Saturday, August 29, 2015

Things you say yes to

The view outside, just now...

The smoke, dust, and wind are enough to keep me inside today, but there's plenty of work inside too.

About a month ago, Richard Kriehn, of Prairie Home Companion fame, came back to the Palouse for a concert promoting his new CD, and I had fun sitting in with the banjo on a few tunes.  At that point he mentioned that he had been hired to come back in late October/early November to perform a special concert with the local Palouse Chorale Society (a local community choir who do a series of concerts throughout the year)--a "Bluegrass Mass" (we both raised our eyebrows simultaneously at this term), for mixed choir and bluegrass band.  He said that there was a whole written-out part for banjo, and who else can play unusual banjo music, read music, and be able to follow a conductor?  He couldn't think of anyone else who could do this gig.  The piece is The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, text by Marisha Chamberlain and music by Carol Barnett. 

Last year my gig like this was the local orchestra's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Somehow (and I suspect there's a story here), they had gotten to a couple of weeks before the first performance and not realized (?) that there is this important mandolin solo in the beginning of the second act.  Or was there someone who didn't work out?  How did they not get this to me three months ahead?  I always get these calls, "Do you know someone who...?"  Well, in this case the person they really needed was in fact, Richard Kriehn (see above), but he had moved to Minnesota, so I bought new strings for my mandolin, memorized the lovely little part in a few days, and had my first experience playing classical music with an orchestra.  I have to say that listening to Mozart, sitting amongst the woodwinds, was very lovely. 

So, somehow the Palouse Choral Society decided to perform this "Bluegrass Mass" without realizing that the score had major problems.  For example, parts that aren't written, but at least I have three months to prepare.  I knew that if I didn't say yes to this, they couldn't possibly get anyone else to do it.  Has anyone ever heard a performance of this piece?  I just can't imagine how it could work, maybe there is some session banjo player in Nashville or something, but most of those players don't really read.  So, I took on another minimum-wage music job, because not only did this piece have some very difficult passages composed for the banjo (but they fit, sort-of, though the notation is vague), but...major chunks of the music do not exist...Here is a good example (the published part on the top, my arrangement written out below)--

The composer wrote that odd little phrase that appears a couple of places, and though there seems to be tablature underneath, this has been generated automatically by the Finale notation software--I use the same software and I recognize the nonsense that feature produces.  But at least you get the notes in those spots!  Elsewhere, as you can see, you get slash marks and a few chord symbols.  The first movement is mostly written out, though the tablature is useless, but the rest of the movements are more like what you see above.  I have had to write out an entirely new part, and the director of the chorale may be surprised when I insist on being credited as an arranger here.  If I have to get minimum wage, I want credit for the work!  If you are a banjo player who is reading this because you somehow linked to it, send me a message and I will send you images of all of the pages I arranged/transcribed.  You will need them. 

Anyway, Richard fortunately had located mp3 files of a recorded performance with a bluegrass band called Monroe Crossing, who originally premiered this piece.  It was obvious that this banjo player prepared a part--it was not some improvised bluegrass thing--in fact, the weirdest part of this project is that the music really isn't bluegrass at all--it uses bluegrass instruments but... It's more like Bartok-meets-American folk music.  In a few spots I was able to pick up the part by ear, or come up with the equivalent texture.  In the movement above, and throughout, I just composed a new part as this banjo player must have done, but this would not have been possible without the recording.  For variety (and since this isn't bluegrass anyway), I found a couple of movements to do in clawhammer style.  We'll see how it goes...


I found a Facebook page dedicated to this piece--really to Monroe Crossing and their various performances of this piece with choirs around the country, and I posted a question about all the missing material in the music.  Mark Anderson, the bass player for Monroe Crossing, responded...

Mark from Monroe Crossing here. We premiered the piece. When Carol delivered the piece to us there were sections of the work that were intended to be open to interpretation within chords, sketches, or scales. I would believe the intent was to provide a Bluegrass improvisation. As the bass player I can use the example of "Art Thou Weary?" which is just the chords and I play it differently every time. In the spirit of the piece, find what works for you during those parts.

"Art Thou Weary?" is the piece in the image above.  The funny thing here is that this piece is not at all bluegrass, and with the changes going on, a player would be a fool to just think they were going to throw an improvisation at this thing.  "Find what works for you during those parts" is a little like "you get to be the arranger, but no one's paying you for that!  Have fun!"  So, I pressed him a little, saying that NO WAY did their banjo player just improvise a part on this--obviously they had prepared parts and the publisher is selling this thing without everything you need to make a performance.  You don't even get the CD, keep in mind (Richard had to find that...).  I mentioned a moment in "Art Thou Weary?" where they inserted a passing diminished chord that isn't even in the music...Then, I got...

Sorry, we put a lot of effort into our version of the piece and don't give it out. The diminished [chord] in Art Thou Weary isn't in our piece either, we thought it fit. It is the composer's intent that people find their way. We look forward to hearing your version. 

Oh, OK.  This is an interesting intersection between art and commerce.  "We were hired to arrange this for bluegrass band, and now we tour performing it.  The music is being sold, but it leaves out about 80% of what you have to do, but because we make money at this, we don't want to help you do it.  You're on your own."

I have an entirely different analysis of this piece.  It wasn't composed by Carol Barnett.  She wrote some of it--the choir parts and these bare-bones sketches of instrumental parts, but really the whole thing is collaborative, with the members of Monroe Crossing really composing the instrumental parts.  Except that if they don't provide their work, then every new set of musicians must become arranging/composing collaborators.  Conventions of European classical music (the tradition Ms. Barnett is working in) say that a single composer writes the music, but that didn't happen here.  So she can only claim, and the publisher can only publish, what she did, (and actually, the bits of instrumental music she provides are inadequately notated, at least in the banjo part...).  In my opinion, this should have been published collaboratively, with Monroe Crossing's contributions credited and integrated.  And of course that means they would have to be paid royalties, etc.  If the spirit is that other musicians (like me) have freedom to interpret Monroe Crossing's arrangements (as is indeed traditional in American vernacular music), that can easily be explained in the music, but it is wrong to expect musicians who are hired to deliver a performance to spend hours/days just composing and writing out their part.  I think it is unethical to sell this incomplete score/parts to choir directors, who naturally think that they can hire some musicians to do something like this, when what they are really setting up is a system that exploits musicians who must become low-paid/free arrangers in order to fulfill their professional responsibilities.

Friday, August 21, 2015


It has been very dry around here, and I've managed to take a photo that includes blue sky without too much smoke from all the fires in the region.  We haven't had rain for months and the temperatures have been hotter than usual, even for August.  So, I was surprised when I went out in the prairie today to see so much green.  Nothing out here gets watered, but native plants put their roots down deep into the soil where there is still some moisture, apparently. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Did I Invent the Frappuccino?

In 1986, I was without a music gig (long story) and I went to work as a barista and waiter at a really nice dessert place in Seattle called Pacific Desserts, right next to Seattle Center.  Among their many truly-wonderful treats, they made a rich chocolate ice cream with Guittard chocolate, and they served Starbucks coffee.  Starbucks back then wasn't what it is now.  They mainly sold only to restaurants in the Seattle area, and the only two Starbucks stores in the whole world were in Pike Place Market and the University District.  They were obsessed with quality, the coffee was outstanding, and if you used Starbucks coffee in your restaurant, you could expect secret Starbucks agents to come once in awhile and order an espresso drink.  They were always very friendly, but they would get a coffee, critique your work (complements, too), and they had really good advice!

I had a great manager who cared that we made top-of-the-line espresso drinks, and he encouraged experimentation.  My masterpiece was the "Buzz Bomb."

I mixed a doppio ristretto shot of espresso (so a double, but I only use the first 1.2 ounces or so of the espresso) and 1.5 oz. of half-and-half together and chilled them in the freezer for 20 minutes.  We had an milkshake maker and I took a hulking scoop of the Guittard chocolate ice cream, put it in a frozen stainless steel shake cup, poured the chilled espresso mix over it and zipped it into a tiny milkshake.  They were SO GOOD, and you could sorta feel the air rushing around your eyeballs after you enjoyed one.

Anyway, one day the Starbucks guy came in, and I said that he had to try a Buzz Bomb.  He was skeptical but once he had a sip, his eyebrows raised and he looked me right in the eye, nodding, "This is very good, very good..."  True story.

I imagine any strong chocolate ice cream could work for this, but I use Tillamook Mudslide which is a very rich chocolate with pieces of dark chocolate (semi-sweet, I think).  The pieces get pulverized and the flavor is very close to the Pacific Desserts chocolate ice cream.  Because we don't have a commercial shake maker we put a stainless steel pitcher in the freezer and do the job with an immersion blender.  Put your glasses in the freezer, and be sure you chill the espresso/half-and-half mixture for 20 minutes.  If you use a regular blender, be sure to put the glass/blade part in the freezer first.  Making two at once seems to work better than one at a time, and then I use three little scoops of ice cream.