Election Day (2012)

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Election Day (2012)

I look briefly in the rearview mirror as I barrel down the Stevenson Expressway, weaving in and out of traffic and trying desperately to recall the words of my driver's ed teacher at Downers Grove South.  10 & 2 on the wheel, smooth and steady acceleration, no sudden braking.  What Mrs. O'Brien didn't train us for were the police lights flashing in my rearview mirror and SUVs with the back door open, Secret Service agents with huge semiautomatic weapons pointed out the back window towards me.  Agents that wouldn't hesitate in a second to shoot me if I made a wrong move.  

We dodged in and out of traffic aggressively on the highway; local police cutting a path with sirens blazing, Secret Service protecting the motorcade from drivers that didn't pull over.  At moments, it felt like being on the precipice of history.  I was driving with the First Lady of the United States in the final days of the 2012 election.  A couple sharp swerves through traffic brought me back to reality, and the immediate task at hand became paramount as we race through an opening in the fence and headed for the tarmac at Midway Airport.

It all started fairly innocuously-- mentioning to a friend and fellow musician who worked for the White House that I'd love to help out if they ever needed a volunteer.  He's one of the tireless staffers that makes sure all the logistics are set for politicians as they travel around the world.  Giant American flags in the background, hay bales in farming communities, and the nuts and bolts of putting together rallies and events, working behind the scenes.  As a radio producer, perpetually immersed in minutiae-- these are definitely my kind of people.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, the call came for an background check and mysterious meeting point.  It wasn't long before I was hurtling down the highway in an official White House motorcade. 


Luckily, there were no fender-benders, and a week later, and the call came again.  This time, the stakes were higher.  Election Day.  All of the Obamas were in town, along with the Vice President and a huge security and political apparatus.  The day's events went by in a flash, driving back and forth between their house in Hyde Park and various hotels downtown.  

But amidst the day's work, I got another cryptic message: come upstairs to one of the conference rooms.  Surrounded by curtains, Fox News showing people going to ballot boxes around the country, there was an air of tense calm.  Suddenly the TV was turned off, and in walked Michelle Obama!  One of the people I admire most, who perpetually seems to rise above the fray of politics to be a moral compass for the country.

My mind raced.  What do I do?  Shake her hand?  Is that allowed?  Where were the guys with the guns?  Luckily, she gave me a big hug and a smile... and all was right with the world.  

"You're the right height!" she joked.  I knew being tall would come in handy.  We chatted a little, took a picture, and I even got a parting hug.  

Amazing.

 

Later that night, the election results came in, and Obama had won.  As White House staffers cheered and hugged, security remained stoic, always professional.  The feeling of elation was in the air as preparations were made for a triumphant motorcade to McCormick Place.  Traffic was blocked on Lake Shore Drive, and we emerged from Lower Wacker Drive.  It was an amazing feeling, driving with our newly re-elected President past beautiful Lake Michigan on the left and skyscrapers on my right.  Down the streets of my Chicago, with a hometown President I completely believed in.


As I write this now, I'm sitting on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the sun setting on the pointed spire of the Lincoln Memorial and the dome of the Capitol building beyond.  It's been four years since that rainy November day when I drove with President Obama and his family in Chicago.  I can't help but think that he's one of the people I admire most, approaching one of the world's most difficult jobs with humor, class and intelligence.   The feeling of pulling with President Obama into McCormick Place for his victory speech is unforgettable.  Even from outside, we could hear the cheers as we arrived, kicking off a celebration for the ages. 

I don't think anything will match the energy and excitement I felt for Obama in 2012 and particularly in 2008, but I'm thrilled to be able to take part again, casting a vote for the first woman president with my 5-year old daughter, on what promises to be another historic day.

 

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Under the Kalakshetra Banyan

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Under the Kalakshetra Banyan

With early-morning light filtering through the expansive canopy of a banyan tree, students gather in a wooded area worlds away from the teeming masses and chittering horns of central Chennai.  The sweltering Indian heat has not yet taken hold, and there's a relaxed atmosphere as last-minute stragglers remove their sandals and hurriedly step up to a raised circular platform.

It's a visual feast, with the multi-hued rainbow of saris a variegated foil to the muted earth tones of the trees, jet-black hair of the overwhelmingly female group, and reddish-brown soil. On invisible cue, silence descends and there's a moment of anticipatory respite.  A buzzing, single-note drone begins, and, unified, the students begin to chant.

It's an artistically-inclined group, with people from the far provinces of India peppered with an occasional devotee from South America or America.  They're here studying Indian arts-- instruments like the veena, various traditional Indian dance forms, theatre, and the violin, which was introduced into the Carnatic tradition by military musicians traveling with the East India Company and Portuguese missionaries.  

As the chant rises on a meandering upward journey, pentatonic leanings give way to more complex scales.  Bent notes, glissandi, and ornamentations are intuitive for some singers, who close their eyes and connect with their surroundings. Others follow curvilinear Tamil script in their notebooks, singing the ancient Sanskrit, Christian, Muslim and Hindu texts in a monophonic melody that seemingly dips into a unified stream of ancient consciousness.  

After several minutes, the devotional is over, and the business of the day begins.  But, for just a moment, the last note of the chant hangs in the wooded air, punctuated only by the rustle of the breeze and the calls of kingfishers from the branches.

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The Genius of Pierre Boulez

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The Genius of Pierre Boulez

I remember my first encounter with a manuscript score of Pierre Boulez.  I was getting a tour of the Northwestern University School of Music's archives, and one of their prized acquisitions-- alongside Paul McCartney's original lyrics to Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine-- was a series of scores showing the development of the French maestro's 2nd Piano Sonata.

From the first tone rows through the finished work, it was clear that this was a mind that operated with acute mathematical precision: each note stem carefully measured and ruled, each note head a calculated tick across the score line.  It contained the fine and intricate craftsmanship of a watchmaker, the care and detail of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to convey, using the utmost conservation of energy to craft his art.

A Relevant Tones program we produced on the Notations had a similar impression.  First came the piano versions of these works: Modernist, compact pieces rife with spiky and atonal splashes of color.  Pierre Laurent Aimard's performance, in particular, burst at the seams with an explosive energy.  Boulez later orchestrated these piano versions, using the material to create expanded and expansive pieces that dazzled across the orchestral canvas.  

It was in these Notations that one of the singularly intriguing things about Boulez as composer struck me-- that every note was not just a stand-alone event, but contained an interior world just waiting to be unlocked.  Like a fractal, zooming in just revealed further detail, further possibilities.

Years later, I found myself as producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcast series, sifting through hours of Boulez lectures on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  Here a different kind of genius was revealed-- one who had an intimate understanding of art, the craft of composition, and the great possibilities of music.  He communicated with audiences on level equal with Leonard Bernstein.  His lectures swirled with heady references to art and history, giving context to the great orchestral works and making myriad connections to the world at large.

The CSO, one of the most astoundingly great orchestras with any conductor, always seemed to respond to this extra-musical intelligence, giving over-the-top performances when Boulez was at the podium.  For a composer and conductor so often maligned as a Modernist who wanted to tear down the pillars of classical music, he treated the great works with profound reverence, their creators with the respect they were due.

How to reflect on the loss of this great hero?  A quotation by André Malraux comes to mind: "One cannot create an art that speaks to me when one has nothing to say." 

Today, the musical world mourns the loss of an artist who spoke to and enriched the world through music, and very much had something to say.

Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Sarajevo to Mostar by train

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Sarajevo to Mostar by train

 

"Without question, this is the best $6.34 I've ever spent.  Ever."  That's all I can keep thinking to myself as my train rumbles through the stunningly gorgeous Bosnian mountain landscape on a three-hour journey from Sarajevo to Mostar. 

While the bus and roadway between these two towns travel through the bottom of the valleys, the railway snakes across the tops of the mountains, offering vistas like this:

 

It's not a journey for the faint of heart.  Amenities like toilet paper and soap in the stations, signs in English and the high-speed trains of Western Europe seem like a distant luxury, worlds away from this seemingly untouched pocket of the Balkans.  The train's wood-paneled interior, lineoleum flooring and well-worn upholstery recalls the styling of 1970s rec rooms, or an old recliner in dire need of repair.  

But it's also strangely comforting, a connection to Yugoslavia before its brutal civil war.  Communist, yes, but also an era fondly recalled by many for its prosperity, universal health care, and tolerance between religious factions.

As the train leaves the hillside of Sarajevo, with its orange-roofed houses creeping up the mountains and hundreds of minarets pointing upwards, I recall the morning journey, and publish some of the details here, since online information about the trip is scarce.

Taxis in Sarajevo are cheap, plentiful, and seemingly honest, with every driver that I had running the meter, conveniently located in the rearview mirror.  The trip from the old town, near the Latin Bridge (where Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and ignited the first World War) ran about 5 Bosnian Marks ($3.20).  

In typical fashion, the taxi driver honked, smoked, and slung a few choice profanities at the other drivers, even though the early-morning traffic was minimal.  Some things are universal, I suppose.

The train to Mostar departs bright and early.  The schedule for Sarajavo station lists the pertinent train second from the top. No. 723, Sarajevo-Čapljina line, leaving at 7:15, stopping in Mostar at 10:05, departing from Platform II.

Arriving at 6:15 AM afforded me plenty of time to buy the 10.90 KM ticket, enjoy an caffeine infusion via espresso, and clamber onto the train, although the people that boarded directly were able to call dibs on private cabins.  No matter- they probably wouldn't appreciate the Old-World "ambience" of the plebian quarters.

As the journey goes on, the mountains increase in size, and the train transits a series of switchbacks and tunnels, ascending and descending, offering brief glimpses of distant towns far below before plunging into alternating daylight and darkness.  

The train careens down the mountainside, picking up in speed, and one can occasionally discern viaducts that we crossed earlier in the journey.  As beautiful as this trip is in late August, it must be transcendental later in the fall, as the leaves change and variegated foliage blankets the mountains.  At ground level, we pass beautiful lakeside villages situated next to emerald-green waters.

On schedule, we pull into Mostar, another outpost of the Ottoman Empire, like Sarajevo, and another city at the crossroads of East and West ravaged by war and in the process of rebuilding.  Its Old Bridge (Stari Most), icon of Bosnia, was destroyed by Croatian tanks during a brutal 11-month siege of the city in 1993, after spanning the Neretva River for 400 years.  It wasn't reconstructed until 2004, a symbol of a beautiful country on the mend, but a reminder of a painful past and a long recovery ahead.  

 

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Srebrenica

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Srebrenica

Nested in the mountainous terrain of the Balkans, near Bosnia's eastern border with Serbia, the town of Srebrenica is located in spectacular natural surroundings.  About three hours from Sarajevo by car, amongst lushly forested hillside, it's worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Zagreb, Belgrade, and the other capitals of southeastern Europe.

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Signs and names interspersed with Serbian characters (њ, Ђ, and Ћ make occasional appearances) give the written language a slightly different flavor than the Russian Cyrillic experienced further east.  

For most of its history, various religious factions were able to live and worship in relative autonomy.  Sephardic Jews, driven out from Catholic Spain in the 15th century, found acceptance under the administration of the Ottoman Empire, and church bells and the imam's calls to prayer from the town's mosque ring daily out from the same hillside, just meters apart.

That peace was shattered during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s, when one of the worst genocides since the second world war occurred here.  A memorial on the road into town memorializes the 9,000 killed, and echoes of that past tragedy are ever present.  

Though some houses have been rebuilt and bullet holes patched, others disintegrate on their foundations.  Some businesses thrive (I'm writing this from Restoran "Bato", with the best internet connection in town, a strong 1 Mark espresso, and decor straight out of the late 70s), but economic troubles are pressing.  "The economy is shit, there are no jobs," our driver told us on the way into town.  Many young people leave to look for work elsewhere. 

Ethnic tensions seem to remain among the older population, but the young people are eager to rebuild from the tragedies that occurred here.  They live with the legacy of another generation's conflict, a fight that predates their birth.  18 year-old Ivana tole me: "I was even born after that war- I don't want to be labeled, and I respect all the victims... I don't want to say anything about them... I just want people to respect us, too.  No one actually wants war, to fight and everything.  There are two sides to everything, and everyone loses when there's a war."

I feel that it's a fundamental nature of humanity to create positive change, and the kids and young adults I've met from Srebrenica are bright and engaging, on the vanguard on creating a better city, even in the face of this trying history.




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The Art of the Kecak

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The Art of the Kecak

Much like the the intricate craftsmanship of a fine Swiss watch or interwoven threads in a tapestry, the melodic lines of Balinese music are intertwined and interlocking.  It's no surprise, given the Hindu philosophy that everyone is part of an interconnected community, responsible for the well-being of neighbors, friends, family, and even strangers.

In the gamelan orchestra, the gangsas often have these patterns:

For villages that didn't have their own gamelan instruments, the members would assemble in a communal space and participate in kecak, a vocal style that has many of the same interlocking textures.  It remains a vibrant part of the musical culture in Bali, and traditionally has been a way for communities to bond, or to heal after a great tragedy.

We recently participated in a kecak exercise with three interlaced rhythms, the polos, the sanglot, and the sangsih

Polos starts on beat one:

Sanglot displaces the start of the rhythmic phrase slightly:

While sangsih displaces the rhythm still further, filling in the missing space:

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With the three combined, there's a constant stream of notes that bounce around the ensemble in an absolutely incredible way:

Taken to its full level, huge groups of people can participate, as in this video of one of the oldest kecak groups in Bali (performing at breakneck speed).

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A Balinese Welcome

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A Balinese Welcome

On Bali, the rhythm of religion is the ever-present pulse that drives daily life.  Miniature baskets of flowers, palm leaves and incense are ubiquitous, fragrant offerings put together with deliberate care but often swept away with the rhythms of daily life.  Such is the ephemeral nature of all things, I suppose.  

Deference to a higher power informs the construction of homes, the way people walk, the way they sit, and nearly every aspect of life here.  According to Wikipedia:

Balinese Hinduism divides the cosmos into three layers. The highest level is heaven, or suarga, the abode of the gods. Next is the world of man, buwah. Below this is hell or bhur, where the demons live and where people’s spirits are punished for misdeeds on earth. This tripartite division is mirrored in the human body (head, body and feet) and the shrines found outside Balinese buildings.

It's considered rude to point one's feet at another person, to touch another person's head (the most sacred part of their body), or walk with one's head above the level of a priest or elder (not easy for someone who's 6'5").  As is often the case when traveling, there are a raft of rules that could potentially trip up the uninitiated.

Today the Çudamani partipants were welcomed in grand fashion with a Hindu Ngawit ceremony, as one of the elder priests in the area blessed the instruments, the teachers, and the fellow artists studying in Bali.  Petals of flowers were passed through incense smoke and tucked behind our ears, paying homage to various gods of life and the arts.

The priest sprinkled blessed water over our heads and into our hands to drink, a spiritual cleansing most welcome after a 36-hour journey from Chicago.

Set against the background of the gender (gen-dehr), the priest's bell-ringing, a chorus of insects, and chanting by the participants made the ceremony an aural feast.

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Songs of the Open Road

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Songs of the Open Road

"Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose..."

-Walt Whitman

The moments before embarking on travel are always filled with last-minute scatter and hubbub.  But the appeal of hitting the proverbial open road is undeniable, even intoxicating.  

photo credit: Katie MacPhail

This summer is looking particularly auspicious.  For starters, I spent two weeks in June at the Colorado Suzuki Institute, teaching bass and recording/podcasting classes.  Set in the lofty environs of the Rockies in Beaver Creek, CO (appx. 8,000 ft), it's one of the few times of the year that I still teach.  

Working with the kids there is 100% more rejuvenating than the ridiculously-priced spa treatments offered at the resort (which run upwards of $500), and it's a great chance to reconvene with old friends, sample local microbrews, and spend late nights jamming with the overwhelmingly fun faculty string band.

July takes me in new directions, to nearly the other side of the world: several weeks spent in Bali.  A Hindu enclave in a predominantly Muslim country, Bali's culture is unlike anything else in the world, and its music inspired the likes of Debussy, Ravel, Britten, and a host of other composers. The gamelan orchestras there are clangorous, exotic, and fascinating, a study in interlocking rhythms and cyclic harmonies.  

After producing a radio segment a while back on the Javanese gamelan and its introduction at the 1893 World's Fair, I was thrilled to be accepted into the Çudamani Summer Institute, an instructional program run by of the most prestigious gamelan orchestras on Java's eastern neighbor in the Indonesian archipelago.

Returning home in early August, I'm back in teaching mode, but this time under the auspices of Genesis at the Crossroads, a non-profit organization that promotes peace-building through the arts.  This was the group that brought me to Israel several years ago, an amazing trip where I stayed with a Bedouin family under the stars in the Negev Desert, recorded Indian ragas in the cisterns of Jerusalem, and conducted a beachside interview on the Mediterranean with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.  

GATC is flying in kids from all over the world (Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Pakistan, and Northern Ireland, to name a few) to promote "global leadership and the power of one person to stand for something and involve others to make a massive impact." I'm just a lowly radio producer, but hopefully I'll be able to assist!

Bogotá, Colombia

After that, Relevant Tones makes a trip down to South America to interview Colombian composers in Bogotá and Medellín about their art and music. We'll put that together into one of our popular "In the Field" series (much in the same vein as these episodes from Helsinki and these from Mexico City).

And, since when it rains, it pours... Bosnia!  GATC is bringing myself, Badi Assad (part of the insanely talented guitar-slinging Assad family), and a group of other people to the Balkans to work with musicians and kids on peace-building through the arts.  

A busy summer, to say the least!

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