Our Place in This Zeitgeist (part 1)

I had a busy summer of traveling to play concerts, see a couple of old friends tie the knot, make the requisite visit with my family, and went back to Korea for the first time in almost 5 years, the place where I was born and spent 10 of my youthful years. This whole time I have been working on another blog piece to put on the website, but realized I just had too much to say about the subject. I started the piece initially, as a concert review of the Canadian indie rock bands, Memphis and Apostle of Hustle after seeing their show in Boston back in June (They are both amazing bands, with Jae with Torq of Memphis (& Stars)charismatic live shows). I got to meet the members of Memphis after the show and had a chance to talk to them about a few ideas that I'd been brainstorming over the last months since the start of A Far Cry. Not that I was surprised, but non the less impressed, when they did have a lot to say about the subject of a melding point between Art music and Pop music, with more knowledge than most of their own concert going audience about classical music, citing examples from Beethoven symphonies to Puccini operas. Rewrite after rewrite, I could not stick to the subject and found myself drifting into multiple issues and tying them into my personal account as a performing musician, also as an observer of the present classical music business, and as a fan of indie rock and what it stands for. So after weeks of this personal tug-of-war, I'll see if I can put these thoughts in installments, not only because I think it would help me organize my ideas and hoping that it would be somewhat of an entertaining read, but to wrestle with issues dear to me and where I want to see us catapult in directions where I believe we (A Far Cry) can help bring music to people who feel uncomfortable and foreign to the idea of having to put on a dress shirt and a tie to go hear a classical show.

The internet has changed so many facets of our world as we've known it and even for music alone, it has completely changed the way we listen, explore, watch and buy. I meet kids during outreach residencies and witness instances of how fast they can text message each other and even the kind of "code" they use to communicate with each other. I mean, I'm not that far off from them if there was a generation gap, as I proudly put myself in that Generation X category, who saw the rise of independent artists such as Nirvana and Quentin Tarantino become household names, saw the birth of the internet, finished college in the years when the so called "MTV generation" was filtering into society to lay down the infrastructure for the I-pods and High-Def TV's to flourish in the average living room, and of course when things were a little more peaceful around the world. I may not be as fast using these products as the 12-year olds, but lets just say that I know a few people who helped actually invent these devices.

One of the things that sets A Far Cry apart from most other orchestras is not only the fact that we don't have a conductor, but that everyone in the group is in pretty much the same generation. One would see examples in a chamber music ensemble such as a string quartet or piano trio, of this being true, but from an ensemble the size of 15+ people, I think we are pretty unique in that way. Take any one of the big American orchestras for instance, where they will only hold an audition if there is a vacancy from 100 or so permanent positions, whether the person before either retired at the fruitful age of 75, or went into a different business wanting to become a conductor or write for the NY times food column. My point is that for an organization that is as venerable but traditional as a band like the New York Philharmonic, new blood trickles in and rarely comes in brigades. Plus the tenure process in these orchestras will mold the new members to fit into the one that has already been established, and for the last 126 years for instance, if it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

We are starting out new with 15 members who have grown up to see the becomings of Hip-Hop, but moreover ENJOY In Korea with Danny, August 2007 listening to Hip-Hop and can see the artistic merit in its art form. We are in the generation that doesn't get bashful to let loose when we hear bass and drums in common time, and not only have we seen rock shows but have played in them. And I think that's a really important point in furthering the cause of what we do. Because we want to play and perform for these people we meet at dance clubs, at poetry readings, at bars, at coffee houses, on the public transportation, those who are in our generation and love the same kind of music, movies, and live with similar good values. I was reading an article by Greg Sandow, a composer and former music critic of the Wall Street Journal, on his never mundane website. Sandow by the way, teaches a course at the Juilliard School called "Classical Music in the age of Pop" and is a progressive thinker who raises important questions about the state and trends of music, and gets us musicians thinking about where all this hooplah with the "biz" is going. Anyways, the article was about a big orchestra trying to reach out to a younger audience using flashy colors and coining hipper terms on their posters to attract them. Not that the programming was necessarily different, or exploring a venue to collaborate with artists (Why not Jay-Z or the National? They all live in nearby neighborhoods..) that could fill the house with a surge of young audiences, it was just the same old product wrapped in glitzier paper. A little superficial if you ask me.

People want contact. They want to meet the people they admire professionally and artistically, and when they do, want to feel comfortable around them and want to know what their favorite food is. Even in these recent weeks of the Baseball play-offs, one can go onto and read blogs from the actual players like Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox or Tony Clark of the Diamondbacks, (which by the way, I tip my hat off to for opting to get the players to share their real thoughts), getting to find out a little more about their psyche, their games and their lives. And that's the kind of exposure people can relate to. Why can't an orchestra be more personable? I really believe that it needs to come from the musicians themselves WANTING to get to know their audience, from a person to person basis... Almost like a candidate running for congress for the first time, wanting to get to know his voters on a level beyond just face value. If I was working for a bigger company and my checks were coming in steadily without hassle, I wonder if I'd be all that motivated to go out and meet these people and get them excited about what I do. Well, I don't know...I think about that all the time.

It seems like with most things now a days, in order to find one's identity, the main conflict splits into that struggle between the individual and its government, mom & pops stores against the conglomerates, independents versus the established, the Republic against the Empire in the Star Wars sense, or David versus Goliath in the biblical sense. I'd say that A Far Cry would be an underdog...In the best sense of the word. And speaking of Baseball...the Red Hot Sox are back in the American League Championship Series to face the Cleveland Indians starting this Friday!!!

Summer Lessons

Summer can be a strange time for musicians. The situations we find ourselves in are usually the most relaxed (summer pops) or the most intense (chamber music festival) without very much of the usual in-between. Festivals of all kinds dominate the summer, and most of them invite musicians year to year with no future guarantees. We therefore scramble to network and impress our way to tangible "real life" advantage. Summer is not "real life" for a musician. That was doubly true for me and my early-summer festival (sadly concluded). The feeling of "alternative reality" was complete, for I was not only in a different country, thousands of miles from home, and thousands of feet higher in elevation: I was playing entirely different genres of music (most entirely new to me), I was composing and arranging pieces for public performance (also entirely new), and I was being musically stretched and challenged nearly to the breaking point!

The Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music was three tumultuous weeks of improvising. The first improvisation was simply figuring out what I was doing there. The Workshop is Banff's most selective program, and is truly international, with emerging and established professionals aged 18-40 attending in order to study with, jam with, and be inspired by a jaw-dropping revolving faculty. Some of the participants and faculty are straight-ahead jazzers, through and through. Some are drawn to the more experimental and avant-garde side of jazz. Some are drawn to the more experimental and avant-garde side of classical music. Some are so far outside of my previous experience that I don't even want to try to classify them, and some (workshop leader Dave Douglas, for example) are drawn to anything and everything. The one common thread was improvisation, but as I came to understand, that is a bit like saying the one common thread between a group of writers is "language," or the one common thread between a group of sculptors is "space:" true but at such a basic level as to be almost meaningless.

I am, at a basic level, a classical chamber musician. I interpret notes on a page with my mind and realize those interpretations with my body. What was I doing at a "jazz and creative music" workshop? I had applied to the Workshop on a whim after hearing Dave perform at NEC, using in my application stories and recordings of various ethnomusical collaborations I had taken part in, a bit of a jazz standard I had recorded for an earlier project, and a sample of chamber music playing. When I arrived and found so many world-class improvisers, I suddenly felt very much the black sheep. Who was I kidding? The Workshop is not really about learning (although a lot of learning takes place)... with such a high level of participants, the Workshop is about doing, and I had to figure out what I could do to contribute to the incredible music around me!


Initially I worked extensively with the saxophonist Oliver Lake. Oliver is a ferocious improviser who just blows you away with the feeling and authenticity behind his playing. Even though we played some of the most "jazzy" tunes of the summer, with Oliver no wrong note could disappoint him like a halfhearted phrase. Notes are inconsequential. Feelings and emotions are everything. This was also conveyed (in a completely different way) in conversations with the classical and klezmer clarinet guru David Krakauer and the club-touring classical cellist Matt Haimovitz. Having started down that path, and realizing some of the ways a rigorous classical training was helping me to contribute, the arrival of Mark Feldman showed me just how much is possible when improvising on the violin. My hypothesis, that the violin is, at some basic level, just not quite natural in improvisation, was blown out the window. Mark helped the small contingent of string players in the peculiar art of sounding good on strings. Nothing in the world, however, could have prepared me for the arrival of the Instant Composers Pool in the third week of the Workshop. I'm at a loss to describe the ICP orchestra, besides "ten crazy Dutch people." The music wasn't freely improvised; it was instantly composed. They might start playing one piece, spontaneously modulate to a different piece, and end up with the drummer throwing a cymbal on the floor. It was during a spontaneous Workshop-wide improvisation with the ICP that I lost my last inhibition, interjecting with a wild fiddle-inflected solo, and simultaneously connecting everything I had experienced at Banff back to "real life."

It's ALL improvisation. From Corelli to Tonasphernia 12. In the entire wide range of determinism, from the performer inventing everything all the way to the most painstakingly notated Boulez, when we actually perform, what we are doing is improvising - or should I say "instant composing?" I will have a good time this coming year trying to infect A Far Cry with some of this freedom-inspiring outlook!