December 1, 2009
Kentucky and bourbon
Yeah, I know. I haven’t written a blog entry in a long, long time. I finished the Trombone Concerto several weeks ago, and I have had a lot of trouble getting motivated to do much of anything since then. Well, other than play Uncharted 2 and Fallout 3. I really should be working on the next project, but if I don’t take a few weeks off in between pieces, I end up writing an immediate sequel to the previous piece. So I’ve just been playing video games, traveling for gigs, and cooking.
I’m writing this entry from the rather nice library at Kansas State University, where I’ve been since Sunday. I have a concert here tomorrow night, where the Wind Ensemble will perform “Kingfishers Catch Fire” and the Symphony Band will perform “Aurora Awakes.” I’ve had a good time here — the students and staff couldn’t be nicer — and I think the performance will be a good one.
As I mentioned above, I have been traveling a fair amount since the last entry. In late October, I spent several days at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Lexington is horse country.
It’s also near several of the great bourbon distilleries. More on that in a minute.
My dad and his wife drove down to Lexington from northern Ohio and they were there for both performances that week. One night, the Symphonic Band performed “Aurora Awakes,” under the baton of George Boulden, and the next night, the UK Wind Ensemble performed “Redline Tango,” under the baton of Cody Birdwell. There was a survey form inserted into the program for each concert, and my dad filled it out. This, in a nutshell, is my dad.
Yes, my dad really did find out about the concert by Googling me, which he was proud to share on the survey form. He filled it out the same way the next night.
During intermission one night, a few minutes before I was to go on stage to introduce “Redline Tango” to the audience, my dad made a suggestion of what I should tell the audience. “I think you should start with a punchline. You should say, ‘… and the doctor says, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I know a flute teacher who can show you how to finger it.’ ” Thanks, Dad, but I think I’ll save that for the next time I speak at Baylor.
Both concerts were really good. Aurora Awakes is a lot harder than it sounds, but George and the band did a really nice job. It was a lot of fun to work with the Wind Ensemble on “Redline Tango,” a piece which I’ve heard more than any other piece of mine (not surprising, since it’s my oldest piece), but a piece that I don’t get to clinic very often with a group of this level. It’s more the norm now that I coach high school ensembles on this piece, which is kind of hard to believe. When it premiered five years ago, Redline Tango seemed pretty difficult, but now that it’s been around for a while and a lot of people have heard a lot of performances of it, it seems much more approachable just due to familiarity. It’s only a matter of time before some Texas middle school band plays it at UIL… (I’m only half-kidding. A middle school band in Japan performed Redline Tango several years ago. I heart Japan.)
Rehearsing Redline Tango is a very different experience for me than rehearsing Aurora Awakes. With Aurora Awakes, because the piece is so new, I’m extremely particular in rehearsals, trying to get the performance to approximate the platonic version of the piece that lives in my head. In short, I want every articulation to match the MIDI. I want every tempo, every dynamic, all of the part clarity to match… the MIDI. I put so much time into making every tempo, articulation, dynamic, and balance exactly the way I want it in the MIDI that I find myself just trying to recreate that with humans in every rehearsal, at least to this point.
This is how it always goes with a new piece. The problem, if you can consider it a problem, is that people are not machines. And it’s not that I need a performance to be “perfect” in a mechanical sense, but when a piece is still new to me, I need to hear it just once with everything going the way it goes in my head — and the MIDI is the closest to representing what I’m hearing in my head. Once I’ve heard a piece the way I imagine it sounding, I feel like I can let the piece go, and it’s free to be interpreted however the conductor wishes.
Redline Tango is a very different thing. I’ve heard the piece played so many times that it no longer feels like I have anything to do with it at all. It’s like an old sweater that I lend to friends. If I see them wearing the sweater, I appreciate that they’re wearing it (hey! nice sweater!), but I don’t really care what shoes they put with it. Okay, that’s a stupid analogy, but you get the idea. It’s fun for me to listen to Redline Tango, but it’s almost not my piece anymore. Whatever the conductor does with it — short of changing any actual notes — is their call. I’ll give feedback that will hopefully help them play it even better, but I’m not so emotionally invested in every note now that I am personally hurt if it doesn’t go the way I think it should. When a piece is new, and a performance doesn’t go the way I want it to, I’m extremely disappointed if not depressed. When it’s new, my feeling is, “I want to hear it the way I want it to go.” When it’s been around a while, my feeling changes to, “make it your own and have fun.”
But back to Kentucky! One day was almost totally free, and George Boulden took me, my dad, and my stepmom to one of the local bourbon distilleries — Woodford Reserve.
I’m not really one for bourbon, but the tour was really interesting. There were, as you might guess, a lot of barrels.
Like, a lot.
I learned that bourbon contains grains. Or something. (I was drunk for most of the tour.)
Ever wonder what 7500 gallons of fermenting grain looks like? Basically, it looks like this. Surprisingly, it smelled pretty good.
They purify the bourbon in these enormous copper stills. (These three stills were probably 18 feet tall.)
Did I mention the barrels?
It was a great tour. At the end, of course, you get to sample the product. It made my throat and chest burn, which is less fun than it sounds.
The next trip was to Atlanta and Georgia State University. More on that soon… Maybe tomorrow!