a successful run of Prokofiev’s Cinderella with the Utah Ballet and Utah Philharmonia. Besides this, I’m also concluding 25 days of sharing poetry through social media. The idea came from a desire to share words that have inspired and focused me throughout my life. Certainly, I’ve read more that 25 poems, but these seem to stay with me, or touch me particularly today. As something I know, I shared these words because they have personal meaning.

Rather than just a good practice to develop, I contend the urge to share is a primal human quality, the reason our species has survived. It is required for sustenance, shelter, and ultimately, finding meaning in the world.

It may surprise you that working musicians have time for things like poetry. For me, music is the thing that occupies my day. Certainly I find deep meaning in the sounds I make and the music I reproduce. But words operate on a different meta-level. Poetry opens channels that music does not. Poetry touches, intrigues and challenges in other ways. Emotion is touched and modulated while the intellect is stimulated.

So, I also offer these poems to the readers of this blog in a lump sum than the original daily dose. Feel free to read one a day and reflect, or take them all in together. My hope is that, like the music I share, these poems may touch something that connects, defines, and ultimately opens us both to ourselves and to each other. And like music, it inspires us to continue to explore more of what these artists have to say to us. Remember, it is they who first shared with us.

_______________________________________

Poem-A-Day Project

#1

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

#2

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

#3

All the birds have flown up and gone;
A lonely cloud floats leisurely by.
We never tire of looking at each other –
Only the mountain and I.

–Li Bai (China, 705 – 762)

#4

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.—John Donne (“Meditation XVII,”1624)

#5

“Some Days” by James Baldwin

Some days worry
some days glad
some days
more than make you
mad
Some days,
Some days, more than
shine:
when you see what’s coming
on down the line!

Some days you say,
oh, not me never!
Some days you say
bless God forever.
Some days, you say,
curse God, and die
and the day comes when you wrestle
with that lie
Some days tussle
then some days groan
and some days
don’t even leave a bone.
Some days you hassle
all alone.

I don’t know, sister,
what I’m saying,
nor do no man,
if he don’t be praying
I know that love is the only answer
and the tight-rope lover
the only dancer.
When the lover comes off the rope
today,
the net which holds him
is how we pray
and not to God’s unknown,
but to each other:
the falling mortal is our brother!

Some days leave
some days grieve
some days you almost don’t believe.
Some days believe you
and you don’t
Some days worry
some days mad
some days more than make you glad.
Some days, some days,
more than shine,
witnesses,
coming down the line!

#6

THE CAT AND THE MOON by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The cat went here and there

And the moon spun round like a top,

And the nearest kin of the moon,

The creeping cat, looked up.

Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,

For, wander and wail as he would,

The pure cold light in the sky

Troubled his animal blood.

Minnaloushe runs in the grass

Lifting his delicate feet.

Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?

When two close kindred meet,

What better than call a dance?

Maybe the moon may learn,

Tired of that courtly fashion,

A new dance turn.

Minnaloushe creeps through the grass

From moonlit place to place,

The sacred moon overhead

Has taken a new phase.

Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils

Will pass from change to change,

And that from round to crescent,

From crescent to round they range?

Minnaloushe creeps through the grass

Alone, important and wise,

And lifts to the changing moon

His changing eyes.

#7

The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.
― Alan Watts

#8

Exeunt the Viols

with their throb and yearn, their sad

stomach of an alley cat. Listen:

even the ocean mourns the passage

of voices so pure and penetrant, that

insect hum. Who discovered usefulness?

Who forgot to sing, simply?

(Magnificence spoke up briefly, followed

by the race boat’s break-neck

dazzle.) A tremor rises in the throat

of the cat, the quill jerks in the hand

of the melancholy scribe. The gambas

beat a retreat gracefully—

their last chord a breath drawn

deep in a garden maze, there

near the statue

smiling under the stars.

–Rita Dove (“Exeunt the Viols,” Museum, 1983)

#9

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding—

Riding—riding—

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Alfred Noyes

This one is rather long, so I only included the opening stanza. It is my all-time favorite “story-poem.” Here’s the complete text:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171940

#10

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh

–W.B. Yeats

#11

Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed,

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,

Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,

Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,

Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

–Robert Burns (Final stanza from “Tam O’Shanter,” 1790)

#12

Before I Sleep, by Robert Baldwin

I may not have learned much (aged barely 52), only partly successful in

accepting Life’s dance card,

considering Death’s scythe, and

probing the Border-lands between freedom and livelihood.

I poke the edges of consciousness;

prodding just enough to glimpse Gnosis,

witnessing a teasing, seductive reality,

knowing a heretically established Truth.

Dragons lie ahead, undoubtedly now as then,

littering my tarot fool’s Grail path with

lingering shadows of Icarus, Medusa and Socrates;

framing the ego in neon fire.

But there is also a purer light, eternally

illuminating this mysterious Zen-filled portage,

grounding this moment with abundant choice,

promising unknown miles yet to go.

#13

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

#14

“Alone” by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirsty

And bread loaf is not stone

I came up with one thing

And I don’t believe I’m wrong

That nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires

With money they can’t use

Their wives run round like banshees

Their children sing the blues

They’ve got expensive doctors

To cure their hearts of stone.

But nobody

No, nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely

I’ll tell you what I know

Storm clouds are gathering

The wind is gonna blow

The race of man is suffering

And I can hear the moan,

‘Cause nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

#15

At the far end of town
where the Grickle-grass grows
and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
and no birds ever sing excepting old crows…
is the Street of the Lifted Lorax.
And deep in the Grickle-grass, some people say,
if you look deep enough you can still see, today,
where the Lorax once stood
just as long as it could
before somebody lifted the Lorax away.
What was the Lorax?
And why was it there?
And why was it lifted and taken somewhere
from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows?
The old Once-ler still lives here.
Ask him. He knows.
You won’t see the Once-ler.
Don’t knock at his door.
He stays in his Lerkim on top of his store.
He lurks in his Lerkim, cold under the roof,
where he makes his own clothes
out of miff-muffered moof.
And on special dank midnights in August,
he peeks
out of the shutters
and sometimes he speaks
and tells how the Lorax was lifted away.
He’ll tell you, perhaps…
if you’re willing to pay.
–Opening from “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss

Complete text here: https://ecworlddynamics.wikispaces.com/Lorax+Text

Better yet, go buy the book!

#16

“Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska

I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here
to many things I’ve also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.

#17

With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree trunk.

–Richard Wright (from “5 Haiku”)

#18

Blessings

occur.
Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.

All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows’ ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There’s a business
like show business.
There’s something new
under the sun.

Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There’s rest for the weary.
There’s turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.

Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
I can
take it with me.

“Blessings,” by Ron Wallace (b. 1945)

#19

I wonder how many people in this city
live in furnished rooms.
Late at night when I look out at the buildings
I swear I see a face in every window
looking back at me
and when I turn away
I wonder how many go back to their desks
and write this down.

–Leonard Cohen

#20

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

–Pablo Neruda

#21

“Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?” by Ron Koertge

Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.

It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.

Avoid any enclosed space where more than
three people are wearing turtlenecks. Beware
any snow-covered chalet with deer tracks
across the muffled tennis courts.

Not surprisingly, libraries are a good place to write.
And the perfect place in a library is near an aisle
where a child a year or two old is playing as his
mother browses the ranks of the dead.

Often he will pull books from the bottom shelf.
The title, the author’s name, the brooding photo
on the flap mean nothing. Red book on black, gray
book on brown, he builds a tower. And the higher
it gets, the wider he grins.

You who asked for advice, listen: When the tower
falls, be like that child. Laugh so loud everybody
in the world frowns and says, “Shhhh.”

Then start again

#22

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

–William Blake (opening stanza from “Auguries of Innocence”) http://www.bartleby.com/41/356.html

#23

A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

#24

The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

#25

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

–JRR Tolkien

Collaboration and the Glass Slipper

cind-2

A dream is a wish your heart makes When you’re fast asleep In dreams you lose your heartaches Whatever you wish for you keep

I am pleased to be conducting two big collaborations with the Utah Philharmonia in the coming month.  Both are productions of the Cinderella story; one with the Utah Ballet, the other with the Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble. Although we never planned it to coincide with the Disney remake, both are “dreams come true,” in a way.  The first is a production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, done in steampunk. Steampunk is a style originating in a literary subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in a quasi-Victorian setting. External elements include steam-powered machines, airships, and lots of gears and mech-designs.  A good description might be: “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” Prokofiev’s music is visionary and incredibly good as a traditional ballet, but the steampunk design seems to both fit the story and give it a “modern” twist that is wholly appropriate. Choreographer Jay Kim came up with this idea that continues to excite us as we race towards production week. Cinderella_BjpgThree weeks later, the Phil is back in the pit for a production of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon (French for Cinderella). The score is quite interesting and contains elements of French opera, as one would expect, but also the seemingly out-of-place elements of German fairy-tale operas and even a hint of Wagner.  The steampunk set and design will be in place once again for this production, the seemingly non-sequitor elements playing off on one another to great effect. The show will be directed by Michael Scarola, a veteran of productions at the Met and New York City Opera and who is currently with the L.A. Opera. . By nature, both opera and ballet are collaborative efforts, but these productions are even more collaborative than most, with the entire College of Fine Arts getting involved.   It’s an artistic effort reminiscent of Babbage’s Difference Engine (yes, a steampunk reference that is a thing in “real history,” too!)  Here’s a preview blog article about the productions and all of the elements involved. The Finer Points Blog Link Cinderella mural From painting the giant mural backdrops to concentrating on tiny articulations in the score, these are two collaborative efforts not to be missed if you are within driving distance of Salt Lake City! I’ll see you from the edge of the pit!

No matter how your heart is grieving If you keep on believing The dream that you wish will come true

Cinderella2_banner_Spr2015Quoted song lyrics from “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” composed by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston for the 1950 Disney film, Cinderella. Photos courtesy of the University of Utah College of Fine Arts

Farewell to a Soul Who Indeed Lived Long and Prospered. (As a Result, We All Prospered)

tumblr_m6iwk1GUnD1qj4li6o1_250I never met Leonard Nimoy, yet he was an important part of my life. My mother introduced me to Star Trek through reruns in the 1970s. She had watched the original (and I think may have secretly had a thing for Mr. Spock). As a young boy, I naturally identified first with Captain Kirk, the swashbuckling hero. But there was always something about Spock that kept bringing me back to reality. Spock represented the logic they were trying to teach us in school, the emotional restraint we were expected to demonstrate in life, and the utopian ideal society was striving towards as we firmly raced through our first space age towards the computer era.

In 1982, I watched Spock die, and cried. In 1984, I cried again at his resurrection. I reveled at each appearance of Nimoy’s Spock in subsequent series and films. Star Trek couldn’t lose Spock. Nor could the public. We needed him. We still need him. What began as Gene Roddenberry’s strange alien, a foil to the emotionally driven human characters, quickly became something we all could identify with. Spock was both what we aspired to and what we feared. Spock, himself half human, represented the very real struggle of a world struggling to keep its humanity. As Kirk says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels, his was the most…human.”

The loss of Mr. Nimoy was of course inevitable. He faced the same fate that confronts all of us. Even Vulcans die. But Nimoy brought something special into the world. Nimoy’s Spock was more than a character, he was an archetype for the late 20th century. He played everything from the wise sage to the split personality. He even was at times the traitor and the very embodiment of logically-justified evil.  More often than not though, his logical perspective saved the day, be it the ship, planet, galaxy, or universe.

Oh, how I wish for the fantasy of Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. But to launch Leonard Nimoy into the Genesis Planet, to make whole what was lost would indeed be illogical. Perhaps in this loss, we also find the truth in a Spock quote from the original series:

“Change is the essential process of all existence.“

Thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for your portrayal. Thank you for your artistry. And thank you for the mirror reflection back to us.

SpockSaluteCopyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Step in Time

diagram

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?” -W.B. Yeats

Movement is a vital part of life. Motion defines our very existence, whether awake or asleep. Every aspect of life contains movement, from the act of making a sandwich to the blood rushing through our veins. And like that analogy, some movement is a conscious choice, while other movement is an involuntary response to life.

I’ve had the great pleasure to have been involved in several different events combining dance and music this year. A pair of Tchaikovskys: a mini-Sleeping Beauty and a Nutcracker; Prokofiev’s Cinderella coming up in April and last night’s Salt Lake Symphony Vienna Ball top the list of formalized events. I’ve also done several concerts where we got kids moving to music. And thus: today’s ruminations of music and movement.

To be sure, this is a topic in which I am well-versed. After all, I make my living as a conductor. The physicality of gestures is my daily bread, so to speak, and it’s not just about waving the arms. The good conductor embodies the spirit of music as well as the sandwich-making choices like cues and tempo. The human need to move to music is something so ingrained in the human experience, we should not be surprised to see it everywhere.

Formalized choreography is one element with which I am presently working. That’s the “dance company-onstage-orchestra-in-pit” model. The audience pays to watch the movement. It is all about story, emotion, and depiction. Here tempo is vital. A few metronome clicks off and the ballerina cannot keep point. This is movement tied to music at its most formal, so complicated that it takes another artist, the choreographer to coordinate the movement.

Take one step back in formality and you have the conventional dance step. Last night’s Vienna Ball with the Salt Lake Symphony was a great example of this, and incidentally a fantastic annual event. Apparently, the draw to dance to a live orchestra has enthusiastic followers who will sacrifice in order to do so. The chance to dance Viennese waltzes (and polkas, mazurkas, etc.) with a live orchestra brought people from thousands of miles away. Some patrons flew in from the East Coast for the event. Here perfect tempo is not quite as vital, but still must be in the realm of dance-ability. (Something I try to keep clearly in mind as midnight approaches and fatigue sets in for both orchestra and patrons!)

I’ve also done several family concert events where we got the kids involved in marching, clapping and stomping to the music. If you watch children at a concert, they are just itching to move. Some just go ahead and sway or conduct the music as a reflex. They simply must MOVE to the pulse. Allowing them to do so is very important. Getting them to organize their movements to sound is the first step in allowing creativity and further developing the musical mind-muscles.

There is another aspect of moving to music that is often overlooked: the musicians themselves. Instrumental musicians are bound to the instrument in a certain way, the technique of producing a sound must be engaged before we go about “moving” to the music. The movements are complicated and not always apparent to the audience. Lips on reed, bow on string, creating the vibrations responsible to cause a sound to be produced cannot often be observed, and can never been felt with the subtlety that the musician comes to instinctively know. But once the sound is under control, we musicians also must move. If you carefully watch a good orchestra, you will see the engagement, from swaying violin bows, weaving woodwind and brass torsos and timpani releases that are all reflective of the music, not just the technique.

What I hope to do as a conductor is elicit this response from my musicians, and transmit the motion along with the sound waves to the audience. The music itself moves, not only with the precision of physics, but also with the rush of spirit. Through all the nitty-gritty of a rehearsal, my goal is to capture this essence by the time the audience arrives for the concert. I also hope is that the audience experiences this movement in the performance, even if they are not consciously aware of it. It is as important to a good performance as good choreography, yet more spontaneous.

So whether it’s a prima ballerina on point, a floor of polka dancers, or the subtle sway of a group of 75 performing musicians, be aware of the movement around us. It’s even ok to tap your toes. And maybe, just maybe, you will begin to notice it in your daily life rhythms as well.

Copyright, 2015, Robert Baldwin Before the Downbeat