Category Archives: those that are trained

Doing All the Days with LZOrk – SPRING 2019

LZOrk Spring Concert: Thursday, May 16, 2019 | 7:00 p.m.Lake Zurich Middle School North | 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600

For the fourth year running — they haven’t caught me yet! — The Viper has sprung the Spring as a Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. When the white snows of yesteryear’s Winter have receded, when the vernal hours and aestival days begin to thicken, when single-serving snackbags bloom red, yellow, and dream-lucid blue on each and every Milwaukee curb and root-snag, well, then’s when’s I show up, four strings and all, to corrupt our nation’s musical youth with notions of collaborative composition, creative “borrowing”, head arrangements, and well-turned melody as equipment for living.

So that’s always fun.

clyde

The word cloud above is based on last year’s post-concert response asking LZOrk students to describe the Composer in Residence program, which you can read more about on Mr. Broach’s teaching site here.

This year, due to the arrival of the newest little conductor in Mr. Broach’s house, and his consequent paternity leave, my work with the students had the able support of Susan Phillips — and I wanted to be sure to recognize all her contributions to this year’s project here. I ask for some strange things and deliver rehearsal materials in some pretty unorthodox forms, so I’m very glad she was game for it!

Intermezzo

For the 6th-grade group of musicians, I typically bring a simple lead sheet of the type that a small jazz, country, or rock band might use to make “head arrangement” out of a familiar song structure, like the 32-bar AABA pop song form of “Winnebago Bay” or “Heartbreak for Beginners” (recordings from the 2018 & 2017 Spring concerts, respectively).

In rehearsals, we’ll work out how many times the orchestra would go through the form in performance and figure out which instruments are going to do what, where to provide variety and the structural development of the piece — with the emphasis on how the music itself (as distinct from the lyrics) can tell a story that starts somewhere and ends up someplace else.

A couple years ago, with “Just That Good” (see workshop video above), we found the 12-bar blues form worked pretty well in this regard. So this year I brought them a Spring-into-Summer seasonal celebration song called “Do All The Days With You,” which puts a New-Orleans-rumba-Professor-Longhair-style twist on the 12-bar form, including the distinctive habanera rhythm for the bass figure you see in the “rumba” line (lower staff) below.

Do All the Days Fragment - Rumba

The idea was to show how some fairly simple fragments, like the bass line + the basic melody figure (“call”):

Do All the Days Fragments - Call

… a response:

Do All the Days Fragments - Response

… and a counterpoint:

Do All the Days Fragments - Counterpoint

…could be layered on top of one another to produce some rather complicated and funky polyrhythms, which themselves would take on a different character when played in different permutations and combinations by the different instrument sections.

We figured out that with five instrument groups (violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, and basses) and 5 different parts (which might include playing nothing at all!) there were 3,125 different ways we could play the first two measures alone!

Here’s the arrangement we settled on (pdf here): the text tells the player what to “go fetch” in terms of their fragment for each time through the form:

Do All The Days - Structure Notes

And here’s what a couple of combinations could sound like, as sketched out for our final two instrumental “out” chorus (in all the glorious midi sound of my MuseScore software).

https://viperblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/do-all-the-days.mp3

Looking forward to hearing how it all pulls together on Thursday night!

Chamber

If the work with the Intermezzo group focuses on arrangement, I like to get the older group of 7th/8th graders involved at the level of composition itself. And, again, this follows the model I might use with my own Famous Orchestra, in which rehearsals become the lab in which some germ of an idea I’ve had gets worked up into something fuller. With the Chamber Orchestra, this often takes the form of testing out ways of taking a bass riff and changing it up the rhythm, the ornamentation, or the harmonization, as we’ve done with The Monsters Are Coming” or “(It’s Gonna Be) Another Day” (2017 & 2018 Spring concerts, respectively).

The piece I brought in for them this year, “Leave a Picture (Take a Person),” is something I wrote literally the day after last year’s concert, based on an idea of creating a loop that would undergird variations. But then I had to wait a whole year to hear how it would develop with the whole orchestra!

It’s a simple, mostly through-composed piece that takes a slow Beatle-y melody, adds in some Bollywood-ish call & response, and punctuates the verses with a two-measure, four-chord progression I creatively borrowed (i.e., stole) in equal parts from George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and Big Star’s “Feel.”

Leave a Picture (vamp chords)

Which sounds like this:

https://viperblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/leave-a-picture-chords.mp3

In the instrumental middle of the song, that bit becomes a looped “vamp” over which the orchestra riffs based on some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that came out of the workshops. And we end up stealing some other bits and pieces from other recognizable places — see if you can hear where in this midi-rendering version of the full score:

https://viperblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/leave-a-picture-final-score.mp3

Can’t nobody tell us nothing. At least until Thursday! See you all then.

The Viper appears as Composer-in-Residence and soloist with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North  (LZOrk) for their Spring 2019 concert on Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m. (95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600)

…and it WAS another day.

A couple weeks ago now, The Viper showed up on May 17, 2018 and did his duty as Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach.

You can read about this program and how we all approached it this year in my previous post, but in this space here I plan to turn the page over to the words of the 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students (now about to become 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade students, some of whom I’ve worked with for all three years of their middle-school careers) who performed full string orchestra versions of Viper-made songs “Winnebago Bay” and “Another Day.” I really appreciated reading everyone’s comments, which — enjoyably gentle insults aside! — showed a lot of thoughtfulness and appreciation for the uniquely challenging approach Riley takes to setting up and teaching his orchestra courses.

So here’s the questions that Mr. Broach posed to them, post-concert, followed by a word cloud showing the words they used with the greatest frequency (as a group) in their responses. (You can find a fuller rendering of many of these comments on the LZORK page right here.)

Q: What did you learn from The Viper?

blinky
blinky

Q: How do you describe the Composer in Residence thing we do in orchestra?

clyde
clyde

Q: Tell me about the song you might compose over the summer!

inky
inky

Q: Write a message to The Viper!

pacman
yer Viper

Thanks again to Mr. Broach and to the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North for all their great work and tremendous patience with me this year. I’ll be back — but for now all I have to say is:

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…

Lake Zurich, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Come Wednesday morning, while hale Helios wends his way across dawn’s sky-road, I’ll be shanksnagging it down highway 45 to Lake Zurich, Illinois for a 9:05 rendevous with destiny.

so_fly_cover-rotated.png
Amn’t I?

Why, you ask? Why not, I answer? With a question, even.

Why not? When it means I’ll get to meet for the first time Lake Zurich Middle School North’s Chamber Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra, and Prima Musica ensemble as their Spring 2016 Composer-In-Residence (under the direction of Riley Broach, bassist for another, more Famous Orchestra)?

It’s a great chance to workshop and then perform Viper music with some young musicians who can teach me a thing or two and, maybe, even lend a little class to the organization.

Up until this point, that burden has fallen largely on Mr. Broach, who has been coaching the students in learning some existing melodies by ear — “Last Call Waltz,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls” — then transcribing them onto paper and working out some basic orchestral arrangements.

Heartbreak for Beginners

Heartbreak for Beginners (detail)
Play along!

The “learning outcome” is that these long-hairs get a taste of how most music in its vernacular form gets put together: “head arrangements” of a song learned hand-to-hand.

When I meet with them, we’ll put it all together, polish it up, and get it ready for performance on May 19, 2016. (See more info here, along with Riley Broach’s take on the whole thing.)

I’m also pretty excited to hear something new I’ve written just for these students, played for the first time by humans, rather than the midi’ed “oohs” and “aahs” of my composing software that I’m used to hearing in my waking nightmares.

That’s right, y’all: it’s the world premieres of “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”: a meditation on the fleeting nature of time, the seasons, life on this mortal coil, and proper pet care. And Lake Zurich gets to hear it first!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk with the students about how this piece came together, and we’ll use it to explore the idea of how music tells a story: not the lyrics, the music itself — sometimes (as is the case here) telling a story quite different than the one the lyrics would have you believe.

Wait. YOU want to hear my little ol’ story? Well, all right. Settle in, and I’ll tell it like it happened.

What had happened was this. It all started last Summer, shortly after Riley had talked to me about a plan to have The Viper work with his Middle School ensembles. Aside from having a string player or two join us onstage now and then, I’d never “written” for an orchestra. So I was feeling a little out of my element.

That week, I happened to go an outdoor performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen from 1692 (a mini-opera-slash-masque-slash-who-knows-what adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). This was a really cool and interactive production put on last June in Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden by the Danceworks Performance Company and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, performed by an all-ages, all-sized, all-skilled cast who led us into the woods, over hill, dale, and stream, and in and around the sculptures to different “stations” where scenes would be played to an audience who could stand, sit, or lie down anywhere they wanted to watch, and who could take in the scenes and the play’s overall chronology forward or backward! It was awesome!

Dance 1 (1)
See more photos from this production at Lynden artist in residence Eddee Daniel’s Arts Without Borders blog.

As is my usual process, I take my inspiration where I can find it. That is to say, I steal it, and then get it wrong: voilà! New song.

At this performance, one song opened with what I thought was a line that went “Let not life far from these fingers flee.” It didn’t, and I’ve searched in vain for the real lyrics (though my best guess is it was a song from Act IV called “Let the Fifes and Clarions”). Then the scene launched into a masque bit where performers from 7 to 77 years of age presented a song for each of life’s four seasons.

And I thought, a ha! I’ll write a nice little baroque-y song about what I thought that first line had said, stop time in its tracks by freezing it into the measured counterpoint of a potentially eternal song, and then perform it with some youths who will be amazed by its gravity and wisdom!

And then I thought, a ha! Again, a ha! What could be lamer than that! What could sound less wise to a 7th grader than some old Polonius (I know, wrong play) nattering on about the slide from cradle to grave and overcompensating for his ukulele-ness by trying to sound like a string quartet? Tempus fugit? Tempus fidgets! I’m fidgeting right now just thinking about it.

But there was one final a ha! yet to come. Taking note of the whole ukulele “fleas” and “fingers” connection (the name is Hawaiian, and “ukulele” translates roughly “as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers,” or so Wikipedia says), I realized we could make this a story about a story that falls apart in the telling.

So, while I’m getting all serious and playing my ukulele like a chamber instrument, the Middle School players would keep interrupting to turn their instruments to the side, strum them like ukuleles, and sing “My dog has fleas!” Yeah, we’re all going to be food for worms, and ain’t that a peach!

flee_lyrics-rotated
First shot at lyrics to “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”

Over the next few days, I rode my bike to my job enough times to work out the melody and lyrics (a lot of songs get written while I’m on a bicycle, behind a vaccuum cleaner, under a shower head, mowing the lawn, or feeding pets). And then I went out and bought this “I’m So Fly” notebook you’re seeing in these images, and I more or less sketched out how the plot would work.

flee_plot-rotated
The plot – plus a couple of bonus fingers.

After that, it was on to the 99% perspiration part of the process. But THAT’S a story for another time.

The Viper leads workshops at Lake Zurich Middle School North all the livelong day on April 6 and May 4, and then joins the LZMSN Orchestra for their Spring Concert on May 19, 2016.

How to make a jug band jug

Something of a follow-up to my “How to build a washtub bass” series, this video shows you how to prepare a ceramic jug for playing as a musical instrument, with some advice for finding a suitable jug. If you like, you can skip the video and read instead the transcript I’ve given below.


I re-baked this jug special for Rob right before this show.
I re-baked this jug special for Rob right before this show.

TRANSCRIPT

“How to make a jug band jug”
with The Viper

Today I’m going to talk about how to prepare a jug for playing. By “prepare,” I mean finding one and then cleaning it. Cleaning it will involve getting out all the stuff that might have gone into a ceramic jug in the past, and sterilizing it to get out any remaining funk. You can put that funk back in later when you play.

Stage 1: FIND A JUG

First: finding one. This is a 2-gallon stoneware ceramic jug of the sort that you might find in an antique store, a basement, an estate sale, things like that. They’re not that hard to find. But they are a little bit hard to find cheaply, unless you’re lucky.

The good news is, it’s not the only thing you can play. Really, anything of about this size and shape will work: a glass apple cider jug (although those are harder to find these days, as well), a wine jug, old bleach bottles, laundry detergent bottles. Even things like a milk jug will work, although [with] the sides, the plastic is probably too soft to really give you good tone. You want something with about this much volume — 2 gallons is about the right amount of resonance — and you want resilient, tough sides to hold their shape.

Well, now let’s talk about cleaning.

Stage 2: CLEAN YOUR JUG

So cleaning a jug isn’t rocket science. But it is materials science. In putting these instructions together, I’ve consulted the online advice of people who deal in antique ceramics but, perhaps more importantly, home brewers and distillers. If your jug is particularly valuable and irreplaceable, you may want to go beyond what I’m saying here to make sure I’m not giving you bad advice that might lead to a cracked or otherwise wrecked jug.

I’ve got some very basic materials here. I’m going to use vinegar and bleach. And if you’ve got a glass jug, [like an] apple cider jug from the supermarket, [it’s] even easier: just warm soapy water (like you’d clean any dish). With ceramics, we have to worry a little bit more that the glaze inside may have not held up, may be porous; and any water of the kind that you might be spitting in would harm the jug and lead to funk, which will come right back at you when you play it.

I’m going to start just by rinsing it out. And, incidentally, one way that you can check for porousness is simply to fill it up to the lip with water. Let it sit for a couple of days; and if the water level goes down, then you know you have porousness.

Then I’ll pour some vinegar in — you know, swish it around, maybe let it sit for a while (you might know better than I do). And then when I’m happy with the amount it’s sat, pour it out, maybe do it again, fill it up with water — in other words, just give it a number of good rinsings to get out any of the big stuff.

Stage 3: STERILIZE YOUR JUG

And when I’m satisfied that I’ve got everything out, then I’m going to sterilize it. I’m going to start by filling it about halfway with water. Then I’m going to add 2 tablespoons of bleach for each gallon of water. So for a 2 gallon jug that’ll be 4 tablespoons of bleach. Fill it the rest of the way with water. Then I’m going to let it sit for 20 minutes while the bleach does its magic.

20 minutes later…

I pour out the bleach. And now to get rid of any remaining water and bleach and to sterilize the jug I’m going to bake it for two hours at 320 degrees. I don’t want to pre-heat the oven, because to avoid any cracking I want the jug to warm up slowly and then, again, I’m going to let it cool down slowly. Put in the jug. Now we’ll let it bake — 2 hours.

2 hours later…

Two hours are up and the jug is done, so I’ll turn off the heat. But, again, I’m going to leave the jug in to cool along with the oven to avoid any sudden temperature changes that might lead to cracking.

later…

When the oven has cooled, then it’s time to take the jug out. And then when it’s cool to the touch — like it is right now — then it’s ready to play. Now, it’s your turn!