Thursday, December 22, 2011

currently listening

It's been way too long since I've posted anything here but it's been an incredibly busy last 6 months. Luckily, that means there are some exciting things that will be coming down the pipeline and the stable of bloggable nonsense will be cleared in fairly short order.

Some incredible albums have come across my path since I last posted here. I don't know if you guys have all gotten hooked up with Spotify yet but, if not, it is definitely worth checking out. It's a bit easier for me to get all down with it since most of my music consumption happens while either working at my desk or out hoofing it at various speeds in the city of Austin.

Do you guys all know the Bedroom Community label out of Reykjavik? I first heard about it when a friend hipped me to Nico Muhly's album, Mothertongue, but they've got an entire roster of really incredible artists as well (Sam Amidon is one of my other favorites). In any case, they just released their first collaboration with a new artist named Puzzle Muteson. He's a singer/songwriter from the Isle of Wight and his first album, En Garde, has some of the most intimate music I think I've ever heard (this side of Doveman). Listen to "Glover" when he sings, "I swear...I'll find a gun," and you know he's probably not talking about using it on somebody else (or at least that's what I'm reading in to it). It's weird to hear that notion spoken out loud but it just goes to show that he's willing to let you all the way into his psyche. Nico provides orchestrations which work to lift the sometimes-bleak lyrics into a hopeful optimism and the album as a whole is really good.

Also worth checking out is the gorgeous video for the title track. It starts out very close-in and then swells into a beautiful, passionate release of emotion. Love love love this album.

The Fleet Foxes finally came out with a new album, you guys! was worth the wait, right? The title track for Helplessness Blues contains maybe some of my favorite lyrics ever:
I was raised up believin' I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinkin' I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

I've often said that my musical tastes don't run a gamut. They are either what people would call "sophisticated" (via lyrical content or maybe, you know, the fact that I'm a composer) or "trashy" (I have seen Ke$ha twice...and am unrepentant about it). Well, Beyonce's new album be some classy trash up in here...or maybe some trashy classiness. I don't care. You figure it out...because when "Start Over" drops off the map around 2'45" and subsequently erupts I am unable to pay attention to anything else. Then when the producer fills in the high end with some bitchin' piano licks I start to think it's just classy.

I've mentioned Twin Cities singer/songwriter Adam Svec here more than a lot of other musicians and I was really excited to see that his new album, Weaks In The Waves, came out this year. It's definitely a next step for him. This isn't to say that his previous two albums weren't good...because they definitely were ("Breaking Strings" will always be a favorite of mine)'s just that there's a real "finished product" sheen coming off this one.

I have so many favorite songs on this album but "Chariot Swinging Low and Mean" has this running guitar part that I love which eventually spills over into a duet between Adam and singer Karen Salter. Then there's "Choir Robes." Whenever I feel homesick for the Midwest I pop this track on: "Cause when I'm lost, I will haunt them all/Cause what I found in these things is beautiful". It's a simple observation, to be sure...but it's also something that people rarely have the presence of mind to say; and I'm grateful there's somebody like Adam to remind us of these things every now and then.

I know this next album is two years old now...but I had never heard it until just recently. Damn. By the time "Cosmic Love" becomes the hurricane it eventually does I'm glad there's the album they just released I can listen to when I get sick of Lungs.

I'm a Death Cab for Cutie completist. To date they're the only band I've seen three times (in progressively smaller venues). The first single off of Codes and Keys was pretty good ("You Are a Tourist") but I think I love the simplicity of "St. Peter's Cathedral" and where it eventually goes even more.

And now a huge mea culpa: I had no idea how amazing Björk was until her most recent album, Biophilia, came out. I think I used to dismiss her music because some of those lyrics don't always make sense and I thought it was more fun to be sarcastic about that than actually listen. What seems to have turned me around on this album is her use of a bunch of obscure and interesting instruments. During "Thunderbolt" she actually plays a Tesla coil. I know that's been done before...but not like this (to my knowledge). "Crystalline" features something called a "gameleste" which Wikipedia tells me is a celesta modified with elements from a gamelan. Then there's the creepy organ part in "Hollow" that I will be looking for a way to steal.

As I mentioned with the Florence + The Machine album, I'm glad there's a deep well waiting for me to wade through once I get sick of Biophilia (not that that is going to happen any time soon).


Saturday, June 25, 2011

chamber vacation

Everybody knows that summer vacations are the most fun when they're paid for. Case in point: the 10 days I spent tooling around the northeast with the University of Texas Chamber Singers. The gigs were relatively light and the free time relatively heavy and, best of all, the vast majority of the trip was on UT's dime.

That being said, I feel as if I should say here that I sometimes feel weird about posting a travelogue here. It's my space to do with what I want but I'm always reminded of that episode of The Simpsons where Patty and Selma make everyone watch their slides from their Recent Trip to Wherever and it's (probably fairly) played as something that is incredibly boring. I remember this whenever I start talking about Where I've Been Recently and it makes me think sometimes that this might come off as bragging but, honestly, seeing new things is something that enriches me as a person and I can't help but be excited about going to places I've never been. I've had a terrible case of wanderlust ever since I was teenager and any time that gets a little stretch it's a great and worthwhile experience.

We started off in the Boston/Cambridge area and, unfortunately, we didn't have a lot of time to see anything; really just a morning. Because of this I decided to camp out in the MIT music library and work on the libretto for this new piece I'm writing for The Singers. It's a heartwrenching text about a man that died in the recent earthquake that struck Haiti and it's told mostly through interviews with his wife so if you can imagine me amongst all the MIT smart people crying by myself at a table then you've probably got it right. The story is truly moving and I'm excited to attempt to do it justice. More on that later.

Once I got that put together I sort of wandered the campus because I knew there was a Frank Gehry building somewhere. I walked around for a bit looking for it and eventually stumbled on what I was looking for. Behold! The Ray and Maria Stata Center.

My architect mother and I get into debates about Gehry's work on a fairly regular basis. I am of the mind that it's interesting to look at and she is of the mind that you can't find your way around inside one of these things. We are both right. I legit got lost inside this building and had to Hansel and Gretel my way out of there. I've had similar experiences inside the other three Gehry buildings I've been in (Walt Disney Hall in LA, the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis) but I still love these things.

Here's the venue for our concert in Cambridge. I forget the name...but it's a church. If you've seen one you've seen almost all of them. Nice space to sing in, though.

The next stop on the tour was a very brief stay in New Haven. I think I had maybe 90 minutes of free time so I didn't get to see a damn thing or, more importantly, go to Pepe's. When I told my friend, Andrew Davis (a Yale grad and brilliant composer), that I was headed to New Haven, he got all up in my face about this pizza and how it was sort of a moral imperative that I go there. I guess it was the first pizzeria in the United States or something.

Sadly, I didn't have time. I did, however, make it to another place in New Haven (called simply Bar) that serves--ready for this?--Mashed Potato Pizza. I know that sounds weird but, seriously, that shit was unbelievably good; a perfect crust with garlic butter, garlic mashed potatoes and thick, slab bacon on it. I'm a vegetarian of sorts but I make an exception for both seafood and (just because) bacon and this pizza was unforgettable.

I had wanted to see the two buildings on Yale's campus designed by Louis I. Kahn but, unfortunately, didn't make it so that Gehry business I was just talking about will have to be the sole entry which speaks to my fetish for interesting architecture (of which there is a dearth here at UT...sorry, Longhorns).

After New Haven we took a train to New York City. As a "pleasure tourist" NYC doesn't hold too many new things for me because I've been incredibly lucky to have been there a few times before (all music-oriented trips) and all the major stuff has been taken care of (you can read about the adventures of a much more naive Josh here, here and here). Because of this it can be difficult to find things to do but I was lucky enough to meet up with Michael Kerschner (director of the brilliant Young New Yorkers' Chorus) for dinner at the I Tre Merli Bistro in the West Village. I had this incredible horseradish-encrusted salmon and Michael and I talked about the YNYC's amazing performance at the national ACDA convention in Chicago this past winter. It's on iTunes and the Clare MacLean piece is worth the price of admission for the entire album. Seriously.

After a stop at a hipster bar in Williamsburg called Barcade (they have a shit-ton of old arcade games, you guys!), I witnessed a massive Times Square advertising fail. I'll wager spell check is to blame.

One of the things I realized whilst walking around Manhattan is that I had never been to Central Park so, in that interest, I took about five hours and fixed that situation. I basically just walked the entire southern part of the park and listened to the new Gaga album as well as get my phone call on with Jocelyn Hagen for a solid 45 minutes (with a brief guest appearance by Dan Nass). It was a relaxing--and free--way to spend a morning.

While I was walking around the park I stumbled on a shoot for Law & Order: Criminal Intent but, unfortunately, the pictures I took were too blurry to include here. You'll just have to take my word for it that I awkwardly scrambled up some rocks and took a few pictures of Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe shooting a scene.

Afterwards I was like, "That's a pretty New York thing to see, right?" Then on my way back I saw a sign advertising a soup restaurant and immediately had a craving for soup. It turned out to be the dude who was the inspiration for the Soup Nazi character on Seinfeld.

I had the lobster bisque (it was so good) and was like, "Wow. That's definitely something that's really associated with New York. That's pretty lucky that I saw it."

Then I stopped at the intersection of 53rd & Broadway and noticed I was standing next to Yoko effing Ono.

Now that's some New York shit for you. I didn't want to bother her because (a) she was talking with someone and (b) that's rude. What I did do was hang back and take this creeper picture of Yoko and her companion. I was able to rationalize this act because there is no way in hell that anyone would believe me if I didn't.

So...thank you, New York City. I basically just walked around and ended up in a bunch of situations that most of America would identify with that locale. They all had to do with pop culture but, still, it wasn't not cool (double negative and all).

Here's the venue in NYC. The windows in the church were almost exclusively made by the Louis Tiffany himself (not his studio). Unfortunately I have yet to invest in a good camera so all my pictures of said glass look like crap despite the fact that they were really impressive.

From the church I headed down to Greenwich Village to meet a friend of mine from my summer at Interlochen. We ate good food and drank a lot of good beer at the Blind Pig on 14th Street. Here ist some photographic evidence. I like to call this picture, "Josh + Kristen: You Just Got Sexy-Faced."

I had never been to Washington Square Park. Check it off the list.

Next stop: Washington DC. I sang a gig there back in 2003 with the Luther College Nordic Choir (Go Norse!) but we didn't get very much time to do anything...and it was January (read: winter). Consequently, I only got to see the National Gallery and the National Air and Space Museum (both awesome). This time around I had almost two entire days free to explore the District and I saw a bunch of really cool stuff which partially satisfied my fetish for The West Wing.

Most Americans have been brought up with images of these really iconic places in DC but, honestly, seeing them in person is something which shouldn't be lost on anyone. It was interesting to note the obvious cross-section of US citizens parading through these places which, although they're commonplace in the imagery of America, are best seen in the flesh.

One of the more interesting places I went was the National Museum of the American Indian. This thing was still under construction when I was in DC in 2003 but it has been since completed and is now open for business. The architect is the Canadian Douglas Cardinal who, according to Wikipedia, is a University of Texas alum. Hook 'em!

The impression I got of this place is that it's a museum still very much trying to find its place. There's certainly a huge part of it that's about the history of Native Americans (Does anyone else find it weird that it's called the National Museum of the American Indian?) but there's also a huge portion of the museum dedicated to the current state of those particular cultures...and it's fascinating. One part of the exhibit has a movie being projected on a wall of white feathers which, in person, is beautiful and strangely delicate.

Afterwards, I hit the National Museum of American History. There was an exhibit on the inaugural dresses of all the First Ladies dating back to Mamie Eisenhower and, since I have a mild addiction to presidential trivia, I took a walk-through so I could peep the gowns.

Quick story: here's the official portrait of Lady Bird Johnson or, as composer and friend Paul Marbach likes to call her, the "Patron Saint of Joshua Shank's Heart." He's not wrong. I love this woman like she was my own fierce granny. I can take or leave LBJ himself but his wife was fabulous and amazing.

Since I moved to Austin, Texas I've been rigorously educated on just how much she did for this particular city (they renamed a lake after her) and, subsequently, I went to the LBJ Presidential Library which, coincidentally, is across the street from the music building here at UT. I seriously don't know why I have this mild (very mild) fixation on this particular former First Lady. I guess I just sort of love her name or something (her given name was "Claudia"). During one of the first cab rides I took here in town the cabbie and I talked about Lady Bird. He called her "a mean, old bitch" (he had what could be called "personality") but I refused to believe it.

Nine months later a friend of mine, Brian, visited town for the South by Southwest Music Festival and, upon returning to my apartment after a visit to the LBJ Library, he looked at all the papers strewn in a semi-circle on the floor around my desk chair and said, "You're just like Lady Bird!"

You see, she liked to have a "To Do Pile" on the floor near her desk and the museum goes to great pains to illustrate this. I happen to subscribe to the same method of organization as the former First Lady and, having seen this, Brian declared me to be Lady-Bird-like.

And that is the greatest honor of my life (*stands up and salutes*). You heard it here first, folks.

In any case, whilst in DC, I stumbled upon her inaugural gown at the Smithsonian and, as much as I adore her, it's a bit tragic and fussy (what with the arm-muffs). Here's the picture they had on file of sweet, sweet Lady Bird. She looks like she could easily be Natalie Portman's mother in one of them Star Wars movies.

But enough about her. How about a sculpture of George Washington looking all ripped and Greek and what-not? I like to call this "George Washington: Rad-to-the-Power-of-Kickass." There's a history behind this piece, I know, but irony won't allow me any further than one of the quote-unquote Fathers of Democracy in a toga. That's just ridiculous...and kind of trashy...and I love it.

Also contained within the walls of the museum is an exhibit about transportation in America and, amongst other things, there was this example of a mini-van. When did wood paneling go out of style? The Shank family circa 1989 totally had one of these things and, in a tribute to National Lampoon's Vacation, we called it "The Family Truckster."

Like most tourists who visit DC, I spent the majority of my free time walking around the National Mall. I have a sappy sense of patriotism (in contrast to, say, a militant one...which is useful in a different way) and seeing all these monuments is something I'm glad I had a chance to do. The World War II Memorial was particularly moving what with all the families wading into the pool (which you're sort of not supposed to do).

All of the things in these pictures are, of course, nothing new to people who have spent the majority of their lives in the US. I include them here to say only that I am incredibly grateful that the University of Texas paid for me to come out here and see these things in person. I've seen pictures of these places in textbooks and historical photographs for as long as I can remember but to see them up close is entirely different and inspiring in a way completely devoid of the political divisions that create so much drama and distance between people. That's a pedestrian observation, I know, but I rarely get to rise above my own politics and, for me, that's a special thing.

Unfortunately the Capitol Reflecting Pool was undergoing maintenance but I suppose that just means there's still something left on the Mall I haven't seen yet. Despite that, it still made for a good picture (props to the weather at the time!).

My dad and I are both sort of mutually obsessed with history so I ended up texting him pictures of pretty much everything I was seeing and, by the time I got around to the Lincoln Memorial, all I got back from him was one word: "Jealous."

That night myself and a few of the Chamber Singers went out to see a great show at Twins Jazz. Before the show, I stopped next door at Al Crostino for this incredible salmon filet which, while good, wasn't near as amazing as the grilled vegetables that accompanied it. As a vegetarian who eats fish every now and then (yes, I know that makes me a "pescetarian"...that just feels pretentious when I say it), I'm always impressed when a chef can make something as simple as grilled vegetables taste crazy good. Wow.

The act playing that night was Ramzy & The Brothers Handsome and, as it turned out, they were recording a DVD. If they had more material available on the Web I could show you how amazing they were but, for now, you'll just have to take this abbreviated trailer and my word for it.

After the final concert in DC (an evensong appearance at a local church) we headed to Vapiano in Chinatown for some great Italian food. It's a chain restaurant but one of the singers had a connection which resulted in better seating or something. Nonetheless, it was fresh pasta with made-to-order sauce...which is just about the best thing ever. Seriously.

They also do this rigamarole where they halt you as you walk in the door and hand you this credit-card-looking thingy which is used at every station (pasta bar, pizza bar, booze bar, etc.) to charge you for That Which You Have Consumed but, honestly, the hassle is completely worth it because it was some kickass food. In the end, my favorite thing about Vapiano is that it's a German chain (headquartered in Beethoven's hometown...holla!) specializing in Italian food which the UT Chamber Singers dined at in the capitol of the United States. Try not to have a seizure from the irony all up in that.

At the beginning of this diatribe I talked about how viewing someone's travel slide show can come across as totally boring. That being said, I'd like to take this chance to (a) acknowledge that this might have been the case with this lengthy blog entry and (b) thank you for getting this far (both of you). I'm not nearly as well-traveled as some of my more worldly compositional colleagues (which isn't meant as an indictment) but, as I've said before, I'm incredibly enriched when I'm able to go see new places. This blog is an occasional testament to this fact.

What made this trip even more special is that I got to make it with a group of amazing people who are both unbelievably talented and wonderful to be around. The last time I went on a tour like this was with the aforementioned Nordic Choir in 2003...but that was with, like, 75 singers plus a staff of tour people. The UT Chamber Singers are a tiny insurgency of 20 musicians plus a conductor and, therefore, this trip had way more shared moments that pulled me in closer to some of the best people I've ever met.

I don't have many pictures of us and, in fact, I'll thank Caity Anderson-Patterson here for the use of a few pictures she snapped that are about to show up. Here you've got alto Sam Miller and I posing in Times Square. We had a great time together that day and, since it was Fleet Week, the person on the other side of the camera is a US Marine (Semper Fi!). Sam just adopted a beautiful little girl from Russia (who I still have to meet...Hi, Micah!) and I'm grateful to have been the one who distracted her whilst all the paperwork was going through.

Here's a gaggle of UTCS peeps at a Washington Nationals game at RFK Stadium. The classiest baseball fans in the world!

Finally, here's what Caity dubbed "The Incorrigible Eight" (although three are missing). Our connecting flight from Dallas-Fort Worth was cancelled so the airline routed the 21 of us in the ensemble from Baltimore to Houston to Austin in three separate groups. I was a member of the third group to leave the Houston airport and we were supposed to have close to a 6-hour layover...and it only takes something like 3 hours to drive the distance between Houston and Austin. Taking that into account, the university rented us a bigass passenger van (church camp style!) and we drove it to get back home before Group #2 even touched down at ATX. Here we are in the Enterprise station about to leave for Austin.

Caity's caption says it all: "On our mission trip to Awesome. Fighting transportation adversity at every turn."

I'm truly grateful to have been let into this wonderful ensemble (thanks, Dr. James Morrow!) and then befriended by such awesome and interesting people. Spending 10 days on the road with me couldn't have been easy because, when free time is available, I tend to put on my headphones and march off in whatever direction I want. But travelling with them for the same amount of time was incredibly easy.

To be a musician of any stripe is to be given these occasional opportunities to see the world--oftentimes with a bunch of other people alongside you--and these 10 days will be a cherished memory.

Friday, June 3, 2011

currently listening: June 2011

A friend sent me a hilarious-but-really-good version of Holcombe Waller performing Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" a few weeks ago and it got me curious as to who this guy is. In that video it's pretty clear that he's damn good so I checked out some of his other material and stumbled on his video for "Hardliners." Said song is incredibly beautiful and it lead me further down the path of hearing some of his stuff so, after cherry-picking the majority of the album on iTunes, I just threw my hands up and decided to blindly buy the entire thing. Not a disappointment at all. It's all incredibly moving. The beginning of "Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan" seems impossibly high but it ends up being a testament to just how unique this guy's voice is.

How many times have you had to sit and and get all Barococo with one or more of Vivaldi's Four Seasons? At least an annoying amount, right? Max Stoffregen told me about this Il Giardino Armonico album a couple of months ago and, although I was skeptical at first, he wasn't kidding around (I should know this about Max by now...he's brilliant). I don't know exactly what kind of strings the ensemble is playing on (I'm assuming gut, maybe?) and, due to the ubiquitous nature of this music, I haven't studied the scores for these pieces but--damn--whatever they did here makes them actually interesting; like the first time you heard The Black Album or The Rite of Spring. The second movement of the winter concerto is especially different than anything I've heard. There are sul ponticello effects all over this entire album which lift the music out of any of the quotidian nature its acquired. Or I could be wrong about all that and it just turns out that I'm woefully unlearnéd about this type of string playing. Either way this album effing rocks.

I was talking to a colleague the other day and he challenged me to sum up my musical tastes. All I could come up with was that I either like my music super sophisticated or super trashy. So...res ipsa loquitur. Especially "Criminal" what with the janky, MIDI flute.

On the sophisticated side (at least with regard to the hyper-literate lyrical content) I'm in love with The Decemberists' new album, The King is Dead. This might be their last album for a while and it's a good one. "January Hymn" reminds me of growing up in the Midwest ("How I lived a childhood in snow...stuffed in strata of clothes") and "Don't Carry It All" is loaded with positive vibes ("A neighbor's blessed burden within reason becomes a burden born of all and one"). They just announced that keyboardist Jenny Conlee has been diagnosed with breast cancer so here's hoping she'll be back to the stage soon.

Julius Eastman, you guys! He was a singer/composer/provocateur (1940-1990) who wrote some proto-minimalist stuff back in the day and then died penniless and destitute way too early.

"Stay On It" is an exercise in this really bubbly vibe that persists for almost 25 straight minutes. And then there's this crazy piece called "Gay Guerrilla" for four pianos which is even longer. So far there is only one anthology of his work out there called Unjust Malaise (thanks in no small part to Mary Jane Leach) and you should definitely check it out. Eastman ran in so many seemingly disparate circles it's ridiculous and, if you have some time, his Wikipedia entry is worth a read.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

jocelyn hagen kicks amASS

This entry is woefully late due to life getting in the way (I meant to get this done all the way back in February) but I really needed to write it. I flew up to Minneapolis last winter to attend the premiere of Jocelyn Hagen's amass and have a generally awesome time.

Jocelyn is a dear friend and she was kind enough to ask me to write the program notes for her evening length piece. I think I convinced her to let me do it because a) she doesn't like to write these things and b) I like to run my mouth off about music so, in a sense, it was the perfect marriage (but don't tell her husband). The piece I wrote for her now appears in the "Writings" section of my website so, if you're interested, you can see how my ramblings look when they're actually, like, edited and (hopefully) well-constructed.

But that's neither here nor there. This piece, you guys. This. Piece. Ohmygodit'ssoeffinggood!

It's difficult for me to put into words how amazing the experience of sitting through this thing was. It's a sort-of "chamber oratorio" that takes the Roman Catholic liturgy and supplements it with ecstatic poetry from pretty much every other faith tradition in an attempt (a successful one if you ask me...and you didn't) to describe her idea of the nature of God. It was commissioned by The Singers - Minnesota Choral Artists and, aside from the 40 voices in the choir, it featured soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, a cello quintet (with one of them taking a prominent soloist role) and a battery of percussion instruments. She wrote some pretty cool stuff and, at one point, the percussionists are playing an array of bells made from sawed-off oxygen tanks as well as banging tiny gongs and dipping them into buckets of water to alter the pitches. Way cool.

But that's just the upfront statistics on the work. What Jocelyn has done is construct something of incredible beauty and--not to sound too dramatic--a sort of timeless relevancy. Honestly. I know that sounds like I'm painting in broad strokes and being hyperbolic, but I swear it's true. To take on a subject as enormous and contentious as what the Dalai Lama calls "interreligious harmony" is incredibly ambitious. To then go on to write a piece as moving and successful as amass is another thing altogether. Very few composers would have the courage to put themselves out there like this and even fewer have the generosity of spirit to bring an audience--all of whom have their own ideas of faith and religion, mind you--along with them.

The experience of sitting through this piece is something that, as a concert goer, I don't think I'll ever forget and it's easily up there with some of the best pieces I have ever heard. The fact that I've known Jocelyn for years and had the opportunity to work with amass before it was premiered had little impact on my eventually internalizing the piece as a listener and, from the reaction the audience had, it's obvious they enjoyed it with a similar enthusiasm. By the end of the final movement everyone around me was openly weeping (myself included) and, after the final chord, there was a stunned silence in the hall before the entire audience immediately stood up and rabidly clapped for 10 straight minutes. Every single performer walked off the stage before the applause was over with. I've never seen anything like it.

If you don't know Jocelyn's music you need to go to her website and listen right this very second. I'll tell you that I'm not surprised she was able to construct something so beautiful and moving but I'll be damned if I can figure out how she did it. The patience she must have had to shepherd such a large work from concept to concert speaks to her vision and skill and I'm unbelievably inspired to count her as a friend and colleague.

And just as a counterbalance to this dramatic entry I'd like to say that, on the way back to Austin, I connected through the Denver airport and stumbled on this heinous advertising mistake. The amount of people this got past is ridiculous. It was backlit and rotating, you guys. Fail.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Daniel Catán (1949-2011)

I studied composition with Daniel Catán for the past semester and since he passed away suddenly a few weeks ago I’ve been trying to think about a proper way to memorialize him in this space. At first I thought that perhaps it wasn’t my place to do that because I knew him for such a short time compared to dozens of other people in his life but, in the end, there are many ways to honor someone’s memory and my time with him meant a lot to me.

When people eulogize someone important to them I feel like it can sometimes veer easily into hyperbolic statements about the faultless virtues of the deceased; clichés can run rampant and nothing much is said about the person in question. But, as with any sort of cliché, it exists mostly because it's probably true. So that being said, I’d like to make the following statement:

Daniel Catán was an amazing human being. Cliché? Yes. True? Totally. And my story about how I came to know him starts a few years ago.

Smash cut to…

…Germany: the summer of 2006. I was on one of those semi-requisite, post-collegiate backpack traipses through Europe with a friend. Via the European train system, we ended up being on the road for about a month and a half and one of our stops was the town of Heidelberg in southwestern Germany. Like most of the places we ended up it was a process of getting off the train, finding and setting up the campsite we had booked and subsequently filling up any remaining time we had by seeing the sights, eating the food and, inevitably, drinking the beer. During this particular stop we were walking through the downtown area and, for probably the third day in a row, I was wearing a shirt from my undergrad choral days that said “Luther College Nordic Choir” on it. The fact that we weren’t able to wear fresh clothes every single day necessitated bringing along the kind of crappy t-shirts that Life sort of gives you once a year (think about it…you have a closet full of them, right?). In any case, as we were walking someone out in the crowd of people shouted, “Nordic Choir?!

The shouter in question turned out to be a Luther alum who had graduated just a few years before us. He was working in town as a singer for the local state opera at the Theater Heidelberg and he ended up showing us around town, taking us out to eat (I had some crazy good semmelknödel) and eventually securing us comp tickets for that night’s production of an opera called Florencia en el Amazonas. It was sung in Spanish with German supertitles so, due to the fact that I only speak a little bit of either of those languages, it was a bit hard to follow. The beer secured after the first act and a question and answer session with a German couple also in attendance helped clarify things a bit.

And that’s where that part of the story ends. We had a good time at an opera we hadn’t planned to see and only half understood.

Smash cut to…

…Austin, Texas: the winter of 2010. Here I was slogging my way through graduate school and, during registration, it’s brought to my attention that there will be a composer-in-residence for the spring semester. His name is Daniel Catán and he’s been commissioned to write a new opera in honor of some local mega-patrons who gave $55 million to the School of Music (which was subsequently named after them). Supposedly he's written some pretty incredible stuff but I am skeptical at first because I’m a bit wary of signing away 25% of my lessons to somebody I have never heard of before. To this end I bring up his Wikipedia page to investigate a bit more and it becomes obvious fairly quickly that this guy is the Real Deal. Operas produced everywhere; widely respected, etc. In fact, as it turned out, the last thing he worked on was a commission from the Los Angeles Opera to write something for Placido effing Domingo. Whoa. Maybe I should study with this guy after all.

That’s when I scrolled down to the section where it listed all the operas he had written. There, listed amongst the others, was Florencia en el Amazonas; the opera I had seen by pure coincidence in the summer of 2006. The composer of that piece (whose name I had long forgotten) was Daniel Catán.

I took this as a sign and immediately put my name in the hat to study with him. “He’ll have some incredible advice on that opera I’ve been writing for the last few years,” I thought.

From the very first lesson (in which I recounted my story of seeing Florencia in Heidelberg) it became starkly evident that Daniel was an incredible human being who, through his compositions, wanted to take as many people on a beautiful journey as he could and he cared deeply for all of his students as both people and fellow composers.

For the uninitiated, I feel I should say that sometimes music lessons can devolve into a sort of empirical hegemonic exercise whereby a student is instructed by a master but, every Wednesday at 3pm, Daniel made it known through no uncertain terms that he considered his students equals and this was the position he wanted to talk about my music from. He would often lean forward, point at various measures on my chicken scratch manuscript and gently ask, “What are you trying to say here? I just want you to talk for a bit and I’ll listen.”

He was gracious and he was challenging but, above all, he was nurturing. Not every composition student needs this but, in my case, it helped me to get work done because I didn’t dread showing my music to him (and I hate presenting my music to other composers). We would often just sit and talk for a while; spending maybe 10 minutes of the hour on actual music I brought in. We talked variously--and for no apparent compositional reason--of a Norwegian dessert called rømmegrøt I had recently made for a dinner party as well as the different ways he felt Musetta could be played in any number of productions of La bohème (clearly he was the one who was on-task). At one point he found out that I played banjo and grilled me on notation for that instrument because he had planned on using it in the opera he was working on.

At our final lesson together, I brought in a piece for viola and piano I had written. I played it for him and he said, “Well, it doesn’t sound like you’re stuck on this. What else have you brought?” As this was 15 minutes into our lesson I freaked out a little because I didn’t know what I could play for him but, as it happened, I had the 50 pages of music I've got written for my opera, We, The Boys, with me. I took it out and he proceeded to school me at length on what I was doing right and wrong. At one point, he looked at me and said, “This is a song. You’re inspired by the troubadours, aren’t you?” I had to honestly say that I wasn’t...and I’m unsure if I’ll ever be compared to a composer of Occitan lyric poetry in the High Middle Ages again in my life. It’s certainly something to strive for.

In a sense, though, he was right. I’m woefully unfamiliar with the canon of troubadour music (for the moment), but the music of various singer/songwriters is something that informs my music in a deep way. And couldn’t modern-day musicians like Holcombe Waller or Ben Gibbard or Justin Vernon (to name a few) be said to have a connection to that ancient music. I definitely think so and he had heard the residue of those people in the aria I played for him. But that was Daniel Catán for you. He was one of the most perceptive people I have ever met.

He also had a wicked sense of humor that was as dry as the desert sand. It always took a second to figure out that he was even telling a joke in the first place because he wouldn’t say it any differently than he would any other sentence. During one of our lessons I was telling him about a new opera that I was excited about. He sat and quietly listened until I finished the story about the plot of the piece. Once I reached this point you could sort of see the gears turning in his head before he very calmly--and without a trace of invective or hyperbole--said, “You know…[beat]…this sounds like fucking bullshit to me.”

He was incredibly funny.

Also, due to the fact that he grew up for a time in the United Kingdom, he would often pepper his speech with the word “bloody.” He was born in Mexico but had lived as an English speaker for the majority of his life so he had this sort-of muddled Spanish accent that was hard to place. But here he was talking about how things were “bloody difficult” or “bloody great.” The passion of a Hispanic man crossed with the erudition of an English toff. Whenever I tried to imitate him I ended up sounding like a cross between Antonio Banderas and a leprechaun (I am not a very talented mimic).

And I will miss him dearly. As clichéd as this sounds, I learned more from him in our short time together than I had in the previous 10 years. He made me feel as if some of the decisions I had made about being a composer--decisions that I attribute to just blindly feeling my way around that particular endeavor--were the right ones and that, in fact, he toiled in the same proverbial vineyard as I did. The overwhelming message was, "Just write what you want to write. Everything else will take care of itself as long as you're truly happy with what you've written." And it’s not often that you find a compositional mentor that attempts to impart this very simple notion to you.

In talking with his other students, it turns out he had the same effect on them as well. He had the talent of saying the exact thing that needed to be said. Without malice or pretense he encouraged us all to be the composers that we were rather than the composers we wanted to be (and there is a vast difference between those two). To quote the beautiful obituary that Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
Everyone--even the singers and stage directors and opera administrators--liked him. Critics and some important people in the music business were put off by Catán’s unabashed neo-Romanticism, but no one had a bad word to say about him. His students adored him. He always struck me as someone who cared about people and who cared about music and had no intention of letting one form of caring obstruct the other.
Very, very true. One of the things that Daniel was quoted as saying is, “Love and art are the vehicles to self-realization as a human being in the fullest sense of the word.” Just take a second and figure out what that statement means to you.

Those words have resonated with me since the very first time I set eyes on them both because I was lucky enough to know the man that said them...but even more so because I think they’re bloody true. Love and art represent emotional purity and, ultimately, the power of truth. It’s a notion that I think he strived--sometimes willfully, doggedly so--to live up to. And that might be the noblest endeavor that anyone can undertake whether they write incredible operas or not.

Gracias por todo, Señor Catán. Te echaremos de menos.