Monthly Archives: June 2016

By Ali Mignone stage manager for Strings Music Festival

Two of the shows at Strings this week—Tuesday’s family concert at 5:30pm and Wednesday’s classical chamber music at 7pm—feature an unusual instrument called the cimbalom. In its concert case, the cimbalom looks a little like a cousin to a piano. Except that the cimbalom is sort of rectangular and has an open top that allows the musician to play the strings directly with mallets, instead of the piano’s familiar keyboard.

In musical terms, the cimbalom is a type of hammered dulcimer. Hammered dulcimers are folk instruments found in cultures all over the world, and they’re usually sized to be held for playing. The cimbalom, with its legged case, is the largest version of these instruments and is intended for the concert stage. As the national instrument of Hungary, the cimbalom features prominently in works by Hungarian composers.

I hadn’t heard of the cimbalom before, so when it turned out to be featured this week on the Strings Festival stage, I started to wonder what other unusual instruments might be out there. It turns out that there are approximately one zillion musical instruments that are not part of a typical western music orchestral roster. Unfortunately, column space limits me to just these few:

Octobass: said to be the largest string instrument ever made, this gigantic double bass has three strings. The first octobass, built in 1850, is 3.4 meters tall; it’s so big that it has levers and foot pedals to manage the strings, and is often played by two people – one to run the bow and one to run the levers and pedals. Its specialty is playing extremely low notes, some of them outside the range of human hearing.

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Theremin: an early electronic instrument that looks like a transistor radio on a stick, the theremin is played by dipping the hands into and out of two invisible electromagnetic fields. Not only does it look weird itself, it also makes the musician look like a looney. The theremin was invented by a Soviet scientist studying proximity sensors in the 1920s, and although newer electronic instruments are easier to play, none of them matches the theremin’s especially creepy sound.

Pyrophone organ: this internal combustion instrument is also known as the “fire/explosion organ.” That should be enough to nullify any insurance policy right there. The pyrophone uses controlled explosions to produce tones and is usually powered by propane. I hear that playing one is just like playing a pipe organ. Except for the fire. And the explosions.

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But why play these weird instruments at all? They seem unwieldy, impossibly fragile and perhaps even downright dangerous. (I’m looking at you, pyrophone.) Composers and musicians choose these instruments because of the unique sounds they make.

With its bright and energetic sound and a very fast tremolo, the cimbalom is often used by western composers to introduce a “foreign” sound. The octobass is said to produce tones so low that you can feel them vibrating your skeleton, but you can’t hear them at all. And nothing says creepy alien invasion quite like the wobbly, other-worldly tones of the theremin.

Music is emotion (and mathematics, according to my college music theory professor in a class that made me hate life), and if an instrument can produce the particular feeling needed for a piece by virtue of its unique acoustic resonance, then that is the right one for the composition. Regardless of whether or not it’s part of the western orchestral pantheon.

And maybe, regardless of whether or not it requires you to keep a fire extinguisher nearby while playing it.

 

Upcoming events:

Tickets available at (970) 879-5056 and www.stringsmusicfestival.com.

Ali Mignone stage manages for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.

 

Posted on June 29, 2016
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By Ali Mignone stage manages for Strings Music Festival

If you ask someone who loves rock-n-roll to describe classical music, you might get a shrug and a vague notion of prissy violins played by snooty people in tuxedos. Turn that around and ask the classical lover about rock music, and you might get a sniff and a complaint about distorted lyrics and impossible decibel levels. And each music lover might look at the other, offended, and say, “But my music is so much more than that! You’re missing the point,” before launching into a spirited defense of their maligned genre.

And they would each be right. And also wrong.

Let’s start with the right: some classical music is rather inaccessible and precious, and lots of orchestras make the musicians dress up in monkey suits and uncomfortable, pointy shoes. And some rock music is completely unintelligible and monstrously loud for no discernable reason other than: because they can.

And now the wrong. Decibel perception and bad sound mixes aside, rock music’s driving beat and howling guitars are integral to the compositions and often showcase truly virtuosic playing abilities. And far from being stiff and proper, many of the great classical composers were the rock star rebels of their times. All of Beethoven’s symphonies except the Ninth were widely panned, with one critic saying that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse.” They said his work was too exciting, not dignified, discordant, harsh, wild, and utterly confusing.

That should sound familiar to anyone whose parents loved big band music and were horrified by their children’s interest in early rock-n-roll…

But I’m picking on classical and rock music unfairly. Plenty of other genres could use a little understanding, too.

Country and its sub-genres have always borrowed elements from other traditions. You’ll find Irish and Scottish folk music influences in bluegrass, hints of Mexico in honky tonk, and shades of disco in 70s country music. Today’s country includes nods to hip-hop, gospel, and rock.

Hip-hop distinguishes itself from rhythm & blues with sample loops manipulated live for stage shows by a deejay combined with rap or R&B lyrics performed live. Recorded hip-hop often has multiple, complicated sample loops from other genres underscoring the lyrics. For example, artists Nas and Puff Daddy sampled “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana on “Hate Me Now.”

World music is, enormously, non-western music. How’s that for a giant ocean of sounds to wade through?

Notoriously difficult to define, jazz has its roots in improvisational blues. But it’s not always free-form—jazz can host a strong rhythm section with African and Latin American beat patterns and ragtime’s highly structured compositions are also in the jazz category.

If you’re on the “how can you listen to that stuff” side of one of these kinds of music, let me assure you that these categories are as varied as the musicians who play them. Musicians bring their own influences with them as they glide in and out of different styles, and the styles evolve over time. No matter what your preferences, there is something in that mysterious genre that will appeal to you, if you let it.

Strings Music Festival summer season opens this week. Check out a new music genre this summer!

Upcoming events:

Tickets available at (970) 879-5056

Ali Mignone stage manages for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.

Posted on June 20, 2016
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By Ali Mignone, Stage Manager for Strings Music Festival

In an age of immediate and ever-present digital entertainment—insomniacs rejoice—what’s the purpose of live performance? Why pay money to go somewhere to listen to live music with a whole bunch of people you don’t know, when you could listen to an error-free recording of the same thing from the couch only five feet from your refrigerator?

Let’s be honest. Part of the reason to go to a live show on a concert stage is because stuff might go wrong. Onstage train wrecks can be highly entertaining and provide great cocktail party conversation fodder. Plus, really good performers are often at their best when they’re speaking off-script to recover from a flub. But hoping-for-hilarious-failure aside, as audience members, why should we care whether we’re at a live event or listening to a recording in the comfort of our own homes?

 

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I’ve written about this before in this column, noting that the audience is a vital part of any live performance. Without an audience, no matter how beautifully they play and interact with each other, musicians are just rehearsing. But what the audience gets from being there in person is engagement—with the artists, with the music itself and most importantly, with each other.

There’s a guy in the front row nodding his head to the beat, matching our tapping feet. There’s a woman closing her eyes at our favorite part. There’s a smattering of claps for a tricky section and we join in, swelling the applause until the musician gives a little bow to acknowledge the love from the crowd. At a live performance, you’re not just a passive passenger along for the ride. You are a part of the show and your reactions matter. It can turn into a loop of awesomeness: your seatmates are having fun. The musicians see that, and they play even better. You see that, and then you have more fun. The people across the aisle see you having more fun, and then they…you get the picture.

I understand the desire to listen to a favorite piece of music in private, where you can sing along into the hairbrush or wave your spoon to conduct an invisible orchestra. I also understand the pull of wanting to be alone with the music: no cell phone calls during the oboe solo, no drunk guy standing in the way during the guitar riff, no crackly candy wrappers interrupting a favorite quiet bit.

A recording is the same every time you play it, and that has a certain beauty. But each live performance is unique—whether in variations in tempo, funny mistakes that become part of the show or your own engagement level with the other souls around you experiencing and appreciating the exact same thing you are. And I think that’s worth exploring whenever possible. Hope to see you at the pavilion this summer!

 

Upcoming events:

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Posted on June 14, 2016
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By Ali Mignone, stage manager for Strings Music Festival

Although this stage manager’s point-of-view column only appears during the summer, Strings Music Festival is active year-round with a winter concert series and special shows for local schools in the spring. While it’s not the all-hands-on-deck, hold-onto-your-hats whirlwind schedule of the summer concert series, the off-season holds its own challenges—mainly in the form of managing snow removal and adventurous rodents and trying to keep the grand pianos from freaking out from weather changes.

One benefit of having shows year-round (beside continuing to be part of Steamboat’s lively music scene!) is that my prep work for the summer season isn’t nearly as time-consuming as it was the first year I joined the staff. It’s more like preparing for a seasonal rush than a total gear-up. I’m not one to do unnecessary work—you can say “lazy,” but I prefer “efficient”—so my off-season backstage routine is about maintaining order, systems and stock as I go, even if I’m only in the pavilion once a month.

This makes the beginning of June a lot more like “do I have what I need to support the musicians and crew for 10 weeks?” and a lot less like “what is that disgusting smell and where is it coming from?” or “how is it possible that this thing broke last year and I didn’t remember to get it fixed and now I need it for tomorrow?”

 

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The Strings crew installing the sound system for the summer!

Right now, we’re stocking up on things that go fast backstage, like bottled water, musician snacks, coffee, black gaff tape, Advil and Band-Aids. The pianos already had their annual maintenance treatments, and the crew added new speakers and projectors last month. Here are few of the other things I’m attending to backstage between now and our first show (Clint Black!) on June 23:

  • Organizing shelves
  • Wiping down the fridges, tossing elderly food
  • Adding shelving for instruments and coat hooks for musician belongings
  • Donating shirts, ties and coats left in the closet from last year (you’d be surprised at how many male musicians leave clothing behind, and at how few female musicians do…)
  • Fixing the funky door into the Green Room
  • Checking for dead mice, weird smells, sticky places

Yes, thank you, my life is very glamorous.

Meanwhile, the administrative staff is:

  • Finalizing housing and travel arrangements for visiting artists
  • Putting the finishing touches on the program and arranging printing and delivery
  • Selling tickets
  • Finishing up artist contracts (Read: chasing musicians who forgot to sign and return them. Can you blame them? Music is a lot more interesting than paperwork.)

Just a few short weeks before the fun begins! Hope to see you at the pavilion this summer—I’ll be the one dressed in black wondering where the time went.

 

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Posted on June 6, 2016
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