Previous month:
October 2008
Next month:
December 2008

November 2008

Cocktail Conversation: Becca Stevens

DSC_0134 copy

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.

Outside Time

"I offer to you all the transports of love and joy, the ecstasies, raptures, revelations and heavenly visions of all the holy saints..."  St. Thomas Aquinas (from Livre du Saint Sacrament)


When St. Thomas Church organist John Scott began his journey eight weeks ago through the music of Olivier Messiaen, the leaves were still on the trees and the sun still high in the sky long after. By the time Scott completed his survey yesterday with a performance of Messiaen's final organ work, Livre du Saint Sacrament (1984), it was dark and wintry-cold outside.

This was the third time I've heard this two-hour masterpiece in the past year, including Paul Jacobs' reading last October, and the unforgettable performance by Loïc Mallié at La Trinite in May. Scott's performance stood right alongside those, putting the colors and dynamic range of the 9,000 pipe Aeolian-Skinner organ on full display.  


I've spoken before about the huge range of sounds in Livre du Saint Sacrament, but what's most unsettling about this piece is Messiaen's frequent use of major triads: huge, consonant chords that on the surface seem grossly simplistic for a composer known for his modernist, sui generis sound. But Messiaen, who was 76 when he wrote Livre, seems at this late stage of his life to be less concerned with musical orthodoxy than with embracing the full spectrum of natural sound. 

"Now, I fear nothing," Messiaen said at the time, "not even the common chord!" 


As at last week's performance of Méditations Sur Le Mystère de la Saint Trinité, I lost all track of time: hours became minutes, moments seemed to trail towards infinity. Messiaen abandoned traditional western rhythms and intervals, and instead took inspiration from ancient Greek modes and Indian ragas, likening the experience to the time-blurring effects produced by Mescalin. This was a deliberate invention on Messiaen's part, who saw music as an approximation - the closest one we have - of the ultimate journey:

"To understand true reality...we have to pass through Death and Resurrection - which means leaving our temporal world, taking a leap outside Time. In some strange way, music can prepare us for this: as an image, as a reflection, as a symbol..."


After a full standing ovation, I had the chance to meet Dr. Scott near the organ console. He was warm and gracious, signing my program and thanking me for coming to the series, of which I made it to five-out-of-six. When he asked if I knew this music, I told him about my experience in Paris last May.

"Oh, how's Trinité sounding these days?" he asked, genuinely curious. "It's been years since I've been there." 

"Sounded pretty good to me," I told him. "But, the seats here are a lot more comfortable." Scott smiled and chuckled.

I'll miss making these midday Saturday trips to midtown, but rest assured Scott will be back soon with plenty of new reasons to visit - and to be astonished. (More pics below.)


Continue reading "Outside Time" »

Love Those Lists

I'm not typically a fan of lists, but Gramophone's newly-released list of the Top 20 orchestras is the world is worth a gander, if only for pure amusement. The top four aren't much of a surprise (nor is #12), but Budapest ahead of Dresden or Leipzig? What about Paris? And, honestly, that #18 orchestra should be way higher(For the record, I haven't heard either #14 or #19. Yet.)


1. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam 

2. Berlin Philharmonic 

3. Vienna Philharmonic 

4. London Symphony Orchestra 

5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra 

6. Bavarian Radio Symphony 

7. Cleveland Orchestra 

8. Los Angeles Philharmonic

9. Budapest Festival Orchestra 

10. Dresden Staatskapelle

11. Boston Symphony Orchestra 

12. New York Philharmonic 

13. San Francisco Symphony 

14. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

15. Russian National Orchestra 

16. Saint Petersburg Philharmonic 

17. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra 

18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

19. Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra 

20. Czech Philharmonic