Monday, October 15, 2012

My Medium

I think most, if not all artists search for their medium, their style, their place. Studying the work of Clyfford Still, it was apparent that he searched for a unique style that would be his own. He vigorously protected his work as he sought to please one person, the artist within. "I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit."

I’m not comparing myself to Still or to any established artist. No one will build a museum or a concert hall for my work. I won’t sell a lot of albums or tracks on iTunes. You won’t see my movies on TV or in the theaters. Like Still, I work to please myself. Yet what artist would not appreciate recognition and praise … it’s a natural need in most humans.

I think I have found my medium. It took a lot of years and a lot of experiments and trial and error … mostly error. The journey began in the home of Mrs. Pennock, my mother’s piano teacher, and now mine. I was ten or twelve. I don’t recall if it was my idea or my mom’s, most likely my mom’s. Anyway, Mrs. Pennock often commented to my parents on what a waste of their money the whole thing was. I refused to practice. I would rather be outside playing rather than inside playing. Besides, the songs I was taught didn’t interest me.

My mother was a very accomplished keyboardist. She played piano beautifully. We had a Steinway concert grand. A magnificent instrument, although I didn’t realize it at the time. It came with a house my grandparents bought, and we got it. But what my mom really wanted was an organ, a Hammond organ. She had played on pipe organs as a child, and really preferred the organ to the piano. But Hammonds cost more than a new car back in the fifties. We were “comfortable” economically, but not rich … not by a long shot.

Finally, by hook and crook, and selling the Steinway, my dad bought my mom a small Hammond M-101. Not a B-3 or C model by any means. It was called a spinet organ, and didn’t have as many keys as its bigger brothers and sisters and only one octave of foot pedals, but it was a Hammond, harmonic draw-bars and all.

Still I didn’t get it as I played “Little Brown Jug” or Bach’s simple pieces when I actually did practice. Then, one day, I discovered the organ could play “ROCK.” There was a forgettable instrumental song on the radio called “Road Runner.” It was a simple I – IV – V blues progression and it was so clear what the notes were on the lead organ in that forgotten band that I was able to duplicate it. Booker T established the organ as a rock instrument, and the only thing holding me back (besides lack of talent) was the fact my mom wouldn’t let me take the organ out of our house.

I’ve never had much of an ear, playing more with my brain. Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t trained due to lack of practice. So I still hadn’t discovered my medium. Somewhere in my junior year of high school, I bought a Sears Silvertone electric guitar (actually made by Harmony ... an adequate beginners instrument). Now this was real rock legend material, although I was more of a folkie … not in inclination, but in talent. The slower paced folk music matched my skill set better. I improved in college, through practice … who’d a thunk it? I became a competent “rhythm” guitarist and, as far as that goes, a rhythm keyboardist. I purchased first a Magnavox spinet organ and finally a VOX Jaguar. Now we’re cooking.

I couldn’t do the fast arpeggios and most melody lines escaped me unless I practiced them judiciously. I played keyboards mostly because everyone else played guitar. Bass guitar might have been a success, but I didn’t try that until I was sixty years old. Now I play a little bass, along with a little guitar and a little keyboards. I’m a “little talent” musician. If I was only lousy on the drums, I could become a one-man-lousy-band.

One talented co-player of mine, Roy Parker, owner of a fine Hammond B-3, once told me he had never seen a player do chords with the left and right hands in the manner I used. I explained to him that I was a “rhythm organist,” the equivalent of a rhythm guitar player. I was not a “lead” player. My favorite songs were the ones with big chords … four finger and even five finger chords … like “Spooky” by the Clasics IV. You know, the minor sevenths, major sevenths, diminished and augmented. Songs like “Spooky” or “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” were a perfect match for my style of one chord per measure … both hands … lots of fingers.

Rather quickly I learned my musical skills were not behind a keyboard or guitar, but behind the mixing board in a studio, even if I had to build my own recording system. My little Sony TC-200, later augmented by a Yamaha mixer and a few microphones from Radio Shack were my entrance into studio engineering.

I also designed and built amplifiers and modified a few systems for friends. I repaired Fender amps, fixed broken microphone and guitar cables, and was a general tech roadie type. I could convert Hammond organs, removing the original equipment amplifiers and substituting other options. That made the organ smaller and lighter while making it louder … a characteristic much appreciated by rock musicians. I modified Leslie Speakers, and I knew how to design crossovers to send the sound to the appropriate speaker based on frequency. Roy built a dual Leslie with a large cabinet on the base and the top was the cut-off top half of a small Leslie. That was set up with a three way crossover. I have never seen anything like that since.

When I got out of the Navy, it was my plan to go to work for a large music store in Spokane, Washington as their in-house organ technician. I told people I was going to be an “organ repairman.” That brought a few laughs from the double entendre. Alas, that plan fell through, and I ended up in Colorado where I had a small home business fixing amplifiers, microphones, and even repairing guitars (the electronics, not the Luthier parts.)

All this time I expanded my fleet of reel-to-reel tape decks adding a two-track and a four-track Teac, adding mixers and microphones, and producing cassette tapes of local musical acts. I was associated with a semi-famous musician, Casey Anderson. (Look him up on Wiki.) At one point we rented space and built a temporary studio where we produced the album “Josh White, Lovingly Remembered,” a tribute to another Colorado musician friend. Josh is a little more famous than Casey, and I never recorded Josh, but I did record members of his band. All this was a effort of love, not my day job.

In parallel with this was my photography. It started with a camera my parents bought me while I was in elementary school and. later, my dad gave me his old 35mm camera while I was in high school. I became a serious photographer, recording everything from drag races in Lewistown to ports of call in the Atlantic while I was in the Navy. Over the years I bought and sold cameras and equipment and played the happy dad recording his family’s growth and recreation. Sometime around 1998 I got my first video camera and added more family scenes to the collection … this time with sound.

The digital revolution changed both my hobbies. I started to build a digital recording studio about the same time I got my first digital camera, a Sony. As new and more powerful equipment came to market, I was usually first in line to purchase and add to my slowly growing studio. I bought professional video equipment on the used market and started videotaping various events from concerts to weddings to stage shows. In my audio studio I recorded local bands, often traveling to the venues with my 16-track hard disk recorder and other portable … although just barely portable … equipment. I added lights and other accessories to my video studio collection and purchased high end DSLR cameras.

Today I own several hard shell cases full of Shure and other name brand microphones and even a Neumann.

But I still hadn’t found my muse, my medium. Then I started putting all these separate focus areas into a single medium. It started with the annual graduation celebration at our church. The individual who used to produce the “slideshow” of the kids … using a VCR and VHS tape, “retired.” I got the job. I created my first slideshow using iMovie on my iMac. iLoved it. I’ve now been doing the annual twelve-minute slideshow video for over ten years. I love to hear the audience enjoy the happy presentation, but who couldn’t please an audience with pictures of their own kids. I always concluded those slideshows with my borrowed trade mark: "A Miracle Production! … If it’s a good production, then it’s A Miracle!" That always gets a laugh too. Just last week a did a wedding anniversary slideshow / video and the client specifically ask for the closing titles to include my little joke.

I improved my skills and added new bells and fancy whistles. I added the Adobe Creative Suite to my software mix and built a studio with dedicated equipment for sound and for video, as well as a print design and direct disk label printing. Now I’ve found it fun to go back into my library of still pictures and video, combine it with music … some of which I’ve produced, but mostly music from other sources … and produced “SlideShows.”

This is my medium: a combination of still pictures … but in motion … with accompanying music to tell a story with a beginning and an end. It is a rewarding medium, and through the digital tools of Facebook and YouTube, I’ve been able to share my work. I also produce DVDs complete with cover artwork. I’ve done memorials for funerals, weddings, anniversary slideshows, and travelogues. I’ve presented them live at senior events and nursing homes.

One aspect of the art is graphics for the DVD or CD itself. I’ve used everything from canned disk label graphics to labels made up of screen grabs from the video to some rather good graphics I’ve developed in Photoshop and Illustrator. I am a master with computer tools like Premiere Pro and Photoshop, a serious student of, and I could teach these topics myself … something I’ve considered. The graphic with this blog is a CD cover I created using Photoshop and Illustrator with a leaf I spent weeks collecting to get just the long skinny leaf I envisioned. It is a fun combination of art and science and software techniques. I’ve actually done half a dozen sample CD covers for my granddaughter's songs. (Did I mention that she is a talented singer and song writer ... winner of the 2012 "Frederick Idol" competition … I guess the music talent skipped right from my mother to her.)

Let’s take inventory. I love to travel. I love music. I love to take photographs. I shoot video. I try to do graphic arts and label designs … still a lot of work needed to improve that final skill set, but I’ve learned to practice. Finally, I love to tell stories. Some of that is here in my blog as stream of consciousness writing my life for all to see, but I also love the stories made up of a combination of my pictures and video with music and nice digital effects … thank you Ken Burns. (I’ve had many people comment how they enjoy my slideshows precisely because of the motion … they’re not just static pictures flashed on the screen, they have movement. Yea, that’s right, motion pictures.)

So there you have it. I’ve found my medium. It is not canvas and brush. It is not oils and pastels. It’s not music performance. It isn’t even pure photography. It is that mode of expression that adds movement and sound to still photos. I think Still would be proud of me. He was his own man. I’m trying to become my own.

If you would like to see/hear/experience some of my slide shows, they are on YouTube. Here is my most recent work:

Pinky and the Floyd at the Bozeman Public Library 

Or go to my YouTube page and check out some other slide shows, interviews, and misl. "art."

My music productions, including a few that I actually perform in are stored away on the web here: 

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