Announcing: Summer 2017 Festival Shows

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra create their own high-speed rail system in Wisconsin as they storm the state from Milwaukee to Madison over two days in late August.

First, on Saturday, August 26, 2017 (1:00 to 3:00 p.m.) we’ll be taking the early afternoon shift at the 2017 Washington Heights Boulevard Bash in the vicinity of the intersection of 54th St. & W. Washington Blvd. (Milwaukee, WI 53208). For The Viper, this is about as hometown as it gets — the neighborhood festival on the very grounds on which The Viper stomps daily. It’s a great all-day party that stretches through five of the loveliest blocks in Milwaukee, just West of Washington Park. You might even see our Mayor, who lives along the Boulevard and has been spotted at the Bash helping kids get soccer balls out of trees. Free! (Facebook event)

Then, on Sunday, August 27, 2017 (12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m.), we stake out the stage at high noon at the 52nd Annual Orton Park Festival 2017 (Orton Park | 1114 Rutledge St, Madison, WI 53703) on the third day of this four-day festival sponsored by the Marquette Neighborhood Association. The Viper briefly lived in this neighborhood as well, but its grounds are more regularly stomped by trombonist Rob Henn. Orton Park is on the near-East side of Madison, not far from Lake Monona, and is the park where on a summer day in or around 1993 or ’94, I crossed paths with a man jogging in a full-body knight’s armored suit, helmet and all. Also free! (Facebook event)

If you can’t make one, make both! If you can’t make both, make monkeys! If you can’t make ’em, train ’em!

Knock, knock. Who’s There? It’s The Viper

Middle school denizens of the Northern territory of District 95, Lake of Zurich, United State of Illinois: The Viper comes in peace but he comes with washtub, jug, and, probably a cümbüş (don’t ask) in hand. Beyond that date, there be monsters. But fear not: we’re just that good.

I’m looking forward to my second annual virtual residence with the LZOrk-ers for your Spring 2017 concert. Mr. Broach and I have some fun and challenging music planned for all y’all, and I hope you’ll challenge us right back.

Here’s a glimpse at what we’ll be doing. And if you’d like a deeper dig into just what this Viperity is all about, you can read here about what last year’s students (which includes some of you!) asked about what to expect and what I wrote back, in a post called “What Does The Viper Say?”

“Just That Good”

The Intermezzo Orchestra will be working with a little trash-talking piece I wrote as the type of thing that should take five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. (Like Othello!) It’s about as simple as it gets — a twelve-bar blues in a ragtime/stride style — and our work with it should be a good example of the way most non-classical musicians learn and develop new music.

You’ll have a written template for the melody. But, truth be told, most of the “information” to be transmitted about this tune and its style is something you’ll have to learn by ear: you’ll hear me play the melody and “figure out how it goes” by playing it back and then memorizing it.

We’ll also try to work out ways, as a group, to produce bass lines and other accompanying parts and to introduce some development to this basic theme — including, if all goes as planned, a little “concerto mini-grosso” band-within-a-band bit for two washtub basses and jug. Whatever we end up doing, our performance will be a unique arrangement and orchestration of the piece — something that’s never been played quite the same way before, and won’t ever be played the same way again.

Here’s a “scratch track” version of the song as recorded by the group that Mr. Broach and I perform in together, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra. A scratch track is a rough-and-ready reference recording that a composer or a group makes in rehearsal — basically, so they can come back later and remind themselves what they figured out. This is faster than we’ll do it, but you’ll hear how this song works as a kind of conversation between all the performers.

“The Monsters Are Coming”

With the Chamber Orchestra, we’ll be working on a piece that has been described as “the worst song ever written” (it was described that way by me!) and one that, when performed before an audience of children, produced cries of “Liar!” (I had to explain to those kids that sometimes the truth hurts).

This is an example — or maybe even a parody of — a style of music that composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass developed in the second half of the Twentieth Century under the rubric of “minimalism” (though, as we’ll talk about, their work echoed some parallel developments happening in popular music as well). The idea is that we take some super-basic piece of melodic material…

monsters-bit

…and see just how little we can do with it and still end up with something that sounds like something that actually sounds like something!

The development might not be melodic — indeed, with this piece, the refusal to move away from the basic theme is really the joke — but instead might be in terms of the dynamics, or the sonority of the particular mix of instruments, or bowing/plucking techniques, or playing the melody backward (“retrograde”), upside-down (“inversion”), or, for the truly brave of heart, backwards AND upside-down (“retrograde inversion”), etc., and we will work this out in our rehearsals.

Truth is, even prior to the last century, there was a tradition of this kind of thing, whether we’re talking about monks chanting, or Indian ragas or Turkish taksims, or Beethoven’s meditation on a minor-third interval with a short-short-short-long rhythm in his 5th Symphony. But, trust me, Lake Zurich ain’t heard nothin’ like we’re going to lay on them with this.

Here’s a three-person version as performed by The Viper, Mr. Broach, and our colleague, Rob Henn. Now think of what we can do with a full orchestra!

The Monsters Are Coming, Var Gallery, Milwaukee, July 2016

November 2016 shows at Parched Eagle and California Clipper

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will be ruining the perfectly lovely atmosphere of two of our favorite venues in early November 2016 as we surround election day with shows on Saturday, Nov. 5 in the brewpub backgroom of the Parched Eagle in Westport, WI (just outside of Madison) and then on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at the classiest cocktail lounge in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, the California Clipper. (Details below.)

NOTE: With these shows, we’re welcoming the newest member of the Viper’s extended familial entourage: bassist Riley Broach has recently achieved proud father status with the birth of his daughter, Lyra Paulina (the “y” and “i” are both pronounced like a long “e”). So walk right up to him and give him a great big kiss when you see him.

Saturday, November 5, 2016 (7:30 to 9:30 p.m.)
Parched Eagle Brew Pub
5440 Willow Road #112, Westport, WI 53597 | (608) 204-9192
The Viper & His Famous Orchestra are back at this Westport hotspot to rock the back room for this pre-election blow-out. Don’t miss it!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 (10:00 p.m.)
The California Clipper
1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547
The Viper & His Famous Orchestra are back at this Humboldt Park hotspot to rock the front room for this post-election blow-out. Don’t miss it! With DJ Lawrence Peters and his vinyl 45s. $5 Cheap.

justmoneybags

 

 

What Does The Viper Say?

Early this past April, I met with 3 grades worth of musicians from the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra program as part of my time with them as a composer-in-residence. We worked on things old, things new, things borrowed, and some yodels blue, and it was a great pleasure to hear some things I’d written brought to life in their capable hands and under the inspired direction of their teacher, Riley Broach.

I’ll be meeting with them again tomorrow, May 11, to start polishing up the pieces we’ll be performing together at their Spring Concert on Thursday, May 19. I’ve got some questions for them.

But first they’ve got some questions for me, which Mr. Broach was kind enough to pass along. So let me take a stab at answering some of them:

Why do you call yourself the “Viper”?

Ah… the age-old questions. Here’s the quick answer:

The story of The Viper

Do you call yourself “the viper” or “viper”?

Definitely “The Viper.” Otherwise I’m likely to be confused with the 80’s Brazilian heavy metal band “Viper.”

viperband.jpg

What instruments do you play?

I mostly play plucked string instruments: ukulele, guitar, mandolin. But an instrument’s an instrument: and if I can make noise on something, I like to play it — trumpet, clarinet, suitcase, ceramic jug, piano, washtub bass, harmonica, wax-paper-and-comb. The one thing I’ve found I pretty much can’t do is make any noise that sounds good on a bowed instrument. So I really envy all of you your talent!

How did you learn how to yodel?

I learned from my Mom, who learned from someone that she worked with in a cheese factory in Sheboygan, Co., Wisconsin in the early 1960s. When she’d drive my sisters and I around in the car when we were little, we’d beg her to sing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” until I’m sure she was quite sick of it.

How do you yodel?

You’re really just going back-and-forth between what trained singers (which I’m not) will call your “chest” voice (the one you use for speaking) and your “head” voice (the falsetto one you use to sound like Michael Jackson or Prince).

By thickening or thinning your vocal cords as you sing, you change the speed at which the air vibrates as you force it past your epiglottis, which is the valve in your throat that controls whether your air passage or food passage is open. If the column of air vibrates more slowly, the pitch is lower; if it vibrates more quickly, the pitch is higher. (This is the same way you change pitch on your instruments: a thinner string vibrates the air around it more quickly when bowed. And if you make that string shorter by putting your finger on it along the neck, then it will vibrate even more quickly.)

Then there’s something else that happens when you yodel that I don’t really understand but that involves the epiglottis opening and closing that gives the yodel that distinctive  “click” effect as it goes from the chest voice to the head voice. So at that point, we’ll just say it’s magic.

For more on the technique and history of yodeling, I recommend Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, by Bart Plantenga (New York: Routledge, 2004), or this how-to video.


How to yodel

What’s your favorite music?

Well, the music made by the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North, of course!

Beyond that, I really listen to a little bit of everything, with a particular affection for the popular and vernacular music of the early 20th Century: the jazz of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, or Slim Gaillard; the American Songbook writing of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter; Bob Wills’s Western Swing; jug band and skiffle music by the Mound City Blue Blowers and the Spirits of Rhythm; and the crash-and-burn approach to “serious” music by people like Spike Jones and Carl Stalling (who did the music for Bugs Bunny cartoons).

In fact, I’d say Bugs Bunny was my most important early music influence — you can ask Mr. Broach about the time we performed a version of the classic Chuck Jones take on Richard Wagner, “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Are you a professional performer? Why or why not?

I’m a professional performer in the sense that sometimes I get paid to perform. But mostly I see music as something that I do as a healthy part of a well-balanced life! There aren’t many people who can make a living just making music. But everyone’s lives can be enriched by the challenges, socializing opportunities, and creative outlet that making music provides.

Who have you performed with?

A gentleman named Riley Broach, who I hear is a pretty decent fellow.

But besides my current band, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, some of the other bands I’ve played with were named (and this is roughly in chronological order): The Terrestrials, The Generics, Phlegm, Enzymatic Fly Vomit, My Cousin Kenny, Kissyfish, The Lovebirds, The Andrew Hipp Trio, The Beatles (really: that’s what we called ourselves), Gentlemen Prefer Hank, Half Slab, The Kennett Brothers, The Corn Likkers, The Prairie Mountaineers, The G.E.O. Brass Band, The Ancient Jazz Quartet, The Paint Branch Ramblers, and The Reds and The Blues.

That’s a lot of bands! And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of them.

Why the ukulele?

Why a duck?

Groucho and Chico Marx say why

What did you do in middle school? (Musically)

From 4th grade to 9th grade, I played trombone. Don’t hold it against me.

Where did you grow up?

My Dad was in the Navy, so I grew up in a few places: Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Great Lakes, Illinois; Newport, Rhode Island; and Libertyville, Illinois.

Do you have kids/are you married?

Yes and yes. My wife is named Ann and she’s a librarian. My daughter is named Irene, and she’s a Sixth-Grader who plays a mean violin. I used her to test out the parts I wrote for all of you! Here’s what she sounds like:

Irene Vipersdottir

Have any pets?

A really horrible little dog name Louisiana, aka Loup Garou, or just Loup for short. Here’s what she looks like.


Loup Garou and friends

I also have a tank full of platys, neon tetras, zebra danios, algae-eating shrimp, and snail-eating “assassin” snails. But no one else in my family but me considers those pets.

Has your stage name always been “the viper”?

For about 20 years now. But in my high school band, The Generics, I was known as “Guitar.” In the Beatles, I was “John Lennon.” And in The Kennett Brothers, I was “Earl Wayne Kennett.” I hope to start a honky tonk band some day called Earl Wayne Kennett and the Rural Electrification Project.

Why did you write heartbreak?

The basic melody you all play in “Heartbreak for Beginners” is from way back in the early 1990s, and I originally imagined it being played with a slide on an electric guitar. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with this little melody until a couple of years ago when I had the idea of writing a song that would be a kind of a play in which the singer, feeling heartbroken and stuck in his own head about it, would be offered words of comfort by his band, and just the fact that they were there would make him feel better about it. And it really does make me feel better when I sing it with other people. So thanks!

There’s a songwriter named Jonathan Richman who has these little funny conversations-in-music with his band (and the rhythm and chord changes of “Heartbreak” are very Jonathan Richman-y).

But even more, I was probably thinking of the routine that the great soul singer James Brown would do at the end of his set. He’d pretend to be exhausted, and one of the people in his band would come out and put a robe on him and gently try to lead him off stage — but J.B. would just keep shaking off the robe and going back to the mic to sing. You have to see it! The routine starts about 50 seconds into the clip below, and goes on for the rest of the 6 minutes. It will change your life!

James Brown, “Please Please Please”

Have you met any famous musicians?

I suppose it depends what you mean by famous. But the musician I was most excited to meet was a drummer named Mo Tucker who used to be in a group called The Velvet Underground, who had played at Andy Warhol’s Factory “happenings” in the 1960s. My college band opened for her band, and I brought my trombone — don’t hold it against me — and had her paint her name on it at the show. She seemed a little confused by the request, but she was gracious enough to do it, and it still makes me feel great to see it.

Any other hobbies?

Right now, in my spare time I’m learning how to do linear regression, logistic regression, and classification and regression trees. Does that count as a hobby?

Do you play a sport?

When I was your age, I played a lot of soccer — outdoor and indoor, though just in recreational leagues. Now, I ride around on a bicycle a lot. That’s not really a sport, except when I pretend all the potholes on the streets of Milwaukee are really an obstacle course and I can win it.

What other places have you lived?

You already heard about Sheboygan, Great Lakes, Newport, and Libertyville in my answer to the where-did-you-grow-up question. After growing up — sort of — I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and then graduate school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. That’s where I met Mr. Broach and the rest of the Famous Orchestra.

Then I abandoned them and moved to Ankara, Turkey for a few years while I was teaching American Literature at Bilkent University there. After that, I lived for a while in Washington, D.C., and Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland before I finally came to my senses and came back to the Midwest to live in Milwaukee.

This is where I plan to stay; and it’s a good thing, too, because it means I can get to Lake Zurich in time for 9:05 orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday. See you then

Shows in May & June, 2016

A couple busy weeks ahead for the normally pretty lazy Viper & His Famous Orchestra, across four towns in two states: Lake Zurich and Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee and Westport (basically, Middleton), WI.

Here’s what you can expect.

Thursday, May 19, 2016 (7:00 to 8:00 p.m.)
Lake Zurich Middle School North
LZMSN Cafetorium
95 Hubbard Lane
Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047
(847) 719-3600

The Really Big Shew!!! The Viper performs his material with the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra under the direction of Riley Broach as the culmination of his time with them as Spring 2016 Composer in Residence. The evening will include the world premiere of a piece written especially for the LZMSNO, a concerto gross for ukulele and orchestra titled “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas.” Read all about it here. Open to the public.

Saturday, May 21, 2016 (7:00 to 10:00 p.m.)
The Coffee House
1905 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233 | (414) 534-4612

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra with Andy Jehly, Mississippi Sawyer, Bill Murtaugh, Paul Smith, Sweet Diversity, and host Jym Mooney to close out the 49th season of The Coffee House. $10.00 cheap! suggested donation.

Saturday, June 4, 2016 (7:30 to 10:00 p.m.)
Parched Eagle Brew Pub
5440 Willow Road #112, Westport, WI 53597 | (608) 204-9192

Google Maps will tell you this is in Waunakee, but if you’ve got a date with The Viper & His Famous Orchestra in Waunakee, we’ll be waiting in Westport — here! At the Parched Eagle! And Edward Burch will be there with us. Westport/Waunakee is right on the other side of Lake Mendota from Madison, and in good old Madison-area fashion, there is no cover. We play for your tips, just like we did at your Bris.

Sunday, June 5, 2016 (7:00 to 10:00 p.m.)
The California Clipper
1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra bring their hog-butchering style to a city that really appreciates it, in the fancy digs of this Humboldt Park neighborhood classic space. It’s a beautiful bar! Plus DJ Lawrence Peters, who’s a stand-up guy and drummer, too. In fact, The Viper first premiered “Big Headed Small Minded Man” some years ago with Mr. Peters on the snare. I believe it’s a $5 cover, which, in Chicago money, is about what it costs to convince someone to give you their already-been-chewed gum and then punch you in the gut.

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If you come to our shows, the Viper will break out that shirt again.

the kind of music your great-great-great-grandparents warned your great-great-grandparents about