The Art of Humor Gallery, take 1

A while back, one of my colleagues was getting ready to direct Into the Woods, and was telling me how excited he was about the project. “I mean,” he said, “this show has real depth – it’s not like The Pajama Game.”  Which I let go at the time, since I like the Sondheim work a lot myself. But I also like Pajama Game, and especially like its no-pretensions-here attitude. I think some of the “deep” Sondheim stuff gets credit for using  what is really cartoonish neurotic behavior as sophistication, at the expense of more realistic-but-still-funny recognizable stuff, like “friendship,” say. In Into the Woods the cartoon behavior works, since the characters are archetypes anyway, and they are allowed to be funny, not just sarcastic/wounded. It doesn’t have the standard late-20th-century this-is-important undercurrent to the humor.

The Pajama Game, while not as minute-to-minute effective as a bunch of other classic musicals (including one that shares a bunch of DNA with it, The Music Man), uses some comedy tropes really well. I think the female lead’s first number is well paced and silly in a good way, in line with a lot of Hammerstein numbers. I appreciate the chorus’s “obviously, naturally, definitely”  responses – pretty much the same thing as you’d find in lots of buddy-comedy songs.  Who doesn’t like musical banter?

It’s true that the whole show bogs down a bit, and the movie version in particular doesn’t show the later numbers to their best advantage, but still, the thing holds up way better than lots of message musicals or the more recent jukebox shows. I know that part of my affection for it is based on growing up with the cast recording, which was on a regular rotation in our house with other classic 50’s shows, for which I thank my mom. And it is funny for long stretches, featuring mainly gentle ribbing. It is not trying to address the ills of all the world – so, I guess it’s not deep, but that’s OK.

You don’t see the classic musical comedy banter too much in art song venues, which probably comes from a combination of historical tendencies and solo singer recital preferences. Sometimes when one of my own humorous songs is programmed on a formal recital, the performers can be uncomfortable with it, not wanting to seem silly. Plus, the audience members are not sure whether or not they can laugh. (This usually takes of itself if the audience has the texts to the songs in front of them – then they can see for themselves if they really heard a joke.)  Just last week some other colleagues performed a song cycle of mine on texts by Sarah Manguso. Parts of it are really comic, no kidding (so to speak). They’ve sung this a few times now, and so are completely OK with selling the jokes that are woven into some serious texts:

So, I’m hoping that the upcoming movie of Into the Woods is very funny in addition to having depth, as my director friend would say. I’m cautiously optimistic, given the basic gentle humor between the characters I’ve seen in stage productions. But then, there was that awful movie of A Little Night Music which had no comedy whatsoever.

On a short trip up Route 100 today, we passed a sign that said “Art of Humor Gallery – next right.”  It seems like it’s a real thing.


This seems very promising – a whole gallery for the Art of Humor! ..and the Vermont artist that shows there seems very much into the gentle-comedy idea…

Have bass clarinet, will travel, with some extra planning..

So, I have just returned from the massive International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest (I think that’s supposed to have a “registered trademark” thing there, but hey) in Assisi, Italy. My husband warned me that, not only would it not be raining anytime that week in Umbria, but that it would be around 100°F most of the time.  I was worried about having to check my bass clarinet on the plane, since I’d committed to playing in the 30-piece American Professors Clarinet Choir at the end of the festival, and therefore had to choose between lugging my very-heavy-but-reliable-for-airlines case or the new, fancy lightweight BAM case. Went with heavy case. Very sorry. (No, no, the instrument is fine, but I had to carry the thing around a festival built into a hill, with stairways to all venues. Stairs like this:


The cool thing is that I was far from alone in this undertaking. There were lots of bass clarinet players, all happily carting their instruments around just for the chance to play.


True, many of them did have the ultralight cases, and/or had somehow talked their airlines into not checking their low-C-extension instruments, but more power to them. In my informal survey, I got to see lots of options for transporting these things. Plus, heard much awesome bass clarinet playing, in particular from multiphonic expert Sarah Watts and Barbara Haney.

Of course, at a festival like this with 6 events going on simultaneously every hour, the choices you make from the program to tend to influence your general takeway from the whole week. Since I’m me, and choose to go to many events with electronic components and/or longer clarinets, I had a specific sense of “wow, there’s lots of people that play bass clarinet regularly now.” At least, compared to what I’ve seen at more regional events in my northern New England driving. Which may not be the best comparison to an international festival, granted.

And it’s also possible that those that choose a different path through the festival offerings would have a different impression – maybe that clarinet quartets are suddenly a big deal (I did hear some of the quartets, and was impressed by those as well – and, coincidentally, you do need a good bass player to get one of these quartets working well.)

It was pretty fun to play in the clarinet choir at the end of the week, especially to sit next to 6 other bass clarinets all playing together. Although it was 103° at the concert. This was taken at the dress rehearsal, before we were desperate for air conditioning.

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Now, I get to practice for the SCI/Parma Festival in Portsmouth, NH, where I’ll play a new-to-me bass clarinet and tape piece (by Martin Gendelman – my own piece on the festival doesn’t have clarinet in it this time..) in two weeks. Got to make the slap tonguing slappier.

Worcester, MA – an old friend

Today was a day to take a work break – me from working on “Until the War is Over” (the chamber opera based on an H.D. novel) and Davy from “Dance Episodes” for the New England Philharmonic. So, we decided to do two things that required we be in a much larger town than Maynard, MA: 1) go to a U.S. Customs office, and 2) go to see the Joss Whedon Much Ado about Nothing movie. We decided, contrary to our usual direction, to go west in order to get these things done, and so wound up in Worcester for most of the day.


Worcester used to be our place, back in the early ’90’s. I was teaching, under various adjunct assignments, at Holy Cross and WPI, and we rented a house in the mainly rural Western suburbs. It’s a place that seems surrounded with reservoirs, and we ran into some of these today.


It’s also a place where you can actually park downtown, at least for a short time, making the Customs office thing very stress-free. I had to get a form that, while it does not prove that I own my bass clarinet, gives the impression that I will be bringing it back with me from abroad when I travel over the next few months. The bunch of us that will be part of the American-clarinet-professors-clarinet-choir at the big ClarinetFest this month were all warned about having this form, as some musicians have had trouble with European customs this summer when traveling with expensive instruments. Although, as Davy reminded me, my bass clarinet’s value, when applied to a violin, say, wouldn’t yield an instrument good enough to use at a competitive arts high school. However, now I have a stamped, signed, sort-of-official document that says people in high places believe that this Selmer D6404 bass clarinet is mine. So there.

We drove around the city as well, going places we hadn’t been in about ten years. Back in the day when we were looking into places to rent, Davy and I found this non-ironically cool restaurant “The Castle,” which was a pretty fancy place dressed up as an amusement park. Davy particularly liked his birthday there in 1990:

King Davy

Even though that place is still there, we decided to look further east for our dining pleasure after the movie. (The movie was fine, although I kept thinking “wait, aren’t there way more speeches for Beatrice and Benedict in this? What’s missing here?  And how did I not remember “paper bullets of the brain”? And, yes, Joss Whedon’s house is very nice, but the best thing about it is the walk down to the water – used to good effect in the fake funeral scene. The music that Whedon wrote for the traditional songs – which I’ve had to set as well, for a UMaine production – were Sade-like.) So, we wound up going to a restaurant in Bolton that Davy found on Open Table, as he is very into accruing points.


So it was sort of a nostalgic day, with both commerce and culture intertwined. What if we had stayed “out west” in Massachusetts? We would certainly have kept using our canoe more….

The year in review, as they say..


The way the university works, June is the month to write end-of-year stuff. Financial stuff for the department, summaries of the student and faculty concerts, teaching evaluations, all that. This activity, plus next week’s end-of-year Board meetings for ACA in New York, plus the unofficial start of my sabbatical, makes it easy to look back a bit right now.

Lots of things can happen over a year. A former student could receive a new pair of lungs and spend the year in a completely new situation. Longtime colleagues can retire.You can start working with new musicians – often (given the smallness of the musical world)  people who are already friends-of-friends (both on and off of facebook). Weather can get to be an over-riding concern. Northern New England governors can be, oh, idiosyncratic. New TV shows could make a mark and then disappear who knows where. Austrian brass players can be worshipped as Gods in central Maine. Most of these things could have been anticipated, but some not.

My own last concert of the season was wonderful in many ways. I got to have a new piece played between pieces by Zorn and Reich (!!) and have it played with a lot of thought and care in front of a packed house in a cool Portland gallery. The friends I stayed with kept talking about how this was the real hipster Portland, so I feel that I have now been within the nerd paradise of my region. It bookends nicely with playing in Brooklyn way last fall, before all of the cold and damp, among hipsters not concerned with weather-appropriate clothing. Completely different scene, but then that was before Sandy.

Now, moving on (as Davy’s yoga tapes instruct us). Later this week, both Davy and I will be at the VCCA in Sweet Briar, VA, to write music for a few weeks. Then, it’s time to get the Bangor house ready for the renters, and practice bass clarinet parts for the Clarinetfest conference (note – probably not nerd paradise, unless you love discussing woodwind gear). And before Davy starts back in the fall, we’ll spend some time in Burlington, where he will take at least 28 pictures of sunsets.


Doing things around snowstorms..

Last week, I, along with 7 other UMaine faculty and 4 students, managed to play a recital, in spite of the fact that the University was closed for parts of two days just before the event. This is kind of a deal for us, since many faculty live on the coast, or commute long distances (like myself – see title of this blog). So traveling to the rehearsal/gig can be as difficult as playing the rehearsal/gig. Plus, the faculty had just experienced weather-related challenges when our Pierrot lunaire performance was postponed by that cute storm Nemo in February. (Faculty at our sister campus in Gorham had a similar Pierrot Experience with last week’s storm  –  just ask Dan Sonenberg.)

So, it was a relief that the concert went off as scheduled, since we were hosting a guest composer (and my former teacher) Peter Westergaard. He was able to make the final rehearsal and performance of his new trio for clarinet, ‘cello and piano, All Odds. This was the only piece on that evening’s program that had NOT changed since the original planning last spring. Back then, it was going to be a clarinet-piano show with one trio piece, but the “new” Paul Schoenfield piece turned out not to exist quite yet (we hope to play that sometime in 2014). Then, as I mentioned,  UMaine’s Pierrot got postponed twice, essentially, so rehearsals for that were still going on in January. Adding more rehearsals for clarinet-piano got sort of tricky. Then, a faculty/student group that was working on a Scott Wheeler piece wound up with no available concert date on which to perform, in part because of all of the scheduling weirdness.

Finally, we went with a program of contemporary music by composers whose names begin with “w” – Westergaard, Wheeler, Weir (a clarinet-piano piece, oldest piece on the concert) and Wiemann. My piece was the last addition to the program – the faculty singers that were originally scheduled to perform my songs next year decided that they would ramp up their rehearsal plans, and do a premiere this semester before repeating the work in the fall. For which I was really grateful – here’s the last movement, on Sarah Manguso’s poem “The Rider,” for soprano, mezzo-soprano and flute:

“The Rider” Soundcloud clip

The Westergaard visit (Peter and his wife Barbara) tuned out great, although moving around parking lots that had not been plowed made for some high level strategizing. They were impressed with the non-pretentious-ness of Orono (particularly Pat’s Pizza) and with the still dominating amounts of still-white snow. And with local beer – microbrews being an important part of the local culture. Unless you’re my husband and want to order a Bloody Mary for photo contrast while hosting other people drinking beer:


Can I hold my clarinet while I host this concert?

65593_10151543125830466_398440388_n  So, I’m now on my way back to Maine after helping out Gina and Yael with the ACA concerts in New York this week. I didn’t have many real responsibilities for these shows, besides welcoming the audience (blah, blah, please turn off your cellphones,,,etc.), and hosting the panel discussions at the end of each concert. I knew some of the people speaking, and you can see in the panel photo here that I’m standing behind my teacher, Peter Westergaard, who seems relatively happy to be there (compared to everyone else, anyway). I was surprised at how many audience types stayed for the discussions on both nights, but I do have to credit Davy for my opening line on the second night: “My husband suggested that I start this discussion by asking ‘so, how did you all get so good-looking?’ ”

So, running the panel was kind of like teaching, but doing it on a concert stage was a little weird. I’m more used to doing this kind of thing right before I play a piece – and I had just done this last week when the UMaine faculty played Pierrot lunaire on our weather-delayed concert. Then, I got to exhort the audience to “go get the translations!” when it became clear that no one had picked up the program handout of the texts. It’s kind of fun to see people move quickly when you ask them to. And doing this while you’re holding an instrument alongside other people holding instruments makes for a better impression – the audience assumes that you’re not going to talk forever, since you’ve just warmed up to play.

As it turns out, the panelists in New York made pretty pithy comments, and there was some laughter during both presentations, so there were pleasant endings to both evenings. And, I can go back to my hosting-while holding-an-instrument role in a concert coming up next month. Then, on another UMaine faculty concert, Phillip, Noreen and I will premiere a new piece by, of all people, Peter Westergaard.


The older person’s obligatory software update rant (with parenthetical asides)

So, I’ve been working on a new version of a string quartet-with-optional-video piece for the Portland Chamber Music Festival that looks like it will be played in May. Which is great, because it makes me look critically at a long piece of mine that was probably too tricky to really work in its original form, save some music that I still like, and edit some video that needed severe trimming. But, the software changes that have gone on since 2004, when I wrote the first version, have made for much frustration. Frustration that I have often seen in my elders as they work through technological shifts.

This doesn’t really surprise me, as I’m now an elder person too. But the shifts also seem to take my students off guard as well, which makes me think that the people making technology have a very idiosyncratic idea of how people use stuff.


I am not one of those people that gets upset when Facebook changes something. Timeline was fine by me, although the whole idea of having a timeline of your whole life seems to be aimed at someone who’s, say, 17 years old, and hasn’t had much of a timeline yet. The iTunes change didn’t bother me much, mainly since I had given up on Playlists eons ago. (My long drives tend to be artist-driven, so to speak. Today’s drive from Maine featured Marshall Crenshaw exclusively, mainly his first classic album. Highly recommended. I mean, this guy has an acoustic album called I’ve Suffered for My Art..Now It’s Your Turn.) The change to having-as-many-graphics-on-the-page-as-possible in iTunes didn’t mess me up, mainly because I don’t use iTunes to, you know, work.

I do use Finale. And Final Cut. And, back in the day (that is, until last year) Peak. But then I had to change to Logic when Peak disappeared. And get used to the Mass Mover being gone from Finale. And hear from my Sibelius-using students about shifting from Sibelius 6 to version 7 – where, again, the amount of graphics in the tool bar actually gets in the way of the amount of screen devoted to the actual score…

ImageBut the biggest thing has been the move from the last year’s Final Cut to this year’s Final Cut Pro (granted, now it’s less expensive to get the Pro version – I had used the Express version, which suited me fine.) All of the tools that I used on a daily basis in Final Cut are now, at least in the default view, hidden among several layers of glossy black screen areas, sometimes with new names (I have to “share,” not “export,” really?), sometimes with accompanying annoying sound effects. And why would I want to choose a “theme” for my video…I’m not making Powerpoint presentations.

It took half an hour to put a fade on the main clip from the string quartet piece I’ve been editing…ImageThis screen shot shows the eventual successful fade inserted. But on my way there, I thought, hmm, maybe iMovie will be easier for this whole edit-and-crossfade stuff…I mean, I’m not shifting colors or anything…

ImageBut, where’s the timeline? Why do I need all of these thumbnails? And why is the software pretending to be helpful by saying “drag stuff here” and not being helpful anywhere else? 

I had heard about the major Final Cut changes last year, and had delayed doing anything until I had to change laptops. I had hoped that, but now, updates would have happened in response to people freaking out. But no, people just rant, like me, and adapt.

But I still think that the software developers are all excited about the “ooooh, shiny” new displays to the point that actually getting stuff done with the software is beside the point. And I know that this sounds just like my elders (“I had to actually learn html…I think Score is much more useful from a publishing point of view than anything with MIDI playback…I used a real electric eraser…you used to have to prove you could make a splice in electronic music courses..”).

Which makes it really appropriate to use Marshall Crenshaw as a reference in this post. Kind of like retro-squared.