Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

God Rest Ye Freylehk Rabosay

I practiced with just the guitar player last night. One of the Christmas tunes that we had to simplify chords for was "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." There's a standard E minor 4-part harmony arrangement that's been around for many years that perhaps you've heard or sung. In 4-part harmony singing you can easily change the chord for every note and it makes sense. With guitar it's too difficult, makes no sense, and would sound dreadful if you could. Better to choose a chord for a measure and let some of the melody notes be non-harmonic.

So I brought a proposed chord sequence and a bass line and we tried it out. The bass line has some C naturals followed by D#s. Y'know, linke in the good ol' harmonic minor scale. Also in some Jewish modes. Oy, it started to sound Klezmer! At practice tomorrow with the dulcimers (akin to cembala, an Eastern Eurpopean instrument) maybe we can add some Eastern European-ish rhythms, if they'll go along with this cross-cultural travesty.

Welcome, Yellow Dog. Glad to hear you're stilling playing with the fiddler.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Road to Cello - Chapter 2

Over a year had past before M came back. She was in a happier, more connected of mind. "Must get date, or at least phone number!" I thought. That had a snag, she was traveling to Washington soon to visit her brother for awhile. Hmmm, the next possible weekend I had my daughter with me. A few weeks later we had a first date at Chuck E. Cheese with me bringing my 7-year-old along and she bringing her dog.

In the following months we got to know each other, and each others tastes in things like music. We took some road trips out to the desert and she brought some of her favorite tapes along: some Celtic, some Appalachian, some various guitar/banjo/song collections. Real nice stuff. After awhile it starts to grow on you. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes somewhere in between, but always hummable and good listening.

Sometimes M spoke of the Summer Solstice Festival held in Calabasas by the California Traditional Music Society. It was one of her favorite places. I had heard of it and I knew many of the contradancers went up there but I didn't know much about it and hadn't thought of going before. So when June came, we packed up a tent and food and out to Calabasas we went.

Wow, it was better than I had imagined! It was held on the grounds of Soka University which was a beautful somewhat isolated place. Small by University standards perhaps, but with expansive lawns, large shade trees, a creek and pond with large graceful swans. Are we still in dusty, crowded, concrete-covered Southern California? Didn't seem that way.

For the two days there were workshops for singers, instrumentalists, and dancers at various levels, concerts, and jam sessions (both planned and unplanned) all over the campus and at the campgrounds. Instruments included, but were not limited to: fiddles, banjos and mandolins of various shapes, sizes, and tunings, guitars, hammer and fretted dulicmers, harps, whistles and flutes, psalteries, concertinas and accordians, string basses, and even home-made instruments, such as PVC pipe marimbas and washtub basses. And for non-instrumentalists, sessions in harmony singing, cowboy songs, Celtic songs, humorous songs, American contradance, English country dance, Greek dance, belly dance, and other international dance styles.

In the mornings and evenings groups formed in the camping area for song circles and jams. It's gets very dark there (no campfires are allowed, of course, but then, these people are not the type to pack music stands). At one point a washtub bassist came by, stopping for a while at the camping area before continuing on to a hotel with many other late night jams sessions. I still remember how that bass added a gentle depth and anchor to the sometimes chaotic mixture of treble instruments. Bimm-bumm-bimm-bumm... wafted through the campground. I had no idea that a washtub could actually hit specific notes and follow the chord changes like that. I wished I could do that, but I couldn't imagine learning to pull on a stick just the right amount to match chord changes by ear. No way I could even hope to identify chord changes well enough and fast enough for any instrument yet alone on something like that. It seemed like magic.

Note: Since that time (2002) the CTMS festival has been scaled back. The grounds of the Calabasas campus of Soka University were purchased by the CA Park Service (See http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/712/files/031105a.pdf, and http://angeles.sierraclub.org/News/SS_2005-05/soka2.asp). By contract, although the sale was completed in 2005, Soka University maintained control on the use of the grounds until 2007. I'm told the Park Service wants more money for the use of the grounds than CTMS can come up with. While the 2006 festival still took place on the same grounds with a cut-down schedule, we hear the 2007 festival might be held at a large hotel in Encino instead. We're waiting for more word from CTMS.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's That Time of the Year

Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly.
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don't say "when".
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

Tom Lehrer

A little group of us has a gig at a local mall on
Dec 2. Two hammer dulcimers, guitar, and cello.
We've started working on Xmas tunes (Unlike some
folks, I don't have a problem with the abbreviation
"Xmas." It's not an English X! It's a Greek Chi,
for Ihsous Xristos. Makes it more international
and connects us with its original and true meaning
that way.)

It turns out the guitar player's chords differ,
quite significantly at times, from what I've assumed.
I'll need to do some revision. On Monday I'll get
together with just the guitar player and run through
accompaniments, cleaning them up. No pesky melodies
to distract us.

Sometimes my semi-classical/pop/theoretical taste
clashes with what others play, and have played,
for years. Part of it is I look for a good bass
line, rather than what's easy and natural on a
chording instrument like guitar. Also, I can't
help but feel Xmas music often lends itself to a
more colorful, classical-ish treatment, rather
than down-home 3-chord boom-chick.

"Y'know, we could substitute the relative minor
for that same
old tonic chord here... and don'cha
think a temporary modulation over here
would be so
cool... and waddabout a suspended 4th before the
cadence over there..."

Just knock it off already, Terry. Find out the
chord changes they're
already playing and play
something that sticks to those.

Monday, November 20, 2006

If I Were a Tech Whiz

Cellist Hilton commented: If you could magically play with the technique of a professional, would you? Why or why not?

Interesting question. I'm going to take a shot at answering.

No. At least not often or much. Consider the typical orchestra parts. The cello parts are usually far easier than I would think the composer would expect the players to be able to play. Yes, some composers make it a struggle, but normally players in an ensemble have other things on their mind than using their technique. Listening, balancing, matching, following, emphasizing, backing off, energy, restraint, artistry... The notes themselves are relatively easy.

Perhaps a good, albeit imperfect anology is: technique is to music as vocabulary is to story-telling. You need a minimum vocabulary to tell a story. To a point, a fuller and more accurate choice of words can make a more vivid and interesting story. But long, complex, high-falutin' words for the sake of showing off one's vocabulary doesn't help the story. And if the story is told by multiple story-tellers in ensemble, but one teller's words don't fit, it degrades the story.

Certainly Mark Twain had an educatated man's vocabulary, but should he use all that educated vocabulary for the voices in the story? Aren't there other elements to a story than just vocabulary. The relationships of words to other words. Images the words evoke. Tension and release. Main characters and supporting characters.

In practice, too many notes in the cello range sounds sounds too cluttered and hurried.

Rushad Eggleton, a classically-trained cello prodigy, said in Fiddler Magazine: "I began working out tunes like 'Bill Cheatum' and 'Salt Creek,' but at first I started out playing them in a way that felt totally unnatural. I tried playing them using classical cello technique, which was difficult. It took me a long time to realize that people who play folk and vernacular music didn't play their instruments in a way that's physically difficult, like classically trained musicians do. They play their instrument in an organic way. Fiddlers tend to play in first position, for example. So if I was going to play this music on cello, I was going to have to play it in the simplest way possible. I experimented with different ways of holding the bow, and for a while I tried playing without the end peg, but eventually I stopped thinking about technique altogether. "I stopped playing the tunes in the upper octaves, the same range the fiddle is tuned to, and started playing them in first position, in the lower ranges I call the heart of cello land. In bluegrass music, not every instrument plays the tune the same way -- the banjo does it a bit differently from the mandolin and so on -- and I realized I could change things a bit, too, so they fit the cello. I could put some passages down an octave for example, and make the tone really bluesy and growly and take advantage of what the cello has to offer. I've really gotten into the low, grumbliness of the instrument."

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Road to Cello - Chapter 1

What's an, ummm, unorthodox, not-terribly disciplined, not terribly classical-minded man like me doing sitting behind a cello. Cellos are conservative, orthodox, highly disciplined, and highly classical instruments. Perhaps no other common musical instrument presents such a classical, and nearly only classical, image in today's world. Say cello and people think of serious music and performers like Casals and Piatigorsky. Ok, maybe oboe and bassoon are even more square, perhaps to some measure because Yo-Yo Ma, the household name in cello, has branched out from the strictly classsical repertoire.

I'm going to start my story of how I took up this consuming habit in the summer of 2000, over 2 years before I ever touched a cello (Hey, it's my story. I can start it where I want!). I was at a contradance. I had been going once in a while for a couple of years by then. I liked the concept of attending a dance with a live band, and found it worth supporting. I found the sounds and the atmosphere growing on me. It was very different from the kinds of music I grew up with, but that was fine with me. It was gentle, unsophisticated, earthy, and real. Not an electronic wall of sound; and not so complex that one had to sit and listen carefully to get it. It was all about the audience and their enjoyment of the dance, not about the performers. And the people were my kind of people. While I'm no tee-totaler, there's no alcohol at contradances. I could bring my daughter; she was 6 years old the first time I brought her. The people are friendly; very happy to see you come back. And the dancing is easy. Much easier than Country-Western or Swing. Mistakes are freely forgiven.

The folks in nearby Riverside County have made a video that gives an accurate picture of what a contradance is like. I have a link to their site over on the side. I recommend it if you want to understand some of what PFS has been writing about contradances.

Anyway, at that dance back in 2000 I met a delightful lady whom I'll call M. She seemed to be about my age, she participated in Sierra Club events like I did, and we seemed to have a lot in common, but she was clearly in emotional pain. Sadly, her husband had passed away about three months before, from heart failure. She was still grieving but had to get out of the house and be around some people. She had enjoyed folk music for years but her husband had required considerable care in his last years, even though he was not very old at all.

M & I had an interesting and memorable conversation. I left the dance that night hoping to see her next month. It was not to be. She didn't show up at the next one, either. Or the next. Oh well, I thought, maybe she's found somebody new and she's doing well again (to be continued).

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Maybe Tula has the right idea

Tula's rendition of Whisky Before Breakfast is considerable simpler than versions I've seen in print. I like that simplified version, yet I don't think it's terribly noticeable that it is simpler.

Dave Brody's Fiddler's Fake Book is a commonly used source for fiddle tunes by all instruments. I've prepared a jpeg that shows the Fiddler's Fake Book version down an octave, and below it a transcription of what Tula played, with some of it down two octaves, and some of it down one octave. Big difference in playability!

Whisky Before Breakfast: Complex vs Simple

The FFB version (top line) is what I've worked on, and I'm still too slow and fuzzy (for want of a better word) at the shifts. I'd think I'd be making better music, as far as listeners were concerned, playing the bottom line.

There's no Correctness Police enforcing exactly how to play this music. Where is the line between "my version" and "wrong"? Is there such a line?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Whisky Before Breakfast

I use Audacity (freeware) to export mp3s from minidisc recordings. When I exported the A Place in the Heart mp3 I forgot to change the title field and it was saved with a prior title, Whisky Before Breakfast. Sorry for that initial confusion.

The Whisky Before Breakfast recording that I had been working with before was done with a guest fiddler, Tula, from Monrovia. This was after just one rehearsal with us. Tula is very much my idea of what a fiddler should should like. Monrovia is a bit far away, but I hope she comes down and guests with us more often in the future. Unfortunately, the minidisc filled up before the end of the tune, so the recording with Tula abrubtly ends.

I've worked on the melody Whisky Before Breakfast some, off and on, for a couple of years. It goes up to 4th position, but the tricky part is a back and forth section between 3rd and 2nd. At first it seemed impossible, then it seemed like someday off in the future, and now it seems like it's just a bit beyond my reach at full tempo. Maybe a few months more and I'll be posting myself on the melody.

Here's the band When Pigs Fly! with guests Tula and myself guesting on washtub bass: Whisky Before Breakfast

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ar hyd y nos

Yesterday at church, the program listed the closing hymn as For the Fruit of All Creation. I didn’t recognize the title but I sure recognized the tune: An ancient Welsh air known as Ar hyd y nos (no, I don’t speak Gaelic), also known as All Through the Night. I looked in the back of the hymnal and saw that the tune index listed Ar hyd y nos at three different locations in that one hymnal: Go My Children With God’s Blessing, God Who Made the Earth and Heaven, and For the Fruit of All Creation.

Mozart it ain’t. Some totally unknown person or persons, perhaps a poor peasant, made up this simple tune in his, or probably her, home, perhaps to be a sung to her baby, many centuries ago. Yet it still appears in hymnals and many thousands, perhaps millions of people, have sung it and continue to sing it. Mozart should be so lucky.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Place in the Heart

Well, thank you commenters for your kind words.

A Place in the Heart is a relatively recent tune composed by Bill Crahan for mandolin. I don't know the exact year but I think in the '90s. We've started working on it with our mandolin player and below I have a link to a recording of last week's practice session on it. It's an AABB structured tune. For the A sections, I'm playing pizz chords. For the B sections I've made up my own little harmony part. I know, the actual playing, especially intonation, still leaves a lot to be desired, but I think the cello line works out rather nicely in this piece.

I can't imagine not writing my own parts some of the time. It's not improvisation in the sense Eric Edberg advocates because I figure out what to play ahead of time, then change and work with it between practices. The choice of notes notes often remain a work in progress.

A Place in the Heart

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Start

Welcome to my newly starting blog. My intent is that this blog will mostly discuss musical activities and thoughts, mostly regarding cello and amatuer music, but with occasional wanderings to other subjects. My hope is that reader comments will help me steer where this blog goes.

I started cello at age 49, after having played trombone off and on from age 13 to 40. Soon I'll post how and why I came to cello. For now, suffice it to say I certainly know, starting at this advanced age, I won't ever be playing Shostokovich or Brahms sonatas in great metropolitan concert-houses like a life-long professional. That's alright with me. I'll make myself a niche playing simple music with friends in concerts and jams. Fiddlers, guitarists, banjo players, etc, often start as adults and make highly enjoyable music within just a few years, so why not cellists? True, we can't go as fast and high, but our accompaniments can sound wonderful, and listeners find a well-executed melody on cello a special treat.

For most of the 20th century, cello, viola da gamba, and basy (a 3-stringed Eastern European version) had been largely forgotten as instruments of the working class, largely supplanted by the guitar, double bass, banjo, cittern, bouzouki, and the increased availability of the piano (once prohibitively expensive for common folk). Then in 1973, Abby Newton brought cello back into the folk world playing with the famed Putnam String County Band. In 1974 Nancy Blake began playing cello and guitar with her husband fiddler and mandolin player Norman Blake. Gradually more artists and bands brought cello into their sounds, prompting LA-based author and disc-jockey Larry Wines to proclaim 2005 The Year of the Cello (Folkworks bi-monthly newspaper, Jul/Aug 2005 issue).