On Monday morning, I boarded a plane headed to Minnesota for a gig. Seems normal enough for my life lately. Usually, though, I’m the one organizing the gigs and dealing with logistics, and budgets, and personnel, and all the other peculiarities (stresses) of concert planning. It’s nice to not be in charge for a while. This gig is special…and coincidental. I’m playing the saxophone part in Brian Harnetty’s “Shawnee, Ohio.” Sooooo cool! This show was commissioned and premiered at the Wexner Center for the Arts and was an arts experience for the Pages Program a few years back. I wasn’t involved with the premiere, but learned about the show through working with the Pages Program this year as an artist. The thing that struck me the most about “Shawnee, Ohio” (before I had even listened to it online) was how everyone I spoke to about it loved the experience! I knew Brian a little already and had previously played some of his music, but I had a feeling that this chance to work together was a really special opportunity – so I was thrilled(!) when Brian asked me to collaborate. I had to get to Minnesota first, though.
It’s a small plane, which always makes me a little nervous for getting my saxophone on quickly. It can’t be checked below because it’s more precious to me than my left leg (ha!). I always try to be first in line to board so I can be sure to find an overhead space that fits my horn and is close to where I’m sitting. Every time I fly, I always remember the one time several years back when a flight attendant refused to let me even try putting it in an overhead space, deciding for herself that it wouldn’t fit. Nowadays, I use a case for the horn that has backpack straps so they see the straps on my shoulders first and just assume it’s a small backpack. That’s easier than having a conversation about it (or argument). Earlier that morning, I watched the woman at the luggage check-in toss my suitcase on a conveyer-belt and imagined it was my saxophone that she had casually thrown. Flying sucks for musicians.
I’m sitting in the back of the plane. The speakers above my head that the pilot talks at us with are buzzing like an industrial sander. Above that, I can faintly hear the sound of the air vent which softens the edge of the harsh speaker buzz – sort of like a coat of glaze on freshly sanded wood. The sound of the engine is unavoidable. That’s how you know you’re alive when you fly – because you can feel the sound. It feels like walking through mud. The sound of the engine is pulsing a bit and gently changes pitch as the plane shifts in altitude. I imagine this is what the inside of our bodies sound like as the kick-drum of the heart pushes life through the body – with the outward ears blissfully unaware of the percussive machine working just under the surface.
We just landed. It was a smooth flight. Now, a new cacophony begins. Everyone scrambles out of their seats to grab their carry-ons all so they can get one aisle closer to the exit – as they’re forced to stand and wait since everyone else is doing the exact same thing (yeah, that never works). I’m still in my seat (because, why bother?). There’s a familiar dissonant choir of beeping and clicking as a hundred cell phones return to life. Outside, the ground crew of another plane is throwing peoples’ luggage out of the plane and onto a conveyer-belt. One of the suitcases misses and falls maybe 20 feet straight to the ground. What if that were my saxophone… I still hate flying.
The airport tram is taking us from concourse C to the baggage claim. Seems like a big airport. Bigger than Columbus, at least. The tracks hug the side of the concourse. I guess I could have walked the same distance, but I’m lazy. I always expect trains to be really bumpy, but this was smooth. I can still hear the tracks underneath, though, which is nice. There’s a rhythm to the sound of the steel wheels rotating against the steel tracks. It makes a rattling sound about every second or so that sounds so much like opening and closing a grey metal filing cabinet that’s filled with useless folders and paper. As the tram goes around the curve of the building, it creaks as if it were complaining about having a bad back but still having to bend over to pick something up. As I’m daydreaming, the overly pleasant prerecorded voice is telling us what the next stops are. I wasn’t paying attention, but luckily my band-mates start to leave the train so I follow them mindlessly. Time to get to wherever the first rehearsal is.
We’re at Mairs Concert Hall at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota where our show and rehearsals are. The concert is part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series (which is really highly regarded in contemporary music circles…yeah, that’s a thing). Anyway, the acoustics in this hall are wild! I played a few notes on my saxophone and it sounded as effortless as a Toyota Prius but with the power of a classic Shelby Mustang GT 350. It’s a cozy feeling, like sticking your hand into a container of rice. It’s almost like you can crawl inside of the sound and live there. I know it’ll sound totally different with humans in the audience stealing my resonance and soaking up all my sound waves. Plus, we’ll be amplified. For now though, I’ll enjoy the warmth of my saxophone’s sound in this space. The walls have beautiful wood paneling all around. It reminds me of making architectural masterpieces with glue and hundreds of popsicle sticks as a kid. I wonder what they do for the acoustics in the hall?
We’re in the green room and it’s 15 minutes to showtime. I always get a little antsy before a performance. I tend to pace a lot when I’m nervous, so I move into the hallway so I can fidget in peace. You never really stop being nervous, you just get better at dealing with nerves. That’s what I tell myself, at least. I actually like to be a little nervous when I perform. It makes me feel hyper-aware and ready to react. I prefer my art with a side of spontaneity, and nervousness definitely adds the spontaneity…and sweaty palms. I’m putting warm air into the horn and softly improvising weird sounds and gestures just to keep my mind distracted. The rehearsals have gone so well. Brian’s music is really beautiful and “Shawnee, Ohio”, is no exception. This music really captures the spirit of this old Appalachian mining town and it skillfully taps into the subtle art of storytelling that we’ve replaced with so many other things…like emails and swiping and snapping and whatever. It’s tender and soft and fun and joyous and sad. Somehow the music simultaneously captures the narrative of the lives it’s describing, and yet, it’s completely trance-like. In a way, his music is just like him – soft-spoken yet witty, with the wisdom of an old soul, but very down to earth (which is funny because he’s so tall!). This music is so special and the audience is really lucky to experience this, but not as lucky as I am to be making this music on stage with Brian and the band. I know I have to fly home tomorrow, but right now I just want to live in the music for a while and forget about the daily hustle of life as an artist.