Personal Essay

The Magic of Kumar

Image © 2017 Gregory Briggler

Around the Christmas of 1996, I went to the Cosmic Cup in Dallas to see the local band Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks. It was an intimate concert in a place that had the feel and dimensions of a living room. Little Jack sang and played tenor banjo. On stage there was quite the menagerie of instruments: harmonium, tuba, cornet, drums, and saxophone. The crowd sat on cushions on the floor, and we were occasionally asked to sing Salvation Army arrangements of Christmas Carols. That was a crowd favorite except for a white-haired atheist who chose to try and ruin the fun for everyone else instead of voting with his feet. It was a benchmark concert of my five years in Texas.

Mixed in with the proto-hipster crowd were promed-up Indian teens who were there to support the Amazing Kumar. Short, white haired and wearing a sweater vest, he performed magic tricks, spun plates and entertained as part of the evening. I only discovered he was the owner of the place while researching this post.

The next time I saw Kumar Pallana was in 1998 on the big screen.  I often drove from Denton to the Inwood Theater in Dallas to watch independent films. There was Kumar on screen in Rushmore, a film by Wes Anderson exploring the life of an overachieving, under-performing private school boy. Anderson is from Houston and so had a special place in the hearts of arty Texans. The film was witty and awkward and charming and silly. I felt like I was at the genesis of something great. And then, there was the Amazing Kumar on screen! I had before seen him in the flesh. He wasn’t just another film person, but a magician I had first seen in a tiny restaurant in Dallas. My adventure – the move from Arkansas to Texas, the seeking out of art and music and films – had brought me close to people who were making movies. Through slight of hand, Kumar connected my real life to the movie on screen- an Amazing trick!

Of course, I still watch Wes Anderson’s movies. He is one of the most interesting filmmakers, forgive me, of my generation. Everything on screen is polished and just-so. We haven’t met yet, but we will eventually. I want to share a Pimm’s Cup with him and talk about that Texas to New York shift he made. That we made. We’ll toast together someday and talk about music, the big D and the big Apple.

Advertisements

“They Said It Wouldn’t Work” – Margaret Glaspy – Sound Opinion – Railroad Jerk

On the subway this morning, I was reading A.M. New York, like you’re supposed to, and I saw a blurb promoting singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy. I like to take a chance on new music from all kinds of places, so I gave her a listen before I read the interview.

I have Indie rock on my mind because of a Chicago based podcast called Sound Opinion that a young man who works for me suggested. Kyle said it was like “Siskel and Ebert” for music. It seems the podcast is mostly about Indie rock which they are very enthusiastic about. They didn’t disagree at all about any of the people they played on the episode that I listened to, so I didn’t get the pugilistic thrill that I had watching the Chicago film critics go at it. Siskel and Ebert was the only debates about art on T.V. when I was a kid. They were passionate and fun. I cared more about film than politics, so I skipped the McGlaughlin Group, the other debate choice.

I stopped listening to rock music after college. It wasn’t intentional; it happened naturally. Partly, I moved away from Texas to Europe where dance music rules the airwaves. I preferred punk to most Indie rock as a twenty year old. I never really fell into the whole NPR rock thing as I grew older. To bolster my “real rock” bona fides, I revisited an Indie band I saw live in Denton, Texas, around 1996  that Jeremy, my friend from home, urged me to see on a visit. This morning, I enjoyed The Ballad of Railroad Jerk again for the first time in twenty years.

I went straight to the NPR Tiny Desk concert video after an internet search of Margaret Glaspy. I have always been a fan of the live cut, much to the chagrin of most everyone else I know. You learn what kind of musicians people are when they play live. I always liked the way it sounded, too. Miss Glaspy played guitar solidly, writes very good songs, and works with top rate musicians. Tim Kuhl is on drums and Chris Morrissey is holding down the bass. “You and I” is the musical standout thanks to Morrisey’s bass lines – both florid and solid like wrought iron.  Shame on NPR for not including the band’s names in the YouTube description.

After I listened to the singer/songwriter with the small, powerful voice, I read the interview. It was interchangeable with all other pop or rock interviews. Always listen before you read.

Margaret Glaspy Bandcamp $2 digital download!

Huffington Post Interview

2016-05-29-1464525801-7044006-Gregory8.jpgPhoto credit: © Nancy Ruhling 2016

Early one Saturday morning, I had the pleasure to be interviewed by Nancy Ruhling for her long-running Huffington Post column “Astoria Characters”. She liked my iced tea and my kids, so she was very kind to me.

Read and enjoy!

 

Tatra Epiphany

IMG_1618The blogger hiking in Roháče around the year 2000. Photo Credit: © Katarina Vizina

[A note to the reader: I wrote this essay many years ago about the intersection between trombone playing and the reality of body perception. I will follow up with a more recent take. I have tried to keep the editing to a minimum; these were my thoughts at the time. Enjoy!]

You can never predict when you might reach your next level of perception. Each summer, my wife and I stay in Roháče in the “Western Tatra” mountains of Slovakia. The mountain forests are flush with raspberries, blueberries, and mushrooms. Part of the vacation ritual is for my in-laws to collect mushrooms and dry them for use later in the year, especially for a soup made around Christmas time. The mushrooms smell woody, earthen. I practiced among tables of sliced mushrooms drying on sections of newspapers. It was among the mushrooms where I had an epiphany that took my playing to a higher plateau.

The journey of improvement on the trombone seems to be made of steps and plateaus. There are times when improvement can be felt. The higher plateau of ability is exhilarating, at first. Then there is the feeling of “I’m awful!” and the work towards the next step up occurs.Then there is the next plateau to conquer. I find myself asking, “Is this it?” when I reach a plateau. In my journey, as if I am climbing Mt. Everest, I am always making it to what feel like a higher plateau.

My teacher, David Taylor, counsels me to concentrate on what my tongue is doing. This is easier said than done. I realized that I was thinking of my embouchure as flat in profile like all the drawings of the lateral cut-away mouth used to show tongue placement. The type is well know – a tilted coat-of-arms with two white, long-tailed tadpoles that represent the teeth and gums surrounding an albino leech that is the tongue. This pale heraldry does not come close to the actual sensation of the mouthpiece touching the face and the roof of the mouth being tapped by the tip of the tongue. A superior diagram would imply a three-dimensional mouth and mouthpiece but would still fall flat.

In the mountains, I became aware of the difference between the way I was thinking about my embouchure and the reality of the fullness of experience. It was as though a flat drawing ballooned into the reality of my skull. In other words, I stopped “looking” at my embouchure from the side while trying to feel the drawing. I actually began to feel the hollow of my mouth, the width of my tongue. What helped me hold on to the feeling was my concentrating on the ring of the mouthpiece rim touching my face and lips. This feeling of “being in” my body was a strange, vertiginous experience especially at first, like the moment when first learning to balance a bicycle.

Too mystical? There are types of body-based learning in which we can participate. Anyone who has taken an Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais course knows this first hand. Although I am by no means an expert in either technique, our anatomy is often quite different from the way we think of it. For example, before taking an Alexander course, I thought of my rib-cage and spine as a ping-pong ball stuck on a stick like a candy apple. The truth is more like a ping-pong ball stuck onto the side of a stick, like a sculpture of a “P”.

The Feldenkrais Technique is a series of exercises that allow you to feel the reality of your body. Some exercises show you how to experience your pelvis in three dimensions. Others pinpoint your diaphragm. Still others articulate the range of motion of your neck, waist, and spine. With both Feldenkrais and Alexander techniques, the learning is done from the inside. Understanding begins with feeling. In the same way, the moment of clarity I experienced in the mountains taught me the truth of my embouchure in a way that no drawing could.

What has this mountaintop epiphany allowed me to do? I can feel much more accurately where I am placing my tongue. In just two months time, I could play multi-phonics much easier than before. Also, it has made me aware of how much air escapes from the left side of my mouthpiece. Most importantly, the mist has vanished between my perception of what I am doing and what is actually happening. I am certain this isn’t just a new plateau. Perhaps the previous plateaus were foothills leading up to this experience. Now begins the climb to greater heights.

“Ode to Joy” Part 2

Ode to Joy 4

Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

(This is the end of a two-part story. The beginning can be found by clicking here.)

The performance was over. I was in a daze afterward of heightened aesthetic awareness. I remember the shabby blue and green carpet in the house where musicians mixed with the crowd accepting compliments and making plans for the evening. The evening was cool as Laura and I walked arm and arm out of the well-worn concert hall. The patterns of the architecture outside the venue were revealed to me for the first time. Windows, identical and repeating, pulled my gaze up the office building wall across the street. I was so enraptured, as I drove along the interstate, my speed slowed to a crawl. I only came back to speed, apologizing with a smile, after Laura asked me if everything was alright.

The after-concert party was held in a lousy chain restaurant. And yet, as we walked inside, I was aware of the interior design, the deliberate choices made by that anonymous design team. The open walls with plants hanging just-so seemed to frame my friends as we walked in. The food was forgettable, yet the company pleasant. I remember my choir friends, including my quirky, long-time friend Rachel, chattering around the table relieved and excited after the concert.

I was changed by the performance, and now the evening was over. After dinner and goodbyes, I drove Laura through the dark countryside separating Little Rock and Conway, our university town about half an hour away. By the back door of the girl’s dorm, we talked quickly and kissed a passionate kiss. I watched her walk up the stairwell of the dorm to her bed. How I wanted to follow!

I walked back to my room a changed man. Music matured me; performing affected a change that was permanent and profound. And a brief, intense love affair was the catalyst.

 

 

“Ode to Joy” Part 1

IMG_0747

Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

I was a boy of nineteen when I first sang in the chorus for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We performed in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, my home state. Each year select university choirs from around the state, including mine, joined forces with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Brahm’s Requiem was the showpiece the year before, and Verdi’s Requiem followed the next year. I was excited to sing again in this grand concert to the crowd sitting in darkness and hidden by the glare of the stage lights. The people who came to see me perform were my parents and my girlfriend Laura.

Laura was petite and very smart. She had sparkling honey colored eyes and wavy dark brown hair. I had met her in concert band; she played clarinet but she was studying chemistry. Many of the other boys were interested in her, but through luck and skill I was the only one who had managed to date her. The affair was new and precarious. The feelings I had for Laura that night were intensified by my experience singing beautiful, powerful music. And the performance was intensified by the affection.

For those of you unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it begins like all previous symphonies, but something wonderful happens during the final movement. Through snippets of melodies, that movement itself seems to ask many questions, comes to dead ends, and then settles on the main theme which bursts to greater life in song. We had studied the piece through bleary eyes in early morning music theory for the entire spring semester. Inside and out, I knew it better than any music at that point in my life. The symphony is masterful – Fugues! A Turkish March! Soloists! Full Choir! The intimate connection between learning and performing was the highlight of my undergraduate education.

But something happened that night that went beyond study and performance. When the house lights came up, I was changed. It was as pure an aesthetic experience as I have ever had. That performance changed my inner life.