Friday, December 28, 2007

Piano 101: 1. El Puerto

Ok. I had another goal in getting back to the piano. I wanted to build my playing back up well enough to record my old repertoire for my parents. They had to listen to me practice this stuff every day. At the time they were probably sick of hearing it. But it's been almost 20 years, and I thought it would be nice for them to have a record of me playing again. The full project will take me a while, so the recordings will probably come slowly. But the first rough track is here.

I chose to do El Puerto, from Isaac Albéniz' Iberia Suite first. It was one of my favorite pieces to perform, and probably my favorite piece of piano music, period. It could use some polish, but here it is.

Track 1: El Puerto (Isaac Albéniz)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Piano 101: I Wish I Knew How To Quit You

I was back at the Steinway Gallery again on Saturday.

Steinway Guy emailed me to tell me he just received two new Bostons that I should check out: a 193 (6'4") and a 215 (7'). So I went in Saturday to have a look. That makes it three weeks in a row I've been in there.

The new Bostons were great. The tone on the 215 was gorgeous, and it played a lot like a Steinway B. But its action was a touch mushier than the 193. So Steinway Guy says he's going to have his tech look at the 215 to see if he can firm up the action, make it as crisp as the 193. To be honest, I'd rather his tech see if he could voice the 193 to make it as warm as the 215. (Ya, like they're going to voice a piano to the tastes of some guy who can't afford to buy it). I'm really impressed with the Bostons, though. They sound and play great at half the price of the core Steinways. Of course, even half the price is a darn expensive piano -- well above the range of the Japanese pianos.

I also played the Pramberger 228 (7'6") again. It's a nice piano, great tone. A little loose. There's a buyer in San Antonio who wants it. Steinway Guy held on to it because he knew I was coming in Saturday and I had mentioned that I liked it. I had to laugh. I told him to go ahead and send it to San Antonio.

But the star of the show remains this one Steinway A. I've probably played four or five As (6'2") and four or five Bs (6'11") at SPG. But this one A is "The One". Number 578688 (or "688", as I like to call it) may be the nicest piano under 9' that I've ever played. It does everything I ask it to do, without complaint or hesitation. It's like it wants to make me play better. And the tone is like buttah.

Ok. This is getting a little weird.

Anyway. Steinway Guy is going to email when his tech has had a go at the Boston 215. Probably later this week. That'll make it four weeks in a row. Johanne is definitely starting to get suspicious.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Piano 101: Coming Out (Again)

When I started practicing again I had no idea how much pure joy I would get out of just playing. I'm excited every time I step out to practice at the University or a friend's house, or even when I play bits and pieces on pianos at the store. And when I'm done my head is so full of music that walking and talking and chewing and breathing all feel locked to some rhythm. (I probably look like a dork).

But my goal of all this was to be able to play piano again in public on demand. And my target was Christmas. Well, today is December 22... and yesterday I played in a little Christmas recital at the home of a friend who teaches. I think that counts for "in public", even if the public was pretty small.

I performed two pieces: a Chopin Étude (Opus 10, Number 3) and a piece from Isaac Albéniz' Iberia Suite (El Puerto). They're kind of challenging to play, but I think it went pretty well. I hope to record these two over the next couple of weeks and post the recordings on this blog.

Afterwards, the host of the recital suggested I might be able to perform at one of the upcoming recitals at a music school she's involved with here in Austin. If it works out, I might be able to find leads to other recitals, too.

Hm... better get back to practicing!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Piano 101: Ancient History

My mother is a piano teacher, so we've always had lots of piano music in the house. I remember sitting on the floor at her feet under the keybed of her old "Chopin" upright piano while she played. When I was old enough to reach the keys I started plunking out stuff myself. With my mother's help I began to make my way through the lesson books. This informal arrangement lasted for maybe five years, I'm guessing. I had stumbled my way to about a grade 5 level in the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) grading system. We decided that if I wanted to "do it right", I needed a teacher. So at ten years old I began formal lessons with Edith Orton, a great Ottawa teacher.

Mrs. Orton guided me through the Royal Conservatory examinations until RCM grade 10. Along the way she encouraged me to perform in recitals and compete at the Ottawa Music Festival and the Canadian Music Competition. My repertoire was mostly from the RCM examniation syllabi, but also included, importantly, concerti for piano and orchestra. My orchestra was my mother, playing the orchestra parts arranged for second piano. As I advanced through the grades, Mrs. Orton also stressed the importance of occasional lessons with other teachers. I had the opportunity to meet with Jean-Paul Sevilla, Andrew Tunis and Douglas Voice, all three at the University of Ottawa at the time. But more than anyone else, Edith Orton taught me music, and I'm forever indebted to her for it.

After grade 10, Mrs. Orton decided I would benefit more by getting a new teacher. The obvious best fit was Douglas Voice at UofO. I think I must have been about 17 years old and probably starting grade 12 at High School. (High School in Ontario at the time went to grade 13). My two years of lessons with Douglas Voice prepared me for the ultimate Royal Conservatory exam: the Associateship Diploma in Piano Performance. Creative planning of my High School course schedule over the years allowed me to finish grade 13 spending only a half day at school. The other half I could spend practicing.

My lessons with Douglas were completely different from previous lessons. We would often spend our time discussing issues of interpretation or experimenting with different sounds and techniques to decide what might work for a given piece. I took the Associateship exam in the Spring of 1986, the same time I graduated from High School. I thank Douglas for bringing me to the "next level" of performance, and for introducing me to an incredible new world in the piano repertoire -- in particular the Spanish piano works of Granados, Albeniz and Ginastera.

After High School I had a bit of a premature mid-life crisis. I had always assumed I would find some kind of career in music. When I realized I didn't want to get a BMus, it became obvious that my options were pretty limited. I panicked. I got into computers. During the musical winter of my computer studies, I did manage to spend one semester at the piano, fulfilling a Humanities credit by doing a juried recital course in piano performance. It gave me the opportunity to study once more with Douglas Voice, one-on-one for the semester. We remained good friends, but that would be the last time we studied music together. Douglas succumbed to cancer in 1998. I wish I could play for him one more time.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Thom's Journal -- Say Goodnight

Temptation is a harsh master who carries a double-edged sword. He came to me hard in the fall of 1995. I was traveling a lot to Texas and California. My then-partner was traveling a lot to Asia and Africa. I was lonely, but it wasn't just the physical separation, we were also growing apart emotionally. Just to make things more complicated, I started falling for another woman. The longing was both titillating and tortuous. The opportunity first presented itself in San Francisco, but I managed to avert temptation and say goodnight. I sat in my hotel room in Santa Clara for a while strumming my guitar. The plodding progression that would become the foundation for the song perfectly reflected my dark mood. I really did cry myself to sleep conflicted by longing, guilt, obsession, love, frustration and confusion. The next morning I was overcome by emotional numbness and wrote the chorus.

When we did Say Goodnight as a band, the crunchy distortion of the electric guitar gave the song an even more tortuous feel, which I like. I almost still like it better just me and acoustic guitar, though, because it's so much sadder that way.

Thom's Journal -- Not A Setting Sun

Louis Fagan was one of the best friends I ever had and an extremely talented poet, lyricist and musician. When he died of a heroin overdose in 1997 after having ostensibly kicked the addiction, I was angry. What a waste. Adding to my emotional anguish was the fact I was in New York City at the time and incommunicado. Although several people tried desperately to get hold of me, by the time I got back, the funeral was over and for a long time I felt like I had no closure, especially since nobody ever shared the results of the autopsy with me.

Writing Not a Setting Sun was an exercise in catharsis. I had to get my anger and sadness out. I still intend to write a song celebrating Louis' short life and the wonderful music he created.

Thom's Journal -- No Forever

This song is the antithesis of What Will You Do. Anger can be a self-defeating emotion if you can't get over it. If you can, it can be highly instructive. In pouring out my anger toward a recently ex-girlfriend, I took the first steps toward reversing a pattern of behaviour that wasn't conducive to lasting relationships. I had a tendency to jump into things head first without considering all the implications. Add to that an ill-developed sense of self coupled with an intransigence to recognize my own culpability and I had a sure-fire recipe for ending up single. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the next time, or even the time after I would stop and remind myself there's no forever in some people's we. It took me three more kicks at the cat and the realization that 'some people' might include me.

Thom's Journal -- What Will You Do

When you're with someone for a significant period of time, you inevitably end up going through all the stages of grief, no matter how badly it ends. This song represented my acceptance that both of us had moved on. I couldn't help wondering, though, where her life would take her and whether she would also look back fondly on all the positive aspects of our relationship.

Reviewers have sometimes called my music bittersweet. So be it. Isn't life?

Thom's Journal -- The Quiet In Us

Life is full of highs and lows, but moments of perfect bliss are rare. One such moment for me was a weekend in Northern California in 1996. We were so perfectly in love, the outside world was non-existent for three glorious days. We danced naked on the beach in Santa Cruz, drove with the top down through the wine country and strolled among redwoods. We made love everywhere and simply got lost in each other. The 'quiet' is our innate capacity to live in the moment, consummately happy and content. It exists in us always although it is not always present and it rarely presents itself when we're striving for it.

Sometimes when I play this song, it can conjure up that blissful state.

Thom's Journal -- Don't Try

Some people are pleasers, bound by a sense of duty to make everybody around them happy, thus sacrificing themselves in the process. The pursuit of perfection in the eyes of a disparate circle of friends, family, employers, employees, clients etc. must be a very daunting prospect. I was looking for a metaphor, ostensibly to help a friend/lover, but ultimately self-serving. I imagined Jesus, the man, and the enormous pressure he must have been under in his latter days. I thought about what advice deposed gods might have for him. I thought about how he might translate that to his hopes for his disciples' futures. I thought about how he might have viewed the predicament Pilate faced in sentencing him. The chorus just flowed naturally from those musings. It seems somewhat incongruent with at least what we're taught about Jesus' actions and philosophy, but I imagine his actual life was much more complicated and subject to internal conflict as all of our lives are in trying to balance duty and commitment with happiness and personal fulfillment.

Interestingly, I wrote this song as an exercise for a songwriting group in Ottawa. The group was really critical of it. Some didn't like the way it doesn't deviate from its basic patterns. One guy said it needed a bridge. Others were offended by the license I took with the Jesus story. One woman didn't get the use of terms like preacher, colleagues and lawyer. I was pretty headstrong in those days and dismissed all the criticism. Good thing too, because the general listening public has been much more accepting of the tune.

Piano 101: I Need a Piano

Luckily, it's pretty easy for me to get my hands on practice pianos. The School of Music at the University has something like 75 practice cubes with grands. So I can leave my office at lunch, put on my student disguise, walk over to the SoM and sneak into a cube. I'd say the majority are Steinway Ms, with a few Baldwins, Mason&Hamlins, etc. thrown in. Most of them are pretty small, but a few of the cubes have bigger pianos (6'-7'+). Unfortunately, all of the pianos are fairly beat-up, and many of the Steinways have problems with the sostenuto pedal. There's one Baldwin that's probably the best sounding/playing piano there, and I can usually snag it if I go at the right time. I think it must be an SF10, since I'm sure it's bigger than an L1 (the longest Artist Baldwin).

My friends Bruce and Claudia have a C3 that they're happy to let me play. So I've started bringing my music bag whenever I go over there. I'm really impressed with the way that C3 sounds in their spacious living room. It's really sweet and warm.

Of course, what I really want is a piano of my own, so I've started doing a little research. As luck would have it, the Steinway Piano Gallery is just minutes from my house, and I've been spending some time there. I told my wife I'm having an affair, because if she found out I've been going to the piano store, she'd kill me. They have a huge selection: all the Steinways (including a D in their recital hall!), some Baldwins, a few Yamahas, Bostons, Petrofs, etc. They also have various brands of PSO*. It's great to be able to play all of these side-by-side to compare tone, touch, etc. It's also kind of dangerous, because after playing a nicely set up Steinway, it's hard to get excited about some of the others. I've pretty much accepted the fact that I'll never be able to afford one, but it's nice to dream. And there are some nice pianos out there that cost less than a house.
*Piano-Shaped Object

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Piano 101: The Next Project

I used to play the piano a lot. Then came the usual combination of distractions: school, work, life. I always made time for music, but the Big Hand and Twice the Usual recording commitments ate up my whole music time budget. In August this year, I finally convinced myself to call the Twice the Usual album "finished", and was starting to wonder what musical pursuit would take its place. The Antonini family reunion would give me the answer.

The Antoninis are a very musical family, my uncle Marty the most conspicuously so. At any gathering someone will eventually say "Hey Marty, go get your piano!", and he'll show up 15 minutes later with a PA. He's probably the most entertaining entertainer I've ever seen. His ability to perform on demand is inspiring, and I realized that I regretted not being able to play when asked. In spite of all the time I've spent in the studio over the last ten years, I didn't have a single thing on any instrument that I could sit down and play from beginning to end. So I vowed to "learn how to play the piano again."

In this next part of the Art Facts blog I'll write about my reintroduction to the piano, and the path back to playing in public. And I'll post some recordings along the way, too.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

2x: 11. Say Goodnight

So here we are at the end already. Last song. So sad.

Track 11: Say Goodnight
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Say Goodnight

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: rhythm electric guitar
  • E.G.: lead electric guitar
  • D.P.: drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), drum programming, background vocal
  • Christian Chénier: electric guitars

It may be kind of obvious, but we always used to do "Say Goodnight" as the last song of the night when we were playing live, so that's how I always think of this song: live and last. Making it the last was easy: put it after all the other songs. Making it "live" required a few tricks. The biggest issue was trying to make it different from the other tracks but still fit with the sound of the album.
  • The most obvious "live" trick is the bar noises at the beginning and end. Even without any other tricks, this primes the listener into thinking "live".
  • Another fairly obvious trick is the extra effects on the lead vocal. I put a short echo and extra reverb to sound like a loud PA system in a closed space.
  • The drums are also quite different from the other tracks. I was out at Cedar Street one night listening to a great funk band, trying to put my finger on what made the drums sound so "live". The combination of mics, eq, amps, speakers and gobs of compression make them sound much more artificial. I tried reproducing that signal path virtually, but the Yellow Tools drums I used on the album are so acoustic sounding that it was a real struggle to color them enough. I needed to start from a more artificial source. If found some sampled drums on my Roland XP-50 keyboard that were just right. So I replaced the kick, snare and toms with the XP-50 samples. I kept the natural sounding hats, ride and cymbals from Yellow Tools -- the XP-50 metals were just too fake. I think the result sounds pretty close to a kit through a live PA.
  • There's a spot near the end where it sounds like the guitar feeds back for a second (around 5:14). I'm not sure what's causing this sonic effect, but it adds to the live sound, so I left it in.
  • The sparse applause at the end is reminiscent of some of the shows we did with... uh... "modest" attendance. I remember one show at The Pit in Ottawa during a snow storm in December. Beyond the barstaff and significant others, I'm not sure anyone else was there. Sure... we can laugh about it now.
  • Light dimmers and questionable electrical at bars is always causing something to buzz. I recorded the amp buzz at the end by running my bass amp through the system while holding the free end of the patch cord in my fingers. I had to record the amp shutting off separately because it's such a loud pop that everything downstream in the signal path has to be trimmed.
Another great electric part from Chénier here. At one point he emailed me to say he was having trouble coming up with ideas: "Say Goodnight is giving me fits. How do you add lead to a 'cowboy on a horse' country song? It can't be done I tell ya. So expect very low key stuff." I'm not sure that what he came up with could be called "very low key"... you be the judge! (And I'm not going to dignify the "cowboy on a horse" comment).

In many places on the album I already had ideas for electric parts. For those, I'd email Chris trying to "textify" my idea. Somehow, no matter how ridiculous my instructions, he'd always lay down exactly what I had in mind. Here were my instructions for Say Goodnight:
buh-Changuk... buh-ChangGannnnnnnng

The yelling in the chorus was also something we used to do live. So for the album I recorded myself about ten times yelling "I" and "SAY". But when I mixed the yells in with the music, for some reason it sounded like "Oy... Soy". When I played back the yells in isolation they were fine. So some weird interaction, frequency masking, reverb artifact, or combination of these was messing with the harmonic content. I ended up having to put on a high-pass filter, remove all the reverb and replace half of the "I... Say" parts with "Ah-ee... Sah-ee". Strange but true.

Coming Soon: 2x: Appendices

Saturday, December 1, 2007

2x: 10. Not A Setting Sun

Track 10: Not A Setting Sun
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Not A Setting Sun

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal

There was no question that this track had to be a guitar/vocal solo. The recording is a single performance, with Thom doing vocals and guitar together. Careful microphone position allows some separation, but there is still plenty of guitar in the vocal track and vocal in the guitar track. That makes it very difficult to edit one without messing up the other. So I did almost no editing of the tracks... a little compression, a little bit of volume riding on the vocal track and plenty of eq and reverb. But really what you hear is the raw performance.

When we recorded the song, I left Thom alone in the studio with the system recording. After a few false starts, he nailed a good take end-to-end. I did a quick mix, and since there was so little editing and no other instruments, the track was finished pretty early in the project. I'd go back to it every once in a while and tweak the sound a little, and then leave it again. But I never listened to anything recorded in the room before that final take. Then one day very near the end of the project, I went back and listened to the rest of the recording from that day. That's when I found the "For Louis" that Thom speaks to open the song. He didn't say it before the final take, so I didn't know it was there. I don't know why I decided to go back and listen to the rest of the recording, but I'm glad I did.

Next: 2x: 11. Say Goodnight