Kaia’s first ten years

April 12, 2015

Last night was Kaia’s 10th Anniversary Concert Party and it was a total blast. Complete love-fest. And while we had a few minor flubs here and there that you get in every live performance, it was the best show we’ve done yet.

I grew up surrounded by fabulous musicians. I don’t know what was in the water in Highland, Indiana, but my brothers’ jazz bands and my sisters’ marching bands were top-notch. And then my class of singers and actors was the most densely packed with talent that the Region had seen for years.

I learned music as a communal experience. My mother co-directed my grade school choir alongside Mrs Elliott. Both of them demanded excellence in execution and stagecraft, while making the process of singing a true joy. As I got older I became part of a core group of performers who were in choirs and theatre in every permutation imaginable.

Our fearless leader was Miss G, Pam Guenzler (later Pam DeBoer). She was fun. Whenever I think of her, I see her behind a piano with all of us gathered around, everybody laughing their asses off. She was all about excellence, but she didn’t get there by flogging people. She made the perfection of craft a joyful experience. We wanted to be better. And we were. And we loved each other and had each other’s backs. Singing with that cadre was opening your mouth and having 25 of your closest allies entwining their souls with yours. Reaching out to the audience to create that magic bond of trust and then cultivating it through the course of the show until the only thing they could do was give us standing O after standing O. It was glorious.

I was accepted into IU’s school of music the year it was rated number one in the country. I was hungry to get in and take my craft to a whole new level, and surround myself with like-minded people who loved to create art. Instead I found politics, petty-mindedness, and outright back-stabbing. It was devastating. Combined with a mental breakdown, I completely lost touch with my voice and stopped singing entirely for five years. I was a lost soul.

Cut to 1992 in England. I’m walking down a country lane in Somerset when I turn around and see an enormous white horse carved into the chalky hillside. I decide to climb the hill and stand in the center of the horse. I start on my way, with fields of cows on my left and fields of wheat on my right. There’s not a car or person in sight and the sky is a vast blue bowl above my head with those quick clouds flying through that are so much a part of that blessed island’s patterns. As I walk, I begin to sing.

I sing every song I can think of, from opera to show tunes to Tin Pan Alley to jazz (it’s a really long walk), but I especially sing folk tunes. Songs handed down orally for hundreds of years, songs discovered or written in the 1960s. I focus in on English tunes and I am one with the earth and sky. As I walk towards the white horse, I am completely suffused with joy. And I realize, “I sing because I sing. I sing because it’s who I am. I sing in celebration of Her.” The Goddess is all around me, is in me, is me, and her expression through me is song. I reclaim my voice.

Sometime after that I was at a festival at Lothlorien, a nature sanctuary south of town with a largely Pagan make-up, and I met Angela Berzins. I don’t remember what we were there for or how we were introduced but I do remember being across the bonfire from her and wailing away on something we were improvising. And our voices joined in this double helix and rose in gold above the flames. I had found a musical soulmate. I reveled in it but didn’t follow it up at the time.

Around this time I heard Vida for the first time. It was at Cultureshock in Dunn Meadow and as the first sounds came out of their mouths I just wept. I wanted to be that. It was like seeing your heart beating right in front of you and being unable to put it in your chest and make it a part of you. This was a phenomenal time in the Bloomington music scene, with Vida and Monkey Puzzle and Yuba Singers and Upstart being the a cappella groups that were turning my head. I wanted it. I wanted it all.

I was still gunshy because of the music school but I joined the Bloomington Feminist Chorus, which was then directed by Janice Bagwell. It was a non-audition choir for woman-born women singing music by, for, and about women. Slowly I began to trust other singers and after a while rediscovered my love of arranging and composing, yet another thing the music school had beaten out of me. Within five years I was Janice’s second. While not technically proficient, the choir had a lot of heart and was doing politically important work.

Sometime in the late ’90s I was able to join a chorus debuting Kay Gardner’s Ooroboros, an oratorio in eight movements celebrating the stages of women’s lives. It was a huge non-auditioned chorus learning complex music in the space of a couple weeks leading up to the debut at the National Women’s Music Festival. And in the final week, we met inside the music school, the first time I’d been back. And I found my wounds could heal under the direction of the legendary Cathy Roma from Cincinnati in the company of this incredible group of women.

The staging of Ouroboros was a high point in my life. There was a full orchestra, soloists from ages 9-65, our huge chorus, and about a million stagehands. And we were all women. Looking out onto a sea of 2000 women in the audience. Because it was being recorded, they asked that there be no applause during the performance. So instead the audience shimmered at the end of each movement with the most heartfelt expression of applause I’ve ever seen using American Sign Language. It was a milestone in my musical development.

But I was waiting. Since that night around the bonfire with Angela, I knew I wanted what I’d grown up with. But I didn’t know how to get it. I left the Feminist Chorus because I wanted to do more technically challenging work. But I didn’t have anyone to do it with.

Which brings me back to Angela. We’d kept in touch, going out periodically (I remember our both being blown away by Lucia di Lammermoor at the MAC). I invited her over to my house one Friday and we pored over the volumes of folk music I’d collected, delighting in some and laughing our asses off at others (Scotland’s Burning comes to mind). We were tentative, not sure what we were doing. We decided to reach out to others.

That led us to Pam, who led us to who led us to who led us to! Soon we had a motley collection of singers of some talent who got together on Fridays and just sang for two hours. We called it Friday Sing. Jane Goodman was a regular participant. Anyone could bring anything for us to sing, and we learned primarily by ear. We were women and men singing spirituals and Miranda Sex Garden. It was really fun. But over time I found myself harking back to Vida and to my Life Before and I found I was still hungry. After a while attendance became sporadic and I was bringing most of the music to the table. The rest were content to coast. I was looking for a more collaborative environment, where everyone was equally invested in development of art while still having fun. So it petered out. And I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Where the hell was the next incarnation of Vida?? Didn’t they know I was ready to heed the call and audition??

I am not a patient person. I am driven. And after all that waiting I decided, using many four-letter words, that I would just stop waiting, bite the bullet, and start the group myself. What “the group” was I didn’t know, beyond that I wanted to do a wide variety of musical styles and I wanted it to be a group having fun in search of creative excellence.

I held auditions in September of 2004. I had about 25 people show up, only four of them men, so that immediately meant the group was going to be all women. And to my delight, both Angela and Jane showed up. Angela just opened her mouth and I said, “She’s in.” Jane came in wearing a flowing patterned skirt and sang free as a bird, totally embodied, seemingly perfectly in love with life and its expression through music. I’d never seen her like this in Friday Sing and I fell in love.

I carefully rated all the singers on a scale from 1-5 (spot the Capricorn) and soon had a line-up of 13 singers. Only one of them didn’t have the wherewithal to make it to the first rehearsal, so by default we started as a group of 12 women aged from late teens to mid-forties. I had ambitious dreams of repertoire and improv, but to my frustration I found I had no idea how to do what Miss G had done. I started singing professionally and training in earnest at age 11, so I had a long history of absorbed knowledge. Here I was with this group of women who were all talented singers but who had wildly differing levels of experience. I didn’t know what to do.

I simplified the music more and more, finally settling on basic rounds to get us going. I sprinkled in some pieces from the Feminist Chorus where I could, but it was pretty basic stuff. We did do some nice improvs but most of our time was just spent finding our feet.

We had some changes in lineup and Amy Jackson (she who unerringly can sing in the exact center of a pitch) joined us the following year. She could probably tell you every iteration of Kaia and every song we sang. To me, most of it is a blur, unfortunately. Unless you count the drug dealer who mercifully quit before we had to kick her out and the gun-toting maniac who had us in fear for our lives! Ah, good times, good times. 🙂

I’ve auditioned over 70 people for Kaia in 10 years and we’ve had 22 Kaiasistahs, all with something unique to offer. Slowly, slowly, oh so slowly we got better over time and the bar got raised higher and higher with every audition. We learned to bypass the teenagers in favor of people in settled careers. After some disastrous forays into improv at concerts in places like Soma we decided that suckage was not for us. My arrangements got more complex, we started drawing on a wider variety of music as more experienced musicians joined the group (and seriously, the explosion of YouTube made exposure to world music a gift from the Gods), and we added more and more percussion to the mix when we suckered Lara Weaver (of previously mentioned Upstart and Yuba Singers fame) into joining us. We offered her cash to pinch-hit for us in a crisis and then bewitched her with our awesomeness so she had to stay with us.

I remember when Jenny Gibson came in to audition and by the third note out of her mouth I was writing down, “MUST HAVE HER.” At first she was quiet and demure with us until she figured we were safe, and then she unleashed her insanely dynamic and demonic hilarious personality on us.

We were at 8 for a long time, a perfect number, when one of our singers left. For the last several years we’d really struggled finding anyone to audition. The ones who did audition just weren’t the right fit. So when Tristra left to spend more time with family we went into overtime, bribing people to come in and sing. Jane badgered Licia Weber mercilessly and I worked her on the sidelines until she finally caved in and sang for me. Lovely folk voice, lots of experience, and by the Gods she can hit a low G. And out of the blue I get a nice email from this woman who wants to know if we ever audition people. Do we? Get over here! Sarah Mosier has a great blendy voice with the ability to solo well, which is the magic combination we look for in a Kaiasistah.

Jane and I listened to their auditions and agreed that while neither of them sounded like Tristra, they both would add invaluably to the Kaia sound. But could we be nine?? Jane and I plotted how we could sell the group on the idea. But after the group audition it took very little convincing. Everyone was in love with the augmented sound. So two more sistahs were added to the pack.

Leslie left about six months later to pursue other endeavors so we were at eight again! Eight is big enough that we can do complex eight-part arrangements like Pata Pata and Rise in Love and small enough that we can feel like a tight vocal ensemble and not an unwieldy choir. And this is the best Kaia yet.

While the early days of Kaia saw me doing all of the arranging and composing, over the years I am glad to say that Lara and Angela have contributed phenomenal creative energies in that direction. Instead of me just inflicting pieces on the group, there are now three of us who pre-screen pieces before running them by all the sistahs who decide whether to add them to the repertoire. We do extensive research, work with native speakers, connect old music with contemporary events, work tirelessly on the crescendo at the end of Las Amarillas, and eat chocolate at almost every rehearsal.

Amy always calls me the Fearless Leader but I consider myself the Anxious Facilitator. I have learned that I am no Miss G. I can be a product leader or a process leader, but not both at the same time. In order to meet our ambitious collective goals, I am a product leader in Kaia. Rehearsals are very tightly run and organized in order to make the best use of our limited time. Fortunately, everyone else is easygoing and fun, so they all balance out my intensity nicely. We are constantly moving, always going forward, always getting better, always honing our craft. And it’s FUN. Not just because Jenny wisecracks through rehearsals but because we know we’re doing kick-ass work together. We can hear it. We can feel it. And when we take the stage, we enter into a love-bond with the audience and just rise, rise, rise.

Last night the sistahs said they wouldn’t be here without me. But they don’t understand that I wouldn’t be here without them. I organize rehearsals but they’re the ones who let me. 🙂 And I was trained as a vocalist, not as a teacher. So in the many cases where I find myself tongue-tied while trying to explain what I hear in my head and how I think we might get there, there’s always someone in the group who has a breakthrough idea that takes us to the next level, beyond what I’d imagined. And while I get bogged down in timing intros and obsessing over set list order, they’re busy pulling this incredibly dynamic and engaging performance out of their souls and just giving, giving, giving. They make it happen.

It didn’t come about the way I thought it would, but I have realized my dream of a collaborative team of inspired artists in search of creative excellence while having fun. During last night’s show we could barely wait for intermission to be over because we just wanted to get down there and give more, more! I mean, come on, the crowd was going wild blowing party favor horns! How much cooler can it get??

Kaia sings world music from the raucous to the sublime. We go beyond the a cappella groups I loved in the ’90s to the widest range of musical expression I’ve ever heard. Lee Williams, the founder of the Lotus World Music Festival, the man who has heard just about every band under the sun, has said that he’s never heard anyone else do what we do. We sing in 26 languages in a dizzying array of styles. We push boundaries but we always take the audience with us. In the early days we made hard-copy programs for the audience but we stopped after one of my friends said, “Yeah, after a while I just put my program down and surrendered.” The words in the program weren’t informing her experience—they were getting in the way of the experience.

Because every song we sing has a 5-minute backstory and translation, our intros have to be pretty spare in order to keep the sets manageable. And we’re singing in languages you’ve never heard of, like Mahoi! We use our bodies and our expressions to communicate the songs’ meanings. I knew we were succeeding after our 2014 Lotus performance. I was stopped on the street by a young man who was enthusing about Lu Lops, a pretty intense song about political struggle that’s written in the language Occitan, which only a few thousand people speak. “I could see everyone in cages, and then how their village was smashed, and then they were rising up and calling everyone to freedom! And then they were back in the cages.” My jaw was on the ground. He’d just described the three verses and coda of Lu Lops though he’d never heard the language. He understood it because our expression moves beyond words.

We have great hopes for the next few years, including a new CD (I have been collecting prospective pieces for months, just waiting for the opportune moment to spring them on the prescreening team) and perhaps most exciting, doing some regional touring. Our schedules are insane and for a long time we had mothers of small children in the group so they couldn’t stray far from home. But now the kids are old enough that it’s conceivable Mom can be away for a day. So we’re spreading our wings and looking to perform maybe every other month somewhere in a 100-mile radius. Nothing too taxing, but a nice start to moving beyond who and where we’ve been. We will still perform in Bloomington, but if touring takes off, it will be less than in years past.

Totally shifting gears here: When Lee Williams told me we were in for the 2014 Lotus Festival I just sat in my car and cried. Here was this thing, this idea that I’d had so many years ago, and it had taken wings and become something I wanted but in its own sweet way, and it was coming alive. I knew there would be someone in our audience, someone we would never know, whose life would be changed by our performance. And I felt so graced by this gift in my life that is Kaia, that we are creating art that transforms.

I will never have children. It appears increasingly unlikely that I will ever get married. So I will never have those milestones of baby shower, birth, first word, going to kindergarten, eighth grade graduation, high school graduation, first car, going off to college, empty nest syndrome, graduation from college, first real job, marriage, grandchildren, rinse and repeat. I won’t have many milestones in my life. My last big one was when I bought my first house 8 years ago.

Last night was a milestone. Ten years of creation, celebrated with Bloomington’s best. I was fortunate enough to share it with the people I love best in all the world: my mom and dad, my sister and best friend Paula, and her outstanding daughters Rebecca and Elena. They sat right in front so I could watch them throughout most of the show. Mom gets good karma for telling me that, in watching me, she couldn’t believe I was 47 years old. “You looked 25!” See why I love my mother??

The night was bittersweet in that it’s the last time my parents will see me in live performance. They are both in their 80s and need assistance to get around and simply aren’t capable of travel anymore. They knew this was going to be a last shot so they made the arduous journey down from Chicago.

My parents have been my audience since I was five years old. My earliest memories of singing with others is of seeing my mother conducting me. And now, over 40 years later, the journey is coming to an end. Today, they came to my house for the last time and met my kitty, who they will never play with again. They talked to my goddessdaughters last night but they will not see them grow older. A page has turned and my heart aches. I feel the faint warnings, the stirrings of the story of their deaths and how that final separation will devastate me. My blessed consolation is that we gave a kick-ass show last night which sent them over the moon and they can be proud of what they’ve helped manifest. They have a wonderful memory they can carry with them for what remains of their lives. And I have the memory of my dad setting back in the chair with a big smile on his face as he reveled in our harmonies and the look on my mom’s face as she realized we really were going to sing Bill Grogan’s Goat, a song she used to belt out to us as we were growing up.

One thing I wished we’d done last night after we got off the stage was just to gather all the Kaiasistahs in a tight circle and look into each other’s eyes and joyfully acknowledge our achievement and our love for each other. We are so grateful to be a part of this phenomenon. It’s like this wondrous miracle every time we hear a chord come back to us through a kick-ass monitor. We really are doing this! It’s really happening! And we travel from mournful Russian to stirring original to salacious Scots in the course of 11 minutes and then we just keep going! What a joy. As I say in my morning prayer, “This day is your love-gift to me.” Kaia is my love-gift. I give it away, and it is given back to me. It is my heart made manifest, and it is the heart itself.

I can’t wait for the next ten years.

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Inappropriate opera

October 23, 2011

I haven’t blogged in a while due to illness, busyness, and busyness, mostly in that order. The last “busyness” was Kaia’s prep for Voices Against Violence, a benefit for Middle Way House, a local rape/domestic violence crisis shelter and life transformer.

We learned my piece Vow in about 2 and a half weeks, which is a record for us. It’s a difficult song. Not in structure or pitch, but in meaning. We started by just going around the circle and sharing our reactions to it (it’s a song about domestic violence but the beginning spoken word section covers all violence against women). Lara wept as she shared what I also felt: That she’d never sat in a group of women and not heard the stories of abuse and violence at the hands of men. My breakthrough to feminism was this very fact: That almost every woman I knew had survived some form of violation.

The Voices Against Violence show was actually two shows—one at 3 and one at 8. Different artists performed at each show; we performed at both. Aside from Vow, we did different sets for the different shows. The sets were constructed to show our vision for a better world as well as to showcase pieces in different languages and our strongest repertoire.

The first set opened with Arise, Lara’s stirring setting of Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics for the Mother’s Day Proclamation. The crowd (though small) loved it. We did some world music before coming around to Vow and then I Love Everybody. Whenever Lara sings the opening of ILE, she envisions the worst of the worst offenders she deals with on a regular basis in her day job, and tries to surround them with love. Just coming off Vow, she had a visibly difficult time making the transition. But I’ve never heard her sing it with such conviction and truth as she did that day.

The second set’s anti-war piece was my Not One More Day (which I find, to my surprise, that I have not posted about before). We mixed in some world music with Vow and closed with Dubula, a jubilant South African dance piece.

I over-sang during the second set. I noticed it most clearly on Not One More Day. For some reason, I felt a deep urge to connect with the audience, to drag them along, to make them see the insanity of the Iraq war and of all war. The audience was warm, appreciative, and even tried to clap along until they (as always) discovered it interfered with their ability to hear the lyrics. But I felt something missing—maybe it was something missing in me.

Both sets were intense. They whipped around the world and through our key messages of peace and social justice with breakneck speed. And we rocked both sets. The audience was very appreciative. But we did not get a standing ovation. No one got a standing ovation, actually. It was very weird, since it’s ridiculously easy to get a standing O in Bloomington. But even among this crowd, Vow, for the first time, was just listened to without that without-words shout that rises up in people hearing it for the first time.

Gladys DeVane was on with a monologue about Amelia Earhart. Diane Kondrat did Marge Piercy’s The Low Road. Janiece Jaffe and Curtis Cantwell Jackson did their usual mellow songs of love and light. All of it spoke to the meaning of the event, and to the hearts of those assembled.

And then came Roadkill—an opera trio including the famous Sylvia McNair. They opened with The Man I Love. They sang I Feel Pretty. Sylvia soloed with another piece from West Side Story. The others soloed with pieces I wasn’t familiar with but had that same Broadway/cabaret songbook feel. They closed with My Favorite Things. And I squirmed.

It wasn’t the quality of the music, of course, which was exceptional. It was the content and the delivery. They sang with songbooks in their hands, which is fine for classical music but seems off-putting in a show like Voices Against Violence. But it was their song selection that was intensely jarring to me.

To open with The Man I Love at an event about domestic violence struck me as downright chilling. The rest of the pieces, while amusing or moving or interesting in themselves, were so far from the content of the rest of the program that I felt almost sick. It was a dinner set, the same they would perform for any event. It wasn’t tailored to the content of the show or the needs of the people in the audience. In my opinion, it was inappropriate.

The experience shown a light on my feelings about performance: That it be transformative. Not that it simply entertain. It’s like design—design isn’t about decoration, it’s about information. It’s about creating change in the viewer. And music is a great changer. It gives voice to that which was previously inarticulate. And for those in the audience, who seek such a fundamental change in our society as the end to violence against women, and even an end to all violence, we have a responsibility to them to at least attempt to give them a voice.

I’ve seen it many times with Arise. I’ve seen it happen every time we sing Not One More Day—by the time we’re singing, “No more torture / We’re forced to pay for / No more torture in my name,” we’ve got people ready to rise up singing. They want to join in and raise their voices to say no more, a better world is possible, and I want to manifest it.

I Feel Pretty just doesn’t cut it. Not for me, at least. I don’t deny the artistry of the women onstage. I just wonder whether they considered pieces that would articulate the deepest desires of those in the audience, and whether they agree that an artist has a responsibility to try to articulate those needs.


Kaia’s last day in studio

June 6, 2011

We had an intense but fun day in the studio yesterday. We began by re-recording Pata Pata, since our last recording of it was such a confusing mess. 🙂 We’d recorded the vocals first, then the percussion, then realized they didn’t match up, then tried to record the vocals again, and then Lara had a coughing fit and we all decided that was enough. 🙂

So yesterday was far more successful—Chip was able to sync up the percussion we’d already laid down with the new vocals we recorded. The wonder of technology.

I was antsy because I knew we’d need the bulk of our time to record Ergen Deda and Las Amarillas, but first we needed to do Lu Lops. It’s an intense song that takes immense concentration to get the emotional qualities just right. It’s in Occitan, which is a language sort of between French and Spanish, so there’s constant squabbling over the pronunciation of the Js (English J or French J? Blah blah blah).

More importantly, it tells this intense story of “The Wolves” who guard the prisons where, presumably, innocent villagers are held. The second verse tells of what the soldiers did when they attacked. It’s a disturbing account, full of blood and bones. “Watch out! They will jump on your bones like crazed people!” Translation always leaves something to be desired but we try to communicate the meaning even if only a couple hundred people in the world speak the language.

The third verse is our favorite—I think of it as the “partisan” verse. It starts out with “Venyez a mic” which is something along the lines of “To me! To me!” There’s a sense of planting a flag in the ground and calling to the oppressed to rise up. The verse paints a picture of freedom in the days to come, and ends by calling on comrades to stick together and help each other. It’s very stirring.

But then there’s this coda that repeats the opening of the song—the wolves are still howling. So did the villagers free themselves but they’re still surrounded? Or was the dream of freedom only that, a dream? The meaning is ambiguous. But chilling nonetheless.

It’s a lot to try to communicate, and it’s much easier done live when we can use our facial expressions and body language to get the point across. But we did our best in the studio. It’s not quite as tight as I would like, but it is good enough for this point in time. At some point we’ll likely get it recorded live, after we’ve had a chance to get it into our bones more, and it may be more powerful.

After Lu Lops came the challenge of Amarillas. As of Thursday, sistahs were saying they didn’t want to record it at all because they didn’t feel ready. I took on the unfamiliar role of cheerleader because I believed we could pull it off. And we did! It took about an hour and a quarter to record a song that lasts 3 minutes.

We recorded it in three sections, with a click-track to guide each one (it’s a very precise three-part piece where the parts rarely come together). We just recorded each section over and over again until we got the rhythm, pronunciation, and pitches correct. When I gave the starting pitches for the third section, we discovered to our horror that we had floated sharp by a half-step! This never happens—we are excellent at staying in tune.

So then a 10-minute period of discussion ensued as we tried to figure out what happened and if we could correct it. Long story short, we had to record the whole thing over again, this time with a tone (A) and a click track running through the whole thing. Chip quickly switched the click track to the faster tempos on each of the sections so we could stay in an Amarillas state of mind. 🙂 And then it was done! Almost.

We moved on to Ergen Deda, a new Balkan piece that people aren’t totally confident in. I think almost all of us were using our music or cheat sheets as props. It’s in 7/8 and there are a couple places where no one is exactly sure what the timing should be. We’re using a recording by the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus as a guide, but our version is slightly different. Though how different is still up to interpretation!

We had about 15 minutes to get that one in the can and it ended up taking about 20. Lara and Tristra sounded amazing on their duet—assuming you like Balkan music, it will knock your sox off.

The whole piece isn’t as tight as Bre Petrunko, our other Bulgarian piece, but it will get that tight, “knit” feeling over time.

And then! Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly eat more chocolate, we had another short break while Chip set up the mics for us to record the percussion on Amarillas. We talked Lara out of doing the stomps-that-aren’t-really-stomps, thank goodness, otherwise we might still be there. The percussion is claps, snaps, hand-slides, and side-slaps. And it all ended up being much more complicated than we expected. Took us about 20 minutes to record.

As we were wrapping up and dithering over whether we should record this part or that one more time, another band came in and that made the decision for us! It was hard to believe this journey of a year was finally over, but we quickly thanked Chip and got the heck out the door. Everyone was in good spirits, even if we still had the click track going in our brains!

Lara and I will be working with Chip this summer to do the mastering and mixing of everything. We still hope to have a CD release party in the Fall, though our schedule is getting so full I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. We all feel pretty good, though, at journey’s end. Many thanks to Chip for his endless patience with our singing, bickering, and fake Minnesota accents. 🙂


Chocolate Paper Suites with Xanax

November 7, 2010

I watched in horror. I remember with horror.

I’ve been incommunicado here due to Chocolate Paper Suites, Krista Detor‘s CD release party, and the prep associated with it. Lara Weaver and I were working with Krista on a dance routine for Middle of a Breakdown that was very hush-hush. Then the show came, leaving me with a sick feeling regarding my performance. Then the DVD arrived, and my worst fears were realized.

I’ve always been a dynamic performer. Even when the singing or acting itself wasn’t stellar, the packaging around it drew the audience in and made it compelling. I remained baffled all during last winter’s Sound of Music performance as to why I could summon neither the technical chops nor the performer glow that helps boost me in my communication with the audience.

I also noticed I was having more difficulty mimicking accents. I noticed my conducting in Kaia was often off. I felt disconnected from my performances. None of it came together for me until the Krista show, however.

For one thing, I couldn’t learn the dance routine. I’m not a dancer, but I can certainly pick up simple steps. This was a mostly straightforward routine. I practiced night and day, facing each direction, in every room in the house—all to simulate the feeling of being in an unknown environment. No matter what I did, I couldn’t nail the steps.

I really liked working with Krista, both on Breakdown and her signature piece, Clock of the World, which was a full Kaia and Janiece Jaffe collaboration. She was relaxed but businesslike through rehearsals, giving just a laid-back four-count in as we started another bit. Just enough chit-chat to break down the walls, with the rest of the time focused on the work. And very generous with her time. It was a big show. I can only imagine how much work went into it.

I wanted to blog about the creative process but, even though virtually no one reads this blog, I wanted to keep the secret about the dance routine. Clock of the World progressed well in Kaia rehearsals and in the one full-group session we had with Krista, so there wasn’t much to report there. But I wanted an outlet for my confusion over my clumsiness and dissociation with Breakdown.

The night of the show, I was nervous as I usually get when I’m on the meds—very little. Sound check was a little bumpy, since we only had one run-through on each piece and we had to stop for technical reasons mid-tune on both of them. So we never got a full run-through with either piece. I wasn’t worried about Clock but was very tense over Breakdown.

I watched the first part of the show, a performance by a former Cirque du Soleil artist. I made it through one suite of Krista’s before my nerves kicked in and I went backstage to run the dance another four thousand times. Lara came back and we ran it repeatedly, with me crying out that we hadn’t run one transition during sound check and how in the hell was I going to do it.

The performance itself went by in a flash, as so often happens. The band and Krista herself were both driving much harder than I’d expected. I tried to put in extra oomph. I knew I made a mistake on the dance but didn’t feel so bad because I thought Krista had, too.

Clock of the World was very well received by the audience but was a bit of a technical mess. The monitor situation was not good and I could hear how Angela’s gorgeous opening solo was not synched with Krista’s gorgeous piano. We eventually did synch up but then hit a major snafu when someone jumped an entrance. There was about a half-second delay while the sistahs all adjusted in their own fashion and we eventually pulled it all back together. This is the joy of doing live performance—you never know what’s going to happen so you have to be able to react very quickly and stay on your toes. No coasting.

A few weeks later I got the DVD from CATS. I watched myself in horror. On Breakdown, I looked like some kind of zombie. I felt disconnected just watching myself. I felt like someone else had taken over my body and turned it into this grotesque, jerky thing that was totally out of synch with Lara and Krista. I didn’t smile, didn’t emote, didn’t shine.

Clock of the World wasn’t much better. I actually tried on that song to communicate some emotion, but my body remained still and my face communicated nothing.

I know most performers hate to watch themselves on playback but I’m not one of them. I usually am pleased with what I see, even while being hyper-critical of my performance overall. But in this case, the only word that applies is “horrified.” I look like a zombie. I look like not-me. I look like someone totally disconnected from the experience. And—worst thought of all—I think I am.

Due to my buffet of mental health issues, I’m on an interesting cocktail of meds, the central one being Xanax. It’s to manage my sometimes crippling anxiety. It smooths things out so my highs (such as they were) aren’t so high and my lows aren’t so low. Everything remains in this grey zone.

I’m more stable mentally than I’ve been in over a decade. I’m able to function on a daily basis with regularity. But who knew the price I would pay?

I’m convinced that the meds have slowly but surely eroded my creative self. The loss of my creative abilities has been slow but steady, to the point now where I have a hard time just memorizing lyrics. I can’t seem to hold onto anything—it all just slips away in the grey.

My shrink won’t change the cocktail because it’s stabilized me so much and she doesn’t want to mess with it now. Her philosophy is to keep the patient stable for a year before looking at changing the meds again. I feel that this essential part of myself has been torn from me—no, it’s more that it’s floated away from me. Away into the greyness, with tendrils whispering back towards me like a grey ghost’s shroud.

Once I saw the video, I was convinced. But, as chance would have it, I then ran across a video from 2007 when I was performing in the Blizzard at the BPP. Sure enough, there I was. Bright, present, aware, dynamic. Hard evidence that something has drastically changed.

I decided to push myself and see if I could make some of the old magic come back. At two Kaia gigs I pushed energy outward from my torso into my extremities, trying to use my arms and legs to communicate the rhythm and meaning of the songs. I could keep it up for a little while, but then would lapse back into grey. It takes an inordinate amount of concentration to keep the energy up.

The whole thing has distressed me considerably, of course. Apart from the impact on my creative outlets, it also impacts my creative work in my job. That’s not something I want to go into here but it’s been a concern.

The meds have made me into a stable person. If I’d been born with stable chemistry, would I be creative at all? Am I now who I’m supposed to be? Because that person ain’t much fun. And she certainly ain’t having too much fun.

The whole role of the meds in my life makes me question my identity on a fundamental level. If we changed the chemical cocktail, would I become a different person? What if I were a different person for each recipe? If that’s the case, who am I really?

I don’t see any easy answers. I don’t see any answers at all, just suppositions in the grey. I wish I could get my self back but without the craziness. I know there’s a stereotype of the tortured artist, but I think it’s B.S. I don’t think it’s necessary to be mentally ill in order to create. On the contrary, mental illness can cripple creativity—permanently. Is there a way to be me, with full access to my creative gifts and skills, and be well? Perhaps that’s a question for my psychiatrist. I have no answers here in the valley of the grey.


Redbird set free

December 3, 2009

Wow, this feels really good: Redbird is ready for release! After months of sitting on the mp3, I’m making it available here.

Except I can’t! Oh, I don’t believe this! <rant rant rant> Stupid WordPress won’t let me upload the mp3. Blast!

Okay, calming down. What I can do is make the mp3 available to anyone who asks me for it. So comment on this post or email me and I can send you the mp3 directly.

For those who haven’t read every post in this blog, Redbird is a song I wrote based on a children’s song that Lara Weaver wrote based on a snippet of a bluegrass tune she heard at some point in time. Her song is happy; my song’s about suicide. Just goes to show ya. I was fortunate enough to record the song with the amazing and astounding Kevin MacDowell. Who you can hear if you request the mp3 file. Grrrr….


Kidfest

October 13, 2009

This morning I got to do a mostly spontaneous performance of our kids music repertoire with Lara and Kid Kazooey. We were at First United Methodist Church and played for the preschoolers there. It was a lot of fun. Only four songs in a half hour (short-n-sweet!) and lots of Lara energy as she interacted with the kids. She’s great at it. It was nice to do a low-pressure gig with such a rowdy audience!


Lotus 2009

October 7, 2009

I’ve been oddly reluctant to blog about Lotus, maybe because it’s such a whirligig of brightly colored memories in my head, but here goes.

Friday
Our debut show was a 45-minute set starting at 8pm. What a long day Friday was! After the excitement of the night before (see previous post), I made sure I got plenty of downtime on Friday and rested my voice.

This was a challenge to do, since we had soundcheck at 2. Or 3. Or 4. It went on for a long time. I think they may have gotten started late and Cara Dillon’s gang wasn’t getting quite the sound they wanted.

Since Lara had brilliantly had us working with our Sound Guy Chip for weeks beforehand, we had little trouble when it came our turn. Kaia is a very difficult group to mic because there are so many of us and we don’t stay on the same mic. So you can’t just designate one mic as “the low mic” for someone singing in the basement; the Sound Guy has to adjust each mic depending on the song. Chip had a diagram for every piece in our show and studied photos of us so he’d know exactly who needed what!

We did a quick cue-to-cue, which is where we move to each place in the set, start that piece, then jump to the end of the piece. It can look pretty funny because the singers are dashing back for percussion, pretending to sing on the mic, and then running to put the percussion back. All while we switch around to different mics. Kind of like musical chairs. But cue-to-cues help build muscle memory so transitions are “smooth and fluid.”

I came home and rested, then did a quick warm-up before it was time to go back. Actually, I spent most of my time double-checking what I was going to wear and putting on more and more hairspray! The weather was dreary, misty, rainy. Perfect English weather (where’s a good chippie??) but not so good for an outdoor festival.

Anyway, I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be. I attribute that mostly to the meds I’m on! But it also helped that we were as prepared as we could be & that I’d spent the whole week working out my personal demons so I’d be ready to perform.

I arrived early at the venue and found some of the Kaiasistahs already there, putting on make-up and chatting. We passed around body glitter and kept the tone light.

We had just enough time to do some quick warm-ups, then Jane led us in the “golden thread” meditation that we do before all our important shows and when we need to tune in to each other. The golden thread comes up from the earth and rises through us, connecting us via our hearts and ears. We open our eyes and look into the eyes of each sistah, finding the golden thread there. Then we dashed the hell out of the room!

Quick setup of our percussion and waters, then out into the house. I was in the center aisle, waiting for Lara. I remember seeing her leaning against a doorjamb while Mike The Stage Manager read thru the sponsor list and such. It was great to have her come to me and get her pitch—I just felt like we were in command of a terrific situation and were going to sing our hearts out. I gave the pitch, her strong voice rang out with “Soooooo glad I’m here!”, and we were off!

From before that first note, we were connected to the audience. They were live that night—absolutely hot. The kind of audience every musician dreams of. When we all joined in with Lara’s voice, we all went to the next level.

The 45-minute set went by in a blur, but there are little flashes that stand out for me. One was noticing that people were coming in and not leaving! Another was Malcolm Abrams (of Bloom Magazine fame). He’s a big fan and he & his wife sat near the center of the church on the aisle. Whenever I needed a touchstone with the audience, I just looked at him.

I have no idea if we made any flubs that night—I know nothing major came up–but I do know that we were in a love affair with the audience. Amy says that, during Arise, three separate women in the audience stood up in response to the repeated call, “Arise!”

Of course the major thing that stood out for me was the audience response to Not One More Day, the song I wrote during the Bush-Cheney administration about the Iraq war. People called out in response to particular lines. They started to clap along but stopped so they could hear the lyrics. And at the end, we got a partial standing ovation. It was a deeply gratifying experience. I felt like a true artist.

Oddly enough, now that I think about it, we did not get a full standing ovation on Friday night. I think. I can’t quite remember. But it was a love-fest. A luuurve-fest. And I want more!

After the show I ran by the art pavilion, which was drenched in the pouring rain. My friend Jeanne was volunteering and I spent my last hit points on her, as we went upstairs and talked art. After a while I simply had to go home and rest. Plus I felt slightly ill from the pizza I’d eaten. 🙂

Saturday afternoon
We met under a tree at Third Street Park on Saturday to prep for our workshop. We were sans Tristra, who was home resting her (very) pregnant self.

We did a quick warm-up and then got to talk a bit with the “shaman” of the stiltwalking performers. Talk about brilliant make-up and costumes! They were gorgeous! And the woman we chatted with was very nice indeed.

Went out to do our workshop and found that the setup was different from what we expected, but hey!, this is live performance, so you adapt and move on. The workshop started with an abbreviated version of So Glad I’m Here. Then I did some blah-blah on what shapes world music and how to get more from the Lotus experience with supa-secret knowledge.

Then we opened it up with more singing. Some of it was just us, but most of it included audience participation. That was really lovely. We had great weather under this sunny blue sky (which we’d weather-witched beforehand, of course!) and everyone in the tent was singing lustily, as They Say. It went by in another 45-minute flash. Then I ran out of there and came home! I slept from the time I walked in to the time I had to put make-up on. The drink that refreshes!

Saturday night
Saturday night was a more worrisome set because it was longer, we had a success under our belt (I didn’t want us too cocky), and I thought some of the sistahs were tired.

I put on more hairspray Saturday night because our beautiful day had been replaced with flat-out rain. We shared body glitter again and a very quick Golden Thread before scooting out to set up.

Oh! I should mention the Kaia cheer! We have done this before every performance (save one where we forgot and of course performed badly ;-)). We put one hand in the center of the circle and yell, “Gooooooo, Kaia!” while raising our arm over our heads. It is an elaborate ritual. Passed down through generations.

Anyway! Saturday night’s audience was different from the outset. I’ve noticed before that Friday night audiences tend to be more live than Saturday’s. I chalk this up to the fact that everyone’s been running around all day Saturday, out of their workaday routine, and they’re ready for a little rest once they get to the show. Add to that the fact that our audience was sodden from the rain and you understand why the energy was down.

However! We still built a good rapport and performed a great set. We didn’t get the outward level of excitement that we got on Friday night, but we did have a good lovin’ vibe going with our wet friends. Amy says she was aware of more flubs on Saturday, but nothing major. I, of course, am kicking myself for not getting a recording of the set from either night so I can hear audience response.

Oh! I forgot—Saturday I arrived early to try to catch the toy piano virtuoso but couldn’t get in, so I ran over and caught 4 tunes by Cara Dillon (lovely voice, lovely lovely lovely). One of my clear memories from Friday night is of Cara and Angela swapping parenting stories backstage.

After the show
I was determined to see some other acts after our show, so the night became a marathon. Amy and I decided to hang out, so we ran to my car to drop my Pointy Goth Boots off. Then on to That One Guy, whose instrument and musicianship is—well, it’s very hard to describe. It’s a must-see show because it will blow your mind.

We bopped up to the hospitality suite for some water and homemade cookies. Lara showed up with Dena from Salaam and we chatted while Lara got a caffeine fix.

Then we were off and running again, trying to catch up with Jenny. I steered us to the wrong tent, which meant we got to hear a band from Argentina (???) for five minutes before I realized my mistake.

We slogged through the rain towards our True Destination and basked in the love we kept receiving from people who’d seen our show and kept giving us shout-outs. We finally arrived to hear the EE Marching Band (name?? help??) do a scorching version of St James Infirmary Blues. There was hardly anyone in the tent, which just meant we had that much more room to dance! It was getting late and I was losing steam, but kept going, determined to make it to the after-party.

The doldrums
There was this space of time that was interminably long: picking up our remaining CDs and cashing out. I ended up by myself for almost an hour, standing around and waiting for one thing or another. They only had one person doing cash-out and it was all done by hand (!), which seemed to take far longer than it needed to. During that time I got very tired and also started to get a little spacey from being up so late and past The Hour Of Taking Meds.

The high point of standing in the rain waiting around was the drum jam that was going on across the street. Soon a guy came over to my side of the street and checked out some big blue steel drums (like barrels that you’d keep crude oil in). He practiced slamming the tops and sides. Before I knew it, a whole other group of people was on my side of the street, using the drums and trash cans as a mini-version of Stomp. It was cool.

I must also give a shout-out to Mike Redman, who came over and talked to me for a while before shooting some incriminating photographs.

Eventually I had our fabulous check in my hot little hands and struggled with the merch back to my car. As Fate would have it, cell phones were totally on  the blink, so I couldn’t connect with Amy or Lara via voice or text. As far as I knew, they’d hit the party and were back home! It was a frustrating experience.

The after-party
One of the best things about Lotus was being treated like a rock star. We each had a yellow tag with the glorious words “Artist: All Access” (cue angelic music).

The best experience of this was showing up at Tall Steve’s for the after-party. There was a whole gaggle of people outside the door, waiting/trying to get in. (I ran into Mike Price and discovered yet another factor that contributes to his charisma, but I shall keep that secret for now!) I just walked up to the doorman and flashed my pass. “Go right in,” he said. Open sesame! I’m lovin’ this!

The place was packed and loud, of course—not my favorite scene. But I was still on the hunt for Lara and Amy and determined to milk the Lotus experience. I wish I’d gotten some food and drink, but foolishly didn’t.

I ended up at the top of some stairs, sitting with Tall Steve and Amy Roche. This ended up being the “coolest” spot in the house (if one cares about such things), since everyone was going up to the roof or coming down and everyone wanted to talk with Steve. My sister went a little drooly when I told her that I was setting there while one of the guys from Los de Abajo was talking to Steve.

After some time Amy and Lara miraculously arrived and we were reunited. Amy Roche wanted to get a singing jam going, so we wandered around in search of the best place. Everywhere we went was packed, and of course everyone had to talk to everyone else, so the “search” ended up as some sort of tribal initiation into the mysteries of Shangri-La.

We were joined by Lara’s fabulous friend Kate (Lara got her in by throwing her (Lara’s) pass down to Kate from the rooftop) and hung out on the roof, where a Celtic jam was going on. I was so cold that I started to lose the feeling in my jaw. Amy J saved the day by saying either we sing or she was going home. So our little party shuffled over to a corner of the roof and then stared dumbly at each other with no idea what to sing.

Lara and Amy Roche have sung together for years, so kicked back with some Sweet Honey tunes. The rest of us struggled along. We did some call and response stuff but I was so out of it that I simply couldn’t improv. AMy J once again called it and she and I wandered off into the night.

I then came home (3 am) and couldn’t sleep! It wasn’t until 6 that I finally nodded off.

World Spirit Concert
Sunday afternoon marks the closing of Lotus. The World Spirit Concert is three acts in 3 hours, all for free if you’re wearing an ALL ACCESS pass! I thought about wearing my Lotus pin (a gift from Amy J) but decided I wanted to flaunt my artist status one last time.

Holy crap, I can’t even remember who I saw. Shoot. They were from northeastern Canada and played traditional Accadian music. And they were awesome! I was in the lobby when I ran into Jane, so she and I were able to hang out together for the duration. There was a point in the show where I began crying, feeling so deeply the absence of my sister Paula, who should have been with me if circumstance had permitted.

After the show was over, Jane and I wandered down the street. I didn’t want Lotus to end. I wanted to savor every last detail. And I didn’t want to surrender my pass. Okay, that last bit is a joke. But I felt sad that my Lotus experience was over.

The thing that struck me overall about the experience is how normal it felt. We’ve done gigs in churches before. We’ve sold CDs. We’ve had people tell us they loved the show. This was all that, just on steroids. And I felt most fortunate to realize that, for 15 years, I had been on the other side of the rope, so to speak. But now, in the 16th year, I was the receiving the praise and a little bit of hera-worship. I loved it, but I love all performance.

I didn’t ogle the other artists and they didn’t ogle me. The praise I received was all within the bounds of good taste. The shows themselves were really good shows. It was all good! I’d expected to feel much more intimidated and a little lost.

I have to say that part of my successful experience was due to the Lotus volunteers, who are the real champs of the festival! Unbelievable.

So, assuming anyone’s still reading, I close this account of What Happened When. I haven’t devoted much space to reflection but I think that’s part of what this Lotus has meant to me—to keep my experiences a little close to the vest so that I can savor them when I want to.