Tag Archive | cello

Poetics of Location

Two Sundays ago, my friend Isabelle and I went on a walking tour of Downtown LA with Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, who recently published a chapbook called Poetics of Location. The tour began at the Central Library of Los Angeles, a place both of us had been curious to see but had yet to visit. We arrived a bit early and went inside to see the mosaics and (very colonialist) murals in the soaring rotunda. Then we joined a handful of other tour participants outside the library’s north entrance. Mike greeted us and presented us with our signed copies of his new book.

The first stop on the tour was in fact the library, but this time we used the grand entrance on the west side of the building. My favorite part of the library was the steps outside this entrance, which were inscribed with phrases in various languages (English at various stages of its development, French, Korean, Chinese, and Esperanto, among many others), as well as the digits of pi, an integral, a passage of music, and much more.

Once we left the library, Mike the Poet proceeded to regale us with tidbits about the various buildings in the neighborhood. These included the Library Tower, once the tallest skyscraper in LA; the Biltmore Hotel; and the Gas Company Tower. He made scads of movie references that I didn’t get. He also told us about the literary history of LA, reading to us from John Fante in John Fante Square (just an intersection next to the Gas Company Tower) and telling us about Carey McWilliams in Pershing Square.

The tour was punctuated by Mike’s performances of some of his own poems, as well as performances and readings by his poet friends who also came on the tour. There was F. Douglas Brown, whom I’d heard at the Mixed Remixed Festival earlier this year; the brother and sister pair Dante and Monique Mitchell; and one of Mike’s students, a high school senior.

The tour took us through part of the Jewelry District, past movie palaces and a vaudeville hall, and into the charming St. Vincent’s Court. It ended at the Last Bookstore, a famous independent bookstore I’d wanted to visit for ages, mostly to see its iconic book arches (they’re like flying buttresses!). It did not disappoint. The place was a warren of books. In the center of the ground floor, there was a low stage surrounded by leather furniture oozing stuffing. We gathered here for a last reading. Mike, Dante, Monique, and F. Douglas Brown all performed more poems. Monique’s was inspired by the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel.

After the reading, Isabelle and I wandered the bookstore for a good while. I began in the music section, where I found one of Cecil Sharp’s collections of English folk songs and the complete scores of Handel’s concerti grossi (I did not buy either). In the children’s section, I found Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, which I’d heard a lot of great things about. So of course I picked it up. (But I’m still reading Dream of Red Mansions! Will it never end!) Upstairs, there was science fiction, fantasy, foreign languages, and much more, as well as the famous book arches! There are also galleries, studios, and shops on the second floor, including a yarn shop that was, alas, closed. Several artists’ work was exhibited in the narrow corridors. There were a bunch of painted wooden whales hanging on one wall. I particularly liked the illustrations by kAt Philbin. The artist bio said her work was reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s. I’m a Gorey fan, and I could see the resemblance in some of the pieces.

When I got home, I looked up the Last Bookstore and noticed that there was going to be a cello concert there the next day. Steuart Pincombe, a cellist with whom I wasn’t familiar, was going to be playing three of the Bach cello suites. Sadly, I couldn’t go to the concert, but I learned that Steuart Pincombe once had a project called What Wondrous Love Is This? in which he and other musicians played and sang early American music, including the shape note tunes Wondrous Love, Restoration, Ecstasy, and Russia, in a hollow square (the way shape note singers sit)! For that I would’ve gone all the way back to the Last Bookstore for the second time in as many days.

Camp Kiya

I spent the first half of last week at Camp Kiya, a traditional music camp in Tehachapi, CA. My friend Chase, a fellow student in my department, had heard about the camp, decided to go, and invited me to come too.


All packed and ready to go

We left on a Sunday morning in a rental car with one cello, one fiddle, one hammered dulcimer, a collection of Irish whistles, and camping gear and drove north across scrubby desert, through a forest of windmills in the mountains, and past a Norbertine monastery to Tehachapi Mountain Park. The park itself was not scrubby but wooded, with tall pines and live oaks full of mistletoe. We pitched our tent at a campsite on the other side of the hill from the cabins of the main camp, near some other campers’ RV.

The three and a half days of camp were filled with classes in fiddle, cello, bass, guitar, harp, mandolin, accordion, mountain dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, harmonica, Irish whistle, ukulele, and bodhran, not to mention hula, Irish, and Cape Breton dancing. Styles and genres ranged from blues to classical, old-time to Scandinavian. There were lots of opportunities to pick up a brand new instrument, but I stuck to Intermediate/Advanced Cello and Celtic and Welsh fiddle. In each class, we’d learn a tune or two by ear, plus ornamentation or, in cello class, chords. There were certain tunes that recurred across classes. For instance, both the cellos and the Welsh fiddles learned a tune called Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper), and the cellos, mountain dulcimers, and accordions all learned the tune Crested Hens (Les Poules Huppées).

Part of what I hoped to do at camp was get better at accompanying on cello, because a folk cellist isn’t really expected to play melody much of the time. Well, I’m still pretty bad at chopping, but I did learn some stuff. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I could hold my own in a fiddle class despite having no formal training. The Scottish Fiddlers of LA tried to recruit me (although they may have been trying to recruit everybody…).

Me at Camp Kiya

Me tuning my cello by our tent

One of the cool things about camp was that it was totally normal to be a multi-instrumentalist. In classical music circles, this is less common; you have your instrument, and that’s it (or maybe you also play the piano). At Camp Kiya, most people played two or more instruments: guitar and harmonica; bouzouki, whistle, and bodhran; harp and accordion; cello and mountain dulcimer. Another cool thing was how intergenerational camp was. There were cellists of all ages in my class. My Celtic fiddle teacher was in his eighties. There were young children doing fiddle and cello from scratch while their parents attended other classes. There aren’t that many settings in which unrelated people of all ages mix like this.

The camp’s name comes from the Nuwa (Kawaiisu) word kiya, meaning ‘laughter’ or ‘play’. Nuwa is the language spoken by the indigenous people of Tehachapi; it belongs to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. I learned about Nuwa from Jon Hammond, a camp instructor who owns a ranch in Tehachapi and is one of three fluent speakers of the language. We all heard him introduce his seven-year-old daughter, Kiya, in Nuwa on the first night of camp and also give a blessing in Nuwa at the ceilidh.

The ceilidh was not a dance party but a camper talent show. It was held on Tuesday night at the fire circle. People sang and played and told stories and jokes. Chase and I sang a two-voiced version of Okro Mch’edelo, which, like all Georgian songs, is actually in three-part harmony. After the ceilidh, we joined the Celtic jam session in Cabin 1, wedging ourselves with cello and Irish whistle in a lower bunk in the corner.


Chase playing hammered dulcimer at our campsite

On Wednesday afternoon, after my cello class and Chase’s hammered dulcimer rehearsal, we sat in a nook on the footbridge between the mess hall and the fire circle and went through Chase’s Datvebis Gundi folder, singing more Georgian songs. As we sang, a fire crew tromped through camp, inspecting a dead pine and who knows what else. When we’d exhausted our Georgian repertoire, we also sang the tenor and alto parts of a few Sacred Harp tunes: Wondrous Love, Idumea, New Britain.

Wednesday evening was the campers’ concert. Chase performed Ode to Joy in a hammered dulcimer trio and also played with the fiddle from scratch class. I played a set with the Welsh fiddlers (with my cello class backing up), then switched to cello for our two tunes, a bourrée and the amazing Raivlin Reel. We also backed up the Scandinavian/Nordic fiddlers on the Danish (?) tune Kingo P. Here is a video (by fellow camper Alan) of me with the Welsh fiddlers. The set is Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper) – Tri a Chwech (Three and Six) – Ymdaith Gwyr Dyfnaint (March of the Men of Devon) – Y Lili (The Lily). I’m not sure you can hear me, which is probably a good thing, but hey, my bow seems to be moving in the right direction most of the time!

Evgeny Tonkha at the Mojica Hacienda

A week and a half ago, I was lucky enough to attend a cello concert in a unique setting. I went as the guest of a fellow student in my department who is also an Oxford alumnus; the concert was an Oxford alumni network outing (though not exclusively–most of the people in the audience weren’t Oxford folk). It was held at the Mojica Hacienda, a house on an estate in a lush and secluded neighborhood of Santa Monica, near the mountains and the ocean. The house belonged to tenor-turned-priest José Mojica and was apparently a hangout for the Gershwin brothers, Hollywood stars, and Albert Einstein, among others. The grounds are maze-like, with really lovely gardens: fuchsias and hollyhocks, water lilies in the pond, a wall draped in Thunbergia alata (yes, I had to look that up).

We took a look in the small chapel, which had many small plaques expressing gratitude to the Virgen de Guadalupe or some saint for a miracle or for recovery from an illness or an injury. They had texts in Spanish and painted depictions of whatever had befallen the individual in question (one showed a person being thrown from a horse). The house was filled with tapestries and silver and had a miniature movie theater in addition to the specially built concert room where (we were again reminded) the Gershwins had played. It was an intimate space, reminding me a bit of a Syriac church in Paris where I attended another cello concert years ago.

The concert itself was great. The cellist was Evgeny Tonkha, and he played a variety of short pieces, half of which I’d played myself in some form or another and so was familiar with. The program included the prelude, sarabande, and gigue from Bach’s third suite for unaccompanied cello, the first movement of Schubert’s arpeggione sonata, an arrangement of Sibelius’s Valse Triste, Bartók’s Romanian Dances, a modern composition entitled Intro Version (the composer, Anna Drubich, was at the concert), and finally arrangements of a Gershwin prelude and Rhapsody in Blue. Tonkha’s spiccato was impressive.

The one disappointment was that the program was supposed to include this chaconne by Giuseppe Colombi, supposedly the first piece ever written for cello. I’d never heard of the piece or the composer and was looking forward to hearing it, but for whatever reason Tonkha didn’t play it.

Afterward, there were refreshments in the garden, and my colleague and I met a few other Oxford alumni who were all now also at UCLA. One of them told us a story about his friends who punted to London in their white ties after the Magdalen Ball. It took them three days. Also, it turned out the reason the concert was an Oxford alumni outing at all was because the person in charge of the Mojica Hacienda’s classical music programming had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford (he also bore an uncanny resemblance to Gérard Depardieu).

Anyway, as you read this I may have just arrived in Oxford myself! I’ll be in England through the end of June.

Thrift Shop Fiddle

So, I hate shopping. My whole family is allergic. Consequently, it is an unusual day that sees me entering a store to buy anything other than groceries or perhaps books. However, I also covet musical instruments. And so a week or so ago, when a couple of violin cases appeared in the window of one of the National Council of Jewish Women thrift shops in my neighborhood, I noticed.

I’ve kind of wanted a violin for a long time. In orchestra class, I’d always ask my violinist and violist friends to let me play their instruments. Toward the end of high school, a friend of mine lent me her violin for a summer so I could really figure out how to play. And then at the end of my senior year of college, a friend from Folk Dance Club lent me her violin for that strange in between period after classes had ended but before graduation, and another folk dance friend and I wandered the dormitory playing “The Wren” on penny whistle and fiddle, respectively.

In fact, it was because of Folk Dance Club that my interest in acquiring a violin intensified. I discovered oodles of jigs and reels I wanted to play, and though I could play some of them on the cello, there’s less scope for fiddling on the cello than there is on the violin (Natalie Haas notwithstanding). But I knew I wasn’t going to pursue the violin seriously enough to make it worth going out and buying an actual good instrument, so I just waited and learned to play lots of tunes on cello.

Fast forward to those violin cases in the Council thrift shop window. It immediately occurred to me this might be my chance to get hold of a violin cheaply. On the other hand, I barely had enough time to practice cello anymore, so why was I considering picking up another musical instrument? In the end, I couldn’t resist stopping in the thrift store. I tried not to get my hopes up, telling myself the cases might be just that, empty cases. Who donated violins to thrift shops? (On the other hand, there was also a grand piano in this thrift shop, and last fall I saw a Mason & Hamlin pump organ in the Goodwill down the street.)

I squeezed into the space between the jewelry case and a belt rack and picked up the violin cases. They felt too light to have anything inside, but when I unzipped them, there they were, the violins. One was missing the G string, and the other was missing both the D and A strings, but neither was broken. I tightened and loosened the bows, twisted the fine tuners, examined the pegs, plucked the strings, and peered through the F-holes. I’m decidedly lacking in expertise, but the instruments didn’t strike me as pieces of junk. So I decided to buy the three-stringed violin. As I was discussing the price with a clerk, a small group gathered, apparently impressed that I was buying a violin in a thrift shop. A woman even started to ask me for advice as she considered buying the two-stringed violin for her fifteen-year-old daughter.

I took my new violin home. The next day, I carefully tuned its three strings, applied some Magic rosin to the bow, and gave it a whirl. Turns out I’m kind of rusty. The neighbors are probably thinking, Oh, no, the resident of #8 has another stringed instrument now? And this one she can’t even play? I sawed out “Wachet auf” and “Finlandia,” but it’ll probably take some time (and a new string) before I work my way up to “Curvy Road to Corinth.” 


My new three-stringed fiddle

If I am an amateur cellist, I am a dilettante violinist. I don’t aspire to play Bach partitas. In Sparkers, though, Marah plays the violin, not the cello. Why? I’m not really sure. I think I pictured her tromping all over the city with her instrument, and I couldn’t really see her lugging a cello around. But in Book 2, which I’m currently revising, the main character is exactly like me. She’s a cellist by training, but she likes to mess around on her brother’s violin too. So putting myself in her shoes can be my excuse for spending time playing my new violin. Now, how many years will it take me to acquire a nyckelharpa?

All About Bach

Last Saturday, I attended the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s fall concert. A friend of mine from high school who now also goes to grad school in Los Angeles came with me. The theme of the concert was “All About Bach.” It was, in fact, an all J.S. Bach program, except that Johann Kuhnau (Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig) and Johann Christoph Bach (a cousin of Bach’s) had a cameo apiece.

The concert was held in the rotunda of the Powell Library, a beautiful building I don’t visit nearly often enough because it’s the undergraduate library (the graduate research library, meanwhile, is architecturally uninspiring). There’s pretty brickwork and mosaics and owls carved into the balustrades of the staircases.

I listen to a lot of Baroque music, especially these days (listening to Part I of Handel’s Messiah on repeat is sure to get me through the last grueling weeks of the term, right?), but it’s so much better to hear it performed live. It renews my enthusiasm for familiar pieces. Everyone in the ensemble was performing on period instruments, and at the intermission we were invited to go up and look at them. The Baroque cellos were beautifully crafted: one of them seemed to have a Templar cross inlaid in the black wood of the fingerboard, and the other’s scroll was carved into a lion’s head. And all the string players had Baroque bows.

Something I learned at the concert was that Bach wrote a secular cantata about a father and his coffee-crazed daughter. We were treated to the daughter’s ode to coffee (“Ah! how sweet coffee tastes! / Lovelier than a thousand kisses”), and even if I couldn’t relate, it was amusing (and featured a dazzling flute part!).

The ensemble performed some perennial favorites, including the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, the third movement of the double violin concerto in D minor, and the entire Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The piece by Johann Christoph Bach was entirely new to me, though (so was the composer, for that matter). It was a “death aria” entitled “Mit Weinen hebt sich’s an” (“It begins with weeping”). The text is basically about how every stage of life is miserable. Seriously, looking over the English translation in the program notes, I thought it had the makings of a shape note text: “Old age approaches, the sorrowful years, / that holds no pleasure” (cf. “And if to eighty we arrive, / We’d rather sigh and groan than live” from “Exit” in The Sacred Harp). I expected there to be a turning point at the end, something along the lines of Weeping, weeping, weeping…But! Jesus/heaven! but there isn’t really. I guess that part was assumed by the German Lutherans singing and hearing this piece. All that said, the music is gorgeous.

In other news, I just turned in the first draft of Book 2 to my editor. It took me about eight and a half months to write it and do one hasty revision of it. I have never written a book that fast in my life. Now I’m experiencing manuscript withdrawal. It’s probably for the best, since now I can devote myself wholly to end-of-term projects, but I miss my manuscript…

Autumn At Last

Sparkers‘ publication date is less than one week away! If you live in the Twin Cities or nearby, you are most welcome to join me for my launch party at Red Balloon Bookshop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul this Friday (in two days!) at 6:30pm.

I left Los Angeles last Thursday at the tail end of a short but brutal heat wave, and I was eagerly anticipating experiencing some proper fall weather. I was in luck. Within half an hour of disembarking from my plane, I was speeding toward all the best that autumn in Minnesota has to offer. My brother and I were due to play an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon for our cousin’s wedding in two days and had yet to rehearse together, so I was heading to his school for a quick practice session.

The charming town of Northfield, MN is home to two small liberal arts colleges (and a Malt-O-Meal factory). My childhood best friend attended Carleton College, and my brother studies at St. Olaf College (or Count Olaf College, as I like to call it). Because of all these connections, my family and our family friends had often visited these colleges in the fall and bought apple cider doughnuts at a farm along the road to Northfield. I, of course, was never around in the fall, and so despite having heard about these doughnuts many times, I had never tasted one. On this trip, I was determined to have one.

So before reaching St. Olaf, we stopped at Fireside Orchards. It was a glorious fall afternoon, sunny and warm, but not hot. At the edge of the parking lot, enormous pumpkins rested on the grass, and a stone’s throw away, rows of apple trees marched down the slope. Inside the shop were the famous apple cider doughnuts, as well as apple pie, apple cider, and bags of apples (SweeTangos, the first Honeycrisps, etc.). Not to mention jams, honey, maple syrup, homemade fudge, and cheese curds.


At Fireside Orchards, about to enjoy an apple cider doughnut

The doughnut was scrumptious.

The rest of the weekend was dominated by wedding preparations and festivities. Friends and relatives came from every corner of the country (California, Florida, New York City). Everyone in the family was hosting someone. My brother and I squeezed in more last minute rehearsals. The afternoon of the wedding was sunny and breezy. For the ceremony, my grandmother wore a cheongsam handmade for her in Hong Kong in the 1960s. My brother and I pulled off the processional without a hitch. A storm rolled in, and we all drove through the rain to the reception, which was held in a chalet at the foot of a (still green) ski slope. Before dinner, the sun broke through the clouds, and a double rainbow glowed in the sky.


Cousins of the groom and processional musicians

Last but not least, I may have missed the Glewwe reunion earlier this month, but my family saved me this genuine paper grocery bag from one of the Glewwe grocery stores in South St. Paul. Somebody found a box of them in their house. The first Glewwe grocery store was opened in 1905 by Henry Glewwe, the brother of my great-great-grandfather (or my grandfather’s great-uncle). He ultimately opened three stores, and the last Glewwe’s closed in 1986.