I first met Alicia Rabins in 1992 during my first summer as a student at The Walden School (a music program in New Hampshire where I now teach). One of the age old traditions at Walden is that we sing “Goodnight Music”, a lullaby written by an alum, at the close of each day during the summer, with an improvisational prelude to gather the community. We do this standing in a circle with our arms around each other. My first night at Walden, this took me rather by surprise. I happened to be standing next to Alicia at the time, and then suddenly she was putting her arm around me; I wasn’t sure what to make of it! Does this mean this girl likes me? Is this ok? What have I gotten myself into?
As a new student that summer, I was curious about the returning students and what they were up to musically. Alicia was exploring twelve-tone composition, a method developed in the early twentieth century by Arnold Schoenberg, as a means for regulating the use of pitch material. In effect, before a note, once used, can be used again, each of the other eleven notes in the chromatic scale must be used in turn. There’s more to it, rather more in fact, but this gives a general impression. Twelve tone music is often very angular and highly dissonant, and was thoroughly unfamiliar to me at the time. Given that a number of the older, and presumably more mature, students were exploring such things, I formed the hypothesis (inaccurate, though amusing to me now) that on coming away to Walden, one’s music got decidedly weird and was therefore designated as being cool. On one occasion, I was walking into the old library (now the “schoolhouse”), The lower entrance of which goes through a rather small broom closet before opening into a hallway with practice rooms, and stumbled upon Alicia playing the violin in the entry-way; after which, the genre of idiomatic, atonal violin writing has forever been cataloged in my head as “broom closet music”.
I was away from home for the first time that summer, in the wake of three eye surgeries, two of which were major affairs. The pressure in my left eye had sky rocketed, and correspondingly I was on a good deal of medication, including one particular drug that caused depression, fatigue, low blood pressure, etc. For reasons still unclear to me now, I wound up, at age fourteen, on more than the recommended adult dosage of this drug for some months. Let’s just say that my perception of reality was rather altered during that time. A few, rare experiences became imbued with a poignancy of meaning, with a palpability too potent to be put into words. Others, most others, were starkly, painfully banal. Paralleling this dichotomy, I developed a strong tendency to over value a few and dismissively undervalue most, including many of my high school peers from back home, in a Holden Caulfield kind of way. One student that summer who stood out to me as being a “real person”, meaning that I perceived him as being suitably sensitive and morose, and struggling profoundly with the meaning of it all, was Jonathan Vincent. I remember his festival piece from that summer, a setting of poems of Baudelaire, in which the tenor line, once composed, had been transposed by tritone for heightened intensity. My favorite Jonathan Vincent moment from the summer though reflects a different mood entirely; he and two of the other older guys, Gabe and Josh, had been running about, tearing up and down the stairs, wrestling and being jocular in a thoroughly unabashed frenzy. In the ebb of this fervor, Jonathan walked through the door of the upper library, brushing off his hands with reassumed dignity and calmly proclaiming “I think our violent tendencies come from our inability to use tampons.” For me, this was a moment of sheer exaltation, a symbol that pure, unadulterated joy could in fact be found amidst the desolation of adolescence; oh, such saving grace!
So, I got an email a few weeks ago, forwarded by Seth Brenzel, Walden School’s ED, about Alicia and Jonathan and their band, Girls in Trouble. Evidently they were about to do an East Coast tour and were looking to fill one open date between Baltimore and Columbia South Carolina. I quickly wrote to Alicia and we dreamed up a joint show here at the house, combining a set of their music with some jazz (provided by myself and bassist Kip Perry, with Mike Stevens doing live painting).
The band got here around five, with groceries in tow straight from Alicia’s Park Slope co-op in Brooklyn, this being only the second night of their tour. We cooked up some toasted quinoa with garlic, onion, mushrooms, and spinach, served with sliced mango and cucumber (with Key Lime sodas to cap it off). I confess, going purely on what I knew of Alicia all those years ago, had I projected what kind of food she’d likely be eating while on tour with a band, this would be the perfect image; yummy stuff! a few neighbors and friends drifted in a bit later and we had ourselves a show.
They elected to setup upstairs (we usually play jazz in the basement), for the sake of wooden floors and high ceilings; the flow of the violin, often looped and layered, supported by Jonathan’s subtle accordion touch, with guitar and bass and vocal harmonies filling out the sound, was really quite lovely. Alicia’s songs tell stories of different women from The Old Testament (the girls in trouble). My favorite was about Judith, who single handedly ended a war by stealing off in the middle of the night with a block of salty cheese and a skin of wine to visit the tent of the besieging general. This same general was beheaded in the following number, an instrumental waltz of fitting dramatic qualities. (Kip and I played a jazz waltz a bit later, Miles Davis’s “All Blues”, though with decidedly less theatrics.)
Mike and I had been out to hear Buddy Miller and Patti Griffin the night before (great show!), and much to my surprise and delight, they played “Never Grow Old”, an old Walden School favorite, courtesy of Cross Country (this being the title track of their second album). Sharing this with Alicia late in the evening, we soon had guitars out for a midnight sing-along around the kitchen table, featuring other favorites from Cross Country, The Grateful Dead, and, of course, goodnight music (that touchy feely song I mentioned earlier). I wish Walden friends came every week to visit! This was a special night; as Mike put it the next morning “I enjoyed listening to them even more than Patti Griffin”; quite a statement, and well said.