Stravinsky on a Stick…

It’s that time of year again, when the average Minnesotan starts salivating profusely and planning their foray into the great culinary unknown.  Yes, folks, it’s just around the corner, only three months away.  The great Minnesota get-together known as …….. The Minnesota State Fair!!!!  WHEEE!!!!!  Heart surgeons within 500 miles are on high alert…

For those of you not lucky enough to live in this corner of paradise the Minnesota State Fair is the largest state fair by daily attendance, and it’s home to all sorts of crazy things: the Miracle of Birth center (come see animals in the throws of birthing distress! wheee!!!); Machinery Hill (come see huge farm equipment!wheee!!!!); come meet the Strangest Man on the Planet (it’s Garrison Keillor! wheee!!!), etc.  You get the idea.  It’s also famous for all sorts of reasons: John Phillip Sousa appeared their in 1928; Teddy Roosevelt gave his “Speak Softly/Big Stick” speech their in 1901; and every year some putz sculpts a life-sized likeness of the Fair Queen in butter.  I’m not making this up.  But what really gets the Minnesotans going is food on a stick.

Waddya want?  Hot dogs on a stick?  Amateur hour.  Try cheese curds on a stick.  Or Alligator on a stick.  For the more adventurous there’s Hotdish on a stick, or even Spaghetti on a stick (please don’t ask).  But the King of the Fair is, without any doubt, the famed Deep-Fried Candy Bar on a Stick.  This is the reason Dr. Debakey had a very, very long career. I’m forever surprised that the Mayo clinic hasn’t established a mobile cardiac outpost at the fairgrouds.  They’re missing an opportunity.  But all these culinary ideas show an inventive streak that really should be nurtured and admired.  Cross-pollination, putting two things that are naturally separate together, is one of the great processes that mankind employs to make life more interesting.  Example, the Pluot.  What happens in music when the old is made new?

This last weekend had three different moments when my eyes, and ears, were opened by unexpected re-imaginings.  Saturday night the wonderful soprano Dawn Upshaw graced Edmonton with her presence.  A fabulous musician endowed with a great voice, Dawn is also an utter sweetheart and very easy to work with.

Dawn backstage after her concert in Edmonton

One of the pieces she performed with the ESO was a set of songs by Schubert arranged for orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov.  The orchestrations are very tastefully done, emphasizing orchestra colors and tone, but what stood out to me was the beautiful, yet short, introduction music to the songs and the transition music between the 2nd and 3rd songs.  Golijov creates a wonderful atmosphere by taking elements of the songs and re-inventing the music using modern compositional techniques.  The result is very haunting and beautiful, quite appropriate for the songs themselves.

Sunday morning found me flying home to Minneapolis, and on the flight I was reading The Great Oom by Robert Love.  This is a biography of Pierre Bernard, the person who more than anyone else was responsible for introducing Yoga to the U.S.  Suddenly I’m startled to see the name Leopold Stokowski pop up.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.


Yoga back in the ’20s had a distinct counter-culture and nefarious reputation but old Leopold knew a good thing when he saw it.  In retrospect I shouldn’t be surprised that the man who so shook up the orchestral business was a counter-culture seeker himself.

Sunday night found me tired but elated, because for the first time in 10 years I was privileged to see and hear an old friend perform.  And not just any old friend, mind you, but fellow Eastman alum rock God Tony Levin, who has anchored the group King Crimson and also been the bass player for Peter Gabriel since he went solo.  Long story how we first met, but we have had a frustrating last ten years – the drawbacks of being professional musicians include the fact that we each have gigs!  This makes it bloody hard to see each other perform.

Backstage w/Tony and Pat
My Chapman Stick - The Tiger

Tony plays the Chapman Stick TouchBoard, an instrument developed by Emmet Chapman in the ’70s to do hammered fret technique.  It’s a pretty wild instrument and I am the proud owner of one of Emmet’s specials – The Tiger.  Unfortunately I’m busy, so I don’t get to play it much.  Tony, however, plays it all the time, and he has a very open mind.  His most recent band is called Stick Men and it features his fellow stick player Michael Bernier (brilliant young player and all-around nice guy) as well as King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto.  Rehashing my Crimson days was great fun but the highlight of the night for me was the encore they played – Tony’s re-stickestration of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.  Yep, Stravinsky on a Stick – who knew?  To quote the guy sitting next to me: “F*CKING BRILLIANT!!!! I couldn’t have put it better myself.

None of this is new of course.  Composers have been stealing and re-working each other’s ideas for centuries, and half of the progressive rock movement of the early ’70s is either Ginastera, Stravinsky, or the like (please rf. the entire oeuvre of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer).  Impressionism without Gamelan music?  I think not.  But it is worth pointing out that it is usually the counter-culture streak that creates the most interesting music.  Insisting on a conservative approach to music is guaranteed to stifle the very creativity that makes music interesting.  Don’t take my word for it – just turn on MTV for a while.  BORING!!!!

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