I just have to say something in words. This has been a productive creative period of my life. Yes, I still use words. But for the past five months I have been on fire—Amitabha and I are both playing with fire.
It all started when I broke my leg, or to be specific, the distal end of the left femur, on my way to see FunHome with Judy and Shira, my wife and kid. It was the day after performing with the great OG—Larry Roland’s Neo Urban Folk Project with Mike Wimberley on drums and Waldron Ricks on trumpet. We were in the Arts4Art Compassion Is Justice Festival and January 5 we played a couple of hot pieces including dancer Tyshawna. So I was feeling good until I hit the pavement after tripping over a curb the next day. The radiologist at the ER got the diagnosis wrong when he provided a negative diagnosis for bone fracture. In fact I went for five days thinking nothing was wrong and could have done some serious damage if I had put any weight on that left leg. So when another doc took his own x-rays and found a “hairline fracture” and asked if I wanted to go to a nursing home to recover (we declined) I ended up needing a wheelchair and a soft, moveable cast for eight weeks. I barely left the house except to make doctor appointments and to initiate physical therapy (again). My trauma surgeon refused to operate, saying at the same time I was the only person who broke a femur he had ever seen who did NOT require surgery because my femur didn’t shatter. Question: why am I always the “interesting patient” who doesn’t comply with any of the rules?
I began zoning out at the piano and a structural chordal concept introduced itself to my fevered brain. And that was it! The changes began morphing into a piece for renaissance jazz orchestra for which I had written back in the ‘70s for my group, Free Energy which consists of a reed, brass, string and rhythm section. Only it was over 40 years later, the computer has been invented, and I’m now working with FINALE, a computer music software. It was off to the races. I decided to name the piece in honor of my broken leg: C# or Bb, See Sharp or Be Flat. The next piece to surface is in five movements which I name The Old One.
My unconscious decides to name the fantasy group I have to form to play these compositions the Accidental Orchestra (I wake up in the middle of the night with “accidental” in my mind) because firstly, tripping and falling is an accident, secondly it’s a musical pun on accidentals—sharps and flats, thirdly it is an ode to my neighbor, composer John Cage who collaborated (upstairs from my apartment at Westbeth) with choreographer Merce Cunningham who utilized chance techniques, aka, accidents, as part of his process (as did Merce when choreographing), and finally, accidents are a subset of the quantum physics concept of superposition and are chance events because they are random. Are you with me on this quadruple musical pun?
Then the fun part began—asking cats to join up. First I had to have a project so I decided to record the Orchestra at Systems II in Brooklyn where Billy Stein and I recorded our Intervals cd in 2013. I ask Jon Rosenberg, the engineer on that date, to work with me. Jon makes it all seem like it could happen and gives great advice and suggestions. Then I need people. The first to respond are Steve Swell and Jason Kao Hwang who recommend friends of theirs. Then I ask Richard Keene, Eliot Levin, and my buddies in the New York Free Quartet, Chuck Fertal, Steve Cohn, and OG—Larry Roland. Warren Smith, followed by Badal Roy, Mike Wimberley, Vincent Chancey, and Michael Lytle, then Waldron Ricks, say they’re in. Now I have a reed section, brass section, rhythm section, and bass section. But I’m going to need to fill out the string section. Joining Jason Hwang, Charles Burnham signs up as do Bob Stern and Carol Buck. I’m now down one violinist and I need a conductor (still). John Shea agrees to conduct, making a connection back to the original Free Energy and then Tomas Ulrich and Carol Buck come on board as cellists. Rosi Hertlein becomes my third violinist. And I’m done. Now the hard part—getting a rehearsal schedule from 20+ of the most successful and busy musicians in New York.
The Accidental Orchestra: string sextet–Jason Kao Hwang, John Burnham and Rosi Hertlein (v), Bob Stern (vla), Tomas Ulrich and Carol Buck (vc), Larry Roland (b), brass–Steve Swell (tb), Vincent Chancey (fh), Waldron Ricks (tpt), drummers–Warren Smith (perc), Badal Roy (tabla), Chuck Fertal (d), Michael Wimberley (djembe, perc), and reed players–Richard Keene (oboe), Elliot Levin (f), Michael Lytle (bc), Ras Moshe (ss), myself on Bb clarinet, Steve Cohn (piano), Billy Stein (guitar), conductor–John Shea. Jon Rosenberg is the recording engineer.
All this takes place as the New York Free Quartet rehearses and records a cd at Tedesco Studio. That is a trip too. Every one of my horns (flute, my new Bb clarinet, soprano and tenor saxes, bass clarinet) go into Perry Ritter’s repair shop and come out perfect. That’s May 3, 2016. Now I’m mixing it down with John Shea who mixed the first NYFQ cd, Free Play.
So I have just (I think) finished C# or Bb. The first four movements of five of The Old One based on my readings into the Qabbala, Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are (more or less) finished. It is entitled The Old One as an homage to my cousin, Albert Einstein, who referred to God as the old one. It has a completely different feeling from C# and is very intense. I think I’m beginning to discover how to write for strings. The process is taking me over.
I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this before, certainly not in public in a blog post. I hope you see this less as blowing my own horn and more as expiation, explanation, imagination and creation.
All this is prelude to saying something that I think about from time to time—why did I survive? Why did I become that “interesting patient?” How did I pull through getting so sick that, aside from myself, some felt I was not going to make it? Last year, in January, 2015, I got really sick with a bacterial infection, became septic, got a UTI, and went to the hospital—twice because it invaded my nerves, nervous system, and every joint I had ever injured making them so inflamed that I had inflammation arthritis—similar to getting arthritis over the years, except this went down in 48 HOURS. It caused extensive neuropathy and my hands became completely numb. I can tell you that streptococcus G is so rare no one has ever seen it before. Because I was now an “interesting patient” doctors lined up outside my hospital room to examine me three at a time. Yet I never doubted I would make it.
The struggle I have waged with the complete and total support of my wife, Judy, daughter and son Shira and Ari, friends, and the team of docs Judy and I assembled resemble the dream team of the basketball players in the Olympics. They—the most thoughtful, problem solving, and, yes, creative group—kept me alive. They supported my irrational goal which is to completely recover EVERY faculty, regain ALL my strength, and honor my desire to ski again. Music becomes my therapy—by practicing instruments I can no longer feel because of neuropathy (nerve damage) I re-teach my brain physical sensation. But what is most amazing is the obdurate will that never questions that I will, with effort, get back. Call it Spirit.
Now that I—just when I am starting to feel better—broke my leg and can’t leave the house but feel relatively healthy I start playing the piano, which sits in my living room relatively tuned and sort of ready to play. Well I take three days to tune it myself by ear, then begin composing large pieces on it and on a midi-keyboard directly into Finale.
The first piece is basically honoring my desire to never fall again, which I entitle C# or Bb—See Sharp or Be Flat. But then I begin reading Rabbi David Cooper’s book about the Qabbala, God is a Verb. This re-introduces me to a previous lifetime of intense readings into Qabbala, The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. All of which inspires me to compose another of my Jewish pieces, which I call, after my cousin Albert Einstein’s referent to God, The Old One. Here are the names of the five movements of The Old One: I Inception/The Mind of God; II Bridge; III Tree of Life/Qabbala; IV Bardo Thödol/Tibetan Book of the Dead; V The Old One.
I am beginning to ask more cosmic questions. Will I drop dead the second the last note is written? I don’t think so but my unconscious has already named the renaissance jazz orchestra the Accidental Orchestra. How do I make it to this point if not to write more music? And is this the final religious piece I compose? Or am going to record my choral piece inspired by a poem by Louisa Strouse Boiman, Forget Being Born Remembering, written when Judy and I moved into her father’s house to help him live with respect and comfort during the last seven months of his life? I have to think I am surviving for a reason and that reason is to compose music expressing my spiritual desire to understand the depths of the human spirit.