The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

A Bedroom Becomes a Small Art Studio

When we first bought the house, I claimed one of the bedrooms as my home office. Decades of working at home, writing books, listening to music, messing around with making art, organizing my thoughts, creating pencil roadmaps for my company, and much more. Recently, another bedroom became free and I decided to build myself a modest art studio. Admittedly, the idea is pretentious and perhaps unnecessary–at best, I am a weekend artist–but I absolutely love the separation of art from my other business. And I am spending more and more time in this luxurious 10 foot by 12 foot getaway.

The room was a boys’ bedroom, and I just finished the job by removing the curtains with the baseball team logos. I’m still scraping the Mystery Science Theater logos off the window. But otherwise, the place is mine. Perhaps my process will be useful to others.

I started by creating as much open desk space as possible. IKEA to the rescue: a pair of white Limmnon 79-inch long, 23 inch deep desktops, each costing $45. One for each long wall, plus an ALEX 9-drawer white cabinet for storage, and a variety of old storage cubes recaptured from the basement and from other rooms. So far, I have not found the perfect roll-around task chair–a future project. The bookcases remained in place–the white Billy shelf units that are both inexpensive and look great.

Most larger art supply stores and websites carry BEST easels. I found mine at Rochester Art Supply, which does business online at http://www.fineartstore.com

So far, I’ve managed to spend time and money on pastel painting, drawing, and watercolor painting. Pastels are best done on a substantial easel, and that became the room’s centerpiece. I wanted something sturdy that would, hopefully, last for years. I always needed a special sort of easel that would allow me to lean the artwork forward so the dust would fall from the pastel painting. Options were limited, and ultimately the decision came down to two easels, both made in the U.S.A. by BEST and distributed by Jack Richeson (of Wisconsin). I like the simplicity and lightweight design, and the price, of the Deluxe Lobo (over $200), but I wanted something more substantial, perhaps with some additional control. The answer: the Halley Easel (over $450), far sturdier and more versatile, too. If I intended to stow the easel between sessions, the Lobo would have been just fine, but the Halley seems to raise my own expectations for myself, as high-quality tools often do.

Next issue: lighting. There were two bedroom windows, north-facing, but they didn’t provide much light for work during the day (and, of course, they were useless at night). For a larger pastel work, I needed substantial illumination from above and behind me. It was worth thinking this through. I started by clamping old inexpensive photography lights–the kind used by every student because they’re inexpensive, onto the top shelf of the bookcase. I replaced them with smaller versions of the same thing, and spent about $40, including daylight bulbs (once quite hard to find and expensive, they’re now common and cheap).

The flood lights were wonderful for work at the easel, but far too bright for every day room lighting, and totally useless for watercolor and drawing at the desk, I researched task lights–somewhat unfamiliar to me–and found a very cool company called Daylight. They make lights for all sorts of very specific tasks–that is, lights that can focus illumination on close-up jobs like sewing and applying make-up–jobs that require odd angles, or a lot of light in a very small space.For watercolor and drawing, I want a concentrated pool of light in the work area, but I don’t want to light up the whole room (which can be distracting).

The new Luminos ($350) updates the old architect’s fluorescent tube lamp with daylight bulbs, three levels of illumination (including a high-output setting that’s too bright for normal use but a wonder for very close work), and a strong but flexible arm with a long reach (long enough for me to swing it from the desk to the easel). The demo video is instructive. Daylight also makes a nice assortment of desk and floor lamps, and I decided to try the Slimline table lamp ($150) for the second desk–the throw is smaller, and perfect for the smaller work I tend to do at the second desk. Admittedly, these lamps cost more than the typical desk lamp, but they are extremely well-built, durable, and most important, they provide the kind of high-quality illumination that’s necessary to do your best work. I learned a lot about lighting through experimentation with these instruments–initially, I admit to being skeptical of the need for sophisticated task lighting, but I am now thoroughly converted and would prefer not to work any other way.

Next up: keeping the place clean. Watercolors are easy–I make a mess on the surface of the IKEA desktops, and I just wipe up with a paper towel. Pastels are a constant challenge–the dust circulates throughout the room and ends up everywhere. Since the room is carpeted (probably foolish, but I couldn’t justify the expense of new flooring). I bought a desk chair pad–a big piece of plastic–from IKEA and placed it under the easel. I also attached some double-sided tape just beneath the pastel painting area, and that picks up the dust. I bought two inexpensive mini-screens so I could prop open the two windows, at least during the warmer seasons. But there was still dust, participles that are not especially healthy if they are in abundance. I considered wearing some sort of mask, but that’s not the best way to encourage leisure-time painting. Then, I started to learn about air purifiers. Good solution!

Learning about these devices is not something you can do quickly. Typically, an air filtration system draws the unwanted particles into a filter, which must be replaced from time to time. U.S. Government Department of Energy standards require a HEPA filter to 99.97% of all 0.3 micron particles from the air that passes through the filter. (From Rabbit Air: “Although companies do not claim anything beyond 0.3 microns due to the difficulty of measuring/testing for particles under that size, it is generally assumed that any HEPA filter is more efficient at trapping smaller or larger particulates than 0.3 microns due to filtration research.”You must also be concerned about how quietly the filtering system does its work–some can be quite noisy. And you must consider the size of the space to be filtered. All of this is explained in various articles, worth reading.

Initially, I thought I wanted the a filtering system in the Artist Series (from $520) from Rabbit Air. They’re well-built and they look great. A closer look at my specific needs told me that I’d found the right company, but the BioGS (from $370) was a better fit. Here’s a look at both of them (click on the picture for a link to each web page.)

There is a lot of useful information on the Rabbit Air pages–it’s worth an hour to understand everything.

What else? Plenty of time to organize too many art supplies. The need for pleasant music (mission accomplished thanks to some forgotten stereo equipment in the basement). And–big discovery, however obvious it may seem–once a painting is complete, it needs to live somewhere. When I kept all of the finished work in a box flat box, this was not a problem. Now, I felt the need to display recent work, if for no reason except my own assessments. Once again, IKEA provided a solution: 45-inch long Mosslandia “picture ledges” (just reduced: now just $9.99– and I hope they’re not being discontinued).

The conversion from boy’s bedroom to small art studio took about a year. Why so long? I’ve never done this before, so I allowed plenty of time for experimentation, bad ideas and failed attempts. Seems to me, this is sort of thing you’ve got to grow into–find what’s comfortable for you and the way you prefer to work. Keep the expenses as low as possible for most everything–but allow time and money to investigate and invest in proper lighting, proper work surfaces (the easel was a terrific decision), and expect the unexpected (I never would have considered an air purifier, but it’s a wise addition). Of course, it’s easy to become obsessed with the space and never actually get any work done (I’ll confess to some of that), but once the space is complete, what a pleasure to have someplace to go do what I enjoy. A place for grow. A child’s room. For an adult.

A Clever New Way to Play Records

3c8017d58837b3a633a260de50c535e5_originalYou’re looking at a very clever approach to playing LPs. No turntable required. Just place the LP on a flat surface, and the RokBlock will drive itself along the grooves. Totally busts any expectation about what a record player ought to be. Use it anywhere!

So here’s the deal. This is an active Kickstarter campaign–they have already met their goal. The RokBlock contains amplification and loudspeakers, so this is all you need. Of course, you can use the built-in Bluetooth to send the sound over to any Bluetooth device–a headphone, a better wireless speaker, even your high-end stereo system.

No, this won’t sound anything as good as a proper sound system, but most people don’t want / cannot afford / could care less about being an audio phone. Most people just want to have some fun and listen to some music. Anywhere. And now there’s a way to do that.

If you want one, the best available KickStarter deal costs $79–that’s still 20% off of the expected $99 retail price. But you, like anyone who orders, will have to wait until September 2017 before the box arrives.

There’s a rechargeable battery that lasts about 4 hours. You can play 33 and 45 rpm records (but not 78s rpm).

It’s a cute gimmick, a clever example of creative thinking in action. Without one in my hands, it’s tough to imagine the sound quality. I’m sure it’s no worse than an old record player, and my guess is that this will sound better than those early devices.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 8: Listening to Beethoven–or Do CDs Sound Better than LPs?)

Or do LPs sound better than CDs? Or, in the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Or is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation?

Just for fun, we decided to listen to several recordings of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (also known as Eroica). Just about every recording was an award winner, or the work of a notable conductor working with one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestras. People who are serious about their two-channel stereo systems often use classical recordings to test their systems because (a) the instruments are acoustic, unadorned by digital special effects, and (b) by and large, classical recordings are made by serious engineers working to the high standards of deeply experienced conductors and label executives.

karajan-beethove-3-dgWe started with one of the past century’s best–Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1961-2 for Deutsche Grammophon. I had just picked up a $4 LP, in very good shape, from Bop Shop Records in Rochester, NY. And I was anxious to do some critical listening with a more sophisticated phono stage pre-amplifier, the Sutherland Insight (which will be the topic of an upcoming article). Everything else in my system remained as it has been for nearly twenty years, except a replacement phono cartridge that’s easily five years old, the Shure Vx15. A very good system, but not an extravagant setup. We would be able to hear the recordings clearly. And we planned to test both LPs and CDs from various eras, various labels, to determine which we liked best. Not a scientific survey, but a reasonable way to spend a winter afternoon.

So: Karajan… Energetic, punchy, but the instruments were not clearly delineated from one another. The record looked pretty new, but we heard a lot of clicks and pops. Not much energy in the mid-highs or the mid-lows. A violin section sounded like a single, thick violin. Some strain evident–the playback was not as stable or confident as I hoped it would be. All in all, not we had hoped for.

eroica-bernstein2Next up: Leonard Bernstein from the same. Era. This was my LP, purchased decades ago, kept in it boxed set, played maybe ten times. This was a master work from Columbia Records at the label’s prime. The performance is ambitious, engaging, flowing–but the sound of the horns and the strings was compressed, very limited in highs and lows. We wanted to hear the depths of Beethoven explored by Bernstein in his prime–but the recording let us down.

eroica-toscanini1Before going modern, we decided to go for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, first on LP and then on CD, recorded in 1949–before stereo recording was available. This was state-of-the-art at the time, but the dynamic range was so limited on these recordings, they did not stand up to modern listening. Historical interest only.

colin-davis-beethoven-symI had high hopes for my treasured 1995 CD set from Colin Davis and the Staastkapelle Dresden. Sure enough the CD really delivered–a full range of highs, lows and everything in-between. Wonderful placement of instruments. Lots of clarity, distinct individual violins and basses, just the right horn sounds. I was excited–but somehow, the listening experience was a few marks less than thrilling. After Karajan and Bernstein, the passion felt a little lacking. A fine performance is not the same as a thrilling performance, and when I’m listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, I want to be thrilled. But the sound was more satisfying here than it was on any of the LPs.

Two more shots. Strangely, it’s the same Dresden orchestra, this time led by Herbert Blomstedt in the 1970s and released by the lesser-known Berlin Classics. Again, very good orchestra, very good conductor. This is digitally remastered, perhaps a strike against. The sound is a little thin, not as robust as the Karajan LP, but the performance is full-bodied and fun, if a little slow. The horns sound like horns, the violins sound like violins, there some separation between instruments, and it’s fun. Some of the highs are not reproducing perfectly, but they’re more than acceptable. And it’s a remastered CD. If there’s any logic to the argument that CDs are better than LPs, or vice-versa, I can’t even remember what I was supposed to think.

beethoven0371Now here’s my last one. It’s a digital remaster from 1963, a CD box that I didn’t even know I owned. It’s the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig led by Franz Konwitschny, a notable if not famous European leader. And it’s very good. The energy is there, the instruments sound like real instruments, and it’s compelling. And it’s a remastered CD. I’m listening now, and overall, it’s just plain better than anything else I’ve heard today.

How is this possible? A world class LP from one of the world’s most revered Beethoven conductors on one of the world’s most meticulous record labels, played on a very good stereo system, ought outdistance everything else in the category. Right?

Let’s give Karajan from 1962 another try. As it happens, I just found a box of all 9 Beethoven symphonies, on DG (Deutsche Grammophon), that I bought in very clean condition for $8. (The box was misfiled; I just spotted it.) I’m getting up to remove Konwitschny from the CD player to play a record–and I’m finding that I really want to listen to that CD. I’m engaged, involved…but I also want to finish and publish this article.

From the start, the Karajan is very good. The orchestra is towering, formidable, lovely and sensitive, propulsive. The musicians are spectacular. When the orchestra gets busy on a thick and aggressive passage, my room is filled with life and extreme energy. But the strings are thinner, the horns are less clearly defined, the highs not quite right, the lows are not offering quite the thrill I just heard on CD.

I want to hear this classic record properly, but I am maxing-out the capabilities of my current stereo system. My sense is that the Karajan, and probably the Bernstein, can and will sound better, perhaps much better, if I swap my lower-priced (though highly-regarded) cartridge for something better, a cartridge that excels in presenting mid-highs and mid-lows now so understated when I audition these LPs. I also hope the horns will be more stable, the strings and complicated passages reproduced without the strain that I can now hear too clearly, and the tympani will hit me in the solar plexus.

Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs.

At the same time, I am more and more confident that my CD player, though 20 years old, sounds quite wonderful, holding its own against my rapidly-improving analog phono setup. I hold the other components in equally high esteem. I am especially pleased with the improvements made possible by the Sutherland Insight, now holding the place long held by an inexpensive but competent phono stage–as a result of the Insight, I can hear all of my LPs with far greater clarity, punch, and fidelity to original instrument sounds.

Back to the original questions:

Do LPs sound better than CDs? – Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs. The answer depends upon the quality of the performance, the quality of the recording, and as we’ll see in future articles, the quality of the manufactured CD or LP (the pressing, etc.)

In the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Yes. Almost always. Except when the performance is so special, even a crappy recording does not detract from the pleasure of listening.

Is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation? Oh, there’s a plenty good answer. A very good performance on a very good LP can be spectacular, and the same is true of a very good CD. The quality of the equipment matters as much as the quality of the recording. And you can GREATLY increase the quality of the LP with surprising ease–by washing it. More on that in an upcoming article.

 

 

Imagine the Possibilities, Again

Funny thing. I was searching for some good quotes about possibility and impossibility. I did a Google search. And I found my way back to my own blog. I forgot about this article, and I’m glad to repost it nearly three years after it first appeared. Well worth reading a second time. Especially as we begin a new year, perhaps one that’s beginning with some questions about our future.

I think I like 37 and 50 best, but there are a lot of wonderful ideas on this list.

—-

From the innovation consulting firm Idea Champions, Fifty Awesome Quotes on Possibility:

1. “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – St. Francis of AssisiWoman reaching for star

2. “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll

3. “The Wright brother flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility.” – Charles Kettering

4. “In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” – Miguel de Cervantes

5. “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.” – Henry Moore

6. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible!” – Walt Disney

7. “I am where I am because I believe in all possibilities.” – Whoopi Goldberg

8. “What is now proved, was once only imagined.” – William Blake

9. “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

10. “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” – Arthur C. Clarke

11. “Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.” – John Andrew Holmes

12. “God created a number of possibilities in case some of his prototypes failed. That is the meaning of evolution.” – Graham Greene

13. “Whether you believe you can or not, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

14. “Most people are not really free. They are confined by the niche in the world that they carve out for themselves. They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision.” – V.S. Naipaul

15. “I don’t regret a single excess of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.” – Henry James

16. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

17. “The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” – John Sculley

18. “One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king.” – Abraham Maslow

19. “The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.” – George Bernard Shaw

20. “We all have possibilities we don’t know about. We can do things we don’t even dream we can do.” – Dale Carnegie

21. “An optimist expects his dreams to come true; a pessimist expects his nightmares to.” – Laurence J. Peter

22. “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” – Margaret Drabble

23. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein

24. “I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist.” – Max Lerner

25. “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!” – Soren Kierkegaard

26. “All things are possible until they are proved impossible. Even the impossible may only be so, as of now.” – Pearl S. Buck

27. “Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.” – Cher

28. “This has always been a motto of mine: Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.” – Bette Davis

29. “You and I are essentially infinite choice-makers. In every moment of our existence, we are in that field of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices.” – Deepak Chopra

30. “Some people see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not?'” – George Bernard Shaw

31. “The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” – John Lennon

32. “I love those who yearn for the impossible.” – Goethe

33. “Every man is an impossibility until he is born.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

34. “If you can’t, you must. If you must, you can.” – Tony Robbins

35. “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” – Aristotle

36. “If someone says can’t, that shows you what to do.” – John Cage

37. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

38. “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.” – Mark Twain

39. “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” – Louis D. Brandeis

40. “The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.” – Emily Dickinson

41. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

42. “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison

43. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” – Les Brown

44. If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau

45. “Everything you can imagine in real.” – Picasso

46. “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” – Martin Luther

47. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” – James Dean

48. “I don’t dream at night, I dream all day. I dream for a living.”
– Steven Spielberg

49. “The shell must break before the bird can fly.” – Alfred Tennyson

50. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel

The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray…

The rats on the street all dance round my feet
They seem to say, “Tracy, it’s up to you”
So, oh, oh don’t hold me back
‘Cause today all my dreams will come true

Good morning Baltimore!…
There’s the flasher who lives next door
There’s the bum on his bar room stool
They wish me luck on my way to school

A solid opening number for a solid Broadway musical. Oversized girl with a big heart is ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, the mechanical mice at her feet were too small, the flasher traded his dignity for a silly dance, and the bum overplayed his tiny scene.

Hstairspray Live cast

Hstairspray Live cast

The big show–more than 50 cameras–was in some trouble when it began. Then, Corny Collins showed up with a very snappy dance number, well-staged and glittery, and there was good reason for optimism. When Kristen Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Ariana Grande shared the stage with three lesser-knowns on “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” I started thinking, this is going to be fun! Maddie Baillio–Hairspray Live’s Tracy–was credible singing “I Can Hear the Bells,” but the staging (fake Christmas bells) was not appropriately cheesy–the tone of the design was off by a noticeable degree, as if the creative directors did not quite get the kind of humor that John Waters, Harvey Fierstein and others on the core team intended. Ms. Baillio looked the part, sang reasonably well, and danced well enough, but I found myself longing for the spark in Nikki Blonsky’s eyes, the sense of humor and absurdity in every word she sang in the movie version of this special musical. The subversive lines lift “Hairspray” from just another musical into something vaguely sinister. Still, Ms. Baillio did competent work on “Welcome to the Sixties”–perhaps without some of the sass, but with Harvey Fierstein nearby, I was satisfied.

The “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number has never been a favorite, and although I believe in the magic of Kristen Chenoweth, the number continued to leave me wondering why it wasn’t cut or replaced years ago. The “crabs” joke is funny, and she used her hands to suggest an absurd crab in a reasonably skillful manner, but I sure wish she had more raw material.

Oh–time for a commercial. How about a bunch of commercials? How about every song or two? No better way to enjoy a full live presentation of a musical theater show than to watch as many commercial breaks as possible. How to make that worse? How about some insipid commentary by an overenthusiastic and utterly unnecessary commentator telling us how the performers are getting on a tram, or explaining that the people we’re seeing on the screen are enhancing the home audience experience via tweeting. Ugh. NBC, how about stepping up and doing what you did before. Limited commercial interruption. This is theater, not a football game.

Ah, but Harvey Fierstein! If anybody understands the twisted humor and social activism agenda, it’s the man who so expertly performed Tracy’s mom, Edna. After suffering through John Travolta’s mugging and occasional creative success in the movie version, Mr. Fierstein changed the game for me. I finally understood the role, and he managed to clearly articulate every one of his funny little lines, asides, grimaces, body moves, and other silliness. Given the director’s overeagerness for rapid cutting, and the crew’s tendency to miss lighting and audio cues, and the overall sense that cutaways needed to be fast regardless of what the performer was doing at the time, Mr. Fierstein got every move onto the TV screen. He was uniformly terrific–so good, in fact, that I left the TV screen for a bit to check out the very limited video of him performing Tevye in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Gosh, he’s great. And he wrote a lot of “Hairspray” in its various versions.

I’m not much of a Martin Short fan because he often overdoes it–too much style, even for satire–but he, too, was excellent in this production. Watching Mr. Fierstein and Mr. Short perform “You’re Timeless to Me” was just about the best part of the evening. It was simple: two people on stage, singing and dancing, and sometimes, doing lines. It felt like a Broadway musical–straightforward, relying upon sheer talent and excellent material (not a gigantic cheering crowd). Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are old hands at staging Broadway musicals for television–and I wonder how they felt when they experienced this bit of Broadway magic sandwiched in-between, well, a dozen more commercials, and, perhaps, a longing to bring these productions back to the New York City area where, at least to my eyes, the whole company and crew treated past productions (“The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan”) with respect and wonder. In L.A., this just felt like another bloated TV show.

But then, there’s Jennifer Hudson belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and later, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and there’s the magic again. The dancers are excellent. The sense of social change in the racial integration scenes worked, but it lacked the energy and authenticity that the movie version captured so well. I can’t help but wonder how much time it took to rehearse more than fifty cameras, and how much of that time might have been better used in sharpening the characterizations (many of the “negro” characters were rendered in two dimensions–even the knife scene fell flat) and the staging.


Worst staging goes to the jailhouse scene which was badly designed, badly lit, and badly directed–a trifecta of high school theater style in what should have been a turning point. Many dramatic moments fell flat.

But–oh wait, time for a bunch more commercials and insipid cheering from sideline crowds–okay, we’ll be back in a moment.

(Deep breath).

Give ’em a great closing and they’ll forgive you for anything. The show’s signature song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” became a gigantic dance party, lots of fun, very messy staging, difficult to hear some of the lines, but heck, it was terrific anyway.

Except: remember Ariana Grande? Brilliant performer. Lovely actress. Great sense of style. Small, though. Small girl in a big show. Often cut out of frame, or suffering from those fast cutaways that the directing team favored. If you get the opportunity to watch this program again, keep an eye on her. She played her role with subtlety and brilliance–and I wish we had been able to see more of her. Unfortunately, her final scene (over curtain calls and credits), singing alongside Jennifer Hudson, was poorly engineered and perhaps poorly selected for her voice. Lots of unused potential here.

In closing, some notes to NBC and to the producers:

1. Cut down the number of cameras and big sets. Nobody cares.

2. Focus on performance, not spectacle.

3. More close-ups! So often, we saw a good dance number that would have been a great dance number if you added closeups. More than 50 cameras–you should have been able to get the close-up job done! (More reaction shots, too–but you need allow lots of rehearsal time to get them right.)

4. The next time you hire Kristen Chenoweth, give her a great song to sing. The next time you hire Ariana Grande, make sure we see her on camera a lot.

5. Move the production back to New York.

6. One commercial break at the beginning, one during intermission, one at the end.

7. No big sideline crowd. No extra host. Completely unnecessary.Put the money into extra rehearsal time.

8. Think twice about doing “Bye Bye Birdie” next year. The teen dancing is fun, but a show built upon the craziness of a new Elvis appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show might not possess the appeal that you imagine.

THANKS for doing this. Sorry for a review that’s not entirely positive, but given the enormity of your enterprise, we all offer congratulations for all that you did so well. And the fact that you’ve done this at all is a kind of a miracle.

Hey Netflix? Time to step up.

An Exuberant New Thing

Sly and Famly StoneA few months back, I found an old album by Sly and the Family Stone. They were a group I liked, but I never knew much about them. Next year marks fifty years (!) since Sly formed the multi-racial band, so now’s a good time to dig deeper.

By 1967, Sly (a boyhood friend misspelled Sylvester as Slyvester; the nickname stuck with him) was 26 years old, a San Francisco disc jockey on a soul station who played music from both Black and White artists. Sly had already produced several minor hit songs, formed and performed in several local band including the multi-ethnic Viscaynes. Times were changing very quickly—especially in the Bay Area—and Sly was well-connected because his influence via radio station KSOL was growing.

The first album by Sly and the Family Stone didn’t do much on the charts, but it’s clever, innovative, funky, and a whole lotta fun. The first single, “Underdog” starts out with a slow version of “Frere Jacques,” then rolls into a rap-like rhythm supported by power horns and a chanting chorus. There’s some gospel in there, too. Listen: this is fifty years old, but it sounds fresh, not at all dated. “I Cannot Make It” is the other popular track from 1967’s A Whole New Thing, and it opens with a vocal similar to “I am the Walrus” (same year). And then, the hits start coming—you probably know just about every one of them because they’ve never really left the world stage.

The fun begun with “Dance to the Music”—#8 on the Billboard Pop Chart and #9 on the Billboard R&B Chart—“listen to the voices!” with that screaming voice, the little bobbing a capella voices, the low down deep voice, the jumping back and forth between Stax, Motown, psychedelia, the big horn section, the get-up-and-dance, the complex jumping back and forth between musical ideas, in just three minutes. These guys are having such a great time making a new kind of music—and the public loves it! Black listeners (#9 on the Billboard R&B charts) and White listeners, too (#8 on the Billboard Pop Charts). The energy is so rich, so contagious—and still so free from the rigidity of corporate music production (that comes later). “Fun” from 1968 keeps the grove — “When I party, I party hearty, fun is on my mind, put a smile upon your face…there’s a sister there’s a brother having fun with each other”— driven by the kind of free-style audio production that looked beyond the traditional concepts of musical arrangements and formality. “ “M’Lady” sounds like a party going on. “Life” is a carnival that begins with a barker, then two, laughing at each other, big horns, a gigantic consciousness raising high—“Life – tell it like it is— you don’t have to die before you live!!”

Y4CDSS006The youthful exuberance is gone, the social awareness is increasing, the production is slicker by 1969’s “Stand” — “you’ve been sitting much too long—there’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong!” – “there’s a midget standing tall, and a giant beside him about to fall!” It feels a bit dated, a golden oldie, a solid memory but the controlled chaos and the crazy audio production is a thing of the past. From the same album (called Stand), there’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People”— probably the group’s high water mark— and both of those songs bind the no-holds-barred past with the glossier, socially consciousness future. The same album’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (same lyric, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger”) is a sincere push toward revolution.

And the hits just kept on coming: “You Can Make It If You Try”— the band’s optimism was always a joy— and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” are wonderful, timeless in their way. And now we’re having fun: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and the anthem, “Everybody Is a Star.” That’s all pre-1970. A lot happened in just three years.

With the 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On, The Family Stone reminds us of its roots with “Family Affair” — very AM-radio friendly, positive, bringing the community together in the best way: “One child grows up to be somebody who just loves to learn” “Newlywed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out” “Nobody wants to be left out” “You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there” — a warm, cozy number that feels dated, but, it’s sincere. That song reached #1 on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. There’s a similar song called “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” that’s more ambitious, kinda jazzy and bluesy, and although it charted, too, it’s not a song most people remember. In fact, I don’t remember any of the songs that followed on the charts from 1971 through 1975.

Those later songs are very good—some are vaguely familiar—but they lack the early energy. Instead, there’s a laid back funk, very appealing combinations of electric guitar and horns, a funky stoner groove that’s easy to enjoy time and again, decades after it was produced. It feels original, not at all derivative because the band always led, rarely followed. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the later material, and how nicely it has stood multiple plays while tooling down highways that did not exist when this music was made.

So what happened to Sly and the Family Stone? Trouble became evident as early as 1969 when a combination of influence from Black militants and the drug culture destroyed key creative relationships. By 1970, Epic Records gave up on the possibility of a promised (contracted) new album and released an early Greatest Hits album to keep the market alive. By 1975, the group’s fans had abandoned the possibility of Sly and his band actually showing up for concerts—a big show at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall left most tickets unsold. The downhill slide continued—the sad story is well-told in a Wikipedia article.

Certainly, music historians have written about the huge influence of Sly on several generations of artists, how rap and hip hop trace back to Sly and the Family Stone. That’s all fascinating, but the real story here is the freshness and magnetism of music produced fully a half century ago.

Can’t help but wonder. If it was 1967 today, and I was blogging, would I be writing about the amazing musicians of 1917? I’m guessing no. Sly was something special.

 

 

The Magic of Musicals, from the Inside

“Not every show has an ‘I Want’ song. Or a conditional love song, or a main event, or even an 11 o’clock number. But most do.”

The terminology may be unfamiliar, but the ideas are not.

A Broadway-style musical begins with an Overture, except when it doesn’t. Is the overture the lightning bolt that energizes the whole enterprise? Or is a divine spirit that visits a particular script, score, director, performer, ensemble, or theater?

Form matters. That’s the mantra of Jack Viertel who wrote a book with the odd title, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. He’s the Artistic Director of Encores!, responsible for the simple re-staging of three musicals every year for Broadway-literate audiences. During the recent past, Encores! has produced and presented “1776,” Do I Hear a Waltz, Cabin in the Sky, Zorba!, Paint Your Wagon, Lady Be Good!, Fiorello!, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley—mostly shows from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. As for more recent shows, Viertel questions their meanderings away from proper form and structure.

He is a man who has helped to construct magic—his credits include Hairspray, Angels in America and After Midnight—so his opinions are both well-formed and well-informed. He has credibility. I learned a lot by reading his book, in part for professional purposes, but mostly because he’s an terrific teacher with a subject that fascinates me.
In his words: “How do you begin a show?” How does a musical greet the audience at the door? How do creative artists introduce the characters, set the tone, communicate point of view, create a sense of style, a milieu? Do you begin with the story, the subject, the community in which the story is set, the main characters?”

enmjW_the-secret-life-of-the-american-music....jpeg.220x0_q85_autocrop_crop-smart_upscaleSince overtures “have become a rarity today,” the opening number carries the weight. Originally, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum began with “a sweet little soft shoe about how romance tends to drive people nuts” but that misled the audience because the show was not about romance or charm, but instead, a boisterous vaudevillian take on three Roman comedies. Critics and audiences don’t enjoy mixed messages, so the reviews were lousy and the audiences stayed away. The creative team—a top-notch group that included Larry Gelbart, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, George Abbott, and Burt Shevelove—didn’t know what to do. They asked director Jerome Robbins what he thought. He asked Sondheim (music, lyrics) to write something “neutral… Just write a baggy pants number and let me stage it.” Viertel: “He didn’t want anything brainy or wisecracking, but he did want to tell the audience exactly what it was in for: lowbrow slapstick carried out by iconic character types like the randy old man, the idiot lovers, the battle-axe mother, the wiley slave and other familiar folks. Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight” as a typically bouncy opening number, but he couldn’t resist his clever muse, and so, the “neutral” number’s lyrics go like this:

Pantaloons and tunics,

Courtesans and eunuchs,

Funerals and chases,

Baritones and basses,

Panderers,

Philanderers,

Cupidity,

Timidity…

You get the idea. (Go listen to the song! It’s terrific.)
Another show provides the textbook example of Broadway construction. The opening scene in Gypsy is a mirror image of the closing conceit—and both are built around the song, “Let Me Entertain You!” (Sondheim wrote those lyrics, too!)

Unknown.jpegAnother simulates the movement of a train pulling into River City, Iowa a century ago—serving to introduce the flimflam man named Professor Harold Hill—“Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods…look, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk?…”to set the stage for The Music Man. Similarly Cabaret begins with the multi-lingual “Wilkommen” and Fiddler on the Roof begins with “Tradition.”

Some shows combine the traditional role of the opening number with the inevitable song that follows, called the “I Want” song. “Good Morning Baltimore!” provides a taste of what Tracy wants in Hairspray, but A Chorus Line is more direct in its use of I Want in its opening number:

Chorus-Line-Weston.jpg

God I hope I get it.

I hope I get it.

How many people does he need…

I really need this job.

Please, God, I need this job.

I’ve got to get this job!”

hqdefaultIn Annie, the I Want song is “Maybe”– the orphan dreams of her parents. In Gypsy, the “I Want” song is “Some People,” and in “West Side Story,” it’s “Something’s Comin’” In Hamilton, it’s “My Shot.” It’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in My Fair Lady and “Somewhere That’s Green” in Little Shop of Horrors. Note the consistency of a place far away as a device to express desire—“ Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid follows the same pattern.

The conditional love song comes next—or follows shortly after. “If I Loved You” from Carousel, ”I’ve imagined every bit of him / From his strong moral fiber / To the wisdom in his head / To the homely aroma of his pipe..” sets up the unlikely romance between a gambler and a Salvation Army worker in Guys and Dolls.And now, things become complicated. (Heck, you could write a book about it…) There is “The Noise” — “a pure expression expression of energy” that’s intended to be, mostly, fun, without much consideration for story. Try, for example, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly. Then, the plot thickens, a secondary romance is introduced, unexpected obstacles, confusion that must be resolved within the next hour or so. The disappointment—a character has made an unfortunate choice. Tentpoles lead to expanded  audience expectations: “I had a dream / a dream about you, Baby! / It’s gonna come true, Baby! / They think that we’re through, but, Baby…” From at least one character’s point of view, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” but others in Gypsy have their doubts—and when the first act curtain falls, many of the characters are gone, never to be seen again.
b6d1048bcf323255f40fcaf41997abd7Gee, this is fun. Suddenly, every musical I’ve ever seen makes more sense than ever! I could go on about “The Candy Dish,” “The 11 O’Clock Number” and the construction of the ending, but that would make the whole blog article too long. Pace matters.

Buy the book. See the musical(s). If you’re in NYC, buy a ticket to “Encores!” — even if you  don’t know the show, will not be disappointed because now you’ve taken a glimpse backstage, under the hood, inside the dream. It’s all a glorious confection—characters in the midst of the most dramatic adventure of their lives stopping everything to sing their hearts out and dane a lot. Makes no logical sense. But it’s wonderful. And it’s been going on for the better part of a century. And there are people who are very, very good at this particular art form. Every once in a while, it’s nice to celebrate them.

Backstage on Broadway

“No film has ever banked $1 billion at the box office, but three musicals–The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Wicked— have exceeded this benchmark on Broadway.” Globally, Phantom has earned twice as much as the most successful motion picture of all time, Avatar–$12 billion vs. $6 billion. The June 18 issue of The Economist goes on: “Hamilton may cement Broadways’s lead. For information about methodology–and this is fascinating–click on the chart below.

Well-tuned productions

These days, life on Broadway is sweet. Theaters are full. Shows are sold-out. Diversity is abundant. The situation is almost unimaginably different from the early 1970s, when a 60 Minutes report “showed a group of tourists from the South getting off their bus to see a Broadway show–and then getting right back on again because Times Square was so dangerous.” In 1972, Broadway’s largest producer was in a terrible way–J.P. Morgan turned down a $1 million loan, even thought all seventeen Schubert theaters were offered as collateral.

So what happened? It’s a story worthy of a Broadway musical. And it’s fun to read because author and theater columnist so relishes the opportunity to tell that story in his boffo book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.

razzle-dazzle-9781451672169_hrThe turnaround story begins, as it ought to begin, with a pitch from a creative professional to a producer. The two remarkable people in this particular scene are Public Theater producer Joseph Papp and choreographer-director Michael Bennett. Reidel: “Bennett arrived at Papp’s office at the Public Theater carrying a bulky Sony reel-to-reel recorder and several reels of tape. He had nearly twenty-four hours of interviews with Broadway dancers. He thought there might be a show somewhere in those hours and hours of tape. He played some of them for Papp. After to listening to the recordings for forty-five minutes, Papp said, ‘OK, let’s do it.”

In fact, those tapes–the best of them recorded after midnight on January 18, 1974– are still around so we know what was said by Bennett to the other dancers: “I think we’re all pretty interesting, all of you are pretty interesting, and I think there is a show in there somewhere which would be called A Chorus Line.”

In April 16, 1975, the show played its first preview downtown at the Public Theater, a few miles from Broadway. “At the end of the opening number–“I Hope I Get It”–the audience of 299 stood and cheered and cried. In theater circles that night, phones rang off the hook with the news that the Public Theater had a massive hit. (BTW: Decades later, Hamilton was  developed at the same Public Theater.)

Since the Public Theater lacked the necessary funds to move the show to Broadway, they made a deal with the Schuberts. A Chorus Line opened at the 1,400 seat flagship Schubert Theater on July 25, 1975.

In 1974, Broadway theaters sold 6.6 million tickets. In 1976, the number was 8.8 million. Now, Broadway averages 12 million tickets per year–with annual box office receipts exceeding $1 billion. “The Times Square of Midnight Cowboy, of drugs, crime, and prostitution, of crumbling theaters and peep shows, is now one of the world’s leading tourist attractions.” The Times Square neighborhood contributed 11 percent of NYC’s economic output.

Michael Bennett and Joseph Papp are gone now–we lost Bennett to AIDS in 1987 and Papp four years later. Did they “save Broadway?” I like the version of the story where the answer is “yes”–a guy with an idea connected with guy who could raise money, and together, they saved Times Square and helped Broadway to find its heart and soul.

Last week, Broadway responded to the dreadful slaughter in Orlando, Florida by doing what it does best–performing like there’s no tomorrow. If you haven’t seen the video, now’s your chance:

In Praise of Sarah Cooper

I don’t usually post funny little graphics (okay, sometimes I do), but as a CEO of a nonprofit, I certainly recognized the truth in this graphic. It comes from a clever website called The Cooper Review.

I don’t usually repost cute little graphics, but this one deserved special treatment.

I became curious about what The Cooper Review was all about, so I found the source of this graphic and learned about Sarah Cooper. Here’s the start of her bio: “I was born a small blackish child in Jamaica. My mother is half German and my father is half Chinese, which is why I look Colombian. My family moved to Washington, DC when I was three. As soon as I learned to talk I was correcting my parents’ accents and grammar.”

No need to go on and on Sarah’s stuff when it’s only a click away. I did some exploring, and if every item from this former Google designer’s site doesn’t hit the mark, her batting average is really impressive. I especially liked her analysis of nodding behavior at meetings, a good place to begin.

Ms. Cooper’s first book will be published in October. I’m guessing it will become quite popular.

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: