Archive for category Music

Oh Dear… Must Resist

Posted by on Friday, 12 June, 2009

My buddy Andre is getting married today, and in classic Andre-style he asked a few of his buddies (just 5 days ago!) to gather into a last-minute motley band to cover Neil Young’s Harvest Moon as his bride walks down the aisle. Andre is playing guitar along with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, another guy is playing glockenspiel, someone else on percussion, a few female singers. Did he ask me to play banjo? Of course not… certainly not for that song. 🙂 The band needed an electric bass, so he asked me to fill in.

No problem. I mean, I’ve played a bunch of bluegrass guitar and banjo, and a bass is just an oversized guitar, right? What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out I do have an electric bass already, sitting in my closet unused. I bought it at a garage sale in 1997 for $25, and it was in almost-new condition: it had already been sitting unused in a box for 30 years. It was in fine condition except that all the electronics had rusted and become static-ey. Well, I brought it over to good old Dr. Fretgood this week and they replaced the jack and pot-knobs completely, put new strings on… voila! Works great!

It’s a pretty cheap piece of junk, though. It’s a beginner-level bass made by Kay (who is known for excellent upright basses), but made cheap-o basses in the late 60’s. They were all clones of the famous Gibson SG models. As others have said on the net, this bass was the proverbial Sears-Roebuck catalog bass, easily affordable by every 12 year old who wanted to get into rock and roll. Interestingly, these 40 year old basses are now starting to sell for high prices in internet auctions, just because they’re kitchey and some people get a kick out of the retro sound!

We had a simple practice session late last night, and things went great. The band sounds fine, and I managed to bounce simple 1-5 notes on all four chords in the song. I did have an unexepected revelation, however: I never realized how incredibly long the sustain is on a bass. You pluck a note, and it just rings for 10 seconds! So while my guitar skills transferred over okay, I suddenly found myself having to deliberately mute every note I played at some specific time after I plucked it. After a while, it became clear that the muting actions are just as important to the ‘rhythm’ of the bass as the plucking actions. What a strange new thing to have to pay attention to!

I fooled around a bit more today, and figured out how to play the bassline to Zepplin’s Ramble On, one of my most favorite basslines ever. Wow. This could be… really fun. Must resist, I don’t have time for new instruments. 🙂

I need to sit down with a real bass player, however, and learn right-hand picking technique. Right now my instinct is to pluck every darn note with my thumb, because the strings are so huge. I’m sure that’s not right.

An Exhausting Week: Google Code, Winesburg, Haskell.

Posted by on Friday, 6 March, 2009

What a long week!

I was in San Francisco all week visiting Google teammates, cooking up our latest exciting plans for Project Hosting on Google Code. Our whole team is eagerly awaiting the upcoming Google I/O developer conference in May (for programmers who want to use Google technologies in their own works). Still, it’s really exhausting to sit in conference rooms all day with co-workers while working out designs and strategies.

At the end of that trip, I stopped in Kansas City for a day on the way home to Chicago, to check in on the latest re-mounting of our musical Winesburg, Ohio going up at KC Repertory. (This is a huge production, and you can even hear a sample of a song on the theater’s website.) Andre and I got to rehearse the 5-piece pit orchestra, and listen to an unbelievable cast sing the show. The cast is made up of local folks, Chicago folks, and a bunch of famous Broadway pros. I’ve truly never heard the musical sound better… it just gave me goosebumps hearing the vocal harmonies stack on each other in various climax sections!

Now I’m finally home, and I can try to remind my kids who I am again.

On the plane, though, I finally finished my mini “learning Haskell” project. Because, you know, I wasn’t feeling like enough of an oppressed minority — I had to start teaching myself an elitist functional programming language just for kicks. 🙂 I’m having a blast re-wiring brain to solve problems functionally. I wrote a cute little program to compute a Julia Set on the complex plane. Here’s a sample session with the Haskell interpreter:

*Main> :load complex.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main ( complex.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.

*Main> let win = ComplexWindow (ComplexNum (-2) 2) (ComplexNum 2 (-2))
0.1 100 100

*Main> juliaWindow (ComplexNum 0.1 0.2) win

In all seriousness: if you’re a programmer, it’s important to always be learning new things and new ways of thinking. It keeps your brain in good shape!

Hello, my New Media

Posted by on Saturday, 7 February, 2009

Today I was changing my kid’s diaper and singing Hello my Baby to comfort him — I had learned the whole thing in college as part of a barbershop quartet. Everybody knows the first part of the song:

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal
Why don’t you send me a kiss by wire? Baby, my heart’s on fire!
If you refuse me, honey you’ll lose me, then you’ll be left alone,
Oh baby — telephone, and tell me I’m your own.

Cliches aside, this song is fascinating to me. It dates back to the (prior) turn of the century and is all about the “novelty” of that crazy new technology called the telephone. It’s a bit like somebody writing a song today extolling the innovation of instant messaging or Facebook. When I got to the relatively unknown bridge part, I was struck by one phrase (in bold):

I’ve got a little baby but she’s out of sight,
I talk to her across the telephone.
I’ve never seen my honey, but she’s mine alright,
So take a tip and leave her alone.
Now every single morning you will hear me yell,
“Hey Central, fix me up across the line” —
he connects me with my honey, and I ring the bell,
and this is what I say to baby mine…

Wait a second. He’s never seen his baby? I’ve heard internet pundits make fun of chatrooms and dating sites… “oh ha ha, they met over the internet. They’ve never even seen each other!” But clearly this is not a new phenomenon! Given that this song is tongue-in-cheek humor, the authors were clearly mocking the telephone in exactly the same way. That’s a revelation to me. Maybe all new communication technologies go through the same stages of sneers and disbelief.

For your cheesy enjoyment, I’ve included an mp3 link of my college barbershop quartet singing this song so you can hear the obscure middle section. If you’re a masochist, I’ve included two more songs performed by our quartet. (The reverb is real: we recorded in a gothic stone foyer.)

And yes, in our quartet photo below (circa 1994) that really is me all the way on the right. We were trying very hard to mimic the famous Norman Rockwell inset. 🙂

Hello, My Baby (mp3, 1.8MB)

Sweet Adeline (mp3, 2.2MB)

Love-Eyes Medley (mp3, 2.9MB)

Winesburg, OH in Kansas City, MO

Posted by on Tuesday, 27 May, 2008

In case you forgot, I used to have an active career in as a composer for theater. From 1995-2005 my buddy Andre and I worked our way up the theater ladder, starting as a couple of naive college kids who had written a college rock-musical adaptation based on Dante’s Inferno. We wrote hundreds of scores for plays, and at least five more musicals as contracted by various small theaters. Over the years, though, our career paths slowly diverged. As the theaters got bigger and more professional, rehearsals moved to daytime hours — and thus we had to quit our day jobs to keep going. Andre took the leap to become a “pro” designer; with my family and mortgage, though, I wasn’t able to bring myself to walk away from the lucrative and exciting world of professional software development.

Andre now travels around the country writing scores for dozens of regional theaters, and he’s been gracious enough to let me ride his coattails now and then. When a rare “musical theater” opportunity presents itself, we’ll still work together in the studio like the old days. Since I had a kid in 2005, I’ve had even less time to work with Andre, though we did write a children’s musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” for the Steppenwolf theater last year.

The work I’m most proud of, though, was a very dark musical adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. If you’re not familiar with the book, you should be — it’s a collection of twisted short stories about life in a small town around 1900. Think “Our Town” on crack. Sherwoood Anderson’s book was scandalous when it was released about about 100 years ago, but his groundbreaking style had a (self-admitted) heavy influence on later writers such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner.

In any case, as with all decent musical theater, our “Winesburg” show has gone through numereous evolutionary iterations. It started as a tiny production in 2002, followed by more workshops, followed by a bigger production in Chicago which garnered a regional Jeff Award… then a workshop in NYC, a production by some kids at an arts college in Connecticut, and finally a much larger regional production in Philadelphia which won a Barrymore Award. (The Philly show actually produced box-office royalities, which paid for my banjo!) While I’m skeptical the show will ever go to Broadway, I do hope it gets refined and popular enough to get published and make the rounds at regional theaters around the country.

So: we’re ready for round 7! The show will be playing at the Kansas City Repertory in March 2009. Mark your calendars. One more chance to improve, rewrite, or add new music. I’m pretty excited to be involved again.

Incidentally, this musical is the reason why — about five years ago — I gave up my life as a jazz pianist for folk music on stringed instruments. It was the first show Andre and I had written where the piano plays only a minor role. Many songs have no piano at all, in fact. I remember running rehearsals without Andre, and discovering that certain songs simply couldn’t be rendered at the piano… the only solution was for me to quickly take some guitar lessons. From there, my teacher introduced me bluegrass, and then off I sailed into banjo-land. I’ve not really gone back to the piano since then!

Banjo trade-o

Posted by on Sunday, 4 May, 2008

Remember that awesome folding travel banjo I bought a year ago? It was really cool, but I traded it away for something better.

My original itch was the fact that I was flying to California (and other places) at least five times per year, and wanted to be able to join in jams in other cities. It’s really nervewracking to carry a banjo on a plane — usually the attendants will let you store it in the coat-hanging closet, but you live in constant fear of being forced to “gate check” the thing into the bottom of the plane. And that means burly men throwing the thing around. You can fill your hardshell case with bubble wrap all you want, but there are still a lot of horror stories out there. So the Tranjo was perfect: the neck just popped off (with strings still attached!), and the whole thing fit in a backpack. I went through airport security five times last year before anyone even noticed I had a banjo in my bag — it only got searched on the 6th flight. Great peace of mind!

Unfortunately, the Tranjo had one big drawback: it was too quiet. I’d take it to jams and couldn’t even hear myself playing. The instrument was great for practicing quietly in hotel rooms, or playing solo around a campfire (which I did once)… but that’s it. No group jamming. So, I stopped carrying it with me on trips, and discovered it was easier to just ask friends to lend me banjos on the other side. Turns out there are several Googlers in Mountain View who have banjos I can borrow. 🙂

Thus, I decided to trade in my Tranjo for a really nice “traditional” open-back banjo. It’s a beautiful, light-weight thing, with a rock maple rim and mahogany neck. It sounds great, and is perfect for old-time “clawhammer” frailing. (Clawhammer is a whole different school of banjo-playing that doesn’t involve picks at all—the music pre-dates bluegrass by centuries, long before the bluegrass-heads added resonators to make banjos louder.) The banjo is made by a single artisan in Michigan, Bart Reiter. So now I have my big-ass resonator banjo for bluegrass jams, and my smaller (less expensive) open-back banjo for camping, car trips, and practicing at my office. It’s a joy to play!

(Pictures below are taken from Turtle Hill Banjo’s website.)

More, MOAR Bluegrass!

Posted by on Thursday, 1 November, 2007

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about my regular Friday Night Jam group, and then I recently posted about another monthly jam I discovered here in Chicago. However, now that I’ve got my folding banjo that I can stuff into my backpack, I’ve discovered that the real fun is to hunt for open jam sessions when I travel around the country!

When I was in eastern North Carolina in September, I got word of a great local bluegrass group playing in a tiny town 30 minutes away. So my father-in-law and I drove over to Fountain, N.C. General Store, and it was quite a scene!

The ‘general store’ had odd books and knickknacks for sale on odd shelves… in the back was a candy and ice-cream shop. The town was extremely tiny, and the audience was a bizarre blend of urban hipsters (just driven in from bigger cities) and small-town people straight out of central casting (presumably from the town itself?)

The group began to warm up and tune the instruments. I eventually got photos of the banjo player, bass, and guitar player using a super-wide aperture lens, sans flash. And oh yeah, the music was excellent as well! Of particular note was the fiddler, who invited his 12-year-old daughter to come up and play duets with him. She really roused the crowd!


Finally, when I was in Bay Area last week (a standard visit to Google HQ), I got word of a monthly jam at the Atlas Cafe in San Francisco. I drove up with some other Googlers, and we crowded onto stage with 15 other musicians. I always love the thrill of playing songs you’ve never heard before — all by ear. And then they force you to take a solo anyway. 🙂

My Folding Banjo

Posted by on Friday, 16 February, 2007

Folding? Yes, you heard right.

I fly around so much now (5 or 6 times a year, at least), that’s it’s become an annoyance to leave my banjo behind. I hate spending a week in North Carolina or California with no opportunity to practice. I did manage to carry my mega-banjo into the cabin of an airplane once; the very nice attendants let me stow it in the coat closet. But the thing is crazy heavy to lug around an airport, and you can’t always depend on kind attendants. There’s always that looming risk of some jerk forcing you to check the instrument, and no hard-shell case can withstand the abuse of a baggage guy throwing your instrument 20 feet into a hold.

So the solution? Sell my first ‘beginner’ banjo, and buy a travel banjo. This thing is tiny and light (only 5 pounds!), yet has a full size banjo neck. This is a huge improvement over other travel banjos which are perfectly to-scale, but look like they’re sized for a preschooler — I don’t want to play ukelele, I want to play banjo.

What’s truly amazing about this banjo is that after unscrewing a bolt, the whole neck just pops off and lays across the body, with all the strings still attached. This allows the thing to compact down into your gym bag or backpack for easy carry-on. And it only takes a moment to reassemble — no restringing necessary!

I love this thing. It has a smaller, more muted sound, but it still feels like a banjo and sounds like one. The tuners are weirdly located inside the drumhead, but hey, they work!

Poe with Music

Posted by on Tuesday, 22 November, 2005

What? A new baby and a new job? Surely I don’t have time for another show right now. You’re right — but has that ever stopped me before?

For those who have been asking me: the next theater project I’m doing with Andre is a musical adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe short-story: The Fall of the House of Usher. Just as Words on Fire and Winesburg, Ohio began, this production is being workshopped and presented to high school students as part of Steppenwolf Theater’s educational outreach program.

Our good friend Jessica Thebus is directing once again, and the script is being authored by a fascinating fellow named Mickle Maher. He’s retelling the story from the point of view of the sister — a character who never speaks in the original story. Andre and I will be incorporating music on piano, guitar, and some interesting live-choral textures into the show. It should be very interesting. You can read Steppenwolf’s description of the show here.

Jeff Award

Posted by on Tuesday, 8 November, 2005

Last night, Andre and I got a Joseph Jefferson Award for original incidental music. (The Jeff Awards are sort of like the Tony awards for the Chicago theater scene). People poked all sorts of fun at us — “guess you’ll have to add another shelf to your trophy case”, etc. It’s true, we’ve received a bunch of these awards over the last ten years. What unsettling, though, is that this year we got an award based on a semi-misunderstanding.

The show had all sorts of Film Noir music, and most of it was pulled from famous jazz CDs. Yet the nomination was for “original music”. Andre originally emailed the awards committee and tried to explain. They asked him if any of the music was original, and the answer was, “sure, 1 or 2 pieces, maybe”. And that was apparently enough.

So the irony is that of the two shows we were nominated for, the show for which we actually composed and scored music and hired session musicians to record — it didn’t win the award. Instead, it went to the show with the mostly-unoriginal music. One of our sound-designer friends told us not to sweat it, that this sort of thing happens all the time. He told us to think of the award as general recognition from the theater community… and he’s right, we’re still really thankful to be working in such a great town with such amazing artists.

Recent Theater Successes

Posted by on Monday, 19 September, 2005

Woo, Andre and I received three Jeff Award nominations for sound design and original music. (Andre received two more for work he did with other designers!) The one I’m really proud of is the music we composed & recorded for Mary Zimmerman’s new play adaptation, Silk. It will be headed out to Berkeley Repertory next year, I think.

In other news, the newest incarnation of our original musical, Winesburg, Ohio, is opening at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. I was out there for a few days last week, and the cast is excellent. We even rewrote a couple of songs. I think it’s going to be a great production — the theater has 6000 subscribers, so it will likely get a lot of press and exposure! If you’re anywhere near Philly, come see the show between October 6 and November 6.