Monthly Archives: December 2011

“Winds of Change”

“Winds of Change”

“Im sorry ma’am but you can’t take this into the facility.”

Where am I? I’m not going through airport security I’m attending an concert of the Oakdale Community choir at the Oakdale prison. As a musician I have attended to a lot of concerts but never have I had an experience quit like this one.

The concert began with a statement by the Warden. He explained the missions of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center. Over 500 prisoners pass through the facility in one month. The facility is responsible for processing newly sentenced male and female prisons as well as asses inmates for possible treatment. Every prisoner in the Johnson County Prison System passes through the Oakdale facility at some point or another. The choir is made up of inmates in the General Population. These are men that are at Oakdale for an extended stay. The program featured a few Christmas classics as well as original works composed by the choir members.

After touching and energetic renditions of Beauty Before Me, by Kristopher Erick Lindquist and African Noel, by Andre J. Thomas, the choir performed a premier of two new songs. The lyrics to Sing a Song, and Missing for So Long were composed by Josh, a long time choir member. The lyrics were set to music by both Josh and the choir’s director Dr. Cohen. Before, Sing a Song, Josh came from behind the choir and shared with the audience his inspiration for the song. Josh, as well as many other members of the choir work with Dr. Choen in a song writing workshop. In Josh’s words the song celebrates the choir’s opportunity to “sing together and create together.” “Music is life” Josh explains, and a “song unsung is a life left un-lived.”

Sing a Song was followed by another one of Josh’s works Missing for So long. I could barely hold back tears as Josh shared is inspiration behind the lyrics. He wrote the lyrics with his two son’s in mind. The song channels his feelings of lose,

“my guiding hand cant help you a-long, its been bound and hidden, missing for so long,”

and his regret at not seeing his son’s grow into men,

“I wish I was there to help you when you fal down, Im sorry i wont be there till your a mans, that was not my plan.”

After each song in the program a few of the choir members would address the audience and introduce their guests. They explained how thankful they were that there friends and family members could share this musical experience with them. This is exactly the inspiration for the song Grain of Sand, With music by Dr. Cohen and lyrics by choir member Perry. The work is a musical metaphor for the prison system. The choir imitates the machine that grinds prisoners through the cyclic gears of rehabilitation. They follow the cycle around and around but to no end. But one Grain of Sand, family members and volunteers, can inspire the prisoners to revaluate there lives through love and unyielding support.

The next song on the program was another original work by Perry. The piece was inspired by a writing prompt from Dr. Cohen. If you could say anything to your younger self what would you say? Another member of the Choir came up and explained what he contemplated as part of the prompt. He considered warning himself about a childhood riddled with abuse and disfunction. In the end he decided to tell his younger self to live his life without regrets and to simply be happy. Dear Younger Me features a delightfully optimistic chorus, “Dear Younger me/ I finally made it through as you an see/ so now i’ll pass on back to you, the things I think will will get us through/ ‘cause we only have one chance at life’s dance/ yes, we only have on chance at life’s dance.” After the performance we learned that the song’s composer, Perry, had been transfered two weeks earlier to another facility. Dr. Cohen expressed her regretts that he couldn’t be there for the premier of his works.

The concert ended with an audience/choir sing -a-long. Never have I been more moved by a performance of Feliz Navidid and a Mean One Mr. Grinch. A performance of Auld Lang Syne was sung in remembrance of all the former members who have moved one to other facilities or been released from the system. The theme of the concert was appropriately named “Winds of Change.” This choir has certainly stirred the winds of change for its artists.

The Oackdale Community choir is currently in its third year of performance. Special thanks to Dr. Cohen and University of Iowa student members, Colin Kraemer, Rose Schmidt, and Catherine Wilson for directing and organizing Oakdale Community choir events.

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Afro-Cuban Jazz Summit

The concert included three ensembles, the Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble, the Latin Jazz Ensemble and, the featured group, the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet (from San Francisco). It was the culmination of a week long residency by the Quintet’s percussionist Michael Spiro. The performances themselves were a mixed representation of styles that have emerged throughout the history of the Americas. The Drum and Dance ensemble performance included styles such as Guaguancó, and Rumba. One of their pieces featured Michael Spiro on Congas. The Latin Jazz ensemble went as far south as Brazil, with a Samba that featured a Tambourine solo, among others. They also played styles such as Son, Danzón and Boogaloo (featuring Ryan Smith on Flute, Wayne Wallace on Trombone and Nate Bogert on Tenor Saxophone), incorporating a Spanish influence (in the Danzón) and a Disco influence (in the Boogaloo, which was actually written in New York city by a Puerto Rican Conga player named Ray Barreto).

While these three performances did not encompass the entire scope of Afro-Cuban music, it seemed as if they represented different aspects of it. The Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble shed light on the sense of community that Africans may have brought to the Americas. They featured choreographed dance, as well as improvised dance, chant, song, all driven and in response to the engine of rhythm. The Latin Jazz Ensemble best addressed the question of what Afro-Cuban music has become, and how people have come to perceive it. For better or…well, you know, the different styles represented (Samba, Boogaloo, Danzón, Son) can be considered congruent under the broad category of “Latin” or, when fused with jazz concepts, “Latin Jazz”. Nevertheless, the amount of variety performed by the Latin Jazz Ensemble gives credit to the malleability that African rhythms possess.

The concert was unfortunately difficult to produce. The transition between the Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble and the Latin Jazz Ensemble was lengthy, noticeably lengthy. The change from one ensemble to the other was accompanied by the nervous discourse of the director who, after thanking all the people he could think of, was left chatting at the audience. After the second ensemble was ready (the Latin Jazz Ensemble), and a little more chatting, they began their portion of the concert. Once they were finished, there was an intermission, which started immediately after Wayne Wallace gracefully talked the audience into a round of applause for the director for all his effort and let everyone know that they would be back “shortly”. I realized they were also keeping track of time, and it was getting a little late.

Its interesting how one moment, one observation or, in this case, a 3 1/2 hour concert or rather, three 50 minute concerts bring out memories I hand’t realized were memories. It was only yesterday I was in a small northeastern town of Missouri worrying over “all the details” of a Jazz Festival. 32 schools, buses, families, directors, buildings, schedules, judges, clinics, food and, oh wait!, I almost forgot the guest artist (that year it was the Matt Wilson Quintet). Even after months of preparation, the intensity of getting through that day felt unexpected. But, no matter how many bruises the event seemed to accumulate and, let me tell you, there were a lot of things that went unexpectedly, it was all forgiven the moment the guests began to play.

The Wayne Wallace Quintet, after several seemingly failed sound checks, and the decision to shorten their set, transformed the space instantly. It was that moment when you hear something that stops you, and all emotions seem as if they were felt for the first time. As a person who grew up exposed to Afro-Cuban music it was a trip back to an island full of nostalgia. As a musician, it was the realization that I haven’t heard everything, or maybe, I haven’t heard anything. It was the desire to dance, and the excitement to hear more. But it was also 9:45pm (the concert started at 7:30pm), and a good part of the audience had left, adding a drop of disappointment to this delicious recipe of forgiveness. Not because of the time, but because I wanted everyone to be witness.

Wayne Wallace and Michael Spiro interacted with the audience constantly. Whether or not they were responding to how late it was, it worked. By the time they began playing their third piece, most of the audience members that remained were dancing in front of the stage. In the end, the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet may have inadvertently stumbled upon the most subtle, yet fundamental role that Afro-Cuban music, as well as much of the African inspired musics that exist in the Americas now, played during its inception. Even though the Quintet’s performance was a distantly refined rendition of the fusion that has been occurring throughout the history of Afro-Cuban music, it transformed the music into a vehicle to set aside the circumstances and take a step away from every day life.

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“What are you going to do with the noise you have left?”

I’d like to preface my post by saying that this is the first Electronic Music recital I’ve attended, and know relatively little about the medium, and in particular, the way in which it is usually presented. My thoughts are based purely on my reaction to the event, and not its validity as a valuable musical avenue.


The audience that shuffled into 101 Becker Communications Building on Sunday night were a mixed bag.  The event was the final opportunity this semester for recital attendance and I’m going to go ahead and guestimate that a good seventy per cent of the audience fell into the category  of undergrads who had spent the last few days trudging from one recital to the next trying to gain a good grade in the class.  The rest of the audience were seemingly students from the composition studio and a small handful of interested parties.  Audience demography interests me since I feel the most important  role of the performer(s) is to communicate, and in my own elements of performance have spent much time thinking about effective methods to achieve this goal.  In the electronic music medium, where no “performer” is visible, there is a sterility that I as an audience member found hard to overcome.

The “stage” was set with four large speakers, and on one side a box of electronic gadgets that intermittently flashed as sound played from the speakers.  For a number of the pieces these small lights were the only visual stimuli.  The first piece on the program was Alali Aria by a student at the ChuGye University for the Arts in Seoul, Korea.  It wasn’t clear to me why works from outside the University of Iowa were being presented, or how any of the works programmed were selected.  This work featured a recorded song that was occasionally doubled and moved within the stereo field, apparently invoking thoughts of reincarnation.  It ended extremely abruptly, with the audience unsure whether there was a malfunction in the recording, or that was truly the end.

By contrast, the third piece began so quietly that the audience did not realize it had begun.  Yunsoo Kim’s Making Show Pictures II originated from the artistic methods of the painter Kandinsky, I’m just not sure how.  The work was in an arch form, building from small clicks reminiscent to Cage’s amplified cactus to a cacophony comparable to a loud rainstick, and back down again.  Pitch was gradually introduced into the work in the form of recorded/manipulated piano and strings.

secondOrderConstellation and either/or, by Benjamin O’Brien and Jason Palamara respectively, both made use of the large video screen on the stage.  O’Brien’s written description of his work, peppered with technical terminology, did little to aid my understanding of what I was hearing or watching, other than deducing that it was amplitude that was being represented in the visualization.

either/or – jason palamara from Lexi Bass on Vimeo.

Palamara’s work took the opportunity to engage the audience to an entirely new level.  (This was my second chance to experience either/or as it was also programmed last weekend at the Composers Workshop recital).  Billed as a “laptop/live electronics and audience participation” work Palamara writes various musings into three text boxes on the screen, upon which the audience is directed to think or actively participate (e.g. clap, whisper, sing).  The sounds which the audience generate are then manipulated by Palamara and mixed into the continuing audio.  A couple of thought-provoking questions are put to the audience, “What are you going to do with the time you have left? You have less of it that you think.” and, the one that resonated much further with me, “What are you going to do with the noise you have left?”  Assuming that my ability to hear would soon be curtailed, how would I chose to spend my final listening moments?  Would it be with a favorite classical composer or musical genre, birdsong through an open window, or perhaps a conversation with a loved one? What is my favorite type of noise?

Overall, this recital showed me about a lot of noise I don’t want to spend much more time listening to.  Maybe if I understood more about the medium I would feel differently – if I could learn about the compositional processes and technological accomplishments, the “why” and “how” decisions made by the composers.  But without this I felt like an audience member who had missed the point.  Presentation by sound system alone left me struggling to find the very element that draws me to music in the first place, human communication by creative expression.

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A gonzo take on Mexican food and music snobbery

When someone tells you they’ve been to a “new music” concert, it’s like saying you’ve been to a Mexican restaurant: “What do you mean?” you want to ask. “Do you mean some dive under the highway that some guy on the bus told you about, or Chipotle? And is the food there really hot?” Maybe we should give “new music”—a term that scares some audiences—ratings on a “five-tritone” scale; one being, say, the Barber Adagio, and five being the Penderecki Threnody.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Chipotle. But as a musician, I belong to the “some dive under the highway” crowd. Sorry. I want to be forced to have a really divisive conversation with the other “New Music” snobs at intermission about how you just don’t get it!

Alex Ross recently wrote of people like me [subscription required, or you just don’t get it!] that New York’s new music scene in the early 1990s often gave him “the feeling that I had crashed a private party, getting the ‘Who are you?’ glance as I walked in,” and complaining of “its faculty-lounge chatter and its tortuously long pauses as mallet instruments were transported around the stage.” Like Mexican foodies, new music fans suffer from a chronic case of hipster exclusivity. (Spectralism is, like, “so over.”) New Music groups, though, are increasingly catering to wider tastes.

If I had to locate tonight’s Center for New Music concert along my Mexican food continuum, it would be most like El Banditos, a neighborhood joint in Iowa City that provides fresh takes on inviting dishes —except that, unlike Banditos’ ingredients, none of the compositions were local (a rarity indeed for CNM programming).  Tonight, I would rate the CNM programming and performance between 2 and 3 peppers: like Banditos, tasteful and sometimes surprising, for a mild to medium palate—with some tart notes where you least expect them.

One major piece was Carter Pann’s clarinet/violin/cello/piano quartet Antares. To me, the celestial six movement work—one apiece featured each soloist, bookended by a nostalgic, repeating movement—was like an enchilada: there were some delicious, quite varied tastes on the inside, but the outside was just too cheesy for my tastes.  A highlight was the second movement, “Eric (Etude),” that answers the question: what if Berio orchestrated Godowsky?

A couple of weeks ago, I had delicious southwestern scrambled tofu at a vegan joint inSan Francisco to accrue hipster points. I thought of it when hearing California composer [see what I did there?] Leslie Hogan’s striking premiere, Life Cycles, for large chamber ensemble. Hogan’s remarkably reflective notes describe the piece as

 a work of strong contrasts… dichotomies—stasis and chaos, the lyrical and the disjunct, extreme dissonance and extreme consonance—and in transformation and recombination of those materials. Eventually, the music fell into a loose three-part structure with an extended introduction.

What was fascinating about this meal was the separation of the ingredients. Unlike an enchilada, I was giving form to the meal, with each combinatory bite… but this form depended upon the contrast between ingredients. Hogan’s piece begins with a wail of dissonant woodwinds, a welcome note of serrano that lingered in my ear even after it kaleidoscopically dissolved into grave, low unison. If I had a complaint about the performance, it is that too little was made of the contrasts—the sweeps not epic enough, the whimpers not gentle—after the dramatic opening, even if the counterpoint came through with remarkable clarity. Each ingredient lost its distinct performance later in the piece–or maybe we were just digesting it– sounding “refried” where the form cried out for angularity.

Speaking of sharp edges, why can’t classical players groove sixteenth notes? Art-i-cue-late. Say it four times fast, and you’ve got one measure.

One notable exception to the groove: pianist Grethe Nothling, whose rendition of John Cage’s Amores captured its exacting metric restlessness; it depicts two deeply incongruous Indian moods, was phrased as gently as a baroque prelude, and sounded like a whirring machine sputtering itself on. The Cage percussionists played their awkward part—it’s close enough to grooving that it feels disappointing (or maybe you just don’t get it)—gamely, with some lovely phrase arches. Speaking of phrasing, Janet Ziegler’s singing of  Cage/cummings’ Forever and Sunsmell was a true feat of quiet, naked courage (as were Dan Spencer’s exposed lines in Frigyes Hidas’s sweet and sonorous brass Trio) in a performance that left the pentatonic melody exposed, silent, and unadorned.

Now, close all of these windows and get something to eat.

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