Monday, June 27, 2011

Confessions of Louis C. Monteverdi: An Educated Cocktail Pianist

Thinking back to my youth in the 1980s,  my issues with being a successful piano player have always revolved around a lack of ambition, a lack of dedication, a lack of good timing (no pun intended), and - well – a severe lack of talent.  A lethal career cocktail (if you will), that nonetheless never stopped me from playing low-rent weddings, receptions and restaurants. 

But in the spring of 1983, it stopped me dead in my tracks from being seriously considered for admission into Julliard, Manhattan School of Music, Manes School of Music – and even my safety school - the music department at Bronx Community College. 

After this unfortunate parade of highly deserved, missed opportunities, I had zero intentions of attending any college as a Liberal Arts Major.  I mean, you’re a liberal arts major either because you can’t decide what to do with yourself, or somebody else has decided what you’re not going to do with yourself.  Just my opinion, mind you.

But my father, Frankie Monteverdi - he saw it differently.  “All the Monteverdi’s have been well-schooled in their trade”, he told me. “You are – well, let’s face it, Louie - a cocktail pianist.  But you should be the best goddamned cocktail pianist you can possibly be.”  Frankie then proceeded to tell me about the Brooklyn College of Popular Professional Musical Services. 

 BCPPMS, in fact, had a major in Commercial Club Dating – and even though it was late June – they were still auditioning.  So, Frankie (I always called him Frankie), paid my application fee and set me up with an audition date in mid-July.

BCPPMS quickly responded with a letter congratulating me on this golden opportunity to audition for them - and included a copy of the audition requirements:

All Commercial Club Dating performance auditions, with a concentration in Cocktail Piano, will require the auditionee to prepare from the following cocktail piano repertoire:

  1. Any slow tempo, commercially popular standard or ballad composed between 1920 and 1960, and played with a distinct use of rubato enabling the display of an exhaustive and gratuitous use of arpeggios and filigree.

  1.  A heavy rock tune of the last decade (by Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, etc.) transformed into cocktail piano style and played with a distinct use of rubato, enabling the display of an exhaustive and gratuitous use of arpeggios and filigree.

  1.  A tune of your choice, which will be performed while conversing with the jurors. 

My audition, as I later found out, was to be conducted by four faculty members. First, there was Marie Canto, the Chairwoman (I guess you would call her), of the entire Commercial Club Dating Department.  Next, the very elderly Lawanda Smith who taught Requests 101 and 201.  Next was Professor Jan Minisky, who spoke with a thick Polish accent and would later become my private instructor and mentor.  And finally, this very uptight guy named Steve Cosmos, who taught jazz and improvisation studies. 

The audition itself was rugged. First, the piano was decidedly out of tune and several keys – in commonly used areas – were broken.  When I mentioned this, the jury smiled, and Ms. Canto simply said “yes, of course.”

During “Laura”, my ballad selection, the two ladies talked and laughed loudly (a downright cackle, I’d say), while Prof. Minisky purposely hit his coffee mug with a big metal spoon.  Steve Cosmos lit three cigarettes, a cigar – and was stuffing his pipe bowl as I finished the first number.  But at the end of it, the jury nodded approvingly - except for Steve Cosmos, who muttered something like, “swings like a rusty gate”.  

My second number (“Stairway to Heaven” – a shrewd choice on my part), was subjected to the same spirited lack of attention and discourtesy.  Except this time, Lawanda Smith sang along, way off pitch (and the wrong lyrics, to boot), while Prof. Minisky suddenly (and this – believe me - I was in no way expecting), turned on a cappuccino maker.

  For my final selection, I hit them up with “For the Good Times”, another good choice to be sure.  Good for talking over, since the tune has more silence in it than actual melody. 

We were cool with the convivial small talk, until Steve Cosmos said, “Can you play, “Doctor Zhivago”.  Well, of course, I knew it was a trick question -  ‘cause there ain’t no such song.  Plus, he had this devilish gleam in his eye.  But, I was concentrating on my playing, I was nervous – and my eyes were starting to hurt from the smoke.  So, I simply said, “I’m sorry.  I don’t think I know that one. Is there something else you’d like to hear?”   Do I have to tell you how that response went over like a lead balloon? “O-kay”, Maria Canto said, very low key.  A big pause.  Then, “thank you very much, Louis.  We will be contacting you regarding our decision.”

Of course, the song was “Somewhere My Love”, or “Lara’s Theme”.  “Even I know that one,” Frankie later lamented.  But the news was not bad for long:  

“Congrats, Louie”, beamed Frankie, only a few days later - and as proud as he could be.  “You’ve been accepted!  On probation, y’know.  But you’ll get through that with the right amount of hard work, right?”  

BCPPMS offered a comprehensive, two year program in Cocktail Piano, which included the following curriculum:

Applied Cocktail Playing (Private Instruction)

Aural Skills (Playing by ear)

Applied Improvisation (Which included Faking, Riffing and Noodling.)

Physco Therapy I (The exploration of strengthening cognitive concentration skills and fortification of self esteem and the suppression of undue sensitivity).

Physco Therapy II (Making astute repertoire choices based on the analysis of room ambiance and the diner’s mood).

Piano Bar

Advanced Tipping


But it was Prof. Jan Minisky who provided me the support, motivation and intestinal fortitude I needed to succeed.  When not testing me with the sonic intrusions of broken glasses, dropped diner plates and very smelly and sonorous belching, we had very serious and deeply philosophical conversations regarding the art of cocktail piano.

Me:  Professor, when does a cocktail pianist stop competing with the all extraneous noise?

Prof. Miniski:  Never.  You are one wit ze noize.  Vy?  No noizy cocktails, no customers.  No restaurant, no bar - no cocktail pianist.  No cocktail pianist, no money. Zo, vat are ve doink here?

Me:  But, isn’t there a time – or a place - where you should not accept a piano job?

Prof. Miniski:   No.  If you must, you perform in a sport’s bar with drunken men yelling without meaning at big TVs.

Me: But then I’m forcing – forcing all the time and - you know - always banging the keyboard to be heard.

Prof. Miniski:  Then, you must make the choice.

Me:  You mean-

Prof. Miniski: Yah. Electric piano.  Then you vill turn up amplifier to be heard, without forcing the quality of ze tone.

Me:  But then the TV’s will get louder – and the drunken men will get louder – and I’ll be completely alone in a universe of pointless and cacophonous sound.

Prof. Miniski:  But, my boy, zat’s the beauty of it.  And zat iz ven you’ll know - vat’s it all about, Alfie.

 The Professor also enhanced my knowledge of handling requests.  For example, if the request was “Memories”, by Barbara Streisand, the song was actually “The Way We Were”.  If they were asking for a song by “Frank Sinatra”, they meant any of the songs he was most famous for singing (not writing, of course).  And, if they said play, “Phantom of the Opera”, they probably just wanted to hear, “All I Ask of You”.

In May of 1985, Frankie proudly attended my graduation recital.  He sat grinning ear to ear as the audience, comprised of fellow students, faculty members, parents and custodial help, couldn’t possibly have been more disengaged.

Toward the end of my performance, I saw Steve Cosmos rise from his chair and start walking toward me.  As he leaned distractingly right into my face, he insisted, “Hey, can you play “Clockwork Orange”?

“Sure”, I replied.  “Just as soon as I’m done with these requests.”

Steve lit a cigarette, gave me the thumbs-up, and walked away.























Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Inflation of the Standing Ovation

Early on, I had the perception that standing ovations were infrequent, and decidedly well deserved.   I assumed people only rose to the occasion for extraordinarily profound and exceedingly brilliant performances.  I remember (and please excuse the name dropping), standing ovations for Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein.  I recall being enthralled by - and eagerly standing for - Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd.   I remember rock concerts in Madison Garden where the applause was thunderous, but the vast majority of people remained seated – stoned or otherwise.

So, based on my own recent and modest sampling, why does it seem in the last couple of decades that audiences give-up standing ovations with the regularity of a gesundheit - or a fifteen percent-tip?  Which is to say, I’ve become highly suspect of the entire convention for some time now, and question the integrity of its seemingly ad hoc application.   I hereby offer up a list of seven likely root causes (expressed in the “fictional” first person), behind this cultural phenomena.

  1. I could sit down if the jerks in front would stop blocking my view.
  2. I hope this guy appreciates the effort – what with the off night he seems to be having.
  3. Damn these wedgies!
  4. When will I ever stop succumbing to peer-pressure?
  5. Standing Ovation-Schmation!  My parking lot closes in five minutes.
  6. For a friggin’ $120 a ticket, you better believe there’s goin’ be a standing ovation.
  7. Great!  Now I can find my cell phone.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Today's Electronic Music: Not Your Grandfather’s Avante Guarde

Some of us old timers who studied music composition a few decades ago, well remember the exalted artistic purpose behind the invention and engineering of electronic instruments and computer enabled synthesizers.  In a time before Sam Ash had almost entirely dedicated their showroom to electric guitars and digital keyboards, the raison d’etre behind the creation and development of electronic music was two-fold: Firstly, to create a world of new and exotic sounds or “instruments” that would inspire the serious, modern-day composer beyond the constraints and all too familiar sonorities of conventional, orchestral instruments; and 2), provide a technology that would propel the next avante gurard movment on a path unencumbered by the limitations of human performers.  Yes, those poor bastards.
In the 1950s, Milton Babbitt, a composer originally schooled in composing for acoustic instruments - and having heard one too many disappointing performances of his works -  welcomed the advent of computer music as a way of finally reaching the level of inhuman accuracy required to successfully reproduce some of his most extraordinarily difficult and - some might argue - absurdly, complex poly-rhythms.
During the 1970s, as part of my post-graduate work in composing, I took a course in “Electronic Music” with Professor Hubert Howe, at what is now the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, CUNY. The course covered tape manipulation (Musique Concrete), the resident Moog Synthesizer (looking every bit like the album cover of "Switched-On Bach"), and ultimately, computer music -  generated through an IBM370 Mainframe, circa 1977, via punch cards - I kid you not. 

This out of the main stream music might best be described as academic, esoteric, very, very interesting, pass-the-joint-strange, certainly atonal, or stuff that most folks might not particularly care to dance to.

In "Forbidden Planet", Robby the Robot was not the only electronic instrument.
At that time, the pursuit of computer-generated music was not driven by a desire to supplant or emulate conventional instruments.  Morton Subotnick, Mario Davidosky, Otto Leuning, Morton Feldman and Karl Stockhausen, saw electronics (as well as the manipulation of magnetic tape), as representing an inspirational portal to a highly creative, futuristic world – as did Hollywood, for that matter, in the synthesized, science fiction-driven score for “Forbidden Planet” (1956) - one of the earlier uses of electronic music targeted at a mass audience.
By the 1960s, commercialism, fueled by a  confluence of different tracts, began to supercede electronic music's initial mission.  Firstly, there was Rock n” Roll, and then Hard Rock - and Acid Rock – a decidedly, plugged-in, oscillator generating phenomena. 
And then, well - how 'bout those old string players and the Rolling Stones?

Somewhere around 1965, the idea of mixing in a string section with rock ‘n roll bands took a fateful turn.  It may have been the incongruent imagery of Mick Jagger singing a rock-ballad like “As Tears Go By” while accompanied by a string section of old geezers wearing tuxedos and bowing violins with handkerchiefs draped over their shoulders.  Or it might have been a producer who looked at the cost of hiring a 12 piece string ensemble and realizing they were a nice-to-have, but non-essential entity, under utilized, and merely playing simple and slow moving chordal backgrounds.  Something that could be done – perhaps single handedly - by an electronic keyboardist.  We know the rest: The raw, unfiltered soundwaves that could be extracted from the early synthezisers were customized, repackaged and offered "out-of-the-box", as patches emulating strings, winds, brass, percussion - you name it.
Fast forward to the present and a new dawn in Broadway orchestra pits, where local 802 officals are struggling to avoid professional immolation by defending their musician members  - through contractual constraints - against electronic emulation.  Two to three synths have become the norm in today’s Broadway pit.  Re-scoring revivals of Broadway classics is becoming more and more a point of contention and arbitration between local 802 and producers – with the producers typically winning the day (At this time, the "independent" arbitration panel is comprised of three orchestrators, typcially hired and paid by broadway producers).

As the Broadway pit suffers from budgetary attrition, background strings, background brass, accordion, harp, bells, organ, harpsichord, organ, piano and marimba are oft times the province of only two keyboard players.

It’s probably not going to change. Firstly – and foremost- producers have become addicted to the cost savings.  More to the point, however, orchestrators and arrangers have developed a strong preference for synths and have come to find creative sustenance in their ubiquity.  If synths are pragmatically becoming the new convention, they’ve also inspired a highly creative movement resulting in some very fine theater scores, seamlessly integrating electronic keyboards and acoustic instruments. A good case in point would be arranger Lynne Shankel’s arrangements for small theater instrumental ensembles, such as Off-Broadway’s “Summer of ‘42”.  Her highly inventive, and convincingly quasi orchestral scoring, disguised the fact that only a sextet of players, consisting of two keyboards, a reed double, cello, bass, and a multi faceted percussionist, were utilized.
Probably not what Milton Babitt had in mind, but that's progress for you.
Charles Greenberg -A.K.A - Korg Composer