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Listening For The Beat(niks)

A typical-looking beat poet with bongos


Yesterday I got to do something that I never imagined I’d ever get to do.  And it even turned out well!

Through an unexpected string of events, I ended up collaborating with an old theatre buddy who writes, among other things, some poetry in the beat style. He was looking for someone to provide accompaniment and I thought, “I’ve never done that before, why not give it a try?” We worked our way through several pieces and have two in development with more on the way.

Besides being a really cool experience, it also helped validate my case of GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome). As we explored different styles for these poems, I was able to experiment with different instruments until I found the right sound for each piece: electric bass for one and baritone acoustic guitar for the other. Stay tuned to this blog and my website for future updates, including recordings and possibly some video.

It was a total blast. And I actually ended up surprising myself. I’ve always been an auditory person, which has turned out to be a real advantage as my sight has diminished. Even so, I can read print with assistance and I’m no slouch when it comes to language–I
even spent a little time as an English major. But when I read through my friend’s poems prior to our session, I really couldn’t think of any musical ideas to use with them. Even reading them out loud to myself didn’t really help. I had a hard time even tracking the narrative flow of each poem, probably because I have to work very hard at reading things visually. But when I heard them read to me, I was able to follow the narratives and come up with some music that the poet really likes. The surprise was just how auditory I’ve become, and how much easier it is for me to work that way. I don’t expect that every poem we try will work out so well, but we both left the session very excited and eager to move forward.

This isn’t lyric poetry we’re talking about, so it’s not really what you’d call songwriting. It’s more like directed improvisation, where I as the accompanist am filling in the background scenery instead of painting the entire detailed picture, which is what I try to do as a composer. I still have a lot of freedom to feel my way along, but in some ways it’s actually easier because I don’t have to create the entire piece.

No matter how you slice it, it was fun and exhilarating and I’m looking forward to exploring yet another facet of the infinite realm that is music.

Take note! This blog will soon be moving to a new home on my new website. More news will appear here soon.

Photo of colored eggs

One does want a hint of color…

Good analogies get harder to find all the time. Everybody’s seen everything and every possible kind of comparison has been made between everything because you never know when the right set of variables will trigger a marketing algorithm. So when a good analogy comes along, it deserves to be celebrated.

My koto teacher has been wonderful. Her training is classical in nature and all of her other students can read the book she uses, but she has adapted her lessons to work with my blindness and we are making good progress. I think our different approaches to music have been far more challenging than just talking me through the stuff in the book, but she’s been diligent and it’s paying off well.

During a recent lesson my teacher said, “Most people are like chickens in a cage. They want someone to say ‘You there, Chicken A. Lay an egg right here.’ But you are more of a free-range chicken. You like to go your own way.” This isn’t news–I have gone my own way all my life and have no intention of willingly climbing into the cage. Still, it was a great new way to describe it and I have already gotten quite a bit of mileage out of this story. I’m keeping my mind open for some kind of chicken-inspired koto piece, but so far nothing has flown by except for the phrase “wasabe chicken.” It’s sometimes hard to accept that inspiration isn’t predictable, but there ya go.

In my own teaching, I struggle with trying to get cage-friendly chickens to range freely. I am often surprised at how reluctant some people are to experiment and just discover their own music as opposed to being directed at each step. It’s challenging and so that keeps me trying to do better, but in the end I suppose I will never really understand the cage lifestyle, just as many will not understand the free-range one. My ultimate goal is to be able to offer the guidance that each student needs without worrying that their process is not the same as mine. I suppose that’s the essence of teaching, although it feels more like being the guru on the mountaintop than I usually feel comfortable with. Even so, that is also something new and there is no growth without novelty.

Japanese Koto

Japanese koto

The Instrument – I have been studying the koto for a couple of months now, and recently made a breakthrough with the help of a slightly different tuning. Instead of the traditional Japanese hirajoshi tuning (D G A Bb D Eb), my teacher Mitsuki Dazai showed me a tuning based on the major pentatonic scale (D G A B D E) and I discovered that lowering the first string to C from D made a really cool combination with other notes. So the tuning I’m working with right now is: C G A B D E G A B D E G A. Playing in this tuning feels very natural for me and I find myself being able to just reach out and find a given sound, whether it is a note or a chord or a combination of the two. I’ve also been adding low notes to higher chords, very much like the way one plays harp guitar. Who says playing weird instruments doesn’t pay off?


The Song – With this breakthrough, I have started work on my first koto song, Felis Astros. You can hear the first version of it at my Bandcamp site.


The Story – What originally led me to study koto was how evocative the sound of the instrument is for me. It’s always had a very strong sense of place in my ears and now that I am learning to play it, I am struck by how powerful the imagery can be. Even some of the traditional techniques are named after things in nature, and the combination of the name and sound of a technique bring forth vivid images and it’s tremendously helpful in trying to reproduce the sound in my playing. But when I started noodling on some little riff, I had no idea what it would turn into.

The story of Felis Astros is about a cat who looks up at the night sky and dreams of dancing among the stars. Through a series of events that have not been determined yet, she will get her wish. This story began to form as I was recording the song, and as I listened to it more of the details began to come out. I’ve never had a song idea develop like this before, and it is very exciting to feel it so strongly. I am curious to see how the story will turn out!

While the story will have a happy ending, there will be a little sadness as the (as yet unnamed) cat’s friends must say goodbye to her as she trades the earth for the sky. For the record, this song is not about the death of an animal–I think the melancholy feeling comes from that low C string. And it’s too early to say for sure whether this element will even exist in the final version of the song. When I reach this part of the story as I play the music, it makes me feel a little sad and I may just decide that I don’t want that in there. What a powerful feeling it would be if I could actually make it turn out that way! I feel that I discover music rather than write it, so this seems like an ambitious thing to do at this point.

Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy the song. More koto music will be coming soon, I think…


This Song Is Our Song

Thanks Pete!  Thanks for all the great music and for making even the most hardened cynic clap and sing along.  If you’ve never heard Pete Seeger play live, find a recording and listen.  And rest assured that whatever the angels were singing before, from now on they’ll all be singing folk songs.

I have long thought that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” should be the USA’s national anthem.  It’s a song everyone can sing, it’s not pretentious, it’s not about war, it has no specific religious content, and it reflects our independent yet cooperative spirit.  I don’t know what it would take to make this change happen, but I think this video might be a useful tool.


The Gift

Now that the holiday season is finally over, we’re all recovering from the total immersion in Christmas music and most of us don’t want to hear any more of it for the next several months. But “The Gift” by Liz Story and Joel Di Bartolo is an exception to the rule. It manages this by providing intricate treatments of some holiday standards that don’t sound like holiday standards, along with a number of lesser-known songs. All 14 of the tracks are instrumental, which also helps keep the album from activating the Christmas music center of the brain. In this way it is similar to many of the tracks on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. If you can step away from the over-saturated songs, there’s some awesome jazz on that album.

Just because the music is complex, don’t get the idea that you can’t find the songs within the arrangements. If you are listening to the melody, you’ll easily find the underlying song. But the thing that makes this album suitable for all seasons is the ornamentation surrounding the basic melody, making this an instrumental album that happens to contain songs from the Christmas season rather than a Christmas album that happens to be instrumental.

Liz Story’s work is very thoughtful, and I find that it provides room for discoveries at all levels of listening. On the surface, it’s very pleasant piano music. As one listens more intently, the feeling in the music becomes more evident and it’s easy to get caught up in vivid imagery that is facilitated by the music but created by the listener’s imagination. While I’m sure there are terrific stories surrounding each track, the ones that the music inspires within my own mind are wonderful and I find myself almost reluctant to dive into the liner notes. I try to apply this ‘transparent complexity’ principle in my own compositions and I keep coming back to “The Gift” as a source of compositional inspiration.

What does this have to do with Dave Brubeck’s eyebrows? Well that’s the most interesting part of this Liz Story story…

I had the good fortune to meet Liz Story while I was working as the house tech at the Portland Scottish Rite Center back in the mid-1990s. She was appearing as part of a trio of new age artists, performing both solo and ensemble pieces. When I met her, the first words she said to me were, “Don’t ever trim those eyebrows! They look just like Dave Brubeck’s.” While I had heard of Dave Brubeck, I wasn’t overly familiar with his music. But after that comment I decided I should look into his stuff a bit more, and ended up really getting into his music as well as other west coast jazz artists. So working a single show introduced me to a number of artists and styles that I might never have been aware of.

photo of Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck

I hope one day I get a chance to meet Liz Story again and thank her for the gifts she gaveme, and to show her that my eyebrows are as mighty as ever.  Maybe we can even play some transparently complex Brubeck thing together.

Music to the Rescue

Call me a relic, but there’s something to be said for real interaction with real people in real time and real space.

I’m tryingto embrace social media, really I am. But it’s not working very well. Besides various accessibility issues that make the websites hard to use, I just can’t get my brain to engage with all the new meanings of words such as ‘friend’, ‘like’, and ‘talking about’. For me, the whole social media thing is a world apart. It’s wonderful that people can connect more, but the technology seems to have removed the human element, for want of a better term. There is no substitute for talking to someone who’s right in front of you (even more so if they’re not interrupting every few seconds to look at a gadget), and there are times when I am concerned about what the world of the future may be like. Frankly, I don’t think we’re all that far away from becoming the Borg. Worse, we’re going to go willingly. Resistance isn’t futile, there just isn’t any.

Heavy stuff, right? Lately I have been trying to do more with social media marketing for Neon Husky and it’s been a struggle. I know it’s a useful resource, but the conflict between what I feel is right and the way the world seems to be working has been causing a lot of stress. And as if on cue, things come along to help me feel better.

During the week I had some positive one-on-one interactions with customers, which was a huge boost for me. On Thursday evening we had a terrific session of Survival Guitar. and on Friday I did my monthly gig at the Portland Rescue Mission, which really ended the week on a positive note. The thing that all these positive events have in common is that they were all about people connecting as individuals rather than broadcasting their existence to the world at large.

The audience at the Rescue Mission keeps growing, which is great. I am not deluding myself–I know that most of the reason is because the weather isn’t nice and it brings people indoors. Still, it’s always more fun to play for a roomful of people than for a roomful of empty chairs. According to all indicators, the audience enjoyed the show. Most of them stayed for all of the 2 hours I was playing, and my contact person told me there were lots of smiles. One person even asked if I was available to come back and play on Christmas, which really touched me. I can’t make it, but may stop in on Christmas Eve if the timing works with their schedule.

Each time I perform, I learn something new. That’s exciting! One thing that is difficult for me is how to gauge the audience’s reaction except for the sounds they make, since I can’t see if they’re smiling or yawning or fiddling with their various gadgets. There’s a positive side to that, because it also means that those things don’t distract me.

One of my favorite things about the Rescue Mission audiences is that they are relatively uninhibited. They will talk to me, they will ask questions, and if I do something they like, they will make happy noises. At my gig in November, I even had someone compare me with George Clinton–high praise in my book! All of those things help bridge the visual gap and most importantly, they reinforce the connection between me and the audience. Music connects people like nothing else can, and those connections are why I perform.

So do yourself a favor: Log out, get up, turn off the gadgets and go out into the real world and interact with some real people. It’s my guess that something deep down inside you will feel better. And if you can manage it, try not to tweet about it until you get back home :)

iMas Wishes

Oh, those holiday memories!  What a special time of year this is, when we remember all the good times.  Gathered around that old fireplace DVD, the smell of fresh-baked cookies wafting out of the aromatherapy console.  We’d all sit together and bask in the cold blue glow of our personal electronic devices, texting carols to everyone in our network while we all sat in the same room.  Remember how Mom kept mixing up all the words?  Poor Mom, she’s just not all thumbs.

Last week during the pre-Black Friday holiday season (my favorite time of year except for Inventory Reduction), we even had some carolers tweet us!  We sat and read jngl bls and slnt nite, each of us with a marshmallow on a stick on our desktop wallpapers.  The carolers were so nice that we friended all of them and invited them to Farmville and sent them pictures of fruitcake.  You know, it’s so hard to get rid of pictures of fruitcake.  No matter how many people you send them to, someone always sends you some back.

Remember when Grandma sent us “The Night Before Christmas” in LOLcat?  We used to read 3 words at a time out of that story again and again.  Mom and Dad got after us when we said Grandma was old-fashioned, though.  But can you believe it?  She e-mailed it to us!  Dad said that’s all they had back then.

I read a blog that said way back in the old days, maybe as far back as 5 years ago, somebody tried to pass off Christmas as some kind of religious holiday and make it seem like all the shopping was supposed to represent some crazy gifts given to a baby a long time ago (like maybe 20 years–who can imagine that?).  Personally I don’t believe it–none of those gifts was a Leap Pad!  But maybe it’s true because there sure are a lot of things for sale now about this guy named Jesus–I think that was the name the people used.  They even tried to say that the whole time from Black Friday to pre-pre-pre-Super Bowl Sunday was supposed to be all about peace and love and stuff!  That’s just silly.  I mean, it takes way too long to send pc n rth gdwl 2 men to everyone you know.

Tonight we’re going to make popcorn smell and plug in our plastic LED tree.  Remember that funny story Dad told us last year about a pink aluminium Christmas tree?  Can you imagine?  A tree that’s only one color?  I even heard Grandpa say that they used to grow trees in the ground and then cut them and put them in the house for Christmas.  I don’t believe it, though.  Grandpa gets kind of confused sometimes.  He keeps talking about something called Thanksgiving, and we all smile and say, “Sure thing, Grandpa.”  Last year, he wanted us all to watch some cartoon about a Christmas tree with these goofy-looking kids and a dog.  He said it lasted a half-hour!  Well, we didn’t have time for a mini-series, so we told him we’d watch it on YouTube.  I didn’t, but my sister did and she said that it was about a blanket or something.

I love this season so much.  I wish we could keep shopping like this the whole year through!  I wonder why it is that people only shop like this for part of the year.  Wouldn’t we be a lot better off if everyone grabbed and shoved and was aggressive and rude every day instead of just a few of them?  I hope those religious people don’t succeed.  It would be so depressing if people started to think that Christmas wasn’t about shopping anymore.  What would all those Santa guys do for work? How would the customer service team members pay their data plan bills?  What would we do with only three iPad upgrades per year?  I don’t even want to think about it.

Well, enough of that depressing stuff.  I’m so glad we live in a time where most people still know what this season’s all about.  Gotta go, Mom said we’re all going to watch the 10-second version of rdlf t raindr with the LOLcat commentary track.  It’s a pretty long show, but she says it’ll be worth it.

mry xs!

Survival Sundays

I’m in between two interesting weekend gigs right now. Last Sunday (Oct 27) I played with another
1/5th of Dyssband and this Sunday (Nov 3) I will be playing with some fraction of The Imperfect Strangers. For those who may not be aware, this isn’t that unusual. Musicians are a notoriously flaky group when it comes to commitments. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true.

It seems like such a thing could be a disaster waiting to happen. You might think that it would be better to cancel or reschedule gigs like this. But sometimes bailing on a gig can be more damaging than struggling through. And sometimes, things work out better than you expect.

On the 27th we took a 5-piece band and turned it into a duo with some very pleasing results. The other person said, “What song do you want to do?”, and I turned to him and said, “Play whatever you want and I’ll be there.” It was a great opportunity to use my Survival Guitar instincts and I had a lot of fun doing it. I’m looking forward to a similar experience this coming Sunday. I even managed to play a pretty good lead part (including a solo) on a song I had never heard before. All those hours of experimenting and improvising pay off once in a while. I wish that the students in my Survival Guitar class could have been there–it really was a good example of how a little bit of knowledge and an open mind can yield pretty cool results.

Don’t get the idea that I think I’m some kind of guitar god, because I don’t. But I like improvising and I really like being the ‘utility guy’–the person who can find a way to add something to whatever ends up being played. I find it a very immersive experience, letting the music flow all around me and then sprinkling little bits that are designed to adorn what others are doing without detracting from it. It’s creating as an individual within an overall collaborative effort.

How does one learn to do this? The same way one learns any sort of musical expression: you have to listen. You have to listen to what everyone else is doing, and you have to listen to what you’re doing. I am often surprised at how often musicians don’t listen to themselves. Faith in what you’re doing is good, but there’s no substitute for hearing the noises you’re making. I think ‘listen’ is the word I use most often with all of my students, whatever they are learning.

Folks always want to know how one learns to play intuitively. Besides listening, I find that familiarity with one’s instrument (whatever it is) and about two tablespoons’ worth of music theory is all you really need. That familiarity isn’t the kind you learn in your head, it’s the kind you learn in your heart and in your hands. Knowing where every note is on the fretboard is great, but it’s not very helpful if you can’t pull a nice-sounding phrase out on the spur of the moment. Knowing the sounds and personality of the instrument is much more important. Improvisation doesn’t leave time for a lot of thinking about where to find things. I think it begins to happen when you stop looking at an instrument as a machine and you start to see it as a living thing that you have to work with instead of work on. It’s not classical method, but it works for me :)

New EP Released

I’m so excited about this I don’t even know how to begin. My first EP has been released! I had a fun and extremely educational time doing a recording session and decided to keep the momentum going by taking those tracks and making an EP out of them. So not only am I learning about recording and production, but about cover design, duplication, photography, marketing, and distribution. It has been a big job and I can see the advantages of having a label or some other entity that handles the business aspects, leaving more time for musicians to work on music. Maybe someday I’ll have that, but for now the lessons I am learning will prove to be very useful.

Walking Softly album cover

You can hear and buy the music at:

Neon Husky, Tux Cat Music, and Bandcamp

Most of the tracks on the EP will find their way onto a more finished and full-length album but just in case some fall away, here’s a little bit about them. Call it liner notes in the cheap seats, if you will.

5 Minutes From Now – People always talk about what the best time of life is. My answer: “Five minutes from now. You’ll want to stick around because it’s going to be amazing!” This song is built around the D Major chord form and the fingerings for the main theme are quite simple. I use this song as an example when I teach guitar about how much mileage you can get out of a simple idea.

Easy Duz It – This song is dedicated to all dish washers everywhere. Yes I know–Duz was actually a laundry detergent, but the full story will bring it all together. This one will definitely find its way to the album so I’m not going to spoil the surprise by telling the whole story here. I’ve been experimenting with playing this song on various instruments and still haven’t quite decided which one to go with. I like the feel on the 12-string but the baritone version is quite different and puts a new interpretation on the song that I’m still exploring.

Harpalicious Improv #1 – We got this in one take. I said “just roll and let’s see what happens”, and this is the result. Some of these ideas may appear in future songs. For best listening, crank up the bass.

Song For Alice – This one is both rewarding and disappointing. I started writing it for a friend with the hope that she would get to hear it before she passed away, but that didn’t happen. I haven’t learned how to craft a song rather than discovering it, so it took more time than I had hoped. However, Alice’s surviving family did get to hear it and they told me that not only did they like it, but that Alice probably would have too. I miss her, but playing this song keeps her with me.

Sky Rabbit – This is the first song I completed. I have fragments from earlier times, but they haven’t finished developing yet. The melody just sort of fell out of the air, but the song itself is dedicated to my wife. Playing it always makes me think of her.

I want to thank the folks who have helped with this project not only with their expertise, but also with their professionalism and support. They have all been most generous about helping me learn as I go along.

Pyrate Llama Studios – Jon for his patience and creativity and Jake the Wonder Dog for just being himself.

Mirifoto – Miri is an awesome photographer and is great at getting clueless subjects to do what they need to look good on film.

Dale “Dr. D” Turnbull for his friendship, advice, and support. Also for helping me realize that low tones are where the magic really happens.

Orchid our cat for being my #1 fan, enjoying my music and demonstrating her amazing rolling abilities.

Most of all to my wife Debbie, who not only helps me get to places and haul stuff around, but for her endless patience in putting up with the process of writing material. There’s a lot of repetition and lack of structure sometimes, and she takes it in stride. While music may not be a visual art, many other things are and she’s terrific at helping with them. She inspires and encourages and loves me for whatever it is I am, and I couldn’t ask for any more.

The digital age may make it easier for artists to record and distribute their work, but even so I am sitting here not believing that I just told all of you that I’ve released a CD. Being able to perform music has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, and having it actually happen takes a bit of getting used to. Writing original music was completely outside the bounds of my imagination and it makes the whole process even more exciting and rewarding.

I hope you enjoy the music!

I’ve never been big on the idea of a particular sound for a particular city. It always starts out like a great idea, and then people fall into the trap of trying to recreate it or the media machine gets hold of it and shoves it down everyone’s throats. But sometimes music comes along that spontaneously makes you think of the place it comes from, and this album is one of those times.

Annie Corbett - Leaving Gardens - cover

Leaving Gardens
by Annie Corbett

This 10-song album winds its way through a varied landscape that reaches from jazz to blues to bluegrass to almost a new age sound. At every point on that journey, Annie Corbett’s masterful but approachable vocals create the feel of a pleasant afternoon spent in Portland. But don’t get lost in those vocals, because you’d end up missing some great musicianship by the rest of the folks on this record.

Each track has its own distinct personality and shows off Annie’s interpretive range. My favorite is “57 and Sunny”, which is a spot-on description of how people in the Pacific Northwest treat the first non-rainy day, no matter how cold it might be. The bass groove of this track is completely infectious–at least it is to section of my brain that plays bass. The title track is instrumental and serves not only as the liner notes suggest, “…to cleanse the listener’s palate”, but it’s also well-composed and beautifully performed.

This is an album you will want to set aside time to listen to instead of putting it on in the background while you check your email. Let Annie act as your tour guide through music filled with not only its own imagery, but also leaving room for whatever your mind can conjure up.


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