Tuesday
Feb112014

Hotchkiss Thoughts

 

I had the wonderful good fortune to be invited to spend a week at The Hotchkiss School as their guest Artist in Residence this semester, and -- let me tell you -- it was an experience I will not soon forget.

My time there was profoundly meaningful, primarily because of how immersive it was.  I was engaged on so many different levels of interaction, in mind, body and spirit. 

On an intellectual level, I got to share my passion for the plays of Eugene O'Neill, as I worked with students looking at both his lesser-known early experimental work, and his late, last plays. 

In an American Literature class, we read through the Prologue of the great god brown, that fascinating, unhinged yowl of an angry young man from O'Neill's early prime.  We talked about the use of masks on stage, about hyper realism and expressionism, and about the power of the imagination -- how some plays can, perhaps, really only be performed on a stage (as opposed to being adapted to film, for example, which we would look at in a subsequent Film Studies class in which we read a scene from Long Day's Journey Into Night, followed by a screening from the classic film adaptation by Sidney Lumet).

 

 

In a double session with two combined Humanities classes, students and I used Greil Marcus's text The Old, Weird America as a launching pad for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the subjects of violence in American music and culture (using recordings of songs by the banjo player/singer Dock Boggs and Bob Dylan as two examples); the changing role that music has played in our society in modern times; the merits (or otherwise) of contemporary recording techniques like Auto-tune; the value of authenticity;  and the similarities and discrepancies between old American murder ballads and contemporary Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap.

* * *

A hands-on workshop with students who are writing original music and/or honing their instrumental skills in the music department found us working on a full-band arrangement for one student's original song (utilizing piano, electric and acoustic guitars, upright bass, drums, saxophone and backup vocals), and then backing up another student singer as she led us through a soulful, jazzy arrangement of "Georgia on My Mind," complete with improvised solos from members of the student band. 

  * * *

 In several theater classes, and in another Humanities class that was engaged in making "Monument Projects," I talked with students about my Donner Party project "we are destroyed," discussing and showing examples of ways to interpret history, atypical ways to incorporate music and poetry into theater, and getting into the philosophy and idealism/hubris behind Westward Expansion in America.  Some of the kids read portions of my oratorio out loud in class (a thrill for me), and I played them some of the songs I wrote for the piece, like "Do What I Want" and "In Another Life."

I also had the opportunity to visit an acting class, where I talked about some of the craft and understanding of performance I've been able to glean as a working artist over the last decade and a half.

In two Musical Theater classes, students and I had lively discussions debating the merits of the contemporary musical theater form itself.  We had fun playing around with some of the songs that they knew or were working on as singers, as I accompanied them on guitar while they sang standards like "Fever" and "Crazy" -- some of them experimenting with vocal improvisation and tempo for the first time.

* * *

In a Documentary Film class, I shared my experience of what has gone into creating a documentary theater project about Connie Converse.  Here we talked about what elements are important in telling a nonfiction story, delved into what makes for a powerful narrative, and looked at similarities between Connie's mysterious story and Rodriguez from Searching For Sugar Man.

The poet and teacher Susan Kinsolving brought me in to her Creative Writing class to talk about the creative process, and what it means to be a working creative artist.  One of the students wanted to know whether my song Mary Ann was based on a real person, which led to a discussion about the power of imagination and how we can transmute specific real-life experiences into (hopefully) more universal art.

And I was fortunate enough to be able to be a fly on the wall for Mike Musillami's "Right Brain Logic" rehearsal, a massive ensemble of student instrumentalists working on one of Mike's original composition that employed changing meters and keys, and elements of conduction (conducted improvisation) that was really something to behold.  These are some advanced kids (and teachers)!

Finally, to cap it all off, my band came up from the city at the end of the week, and we gave a concert in Hotchkiss's beautiful Elfers Hall, for students, faculty and the general public. 

Photo by David Thompson

 

The show was a benefit for a local no-kill animal shelter, The Little Guild of St. Francis. Hearing my friend and sousaphone player Kenny Bentley in that hall hold forth on a song like "Pretty Polly" was quite an experience.

Photo by Carole Cohen

* * *

And if all this weren't enough, in between classes I got to play tennis matches with several of the varsity and junior varsity team members (in an ongoing game called "Crush The Artist in Residence"), took a hike out to the Hotchkiss Farm with faculty and students (where I was given an opportunity to swing an axe on the wood chopping block), and took my meals daily in the Hotchkiss Dining Hall, where much of the food is locally-sourced and organic, where there are vegetarian options a-plenty, and where compost is collected from finished plates and trays. This is a very hip institution, as far as sustainability and eco-awareness goes.

In fact, this is a very hip institution, period.  The community I felt there, and the warm embrace I was given by students, faculty and their families, made it difficult to leave.  The academics and creativity invigorated my mind.  The beautiful grounds, athletic facilities and sports engaged my body.  The sense of connection and mindfulness on display everywhere lifted my spirit.

Thank you, Hotchkiss. I'm deeply grateful for the experience.

 

 

Wednesday
Feb052014

A Valentine for Connie Converse

Have you ever just wanted to quit? Have you ever been so worn down by the unkind and the uncaring people in your particular sphere of work that you just decided that it wasn’t worth it any longer?  Have you ever reached a saturation point of disappointment and smashed hopes and dreams and fantasized about just giving up on the thing or things you’re most passionate about because you just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay the price required to keep those dreams alive any longer? Have you ever just had enough?

 

Connie Converse (1924-?) decided she’d had enough.  After spending the best years of her life trying to make it as a songwriter and composer in New York City, she quit.  She turned her back on the music managers and agents and record producers who rejected her, over and over and over again, over the course of her fifteen sum odd years living in Manhattan.  And she turned her back on her music -- the beautiful, haunting, ingenious, intensely personal music that she finally became convinced no one wanted to hear.

 

Connie spent the next portion of her life in Ann Arbor, Michigan working in academia, a time sadly devoid of almost any personal creative output. She made a mark for herself in the academic world, but she also sank into depression, alcoholism and mental illness.  In 1974, she left again, this time for good.  One day she simply drove away, leaving notes behind to friends and family that she needed to go and make a fresh start somewhere else. She’s never been heard from again.

 

Connie Converse’s music has since been discovered and embraced by legions of fans around the world. Recordings that she made while living in New York in her prime were released a few years ago on an album called “How Sad, How Lovely.” And now, an entirely different corpus of piano art songs have come to light, and have been recorded by the young artists Charlotte Mundy and Christopher Goddard. A new album --“Connie’s Piano Songs” -- will be released on Valentine’s Day, with a CD release show to follow on Feb. 17 in NYC.

 

The music industry people who told Connie Converse that no one would be interested in her songs are gone.  The record industry people who told her that her music wasn’t commercial enough are gone.  The producers and agents who condescended to her, the experts, they’re all gone. No one remembers them. No one cares who they were. They are forgotten.

 

Connie Converse’s music lives on, inspiring a new generation of listeners, revealing more and deeper shades of beauty and meaning as the years go by.  Her music will continue to live on, as long as there are people with open ears, open minds, and open hearts.

 

Come hear Connie’s Piano Songs live and breathe for the first time ever on February 17th at Le Poisson Rouge.  Come and celebrate the genius of this singular woman.

 

Tickets are here.

 


Thursday
Jan092014

Connie's Piano Songs

 

On Febrauary 14, 2014 the world will finally get to hear Connie Converse's art songs for voice and piano for the first time, a half-century after their completion.  The songs were left behind in manuscript form at the time of her disappearance in 1974, and never recorded until now.

Connie's Piano Songs features the recording debuts of soprano Charlotte Mundy and pianist Christopher Goddard. The world premiere concert/CD release show will take place on February 17, 2014 at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC. Tickets are on sale now.

Those of you who have followed the progress of "A Star Has Burnt My Eye," my music-theater-documentatry piece about Connie Converse, may be especially interested in learning more about this music.  I wrote a fairly extensive essay about her for the album's liner notes -- you can read it here.

It feels appropriate to release this new CD on Valentine's Day. Producing it was a labor of love for me. I hope you'll join me in celebrating, at long last, the release of this beautiful music.

 

Tuesday
Dec312013

A New Year

I didn't think about it unitl I thought about it, but 2013 was an extraordinary year for me and my music, if only for the number of different projects I had the opportunity to work on and present. 

Some highlights:

* My Biting Fish Brass Band toured Europe for the first time, playing to big crowds in Estonia and Finland. Here's a clip of our headlining gig on the Mainstage at Augustibluus Fest in Happsalu.

Onstage in Estonia * No Further Instructions was programmed at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Both concerts featured my 11-piece "Romanian Orchestra," and Mike Benanav reading from his book and showing his photos from our trip abroad.

 

The Orchestra after the Jewish Museum show

* "A Star Has Burnt My Eye," my music-theater-documentary piece about Connie Converse, continued its development, with workshop performances at the Rattlestick Theater and Joe's Pub in NYC. Director Sarah Hughes (Elevator Repair Service) has joined the team as Director of the project.

 

At Joe's Pub

* My Basement Tapes Project hit the road again this fall, presented by Mercyhurst Institute in Erie, PA.

Mazz, Bean, Me, Scott and Nathan, backstage in Erie

* I produced Connie's Piano Songs, the first-ever recordings of Connie Converse's art songs, featuring the recording debuts of soprano Charlotte Mundy and pianist Christopher Goddard (Release date: 2/14/14).

Connie Converse

* Peculiar Works Project in NYC commissioned me to compose a score for their multimedia theater piece MANNA-HATA, most of it performed in the show entirely acapella by the large cast in the gigantic, mostly-abandoned spaces inside the Penn Station Post Office.

* Howard Fishman Quartet was a recurring feature in Cynthia Von Buhler's Speakeasy Dollhouse in NYC.

HFQ

* And non project-specific, regular old Howard Fishman tour dates in 2013 included stops in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Upstate NY, New Orleans, Estonia, Latvia and, of course, NYC and Brooklyn.

 

 

I'm generally not one for gazing into the rearview mirror, but sometimes it can be useful to track progress and, more importantly, to express gratitude -- to the presenters who made these things happen; to my unbelievable circle of collaborators/musicians who help make my ideas manifest so beautifully; to you for showing up and showing interest in the various things I do; and to the universe for continuing to allow me opportunities to pursue and explore my various interests and passions.

Thank you. Looking forward to seeing you in 2014.

Photo by Carole Cohen

Thursday
Dec052013

Mazz Swift

Playing a festival in Bowling Green, Ohio. Photo by Bianca Garza

Violinist and vocalist Mazz Swift is one of the most dynamic, fearless, and fun musicians I've ever performed with.  We first met ten years ago, at the now-defunct MAKOR in NYC. In a story she frequently likes to tell, Mazz was already a fan of my music, having picked up a copy of my first album at the also now-defunct bookstore/cafe THE READ in Williamsburg. She came to my MAKOR show to hear the quartet, and introduced herself to me after the show, dropping a mention that she played violin. Little did she know that Russell Farhang had left the band fairly recently, and I was scrambling to try to fill his shoes with a series of fiddling fill-ins.  I asked Mazz for her number, and suggested we get together and play sometime.

It was a fortuitous meeting.  I subsequently went to hear her perform with her then-musical partner Brad Hammonds at a little Irish bar in Murray Hill, and was impressed by the energy and focus of her improvisations, and the clean, vibrant tone she coaxed from her instrument.  At a subsequent get-togther at her apartment in Hell's Kitchen, it took me all of five minutes to know that I could make music with this person.  Some people just feel music the same way, ot at least in individual ways that complement and bolster the other, and that was the case with Mazz and me.  I hired her for a gig, and we haven't looked back since. Here she is in a nice live clip of the band from a few years ago playing in Brooklyn:

Mazz is featured on a number of my albums, including LOOK AT ALL THIS! (where her backup vocals raise the roofbeams on "Best Is Yet To Come"), PERFORMS BOB DYLAN & THE BAND'S "BASEMENT TAPES" (which includes her gorgeous lead vocal on "I Shall Be Released"), THE WORLD WILL BE DIFFERENT (that's her furious, impassioned violin solo on "A Ghost"), and NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS (where she outdoes herself on second vocals on "Set Me Free" and leads the string quartet for almost all of the album).

Performing at BAM in Brooklyn, photo by Carole Cohen

Like most of the musicians who I'm lucky enough to have perform with me, Mazz is much more than a sideperson. She fronts a project of her own called MazzMuse, and is currently in the process of recording two new albums. You can read more about it here.

It's a thrill to make music with Mazz. I look forward to every gig that we do together, and I'm always inspired by the musical dialogue we engage in onstage. I love Mazz's passion, her humor, and her absolute presence when we're making music. Recently we played some duo shows together in New Orleans, which opened up some entirely new sonic possibilities and landscapes for us.  It's a pleasure and an honor to call Mazz a part of my musical family. Here's one more look at her incredible talent, from her performance at Joe's Pub in NYC performing my song "Good Times" better than I ever could: