Wedding Processionals: the Cure for Perfectionism

For about fifteen years after college, give or take, the primary source of my income was as a church organist. This might not sound too exciting, but there are a lot of challenges in the job to keep you on your toes.

As a high school and college student I had terrible performance anxiety. I would pick apart everything, even while it was still happening. There was no sense of flow. I was stuck in my own head and worried entirely too much about what other people thought. And I was an incurable perfectionist, which kept anything I did from being all that good.

When I graduated from college, I took a job playing the organ for a church, and I soon started playing for weddings, which are probably to this day the most stressful gigs I do. Not playing with my youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 15. Not trying to remember a rock n roll set with three drinks in me. Weddings.

Every wedding is different, especially the processionals. Some have more bridesmaids, some less. Some have a ringbearer; others don’t. Some use one song for the bridesmaids and then switch to a different one for the bride, and others don’t. Some people print programs that contradict what they asked for in the first place, leaving everyone unsure of what to do.

If this sounds like a pain, it is. On top of it all, there are always curve balls:

The ringbearer stops halfway down the aisle and cries.

The nervous bridesmaids sprint like there’s a fire, laying waste to good timing.

The bride hesitates.

The biggest problem for the organist is being able to see all this happen, as church organs tend to be buried, mercifully, in lofts and around corners, or behind a pillar. The musician shall not be seen. As an introvert, I’m fine with that. But then I can’t see anything else. So there I am squinting into a mirror trying to watch a procession that might as well be a half block away, and I’m trying to coordinate the right cadences with other musicians.

St. Patrick's church

The cavernous St. Patrick’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where I recently played a wedding that was the impetus for this essay.

 

But not just any old cadence will do. In much of the traditional wedding repertoire, there are cadences on the dominant rather than the tonic, which would make the song sound “not done yet,” which is no way to leave a bride at the altar, unless you want to play a prank in very bad taste.

The most consistent thing about a wedding processional is that it never goes as planned. I recently did a wedding with a trumpet player, and to make matters more interesting, we were doing a very nice but uncommon piece of music. Not exactly hard, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the music much, either.

WE had a game plan set up, but of course we were in the middle of no man’s land in the piece when we suddenly realized the bride was only a few steps from the altar. This left us to rely on ESP, for lack of a better word. In these kinds of moments, you are literally listening for what the next note is that the trumpet plays, and then you guess (!) which measure to jump to. One time I had a trumpet player suddenly jump back to the main theme of a piece. I caught up, eventually. I couldn’t blame him.

Needless to say, these performances are far from perfect. I guess the good news is that people rarely seem to notice, though that’s no excuse to be sloppy.
In such circumstances a perfectionist will go nuts. It’s a totally different world playing for a chaotic wedding versus playing under the red pen of a professor or a critic. Conservatories prepare musicians for exams, but not for life. Weddings are one area in which I felt the sting of this difference.

But I’m grateful for the baptism by fire, such as it is. “Perfection is death,” a friend of mine says. A perfectionist will get eaten alive playing a wedding. The good news, though, is that he’ll also get shaken up a bit and learn to play fast and loose, to dive in and make the best of it. This can only improve overall musicianship, reduce nerves, and induce a higher state of flow.

When I first started out I had some very bad weddings, even embarrassing ones, but because of the challenges they contain, I learned to let go and play with joy, and that has carried over into all the playing that I do.

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Saxophone Riff

I ran into an old friend, Mark Brown, a few weeks ago who plays the saxophone, and I  explained what I’ve been up to in my studio, mixing field recordings into soundtracks and such. He gave me permission to record him. It took me awhile to figure out how to cut this up into something that worked, but this weekend I sat down at the D.A.W. in the right frame of mind, and it all came together. This is what I ended up with.

 

I’ve also taken footage of a bird singing and faced similar problems in terms of how to mix it so that it works musically. This saxophone track was good practice for that one, and now I feel like I might be ready to take another look at the mockingbird and see if it can be made into something sensible. The main problem has been too much footage and sifting through it. Sometimes fewer resources are easier to deal with.

Willie Nelson, Master Cover Artist

Singing other people’s songs is a sensitive art form. I’ve found that the covers I like are the ones that either do a great job of capturing the true spirit of a song, or do the daring thing of making the song something completely different than it was before—arguably a new song. If this second approach is taken, the cover needs to be amazing or it’s a failure, in my opinion.

Willie Nelson recently won a Grammy for his album of George Gershwin songs. I confess it’s the first time in years that I’ve enjoyed listening to Gershwin. But these aren’t the only, and probably not the most popular, covers that Nelson has done. I’ve discovered that he’s able to penetrate to the essence of a song and make its basic point even better than the original writer did. This is no matter of controversy to me. The French organist Olivier Latry plays Messiaen’s music better than Messiaen did, and countless DJ’s have remixed great sound tracks and made them even better.

Two of Willie Nelson’s efforts stand out to me—his covers of Marie by Townes Van Zandt, and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train by Guy Clark. Van Zandt and Clark were close friends, moving into the Nashville area, incidentally, just as Nelson was moving back to Austin in the mid 1970’s. But they all knew each other’s work. Nelson and Merle Haggard made Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty famous in 1983 with their cover of it on the record by the same title.

It may seem unusual that Willie would do a Townes song better than Townes did, given the latter’s guitar picking capabilities, but Willie can hold his own, and if Townes’ picking is better than Willie’s, the latter’s singing is certainly stronger. To me, the ingredient that makes Willie’s version of Marie better is his more accurate execution of the mood of the music. The song is about a jobless hobo, who narrates the song, entangled in bureaucracy at the unemployment office who becomes homeless when he meets a girl named Marie and has to move out of the mission where he’s staying to live under a bridge with this new girl. Marie develops the suspicion that she’s pregnant and thinks it’s a little boy. “I hope he don’t end up like me,” the narrator laments. But shortly after that, she dies in her sleep, and the protagonist hops on a train and heads south.

Townes was a master songwriter and an amazing performer when he was on, but sometimes his performances could be languid, as is the case with Marie. His tempo lags, and his delivery is almost as overwrought as an opera singer’s. His mood is all sadness, void of the indignation the narrator of this story undoubtedly feels.

Willie’s version, on the other hand, conveys the angst proper to this tale. Even his guitar snarls angrily in the background. He picks up the tempo, and his delivery has a matter-of-factness that sears the soul. One thing that helps is sheer genetics: Townes has a mellifluous baritone voice, but Willie’s is dry and reedy. It reminds me of a bassoon, or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Renaissance instrument known as a dulzian. It fits the mood of this song perfectly.

Willie’s other master cover is of Guy Clark’s song Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. Guy Clark, like Townes, has unmistakeable characteristics and an instantly identifiable half-spoken, half-sung delivery, and there’s no mimicking him. Any attempt to do so would fall short, much as many such attempts to emulate Lou Reed have been wanting. So Willie didn’t try to emulate him in this cover, which is part of the Guy Clark tribute album This One’s for Him, produced by his biographer Tamara Saviano.

The song is about Clark’s step-grandfather, Jack Prigg, an oil-driller who’d lived and worked all over the world, and, by the time Clark knew him, lived in his grandmother’s hotel in West Texas. The song describes Prigg’s mentorship of Clark, giving him money for the girls, teaching how to drive when Prigg was too drunk to get home, taking him around to see his friends. The song goes on to describe Prigg’s old age and death, and Clark’s visit to him the day before he died. As Prigg is about to die, Clark sings, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is comin’.” This is beautiful. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was a train enthusiast who’s wife told him on his deathbed that the next time he hears a train he should feel free to get on it and take it for a ride, and shortly thereafter, he died. It’s this moment in Willie’s cover that’s exciting and makes his thicker instrumentation advantageous. Just as the train is coming, the whole band cranks it, and gives the song a climax that Clark’s version does not have.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nelson’s version is better than Clark’s, but it gives a whole new appeal to the song, and that is a display of his mastery. Of course, there’s a thrill in hearing the story first hand from Clark, and his quirky delivery gives the song a flair that no one else will ever be able to give it. But Willie’s version gives the song a better sense of direction and climax, and it’s so much more powerful that way. Ironically enough, although Willie’s instrumentation seems thicker, his track seems less produced than Clark’s whose version on his first album, Old No. 1, borders on the overproduced sound that a lot of Nashville-produced records are known for. I prefer listening to Clark’s version on the live record from Austin, in which he performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Finally the story that proves my point: his cover of Gravedigger by Dave Matthews, of all people.

Matthews is an admirer of Nelson’s and was totally stoked to find out that he was going to cover his song. Since then they’ve even performed it together.

He has even changed his own rendition of it in places to emulate Nelson’s version, as he explained in Rolling Stone. What higher praise could there be? The writer of a song makes changes because he thought someone else interpreted it better. This is evidence that Willie Nelson knows how to tackle a song from the inside out and sing it according to what it is. This takes not only genius but also humility, and I’m pretty sure he has both.

This is nowhere near a complete list of the covers Willie Nelson has done. He’s covered Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, among others. Maybe at work today I’ll get to put my earbuds in and explore some of those too.

Recent Cubase Soundtracks

I’ve made a series of soundtracks recently from field recordings I’ve taken here and there. These are not always the easiest to put together, but it’s always a lot of fun.

Anyone who knows me knows that I drink entirely too much coffee. I consider it to be one of the four food groups. I’d sooner give up alcohol–I think. I love the fact that Bach wrote a Coffee Cantata, at a time, according to Victor Borge, when coffee was considered a vice more akin to illegal drugs today. I decided I wanted to make my own coffee cantata, but instead of stringed instruments and singers, I decided to use the percolator that’s in my kitchen.

 

Another recording I made was of Philly’s famous Trolley Poet, Mike Fuller, who’s been featured in a number of stories. First I recorded him, then I mixed the soundtrack, then I got his permission. Perfectly backwards process, but it worked. I didn’t do much manipulating with this one, as I wanted to preserve the deliberate rhythm of his speech and the long pauses he employs, several of which allowed other sounds to come out of the texture and make music along with him.

 

(That’s my picture in the soundcloud link, not the Trolley Poet’s, alas.)

I’ve been using Cubase for my soundtracks. I’m now in the process of learning Reaper, a program with lots of potential. Hopefully I’ll have some results from that experiment soon.

I truly believe that music is everywhere, and I listen for it constantly in the most random things. If I didn’t, I’d go crazy from the oppressive prosaic character of day to day life.

Two Kinds of Music

A few years ago I took to saying that there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music. Little did I know that Steve Earle had already said the same thing in 1988 at a live show at the Town and Country in London. I’m glad for him to have the credit, though. At any rate, shortly after I started saying this, I started getting into different genres, and I even joined a rock band. This added several dimensions to my musical life, and I don’t think I knew I had it in me.

Previously this blog focused strictly on “classical” music, but with my expanded horizons, I’m going to be branching out on here, discussing not only classical music and  my own work but also outlaw country, EDM, rock n roll, and maybe a few other genres. I’ll do my best to make sure it’s all good music. Style is important, but I don’t think it should be an impediment to the enjoyment of music. In any case, I’ll be sure to tag and label posts appropriately so that the site is easy to navigate, should some readers wish to keep up on some subjects but not others.

Calvin Hampton: An American Genius

Originally published in the Broad St. Review on November 4, 2014.

 

I was improvising at the organ a few weeks ago when I realized I was emulating Calvin Hampton, specifically his composition In Paradisum, which employs an eerie polytonality. This isn’t unusual. I’ve been accused of composing like Hampton before.

“I went to school with Calvin. He was a genius,” one of my teachers told me. “We didn’t even bother to be jealous of him, since he was head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Combining the incompatible

Hampton dared to take musical chances. While the results are uneven, his better compositions deserve a place in the repertoire. One of his greater successes was the establishment of a Fridays at Midnight organ recital series at his church in Gramercy Park during the ’70s and ’80s. His rock band, Sevenfold Gift, gave the earliest of these concerts. Adding to the unconventional approach, he’d use flashing lights with the music and invited audiences to lie down while they listened.

He was not afraid to combine two seemingly incompatible things. Apparently even his concert programming demonstrated this, with stylistic “right turns” that dashed many listeners’ expectations for a chronological program order. Instead of going from Baroque to Classical to Romantic, he paired pieces from disparate styles, using Bach as the centerpiece rather than the opener. In a sense, he was the inventor of the iPod shuffle manner of listening to music.

More than this, Hampton played organ transcriptions and advocated symphonic style organs at a time when such endeavors were considered passé. The mid-20th century saw the rebirth of the putative classical organ and historical performance practice, which are more suited to early music, but he wasn’t afraid to buck this trend. “He could just sit down and play a symphony from the full score. He had that kind of talent,” one friend of mine reports.

Saying what he had to

He was not merely a shock artist, though. Calvin Hampton broke molds because they couldn’t help him say what he had to say. His unique sense of melody, rhythm, and tonality, albeit not as distinct as Messiaen’s, makes his music instantly identifiable as his. Angular, disjunct melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes sweet, were one of his favorite toys, along with offbeat rhythms that grew out of “added” eighth notes — a device that many modern ears, accustomed to monotonous pop music, find annoying. Yet if there were an organist on Earth you’d see playing pop music, it would probably have been Calvin Hampton.

While Hampton was still alive, Erik Routley called him “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes,” and his biographer, Jonathan B. Hall, notes the rock influence on his hymn melodies de Tar and St. Helena. Not everyone loves his music, though. I once attended a concert at which There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, using the tune St. Helena, was sung. Although the building was filled with the musically inclined, the audience stumbled through the hymn, to many grumbles. But original minds like Hampton’s are not meant for ordinary audiences, and full acceptance often doesn’t come until the artist is safely dead.

Unfortunately, Calvin Hampton’s demise came all too quickly. He died 30 years ago, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his short life, he left a treasure of music behind him that goes far beyond the confines of organ and church music, one that can truly be called American.

I’m not at all ashamed to be accused of trying to imitate him.

 

New soundtrack from SEPTA announcements

I’m constantly recording my surroundings for new material, especially when I’m on transit, not only for the obvious rhythmical noises that trains make, but also because of other sounds that can be turned into music. Public address announcements are some of them. Here’s a track I made out of delay announcements on the SEPTA system. Not trying to pick on them, it’s just great material.