Stressful Boredom

Opera is considered one of the most refined musical art forms. It combines instrumental music, theater and singing to a very high level. Some of the most profound music is from the opera repertory. Many of the major composers throughout history have written operas beginning with early works of composers such as Monteverdi and continuing to the present day including Phillip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. My NEXUS colleague, Russell Hartenberger, was the Timpanist in the Toronto Opera Company for many years and my brother Rick Kvistad has been principal percussionist with the San Francisco Opera for over 40 years. Rick explains the experience of the percussionist in the opera as “stressful boredom”.

Photo: Steve Wolf
Photo: Steve Wolf

Having just finished my third season as timpanist with the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice orchestra, I understand what Rick is saying. The percussion section and to a certain degree the timpanist mostly wait for their parts to come up. For orchestral literature, percussionists count measures rest, sometimes in the hundreds. For the opera, however, percussionists often mark the time between entrances in hours and minutes. Some percussionists have even been known to leave the pit between entrances and run errands (no names mentioned).

Hak Soo Kim, Lucas Meachem, Maria Todaro in the Barber of Seville Photo: Steve Wolf
Hak Soo Kim, Lucas Meachem, Maria Todaro in the Barber of Seville
Photo: Steve Wolf

The Phoenicia International Festival the Voice just concluded its fifth season. This amazing five day summer festival was the brainchild of Metropolitan Opera superstars and a world-class pianist (www.phoeniciavoicefest.org). Louie Otey, Maria Todaro and Justin Kolb have created something incredibly special right here in the heart of the Catskills. The orchestra, led by Maestro David Wroe, included fantastic musicians from the New York metropolitan area, including members of the New Jersey Festival Orchestra, which Wroe conducts. Rick, Russell, Chris Earley and I have played percussion and timpani for the last several years. This year, the festival presented the Barber of Seville. In the past, the festival has presented Madame Butterfly and Rigoletto. Puccini wrote for a chromatic octave of tuned gongs in Madame Butterfly. Luckily I had a set which is a rare situation even in many of the established opera companies.

Rehearsal for opening night at the festival with flamenco musicians and dancers. Conductor Elizabeth Scott on far right and singer Solange Meridian.
Rehearsal for opening night at the festival with flamenco musicians and dancers. Conductor Elizabeth Scott on far right and singer Solange Meridian.

In addition to the opera production, a tremendous number of performances and workshops are given during the five day festival. This summer included a high energy flamenco concert based on Manual De Falla’s El amor Brujo.

Jose Todaro and David Wroe Photo: Violet Snow
Jose Todaro and David Wroe
Photo: Violet Snow

The Friday night concert featured the orchestra in popular Spanish and Italian songs starring Maria Todaro’s father Jose Todaro. Jose is a superstar in France and he won over the audience immediately as he continued to enthrall everyone for two hours.

One of the more difficult challenges for a percussionist is to know when to play. Often, the indication in the music is to tacit (not play) until a later time without showing the measures or any music notation. That interval could be minutes or hours. Also, long segments of recitative, spoken parts go by quickly while the conductor marks this time occasionally. Knowing when these segments are over can be a challenge. In other words, stressful boredom!

I hope I don't look bored because I am not! A little stressed maybe.
I hope I don’t look bored because I am not! A little stressed maybe.

It’s nice to know that summer opera is alive and well, at least in the Catskills. While funding is being cut in school music programs, arts council funding is diminishing and ticket prices are often astronomical, there are boutique style venues popping up all over the country. Just across the river, Bard College offers a summer program entitled Summerscape which often includes large scale opera productions. Right down the road from Phoenicia, the Belleayre Ski Center has a summer music festival which also offers an operatic production each summer. There’s plenty of stressful boredom to go around.

Marketing versus Sales

Drill Hole / Bit
Drill Hole / Bit

Early on in the beginning years of Woodstock Chimes, I attended a talk given by a marketing executive of the Stanley Tool Company. I walked away with a very important message. He explained the difference between marketing and sales using a simple drill bit. Basically, he said that they sell drill bits but they market the hole made by the drill bit. It was one of those “aha” moments for me. From then on I realized I was selling windchimes but marketing the sound created by those chimes. For me the most important aspect of our product is the way they sound. The second most important feature is the way they look. However, whether you are looking at them or not, you would hear them playing every time a breeze activated them. So, from the very beginning, many marketing considerations focused on the sound of our products.

Garry and Diane Kvistad Cincinnati Craft Fair in 1979
Garry and Diane Kvistad Cincinnati Craft Fair in 1979

As a musician, I make sure that the chimes are not only musically and historically accurate but produce the best and most exciting sounds possible. Simply put, to achieve this, the scale or melodies of the chimes and the accurate tuning must be carefully executed. I also realized early on that my contribution here is to ensure that this level of quality is always primary in the development and production of all of our products. I also want to convey this quality through our marketing efforts. This includes the information found on our website, the hangtags of each product, our printed literature and the information available to all of our sales force and retail partners.

betsy
Betsy Harrington, Senior VP, Sales

Another realization early on was that the best sales people had clearly defined skills which I felt I lacked. So while I continued my marketing effort, I let those best suited to sell my musical designs do so. The first great sales person was my wife, Diane. From the very beginning, as we traveled we would search out stores we felt were a good match for our chimes. While I sat in the car, Diane would go inside and brag about what I had created. Musicians don’t take well to the audience booing and I never accepted rejection well from a buyer. A good salesperson, does not take it personally and moves on. Sometimes, however, it takes many attempts to be successful. I guess I am not very patient when it comes to this. Luckily Diane is, and so is Betsy Harrington, our incredible sales manager.

Garry and Stacey Bowers, Executive VP, at the NY International Gift Fair in 1983
Garry and Stacey Bowers, Executive VP, at the NY International Gift Fair in 1983

In the first year of business, we visited a local shop specializing in handmade crafts. Diane talked to the owner in the store (yes, I was outside in the car) and showed her our Chimes of Olympos, the only product that we were making at that time. The owner immediately said this was not something they could sell and turned us down. Diane then left the store followed by one of their customers. Out on the street the customer said just how much she loved the sound of the product and wanted to know where she could buy one. Luckily, Diane just happened to have one to sell her. While the rejection from the store owner was tough, the reaction from the customer was encouraging. Diane did not give up, approaching the store every year until the buyer finally decided to give it a try three years later. We have been selling to this account for over 30 years and it continues to be one of our best accounts.

Diane and Garry Kvistad at the NY International Gift Fair in 2007
Diane and Garry Kvistad at the NY International Gift Fair in 2007

This situation happened over and over. Whenever I am on a musical tour, I try to visit the stores in the area that carry our products. It does take an effort for me to introduce myself unannounced. Diane always encourages me to do this and so, one time I was in Minneapolis and visited an account there. It was a large store with many Woodstock Chimes hanging all over. I approached the young clerk at the counter and introduced myself saying, “Hi, I’m Garry Kvistad and I own Woodstock Chimes.” She looked at me and simply replied, “a lot of people own Woodstock Chimes,” and turned away. This is one of the reasons I don’t feel well-suited as a sales person. I think I’ll stick to design and marketing!

Unusual Instruments – Sound Effects

Percussionists are often called upon to play instruments that are sometimes not even classified as percussion instruments. A huge category within this subset are sound effects. Sound effects used in movies began with Jack Foley in 1927. Foley Art is used throughout the film industry today and many of Jack’s techniques are still a mainstay in this world. Another leading figure in the world of sound effects was the late, great Tom Keith of A Prairie Home Companion fame. He used vocal sounds as well as props. Michael Winslow can be heard in the Police Academy movies doing amazing things with only his voice. There’s a wonderful scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where two of the members pretend they are riding on horseback while one of them makes the sound of horses hooves with coconut shells. “Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?” Percussionists in the orchestra often play instruments that imitate whips, anvils, bird calls, Cathedral bells and animal sounds that are scored by composers such as Aaron Copland, Ferde Grofe, George Gershwin, Richard Wagner, Leroy Anderson and Franz Josef Haydn to name a few . Yet another great reason to be a percussionist!

Unusual Instruments – Jawbone

Image
Quijada: Jawbone of an Ass

Percussionists are often called upon to play unusual instruments. One such instrument is the quijada or the jawbone of an ass (donkey). This instrument is mostly found in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. I own two of them, one of which I bought in the mid-1970s while on tour in Austria of all places. This is probably not an instrument endorsed by PETA since it is literally the jawbone of a large animal left to dry, cleansed of all but bone and teeth.  The teeth are removed and reinserted into the socket, held in by wires, thus allowing the teeth to rattle. The method of playing is much like that of a tuning fork as it’s held by the closed end and struck on one side of the open end, generally with one’s fist. This creates a vibration that moves the teeth rapidly, creating a dry rattling sound.

It is used traditionally in various forms of Latin popular music. However, modern composers such as John Cage have included this instrument in some of their works. The most notable work of John Cage that uses a quijada is his Third Construction written in 1941. It is scored for four percussionists, one of which plays the quijada, a conch shell trumpet and several other unusual instruments. Cage referred to this piece as his Bolero since it is very lively and an audience favorite. In the 50s or 60s, a percussion manufacturer, Latin Percussion, designed a vegan version of this instrument made of wood and metal and is often used in modern orchestras and small ensembles.

There are a lot of drummer jokes out there. My offering is, “Who plays the jawbone of an ass?” The answer, “Another one that still has his jawbone.”

 

Different Beat

NEXUS Members with Sepideh Raissadat
NEXUS Members with Sepideh Raissadat. That’s me on the far left!

NEXUS has been producing creative and unique concerts since its first one in 1971. This past weekend was no exception as we collaborated with an amazing young Iranian / Canadian vocalist and setar (www.setar.info) player, Sepideh Raissadat who is quite well-known in her native country. Our performance was at a great little theater in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada as part of a very cool music festival called Open Ears. Band member Russell Hartenberger has been working diligently to transcribe and arrange the many classic Persian songs that we performed with Sepideh.

Due to the differences in tuning, there was a concern about using western instruments in conjunction with her setar, a traditional Iranian string instrument (not to be confused with the Indian sitar).  Since we were not able to adapt to her intonation (we were primarily playing fixed pitched marimbas), she adapted to ours. However, her phrasing, pitch bending and beautiful vocal timbres made it work incredibly well.  The festival producers were very pleased that we played to a sold out crowd. It did help to have a large Iranian population in this small town and they showed up in big numbers!

Short Video Excerpt from “A Moment of Ease”
Persian Song at the Dress Rehearsal for Open Ears

Moondog in NYC in the 1970s
Moondog in NYC in the 1970s

In addition to the Persian songs, Russell transcribed six songs written by Moondog (Louis Hardin), a popular street musician and philosopher from the 40s to the 70s in New York City. He was a blind, eccentric composer who was known as the “Viking of Sixth Avenue”.

The then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Arthur Rodzinski, invited him to attend rehearsals of the Philharmonic which I am sure influenced his musical output. Moondog was also friends with Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  Some credit him for having had a little influence on the minimalist music movement. These pieces were fantastic and Russell’s arrangements were quite beautiful and effective.

The other work on the concert was an older work of Russell’s called The Invisible Proverb. A previous version of this piece is on our Drumtalker CD (nexuspercussion.com/2004/11/drumtalker-dvd/). Hopefully we will be able to record the Moondog Suite, the Persian Songs and possibly rerecord The Invisible Proverb. We are scheduled to do this concert again at the University of Toronto on October 27th of this year.

The next night, we performed Steve Reich’s Drumming. We collaborated on this concert with the Canadian percussion group TorQ (Richard Burrows, Adam Campbell, Jamie Drake, Dan Morphy, with guest Brennan Connelly). Gillian Stone, Amy Gottung and Laura Chambers also joined in on vocals and piccolo.  Everyone played phenomenally in what is a fairly rare performance of the complete work of Drumming (part one alone of Drumming is performed more often).

Backstage just before the concert, Sepideh gave us a short lesson on Iranian finger clicking. We were totally blown away by the sheer volume she was able to produce by simply pushing one finger against another. These are the kind of things that keeps touring interesting. The jokes are usually pretty good too.

 

For information on Sepideh’s latest recording, go to: www.setar.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95%3Acd-g-anwar-on-the-foot-steps-of-abdol-ghader-maraghi&catid=60%3Acds&lang=en

Orchestra and Chamber Music

The primary difference between orchestra and chamber music is the number of players. In chamber music, there is generally one player per part while a full orchestra doubles up sections to add volume (especially in the string sections). I’ve had the pleasure of playing both kinds.

Back in college I had the outrageous experience of playing timpani in the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra when Pierre Boulez came to conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Cleveland Orchestra recording from the 1960s with Boulez was one of those seminal experiences that really turned me on to 20th-century music. As a side note, I recently learned that Paul Simon’s lyrics to You Can Call Me Al was in reference to something Boulez said at one of Paul’s parties. Boulez didn’t speak a lot of English and mistakenly referred to his hosts as Betty and Al as he was leaving instead of Peggy and Paul. That blooper became the lyrics: I can call you Betty, And Betty when you call me, You can call me Al.

Roach
Max Roach and me behind the Grant Park bandshell in 1969 during the performance of Peter Phillips “Concerto for Drum Set, Percussion and Orchestra”. Max was an amazing drummer who pretty much invented bebop drumming (He’s the drummer on the famous 1953 Jazz At Massey Hall recording with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Charlie Mingus.)

I spent several summers playing timpani with the Chicago Grant Park Symphony (which consisted of members of the Chicago, Indianapolis and other orchestras in between their seasons) in the late 60s and early 70s. We had an eight week season with two different concerts each week. I was able to play much standard and some contemporary repertoire in the five years I played with that orchestra.

I now play timpani with local orchestras and chamber music with NEXUS and Steve Reich and Musicians. I am on the faculty of the Music Conservatory at Bard College where I have been playing timpani in a rehearsal orchestra that the college hires for their student conducting class. I’m not sure how many colleges / conservatories offer this kind of experience for their conducting students, but I suspect it is fairly unique. The orchestra consists of great players, one per part, which is a hybrid, but you do hear the essence of orchestral music. The class is led by the veteran Maestro Harold Farberman (conductor / composer / percussionist). Maestro Farberman had a unique career as a percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the youngest full-time player of the BSO at that time) and as the musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra (California). He is what I would describe as an old world musical disciplinarian which is probably a necessary attribute to motivate some of the younger students. The orchestra meets every other week for three hours giving each of the six conducting students a chance to conduct selections from major orchestral works. I have witnessed both tense and joyful moments as the students find their musical souls in front of an orchestra. I fully suspect they appreciate having live, professional musicians to conduct rather than prerecorded music that does not react to one’s direction. This season we played excerpts from Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, a few of Mozart / Brahms / Beethoven / Haydn symphonies and concertos, Copland’s Appalachian Spring (Farberman studied with Copland at Tanglewood in 1951) as well as several other works.

Playing timpani at Bard College under the direction of student conductors
Playing timpani at Bard College under the direction of student conductors

Another fun experience I have playing timpani is with the orchestra from the Festival of the Voice in Phoenicia, New York. Last year we played Rigoletto, while this coming summer we will do the Barber of Seville. Playing timpani in an opera orchestra is yet another discipline quite different from that of the symphonic orchestra. One of the challenges of Opera as a performer is all of the starts and stops and tempo changes that are constantly going on and vary from performance to performance. Playing percussion or timpani in any orchestra is very different from chamber music, especially modern chamber music. In the orchestra (especially opera orchestras) we have to count measures rests more than we are actually playing! In the end I love playing in an orchestra but prefer the repertoire I get to play with NEXUS. You can call me Garry.

Our Own Private Oberlin Conservatory Reunion at Carnegie Hall

Fernando Leon ('71), Christopher Rouse ('71), Jill Gorvoy ('72),  Mary O'Connor Leon ('72) and me ('71)
Fernando Leon (’71), Christopher Rouse (’71), Jill Gorvoy (’72),
Mary O’Connor Leon (’72) and me (’71)

I attended the May 5th concert of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall for a sold-out performance of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem. Chris Rouse was a classmate and friend of mine at the Oberlin Conservatory in the late 60s. Chris is now a preeminent composer. He’s won a coveted Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy award and is member of the prestigious National Society of Arts and Letters. I knew him as a teenager from Baltimore who was finding his way into the world of music. He started collecting signatures and letters from famous composers when he was quite young. He also had a huge collection of vinyl records, ranging from Berlioz to Led Zeppelin. Chris wrote a piece for my senior recital which is long lost. He has since withdrawn all of those early works but luckily has a huge volume of compositions that have been played by the finest musicians and orchestras throughout the world. We met back stage after the concert.

Alec Baldwin and WQXR-FM Personality David Garland
Alec Baldwin and WQXR-FM Personality David Garland

Chris’s Requiem took up the entire two plus hours of this concert and was received with a standing ovation when he was called to the stage. This is a massive work for full orchestra including six percussionists and two choruses. The large chorus was onstage behind the orchestra and a 25 piece children’s chorus was in the balcony above the stage area. This work was premiered in 2007 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic where it received rave reviews. It begins with the solo baritone (Jacques Imbrailo) standing in front of the orchestra singing a solo in the style of plainchant (secular Gregorian chant). What follows that is what I remember of Chris’s musical tastes in that it builds and builds to an apocalyptic climax including a very busy percussion section. The work continues throughout with this kind of dramatic contrast. I was incredibly impressed with Chris’s sense of texture, orchestration and the wonderful setting of the text. The concert was broadcast on the classical music station of New York City WQXR and the evening was introduced by a broadcaster from the radio station, David Garland, along with actor Alec Baldwin. Baldwin is a huge supporter of the arts and often helps promote New York Philharmonic concerts. I was surprised to hear just days after this concert that he was handcuffed by the NYPD for having driven his bicycle the wrong direction down Fifth Avenue. One would think there are bigger crimes to attend to in New York City. Luckily for us Baldwin was available that night to present Requiem to the audience.