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.