Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Top Five Ethnomusicologists Based on the Suitability of Their Names as Fantasy Fiction Characters

Here's something lighthearted with which I hope will put a smile on your face...

I've noticed, over the course of my ethnomusicological studies, that some eminent personalities in this area have wonderful names. Well, not all of them... Timothy Rice, Jennifer Post, Charles Seeger and Helen Myers are a bit bland, but there are so many others who make up for them...

Here's my top five. Really, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett would be proud to invent characters with names like these...

At the top of the chart is...*drum roll*... the inimicable Mantle Hood, who coined the term 'bi-musicality' in the 1970s. On Discworld, he'd be a wizard, or maybe an advisor to the Low King of Uberwald.

A close second is Ali Jihad Racy, Arab classical musician and author of several publications, including Improvisation, Ecstasy, and Performance Dynamics in Arabic Music, which I enjoyed reading on the tube this week. Douglas Adams might have made him a Playboy personality running a brothel on Eroticon Six.

And the Bronze Medal goes to Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, co-creator of the Hornbostel-Sachs method of musical instrument classification. He would make a great Vikingesque leader of a marauding army, charging into battle whilst playing fanfares on his bugle to instill dread in the hearts of the enemy.

At number four, it's Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, which my partner Duncan pointed out is a whole nine syllables. Wow. Actually, it's only eight, but it's still loooong. She's made significant contributions to the discussion of the klezmer revival (such as her chapter in Slobin's American Klezmer). She'd make an excellent member of Ankh-Morpork's City Watch... Perhaps she is a second cousin of Sally von Humpending?

Last on the list is Bruno Nettl, author of the snappily titled The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts (which, incidentally, was the first ethnomusicology text I got my hands on. I tried, unsuccessfully to read from cover to cover whilst travelling for a month in the Balkans). 'Bruno' sounds like a giant, soppy dog, but 'Nettl' sounds... well... like 'nettle', sinister and threatening. In Douglas Adam's world, he might be a huge, multi-headed iron robot dog, roaming an abandoned corroding space ship somewhere in the outer reaches of the Galaxy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bassy/Shoulder Strapped Cello

I wrote this piece today for a tutoring agency I belong to, but it's also relevant to this blog...

Over the last year, I have been exploring playing the cello whilst standing. Inspired by metal quartet Apocalyptica, bluegrass/punk cellist Rushad Eggleston and Hungarian folk 'bassy', or shoulder-strapped three stringed cello, I set out to develop my own technique for playing whilst standing, walking and dancing. This was in conjunction with some serious study of klezmer bass line playing and trying out a German pattern double bass bow to get a real stomping bass sound.

I'm not going to write about the technique I eventually settled on, but point out some of the cellists I took inspiration from and explain why I enjoy the freedom my new technique allows. My technique works for what I'm playing when I'm standing up, which is slow-ish moving lines on the lower strings, with an emphasis on rhythm and sound projection, but it won't work for everyone and this is an unorthodox area and I'd encourage anyone who wants to try it (or anything other unusual technique) to experiment and find something that works for them.

I'll start my discussion of standing cellists with my favorite, Rushad Eggleston, former member of Boston bluegrass band Crooked Still and front man of Tornado Rider. There's a great video of him playing at the New Directions Cello festival here:

He's a phenomenal cellist and there's a real energy to his music and visual performance, as he is able to leap about the stage. I would suggest that, by expressing rhythm, energy and enthusiasm through his body, Eggleston is better able to express them musically. The music we make comes from a hollistic experience and you have to be engaged totally, I mean physically,mentally, everything, in your music to really communicate it fully to the audience and rhythm, especially, is something we understand through our bodies. Try clapping a complex rhythm whilst sitting at the front of a chair, feet shoulder width apart and back straight. Then cross you legs slouch, lean back in the chair and try again. Which is easier? So, my arguement is that Eggleston's performances are more engaging when he stands. You can compare and contrast with this video of him sitting:

How does he do it? Firstly, he carries the cello on a shoulder strap (a long guitar strap will do the job) over his left shoulder, attached to the instrument where neck joins the body (you can tie it on) and at the endpin (put the spike through the hole in the strap.The collar will stop it coming off). He positions the instrument at a 45 degree angle to his body. You can see from the video that the lower strings are easy to play, with the weight of the right arm being directed naturally into the string. About half way through the first video, Eggleston plays a solo which uses the top string. This is harder work and you can see he has to lift his right arm quite high to reach, leaving him without much arm weight to direct into the string.

Next to Zsolt Kurtosi, Hungarian folk and klezmer cellist and bassist and member of Budowitz klezmer band. He carries his instrument in the same way as Eggleston, but uses a German pattern baroque style bass bow. As he's playing exclusively bass lines, the awkwardness of accessing the top string just isn't an issue.

Last but not least, with a different approach, is Apocalyptica, four cellists (and sometimes a drummer) from Helsinki. In playing various styles of metal, their visual performance is almost as important as their music and they need to be able to move around the stage and interact with the audience. The following video shows them (mostly) sitting down to play Sepultura's 'Refuse/Resist', with a phenomenally virtuosic solo around half way through (practice those scales, guys!), by a standing member of the group. He plants his instrument, with the spike fully extended, on the floor, stands over it and just 'gies it laldy' (a nice Glaswegian term for really going for it, putting everything into a task). By placing his feet wide apart, he is giving himself a solid base and supports the instrument with his right knee and left shoulder and bending his knees brings him closer in height to a sitting position.

In brief, I've adopted a technique where I carry the instrument on a shoulder strap, like Eggleston and Kurtosi, holding it anywhere between 45 degrees to my body and almost horizontal (this is fun, as the up bow becomes the strong stroke and the down bow the weak. My bow holds are pretty weird-and-wonderful too, but that's for another discussion), depending on the style of what I'm playing, how fast it is and what articulation and timbre I need. The really great thing about it is that it's so liberating: I'm able to experience the pulse in my whole body (very imprtant for a bass line player and especially for me, as rhythm and pulse are not my strongest areas) by being able to walk and dance whilst playing. I've found a new freedom, as have the people I play with, who are no-longer physically tied to one place during performance by a seated cellist, to walk around and interact with my audience in a new way, proceed on and off stage, and integrate music with dancing when playing for dancers.

I have a few words of advice to anyone (whatever their instrument) setting out to experiment technically. Firstly, you must have a really solid technical grounding. I don't mean you have to be some virtuoso musician, but have an understanding of how your instrument and your body work efficiently and how they work together, be able to apply that knowledge to your playing, know how to listen to the aural and physical information that comes from your instrument and your body during playing and act on them and know how to practice efficently. If you don't have these skills, find a teacher who can really explain technique. Once you have this base of knowledge, then you can go exploring.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

My Thoughts on the JMI's Klezfest 2009

Firstly, I should apologise for my loooong silence. The transition between studenthood and the real world has been a hectic one (which still hasn't yielded sustainable paid work). Now, on with my thoughts on something that happened back in August.... I've been going to the Jewish Music Institute's Klezfest on-and-off since I was 17 and was honoured this year to be invited to take part as a Fellowship Member, supporting the Faculty and doing some teaching. This year saw a focus on tutors based in Britain and Europe, rather than the big American contingency from previous years. Although spurred by the general lack of money, it also showed how the UK klezmer scene has 'grown up' since Klezfest's inauguration in 2001. Of course, I missed the lovely American tutors, such as Lisa Gutkin, Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer (we still had the wonderful Frank London in-charge) but was so proud to see we how well we can do it for ourselves with home-grown talent like Emma Stiman, Ros Hawley, Abigail Wood and author of the fantastic klezmer tutorial book 'Klezmer Fiddle' Ilana Cravitz. We were back at SOAS this year, at the Vernon Square campus in London's Kings Cross area (with a multitude of classrooms for our use), after several Klezfests at West london Synagogue, which is beautiful but lacking enough big spaces for workshops.

Frank London at the Klezfest Faculty Concert at the Jazz Cafe, Camden

Below are some of my highlights from the week, starting with the morning Nigunim (wordless meditation songs which come from the Hassidim) led by Polina Shepherd and Frank. Group singing is a really lovely way to start the day, especially when we're all able to do our own thing at our own pace (in that great Jewish heterophonic way) but relate to each other. It's like musical yoga. Here's a video....

Klezfest participants singing a nign known as 'Eins, Tsvey, Drei' ('One, Two, Three'). Sheet music available here.

Monday night
saw a poignant evening of music and dancing presented by She'Koyokh klezmer ensemble in memory of their accordionist Jim Markovitch, who passed away last October. He was one of the people who first really inspired me to work at my klezmer playing because of he was an amazing musician, but also because he always had the time to chat and make me feel valued, even though I hardly knew him.

Dancing in memory of Jim Markovitch at Klezfest

Next on my list is the Klezmer: The Next Generation concert featuring Klezfest participants. Highlights included Yiddish song by Forspil and a wonderful Dutch quartet whose performance was very theatrical (see below).

Aldert Praast at Klezfest

I've saved the best bit for last: the performance by Paul Tkachenko's 'Techno-Creative' ensemble in the Student Ensemble Concert that rounded off the week. Reminiscent of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, Isaac Bashevis Singer and general Yiddish cheese and very funny. Enjoy!
The 'Techno-Creative' ensemble at Klezfest
There are some great photos taken throughout the week by Yoav Galai at Klezfest here.