God’s First Temples

GOD’S FIRST TEMPLES

 

In the summer of 2016, for the first time in almost forty years, I did a backpack trip in the High Sierra mountains, hiking part of the famous John Muir Trail with my son Jason. We had planned on a three-week trip, but Jason’s knee started to swell badly, so we had to come off the trail after only about a week of hiking and camping. Even so, we were able to hike about sixty miles.

 

It was an amazing experience. As anybody who has backpacked knows, most of the day is simply spent walking. The JMT has 11 passes, so very little of our hike was on level ground…… we were either going uphill (hard on the body and very tiring with a heavy backpack in hot weather) or downhill (hard on the knees). Even though I had trained well and really prepared for the trip, I was still quite exhausted a lot of the time.

 

But the other side of the story was the immense beauty, the peace and calm one felt as the light settled when evening approached, and a real reverence for nature and the mountains. I remember thinking that, upon seeing a majestic range of mountains behind Silver Lake, that those mountains were basically the same during the time of the Caliphate of the eighth century, and also during the time of Jesus Christ. And then the thought came to me that it would only take a year or two for some ignorant, misinformed, or bought-off politicians to destroy this magnificent landscape.

 

Because I felt so whole and complete in the mountains early on, I became drawn to the writings of John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club. Muir wrote extensively of the Sierras (he called them “the Range of Light”), and so it followed that over time I would write several pieces that used the writings of John Muir as text. The most recent of these is a large oratorio called “God’s First Temples” (https://anthonyplog.com/?compositions=gods-first-temples), based on the first major environmental battle in the United States, over the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was part of Yosemite National Park. I have also written a shorter song cycle of the same title for soprano and chamber orchestra.

 

During my hike with Jason, the thought came to me that I had written my oratorio too early; I should have waited until I had hiked the JMT so that I would have a better feeling for the wonder I felt at being among God’s first temples. But then I realized that after such a trip I probably could not have written such a piece. The enormity of this battle to preserve nature would have put too much pressure on me, and I probably would have felt blocked.

 

I will be going back to the Sierras with Jason again, and my hope is to hike the entire John Muir Trail, all 211 miles of it. If I am able to do the entire trail, it will no doubt be one of the most profound experiences of my life. For on and off the trail I am always moved by the words John Muir wrote a century ago: “The hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord Himself.”

Online Teaching and Coaching

For many years I’ve had the great opportunity to teach brass players from around the world, but they’ve always come to me or I’ve gone to them. However, that’s about to change. Starting in April we will meet halfway between, in cyberspace. And anyone in the world can join us. I’ll explain… but first I need to tell you something about myself.

In 1976 I left a secure position with the Utah Symphony to follow a very insecure dream: being a trumpet soloist and composer. At that time, the only full-time trumpet soloist in the world was Maurice Andre, so the thought of making a living as a soloist was idealistic. And making a living as a composer? That was way past idealistic, bordering on foolish. My plan was to return to Los Angeles, my hometown, where I would do some freelancing and struggle with being very poor for a couple of years. Once my career got off the ground, I figured I would be, well, less poor.

But I caught a break about a month before I left the Utah Symphony. My teacher, Tom Stevens, called and said he had arranged a teaching job for me in Los Angeles at California State University Northridge (CSUN). So I could start my solo career being less poor, rather than very poor. When I began at CSUN in September 1976, my first student was Elia Pirozzi. Elia and I developed a friendship, lost touch with each other, and then spoke on the phone last summer. Elia no longer plays the trumpet, but he has had a distinguished career as a judge in Southern California.

In the 41 years since leaving the Utah Symphony, I’ve gone from being an orchestral trumpet player, to being a trumpet soloist and composer, to giving up the trumpet and composing full-time. During all those years, the one constant in my professional life has been teaching. Teaching has taken me to colleges and universities across the United States and to countries throughout the world, including Japan, Australia, Switzerland, France, Spain, all of Scandanavia, and Germany, where I live. Being a teacher has enabled me, ironically, to be a student my entire life, to learn about different cultures and to experience our shared humanity.
But now, with the Internet, the possibilities for teaching and learning go beyond geographical boundaries. To study with someone, you don’t need to be in the same room with them, or the same city, or even the same country. Technology has opened up new ways of learning (master classes and interviews on YouTube are favorites of mine), and clearly we’ve just scratched the surface. In my own case, technology means I’ll be able to teach anyone in the world, as long as they have access to the Internet and Skype or a similar program.

 

This is my way of announcing a new venture: online teaching and coaching. In a few months I’ll have a website giving all the details, but I’m open for business in the meantime, starting the week of April 10. If you’d like more information, please email me at [email protected].

 

This will be an exciting time for me, and I think the possibilities are huge. So… stay tuned!!

Older Than Thou

Older Than Thou

My favorite trumpet player in the world is Allan Dean. He is a consummate musician and is comfortable playing basically any type of music—Renaissance music (on the cornetto and other instruments), Baroque music, orchestral music, chamber music, and jazz. Everything that he does sounds natural, relaxed, and “right.” You never hear the player, only the music. In an age of so many players playing so many notes, he can say so much with so little.

Being an extremely versatile player, Alan disapproves of musical rigidity. A number of years ago he attended a Renaissance / Baroque conference, and afterward he told me how opinionated the experts were about authentic performance practice. Allan called their dogmatism “Older than thou.”

In my own career, I first got my real dose of authentic performance practice when I did a teaching exchange with Edward Tarr during the winter of 1984, with Ed subbing for me at the University of Southern California while I taught for him at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. Many of the students knew more than I did about Baroque music and how to phrase in an authentic style, so it was a tremendous learning experience for me. Many of the things I learned during that semester I still apply to classical, romantic, and modern music, as well as to Renaissance and Baroque music.

Still, the question of authentic performance practice isn’t a simple one. Several years before I went to Basel, I was at a chamber music festival where a featured artist was the great flute soloist Ransom Wilson. At dinner one evening, he told a group of us about a Baroque music recording he had done in which he had used modern phrasing concepts. He made the point that such a choice was not, after all, a question of morality or ethics. At the time his argument made perfect sense to me. But these days I’m a little more confused about the issue, as I believe that one of the great joys and perhaps even responsibilities in life is always to be a student and always to learn. And in this case, perhaps being a student means trying to learn new ways of phrasing old music.

For a long time I’ve wondered why it’s better to phrase Renaissance and Baroque music in an authentic style as opposed to a modern style. Saying that an authentic style is more “academically correct” is just not convincing enough for me. So here are a couple of reasons why I think it’s important to learn about phrasing in an authentic style:

1. Surprising as it might sound, phrasing in an authentic way makes the music swing. So much of old music is dance music, and when it is played with even articulation (ta ta ta ta ta) as opposed to uneven articulation (ti ri ti ri ti), the music sounds stiff. The same thing applies to jazz: if all the notes are played evenly, the music (to quote Allan Dean again) “swings like a rusty gate.”

2. If played in an authentic style, the music sounds much more contemporary than if played in a modern style. (How’s that for irony?) There is quite a bit of dissonance in Renaissance and Baroque music, and old phrasing brings out that dissonance, while modern phrasing hides it. Thinking about this difference has also made me realize that, in general, brass players tend to make phrasing choices based on melody rather than on harmony.

The problem today is that we have a tendency to play a series of notes the same way, no matter when the piece was written. For example, if you compare the opening phrase of the Vivaldi Concerto for two Trumpets with the end of the Finale in the Pulcinella Suite, the notes are the same. And yet even though these two pieces were written centuries apart, most trumpet players use the same articulation.

Think of it this way: A trumpet player who used Baroque phrasing in Stravinsky’s Firebird would be laughed of the stage; yet that same player, performing a section from the Bach B minor Mass in the style of Stravinsky, might be thought of as brilliant. (I know that from personal experience.) Or imagine Harry James playing a Chet Baker phrase, or Chet Baker playing a Harry James phrase; they could play the notes, but it certainly wouldn’t be authentic. (There’s that word again.)

So, while I don’t want to join the “Older than thou” group, I do think it’s fun and instructive to dig deeper into whatever style of music we’re performing. And who knows, in doing so our playing and our thinking might just might end up being “Younger than  thou.”

Ron Kidd’s Dating Strategy

Ron Kidd’s Dating Strategy

Ron Kidd and I first met in 1967, when I joined the American Youth Symphony at the beginning of their new season. Ron was already established as the principal trumpet of the AYS, and at that first rehearsal I was fifth trumpet. By the second rehearsal I was second trumpet, simply because the other three players never came back. Since that time almost 50 years ago, Ron and I have been very close friends. In addition, because Ron is both an editor and a prize-winning author, we have collaborated on a number of projects, ranging from children’s operas to a cantata and an oratorio. Through the years Ron has been an inspiration to me for many reasons, and here is just one of them.

Back in the 1970s, when we were both single and trying to meet women, Ron often went on Sierra Club hikes, where the women tended to be fun and have similar values. The extreme opposite in those days were discos. Many people would go to discos with one goal: to pick up someone for a superficial fling. And that was not the type of person Ron wanted to meet.

One evening he was faced with a dilemma. There were no Sierra Club hikes or anything similar, which seemed to leave him just two choices: either stay home and watch TV or go to Big Daddy’s, a disco in Marina del Rey and the ultimate meat market. He thought, “If I go to Big Daddy’s, the chances of meeting someone I would would like (and who would like me) are practically zero. But if I stay home and watch TV, the chances are absolutely zero.” So he went to Big Daddy’s.

As it turned out, a young woman named Yvonne Martin had just gotten over a failed romance and had gone for drinks with a friend to commiserate, ending up at Big Daddy’s. Ron and Yvonne met, and next year they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. Their beautiful daughter Maggie is now a student at Northwestern University.

I think about this a lot. There are so many times when I know that if I try something, there is very little chance of success. But, like Ron, I also know that if I don’t try, there is zero chance of success. And so I always try to push myself to follow Ron Kidd’s dating strategy.