Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why Symphonic Percussionists are Rockstars

I love the joke that percussionists wait around to hit things.

I've just come home from seeing the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform Mahler's 6th Symphony. Mahler pulls out all the stops for this piece, with something like a 100-person orchestra, including six percussionists.

I saw the San Francisco Symphony perform Verdi's Requiem a couple months ago, and the bass drummer stole much of my attention. This particular drummer hit the three climactic beats with two bass drums and then adjusted one drum to play the rest. He repeated the exact same procedure of tilting the drum and adjusting it each time that bit of the piece came around. Noticing the repetition of his process was fascinating. The movements were perfectly calculated.

Everyone in the hall had to be thinking that that guy is the coolest dude in the room. And that guy knew it. I figure, for a percussionist, it's the thrill of a lifetime. He's thinking, "yeah, I'm the badass that gets to play the bass drum in the Verdi Requiem. You're welcome."

Watching a world-class orchestra perform is watching lifetimes of practice, precision, timing and technique. And no one is so on display than a symphonic percussionist. They practice, practice, practice and then often hit something once, maybe twice (unless on timpani).

The photo above is an image I found online of a "hammer" used in Mahler's 6th Symphony. It is only played two times in the whole performance. The instrument I saw for this LA Phil performance (conducted by the 31-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, or as my Dad lovingly calls him, "Gus the Dude") was probably five feet tall and six feet wide, made out of simple, unfinished pine wood and had a giant whole in the middle of it. The mallet looked like something out of a Looney Toons cartoon. The percussionist (Perry Dreiman) had to walk up a couple of stairs to hit this thing.

There's also a moment in the last movement where five of the six percussionist bang the cymbals at the same time. The moments watching them prepare is exciting. I felt like a little kid waiting for this big bang, "Oh man! FIVE CYMBAL CRASHES!" And then it's over, and they move on to the next thing to hit, or wait for another 100 measures.

Two percussionists, including the same guy who played the hammer, also play off-stage bells. But I didn't realize what was going on. These guys kept exiting and entering stage, and I was thinking, "what the hell is going on here? This is so distracting!" But once I figured out what was going on could enjoy it as a super cool effect.

These guys have the best jobs.

(No offense to the rest of the orchestra, you guys are pretty fabulous yourselves, but you're not quite as amusing to watch way up in the balcony!)

Read about it from the source: the LA Phil blog.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Etta James dies at 73, a goodbye to one of the all time greats

I just like looking at her. She was so unique.

Etta James is, to me, the pinnacle of Soul music. As a singer, she is one of my favorites of all time. She nails the growling as well as the silky smooth. After learning her story and seeing her live she became even more inspiring.

Etta was someone with a rage to live as well as a "rage to survive" (The name of her Autobiography with David Ritz, which I highly recommend). She lived hard and lived surprisingly long for all that she put her body through. As a child she was abused, neglected and passed from one person to another. Her music reflected all this. You can feel it. This was not a person who lacked a story to tell. She didn't lack personality. This is sass in all its glory.

As a woman, she pushed some major boundaries. She was physically relatively large. She had a huge voice that was powerful in its sexuality and passion, something that made mid-century white mainstream America uncomfortable.

As a woman she is inspiring to me, balancing power, passion and femininity. I've realized that I hold most singers to this standard. To me she is perfection. Her music is perfection.

Yes, Etta had demons. And she overcame them, with a little help from friends like the Chess Brothers. While reading "Rage to Survive" I was moved by their relationship. While the biopic "Cadillac Records" capitalized off of this relationship in the Hollywood way, Etta credited Leonard Chess for saving her. For instance she had given him possession to the deed of her home in Compton, so even when she was totally down and out, she still had a place to sleep and had something to call her own.

I know it's cheesy, but this is the song I will be singing at my wedding.

Anyway, I wanted to pay this lovely lady a tribute on the day of her death.

Thank you Etta, for all of your music

For all your pain, for all your joy, your passion

Thank you for sharing that with the world.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Guest Hosting on Voicebox KALW 91.7

Almost a month ago, Matt Lombardi and I were invited to guest host on VoiceBox 91.7 KALW with Chloe Veltman to represent and talk about Hear it Local.

As a show/podcast focusing on the voice, I chose to feature a collection of female Bay Area singers that I love. The show was on the air last weekend as "Bay Area Bombshells". Listening to myself on the radio gushing about these women I find so inspiring was an interesting experience. I love radio and I hope I get to do it again!

To listen, CLICK HERE and scroll down to the bottom of the list to "VoiceBox"

Here's the playlist in case you were interested:

1) "Then It Starts to Feel Like Summer" by The SHE's, vocalist: Hannah Valente / Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer

2) "Float and Fall" by Meklit Hadero / On a Day Like This

3) "Monkey Gone to Heaven" by the Pixies, performed by Conspiracy of Venus / UnderCover Presents The Pixies' Doolittle

4) "Opa Cupa Fly" by Brass Menazeri Brass Band, vocalist: Bridget Boyle / Vranjski San

5) "Many Seasons" by Kacey Johansing / Many Seasons

6) "With You" by Dreams, vocalist: Emily Ritz

7) "Driving is Fun" by Dina Maccabee / Who Do You Suppose You Are?

8) "Stay" by Crystal Monee Hall / River Train

9) "Cadillac" by Con Brio, vocalist: Xandra Corpora / From The Hip

10) "Our Little Secret" by Megan Slankard / Token of the Wreckage

11) "Love For the Asking" by Kally Price

12) "Tore My Heart" Oona Garthwaite / Shhhhout!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interview with Meklit Hadero, the Nile Project and bringing East Africa together through its own music

I am so excited about the Nile Project. I've offered to help out in any way that I can (I already donated some money). This is what being an ethnomusicologist is all about!

Local singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero was born in Ethiopia. Mina Girgis, ethnomusicologist and Director of the Bay Area community music center Zambaleta, was born in Egypt. Over a beer last summer, the two realized that they have something in common other than a love for music: a desire to learn more about each other’s musical culture and a river that connected the countries of their birth.

From there came the Nile Project: a platform to bring together musicians from all of the countries that share the Nile: Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda. The plan is to make a record and tour the world with this music. And not only will they tour the world, they will tour the Nile, playing the music for their neighbors along the river. They will also be joined by scientists and local specialists who can share other information about the river and be part of theTed talks.

The project is in its infant stages and requires a tremendous amount of research: Who are the musicians? What are the songs? What are the logistics of touring the Nile? (There are after all alligators and rapids along the way.)

Meklit and Mina need your help to get to East Africa for the first research trip this spring and are raising 10 thousand dollars on kickstarter to help cover the costs. But more importantly, they want to get the word out about the project.

Click here to read my interview with Meklit and learn more about the Nile Project.