Arguably I should have posted this earlier than I have, but someone may yet find this useful. It's a kind of survival guide to playing the piece, including various things I found that made life easier.
* Notation: If you're not much of a reader, that presents some difficulty, but it's not insurmountable. You're halfway there with your rhythm notation, so I have a suggestion for the pitch half of the equation.
As someone who's played guitar for many years, I tend to think of the guitar as being "in" E, since that's how the lowest and highest strings are usually tuned. As a tenor, though, my guitar was tuned to all B strings (octave unison), which I found to be disorienting during the 2004 sessions--I'd often have to double-check what fret I should be playing by looking at the fretboard, doing a quick recalculation in my head, and playing that note. The problem was, in certain sections there was no time for that, and looking away from the score led one to getting lost quickly.
So this time, I cheated my writing fret numbers for each note above or below the note head, depending on which set of strings the note is played on. (For the thinner strings/higher notes, write above the staff; for the thicker/lower, write below the staff.) To save time, i did this only for "new" notes--for the static sections requiring the same notes over and over, I didn't have to do that much writing. This was my sanity check, so I wouldn't have to keep translating from E to B, and I think it'll help you.
* Getting lost: This happens. Fortunately, if you're watching John conducting, he's doing the following:
1) keeping the beat with his left hand (as I recall). 1 is down, 2 is left, 3 is right--though I may have that reversed, and 4 is up. At the very least, you know where the 1 and the 4 are.
2) with his right hand, he's indicating which bar we're in during the current set of ten bars (this gets a bit tricky above five, but you can follow his system)
3) on any 9th bar, he holds his hands up to remind you that we're coming to a 10th bar
4) on many of these bar changes--5s, 9s, and 10s, he mouths the number of the new bar.
With all that going on, if you're not sure where you are, it's ok to stop playing for a bit, watch John, and look at your score. That way, you can see what's coming up, and get back into the piece at a predictable spot.
I also found that if I got lost, I could keep one eye on John and one on Reg, our section leader. In several sections, I knew what we were supposed to be doing in general, but not necessarily what we were doing right this moment, so keeping an eye on Reg was helpful--as Glenn's wife, she was obviously very involved in the preparation of the piece (according to Glenn, she did all or most of the copying), so I'd figured that she would know what to do. If you're not in Tenor 1, watching her does you no good, but watching your section leader can help. I was also lucky in that from my seat, when I watched John, I could see Reg quite clearly in my peripheral vision. Luck of the draw, but if you're in the front row, that's a benefit. (The problem with being in the front row is that the audience can see you looking at the other players.)
* Score management: Dealing with loose score pages is a nightmare. I was able to do this for the first version of the 13, but this version goes by way too fast for that. The first day was a real struggle, with all those loose sheets flying around. Some people came prepared, with their scores bound at Kinko's or somewhere, which made page turning easy. I ended up taping each movement together in a long sheet, and then folded each accordion-style. This worked fine, although I should have paginated differently--I forget how I was doing it, but my pagination had my page turns occurring one page before/after Reg's page turns, and that occasionally made me think I had lost my place when I hadn't. There's something reassuring about everyone turning pages at the same time.
Bring a pen or a pencil for in-the-moment notations or corrections. If they're still using Encore, they'll still be making corrections.
* Amp: Make sure you have a loud enough amp: 25 or 30 watt output at least, and two 10" or one 12" speaker, at least. A few people had little amps that had to be pushed into distortion in order to be heard, and they sounded awful. If you're using a tube amp and a guitar with older or weaker single-coil pickups, consider adding a preamp to your signal chain. In 2004, by the end, I was running my amp on 10. It didn't blow, happily, because takes were short then, but for a full performance, I'm sure the amp would have suffered. Knowing this, I brought a preamp this past time, and was able to keep my amp at 6 the whole time.
Other people's amps did blow fuses and tubes, so it's a good idea to have spares. I had a spare for each tube in my amp, though I would have been screwed if I'd have blown a fuse.
Guitar: Just make sure everything's stable. You don't want the output jack connections breaking in the middle of the show. Make sure that your double-strumming position is comfortable. If you find that you're continually cutting yourself or whacking your hand against something, the damage is going to accumulate during the rehearsals and performance. Some bridges are ideal for this kind of playing (like the wraparound LP Jr bridge on my old Kalamazoo), but some have a lot of exposed metal sticking up, which you'll have to watch out for, avoid, or put tape on or something.
How's your guitar's intonation? Does it play in tune all the way up the neck? If not, then I'd look into having it properly set up. One can do this oneself (I do). If you like the action of the guitar (proper string height, no buzzes, no dead spots) and the only problem is your intonation, you can adjust this at the bridge: see this link. If you have other issues, like action, neck bow, dead spots, etc., I'd take the guitar to a shop for a setup. The intonation would be different for the octave unison tuning, so you should mention the tuning to the shop. (If they're jerks and give you a hard time about the tuning, go elsewhere. They'd probably do a bad job anyway.)
Strings: I had good luck with GHS strings for these sessions. Very little breakage. Whatever strings you use, it helps to bring a bunch of them for your own use. The community string bag is a helpful fallback, but I found I broke those a lot more easily (Dean Markley). If you're breaking a lot of strings at the bridge or the nut, you might want to lightly take a slot file or nail file to the string slot there to even out burrs or other irregularities. There's a lot of back-and-forth motion for these strings over two/three days, which means the string rubbing over the same contact points again and again. If you're getting consistent breakage of one string in one place, a burr is most likely your problem. Also, when you're changing strings, it helps to draw back and forth through the nut groove with a pencil. That prevents string binding when you're tuning. Some people spend money on graphite nuts; you can get the same effect with a pencil.
I suggest having a complete fresh set to put on immediately after the last pre-show rehearsal. Go into the show with a fresh set of strings (even if there's life left in the ones you have on), and you probably won't break any during the show.
If you have a pocket electronic tuner, bring it. If not, someone around you will have one.
Picks: I used the Clayton .94 mm. Indestructible. As a comparison, I really ground down a conventional pick in the 2004 session: see this photo (Control unused pick on the left, with two post-Branca picks on the right. The middle one only lasted one six-minute take. The Clayton is at the far right--and it's the one I used consistently throughout the 2004 sessions.) Bring a lot of them.
Other necessities: Bring a couple power strips, and mark them as yours. I brought two, and immediately after plugging them in, everyone else around me plugged into them (happily, leaving me with the two slots I needed). I did get them back at the end, and I was glad I brought them. Bring a string winder and wire cutters for quick string changes. Bring an extra guitar cable or two. Any little screwdrivers or hex wrenches you usually use for adjustments to the guitar, bring 'em.
Gig bags are better than cases, unless your guitar is really fragile. I was able to fold my bag up under my chair, and thus had access to my spare strings and tools as I needed them, without having to go offstage for all that.
Food/comfort: If you're vegan, let the organization know before the first day--preferably as early as possible. I assume these days are being catered, or food's being brought somehow. The vegan food is always better than non-vegan, and so non-vegans seem to scarf up the vegan food before the vegans get to it, leaving the vegans with nothing. This was an issue in Montclair. But if you're vegan, get on the list so that they know how many meals to set aside.
I brought a stainless steel vacuum bottle for espresso--I'd buy a quadruple shot in the morning on the way in, put it in the bottle, and then have access to good coffee throughout the day. Good also if you're a tea drinker--it's good to leave a couple of bags of Throat Coat steeping for several hours if you're feeling a cold coming on. Keep a few of your preferred energy bar brand in your bag for that late-afternoon slump.
Conduct: In NJ, some people got a reputation for annoying others by noodling between takes ("Sunshine of Your Love," "Stairway to Heaven," etc....all of them *can* be played in Octave Unison, but should not be), or by not following John's instructions, notably on the very end of the piece, where we have to watch him for the signal to mute our strings on the last downbeat--no continued sustain or anything; we want a blast of absolute silence. During the last rehearsals on the second day, one guy consistently would not stop when John signalled us. Several times, over and over. "Oh, I guess I wasn't paying attention." Don't be that guy. Watch the conductor.
Practicing between rehearsals is fine, as long as you roll off all the volume on your guitar, or do what I did: since my guitar has two volume/tone controls (one pair for each pickup), I used the bridge pickup as my "live" channel on 10, and the neck pickup rolled off to 0 as my practice channel. At the end of a take, I'd flip the switch to the dead channel so that any practicing I did was acoustic. It's fine to practice sections of the score that are giving you trouble. I think that's generally appreciated, but noodling is not.
Oh, and do make an effort to follow the dynamic instructions. There's only p and f, but people really want to play this f all the way through. I think it'll be appreciated if you try to play p where marked.
Misc: Hearing protectors are essential, but you probably knew that.
As for knowing the parts, I would play through them as much as you can. If I had to suggest a private rehearsal regimen, I'd say try to play through one movement a night, which would give you two full playthroughs before the real rehearsals start. Do you have a metronome? It'd help. I'd try your first rehearsals at a slower tempo, and then start upping it. You won't feel very comfortable doing rehearsals on your own, but the time you spend now will pay off when you get to the group rehearsals and the show--things will begin to look familiar, and you'll encounter little oases where you know exactly what to do. Enjoy those sections, and don't worry about the ones that might give you trouble.
I did indeed have a good experience overall, though I did have a bit of a slump on the first day, so don't worry if you feel the same thing. (What am I doing here, this is too hard to play, I'm screwing up, etc.) If you do feel that way, definitely go back for the next day, and you'll likely feel a lot better by the end. It is an ultimately exhilarating experience, I think, and quite enriching.
In 2004, I took part in composer Glenn Branca's recording sessions for his Symphony No. 13, Hallucination City, which requires 100 electric guitars. It was a volunteer gig, a fair amount of work, and quite a blast. I was curious as to why it wasn't coming out, and in mid-2005, Glenn emailed us to say that the 2004 sessions weren't usable, so we'd be going at the piece again in early 2006 at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ.
I really like this piece, and was happy to see it through to its conclusion, so I set up a place to stay (with a friend and fellow player), and waited for the parts to come out, as Glenn was changing the structure of the piece.
A week or two ago, we started getting our parts--less lead time than the last one, and these parts were substantially different. It's more rhythmically complex, with new techniques (not double-strummed throughout, but with periods of individual downstrokes, or regular downstrokes), with shorter rhythmic notation (eighths, dotted eighths, and sixteenths, often tied across bar lines). It's really a different piece, and I regret to say that I prefer the earlier version for a few reasons: the earlier one was easier to play, had a much slower tempo, and was a great example of getting complex results from simple ingredients; there were some devices in the older one that I found to be very elegant, like a series of climbs up alternating wholetone scales, and a clustered call-and-response section. Perhaps this one will grow on me when I hear the recording (and hear the last movement), though.
I also was not been able to get enough rehearsal to feel really comfortable with my part--the greater complexity requires more time, and that's been difficult on the shorter lead time we've had. So I tried to mitigate that by retranscribing it into the notation program I usually use, so I can hear the piece (some of these sections are simple to play--they're just difficult to play at precisely the right time)...but that's a long process, too. So I'm showing up and doing my best.
I left late on the drive up (1:00, since I'd had to take care of a number of things, and at the last minute turned back to bring my power strips), and with a few stops arrived at Fred's place after 8. Very nice to be met at the destination--friendly folks, friendly dog (after my short probationary period), and some hang-out time before getting to sleep. Readers of my account of the Kaufman-Astoria sessions will note that this first night was much, much better than the last time.
As concerned about my readiness as I was, I still didn't get any practice time in before we left. There were, of course, things to do--send business-related emails, pack the car with both guitars and amps (everything fit in the Mini just fine), etc. Great weather, though Fred pointed out the oddness of seeing young mosquitos in the condensation on the Mini's roof. In February, I remind you. It was about a half hour to Montclair, not bad at all. Directions were clear, as well--where to go, where to park, etc. On the way up to the garage, I saw composer Lloyd Mair, one of the bassists, walking with one of the tenors. Great to see him in the group for this one.
We parked, schlepped the gear down to the stage, and found our places. Oddly, there didn't seem to be room for me, although it was just that my seat was going to be at the front, and on the edge of Tenor 2. All right, no problem. I was still in Reg's section, and would be sitting next to Marlowe Stern, a guitarist from the NY area. Ben Miller was back in Tenor 1, as well, and it was good to see him. I'm glad I remembered the power strips, because the nearest power breakout was over by Ben. I set myself up with some power, and a few minutes looked back to see the strips almost filled. Wow. I looked around and saw a few other familiar faces: Wharton Tiers, Joe Fogarazzo, and some other people whose names I didn't know.
Giving in to my feeling of unpreparedness, I practiced various sections, and got rather more uncomfortable, shuffling score sheets around, trying to count, etc. Unlike the last time, instead of having Glenn do the conducting, John Myers would be our conductor. For me this was fine, as he was very helpful last time, though I wondered what the audience might think. Would they expect to see Glenn conducting, and be disappointed? Ultimately John went around to everyone and asked for us to play a note, turn up, turn down, etc. I ended up diming the amp, which didn't seem good, going through three days of playing, and I was sure I'd be asked to turn up eventually, so I'd need to find a good time to put in the pre.
After a while, we were ready for a run-through, and I learned how clueless I was. The fingering was easy, but the timing was hard for me on the more syncopated parts (dotted eighths and sixteenths, ties across the bar, etc.). Once I got on the train, so to speak, I was ok on the dotted quarters, but once it got to the dotted eighths, I had about a 50% chance of hitting the note at the right time. Disheartening. Other parts of the movement weren't much better for me, and I found myself looking at Reg's hands quite frequently for cues. After this, I brought in the EH preamp, thanks to the power cord swapping help from my neighbor behind me in Tenor 2. With the preamp, I was able to bring down my master level considerably, and I ended up with better tone, too. Bonus.
We broke for lunch in the green room at the back of stage left, where I learned that in New Jersey, cheese is a vegetable. I chatted with Fred and Lloyd, among some others, meeting a few people, including photographer/musician Jodi as well as Matt from Bellini, who were playing Travis Beans. Once again, lots of good gear in the house--another Tenor 1 was playing a gorgeous black Hagstrom, and the gentleman on my right was playing an aluminum-neck Kramer. We decided that if he noted my attention drifting, he'd give me a whack with the Kramer's tuning fork head.
On the next run-through, Glenn determined that the front row was too loud, so we'd lay our amps on their backs. The result of this is that I can hear myself really well. It also means that my fellow players can hear me screw up quite clearly, which is potentially humiliating. But we moved on, rehearsing the first and second movements, while I learned just how far out of trim I was. One problem was that I didn't have a good page turning system. I had just loose sheets, and was taking advantage of the wide music stand to go three across to reduce page turns, but that introduced two problems: what to do with each page as it was discarded, and (if I didn't take care of that right away) remembering to do so. On at least one occasion, I started playing page 5 instead of page 8 because I'd forgotten to move the middle page. Clearly, I'd have to work something out. My first inclination was to have everything taped together accordion style, though I noticed Marlowe, my neighbor to the left, running into trouble with the whole long string of the score just flopping off the side of the stand. Something to think about.
Soon enough, we reached the dinner break. I'd initially thought we'd just stick to the green room for dinner, but instead the college set up a buffet in a private dining hall a short walk away. What little I've seen of the college is quite pleasant, and they have one heck of a view of the city from that 7th-floor dining hall. I sat with Lloyd, Joe (turns out he's doing quite a lot of live sound, engineering, and playing in bands; the dude's hard core), and some other folks. I talked some, though I tried to keep some head space for marking up my score with (I hoped) helpful notes indicating repetitions of larger patterns in the piece. These ultimately weren't helpful at all, and I should have spent time marking beats and fret reminders, since it's always a struggle not to think in terms of E, which I usually do.
So back down to the stage, where I now saw that to capture the Tenor 1 section, our engineer Liz had suspended a mic pretty much right above me. While I have complete faith in her engineering, I did wonder if it was a good idea to put the mic over the guy who sucks. We worked on the second and third movements, for which I was still rather lost. For the second movement, my problem was that the tempo is much faster, and that I'd not spent enough time with it. It's another wholetone climbing section, so the concept is clear, but there are a few brief backtracking sections, as well as alternations between double-strumming, single hits, and tremolo strumming--basically all our different techniques, as well as variations within each climb. I found it easy to get lost, as has been happening with these.
The third movement was also difficult, once again for knowing when to come in. It's a cluster section, so hitting the exact pitch isn't critical, but hitting it at the right time is critical--lots of rests between short blasts--and I didn't often do that in this run-through. At this point, I wasn't feeling too great about this piece, largely due to my poor performance. Still, a cursory glance at the fourth movement showed something fun, especially at the end, with an instruction to "detune" and another just saying "random." By this point, I realized that I was keeping my eyes open for long periods of time, and they were getting quite red, so I'd have to pick up some drops.
We broke up for the evening, and while Fred and I left our amps, we took our guitars and scores (and I also took the EH pre). We did stop to pick up the eye drops, so I'd have some relief. Back at his place, I checked email while he did family things; then we got a late bite to eat, and talked for a while. It also happened to be a significant birthday for me, so I called home and touched base with friends. Happily, there wasn't any big deal made about it, though it did feel odd to have a day of such sub-par performance mark the occasion.
Day 2: Dessert of Vengeance
I'd wanted to practice in the morning, but didn't get much time before having to head over, due to the twin necessities of marking up the score, and taping my score sheets together (which I did, though I didn't get to mark up the score all the way). We're falling into a routine--stop for espresso, put it in the vacuum bottle, go down to Montclair, get settled, do some practice. Same deal today, though there were changes. For one, my neighbor on the right got some new company in the person of a young man with an Eastwood copy of a Guyatone. (He said that with some setup tweaking, it was a really good guitar.) For another, I was staring to gain competence with this piece of music. I wasn't able to count the dotted eighth sections, but I was getting better at feeling them, and thus play them correctly.
And because I was now more comfortable with the piece (probably everyone else was, too), my performances are stronger. And now that we were playing it better, I liked it more. Run-throughs of the first three movements were more solid, and I was feeling that locking with everyone else. Still, there were mistakes--my concentrating too hard on one aspect of the score (say, a switch from the usual chords to full bars) and blowing another (wrong note).
In the break room, cheese was once again a vegetable. New signs were up--apparently the vegan selections looked much better than the non-, since they were all gone. Sadly, they were gone before the vegans could have any, so there were signs cautioning people to stay away from those selections if they weren't official vegans. I hung out with Ben during lunch, and he pointed out that the March rhythms were at times five over four, which he was counting, and he gave me some tips to that effect.
Afternoon practice was stronger, particularly the rhythms in March (the first movement) now. I'm not counting them as such, but I'm feeling them better, and I can get back on the train when I fall off. As a group, one of our problems has been managing the dynamics. While the previous version was something of a monolith, this one is more like ocean waves, with some parts swelling up and cresting over others, then receding and revealing them. There are only two dynamic levels here (p and f), but even that can be hard to manage for a large group of guitarists. And no, the old joke doesn't apply here. ("How do you get a guitar player to turn down? Put music in front of him.") So we needed to work on getting quiet for the quiet parts.
For one of these practices, John worked with us in sections--apparently Tenor 1 is the rhythm section for March, and we could hear our parts better in isolation. At either this point or close to it, Glenn decided that us 1s should play our non-double-strummed notes as f throughout this section, so they could be heard. Afterwards, while the Tenor 2s and Alto 2s were practicing, I went wandering around, and was stunned at how great even just a few players sounded from up in the balcony. If I were seeing this as an audience member, I'd want to be up there, and I hoped there was a stereo pair up there somewhere to record it. (Turns out not, but there is a pair above the conductor.)
At dinner I sat with with Fred, Lloyd, Joe, and other folks. Much of our conversation dealt with modern composers we'd been listening to, favorite Branca pieces, analyses of this piece. We'd have to be somewhat obsessed with this stuff to do this as volunteers, many of us coming in from way out of town (and some from the West Coast, even). Many different perspectives on this stuff. Lloyd is a fan of Branca's third, though of course Lloyd's own work sounds nothing like it. (One of Lloyd's pieces is just incredible--a Spanish church organ section with field recordings. Really gorgeous stuff.)
Back on stage, we did more rehearsals, working on the dynamics more, and finally getting into the last movement, which did in fact involve detuning on a long double-strummed open chord (hard to keep this as p; we keep wanting to open up), followed by several specific rhythmic patterns, and finally random playing--play anywhere on the neck, or not at all (though "No 'Louie Louie'," as Glenn and John pointed out). It sounds quite...well, it's hard to say what it sounds like. I can hear myself, and hear everyone else, though all that microtonal blending sounds like white noise, but also not. And I quite clearly sense that I'm missing a lot of it with hearing protection in, but if I took the plugs out, I'd miss a lot of it due to eardrum rattling. (Glenn says, "I've done this before, and it always sounds the same." He also mentioned that it was "great" and that he'd thought of working on a full-length piece of the detuned stuff, which could be interesting, if he did it. Or it would have to be interesting, in that it would be easy to do it badly, and making it a good, rigorous piece would require a smart structure.) So with all this microtonal stuff blasting for fifteen seconds, we watch John, and on his signal, we mute the strings instead of letting the piece ring out. Unfortunately, someone keeps not muting his strings, though. Several times. I'm really wondering what's up with that--if it's more "band-practice" mind, or something else. We never did get it right before it was time to end for the evening.
Once again, we had a late night of conversation, though this time I had a lot more energy, pumped up from the feeling of getting more competent with this piece.
Next, day 3: performance
After last night's late conversation, I was up early, again. I checked mail, ate breakfast, and did a bit of marking up of the the score, though I'd thought I'd take some time to update my notes, and possibly even post some of this. (No dice.) Fred had errands, so he left early on his own, and the rest of the family had Saturday commitments, apart from Fred's eldest, with whom I ended up talking film for a while--he has quite an advanced engagement in cinema, and it was interesting to hear his take on various films, many of them outside the usual teenage scope. So I didn't get around to doing any blog posting, but no matter.
I got ready and headed into town for the usual coffee. I'd also wanted to stock up on some provisions for the session and the trip back, so thanks to Fred's wife, I had directions to Trader Joe's, where they had some natural energy bars to keep me going. Meanwhile, I called Steve and Ami back home to touch base, though there wasn't enough time or cell phone battery life to do a full update other than tell them how positive I was feeling about this piece now.
My directions to the GSP were good, and I headed in the right direction, but I turned off one exit too soon and called Fred, who reassured me that I could get there anyway via this route. A few 180s later, yeah, I came out somewhere that looked familiar. In fact, I pulled into the garage right behind Fred, so we had coordinated timing again. I'd been concerned about being late, but the 1:00 start time actually was lunch, so I wasn't keeping anyone waiting.
Cheese was still a vegetable, but that was ok. I did finally see some vegan lunches, and man, they did look good, which explains why they were pilfered on the other days. Turns out, vegans had given up on being fed, and just preemptively made their own arrangements. I did chat a bit with one of the Tenor 5s from last time (sadly, his name escapes me; nice guy, recently moved to New Mexico), speculating about the reasons the last sessions never came out. I had to leave the conversation, though, as I had to get back to rehearsing--I'd wanted to concentrate on the third and fourth movement, but also refresh on the second if I could.
I kept marking up my scores, realizing now that my plan of early yesterday (count the number of bars in each new playing pattern) was largely unhelpful. More useful was to write fret reminders, so I wouldn't get confused with the B root of the strings, also to write rhythmic notations (too late for that, really; it'd been better if I'd have done it earlier), and just plain play through the piece. Since my pattern-counting notations often conflicted with the fret reminders, I ended up doing a lot of scratching out. I wasn't being too quick on the uptake here, though I did get a chance to play at least some of these sections.
John came out to have us rehearse the last movement and its end a bit more, as well as when/how to stand at the end, when presumably we'd be basking in the audience's applause. I notched my strap up a bit more, all the way to the top, in fact, silly though it might look--the goal here was to avoid banging the guitar into the music stand, and also to keep it high enough to make the double-strumming easier.
Rehearsals of the end seemed to go a bit smoother this time, and then it was back into rehearsing parts of the other movements. At this point, my memory becomes rather fuzzy (we're a week out from the experience as I write this), but there were several breaks as people swapped out blown amps, or amp fuses. There was an additional delay in dealing with one of the tenors behind me, whose tiny amp went into overdrive pretty quickly, and in fact was just plain distorting. Nice amp, but the distortion stood out to me against the loud, clean background of the rest of the ensemble. John felt it was extra texture, though, and wasn't too worried about it, and in any case there was little that could be done if that was the player's only amp.
Around this time, the paths in and out of the theater were locked down, or at least changed somewhat, as Glenn expressed some consternation that he wouldn't be able to go right out of his dressing room and onto the stage, as he'd done throughout the sessions so far. Instead, he'd have to wind around backstage a bit, apparently, for reasons that weren't made clear by the staff.
After these interruptions, John asked us to play through the piece, front to back, as a dress rehearsal for the performance. With no audience to distract us, and having played through the sections as many times as we did, the energy seemed really good. I was better focused than I'd been other times during the week, and everyone seemed similarly on top of their parts. Things felt really good here, and the piece seemed glorious in this realization--indeed, waves of other sections cresting over ours, the syncopation of the 1s holding a rhythmic tension, the fast climbs of the second movment, the resonating dissonances of the third, the chaos and blast of silence at the end of the fourth. And finally, after all this time, I was hearing the re-emergence of different themes throughout the piece. This piece is really quite something.
After the full rehearsal, there was a break while photographer Paula Court took some promo pictures (posing him against the little distorting amp!), and some other players held up their guitars behind him. While this went on, I decided I'd restring entirely, to minimize the chance of breakage during the show. Once I'd done this and tuned up again, I heard Paula asking for a third guitar, so I figured I might as well step in and get the Kalamazoo into some shots. While it seemed pretty clear that she was just focused on Glenn (these were his promo shots, after all), there were a bunch of other photographers getting these shots as well. It was weirdly like being at a press conference or something. In a lot of them, I'm looking down at Glenn--not my best angle, but I didn't want to whack him in the head or anything, especially with the notably heavy Kalamazoo. Turns out, a lot of these non-official shots are pretty good, and the ones taken by my fellow Tenor 1 Marlowe Stern are very good. Check out the photo section.
After the photo op, Paula showed us the shots she'd been getting, and she mentioned that she'd tried to get at least one of each player, but that she'd not gotten around to a few of us, me included. So as a quid pro quo for my holding the prop, she took a number of shots of me, which should be pretty good. (And she did the same for the other propmeisters.) Later I learned just how many portraits of influential musicians she's taken over the years--interesting company to be in.
Yesterday, someone had asked about a dress code for the show, and John said he'd been told "no bad shoes, and not too much makeup." We weren't sure what constituted "bad" in this case (clown shoes? pointy elf shoes?), but I did think that I'd want to change out of the older sweater I'd been wearing that day, so I put on the perhaps inevitable black turtleneck, which would have the advantage of not being distractingly garish.
At dinner we walked in the light but cold rain to the dining hall, presented with more purely veggie options, and a vegan spin on an eggplant and pasta dish. Not bad at all. I sat again with Fred and some other tenors, and conversation tended toward cultural things outside the ensembler--the Southwest, Burning Man--though we soon came back to people's plans for the March show in LA. (West Coasters will make it, probably; many of the rest of us are uncertain.) Fred and I briefly got a chance to talk to Glenn for a moment to talk about how much we liked playing the piece, though he was carrying his plate and looking for a place to sit, so we didn't want to detain him.
Back at the theater, I was surprised to see a lot of people milling about in the lobby. I shouldn't have been--I'd been told that we sold out the space--but it still surprised me. I couldn't go in via the usual stage door (there was that backstage traffic pattern issue again), but wound around a bit and came out at a door in the back of stage right that I'd never noticed before. We'd been asked to leave all our coats, cases, and bags off stage left, but I was hesitant, having the laptop in there. It was also a good idea to have extra strings nearby, which meant that I should have my winder and pliers with me, so I figured I'd just fold up the gig bag and put it in front of my messenger bag, and slip the coat in there somewhere. It all fit fine under the chair anyway.
I tuned up again to counteract new string slippage (which made me happy I'd changed them before dinner), and did some more last-minute practicing on the quiet channel. It was hard not to feel jittery, though, so I took some photos, noted that my neighbor in Tenor 2 had some water, so I briefly went to get my own, and then settled back into more practicing. I scanned the audience from time to time for familiar faces, and did spot Fred's wife and son, but no other familiar people.
Finally the house lights went down and John came out to general applause. He cued us for silence, and after what seemed like a long count, got us started. The first movement seemed oddly slow to me here, and I found myself getting lost more than the last run-through. At this point I was familiar enough to follow the score, but in concentrating on matching the slower tempo and not getting rhythmically lost, I found that a couple times I had missed a chord change and was--yikes--playing the wrong chord. On one of these occasions, I'd been struck by how beautiful this particular section of the first movement was, with the interaction between Tenors 1 and 2, both harmonically and rhythmically. Then I noticed that I was on the wrong note, and not expressing the tritone this movment's concerned with. Great. It was covered by other Tenor 1s, of course, but I was a real outlier there for a while. Overall, though, the first movement's really striking, with those cresting and breaking waves of sound from the basses, baritones, and higher-numbered sections. The beginning and ending of the movement were very pleasing as well, with the rumble starting from the basses at the back, and then the sound gradually receding back to them at the end. It was also, apparently, quite loud out there in the audience, as I noticed two women in the front row who were holding their ears from the first few notes (I'd heard that the college was supplying hearing protection, but that must have been a rumor and not real information), and they were gone after the movement was over. "Sonic terror in music hall" all over again. Everyone else applauded, though.
The second movement was something we'd nailed well in rehearsal, though somehow this time I found myself off the train rather quickly. Since it's mostly wholetone climbs, it's easy to get back on, but it's not always certain which climb one's in, so I kept looking from the score to John and Reg, trying to verify that I was on the right climb, but at 144, this movement is passing by rather quickly, and I did miss a page turn or two (and caught myself fairly quickly...but then the climb was largely the same in shape each time, so the damage was minimal). Very frantic, and I found myself feeling a bit sweaty under the stage lights. Again, applause (for the music).
The third movement, all clusters, was even faster at 152, with a lot more rhythmic interaction. For us it was a lot of rests, starting playing at various offsets from the bar line, and only briefly. Sometimes we were double-strumming, but mostly doing measured, steady tremolo for these brief notes. The result, especially on the low strings, was a stunning wobbling gong sound, really incredibly powerful. I wonder now if there was a matching set of notes going on with the baritones and a few other sections, because this astonishing sound would just emerge from our picking. Our notation instructed us to clip notes rather than letting them sustain, but from the sound of things, I don't think many people were remembering that instruction. Still, I'm inclined to say that I prefer how it ended up. While I often found myself lost in this section, I was mainly only 10% lost, and it seemed fairly easy to get back on, and play at the right time, though I did find it difficult to stay on top of the climbs at the end of the movement. Still, as it was all clusters, it'd be hard to pick out my inappropriate notes here or there. And we ended on a fermata, which allowed everyone a chance to get caught up. People were applauding consistently at the ends of these movements, which was encouraging.
The fourth movement was again our reward for making it through the difficulties of the rest of the piece, and at this point I don't remember much about playing the first couple parts of it. The first part's a satisfying set of drones (in which we have to be careful to start p), and the second part's another set of complex climbs. I do remember powering into the satisfying third part of the movement, which is another set of the sonar pings before another set of tricky climbs...and then the detuned section. I think everyone was so relieved to get to this section that we really powered into it, and John had to hold us at the fermata to bring us back down to p. Looking over the score now, I don't see where it goes to forte after that (a double-time section anyway), but go to forte we sure did, powering into the rhythmic sections and the last sonar pings before the total chaos of the random section. Happily, we clipped it fairly clean at the end, though there was a slight buzz from somewhere back in the tenors. And again, applause--a standing ovation, actually.
John invited us to stand, shook Reg's hand, and we waited for Glenn to come out. And waited. And waited. Did we do that badly, or what? Wharton started hitting the bass drum, and a few guitar players (myself included) started rhythmically whacking on our now out-of-tune guitars, and this little jam itself was quite nice--kind of like "Structure" from The Ascension. Eventually Glenn did appear, took a bow, and walked back off. Those of us in the ensemble saw plenty of Glenn during this whole process (even if we didn't all interact with him much; hey, he was busy and so were we), but I wondered how the audience felt about the brief glimpse. The event was about the music and not the composer's appearance, but I was still curious what the audience made of that.
The audience filed out, and the rest of us had to break our things down quickly so the crew could strike the stage. I quickly unplugged various amps so I could get my power strips back, and got things packed up a bit more slowly than I would have liked. Supposedly there was a lockup room for guitars, though I wasn't sure where it was (green room? elsewhere?) and didn't want to risk losing my guitar behind a locked door somewhere. I consolidated bags and coat down so that I could just have the laptop on me, and trusted that with all this security and crew around, nothing would happen to the guitar or amp at stage left. Other people were doing the same, though still others were loading out to their cars. (I was reluctant to leave gear visible in the car if I was going to be hanging out at the reception for a while.)
Having figured all that out, I joined the rest of the ensemble in the lobby, where I got a chance to meet Lloyd's wife and chat with them for a few minutes before circulating. It seemed that the reception was already out of red wine and much of the food, so I made do with white (red later appeared, though, so I got a chance to have some, and it wasn't bad). Marlowe introduced me to some friends who'd attended (nice folks), and I touched base with Fred and family. (His son's reaction: "It was different." I suspect he didn't have the background context to know what to make of it.) Since audients weren't really likely to pick me out as someone to talk to ("Hey, isn't that the guy who fucked up in the first movement?"), I sought out other ensemble members to greet. Ellen Watkins and I talked briefly about the piece, and her perspective was interesting, having toured the 6 and been with the ensemble since. Some of the points she made are sending me back to the 8 and 10, of which I've generally only liked the second movement of the 10, but I'm willing to give the other movements a fresh listen, as it's been a while. (For me, the second movement of the 10 is a stunner, and one of my favorite pieces, but the other selections on that disc are a bit too, well, Wagnerian for me.)
Some other players discussed the possibility of leveraging this event into sexual capital, but I think they may have been a bit overly optimistic about the social cachet of being in the ensemble. Not an issue for me, having a family to go home to, but I found it charming to observe others' pursuits.
I did chat briefly with some other regulars, Reg, Libby, Wharton, and I listened in on Glenn's conversation with John, jumping in to greet at what seemed like a reasonable moment. Much to my surprise, it seems the earlier version of this piece isn't dead after all, and may yet re-emerge one of these days. "The way to do it," Glenn said, "is to do both on the same night." Now that would be a commitment. Still, given the chance to play that earlier version again, I'd probably go for it.
Eventually the crowd thinned, and I chatted with a few folks on the way out to the garage. All the rain left the air rather picturesquely foggy, and the trip back to Fred's place was an appropriate ramping down after the peak of the performance. Fred and I debriefed a bit more in another late night conversation before turning in. Unfortunately, a late-night phone call signalled a not-unexpected family emergency, and my sympathies are with my hosts.
The next morning, I got some breakfast, hung out, entertained the kids a bit before getting on the road in the early afternoon. Trip companions this time were Boards of Canada, the Tod Dockstadter/David Lee Myers collaborations (very nice!), and GBV. By the time night fell over the Pennsylvania turnpike, the snow was heavy, and I ran out of wiper fluid by Somerset. Stopping here reminded me to turn on the radio to catch parts of the Superbowl, and by halftime I was home to Patricia and the Boy, getting a bit of dinner and catching the last half of the game, once again (slightly oddly) back in the civilian world.
I've been listening to composer Glenn Branca's work for very nearly 20 years, ever since reading a bit about his multi-guitar ensembles in Musician magazine and subsequently tracking down The Ascension. I'm on his mailing list, so when the call went out for volunteer guitarists to help him record his 13th symphony (for 80 guitarists, 20 bassists, and a drummer), I had to do it. The scores went out in the mail shortly thereafter, and I found that I was assigned to the Tenor 1 section, and consequently had to restring my guitar to all B strings.
From the player's point of view, the 13 is not a terribly complicated piece--nothing shorter than a quarter note--but there were sections that presented some challenges, like the ones that had the same three or four notes over and over in different combinations, where it was easy to get lost. On top of this, I was working on several paying projects, but I put in as much rehearsal time as I could, in advance of the October 9 and 10 recording dates.
This would be over Columbus Day weekend, so many of the hotels in town were completely booked, or overwhelmingly expensive. Several different options for couch surfing didn't work out, or were complicated for several reasons, so I thought I lucked out with an inexpensive room in New Jersey. I had a pleasant drive up on the 8th, but at the end of it was crawling through decrepit, industrial Jersey to arrive at the worst hotel room I've ever been in: the Howard Johnson Express in North Bergen. The problems began with an overall uncleanliness--the carpet was filthy, the corners of the room were dusty, a couple lampshades had visible burn marks. While the door had a deadbolt, the upper security bar (which takes the place of the old chain-style security) was missing. A strange, stale smell filled the room. I was getting a good rate, and I had no other options for the night, though, so I thought I'd stay. I dialed in, checked email, and called Patricia.
Checking the email told me that I'd have a fair amount of work to catch up on this evening, which would end up absorbing my time until midnight. I'd hoped for some nearby place to get dinner, but the place's position in a kind of industrial park along a divided service road meant that there weren't many options. Even if I went driving in search of something, the divided road would make it difficult to get back, and I didn't feel like finding out what this neighborhood had to offer. I decided to get through the evening and get breakfast the next morning near the studio.
It's well known that the bedspreads in hotels are not washed as often as sheets, and neither are the blankets. I understand this; that's why I folded down the bedspread. I didn't expect, however, the archipelago of dried semen stains on the blanket. My experience went downhill from there. Turning on the TV to watch the Presidential debates on CNN, I heard tinkly new age piano music. PBS? Nope--the previous occupant (presumably the owner of the DNA sample) had left the TV on the (apparently new age) porn channel. Fortunately, CNN was only a click away.
Later I got a close look at the pillows on the bed, which boasted a number of stains and an array of human hair. I did not see any lice or nits, thankfully, but I put a shirt over the pillow to avoid coming into direct contact with it. I slept in my clothes.
Sleeping through the night proved to be an impossibility. My immediate neighbors ran the tub for long times--I could fall asleep to this--and then abruptly shut off the water, waking me up. Minutes later, they'd begin again. This pattern kept up until 3 am. Cars would appear in the parking lot, pull up along side each other for long periods of time, idling. Maybe this was a pattern of drug dealing, or maybe they were comparing notes on the problems in their rooms. A couple times I thought I'd jump online again and check for some other accommodation options, but I was now no longer able to make outside calls. I hadn't seen anything about local calls being limited, but this fit the pattern of unpleasantness.
I'd decided by morning to leave, and got a shower. Of all the bath towels, not one was free from pubic hair, so I used the hand towel. I checked out, listed my complaints, and I was refunded for the two nights I wouldn't be using. While I was at the front desk, another guest came up, saying that he wanted to complain about his room, which was moldy, and he'd like another one. I told him to make sure they didn't switch him into room 35. I'd take my chances with friends or ensemble members--hey, there'd be a hundred of them--and I got on the road, following MapQuest directions to the Lincoln Tunnel. I was happy to get out of New Jersey, and it was nice to be back in Manhattan, if even for a brief crosstown drive to the Queens/Long Island Expressway Tunnel.
Coming out of the tunnel, I missed my exit, and went jamming along the LIE until I realized that the street numbers were getting way too high. I turned around, going back to 278, which I got on going west instead of east, so I quickly corrected that--now I was making progress. I got off at Northern Avenue, went several blocks looking for a clue to where the studio might be, took a guess and picked well--there was the sign for the studio complex's movie theatre.
The session would be at Kaufman Astoria studios in Astoria, Queens, which does a lot of film and television work, as well as recording. There's a lot of history here--Marx Brothers comedies were shot here, as were Rudolf Valentino films. More recently, it's been home to Sesame Street. It turns out to be a huge, multi-building institution, with the main office near the American Museum of the Moving Image, appropriately. I parked right across the street from the studio entrance, and the guard directed me to the diner at the end of the block, CUP, which turned out to be quite nice--decent espresso, real(!) fresh-squeezed orange juice, and an array of good-sounding entrees. I ordered French toast, and studied my score.
By 10, more people carrying guitar cases and amps showed up on the street, and we started down to the basement studio, past the mailboxes in the basement, past the Lifetime technical headquarters, past restrooms and service entrances for the kitchen. Only a few others were there--the engineer, a couple other musicians. Two of the basses arrived, one of them a gentleman in his late 40s who had played the 2001 show. He was toting a gorgeous stripped-down '68 Telecaster bass, and it was obvious that this event would be a grand opportunity to check out people's gear. There were plenty of modern day Strats and Teles, but there were notable deviations, too, like a Hagstrom II, an Ovation Magnum bass, a Fender Bass VI, and some others. But the Telecaster bass was definitely a fine instrument.
In the tracking room itself, the hundred chairs, fewer music stands, and the drums were already set up. We were asked, though, to remain in the hallway, because the layout of the various sections hadn't yet been fully assigned. Glenn and his wife Reg Bloor appeared, bringing the master score and a wheel of brie. We were able to bring our gear into the tracking room, so I found my place in Tenor 1, right at the front. Reg would be our section leader. Whoa. She was playing a rather nifty 60s-era Teisco in perfect condition, apparently purchased for $60, something that's always good to see.
Reg told us about last year's European tour, when Glenn's quartet with her and two others had been shut down by German police. "They always put us in art spaces." In this case, they were to play in an old church...which had no windows. As in, just holes, with plastic over them, which failed to keep the sound confined, and soon the neighbors complained. They'd had a number of engagements cancelled on that tour, although they still got paid.
More people arrived, most of them from around NY, but there were a number of us from out of town--some people down from Boston, one up from DC, another Tenor 1 from Houston, one from Minnesota, one from San Francisco. I knew from one of the correction emails that another tenor had come up from Pittsburgh for this, and it turned out that he was sitting right behind me--his name's Taichi Nakatani, and he'll actually be participating in the C&I show in November. Seated next to him, though, was the one who had us all beat: he'd flown in from England, just for this.
I couldn't help but note the sheer density of the Converse hi-top population, myself included. But there was some demographic variety along the race, sex, and age axes. It also struck me as a very large collection of introverts. People were friendly, but generally people stuck to small groups they seemed to know.
We did some tuning up, checking our gear, some low-volume rehearsal, and some milling about. Runners showed up with bags of baguette, going out again and returning later with soft drinks. (Oddly, they'd gone all the way up to Inwood for these, so I wonder if there was more to the story than at first appeared.) Longtime Branca and Sonic Youth cohort Wharton Tiers would be the drummer on the piece. I spotted Battles' Tyondi Braxton on the other side of the room. Our seats began to fill up, and it was announced that guitar cases would go out in the hall--while the tracking room was of a decent size (40 x 60), there just wasn't room for people, amps, and cases. (I had a gig bag and my messenger bag, which I slid under my chair.) Amps were placed directly behind each player; mine would be playing into the back of my jacket for much of the time. I thought about putting up the top boost on my amp, but was afraid of damaging Taichi's hearing. (Fortunately, he had hearing protection.) There weren't enough music stands to go around, so I'd be sharing with the player next to me--Ben Miller, formerly of Destroy All Monsters. Wow.
Glenn, various runners, the engineer, and producer Weasel Walter were in and out of the room, checking on various things, and ultimately Glenn decided that he'd just want to work with the basses first, getting their levels, so we tenors and altos stepped outside. While we were filtering out for this break, one of the other tenors came up and asked for me; he was a member of a mailing list I'm on, and I'd set him up with the gig. We went out to the lounge and chatted a bit, grabbed some bread and brie, and swapped music education stories. Again, a very nice guy and a good player--plenty of these here, and I felt as though I'd conned my way into it or something.
Soft drinks were in the house, but no bottled water yet. Most people stood around and ate, went out for smoke breaks, got on their cell phones, met each other, and I made an effort to start networking, in hopes that I'd find a place to stay for the night. I placed calls to New York friends, some back to Pittsburgh with people who had friends with places to stay, with the thought that if I got enough people working on this in parallel, something would come up.
I noticed one woman from the alto section using a PowerBook in the hallway, and asked if she was getting a wireless node. She wasn't (damn--I'd been under the impression that there was 802.11b here), but I noticed she was a fellow user of Ableton Live, so we talked software for a while. She was down from Boston, where she was going to Berklee, and had a small group with a drummer and a cellist. Sounds interesting; I may get a chance to hear it.
On the way to the rest room, someone else asked if I was me (I am). He was Kevin Patton, up from Houston, and apparently quite the happening guy in the Texas experimental music scene. I was momentarily confused--how'd he know me on sight? Turns out he'd gone through the cc headers of one of the emails that went out with score corrections, and he started looking at people's domains, so he'd been to the site and apparently recognized me from one of the photos here. For a moment, though, it was weirdly like being an extremely minor celebrity.
Altos had their levels checked, and then finally us tenors. Glenn stood at the podium at the front of the studio, and indicated to each of us whether to turn up, down, give more treble, etc. After the fourth or fifth "more treble," Glenn said, "You'll notice that I like treble," and it was true--at no point did he ask to hear more bass. I ended up at volume 8, bass and treble 5, and the guitar all the way up on both pickups. Much of this was to change. After going person by person, we went section by section and made adjustments; finally all the tenors together. It was quite a thrilling sound--there's an inherent excitement, tension and release in this tuning, probably because it sounds like several players hitting a tonic.
We took yet another break, where we discovered that bottled water had made it into the building, but that the bread was already gone. After a while, all the players reconvened in the tracking room for the first full sound checks and rehearsals. This was the first truly magical moment: when all the 20 basses at the back of the room started up, tremolo picking the same notes, I got this involuntary stupid grin on my face. I looked around and saw that a bunch of the rest of us guitar players had the same grin. This was going to be cool. We tenors were next, and we played our open strings. A few further volume adjustments were made here or there, and the same with the altos. Finally, we all played together, and it was indeed a thrill. Everyone likes to play loud at some point, and here we were contributing to this vast collaborative harmonious noise.
It was time to rehearse, and this is where the trouble began. It was very difficult for all of us to hear the drums. From where I was, I could feel the bass drum, but many people couldn't. The drums were surrounded by baffles so they could be miked without bleed, but this killed many people's ability to hear them--even though we were in the same room. The studio wouldn't remove the baffles, which frustrated Glenn, as he'd recorded most of his work without baffles, and it was never a problem before. But we'd need some kind of monitoring solution, so we were given a long break while it was worked out.
A military army travels on its stomach, and this is no less true of a guitar army. The runners weren't back with the bread yet, which was a bit of a problem for getting something to eat. Many of us resorted to eating brie and hummus off plastic wrap. Most people, if you were to tell them that you were putting them on bread and water, they'd think it was punishment, but we would have been delighted to have both. We stood around and talked, and I checked on the housing situation by cell phone--no improvement there, although one of the altos up from Virginia said he'd had two invitations, and he couldn't use both, so he'd try to get me set up. A bright spot! We'd trade cell numbers later. I talked a bit with Ben, who's doing some neat stuff with a heavily modified Kalamazoo solid body (not unlike what I was playing here). Sadly, I accidentally whacked him with my own Kalamazoo guitar a couple times, due to the tight seating.
We went through a few more tests of the drum monitoring, now with craptastic NS-10s and perhaps somewhat better Alesis near-fields at the front of the room feeding the drums to us...not that this would do much for people in the back, but they might have received actual drum sound from the kit, so they were covered. We also got the benefit of producer Weasel Walter doing a diamond-shaped aerobic routine on 1-2-3-4 so that we knew which beat we were on, and concertmaster John Myers keeping count of the measures and doing the shake-shake-shake-shake-bring-the-neck-down-dramatically rock star move every tenth measure so we'd know where we were in the section. (Of course, if you didn't know what 10 we were all in, you were pretty much lost for good.)
While the piece is notated to be at 60 bpm, Glenn decided to kick it up to (ha ha ha) 69. We did some rehearsal of the first section, up to about bar 68. It was a fairly easy section--lots of whole notes--and it was our first real taste of what it would be like to play this piece. In all honesty, it was very, very good. With all of the tenors playing the same thing at the same time, I wasn't able to pick myself out of the sound, but I could *feel* the power of the playing behind me, as if I was chorused and distributed across 40 other amps. It was like being at the tip of a rocket, or like part of some vast, unstoppable engine. Yes, this is why I was here. Even with all the hassles and the awful hotel room, it was all worth it to play this music.
Some of my impressions may have been due to positioning at the front of the room, and probably due to enculturation. I later talked to one of the tenors in the back, a young man wearing the t-shirt of some death metal band, and he said he felt like the music was a swarm of killer hornets laying waste to all life on the globe. Certainly there is a kind of buzzing bee swarm quality to the "staircase" chords, which are stacked minor seconds, so I can see where he got that vibe.
In this piece, everything's double-strummed--we're tremolo-picking not just one string, but at minimum three strings. Occasionally, we were to double-strum all of the strings, the ones we were playing, and the open strings as well. There are also two types of fingering--fretting the three treble or bass strings at the note indicated in the score, and the "cluster" or "staircase" chord, which is stacked minor seconds, and very easy to play in this tuning. This first section just used alternating notes and clusters, and it was striking--when people were playing clusters, the interference patterns sounded like a section of bowed strings playing arpeggios. It was an astonishingly simple way of getting a complex effect. When we swung into the consonant sections, the resolution was extremely powerful as well.
The dynamics indicated on the score for these early parts were ppp (soft), something very relative when talking about 100 guitars. At first Glenn's suggestion was for us to try to play it softly, so I went with a softer pick than usual, made of some ordinary plastic. By the end of the take, the tip was worn completely down. So I switched to my usual pick brand, which is made of some stiff plastic which might just be bulletproof. These held up admirably.
We took a brief break before tackling the next section, which was slightly more complex, and longer--two page turns, and a lot more jumping around. We'd play a bit before and a bit after the section, which would make the editing easier, giving them more material to work with on either side of the join. One thing that got a bit tricky here was the number of rests for our section, which certainly isn't the norm in rock playing. Some of the older hands were keeping count of rest measures by keeping a finger on the score; the rest of us kept a mental count which seemed to work out all right (but the finger method is better for being less fallible). Still, we had a good take.
We took another break, and lo, the bread had come. The runners claimed that every store they went to had sold out of bread, which seemed odd--in all of New York City, no one had any bread? Still, we lined up for it--a literal bread line. The water, however, was running low.
We were getting into late afternoon, and monitoring problems still bothered Glenn. I could hear the drums all right, and it seemed that the concertmaster and Weasel could as well, but we were all on the floor, and Glenn was up on that lectern, which may have made a significant difference. Some adjustments were made, and we moved on to the third section, the first "static" section--instead of chord changes over a consistent rhythm, we'd be playing the same chord on different beats, with different sections coming in at different times for a call and response effect. It was impossible to tell what this was going to sound like when I was just rehearsing my part, but in the actual room, with the sections answering each other, the design of the piece was surprising and thrilling. Large blocks of sound came from different parts of the room, new each time. Another peak experience, and I wonder how this will translate to disc. I would have liked to get a good look at Glenn's theatrical conducting style, but between looking at the score, the fretboard, and the concertmaster and producer, I didn't have the chance. A couple times I noticed that his glasses had fallen off from his gyrations, and I'd occasionally glance over to see if he avoided stepping on them. (Happily, the glasses made it through both days.)
Another break was required before doing the fourth section, and by this time a pattern of noodling emerged. Psych rockers would play, say, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," prog rockers would quote Rush, and someone else attempted "Frere Jacques" in the new tuning. Generally, I'd try to practice with the guitar's volume all the way down, which was sometimes difficult with the conflicting amplified playing. This would become somewhat more annoying in short breaks during which Glenn would try to resolve some issue--as soon as he stepped off the lectern, the noodling would start up again, growing gradually louder, until Glenn would have to wave and shout, "Shut up! No noodling!" Perhaps a $5 noodling penalty would be in order, but there wasn't much momentum behind this idea.
This fourth section proved to be one of diabolical complexity. Still, nothing shorter than a quarter note here, but with the ending section of the same three or four notes in different combinations, it was easy to get lost. And get lost we did. We had at least one serious derailment and started over, but we got through this one. I certainly got lost during the last part of this, and just laid out rather than dilute the effectiveness of the ensemble. One thing, though, was that my above-the-staff reading got a workout. I didn't have a solid performance of my own of this section all the way through, but it was good enough to break early.
I don't recall us moving on to the fifth section at this point; we were on page 5 by now--half the overall score--so we broke up for the evening, shortly after 8. The tracking room was going to be locked down, so we'd be able to leave our gear. This made my life a lot easier for the evening, so I was happy to do that. I made contact with my friends Phil, his lovely wife Dara, and their friend Dan, who it turned out were just getting seated for dinner at a Brooklyn restaurant, so they gave me directions and off I headed. On the way, I saw something rather amazing. Waiting at a light on Atlantic, the car next to me just took off through the red. Seconds later, he was pulled over by an unmarked car, in some surprisingly instant retribution. In about 20 minutes I was at the restaurant, scoring parking right out front. This quite surprised my friends, who thought I'd be at least another half hour, but the traffic situation was pretty good.
After a day of bread and cheese and finding myself in a place known for its burgers, I went for the veggie burger which--wonder of wonders--was actually their own, formed out of actual grains and vegetables, and not some awful mix. Rather nice, as was the pumpkin spice ale they had on special. We sat outside, enjoying the warm night, talking music, film, and politics. I did a bit of downloading of the day, and then we got caught up. A fine dinner, fine company, and fine conversation, including some amusingly provocative musical opinions from Phil.
After dinner, I saw that I'd gotten a cell message from my contact for accommodations, and learned...that this, too, had fallen through. This was going to be an interesting evening. At this point, Phil and Dara stepped in to fill the breach, even on this dreadfully short notice. Very nice of them! I'd have a place after all, and in Brooklyn, which was ideal for the next morning's commute.
There had been talk of heading into the city for a social engagement, and I offered to drive; it was quite nice rolling down FDR drive with the windows down, playing Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard box set on our way to a bar in Gramercy Park. When we parked, I noticed that we'd picked up a praying mantis, a nice glimmer of nature in the city. As we shouted our conversation over the bar's loud music, Dan observed that even if one intends to visit a bar for just 20 minutes or a half hour, one is still not going to get out before 50 minutes: there's introduction time, drink ordering time, small talk time, and goodbye time before one can get out the door. And in the event, Dan nailed it--in 50 minutes we were back on the sidewalk, and soon were in the car headed back to Phil's and Dara's very pleasant garden apartment in Brooklyn. We hung out further, discussed movies (notably Lucas, whose post-American Graffiti work now reveals itself to be crucially lacking), and I took advantage of the wifi connection. Soon enough it was 2:00, and time to turn in, which I did to the sound of crickets outside--another welcome glimmer of nature.
Having a clean, comfortable place to sleep made an enormous difference--I had a good seven hours or so, enough to recover from the sleep deprivation of the night before. I got a shower, packed up, chatted with my host a bit, and at around 10:30 I figured I'd have to get on the road. Many thanks to Phil, Dara, and their friend Dan.
I took my leave, and called home while I walked up a peaceful, sunny street to where I'd parked, the car unmolested. I made a few wrong turns trying to get back on 278, but after looping through what, apparently, was Red Hook, I figured it out. In Astoria, I didn't have the primo parking of the day before, but I did get a spot right opposite CUP, which would be convenient. Having to raise my voice in the bar the night before left me with a bit of a sore throat, so I went for the large orange juice and an espresso, figuring that I'd score some bread in the studio. Walking down the block to the studio entrance, cup of espresso in hand, the sun shining, the sky blue, the air warm, and a faint breeze coming from somewhere, I felt that in many ways, I could imagine no better life.
Glenn hadn't yet appeared, and there wasn't much in the way of a breakfast spread, but soon enough Glenn, Reg, and the bread and cheese (including a bleu or Gorgonzola or something) were in the house. There was once again a ramp-up period in which I managed to eat, connect with people (Ben had wondered how the accommodations worked out for me; Fred in NJ had left his cell phone in the car, so I wouldn't have been able to connect with him if I'd had to), and get some rehearsal in.
We started this time right where we'd left off, with a section I'd enjoyed practicing--essentially a series of whole tone ascents in several different rhythmic patterns, alternating root tones each time. Perhaps it was the sore throat, or my not having pounded through this section as much as I had the others, but I found in the event that it was rather easy to get lost. There were sections with a lot of quarter notes, which weren't at all difficult to play, but the fingering had me looking from the score to the fretboard fairly often, and the quarter notes made it tough to find the jumping off point again. So I again pulled the "copy what Ben's doing" method. We had a few false starts, but once we went through this, we went through it twice. At some point in the morning, a new person appeared, toting guitar and tiny amp, but it was agreed that he would not be able to be acclimated by the time we needed him to be, so he took his leave.
Another break meant another round of bread and cheese, and I ducked out to get more orange juice and espresso. Oddly, this time the total was different from the last time. When we came back, there were again monitoring issues, which took longer to resolve than the last time. This next section--another cluster section--presented some other problems as well. In the tenor parts are a lot of clusters around high E, and in this room the frequencies were too piercing. Glenn told us to play those an octave lower, which we practiced while they took another whack at the monitoring problems. It turned out that there was a dead spot in the back of the room, where they couldn't hear drums--back in the basses and the rear of the altos. Someone hunted down some Auratones to try to fill the breach.
We rehearsed this several times, during which we got badly lost, and Wharton was unable to continue drumming through these rehearsals. Weasel took over for these sections--truly a renaissance man. Glenn ducked out as well, but by the time he came back, we hit this section again for real.
Again, I found myself losing track of the measure and the quarter notes, but I generally knew the chords, so it was easy to follow along with Ben. We did two takes of this one, and then took another break, during which I tried to figure out what I was going to be doing that evening. Was I getting a cold? Or was I just dealing with a bit of fatigue? Should I try to meet up with a client for dinner? Get on the road? Scare up another place to stay? I looked into all the options, out of the same thought that I'd had yesterday of pursuing everything at once. Ultimately things seemed to stabilize around my having dinner or at least coffee with a client, with whom I was playing phone tag, and then driving out to Fred's place in NJ.
Our next section was easy--another static section, which we ran through twice. At this point I was used to the call-and-response effect, and it wasn't quite as dramatic as it had been the first time, but it did work. Sadly, on the second take, I came in a fraction of a beat early at one point, and you can hear my guitar quite clearly, out there completely on its own. A few measures later, another tenor took the bait also. Oops. Dunno if that'll be kept, or comped from another take. If it's in there, I'll say it's my solo.
By this point, the men's room was out of soap, and the trash can was overflowing with paper towels. During one of these breaks, I also discovered that a) Fred's family were fighting off colds, and it wouldn't be fair to impose on them in that state, and b) my client had made other plans for the evening, so dinner/coffee was out. So I started formulating yet another plan--I'd drive as far as I felt like driving, and stay wherever along the way. Maybe this would be sleeping in rest areas, or maybe just getting a room somewhere; I wasn't sure yet, although by phone, Patricia lobbied for the hotel option, so I'd at least have a bed.
We reconvened. This section ended on a fermata, or a long suspension of time, during which (in the live performance) the drumming speeds up to 80. With the monitoring situation here, that proved to be impossible. We tried it several times and in several different ways, until finally it was decided that we'd play at 60, and then later play at 80, and there'd be a crossfade before the drums kicked in at 80. We worked at this a couple of times, and it was quite nice just to hold a chord for a while with the double-strumming, even though our arms were getting a bit tired.
There was another long break here, during which the pizza delivery was arranged, but we had to get through the next couple of sections before getting the pizza. This section was another I'd not rehearsed as much as I would have liked, but it had enough rests and long, sustained notes that I was able to muddle through. There were a few impressive leaps, though, which made things interesting, and again we weren't to play the high Es as written. Reg pointed out that she didn't mind if some of us did play them that way, though, because it would be more texture. The problem was that when everyone was playing those notes, it was brutally piercing, but if only some of us are, well, no problem, really. Another decision was made to end this section on a fermata, unlike the score, but it would make the edit easier.
We took a brief break after this section, and went on to play the end, starting with the fermata this time, and moving around different tonal centers to end a tritone over where we started. The sense of what key to end on shifted several times during this portion of the piece, which was interesting to me...or maybe it was just my perception here. The piece ends on a note that's left to ring out, and unfortunately some people started talking before the decay was clear. We did the section again, and I think we might have had some extraneous noises, but not enough to rule out a fade. I would have liked a pure ring-out, but I think some people were more in band-practice space than they were in recording space.
We'd played through the piece once, and pizza had arrived. So we ate. Oddly, there were only three vegan pizzas, which seemed ill-considered for the kind of people we had. Still, everyone had enough to eat, though the pizza itself was...edible. Glenn observed, "You can't get pizza like this in Manhattan." I chatted with a group of former Pittsburghers, who'd all perked up on hearing me mention the city (and also Tyondi, who's played here). They'd dispersed to Providence, New York, and other places, but we swapped stories of having worked with some of the same people. A nice connection.
At this point we had about three and a half hours left, so we were told that to make the best use of our time, we'd play through the piece again. This time, we were acclimated to the sound and feel, and while we were tired, we were inhabitants of the piece's sound world. We weren't just satisfied with playing the piece; we'd play it with worthy energy. So we did--we really hammered the first section, and I broke my first strings of the session (one high B and one low). I ran to the string bag for replacements, winding them up quickly without my usual obsession for making the winds even, and then realized that I had exact replacements in my gig bag. Duh.
We moved through the piece section by section, skipping the long, troublesome section from earlier in the day, most performances seeming better than yesterday's, but not all. At around half past seven, things stopped without us having reached the end again, and I wondered what was going on. We learned that the label had neglected to pay the studio, and that no more would be recorded until the situation was resolved. Shortly after this slightly disturbing pause, though, we were back on track, so they must have worked it out quickly.
Glenn said that there was a dilemma about which of the three remaining sections should be tackled, and the engineer offered over the talkback that in the time it would take to decide, we could record all three, so off we went. I found myself getting lost again during the major second climb, and in a few other places late in the piece, although the watching-Ben's-fingers method worked well again. On our last take, I broke my low B string again, but no matter--we'd finished. I'd hoped that we'd be doing the very end again to get a clean ring-out, but that wasn't necessary, apparently.
Here we were, deposited at the end of two days of heightened alertness and several kinds of trials, and we'd be breaking up. I connected with a few other people, exchanged cards, said goodbyes, and packed up. I (and others) loaded Glenn down with some CDRs, and asked him to sign my score. He was quite gracious about this and other requests, signing guitars and other mementos as well.
I joined a group lugging our equipment back through the maze to the front entrance (the only open one at this hour), glad to breathe some fresh air on the street. I called Patricia, let her know the session was over, and that I was heading home. I loaded the car, got yet another large orange juice and a double espresso to go.
In a decidedly comforting note, Columbia's radio station WKCR was playing a Monk marathon until midnight for Monk's birthday, so I had that familiar soundtrack to my trip on 278. I had the option of doing the Veranzano Narrows bridge to NJ, but I stupidly thought I'd go with the familiar Holland Tunnel, so I ended up crawling across Manhattan for an hour. A dreadful mistake, but I had plenty of time to think and listen to Monk. Once we were through the tunnel crawl, though, things opened up, and I was a ways into New Jersey before the WKCR signal disappeared into static. So I put in the CDR of...the 13th's sole performance in 2001. In many ways, I just can't get enough of this piece.
Having lost an hour to city traffic, I realized I wasn't going to have the energy to make it a long way without stopping. I had maybe three hours of driving left in me, and it was 10:00, so I decided to see where I was around midnight, and stop there. At first, this ended up being the PA/NJ border town of Easton, which I'd heard a bit about in some inn books, but a quick loop around town didn't seem inviting, and all they had was a depressing-looking Best Western. So I continued down 78 to Allentown, which had a Holiday Inn Express across the road from an amusement park we'd noticed on previous trips. And...they had a room, for $90, which at this point worked for me. I called Patricia again to tell her the plan, checked in, lugged all the gear in (not taking any chances at this point), and went up to the room to use the wifi, email various parties, and realize that I was staying up way too late. The bed was, happily, clean and free of any of the obvious filth of the Hojo Express in North Bergen, so that was a bonus.
I slept acceptably, got up around quarter to 9, got a bit of breakfast in the lobby, and checked out. I was back on the road, and home by 3:30, totally exhausted, but quite fulfilled. I think I'm going to pick up a cheap guitar or two to leave in this tuning.
Update, 06/05/2005: It looks as though Symphony 13 will be re-recorded for official release (and with a live performance) in early 2006. Stay tuned.