February 18, 2009
Asphalt Cocktail (pre) Premiere
I flew up to Michigan last week for the “soft” premiere of Asphalt Cocktail. The official premiere isn’t until late March at the CBDNA convention here in Austin, but this was the first time the piece received any sort of hearing in front of an audience — and the first time I ever heard the piece in person.
I arrived last Monday evening, and quickly headed out to dinner. Among the highlights (besides the company, of course) were the Buffalo shrimp…
… and dessert, carrot cake — always one of my favorites. This one, with the caramel sauce on top and yummy-yummy cream cheese icing, was one of the better iterations.
The next morning, I headed out to Williamston High School to work with their band on “Undertow.” (As a side note — it’s crazy to me how many schools are doing Undertow, and the fact that I don’t know about any of the performances because I’m not selling the piece directly to them. Almost every set goes through a music retailer, so unless somebody emails me a question about the piece, I’ve no idea they’re playing it. This was the case in Michigan. When Kevin Sedatole picked me up at the airport, he told me that I’d be working with two area bands on Undertow — bands that didn’t buy the piece expecting to work with me, but coincidentally already had been working on the piece, then saw that I would be in town.) The band at Williamston was doing a really good job. We just need the percussionists to rock out! Oh – and this note was posted on the band director, Ms. Kelsey’s, office. I love Michigan.
Next stop: lunch. I requested the local sushi place, Sansu, which I’d also visited the last time I was in East Lansing. Sansu is tasty, but again I have to ask — do we really need rolls the size of my forearm?
Finally, it was time for rehearsal. First up, there were pieces by two Michigan State faculty members — Jere Hutcheson and Ricardo Lorenz. Both pieces were excellent. Hutcheson’s piece, Caricatures, dates back to 1997. It is, perhaps, the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in a concert hall. He accomplishes this feat by amplifying a bell plate. Seriously. Turbine is wicked-loud, largely because of the parts I wrote for bell plates placed on brake drums. But I don’t amplify them. It was insane how loud this was. Ricardo Lorenz’s piece was spectacular, with beautiful colors and impeccable part transparency. It sounded like music by a strictly orchestral composer — and that’s a good thing, I think. Absolute clarity of line. It also turns out that Ricardo studied with Donald Erb (my composition teacher in undergrad)! Here’s a shot of Hutcheson (in the foreground) and Lorenz listening to rehearsal.
Next up: Asphalt Cocktail. I had requested a bunch of semi-unusual percussion in the piece, but this was the first time I heard it. Things like a ribbon crasher, which looks a little bit like a cute robot.
Unfortunately, the ribbon crasher, while a cool color, is not very loud — at least not loud enough for the textures of Asphalt Cocktail. I’ve since replaced the ribbon crasher with a cymbal combination that I worked out at the Zildjian booth at TMEA over the weekend: a China cymbal with a slightly smaller “trash splash” cymbal placed inside of it. INCREDIBLE sound — and loud.
Another specific request in Asphalt Cocktail is this cymbal: the Zildjian ZHT EFX cymbal. Great sound (very bright), and pretty sweet-looking, too.
Then, of course, there’s the trash can. I had requested a “small metal trash can,” filled with nuts, chains, etc., with the lid taped shut, and slammed into the floor where indicated. The players at MSU skipped over the “small” specification, and they used a full-size 30 gallon trash can.
Aurally, this didn’t work at all. The trash can was far too heavy to get very high off the ground, and rather than slamming it to the floor, it could only really be dropped, with the force of gravity being the only thing pushing against it. This could be somewhat remedied by taking a bunch of stuff out of the trash can, making it lighter, and allowing the stuff that’s in there to bounce around more. The best solution is probably just to use a smaller (probably 14″ tall or so) trash can. I’ll say this, though: the visual of a full-size trash can, dropped onto the floor during the climax of a piece was viscerally pretty exciting. Right before the piece happened in the concert, somebody leaned over to me in the hall and asked me, “when will they play the trash can?” So as a theatrical moment, it was pretty effective, even if you couldn’t hear it at all.
The best addition we made to the piece during the dress rehearsal was the addition of a marching field drum with a Kevlar head. It’s really a marching snare (with no snares), and it cuts through any texture. I had been looking for a good sound for all of the rim shots I have in the piece. I didn’t want to use an actual snare drum, since that’s what I want to reference in the piece, but I don’t want it to be literal. When the rim shots come in, the piece is at its maximum “heavy metal / Tool rip-off moment,” and an actual drum set snare drum would have been too easy a choice. I had been asking simply for a high tom-tom, but it wasn’t cutting enough.
At the dress rehearsal, I heard the Kevlar drum, as Ricardo Lorenz was using it in his piece. Oh. My. God. I loved it. Since it was already on the stage, I asked the guy playing the tom-tom part in my piece to substitute the highest tom with the Kevlar field drum. The result was incredible. At the big climax of the piece — when one player is slamming a trash can into the floor on the back beats — the tom-tom player is playing the fattest rim-shot back beats I’ve ever heard in a concert hall. Plus, he’s playing all of them with his left hand, even though the drum is on his right, so there’s a great visual of this huge stick crossing on each back beat. The moment only lasts 4 measures, but it’s the money shot of the whole piece. So to speak.
For the occasion of this commission — the opener for MSU’s CBDNA concert — the piece needed to serve the purpose that a good concert opener serves: from the moment Sedatole gives the first downbeat, the piece needs to bitch slap, with a wall of sound, shouting “we’re here, beeyatch.” I had reservations about the piece before I heard it, though. I felt like I really didn’t need to be writing another big, balls-to-the-walls piece (my Napoleonic Testosterone Music, I like to call it), but I felt more like writing something lyrical. Having a title like “Asphalt Cocktail” meant the piece couldn’t be all flowers, birds, and Girl Scout cookies. (Yay, Thin Mints!) I was worried that this piece, which seems to match the aggression of Turbine, would start to pigeonhole me.
Then I remembered a conversation I had with John Corigliano a few years ago. I played him my piece, “Juba,” which was new at the time. John really seemed to like the piece — he even asked for a copy of the score, which he’d never done for any of my other pieces — but I told him that I should probably stop writing music like that. “Too much of my music is all about rhythmic drive and aggression. I should stop that and do something else.” John’s response was not what I expected. He said, “But you write this kind of music really, really well — better than anybody else I can think of. I don’t think you should stop writing music like this that’s true to you, especially if you do it this well. A lot of composers don’t do anything well.”
Still, a change in style is a good thing. My current piece — the one I’m writing for Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia — is completely different. It’s lyrical and shiny, where Asphalt Cocktail is aggressive and crunchy. But hearing Asphalt Cocktail in the hall last week, I was excited about it. Kind of over-the-top excited. I know that a lot of people truly dislike “Turbine,” thinking it’s too loud, and those people will absolutely hate “Asphalt Cocktail.” (I like to describe “Asphalt Cocktail” as being similar to “Turbine” — but without the benefit of a soaring melody.) If your taste leans more towards Air Supply than Disturbed, this may not be the piece for you. But I love both. There’s something satisfying about listening to “Lost in Love” followed immediately by “Down with the Sickness.”
But what about the actual drink — the Asphalt Cocktail?
John Madden, director of the Spartan Band, worked on the creation.
He tried two combinations. One was black vodka, Grand Marnier, and club soda. That one was okay, but the second combo, dark drum, chambord, and club soda, was much better.
There’s talk of serving actual Asphalt Cocktails at the reception following the premiere, so we need to get this right. I was considering holding a contest to “Create the Asphalt Cocktail,” but I worry that I’d get a bunch of entries from high school students and get everybody in trouble.
One thing that was perfect: The Asphalt Cocktail Cake. How much do I love this?! (Newman is kicking himself for not requesting some back end on the merchandising for this piece.) Yes, the car is driving towards a MSU shot glass.
Side note — I tried ordering an Asphalt Cocktail at two different bars in San Antonio last weekend. One place gave me something normally called “The Gotham,” which wasn’t bad. The other place just gave me a Black Russian. You know what tastes like ass? A Black Russian.
The bad news is that I won’t be posting a recording of the pre-premiere performance of Asphalt Cocktail. I’ve already revised the piece considerably, and I want you to hear the “finished product” when you hear it. Plus, if I shared the recording now, that would spoil the real premiere next month in Austin! I hope you can be there for the premiere, but if not, the piece may be loud enough that you’ll be able to hear it wherever you are…