For those who don't know, the term refers to a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA, and my answer was equivocal: "yes, but with an asterisk".
Identity is a very tricky beast for me, especially since I've woven my own from many disparate strands. There are very few identifiers that I ascribe myself unconditionally, while claiming each as a part of my whole self. Rennie? Asterisk. Busker? Asterisk. North American? Asterisk (growing up among certain Old World Italian rituals left me with a sense of otherness).
The one label to which I could wholeheartedly ascribe, through the course of the conversation, was artist. Part of that is the vagueness of the term itself, but more probably lies in my longstanding efforts to embrace the term. "Artist" is so culturally loaded that I spent years adapting and shaping my conception of the label until I could embrace it as my own.
Apparently those exertions worked, and I can't decide whether I need to expand my efforts to other characterizations or to accept that I'm neither fish nor fowl in the other dimensions.
I'm leaning toward acceptance.
It's an exhilarating feeling, and one of the reasons I keep coming back to Italy and, more broadly, a reason I'm an entrepreneurial musician. Seeing potential and bringing it to life make my heart pound as I seize whatever opportunities pass my way.
It may be great and it may be crap, but this part here is what I live for.
The biggest competitor, by far, is high medieval architecture, roughly 1000-1200, but it's a fascination that was shared by many in the sixteenth century. I've read (I'm a bad academic, forgetting a source) that many characteristics of renaissance architecture are borrowed as much from Romanesque as from Roman, as a locally-flavoured, artistically-political choice to emphasize local Tuscan tradition over International Gothic.
Baroque music and sculpture are also high on my list, but many of my favourite aspects can also be found in sixteenth century antecedents. The basso continuo that distinguishes baroque music makes its appearance in the sixteenth century, and layers of polyphonic arrangement are not as universal as they're often perceived. And, while baroque sculpture has an energy and movement that its forebears do not, the realism and humanity of sixteenth century sculpture bring stone to life almost as vividly.
The sixteenth century is part of the Early Modern period in academic discourse, bridging the gap between medieval and modern, and that's precisely why I love it. It retains enough of earlier time periods to feel exotically interesting, while close enough to our modern sensibilities to be approachable. As a performing artist this is key, since my goal is to bring historical music to modern audiences and approachability helps. There is enough that is familiar in sixteenth century art to make a spice out of that which is foreign.
The basic concept of the album was that it would be majority historical, focusing on but not limited to 15-17 century music. The other parts would be original and Irish music, with one track by Turlough O'Carolan straddling the divide. More specifically, I wanted to make the album roughly equal parts renaissance, baroque, original, and Irish, and I came pretty close. The final track list is:
Douce Dame Jolie (G. de Machaut, 1300 - 1377)
The Faerie Round (A. Holborne, 1545 - 1602)
The Rights of Man (traditional)
Augury (V. Conaway)
Fantasie 34 & 35 (F. Canova da Milano, 1497 - 1543)
Planxty Burke (T. O'Carolan, 1670 - 1738)
Le Souvenir (R. Morton, 1430 - c. 1479)
Corrente Terza (A. Piccinini, 1566 - 1638)
Cooley's Reel (traditional)
Volte VII & VIII (M. Galilei, 1575 - 1631)
Kyrie (anonymous, Faenza Codex)
Danza All'Improvviso (V. Conaway)
Toccata per spinettina sola (G. Frescobaldi, 1583 - 1643)
Falla con Misuras a.k.a. La Spagna (G. Ebreo da Pesaro, c. 1420 - c. 1484)
Replica Variata Della Corrente Terza (A. Piccinini, 1566 - 1638)
Foxhunter's Jig (traditional)
Allemonde in Em (J.S. Bach, 1685 - 1750)
Epiphany (V. Conaway)
I've listened to it a lot over the past two days; I'm pleased at how it's turned out and excited to share it with the world!
The best of the lot is Creeque Alley, also arguably the best thing ever done by The Mamas and the Papas (my father and I agree on this point, a rare occasion when it comes to culture). I can see my friends and I in its lyrics, and I want to let you know what I hear in this song.
"John and Mitchy were gettin' kind of itchy / Just to leave the folk music behind"
Almost every band hits this point eventually, whether it's a folk band who wants to expand or a cover band that wants to write original music.
"Zol and Denny workin' for a penny / Tryin' to get a fish on the line"
I'm very fortunate in my career that I've moved beyond this point, but I remember well the days of making 50 cold calls to try and get a "maybe".
"In a coffee house Sebastian sat / And after every number they'd pass the hat"
This is a bit of an inside reference to anyone who hasn't performed for tips. Frequent hat passing will maximize giving, but at the expense of audience goodwill. People will give more but resent you for it, and is usually a sign that you're hurting for money.
"Zolly said 'Denny, you know there aren't many / Who can sing a song the way that you do, let's go south' / Denny said 'Zolly, golly, don't you think that I wish / I could play guitar like you'"
This is common in show business, and is one reason performers are famously insecure. We wouldn't be on stage if we didn't seek external validation, and it's easy to get intimidated by the strengths of our friends and colleagues.
"When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps"
This is everywhere: show business is a very incestuous little dating pool. People tend to crush on people they work with, in general, and there's even a word for it: "showmance"
"Make up, break up, everything is shake up
Guess it had to be that way"
I've lived this: when a bandmate calls and says "we have to talk" it's just as scary and portentous as when a lover says it.
"Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted"
There's an entire genre of breakup songs written about agents, from Queen's Death On Two Legs to Sara Bareilles' Love Song.
"Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely
And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality"
And there's always a point near the end of a project when it seems simultaneously that there's nothing more to give at the same time that it's surreal to have made it to the final push.
At this point in my career I've come across enough music that I already have a solid foundation: for example, I know that lute pieces often convert well to the dulcimer and wikipedia has a list of composers whom I look up in a library. It helps that, at this point, I can often spot at a glance what pieces will translate well*, through various characteristics on the page. Every city I visit involves a trip to the local university library, and I almost always come across a new gem. And there's a massive book series of transcribed notation from the fifties on 14C polyphonic music, common to almost every conservatory, which I mine rather a lot.
For my current project I pulled two pieces straight out of music history textbooks. And I know that Edmund Bunting collected and arranged a lot of celtic music in the early 19C, combining traditional tunes with classical arrangements, so I went to his books for my next round of Irish music. Normally I get my celtic repertoire from fiddle music books and websites, which are plentiful, but I wanted a more formal style to match all the baroque repertoire on the next cd. I've been trying to stretch myself by using complicated historical arrangements as a way to tweak my style, which has started feeling stale and in need of different influences.
And, of course, I can't discount the input of my friends: several of them have published books of music, and others who have found treasures they've kindly shared with me.
*At a glance I look for lots of eight notes, with minimal half and whole notes, because of the lack of sustain on the dulcimer. The lute also has this problem, which is one reason its repertoire works so well (another being the similar range of the two instruments).
Specifically, the Italians have responded very well to my original material, but Renaissance Faire audiences prefer the Celtic stuff. Because of that, I've whittled my originals down to a dozen tunes fresh in my head and allowed the rest to get rusty. Now I'm dusting off a lot of that music and letting the jigs and reels atrophy a bit.
I honestly think that one reason I remain so invigorated in my performance career is because of this annual repertoire shift. It keeps me from getting bored, and on my toes!
I pride myself on the ability to give myself permission. I struggled with the timing to quit my last day job until my at-the-time wife told me to go for it, and I will forever owe her a debt of gratitude. In the years since, I've grown to the point where encouragement is still extremely helpful, from those who encouraged me to make my first leap into European busking, discussed my CD repricing (to which I ascribe a much lower decline than my colleagues), to my ideas for South American tours, but the ultimate permission comes from inside myself.
It's deeply liberating, and I'm extraordinarily thankful.
That's the high-level, meta stuff. The reason I was inspired to write this post, aside from a very invigorating conversation yesterday, is because right now I'm looking at a specific way the accountant enables the artist.
Whenever I set my budgets, I take a very conservative approach to profit projections: I look at the lowest of my last three years, take off 10%, and then round down. If I'm trying something new, I use this process by analogy (modeling San Diego busking off of Seattle, for example, or extrapolating Argentina tips from Italy). Once I can tailor my expenses to meet that projection, the artist off and running!
Any music project I begin has two components: an artistic and a business side. I may toy with an idea as a hobby, but to get serious requires a prospective audience or I never really get motivated. Similarly, ideas that seem great moneymakers but don't inspire me will never get off the ground.
For example, I started playing classical music because I was looking for a challenge. Despite years of hearing "you should play X", it wasn't until I got excited by Bach's lute suites that I expanded to Beethoven's Für Elise (or at least the section that works on dulcimer, which is conveniently also the most recognizable part). I'm not financially motivated, in general, but the idea of broadening my audience conspired with the fun I was having with the music.
For years I felt called to Argentina, and I took a vacation there in 2011 only to pine for my instrument and ache to busk. This inspired my return tour, but I also went to South America to improve my Spanish and therefore my exposure to a rising segment of the US population. And, in addition to the thrill of resurrecting obscure music, I'm learning neglected 17th C composers to break into Early Music performance venues (a 1650 dulcimer tuning lines up nicely with music of the time).
In every case I'm working from an artistic impulse, but tailored to a practical end. It's part planning, part rationalization, but I try and make every project do double duty. The commercial aspect isn't separate from what excites me: a strong business rationale actually makes me more excited for the projects.
I've found myself gradually growing comfortable describing myself as an "artist", and what I do as "art". It's taken awhile, and it doesn't help that the terms come with a pretentious connotation, but I'm coming to embrace the idea (or maybe I'm embracing pretension, but that's a different post).
Part of the process has been the realization that, in addition to being a musician, my life itself is my medium. I find as much excitement in brainstorming my schedule as I do concert and album programs.
Another part had been my embrace of more formal music: I get much less imposter syndrome when I'm playing Bach than performing my own compositions, which then allows me to see being a composer in a light more flattering than "writing to avoid all the things I can't play". And all this, taken together as a musician, composer, and lifestyle performance artist, bring home the idea that "art" is indeed what I do.
Art is communication. One of the most important characteristics of an artist is therefore the ability to relate to one's audience. This is one reason why fantastic early albums are succeeded by much less distinguished work for many pop musicians: it's much harder to identify with your audience once you're a millionaire living in a Hollywood mansion (the ability to write an album without meddling from the record label also helps).
One ironic benefit to my career path is that this particular problem is not a worry for me. I do, however, know folk musicians who have lost respect for their own music and, by extension, their audiences. This I don't understand at all, because part of what excites me about learning new music is the idea that it will excite someone else too.
"Scratch a hippie and you'll find a trust fund"
First I bristled. Then I pondered. Then I chuckled.
I frequently count my blessings, and I have to acknowledge the role of my parents in my life and career. I've been too proud to take money from them, but they sent me to grad school after feeling guilty about helping out only my sisters, and they've paid for my braces after forgoing them in my childhood. And, while my undergraduate education was paid through scholarships, they did give me the car and, later, my college fund as the down payment on a house while paying for much of my wedding. Since my divorce, their house has been my home base and the seat of my office and business, no matter how rarely I turn up (which braces appointments have increased a lot).
I've downplayed this, partially for the aforementioned reasons of pride, and partially because our culture idealizes the "self-made man". I have issues with the concept, in general, but particularly for artists.
A friend of mine owes much of her success as a singer-songwriter to the husband who kept a roof over her head in the early years. Another is making a serious push as an author, after years as a successful performer, and her boyfriend is making that financially possible. A third friend, childless in a lucrative career, donates liberally to her friends who are following dreams that don't quite cover their expenses. And, much as Amanda Palmer preached in her TED talk, "the art of asking", patronage may be the savior of art as much now as in the renaissance.
A friend of mine has had a similar trajectory in her music career, and it's been worrying me lately. She had a professional crisis of confidence in 2008, recovered in 2009, but had another in 2013. I've been nervous that, since my big crisis was in 2011, her second was foreshadowing another of mine.
And then I remembered that 2011 wasn't my first crisis: 2006 was, which inspired me to begin busking internationally. Maybe she isn't ahead of me, but behind me, after all.
It's all superstition, regardless, but this analysis leaves me feeling a bit better about the road ahead: 2011 was hard and I'm in no hurry to revisit that state of mind.
I recently saw a friend asked, in an online forum, what choice she had made that led to all of the other unorthodox decisions in her life. This is mine.
It was a Saturday at the Ohio State University. I had made a few new casual acquaintances through the campus organization that put on the Renaissance fair every May, and had been invited to spend some time that afternoon hanging out. I was having a lovely time, and we geeked out creating characters for a White Wolf Vampire: the Masquerade roleplaying campaign. When I left the next day, having stayed up all night gaming, I told them to give me a call the next time they were going to play.
11 PM on Monday night my phone rang. I had been joking with my roommate as we got ready for bed, and was about to turn in when I took the call. "We're gearing up to play again, do you want to come over?"
I said yes, and in that moment my life changed. Everything I've done since has been building on that decision.
I'm a musician with some art-intensive hobbies (museums, sight-seeing, and having epic friends), and I've noticed that art often moves in waves of simplicity vs complexity*. To take the most obvious example:
60s music and the folk revival were simple
Progressive rock and disco got complex and excessive in performance
Punk was a rebellion back to simplicity
Hair bands revived complexity and grandeur
Grunge was another reversion to simplicity.
As a medievalist and architecture buff, I've noticed the same pattern in building styles.
Romanesque was simple, Gothic excessive, Renaissance reverted to simple, Baroque revived excess, and Neo-classical more simplicity.
As I'm learning and rehearsing a variety of early music I'm enjoying the pattern once again between ars antiqua, ars nova (and subtilior), early renaissance (simplified rhythm), renaissance polyphony, and baroque.
I've seen similar patterns in fashion and painting, and find the whole thing fascinating.
*this is a deep simplification, of course
In response I turned my attention to a small project I had been toying with, adapting medieval and renaissance music to dulcimer pretty much note for note. I figured that artistic ambition might fill the void left by professional accomplishment, that difficult and unusual music would challenge me in new and exciting ways.
I was right.
I am listening to the result of these ideas, the final edit of my upcoming Wanderlust album, and I am thrilled. That which brought back my passion happens to sound pretty awesome to boot. In keeping with the title, this album "wanders" more than most, as a pretty even mixture of Celtic, medieval, renaissance, and original music, and I think the combination works really well. It certainly has been fun to create!
Because the arrangements are more complex, however, I'm not off book yet on four pieces. I therefore haven't been able to premiere them as part of my renaissance festival act, and they haven't seen a live audience yet. I'm breaking them out at an SCA event this weekend, which is really exciting. It's a bit frustrating that I haven't road tested them more, but I'm looking to get things on tape before investing in the next step.
Another next step, of course, is starting to learn music for the album to follow. I'm already building a set list as a continuation of the research I've done so far, and hoping to mix memorization drills of old music into my new music rehearsals. I've gotten a lot of really profound compliments from artists I respect this year, and I feel I'm on the verge of breaking through to a new skill threshold. This corresponds to my guesstimate of approaching 10,000 hours of rehearsal, the hypothetical delineation of expertise.
I'm terribly excited by all this, and am eager to record in a way I've rarely felt; it's usually more of a chore than an adventure. This time is different and I'm champing at the bit!