Monthly Archives: July 2016

Summertime on Now Is the Time

MayaBeiserUncoveredAt the gateway of August, summertime looks like it will never end—but it won’t be long until it begins to fade. On Now Is the Time, Saturday, July 30th at 9 pm, Dan Becker starts us off with a cut from his Fade album that looks forward and back, ReInvention 1a. Imagine a J. S. Bach invention run through a digital piano with postminimalist leanings, and maybe you can imagine the excitement and quirkiness of this piece. Then, Jennifer Higdon’s Dash for flute, clarinet, and piano is all that and a cloud of dust.

Joseph Fennimore’s Sixteenth Romance for piano is filled with beauty and warmth, and three dances inhabit the introspective Summermusic of Robert Sirota, a pavane, notturno, and round dance. From Emma Lou Diemer’s CD Summer Day, her complete works for violin and piano, is Three Hymns. Diemer accompanies Philip Ficsor here, but as organist she may have played these any number of times for Vacation Bible School: “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

Higdon, also a flutist, returns to really make the solo flute fly in rapid*fire, a tour de force in the repertoire. In Summertime, cellist Maya Beiser covers Janis Joplin, one of the many who had covered Gershwin’s song from Porgy and Bess. This arrangement by Evan Ziporyn is from Beiser’s CD Uncovered.

from Dan Becker: ReInvention 1a 

PROGRAM:
Dan Becker: ReInvention 1a
Jennifer Higdon: Dash
Joseph Fennimore: Sixteenth Romance
Robert Sirota: Summermusic
Emma Lou Diemer: Three Hymns
Jennifer Higdon: rapid*fire
Gershwin/Joplin/Evan Ziporyn: Summertime

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

All the Hits of the ’60s

[First published in the Broad Street Review 27 Jul 2016. Reprinted here by permission.]

And the beat goes on. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of alrightmike.com)

There was work to be done at the top of the cedar, beaten by storms, and on the still-grand oak, but the main business for the professionals was the two flowering pear trees in the side yard. Those they took down to the ground.

I had planted them, just sticks, 15 years ago. They grew past the promised 30’ high and 30’ wide and kept going, into our house, into the neighbors’. I’d get into them every year with the pole saw but it became too much. So they’re gone. We’ll miss the shade, but it’s the north side, so to the ferns and butterfly bushes we’ll add wildflowers and, I don’t know, maybe a walk, just individual flagstones winding through.

The first cut is the deepest

But first, the surface roots, springing suckers all over. I took the digging shovel, the loppers, and the splitting maul from the shed. To make room for flower and vegetable gardens over the years I’ve yanked out 40 feet of privet hedge in the front, another 50 on the side, and mostly-dead japonicas and muscular, stubborn yews, all with these tools.

The splitting maul is the horse, a magnificently brutal instrument, half a sledgehammer and half an axe. Expose the root with the shovel, grab the maul, and have at it. The loppers get the finger-sized secondary roots that gnarl into the dirt, but the maul is the main event.

Sharpen it to give it bite, then lift it and drop it. Let it do the work. Give a little ictus, like a conductor bouncing the baton at the bottom of the beat, but give from your feet, and just a little. If you force it, you’ll be on a knee sucking wind in 90 seconds. Plus, forcing makes you miss, which you wouldn’t think matters since this isn’t brain surgery, but matters in a hurry if the wrong angle makes it ricochet. You don’t want to ricochet a splitting maul.

Thwack! The white flesh of the root reveals itself. Thwack! Wood chips and dirt fly. Thwack! Your body aligns, you breathe, and you remember tunes. The sweat comes. Thwack! “Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Thwack. The root moves. You bend down and feel in the dirt for where to hit next. Sweat overcomes an eyebrow and drops, stinging an eye. You wipe your wet face and forehead with the bottom of your t-shirt. The beating heart and dit-dit-dit-dit of “I Think We’re Alone Now” comes, Tommy James and the Shondells. The groups sounding like they recorded at a party arrive: Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, silly but earnest, uncaringly out of tune.

The chord that cut you then

That satellite ’60s channel is in your car now, so you’re hearing them: all the Hits of the ’60s. The Beatles, Motown, sure, but a lot you haven’t heard in 20, 40, 50 years. And some leap at you as soon as they’re exposed.

Your favorite may be “You Were On My Mind,” the We Five. Bup-bup, “When I woke up this morning…” bup-bup-bup-bup. Then, here it comes. “I got troubles, whoa-oh”: that one rhythm chord, right there, simultaneously resolved and unresolved, the three burrowed into the four, the mi with the fa. That’s the chord that cut you then, and still you’re a sucker for it; how many times have you used that chord?

You chuckle, wipe more sweat, then stand and slowly straighten your back.

Thwack. The largo opening to “Let’s Hang On,” the Four Seasons. Brilliant songs, Burt Bacharach / Dionne Warwick, “Say a Little Prayer”; bleeding songs, Glen Campbell / Jimmy Webb, “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston.” “What the World Needs Now,” Bacharach again, the Jackie DeShannon version, with, of all things, a solo on…that’s got to be a euphonium. A euphonium!

Even swing vines itself into the ’60s. “I Love You More Today than Yesterday,” you won’t hear a better kick-drum. “It’s Not Unusual” from helden-throated Tom Jones. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” from that most righteous band, Sly and the Family Stone. Thwack.

The note you would always sing

Over an hour and you don’t know how much more you’ve got in you, in the sun. The roots metaphor is not lost on you, but these, you’re tearing these from the ground. The songs? You only wonder why some stuck, and why they’re in your music, because, admit it, they are.

The Left Banke and the keening “Walk Away Renée” (strings, oboe, harpsichord—what was it with harpsichords then?). It always, always catches you in the throat with backup harmonies—how you adore backup harmonies—that move, of course, in the pop lingua franca of parallel motion, except for that one note holding on for dear life through each chord-change. That’s the note you would always sing. And she always walked away.

And oh, the Association, stealing the words out of your nine-year-old head and singing “Cherish” out loud in front of everyone: “You don’t know how many time I’ve wished….” Lyrics exegeting your growing rage at a hole in the language you’d learn only later had already been filled, long ago, by troubadours: unrequited.

Thwack. One more. Thwack. The last root finally yields; you rip it up and toss it to the pile. Good thing, too, because you’re done in. Covered in sweat, you lay the splitting maul on the ground by the fence. You scrape dirt back into the scars you dug and hacked, and press them smooth with your feet.

You hold the hose over your neck, over your head. You hold it into your face and drink from it, like when you were a kid. You put it down and smile because you know the names of chords now, don’t you, but you still don’t know why one chord from the We Five cuts you in two.

But you do know more—more music, more words—and you’ve grown past nine and have kept going. You look around. You think, yes, you will put flagstones here, a walk winding through.

You Are Most Welcome

JeffQuartets

One of 15 commissioned by The Crossing to honor the memory of their co-founder Jeffrey Dinsmore, I chose the text of my setting from his emails to me. Jeff passed away two years ago, much too soon. Donald Nally, The Crossing’s conductor, is of course their most visible leader. But he has said that Jeff, with whom he started the group 11 years ago, was the real behind-the-scenes drive, filled with ideas and energy. He was also the possessor of a beautiful, softly luminous tenor voice which I loved to hear.

Our instructions were to write short, unaccompanied, non divisi SATB works, so that they could be sung by a choir or by four people. You Are Most Welcome comes in at about three and a half minutes.

I forget, now, who the “him” is in the text, but I think it was either a poet or perhaps Richard Stone of Tempesta di Mare, during The Waking Sun project. The shots “from the recording” and the “higher resolution” refer to photographs Jeff took during the recording of Vespers.

Our daughter Priscilla, a member of Piffaro, was there, and I remember that photograph well. Jeff took it at the dessert-and-things reception laid out after the third and last night of recording the choir, a night interrupted by thunderstorms and power outtages, with the last bit of Vespers to be recorded—Psalm 27—the gnarliest and most difficult chunk left until the end. We just—just—got it finished by the 10 pm deadline, chewing through it phrase by phrase, sometimes bar by bar, the tension building alongside an intense calm the more difficult it got.

Yes, we all looked relieved, and Jeff was as cool and professional and happy as anyone.

Priscilla, ersatz raconteurThe night of the premiere of this and the 14 other works, 8 July 2016, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, was a loving and moving remembrance of Jeff, who we miss still. While most of the evening’s works were performed by the full choir, Donald chose four singers for You Are Most Welcome, opening the concert with it. Thank you, Donald. Thank you, Jeff’s love Rebecca Siler, and Maren Brehm, Steven Bradshaw, and Dan Schwartz.

Philadelphia Inquirer review: “Kile Smith’s You Are Most Welcome musicalized e-mails from Dinsmore showing how a peripheral glance at a personality can reveal things that a more earnest portrait does not.”

You Are Most Welcome
music by Kile Smith
text by Jeffrey Dinsmore, from emails written to the composer

You are most welcome.

I hope all is well in the new year for you.
I know you aren’t finished yet,
but would you mind taking
a few minutes to chat with him?

I can give you much higher resolution.
I shot all the ones from the recording
so you can use whatever.
You can use whatever you want.
I love the shot of you and your daughter,
and yes, you look relieved.

On the way to you.

Should be soon.

Hope all is well.

Best,
Jeff

YouAreMostWelcomeP1a

Three Things I Learned from Being on the Radio

[First published in Broad Street Review 26 Jun 2016. Reprinted by permission.]

Heartfelt and tongue tied. (Illustration by Mike Jackson of alrightmike.com)

Drums and bass guitar fell by the wayside a long time ago. A combination of reasons explain it, but mainly, after a good spell of trying to play them, I realized that I wasn’t particularly good. It was a relief to find out—to others surely, but to me, especially. Dropping them allowed me to spend time on what I thought I really needed to do, which was to write music. I have discovered that in the 40 years since I needed as much time as possible to work just on that.

I have somewhat regretted not being a performer. Most composers are; that is, most composers can play the piano or some other instrument to at least a middling extent. Many excel; I honor them. Me, I’ve sung all my life in amateur choirs. That has helped me (I do believe) write choral music better, and has provided insight into music generally, but I have never experienced performing at a professional level (although playing bass in a ’70s jazz-fusion band did slip me billet-doux with whispered teases from that world).

I stumbled into performance, though, as a classical radio host. I realized it only when, after being on WRTI-FM infrequently for 10 years, and then, after filling in regularly for nine months—after which I was kicked upstairs to director of content, where I am now responsible for the programming, website, and audio production of the station—that on-air hosting is a performance.

I’ll continue to voice spots and to fill in live here and there, but now that I’m not on the air every day, I realize that the on-air host is a performer. So I may have some kinship with performing musicians after all. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Nobody cares how long you practice

Gennady Rozhdestvensky strikes fear into my heart. Whenever I see his name on a program log, I shudder, because I know I will have to say his name on the air. Now, I’ve botched a few pronunciations, but Gennady Rozhdestvensky I have practiced over and over. I once practiced saying, out loud, Gennady Rozhdestvensky five times in a row until satisfied, then turned on the mic, promptly said Gennady Roach Deaf Vent Keys, and then—and then!—tried to fix it.

At that moment, thousands of innocent people, driving or working or drinking coffee, but in any case grateful for lives wherein they could turn on the radio and hear classical music, heard me bludgeoning the beloved conductor Gennady Road Dead Fancies, Gennady Rose Fat Stinkies, Gennady Rooftop Shpilkas, over and over, so that, from Carlisle to Egg Harbor Township, from Scranton to Dover, they were now, coffee cup suspended halfway between table and lip, eyebrow-arch-listening to me, Jerry Lewis as the Disorderly Orderly, flayvin!, Gennady Roll Dem Phlegm Speed, lady…!

This is my memory of it. I have no idea how I got out of that break. All I know is that I didn’t dare say my own name for the rest of the shift.

The thing is, I know what happened. I was very proud that I had said Gennady correctly: gen-YAH-dee. Lovely. But pride goeth before awful, so I blithely, trippingly launched into Rozhdestvensky—with the result you see above. My betters nail it every time, but they’ve been nailing it for the 40 years I’ve been writing music, so slow down already, Smith, and stick to what you practiced, I should’ve.

Professionals and amateurs all practice, you see. The difference is this. Amateurs practice until they get it right. That’s what I did. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

And that’s the No. 1 of what I learned.

2. Be yourself

I listen to other stations—KYW, WOGL, others—but I study the WRTI hosts, classical and jazz, and learn from all of them. Gregg’s excitement; Jack’s nuance; Kevin’s cadence; Jill’s empathy; Bob P., than whom no one on earth is more cool; Bob C., who could read a 7-11 receipt and make it sound like Kerouac; Jeff’s range; J. Michael’s trust: Everybody schools me. From intros to back-sells, from weather to time, from promo placement to what to say when you’ve been knocked out of your chair by a symphony or by a CD skipping, I learn from everybody.

I’d get my sea-legs sooner or later, they said, and it took me half a year, full-time, for that to happen. After 10 years’ subbing, it took that long. I still make mistakes; we all do; on every radio station mistakes happen. But from emoting, to laughing, to stretching, to finishing a complete sentence while introducing the next jock in the eight seconds before a hard break into the I.D. and news, I relaxed, finally, and became myself. That’s No. 2.

3. Nobody cares if you’re yourself

No. 3 is “Forget No. 2.” The advice to the young player is “Play the ink.” You got notes on the music stand; play the notes. Don’t go raising your hand or your expectation, “Do you want it louder or slower or how about if I…,” no. No. Play the notes. That’s your job.

On-air hosts have a program log, a spot log, and an arm-full of CDs. Calculate your timing, play the stuff you have to, calculate your timing, introduce everything correctly, hit your marks, calculate your timing, hit the hard breaks to the second, and by the way, calculate your timing.

Do that and you’ll be fine. Do that and relax, and you’ll be better. Do that, relax, tell us something we didn’t know in as few words as possible, bring your passion to all the thousands of listeners, each of whom feels like you’re speaking only to him, speak every word in love… and you’ll be fantastic.

These are the three things I’ve learned. And slow down, cowboy, at Gennady Rozhdestvensky.