Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dancing About Architecture, and Recipes

"Talking about Jazz is like dancing about architecture."
-Thelonius Monk

I'm going to try anyways.

Mingus said something interesting about soloing, and how it's like a conversation. He said 'you don't walk into a room and say "AHHHHHH!" You say "hello."'


What do you say after that?

Three things scare the hell out of me right now. No, four. Well...ok anyways, some things scare me, and one of them is taking an improvised solo in front of people who know something about music. Until now I never considered it a disadvantage that nearly everyone at Oberlin knows "something" about music. Put another way, the house that I usually jam in is home to jazz majors. They have studied, played, and transcribed just about everybody, including Mingus. While friendly, they are extremely intimidating.

Look, Ma, I'm jumping in the pool with no floaties! I think I'll dog paddle for awhile. But there's big kids in here!

(Mom wouldn't say it exactly this way but the meaning would be the same: "Man up" or alternately "quitcherbitchin!")

I've been thinking recently about how intertwined everything really is, and how the things I do outside of music are not really outside of music at all. I'm not sure anything I do is really is. That got me thinking about how I might consciously bring my world to the practice room, the jam, the stage.

For instance, I've recently taken up yoga. Beyond the obvious strength and concentration benefits, yoga is all about using your breath constructively, and so is music. You have to breathe into and out of phrases, and with the motion of your body (especially with an instrument as physical as bass). Doris, my hot Austrian yoga instructor, often implores us to use breath to sink deeper into poses, to stretch longer, to hold firmer. Mr Sperl has given me similar advice, though he wasn't wearing a sports bra or balancing on his fingers/doing splits at the time.

How does your daily life inform your music?
Keep co-op healthy snacks:

Sweet potato spread:
Boil sweet potatoes until they are soft. When cool pull the skins off. Cut into cubes, spice with salt/pepper, curry, cinnamon, and whatever else you want. Add maple syrup. Puree in a food processor. Serve with bread/eat an entire bowl for breakfast before class.

Roasted Chickpeas:
soak and cook the dried chickpeas, or use canned. Toss with olive oil, salt, cumin, allspice, maybe cardamom, marjoram and/or whatever else you want. Roast in oven on baking sheet at 4:50 for about 25-30 minutes until crunchy and delicious.

Combine strong opinions, loose alliances, and sugar. Set aside. In another container combine logic, precedent, and common sense. Mix thoroughly. Slowly add the second group of ingredients to the first, stirring after each addition. Taste periodically and adjust ingredients accordingly. Put on heat until solid.

Earlier today I looked at my clock and it said 11:11. 11:11 is special to me, because when I was a kid I used to make wishes at 11:11, about everything from ghosts to boys to hoping mom wouldn't find out who broke whatever I'd just broken. I'm not a kid anymore, and the magical status of my worldview is in flux, but today, just because, I made a wish anyways. Later I realized that since I set my clock five minutes fast, 11:11 wasn't actually 11:11 at all, and I had wasted my wish. Another day this realization wouldn't have been worth writing about, it might even have been kind of funny, but not today. Today all I could think was that even when I know I'm fooling myself, I'm still fooled. That's when I decided it's silly to make wishes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Throw Down Your Heart

(Picture By David Roswell, OC '13)

Coffee and sleep are the same right?

Well no, not really. I discovered that when I stumbled into what I thought was my morning class today.

I had my glasses off, because when I come in to heated buildings out of the cold (aside: it is STILL snowing) they fog up and I can't see anyways. Squinty eyed and slump-backed I feel for the door knob to the classroom and settle my glasses on my nose on as I walk to my usual seat. That's when I noticed the class was a lot smaller, and we had a different teacher today. I give my friend Adam a nod and weary smile and slip my purse off my shoulder-

-wait, Adam isn't in this class with me.

Not only did I go to the completely wrong class, I went at the wrong time. Which is why I am writing to you, because I now have thirty minutes before my actual class. Brilliant. (I would have had an hour, except when I realized what I'd done I went straight to the coffee shop for another hit.)

Trial and error. I Tried going dancing after the concert last night, and crawling into bed at 2 AM too tired to even preload the espresso machine. This was an Error. I found out exactly how much of an error it was in my 9 AM class this morning, as my pen slid off a page of notes I had no recollection or comprehension of. Appropriately for my little experiment, the class was research methods. In this case I don't think I need repeated trials to draw a strong conclusion.

Anyway this extra time does give me the chance to share something incredible with you.

The concert last night! You would have loved it so much! Bela Fleck and the Africa project came to Finney Chapel, and I think it's safe to say that nothing quite like this has ever shaken those ancient rafters before. The concert opened with the man himself calmly walking across the stage towards a suddenly hushed and expectant crowd. After greeting the eager crowd ("Hi, how y'all doin?") he selected a banjo from a rack of 5 and perched himself on a stool in the center of the giant stage. When the first notes of his high lyrical melody line reached my ears I had to check to verify that he was really playing. He was incredibly still as this music poured from him, only his fingers fluttering across the strings, hitting harmonics and picking out double stops, sliding and caressing. He was the embodiment of what my orchestra director in high school called "controlled power." His improvisational style was quintessentially Bela, but with undertones of compound rhythms and surprising harmonic elements that foreshadowed the acoustic journey that would follow. When the last notes of his solo faded away, there was a second of stillness before the audience erupted into raucous applause. The applause went on so long that he had to interrupt just to introduce the next musicians, Anania Ngoliga and John Kitime from Tanzania.

Did you know thumb harp can be sexy? It can also be humorous, despondent, pouty, joyful, and full of sorrow. I didn't know either, but now I do. Anania Ngoliga added his soulful baritone, and occasionally his playful falsetto and mad-sounding cackle (complete with hen clucks, imitating the voice of an old girlfriend) to virtuosity on an instrument I did not even know you could attain virtuosity on.

I came into this concert thinking it was going to be like nothing I'd ever heard before. In a lot of ways I was right. When the band from Mali began playing, led by the regal Bassekou Kouate and his captivating wife Amy Sacko, I couldn't even figure out what meter they were playing in for awhile, and still don't know how to pronounce the instruments they were playing. Some things were very familiar however. The improvisational conversations between Kouate (on a small gourd and bone/stick instrument that would have had the lead role of a trumpet in jazz or a mandolin in grass) and Fleck were reminiscent of two jazz greats talking back and stirring each other to greater heights. The vocal technique reminded me of the high and tense harmonies of some of the old bluegrass legends. At some points they were almost yodelling, pitching high and flipping falsetto across the thump of the bass. Then Anania would break through the texture with a low and powerful moan from somewhere deep inside. Though the scale was unfamiliar to me, there was definitely something of the blues in the way Amy Sacko talked to the crowd with her powerfully soulful vocal solos.

It was Bassekou Kouate who gave me my favorite moment of the whole concert, at the climax of one of his improvised solos. He was winding high, with Bela in perfect complimentary sync laying ascending chromatic notes in his rests. A strange mix of surging triplets against duples drove the sound forward, and as Kouate reached the top he rolled his head back across his shoulders in what looked like complete ecstasy. He stretched the rhythm and held on to just a few notes, suspended, as the rest of the band oscillated back and forth through chords beneath him, and from my seat in the balcony I felt the lift, tension, and opening up of his line as a physical sensation in my body.

I think it's worth noting that Kouate's gesture at that moment, when he rolled his head across his shoulders, was extremely familiar to me. The last time I saw it, however, I was in a bar in Kentucky, wearing cowboy boots, and I'm pretty sure someone responded by shouting "yeehaw." I'm smiling right now thinking about it. Just goes to show you everything really is connected.

That wasn't the only jaw dropping moment of the night. To open the second set Bela came out and played an entire piece of sliding double stops on his open strings, by rapidly retuning his banjo as the notes sounded. And of course there was Amy Sacko. If anyone knows how to throw down their heart for music, it is this woman. She sang her heart out in the second set, and the energy she commanded sizzled through the air to fill Finney chapel to the brim. When she finished, Bela commented "I don't know what she was singing about, but she really meant it."

There was a powerful driver behind the Malinese band, Ngoni Ba. I'm gonna try and tell you about his instrument, but I don't really know what I'm talking about. One man in the back of the band had what looked like a giant gourd, sawed in half lying on a table. Throughout the night he would alternately scrape his fingertips, rap his knuckles, slap his palms, or slam his fist into the gourd in a combination of rhythms that I could feel in my heart but had no hope of understanding. As the solos surged and pulled over top of this framework (another element that reminded me of bluegrass), he kept completely steady and cool, with forceful movements that seemed to come from his whole body. The poly rhythms of some of the songs in the second set became so infectious that I could not possibly keep my seat any longer. My neighbor and I looked at each other, and in one of those rare moments of perfect understanding between strangers, we stood and practically ran to the aisle where we danced the rest of the show. Later our fast and excited voices would find names and words, our hands would clasp in formal greeting, and we would do all those things that strangers do in our culture. But for the moment mouths were for grinning and our arms for dancing.

What a night!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Entomology and the Workout Mix

An hour and approximately 18 minutes and 23 seconds ago I stepped outside and glared at the sky, a dull gray featureless shroud incessantly spitting cold wet misery. I squinted my eyes shut and grumbled my way across the parking lot, pulling the hood of my dirty white coat close around my face to try and take the bite out of the wind. I passed several other Eskimos on my way, also bundled up tight. Their backs were just as hunched, their faces as scrunched as my own, but I felt no kinship with them. We played tug-of-war with Ohio, each of us trying to hold our warmth close into ourselves against forces that would suck it away. Why did I leave my room? When will this snow stop? Karmi says it's going to snow all week. What am I doing?

Five minutes ago I stepped out a different door, into a different snowfall, a different Ohio. I saw the snow catching in the lamplight as I crunched my boot into the sidewalk, and I had to take off my headphones. I stopped to listen to the muffled stillness of heavy snowfall, the odd way that snow sounds are simultaneously dampened and amplified, and the crunch of my boots into the soft white. Flakes clumped together and swirled gently down through the yellow glow, a few of them drifting to rest on my upturned cheeks, and I let them linger until they melted on my skin. I sucked a lungfull of brisk air into my nose and let it bite before blowing a misty cloud around my face. I paused under that tree at the corner of North Quad, the one with the twisted branches, and admired every sparkling twig. For the first time since it started snowing this Friday, I looked at the clean softness of Oberlin in February and smiled. Though I'll still never be a Northern girl at heart, for now, Ohio, you are beautiful.

What is the source of this dramatic difference in perspective? I went to the gym. Why does an hour of sweating, rock music, and moderate pain make you feel so fantastic? I do not know. But I like it.

Other Questions:
-Why are my "Angry" and "Workout" playlists interchangeable?
-What should my new Workout Mix be?
-How can I get a cardio workout in my room every time I need to go outside?

So obviously I am back at school. I should have known when Daniel and I drove through a literal blizzard getting here that it would be a shock to my sensitive southern system. Still took me by surprise.

Enough about the weather.

A lot has happened in my life recently, and some of it is awesome. I moved into Keep co-op. That's one of the awesome things. Oberlin co-ops are student run cooperative houses, where everyone in the house has a house job (like cleaning showers or stocking toilet paper), and people take turns cooking and cleaning up the kitchen. Because all decisions are made by consensus, people living here feel real ownership and pride in the quality of the house and take care of it (and each other). I love the community here, it is very supportive, and the energy is palpable. Right now I am missing a jam session in the lounge to write to you (that's ok though, because there will be another one tomorrow. And probably the night after that, and the night after that...). All the food so far has been vegan and delicious. I've had at least ten vegan orange ginger spice cookies in the last two days. My room mate, Karmi, is awesome, she wants to be an entomologist (study bugs, yeah I looked it up) and bee keeper. She brought an art book with her that is full of beautiful drawings of shells and jellyfish, and when I came in to meet her she was listening to one of my favorite albums. We sang in harmony before we knew each others names, I think that's a good sign. Our room is very welcoming, and stocked with tea and chocolate (hint hint visit me).

In other news, I recently turned 21, or "twenty-fun" as Helena likes to say. I have celebrated this about five times, with another party planned this weekend (The Feve, Saturday night for you Obies, everyone is invited).

Highlights of Turning Twenty Fun
-playing a bright green aluminum upright bass with a string band
-getting tipsy enough to be the only ones dancing in the bar and not care
-inviting the bartender to "surprise me"
-toasting to things like "seventh chords" and "indulgent aunts"
-being at a show where yelling "yeehaw" is completely appropriate

So that whole class thing, which goes along with the whole Ohio thing, means I have to go do homework. Then hopefully I can get some of that sleep stuff, which I hear is pretty great.

I hope you are doing so much better than well and fine and ok. Hugs all around. Write me a comment.