Tuesday, July 06, 2010

String Renaissance

I am pleasantly surprised by the number of shows I've seen lately that include some sort of classical string instrument. It started a few months ago when I saw Bon Jovi's Unplugged show on Palladia which started off the show using a string ensemble for "Livin' on a Prayer", and various violin accompaniment through other songs.

Then, last week, one of my trumpet friends was in town touring with Jazz Mafia on the Brass, Bows, and Beats show. It was our first show at Le Poisson Rouge, the relatively new basement venue in the Village. What an excellent setting for a show with 40 musicians including a full big band, small string orchestra, large/complicated rhythm section, and multiple Hip Hop/R&B singers up front. This show was so good an innovative I would not be surprised if they are in the running for a Grammy. You should definitely see BBB if it comes to your area.

Then, I head off to the Montreal Jazz Festival where we saw Matt Herskowitz performing music from his Jerusalem Trilogy album. He's a pianist in a Jazz Trio, and he was doing some absolutely crazy stuff, like "Prokofiev's Revenge", a jazz piece arranged on Prokofiev's Etude in C minor, opus 2 number 3. If you don't know how hard this is, check out a Youtube Recording. Then go buy his album because it's insane. Also performing with him in Montreal (and on the album) is Lara St. John on Violin. Wow! These pieces were just incredible.

On Saturday night, Elisapie Isaac pleased us with some sexy rock vocals in a well thought-out and entertaining production which also included a string quartet!

I am very much liking the inclusion of string instruments all these various genres lately.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


You heard it here first people. Last week while review The Red Cat I coined a new term, "Porxperience", which means "transcendent pork-based dining experience". It is a much more general term than something like "orgiastic porkfest", which would be much more extreme and have a relatively higher poundage of pork than a typical porxperience.

Go forth and enrich thy lives through porxperiental learning.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Interdisciplinary Studies

As long as I can remember I've always been a generalist. There's never been one topic that I wanted to drill down and become the world's foremost expert in. My fascination and interest has drifted all over the place from music performance to dance to scuba diving to sailing to.... you get the idea. And so it is that I've come to be interested in books and TV shows that are written to incorporate many disciplines. Watching a show like The Wire which incorporates studies of at-risk youth, police structures, drug dealers and how they interact with other entities like shipping ports, and the media is far more interesting than watching a show in which each episode is entirely self-contained. Similarly with The Sopranos, incorporating concepts of business, leadership, psychology, family issues, and studies of organized crime.

I've read a few books recently which are strongly inter-disciplinary in nature and that I've found incredibly interesting. First was Freakonomics and its sequel SuperFreakonomics. The goal of these books is to apply the tools of economists to problems that economists rarely think about. Detecting cheating school-teachers, economic implications of the Roe v. Wade decision, what really is happening in the global warming space if you ignore the stupid politics of the situation, etc. Using the tools of mathematics with complete disregard for moral and political considerations can apparently tease out very interesting conclusions. If you're a thinking person and haven't read these, you should.

In the social space, Sudhir Venkatesh is generating a ton of research by studying the culture of inner city (south side) Chicago. Academic anthropologists and sociologists traditionally spent their time studying new, foreign cultures outside of the Western sphere and nobody spent much time in the trenches of inner-city America. Probably because it is such a dangerous place to hang out. But Venkatesh did it, and wrote a very interesting book called "Gang Leader for a Day". It's a great read and captures the imagination as he basically lives as a distanced observer inside of Chicago gang culture. Lots of analysis of the culture using the tools of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and economics. If you like it, you can attempt to tackle his "Off the Books" dissection of the Underground Economy, but it isn't for everyone. Then you can go on to watching The Wire and BET's documentary series American Gangster.

My current read, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy is a fascinating look at how we experience music. It starts with the evolutionary biology of the human ear, how that translates into signals in our brain, the different pieces of our brain involved in music, and the mathematics and psychology in how we experience music (broken down into rhythms, melodies, harmonies, etc.).

For example, the human brain is really good at categorizing information (which is why we tend to generalize and then group our experiences of the world together) but we can't keep track of that many categories for any given topic of information. Hence, why our musical scale is broken down into 12 categories (notes), because when we hear a tone we need to generalize it and see which category it falls into (is it A-flat? or F-sharp?) It would be unworkable to have categories like A-flat-flat-sharp-flat or A-sharp-sharp-flat-sharp, our brain just couldn't deal with the complexity. Even though we can tell the difference between all those notes if they are played next to each other, we can't hear one of them and accurately categorize it differently from the other. The analogy given in the book is like picking out paint for your house at a paint store. You can tell the difference between all the various gradations of light red for example, but if given one of the gradations you probably wouldn't be able to name exactly which one it is without a serious amount of previous training on the topic.

Also interesting is that the human brain experiences things in relative ways. So if an orchestra tunes to A-430, A-440, or A-450, as long as all the relative pitches are in tune to that one our brains will be equally pleased by the performance. My intuition is that the way we live our lives is very similar. People in Manhattan are just fine living in tiny cramped apartments that are expensive, yet it would be crazy to live like that in Fort Collins because none of your peers/contemporaries there would live like that. Imagine trying to tell a potential date that you are a subsistence hunter-gatherer living in a teepee... they would look at you like you were crazy. Unless of course you were living 400 years ago on the plains, and then having the biggest teepee could be very appealing. So the fact that the human brain works on relative principles has all kinds of applications, even to music.

Then there are just surprising things that you never would have guessed (like Freakonomics!). People with no musical training experience mostly through their left ear and via the right hemisphere of the brain. As you develop more and more musical training this starts to migrate across to the point where professional musicians overwhelmingly use their right ear and the left half of the their brain. This is where we store and analyze patterns and progressions, and since professionals have essentially developed a library of sounds, patterns, note/chord progressions, and common rhythms, this is where they experience the music.

So anyway, if you're like me and want to see a topic looked at from many different angles and disciplines, there's a few places to start.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Elvis Lives!

I know I haven't written much lately, but what better to get me back to it than a Vegas trip? I'm in town for IBM Pulse and decided to have a little fun the night before the event begins. So, I headed over to the new CityCenter that I've been reading so much about. I have to say, I've been to Vegas at least 20 or 25 times and I thought I'd seen it all, but it's hard to describe the feeling when you turn off the strip to walk up to CityCenter. It is a very clean, futuristic design and there are so many buildings in the complex. If somebody built something like this in Manhattan it would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Tonight was the premiere of the new Viva Elvis Cirque du Soleil show. Like I said, I've been here a lot and seen all the other Cirques in Vegas. This was far and away the most entertaining Vegas show I've ever seen in my few short years. Cirque is always impressive, but there are so many things to be impressed by in this one.

Unlike the Beatles Love show, all the music in Viva is performed by a live band with great horn, rhythm, and guitar sections (the drummer is particularly energetic and fun to watch). Various tracks have recordings of Elvis singing along with the band and sometimes even performing duets with a live female singer on stage. Also, there's a giant video screen backing the show to show photos and video clips of Elvis.

Essentially, the show is structured around the timeline of Elvis' life. Here's a bunch of the numbers, at least as many as I can remember:
  • A giant robotic blue suede show rolls around the stage while couples lindy hop and do aerials

  • A giant hollow Guitar Trapeze descends from the rafters while two male trapeze artists do ridiculous moves around the guitar

  • Trampoline stuff (like the Love performance but more people and more trampolines)

  • Footage of Elvis going to the Army, while a recording of Elvis sings a duet of "Love me Tender" with a live female singer

  • A full marching band drumline enters the stage and the dancers perform a step routine in army outfits

  • Lots of stuff related to Elvis' movie career. There's a Western routine with people doing crazy pistol and lasso twirling

  • A rundown of all of Elvis' movie women

  • Psychadelic 60's Bossa Nova

  • It wouldn't be Vegas without Pole Dancing, but of course it is done in crazy Cirque style. Absolutely ridiculous.

  • Roller Skating and Ballet Dancing

  • Vegas show style finale (since that's how Elvis went out), complete with showgirls covered in feathers and crazy feather headpieces

Like I said, a true variety and something for everybody. If you like Elvis music and various forms of dance, you have to see this show. I got lucky I think since it was opening night and a Sunday, because I bought a cheap seat up in the balcony but they closed the balcony and moved me down to about 10th row center. Definitely the way to go if you can swing it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The holiday music is upon us!

This is one of those amazing weekends that you couldn't do anywhere but NYC. 3 completely different holiday concerts with top-notch musicians, preceded by great restaurants. It started off last night with dinner at A Voce, one of the newly-minted Michelin restaurants in Columbus Circle. Wycliffe Gordon and Niki Haris (Gene Harris' Daughter) were playing New Orleans style holiday Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wycliffe is a very well rounded musician (no pun intended), alternating between trombone, sousaphone, piano, and singing, and the other cats like Marcus Printup were on fire too.

Tonight we take a totally different tack. We'll be trying another of the new 1-star Michelin Restaurants, Rhong Tiam, which is the only Thai restaurant on the starred list in NYC, and then seeing the Bach Christmas Oratorio at Carnegie Hall with Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec. I've never seen this piece performed but it is supposed to be epic, and where better to see it than Carnegie Hall?

Sunday is yet again something completely different. The principal brass of the New York Philharmonic join with the West Point Brass Band to play some holiday brass music. I went to see this last year when they paired with the Canadian Brass, and I'm going to make this concert an annual tradition. Even by NYC standards this is going to be a great weekend!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

New York City is a Constellation of Magic Moments

I've been going through the New York City Documentary and that was one line that stood out to me. This past week has been filled with all kinds of activities that would never happen this close together, except in NYC. Here's what I did last week:
  • New York Philharmonic plays Pines of Rome. An excellent production, and they even brought in extra brass to play in the two antiphonal lofts above the stage.

  • Renee Fleming and Anne-Sophie Mutter played music of Andre Previn in Carnegie Hall to celebrate Previn's 80th birthday. Previn himself conducted, and it was music that he had composed specifically for these two artists previously.

  • Nathan Lane and John Goodman star in Waiting for Godot. I had never read this before but I did read the play before going to see it. It's worth reading, go check it out from the library. Some have called itthe most significant play of the 20th century. If it doesn't make you think about how you're spending your days, go get the cliff notes.

  • The Good Guy was so popular at the TriBeCa Film Festival that they added an extra showing of it, so I went to see that. It's a very cool NYC story, and the writer/director Julian DePietro was present after the movie to do a Q&A about how he came up with the concept, what production was like, etc.

  • NYC Ballet performed The Firebird. I'd performed the music for this several times and it remains one of my favorite symphonic pieces, but I'd never seen the ballet performed. NYC ballet always has great costumes and set designs, and of course amazing dancers. In fact the backdrops and costumes for NYC Ballet were originally designed by Chagall. We had dinner at one of Manhattan's best Korean restaurants, Cho Dang Gol. Great food, and bottles of korean rice wine are only $7 right now!

  • Dinner at Picholine, one of NYC's few 2-star Michelin restaurants. We followed this by seeing Joshua Bell perform the Saint-Saens Violin Concerto #3. He has been called a living legend, and I can definitely understand why. He is without a doubt the best violin player I've ever seen live. If you ever get a chance to see him, take it, even if you're not really into classical music. It's so rare to see someone this good at anything.

  • God of Carnage, starring James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis.

Sophocles said that you have to wait until the evening to tell whether or not it was a good day. Looking back on the week I'd say it was one of my best weeks in NYC so far.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Frankie Manning, May 26, 1914 - April 27, 2009 RIP

Frankie Manning was one of the original creators of the Lindy Hop. He was the first dancer to perform an "aerial", like those dancers in the Gap commercial that supposedly got everyone interested in swing dancing again. He continued to travel and teach into his 90s, and had an impact on an unimaginable number of people, including myself.

I spent a good portion of my 20s dancing in the SF area and also traveling around the country on weekends to Lindy Exchanges, where dancers from around the country all meet up in one city for an insane weekend of dancing and partying. I attended a Frankie Manning workshop in 2002, and got to meet Frankie there. Think of all the people who not only learned from him directly, but learned from the teachers who learned from him, and so on. That is probably tens of thousands of people who will end up making enduring friendships, relationships, families, etc., because of the dedication he had to the dance and teaching it to anyone who wanted to learn.

If you haven't read his book, check it out. It's a great history of dancing and big bands from an earlier generation. Frankie, you changed our lives in an amazing way and you will be missed!