Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sinking to the Top, Part 3

For those who just arrived: this is a little series recalling my teaching "career" at local universities. Or how to be Adjunct without really trying.

Before I begin what may seem to be more of an indictment than recollection, let me say that I am grateful for all the years, however sparse and erratic at times, of employment at the university. I do believe that there is a questionable practice among universities who like to keep a long roster of faculty, but in reality, keep them at part-time status for obvious financial reasons. As the former chaplain of the school stated before he left in frustration "There will always be a carrot of an offer here; never a steak." Things, as life teaches us all the damn time, are never what they are cracked up to be.

Get to the story!
One of the great experiences at West Liberty State ('77-'81) was joining Dr. Leonard's newly formed guitar ensemble. From the moment we gathered, I liked it. It would have helped if we could (Joe Couture excluded) cope with quarters, halves and wholes. It is hard to judge how this group sounded, but in my recollection, it was pretty crude. Guitarists are trained to be soloists and their lack of ensemble experience is not a genetic flaw, as some faculty at West Lib suspected, but rather the result of not playing a band instrument in the public school system.

What is a guitar ensemble? Just doing a casual Google, I found this group. This ensemble looks organized and disciplined. We were not. In our defense, this was a new idea back then. There were no LAGQs back then, my friend.

In a moment of delusion, I decided that I would start an ensemble of my own at the university. Remember when I said that it's not a good idea to teach something that you love? This could never be truer.
The first group was a rag tag group of nursing students, the schizo, and a long-haired newspaper reporter. We couldn't handle the most basic of music. We crushed, bitch-slapped, mangled and derailed the simplest configuration of notes. The music that I could hear in my head was being butchered. There were many, many nights when it would be all so painful. Often, I would go and get more than a few beers to take the edge off. I had to. I wanted the music to sing, but all it did was croak.

Because of the stubborn German in me, I dug in my heels. I knew that eventually a reward would come; I just didn't know when. Our first concert was played on campus because I certainly wasn't dragging the group out to the general public. The modest audience was faculty and students and a few friends of the ensemble. The ice cold chairwoman seemed pleased at our little group. It was quaint in her mind. She paired us up once with a brass group and called the recital "Pucker and Pluck." You can't make this stuff up. To her chilly credit, she was supportive.

No matter the group these early years, the growth process from first rehearsal to concert was the same: stumbling and stalling, people practicing at rehearsal, lots of laughter, and inside I was struggling to keep faith. I felt like a punching bag no matter how I tried to distance myself. It didn't work. Doesn't work today. Music is personal to me.

I eventually added an old college buddy of mine to the mix hoping that he would raise the standards and act as inspiration to the group. I had made a big miscalculation in my thinking: he couldn't read music either. Instead of being ashamed at his skills, he would just laugh like he didn't have a care in the world. What could I do? I had invited him, he was taking an hour to get to the class every Thursday and our was friendship a long one.

After the rehearsal, we would always go and eat Chinese food at almost lethal spicy levels. Food is a great narcotic. It took a while, but I asked him why he didn't seem to be bothered why he, a college graduate, could not read music any better than nursing majors who were new to both guitar and notation. "You know I've always had a problem with rhythm," he finally stated with some seriousness. Getting him to talk or act seriously was tough. It was (is) both a joy and a curse of being his friend. His contribution was more of moral support and friendship than a musical one. I love the guy, fun to be around, but this was not uplifting the level of the group. I had to wait.

Ensemble members came and went, some were steady, and my coping with musical disasters was becoming easier. My skin was getting thicker and now I had an outlet for creativity. I could write little pieces for the group. After all, they were a captive audience. This too came with a price.

If I thought it was painful to hear other people's music hacked through, it was like hammers against my head to hear my own pieces "recomposed" through the magic of clumsy and misguided fingers. Still, being hard-headed has the reward of persistence and I know the ins and outs of this kind of group like a conductor knows an orchestra. Useless and arcane knowledge in the real world, but knowledge nonetheless.

Also, something very important was happening: the quality of the players was improving. This wasn't just happy-fun time with nursing majors and bored housewives (Writer's note: these were fine, wonderful people, but music was not their forte.). The group's personnel was a combination of better students and people from the community. We were beginning to get beyond the mechanics of the notes and some music was starting to happen. We had to move beyond the choir room recitals or we would never be worth anything as a musical group. Just an academic exercise, a salon rarity or just a waste of effort. It had to sail, it had to move and the only way was public concerts. But one little bite before we go.

As one of the older players from the community told me years later, "We went through a rather strange period." That had to be the time I was absolutely full of John Cage and his marvelous ideas (This is a great resource of his wacky stories.). This was one of the last performances at the school's choir room and I thought this was a good time to release some long pent up frustrations and make a statement.

I wrote a piece that just had instructions written on index cards. They were strange requests like: "Wander out into the audience and ask what time it is and then ask, "Is that your watch?" The players followed these absurd instructions with a passion. One guy got up and left the room, only to return a few minutes later. All of it absurd theater disguising my musical slap in the face. I both envied and hated the classical regime. Adjunct, part-time, small time, small potatoes guitar teacher frustrated with the lack of opportunities playing an instrument that neither fit the classical world it purported to be a part of and certainly not fitting into the rock and roll band bar world I saw both as enticing and moronic. As Joe Campbell said so eloquently: "Neither is, nor is not."

To make the parody more apparent, I was wearing an old tux jacket conducting this chaos with an over-the-top serious expression that we commonly see in conductors. As planned, all of a sudden I yelled angrily at the group: "Where is he?? Where IS he?" The group was to stop, and looked puzzled. Off stage, comes my friend dressed like he is going bass fishing. His instructions were to enter, stand still and stare at the ceiling. (This is my version of the beatific vision.) At one point, there were three of us, Stooge like, staring at nothing on the ceiling. The audience, composed mainly of friends, laughed and got the joke. I think. Or they thought I had finally gone off the proverbial deep end.

Eventually, I knew that if the group was ever to actually climb out of it's fragile, safe shell of just performing at the university, two things would have to happen: First, as stated before, the group would have to improve drastically. It's one thing to plonk through easy music at the music department recital, quite another to put your reputation on the line in public. Second, I would have to find a suitable public venue. Taylor Books was new at that time and it was easy to call and book a gig for the group. (Later, booking a gig at this cafe-book-a-blog-a-torium was damn near impossible as they had bookings a year in advance.)

The Taylor Books gigs were an odd combination of performance and the loud grinding of coffee beans and cappuccino machines. When we were playing, we were all business and I recall some Bach coming off very well. All the notes in the right place! I spied a Marshall guitar professor watching us intently from a distance. Oddly, he never introduced himself that night. Maybe he didn't want to face the inevitable, "How was it?" question.

I know I sound a bit harsh in these recollections and to be honest now, I wonder why I kept it going for 16 years. There were some glorious moments. As one member said, "You pulled off some miracles with the group."

The ensemble was beginning to be a real group. The two highlights for us are clear. We played at a guitar fest at Common Grounds - once a thriving non-alcohol place for local music. There we performed a piece I had written in the style of Steve Reich. With a conductor, we not only managed to get through the piece, something of a miracle, but we did it with musicality and verve. So much so that we stole the show with a standing ovation. That kind of satisfaction has been the rarest of the rare in my musical world.

We hit our peak at the last Kanawha Forum gig we played. At this time, I was reading Fripp's diary and for some reason, the expression "Just play the notes" stuck in my being. I told the ensemble this moments before we walked onstage.

It was the calmest I had ever been onstage. I could feel the audience, but no jolt of adrenaline nor nerves. I was fully centered and focused. It was incredible. We debuted two pieces: one of mine in the style of Glass called "Revolving Doors" and one composed by my student, John. My piece got quite a healthy dose of applause. This may sound falsely immodest, but I really didn't expect that. Glass style getting approval from Charleston audience? Unheard of.

The student's piece involved using a looping device called a Boomerang. Always with a theatrical flair, I suggested a slight-of-hand way of using it. The audience didn't know it, but John had already pre-recorded a loop in it, ready to go by the mere push of a floor pedal. It looked like John was playing, but it was the machine. The piece went on for about five to six minutes until the end, when every member repeated the same six note figure in unison. Then, like our friend Haydn's Farewell symphony, one by one we left the stage without acknowledging the audience-just slip off quietly and quickly. The composer was the last man on stage and then after a short stay, he left.

The thing is, there was still the sound of a guitar playing, though no guitarist was to be seen. The digital repeater was hidden as well as the amp. We thought the audience would get the little prank we had played on them and leave, but they stayed and were listening still. They hadn't moved! Finally, the student went out and turned off the loop and smiled: "That's it. The concert's over." Thunderous applause as we returned to take a bow. I have never seen an audience quite like that. It was tremendous.

All ideas have their time to burst forth, struggle to fruition, reach a zenith and then trail off. It's the natural arc of things-so very true of musical ones, especially groups.

The group played some school concerts that were memorable, giving free PR to the school which has never been acknowledged to this day, but something else was happening. Many members were not so much interested in the ensemble anymore as they were discussing and practicing solo music.

I had a sense that it was coming to a close when we were trying to rehearse another of my pieces. One girl was practicing a solo piece, others were trying to get through the parts or sitting silently or noodling. I can accept that maybe the piece didn't appeal to them, but to not even try was symptomatic of a larger issue.

From a financial point of view, what I had been getting paid was a joke. It was embarrassing. Two hours plus on a Thursday night for mere dollars to give private lessons didn't set well with me. Plus, I think we had achieved what I had wanted to achieve sixteen years ago. The job has been completed.

Eventually, I lowered the boom and told them. Some of them kindly offered to pay me out of their own pocket, but things were changing for me in my private life. I was getting busier and busier: time was tight. I knew that I was making the right decision when Bert, the most wonderful and loyal player to ever join the group, told me that he and his wife were moving to Las Vegas for their retirement.

Bert had been around for a good many of those years and I took it as a sign. Bert was always dedicated, patient, kind and always a good barometer for the group. If Bert bitched about something, I took it more seriously than other members. He was always a good sounding board for ideas. Other members had come and gone, but Bert was a rock. If he was gone, then letting go of the group was going to be a lot easier.

In the end, I'm not sure what we accomplished. This was not a bar band where people might have some recollection of gigs past. Not even a symphony orchestra where the local community would have supported it. It was a small, delicate classical guitar group that left no ripples. All doen for art's sake I suppose.
I know that I learned a hell of a lot about what players can/can not do, organizing and leading people, and how to present music to the public. We got to sound as good as we were ever going to sound and that we had played all the local spots seems like an accomplishment. The fact that we were considered good enough for the Kanawha Forum was pleasing.
In fact, recently, someone asked me about the group. I hadn't thought about it for a while. The group no longer was together I told them and that was the end of that discussion. Sixteen years and that's the way the music ends.
Not with a bang, nor a whimper. Not even a pluck.
Coming soon:
Sinking to the Top 4: More Academia Dementia

1 comment:

hillbillybob said...

Good read brought back memmories of the ol WLSC ensemble. My folks have a picture of us,and a working cassette of our Morgantown performance ,1977 or 1978. Haven't thought of Joe for many years. I believe the last time I saw him was new year's eve 1987 or 88. I stuck my Madonna cover band to go play my original gig, cause when my mates called Ed to fill in for our bass player, he told them Joe was in town and could fill in for me. I'll always remember it as the night my rig caught fire in Ma Cabrini's, or when we discovered that bud lite is much better as a fire extinguisher than as a beverage.