Yoko Miwa Trio fans who liked the posts From Key to Ear and Note by Note, or who watched the short Youtube video tour of the Steinway factory we shared on our Facebook page some months back, would appreciate the 2007 Ben Niles documentary Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.
“L1037″ in the title is the serial number of a specific piano, one of Steinway’s concert grands, and the film follows the year-long process of crafting the instrument. From planing the first boards and crafting the sounding board to stretching the strings and several iterations of tuning, the film interviews craftsmen and women from throughout the process. While mass-produced pianos exist, the Steinway concert grands are as far from mass-produced as you can get, and you can see many parts of the instrument stamped with the serial number as they move along the production process, because each piano has its own character, and all the parts must fit together perfectly.
The film shows the seasons change as L1037 is slowly crafted, but it intersperses scenes following this particular instrument with scenes from the rest of the Steinway factory and scenes of musicians testing and selecting instruments. Located in the Bronx, the factory is both a hometown anchor and an international meeting place. Many of Yoko’s experiences, in Japan and the U.S., at Berklee, and at numerous music festivals, have demonstrated the same thing the film shows – that love of music is a global feeling that can bring people together.
One worker described having sneaked in to play between stacks of lumber in the factory yard as a kid, while many of his coworkers took the job shortly after immigrating. From the way these workers talk about what they do — and, in many cases, have done for decades — it’s clear that a lot of love goes into those pianos. To be sure, the film doubles as a promotion for the company, and it’s not designed to be the kind of documentary that exposes anything that may be wrong, but there’s a ring of truth in the way these workers describe their craft.
Other than the lovely background music (mostly classical, but some jazz), one of the best parts of “Note by Note” is the intimate details of life at the factory: footage of a man blowing sawdust out of his hair with some sort of air hose, the personal items tacked up on the walls of a tuner’s workshop. The film is slow-moving at parts, but never dry, and one that all piano enthusiasts should check out.
Back in July we had a marathon two days of recording sessions for the score of the movie “Midlife,” which Yoko composed. That’s a very short time in which to record a score, but we did it – 39 songs in two days! The ensemble included Yoko Miwa, Will Slater, Scott Goulding, Andy Voelker, Connor Dugan, and Joyce Cheung. The session was done with all live musicians, breathing life into Yoko’s compositions.
Midlife actor, writer, and director Greg Travis came out from Hollywood for the session. Up until that point, he had only heard Yoko’s demos of the music, made in the music notation software on her computer. He really liked the demos and Yoko was worried he might be married to the way the recordings originally sounded. Working together was a new experience, since Greg’s expertise is in film and Yoko’s is in music, and while he had a specific feel for how the music should sound, he didn’t know the terminology to explain. But, Greg was thrilled with the warm, live sound, and after recording all 39 pieces, he’s just as thrilled with the outcome, and so are we.
Thanks to sound engineer Peter Kontrimas’s hard work, the mixing of the sound and mastering was almost complete as of last week. It was a pleasure working with him, Greg, and all of the musicians on the project.
We can’t wait to see Midlife when it comes out – when we receive a copy of the DVD, we intend to have our own screening party somewhere here in the Boston area. It will be open for any of our fans to attend, so stay tuned!
For those of you in the Cape Cod area, don’t miss this opportunity to catch the Yoko Miwa Trio live! For those of you within driving distance of Cape Cod, this is a perfect excuse to check out the beautiful town of Falmouth, which has a lively main street and 68 miles of coastline, during the peak season for fall foliage. The town is a “Preserve America” community, the only town on Cape Cod to be awarded this national distinction for historic preservation.
Highfield Hall, the venue for the Yoko Miwa Trio’s concert, is an elegant part of the area’s historic character. The 1878 mansion was built soon after the Cape was invigorated by the construction of a railway from Boston that made the area the summer community and destination it is today. Highfield Hall has been home to music and arts performances since the 1940s, when it was still a private estate, but for two decades it has been a nonprofit that preserves the history of this beautiful building and brings in talented performers.
The most gratifying time I ever recommended music to someone, I was about fifteen (Tegan, the blogger, here). I considered my mom’s close friends to be like aunts when I was growing up. My mom’s friend Paula, who lived a few towns over, had given us a lot of mix tapes over the years, and I had discovered a number of my favorite artists through her. Then one day, I read an interview with an indie singer/songwriter who it sounded like I would like, and who was going to be playing in the town where Paula lived. My mom and Paula and I went together – a few of my teenaged friends questioned the fact that I went to concerts with my mom, but we had the same taste in music, I automatically had a ride, and she often bought my ticket, so I saw no reason not to. After the concert, Paula said to me, “that was great – thanks for finding her!” I felt so proud that after years of recommendations from Paula, I had a recommendation to share.
This memory came up for me because when talking about weekend plans, a friend recently mentioned to me that she was going to Ryles for the jazz brunch. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said, “I haven’t been to Ryles in years – I keep meaning to go back, but what got me to go this time was that a friend strongly recommended the pianist who’s playing, Yoko Miwa. Have you heard of her?” I had to chuckle, and I explained that I’m not only a fan but the trio’s blogger. The conversation, and the memory it triggered, made me think about two things. One, it’s easy to go for years without going to a beloved restaurant or venue, or the show of a musician you love, unless someone or something reminds you. Two, recommending music to someone can be a very big and very personal gift.
The Trio’s drummer Scott Goulding remembers, “When I was only 16 years old, and visiting my sister at Harvard, I was standing around in Harvard Square at night when someone offered me a ticket to see Stan Getz at the Regattabar. I had heard his name but didn’t know much more about him other than he played saxophone. I ended up becoming a huge fan. I feel it must have been fate though because I never had a chance to see him perform again before he passed.”
Do you have any special memories of a time when you recommended music, or found a new favorite artist through a recommendation?
Who have you recommended the Yoko Miwa Trio to?
Some blogs and social media feeds have a Throwback Thursday every week, sharing gems from the past. We don’t want to inundate you with throwbacks, but they can be fun once in a while, so here are a few for your reading, listening, and browsing pleasure:
For those of you with a MySpace account, the Trio does have a MySpace page you can check out for a different kind of throwback.
Check out “In the Mist of Time,” Yoko’s 2001 CD, which-legendary jazz critic James Isaacs said “amply displays her burgeoning talent as a writer of melodically inviting, impressionistic material, as well as introducing a technically assured soloist with a clean, singing sound and an occasional penchant for the blues in pastels.”
The blog only comes out once a week, so if you are craving more Yoko Miwa Trio news, you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter, but you can also explore the rest of the website and the blog’s archives.
If you read From Key to Ear, you know what happens in the piano when Yoko strikes a key. Have you wondered what happens when a piano hammer strikes a string? Three factors affect how the strings (also called piano wire) associated with a particular key produce the note, and a series of balances and compromises between these factors create the differences in pitch and the evenness in sound.
Length: The longer the string, the lower and more loudly resonant the note it produces. This accounts in part for the grand piano’s distinctive shape. When the length of a string is doubled, the pitch is lowered by one octave. Imagine how strange a piano would look if length were the only variable in the strings – considering that a standard piano spans just over seven octaves! If the highest strings were the length they are in a concert grand, the lowest strings would be over thirty feet long.
Thickness, or gauge: The thicker the string, the lower the note it produces. This is how piano-makers avoid the absurd 30-foot-long problem: the strings vary in thickness considerably. The thinnest, highest strings in a piano are about 0.7 mm thick. Once they start approaching 2 mm, pure steel strings start to become stiff, and produce a dull sound. So, starting at around an octave below middle C, strings have a steel core but are wrapped in copper wire to achieve the correct thickness.
Number: Since shorter strings produce softer sounds, the highest notes on a piano do not have dampers to stop their resonance. However, even without dampers, the highest strings just do not transmit sound to the soundboard nearly as well as their bass counterparts. Because of this, the majority of notes on a piano are produced by more than one string. Bass notes have only one string per note. Tenor notes have two strings each and treble notes have three strings each. Each string is tuned to the same note and struck simultaneously by one hammer, which is why they are called unison strings.
The amount of tension the strings are put under, combined with the amount they are pounded on by felt hammers and the way they are stretched during tuning, means that they need to be very strong and well made. In fact, the high-tensile high-carbon steel wires are among the most demanding applications of steel, and only a handful of companies manufacture them.
Episode eight of Ken Burns’s series JAZZ focuses on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It’s great as a telling of their careers and a snapshot of the be-bop era, but as an installment in the history of jazz its focus on two artists makes it fairly narrow.
Charlie Parker led a troubled life, his music career competing with his heroin addiction for his energy and commitment. Despite his setbacks, he became practically synonymous with be-bop. He returned to the scene after a period at a psychiatric hospital for rehabilitation to find that some young musicians would rather sound exactly like him, if they could achieve it, than creating their own original sound.
Fanaticism aside, imitating an accomplished artist is a time-honored way for musicians to hone their skills, the way painters do pastiches. The episode describes aspiring stars sneaking recorders into his performances, turning them on only when he began a solo and turning them off when he finished, so they could study his work. Yoko Miwa began studying jazz similarly, learning “On Green Dolphin Street” by ear a few measures at a time, rewinding the tape her mentor Minoru Ozone had given her until she had a section down perfectly.
Charlie Parker may have been a bit surprised by the most ardent of his imitators, but he certainly appreciated any audience. The episode tells the story of the time that a friend of Parker’s mentioned he had heard that livestock liked music while they were on a drive in the country. Parker got out of the car, put together his saxophone, walked into a field and played a song for a cow!
We seem to be over the worst of this heat wave, but it’s a hot summer all around. Stay cool at Yoko’s shows. At Les Zygomates, you can cool off with oysters or scallop ceviche from the raw bar, or with a classic French salad of goat cheese, beets and walnuts on greens. Or, order a hot entree and soak up the air conditioning. At Ryles, you can enjoy the a/c with a hot brunch, or one of their summer cocktails, like the frozen peach bellini.
The word “cool,” used to mean “not warm,” has been around since the 1400s, but it only got its informal uses more recently. The word started to mean “fashionable” in the 1930s in American Black English, but it wasn’t until the late 1940s that it started to be a general term of approval, originally in the jazz community. “Hot” describes a lively, hard-driving, bebop sound, and “cool” describes smoother sounds that focus on emotion as well as expression and classical influences in jazz. Around the same time these terms arose for the music, jazz musicians started to use them to apply to people and ideas.
So stay cool in the air conditioning, with some cool food, listening to music that can be both cool and hot, but that’s definitely cool! (Whew!)
Have you ever had a project that started out small, but then the more you worked with it, the bigger and better it got? That’s kind of what happened with Yoko’s involvement in the upcoming film Midlife.
Midlife is an independent film written and directed by Greg Travis. He is also the star, and has acted in a broad variety of film and television roles, from Watchmen to CSI: Miami. The filmmaker found Yoko on Youtube and fell in love with her original composition Wheel of Life. At first, he was just going to use the recorded version from the CD Live at Scullers Jazz Club, but after he and Yoko talked, they came up with a plan for her to compose some new music for the film. Fast forward to a couple weeks later and Yoko is now scoring the entire film, 39 cues!
Midlife has already been shot and edited – and the trailer is already out – it just needs music. As Berklee faculty, Yoko was able to get Logic Pro composing and recording software and is hard at work composing and making demos for Greg’s approval. It’s all going to culminate in a recording session in Boston with live musicians playing the parts, including not only the trio but also tenor saxophone, flute, cello and violin.
Check back on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter for more updates on this exciting project as they develop.