Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Bruckner Cowboy

(A story I wrote some years ago about my brief stint in a sheet music store...)

The only perk to working in a sheet music store was the occasional discount, but this one was pretty incredible.

It was 1999, and my wife and I were trying to figure out where we were going to go to escape the apocalyptic behavior that we were sure would engulf San Francisco streets on New Years eve. We were having one of our periodic sales at BH Sheet Music Services, a company that would disappear under the grey waves of e-commerce within the next few years, only to be visited periodically by a research submarine. We all knew this on some level, but the things that were floating around the store were just too amazing to imagine being thrown out.

So maybe a complete orchestral set (score and parts) to Peter and the Wolf might seem a commonplace thing, but if you knew as we did that the newly ascendant Russian Republic was in payback mode for all the Russian music that had been played without royalties or licensing during the cold war, you would know that you were looking at snow in the spring sunshine. Soon there would be no American editions of such things except in libraries or museums with a protective hand on your shoulder as you leaf through the artifacts.

What I had my eye on was a complete edition of the works of John Dunstaple in the Musica Brittanica edition, the only published source. A large book, about as big as St Jacome's Grand Method for Trumpet, which should have cost $200 but instead through some fluke had been marked down to $20.

I was all over that. Dunstaple's harmonies and counterpoint are freaking beautiful and I wanted to have this book, even if it was just going to end up sitting in my garage. While I was getting ready to go to the front counter and invoke my discount to get a further $2 off the already marked down price I saw a youngish man come in.

He wore a faded flannel shirt and jeans. His cowboy hat had grease stains on it. He looked straight out of the central valley, and just to be sure I looked as he walked by and saw the telltale circular chewing tobacco canister wear-spot on his back pocket. This guy was definitely the real deal, not someone who would normally come into a sheet music store. He walked up to the customer service counter and asked to be directed to study scores.

And then he began to plow through the letter B and scoop up an armload of scores of symphonies my Bruckner, orchestral sacred music by Bruckner, choral masses by Bruckner. The section was completely purged of Bruckner by the time he was done. I had picked up my Dunstaple book and was standing behind him in line to make my purchase when he turned around to me and looked at my treasured piece of English Medieval Polyphony.

"Whazzat?" He asked.

I Told him that it was the complete works of a Medieval English composer about whom we know nothing except that he probably single-handedly invented modern harmony, had a thing for astrology and wrote some of the most awesomest vocal music of the time.

He looked at my book, looked at me and turned his head away. I heard him say under his breath,

"'T'ain't Bruckner..."

Friday, January 24, 2014

16 Things I learned from my last band:

16 Things I learned from my last band:

  • Collective musical improvisation can be a real joy when it works, and it doesn't always work. When it works well most of the time you will be tempted to think that you're in the greatest band in the world.

  • You will pay for this conceit dearly later on.

  • Charisma is a word meaning “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm.” In the original Greek it means something like “Favor freely given.” If your singer has this exciting commodity you will think that Almighty God is your roadie. Refer to second item above.

  • A drummer should conserve energy. Flailing away for an hour is not always sustainable.

  • You will sometimes be put in a position of having to decide what you believe and what your response will be when those beliefs are doused with lighter fluid and set fire to.

  • It's a good idea to be clear about what you're doing. Why are you in a band? Do you have a sound in you that needs to come out? Do you want attention? From whom do you want attention?

  • If you're not getting any gigs it feels the same as when you don't have any friends or can't get a date. It is well to ask wether this is because you are too intrinsically unique and out there and no one understands you, or is it because... ?

  • Be kind to animals, even dead ones.

  • Don't put down other bands. At all. For any reason. You don't have to like everything, but just remember that everyone is taking a risk, putting themselves forward, and that in itself is beautiful.

  • Support other bands. If your friend or casual acquaintance has just put some recordings up on Sound Cloud or Reverb Nation or Bandcamp, go listen to them. Take the time to really listen to what they're trying to do. Let them know you're listening. Let them know what you like about what they're doing. If you can't be bothered to do this then you really have nothing to complain about when you put up recordings and are greeted by tumbleweeds rolling across an arid desert.

  • Go to your friends gigs as much as time and funds permit. It means a lot to them when you show up. If you can, stay and see other bands that you may not know. You wouldn't be happy to see your audience melt away when you're playing just because the previous bands friends have all left and didn't want to give you a chance. Do unto others...

  • Being offensive and incomprehensible doesn't make you punk. It makes you offensive and incomprehensible.

  • Make common cause with bands you like and feel affinity for. Bands are getting used to a Hobbesian existence, playing dead clubs to 5 people, competing with other bands for any scrap of attention or airtime. Many have been around for years and suffered much. Make lineups that reflect what you would like live music to be like and work the promotion hard to get people to come to the overall event, not just to see awesome and wonderful you. It will take work to turn around this sorry state of affairs but it's not impossible.

  • Screaming abusive things about women is never cute or clever. You may not be the one doing the screaming, but it reflects on you all the same.

  • The grace was freely given, if you want to sell it to the devil then why should anyone want to watch?

  • This is supposed to be fun. Even if the music is angry there should be visceral joy propelling it. If you've descended into bitterness and despair then it's time to reevaluate the situation, and not wait another 18 months.