Old Dog, New Tricks

It took many years, but I’m finally taking the plunge into the technological end of my music-making. Aside from my microphone and associated accessories, I’ve been removed from—if not accidentally averse—to wires and whatnot. I’m always with someone who’s more adept at working the effects, sounds, and PA. A near-luddite, it seems, I just plug in, blow, and move my fingers. Sure, I’ve done a lot of recording (mostly scratch demo work) at home, but it’s a far cry from anything covered in my music technology coursework from years past.

The times are changing, indeed.

After months, if not years, of musing about working with recording and effects on my own, I finally took the plunge a couple months back and got Ableton Live. My learning curve has been steep, a bit frustrating, but overall quite fun. It’s also been a lot of new information to take in. Latency, new hardware, etc. For a while, I felt like I was doing more reading and researching than tinkering and experimenting. It’s been quite the humbling remedial independent study in music technology, but nonetheless enjoyable.

My goal is twofold: to have a more sophisticated and listenable home recording setup, and to eventually perform with live effects. The latter has a ways to go, but the former is coming along nicely. The rabbit hole is endless, and I’ll of course set my limits, otherwise I’ll accomplish nothing while in search of more and better everything. But as of now, I’m glad to have gone down this road. As with improvising and now with tech, it’s refreshing to completely start at zero and see what happens…

Boyd Tinsley Stepping Away from Dave Matthews Band: A Natural Progression

Boyd Tinsley is stepping back from Dave Matthews Band. The violinist, backing vocalist, and near-founding member and his fiddle are part of the band’s trademark image and (original) sound.

Not much is known, as it was announced by Tinsley himself in a short and somewhat cryptic series of tweets Friday night:

Oddly, as of the time of this posting (midday Saturday, the day after) there’s been no announcement from DMB as a whole or management.*

I certainly have my own ideas, and my own reactions. Selfishly, I’m pleased. Very much so. A quick survey of social media confirms my feeling that I’m in the smallest of minorities among the die-hard fanbase. As I wrote here, Tinsley has been fulfilling an increasingly diminished role onstage—and even on record—for well over a decade. As I wrote in 2014:

Throughout this whole process and for reasons unknown to me (though I do have my theories), violinist Boyd Tinsley has fulfilled an increasingly diminished onstage role. While at The Gorge in 2009 or 2010, a friend even turned to me and asked, “Where’s Boyd?” He used to be a prominent and fiery soloist, but now he gets maybe two solos per show, and what solos he gets have occasionally been shortened (e.g., the end of “Seek Up” on this summer’s tour). On top of that, he’s often buried in the mix. I see him up there, but I rarely hear him during full-band moments. Musically and technically, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes. He’s easily become the band’s weak link over the last decade, as he’s obviously rested on his laurels. Personally, given how he’s played the last several years, I’m not lonely for his playing. And that’s truly a shame, because he has been known to rip it in the past…

In the years since, this has become even more apparent. Aside from one or two minutes-long solos over the course of a three-hour show, Tinsley largely stands off to the side or plays superfluous parts that can rarely be heard in the mix. And that’s not a bad thing, as he’s sounded bad for years. Out of tune and just generally “off.” Even with the vocals. For example, he couldn’t be bothered to nail his few words of rhyme—his only “lead” vocal part of the evening—on “I Did It” during this rendition at The Gorge in 2010:

Woof. I was in the audience and was embarrassed for him. I saw him try again a few days later in Houston. (If I remember correctly, a roadie scrambled out and taped the lyrics to his monitor beforehand.) While he recovered overall, Dave helped him with a cue at the beginning and he still barely finished in time:

Out of sentimental nostalgia, I do find it genuinely sad. One founding member died in 2008, and now another leaves in 2018. It’s certainly not the same unit I fell in love with in ’96. That said, the current band is certainly not the same ensemble musically or aesthetically as it was in 2008 or 1998 or 1994. I’ve gone through that elsewhere and don’t have the time to rehash those reasons now.

In short, though, this is just the next step in the natural evolution of this band. What began as an acoustic-based rock band with saxophone and fiddle and no lead guitar has become an electrified rock band with a defined horn section and occasional auxiliary fiddle. If continuing along that course, it was only a matter of time until the violin was completely jettisoned. With Away From the World being more of a Dave Matthews record than a Dave Matthews Band record, and new songs since having little functional need for a melodic violin lead, this isn’t out of left field.

One of my immediate reactions was that I didn’t purchase enough tickets for this summer. I’m already going to Buffalo, Toronto, and two nights of Saratoga. Now I feel like I should hit Cleveland too. Perhaps I’m being too bullish, but with the band’s weak link gone, I’m confident that the group will sound the best it has in years.

I wonder how this aligns with the impending album that’s due out this year. Is Boyd on it? If so, how much? Apparently he was greatly diminished in the 2018 calendar that was sent out to some weeks back. (I didn’t opt for one, but read about it today.)

The announcement itself and manner in which it was done is shocking, but the departure isn’t. Again, I don’t know the specific reason for Tinsley leaving in early 2018. I thought it’d eventually happen, but was clueless as to how or when. Tinsley’s announcement implied needing a break for health and family reasons, and just needing a break. Of course, if that’s the case, why did he spend all of 2017 touring with and promoting his other band Crystal Garden while DMB took the year off? One thought I had was that Tinsley has been swept up in the #MeToo fiasco. (Pure speculation on my part…I’m not basing that on anything or making an accusation.) Or maybe he was outright fired by the band as a whole. That certainly wouldn’t be unjustified if so. (I’ve often thought during a show, How does everyone else on stage feel about Boyd getting paid the same for doing so little?.)

Anyway, murkiness abounds. I won’t go on and on with the speculations. I’m just here to say that if Tinsley is indeed gone, I—a die-hard fan with over two decades of investment into the band and its music—welcome it. (The tour won’t start for months. Perhaps he’ll come back into the fold beforehand.) The band will sound great. Well, the band already sounds great. But now the weak link is gone. No ho-hum few minutes of out-of-tune pentatonic scales. Just solid, steady jams all around.

I’m sure that this comes off as much more negative overall than it really is. I have many great memories of Tinsley’s playing, and solos and songs that I love to listen to over and over. In fact, Tinsley is one of the reasons that Listener Supported is my favorite live album—fine fiddle solos and melodies, and a solid rendition of “True Reflections.” But that was recorded in 1999, and he’s not been bringing much to the table for years. And if the band is to continue progressing, I don’t see how Tinsley’s involved without some serious time in the woodshed.

Bring on the tour. I’m ready.


*UPDATE: Of course, within a half hour of my posting this, the band releases an official statement. However, it does as much to raise questions as it does to answer them:

‘Die Walküre’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s new production of Die Walküre is a success. Go see it! The company’s new Ring cycle is now officially full steam ahead.

Last year’s Das Rheingold not only started this new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which will culminate in three full cycles in the spring of 2020, but it also symbolized a break from the past. Whereas 2005’s cycle featured marquee names in signature roles (most notably James Morris as Wotan, and also Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde), this 2016-2020 production is visually rich and centered around two marquee names in newer roles, Eric Owens as Wotan in a role debut and Christine Goerke hitting her stride as Brünnhilde. (I saw her in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung in February, in which she commanded the stage. Ain Anger, who portrayed Hunding in Die Walküre, gave a masterful performance as Hagen in that same Götterdämmerung.) This is also director David Pountney‘s first full cycle, and he is accompanied by the late Johan Engels—carried on by his successor Robert Innes Hopkins—and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, and choreographer Denni Sayers. The production has traded stark minimalism for captivating sets and costumes that fill up every inch of stage and bar of music—even during the vorspiels, some sort of action is occurring to propel the story forward.

Pountney, Engels et al. put together a visually compelling production. There is some continuity with Das Rheingold that I’ll now expect to see in some fashion in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, namely the aspect of making some of the stagehands characters themselves, thereby acknowledging that this is a theatrical work through and through. Also, whereas the gods in Das Rheingold dressed as eighteenth-century patricians, they now appear as nineteenth-century aristocracy in Die Walküre. Which makes sense, considering that we’re now at least a generation removed from the events of Das Rheingold. The contrast in color throughout, coupled with the attention to detail for both costumes and set design, makes for a vivid presentation. This is perhaps most apparent in the third act, with the red Valkyries against the set’s whites, blacks, and grays. (The hues, though bold in contrast, are themselves worn, suggesting that the Valkyries have been at this a while.) But other acts and scenes also made their marks: Hunding’s pale quarters giving way to the warm and sensually bright springtime of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love; Fricka’s red dress and Wotan’s white coat against Valhalla’s austere hall; Loge’s consuming fire. The contrast in color becomes more apparent in each successive act.

And the acting! Generally, even when the score, libretto, and set design work well together on the opera stage, what passes for “acting” often has a much lower bar. This production, however, has the right mix of personnel and direction. Movements were often organic. Perhaps a subtle facial tick from Goerke’s Brünnhilde or Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka (a role she continued from Das Rheingold) as opposed to grand gesture, or the passionate caressing between Elisabeth Strid‘s Sieglinde and Brandon Jovanovich‘s Siegmund instead of the more typical glacial embrace. The hypnotic, almost desperate love between the Wälsung twins was believable, which only amplified their high passions and low grief. As a viewer, I nearly felt as if I were witnessing private moments between them.

In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. When the spotlight instantly shone on Nothung in the ash tree for the first time, it’s as if the production team did it with their tongues firmly in cheek. And, though I won’t spoil it, Loge’s in-person appearance hours later had a similar effect without intruding on the drama too much. Dare I say that it’s a fun production of Die Walküre? All I know is that the audience laughed with the production far more than I had expected.

Pountney and other members of the team have made reference to Henrik Ibsen in discussions of any sort of approach or interpretive framework, citing “intimate relationships within a family” as well as the feminist leanings of A Doll’s House. Given that, I’d be remiss to not at least briefly address the viewing experience in November 2017. This tale of romantic, familial, and power politics rife with emotional and sometimes physical abuse is particularly resonant right now, given that every news cycle is now saturated with what hopefully becomes a necessary, though grievously belated, reckoning regarding sexual harassment and abuse as well as skewed gender dynamics in general.

After I left the theater I read Anthony Tommasini’s review in the New York Times, an overall positive assessment that otherwise chides Pountney for Hunding’s literally chaining Sieglinde to the ash tree running through his home, arguing that her captivity was more emotional than literal. (As a general rule, I try to avoid all reviews beforehand.) I disagree. It not only restricted her movements, making for an interesting staging device, but it made painfully obvious that Sieglinde isn’t just in a loveless marriage with Hunding, but rather she is his slave for all intents and purposes. (Nothing wrong with beating that point home with a sledgehammer.) In a way, this is similar to the Valkyries being scolded by their father Wotan in Act III. Within minutes, the Valkyries regress from triumphant warrior-goddesses with weapons and horses to disobedient schoolgirls being reprimanded while seated in comically small chairs, all while Wotan—seemingly all-powerful father and god, but ultimately just a man behind his own curtain—scolds them from Valhalla above. The visual infantilization was powerful. This context creates extra resonance for the most threatening and insulting remark over the course of the work: when Wotan tells his favorite daughter Brünnhilde that she will submit to a husband and honor his will. Goerke’s reaction was clear; she may as well be chained to a tree like her half-sister Sieglinde.

The vocal roster was superb and delivered powerful performances across the board. Owens’s Wotan was richer and more powerful than in last year’s Das Rheingold. And Goerke’s Brünnhilde was youthful and energetic, and a definite contrast to her portrayal in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung—a Brünnhilde that is older, wiser, and vengeful. (And apparently Goerke was fighting a cold Tuesday night. She sure fooled us!) Both Jovanovich’s Siegmund and Strid’s Sieglinde were lyrical across the full emotional spectrum, and I followed them wherever they led. Anger’s Hunding was dark and oppressive to great effect, whereas Baumgartner’s Fricka was guarded and vulnerable. And then the Valkyries1…whew! There were a couple moments in which I couldn’t believe just how mightily big those warrior-singers could get.

Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra through a rousing performance, and I was struck by just how well the voices and orchestra blended with one another. So many graceful transitions of melodic lines throughout. It was sometimes difficult to tell where an instrument would end and a voice would begin. Tuesday’s performance marked Davis’s 30th anniversary since he first stood at Lyric’s podium, and he marked the occasion with a strong, moving delivery.

A few performances remain through November 30th. Don’t wait until 2020 to see this production of Die Walküre for the first time.

1.  Despite an illness and understudy being announced twice before the performance, I regret to write that I know neither which vocalist was ill nor her replacement. (Neither did the gentleman sitting next to me, as we immediately tried clarifying with another.) That said, the official casting includes: Whitney Morrison as Gerhilde, Alexandra LoBianco as Helmwige, Laura Wilde as Ortlinde (and Freia in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Catherine Martin as Waltraute, Deborah Nansteel as Siegrune, Lindsay Ammann as Rossweisse (and Flosshilde in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Zanda Švēde as Grimgerde, and Lauren Decker as Schwertleite.

Red Bats, Future and Past

Here I sit, once again writing about coming out of a musical rut and referencing older recordings from my library

I watched more TV this summer than I have in quite a while. Part of it was my gradually lifting music-making malaise. Though, to be fair, it’s rare that I have “so many” new shows (i.e., more than one) I’m trying to stay current with at once. But over the last few months I juggled all of The Leftovers, the second season of SENSE8 (a crime that it was canceled, even if a fig leaf of a finale film is to come), and the peerless Twin Peaks: The Return. On top of the obligatory Game of Thrones, of course, but, particularly in light of the latest season, it’s a cut below the others–entertaining but not compelling. Whereas I was utterly spellbound by The Leftovers and Twin Peaks: The Return.

I know. Four shows, big whoop. In this era of Peak TV, there’s so much content to choose from and absorb. However, concerning TV, I’ve always been more the type to get really into a show and just watch and re-watch my favorites as opposed to watch many different shows. Depth versus breadth of intake. If I don’t like a show, I’ll quickly abandon it. If I do like it, I’ll give it my full attention and likely see it again. If I love it, look out. I’ll watch to the point of memorization and go quickly down the rabbit hole. If a show has a mythology, like Fringe or Twin Peaks, then clear my schedule.

Furthermore, part of me is hesitant to glom onto a new show (new for me, even if not new itself), as I feel somewhat cursed in my tastes. In the last ten years, there’ve been two new shows that I started watching while they were actually new and was immediately attached to, John From Cincinnati and Sense8. The former was critically panned and swiftly canceled. The latter received mixed reviews and was abruptly ended despite the last episode’s mid-mission cliffhanger. I admit that, even if a show is uneven, I give more weight to and prefer to watch something that takes a chance and is different, even if it may crash and burn in the process. (Hence my quibbling with The Force Awakens, and my rolling my eyes why I saw that Abrams will return for Episode IX…yikes) For example, some of the performances on John From Cincinnati are downright abysmal. Yet JFC contains some of my favorite characters, performances, and moments in any show. (Ed O’Neill’s Bill Jacks and Dayton Callie’s Steady Freddy are absolute gold.)

Anyway, before I get too off track…

(I could write an entry or three on John From Cincinnati…that may come yet…but for now I’ll just enjoy being one of the few dozen folks who visit what old message boards remain. If you happen to be a fan that found this post vis the occasional search, feel free to drop a line…)

Twin Peaks: The Return also deserves its own entry at some point. What an enchanting score and sound design (and I do love ambient sounds…), both in and out of The Roadhouse–arguably more so outside of it, in my opinion. There’s been enough laudatory criticism recently, so I won’t go there. Such a triumph by David Lynch. (But I will note that when re-watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me after seeing The Return, it’s a revelation–almost like seeing it again for the first time.) Instead, I wanted to note a funny little indirect connection between another of Lynch’s works and my recent resurgence of musical productivity. In this case, it’s 1997’s Lost Highway, shades of which can be seen in The Return.

I do love the original Twin Peaks, though I came to it late much later. I recall coming across snippets in the past and it being in the ether when I was young (I was six when it debuted), but I didn’t fully dive into it and its prequel film until several years back. David Lynch, however, was certainly on my radar in my adolescence. I saw Lost Highway in early 1998, and I went in mostly blind. I knew that it was supposed to have a good soundtrack and be a little different, both of which were understatements. Lost Highway was the first film I saw that left me utterly baffled at the end. Not yet fifteen, I liked it but couldn’t really articulate why. It was years before I saw it again and I remained bewildered by it, but I was just as spellbound as the first time.

I got the soundtrack around the time of that first viewing. Nearly twenty years later, I still regularly listen to it. (Fittingly, it’s a good driving album.) One piece, a selection from Angelo Badalamenti’s original score, in particular often stuck out above the rest, both then and now, especially in light of my recent trifecta of productive practice, heavy listening, and wallowing in The Return. That is Badalamenti‘s “Red Bats With Teeth.” It’s probably a throwaway piece for many, considering the soundtrack features Trent Reznor (with and without Nine Inch Nails), David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, Rammstein, and more. Reznor produced the soundtrack, and it’s worth noting that 1997’s Lost Highway shares some similarities, in terms of overall sound, with 1999’s The Fragile, my favorite Nine Inch Nails album.

Considering my fondness for the the album and the fact that it’d be years before seeing another David Lynch work, it’d be accurate to say that Angelo Badalamenti was seared into my consciousness long before his filmmaking colleague.

lost highway

Initially “Red Bats with Teeth,” a jazz tune, stuck out to me because it featured the saxophone, and it was around 1998 that I started developing a strong interest in the horn. (Bill Pullman’s character, the protagonist for the film’s first half, is a saxophonist and “plays” this in an early scene. The tenor saxophone part was played by Bob Sheppard.) I was listening to a little jazz by this time, but it was pretty sporadic. Pretty much all of it was straight ahead though. “Red Bats…” was one of my first tastes of something even approaching atonal or avant-garde, with the use of extended techniques and noise toward the end of the piece. In just under three minutes, the band goes from a smoky and laid back quasi-West Coast cool vibe to screeching over a frenzied groove. It sounded odd to me at first, but something about it drew me in. A young me recognized that it was intentional even if it sounded foreign. (A couple years later I threw myself down the jazz rabbit hole, but at that time it was still largely new.) The only thing I could really square it with was LeRoi Moore‘s playing on some early live DMB recordings, as he would occasionally get noise-y in the early years. But because one was jazz and the horn was the focus (“Bats”), and the other was rock and the horn was but just one element (DMB), they were different enough to be in separate categories for me.

These days, of course, I hear it in its various contexts. And it’s certainly Badalamentian–almost as if The Black Lodge had a jazz night.

I won’t get hyperbolic and say that “Red Bats” itself led me down the path to eventually purchasing Evan Parker recordings. The line isn’t so direct. But it did open a door for me, and when I really think about it now, it was my patient zero in a way, at least when it comes to a very particular sort of saxophone vocabulary. But even with that loaded sentimental history, I still enjoy just throwing it on for a good jam. Especially these days, now that I’m starting to get back into a groove, and with Lynch again in the air.

Those Red Room inhabitants are right to ask: “Is it future, or is it past?”

Is this thing on?

It certainly has been a while.

Though this site is never far from my mind–and often near the very front of it–I just needed some time away from the toiling at the keyboard. In normal times, what actually gets posted here represents a small percentage of the myriad drafts and notions and fits and starts. But, as with most things over the last many months, I’ve put things on hold. Some out of my own desire to do so, and some for reasons beyond my control.

When we made the family decision last year to move to Buffalo, I saw it as an opportunity to wipe the slate mostly clean. I figured that clearing out my schedule and routine would help me to de-stress some by shedding the years of accumulated obligations and busy-ness. It worked out, in ways both good and bad, but here I am a year later feeling ready to lay the foundation and start anew. We finally closed on a house here in April, and we’re settled into the new location and routine.

I thought I’d at least write more here in the interim, but I suppose the world survived without my completing those half-finished drafts of concert reviews (Liebman at Toronto’s The Rex and the Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung at Toronto’s Four Season Center, on successive weekends in February, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds at SPAC), passionate meditations on you know what, an ode to the now-closed Record Theatre, a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of my first Tool concert (07.26.97…an important and formative date), and a rumination on “the long 1996”–a pivotal year of music for an adolescent me. Yada yada.

The summer came and went unremarkably, mostly filled with work and getting the house and property in order. Not returning to Austria, coupled with my not teaching during this upcoming year, has seemingly put me off the academic grid with less of a sense of time. The first few months of 2017 were focused on closing on and moving into our house. And since then it’s been a whole lotta parenting and nesting.

For a while, ambivalent practicing was the best I could do. Thankfully, though, over the last couple months I’ve been able to settle into a good routine, enjoying what could arguably be some of my more productive practice sessions since my son’s birth.

More notable is that despite the valleys and eventual peak of my own music-making, I’ve been listening a lot, much more than in the few preceding years. I’d been taking in a lot of music, but it seemed to be in spurts, and overall pretty passive, and I’d go long spells without getting too excited about anything new. This year my ears are hungrier than ever. Part of it is related to my actively reducing both my daily news consumption–which had been at junkie-status for a decade–as well as my podcast intake. But also I’ve had just a genuine desire to dig back in. It’s been great for my mind and soul, even if my wallet has taken a hit. The renewed urgency around listening is no doubt related to my increased desire to play for the sake of playing (as opposed to maintenance).

Hopefully I can find the time to get back into some sort of rhythm here also. I mean, I do intend to actually proceed beyond a half-draft and publish a review of Chicago Lyric Opera‘s Die Walküre in a couple months…