A Letter Home

Last July, on a sunny summer Sunday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, composer and trumpeter Darren Johnston premiered his Songs of Seven Miles, a song cycle for three vocalists plus ensemble, based on interviews Johnston conducted with various Bay Area-based immigrants. As an immigrant himself (originally from Canada), living in a city where it’s rare to meet natives, the immigrant experience—people’s reasons for leaving, the stories of their journeys here, and the new lives they create for themselves in our wonderful city—is a topic he wanted to explore.

Following that project, Yerba Buena invited Johnston to do a second piece along the same lines, which will premiere this June, again as part of the Gardens Festival. For this project, Letters to Home, Johnston commissioned letters from eight local immigrants, and wrote the libretto using excerpts culled from these letters. I was absolutely thrilled to be included in this distinguished group of letter-writers. As you can see (if you click on the “Darren Johnston” tag associated with this post), I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s music for some time, so it truly is an honor to participate in this new project of his.

Johnston asked his letter-writers to write “either to a beloved of their choosing back in their country of origin, or to themselves at the time they first arrived in the US, sharing advice they wish they’d received at that time.” Although it did not quite fit the description, I decided to adapt a piece I wrote here, last time I was in Dublin. It was written one month after my father passed, and a few days before my mother passed. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house for the last time, and contemplating leaving Dublin forever.

Dublin is not a city I feel especially connected to. It has never felt like home to me in the way San Francisco does, for example. But at the time I wrote what is essentially a goodbye letter to Dublin itself, very literally a letter to home, an old and thoroughly sentimental song called “The Dublin Saunter” kept going through my head. Just thinking about that song now brings tears to my eyes.

Though I have yet to hear Darren’s composition, I keep hearing about “my song” all over the ‘hood from friends who’ve heard it performed by Broken Shadows Family Band, Johnston’s group dedicated to his newfound interest in writing music with lyrics, and from various friends involved in the Letters to Home project, some of whom didn’t realize right away that this particular song they were working on—”Laura from Dublin”—was inspired by the letter I wrote.

Letters to Home is a more ambitious piece than Johnston’s previous Songs of Seven Miles. For the premiere this summer, Johnston is assembling a massive, multi-generational group he’s calling the Trans-Global People’s Chorus, featuring vocalists of a variety of backgrounds and training, and also some dancers and theatrical performers. There’s going to be all sorts of clapping, stomping, and body percussion happening. I can’t wait to see it!

Broken Shadows recently began a new residency at my favorite Mission hangout, the Revolution Cafe, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. I missed the first night of the residency, and thus the first opportunity to hear “my” song, as I ended up staying home that night to watch the opening concert of the new SFJAZZ Center. Two weeks later, when they played again, I was sick, so I missed another opportunity. But I will be there this coming Wednesday, February 27, come hell or high water.

I was excited to learn that violinist Matthew Szemela, possibly the most in-demand musician on the local music scene, has joined Broken Shadows. Having spent many years in New York, Szemela came to the Bay Area fairly recently when he got hired in the Berkeley Symphony, led by the adventurous Joana Carneiro. Pretty quickly, he was playing everywhere with everyone—Musical Art Quintet and Classical Revolution, Todd Sickafoose, Family Folk Explosion, Quartet San Francisco, Rupa and the April Fishes, and now Broken Shadows, to name a few. That list, which cuts across many genres, surely indicates what a versatile musician he is. I’m hoping Szemela will also be performing with the Trans-Global People’s Chorus at the Yerba Buena premiere.

Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows are at The Revolution Cafe, 3248 22nd Street, SF, every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Letters to Home premieres Saturday, June 22, 2013, at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

Dublin Can Be Heaven

As I’m contemplating what might be my last days ever in Dublin, a particular old song keeps coming to mind, the chorus of which goes:

Dublin can be heaven / with coffee at eleven / and a stroll / in Stephen’s Green.
No need to hurry / no need to worry / you’re a king / and the lady’s a queen.
Grafton Street’s a wonderland / there’s magic in the air / there are diamonds in the lady’s eyes / and gold dust in her hair.
And if you don’t believe me / come and meet me there / in Dublin / on a sunny summer morning.

Although commonly known as “Dublin Can Be Heaven,” the song’s title, as I just learned, is actually “The Dublin Saunter.” It’s about a Dublin native, a self-professed “rolling stone” who has traveled far and wide only to discover that “there’s one place on this earth I’ve always liked the best, just a little town I call my own.”

Written sometime in the 40s or 50s by Dublin songwriter and radio broadcaster Leo Maguire (no relation), and made famous by singer Noel Purcell, it’s a nostalgic song evoking a golden era that happened long before I was born. The romantic sentiment it expresses, like Dublin itself, feels distant to me. While I too have “been north and I’ve been south, and I’ve been east and west,” if there’s one place that I’ve always liked the best, that would be San Francisco. That’s the little town that I call my own.

Whenever I return to Dublin, to my so-called “hometown,” I feel like a stranger in a strange land. The rows and rows of cramped-looking terraced houses, some with tiny front doors that reveal how short people were just a few generations ago, feel oppressive to me in their uniformity, each one mirroring perfectly the one beside it. They are the same houses I walked past everyday on my way back and forth to school.

I walk past them again now, on narrow streets not built with all these cars in mind. Often only one car can pass at a time. Irish drivers, unlike the typical American one, are happy to pull in and wait for the other to pass. Motorists here are refreshingly polite.

Despite the huge increase in the number of cars, large swaths of the city center are still cut off from traffic, including the pedestrianized “wonderland” that is Grafton Street. There you’ll find the famous Bewleys Cafe, established in 1927, and a slew of street performers dotted the length of the street. Many a Saturday afternoon in my youth was spent sauntering along from one busker to the next.

I wonder if I will ever return to Ireland after this visit. All that has kept me coming here will soon be gone forever and I can think of no reason why I might want to come back again. It is a thought that elicits no trace of nostalgia.

Tonight, I will decide what few things from my parents’ house I want to take back with me to San Francisco. On Sunday morning, I will leave this house for the last time. I will probably never see any of the neighbours here again, families who, like ours, have lived for many decades on this quiet cul-de-sac street, lined with the usual terraced houses, each one perfectly mirroring the next, except for the style of window and particular shade of grey or cream the facade is painted.

Neighbours here are very good and can always be relied upon in times of need. They cut the grass for us, bake apple pies, and offer rides wherever we need to go. Some of these families have known my family across three or four generations. It is strange knowing that those ties will simply wither away now, that another family will eventually take up residence in this house.

Again, it is a thought that elicits no trace of nostalgia.

And yet, and yet . . . that song keeps going round in my head. “Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven, and a stroll . . .”

Dublin, I guess this is my goodbye.

Dance in Dublin II

Having now seen my one and only contemporary dance performance in Dublin, I feel like I should say something about it. The performance, consisting of three works, was called Fast Portraits, presented by Rex Levitates Dance Company and choreographed by Artistic Director Liz Roche.

The first piece was “These Two People” for eight dancers—two trios, one all-male in black, the other all-female in white, and a male-female duo in grey—the eight forming a sort of B&W picture together. At times, both the male and female trios acted almost as single entities so that their interactions with one another gave the impression that we were, in fact, watching just two couples oddly mirroring one another. While there were some Contact Improv techniques used in the choreography, very little involved large-scale manipulation of bodies through space. Instead, a lot of staccato impulses briefly propelled limbs into motion and hindered or shifted the core direction of the dancers’ movement, all while maintaining a level of flow and integrity in the group. The dancers also played a lot in the negative spaces and in each other’s kinespheres. We saw a lot of impulses transmitted without actual contact.

The second piece was “Solo Portrait” with director of photography Kate McCullough, whose beautifully shot short film of Roche moving whilst seated on a clear plastic chair formed the backdrop to the live dancer, who sat onstage with her back to the audience, faithfully mirroring the movements we watched onscreen. I like the use of props in dance and, for some reason, furniture in particular, but Roche’s use of the chair was not especially interesting to me. For example, there was no exploration of the various movement possibilities afforded by the chair. Rather, in typical postmodern style, Roche’s slow and deliberate gestures were more a meditation on the pedestrian. This fits with the description of the piece, “somewhere between performance and reality.” Call me old-fashioned, but as a member of an audience, I’m more interested in a dancer’s performance than her reality.

The last piece, “Fast Portraits,” picked up on the chair motif from Roche’s solo. Six dancers repeatedly displaced one another from a chair and shifted in and out of fast-moving, ever-changing trios. A lot of the techniques we saw in the first piece were utilized in the second piece, so although structurally different from one another, the two pieces felt too similar to one another. The dancers also spoke occasionally in this last piece, repeating mundane things like “Okay,” but I wasn’t sure what the point of that was. It also felt lacking in direction to me.

I had hoped for something “different and interesting” and, although I did enjoy the dancing, I would not have chosen either of these terms to describe the performance. I am happy there are dancers making work like this in Dublin, and that audiences there have a chance to see contemporary dance, but for a seasoned and vaguely jaded spectator such as myself, there was not much I felt like I hadn’t seen before.

Dance in Dublin

I’m searching my memory to recall if I’ve ever been to a dance performance in Dublin. Okay, there was that one time in primary school when we were on a school trip that included going to my very first ballet, but all that I remember about it was that some sticky drink I had been given for this special occasion spilled all over my lap in the dark theatre. I got very upset and tried to get help from my teacher, but she was just annoyed by my crying, which upset me even more. No wonder I never went to another dance performance here after that!

Since I left Dublin seventeen years ago, my interest in dance has evolved a great deal. First, I discovered Argentine Tango and became obsessed with it for several years, but whenever I returned to Dublin on visits, I could never get my dance fix. Tango had not yet made it here. On my visits in the last eight years, I’ve looked for Contact Improvisation, my current passion, but that too was always missing, though by then, there were regular milongas (Argentine Tango social dances). A little too late for me. Me and the city were just always out of sync with one another.

Last summer at the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, I met some Contact Improv dancers from Dublin and was so happy to discover that now there is indeed CI here. I resolved to make it to a jam on my next visit home. Alas, the circumstances under which I’m visiting this time have prevented me from making it to a jam so far. With less than a week left in Dublin, I have one opportunity left—on my last night—to go to a CI class. We’ll see if I make it.

But, I just discovered today that there is a contemporary dance performance happening this week by a leading Irish choreographer and I’m going to go! I’m really curious to check out the contemporary dance scene here. Hopefully, I will find something different and interesting.

Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes)

Some of my fondest memories from Dublin in the mid-eighties involve me spending vast amounts of time in the kitchen pretending to do homework while listening to Capitol Radio, an alternative radio station broadcast from various shifting locations in the city.

My favorite show by far was Tony Gahan’s 20th Century Promised Land. It was through Tony that I was introduced to some of the best punk and new-wave music from the late seventies and eighties, bands such as Joy Division, The Only Ones, Magazine, The Chameleons, Ciccone Youth, This Mortal Coil, and Bauhaus.

It was devastating to those of us who religiously listened to Capitol, and particularly 20th Century Promised Land, when the government cracked down on all pirate radio stations in the country, shutting them down permanently on December 31, 1988. I distinctly remember how depressed we all were on New Year’s Eve at the Capitol Radio closing party. We solemnly counted down the seconds to 1989 and, just like that, on the stroke of midnight, a significant musical education ended for me and many others of my generation.

Fast forward more than twenty-two years later to the Mission District in San Francisco. A friend is telling me about an upcoming benefit show he’s doing. “We’re all doing covers of Cardiacs’ songs. You’ve probably never heard of Cardiacs. Hardly anybody over here has heard of them.”

Cardiacs? Yes. The name is definitely familiar. Cardiacs? How do I know that name? What did they sing again?

I go home, do a youtube seach, and discover the answer. “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire.”

Bingo! Mr. Gahan had been especially fond of this 1987 song, or maybe it’s just the Cardiacs’ song I remember best from his radio show. How exciting it was to rediscover a forgotten piece of my youth! And how exciting it was that a bunch of local musicians were going to be paying tribute to this unique, iconoclastic band all these years later.

Little did I know that since the eighties and until fairly recently, Cardiacs have been continuing to make incredible music that has evolved from the early punk music I would have heard back in the day to more of a progressive, though none the less idiosyncratic, sound.

Ironically, a few years ago, Cardiacs’ composer and lead singer, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack, followed by a number of strokes that have left him physically incapacitated. He is currently undergoing the protracted process of neurological rehabilitation.

Two Bay Area experimental musicians, Moe Staiano and Dominique Leone, both big Cardiacs fans for some years, decided they wanted to help out Tim Smith by organizing a benefit concert featuring a bunch of different local bands covering Cardiacs’ songs. In addition to raising money for Smith, the aim was also to expose more people to the music they loved so much.

Performing on Sunday’s benefit at Cafe du Nord, were a whole host of local music innovaters: Amy X Neuburg, Wiener Kids, Grex, Inner Ear Brigade, Dominique Leone, and a Cardiacs’ tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly, which included organizer Moe Staiano on drums and members of Reconnaissance Fly.

Most of the musicians had never heard of Cardiacs before organizers Staiano and Leone introduced them to it. But in the process of doing this show, all of them have become huge fans.

So, what is it about the music that inspires people, once they finally discover the band, to become such “obsessive fans,” as Leone says?

Bill Wolter, who leads progressive rock band Inner Ear Brigade, sums up the music in a single word: “transcendent.”

“The structure is complex and beautiful,” says Amy X Neuburg, who opened the show with a solo performance of two Tim Smith songs. There are “beautiful chord patterns that take twists and turns that are unexpected. It’s like art music. . . The compositions are classical in nature.”

Echoing this view, guitarist Marc Laspina of ReCardiacs Fly says, “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook. . . The melodies, the time changes, the energy. It’s completely unique!”

Laspina’s bandmate Polly Moller, who was introduced to Cardiacs by Staiano about a year ago, wonders, “How did I live this long and not know this band?”

Staiano himself says, “It’s like nothing else, and it’s very intense and energetic, and very well written and really thought out. There’s not very much music I’ve heard like that.”

But none of these descriptions can truly capture the music. You can talk about the incredible energy, the theatricality of the band’s performances, the weird time signatures, the sometimes spastic phrasing, the unique chord progressions, the distinctness of Tim Smith’s voice.

“But,” as Leone says, “it doesn’t even begin to sum up what they sound like, which is why so many people are surprised when they first hear them.”

Although all the musicians who performed at Sunday’s show have obvious technical chops, they still found it a challenge to recreate Smith’s music. Because Cardiacs are not especially well known, you can’t find tablatures for their songs on the web or, indeed, reliable lyrics sheets, so it was up to each band to piece together and notate the songs by themselves. In addition to the sheer complexity of the music, there were also other challenges.

Bassist Tim Walters of ReCardiacs Fly said that on some of the songs he couldn’t always hear the bass, so there was a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps involved.

On a similar note, interrupting her own performance, Neuburg issued a wry disclaimer about the accuracy of her lyrics. When you figure out what words Smith is singing, the lyrics are often pretty bizarre, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve really gotten them right.

None of this detracted from anybody’s fun. On the contrary, it was an evening of stellar performances that, by all accounts, left everybody wanting more, more, more.

My own personal favorite performance of the night was ReCardiacs Fly’s. With the longest set—doing four songs, all from the mid-eighties—there was really time to settle in with the music. Three songs were from Cardiacs’ 1984 album, The Seaside, and the other, which I was especially excited about, was (you guessed it) their 1987 single, “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire,” the one song I actually knew some lyrics to.

ReCardiacs gave a spirited, high energy performance in full Cardiacs costume and face paint (white faces with red lipstick smeared willy nilly in the general vicinity of the mouth!). Lead singer Polly Moller played Tim Smith next to saxophonist Chris Broderick’s Sarah Smith, Smith’s then wife. Broderick with his golden curls bounced around onstage in a black dress and tiara, while Moller, in a mod suit complete with vintage eighties tie, twitched and grimaced, and smiled maniacally.

What a blast! All that was missing was a good ol’ eighties mosh pit, which probably would not have been that difficult to instigate.

The night ended with Leone and his band performing his favorite, “Dirty Boy” from the 1995 double album, Sing to God, a song, according to Leone, “so epic in every possible respect, pushing every kind of button that Cardiacs push for me, and doing it to the nth degree.” It certainly was an epic ending to an epic evening.

All the of musicians who performed on Sunday are excited to incorporate Cardiacs’ music into future performances with their respective bands. All of them, it seems, have become diehard fans. Leone was very encouraged to hear that audience and performers alike came away wanting more. Maybe another such benefit for Smith will happen again soon.

In the meantime, Leone’s message to those thirsty to hear Cardiacs’ music, and especially those who would like to help Tim Smith on the road to recovery?

“Go to iTunes and buy Cardiacs’ music.” It’s that simple.