Donald Stark's Story

To hear the world in a single note and heaven in a triad

November 19, 2012

Doesn’t it blow you away when someone sneaks into your brain and snatches your thoughts?  That’s what Tommasini did in his NY Times column yesterday. 
A single chord can knock you on your ass.  (How to break a heart with one chord.)  Even a single note.  (That growling bent E string in Jimi’s "House Burning Down" solo.) 
I’d love to know — what notes (or rests!) send you flying?

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Categories:   Commentary, Composers, Chopin, Mahler

Donald Stark's Story

RIP Elliott Carter, Maestro of Thorny Complexity

November 08, 2012

“When’re you going to slow down, Donald?”
And I’d reply, “Look at Elliott Carter.  Old enough to be my grandfather.”
I can no longer say that.  I just learned, after eight dark days in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, that he’d passed away a month shy of 104. 
I think of Carter’s music as a rowdy Thanksgiving conversation — every guest’s quirky personality on flamboyant display, everyone talking over each other, interrupting, arguing, storytelling.  There’s eloquent Aunt Flo exaggerating some event that befell her on some cruise.  There’s monotonous Mildred always trying to get 70 words in edgewise.  There’s stentorian Uncle Stan, all wise saws and modern instances.  There’s tipsy Poppop, bobbing and weaving, losing track of his stream of semiconsciousness.  Can the center hold?  Things get out of hand, cool down, then heat up…
This music is not for the faint of heart, but it’ll sure clean the cobwebs out of your ears.
Elliott Cater, national treasure.

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Categories:   Composers

Donald Stark's Story

Monster Mashup

October 24, 2012

One dark and stormy night, I was brewing espresso at my Mendocino coffeehouse when a friend came in with a stranger.  Dirty black leather jacket, greasy hair down his shoulders, junk-ravaged face, one last lungful of weed expelled into the indoor air. 
“Donald, this is Lenny.  He wrote ‘Monster Mash’.  Lenny, Donald’s a musician, too.  You guys should talk.”
I’m dubious.  “‘Monster Mash’?  Thought that was Bobby Pickett.”
“Yeah, me and Bobby.  Hey, but what about you, man?  What kind of music you into?”
“Oh, all kinds — rock, jazz, folk, classical.”
“Classical?  You like classical music, man?  Like what?”
“Oh, all kinds, but especially twentieth-century orchestral music.  Not everybody’s taste.”
“Yeah, I can dig that.  Anyways, like who?  You got any composers you specially like?
“Well... Mahler, Shostakovich, and some lesser known guys.”
“Yeah?  Turn me on, man.  Like who?”
“Well, I’m particularly into Paul Hindemith.  Underrated German composer.  You probably never heard of him…”
“… Oh, yeah, man, far out.  So, what do you like by… Hindemith?”
“Well, I like the stuff he’s best known for — Mathis der Maler, Symphonic Metamorphosis, Symphony in E Flat.  But I especially love the ballet music he wrote about the life of Saint Francis, Nobilissima Visione…  Aw, man, this is crazy.  I’m sorry.  You can’t really be interested in…”
“No, man, that’s cool, that’s cool.  Hey, that piano over there, is that working?”
“Yes, ’less somebody gummed up the keys.  Kind of honky-tonky, though.”
“Mind if I play?”
“Sure, Lenny, go on ahead.  Been a while since anybody’s come in here and rocked the joint.”
About half a measure in, I realized that walking bass was not New Orleans boogie.  It wasn’t ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll either.  It was Lenny’s playing-by-ear but faithful rendering of the three-voice contrapuntal opening measures, reduced from full orchestra to piano (and in its original key) of Nobilissima Visione.     
Lenny looked at my gawking mouth and smiled as if to say, “If we was gambling, I’d own your pants now, punk.”

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Categories:   Composers, Hindemith, Musicians

Donald Stark's Story

May the best man wi… Oh, damn!

October 16, 2012

Gore Vidal wrote Best Man more than half a century ago, but the themes (political dirty tricks and smears, idealism vs cynicism) play out on today’s stage with eye-poppingly contemporary relevance.
At one point, crusty ex-President Hockstader mostly kiddingly quips, “Worst damn thing ever happened to this country, giving the women the vote.” 
I thought: Wow! The setting of this play (1960) is closer in history to before women had the right to vote than it is to today! 
Then I thought: Wow! Here we are today with candidates re-debating women’s right to chose, promulgating the notion that “legitimately raped” women are unlikely to get pregnant is science, and forcing these same rape victims to undergo invasive ultrasound probes purely for the pleasure of witnessing their humiliation and physical pain.
Then I thought: Hey!  This site’s supposed to be about music.  So… Come see the brilliantly directed (by Frank Licato), acted, and designed Best Man at the Summit Playhouse and hear the music I composed for it.

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Categories:   Commentary, Events

Donald Stark's Story

Music for driving into trees: Sweet Wine

October 02, 2012

Laurie’s Records, Evanston.  I did a doubletake and snatched up this premier Cream album: If they sound like they look, this is going to be good.  This bomber-jacket Clapton was not you daddy’s Bluesbreaker or Yardbird. 
Back at the flat, I gave Side 1 a spin.  Ah, expectations exceeded. 
The phone rang, I picked up.  My friend Gregg.  Chat chat chat. 
Fifteen minutes in — Kaboom! — Clapton’s thunderclap launched the Sweet Wine guitar solo.  Whoa!  Was that a guitar?  Or a ballistic missile.  The wine glasses rattled. 
(On the other end of the phone, Gregg sounded like he was talking.)
I said, “Wait…”
And then — oh my darlings, then — those squeals so sweet, that soaring, sternum-slicing flight in the stratosphere.  Pure melodic, ear-piercing feedback. 
Was that a guitar?  Or a flock of gulls.  A wine glass shattered. 
(Chatter from the phone receiver on the floor.)
Oh, yeah, the phone.  I said, “Listen Gregg, gotta call you back…”  Click.
I dropped the needle right back at the start of that solo some 30 times and I. Did. Not. Get. My Fill.  And I am hungry still. 
Oh, I loved the current crop of rippin’ blues guitars, Danny Kalb, Mike Bloomfield.  But Clapton’s Sweet Wine solo built a ceiling in the sky just so he could break through it.

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Categories:   Musicians

Donald Stark's Story
Watch out for that ditch!

Music for driving into trees

September 27, 2012

I have a friends-sourcing challenge for you: Suggest a name for a category of music.
• The first time you heard a piece of this type of music, it jolted you.  You’d never heard anything like it before.  The world stopped as you listened.  Dervishes and monkeys froze in place.
• This music struck you in the gut, heart, and mind in equal measure, made your pulse shoot up, your mind reel. 
• This music cracked the walls of what you thought was expressively possible.  You could now imagine a creative world that was locked until this music took possession of you. 
• If you’re a musician, you stood in bewildered awe at the craft: How the f* did they create this?! 
• If your car stereo was cranked at the moment, your life was in peril.
My first shot:
• “Drive-into-a-tree” music
• “Drive-off-the-road” music
• “Drive-into-a-ditch” music
Please help. 
Also, what music would you put in this category?

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Categories:   Composers, Musicians, Unified theory of music

Donald Stark's Story
Monkey mind

My Favorite Things

September 24, 2012

Hey kids!  Try this!  Place your vinyl copy of Coltrane’s My Favorite Things gently on your record player and drop the needle.  Now, sit down on your yoga mat like a good little lotus and close your eyes.  OK, there’s…
• Elvin Jones “on drums”: The wispy swirling world around us (like the planes overhead, birdsongs, traffic, kids at play)
• McCoy Tyner’s oscillating harmonies: Pranayam
• Coltrane’s soaring soloing: Monkey mind
OK? Fine.
Now set all that aside. Close it all out, along with your usual mantra or breath awareness routine.  Instead, hop on Steve Davis’s bass line — only Davis’s bass line — and take it for a 14-minute ride to the end. 
You want music to meditate by?  There, that’s music to meditate by.  Have fun trying to descend from that mountaintop!
And happy birthday to John Coltrane.

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Categories:   Meditation music, Musicians, Coltrane, Unified theory of music

Donald Stark's Story
This is your brain on music.

Mammas Please Let Your Babies Grow Up to Play Cowbells

September 18, 2012

Corroborating what we already knew, Northwestern Professor Nina Kraus’s study found that kids who actively play the cowbell — (OK, synecdoche disclosure: She actually said “a musical instrument”) — have improved working memory, greater ability to disambiguate sound (like speech) and to make sound-to-meaning connection.  More:

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Categories:   Commentary, Music education

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