Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hark! the last banshee!

Once upon a time there was a comedian named Danny Kaye who pinned a lasting definition upon the oboe: "the ill wind that nobody blows good."

Years later, to put my own spin on Kaye's definition, I shot this live demonstration of celtic-style oboe and called it "an uilleann wind." The "uilleann" of the title (pronounced "illy-un"--punning on "ill," right?) refers to the bellows-blown Irish bagpipe that has a distinctive sound and technique that I was trying to imitate with the celtic-style oboe.

Some time afterwards, there was a knock on the front door. I opened it and there on the front porch stood four individuals wearing identical masks and holding oboes.

I should say, "wearing identical death masks." The oboes were something of a minor detail. The only thing distinguishing them was their shirts: one white, one black, one gray (knit), and one Appalachian Trail t-shirt with the legend "and miles to go before I sleep."

"Hola," one of them said. Or all of them said. (I was in something of a state of shock at the sight of the masks.) "Somos los cuatro oboes del Apocalipsis."

"It happened a long time ago; I was filled with the insolence of youth," I said. I don't really understand any spoken language that well (hearing issues) and the masks obscured the lips that I usually rely on to interpret speech. So my apparent non sequitur was just an attempt to read the situation. It's embarrassing to admit, but I was begging mercy for the time I hadn't bought a set of encyclopedias from someone with a broom and lightbulbs trying to convert me to Mormonism.

"No, not that," one or all of them said. Which I understood. (I do have some nodding acquaintance with spoken English.) "We are here to be sure you have it under your fingers."

Have what under my fingers? (broom straws? lightbulb filament? urim and thummim?)

"The uilleann wind."

I looked at them, standing there on my front porch, in their death masks, holding their oboes, veiling a criticism of a Youtube video. These were not your garden variety Mormon missionaries.

"The silence is deafening," they or one of them said. "It will not be that way when The Time comes."

Are you capitalizing both t's in "The Time"? I asked.

"Of course. It is why we are. And until then we have little to do except evaluate the repertoire that we will use for The Ultimate Encore. Which is also capitalized, in the event you will be writing about it."


"And, seeing as in effect we will be The Banshees of The End (capitalized), we've considered the possibility of a Celtic treatment, even though we ourselves are of Iberian extraction."

I asked them how they got the gig.

"We don't really know. We suspect collusion between J. S. Bach and remnants of the Cathar heresy, who felt that they'd been Left Behind way before they were meant to be, but ... yeah, we got nothing. Other than an unpredictable amount of time to prepare our repertoire."

So, where do I come in?

They laughed. One or all of them. Behind their grinning death mascaras.

Okay. I get it. I come in at the beginning. And you, all four of you, come in, meaning "inside."

Before they allowed me to show them the ways of the Celtic oboe, they had to make sure there was no fakery on my part. So I told them to set the metronome at 144 for the dotted quarter, which they did, and I played through the set: Top of Cork Road, Monaghan Jig, Mooncoin Jig.

When they were satisfied that I had it under my fingers, they wanted to get it under theirs. They were quick studies, as well they might be, since according to their own supposition they've been at this for centuries.

They let me get the results on camera on the condition that I not show their faces.

How can I show your faces? I asked. You have masks over them.

"These are our faces," one or all of them said, "and we don't want to give away the secret of how to play an oboe while wearing a mask."

Without ruining a reed.

"Without ruining a reed."

But you're showing me!

"We don't wear these death masks for nothing."


So far, the afterlife is nothing to write home about. But it's only been a couple of days. I just wish I could eat something! And take off this damn mask.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

La Ciudadana and the invention of the celloboe

Last weekend:
  1. I told myself I wanted to write a song that a festival crowd would sing along with. I've experienced it at Bonnaroo; I was in the crowd singing along with Tom Petty. It was like congregational singing in a packed church reeking with skunky smelling incense. It was thrilling--the singing, anyway. And the skunky smelling incense seemed to have a certain enhancing effect.
  2. I also told myself that I wanted to record a perfect performance of a movement from one of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites. The name is "Bourrée," although it's also known as "Loure," and everyone knew her as Nancy (sorry). I don't play cello, but my musical weapon of choice, the oboe, would render the piece in its higher violin key. And it was going to be a perfect performance. (Render the previous sentence sarcastically. Recording tends to put me into a brittle, self-conscious state easily shattered into mistakes.)
Program notes (if you want to consider the finished products first, scroll down):

La Ciudadana

I've got a little loop pedal in my electric dulcimer/rack harmonica setup that does the amazing work of being a beatbox and recording and then playing back any dulcimer playing that I run through it. It has some preset rhythms that are fun to work with.

It would be nice, I suppose, if a drummer entered my life and provided me with beats if I would only swear never to use the infernal robotic thing again, but, since this has not happened, I use an infernal robotic beatbox.

I'd been playing around with a simple two-part loop, using the beat that fueled "Pawn Come to Bookclub," for a little while. I'd derived a bass line and riffed some harmonica, and it seemed to have some possibilities. I'd worked out three separate rhythm patterns. The looper lets you layer the dulcimer parts one on top of another: first the bass line (another pedal lowers the pitch of the dulcimer), then one rhythm part on top of the other. It's the sound of one (man) band lapping.

I've got lots of instrumental loops worked out that would be fun to perform, except that they wouldn't work unless I had a troupe of dancers and/or giant puppets--which I've considered getting--because, face it, people in live music venues want songs. I don't know why, but they do.

What I had when the weekend began was this layered instrumental "thing" with a dulcimer rhythm that seemed sort of latin-reggae in the verse and then rock-anthemic in the chorus.When I say "seemed sort of latin-reggae," I mean that I imagined that it sounded that way, probably in the same way that Alice fell into Wonderland. There's probably no such thing as latin-reggae. Without the guidance of a white rabbit, I would be on my own, as it were, south of the border.

And, as such, I wanted to cross a river. It could be the Rio Grande. It could be the Styx. You know what they always say: the only two certainties in life are Death and Texas. Whatever. There would be this anglo of a certain age talking to a youth about crossing the river and what it was like on the other side, but it was no big deal, certainly not like the stars they'd be looking at. But he'd let slip too that whatever was going on, he was needing some consolation. And the prescient reader will add stars+consolation and bet that "heart" and "constellation" aren't too far away.

But as it happens, the youth is a girl that the anglo addresses as "chica," but this is a familial familiarity. He's a father or an uncle or a brother. He tells her in the second verse in Spanish that she is going to be president of the United States someday; she seems dubious, maybe because she's grown up in Mexico, but he tells her, hey, you were born in Texas; you're a citizen.

The Spanish tells you things that English doesn't. He says "la" Presidente, meaning a female president; she's a "ciudadana," which literally means "citizeness," but which no one ever says.

Then it turns out that the anglo is standing next to a fresh grave, acknowledging his waywardness--a knight chasing windmills. He exclaims a term of endearment--"mamacita"-- but follows it with a formal "may she rest in peace" before abruptly leaving with the girl to wail under the stars. It's not clear who this "mamacita" is. The lyricist does not tell us ;-) thereby leaving the way open for a novel to develop in the listener's mind.

So here's the song, with lyrics below the mp3 player. According to Malcolm Gladwell, if you listen to this for 10,000 hours, you will find yourself able to sing along to it with Tom Petty the next time you take your incense burner to Bonnaroo.

La ciudadana

we're close to the river here--
we're gonna cross it.
what's it like on the other side?
let me tell you it's no big deal
no reason to be struck dumb
but til that time comes
i'm gonna lie here
looking for some consolation
lie here
and try to re-arrange the stars.

algún día estaras
la presidente
de los estados unidos.
chica, naciste en texas:
eres una ciudadana
but til that day's upon us
i will lie here
looking at the constellations
lie here
and try to re-arrange my heart.

what was i always running from
that brought me back here?
next to this fresh-dug grave,
un caballo contra los molinos.
mamacita! que en paz descanse.
vamos, chica, i just can't
lie here
looking at the constellations
lie here
and try to re-arrange the stars.

Below is the same song, but with an added instrumental twist on the third verse (2:10): an oboe apostrophizing a minor blues in the verse and then laying it out in the chorus. I thought maybe it would add a funereal and discordant effect that would help dilute the "poppy" feel. And in that chorus, on the word "lie," where the voice goes up an octave (2:37), well, the oboe's there to make it sick.

The invention of the celloboe

At some point in all this nuevo modelo Sturm und Drang, I needed to play the Loure from the Bach unaccompanied cello suite no. 3. Which is really supposed to be a Bourrée.

You see, once upon a time (1825), an editor in Paris inhaled too much Bonne-a-rue incense and mistakenly engraved the Cmajor Bourrée movement as "Loure." He should've been fired. A bourrée is a fast dance; a loure is stately. But the mistake has been preserved in subsequent editions.

Most recordings play the movement like a bourrée; that is, fast. But for a long time I've had one of those subsequent editions with the mistake, and have kind of thought, "what the hell, it sounds good as a loure," and I'm sure all you loure-lovers out there would agree.

The real problem is that my edition is in the wrong key: G instead of C. This is for the obvious reason of making a cello piece playable by a violin. But when you've always heard the cello piece (I was lucky to have a brother who practiced it a lot on the cello), you want it to be in C.

I decided I'd play it through and then jack the pitch down a fifth (GarageBand lets you do this). Knowing it was a bogus way to play it to start with (a bourrée as a loure?) combined with the prospect of altering the pitch had the effect of reducing the angst of the inscribing moment, and I turned in a credible performance.

But when I lowered the pitch and listened to it, I was surprised by the timbre. It had elements of English horn, bassoon, flute, saxophone, and even cello in it, but it was a sound all its own (even if obviously electronic). See what you think:

I imagined a tele-tubby playing a miniature cello. This needs a cartoon.

And then I ran it through the GarageBand "starry night" effect and heard what filled the anglo's mind after he re-arranged his heart and/or the constellations: