Friday, February 27, 2009

New groups bring musical diversity to Potsdam

Something exciting is happening in Potsdam. People are getting stoked on playing music the way they want to (not the way their school wants them to) and sharing their music at big gigs. Others are coming out in droves to check out this new music. The latest additions to the growing list of engaging, talented groups are The Max Howard Band and Third Rail. Playing jazz and funk respectively, the bands have all but given the boot to Potsdam's infamous singer-songwriter/adult contemporary cover band set. The most important thing about these groups is that they are not afraid to play out and they are making music fun again. Both groups played at Hurley's on February 6 to over 100 people through the night.

Intimate lighting by floor lamps scattered across the stage drew the listening audience into the Max Howard Band's performance. The group, consisting of six musicians, played music that ranged from introspective to grooving, from soft to loud and gnarly. The crowd shouted with approval during a particularly rousing solo from trombonist Max Scholl.

A quick intermission set apart the two groups. Although attendees may have been uncertain as to why such a nuanced jazz show would be standing room only, they found out when Third Rail took the stage. Third Rail, a newly established funk band, completely turned the atmosphere of Hurley's around. Wailing out a hit parade of familiar funk tunes, the group's undeniable stage presence and musicianship had everyone in the room dancing. The group's leader, Drew Coles, sang and shouted into the mic and also played keys on some charts. Songs like "Brick House," "The Chicken" and "Groove Oriented," an original tune by saxophonist Nick Natalie, provided an unflagging powerhouse of music worth dancing to. Battling solos between trombonist Alex Slomka and saxophonist Taylor Clay astonished the crowd. The band's entire set was punctuated by shouts of disbelief from listeners. All bets were off musicians from the Max Howard Band came up to join in and members of Third Rail brought their instruments down off stage, playing and dancing their way through the crowd. This unique interaction broke down the invisible barrier between the stage and the audience.

The huge turnout for this show, unlike the medium turnout for the prior weekend's Left Ear Trio, proved that nothing packs the house like student musicians. In a small room where it's difficult to accommodate groups like the Crane Jazz Ensemble, there is no better solution than to invite in these smaller collectives.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Celebration of Keith Gates's Music and Interview with Julie Miller

When a recital or concert becomes a perspective-altering experience, it is set apart from all others. A concert of the late Keith Gates's music, presented in Snell Theater on Sunday, February 1, fit that description. The amount of passion, both in the composition and performance of the three works, was truly moving.

The Crane School of Music piano instructor and staff accompanist, Julie Miller, organized the concert. She met Keith Gates when they were colleagues at McNeese State University in Louisiana. They played four-hand piano music and gave recitals together. "When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2006, we realized his remaining time was short, and were horrified to think that his music might be lost to the world," said Miller about why she is so adamant about spreading the music of Keith Gates. Julie Miller and her husband, Lane, have been instrumental in the process of having Gates's scores typeset and published.

The diverse program demonstrated the scope of Keith Gates's compositions. His works range from vocal, choral and small instrumental groups to wind ensemble pieces and opera. His works prove that 20th century music can be both innovative and tonal. Julie Miller played piano on each of the selections.

"Sonata for Flute and Piano" (notable for the large role that the piano plays in addition to the solo flute) was a nice warm up for what the audience had in store. Professor Kenneth Andrews's playing was elegant, especially during an arpeggiated cadenza. Andrews listened reverentially to the chorale-like piano chords of the second movement.

The second piece on the program was easily the most engaging. Professors Raphael Sanders (clari and John Ellis (trumpet) joined Miller and sophomore Zachary Browning to form an unstoppable quartet. The blend between the trumpet and clarinet was, at times, so precise that the individual instruments were no longer distinguishable and took on a wholly unique timbre. Browning was circled by almost every percussion instrument found in Western music that you could name, and made his rounds quickly and precisely. That he was able to play such an involved piece with a group of professors was admirable.

The final composition, "Three Pieces in the Landscape of a Soul," was heart wrenching and contemplative. In the exploration of the human condition through three backdrops: "The Prison," The Battlefield," and "The Garden," tenor professor Donald George gave an emotional and powerful performance backed by a choir of 20 voices. Piano, cello and different permutations of the human voice (such as humming) were versatile enough to characterize each of the three movements exceptionally.

A true collaboration of faculty, students and alumni, the production was heartfelt from beginning to end. The concert was webcast so that those too far away to travel to Potsdam could enjoy the performance. Even the program notes were put together with care, featuring descriptions of each piece, lyrics and notes from those who knew Gates. Students and visitors to Crane are lucky to be exposed to such wonderful music by those who care about it so deeply. "I can feel his presence in every measure, joy as well as sorrow, because he experienced a lot of each, and was able to express them so poignantly," said Miller in summation. Those emotions and many more were well communicated by Sunday's performers.

For more information about Keith Gates's life and work, visit:

Kimberly Harrison: How did you meet Keith Gates? What were your interactions with him?
Julie Miller: I met him in 1991, when I accepted a job at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA, where Keith taught music theory and composition. He had an enormous zest for piano four-hand music, so at some point we began playing duets, and gave several recitals together. Keith and my husband, Lane, were stand partners in the cello section of the school orchestra, as well. When Keith asked Lane to play in the pit orchestra for his opera _Evangeline _in 1995, that was the beginning of Lane's realization that Keith's music was something special. At one point I was Keith's successor as a church organist/choir director, and I found that to be very humbling, because of his improvisational gifts, and his powerful and personal interpretation of hymns, which often moved people to tears.

KH: Did you play his compositions before he passed away?
JM: He was such a phenomenal pianist that he played most pieces himself. Reading the hand-written manuscripts would have been difficult for me, and he already had everything memorized. I used to be so amused turning pages for him, because it seemed as though he never looked at the music. For some reason, I was the pianist for 2 student performances, a song, "Life" with text by Helen Lourie Marsh, and the 1st movement of the flute sonatina, and I was very impressed by their beauty and style. I had asked him about his piano works, but in his usual modest way, he mentioned only a work that had been lost. Years later, when Keith allowed Lane to scan all of his scores for the purpose of self-publishing them, I began to read them, and I felt as though I were becoming acquainted with a hundred of Keith's dearest friends, his creations. I can feel his presence in every measure, joy as well as sorrow, because he experienced a lot of each, and was able to express them so poignantly

KH: Why are you so adamant about getting his compositions performed?
JM: When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2006, we realized his remaining time was short, and were horrified to think that his music might be lost to the world. At that point most of it was in manuscript, sitting in his file cabinet. He was certainly admired, and even revered, in Lake Charles and in Louisiana, but that was too small a group of admirers to ensure that his music would reach another generation. Crane, being a large music school, is the perfect starting place to launch this music. To date, 15 faculty have been kind enough to perform Gates, and a whopping 31 Crane students have performed his music. They are Keith's future - they are at the beginning of their careers, and we hope that they will continue to perform and teach their students about the music of Keith Gates. That so many people, even those who never knew Keith, have been touched by the power of his music, gives strength to our belief that his works are significant and deserve a wider audience. We feel so strongly about it that we try to tell every guest artist who visits Crane about the music. This has been gratifying as well, leading to performances and a possible recording project.

KH: To what lengths have you gone to get his compositions performed?
JM: We have invested considerably in typesetting the works to make beautiful editions of his music. We began with vocal, choral and instrumental works, and are now moving into some wind ensemble pieces and operas. Sometimes we receive an order for a work that isn't even begun yet, so we have to scramble. There is much proofreading and tweaking to be done, plus the more difficult task of making decisions when faced with discrepancies - things only Keith could have answered. We have also begun making orchestral reductions so that some of the greatest works, like the flute concertino with wind ensemble, can be performed with piano. I have made several successful transcriptions as well, because he had begun doing this when he realized he wouldn't have time to write many more compositions. We have a growing body of customers, most of whom are strangers to us, who have performed Gates in at least 10 states. An orchestra from California took the violin concerto on a European tour.

KH: If someone wants to find more out about Keith Gates, his music and his JM: legacy, where would you point them?
JM: Our website,, is a good starting place to learn about him; it has a biography, recordings, list of works, reviews and photos. The most intimate section is the guestbook. It begins with old friends from North Carolina School of the Arts and Juilliard lamenting his illness, and goes through decades of adoring students telling how he changed their lives. There are comments from friends from church and synagogue, thanking him for ministering with his words and music. There are poems written by, and for Keith, including two by his oldest daughter. There are many expressions of sympathy during the time of his death on May 22, 2007, but people still write - there were two new entries last week. Our webcasts are available at and Since Lane and I are the caretakers of his musical works, we are the most accessible sources of information at this time. It would be great if one of his four children would write a book someday, but for now they are still adjusting to their loss. We were so pleased that Keith's widow and youngest daughter were able to watch our webcast on February 1st. It has been understandably difficult for them to listen to his music since his death, and we hope that, in time, it will be as great a comfort to them as it is to us.

Andrew Bird Balances Complexity and Simplicity on latest CD

In a time when electronics are the preferred medium for most popular music (and a good part of indie music), Andrew Bird's crisp violin solos over instrumental harmonies are extremely refreshing. On Noble Beast, each song ebbs and flows naturally, each one a self-contained soundscape that allows the listener to step out of his or herself for a few minutes. He manipulates each song to a great extent: songs have long introductions, surprising changes mid-way through and extended ambient outros. Instrumental interludes bridge several songs together creating cohesion on the album.

Bird's unique style as a musician makes him stand out when compared to his contemporaries. He builds his songs from the ground up using a loop station; he builds off of his own pizzicato violin playing, bowed phrases, whistling and voice. He brings new depth and a breath of life to otherwise stale notions. He uses his violin in fresh and innovative ways on the album, both as an accompanying and melody instrument.

Andrew Bird has also surpassed many of his contemporaries lyrically. In an interview with Drowned in Sound, Bird said, "Language is dead. Long live language. I'm not sure if this is mourning or celebrating the dilution of words." Much like The Decemberists and The Hold Steady, known for their verbose approach to lyrics, Andrew Bird explores a vast vocabulary while still fitting words in rhythmically to compliment his music.

Melody-driven songs like "Privateers" and "Fitz and the Dizzyspells." They have choruses that you will find yourself humming, or much like Bird, whistling. Songs like "Anonanimal" and "Not a Robot, but a Ghost" are allowed to change and grow with the passage of time. Harmonies with female vocals on the track "Effigy" are elegant-just enough to make the track stand out.

"Anonanimal" is by far the most engaging track on Noble Beast. The rhythmic interest holds through the whole song, exposing the ears to unexpected but brilliant variations. A brief interlude during the song is the most mind-blowing part of the album. The lyrical content of the song is thought provoking—when and how will humans evolve? Indeed, many songs on the album reference back to the idea of the natural world and the role that different creatures (especially humans) play.

The album is very warm and comforting. It is something that I could easily come back to month after month and still find satisfying. And, with each listen, I expect to hear new elements to this complex music. I am sure that as I mature, the album, too, will grow with me.

Noble Beast was released in several formats: CD, deluxe edition CD (with a bonus disc of instrumental works entitled Useless Creatures) and double vinyl LP. For an in-depth look at the album, track-by-track, with the artist himself, check out For more information about Andrew Bird, visit his website at The Chicago-based musician will visit Montreal, QC and South Burlington, VT in the spring on his upcoming tour.