Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Austin Celtic Festival 2010

I feel like I've wasted my life.  Well, not really, but I kind of did when I got home from the second late night session, having been surrounded by a disproportionate number of extremely talented and skilled Irish Trad musicians.  It's amazing how little time you have to spend immersed in an environment like that for it to become your whole world.  With some mental effort I have reoriented myself, regaining the perspective that I have been successful in the pursuits I've been at for many years, and Irish music is still very new for me.

That whole "immersive" experience was similar to the O'Flaherty retreat I attended a year ago, but at that time I was starting from scratch, and hadn't built up any expectations.  Now that I'm in a position to appreciate what the Festival performers can do, I'm humbled and inspired.  I could go on with the florid impressionism, but I want to write all this down while it's fresh in my mind, so let's just start at the beginning...

I arrived at Fiesta Gardens around 9am, when my volunteer shift started.  The Festival didn't properly open until 11am, so there was some sound checking going on, and all the vendors were in unpacking and fixing up their tents.  I did a couple of odd jobs - primarily cleaning up the workshop trailer and rearranging the fences for the herding demonstration's sheep and geese.  Not much came up after that, so for the second half of my shift I mostly wandered the grounds and chatted with early arrivals. The starting time for the uilleann pipe workshop was coming up, so I headed to my car to grab my David Daye starter set, and then back to workshop trailer. 

Uilleann Pipe Workshop

I spotted a tall guy wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a long dark coat walking around near the trailer - basically what you get when you run a google image search on "gunslinger" - if you already know who Paddy Keenan is, you too would probably recognize him based on the hat alone - I never saw him without it.  A few minutes later, the volunteer running the workshops kicked out the bodhrán group that was meeting before us, as that workshop's leader (who I'd later learn was Paddy League) was pulled off to go perform on one of the stages.

Though some of the later workshops were oversold to the point they had to move outdoors (the trailer was just too small), our group had just three student pipers (myself included) and two prospective pipers who audited the class.  I suppose that's the advantage of learning to play an obscure, fantastically difficult instrument.

The fact that there were only three of us playing was a tremendous advantage, in that Paddy's attention wasn't being pulled in too many directions.  It was a tremendous liability in that you couldn't slack off lest you get a gentle ribbing from the master piper.  On that note, I'd like to dispel a couple of rumors I've read around the internet.  First, I've read assertions that Paddy doesn't make his own reeds, but he said during the workshop,"I make my own reeds", in so many words.  It's quite possible that in the past he didn't, but in the present tense, he's self-sufficient in the reed department.  If you're not familiar with the inner world of uilleann piping, this distinction may seem irrelevant to you, but given how sensitive reeds are (needing constant adjustment when the weather changes), and how time consuming they are to make, it's expected that any piper worth his or her salt will be able to make and tweak their own.  Those who don't learn the skill seem to be seen as sort of mooching on the community.  I'm not asserting that this is the way it should be, but it seems to be the prevailing attitude, at least here in the online community.

The other rumor I've seen around the web is that Paddy doesn't really have any interest in teaching workshops, and so the best you can expect is to hear him play a few tunes up close.  My experience was just the opposite.  As we filed into the workshop trailer, I told him I'd only been at it for a couple of months, and that I'd be more than happy to just sit and listen - he said inexperience was fine, and that he's still learning, too.  I was the weakest player in the workshop, and after we each played a bit of a tune for him to show where we were, he told me I was basically "doing it all wrong", but he did so in a very good-natured way, and gave me feedback then and throughout the workshop that has led to a major breakthrough in my piping (though it didn't happen until I got home and was able to take my time to synthesize all that he told us).  The majority of the workshop was spent learning a tune - Paddy would play a phrase or two over and over while we picked up the melody, and then go into the potential ornamentation and melodic variations.  There was far more happening than I could absorb, but he encouraged us to use our audio recorders, so I came away with something to continue working from.  He also tried out my chanter at one point, to see if some of my difficulty stemmed from defective equipment - it didn't.  In any case, he raised no objections to my Daye chanter, and indicated the reed was quite easy to play (and it was clear in context he meant "easy" in the piping jargon sense, which has a different nuance than in plain language), which seems to me to be a good thing.

I also learned something during this workshop that has little to do with the pipes in particular, and everything to do with the mindset and perspective of good Irish Trad musicians.  The tune Paddy taught us includes an F natural (which a standard, keyless chanter like mine is not really designed play - you have to cover half of a hole), and he went out of his way to point this and out and discuss it's importance and execution.  He didn't use terms like "key signature" or "accidental" - he talked about "coloring" the note.  Elsewhere in the tune, he mentioned how you could hold a single note in place of a short melodic sequence (standard tune variation stuff within the ITM idiom), but that you'd have to "color" it, too, and from the context of the conversation, I think that could have involved any number of articulations, slides/bends, etc.  I was already aware that there was a difference in the way the classical music and trad music worlds thought about the music, but this was great insight into exactly how they differed.  I'm used to thinking of ornamentation in addition to the notes, and any pitch not in the predetermined key signature as changing the harmonic context of the music - I think I'm a little closer to being able to see these things from the Trad perspective now, as nuanced variations on a musical thought.  For the past year, I've been working on freeing myself from dependence on written notes (i.e., learning by ear), and this sort of experience furthers my resolve - it's not just the rhythms of Irish music that you can't get off the page (as is often told to aspiring converts from the classical idiom), but the whole feel of the melodic line - you can break off elements like "ornamentation" and discuss them, but there is absolutely no substitute for listening.  And, really, why should there be?

(Sometime in the next week or so, I'll be posting a video in the YouTube series where I'm chronicling my learning process - if you're interested in the gritty, technical details I got out of the workshop, I plan to go into more detail there.

Concerts, Concerts, Concerts

The Festival technically has four stages - two of them are used primarily for workshops, lectures, and dancing, but two are exclusively for bands to perform on.  The larger of the two is,  ironically, terribly suited to this purpose in some respects.  When the sun is out, everyone on stage is backlit, often to the point of being nothing be silhouettes from the audience.  More critically, if you get decent seats (I'd guess there are 500 or so set up, and none really bad), the sound reinforcement is painfully loud.  I've stood in the back, near the sound desk, and of course it sounds great from there - the awful conditions in the middle of the audience certainly owe something to proximity to the speakers, but may be exacerbated by the cavernous bare metal roof over the stage.  The festival grounds stretch a fair distance East-West, but the bulk of the action really takes place here at the West end, where the grounds widen out, and the stage is ringed by vendors of all types.  You don't have to be a dedicated listener to catch the acts that play here - you can hear quite clearly while you're shopping or grabbing a bite. 

A few minutes' walk over a wooden footbridge to the East lie the remaining three stages, a couple of permanent buildings (housing a temporary bakery and the Gaelic League), and various demonstrations are strung out across a finger of Ladybird Lake (which is in reality a dammed up stretch of the Colorado river).  In the middle of these is the "Pooka" stage, which I'd guess seats a modest 150 or so.  I vastly prefer it's more intimate dimensions for fundamentally acoustic music like this.

The problem with the Festival is that there are too many good acts.  I spent the majority of both days bouncing back and forth between these two stages trying to catch the majority of the sets.  There's always someone playing on one of the two, most of the time there's someone playing on both.  As a result, I continuously left midway through one show to catch part of another.  I saw roughly ten partial sets over the weekend, missing at least part of the shows by 5 Second Rule, Fingal, John Doyle/Oisin McAuley/Paddy Leauge, John Williams/Jeff Moore, Beyond the Pale and Raising Jane. I only made it through the entirety of four sets.  Of course, Paddy Keenan/Tommy O'Sullivan were my top priority, so I made time to catch all of the first, and their Sunday set was the "Dimming of the Day," the closing set of the festival, and no one else was playing at the time.  Paddy was constantly tweaking his reeds, and mentioned the dry weather was wreaking havoc on them.  I also managed to catch an entire set by the Tea Merchants, a local group I've heard great things about for a long time, but didn't actually see until this festival.  Unbeknownst to me, I met the group's bodhrán player at last year's O'Flaherty retreat, and have run into her a couple of times since.  Now starstruck at having been pre-acquainted with a famous person, I had to make time for their whole second set (this is, of course, silly - I've been on stage in front of roughly this many people before, and a fair number of my friends do so regularly - nevertheless, I spent the whole weekend in a state of giddiness you'd expect from 14-year-old girl at being able actually talk, person to person, with all these big stars). 

Though I hardly had any downtime at all, I missed a ton of the festival.  There was a Celtic Rock group, the Prodigals, who played three sets, and I sort of overheard one song from a distance - but, I was in Trad mode the whole weekend, so I wasn't really interested (in a different context, I think I would be).  There are a number of sporting events and demonstrations - archery, hurling, and the always-pleasing Highland Games, but I didn't catch more than five minutes of any of these.  I saw perhaps ten minutes of the herding demonstration that I helped set up pens for.  I stopped in and greeted some acquaintances from the Gaelic League, but just for a minute, and I caught just a glimpse of the Viking Invasion.  I'd have liked to see the Irish step dancing, but there just wasn't time.  There were quite a few intro-level music workshops that were free to attend and would have been enlightening (most based on instruments I don't play, but it's good to know what everyone else is up to), but again, I couldn't work it into my schedule.  I can't say I regret the scheduling decisions I made, but there's just so much going on, I really could have used a clone or time machine.

Role Models

If you were keeping count (you were, right?), you may have noticed that I saw four complete sets, but only listed three of them.  The fourth was the second set by flute player Hanz Araki (with fiddler Kathryn Claire and guitarist Cary Novotny), who has provided me with something critical to a student of an instrument - a specific goal.  I'm coming to appreciate the importance of this more and more - you can pick up a lot of technique from the general, aggregate pool of traditional music and knowledge, but having a very specific sound in mind as a goal is invaluable.  It provides you with motivation, a way to prioritize your practice time, and if recordings are available, examples you can study in detail (luckily for me, Hanz has released three CDs, the most recent of which I'm listening to as I type - plus, there are a number of videos on YouTube to serve as visual references).

When I started out on whistle a year ago, I already had a target sound in mind - it was Joanie Madden's CD that introduced me to Irish Trad over a decade ago (albeit, couched in the New Age sound I was very much into then, but it still served it's purpose as a gateway), and by sheer coincidence, she was at last year's Festival.  Now, I have make a confession - a big part of my motivation in taking up the flute was not that I loved it's sound - I certainly didn't have a problem with it, but what I really wanted was a way to get away from the shrill, uncontrollable volume of the whistle's top notes.  Since taking up the flute, I've listened to a number of players, and if pressed to pick a role model, I would have named Matt Molloy, but that's really because of his historical significance.  I have some of his recordings, and I like them, but I haven't developed a preference for his playing above anyone else's.  When I came out of the pipes workshop and I heard Hanz Araki on the main stage, his flute playing spoke to me the way Joanie Madden's whistle did years ago.  His tone is focused, his articulation clean and precise, supporting rather than interrupting the flow of the melody.  It's awesome, it's emotive, and I want to be able to do it too.  I realize that I'll probably never get around to putting in the requisite time, and I may not have the natural talent to get to that level, but if I work toward that end, I think I'll be happy with wherever I end up. 

Festival Nights

Most of the out of town performers stay in the same hotel near the Festival site.  In the evenings, most of them (along with savvy locals) find their way down to the hotel bar and have a session.  If you're unfamiliar with the concept of the Irish session, it resembles what most people would call a jam session, but it has some additional, unwritten rules.  You play Irish music, in an Irish style, on an instrument that's part of the Irish tradition, and you only play if you can keep up.  Each session has it's own personality, based on the skill level and goals of it's participants, but there are common themes.  In some sessions (as was the case here), there's an occasional song.

*more triva: "tunes" are instrumental; "songs" have words - this is a pretty old, established terminology - the notion of an instrumental album track being a "song" is a recent development.

I, along with a few friends (including fiddle and whistle players who are at about the same place as I am in this Irish music journey), spent Saturday and Sunday evening on the outskirts of these sessions, playing along when we knew the tunes and could keep up.  All told, I probably totaled about five to minutes of playing time over the eight hours or so we were there - roughly nine o'clock to one in the morning each night - and I'm pushing my luck to claim I could keep up even then.  I flubbed a few notes, but I couldn't pass up the chance to play with the pros.  The communal nature of the session is largely what drew me into this music in the first place, and the experience was transcendent.  On Saturday, Paddy Keenan came down for a bit, and played a few tunes on the banjo, saying it was the first time he'd ever played it in public.  This was doubly reassuring, as evidence that the best of the best are as addicted to trying new instruments as I am, and that they do indeed have to go through the same learning process as the rest of us - I was even able to play along (quietly) on Willie Coleman's jig. On Sunday, he brought his pipes down, and I got to hear a full set in a session context for the first time.  As I'd expect in the climate controlled environment of the hotel, there was a much less reed tweaking involved than in the outdoor performances. 

Fortunately for me, Hanz Araki and his bandmates were at both sessions, pretty much the whole time that I was there.  On Saturday, we arrived before the music started, and I got the opportunity to talk to Hanz - later in the evening, he played a tune on my flute (which, serendipitously, is of the same make as his primary instrument), and verified that it is in good working order.  I had brief conversations with Hanz's bandmates, Kathryn and Cary, at other times during the weekend, and they were just as sociable.  By watching Hanz play during the sessions, I was able pick up some improvments for my own technique - specifically, to keep my fingers closer to the flute when resting, and to reduce flute waggling - Hanz keeps his instrument amazingly still, moving it only when his entire head moves.  Of course, these things are intutive and I've read about them before, but there's no substitute for seeing how it should be done. 

So, all told, it was a great time, and I'm still recovering.  I can't wait until next year.  Oh, and a certain drum maker told me they have one of these festivals up in Dallas every March...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Art of Music Music Overflow

A year ago, every time I got in the car to go to work, I'd grab one of eight CD cases to provide my music selection for the commute and the workday.  Today, those CD cases are collecting dust in the closet, while I carry their collected contents in a 160 gig iPod everywhere I go.  I rarely use it in my office, since Grooveshark and Last.fm offer a vastly wider array of music.  I know many others made this transition years ago, but I just got around to it, and I think I'm part of the masses in this transition, as opposed to the early adopters.

In any case, I've been thinking about the long-term effects of end of physical media.  While reading music blogs, I've encountered a lot of discussion about this subject, but almost all of it is focused on the impact it has on the music business; surprisingly little is said about the artistic impact. 
I approach music first as a listener.  Deciding how to spend my music budget used to be a big deal - I carefully considered what I would most like to listen to, and I often guessed wrong.  Now, the majority of music costs me nothing to hear - money is no longer a limiting factor.  In fact, given the vast array of readily available music and my relatively broad tastes, there's no way I will ever get around to listening to everything I might like.  I can listen to practically any artist on a whim, and I can choose to filter out all but that artists' best songs (measured imperfectly by popularity and various tagging schemes, but the technology is bound to improve, and already works tolerably well). 

What I think this means to artists is that filler is dead.  Let me back up, and say that the notion of "filler" is only meaningful from a listener's perspective.  Generally, I don't believe artists intentionally release bad music.  Most are aware that certain of their songs are better than others, but everyone tries to pick their best to publish.  When I started working on my first album, the album format was still very dominant, and based on all of my past experiences as a music fan, I felt a sense of responsibility to give anyone who bought my album their "money's worth."  I figured most listeners were like me, owning a limited number of albums, and listening to each multiple times.  In that context, adding a decent (but not great) song to an album made it better, by extending the variety and collective play length of its owner's finite music collection.  Now that everyone's library is effectively infinite, that kind of song is filler.  In other words, when evaluating which of their songs to release, artists should set a higher bar for "good enough." 

By extension, the concept of the album is obsolete.  A lot of business-oriented articles address this, but from the angle of how to market singles versus albums.  I think it's important in that it removes the need for a given number of songs to sound like parts of a whole.  If, for artistic reasons, you want to release a collection of 12 songs together, you still can.  But, you can just as easily release one song at a time, or three, or 85.  I'm planning on taking the singles route, partly out of the desire to be more free with stylistic changes, but moreso because I have found the necessity of creating an album at a time to be paralyzing.  I have a job, and other interests - the massive time required to get a set of songs ready at the same time was disruptive to everything else in my life, in a way that working on a song or two at a time is not.  I have a backlog of partially finished songs, that were left unfinished at least in part because they didn't fit with the rest of what I had planned for an album.  The need to wait for an album's worth of songs to be ready also served as an excuse that I used to give myself permission to finish them - now, there's no barrier.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Small Decisions

A "simple" problem in music production, for example not being able to understand what a singer is saying (in an otherwise good mix of a song), rarely has a simple solution.  In this case, solving the problem might involve carving out frequencies from other instruments and extending pre-delays on reverbs to keep them from obscuring for the vocal line, adding multiple layers of dynamic compression to the vocal track(s), applying EQ to bring out consonants, adding some multi-band compression to reign in the consonants (usually S's) that are now too prominent, and manually tweaking the gain on the remaining few problem spots.  This is, in fact, pretty much what I did over the past week to gain a bit of clarity on a vocal line.  In my opinion, the end result is an obvious improvement, but each step along the way was a very subtle one. 

In my experience, this is the way most of the creative process goes.  In writing, arranging, mixing and mastering music, the vast majority of my time is spent making small, difficult judgment calls - very rare is the "eureka" moment where I happen upon the perfect chord that gives a chorus lift, or the right EQ boost to a the kick drum that makes a lackluster beat into a good groove.  Those moments happen, and they're thrilling, but they're not representative of how I spend my time in the studio.  Of course, those moments make the best stories, so they're what movies, "behind the music" shows, and pretty much any other entertainment-oriented depiction of the creative process is focused on. 

My main point isn't that "real life isn't like the movies" - which, of course, it isn't, but most people are aware of that already.  My point is that great artists aren't necessarily* great because they're able to spontaneously create fully-formed masterpieces, but because they can consistently and efficiently make many small decisions that lead to an end product - be it a song, painting, screenplay, etc. - that's great.

* I emphasize necessarily because this is precisely what a few geniuses, particularly young prodigies, are known for.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Familiarity, Destroyer of Art

When I first heard "Try to Remember" (from The Fantasticks, a show in which I recently performed), it moved me - I got a lump in my throat and teared up when I really listened to the lyrics the first few times.  Years later, I've rehearsed the show for months, performed it, and sung the song more times than I can count.  I still like the song, but after so much exposure, its emotional weight is mostly an abstraction to me.  In a couple of weeks, I'm going to start rehearsals for a production of Into The Woods - I've been watching a filmed production of the show, and its effect on me at the moment is very similar to The Fantasticks' in the beginning.  When the run is ending in September, I'm sure I'll be looking back fondly on the experience, but I doubt I'll still be getting choked up by the closing number.

I suspect this phenomenon is common to all performers, and perhaps all artists. When writing songs, I have similar experiences.  During the initial writing process, I know very clearly when I've hit upon a good idea (according to my own tastes, of course), but once I spend some time developing it into a song, with a bass line, drums, structure, etc., it no longer appeals to me like it did at first.

Perhaps this psychological application of the law of diminishing returns is fundamental to what makes great art hard to create.  Most art forms take time and repetition to "polish" to finality, and this numbs the creator's ability to emotionally connect to their own creation.  The upside is that time away seems to counteract the numbing effect (eventually leading to nostalgia, I suppose).  It takes me months and months (sometimes over a year) to finish a song, because I like to let it sit long enough to forget, then come back to it with fresh ears.  Only this process gives me sufficient perspective to really evaluate what works and what doesn't.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Stage Fright

Since I started taking piano lessons in the 3rd grade, I've had to perform in front of people occasionally.  Recently, I've been doing four or five productions each year, so I think I could say I perform fairly often - probably somewhere between 25 and 50 times a year.  Despite this, I still get anxious before nearly every performance.  This past weekend, we closed a run of The Fantasticks, and a couple of hours before the show each night, I started running my lines and lyrics in my head.  I didn't particularly want to - I had no major memory lapses during the whole run - and yet, I still have this lurking fear that my memory is going to completely fail, and so I compulsively run through everything I say and do, again and again, every night.  The upside is, once the show has started and I've got the first song/monologue/whatever out of the way, the anxiety fades away and I can have fun. 

I suspect different performers have different specific anxieties that manifest as "stage fright."  Mine is specifically tied to memorization, and in the process of coping with it, I've learned one particularly valuable lesson - in order to have something  (let's say a song, though this is just as applicable to dialog, choreography, etc.) "well-memorized", you don't need to be able to keep the whole song in your head at any given moment.  I used to think I did, and while just starting to sing the first verse, would try to recall pieces of the later verses - if I couldn't, I would start to panic, and lose my place altogether.  Fortunately, this usually happened in rehearsals, but I did it in a performance a couple of years ago (singing a duet from Phantom as part of a choir concert), and just managed to muddle through singing a mish-mash of verses.  Amazingly, most of the audience members and other singers to whom I mentioned it after the performance didn't even notice, or at worst, had thought something might have gone wrong, but weren't sure what.  The point is, audiences are incredibly forgiving.  They frequently won't even notice minor mistakes, and are more likely to express sympathy for a performer who makes a major blunder than to heckle them.  To get back around to the main topic, though, the most valuable thing I have learned is to have faith in your sequential memory.  If you learn something well enough that you can do it correctly, at home and in rehearsals, in it's proper order, you know it will enough to perform it.  No one cares if you can write out verse three while singing verse one, or vice versa.