Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Prince: Purple Majesty

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My closest brush with fame — actually with the two most personally impactful musical icons I’ve ever been in the presence of, Prince and Miles Davis — happened on New Year’s Eve of 1987. I was 15 years old, almost 16. As a combined Christmas and birthday present, my dad and stepmom brought me along to a gala fundraising dinner and concert for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, hosted by Prince at Paisley Park, his studio complex in suburban Minneapolis, where he was found dead on Thursday.

As we were shown to our table in the sound stage where the dinner was held, I looked around the room and began to recognize a few faces. At the next table to our right were Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, and Quincy Jones. And at the table to our left, slightly hunched over and wearing his trademark wraparound shades, sat Miles Davis.

As a precocious budding jazz musician, I couldn’t waste the opportunity to say hello to a master. I walked up to Miles and said, awkwardly: “Excuse me, Miles. I just wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve done. My name’s Leif, I play jazz flute, and I’m a huge fan.”

He sipped his drink, cocked his head and quickly shot back in his gravelly voice, “You play the piano?”

“Uh…yeah. I’m taking jazz piano lessons, too,” I stammered.

“Always learn to play the piano first! Hmph.” He said it with a bark and jerked his head away with a that’s-all-the-time-you’re-gonna-get-kid finality.

I said a meek “Thanks” and walked away thinking “What an asshole.” Looking back, though, I know how right he was. And I can respect the efficiency with which he dealt out that advice, which he probably gave to many adoring fans who accosted him wherever he went.

As we ate dinner Prince was nowhere to be found. But after dessert, as the staff rolled away the tables and chairs in preparation for the concert, I went down the hall to the bathroom. As I reached out to open the door, it flung open, nearly hitting me. I stepped back as this little waif of a man in 4-inch platform boots and a tight purple body suit shuffled out, looked up at me from under his tall plume of black hair and said, in a high-pitched voice, “Oh, excuse me.” I froze, transfixed, as he scurried down the hall toward the room where he would take the stage a few minutes later.

Prince’s show that night was mind-blowing. One set that must’ve gone on for well over two hours. Miles joined him onstage for several songs, jamming along on his muted trumpet, staring at his feet, mostly with his back to the crowd, throwing in a few sparse fills and stabs here and there, as was his style.

The most memorable part was actually Sheila E’s drum solo. Her drum kit was like Alex Van Halen’s — two huge bass drums, a sea of tom-toms, and at least 6 huge cymbals. Near the end of the show, Prince introduced her, then he and the rest of the band exited the stage to let her have the spotlight.

Sheila looked like a goddess in her white spandex unitard, as she slowly built her solo, showing off every instrument in her massive set. It came in waves, each one building with a crescendo louder than the one before, till she was playing so loud and hard she started breaking her drum sticks. She would break one, grab another from her quiver and keep going, break another, and continue on again. By the end she was on her feet, banging on the toms and cymbals till she had no sticks left. But she was in an altered state. Throwing her entire body into it, hair flailing and sweat flying, she finished by pounding the cymbals with her fists over and over until she couldn’t go any longer. Her knuckles must have been bruised and bloody.

I don’t know how long her solo lasted. It might’ve been 5 minutes, 10 minutes, a half hour. I could’ve stood there all night, leaning against the edge of the stage barely 10 feet away. It was like watching the goddess Kali in a musical rage, the closest thing to sex that I had had.

To this day, that drum solo, and the entire night, stands as one of the most transcendent musical experiences of my life.

Thank you, dear Prince. Rest in peace.

(And big thanks to my dear friend, the wonderful violist Christen Lien, for posting the above photo on Facebook, along with her own musings about what both Miles Davis and Prince have meant to her as a musician. That’s what jogged this beautiful memory out of the dusty back shelves of my brain.)

Written by leifutne

April 22, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Posted in music

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Helium Hijinx

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The UpTake crew – me, Jacob Wheeler and Mike McIntee – sing like the Chipmunks at Netroots Nation 2010.

Written by leifutne

July 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

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September Moon (aka Full Moon Outside My Window)

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UPDATE 9/19/2018: The title of this song is actually “September Moon” according to the composer, Chandler Yorkhall. The title of this post now reflects that.

Check out this haunting round I recorded last weekend:

Here are the lyrics:

Full moon outside my window this warm September night
Pulls me into wakefulness far too early.
I’d rather be sleeping, the day’s already too long for me.
I’ll just wait for dawn.

The voices on this recording are me and Irene Ravitz, a 14 year-old girl with a bell-like voice. She and her mother, Marika Partridge (the long-time producer of All Things Considered), taught it to a group of us last Friday at a party at my mom’s house on Whidbey Island that morphed into a wild jam session.

I loved this tune as soon as I heard it. It was the first thing out of my mouth when I woke up Saturday morning, and it kept repeating all day in an endless loop. So I fired up GarageBand that evening and laid it down, lest I forget how it went. After dinner, Irene and Marika came over again for another singing session. So I pulled Irene aside and recorded her singing it once through as well. Then I just copied and pasted the clips of our voices onto several separate tracks, staggering our voices to create the round. Finally, I added a little reverb, exported as an MP3, and voila! Enjoy!

[Photo credit:]

Written by leifutne

April 6, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Posted in collaboration, music

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My Still Life: 5 objects that show what matters most

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My Still Life: 5 objects representing what matters most to me

My Still Life: 5 objects representing what matters most to me

One of the most powerful elements of the Tallberg New Leaders Program was an exercise called Still Lives, led by British portrait photographer Elizabeth Handy and her husband, author and social theorist Charles Handy. Inspired by the 17th century Dutch tradition where aristocrats would commission still life paintings featuring objects that said things about their wealth, education, travels, etc., Liz decided to update it for this century.

The idea is simple: choose five objects that say something important about you – your values, your work, your family, your life story, whatever matters most to you – plus a flower, to add beauty to the mix. The objects can be just about anything, with a few key exceptions – no gadgetry (cell phones, laptops, etc.), unless they’re really unique to you; no photos of other people, they’re too easy; and no more than one book, to keep the objects diverse. Next, arrange them to be photographed. Finally, share the image with others as a way to explain what matters most to you.

On the second day of the NLP, we made our still lives, photographed by Liz. On the third day, we broke into small groups to share our images with each other. Later in the week, Charles asked me to share my still life with the full Tällberg Forum audience in the main tent.

Here is the video of me sharing my still life (4 min).

My five objects (plus a flower) were:

  • Rock – This small black stone is a piece of volcanic rock I pulled from a river of molten lava near the summit of Volcán de Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes. I stood twirling the clump of molten lava on a stick for nearly an hour, until it had hardened and cooled enough to carry home. It represents my son Mateo, who we adopted from Guatemala in 2007, because, like him, it’s a thing of immense beauty that came from a hot and violent place.
  • Clave – This Afro-Cuban percussion instrument is what keeps the pulse in much of Latin music. “Clave” literally means “key” in Spanish. It represents my wife, Cilla, who is the key to keeping a steady rhythm in my life. She reminds me when it’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.
  • Flute – The instrument I’ve played since 4th grade represents creativity, passion and mastery. When I heard Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, I realized that the flute is the one thing I’ve probably come closest to spending 10,000 hours working on.
  • Notebook – A Moleskin notebook, like Hemingway and other great storytellers used, is a place to record ideas and inspirations. It represents my work as a thinker, a journalist, and a storyteller.
  • Moss – The bed of moss in the back represents my work in the world, building networked communities, fostering interconnection, interdependence, and symbiosis. This patch of moss contained what looked like at least four different species of moss. I found it on a rock in the woods next to the hotel where the New Leaders Program took place. Knowing that this patch of moss could be decades old, after the photo shoot I returned it to the spot where I found it.
  • Lupines – The flowers I chose were 3 blooming stalks from the same purple lupine plant, ranging in shades from deep royal purple to light lavender. I chose these to represent the importance of diversity, of multiple perspectives and facets that can exist, and should be nurtured, within a single being.

For me, the Still Lives exercise was a profound tool for exploring what matters most to me. It was fun, creative, and deeply emotional. It’s easy for me to get stuck in my head, viewing things from an intellectual, analytical perspective. This exercise invited me to explore my own story, and my own hopes and dreams, by asking myself what the objects I carry with me say about me. And it provided a deep window into the lives of my classmates in the New Leaders Program. I won’t share their stories here. But you can see the touching videos of two of them Lagu Alfred Androga and Anu Bhardwaj.

Try this exercise yourself. What five objects (and what flower) would you pick to show what matters most to you?

Written by leifutne

July 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Singing my favorite song

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What’s your favorite song? That was the topic this morning on the first hour of Weekday, the AM talk show on KUOW, one of Seattle’s NPR affiliates. It was interesting how many people’s favorites were positive, uplifting tunes. I hope they post a complete song list on the website. Not so surprising, considering it’s election day, was how many songs had a political edge — Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Curtis Mayfield’s “There’s a Change A-Comin’.”

I called in and sang a few bars of my (and our son Mateo’s) current favorite, Michael Franti’s latest single “Say Hey.” You can listen to today’s show here (I start at 00:31:35).

Written by leifutne

November 4, 2008 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Me, music, politics, radio