music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Listen To Your Friends

One of the advantages of being an artist, of any sort, is being able to live in close proximity to other creative people, to exchange ideas, get another take on things, see the world not just through another’s work but to see that work being germinated, fed and nourished as they grow and evolve, to come to understand what motivates one to devote a life to creation.

I’ve known Dave Witham for the past seven years and had been following his career for a few years before that, when he was one of the pianists, along with John Beasley, in bassist John Patitucci’s first group, which ended up recording John’s self-titled debut CD for GRP Records. Dave had also been in demand as a session and touring player eventually forming long-term relationships with recording artists like Jose Feliciano and George Benson that continue to this day. In fact, Dave is George Benson’s music director/conductor and heads a band full of great LA musicians whenever George heads out on tour.

I met him in 2000 when he decided to try something different and signed on to play in the rhythm section of The Lion King, the Disney musical that parked itself at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for 2 ½ years. Now, seven years later we get the chance to play again every night for the hit musical, Wicked, also sitting down at the Pantages for an extended, and hopefully, multi-year run.

Dave’s new CD, Spinning The Circle, is a culmination of many years of playing, listening, collaboration and awareness. The range of influences and styles shown on the CD is wide ranging, but it all holds together like a fine painting and shows the listener the unique viewpoint of a committed artist.

It’s so hard to write about what music sounds like, especially without referencing the influences you perceive, but in this case that wouldn’t serve a purpose. Dave’s music is so personal, and at the risk of overusing a tired cliché, completely original. It’s so refreshing to hear an artist who is committed to his music without compromise, an improvisational mix of styles that doesn’t pander for airplay or make an obvious and embarrassing attempt at commercialism, while remaining highly listenable and accessible.

Assisted by bassist Jay Anderson, saxophonist Jon Cross and even Wilco’s Nels Cline among many others, Spinning The Circle is just plain good music and I highly recommend it. It’s one of two CDs that hasn’t left my car (my favorite listening space) since cracking open the jewel box a month ago.

June 28, 2007 | Link to this entry

iYawn for iPhone

Apple’s iPhone is on the verge of release and the ads posted on their website reveal a user interface that is one of the most sexy and compelling ones I’ve ever seen. Browsing through your MP3 collection, using the sliding animation on the touch screen is a brilliant effect, and turning the phone on its side turns the MP3 list into a graphical representation of the actual CD covers, just like the iTunes program. It perfectly mimics flipping through record albums (yes, albums!) just like in the old days, that is, if you remember the old days.

In addition to Bluetooth it has wireless internet connectivity and can pick up and use a signal from any nearby unsecured connection instead of from a ridiculously expensive internet plan from your provider. C’mon, we all leach free access when we’re out and about with our the way, whatever happened to the ubiquitous and free wifi cloud that big cities were trying to implement? But that’s another story for another day…

By using the wifi connection, you can look up, say, a restaurant and be served a map of its location. Touch the location, get served all the particulars including reviews, touch the phone number and be connected. It’s an amazing piece of software engineering and starts to show the promise of portable information and communications.

But where the iPhone falls flat (besides Apple’s usually inflated list price which will be $499 for a 4 gig model and $599 for an 8 gig model), for me at least, is its dependence on one single provider, ATT Cingular. I used to have Cingular service here in LA, and it was one of the most consistently poor services I have ever used. No matter where I was in the city, almost every call was dropped. It didn’t matter what model phone I used, it happened every time. I have since switched to T-Mobile and the experience has been exactly the opposite in every way, including its terrific customer service. For me, this is the single most reason not to buy the iPhone. It should’ve been made available in an unlocked version so that customers could truly use their own instincts and experience in choosing a provider. If you’re seriously considering an iPhone, make sure you check the coverage in your area before you buy.

Apple stumbled badly with their first phone collaborator, Motorola, so it will be interesting to see what happens with their first fully-branded offering. The iPhone is a compelling product with a lot of promise, but it remains to be seen if it can rise above the single-provider limitation, along with its high list price.

June 11, 2007 | Link to this entry

Theremins, Balalaikas and Stalin... Oh My!

I’ve been splitting my time lately between Wicked and working downtown with the LA Opera and the LA Philharmonic. Fortunately, theatre work allows occasional time off to pursue other gigs as long as you have a substitute approved by the conductor and the contractor.

The LA Opera production of Porgy and Bess ran for an unusually long 14 performances. I had fun even though I didn’t have much to do. Gershwin included a banjo in just one movement, the well-known tune, I’ve Got Plenty of Nuttin’, which doesn’t occur until an hour into the opera. I was dismissed at intermission at each performance, which made for a lot of good natured and sometimes not-so-good natured ribbing from the rest of the orchestra every night. Truth is, I’d rather be playing than sitting around, but much of the classical repertoire for my instrument is like this.

After Porgy closed, I had a week scheduled with the LA Phil. A month earlier, they had called and asked if I’d like to play balalaika on a series of concerts called Shadow of Stalin, examining the work of Russian composers who had been affected by the crackdown under Stalin.

I’ve played balalaika a handful of times throughout the years, mostly film or TV sessions that needed a little Russian color in the score. I think the last time was for composer Steve Bramson on an episode of JAG, but this was for a Shostakovich piece, Suite from The Nose, an opera he wrote in the early part of the 20th century. The balalaika is a three-string Russian folk instrument with a triangular-shaped body. They come in many sizes, but the one I own is the most common, to my knowledge, the secunda (second) balalaika. The three strings are equidistant apart and tuned E-E-A.

I could tell that the part wanted to make use of the drone effect of the unison E’s, so I emphasized that in my approach to the style. It turned out that the fifth movement, which was the only movement using the instrument, was just a duet between the tenor voice (sung terrificly by Michael Hendrick) and the balalaika. After the first run-through at rehearsal, Esa-Pekka asked me to “raise your station…in life…” and move next to the tenor, in the soloist’s position next to his podium. There was no turning back now…

The first concert was a Casual Friday performance (see Rethinking Concert Dress), so named because the players are allowed to wear whatever they want to. It was a nice relaxed atmosphere and the orchestra sounded great. They opened with a Popov piece, Komsomel, Patron of Electrification, which was unusual in that it employed a theremin. A theremin is an electronic instrument that is played by positioning your hand above a metal plate at different heights in order to achieve the pitch of different notes. The second hand can be used to get tremolo or vibrato effects. It sounds strange and the effect is otherworldly, but you’ve heard this instrument many times on late-night horror movies. In fact, it sounds much like the eBow I use on Wicked every night. The theremin player was terrific and his setup on stage looked like a mad scientist’s lab bench with two huge antennae rising above it.

Because the tenor/balalaika movement was a duet, Esa-Pekka decided not to conduct it and let us find our own way. I dug in pretty hard and tried to add color where I thought it would add to the drama. I was thankful to my Russian friends in the orchestra, who told me that my approach was on the right track and they casually translated the words the tenor was singing, which turned out to be a drunken little jig. One of them even suggested a particular way of holding the instrument, which he had seen real balalaika players using in Russia. It turned out to be the perfect way to balance the instrument on my lap, which can be unwieldy considering its shape.

It would have been fun to play more than two concerts of this program, but I was thrilled to have participated and explored yet another aspect of playing an unusual instrument with a symphony orchestra, especially an instrument from a country with which I am most indelibly and endearingly connected.

June 10, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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