As I write this I am sitting in the coffee lounge of the Celebrity Millennium cruise ship gazing out the window at the rolling blue waves of the warm Caribbean Sea. Next stop St. Martin. Not for one minute do I take for granted the remarkable good fortune that the merciful lords of Karma have bestowed on me, except for the damn fuckin’ waiter that just spilled my cappuccino all over my new… oh never mind.
Steve at the end of the first performance of Fire Strings, Tokyo, July 24, 2002
I wanted to follow up on the Fire Strings gig. In a nutshell, it was a raging success, and I do mean raging.
I arrived in Japan and headed straight for Akihabara with the kids. That’s the place where towering buildings are filled with every kind of electronic gadgets you could possibly electrocute yourself with. It’s a gadget geek’s wet dream. The amazing thing to me is that with all these buildings, floor after floor of stuff, they all sell the same thing. I don’t get it but… whatever.
We had three days of rehearsal planned with the orchestra before the performances and I had one day off before that to work on the music some more even though my fingers were stiffing up. I was fighting the jet lag but I kept reviewing the music over and over in every spare minute I had. I was pretty confident as to how I would perform it but there is always the unknown such as string breakage, amp problems etc. My main concern was how I was going to change the pages without missing a beat while following the conductor etc. Rehearsals would tell all.
Usually in a situation like this I would memorize the music, and although I was almost there with this piece, it was so long and hard that I felt I needed the security of the music in front of me at all time. Rarely did it let up and give me enough time to change the page, so Anthony Garone (my studio assistant) and I devised a way to tape the pages so that 4 pages would be viewable at a time and with the simple move of pinching the center of the layout and pulling, I could change to the next 4 pages. Seems easy enough right? This also meant that all 15 pages of each movement were taped together so if you were to hold it from one end to the other it would measure approximately 14.5 feet long. That’s for each movement.
The other anxiety attack hanging over my head was following the conductor. Now, a rock musician has it easy because there is a drummer and everyone follows him/her and there is no real need to look at the drummer for the beat. In the orchestra you have a guy that stands up there and waves his arms around and is basically a performer in his own right. You need to understand all these smoke signals to know where each beat is. In conventional orchestra music there is usually a rhythm and pulse that helps the performer to know where the groove is but in “Fire Strings” anything that resembles a beat is purely coincidental. Rarely do rhythms and melodies line up or even start or fall on a beat and there is constant time signature changes, dynamic swings, accelerandos and ritardandos, etc. It was necessary for me to watch the conductor, read the music, look at my fingers occasionally and turn the pages, all while blowing smoke rings out my arse.
The first rehearsal was for the soloists and that meant viola, violin and myself. There is an exhilarating passage written for the three of us. The other two players were stunning in their ability to master their instrument and it was fascinating to stand next to them whilst they were ripping.
The conductor was the very well respected and famous Maestro Yutaka Sado. A tall, handsome and powerful Japanese man who’s ability to wield a baton rates with the greatest ever. I immediately connected with him and created a musical bond that squelched much of the concerns I was having. He was considerate and patient and had told me that the orchestra was concerned with the complexity of the music on their end too and in an odd way that gave me a sort of relief. So the first rehearsal went well although it was just the three of us.
The next day I walked into the rehearsal room and it was filled with world class musicians all ready to dig into this music. It was a bit intimidating but like any other high-pressure situation I find my mind saying “bring it on and make it intense”.
There was always a concern about how the guitar would meld with the rest of the orchestra, so they conceived and built this very interesting looking sound projection unit that resembled a ball of speakers. They placed this little whirlybird right in the center of the orchestra. To my surprise they liked to hear the guitar very loud at times. From my speaker I didn’t want my guitar to be too loud or scare them. I remember performing with the Seattle Orchestra once and they had it worked into the contract that if anyone in the orchestra felt I was too loud, that person would have the right to stand up and walk out at any time. Huh, me too loud?
Maestro Sado walked into the rehearsal room, picked up his baton and signaled the start and away we went. It’s hard to describe the experience. I found myself slamming away at the music and behind me was the thundering and sometimes whispering of this magnificent orchestra. Master Sado was the center of control and energy. He made it easy to follow his movements so I cranked along trying to focus on his movements.
The etiquette of an orchestra if they are compelled to compliment the soloist is not to clap but to gently tap their instruments with their bows and or stomp their feet in a gesture of approval. After the first movement there was this clamor from the orchestra that sounded like a buffalo herd. I respectfully bowed, and sat down. An incredible wave of relief and joy washed through my body as I felt tears rolling down my face.
Later master Sado told me that it’s rare that the orchestra react like that. This gave me the further support that I needed to get through the shows.
Finally the night of the first show had arrived and the backstage area was bustling. Orchestra soloists are treated with such dignity and respect that I was caught off guard a bit. The etiquette of the audience at a classical concert is very different than a rock concert too. They are much more reserved.
As I made my way onto the stage that old familiar feeling of inner energy, fierce confidence, focus and complete control encompassed my consciousness. It’s quite the rush really.
I walked onto the stage and the entire front row was filled with my most devoted Japanese fans and a few American ones as well. The music stand was about three and a half feet wide and on a vertical angle, which concerned me a bit but it was too late to try and adjust it..
The piece started and the first thing I noticed was that I could barely hear my guitar. Suntory hall is an acoustic wonder. There is no PA system but when the dynamics were soft you could hear a pin drop across the hall, literally. I tried to ignore the gigantic fluctuations in the guitar level as it came out of the whirlybird speakers but I really had no control over it. It was very distracting but you just gotta keep pounding it out. I had been in similar situations so many times that nothing mattered but delivering the music as best I could.
The first movement was raging along. Maestro Sado and I were connecting. The musicians were nailing it and right at the peak of the intensity I went to change the page and… With only one bar of music to change the page I pinched the center of it and pulled then frantically tried to reclaim the real-estate on the neck of the guitar. As if in slow motion out of a terrible Twighlight Zone episode the music slowly teetered upright and then swiftly flew off the stand, unfolding page after page as it chaotically tumbled to the floor where it finally lay dead.
My head tried to follow the pages as they unfurled (actually a pretty comical sight) and my heart sunk with the manuscript. The result was an accordion like mess at the feet of the stand. Oddly enough I kept playing, amazed that I was actually continuing to perform the music from memory. An analogy would be like when you learn to ride a bike for the first time after the training wheels were taken off and your Dad just let go of the seat and left you half scared to death and half ecstatic at the same time. I was wondering when I was going to fall but I kept on peddling with fear and joy. All the time I was wondering when my guitar tech would come out and put the music back on the stand but he didn’t. Richard Pike was sitting in the front row about 2 feet from me and I came very close to signaling to him for help.
Finally a break came and I picked the music up, which was no easy thing to do given that it was un-accordioned, and continued the piece.
The rest of the performance went fairly well and after the last note there was a dead silence in the place. The applauds slowly started and they were the kind that sounded like, is it over??? was it good??? was it crap??? was it genius??? was it…??? I got a real kick out of that.
After the show all the Sony people, fans, Ibanez people, guitar magazine journalists and editors etc. seemed to be a little stunned and confused. Some thought is was brilliant and that my performance was breathtaking and some thought it was… weird. As I made my way to the hotel I couldn’t help starting to feel a bit insecure and wondering if I had done the right thing by spending all this time learning this piece, and spending the money recording it, plus I actually thought I may have done some permanent damage to the delicate muscles in the forearm of my left hand because they hurt in a way I had never felt before. That turned out to be a touch of tendinitis that slipped away a week later.
I have a very sincere fan that through the years has become a friend. She has been to every show I have ever played in Japan and many shows in other parts of the world and she is always sitting or standing in the front row. She has always been very honest with me with her thoughts on my music. When she doesn’t like something she has no problem letting me know. She was in the front row sitting directly in front of me and when I returned to the hotel she was waiting in the lobby. I walked up to her and said hello and the first words out of her mouth were, “That was the worst shit I ever heard”.
I was stunned and could only laugh. It was so very unlike her to say anything like that and to use a profanity was way out of character.
Stunned, I walked to the elevator and went to my room feeling like an emotional truck hit me. My feeling is that the music is sheer brilliance and that my performance was as best as I could do, and quite good at that, but there I sat on my bed thinking how am I going to get through the next two performances. She called from the lobby but I could barely even muster a word.
The next day she had sent me a beautifully descriptive e-mail that described the concert as brilliant and wonderful and that there was nobody else that could have played it etc. It went on and on to describe the richness of the music and how someday she would like to see me performing my own music with the orchestra etc. She has such a sincere and passionate way of writing that it deeply touched me, but at the end of it she wrote, “but it was the worst seat I ever had”!
The amazing thing was that the night before I had misunderstood her broken English and thought she said “It was the worst shit I ever heard”. She went on to say that the music stand was directly in her way and all that she could see of me for the entire performance was from my knees down.
At first I felt like a heel and then I thought how funny it was that this misunderstanding could have taken place. This reinforced my confidence about the performance and I took to Suntory Hall that second and third night with courage and pride. The second performance was much better. They finally got the sound down and the third performance was the best and I captured it all on digital hard drives in audio form and also a 2 camera video shoot to be edited and released sometime in the future when I have some other music that is somewhat in the same ballpark that could round out an entire album of frequency pandemonium.
All in all “Fire Strings” was a valuable and honored experience. The orchestra, conductor and composer were so thrilled with the way it turned out that they invited me to perform “Fire Strings” and one of my own pieces when they come to San Francisco and Los Angeles sometime in 2005. Hey, maybe by then I can play it perfectly.
Gotta go, St. Martin just came into view and I can smell the coconut palms wafting in the warm wind.