For the last three years, The Viper has served as Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. This is always a great experience as I compose and arrange music for these 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students along with their input and ideas, working with a full orchestra in the same informal way I work with my much smaller performing band.
On Thursday, May 17, 2018, we’ll be doing it again — at 7:00 p.m. presenting the results of the three all-day workshops I’ve held with students so far this spring. (Riley tells me the public is welcome. Details: Lake Zurich Middle School North | 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600.)
Earlier this year in April, I sent them the following message to get ready for our time together in 2018.
Hey, Orchestras of the Lake of Zurich and the Middle School of the North. Yes! This is the Viper, and beginning on April 27, I’ll be coming — I hope — to vipe avay some of the cobvebs in your musical brains as I drag you kicking and screaming into the strange and wonderful world of living composition.
I’ve had the pleasure to work with you and Mr. Broach as your very fancy-sounding Composer in Residence for what will be our third season together, and I really look forward to meeting you for the workshops in which we’ll take on the challenges of story-telling through composition, collaborative arranging, and exploring a range of musical styles. By the time we perform on May 17, you should be more than ready to blow some minds and rock some (nay, all) worlds.
This past November 17, 2017 — simpler times, no? — The Viper brought his Famous Orchestra and a host of LZORK alumni to good ol’ LZMSN to play a mix of past mixed triumphs and future noble failures. You remember the roll call: “Hotzeplotz Calls,” “The Monster Are Coming,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Just That Good,” “My Dog Has Fleas.”
As we played, we asked audience members to record any and all thoughts on “the new-to-you songs…. any thoughts or ideas that arise, bidden or unbidden, in your Viper-y brain.”
Here’s a small sampling of what we got back:
“You guys rocked. I have nothing to say.”
“Very impressive! Do not stop playing!”
“Interestingly weird (but good). I WANT TO DO”
“La La La”
“I wish we had Mr. Broach for high school orchestra.”
Uhh… let’s try to stay on topic here.
A few such comments stood out to me as I thought about what we might do and make together in this once-in-a-lifetime Spring of 2018. So here’s one:
Well… Okay! We will.
In fact, with the Intermezzo Orchestra, we’ll apply our talents to one of the first tunes I wrote specifically for the ukulele: a Hawaiian song about East-Central Wisconsin called “The Winnebago Bay” (described by one November listener as “upbeat & fun”). This is a pretty simple, melodic tune — with ample opportunities for yodeling and whistling — and it will give us as musicians a chance to think about how to take a melody and provide the heartbeat behind it: bass lines, harmony, counterpoint, elaborations, etc.
In other words: we’ll make some music!
Here’s what it sounded like when The Viper & His Famous Orchestra recorded it. Question for you: how can we make it you? Sub-question: how can we make bowed strings sound like a Hawaiian steel guitar?https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xe27errTvkC9gdIuk7WsRvrxO37AfrqD/view?usp=sharing
If you’ve got a ukulele, play along:
For the Chamber Orchestra, another November comment drove my thinking on what we’d do this Spring:
“Made a song with dark lyrics really bright. Don’t know how I feel about it. Enjoyable.”
I’m never sure how I feel about that either, though it seems to be a Viper specialty. So let’s not overthink it. And, instead, let’s all enjoy it until we figure out a more appropriate response.
In that vein, I’ve got a totally brand-new bit of songsmithing for us to work our magic on together: a deceptively optimistic take-down of Einstein’s theory of time called “Another Day.” It sounds like this:https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vMYWcSRYrcLa7qakjYQNlfC7P_7Tq99x/view?usp=sharing
Actually, “it” doesn’t sound like “that.” THAT’S just what writers call a “demo,” which is to say a kind of proof-of-concept demonstration of the basic skeleton of a new piece of music. It’s like when Wagner came in and was like: okay, guys, picture this. Four-and-a-half hours of singing cobblers. Like this [plays some meistersinger stuff on his ukulele]. What do you think?
And what the group thinks matters. As a group, we’ll going to figure out how to provide this skeleton song with musical blood and flesh and sinews and nerves and hair and pimples and a backstory and dreams for the future and a voice for singing about it all.
In other words, we’ll arrange it. And we’ll attempt to do it very much like the way I do it when I bring a new song to Mr. Broach and the rest of my Famous Orchestra as we figure out exactly what details of harmony, rhythm, feel, dynamics, silence, and sound add up to a whole and hopefully beautiful thing.
Are you ready for it?
So that’s what they got in April. Since we’re playing tomorrow, tonight I’m going to send out another — shorter — message of the let’s-win-one-for-the-Gipper sort to get them psyched (or inpire an eye-roll) for tommorow’s performance.
Here’s what that will look like:
LZORK — Item: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS
Tomorrow night, the 17th day of May in the two-thousand-and-eighteenth year of our Common Era at precisely 7 bells of the postmeridian half of the day, we’ll be onstage at LZMSN to make some noise, break some eggs, make some omelettes — musically speaking.
I’m just writing to wish you well on everything you’ll be playing under the skilled direction of Mr. Riley Broach. May your strings stay tuned, may your fingers fleetly fly, may your ear be true, and may your intent be pure and true and honest. In other words, good luck!
On the songs we’re doing together, I don’t have to wish you luck: I’ve been there for the rehearsals and I know how good they can sound.
“Winnebago Bay” is going to make everyone there feel like they are basking in the sea and sun of an island in the tropics — or at least in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.
And “Another Day” is going to remind everyone that (like the reindeer said) there’s always tomorrow, and that, while we concede Einstein’s theory of relativity and the concept of non-empty relational and dimensional time on which it depends, it sure feels like we have get through a lot of days.
So for those songs, I just say: play it proud, sing it proud, and have fun. I know I will.
And if you have a chance after the performance, take Mr. Broach up on his suggestion to drop The Viper a line or two with your thoughts on the performance, on working the songs up, on living composition, or on anything else that our time together this year inspired in that brain that sits in your head.
Watch this space over the coming days for their replies. And memes to you.
Guitar great Doc Watson passed away earlier this week. I steal everything I do, and I have Watson to thank for the basic Piedmont-esque finger-picking style that I use when I use my fingers. This is a style I learned from Watson on an instructional VHS tape that I checked out from the Long Branch Public Library in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2002, and which I now see is a Smithsonian Folkways video still available on DVD called Doc’s Guitar: Fingerpicking & Flatpicking.
Specifically, I took the style from the first bit he teaches/plays on that video: “Deep River Blues.” Below, you can see me doing trying to do this bit — same key (E), same diminished chord (G dim), same neck position and everything — as The Viper and His Second String perform the Neil Young song “Vampire Blues” (shot and uploaded to YouTube by Sue Peacock earlier this year — that’s birthday boy John Peacock you’ll see taking the suitcase solo in the middle).
And now here’s Doc Watson doing the same thing but better on “Deep River Blues.”
Great stuff. And now follow this link to a clip from the Smithsonian video to have Doc Watson teach you how to do it too!
Just finished recording this plug for all and sundry to vote on April 5, 2011 for Don Gerard, running for mayor of Champaign, Illinois. Better late than never!
Don Gerard for Mayor
click here to download the mp3
This was recorded at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on a perfectly clear day. The thunder comes from the open course Community Audio project of the Internet Archive, and is made available for free use and free modification for any purpose under a Creative Commons attribution license (the author is given as Gaia), at http://www.archive.org/details/Sounds_of_Nature_Collection.
The Viper and His Famous Orchestra have been in touch with the Rambling Boys of Pleasure of Ghent, Belgium. And I’m here to report the results.
As we have been reporting in this space, we discovered that in the last two weeks, a trad jazz band out of Belgium had posted to YouTube a cover of “Ich Bin Berlin (The Sundown Song),” a Viper and His Famous Orchestra tune recorded for our Everything for Everyone long-playing CD.
One of the first reactions that we had to this discovery was a sense that we really should get in touch with this band: 1) to let them know how glad we were that they’d taken the trouble to learn and play this song, and 2) to find out how this bit of trans-Atlantic cultural exchange had come about.
Our bass player, Riley Broach, was the first to post a comment to their YouTube video, writing:
“Wow! That’s awesome Rambling Boys! We’re flattered that you covered us. If we are ever in Belgium we’ll have to perform together.?”
To which TheRamblingBoys replied:
“We’d be happy to have you? and Ghent is a lovely place to be. Thanks a lot for the encouragement, didn’t see that one coming :-)”
Then I wrote, then percussionist Victor Cortez wrote, and then even Viper-affiliate Don Gerard wrote (to plug Steve Pride & His Blood Kin). And to all, the Ghent Ramblers replied with good grace and humor.
By this point, I thought it’d be fun to actually interview these rough and rowdy Rambling Boys. And so I tracked down Stijn, the ukulele player, to ask if he was prepared to suffer the indignities of my questions via e-mail. He was, and here’s what transpired. (The following is edited for concision, coherence, jokes, and to throw in some good stuff from communication that took place outside the scope of this e-mail exchange).
THE VIPER: First, about you and your band. How long have you and/or The Rambling Boys of Pleasure been playing?
RAMBLING STIJN: We first got together somewhere in November ’08. It took me more than a month to get together a few musicians. First there’s the trouble in finding people who like roots music (that isn’t blues), and secondly there’s the trouble in finding musicians who can play an instrument that’s not a guitar.
TV: Are all of you from Ghent?
RS: We’re all from Ghent, although we used to have a dobro/steel guitar player from Antwerp as well, who needed more time to focus on his kids. We’re still looking for a worthy replacement, although there is some speculation that he’s actually the only dobro player in Belgium.
Really, if you’re looking for a band in Belgium and you don’t want to play speed metal, you’re out of luck.
TV: Though I suppose there are worse things than wanting to play speed metal. In your postings to YouTube, besides our song, you’ve also posted recordings of Al Jolson’s “Back in Your Own Backyard,” Roger Miller’s “England Swings,” Nora Bayes’s “Shine on, Harvest Moon,” and Hank Williams’s “Hey! Good Lookin’.” Have you always played such a range of American pop/folk material?
RS: Can’t speak for the other band members, but I fell in love with country music, and swing after that, by listening to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which was pretty much all we listened to at the student newspaper when I worked there during my first year at college.
But Hank Williams is probably the reason I’m still playing and making music today. A lot of musicians go through a phase where there realize that they – well – suck, and ask themselves “why am I still playing?” Hank had some great melodies and lyrics and worked with great musicians (Don Helms!) but in the end the chords and the lines are dead simple. That was very encouraging for me, and it also made me realize how much music is a social affair and that people don’t care how slick your solos are.
TV: Nothing harder to achieve than simplicity.
RS: Playing country music if you’re not from the States can be a bit weird though. I wrote a song a while ago that started out with “Way down yonder where I was born / Between the fields, the cows, the grasses and the corn” and it’s really hard to sing that with a straight face when you’ve never been near a farm for your entire life. But it’s great fun nonetheless.
TV: Probably the only thing harder to achieve than simplicity is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’re set. So how did you decide which of your songs you would post to YouTube?
RS: I said: “Guys, I’m sorry, but I’m really not going to record more than six. I’m already enough of a recluse as it is, without having to edit and mix a whole batch of songs.”
TV: Let me ask about the instruments. You have a guitarist and ukulele player (Godfried), an upright bass player (David), and yourself on ukulele, guitar, and clarinet. And then there’s a multi-instrumentalist named Clo who plays, variously, a shaker, a tiny xylophone, and, on “Shine on, Harvest Moon,” something that your video information calls an “ovenrooster.”
RS: Yes, the “ovenrooster.” We actually have a washboard around somewhere, but didn’t have it handy when we recorded Harvest Moon, so Clo just decided to get an oven grate from the kitchen and play that instead.
TV: Most people who find our CD online are ukulele players looking for ukulele music. But in one of your YouTube responses, you suggested that you began to play ukulele after you found our Everything for Everyone CD.
RS: I remember thinking, after listening to Everything for Everyone for the first time, “I must have an ukulele.” So I got one. I have an irresistible urge to buy and try to learn every instrument that catches my fancy. Which usually fails horribly, but I guess the ukulele stuck. Currently I’m trying my best to get a few notes out of a clarinet.
TV: When I was trying to figure out what you were saying in the information that appears along with your videos on YouTube, I assumed, from what little I know of Belgium, that the language you were using was Flemish. The closest I could find to an online Flemish-English translator was one that did Dutch to English. And that worked pretty well to translate things like “Nu nog een beetje oefenen op onze stage presence” into “Now we just have to practice our stage presence” (which isn’t true, by the way: you guys look great!)
RS: Flemish is really just the variety of Dutch that is spoken in Belgium, but it’s the same language that’s also spoken in The Netherlands and in Suriname. The difference between Flemish and the Dutch spoken in The Netherlands is somewhat greater than the difference between, say, a Jersey accent and a southern drawl. Maybe the difference between American and Australian English would be a good comparison. Including the fact that hearing Australian English probably makes you cringe.
TV: No! Americans LOVE hearing Australian English! It’s an accent we all like to think we do pretty well, too. So why is your English so much better than my Flemish?
RS: Because people who don’t speak English have a reason to learn it, whereas I would absolutely discourage you from ever trying to learn Dutch. Simple as that. It might surprise Americans, but most of the people I know have read more English literature (in the original language) than they have Dutch. E.g. The Daily Show is very popular over here as well.
TV: In the last blog post I did, I discussed how hard it would be to figure out the lyrics to “Ich Bin Berlin,” for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that our liner notes for the CD included the lyrics, but after having run them through an online translation engine twice: first English-to-Russian, then that same Russian translated back into English. So how did you do it, especially given how local to Champaign, Illinois our references are?
RS: Google search and google maps were my friends when trying to figure out what on earth this song was about. Which in turn led to a very fruitful afternoon browsing wikipedia-articles about public transportation in Illinois and aquatic life in the Great Lakes. You know how these things go. It’s easy to understand in a superficial way: check if there is a Neil St. in the Champaign-Urbana area and find out where N. Prospect is, check wikipedia to make sure MTD is really the name of public transportation in Illinois and so on.
TV: My previous blog post commented on how close you really were on most of it.
RS: I’m surprised my transcript is that accurate 🙂 I heard “The tide and the shore if” as “and the timing assures it” though. And I’m sitting on the sofa, sipping some gin, whereas the rest of the band would rather sit there with Cindy and Jean.
TV: Ah! When I was writing that part of the song (it was written in pieces, years apart), a show called Melrose? Place was on TV on Sunday nights [correction: Monday nights] between 7 and 8 p.m. Two of the characters were sisters named Sydney and Jane, and I was especially fond of Sydney’s character. So I’m “there on my sofa with Sydney and Jane / They won’t make me happy, but I won’t complain.”
RS: Melrose Place, would’ve never guessed that reference.
TV: However, I also like the way you heard it as “sipping some gin,” which is actually also historically accurate to my Melrose Place routine at the time! (And it reminds of the Kinks song “sipping on my soda / sitting on my sofa”). And “the timing assures it” is actually a very nice variation: “My Sundays are yours if the timing assures it.”
How hard was it to convince the rest of your band to learn this impossible song? And what kind of reaction, if any, have your fans had to it?
RS: It’s a favorite. We like it, and people who hear it like it. It feels incredible to hear three wholly independent verses at a time, and it’s fun to do as well. It took us quite a few rehearsals to get it right without getting distracted by what everyone else was playing and singing, but it was very much worth the practice.
TV: That’s all I’ve got. Thank you for playing our song. We’ve really enjoyed your version and the sense of living in a time when bands across the world from one another can find ways to make connections. If you are ever in the States and in the Midwest, please let us know.
RS: Thanks for the very warm response, it really means a lot. I’ve passed it on to the rest of the band.