Friday, September 24, 2010

Video shilled for Davy-o's Star

I'm rather mediocre at self-promotion.

Which is a half-truth. I'm not particularly interested in doing it, but I'm not averse to doing some. I'm one of those If You Build It They Will Come kind of guys. I've never looked good going backstage after concerts and passing out free scores to strangers. I never know which mascara to buy for that. Plus, what if they ask me to improvise a mime act?

Admittedly, though, if someone asks where stuff might be found online, I can type the URLs by heart. Not URLs by Heart, though.

A couple of years ago I got an e-mail from someone writing a book about artists and how they brand themselves, how artists build their brands. He said he thought I had an interesting brand, and that he had a bunch of questions for me to answer (apparently the same questions all his victims would get), and that based on my responses he might write something about me and my brand, how I've branded myself, in his book.

Well, I built it. And look who came.

I declined to participate, and said author was surprised. Perhaps at this point he realized that my brand is that I don't have a brand? Or do I have one, without knowing it? What would the logo look like? Is there free pizza?

I have a YouTube channel. Is that a brand? Oh crap, the background of the channel is blue, just like this blog. Am I in my blue period? Is Davy's in his blue period my brand? If so, I might need some red roses.

Oh yes. It turns out I've had a web page since 2002.

I seriously need a non sequitur.

So during the Christmas vacation of my first year at Brandeis, Beff and I had fellowships for a residency at the VCCA. At the time we lived in Salisbury, Maryland, where Beff's job was, and that was literally in the middle of nowhere. By middle, I mean it was a two-hour drive to Baltimore, a two-hour drive to DC, a two-hour drive to Norfolk, Virginia, and a two-hour drive to Wilmington, the closest place to catch a train to New York or Boston. Beff's work was a ten-minute walk. Mine was an eight-hour drive.

But, thanks to its exact location, the VCCA was a mere five hours drive away. Since we could drive to it, we got to take our stuff. Thus, Beff got to bring our brand new Macintosh clone to do sound work and the like, while I had an older laptop with an orange trackball for my own use. The clone was our first computer with a built-in CD drive, so we were giddy with the ability to play audio CDs on it.

VCCA is nice in that it has two larger rooms for Fellows that can be used by couples. We got the giant bed and our own bathroom. So we were in woo-hoo land.

I was there to write most of a piano trio for the Triple Helix. They had been playing my caldamerda trio Hyperblue for a while, and had asked for another. I tried to talk them into asking a friend of mine instead of me, but they said we don't want trendy pablum, we want you! I admired but did not understand their directness. So there I was, writing most of a piano trio.

Said trio was finished way, way ahead of schedule, including time spent entering it all into Finale. So, naturally, I moved on to piano études, the Swiss army knife of compositions. I embarked on #13, an inside-the-piano étude, to fill the rest of our time there. And during lunches, Beff and I would eat in her studio and listen to the new Martin Butler CD with Jazz Machines on it. It rocked out.

Martin was our roommate in grad school. We already knew that.

I finished the 'tude with several days remaining and nothing left to write. So with the sound of Jazz Machines in my head, I imitated its spiky and perky perpetual motion texture, but in the low register of the piano. I wrote down the notes that sounded good, but not necessarily right, one after another. It would have been nonsensical, of course, to write down the notes that sounded good one before another. Because time is a one-way street, and we are all players. Then you die.

Hence the sketch, as seen up there to the right. The barlines and time signatures were added later when I was entering the piece in Finale. I wasn't in the habit of putting piano pieces into Finale to listen to them, since at the time all I could get from its MIDI was amoebas arguing. Especially since all I knew was what this piece sounded like. I had no idea what it was about.

Two mornings and one afternoon later, I realized it was about hand-crossing. Cool. And duh. Pianists do crossing hands, and I have hands that can cross, and now my task was to invent cooler and cooler ways for hand to cross. It's ballet! It's choreography! It's mime! Well, no it's not. At one of our lunches, Beff laid down a gauntlet which will be evident when you hear the piece. You can do that right now.

I finished the piece back at my place of employment, and named it after Martin, such as it is. And there it was, one more big honkin' hard-as-hell Davytude to add to the pile. My brand was developing. As was the size of the pile of unperformed 'tudes.

By the way, who the heck was going to play this monster? I didn't have tenure!

Two years later, as part of the big Hyperblue CD project, Marilyn Nonken picked up a bunch of 'tudes, played some around, and recorded them. Martler, this hands-crossing monstrosity, was one of them. She premiered it in Illinois, and then played it for me before she did it in New York.

Are you crazy? That piece looks impossible! How can anybody play it! Man, it sure looks cooooool! Do it again! And again!

That was me, silently. Apparently Silent Davy doesn't use question marks. It sounded good, too.

Owing to the special hand-specific notation, the score was impossible to follow. Even by the composer. Hey, that's me!

I quietly asked all of my friends to sit at Marilyn's New York concert so they could see her hands in Martler. They both complied. We all agreed: sounds good. Looks really cool. And it sounded sufficiently blisteringly hip to begin the CD.

I told Marilyn that if she ever learned and played it again, I'd buy a video camera specifically to make a movie of it HINT HINT HINT. What would I do with the movie? Probably watch it over and over again, and invite all of my friends over to watch it over and over again. I just like the way peoples' lips look when they can't stop saying Coooool!

It wasn't until 2001 that I got to hear and see Martler again, when Amy did it. When I came to Chicago for the gig and Smookarama got me to talk at the U of Chicago, I first had Amy play it to prove no one could follow the score. It was a pointless exercise, but I was on a roll. Then I had all in attendance breathe down the back of Amy's neck and watch while she played it. That was, by contrast, more pointful.

When Amy was learning the first 22 'tudes and was going to play them for me at Brandeis, I finally pulled the trigger. That's a metaphor. Beff and I up and drove to Best Buy, mulled over choices between analog and digital models, chose the Sony DCR-TRV330 for 700 bucks, and were assured by a friendly saleslady that looked at my right ear when she talked to me that we'd be able to hook it up via Firewire to our computer.

... with a Firewire cable, not included, get it from us for 80 bucks was left out of the saleslady's pitch. Thus a second trip to Best Buy. Immediately I went to the backyard and took a movie of our house. Which was not moving, so I moved the camera. If anyone needs to know what our back yard looked like in 2001, I have proof! The Firewire cable hooked the camera to the computer, iMovie received the movie perfectly, and we had our first professional movie of a stationary object. Soon, gravestones. Then the dam! Then, sleeping cats!

When Amy arrived to play the 'tudes, she was only too happy to be filmed. I threw them all up onto the computer, burned some DVDs, and started a collection. A year later, more movies of Amy and Marilyn doing 'tudes were made. And a giant collection was on my hard drives.

Want to watch some 'tude movies? would send people screaming from the room — because they knew I had, like twenty-five. Note that it wasn't Silent Davy speaking. As a presentation my next time at VCCA, I played some 'tude movies, which one visual artist astutely called my slides.

I then got an emergency commission for a quick piece for dance, paying just about enough to get a new laptop. At the time of said laptop purchase, it was possible to buy Final Cut Express bundled for a hundred bucks. So I did. And it was Beff who started using it and me who never learned it. She had started doing some basic video pieces in order to follow through on some multimedia requests, and now that we had both the software and the camera, the sky was (metaphorically) the limit. Beff became a go-to video with live instruments person, and she and I made lots of field trips to make video footage for pieces she was working on. She now has a YouTube channel with a few examples.

Making those video 'tude movies was more cumbersome than I have let on. For you see, the Sony camera is a big noisy piece of equipment with a tape motor, whose voluminous hissy sound is inescapably part of any movie. For instance, this video. For the sake of better sound, when making the 'tood movies, I made a parallel sound recording on my Sony DATman, dumped the sound data to the computer, deleted the camera's sound in iMovie and synchronized the recording with the movie. Much extra work, but worth it. Of course, as in the Marilyn movies of that period, if the DATman got tapemangle, which was not infrequent, you had to go with the camera's raw sound. And as we all know, raw is war.

So one morning at breakfast as I was sitting on my giant pile of 'tude movies — some of them now almost six years old — Beff looked up from the magazine she was reading and said, "Hey!" When she starts stuff that way I always start listening, because, you know, otherwise why would she have said Hey!? That was immediately followed by There's this new thing called a Flip Video, the size of an iPod, that makes digital movies and connects directly to your computer. And because it had internal memory and no tape, there was no tape motor, hence no tape motor noise. And the sound quality was decent.

Oooooh, I said. It looked like I was saying Coooool, but there were no incipit and terminal consonants. Vive la différëncê.

So we got not one, but two of them. Because we have two of lots of stuff. And used them a lot for Beff's work.

Right around then, too Amy was finally getting a web page up and asked how she might get some of those old 'tude movies into it. I suggested I could put some reduced-quality movies into my webspace and she could link to them, and it worked just fine.

Shortly thereafter, I was at the MacDowell Colony with my Flip Video, thinking about the 'tude movies now being online, and wondered if I might be clever enough to figure out how to get them onto this weird YouTube thing. All on MacDowell's available bandwidth! I successfully established a YouTube channel, struggled to get three of the hippest movies into a size compatible, and voilà! Worldwide distribution.

At MacDowell, thanks to the influence of Mark Kilstofte, there were dramatic readings of Mary Worth comics after dinner every night. It seemed such silliness was destined for posterity, so along came the Flip Video. Every night, a new episode onto YouTube. And the weirdness didn't stop there. Mike Daisey was there at the same time, filing his own YouTube episodes.

Once I got the hang of this YouTube thing, you can betcha the whole étude movie pile was up there, and soon. Which made for more comfortable breakfast sitting, among other things.

And so I built it.

Who came this time? Well soon, here and here. Cooooool. Shortly, just about everywhere. Being as it was the intertubes. And the collection grows when feasible: you're playing such and such 'tude, ooh, I don't have a movie of that one. Do you want to be on YouTube?

Just like when I collected Batman cards in 1967, I won't be sated until I have the entire series. Turns out there's lots more 'tudes without videos still. And 'ludes! HINT HINT HINT

So perhaps my brand is I've got a bunch of neat 'tudes you can watch on YouTube. Nah, that's just a factoid.

Gosh, I hope my brand isn't Nose Guy.

What good are movies of piano pieces anyway? The answer is pretty obvious, and if you need me to tell you that in a streaming internet mulitmedia culture, blah blah blah, then I guess I could do that lecture. But it would be heavily footnoted. And each footnote would have to end with What, have you been asleep the last eight years?

In answer to the question you were about not to ask: Yes.

Pianists that I don't know e-mail me, starting with I was trying to choose some of your études to play and was watching a bunch of them on YouTube... but alas, none of them have yet ended with and so I want to give you two hundred fifty thousand dollars. Because you're worth it.

There's always tomorrow.