Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Posts Tagged ‘Soundgarden

My Musical Journey (A Collaboration with a Purpose Post)

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Folks, World Music Day is later this month, June 21st to be exact. And the folks at Collaboration with a Purpose decided to write about what music is, why it matters, and why we care about it in our own words.

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I’m a musician. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you likely know this. I play the clarinet, the saxophone, and the oboe. I also compose music, though mostly for myself, and tend to think first in music, and only later in words.

I’ve played instruments since I was ten or eleven years old. Music always called to me. I loved the sound of a saxophone in particular, and remember telling my Mom that I would play that someday. (When my teacher in graduate school, Dr. Fought, said to me that the saxophone sounded the most like a human voice, I agreed with him. Perhaps that’s why I insisted I’d play it.) Whether it was someone like Clarence Clemons wailing away with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band or later, jazz musician Art Pepper’s clear and beautiful sound with advanced and interesting harmonic and rhythmic melodies (yes, you can have it all!), I was hooked.

So why did I end up on the oboe first, then?

I think they needed oboists, as it’s difficult to play well. (One of the common sayings, at least among musicians, about the oboe is that “it’s an ill wind that nobody blows good.”) And no one was going to tell me I couldn’t play a difficult instrument…that’s where psychology came into play, I suppose. (But I was only eleven, at most. You can see why this might appeal?)

I learned all sorts of things about the oboe. It has a beautiful sound if played well, a distinctive one, and for whatever reason, the sound I could get was a bit lower than most, tonally — this is very hard to explain in words, so bear with me — and a bit closer to the sound of an English horn, according to a few of my music teachers.

Personally, though, I think the reason my sound on the oboe was a little different was because I wanted to play the saxophone. And I wanted my oboe playing to be different, interesting, and memorable; I learned how to play jazz on the oboe, even, as there was one musical group — Oregon — that had a jazz oboist.

“But get to picking up the sax, Barb! That’s what we want to hear about…”

Yeah. Well, I wanted to play in jazz band. But they didn’t have arrangements for a jazz oboe player. And my band director, Mr. Stilley, believed that I could pick up the sax in a month or so. The school had an awful alto saxophone available to play; it was held together by string and tape. But I didn’t let this stop me, and I did indeed learn how to play the sax in a month as some of the skills I already had were transferable.

Then, I took up private lessons with two different instructors: one for the oboe, one for the sax. I found out quickly that the alto sax was the instrument most classical musicians play. Most of the good repertoire, including the Jacques Ibert Concertino da Camera and Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, was written for alto rather than tenor, baritone, or soprano saxophones. And of course I learned these pieces, along with one that later became one of my favorites, Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra.

I found that while I loved jazz, I loved classical even more. There were so many different ways to say things in classical music. From Robert Schumann’s Unfinished Symphony to Paul Hindemith’s Symphony for Band in B-flat, from Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (and it’s famous “Ode to Joy”), there were so many, many different ways music could be expressed.

And then, there was Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Bernstein, Brahms, and the one composer I sometimes loved, sometimes hated: Gustav Mahler. (Mahler’s music can be beautiful. It can make me laugh. And it can make me scratch my head and go, “What the Hell?”)

I listened to jazz, too. And pop music, as I found along the way that I rather liked the diverse influences Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and even Linkin Park brought to the table. (Linkin Park in particular was a very big surprise, as they combined some aleatoric elements along with rock-rap and solid music theory, with not one but two singers: the late Chester Bennington with his soulful voice that could turn to a scream in an instant and Mike Shinoda, who could rap or sing, depending on what was needed from him.) And Creed, too…something about them hit me, emotionally, and I understood why they became popular on the one hand quickly, and didn’t last on the other.

The best of music evokes emotion, no matter what genre you play or sing or hear. Whether it’s Alice in Chains’ “Rotten Apple” or Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days” or Linkin Park’s “In the End” (or, much later, “One More Light”), or the second movement of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, or Elvis (my mother’s personal favorite, and for all his fame, a truly underrated emotional stylist), or Art Pepper’s flights of fancy while playing “Over the Rainbow,” it is all about emotion.

See, words can only take you so far. Music, with all its complexity, all its chords, all its harmony, all its rhythm, can take you much farther.

It’s because of that, and my own, personal journey, that I decided my hero and heroine in CHANGING FACES were both clarinetists and both would use music as a way to survive incredible pain. Because music can describe things words cannot, music is able to heal a great deal more than words.

And that, I think, is why World Music Day is so important.

So do let music heal you, or inspire you, or at least give you the soundtrack to whatever you’re doing/writing/learning at the time. And let me know what music you move to, in the comments!

Also, please go take a look at my fellow collaborators, who’ve also written interesting takes on the subject (links will be posted as they go up, as per usual):

Nicolle K. — Intro Post

Nicolle K. (coming soon)

Sadaf Siddiqi — “A Musical Tribute

Mylene Orillo

Sonyo Estavillo

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Singer Chris Cornell Dies at 52

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Folks, yesterday I read the stunning news that singer Chris Cornell, frontman for Soundgarden and Audioslave and Temple of the Dog, had died at age 52. Cause of death: suicide by hanging.

I’ve read a great deal about Mr. Cornell’s passing since then. It appears that he was taking Ativan (generic name: Lorazepam), an anti-anxiety medication, and he admitted to his wife by phone shortly before his death that he may have taken a few too many.

I am familiar with Lorazepam. It is a central nervous system depressant. It works to calm an anxiety attack, and is a very good medicine…but taking too many can lead to despair and suicidal thoughts precisely because it depresses the central nervous system. (That is its function.)

I’m also familiar with playing concerts; I’ve been a musician since age 10 or so, and while I never did much singing, I am familiar with some of the things that tend to happen after concerts. So please, bear with me, as I try to discuss some of them.

(Note before I do, I do not know the circumstances beyond Mr. Cornell’s death any more than anyone else does via various published reports. All of this is speculation, and I can’t be certain I’m right. I say this as a disclaimer; everyone here should know I’m not a medical professional.)

First, when you don’t play well, it eats you up inside if you’re conscientious and care about music.

This does seem to apply to Mr. Cornell, because audience members at his last concert said he wasn’t at his best. And his wife said he was slurring his words (this according to a published report at Huffington Post) in their final conversation…all of this tells me, as a musician, that Mr. Cornell was anxious before his concert, so he took some Ativan as prescribed.

And to my mind, this makes sense. I have taken anti-anxiety meds before a big concert where I’ve had solos I’ve worried about. And I’m not a multi-million dollar artist, known for at least twenty-five years as a big-name act.

See, we all want to play or sing well, and do our level best.

In my case, I took the lowest possible dose, and refused to take any more despite still feeling nervous. I had a reason for this; my grandmother used to take this medicine, and I knew how it affected her. So I didn’t take any additional meds; I just waited it out, played my concert, and did my best.

I think taking the medicine at the very low dose prescribed was useful.

But if you don’t have someone in your background who’s taken that medicine, maybe you might think differently than I did. Maybe you might take an extra one. Or two.

And if you don’t realize that it’s a central nervous system depressant, or you don’t realize exactly how much it’s going to affect you after you hit one of these “performance lows” you can sometimes get…well, my best guess is that these two things combined to cause Mr. Cornell’s passing.

From published reports, it sounds like his family wants a toxicology test done to see exactly how much Lorazepam Mr. Cornell had in his system. That makes sense to me; I’d want to know it myself, in their place.

I hope they also are aware of the whole idea of performance highs and lows. Most musicians are, whether they talk about it much or not.

I’ve known about it since at least my mid-teens; sometimes after concerts, where I feel I’ve exceeded expectations (and my own are pretty high), I’ll feel extremely happy, and it takes hours to “come down” from that feeling. But the reverse is also true; if I finish a concert and think I’ve played much worse than expected, I’ll feel extremely awful. And it takes hours to regain my equilibrium.

That leads to a story…

Last year, in the summer concert season with the Racine Concert Band, I felt awful. It was hot, it was humid, my hands were aching and sore, and I felt ten steps behind the rest of the band. I nearly had an asthma attack on stage if I remember right, and I did not play well at all.

Hours later, I was still ruminating over this concert. I was wondering if I just shouldn’t play my saxophone any more. (Was this an overreaction? Sure. But I’m trying to explain how badly I felt in that moment.) I thought, for a brief time, that maybe I was just getting older, and there was nothing I could do to improve my performance.

It took a few hours of a friend talking to me to realize I was overreacting. (I’d usually call it “being silly,” but in this context, I don’t quite want to do that, because I don’t want any fans of Chris Cornell to think I’m saying he was being that way. He wasn’t.)

And I did reach out. I did say to my friend, “Hey, I had a bad concert and I’m feeling terrible.” And my friend patiently talked me through it…staying up until two a.m., even, to make sure I was going to be OK, before he and I stopped talking.

Not everyone can admit to that. Not everyone wants to…they think of it as a personal failing they need to hide. Or maybe they just don’t realize that this feeling of playing or singing badly is going to go away. There will be other, better concerts; there will be other, better days.

But when you are in the downward spiral, it’s really hard to get out of that. You start to think that your whole life has been a waste, that your musical talent and training is a waste, that you don’t have any reason for being, etc.

I am not saying that I know what happened to Mr. Cornell that night, mind you. I can’t say that.

I’m just saying what happened to me that night.

And I’ll tell you what; if I had had some anti-anxiety meds that night, I might’ve been tempted to take too many. I was in a terrible state. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that, or hear me, or realize I was in that rough of shape.

But I was. And for some reason, I was able to reach out.

My friend, whether he knows or not, may have saved my life that night. (Or at least my sanity.)

As for Chris Cornell…all I can tell you is that I wish he were still alive, still singing, and could still tell his family that he loves them.

I will miss Chris Cornell. I never knew him personally, but his songs, his musicianship, and the emotion that came through every time he sang spoke to me.

I hope wherever his soul is now, he is at peace and feels the outpouring of love and sympathy for himself and his family that has occurred since his tragic death.

And I hope his family will also feel that comfort. It isn’t enough — it will never make up for Mr. Cornell’s absence — but it may help them realize that they don’t grieve alone. (Though they will grieve harder, and longer…as a widow, I know that full well.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

May 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm