One of my favorite museums is the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which features amazing works by self-taught artists. Years ago, I brought a bit of that museum home (via its gift shop) in the form of several retablos. These are paintings, mostly from Mexico, each commissioned by someone who has had a brush with death and wants to honor the saint who saved them—often the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their messages are both dramatic and heartfelt.
I recently received a grant to write and record a piece for strings, harp, and percussion with Latin rhythms. When I sat down to write, I took inspiration from these moments of danger on my walls—and from these life-saving saints. I’m pleased to say that the piece is now written. Naturally, I called it Retablos. It’s a 20-minute work in three movements, which are called “Songo,” “Fandango,” and “Cumbia.”
The most challenging aspect of this piece, for me, was the dialog between the harp and the vibraphone. My worry was that the sound and the effect of the two instruments was too similar in timbre and likely to get lost in each other’s sonorities. Luckily, I was able to figure out a way to use that to my advantage. I gave the vibes and the harp a duet section in the middle of each of the movements. I feel very fortunate that there is already a performance planned for this work. The redoubtable David Fanning, conductor of the National String Symphonia, has decided to premiere Retablos in 2017. If you’d like to hear it in the meantime, you can find a synth version, along with PDFs of the score, here.
I heard my first Christmas carol of the year on the speakers at Home Depot before Thanksgiving. Ugh, thought I. But I am probably like a lot of us…conflicted about these chestnuts. If you examine the traditional carols one by one, they are usually pretty good hymns—well crafted and perfectly seasonal. Too bad we get so sick of them. And yet we need them, and not just to make a living as musicians during the season the public wants to hear them. We need them for how they connect us through the years, both with our younger selves and with carolers who have gone before. This week, my band Chaise Lounge will perform our annual Christmas show, with tunes from our Christmas album. One song we always play is “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a sci-fi-tale of the Duke of Bohemia in the 13th century, who leaves heated footprints in the snow as he travels on foot to give alms to a peasant. The melody might be Finnish from the 1600’s. The version we usually sing dates from the mid-19th century. What is astonishing to me is how the fiery silver nugget of wonder in this song burns its way through the centuries to have fresh meaning every time it’s sung. That is some powerful Christmas hoodoo, my friend. If you’re in the DC area, I hope you’ll consider coming to our show at Blues Alley. And if you’re by chance planning a holiday pops concert for a future season, drop me a line and I can tell you about our orchestral arrangements.
I recently re-read the last of Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky’s famous collaborative books, Retrospectives and Conclusion. It was published in 1969. That might have the the year I first read it. There are not many people who are more inspiring to me than Igor Stravinsky. His catalog of works is huge, and I think I like everything he wrote. His work from a hundred years ago still seems fresh and innovative. He was invariably himself, and seemed to be immune to trends and vagaries of the music business. As the poet Ezra Pound said of art more generally, Stravinsky’s music is “news that stays news.” And I admire how incisively he spoke of others’ work. Here he is in a 1966 interview, talking about Charles Ives: “[He] was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality; atonality; tone clusters; perspectivistic effects; chance; statistical composition; permutation; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives’ discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table.” Who speaks like this? Who can so eloquently analyze another composer on the fly? Like so much of his music, Stravinsky’s take on Ives is important, profound and funny all at the same time. Love this guy.
Over the summer my jazz band, Chaise Lounge, played in a classically beautiful barn in Vermont. I also heard a wonderful chamber music performance at a barn in Damariscotta, Maine. And now that I’m back in the DMV (a local nickname for the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs) I’m looking forward to playing at the granddaddy of all barns, The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia. It must be the lack or parallel walls, or maybe the warm, non-reflective acoustic properties of the wood that makes playing at a properly retrofitted barn feel like playing inside a big guitar. I think it is wonderful that so many of these 18th- and 19th-century structures have been repurposed as music venues. Our Wolf Trap show is on Friday, October 14th. If you are in the neighborhood, please come by.