Thursday, November 4, 2010

Indian paintbrush (Castilleja hispida, I think), left; Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), right

Today I'm going to try an experiment to see if I can grow Indian paintbrush in the prairie. I collected this seed on nearby Kamiak Butte, where there are tons of a very beautiful Indian paintbrush, shades of orange that could restore your faith in that color as a decorating statement. The story on Indian paintbrush is that it is a semi-parasite on other plants (a couple of people mentioned that Idaho fescue was one of them), but I had never heard of anyone getting it to grow, so I had never tried it. But then Jacie Jensen at Thorn Creek Nursery told me that she had heard of success when the paintbrush seed is planted at the same time as Idaho fescue, that they need to sprout in the same season. So today I will mix these together in many little clumps throughout the prairie, mostly-sunny spots with a little shade from a nearby Ponderosa pine or shrub, which is where I see them growing up on Kamiak Butte.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Here are all the seeds I have collected this year for planting in the prairie, from the "salt and pepper" lomatium back in May to the scarlet gilia last week. I have purchased a few packages of seeds from Thorn Creek Nursery in Moscow, ID (sticky geranium, tapertip penstemon, prairie smoke) and will order 20 lbs. of Idaho fescue from Grassland West, but everything you see here has come from our prairie and a few sites around Palouse (the salt-and-pepper lomatium actually grows in a little patch by the railroad in downtown Palouse). I'll wait until we've had some more rain, probably early October, before I start planting.

I am taking about five times as long to get this opera recorded and scored than I had in mind, but I did manage to get another song "in the can" this last week. My method, whether the project is music or rebuilding this house or prairie restoration, is to vastly underestimate the amount of time and work involved in doing anything; ignorance is the key. By underestimating the time and effort involved, I trick myself into getting all excited about seeing whatever it is take shape, and dive in: "Wow, I can get this done in a couple months!" Once I get into it I'm hooked and keep going until it's finished; somehow I've acquired the patience I never had in my 20s.

The wraparound porch on this house is a great example (of course, the nearly 25 years I have spent working off-and-on on my opera is another obvious one)...I thought it would be a perfect summer project back in 1993. That first summer I got it framed and a floor on it. Framing and sheathing the roof took me until November that year. I spent the next summer putting on the roof and making all the parts for the railings and painting them (it was amazing how long that took). I was able to install all those fabulous railing parts in the summer of 1995. I have to confess that the ceiling on the underside of the porch didn't go up until 2005. Welcome to my world. But I got it done, and it's a really nice porch.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"New" prairie, 8/20/10

This is the west-northwest view I have posted three times previously. The clarkia has all gone to seed and the plants look like amber tumbleweeds without the thorns, and I have gone through the area in the foreground with the mower. There is plenty of Idaho fescue (the bluish-looking grass), and the shrubby-looking clumps are Epilobium brachycarpum--it's nice to have something still green in the landscape. In the image you can just barely see the subtle cloud of pink that represents the bloom of this native annual, which just started showing up in force a couple of years ago. It seems like such a blessing to get Nature to help out like this. There are about four elderberry plants in this part of the prairie (but they're invisible little sprouts from this vantage point), similarly showing up as a gift from the birds or the local deity or something. Individual plants, such as the elderberries, lupines, and geraniums, are marked with little pink flags, some of which you can see in the image above, so I don't inadvertently cut them down or anything. Anyway, the pink cloud is made of tiny (1/4" square) pink flowers like this...

As with the clarkia earlier this year, the lack of competition in this newly-planted area makes an annual like epilobium thicker than it is in a mature native prairie. In fact it is much more sparse throughout the rest of the property.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Making a Squash-stalk Clarinet

It's harvest time, finally. We are just starting to get tomatoes, about a month late with the odd cool weather we had in late Spring, but now the garden is delivering. We have only one summer squash plant but it is huge! Do you have more squash than you know what to do with? Well, this won't help, really, but it will give you something else to do with it. Here I am using a stalk from a yellow "crookneck" squash, but it works with zucchini and maybe others, too. You can actually make a functional musical instrument from stuff you usually throw in the compost bin!

The first thing is to cut off the leaf, right at the point where the hollow stalk expands into the leaf--you want that end to be plugged. Then, holding the knife perpendicular to the stalk, scrape off the spines. The next part is really important: cut an inch-long slit about a half-inch away from the plugged end.

Now you have to get your clarinet to sound. The entire slit has to go in your mouth. It will take several minutes to warm up and loosen up the reeds (technically, I suppose this is an oboe more than a clarinet since the two sides of the slit are the two "reeds," but it sounds like a clarinet). Keep trying to blow through it. If the air blows through too easily, then press gently on the top of the reeds to push them together, and if it is too hard to blow air through the reeds, put the knife in the slit and wiggle it gently to loosen them up. Keep trying to get a sound by blowing--the moisture and warmth of your breath will loosen things up. You might get a squeak--that's a good sign...keep going. Then, once you get a sound, you can try cutting finger holes.

Have fun!!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prairie, 7/1/10

Silky lupine, scarlet gilia, yarrow, gallardia, clarkia, Wyeth buckwheat, Idaho fescue, maybe a grand collomia in there. The summer prairie is nearing its peak. This area was planted four years ago.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Clarkia pulchella, blooming in the "new" prairie, 6/22/10

It is spectacular, but a bit deceiving. More significant for the long term are the small clumps of bluish-green Idaho fescue that you can see coming up in the foreground, along with sprouts of various other plants I put in last fall. Clarkia in the wild, and in the more-established parts of the prairie, are usually a few blooms on a little plant maybe eight inches tall. These shrub-sized monsters are the result of not much competition and a very wet Spring. There will be enough seed from these to seed the entire property and then some, and by next year they will be integrated into a more natural landscape. Having an annual plant like this to put in at this early stage is great, though, because it does help to keep out invasive non-native plants and it is a welcome bit of inspiration for the continuing work. Several species in the more established parts of the prairie are just beginning to bloom: lupine, scarlet gilia, yarrow, cinquefoil, and gallardia. When they reach their full glory I will post an image or two.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Well, I've done it now. I made a video of myself playing Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "The Banjo" on the fretless gourd banjo and posted that on YouTube. Then I went to Wikipedia and edited the entry on Gottschalk's "The Banjo," and linked the video to it. Whoever had written the Wikipedia entry on Gottschalk's "Banjo" had cited my article (see below) but apparently not entirely understood it. YouTube seems to have messed with my crisp image somewhat, and the titles are fuzzy too, but...good enough, I say. I will probably record the version of the piece for the CD in the next few weeks, now that it's all sharp and under my fingers. When I play live, I treat it like banjo music and I feel free to mess with things a bit as the mood strikes me, but for these recordings I wanted to follow the piano music as closely as I can.

The article that I published in the early 90's on this explains a lot of what I'm doing here; essentially I back-engineered how the piece would have been played by using what I argue was a kind of piano "sound recording" of an actual (though unnamed) African-American banjo player in New Orleans, c. 1853. I am for the most part following what I outlined in the article, except that since then (I had to take a few years to build the banjo and then figure out how to play it) I came up with a different way to play an important part of the piece. I switch to an up-picking rolling style that sounds more like what the piano is doing, and I think it points out more of a connection to West African plucked lute styles, not unlike fast textures on the ngoni or kora. This switching back and forth between "downstroking," or "frailing," and up-picking is common in West African plucked lute playing, though is not a traditional part of surviving American banjo playing--in fact no other evidence of it survives. Though it really annoyed S. Frederick Starr, the author of the current authoritative biography of Gottschalk, I think the most powerful evidence that Gottschalk made this piece by transcribing the playing of some unnamed African-American banjo player is right here in this recording of the music. No way could he get that close to actual banjo music without sitting down with somebody and copying to the best of his ability everything the musician did. Was poet Gwendolyn Brooks justified in railing against Gottschalk's beginning the great American tradition of white musicians stealing the awesome musical genius of African-Americans (her poem is reprinted in my article)? I think so, that he should have given credit somehow, but still I'm glad he did what he did, or else this tradition would not have been preserved in any other documentary evidence.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Prickly lettuce, mustard, stork's bill, salsify, and sow thistle dying in the prairie, 6/10/10

This is the dark side of making Palouse prairie.

At first glance, an expanse of green, but look closer and you'll see that the plants are curling up. Underneath them, Festuca idahoensis and Agripyron spicatum (the two main native grass species I have planted) are coming up very well, but the wet and warm Spring has unleashed a serious onslaught of weeds in the areas that I cleared and planted with grass. This image was shot from the same spot as the other shots of the new prairie, except that I pointed the camera south instead of west-northwest. This is the worst spot on the property for weeds, but it demonstrates why I have to make use of the dreaded 2-4-D, which kills broadleaf weeds but leaves the grass unscathed. After the grass is established, the weeds can't get in as easily. Elsewhere, I have only had to spray individual weed plants. But the fact is that anyone who thinks they could pull this stuff out by hand is nuts.

So all day long last Tuesday, all day long today, and probably several hours tomorrow (I have to wait for a day without rain and wind, rare this Spring), I have had to walk backwards with four gallons of evil on my back. Since these areas are the last on the property to be planted, I shouldn't have to confront such a nasty situation in the future. I look forward to the end of spraying herbicide, that's for sure.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Camas (Camassia quamash) blooming in the prairie, 5/25/10.

I still don't have enough camas to eat, and it is my goal eventually to have an autumn meal of salmon dressed with lomatium sprigs and allium bulbs, with roasted camas. In the meantime, I am happy to celebrate its lovely bloom every May.

It has been a musical harvest lately, though, with Richard Kriehn's wonderful CD of mandolin music finished a couple of weeks ago and I will finish mixing Tiana Gregg's third (!) CD tomorrow.

As for planting, I am about to start making YouTube videos of some of my gourd banjo repertoire, the first step in putting that music in the world. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 30, 2010

This is the same view of the newly-planted prairie that I first posted last November. The weather has been wet and today was the first day in awhile that I could get out here. Not much to see, I guess, since so much of the exciting stuff requires a much closer look. But annual plants are up and running. The light green stuff with thin leaves is mostly clarkia and Epilobium brachycarpum. I didn't plant the Epilobium, but it's a native annual that shows up here when the soil is disturbed. There is quite a lot of it in the southern part of the prairie. Like Spring whitlow grass (Draba verna, which some say is native and others not, but it's a sweet little plant anyway), it fills in a disturbed area, sheds its seeds and then goes away as other stuff fills in, but is always there waiting for a chance. The wider-bladed plants are mostly prickly lettuce and mustard, and I will soon be spot-spraying those little delights with 2-4-D.

Elsewhere in the prairie, there are more spectacular results these days. Native deliphinium is in bloom...
And I was thrilled to find a vigorous Shooting star (Dodecatheon conjugens) in the shade of a Ponderosa pine in the southwest part of the prairie. This little flower had been putting out leaves for two years before it suddenly bloomed last week.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sisyrinchium idahoense blooming in the prairie, 4/16/10. I think this may be a different variety than the usual one that grows here. All the books say that it varies from pink to purple to blue, and some of them are very pale, but this one's petals are pure white, a bit smaller, and about 2-3 weeks later than the more common variety. This particular one grew from seeds I collected several years ago from my friends Bill and Jessica Rivers who have a spectacular Palouse prairie remnant about two miles east of here, with several of these white sisyrinchiums amidst a carpet of the blue, purple, and pink ones. Here are some of the more common sisyrinchium that I photographed a couple of weeks ago in our prairie.

The warm Spring we have been enjoying (it got up to 80 degrees yesterday), with perfectly-timed rain storms every day or two, has seriously inspired plant life around here. Just a few weeks ago I went out to the spot where I had taken the photograph I posted from last fall and though you could see that things were happening if you looked close up, the far away view still looked pretty brown and bare, so I decided not to show that view again yet, but I should do that soon, since it is changing rapidly.

I have been hard at work finishing up some projects in the studio and working on Cassandra. It will be a long time before I can show this stuff to anyone, since I am writing out the score as I go and just recording basic vocals (mainly myself) with the finished instrumental tracks, so that I can get to the end and bring in singers to do the finished vocal parts. I was working on Act I, Scene 4 this last week though, and realized that the instrumental part in the ending of that song would be a nice little bit of the music to post.


I decided to pull it off my website. There will be Cassandra music soon enough...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus) blooming in the prairie, 3/16/10. In spite of our northern location and occasional cold weather (though not this winter so much), several native plants bloom here even in late winter.

You were just spared a diatribe about the current state of academic training for musicians, because I wanted to get past that frustration with a simple proposal for improving the situation. My fantasy is that we could create music workshops based loosely on training for creative writers, where musicians could be treated as artists and present their work to their peers. I have heard writers complain about writers' workshops, that their peers give inane and unnecessarily critical responses, that you can't teach writing anyway. All true, but that isn't the point. Education is about teaching and learning, sure, but for artists it is also about having a little institutional support while you find your voice and work it a bit. Currently, music programs don't allow this because the political structure is such that your peers don't matter; only the faculty's evaluation matters. A music student is NOT an artist in the current system. To empower the students as artists and give them a voice would ideally serve to open up the area of inquiry. Not just about unlistenable "new" music, but about songwriting, about music built out of vernacular traditions. Things the teachers might have to learn about. It is very hard, maybe even impossible, for the medieval power relationships in academic music departments to evolve beyond their dictatorial nature, but music departments aren't getting more relevant as time goes on, and the world no longer cares if you can properly resolve a German sixth chord. They do care if you have the funk, though. I just got a smile fantasizing a course called Getting the Funk 101--just the thing to replace 12-tone theory, which is an absolute waste of time. I had a writers-workshop structure built into a "music production" course I designed at WSU (end run around the deadly "composition" classes), to use this method for students to present their work in the recording studio to each other, but budget cuts several years ago utterly destroyed any hope of introducing new curriculum for the foreseeable future, and of course, now I am no longer teaching there. It's still a good idea though.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I am unworthy. Two months and no posts.

It has been busy. I finished Tiana's first two CDs, and she came out and made another one in about two hours (!), which I told her I couldn't edit and mix until May or something, because I must get going on my own project. Still, you've got to be impressed with someone who is this prolific, and I can tell you, these are three CDs with really good songs and inspired performances. Richard Kriehn is almost done with his project, with one more track to go, a Brazilian mandolin tune.

I had wanted to show an early spring image of the prairie project, but the photo I took from the same angle as the one last fall still looked pretty similar. You have to look closer to see the excitement there, so that will have to wait a month or so.

Well, so how about this. Richard Kriehn and I decided to sit down and see what we could do with the traditional American fiddle tune, "St. Anne's Reel," for his CD. It ended up just being mandolin and banjo, but it got me to pull out the standard steel-stringed banjo, which I hadn't played seriously in awhile, having lost myself in the gourd banjo lately. My first versions were too close to the melody of the tune but what was needed was simpler and more rhythmic. I really like where it ended up, but after several days of playing pretty hard on those strings I had a seriously shredded fingernail.

Listen to "St. Anne's Reel"

My technique for recording the banjo is unusual--at least I haven't seen anyone else use it. I use a stereo pair of Neumann KM-84 small diaphragm condensor mics, one in front on the head of the banjo, and one coming in from behind (so the instrument has to be an open back banjo), with the two mics panned hard right and left. I also used it on the Paul Anders' banjo on the Steptoe recording of "Raleigh and Spencer" which you can hear on my website too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In my last post, I introduced my current recording project with Tiana Gregg, and how powerful her music is with just her voice and guitar. For contrast (but not much, really) I wanted to post an example where I did add a little bit of production.

One of the songs in which Tiana imagined some added parts is "Summer Dress." I had improvised a fiddle part to it one night at the Green Frog open mike that had stuck in our minds, and so it made sense to see what I could do with my vague memories of it. I also put in a piano part, and some secret sauce.

Listen to Tiana Gregg's "Summer Dress"

The trick for me here is to bring in a fiddler, pianist, and secret saucemeister for intensity but not diminish the clarity and beauty of the song, her voice and guitar. This isn't really a final mix, but you get the idea.

Tiana and I have been talking about the weirdness of pursuing our music dreams 'way out here in rural America, with the music industry going down in flames around us, so many voices in the media rendering our little efforts inconsequential. Some of our best efforts fading into a shadow world beyond obscurity, through peculiar fortune, daily life, and the occasional music business weasel. Sometimes you want to throw up your hands, but I think you have to honor whatever gift you have by giving it your best effort. Keep putting it in the world. Somebody may hear what we do. But that can't actually play too much of a role in whether we do this stuff or not.