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!

Jonathan Richman, “Down in Bermuda”

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!