Holding the Line

Last year was a good year for continuo playing. This year promises to be even better. “Getting in the groove” is a concept that goes back to the beginning of musical time. Whether it’s a bunch of guys in animal skins banging rocks together or a modern jazz trio or a guy scratching on a turntable or tuxedo clad musicians playing Bach it doesn’t matter. We’re all doing the same thing – keeping time. It doesn’t have to be a march time beat. It can ebb and flow. The groove is round like a record or it’s a line from here to infinity or it’s the path of a snake in the sand. The main thing is – we’re doing it together.

It used to be the continuo section would have Brent Wissick playing cello. The cellist and the bassist are almost always playing exactly the same thing an octave apart. The bassist shadows the cellist who is the leader and effectively the leader of the entire ensemble (even if the conductor thinks he/she is the leader). The melodies and harmonies ride on top of the continuo line the way a jazz soloist rides on top of the rhythm section. If the line falters, the whole ensemble falls. The bassist and cellist have to be of the same mind. Intonation, timing, articulation. There are so many shapes the line can take – some are dictated by the lyrics or the melody, but often it’s just a matter of style and preference. Playing with Brent for many years we almost never had to talk about these things – it just happened. We were of the same mind. It made playing with other players feel tedious.

Those were the years of the Society for Performance on Original Instruments which later became Ensemble Courant which is now at best plays only one or two concerts a year. Brent and I rarely play but like old lovers meeting again we never have to speak of mundane details when we play together. Still of the same mind.

In more recent years I’ve been “holding the line” with Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, who can be heard this weekend with the baroque ensemble Pomodoro. When we met at our first rehearsal together a few years ago we were both eyeing each other suspiciously as the person who had the greatest potential for making the weekend a miserable one.  Happily we clicked from the first note and the line snaked onward and we have been playing together in many ensembles since. Our next performance together is February 17th with the Aurora Baroque Ensemble although we’ll be in a different configuration this time – taking turns playing continuo for each other and for the rest of the ensemble. Barbara on baroque cello and me on the new bass viol. Barbara has put together many wonderful ensembles and programs and I have been very fortunate to be a part of some of them. Watch for Wild Rose Ensemble, Ensemble Serendipity, Aurora Baroque with the great violinist David Wilson, and occasionally I even get to perform with Ensemble Vermillian.

Lastly, dear friend of 25 years Virginia Hudson and I have finally been getting to hold the line together. We’ve played in many ensembles over the years but only recently have been doing continuo together and I can say that a solid friendship really helps. The give and take and close listening required come much easier if you’re accustomed to doing that in real life. Virginia took over principle cellist duties in the ensemble for the annual performance of the Messiah in Duke Chapel and we’ve been getting other opportunities to play as well.

Additional links:
The Theory and Practice of the Basso Continuo
Triangle Early Music Presenting Organization

Viol Debut

The new Pringle bass viol will be making her debut at the Horace Williams house on Sunday at 3:00. She’s pretty cute as you can see here, though a bit chubby-cheeked.
She’s a copy of Nicolas Bertand’s Paris 1720 7-string bass. She’s got a bit of a smirk from the side. I’ve yet to name her yet. Suggestions? Bessie? I think she’s up for singing Rameau on Sunday but we’ll see if the player is ready.


It’s been happening more and more and it’s really getting on my nerves. You’re at a concert in Duke Chapel listening to delicately written music from the 15th century being sung by women with heavenly voices. Just as they reach a delicious dissonance and the tones are suspended in air, the audience collectively holds it’s breath waiting for the resolution and cli-ick!  comes the loud shutter of the camera shattering the fragile, shimmering harmonics.

Why, with all our modern technology, we can’t have cameras with silent shutter mechanisms is beyond me. And it seems to be the flashy digital SLR’s with their enormous lenses that are the noisiest – even noisier than my old Nikkormat. They seem to be saying “look at me, I’ve got the latest and greatest!”.
Until the idiots behind these cameras at least learn to hold their shots until the loudest part of the music, or better yet, use something quiet, they should be banned from any musical event. They’re even a nuisance at outdoor folk music events and the like.
This particular instance (and he took many pictures during the most delicate parts of the performance) was at the Women’s Voices concert in Duke Chapel last night.

I’d Rather Be Biking

The luxury of being self employed. I managed to adjust my schedule to accommodate a weekly Wednesday morning bicycle ride with the Tarwheels. I’ve been doing this almost every week since August when I started training in earnest for the MS150 Bicycle Tour. What was a 9:00 AM ride became 10:00 AM when daylight savings time ended and then starting in December it became 11:00 AM. Figure about 3 hours for about 40 miles plus rest stop plus a little socializing before/after the ride. That’s a big chunk out of the day. Plus shower, change clothes, and somehow I manage to work up a huge appetite so there’s an extra meal in there somewhere. The people are wonderful and the scenery is great. I’ve learned more back roads in my area in the last six months than in the whole 25+ years I’ve been living here.

But – I’m not out there today. I’ve become a big fan of weather websites since re-becoming a cyclist. But – we all know where trusting the weather man gets us. Last night the projected temperature for the duration of our (also weekly) Tuesday night ride (lots of blinky lights!) was in the low 40’s. What actually happened was that it was already down into the 30’s when we started and right at 32 when we finished. That was OK. A few numb toes and fingers but it was a great ride – 20 miles out in the country and then through some Carrboro neighborhoods to check out the Christmas lights.

Today? Partly cloudy with a 20% chance of rain in the morning. 20%. Translation (using the new updated drought-stricken North Carolina interpretation of weather forcasts): 20% chance of rain means no rain in sight for the next 40 days and 40 nights. But then there was that ominous red sky this morning. “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” So at 9:30 it started raining. And 10 degrees cooler than the projected temperature. At 10:30 it’s still raining. I have to leave at 10:40 to make the 11:00 ride. I decide no. Rain, OK – I can handle that. Cold, OK – I can handle that. But rain AND cold. No. I’m drawing the line. 10:40 it’s still raining. I’m reading the paper. 10:45 I look up. Rain stopped. 10:50 – clouds are breaking. 11:00 on the dot the sun comes out. Temperature is rising. It’s a beautiful day for a ride.

So – I could have gone out on my own but the truth is I really like these group rides. And there is strength in numbers when biking around here. Plus, I’m taking the chain of weather events as a sign that I really should stay home and get some work done today. Work. Oh, OK.

Did I mention that the sky is almost completely clear now? It’s a beautiful day for a ride.


MS150 Ride a Success – Thanks!

Thanks to all my friends who donated to our MS150 ride. Well, it turned out to be the MS105 ride. Tropical storm Gabrielle caused the ride directors to cut the Sunday course down to 30 miles in case the weather turned nasty so no one would be stuck too far out. As it was, we rode through a couple of rain squalls but nothing too bad. But Saturday’s 75 mile course was beautiful and we took a leisurely pace through the flat countryside around New Bern. That was after a bit of a rough start. Karen and I got separated at the start – so many people on bikes!!! They did a staggered start and she went off with the faster group by mistake. I was stuck behind the line until they started the slower group. Then I got stuck in a pack of riders who missed the first turn and in the process of turning the group around I did what EVERYbody told me I would eventually do but until that moment had managed to avoid doing – forget to unclip. It’s almost comical, that moment when you realize you’re stopped, locked in your pedals, and about to go over like a tree. There’s no stopping it. Fortunately I only scraped my knee but also twisted my seat around so had to pull out the tools (glad I packed them) and get it back on straight and then wind my way through hundreds of riders hoping to catch Karen. I didn’t see her until the first rest stop at 15 miles but then it was great after that. We took advantage of all the rest stops staffed by volunteers many of whom have MS – some of them people we know. Over 1800 riders took part on Saturday. There were over 350 of us on Sunday who didn’t get scared off by the dire sounding weather reports. The whole thing was a great experience and a wonderful way for us to raise money for this cause. I’m so glad I did it but mostly I’m pleased that so many of my friends agreed with me that this important cause deserved time, effort, and money. I can’t tell you how moved I was by all of your support. And especially the number of people who responded with stories about their friends or family dealing with multiple sclerosis.

Never having done any kind of fund raising before I started out with the recommended goal of raising $500. I agreed to bring in a minimum of $250 and half expected to be paying some of that myself. When the responses started coming in I quickly passed $500 and so raised my goal to $1000. You helped me pass that in a very short time and so again I raised it to $2000. As of today I have almost $1700 in donations to the MS Society and all together we’ve raised almost $800,000!!! They’re still tallying the donations brought in the day of the ride so that figure will still rise. I’ve got until October 1st to turn in the rest of my donations so if you want to help out go to my ride page at nationalmssociety.org or mail a check to me made out to the National MS Society. I am so happy to have been a small part of this effort. I had a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, saw some beautiful countryside, and rode the most miles in a day I have ever ridden. YOU could do this, too!!! Really – there were people there of all ages – some in their 70’s, kids, everything in between. There are several ride options from a kids fun ride, to 30, 75, and 100 mile/day options and it’s flat in New Bern so it’s pretty easy. Lots of well supplied rest stops, take your own pace, lots of support from volunteers and medical people and police. There are over 100 events across the country. Think about it for next year – it’s an experience I highly recommend.

Thank you again for your help and support.


A Funny Thing About Choirs

Community Choirs – you gotta love them. The people you see every day on the street, in the grocery, cutting your hair, cleaning your teeth, hauling your trash and fixing your car. They’re your neighbors, friends, enemies, distant cousins and the good and bad drivers on the highway during your morning commute. Folks from all walks of life getting together to share their love for music. I love community choirs and I play for them regularly. Usually it’s in a small orchestra performing some classical work for choir and orchestra. But last night it was in a trio – piano, bass, drums – performing gospel and jazz. Summer choir – tends to be more on the pop side. Lighter works.

It was certainly fun and the audience very enthusiastic. But I think I’ve finally figured out a behavioral pattern that seems to apply to every community chorus I’ve worked with. Have you ever noticed how a choir makes their entrance into the performance hall? It seems to work one of two ways with occasional variations. They usually either come down the center aisle in side-by-side pairs, splitting at the stage to come on stage from opposite sides. Or they come down the outer aisles in single files filling the stage from opposite sides. In some halls they’ll enter from the wings of the stage. But the important thing to watch is the spacing. I think choirs pride themselves on keeping equal spacing between bodies and moving at the same speed. Somehow I suspect they spend quite a bit of time practicing this so that you never see bunched up bodies anywhere along the way. It’s always a solemn, dignified, well organized entrance. This seems to bear no relationship to the quality of the musical performance but is an art in and of itself. The unfortunate thing I have discovered is that this march formation appears to be hard wired into every chorister and nothing – NOTHING – may interfere with it. Last night I needed to make an instrument change from acoustic bass to electric bass at the conclusion of the jazz portion of the program which was performed by a solo singer. The choir was joining us again on stage during this transition. Because of the small stage size I needed to move the acoustic bass off stage, walk back on, retrieve the electric bass from a different place and return to my spot on stage, retrieve a chair, plug in and tune the electric bass. All of this could easily have been accomplished before the chorus completed it’s long procession onto the stage (two single files from the back of the hall coming up the outer aisles) had I been able to actually get off and on stage. That was not to be the case. Sit at any unmarked traffic intersection and eventually some friendly motorist will slow his or her pace and allow you to join the flow. But not a chorister bent on keeping his/her proper spacing. You would think that a person with a very large instrument standing by the marching line of singers only wanting to cross to the other side of the line would eventually elicit some sympathy and someone would slow their pace enough to allow him to cross in front. I finally had to practically leap in front of a singer which the frown on her face told me instantly that I had made a bad move. I still had 3 more crossings of the line to make and after one more brush with soprano wrath I decided to just wait until they were fully on the stage. At that point the conductor raised her arms to begin the piece and I hadn’t even reached my chair yet, no less plug in and tune my instrument so I had to whisper loudly “WAIT!!!” and hastily tuned my instrument.

Everything went fine after that but I’ve finally learned my lesson and in the future will negotiate all necessary moves about the stage area ahead of time with the conductor which I’m sure will necessitate a complete reprogramming of the choir members and possibly extra rehearsal time.

Oh, by the way – the Chapel Hill Community Chorus gave a wonderful performance, as did the outstanding jazz vocalist Susan Reeves.

Hearing Inner Voices

I’m not talking about “listening to your inner bark” here (although perhaps some of the same listening techniques could be employed). I’m talking about what I’ve previously referred to as “the notes that nobody else wanted” or “those messy inner parts”. Think second violin or second soprano. Altos and violas. As an “outer voice” player (bass line and/or melody) I never really had to deal much with the stuff in the middle. It’s sometimes nice to listen to, it occasionally adds spice or life to the music, but I’ve never really paid it much attention. This past weekend I had the challenge of playing tenor viol (an instrument I’ve performed on exactly once before), reading my least favorite clef (alto), and playing 2nd and 3rd parts (really inner voices) in works by 16th/17th century composers John Bennet, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, and Anthony Holborne. The event was part of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia Classics music series conducted by Stan Baker.

After getting over the usual “what clef is this?” “what instrument is this?” confusion I settled into trying to wrap my mind around these cast off notes. That’s really what they seemed like at first. The notes nobody else wanted. In music of this period there are not a lot of parallel harmonies. A part that follows the melody a third away I can hear. No – these parts seem to occupy their own little space in the universe – a place I’ve never been before. I kept trying to play the notes I THOUGHT should be there but my intuition was almost always wrong. Much of the time I was doubling singers but I found that I had trouble hearing the singer I was doubling because my ear kept going to the person singing the bass or lowest part – or the person singing the highest part. This gave me new appreciation of those people who play and sing the middle parts as part of their daily lives – second violinists and violists – what a different way to hear the music – from the inside out! It does truly take listening deeper to appreciate these parts.

By concert time I was finally able to hear my way around the music – I finally found my partners in the chorus and began to hear the odd but beautiful melodies that made up these middle parts. To hear only the outer voices is like a skeleton with a beautiful face – no substance, no body. I will make a point of listening for those juicy inner parts in the future.

I should add that I did get to play some “outer voices”. The program ended with the Handel Jubilate for the Peace of Utrecht. I played violone – the Duff Dawg , built by John Pringle and on generous loan from Duff (thanks!!!). Mr. Handel really knew how to write a bass line and bassists of all types and inclinations would do well to study his lines many of which could stand alone as melodies.

Man fined for using biofuel

You might not have seen this article – it was on the obituary page of our paper. A Charlotte, NC man is fined $1000 for using veggie oil in his car. He is theatened with further federal fines and told to get a permit to use biofuel he has to put up a $2500 bond. OK – so our laws have not kept up with the times once again. And while I agree that if we’re going to fund our roads with fuel taxes then everyone needs to contribute their share – I think the state needs to back off and stop harassing these people until they get the system figured out and let everyone know what the rules are.
News and Observer article HERE (obsolete link)
and an interesting Slashdot discussion HERE.

Cello Friday

It’s a cello Friday and the music of the Scots. I’ll be playing this evening with fiddler Mara Shea who is quickly becoming one of my favorite music partners. I’m not a big fan of Scottish fiddle music but it’s one of Mara’s specialties and we’ve played for a few dances together. It’ll be fun and I’m learning to love the music. Mara’s great at it and it’s a treat just to be able to hear her. It’s just a short program outdoors around the campfire (if it doesn’t rain, otherwise indoors) so bring your bug repellent or have that big garlic dinner you’ve been wanting. 7:00 – 8:00 PM at the Durant Nature Park. Here’s a Google Map link.