A little background on Fuchsprellen, wrapped in a Rochefort Recap!

There is an origin story for my band Fuchsprellen, but there is a longer, weirder story behind the work that went into building the band concept.

I’ll link back to those earlier posts, but I blogged a bit about my experiences at Rochefort en Accords 2011. I was asked to play this gig on short notice, as a sub for an artist who could not make the date. Seems simple. Go to France, they said. Play Beefheart in France! They said… We have an airline ticket and accomodations for you. They said. No question, I am going.

Fine Print (not read): You might be the only person to ever be the only electric bass player at a festival in France. What are the odds of that? Ever. Zero. Like Brave Sir Robin I was figuring I was in for a bit of spanking and well, “Robert, il est ton oncle”.

Job 1: Bassist du jour for Napoleon Murphy Brock. I understand that some Bongo Fury material might be played. I have no other real data except Chris Garcia passing me the code phrase “beef heart”. Chris Garcia is a no-BS cat, so what could possibly go wrong?!?! Verdict: Napoleon is one of my favorite people in a musical context, and the non-musical contexts as well. He runs the show the way I would run it: Work hard, get good, kick ass at the show. No friction, even when I blissed out through a motif change and added about 16 bars to the evening. You are welcome, Rochefort. (The members of Peach Noise took me in and treated me like a lost puppy. In the good way. The best hosts a lost bass player could hope to have)

First side job: Blues guitarist Innes Sibun, influenced by an old influence (Rory Gallagher records at times in heavy rotation) and we play two sets of originals and Hendrix tunes. EASY. I have put in the hours at open mic nights and my initial learning tool was learning every track on the Blues Brothers record… erg… Verdict: Great rhythm section, on the spot feel, great ears…

Addendum: while other folks were snacking and chatting, he was putting in the work, rounding up a band, and if he had told me that the fact that the only bass I brought to the gig was a fretless 5 is means for disqualification, I would have understood. With Bruno Bertrand and Or Solomon we had a killer backing section. Thanks for not holding my choice in basses against me.

Second Side Job: Bassist for Jeff Morris Tepper, of the last and not in any way least version of the Magic Band. Great, Great Band. As soon as I had agreed to take the gig He contacted me, I was in, but honest that I felt that his parts relied on my weakest skill set as a player. We met somewhere in the middle, and I gained a respect for and knowledge of his music.

Recap:

Anything out of place? Like “Where is the Beef?”

Oh yeah, Nicolas Mingot had a list of Beefheart tunes, and it was not a small list. Like, er… “if that is a setlist we are going to have words” kind of not small. But peace was made! A truly fitting Finalé was executed, and in good form. Only in France would you get a festival finalé consisting entirely of Beefheart. Wow.

The Payoff:

About that clam / brainfart in the final performance. Napoleon kept giving me this odd vibe, like a question in vibe form. And when he told me what the problem was, it was a blunt: “Pete, do you see how these other guys have notes?” (See Footnote 1). … Point taken. I can play it and rehearse it, but carrying that back to the stage in my head, without losing a piece or two along the way, is not in my skill set. And as much as I love the music of Zappa and Hendrix, and Beefheart for that matter, I needed to be playing in clean sand for a while. Playing where there were no established lines. Napi kicked off a line leading from there to my band Fuchsprellen. We don’t really do the “notes” thing. While I could stand to be more organized, I decided to let my music flow from my process instead of flowing my process around some other music.

Post Mortem:

My partially successful and wholly unintended attempt to bring a free music approach to a festival setting was complete and I ran back to the States like a scladed dog. The finalé was truly final. The dancing harmonica solo, selfie-free. My restraint in savaging the local huitre population, regrettable. The cognac! Mon dieu! The Pineau! (No. the other, other, Pinot). I saw the Eiffel from the back of a car driven by my new favorite French trumpeter, which means my favorite trumpeter, Nicolas Genest, on the way into Montreuil. It was awful.

Footnote – 1 Er, no. It never occured to me. I will chart pieces if I am recording, rarely. So yeah, I was making a hard job harder. But almost all of my playing has been in improvised or some kind of modal concept. And I was suddenly aware that yeah, everyone else had these killer notes. I talked Charlie Doll into letting me have one. Brilliant set of notes with cues, bar counts, rhythms charted-ish…

Diverting the Workflow

I have a habit, tic, recurring theme…. when it comes to equipment like cameras, musical instruments, fly rods, etc… I typically use one to the exclusion of any other options I might have. My Nikon has sat idle while I explore the E-M10. One way I use this to my advantage is to make sure that the device I am using is providing a learning or creative opportunity. With the Olympus I have the opportunity to reassess my workflow, from exposure evaluation through the shutter press and into post processing.

NEWS FLASH!!! Apple just released the Camera Raw Update to support the E-M10!!! Which is awesome because I have been importing the JPG/RAW pairs with the JPG as the master image (Apple Aperture, another post(s) for another day). Huge news for me as long as the RAW processing doesn’t suck.

The core of my evaluation of a camera comes down to things like low-light performance, focus accuracy, “handling”, and overall noise and image detail. Some of that is more a matter of feel than empirical proof. Compared to the Nikon, descendant of the mighty Nikon F, the E-M10 feels a bit like “OM-1 meets an X-Box”.  When using the very “serious” Nikon you get a lot of very serious options. It took them over a decade to include an interval timer that didn’t require a slide-rule and a night school course. Video was seen as a gimmick, or in Canon’s case a threat to their high-dollar video systems.

The Micro Four Thirds systems have no such baggage. They have in-camera processing that you would recognize from your favorite iPhone app. The Super Control Panel, touchscreen, and highly customizable controls are right out of the same milieu. You get 21st century thinking by the bucketload. Not that it is all for the better, but you get it by the bucketload. The tools are right in the camera to push the sensor into some very rarefied air. Long exposure, composite exposure, simultaneous video and stills, excellent in-camera HDR, focus bracketing…

I will cover these points in more depth as I go along, but here are the things that I have noticed immediately:

Focus By Wire – does not feel like mechanical focus, but no surprises

Focus Peaking – Not as helpful as I imagined

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) – A good EVF, but still an EVF. Plus, the live image looks horrible compared to the preview you see after taking the photo

(All three of the above features fall apart completely in low light/night photography. Want to take advantage of the super-useful LIVECOMP mode, good luck with infinity focusing at night)

Focus Performance – shockingly fast. Even with a lens like the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, with a reputation as a slow focusing lens, it is still not brutally slow. But in comparison to the kit lens (just for instance) it is noticeable because the kit lens focuses instantly. And that is with contrast-only AF. None of that fancy phase detection like the E-M1.

Info Display – Olympus lets you decide which viewfinder info mode(s) you see in each exposure mode. Great, except it makes for a lot of twiddling to get the info you want, when you want, on the display you are using.

Menus – Yes, the Olympus menu system is byzantine. Apologists, spare ye thy breath. Basically, your settings in one mode, say Aperture Priority, are only for that mode. I *think* this is how it works, but the menu system gives you no easy way to verify this. Also, when you adjust something in the menu, like turning on HDR shooting, the menu always resets back to the top of the first menu. So you have to navigate back to the item each time you change it, try it, and want to modify the setting or turn it off. It feels like a lot of extra button presses. I know that I will have a full post, or more, on the menu system alone. It might just help me get over the last hump of the learning curve.

Here is an image from the E-M10, f/8, 1/2000sec, ISO1000, uncropped:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back to the Future with Micro Four Thirds

A few months ago I picked up a compact camera in an effort to give myself a break from lugging my Nikon DSLR rig all the time. I have done this before with Point/Shoot camera ranging from the awful-ish Canon TX-1 to the great-ish Canon G-10, and a few other pocket cameras as well. While they were acceptable for many uses, it was never in doubt that the image quality was a big step down from an APS-C camera, never mind a full-frame model.

I had been following the progress of cameras like the Olympus Four-Thirds range, and the great compacts coming out of Panasonic, Sony, and Fujifilm. My question about why we didn’t have a serious digital rangefinder-style camera, which I have been asking for over a decade, was rarely answered. Sure. there were pricey options from Leica, and a dead-end option from Epson(?), but it wasn’t until recently that you could get anything good for under a grand.

A little background: I grew up shooting pictures with hand-me-down 35mm rangefinders, and they always had some kind of shutter problems, or sticky aperture, etc… But I loved how light, compact, and simple they were. I also yearned for a SLR because I liked the idea of viewing through the taking-lens and having interchangeable lens options. My first SLR was an Olympus OM-G, because I could afford it. Later, an OM-1 when I had the money. That camera changed everything. All-metal build, great lenses, great meter, and as durable as a rock. It was also the smallest SLR available. An SLR that a rangefinder lover could love.

My photography activity slowed down until the early digital era. I have spent over 10 years shooting Nikon DSLR cameras, and have become accustomed to their strengths and weaknesses. My current 3-lens kit is everything I could want for 90% of the situations I encounter. 35mm f/1.8 G, 10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 DX G, and 70-300mm VR DX, and a D300 body. Versatile, Yes. Light, Not Especially.

This past spring Olympus released the OM-D E-M10, a SLR-style mirrorless Micro Four thirds camera with a very good 16mpx sensor and a greal line of lenses. Priced under $700 with kit lens, it was an easy decision. I sold off some gear and paid cash at my local shop (Camera Bar). Yes, I am lucky enough to have a real camera shop in walking distance from where I work. I was able to handle it, compare it to the excellent E-M1, and bought it from them instead of “showrooming” it and getting it on line.

I’ll go over the comparison in further detail as I continue these posts, but for starters I’ll share an image from the Olympus. The top image is a crop and reprocess done on my iPad in PSExpress, and the lower image is the unretouched original. Dusk shoot, long lens, moving subject, high ISO. JPG transferred to my iPad using the camera’s built-in WiFi.

Olympus E-M10, 75-300mm @ 300mm, f/6.7, 1/1250sec, ISO1000

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Back, and badder than ever…

Badder in relative, but that’s all we got. The word for the past 6 months is “incremental”. It has incrementally warmed here in the northeast of the U.S. We had a historic stretch of bitter cold, dry cold, occasional winter precip, and it just. would. not. end. I know that last Memorial Day (informal harbinger of summer) it was 52F and spitting rain. This year it was marginally warmer, but still cold and a little wet. That’s it for my weather recap. Weather. Better than having no weather at all.

My exploits with my band fuchsprellen have been likewise, incremental. We had a pair of shows in early May. The first was at Best Video in Hamden, CT, a reprise of the quartet from the previous gigs: Me on Animoog synth; Peter Riccio on drums; Richard Brown on sax and guitar; Steve Chillemi on soprano sax and percussion. That is a really fun lineup. Everyone gets the basic concept and can play with power while listening to the ensemble and still controlling their volume. I’ll have a link to the audio soon, but suffice it to say it was a good time. My memory is of looking up after 15 minutes and we had not lost any of our audience. Great feeling.

The second gig was the result of a comic string of communication problems. The Outer Space in Hamden, CT was the venue, and the Sunday early slot is the Sunday Jazz slot, booked by Nick DeMaria (trumpeter and all around jazzy impresario). Nick asked me if fuchsprellen could play the Sunday set. I said yes and then had the bright idea to ask Jeff Cedrone to play keys with us. His response: I can’t, I’m playing at the Outer Space with Light Upon Blight! Which is both coincidental and not coincidental since Nick Never said it was all fuchsprellen. The upside is that Peter Riccio plays drums in both bands. In the meanwhile both Steve and Richard begged off the gig. What we ended up with was back to back trio sets with the same lineup, but different concepts and execution. I love this kind of thing and we made the most of it. As with the BV gig, audio links will be forthcoming.

The core of these shows was a very/totally improvised concept and a totally open sonic palette. All three sets had a tendency to get heavy, but they also had a lot of dynamic range and harmonic variety. Tonal, composed, and form-heavy music is everywhere. I love much of it. But I could not be happier than when making something else. Fuchsprellen is decidedly “something else”.

Long Time, No Blog…

I have been very busy doing things, hence I have not been blogulating or otherwise documenting things. Since this is site is relatively solipsistic, I don”t think it has caused a problem with the public at large…

First, a follow-up on the ACA bruhaha that has been percolating since my last post in October: Anti-ACA folks in government, industry, major media, etc… have one thing in common. They all have or seem to have no worries about the availability or cost of their own healthcare. I’m sure it isn’t 100% but I am also sure that Rush Limbaugh is not paying $1300/mo for shit coverage, or getting denied coverage for his many pre-existing conditions. On the far far far far right (I hope) are the people who think that ACA is “government-run healthcare”, is “worse than hitler, stalin and pol pot”, or is somehow making things “worse”. No. Just like Medicare and Medicad solved actual problems for the poor and old, this solves problems for everyone else. I feel like any further attempt at rationality is futile here, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Item 2: The simplest explanation for the rapid climate change the planet is currently experiencing is proving to be more likely each day. Take all that carbon that the geologic cycle had the good sense to “sequester” under the ground, pump it back into the atmosphere at a supernatural rate, and bingo: climate change. Unfortunately for us humans, the climate may very well be changing back to pre-human conditions. Bad news, meatbags.

Item the Third: Dear Hartford, Connecticut. City Hall will never make your city better. You have to do that yourself. Once you start doing that, City Hall can give you a push. Look around at cities that are fighting their way back an winning. They have active communities, taking pride in them, and working to solve problems. While that happens in Hartford, I think the residents have to give up on any tangible help from their city government. It is a snake pit, and is in no danger of getting any less snakier any time soon.

More hot blog action to come. Maybe something not filled with so much snark, but filled with a little more subtlety.

Great Expectations, etc…

In an ideal world I would move forward with music projects and finding ways time to spend quality time with my family and friends. That’s about the scope of what i fit under “ideal”. Nothing fancy. No private submarines, Tibetan mountain retreats, million dollar hyper-cars…

But I also read my share of news, and keep up on some politics and current events. It gets tedious because I am dedicated to improving systems and building better mousetraps. When I see the statistics on the US healthcare system, I cringe. Really, anyone with a soul should cringe, even if they have excellent insurance and a high level of confidence that their personal situation delivers positive outcomes. We have the highest costs and in return we get outcomes that are the laughingstock of the developed world. Industrial nations can and should do better, and most do.

We have two major throttles to healthcare access in the US: The insurance industry, and the Pharmaceutical/Devices industry. the actual doctors/hospitals situation is merely a functional layer. We have good doctors and good hospitals. in fact. we have some of the best in the world. So that is not the problem. Do they profiteer? Sure. But it is chump change compared to the profiteering by the insurance and pharma industries. My opinion is that the foundational resistance to making healthcare more afforadable in the US comes from the insurance and pharma lobbies. They like the system just like it is. Insurance companies like small pools of insured individuals, just like a casino likes good odds (legalized odds-rigging). Pharmaceutical and med device companies like to make sure that they hold patents as long as possible and reap huge paybacks for as long as possible. The only possible obstacle would be government mandates to cover large pools of people and provide them with affordable care. That would put a dent in their very comfortable bottom lines.

As a result we see a small group of members of the US House of Representatives convincing the Speaker of the House to refuse to bring a vote to the floor on a seemingly unrelated issue: Spending and Spending cap. The bulk of the spending has absolutely nothing to do with health care. But what it does is shut down a big chunk of the government, creating a lever to gain traction they otherwise failed to muster when the Affordable Care Act was voted on in both houses of Congress, passed by both houses of Congress, and then found constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. The members of the house who are driving this bus had the opportunity to vote, did so, and failed. This current ploy of causing a government shutdown was certainly choreographed at that time. Otherwise we would have seen the usual riders, alternative language, markup… you know… the process as we know it. But just like the non-existant republican jobs plan, manufacturing plan, foreign policy plan, international trade plan (this list really does go on for ever), there was never a republican health care plan. Well, except for the part where the ACA is based on the health care system introduced in Massachusetts by Mittens Romney (back when he was Governor of Taxachusetts, before he was nominated by the RNC to run for President in 2012). But Mittens is a horrible republican! Really! Horrible! Just ask the people who held up Romney signs at the 2012 RNC Convention.

The skinny is that there are a lot of moving pieces here: political posturing; table setting for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles; a rallying cry to enhance the flagging reputations of the hard-right of the republican party… but the real driver might just be the republican version of “American Idol” where the winner gets a big chunk of campaign finance from the insurance and pharma industries. The kind of backing that differentiates winners from losers in the next two elections. That is the kind of thing that we see tons of in American politics. Don’t buy the headline, and certainly don’t buy the lead stories from partisan news sources. Go long on corporate influence. You will never regret it.

Fox Tossing, and other musical concepts

Over the past two years I have been pursuing my musical goals with more focus, specifically on my commitment to “free music” and improvisation. I caught the free jazz bug early in life and it has continued to be a fundamental force in my musical life. One of the things that has become more clear as I continue to perform music is the gradation within any artistic medium or genre.

An example is “painter”. You meet someone, it turns out that they are a painter. Once you determine that it is “artistic” painting, not house painting or interior painting (an art in itself), what do you really know? Do they work in oils, watercolors, acrylics, natural pigments…? Do they paint people, landscapes, futurist fantasy, naturalist tableau…? Are they working in an established tradition, or school? Otherwise all you know is that they apply paint to a substrate and consider it to be their art.

Music is the same, and might be even harder to pin down. When people hear that I play music they first ask if I am in a “band”. At any time that answer could be “no”, “several”, “yes, kinda”, or “I am a band”. Either way, it is almost never the kind of band they are thinking of, rocking out Mustang Sally to beer-soaked Hartford fratboys. Even if they have a broader conception, they might not get that my band does not have “songs”. In many ways each artist can be considered their own genre. Even if I have been highly influenced by Zappa, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Last Exit, and Charles Mingus? Those artists have produced an incredibly broad variety of musical art (OK, maybe not Last Exit :)

I have made this statement as a idee-fixee regarding musical influence: “I love what Mingus was doing in 1964, but he never had to worry about being influenced by Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix”. And he didn’t. I do. All the time.

As a result I spent most of my life playing improvised music and avoiding those influences. Starting in the late 90’s I began to examine and embrace those influences, and act out on them in live performance. I took advantage of an opportunity to play the music of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and that led to opportunities to delve into the music of Frank Zappa from the performance end of the operation. In there was the opportunity to play “indie rock” with The Sawtelles, and get exposed to a huge array of “indie rock” music that was incredibly diverse. All through that period I was digging deeper into my early influences. The huge array of “unreleased” and “re-issued” Sun Ra recordings continues to be a wonderland of freaky jazz. Getting my ears around the music of Kawabata Makoto and his various Acid Mothers Temple projects was equally revelatory. Stuck in the middle of this period was a seven year string where New Haven Improvisors Collective was my primary outlet for improvisation and structured chaos in music.

I also found out that I have certain skills and priorities that can conflict with musicians at the more “laconic” end of the spectrum. One way in which I have found myself separated from my peers is in my insistence on urgency and timelines. I will literally lay out rehearsals in terms of “we have X rehearsals, totaling Y hours, until date Z to prepare this band”. I believe that results do not happen accidentally, especially when learning to play the work of other composers. Nailing a version of a Frank Zappa composition is not done by accident. Jamming and getting “close” will not suffice. It is my inner Project Manager reaching into my artistic life and getting all pragmatic on the process.

As well, I am aware that each musician I have met and worked with has a very personal set of motivating concepts. Some want to be “the guy”, in the spotlight performing technically difficult material with seeming ease. Some want to validate their love for the party lifestyle. Some want to control others’ actions and occupy the head chair of their personal musical fantasy land. Those motivations are always underlain by other needs, experiences, compensations… And, for better and worse, exposure to those people has allowed me to better understand my own desires and motivations.

That decade of self-education was the densest and most exciting I have experienced. It allowed me to expand my performance opportunities and abilities, and develop a small but exciting network of like-minded muso nutjobs. It allowed me to do something I have done on a regular basis since I was a boy: throw it away and start over.

Not unlike the abstract painter, I feel like there are plenty of other people to participate in the music equivalents of hyper-realism, landscape, portraiture, pop-themes, etc… I have the desire to make music “on the spot” and leave the world of highly structured compositions to other musicians. Following this approach is not easier, at least not in my experience. Just as a Motown band needs a bass player versed in Jamerson, a free music ensemble needs to have members who are versed in the confidence of their ears and reflexes. That is much easier said than done. It is definitely not “easier”.

My current attempt at this musical pathway performs under the name “Fuchsprellen“, an old German word for “Fox Tossing”. You can look it up, or take my word for it that it was a blood sport of 16-17th Century royalty in which small woodland creatures were introduced to a walled compound where royalty would use cloth straps to launch them into the air. This was typically fatal for the animal. But the sheer absurdity of it struck me in a way to use it as a name for my band. It also sounds bad-ass.