Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Two F. Zappas

Zappa means hoe in Italian.  Jacopo told me that.  Jacopo is Jacopo Franzoni, a fan of all composers named F. Zappa - of which there have been two.  One was Frank Zappa, famous composer and rock star guitarist of the 20th century.  The other was Francesco Zappa, unknown composer and cellist to royalty of the 18th century.

Jacopo recently organized a conference in Milan Italy devoted to both F. Zappas.  Before the conference he interviewed me about the Two Zappas via the miracle of Skype.  Then he edited video from several hours of our conversation down to a concise 8 minute long video.  This was shown at the conference.

If any one thing unites the people of Italy it is that they speak Italian.  Sadly, I know only a few words in Italian and these are all nouns which fall into one of two categories: music (e.g. "fermata") or food (e.g. "martini").  Please don't remind me that these have long since become English words.

To make it easier for those attending the conference to understand my palaver, Jacopo added Italian subtitles to the video.  When he told me that he intended to do this I expressed some curiosity about how I might look that way.  Jacopo replied that I'm much more handsome with Italian subtitles.  I'll let you be the judge.

Here's another of Jacopo's videos in which I appear briefly.  It's the trailer for the conference.  Jacopo called it the "appetizer".

You might notice that Jacopo Franzoni shares billing with Vanni Moretto.  Vanni is a conductor who specializes in Baroque and Classical repertoire.  His ensemble is called Atalanta Fugiens and guess whose music they've recorded.  If you answered F. Zappa you'd be correct.

First, here's some 18th century F. Zappa, a movement from a symphony:

I'm very impressed by the quality of their performance.  I just discovered that Atalanta Fugiens has recorded all six Zappa Symphonies on an album from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.  I look forward to hearing all of them.

Now some 20th century F. Zappa played by the same talented ensemble.

Now back to the 18th century guy.  This is Francesco Zappa's trio Opus One, Number One:

If you dare, compare that to the same music performed 30 years ago by the Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort, Frank Zappa conductor.  "Synclavier Document Encryption" for this was provided by David Ocker, Assistant Director of the consort, who all by himself was actually the entirety of the membership.

I know you can't resist asking "Who was Francesco Zappa"?
I've written about Francesco Zappa before, here.
Francesco has his own website, here.
Fascinating new information about Francesco's life and death, here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Tribute to John Bergamo

One year ago composer, percussionist and CalArts faculty member John Bergamo passed away. He was a talented and inspiring man. Back then I wrote about him in this post.

Last night CalArts held a tribute to John.  It took the form of a concert on which all the music was John's.  Most of the performers were John's students.  Many other alumni were in attendance.  It was a pleasure for me to see and talk to those people who shared the same formative experiences which shaped my own musical life.

Naturally, many pictures were taken.

The concert took place at the Wild Beast, an outdoor high-tech performance space.  (Click on pictures for enlargements.)

Percussionists play multiple instruments - mallets, drums, gongs.  In John Bergamo's world just about anything could become a percussion instrument.  For example, the intermission feature, called On the Edge, was performed on a large metal aircraft engine cowling set up in front of the stage.  Look for it in the first picture.

The caution sign in the next picture is really an instrument, a wobble board played with virtuoso bravura by Gregg Johnson.  (I don't think Gregg and David are related, in spite of both being percussionists and having a common surname.)

The concert began with the CalArts Percussion Ensemble, i.e. current students.  They played John's early 1963 modernist piece entitled Interactions.  It has a modernist title to match.  Interestingly and positively, all the performers were women.  Percussion has been a traditionally male bastion.  I guess the future comes to CalArts first.

Two solo mallet works were on the program.  Three Pieces for the Winter Solstice for vibraphone (1963), performed by Jeff Brenner, is very coloristic and familiar to me.  Five Short Pieces for Marimba, played by Justin DeHart, was written in 2000 in a much more virtuostic manner.  First time I had heard it.

Here's an important fact about all-percussion concerts: it takes great amounts of energy and time to move and adjust the instruments.  Half way through the first half of this concert such a reorganization took place.  I made a video of this non-musical portion of the program.  Why I wonder.  The change was done very efficiently in a soothing blue light; it's like watching a cheap noir movie of avant-garde dance.

The voice you'll hear is that of David Rosenboom, a composer/performer who makes his living as Dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music at the California Institute of the Arts.  His job last night was to talk to the audience about John Bergamo during this particular transition.  David chose to take the very long view, putting John's career as a musician in the context of five millennia of human musical history.  He also talked about snare drum rolls and Christmas music albums.  Meanwhile, the stage is awash with moving performers and stage hands.  Or, if you will, imagine David Rosenboom is performing the part of John Cage, lecturing as a Merce Cunningham-like dance company performs randomly behind him.

I think David Rosenboom's assertion that the era of the imperial composer, one who writes but does not perform music, is coming to an end after 250 years is probably a bit premature.  John Bergamo was definitely a composer and performer, but then again so were Mozart and Beethoven.

Here's my favorite frame of the video.  This was a high tech concert, tastefully over amplified.

In the video they are setting up for a performance by The Repercussion Unit, an all-percussion rock band founded by John Bergamo and a bunch of other friends of mine way back in 1976.  The previous post about John has video from an R-Unit tour of Germany.

Among my pictures of the performance were several long sequences of nearly identical shots.  I was trying to get one where focus was right, the performers weren't moving too much and something interesting was going on.  As it turned out, these shots made for better animated gifs than for still pictures.  You'll have to imagine the music, but you can definitely get a feel for the energy of the performances.

First gif is the Repercussion Unit - left to right Chris Garcia (seated), Jimmy Hildebrant, David Johnson, Larry Stein, (you can see just the head of) Charles Levin, Gregg Johnson, Amy Knoles.  And way on the right is one brief flash of the arm of M.B. Gordy.  Sorry, M.B.

On the second half of the concert there was hand drumming, one of John Bergamo's specialities.  Another performing group, also founded by John, is called the Hands On'Semble.  The members are Randy Gloss, Andrew Grueschow and Austin Wrinkle - also John's students.  Since they went to CalArts during a different decade than I, I'm not sure which face goes with which name or what to call most of their instruments.  They played magnificently along with two colleagues of John's, Swapan Chaudhuri and Houman Poumehdi.  The piece is called Shradhanjali - a Hindustani word which means "thanks to the teachers".

The finale of the concert was John Bergamo's most well-known composition, Piru Bol.  You can hear many different versions of Piru Bole on YouTube.  (The program says "Bol", You Tube says "Bole".  You decide.)  In any case Piru is a city near CalArts where John lived for many years.  Last night it was performed by a large group of percussionists - I count 16 in this picture.

For a while I focused on taking pictures of one quartet - Amy, Larry, Gregg standing and David seated - who had posed themselves artfully together.  Everyone else on stage was putting out this much energy at the same time.

The hand drumming performances were, for me, one of those magical musical moments.  I could hear something great happening without knowing what it was exactly or how it was being done.  I was experiencing the power of music.  It is a strong primal power.  It is the reason music has a 5000 year history and the reason music appears in every culture.  It is the power that long ago made me want to become a musician and, somewhat later, want to study at CalArts.

What I learned by studying music, alas, is that knowing too much about it can make you lose touch with the magic.  Friends of mine have often heard me complain about my education at CalArts.  Although my entire career is based on what I learned at CalArts and the people I met there, I've never really felt satisfied with my education.

Last night, as this performance was coming to an end, I felt tears in my eyes and recognized a strange idea.  I actually thought to myself "Gee, I'm glad I went to CalArts".  There's a first time for everything.  And indeed I am glad I attended CalArts, at least on that certain metaphysical magical musical level that I only get to touch on rare occasions.  The people on the stage of the Wild Beast let me channel a wonderful musical energy one more time.  I hope it happens to me many more times.  I hope it happens to you too.

It was a tribute concert and so there were speeches.  Many of the speakers talked of how John Bergamo had touched their lives through music.  And I knew exactly what they were talking about because John had touched mine as well.  And last night he did it one more time.   The spirit of John Bergamo was on stage at the Wild Beast during this concert.  So was his picture.

And then the concert ended.  You know what they say - every high must have its low.  I walked into the CalArts building, looking for the reception, and confronted a typical CalArts hallway.

Alone in the endless whiteness of hallway hell, you easily can believe that Walt Disney really is buried somewhere under the building.  It's an ART school, a DESIGN school, a MUSIC school, but the architecture can be simply antiseptic.  A little interior decoration - some art on the walls - couldn't hurt, could it?  A sound environment?  Something.

Then at the reception, more pictures were taken.  I like taking pictures of pictures being taken.  Here's one more.

Over the years I've written a number of posts that are tagged CalArts.  Click here to read them all. This is the third time I've ever mentioned David Rosenboom.