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10 Years After Katrina

By Laurie Niles
August 25, 2015 20:42

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive natural disasters in United States history, maxing out as a Category 5 hurricane before doing its worst over southeastern Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Katrina's storm surge caused 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city. The hurricane caused an estimated at $108 billion in damage, and the confirmed death toll was 1,836.

Though many fled the city of New Orleans prior to Katrina's arrival, those who remained were forced to weather a ferocious storm and after it, an unprecedented failure of city infrastructure, services and federal response. Those who'd stayed told stories of scrambling to their roofs to avoid the floodwaters that inundundated their homes. Many others sought refuge either in the city's convention center or in the Louisiana Superdome, where some 30,000 people waited out the storm in miserable, overcrowded conditions.

The Superdome is where Samuel Thompson found himself during the storm, with a suitcase and his violin. He had spent the summer of 2005 in New Orleans, preparing for the Rodolfo Lipizer Competition, and he did not have means to leave the city.

Samuel Thompson
Samuel Thompson. Photo by Aisha Butler.

"The only truly unnerving thing that I remember was the sheer number of people who were stranded, and the fact that we had no idea when we would leave," he told me recently.

On the Wednesday of that week, he was fortunate to move from the Superdome to the smaller New Orleans Arena next door, with a group of about 100 people.

"It was honestly not until then that we began becoming painfully aware of the magnitude of what had taken place," he said. "There were hundreds of people in the basketball arena, including residents of an assisted living center who were being prepared for helicopter evacuation, a medical triage unit, and many National Guardsmen."

"Those of us in the group that I was with immediately stepped in to help organize the elderly, and at one point someone asked me if I would play something," Thompson said. "I must admit that it seemed an odd request, as there was much to do. So I asked both a National Guardsman and a nurse if I could play a little."

They said yes, and as it happened, LA Times reporter Scott Gold witnessed the scene. Here is how he described it: "(Thompson) had guarded (his violin) carefully and hadn't taken it out until Wednesday afternoon, when he was able to move from the Superdome into the New Orleans Arena, far safer accommodations. He rested the black case on a table next to a man with no legs in a wheelchair and a pile of trash and boxes, and gingerly popped open the two locks. He lifted the violin out of the red velvet encasement and held it to his neck.

"Thompson closed his eyes and leaned into each stretch of the bow as he played mournfully. A woman eating crackers and sitting where a vendor typically sold pizza watched him intently. A National Guard soldier applauded quietly when the song ended, and Thompson nodded his head and began another piece, the Andante from Bach's Sonata in A minor."

"These people have nothing," Thompson told the LA Times reporter. "I have a violin. And I should play for them. They should have something."

At the time, Thompson felt no hesitation and certainly no sense of stage fright; these days he can laugh at the irony: "In the middle of chaos, taking out the instrument and playing all of this repertoire was easy, yet everyone deals with performance anxiety and nervousness in some way when playing under 'normal' conditions."

Thompson's generosity in playing Bach in the midst of such difficulty and disorganization is something that struck a chord; the story circulated widely and quickly. In the 10 years since the storm, Thompson has felt ambivalent about his 10 minutes of fame, which on one hand brought some opportunities, and on the other hand was something he did not wish to have exploited.

"During the first year after the storm, I did receive invitations to play concerts, including one at the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas," he said. "That recital was so beautiful. Conceived and directed by a wonderful man and a dear friend named Peter Webster, it included works by Bach, Ysaye, and Tom Benjamin in black box theatre with photos of Mardi Gras Indians and post-Katrina destruction being projected on a screen behind me. It was at the Arts and Ideas Festival that I met members of Alternate ROOTS. ROOTS is a tremendous organization based in the Southern United States that consists of artists and organizations whose cultural work strives for social justice.

"It was through meeting these incredible people that I joined ROOTS, and through membership in Alternate ROOTS which lead to associations with the National Performance Network. I have met and befriended artists across all genres that are creating thought-provoking and excellent works of theatre and dance, all while remaining aware of issues that affect our society. Three groups immediately come to mind: Knoxville's Carpetbag Theatre, with whom I performed from 2008-12, which is currently touring "Speed Killed My Cousin", a play that deals with veterans' issues. Also, UNIVERSES, a national/international ensemble company that will be presenting their "Ameriville" - one of the most riveting and well-researched stage works about Hurricane Katrina - at Western Michigan State University in October of this year. And third, Jump-Start Theatre Company, a San Antonio-based company that presented "I'll Remember For You," a poignant two-person play that deals with Alzheimer's disease and the challenges faced by adults who find themselves acting as caretakers for their parents.

"In March 2006, I reconnected with a mentor after many years, and at that time she encouraged me to keep writing," Thompson said. "Well, I had no idea that my private musings would turn into a vehicle through which I would interact with the world, let alone one through which I could share that there are people on the ground in our field both within and outside of the legacy institutions who are truly engaging with their communities in ways that are sincere, innovative, and unprecedented. Those writing platforms have included my personal blog, Violinist.com, and writing for the San Jose Chamber Orchestra."

"Since Katrina I have, through following my inner guidance and that of people that I trust as well as taking opportunities that both furthered me and challenged me, started contributing to and participating in the world in ways that I have always dreamed of - including musically, and for that I'm grateful."

Thompson now lives in Baltimore and plays in the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the Delaware Symphony. He said he'll probably spend the 10th anniversary of Katrina doing what he is alway doing: playing, teaching and writing.

* * *

One of the pieces Samuel played for storm victims was Bach's Sonata No. 2, Andante. Here is a version of that piece, played by James Ehnes.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 96: Joshua Bell; James Ehnes; Julian Rachlin

By Laurie Niles
August 25, 2015 14:14

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Joshua Bell performed works by Bach and Milone with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

  • The New York Times: "Before beginning the piece, Mr. Bell said that for 'those of you who think Bach would turn in his grave' to hear these 'strange harmonies' added to his Chaconne, 'the good news is that we’re playing it again tomorrow.' So, he added, 'Bach will turn back over.'"

James Ehnes performed the Beethoven with the Grant Park Orchestra.

  • Chicago Classical Review: "The Canadian violinist is an undeniably first-class artist as he showed once again, with playing that was supremely polished and immaculate throughout."

Julian Rachlin
Julian Rachlin. Photo by Janine Guldener.

Julian Rachlin performed the Sibelius with the BBC Scottish Symphony.

  • The Independent: "...the high-point of the evening was Julian Rachlin’s performance as soloist in the Violin Concerto: perfectly crafted and presented with grace and fire. Rachlin’s brilliant Ysaÿe encore brought the house down."

Nikolaj Znaider performed the Brahms with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "Copenhagen-born Nikolaj Znaider soared through the solo part, including a crazily difficult cadenza by Jascha Heifetz, with gargantuan tone and some old-fashioned slides."
  • The Arts Desk: "The sound quality, the near-perfect intonation with which Nikolay Znaider wields his Kreisler Guarneri “Del Gesù” is only the half of it; hearing such close work with an orchestra and conductor equally alert to every small detail without ever losing sight of long lines is the kind of thing I can only count on the fingers of one hand in terms of the total concerto experience."
  • The Telegraph: "Znaider’s playing was almost impossibly sweet-toned, but powerful and jaw-droppingly virtuosic too when required. 'Denmark is not just Lego and pastry,' he remarked coolly before his Bach encore."
  • Evening Standard: "Having dispatched an accomplished Brahms Violin Concerto, Nikolaj Znaider defied a BBC injunction to play a Bach Sarabande as an encore. I hope he’s invited back nevertheless."

Pinchas Zukerman performed the Brahms with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra

  • The West Australian: "Brahms’ Violin Concerto was performed by Pinchas Zukerman with an extraordinarily bold, flexible sound. The heart of the performance was his seemingly effortless cadenza with its smooth scales and feather-like high trills."

Alexandra Soumm performed Bernstein's Serenade with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

  • Los Angeles Times: "A robust violinist, Soumm played the solo part on a grand scale that was all artery-clogging bad cholesterol, as though it were another meat-and-potatoes Russian violin concerto."

Andrew Haveron performed the Sibelius with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "Soloist Andrew Haveron seized the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor and flew through the score with passion and at times, moving tenderness."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Form the Back-to-School Practice Habit!

By Laurie Niles
August 23, 2015 19:48

It's back-to-school time, and for many people that means back-to-violin-lessons.

Very often, summer represents a break from routine for students, as they take vacations, enjoy time off from classes and explore other interests. Even those who attend summer music programs may feel a disruption in their routine. It might be a positive disruption that involves intense study and progress, but it can be followed by a let-down upon arriving back in the "real world," which doesn't support that intensity in quite the same way.

Setting up (or returning to) a productive practice routine for the school year is one of the most crucial things you can do for your (or your student's) playing. Why? Because progress on the violin thrives on routine.

Whatever your level, whatever your goals, the best formula for steady progress and solid skill-building is quite simple: daily practice. But it will not happen without planning, discipline and persistence. Every day means every day, no exceptions.

The good news is that the start of the school year is a perfect time to work practice into your schedule, along with all those other routines that will come with the season. Here's how to do it: Form a habit. It takes 21 days to form a habit, but these have to be days in a row. If you miss a day, you have to start again. So practice (or motivate your child to practice) for 21 straight days, and after that, you will actually have a habit formed. You will find that you are compelled by the habit to practice, and if you are a parent, you will find yourself arguing much, much less. (Every day, parents, is much easier in the long run than "some days.")

fall practice calendar

Of course, after those 21 days you still have to make yourself (or your student) practice, but it becomes easier, the longer you feed the habit. The side-effect is that you start playing very well. When you're playing well, it's fun to practice. And the longer your "practice streak" becomes, the less you want to break it. Twenty-one days becomes a month, a month becomes two, then maybe you want to reach six months, or a year! It's a very virtuous circle. I've met students who went for years, practicing every day.

So make your resolution now, while your routine is taking shape for the fall. Make daily practice a part of that routine!

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Anne Akiko Meyers apologizes for racially insensitive Facebook post

By Laurie Niles
August 20, 2015 22:55

Anne Akiko Meyers said she was just trying to pose a question, with her controversial re-post of a story by The Violin Channel about the new black and minority Chineke! Orchestra in Europe.

Meyers' post said: "I wonder if you have to be black to solo with this orchestra? #reversediscrimination"

Anne Akiko Meyers"Quickly, I realized the implications were just so horrible and dreadful that I took down the post almost immediately, about 20 minutes later," Meyers told me this morning, speaking over the phone. "I am extremely sorry. It was a very big mistake and I in no way stand behind that question, in no way," she said.

The post's presence for 20 minutes online was long enough to generate a great deal of controversy -- and for people to get screen grabs. The post has re-appeared on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and continues to generate heated discussion that went all kinds of directions: some accusing her of race-baiting, others lamenting that she took the post down.

Her desire to get rid of the post was so strong that she started blocking people on Twitter and banning people and deleting comments on Facebook that related to it, she admitted. "It just wasn't about music anymore."

Diversity, she said, is something she passionately believes in. "Music embraces everybody and it should not divide. It embraces and it does not discriminate," she said. Personally, "I have been involved with the Teak Fellowship for over a decade. and have actively supported radio stations, orchestras, music festivals, and medical charities around the world."

"I am completely for any group, it does not matter what color you are, what gender, what sexual preference, as long as you are making music. That's what I'm in this world to do. I applaud any orchestra that is forming to bring music to under-represented groups. It should be an open playing field for everyone who has something to say and who passionately believes in playing music."

She said she wishes the Chineke! Orchestra well.

"I think, if anything, it's really made me aware of the critical nature of this issue, and I really am and will be a big advocate for the cause of promoting greater diversity in music. "

* * *

Should Meyers, from now on, stick to posting cartoons and pictures of cats on her social media sites? Should we all?

I think the answer is no, despite the great difficulty and unease that this incident has caused. Just as failure is inevitable in the pursuit of success, misunderstanding is inevitable on the path to true communication. I think we need to keep working toward communication and understanding.

The issue of diversity in classical music is indeed a critical one, worthy of everyone's consideration, whatever color any of us sees when looking in the mirror.

But the issue is more complex than simply opening the doors and stating that everyone with artistic merit is welcome. Though there may be less intentional exclusion of minorities in classical music than there used to be, there remains a serious lack of numbers of minorities in orchestras, in the spotlight, on boards, in music schools and in audiences.

"The issue of the lack of diversity in classical music is a complex one: because of the historical and current barriers and challenges in this area, the topic has the capacity to inspire passionate, at times, poignant conversation," said Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, President of the Sphinx Organization, which runs an annual competition for black and Latino string players, provides year-round education programs, issues grants and commissions and holds national meetings on diversity in the arts.

"The reality of the matter is such that our field continues to struggle with a dramatic lack of representation of blacks and Latinos," she said. "Truly, for our art form to not only survive but thrive, it must be enriched by the voices of and from the communities in which it resides and serves."

Black and minority musical organizations such as Sphinx and Chineke! are not formed to be exclusionary, they are more what I would call "expansionary." They are formed to provide additional opportunity where a lack of it has existed. Many black artists have told me that a major barrier in pursuing their art was a feeling that they didn't belong, for the simple reason, "I didn't see anyone who looked like me."

When it comes to Chineke!, founder Chi-chi Nwanoku told The Guardian that "my aim is to create a space where black musicians can walk on to the stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word."

Chineke! musicians
Musicians in the Chineke! Orchestra.

Nwanoku also said that America's Sphinx Organization inspired her, with its undeniable success over 20 years in expanding the number of black and Latino musicians who study at top-10 music schools, who teach classical music and who sit in American orchestras.

"We also now see (Sphinx) alumni beginning to think like entrepreneurs, launching their own community-based initiatives to further the notion of inclusion and giving back to the community," Dworkin said. "Before founding the Sphinx, it used to be rare to see an artist of color solo in front of a major orchestra, and now that happens more than 20 times a year, through our partnerships with orchestras. That's certainly making a big difference."

Expanded participation by minority musicians of excellence, wider options for programming, a force to engage a more diverse audience -- these are the kinds of stated aims embraced by groups such as the Sphinx Organization and Competition, the Gateways Music Festival, Soulful Symphony, Symphony of the New World, Harlem Symphony, The Harlem Chamber Players, Symphony Saint Paulia and more.

This kind of expansion is not going to hurt classical music or musicians. On the contrary, I see it leading to more jobs, more audience, more relevance, more voices advocating our art. Let's continue the conversation by engaging those whose experience is different than our own, whether less privileged or more, and by really listening to each other.

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The Search is Over

By Krista Moyer
August 20, 2015 08:10

In my first violin lesson, just over three years ago, I was crushed when my teacher said the full-sized violin I had borrowed from a friend was too big for me. He loaned me a ¾ instrument and fiberglass bow on which I spent my first year. At the end of the first year, my teacher was kind enough to source a much nicer old German instrument and a Pernambuco bow, which I purchased and have been playing since then.

That instrument has served me well over the past two years, but I was starting to have issues with it. I struggled with fifths on the G and D strings that were never in tune. The bow was so flexible; the hair pressed up against the stick if I used any weight at all, and spiccato was a nightmare. Higher positions were difficult because my arm felt cramped. And I just couldn’t manage double-stops on the A and E strings at all, even though I could on my el-cheapo campfire fiddle. Given all that, and the disappointment I felt when my instrument sounded so tinny next to my fellow adult students in ensemble, I began to wonder what else was out there.

Some casual exploration in the local area confirmed that a full size instrument was still not in the cards. It hurts to play one. So I began looking for a nicer ¾ instrument. However, there really is very little selection available locally. My teacher and my husband weren’t convinced that I needed a better instrument. Perhaps they felt my technique needed polishing and that would cure my issues. I kept looking anyway.

My work is the kind that requires that I take a certain number of days off in a row for audit purposes. A couple of weeks ago I found myself taking vacation to meet that requirement, but with no trip to go on because it had been unexpectedly canceled. Seizing the opportunity to do a quick road trip, I made an appointment to see some violins at a violin shop out of town that is known for having a wide selection. I let them know what I was looking for, what my issues were, a price range, and the type of music and venue I generally play in, and they agreed to assemble a likely selection of candidates for me to try.

Then I went to my lesson and confessed what I had planned. My teacher inquired as to where I was going and seemed OK with it so I mentioned that I couldn’t find anyone who had time off in the middle of the week to go with me. He had never been to that shop and was intrigued so he offered to come along. Yay!

Now I know how I am, and I was planning on an exploratory mission; but I know better than to do these things without a budget and sufficient funds to cover in the event that something really struck me. The trip was a lark, and neither my teacher, nor I expected that anything would come of it but the opportunity to play a bunch of violins for a few hours. But one never knows, right? I was prepared for almost anything.

Upon arrival at the shop, they set us up in a lovely showroom and brought out four instruments. We tried them out and kept two for further consideration - a ¾ and a 7/8. Every 20 minutes or so, the staff would remove the rejects and bring more violins. This one didn’t have a sympathetic ring on the A string. That one sounded beautiful under the ear, but scratchy from across the room. Another was too unfocused. After more than two hours and about 25 violins, we narrowed our favorites down to the first two we set aside. The ¾ had a buttery-smooth, clear, round and mellow sound, but it was a bit quiet and had some repairs. I worried that it wasn’t a big enough improvement over my existing violin. The 7/8 was more edgy than the other one – clear, focused, brilliant, warm, and resonant. It sounded identical under the ear as it did across the hall, and my teacher couldn’t seem to put it down. I debated whether the size would prove to be a problem after playing it for a while.

With the selection narrowed down to two, we turned our attention towards bows. There was a formidable selection in the room, and the staff continued to bring us more. Going through the same process as before, we found ourselves seriously considering three bows, one of which was twice the price of the other two. I really wanted to like one of the less expensive options, but the expensive one seemed to do anything we asked it to. Both of us ran it through everything we could throw at it, and it continued to beat out the other two. We couldn’t even make it crunch. However, we were sure the price would keep it out of contention.

Hesitantly, I asked the price on the two violins we were considering, knowing that the answer would be the final determining factor. Both were the same price, which was right in the middle of the budget I had set. It meant that I could easily afford the more expensive bow no matter what I picked. In the end, I purchased the 7/8 instrument with the big sound, the expensive bow and a new case since I didn’t own one big enough. I could have taken it out on trial, but I knew that this combination was the sound I had been searching for. Even my teacher agreed it was the right move.

My search is over for the moment. It’s far more violin than I need or deserve; but it makes me truly happy.

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Carpe Diem

By Kate Little
August 19, 2015 13:33

Playing in an an orchestra has been my goal since beginning violin studies. After 3-1/2 years, it is time to try. Monday evening I showed up at the season’s opening rehearsal of the Wasatch Community Symphony Orchestra. The oldest of many all-volunteer community orchestras in the Salt Lake valley, this one is self-selecting (i.e. no audition!) ( . . . which I could not handle): At WSO, if you feel capable of holding your own, you may join.

On advice from musician friends, I was nice, paid attention, and laid low. I chose a seat at the back of Violin II, and then 3 more newbies came in behind me. They all know how to play. After reading 2 simpler pieces (only 1 flat in the key-signature, mostly even quarter notes, slow tempo, no shifting) we played all the way through Beethoven's 5th. WOW! I didn't play any wrong notes. Mostly I didn't play. Mostly I just tried to keep track of the measures as they flew by.


OMG! So Many Notes!!!!! And doublestops! Aaaagh!

This symphony is beyond me. I know this. And yet – never in my life have I dreamt that I might partake in this great work of art. Opportunity has knocked. The possibility brings tears to my eyes. It will take an enormous amount of work to prepare, but I’ve got to try.

1 rehearsal down, 9 to go.


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The Week in Reviews, Op. 95: Christian Tetzlaff; Ray Chen; Simone Lamsma

By Laurie Niles
August 18, 2015 15:41

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Ray Chen performed the Mendelssohn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

  • Los Angeles Times: "Rather than glide his bow across the strings as if gravity could be defied, he conveyed the corporeal sense of pressure. It's a complex sound with a grainy texture that you can almost feel. Every phrase in the Mendelssohn was treated to fervent expression, although a fervent expression that never for a second appeared spontaneous. He's worked out every move."

Christian Tetzlaff
Christian Tetzlaff. ©Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi

Christian Tetzlaff performed Mendelssohn with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • Boston Musical Intelligencer: "Soloist Christian Tetzlaff displayed virtuosity through subtlety, both in his pianissimo playing (scarcely audible from the tenth row) and in his sensitivity to Nelsons’s well-shaped phrases and frequent use of rubato."
  • The Republican: "The German soloist also perfectly captured the flurry of notes and fast changes in tempo that come several times near the end of the first movement. The same goes for the slower, soulful second movement. As a light rain fell outside, Tetzlaff vividly brought this gorgeous movement to life."
  • Boston Globe: "You would think that fresh takes on such a warhorse would be hard to find — and they are. But Tetzlaff drew out new dimensions of this score through the twinned specificity and freedom of his phrasing, the daringly wide range of his dynamics, and the chamber music-like vision he brought to the finale."

Simone Lamsma performed the Tchaikovsky with the Cleveland Orchestra.

  • The Plain Dealer: "Decisive, meanwhile, doesn't even begin to describe violinist Simone Lamsma, soloist Saturday in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. She, frankly, went several steps further, offering one of the most aggressive, boundary-pushing accounts of the work this listener has heard in some time.">

Julian Rachlin performed the Sibelius with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "Rachlin’s challengingly introspective account, with the violin sometimes a still, small voice amid the swelling orchestral cosmos, came across as rather too calculated to be entirely persuasive."
  • The Telegraph: "In the Violin Concerto Julian Rachlin summoned an appropriately heroic ringing tone, but what started out as a promisingly original interpretation ended up seeming distractingly mannered."
  • Evening Standard: "In the Violin Concerto, Julian Rachlin was an unusually inward-looking soloist, his sound small but commanding."
  • The Arts Desk: "All that remained here was the beauty of tone, the majesty of double-stopping: impressive, but still not enough."

Nicola Benedetti performed the Glazunov with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "Nicola Benedetti made plenty of the big, burnished melodies in Glazunov’s syrupy Violin Concerto but was less at home in skittish passages. Her presence guaranteed the hall was full, but this didn’t seem quite the right concerto or the right night."
  • Edinburgh Guide: "Her interpretation, with its various moods and themes, was technically brilliant, particularly in the cadenza. The audience showed their appreciation and she graciously played the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as an encore."

Alina Ibragimova performed works by Vivaldi and Bach with Apollo’s Fire.

  • The Plain Dealer: "Wednesday night, she demonstrated her ability to shift from modern repertoire to 18th-century works with ease."
  • The Telegraph: "The 29-year-old has a large repertoire, but her temperament most perfectly fits that of a Baroque soloist: imaginatively involved with her subject but always on the edge of restraint. Producing a crystalline and finely tapered sound, she brought out the best of Vivaldi, a composer for whom technique itself was the primary mode of expressiveness."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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The Science of Scoring the Soundtrack for Howl-O-Scream

By Michelle Jones
August 18, 2015 14:53

It appears there simply are not enough words to express my sincerest gratitude to Robin Cowie. For those that don’t know the name, Robin is best known as the producer of The Blair Witch Project, but he is in international news again for his creation of this year’s Howl-O-Scream themed event, “Unearthed” at three Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks nationwide. He is a filmmaking genius (I can call him that, even though he’s quite down-to-earth and would never say that himself). He knows how to create and tell a story from start to finish, and still leave the audience wondering and wanting more. And he’s very selective with whom he works. Perhaps knowing all these terrific things about him is one of many reasons why I was surprised and completely honored that he asked me to be a part of this project. Thank you, Robin, for trusting me to create the mood and soundtrack for your vision.

Here’s how this happened (it is a long story, like everything in life):

Do you know how some people love Christmas so much that they want it year-round? It’s a happy time with children, lights, decorations, and oh, the music! No other season has more music dedicated to this one particular time of year.

For many others, people love Halloween in this same way, and for similar reasons. I definitely fall into this category. The costumes, the decorations, the candy, and the frights that delight! The music, though, has been mostly limited to loud, rumbling and intense sounds. Screams of horror and shrieks of high-pitched instruments pepper every haunted house, with no actual theme. We all hear the subwoofers rumble and the digital piercing tones. Only a handful of actual musical themes have become famous, and most are from horror movies and television.

One of my all-time favorite themes is from “The X-Files.” My husband, Jerry, created the AOL X-Files fan club the very night it aired on FOX in 1993. Through these first online connections, we were able to interact and later meet the creators, writers, producers, and actors from the show over the next 7 years. Those connections then led to opportunities of meeting and working with Shirley Walker (one of the very few female composers in the film and television industry), Mark Snow (X-Files composer), and other musicians/composers and their encouragement of me to be a studio musician. As fans of Science Fiction and scary movies, Jerry and I also were involved in costuming and the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers and Rebel Legion. At some point in the early 2000s, we were invited to a party of fellow 501st costumers and met the creators and producers from The Blair Witch Project. It was a casual meeting, but one that would create a connection many years later.

On April 15, 2014, I had the privilege of providing live entertainment for a private donor event for the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. This night changed my life in many ways, but that will have to be explained in another blog post. It was at this event where we were also reacquainted with Robin Cowie. As we chatted over the next few months, we recalled our first meeting so many years prior, and how all three of us enjoyed similar interests. We often discussed music and sounds, and their significant roles in film and television. But it was just in social discussions and fun times.

Perhaps this is why Robin contacted me in early February with this fabulous, but insane idea: Let’s create a soundtrack for a series of short films, ads and in-park and in-house music for Howl-O-Scream. Have I ever done anything like this before? Not to this level. Would I be interested? Absolutely, positively YES! I love Halloween, horror, good stories, and everything to do with the macabre. We share that passion, and how our eyes light up when discussing disgusting things and ideas. I get giddy with the anticipation and element of surprise, and perhaps that’s why I enjoy haunted houses and other “scary” things. I suppose Robin saw this excitement, and thought I would be a good fit for this project.

After signing all the proper non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), he sent me the entire story guide from start to finish. I devoured it immediately and read every page (all 166MB of the file). I instantly fell in love with the concept and with the lead character, Scarlett. That night, I fell asleep with visions of her in my head. The next morning, I awakened with a mathematical equation circling in my mind. I immediately wrote it down and realized I created it from the “casting cards” from the storyline. The numbers became the music. Frequencies, intervals, tri-tones, chords – all played a part. I even consulted with a psychic to confirm numbers associated with evil, death and the afterlife. I knew I wanted the piece in “A” minor (partially because of the cards: aces), and I wanted the perfect 440Hz tuning. Why so specific? That’s where my love of music history and the science of sound came to play.

In 2000, I was actually working with NASA’s education director to create an experiment for the shuttle and space station for their “teacher in space” program involving frequencies and pitches. Since learning of them in college, I was intently studying harmonographs and the images created by sound waves and combination of pitches. I knew which intervals created the most abstract and wildly intense images, and which intervals gave the most pleasing images. They match perfectly with what our minds interpret based on the mood of the music. I also was fascinated with the effect of such frequencies and intervals on living tissue. I researched and read most anything written on the subject, including the discussion about the Baroque “A” (432Hz) vs. today’s modern “A” (440Hz) and even the more pleasing “A” of today’s electronic instruments (442Hz). I chose the 440Hz “A” mainly because of the numbers and the proven studies of its harmful effects on living tissue. I chose the intervals based on previous research relating to their effects, too. There is science behind the reasoning of why we “feel” music on a deeper level.

Once the key, intervals, chords and pitches were established, it now came down to rhythm, phrasing and placement, as well as instrument choices. I took short video recordings of options and sent them to Robin. He said he liked it and thought I was on the right track. We discussed how it would be months before I had the actual films to view in order to sync the music, and so the ideas were shelved.

A few months went by, and I thought we were long forgotten. Then a call came out of the blue from Robin in April. Am I ready to write some creepy music? Yes! He sent me a rough-cut video. We discussed styles and options for the music, and talked about perhaps a carnival theme. I collaborated with our arranger, Paul Cuevas, and we created a fairly simple soundtrack for that video. Robin gave feedback that it wasn’t exactly what he wanted, and said that he would wait until the films were finished before sending again. He didn’t want to waste time any more than we did. In late May, he was true to his word and sent me four short films for scoring. We discussed a crazy “Planet of the Apes” feel, so Paul and I spent a few days creating a soundtrack and even recording with the band. The following Monday, I received the call. “How do I say this? I think you missed the mark. It just doesn’t fit what I expected.”

As hard as that was to hear, my mind immediately went into “what can I do to fix this” mode. We talked about how I cannot read minds, and how this is the first time we have worked together. We knew we had a deadline of 7 days to finish the project score completely, and I alone immediately went to work creating multiple options and bouncing them to him. Digital recordings of my compositions were flying via links to clouds. Emails and calls were going back and forth for the next several hours. Then came the words I so desperately needed to hear: “You’re on the right track!”

Whew! Okay. Now to finish the other options for the films. More links, emails, and calls. I called in the band for the next night to record it at our studio. Only the bassist and percussionist were available, so I recorded the string parts (except the cello), some percussion, and the piano/synthesizer parts. One thing I knew from the very beginning was that I wanted as many REAL instruments playing as possible with little to no digital sounds. I used the synth sounds as an added effect, not as a featured instrument. This is very different than most TV and films of today, unless they have sizable budgets for huge symphonic soundtracks. But I knew it was what I wanted, and Robin agreed. I created the scores to include all of the scientific and subliminal things discussed earlier in the process, and I even included the rhythms for Morse code for “SOS.” My thoughts were to engage the mind on the deeper level. I want the music to manipulate the listener’s emotions, even if they don’t know exactly why they feel that way.

Robin attended that recording session and we were able to make instant composition changes on the spot. As an experienced studio musician, I have been the hired person to follow the composer as he (it has usually been a guy) led the musicians while the film/video was playing on a giant screen in the studio. I have been the violinist who screeches on cue in a spot to create an effect on a soundtrack. I have been part of the overall violin section in lyrical sections on a score. But this was the first time I was the composer/leader. I was the one creating the cues and the music played. As I learned what Robin wanted, I did my best to create it for him through music and sound. Changes and revisions were constant until we gave him what he wanted. As a performer, my ego must be completely set aside as I try to bring the creator’s vision to life. It’s not my vision; it is his. It is my job to simply underscore his creation in the manner he wants.

Once the music was written to fit perfectly, we recorded all of the parts that night, except the cello. Yamilet came in the very next night to record her cello tracks. Then the pre-mix started with more links and emails and calls. We scheduled the mixing and mastering session two days later, and Robin again came to the studio. The videos had changed slightly, and we were able to adapt the recordings to match. We inlaid percussion effects we had recorded individually (gong hits, bowed cymbals, reverse cymbals, and other interesting sounds) to fit the action on the screen.

While preparing the recorded music and viewing the fourth and final short film, I started humming the theme while sitting on the floor. Robin said, “Can we record THAT?” I said, “What?” He said, “You singing that part.” Surprised, I said, “Okay. We can try it.” Jerry set up the vocal mics and I immediately recorded the theme in the harmonies on six tracks (different sounds and pitches) to create a layering effect without any digital manipulation, melodyne or autotune. When we played them all together for the first time, Robin physically shuddered and said “Creepy!” with a huge grin on his face. I said, “Are you saying my voice is creepy?” He said, “Yes!” I smiled, nodded, did the rock-on hand gestures and said, “Yeah!!!! Thank you!” And that’s how vocals were added to the fourth film.

Robin left that night with a final mix-down of all of the tracks for the films, commercials, and in-park and in-house music that he requested. While the huge files were transferred, we chatted about how much we both enjoyed the process and the music. He explained that he has never worked with a composer who actually wrote for real instruments as everything on his previous projects had been done digitally or was pre-recorded music from a library. He said how much he really enjoyed working with Jerry and me, and that he wanted to work with us again on future projects. Wow! I don’t think you could have given me a greater compliment. It was perhaps one of the nicest things I have ever heard or even hoped to hear.

The next two days, we learned a video had changed again slightly, so we were happy to adjust the music and sounds as needed and sent more files flying through the clouds. I even asked Robin if I could record one more song, not for a film, but an actual full-length version of the theme I wrote for the fourth film, “Scarlett’s Theme.” Since the client now owns that theme as part of the overall soundtrack, he said he would ask the client before I took the time to write it out and record it. I agreed.

Finally, the day of delivery. I received the call that night around 6pm that everything had been accepted; everything was wonderful. Robin even told me that the client said, “And the music was PERFECT!” Again, music to my ears. I breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction. Then more good news: I have the green light to do the full-length “Scarlett’s Theme” with Violectric and they will offer it as a digital download to their guests, as well as the entire soundtrack for all the films and in-park music. There will even be a ringtone of the tag ending. What?!?! This is fantastic! Yes!

Fortunately, the deadline for that item was a few weeks later. So I had time to write it out, have everyone in the band record their respective parts, and mix/master it for delivery.

Now, we were still under NDAs and could not tell anyone of the involvement until Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks went public with the announcement. It was difficult to keep this fabulous project under wraps for so long, especially when the first videos were live and we could hear our contributions. I wanted to shout: “I wrote that!” But I couldn’t. Until August 12. When Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks broke the news of everyone’s involvement at 10am, my phone and emails started blowing up at 10:02am. I guess I can talk about it now. After all, it’s already in the LA Times and on WorldNews.com.

I admit it – I cried. When one has been involved in so many projects that have ended up on the cutting room floor, full of empty promises, or never even made it to the finish line, this was a milestone. It became real and the whole world already knew it. It’s the sense of humility tied with the sense of accomplishment. Viewing the path of how it all came about reminds me that every day is a gift and an opportunity. Every person you meet is placed in your life for a reason. But you should never make that meeting as “how can I use them later?” Instead, take time to get to know them on a personal level. Make connections and share ideas. I never dreamed that a chance meeting at a costume party would one day turn into a shared experience of creating music to go along with someone’s ideas. I was simply enjoying that moment so many years ago, and enjoying the many recent moments, too.

Thank you, again, Robin Cowie and everyone involved, for inviting me to be on this journey with you. I loved every part of it, including the opportunity to challenge myself to create something and put it out there. That’s frightening in itself. Yet you and your team made it so worthwhile, and I am incredibly happy that I had the opportunity to work with such acclaimed industry professionals. Kudos to all, and I hope to have the opportunity to work with you again!

Video links are here:
Video links
Additional event information here:
HowlOScream

Press Releases:
LA Times LA Times
World News World News.com

Archive Link

10 Reasons to Take Up Violin as an Adult

By Kate Little
August 16, 2015 22:16

  • Get out of your rut and try something new.

  • Challenge yourself.

  • Defy convention.

  • Emulate your idols.

  • Meet new people.

  • Make new friends.

  • Develop a routine.

  • Escape technology.

  • Meditate.

  • Test your neuroplasticity.

  • Stave off dementia.

  • Make music.


    Comments (12) | Archive Link

  • The Power of a Secret

    By Laurie Niles
    August 14, 2015 19:58

    By now most people know the supremely frustrating story, of the Ames Stradivari (1734) violin, which was stolen from its longtime owner, Roman Totenberg, in 1980 and never returned to him in his 101-year lifetime.

    Totenberg -- pedagogue, performer and father of the well-known NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg -- had played that violin for 38 years, all over the world. As Nina said, "It was a crushing loss for my father. As he put it, he had lost his 'musical partner of 38 years.' And when he would ultimately buy a Guarneri violin from the same period as the Stradivarius, he'd have to rework the fingering of his entire repertoire for the new instrument. My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again. He died in 2012, but the Stradivarius lived on — somewhere."

    Ames Strad

    Turns out it was in the hands of the person they'd suspected all along, Philip Johnson, who had apparently stolen it from Totenberg's office and somehow eluded discovery for the rest of his much shorter lifetime, which ended in 2011 when he was 58. He had kept it in the basement of his home in Venice, Calif. Before he died, he gave it to his ex-wife, who by all accounts had no idea it was a Strad. While doing some spring cleaning this year, she finally decided to pry the case open with a screwdriver, she said. She still didn't think the violin was particularly valuable, until she took it to be appraised. She has said that she nearly fainted when appraiser Phillip Injeian told her it was a real Strad, likely a stolen one, and he'd need to call the FBI.

    The idea that Johnson was never discovered, even though the Totenbergs knew he'd done it, is shocking. And yet, Johnson did not live in a cave, nor did he keep the violin completely out of view. Johnson was known among his violin colleagues in Los Angeles, and a number of them have spoken to me about him. The media has emphasized that he was a mediocre violinist, but then again, most of us would be considered "mediocre" if you compare everyone to Joshua Bell. "He was a very good violinist," Los Angeles violinist Michael Ferril said of Johnson. Like everyone I've encountered, Ferril said he was stunned to learn about the theft, but then he started putting together memories and making sense of things that were once puzzling. For example, "He asked me one time how I would sell my Strad out of the country for cash. I thought that was odd," Ferril said.

    And about the violin? Johnson told various things to various people. He was eccentric enough that people didn't suspect anything so serious. After all, even if someone tells you straight up, "I have a Strad here," the first reaction is to dismiss the idea. Ferril said that Johnson told him that he'd once bought a Strad from a guy named Roman, but had sold it years before. Most knew that, while he often played on a cheap violin, he also had a "special violin" that he sometimes used for gigs.

    Las Vegas-based violinist, conductor and teacher Gregory Maldonado first met Johnson in 1985 and worked with him often over the years. He described Johnson as a violinist with good chops, but one who wasn't necessarily always able to blend with others musically or otherwise. But Johnson was a friend to Maldonado, who knew about the violin early on. "I saw the instrument and played it. I saw the label, but I didn't think it was a Strad," Maldonado said. "I thought it was a Vuillaume copy with a Strad label, and I never thought any further than that. It was a good instrument."

    Phil Johnson
    The Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra at the Redlands Bowl; August 1991. Violinist Phil Johnson is on the left; Gregory Maldonado is conducting.

    Another piece of the puzzle made more sense after learning of the theft: "He told me he had learned how to do his own repairs," Maldonado said. "He always had repair tools in his case, and he would talk about things like moving the soundpost." Had Johnson taken the instrument to a reputable luthier, he'd have risked being discovered.

    When using the "special violin," Johnson never lost sight of it. He would even pack up the violin and take it to the restroom during breaks. He also held it in a strange way, "he always tucked the violin way deep in his armpit, he held it close, so nobody could even bump it," Maldonado said.

    The psychology of all this boggles the mind. Imagine keeping a secret of that magnitude, for so long. It must have been stressful, the constant fear of discovery. And yet it was probably strangely thrilling. Here's this precious antique, beautiful to play and probably worth millions. So many people were looking for it, and he had it. He'd gotten away with it. Still, it's a crime. And stealing goes against pretty much any moral code. Did he try to justify it? Convince himself it was rightfully his? Did he feel guilty?

    This seems enough to give a person cancer of the soul. Many of his friends wonder if it actually did give him cancer.

    In 2011, Johnson had divorced, was growing thin, and was struggling financially. Normally health-conscious, he was clearly ill, and then it became even more clear: he was dying of pancreatic cancer.

    In his final weeks, Johnson enlisted his colleagues to record the Sibelius Violin Concerto with him. Many were friends who volunteered their time to this project for their very ill colleague. The two sessions went smoothly enough, Maldonado said, and Johnson, though weak, played well.

    In retrospect, Maldonado now strongly suspects that Johnson was playing the Strad in that final recording.

    Of course, there is something else that Johnson could have been doing with that Strad, as he faced death: Giving it back.

    "If it had been me -- well if it had been me, I probably wouldn't have taken it in the first place," Maldonado said. "But if it had been me, knowing I was going to die, I would have made amends. I would have confessed. I think it would have brought (the Totenberg) family some closure. People would have still been angry, but it would have make it easier for his family."

    The violin, of course, has outlived it all. It will be interesting to chart its future.

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