Friday, February 11, 2011

The Man in the Bed

There is a moment just as you start drifting into sleep when your mind bounces randomly between thoughts in a foggy state, not quite conscious, not quite unconscious. At that ambiguous moment, we sometimes let our mental guards down. The unresolved anxieties of life will intrude, those questions and conflicts we've been so busy avoiding all day every day of our lives.

Despite the well-reasoned arguments of wise men and saints, even the most believing of us caught in this midnight limbo will think of the universe, so infinite and so cold, and become overwhelmed by our insignificance. We wonder: What if it's over when it over? What if it doesn't mean a thing?

On this night, the thought sends me reeling from the bed, pacing through the darkness of the living room. The wind buffets the trees outside, casting shadows on the wooden floors that waver in the moonlight. The frenetic beating of my heart finally calms and my nervous pace slows to a disheveled dirge. Questions and beliefs, theories and credos, crash around in circles in my head. Then I turn into the hallway of the bedroom, catch my breath for a moment in the doorway, and cry softly at what I see.

There's a man in the bed, a man I love very much. He's got the covers pulled close to his face, though it's not very cold. His quiet body is wrapped in a cocoon of unconsciousness that I envy. One cat sleeps beneath his arm in the warm spot where I was moments before, another is curled at his feet. I long to be there beside him, my body nestled in the curves of his like two spoons, snug beneath the covers and the shared glow of our skins.

But now I'm lost in the night, standing in a doorway trying to keep it all together, to capture this feeling, this essence of life, as if I can take it with me when I go. It haunts me. Why does all this exist, these feelings, these bonds, our warm bedroom and our warm life, just to be taken away? What could that possibly mean? At times it makes beauty unbearable.

Surely I'm not the only one unable to sleep at night who wonders about existence. It has to be the most overwhelming thought in our minds. What else is there? So why, with this before us, do we thrash about in politics, wage war among peoples, and waste our time here on Earth with mundane busyness. Life's got to be more than that. There must be some cosmic meaning to it, more than the answers in religious books that are bound by faith, more than the monuments to humanism that are built from sand. All I know is that whatever the meaning of life is, it has something to do with the man sleeping in the bed.

painting by Gretchen Schmid

Monday, February 7, 2011

One Night Only: Gamelan D'Drum

One Night Only: Gamelan D'Drum

by Amy Martin

In Bali and Indonesia, music arises from life: the steady rhythm of pounding rice into paste, the choppy beats of waves in shallow tropical bays, the polyphonic swelling of frog song at dusk, the rolling rhythms of gentle jungle hills. This merges with a spirited grace captured in their gamelan ensembles. Based on melodic tuned gongs that are arrayed in the manner of keyboard percussion such as marimbas, they also include wood drums, bamboo flutes, and bowed and plucked strings.

The Dallas-based ensemble D’Drum takes these rhythms and others from around the world, melds them with their own jazz and classical sensibilities, and executes them with a stunning level of musical chops. This makes them a perfect match for a Dallas Symphony commissioned composition from the former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, a globetrotting musical synthete with a precise drumming style that never loses track of the groove.

“Gamelan D'Drum” debuted on February 5, 2011, after the first two shows were canceled due to a freakish ice storm that also led to a minimum of rehearsals. Not that anyone could tell at the debut concert. The half-hour composition was virtuallywithout flaws, even with the five D’Drum percussionists having to move rapidly between dozens of colorful instruments crowding the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall stage.

Truly a milestone in both the band’s and Copeland’s careers, “Gamelan D'Drum” was the first time for D’Drum to perform a piece not created from improvisational interactions as the band usually does. The piece was, however, highly collaborative, with recordings passed back and forth over several months between composer and band. The resulting percussion score was a monster, especially the vibe, marimba and cimbalom parts.

So committed was D’Drum to seeing this piece to fruition that they commissioned Javanese and Balinese sets of gamelan bells in concert pitch by their favorite Indonesian instrument maker. In the relaxed manner of the Indonesian islands, gamelan in one village might be set to a different tuning than that in another, and neither truly syncs up with western intonation.

For Copeland it was a chance of a lifetime to merge his global sensibilities, arising from his peripatetic childhood and so showcased in WOMAD, with the classical style composing he’d made a name for in film for the last decade. But unrestricted by the necessary limitations of soundtracks, and fueled by the soaring excellence of the Dallas Symphony and conductor Jaap van Zweden, Copeland’s creativity bloomed into true fine art, with D’Drum as the inspiration for it all.

Copeland chose an orchestration of piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombone, along with a full string complement, to highlight D’Drum’s Balinese and Javanese gongs and bells, African and Middle Eastern drums, and assorted gamelan percussion. The percussion bloomed under the Meyerson acoustics, at times overwhelming the symphony that could have used a touch more amplification.

Possibly no other composer today could have blended so seamlessly a global improvisation-based percussion ensemble with orchestra. At times, D’Drum would showcase a rhythmic section, creating a textural bed, and the orchestra would slide in, echoing and then expounding on the motif. The composition sounded natural, fluid and spirited under van Zweden’s passionately precise direction. The violin solo by guest (and former DSO) concert master David Kim with D’Drum was goosebump inducing. A true testament to van Zweden’s depth of skills that he so gracefully fused improvisational percussion and scored orchestra. His intense focus on the band’s spontaneity was thrilling to behold.

Because of the unique instrumentation and skills of D’Drum, it’s doubtful this composition could be performed with another ensemble. Copeland took care to showcase each band member’s strengths. John Bryant had a turn with his global drum kit, highlighting a versatility born from his own considerable composition chops. Jamal Mohamed was spotlighted in his classic doumbek solo in which he plays the small ceramic goblet drum from both sides of the drum skin, much to the perplexment of the audience. Douglas Howard’s nuanced marimba work and Ron Snider’s cimbalom excellence show why they are such valued leaders in the symphony’s percussion section. But the heart of the composition belonged to vibraphonist Ed Smith, who most captures the taksu spirit of gamelan, especially on the Balinese reyong.

The presentation of “Gamelan D'Drum” represented some serious boundary pushing for North Texas musical culture. Jaap van Zweden and other leaders in the Dallas Symphony, plus all the performers, are to be congratulated for enabling such a groundbreaking work of art to become reality -- a trans-global effort that even surmounted at the end considerable weather odds. The audience showed its appreciation with a thunderous and extended standing ovation that included repeated curtain calls.

This reviewer is going to look back many years from now and say: "I saw that show, that one night, that one show, and it was sincerely amazing." Or maybe the Dallas Symphony will realize the importance of this work and do it justice with a return extended engagement.

Visit the D'Drum website

Photo by Mark Birnbaum

Friday, February 4, 2011

First Light A poem of Imbolc and Candlemas

A flame appears, lit from within

It emerges, tender light

Upon snow and ice

Upon brown winter fields

Whose wan color hides

The busy roots beneath

On stem and branch

Buds thrust against the cold

The promise of leaf and flower

Its own warming reward

Potent waiting, energy storing

Nascent is the spring

MidWinter Convergence of Light's Return

An interesting convergence is upon us. Today is the 2nd of February, known on U.S. calendars as Groundhog Day, our pop culture harbinger of spring.

Starting centuries prior, this date was celebrated as Candlemas, a Christian observance of Virgin Mary’s presentation of the Christ child at her local Jewish temple.

Candlemas came to be observed with candlelighting and the honoring of feminine fecundity, both beautiful reflections of Brigit, also honored on this date, the great mother goddess of the Celts whose Kildare shrine sheltered her eternal flame.

But our need to connect with rhythms and archetypes of nature long preceded our feeble attempts to confine time with calendars.

Ancients knew that when the second New Moon after Winter Solstice came around, the days had lengthened enough that the light’s return was evident to our senses.

With this mid-winter New Moon in Europe they celebrated Imbolc, honoring the gestation of life, the potent waiting in the belly of the ewe, whose infant lamb suckles milk in mid-winter in order to graze on the lush first growth of spring.

Imbolc embodies the metaphor of the potent waiting of our own human potential, the gestation of the human dream, the planning and patience, but most of all, the faith in life that we as a human species are on our way.

This emergent New Moon, arising from mid-winter darkness, is such a natural surge of energy that many in the eastern half of the world peg their new year to it, popularly known as the Chinese New Year.

On this date in 2011, all these converge, with Groundhog Day and Candlemas falling on the New Moon of Imbolc and Chinese New Year.

Our urban and natural rhythms are for this brief moment in sync with one another. Enjoy the synchronicity of life’s unfolding and feel yourself drawn to the deeper beats