Dispatches from the road from our wayfaring travelers.
On Sunday, our flight from Newcastle to Heathrow was cancelled due to weather conditions, and we ended up taking a train into London. But we were late for our flight, and ended up in London for the night and following morning. We arrived in Helsinki, Finland on Monday evening. Joe, Maria, Boogie and I bounced around downtown Helsinki until around 2:00 a.m., and wound up at a club called D.T.M. It stands for Don’t Tell Mama. We won’t.
Tuesday morning, and we arrive at the Sibelius Academy, finally! It turns out that our host for the trip, Riita-Liisa Joutenlahti, is sick and in the hospital and it takes the faculty a while to figure out what to do with us. I’m happy that everything turned out all right, and that all of our teachers had a chance to work with students. Boogie taught a popping lesson and then a Hip-Hop group class. Joe found the academy’s harmonica students and worked with them for a while. Maria and Steve got to jam with some of the ensembles, and then Maria, Steve and Bau accompanied Barbie’s clogging class.
A word about the ensembles here. These groups of students work with old, traditional (mostly fiddle) folk tunes from Finland, and then find ways to orchestrate and elaborate on the original during the course of a session. The result, from what I’ve observed, is incredibly exciting. It seems to be a terrific way of preserving the traditions of the past, while encouraging students to take ownership of the material. I took some video and I’ll post it here.
Most of all, I’m thrilled for the teachers. They really had a chance to do what they do best.
On Friday evening we sat through a long-winded, ambitious, but ultimately disappointing performance at The Sage entitled THE LONG WALK HOME, which was written in response to the death of five Chinese immigrants in the Morecabe Bay Tragedy. I sat next to Boogie and Joe. Joe fell asleep. While the performance left something to be desired, it was remarkable that The Sage could put together a project that engaged professionals and amateurs alike. As I said: ambitious. There were more people on stage than were in the audience.
We had the opportunity to hear members of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra at The Sage, and for me it ended up being one of the highlights of our time in Newcastle. These are folks who play on traditional Chinese instruments dating back to the fourth century. As I listened to them, I started thinking about what constituted virtuosity when these instruments were first designed and played. There’s the Pipa, which resembles an Oud with large wooden frets that extend some distance away from the neck. As the player zipped along on a traditional tune dating back from the early days of the instrument, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that this instrument was played nearly a thousand years before the church in Europe had even discovered polyphony. There’s the Xin (pronounced “shin”) which is an egg shaped reed instrument that makes a sound akin to the modern alto flute, but with more sonance in the tone. There’s the variety of two string bowed instruments: the Gaohu, Erhu and Zhonghu. The Gaolyn Sheng, played at this concert by the remarkable Guo Chang Suo, is a set of pipes that are blown from underneath. The sound is reminiscent of the concertina.
Listening to the ensemble was a remarkable experience. Would I ever had heard these instruments had I not been in England? Ros Riley rushed me backstage to meet the artists and their manager, Terence Ho Wee San, who informed me that the music director of the complete orchestra in a man named Tsung Yeh, and that he lives in South Bend, Indiana! Terence will put me in touch with him.
He showed me a video of the full orchestra, but I wasn’t as impressed. It seemed to me that the complete band (of around 70 players) was trying to emulate the sound of a classical symphony orchestra. But the smaller group I’d just heard! They presented a concert of traditional Chinese music as it might have been heard 1,700 years ago, peppered with shorter solo pieces. It was far more exciting then the video. They’ll be in New York in July 2009, but other than that they have no plans to return to the states. We must find a way to present this group in Chicago.
Where does a person in the states go when they wish to pursue a serious course of study in traditional music? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Do we ever want to become a conservatory for instruments and musical forms that are unrepresented in classical conservatories? Would we ever be able to do this while remaining true to our core values? I wonder.
We decided to blow off an Irish Caeli that was scheduled, and ended up in a pub called The Cumberland Arms. I am so glad that we did. We got to watch a group of sword dancers and fiddlers do one of their performances, which they present in various found spaces around Newcastle. One of the fiddlers was our new friend Ruth, and her boyfriend Tom was one of the dancers. I’ll be posting a short video of the performance.
It’s incredible the way music and dance can sometimes just emerge from a place. This point was driven home in one remarkable moment. The seven of us were sitting in the back room of The Cumberland Arms, and Joe took out his harmonica and started playing. A single note turned into two, and then three. The music began gently, but then gained in richness as he continued, drifting out over the din of noise. Soon, he held the chatty drinkers in rapt attention. It was a beautiful moment. The music simply emerged. It was perfect.
GREETINGS FROM NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND! This is the first blog entry for the Old Town School’s overseas mission. I am joined here by Old Town School teaching artists Boogie McClarin (hip-hop), Barbara Silverman (guitar, voice, clogging), Maria McCullough (fiddle), Joe Filisko (harmonica), Steve Levitt (guitar), and our Executive Director, Bau Graves. I’ve had to wait a day and a half to write this since all of us have been pretty busy, although I am happy to report that this was the first evening that all seven of us have had to hang out in a pub and throw back a few. I am hoping that we can repeat this activity, nightly.
We’ve been spending most of our time at The Sage Gateshead, which is an AMAZING concert venue across the river from Newcastle. Our host for this leg of our trip has been Ros Riley, who is in charge of the non-classical programming for the space. Today (Friday) we had the chance to meet with the administrative staff of The Sage Gateshead, which includes a number of folks who are involved in educational programming, both at the facility and elsewhere. We talked about how Old Town School is run, and gave them the opportunity to ask some questions about our programs back in Chicago.
Earlier this morning, we all had a chance to visit a primary school and were given the opportunity of throwing together an hour long concert for the kids. Everyone took turns playing and singing, and a great time was had by everyone. Boogie took the stage and the children were absolutely transfixed for twenty minutes as they performed their first hip-hop steps. Great stuff.
On a personal note, I have to say that it is really great how well all of us are getting along. Well, actually, “getting along” probably isn’t the right term. I think that there are friendships that are being formed here, among some teachers and adminstrators who had never even met before our pre-travel meeting a couple of weeks ago. Joe Filisko didn’t know Maria McCullough at all, and now the two of them are hanging out and having a wonderful time. Boogie McClarin didn’t know any of the other teachers, and yet I know that the other four are better people for having made the connection with her.
We got to spend some time walking around the narrow, winding streets of Newcastle. The architecture is a cross between the (very) old and the new; although, unlike Chicago, the new buildings have been designed and constructed to integrate with the historic.
We’re having a smashing time, so far. Unless we start annoying the hell out of each other pretty soon, I think the rest of the trip is going to be just as rewarding!