Doug Theriault

doug-theriault

MIDKIN: You used a special guitar for this particular performance?

DT: I had a special guitar that was made for me. What it does is it amplifies behind the bridge, so it has strings that are woven on the other side the bridge. It was a technique that was invented by Hans Reichel It amplifies the harmonics that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.

MIDKIN: What is the guitar called?

DT: It’s called a harmonic isolator. It also has a different harmonic scale.

MIDKIN: So the blog is about particular pieces of music and how they’ve inspired you or are somehow tied to a particular event in your life. I remember you telling a story at the launch about listening to a Rush cassette tape and realizing, with a little tweaking, that you could slow down or speed up the music. Are there any other things about Rush which have inspired you?

DT: Well what’s inspirational to me is if there’s something that I can’t explain in the music. Then I’m a lot more interested in it. Like with Rush, when I was growing up, the sound was inspirational to me because I didn’t really know how they were doing what they were doing. I was just so floored by the musicality that was presented. Also through the years, just how grateful and grounded they are as people. They don’t take anything for granted. For them it’s just about the music, and that’s always been what it’s been for me.

drift-boatMIDKIN: Following the music?

DT: Music for music’s sake. Going where the music goes. Whatever pathway I want to go on, it sort of presents itself to me and I don’t really try to understand it past that point.

MIDKIN: So when you talk about that sense of mystery, is that something you’re trying to convey in your music?

DT: I don’t really think about it. It’s not something that I purposefully going after. For me, I’m just chasing a particular sound in my head and catching one piece at a time. If I’m doing a solo thing, I just go where it goes. There’s no walls, it’s all just me following where the music’s going. As far as working with other musicians, it’s more about watching and it’s more about unlocking doors. I walk into these situations and I don’t really know what I’m going to get. People ask me to try new things and I like to do them because you can learn a lot from new situations.

MIDKIN: So when you choose something like a guitar or a new effect, do you have a general idea of what it’s going to sound like before you start?

DT: It takes a lot of years of working on a new instrument and a lot of technical hurdles to overcome for me to consider it a success. If I get a guitar, I might be in the beginning “Oh, this is gonna be great,” but I have to get the right strings, or the chords don’t sound correct on this, or I think I need a guitar effect and I buy it and then realize it doesn’t work. And then over the years you try these different kinds of things: add, subtract. It’s all a process of learning.

Doug Theriault at Bandcamp

 

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Doug Theriault

Lisa Germano

Singing to the Birds

By Lara Shelton

bird-4

When I was a girl my father was my hero. I think for a lot of little girls it’s the same. He was smart, funny, and handsome. He was the model from which I drew future boyfriends, and none of them measured up.

He worked for the GM plant in the Van Nuys, California, in a job which I now recognize as “middle management,” but which at the time seemed to be connected with the magical alchemy of creating cars. He went to work, and cars came out. And that seemed incredible.

There were other ways in which he was incredible. That gay couple down the street? He was friends with them. He invited them over for barbecue while the other neighbors whispered behind their backs. He regularly shopped at the Iranian-owned market, because they had the best prices on beer. He once gave a ride to a homeless man who was sitting, barefoot, on the curb near the Alpha-Beta supermarket.

These things were just not done by white men in middle management in the early eighties, a period whose rampant, solipsistic selfishness left traces all over its culture. But they were done by my father.

bird
When the GM plant downsized, my father lost his job, like a lot of people. He ended up getting another one, but somehow some elasticity went out of his character. My parents split up. Mr father went through a number of girlfriends, a couple more job changes, and two more marriages. After a while I began to realize that something fundamental about him had changed. I don’t know if it was the loss of the job, or the divorces, or other factors that he didn’t tell me about. He had been stretched out of shape, and would never be the same again.

We remained close, but the closeness became more painful than reassuring. I was at sea. I made a lot of poor choices (see “Hotel California”, on this blog for an example). My father had failed me, and whatever plans I had made, who I was, it was all based on a lie.

Around this time, I discovered this song by Lisa Germano, whose opening line goes:

So what if your heroes change their minds?
And all you thought was right flew out the window?
And all you based your life on wasn’t real?

I listened to this song over and over again–I think it was 1994 or 1995. I used to drive around the city in a beat-up, dirt-brown Toyota Tercel and cry my eyes out. No one could see me except for Lisa, who knew my pain. The song seemed to crystallize everything I had been feeling for the past few years, and bring it to an excruciating, needle-sharp point.

If it sounds agonizing, it was. But I stuck with it, listening to the song over and over again. I did this mostly because Germano offers a kind of hope:

What you gonna do now, so all alone here?
Singing to the birds, singing to the birds.

Bird Feeders
What was left but to sing to the birds? There was still life out there, even if I felt dead inside. A small kindness to a small creature was still possible. And maybe a small kindness to myself, and a small kindness to the people outside myself as well.

This period in my life is very much on my mind these days, because the political rhetoric my father has been spouting lately makes him unrecognizable to me as the man I grew up with, the man who was my hero. When I’m feeling especially bitter I think about him as the man whose vote in this recent election canceled out my own, in the same way that his period of wandering in the wilderness seemed to cancel out my childhood. When I’m feeling a bit more generous I remember how old he is, or I remember that he’s still living in a house filled with memories of his third wife, or that his only companion most nights is Fox News. When I’m feeling particularly desperate I listen to “Singing to the Birds” again:

And what if your hero fades away?
And all the things you thought were orange are gray, now?
Who is it who brings you some new colors?
Singing to the birds….

I had lunch with my father just the other day. If I’m honest with myself, I think I wanted him to say, “I’m sorry.” I’ve wanted him to say “I’m sorry” for a very long time. But what is there to be sorry for, really? Should he be sorry that life has disappointed him? That he couldn’t live up to the enormous expectations I set up for him? So we talked about our lives. I heard about his alimony payments, he heard about my boring job. We avoided the topic of politics.

Just two adults, no hero-worship involved. I suppose it’s much kinder that way.

Lisa Germano’s Wikipedia Page

Lisa Germano

24 Preludes and Fugues–Shostakovich

By Andrew Fort

shostakovich-1
A few weeks ago my teenage son came to me, clearly agitated about tonight’s election, enumerating all of the negative things which have been repeated in the press about the candidates and outlining his disappointment with our current political climate. At the time I didn’t really have any answers for him, other than: It doesn’t matter that there are no great choices. You have to choose one. Not the sort of thing a fifteen-year-old wants to hear.

I wrote this post before the results of the election, when everything was still up for grabs. I did that on purpose, because no matter who wins, it’s inevitable that there will be one side which is bitterly disappointed, and another side which is grudgingly triumphant at having won a race that was more like a Soviet death march than an Olympic marathon.

Somehow, every election year, many of us manage to convince ourselves that politics is the most important thing in our lives.

And yet, it’s not. I don’t mean to say that politics or the political climate don’t affect us; they do. What I mean to say instead is that who we elect is a representation of our values as a nation, but not the only one.

There are other things which are capable of representing our values. Culture, for example. Which is one of the many reasons this piece of music–the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich–is so meaningful to me. It contains an entire world, and it is completely outside of politics, though it came into being in a deeply political climate.

shostakovich-2At the time Shostakovich composed these pieces, he was simultaneously a tool of Stalinist Russia and its whipping boy. He was clearly a key player on the musical world stage, so the government sent him out into the world to represent Russia, even if he didn’t always represent his country in the way its leaders wanted it to be represented. You can’t tell a genius not to think for himself.

What Shostakovich did with these pieces was to retreat from some of the more political themes he had dealt with in the past into the realm of “pure music”–music which has no explicit meaning other than to be listened to.

But of course, it does have meaning: by taking Bach’s Preludes and Fugues as his model, Shostakovich was adopting a musical family rather than a nationalistic one. And though these pieces are supposed to be “pure” music, one in particular takes me through a number of emotions which can be applied to this most recent political cycle—a kind of five stages of grief: depression, confusion, disbelief, agitation, and finally, clarity. And when I listen to it now, I am not really thinking about Stalinist Russia. I’m not thinking about the political climate—his or mine—I’m just thinking about the brilliant music.

The pianist Olli Mustonen said “[Bach and Shostakovich] would seem to be very different composers, an 18th-century German and a 20th-century Russian. But even more interesting than their differences are the things that unite them. This is kind of like speaking of two mountaintops. Whether you are in the Andes or the Himalayas, when you are at seven kilometers, the scenery is quite similar. When you rise to this level of genius, there is surprisingly much in common, despite everything that may be happening at sea level.”

What I mean to say is that in our current democracy politics rarely rises above sea level. In fact, it often sinks below, to the point where we feel as if we’re drowning. But I don’t have to sink down there with it.

Even though I don’t belong up there at the top of the mountain with Bach and Shostakovich, I’m going to try to stay up there for a while. It’s a much better view than down in the mud.

24 Preludes and Fugues–Shostakovich

Scheherazade–Rimsky-Korsakov

By Meg Currell

scheherazade

A few years ago my husband and kids sent me to the symphony for Mother’s Day. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had been performing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Tim earmarked this event at the beginning of the symphony season as the perfect chance for me to do something just for me.

I love going to movies and live performances by myself. It’s easier to get lost in the moment. I find it taxing to be considerate of another person’s thoughts and responses. My sweet husband–as bright and thoughtful as he is–does not have the background in music that I do, and doesn’t always appreciate it the way I do.

The irony was, though the performance was on a Mother’s Day, the person who taught me to appreciate music on a deeper level was my non-musician father. My musical talent came directly from my mother’s side; she was an accomplished pianist and soprano. But my father was a completely self-taught student of music from the Baroque era to the 20th Century. He and I would sit at the dinner table after everyone else had finished, and I’d listen to him talk about libretti and composers and conductors and pianists. In that pre-Internet era, he had researched all subjects “classical” music. It was from him, the U.S. Marine/farm boy, that I first learned that “classical” is an era in the history of Western music, not a designation for all music played on WFMT in Chicago, or all music played by an orchestra. He taught me about Bach and Mozart, sonata form and the classical orchestra.

I was shocked — but shouldn’t have been — to realize my father knew at least as much as my music history and literature professors. When a subject interested him, he’d pile books on his nightstand and read endlessly. Neither he nor my mother were ever without a book. He spoke in the language of great conductors and performers, of Ashkenazy and St. Martin’s in the Field, of Emmanuel Ax and Borodin and Scriabin. He knew the prose and poetry of the Goldberg Variations, the delicate power of Debussy, the fearsomeness of Wagner and the intimacy of Chopin, the simplicity of Copland. My mother’s musical ability may have been the genesis of my interest, but there is no doubt my father’s influence propelled my fascination.

meg-quoteAnd it all started with a recording of Scheherazade. My dad loved to tell stories, often creative narratives to entice me to finish my peas. I remember when he told the vivid story of Scheherazade, the slave girl who saved her own life nightly by telling the King, who had a penchant for murdering his brides, stories whose ending required another night of telling. This was the premise of 1,001 Arabian Nights, and of my lifelong love affair with music’s magical ability to transport us from reality.

When I was around 10, he started an annual tradition of taking me on “dates,” consisting of dinner and then live performances in the city. Starting with a performance of the musical 42nd Street and carrying through multiple symphony, ballet, chamber, solo and opera performances, he taught me the beauty and wonder of live performance. We’d get dressed in our Sunday best, have dinner at amazing restaurants, and then nestle in the quiet theater, where, wide-eyed, I’d gaze upon grown-ups in beautiful clothes, some men in tuxedos, chatting casually among themselves, as if this were the most natural thing ever. To me, it was the height of sophistication, and I was careful to behave myself as well as I knew how. My father, always well dressed, was my idea of a dignified man, and I watched him closely for cues on how to comport myself. The entire experience worked together to create for me heightened expectations both of myself and of the performance. It was inebriating.

To this day, live performances by talented musicians are transcendent experiences for me, an opportunity to set aside the mundane and inhabit an enchanted world of wordless storytelling, witness musical incantations that create moments of pure magic. The musicians have worked tirelessly to perfect their art to the point where they can convey beauty and tragedy and glory and defeat and passion and grief, and in the moment of their big performance, they share it with me. Just for that moment. Small wonder that my first husband was a professional musician.

meg-quote-2So, while that visit to the symphony a few years ago was my Mother’s Day gift, I was thinking of my father. We’ve grown apart in recent years, with little hope of reconciliation. What divides us is a gulf I’ve failed to bridge. But he gave me the great gift of appreciating music and stories beyond the pleasant sounds, into the heart of human understanding.

And even now, when I listen to Scheherazade, I have his voice in my head, telling me all about the symphony from his bottomless well of musical knowledge. The rift will disappear, and I’ll be his kid again, sharing that moment of transient beauty.

Scheherazade–Rimsky-Korsakov