(Me, 1997, in my friend Deke’s study in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. We gathered here often to talk, and to listen to one of his many cherished vinyl records.)
In 1996 I had just moved from North Carolina to the Boston suburb of Newton Centre, living in the third floor apartment at the house of a great friend I’ve know since kindergarten, Deke James. He had invited me, in an act of generosity I will never forget, to live with him, his wife Arleen and six year old daughter Olivia.
Who invites you to move in with them, to become a part of their family for as long as you need to, no worries about rent, pay what you can, when you can? Who invites you to become uncle to their daughter, brother-in-law to their wife? Who offers to give you, free of charge, their legal advice as an attorney and, upon reading your publishing contract, discovers that they, my publisher at the time, still owe you ten thousand dollars? Who does this? Your best friend in the world, that’s who.
(Left: Arleen & Olivia, across the street from Rick Walker’s Rock ‘n Roll Cowboy Clothes Store, at their old location across from the Boston Common. Right: Deke, lower step, on higher step, Deke’s Harvard roommate and good friend Chuck Gentry and me. For this photo, I lent Deke my old rock ‘n roll vest, and Chuck my “Road To Freedom” hat.)
(Deke and I, surveying the surf, Hull, Massachusetts, 1996.)
I was, a year and a half later, to begin teaching songwriting at Berklee College Of Music. I would also connect, through friends at various universities, with several modern dance choreographers who had their own Companies. Soon I was receiving commissions to compose scores for them. These choreographers included Rebecca Rice, of The Boston Ballet, Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance, Christine Bennett of Christine Bennett Dance and Julie Larsen of Milton Academy.
(Me at my desk in the Songwriting Department of Berklee College Of Music in Boston, October, 2000. There was a Starbucks just across the street, thank the Good Lord.)
In the time before my Berklee teaching began, I also made some extra money, which came in very handy at that time especially, by accompanying for modern dance classes at Boston University, The Boston Conservatory, Walnut Hill School For The Arts and at Milton Academy (where singer-songwriter James Taylor, in the time-honored tradition employed by creative souls everywhere, left the premises before his scheduled graduation).
Speaking of leaving high school early, I should explain how I discovered modern dance accompanying as a means of income. When I told my parents in my junior year that high school had nothing of value for me, they agreed that I could “drop out”, as long as I got my G.E.D. and a job. If I did these two things, I could stay at home for one year. After that I would have to get my own place.
I complied with their conditions. I took the G.E.D. test immediately and quickly. In fact when they returned home from driving me to the neighboring town for the test, I was already back, having hitchhiked home. Thus began a year of not one, but many jobs. I was a landscaper, fence painter, piano tuner, dishwasher, stockboy, and a clerk at a bookstore. I even got hired by the Hartford Courant on the strength of my typing skills. When it was explained to me, however, that I would not in fact be an ace reporter, chasing down stories in exotic locations, but sitting at a desk in a window-less room typing copy all day, the job somehow seemed less Hemingway-esque. So I kept searching, working job after meaningless job. The only consistency in my life from the age of seventeen to eighteen was the shows I was playing with my band Portrait Blues, mainly at the local YMCA, at churches, coffeehouses, community centers and private parties. Still too young to play in bars, that income was not enough to pay for an apartment.
(Truda Kaschmann, circa 1974.)
Then one day my father told me about Truda Kaschmann. She was a modern dancer, a student of Mary Wigman’s. Born Jewish in 1906 in Munich, Germany, she came to America in 1934 at the age of 28 with her husband, Dr. Joseph Kaschmann, a physician, to escape the rising tide of Hitler’s anti-semitism. My dad was well-known in the artistic community of Hartford through his classical radio shows and narration for The Young People’s Concerts of The Hartford Symphony. He and Truda became friends and he provided the narration for her educational program “Dance Is Another Language”. He suggested I ask her if she needed a pianist for any of her modern dances classes at The Hartford Conservatory. She did. In fact she needed an accompanist for most of her classes, and eventually I was playing not only all of her Conservatory schedule, but for her classes at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury.
Truda was a 5 foot 2 inch dynamo. Though she was already in her late sixties when I met her, she was in astonishingly good condition. To show her students one of the benefits of a lifetime of dance classes, she would invite them to walk across her stomach as she lay supine on the floor with her legs extended and crossed. I’m talking about adult students walking across her abdomen! She was tough as nails, but with a heart of gold. She loved my playing and would tolerate with a laugh the occasional times I’d be so involved in my music I’d forget to stop when the exercise was over. I can still hear her shrill, bird-like call, with that strong German accent “Stop Grayson! Stop!”
Sometimes, after playing for her all day, at a dinner break around 7 pm, she’d give me a sandwich of pumpernickel bread with cream cheese. I think she made them especially for me, knowing I was a starving young musician.
She was, as they say, a mensch. The list of her former students include Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. I loved her and will always be grateful for not only that first full time job she gave me, but for the freedom she allowed me in it and for her friendship.
Dance accompanying was a perfect fit. I was paid to improvise, which I loved to do, and for pretty girls, besides! I played for other dance teachers at The Conservatory, adding percussion, vocals, saxophone and my own version of “prepared piano”, when I’d stick wedges of cardboard in upright pianos or lay coat hangers and other objects across the strings of grands. A couple years later, I got jobs with the School Of The Hartford Ballet and with Judith Dworin at Trinity College. I became adept at playing for various techniques: Graham, Limon, Cunningham, Nikolais. Soon I was playing master classes for Bill T. Jones, Gus Solomons Jr., Moses Pendelton of Pilobolus and The Paul Taylor Dance Company. This day job income, along with the money I earned from my various band gigs, carried me through my move to New York in 1986 (and subsequent signing with RCA Records in 1987). For the first year in New York I also accompanied at Princeton University, The Ailey School, Julliard and Sarah Lawrence College.
(Dance students at Sarah Lawrence College, 1987.)
(Viola Farber, 1958.)
One of the more interesting collaborations with a choreographer happened in 1982 when I decided to go to Viola Farber’s studio in Manhattan without an introductory phone call. I simply looked up where her company’s studio was, buzzed the bell, introduced myself and, upon meeting her, asked if she might be interested in some original music or an accompanist. She invited me to play for her company class, which, as it happened, was about to begin. I sat at the piano and, when it seemed obvious a tempo would help, provided it. When the exercise was more abstract, I added my voice, singing occasionally into the clusters of piano notes, playing the strings with my fingers, muting them and playing the piano like a drum. I remember feeling a kinship with the movement of her dancers, yet also a complete detachment, as if it didn’t matter at all what I did.
When class was over, she walked over to me and said “You’re very good.” She asked me if I’d like to perform with her company for two dance concerts she was giving in a few weeks. She mentioned that she’d also love it if I could record what I was doing for her use later. When I asked her about the type and length of music she would like me to record, she said “Just do what you were doing for 21 minutes.”
It was a most interesting experience. For the two live performances, I played piano, alto saxophone, hand drum, mbira and sang. For the recording, I played piano, sang, read various pieces of text I had written, played mbira, and enlisted my brother Robert on African drums. I called the piece “21 Minutes for Viola Farber”. I learned from Ms. Farber that music and dance can exist simultaneously and be completely independent from each other. It was an attitude of nonchalance that was very freeing. It really didn’t matter what sounds I created to accompany her movements, and yet it did. The success, if you will, of such a performance, based largely upon instant improvisation, depended upon what I have decided to call the “trueness of the trance you are in together”.
I suppose you could also say if the dancers are dull, boring and unoriginal amateurs, and the musician(s) are as well, such a collaboration will be pretentious, stupid, dull, bad. But if everyone is excellent at their instruments, and very imaginative, then beautiful and interesting things will happen.
To hear an excerpt of “21 Minutes for Viola Farber” click HERE.
• • •
In Boston, I walked. Having gone through a few years of harrowing financial difficulties, I had given up my leased car. I could have renewed my drivers license, but the expiration date, my birthday, came and went. Never underestimate the power of sheer laziness. Looking back now, I think this act of non-action was one of the first steps I took, quite unconsciously, toward disappearing. I didn’t fully vanish, for about four years, from the world until 2003. But that’s a whole other story.
So it was through my accompanying work that I became intimately acquainted with that vast, sprawling subway system in the greater Boston area known as “The T”. To get to Milton Academy, for instance, I had to walk fifteen blocks to the Newton Centre T stop, take the Green Line to Park Street, take the Red Line to Ashmont, take the Mattapan Line to Milton, then take a city bus to a certain bus stop, where the head of the Milton Academy Dance Department, Julie Larsen, would pick me up and bring me to campus. This process was multiplied and repeated, with various, color-coded permutations, depending on which school I was working at that day. When I moved to an apartment in Weymouth in 2001, the commute to Berklee took about an hour and a half.
(The Greater Boston T system, a labyrinthian tangle of underground, street level and elevated subway rides. I always thought it was one of the great things that gave Boston its identity. I did, after all, write a song about it – “Zoe On The T Train”.)
It was at Milton Academy that I met Seattle-based dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and musician KT Neihoff. For a two week period she was a Guest Choreographer there. KT had come up with a vocal version of an old Appalachian folk song, a lullaby called “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O”. She asked me if I could make a recording of it for her and add some vocals and percussion. So I raided the Milton Academy Band Room, found a marching band bass drum which sounded good hand-played, sang some harmonies with her and later added a mountain dulcimer. I recorded it all on my 4 track cassette recorder. Unfortunately the only recording of this venture that survived is one extremely sibilant cassette track. I still like it, with its Southern mountain roots and garlands of time-worn images strung on the beat like faded old hex signs on kudzu-covered barns.
There’s a funny story about this song. In 2007, after reconnecting with my old friend and former backup singer Polly Messer, as we were preparing to record her harmony vocals for “An American Record”, I made her a compilation cassette of some of my recordings she hadn’t heard in the 13 years we had lost touch with each other. As a humorous whim, I added this song, knowing it would stand out as something very odd along with all the other songs.
She told me later when she first heard it, after enjoying all the other songs I had sent her, she shook her head and thought “Hmmm, this does not compute!”
To hear “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O” (tape hiss and all) click HERE.
• • •
(The stage at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Dance Concert Series.)
(Dancer Julie Fiorenza performing “Crosscurrents” that same evening.)
For choreographer Rebecca Rice (who taught modern dance at The Boston Ballet) I composed a solo piano piece that she set for solo dancer. The world premiere of “Crosscurrents” was performed on May 3, 1999 at The Robsham Theatre at Boston College. It was danced by Isadora Wolfe. In 2014 it was performed again, in a beautiful performance that Polly and I attended, this time danced by Julie Fiorenza at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Series.
It’s interesting that my connection with Dance extends further inside my extended family. It just so happens that my cousin J.R. Glover has been Director Of Education at The School at Jacob’s Pillow for some years now, so it was great to see her again when my wife Polly and I attended the June 20th performance three years ago.
(Cousin JR showing Polly and I around Jacob’s Pillow.)
(JR showing us the Ruth St. Denis Studio.)
To hear “Crosscurrents” click HERE.
• • •
In 1999, through a Meet The Composer Grant from New England foundation For The Arts, as well as a Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, I was commissioned to compose a score for choreographer and Prometheus Dance co-director Diane Arvanites. The world premiere was performed on April 21, 1999 at The Emerson Majestic Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. Christine Temin, of The Boston Globe wrote “set to a powerful score by Grayson Hugh Hell Bent is one of the most compelling rhythmic dances this side of Twyla Tharpe’s The Fugue.”
I had worked with Diane at The Boston Conservatory and Walnut Hill School For The Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She loved the music I provided for her modern classes. And I loved inspiring her and her students. I played piano, sometimes sang, played African rhythms on various drums, played pennywhistle, kalimba and even accordion. Once, when I was furiously pumping a small Chinese accordion during a particularly fast and energetic exercise across the floor, she stopped the class, and, laughing, asked me “Is that a TOY?”
We always had fun, and I was very happy to hear recently that she and her co-director Tommy Neblett got married. I wish them all the very best and perhaps we will collaborate again one day.
To hear “Hell Bent” click HERE.
• • •
I had been playing for Christine Bennett’s modern classes at Boston University in 1998, When I accepted the job teaching Songwriting at Berklee College Of Music, I gave my notice to the Dance Department Chair, as my schedule wouldn’t accommodate doing both.
One day in ’99, Christine called me at Berklee and asked if I might like to get together to discuss a possible collaboration. We met at the Starbucks across the street from Berklee and talked about her idea for a new dance work. When she described the theme, that of grandmothers, time, memories and a sort of inner house where sacred memories live, I was immediately inspired. We worked very closely together in the process of building a score for her choreography. She loved the evocative sounds of some of my folk instruments that I wanted to use, and so I began to compose for a collection of these instruments from different parts of the world. We agreed that using these primal voices of different musical cultures would be augment the emotions conjured up in the dance.
(Some of my folk instruments used in “Inner House”: Two Shanais, Berimbau, Shurti Box, Didgeridoo, Cuica, Gopichand, Navaho Thunder Stick, Cane Quills, Mbira, Ukulele, Metal String Drum, Hand Drum.)
Part 2 of “Inner House” features spoken text as well as music. The text was written by members of the Bennett Dance Company. They were asked to write something about their grandmothers. Christine Bennett sent them to me and I constructed a narrative, using only the words of the written pieces. This was especially poignant for me as I asked my mother Jean R. Schafer to read the part of the grandmother. She had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she was still living at home, with her husband, my stepfather, and functioning fairly well. Her sense of humour was still very much sharp, and the emotion she put into her reading gave me chills.
The three of us, she, my stepdad and myself, attended the world premiere of “Inner House” on March 2, 2001, and when I heard her voice as the dance evolved onstage, tears ran down my cheeks. I will forever be glad and grateful that my mother agreed to record this part. It will always remind me of her determination and her strong spirit. That spirit is with me always.
To hear “Inner House (Part 2)” click HERE.
• • •
Of all the different directions I’ve taken musically, from playing in a Texas Swing band, performing with a free jazz trio, playing in an African drumming ensemble and composing music for stage and television, my “detours” with dancers have been some of the most enjoyable. There is something about the human body in motion, moving through space, that really speaks to me.
Not that I’m much good at it myself. My brothers and I still laugh about the times our father would put on “The Rite Of Spring”, and the two of us (me age 4 and David age 2) would dance around the living room for our grandparents, causing them to laugh so hard they’d be coughing and choking and spitting up their coffee. Even though I had no real concept of what I was doing, I remember taking it very seriously, and thinking I must be really good, they’re clapping so loudly! There was alot of leaping, and rushing off behind the hall wall as if it were a curtain, then leaping back out again.
• • •
It’s good to get off your main path in life now and then, and follow the dusty back roads. If you always play it safe and stick to the “planned route”, you miss out on learning new things about the world and yourself.
You never know what treasures might await you down there.