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.


In the studio

July 23, 2011

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but—we’ve been in the studio!! I’m working with the divine Lara Weaver and the living GOD Chip Reardin on take after take of Kaia’s forthcoming CD. At this point, it looks like we’ll have 22 tracks. And I am loving it. I feel like I finally know why I have ears!

It has long been a joke in Kaia that I have dog hearing, since I have a really good ear and can ferret out all kinds of tuning issues. Now I feel like I finally get it. This sound engineering is great stuff.

We start with rough takes—from 1 to 16—of a single song. Those are painful to listen to because the sound is absolutely naked. There’s no mixing going on, so I can hear each individual voice without any blend. We sound awful. 🙂

I listen to each take multiple times to pick the best one overall. Then I go back in and start dissecting the chosen take. If we have a sloppy entrance or exit (we have lots of sloppy exits, it’s embarrassing), I note that. If there’s a note that’s not quite in tune, another note. Notes for people who take breaths when they’re not supposed to or who forget the words. (I actually sang the wrong word in a piece that I wrote! How pathetic is that?) Suffice it to say, my notes are extensive. (They are also very small. I don’t know why, but I’m allocating very little space for them and my handwriting is cramped and teeny. But for the most part I can decipher it.)

We often have the option of grabbing a section from another take and punching it into the main take, but there’s also a lot of bleed-through on the sound. Since we all recorded in the same room (with a couple exceptions), the mikes picked up ambient sound as well as each voice. So sometimes we can’t punch something in because the ambient sound doesn’t match.

Lara is celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary in Kauai, so I’ve been working a lot with Chip directly. My goal is to get all the songs to a “penultimate mix” stage by the time she’s ready. Then she’ll just be focused on hopefully minor notes so the polishing phase can be quick.

Mixing: We go through my notes and Chip does absolute magic to make us sound fabulous. He adds reverb so our sound fills out and gets warmer. He mixes the voices so the melody comes forward and the harmony goes back. Then I take that home and dissect it some more. I run through each song about 4 times before declaring it ready for Lara.

We’re also sharing tracks with other creative directors, like with Angela for Kaiababies and Jane for Ergen Deda. It’s great to get their input, since they have a whole different set of expectations and they hear things very differently.

It is so much fun to go through all this stuff, even if it is super time-intensive. We’re heading towards 4 hours per track, and I’m sure that will go higher once Lara’s back. One good thing: I’m certainly learning the road back and forth to Airtime Studios (Krista Detor’s and Dave Weber’s house)! It’s north of the city and requires some quick reflexes for the twisty turns. But if I ever go back for parties, I will at least know how to get there this time!

The downside of all of this for Kaia is that I’m taking extensive performance notes for us and I will be even more nit-picky than ever when we return to our regular rehearsal schedule! But I know everyone will be up for the challenge. We want to do more performing this fall and we want everything to be taken up a notch.

So—that’s my life right now. Time for me to go listen to the latest set of mixes!


Vow in the studio

January 22, 2011

Went into the studio yesterday with Grandmaster Kevin (MacDowell) and recorded almost all of Vow. We just need to add the drum line and then edit the spoken word section to the sung part. I’m hoping Lara will drum. I would love her energy on this project.

It’s a demo recording, so it’s pretty rough. You can hear the pages of the sheet music turning, for instance. I’m not thrilled with my vocal performance but it’s not bad, considering we did almost every line in one take. The alto line sounds bad because it’s right at the bottom of my range and my sound production cuts out by half on an F so I just go with this really breathy sound—awful. Especially considering it’s supposed to be this powerhouse bass.

Kevin attempted to do everything through Garage Band but it kept freezing up. So he pulled out his venerable analog 4-track and recorded onto tape! Très retro. But he knows a way to get it transferred to digital without losing quality, so I say all the better for him. It was just ironic that the $400 equipment trumped the $4,000 set-up.

Mucho thanks to Kevin. More news as it’s fit to print!


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.


Memorizing Krista

September 3, 2010

Kaia will be performing at Krista Detor‘s CD release party on Saturday, 11 Sept at the Bus-Chum. We’ll be doing some choral and individual work on Krista’s gorgeous Clock of the World piece.

And then there’s the other piece. The piece that just Lara and I are singing on—Middle of a Breakdown. “And I need a cuppa coffee and a cigarette” is going through my mind constantly. Unfortunately, the rest of the chorus doesn’t. It’s taking me forever to memorize my lines. And tomorrow we add…dance moves! Let’s hope it’s a simple case of jazz hands.

But, really, folks, I think these meds I’m on are messin’ with ma brain. I’ve noticed it in Kaia, that it’s harder to memorize things. And it’s certainly cut down on my creativity in all areas of life, including work.

I tell this to my shrink each time I see her and she dutifully notes it in her log and changes nothing else.

I have a proposal in for a gig that, if I get it, will take up every spare minute of September. September, the month of Lotus. September, the month of my business’ anniversary. September, the month during which I’m taking an intensive teleclass. Wheee! It’s a good thing I’m desperate for cash, otherwise my life would be dead boring.

And I need a cuppa coffee and a cigarette…


Lorraine’s last gig

June 26, 2010

Just back from Third Street Park, where Kaia had our last gig with the lovely Lorraine. She was crying after the show and I wish I hadn’t been on my after-show high so that I could cry along with her.

The turnout was a little lower than I expected, but what can you expect in this weather? We were lucky to be in the shade almost the whole time. Poor Lara had a face full of straight-on sun while she was singing Yonda Come Day: “Day done broke / In my soul” should have been “Day done broke / In my eye.” She had to perform with her eyes shut for most of the song.

It was great to see some old friends out in the audience, and to see kids and others dancing. We do a lot of dance tunes but this might have been the first time people actually danced to them.

I don’t know what we’ll do without Lorraine. She has such a versatile voice. She brings a great soul sound to the group. Plus she percusses. Is that a word? To percuss. Sounds good to me. Anyway, she has all this elasticity in her voice so she can do quick trills and such. Her lower range is rich and she has a nice upper range as well, higher than most other altos can manage.

Aside from her voice and her great performance presence, I will miss her. She not only has great music ideas, she has great input when the group is processing anything. She has these fabulous bedroom eyes and a fantastic laugh. We will be diminished without her.

Poor thing, she is moving on after more than four years with us. And she’s moving into a Kaia-less future. Her dad stopped by to visit recently. He’s also a talented musician. When he heard us rehearse, he agreed with Lorraine’s assessment: “You’re not going to find anything like that.” Sadness! One would hope that North Carolina would have something to offer her that’s as fulfilling as Kaia. Of course I’m pissed as hell that she’s being forced to leave because she can’t get out of poverty in Bloomington. She works two jobs, has no health insurance, and is just barely making ends meet. If she could find good work here, she’d take it in a second. Why does Bloomington have to be so good and so bad at the same time? I’m tired of losing people.

Sweet Lorraine, I will miss you.


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….