Free Improvisation

The concept of free improvisation has been on my mind a lot this year.

Free improvisation is basically music without rules. No rhythmic rules, no tonal rules. It can be anything you want, freely composed in the moment. Hence the “improvisation.”

The University of Michigan has an ensemble dedicated to this musical practice called the Creative Arts Orchestra. There are no restrictions on instrument type or degree level– the only requirement is a willingness to open your mind to a new way of creating music.

This semester we have a mix of all instrument families: strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. 21 people in total come together to create an improvisational ensemble to express creative ideas until the music naturally comes to an end. Every improvisation yields special moments of both togetherness and separateness. Because we are responding to eachother, everyone has the space to take a solo or simply accompany. We learn how to use our instruments to express our emotions. We learn to compose in the moment. We learn how to listen. We learn how not to play.

 

Free improvisation has greatly improved my skills as a musician. It’s given me more confidence in my abilities. Getting the chance to play with people I don’t often play with is a reminder that my world doesn’t have to be so small. I’ve started beginning my practice sessions with short improvisations so I can warm up my fingers, find the core of my sound, and wake my viola up a little bit before I start looking at repertoire. Sometimes I’ll pick different keys to challenge my brain and change up finger patterns. I’ll make up my own fiddle tune. I think there is so much value in being able to make music away from looking at a piece of paper. Improvising allows me to use my creative and artistic side, when so often in classical music I feel like I’m a robot reading notes off of a page. If you play an instrument, see what happens if you try to make up a song in the moment. Once you start doing it enough you’ll find yourself in a sort of meditative state, and if you feel ready to start playing with others, come join us in CAO.

“Luh Croy”: The Unauthorized Rebrand

La Croix: we all know it as the sparkling water packaged in bright, multicolored cans. Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t deny La Croix’s revamped global presence and rising popularity. It seems like everybody is obsessed with the beverage.

Oust, an Atlanta creative agency took it upon themselves to refresh the brand’s image (unofficially). Sick of carrying around a nerdy, outdated-looking can, the designers set to create a new image. Throwing away the cans that “look like the set of a tv movie set shot in the 1980s,” the team delivered a modernized update, complete with humorous descriptions of different flavors. Perhaps your favorite is Pamplemousse, “the stuff dreams are made of,” or Pure, a can of “sparkling beauty.”

There’s even a petition you can sign to officially rebrand the La Croix branding: https://luhcroy.com/

What do you think of this potential new look?

The Struggle to Continue an Instrument in College

I vividly remember the day my piano was delivered. My family had been saving up for a year or two, and after scouring Craigslist and testing out a variety of used pianos, we settled on a beautiful chestnut-colored Yamaha. The moment it was delivered, the upright piano became my most prized possession. I was ecstatic to have my own piano and no longer need to pretend to pedal when using the keyboard. As such, I remember playing the piano for hours on end in the following weeks; however, these days tell a different story.

I live in East Quad, which has practice rooms accessible to students. In fact, this was one of the most exciting parts about touring my new home before the start of school. Yet, using my ten fingers, I could probably count the number of times I’ve actually sat down and played for over an hour. But why?

Before I continue this reflection, I’d like to make note I wasn’t always the best piano student. I started lessons when I was nine yet often feel as though I have nothing to show for it, especially in comparison to the hundreds of extremely dedicated or musically gifted students here at U of M. I’ll admit, when I was younger, there were times I didn’t like the assigned pieces or going to lessons. I frequently faced frustration with myself when I would make mistakes. There were times throughout middle and high school where I practiced only once or twice a week. Yet, somehow I always carved out time for it. Playing the piano was often a stress relief. It was something I enjoyed. Finding a daunting piece and eventually conquering it was one of the greatest feelings in the world. So what changed?

Time management is a huge factor. It can be difficult to juggle work, clubs, and hobbies while maintaining academic success. Additionally, while there are hundreds of organizations that make it easy to find groups of like-minded people or activities you enjoy, it’s just not feasible to do absolutely everything like many of us did in high school. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely possible to still tackle plenty of extracurriculars. Several of my friends have been able to continue playing their instruments by being in marching band, orchestra, or chamber music. For me, the gist of time management in relation to playing the piano is the lack of setting aside time to specifically play. Amidst homework, tests, and other commitments, I’ve failed to put practicing as a priority.

While time management is an obvious and monumental reason for not playing the piano, I’ve come to realize that self-consciousness has also been an inhibitor in my musical ventures. For some background information, it’s easy to hear sound coming from the practice rooms in East Quad’s basement, whether you’re outside of them or in another practice room. Whenever I hear people around, I can’t help but feel pressure to perform under some sort of expectations I can’t live up to. When I hear another piano player in the practice room next door, sometimes I can’t help but feel inferior and fearful that he/she is judging me for my mistakes or lack of fluidity. It’s difficult to refrain from comparing myself to other talented students that I hear playing. This probably sounds silly, but it’s strangely something that has had an impact on my confidence and willingness to play. It also goes along with the fact that while I’m comfortable speaking, singing, or acting on stage/or other people, playing the piano is another story.

While self-consciousness is something that affects my playing habits, I hope to move past these insecurities and focus on my own progress. After all, if I stop playing because I feel that other people are much better than me, how am I ever going improve? And as far as time management goes, I’d like to go back to viewing practicing as something done for enjoyment or as a stress relief rather than a simple check off an imaginary to-do list. I hope to remember to actively think about setting aside some time to play, even if just once in awhile. Ultimately, I’m extremely grateful to my parents and piano teacher for the opportunity to learn such a skill as how to play the piano, and I don’t intend to let it go to waste.

Hamilton in Michigan

The hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” is finally coming to Michigan after being on Broadway since 2016.  The show will be playing in three different theaters across the state throughout the 2019-2020 season.

The Broadway show “Hamilton” seemed to become a new classic from the moment it started in April 2016.  The writer, star, and producer Lin Manuel Miranda shot to stardom because of this show. He played Hamilton during its first run on Broadway and will occasionally come back and play him again for special performances.  An example of this is during Hamilton’s Puerto Rican show to raise money for people in Puerto Rico who are still affected by the hurricane.

The show seemed to be so popular that was even hard for celebrities to get tickets.  There seemed to be constant stream of pictures of different celebrities watching Hamilton each night.  It may not be surprising then to find out that tickets were about $500 a person to go see the show. Luckily the tickets for the three shows in Michigan are a little more manageable.

Hamilton’s first stop after Broadway was Chicago, where tickets were still expensive and hard to get your hands on.  I was lucky enough to go to a performance and see Hamilton in Chicago. They stayed in Chicago for several months before getting ready to tour elsewhere.  Hamilton’s show in Puerto Rico was the start of their tour that will be all over the United States for the 2019-2020 season.

One cast member on this touring company is University of Michigan alumni, Simon Longnight.  He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2018, and is playing Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson on the tour.

The Broadway hit musical “Hamilton” is coming to Detroit, Grand Rapids, and the Wharton Center within the next year.  Tickets for the Detroit showings have already gone on sale!

noise rock and your poor bleeding ears

last week I wrote about Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto, this weeks is on noise rock band Lightning Bolt – which I really don’t think is too dissimilar to Prok at all. Prok 2 at times has that same grotesque loudness as Lightning Bolt that makes both of them so fun and energizing to listen to.

 

Ride The Skies

 

noise rock’s appeal is easily lost on people – they hear the ripping, crunchy, raw abrasiveness of the music and peace out before really giving it a chance. “i don’t understand how anyone can possibly think this is good” is a common phrase I’ve heard from friends when I show them something like Lightning Bolt. but of course you’re not going to like the music at first! music takes work to like! the listening experience isn’t really something you can tune out – actually taking the time to listen closely for nuance, lyricism, layering of the track, etc is how to begin to like music you usually wouldn’t like before. radio pop being manufactured for listenability is a science they’ve got perfected – it’s music you don’t have to work for and music people can like right away. whether or not this makes them bad is debatable, but I really don’t think it does.

back to Lightning Bolt – these guys are nutty. this shit is over-the-top cocaine-hit hyperactivity where a drum beat is battered into your skull. the bass guitar is incredibly crunchy and distorted; the drumming sounds like a rabid animal was let loose. mix these together with a 300BPM track, repetitive yet energetic bass melody, and you’ve got an eardrum-blasting ADHD rock banger. it’s also great at the gym. this is music that hypes you up – it’s got a kind of primitive allure where you just can’t help but let go of social nuance and the facades of daily life and just really candidly jam to loud disorderly shit. this “primitive allure” is completely unpretentious and raw; it draws on that same aspect of smashing office supplies with a sledgehammer. and in the middle of our structured, university-bound lives, we need some of that release from time to time. 13 Monsters is my favorite track from Lightning Bolt. it’s rhythmic as hell, the bass guitar absolutely shreds through the air with crackly stentorian timbre and commands the soundscape along with our monstrous energy from Dave Chippendale. there’s not really much else I have to say about this album besides that it’s some fun stuff.

 

Cleopatra by The Lumineers

Cleopatra is an album released by The Lumineers in 2016. Deeply underrated, beautiful in the way it was created, I came across this album by accident on YouTube.   Sleep on the Floor came up next and it enamored me immediately. This album is nothing like anything I’ve heard, having a backstory that wasn’t entirely about the band’s journey, writing about themselves and about a different character within the same album. I loved that the entire album contemplated, reflected upon the band’s place within this small world and yet it chronicled the life of a taxi driver, who drove a myriad of different people as she second-guessed her way through her life choices, wondering if she did alright in life. The music videos are another phenomenon altogether, released at random, probably not making much sense but having a common small mysterious lead which is all wrapped up in the final ballad which is released at the end. It makes you feel so much that you can’t really say what you feel. Cathartic, relaxing, contemplative, and so much more than the words here. Definitely more.

Most albums would hang on to a common theme, usually about a journey an artist usually goes through, problems and issues they face and written away to describe a particular phase in life. Yet the way The Lumineers created this album is a collection of thoughts and sure, it doesn’t need a wholesome theme as a foundation for each and every song. Heck, the songs don’t even need to be a particular order for the entire album to make sense and Patience is a good example of it. Patience is an instrumental in the album, one of the rare piano instrumentals I love. It reveals itself slowly, playing back and forth, yet it sort of asks you to listen, to think, to remember.

To remember what? Nothing exactly, but maybe everything.

One of songs, Ophelia, tells the stories of success, expectations and pressures the band felt as they rose to fame. Ophelia also reminds them to appreciate everything that has happened to them. It is portrayed in the lyrics below:

I, I got a little paycheck

You got big plans and you gotta move

And I don’t feel nothing at all

And you can’t feel nothing small

One of my favorite songs in the album, Sleep On the Floor, is about moving to different cities and having a huge dream, of fulfilling that promise, of wanting to make it big. It’s all of these things. These words don’t do justice to the song, so the only way you’ll know its great is by listening to it. Some of the lyrical excerpts that capture the gist of song are as below:

And when we looked outside, couldn’t even see the sky

How do you pay the rent, is it your parents?

Or is it hard work dear, holding the atmosphere?

I don’t wanna live like that

Jesus Christ can’t save me tonight

Put on your dress, yes wear something nice

Decide on me, yea decide on us

Oh, oh, oh, Illinois, Illinois

Trust The Lumineers to make ‘Illinois’ sound good in a song.

Anyway, after reading reviews on the album, I came to a very surprising discovery that The Lumineers actually wrote a song for The Hunger Games, titled Gale Song. The song is in Gale’s point of view. Despite being unrelated to the theme of the album, it actually rather fit it and after listening carefully, it is rather heartbreaking.

And I won’t fight in vain

I’ll love you just the same

I couldn’t know whats in your mind

But I saw the pictures, you’re looking fine

There was a time I stood in line

For love, for love, for love

But I let you go, oh I let you go

Cleopatra has so much to offer yet it isn’t an easy album to digest. It took time, even for me, to develop an acquired taste to enjoy the album with its mellow tunes and American folk style. But once its deeper meanings unfurled – slowly, fully but surely – soon I became completely absorbed, wondering why I had overlooked it the first few times I listened to it.