I am just now finishing the score for a PBS film for director Noel “Sonny” Izon. It is called Choc’late Soldiers from the USA, after a World War II-era Australian song. Sonny got some great interviews with African American World War II vets, who told him about the astonishing experience of serving in countries like England, where they were treated with the same hospitality—and where they had the same rights—as their white countrymen. Maybe the most interesting insight in this terrific film is the suggestion that these soldiers’ experience of equality abroad is what later sparked the Civil Rights movement at home. The score features strings and a fabulous solo trumpet performance by the very talented Vince McCool.
My jazz band, Chaise Lounge, has been on the road a lot lately, so we’re looking forward to April 17, when we’ll play a hometown show at the elegant supper club The Hamilton in Washington DC. We have just finished recording and mixing a new CD that will be called Gin Fizz Fandango. And not coincidentally, our resident mixologist, bassist Pete Ostle, has invented a “gin fizz fandango” cocktail that will be served at the Hamilton gig. Naturally, the band has scheduled a tasting of this signature drink—some purists might call it a “rehearsal” but we know better. If you’re in the area next Friday, I hope you can come out to hear our new music and sample the new drink.
On May 9, Maestra Victoria Gau and her Takoma Ensemble will perform my piece The Fireman’s Carnival. This five-movement suite for strings, harp, and clarinet was inspired by one night in a small town in Pennsylvania. On that night, my four sisters and I were allowed to ride our bicycles to the Riverside Fireman’s Carnival, which had magically appeared the previous day. Where there had been an empty field there was now a Tilt-a Whirl, a tiny Ferris wheel, and a small midway of games. We stayed late into the night and rode home with a full moon shining through the fog. Many years later, I tried to capture this evanescent adventure in music. Though I recorded the piece in 2009, it has never been played live before now. The clarinet soloist will be Ben Redwine, a spectacular player. I can’t wait to hear what he brings to this strange creation.
At that concert, the ensemble will also premiere a three-movement piece called Three Completely Workable Perpetual Motion Devices that I wrote especially for them. This was my attempt to write like Vivaldi and test a string section’s ability to play at terrifically bright tempos. While I am fascinated with fake machines that claim impossible results—like the perpetual motion devices of the 19th century—I hope this piece is a mechanical invention that actually works.
The concert will be held at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is called “Barnett and the Brits” after me and the other two fellows on the program: Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten.
My main instruments are piano and guitar. Sure, when I was in my twenties, I played enough bluegrass fiddle to get by, but I long ago decided to leave the string instruments to the pros. When I was in the studio on Monday with a string ensemble, recording a film score I’d written, I realized just how much I have come to rely on the subtle expertise that good string players bring to a session. The concertmaster, Teri Lazar, knew exactly what to tell everyone about articulations, bowing, and dynamics, and she said it with such perfect string-player shorthand that I almost forgot to be amazed at how her instructions made the session go perfectly. Tools like Sibelius may make it easy for people like me to put dots on a page and write “Violin I” at the top of it, but string music can’t come alive without the depth of wisdom that resides in the hands, eyes, and hearts of the players. Fiddlers, I love you. And to anyone else who lends their years of practice and expertise to help create and improve on the music in someone else’s head: I love you too.