I know, you’re thinking….why is Zoë posting a recording of the Star Spangled Banner???
Let me explain. It’s a long story. Sorry.
Two years ago I got a call from Chris Wiltsee of Bandpage. He was on the board of the SF Chapter of the Recording Academy (you know, the GRAMMY folks) and said, “Hey, there’s an opening on the board in the next election. You should apply!”. I never paid much attention to the GRAMMYs honestly except for the years that Imogen Heap was nominated (I was on tour with her in Europe when she got the news in 2007, and onstage with her again when she got the news for 2010), but my post-production friend Count was already on the board. So was Minna Choi from the Magik Magik Orchestra and some other music folks I vaguely knew. I live far from the city in the forest and often my only interaction with other artists is through the interwebs. I said yes.
Since then, separately from the Academy, I’ve unwittingly become involved in larger ongoing discussions on topics like statutory royalties, streaming payouts, DIY careers, etc. I don’t think my position on issues, when I have one (usually I’m just figuring things out for myself), lines up with that of any organization, as far as I can tell. It’s hard to say what I am: an advocate for the little guy? a gadfly? a naif? It is certainly true that it is easy for me to be a ‘renegade’ when I’m not dependent on anyone and very few people are dependent on me. But I like it that way.
Anyway, I am curious about how sausages are made, and of course I have opinions, so when the opportunity came up to go to Congress for the Academy’s annual Grammys on the Hill event, I signed up. Yeah, I want to meet my elected representatives! I planned to blend in with the rest of the SF Chapter and get a glimpse of what lobbying looks like. I don’t blend in very well apparently, because shortly after I signed up to go, Daryl Friedman, the Academy’s advocacy chief in DC, asked me if I would play the national anthem at the awards ceremony the day before.
I think I’ve talked about this before, but fancy galas and I are not a good fit. Put me in a meeting room or a beanbag lounge where we can talk big ideas, but to stand awkwardly in a party with a cocktail in my hand making polite smalltalk? Let’s just say that I’ve been known to hide in the bathroom. Luckily, I have this thing I do with the cello and I totally use it as a crutch. Playing the cello at an event is like getting magic fairy dust sprinkled on my head. Suddenly, I have confidence! I can go and talk to anyone! I said yes.
But now I had to learn the national anthem. I have a difficult relationship with patriotic songs. Maybe it started when my family moved to America when I was 10 and I didn’t want to go, but in high school I stubbornly refused to sing the anthem and opted out of the Pledge of Allegiance. So first, I tried playing it straight, in a variety of key signatures. This was unsatisfying. The music just didn’t mean anything to me and I couldn’t muster up the necessary amount of cheese and bombast to pull it off. It’s that kind of piece: major key, essentially a hymn. Maybe I wasn’t patriotic enough to play this thing? Then there are the words. Boy, did I pore over those words. How to match the music with the meaning of the words? Eventually I tired of playing the melody (everyone in the house was tired of it too) and I started improvising. But when I focused on rendering those words into notes, I ended up with horror movie music. I decided to give it a rest for a week and work on my own damn music, which arguably is what I should be doing anyway.
Over the weekend I thought maybe I should educate myself in how other people had rendered this vexing song. I fired up Youtube and watched Jimmy Hendrix, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Nirvana (theirs was my favorite actually…a staggering Kurt Cobain plays the anthem while the rest of the band trashes all their gear). Watching the endless variations I came to the realization that the most patriotic way to play the Star Spangled Banner is to make up your own damn version. Only in America can you remake the national anthem to fit YOU. That was the permission I needed. I spent a day (the horrible day after the horrible Boston Marathon) working out a looped and layered version of the Star Spangled Banner.
The result is rough around the edges, has moments of hopeful exuberance, doubt and a little bit cheese in the middle. Just like me. Just like America.
We have our issues, but this is a great place to be.
(p.s. this is essentially a live recording and isn’t mastered or anything proper like that, so listen at your own risk.)
Next post, my day in Congress…..