I'm sure the Harvard kids have been slumming it at the divey Cantab Lounge (est. 1938) since JFK was an undergrad. But, it's new to me. $5 gets you into the green-and-red bar with a blues band (fronted by a killer sax player) and plenty of room for dancing. The older crowd (wonder who they might be?) is lovin it.
Tonight's a free night, so I cross the Harvard bridge over to Cambridge to check out the strip of indie venues on Massachussetts Ave. First stop is the All Asia Cafe: a Chinese restaurant in its (recent) past life. They've got a bar and a small stage, which is currently (and loudly) occupied by Worcester synth-guitar duo Herraterra. Sounds a lot like every other electro-indie outfit in vogue right now. Which, for these guys, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Other stops include TT The Bear's Place and Middle East, with three full stages.
I'm off to Beantown to attend this weekend's Boston Symphony concerts, which mark Seiji Ozawa's first appearances at Symphony Hall since his departure in 2002 after 29 years as the BSO's Music Director. (I was at Ozawa's final concert at Tanglewood later that summer.) In addition to Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, he'll be nodding to the Messiaen centennial with a performance of the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine (1945), with Peter Serkin and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Ozawa has a long history with Messiaen's music: he conducted the premiere of Saint François d'Assise in 1983, and later toured the world with an abridged version of the opera. The BSO has an even longer history with the composer, having commissioned his Turangalîla-Symphonie in 1949 and invited him to teach at Tanglewood numerous times over the last forty years of his life.
After you're done watching the slightly-cheesy video homage to Seiji - with a soundtrack including everyone from Isaac Hayes to Steppenwolf - go check out this very cool feature, which lets you compose like Messiaen, using percussion, strings, and even bird sounds. Can't think of a better way to spend an idle half-day at the office.
(pictured: Messiaen and Ozawa at Tanglewood in 1975, courtesy of the BSO Archives)
I realized recently that while these Cocktail Conversations may be thought-provoking, they've been pretty homogeneous in terms of their subjects (namely: all white dudes.) So, when I ran into vocalist/songwriter Becca Stevens a few weeks ago after a Bing and Ruth show at Barbes, I asked if she'd help out with my diversity issues. Happily, she agreed.
We met at the Sullivan Diner in the Village, nursing solo glasses of wine at the end of a long week for the both of us. Here's her story:
On Family: "I was brought up in a musical family. We all grew up singing in my Dad's band The Tune Mammals. We used to tour around in a minivan playing at schools, like the Partridge Family. My Dad and brother are both composers; my Mom was trained in opera. My sister is a jewelry designer, but she's been helping me out a lot with my career."
On North Carolina: "My dad played all kinds of music for us growing up: bluegrass, Appalachian, Irish folk. When I go to the mountains of Western North Carolina to visit family, I can hear that music playing in my head like a soundtrack... I also learned classical music from my Dad, and at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where I studied classical guitar. After that, I toured with my brother's rock-fusion band, Gomachi, for a year."
On New York: "I came to New York in Fall 2003 to study jazz vocals at the New School. Or, I should say: my desire to move to New York brought me to the New School. It was a pretty seamless transition from student to working performer: I met all the members of my band there, and I'd already done a fair amount of networking locally. There's such a great scene here: I probably meet around 20 new musicians each month."
On Teaching: "I teach early childhood music: singing and Suzuki guitar to kids 4-12. These kids are amazing: I can definitely see some of them becoming musicians. For a lot of artists, school can be difficult. The best teachers are the ones who encourage without stifling. I think I learned that from my Dad."
On Writing Music: "I write like I paint: intuitively. Meaning, by ear. It doesn't really work to have a plan ahead of time. Sometimes, I'll start with a concept, and the lyrics will come out of that. Other times, the music comes first."
On her iPod: "I listen to a lot of West African music, a lot of Irish and bluegrass. I listen to pop and hip-hop. I'll listen to bad music intentionally, to know what not to do. And, I'll go for long stretches without listening to anything at all: the last thing I downloaded was actually a book on tape."
On Performing: "I need to have a balance of lots of different experiences. It keeps me on my toes. The Björkestra keeps me in really good vocal shape: it makes you realize what an amazing artist Björk is. Bing and Ruth is really open and liberating. The Becca Stevens Band is the most rewarding: it keeps me feeling fulfilled."
On Different Types of Music: "Every genre has the potential to be really finely tuned, just as much as classical. That's what all musicians should be striving for, whatever they're doing."
On Composers vs. Songwriters: "Where's the line between Songwriter and Composer? I mean, Björk's music has been orchestrated. Wouldn't you call her a composer?"
Becca will be appearing tonight (11/25) at Cornelia Street Cafe and on Sunday (11/30) at Rockwood Music Hall. She will also be appearing with hew own Becca Stevens Band at Cornelia on 12/3, in Jeremy Viner's basement on 12/13, and at Barbes on 12/19; check out her MySpace page for more info.