EMF: The Eastern Music Festival guide

by the YES! Weekly Staff

David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness

Long before American blues musicians learned to make their horns wail, their guitars moan, a caste of klezmorim emerged after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70.

Though rabbis of the time discouraged music making, there were still weddings and bar mitzvahs and a need for joyful tunes. The klezmorim borrowed structure and rhythm from the traditional Jewish devotionals to make secular music and traveled the remnants of the Roman Empire spreading the word.

Then the story jumps forward to the 19th century in Bessarabia, what is now Romania, where instrumentation became more or less standardized – violin, cello, flute and a percussive string instrument known as the tsimbia – and a canon of klezmer music was invented and nurtured. The music was both spirited and mournful, the instruments intoned to evoke the exuberance and sorrow of the human voice. The clarinet came later.

David Krakauer, clarinetist, brings this ancient form of world music to the Triad for the Eastern Music Festival on June 27. And he’s advanced the music even further.

This is not your bubbe’s klezmer. Add to the soaring licorice stick riffs and accordion flourishes a steady backbeat, distorted guitars, looped vocal tracks and rock-opera strings and the next thing you know the hora circle becomes a mosh pit.

Seriously. The title track from Bubbemeises: Lies my Grandmother Told Me is, I believe, a hip-hop song that sounds like Galactic channeling a band of mad gypsies, or maybe if Herbie Hancock were part of the hasidim. The cut would not seem out of place in a dance club. Or a very cool wedding, for that matter.

Bubbemeises was a 2005 collaboration with Canadian DJ SoCalled (AKA Josh Goldin) who folds bits of traditional Jewish wisdom and superstition (“get off the table, otherwise you’ll never get married”) and bits from comedian Herschel Bernardi as a motif throughout the disc. Krakauer himself is as good an example of the ideal EMF talent as you can get – performing with distinction in the world of traditional Jewish music, with classical and chamber groups and also with some background in improvisatory jazz. He has played at the Library of Congress, Carnegie Hall, the Aspen Music Festival and on a BBC Holocaust documentary.

And here’s the Greensboro connection: When Krakauer and SoCalled were hashing out Bubbemeises in 2005, the name Fred Wesley came up. Wesley, the legendary trombonist, rose to prominence playing with Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown – where he helped form the JB Horns with Maceo Parker – and the Count Basie Orchestra. He was a member of Parliament Funkadelic’s Horny Horns in the ’70s, toured with the Maceo Parker Band in the ’90s and then ran with his own crew, the Fred Wesley Group, until he went into semi-retirement as a speaker, author and trombone about town. Wesley, who frequently visits family in Greensboro, went on to play several dates with these modern-day klezmorim and will likely be in the audience, if not a part of the show, next week. – BC

Mavis Staples and the Movement

From the moment the first insistent bass lines of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” begin their relentless loop, layered with the delicate thread of Pops Staples’ guitar playing, funky horns and electric piano, you can sense how much water has already passed under the bridge.

Then there’s that voice, weighted with ache and sadness but transcendent with kindness and optimism. Daughter Mavis takes her time singing, “I know a place… Ain’t nobody cryin’… Ain’t nobody worried… Ain’t no smilin’ faces… Mm mm, no no… Lyin’ to the races….”

By the time “I’ll Take You There” charted in 1972 – it was the second hit from the Staple Singers’ second Stax album, Be-Altitude: Respect Yourself – Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, the Orangeburg massacre in South Carolina taken place, the 1970 Jackson State killings were fresh in memory. “I’ll Take You There” is perhaps one of the greatest post-civil rights anthems.

It was not by mistake that the Staple Singers, a Chicago family gospel-soul group with roots in north Mississippi, became the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. Pops Staples, the family patriarch, befriended King in early 1963 and soon the group was appearing with the movement leader, pairing freedom songs with the preacher’s social change message. The family even spent a night in jail in West Memphis, Ark. in 1965, Mavis Staples writes in the liner notes of her new album, We’ll Never Turn Back.

Released on April 24, the new album includes civil rights anthems such as “Eyes On the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” along with the gospel-blues chestnut “Jesus On the Main Line” and some of Staples’ own songs. The Ry Cooder-produced disc features backup vocals by the Freedom Singers, another group that contributed their cultural talents to the movement.

We’ll Never Turn Back is anything but an exercise in nostalgia; Staples’ music is focused on continuing a vital legacy and drawing new generations into its currents. In the song “My Own Eyes” she sings, “Just a little girl traveling with my pops/ Thrown in jail for no reason by some Southern racist cops.” She adds in an interview for a promo video posted on the website of her record label: “I’m looking for a new black leader to come out of this record, because we haven’t had one in a long time.”

She’ll almost certainly bring that spirit of gospel-inflected social conscience to Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre on June 24, in a visit to this still-sleepy Southern city where an act of civil disobedience in 1960 by four NC A&T University students was the black freedom shot heard ’round the world.

“For many of us, and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes,” Staples writes in the liner notes of her new album. “And that seems to be missing today. Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and injustices in the world. Well, I tell you – we need a change, and I’m turning to the church again for strength.”

Encountering an artist so engaged it’s easy to forget that Staples has been in the music business for more than half a century. The Staple Singers scored their first hit on the Vee Jay label in 1956 with “Uncloudy Day.” And since launching her solo career in the late ’60s, Mavis Staples has worked with musicians as preeminent and varied as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Lucky Peterson, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, the Band, Los Lobos, John Scofield and Marty Stuart. Prince, her producer in the late ’80s, has called her “the epitome of soul.”

Explaining her open-handed approach to music Staples writes in a blog post on her website: “That’s what the Staple Singers are, we’re basically gospel singers, but will sing country, I sing secular and that doesn’t take away anything away from me as far as being a Christian. But when you hear me sing those songs, you’re gonna hear that gospel, because that’s the spirit, that’s the soul that’s in me.”

For all of her accomplishment she appears to be a genuinely humble person.

“I’m just everyday people and I’m just a people person,” she writes in another post. “I just wanna be real and treat everybody right. I do everything. I take my own clothes to the cleaner, I do my own grocery shopping.” – JG

Bruce Hornsby

A non-local hearing the title of EMF’s sister line-up, EMFFringe, might expect it to be a little more… fringy. Iconoclastic visionaries perhaps, along the lines of a Tom Waits or a Nick Cave, taking classical instruments and warping them for their own nefarious musical purposes. They probably wouldn’t expect Bruce “The Way It Is” Hornsby.

But here at YES! Weekly we believe in our readers’ ability to decide for themselves. Therefore we respectfully submit the follow list of arguments for and against the Fringe-worthiness of Mr. Hornsby.

The 53-year-old Hornsby’s signature instrument is the solo piano. That’s not very fringy.

However, he uses the big ivory-toothed beast to merge classical, jazz, folk, blues and other eclectic sounds, and is known for spirited improvisations and raucous live shows. Multi-genre jamming is pretty fringy.

Hornsby’s start was also his biggest hit ever, the multi-platinum “The Way It Is.” You know… That’s just the way it is, some things will never change. Seen through the filter of adult contemporary stations and elevator Musak adaptations, the catchy 1986 single can seem a little tame by today’s standards, with a simple piano riff and straightforward lyrics.

Oh, but don’t you believe it. The song is actually a frank discussion of the Eighties’ “greed is good” economy and racial strife, when the early stages of Reaganomics held sway and people were noticing the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Also Tupac sampled it, and if that ain’t street cred, what is?

Hornsby has taken home a trio of Grammys, for Best New Artist, Best Bluegrass Recording and Best Pop Instrumental. Does that count for him or against?

This one’s definitely a point in his favor: The Grateful Dead. Hornsby jammed regularly with the Dead between 1990 and 1992, and afterwards would join them irregularly until the band’s dissolution. He also played separately with a variety of Dead-related projects, and was purportedly a good friend of Garcia’s until his death.

Besides the solo act and the Deadhead circuit, Hornsby currently plays live in Bruce Hornsby and the Noise Makers, the jazz act the Bruce Hornsby Trio, in a bluegrass project with Ricky Skaggs and in a variety of session and guest spots. That’s a lot to keep up with ­- let’s deduct ten points.

But look at that list of past collaborators: Huey Lewis, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Crosby Stills and Nash (but not Young), Bela Fleck, Roger Waters, Clapton, Elton John… it’s an impressive list. We won’t count Phil Collins against him. 20 points.

Five points off for playing piano on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” You can’t make our heart feel something it won’t, Bruce.

Of course, these are just our recommendations – your final tally of Hornsby’s fringe-worthiness is your own. Regardless, he’ll be at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium July 22. Seating is limited so if you want to go book early – the place is likely to be swarmed by Garcia-mourners looking for a contact high. – CL

Josh Ritter and Hilary Hahn: An unlikely combo

At first glance, the union of Josh Ritter and Hilary Hahn seems the unlikeliest of musical marriages.

For starters, Ritter, a singer-songwriter in the late-Bob Dylan vein, did not contemplate a career in music until his sophomore year of college. Hahn, on the other hand, has played classical violin at the professional level since before her graduation from elementary school. The two also experienced radically different initiations into the world of professional music: Hahn paid her dues touring the continent’s most storied recital halls, while Ritter earned his stripes busking in Boston coffee shops.

Their careers, with origins and trajectories as disparate as the musical traditions they embody, will collide on July 17 at Dana Auditorium, when they split a double bill as part of the Eastern Music Festival. From there, the duo will travel to Aspen, Colo. and Highland Park, Ill. to play the Aspen Music Festival and Rivinia Festival. The nature of the Greensboro show is such that it is listed as part of both the regular, classical music-oriented festival, and the Fringe, the series that includes rock, world and folk musicians.

After a discussion about the difference between these two musicians, it is important to note their similarities – namely both artists’ status as critical darlings. Ritter has released four full-lengths, and a live album is in the offing. His second album, Golden Age of Radio, earned plaudits from the New York Times and other outlets of rarefied opinion. He followed that with the even more widely hailed Hello Starling. Critics’ enthusiasm for the artist who shuns the Americana label barely flagged with the release of The Animal Years last year.

Between the last two releases, Ritter experimented with arrangement. In The Animal Years, mandolins and pianos crop up in places previously occupied by acoustic guitar and organ. The result is a product that reaches back further in time, before Dylan and the folk revival to the earliest music box renditions of American folk music.

Hahn records exclusively for Deutsche Grammophone, a classical label, and between the albums produced under that imprint and her previous work with Sony Classical, has generated a respectable body of work, particularly for a 27-year-old. In each of her dozen-odd albums, Hahn plays with technical virtuosity, and she has been lauded in the pages of the classical press for her emotional and intellectual maturity. In 2001, she won a Grammy for her recording of concertos by Johannes Brahms and Igor Stravinsky.

In addition to her body of classical work, Hahn has contributed solo violin to the soundtrack of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and collaborated with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, an Austin, Texas-based indie rock band.

At the Eastern Music Festival, Ritter intends to unveil versions of traditional folk songs alongside a selection of his originals, according to his website. Although the show is a double bill, the artists will play together on a few pieces as well. It will be an evening of Fringe and not-Fringe, of classical and rock, with moments that might transcend both genres. -AK

Dead composers society

For some of us, the signal moment of popular music was Elvis’ recording of “That’s Alright Mama” at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1954. (For others, it’s when Kool Herc set up his turntable in the Bronx in 1973, but that’s a whole different story.) In any case, we trace back what came before 1954: jump blues, country, gospel, ragtime, jazz, field hollers, minstrelry. And what came after: the British Invasion, doo-wop, soul, funk, country-rock, psychedelic, punk, arena rock, grunge, American Idol….

The music called “classical,” mainly produced in Europe’s high-culture period at the zenith of its economic and military power before the world wars, has little reference point in the music of Elvis, much less Public Enemy. It might have been lighthearted fun when Chuck Berry sang, “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news,” but in retrospect it seems deadly prophetic. And when you mention “chamber music,” you may as well be talking about the Rolling Stones, a group of five musicians on basically equal footing playing compositions.

So it doesn’t hurt to reintroduce an important classical music figure, Gustav Mahler, who wrote symphonies and directed orchestras in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. Romanticism was the predominant cultural mode in Mahler’s central European milieu, although it was waning. Anti-Semitism troubled the scene, and it briefly forced the composer to seek refuge in New York. The cataclysm of the two world wars was approaching and post-modern irony and dissonance were on the horizon.

Winston-Salem Symphony musical director Robert Moody will be conducting the Eastern Music Festival orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, popularly known as “Titan,” at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium on July 6. The orchestra will include students from across the United States participating in the festival’s five-week training program along with guest musicians. Appointed by principal conductor Gerard Schwarz as a resident conductor for the 2007 season, Moody’s duties include, in part, preparing and conducting weekly concerts by the festival orchestra.

To understand the creative dynamics of classical music, it’s helpful to recognize that composers in 19th century Europe were often celebrities in the same mold as, say, Michael Jackson today. Like any important figure in contemporary popular music, their biographical storylines often emphasize struggling against established musical norms, contending with the specter of obscurity and poverty, negotiating with the establishment as their music gains acceptance and carrying on stormy personal lives.

The dramatic interactions of the musicians – think forward to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – also seems to inform the creative process in classical music. Symphony No. 1 is closely related to Mahler’s first masterpiece, according to the Grove Concise Dictionary of Music (accessed for this article from the Classical Music Pages website), which was based on an unhappy love affair with one of the singers at Kassel where Mahler was conducting.

“The personal life of Mahler, even with its depth of success, was remarkably troubled,” reviewer Paul-John Ramos writes in another brief biography. “His harsh rehearsal methods and dealings with musicians were widely criticized, although many were fascinated by his leadership and considered his performances to be on an entirely different level.”

The main difference between classical music and our contemporary modes of cultural production is the sheer number of performers. Symphonies ideally encompass listeners in a complete world and produce a total experience.

“While drawing closer to the world of new music – atonality – [Mahler] expanded the romantic orchestra to its breaking point,” Ramos continues. “His Eighth Symphony, divided into two parts on an ancient church hymn and the transfiguration scene from Goethe’s Faust, requires some one thousand performers, including eight vocal soloists, adult and children’s choirs, quadruple winds, two harps, large percussion section and organ. “Naturally, Mahler’s commitment to new sounds and his idea of the symphony as an ‘entire world’ were unpopular but for a small group of Viennese admirers.”

That sums up greatness pretty well. – JG

Bruce Piephoff

Bruce Piephoff has been around the bases a time or two.

He knows to come to the interview with CDs and flyers and press clippings, and to have something to say when the questions start rolling like hard ground balls in a game of pepper.

“I wrote one song about baseball,” he says, sliding a copy of his 2005 CD Bright Leaf Blues from his stack. “It’s called ‘Big Foot in the Door.'” He hands the disc across the table.

“You can have this.”

The tune is about Greensboro slugger Tom Alston, who rose to prominence as a Red Wing in the Negro Leagues and went on to become the first St. Louis Cardinal of African-American descent.

The game resonates deeply with Piephoff, who started playing it on a field that once stood off Battleground Avenue when he was just a kid. “We used to go out and play baseball for nine, ten hours,” he says.

He remembers the summer of 1961, when the home-run derby between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle played out excruciatingly over the season, and later that year when Maris, along with Harmon Killebrew and a few other sluggers of the day barnstormed through the nation in a traveling long-ball roadshow.

“They came to the old ballpark,” he says. “I went there. I was in sixth or seventh grade. I went to get Roger Maris’ autograph and they took a picture and it was in the newspaper the next day. I was lookin’ up at Maris like he was some kind of god or something. All the kids at school made fun of me the next day.”

Doubtless these and other memories of the American pastime will fuel the evening when Piephoff teams up with Asheville troubadour Chuck Brodsky for “The Boys of Summer,” an evening of music about baseball, at Triad Stage on Tuesday, July 10.

Brodsky, for his part, has written dozens of songs about baseball, many of which are collected on his 2002 release The Baseball Ballads. The most intriguing among them is “The Ballad of Eddie Klepp,” about a ballplayer who bears the distinction of being the only white player to pitch in the Negro Leagues.

Putting these guys together is as natural as a 6-4-3 double play, though Piephoff admits it took Tom Philion, president and CEO of EMF, and Richard Emmett, the Winston-Salem culture vulture who is booking much of the Fringe series, to make it happen.

Emmett laughs at the assertion.

“Ha,” he says from his car while driving between the two largest cities of the Triad. “Tom and I had talked; he wanted to invite some of the local artists, but he wanted to make it different than just a regular, local show for these folks. We put together a sort of template, a hook for these shows, wrapping it around the Piedmont Triad. A natural for Bruce and Chuck is baseball, and so: ‘The Boys of Summer.’ It was actually Tom’s title.”

Piephoff and Brodsky have played together before, but never with the express purpose of rejoicing in that most American of games. And Piephoff alludes that the show will be much like the game itself.

“It’s a slower pace,” he says. “There’s room for conversations and stuff between the action.” – BC

Sirena Huang

In the small frame of the video browser, Sirena Huang looks even tinier than she actually is. Dressed in black against a dark background, only her fur collar and pale face swim toward the surface of the visual field. Above her shoulders hangs a pale video screen. The scene is still for a moment, until, just moments after her accompanist lays fingers on the baby grand, Huang’s hands pop into view holding a violin and bow.

It is important to note that at the time this video was recorded, Huang was only 11 years old. She was appearing at the TED convention, an annual pilgrimage of technologists and luminaries in the seaside town of Monterey, Calif. It is toward an audience stocked with creative types, entrepreneurs and intellectuals that she inclines her head as her hands come to life like twin movie monsters struck by lightning.

For nine minutes, Huang demonstrates her preternatural proficiency with the violin. Her hands warble intensely as she attacks the succession of notes in a tricky solo, the bow slashing the air over her left shoulder.

After the first part of her performance, the violinist addresses the crowd.

“What does this have to do with technology, entertainment and design?” she asks, gesturing toward the violin.

Then the youngster launches into an exposition of string instrument mechanics.

“By pulling a string, the string vibrates and produces a sound wave, the sound wave passes through a piece of wood called the bridge and enters the wood box and gets amplified… but… let me think.”

She breathes.

“When the player places her finger on the fingerboard, it changes the string length, thus changing the frequency. Omigosh. Okay. This is sort of a technology, but I can call it a sixteenth century technology. But actually the most fascinating thing that I found was that even the audio system and wave transmission technology today are still basically based on the same principle of projecting sound. Isn’t that cool?”

As she speaks, on the cinema-sized screen behind her, flash real-time images of Sirena and her violin. It was another version of herself, one that was larger than life. But Huang seemed unfazed.

Perhaps her poise stemmed from an advanced knowledge that, as small as she is, her life has indeed been larger than usual already.

Huang, who is now 12, will be a special guest at this year’s Eastern Music Festival. For her, the appearance will be a blip on a professional performing career that has taken her all over the world.

Her journey started at age four, when she chose the violin over the piano and started studying with a local instructor in Connecticut. Now the middle schooler attends the Julliard School’s pre-college program and enjoys social studies and science, according to her bio. She would, under normal circumstances, be too young for the EMF summer camp, but she will be here regardless, not as a student, but as a very young teacher.

And this time, she’ll be there in the flesh. – AK