Tuesday Artist Date: Fall Free for All

I had a very happy weekend. On Saturday we drove down to San Jose to celebrate my grandpa‘s 93rd birthday (or 94th, there’s some discrepancy in the records and in memories!). I plan to write a personal entry about that later, but in sum: 11 people + 1 little nursing-home room + food + love = a successful party!

Lower Sproul

Lower Sproul Plaza during the Free for All

On Sunday, we hung out with our lovely friend Tina, who was in town for the weekend from her new home in Atlanta, and we met a few of her wonderful friends too. Tina, Erik, and I are all UC Berkeley alums, though her friends had never been to the campus before this visit. So we headed over for a fabulous event put on by the university: the (I hope first annual) Fall Free for All, a seven-hour showcase of performances, all completely gratis. The event featured Cal student bands and a cappella groups as well as bigger names like the Kronos Quartet and Mark Morris Dance Group. It was a warm day and the venues were packed with lots of grown-ups and kids, and there was music everywhere.

Instrument Petting Zoo

The Instrument Petting Zoo, inside Zellerbach Hall

We arrived on campus shortly after 1, quite stuffed from our dim sum lunch, and were disappointed to find that the Diamano Coura West African dance performance was full. But there was an Instrument Petting Zoo going on in the same hall, so for lack of better entertainment, we went in… and it was so much fun! It’s a brilliant idea: free stickers, coloring worksheets, and lots and lots of musical instruments for kids (and us) to look at, touch, and even play. The Zellerbach mezzanine — normally so hushed and dignified during ballet or classical performances — was a jungle of hoots, toots, strums, rattles, and the persistent, energetic efforts of a kid at the drum set. Tina’s friend Sarah, a former euphonium player (euphoniumist?), immediately took to the sousaphone, while I amused myself at the coloring tables.

Violin cat

Violin-playing cat, in crayon with a watercolor-inspired background

The best part about the Petting Zoo was that in one corner of it was a little performance space where some of the Free for All artists were giving demonstrations and taking questions — virtually unadvertised, and thus we were able to get seats right when they started. First up, local duo Teslim showed and played their unusual instruments: the traditional Turkish oud (lute) and saz, and a new hybrid instrument called the tarhu. I loved their evocative sound and the instruments’ incredibly beautiful, curvy, glossy wooden bodies! The oud and saz looked like fat brown figs, and the tarhu was completely eye-catching with its round belly and circular cutouts. Because the performance area was so tiny, we got to sit very close to the musicians — basically the only way the experience could have been more intimate is if we were in their homes!

Melody of China

Melody of China: click image to watch them in action! Don't miss the "country music" at 3:30!

After Teslim left the stage, two musicians from Melody of China came on to demonstrate the yangqin (hammered dulcimer) and guzheng (Chinese zither). These two ladies were so adorable and energetic (you must click at left to watch the video!), their performance was one of the highlights of my day. They played several traditional Chinese folk melodies, and then got whoops and enthusiastic applause for a spirited rendition of “Oh, Susannah!” that just blew my mind. The yangqin sounds like American folk instruments, so it was perfect for “Susannah,” but the guzheng basically is that “Chinese sound” we think of when we think of Chinese music, so it was quite a trippy interpretation. I loved it. I left thinking I should find out more about traditional Chinese music and instruments. My family’s tastes (and hence my musical training) run more to Western classical, so I can tell you oodles more about Bach and Beethoven than I can about Chinese folk tunes… and yet I know many of these songs were a mainstay of my parents’ upbringing.

MMDG class

The biggest dance class ever!

After these musical demonstrations, we had the good fortune to get into a massive hourlong dance “class” taught by two lovely Mark Morris dancers, who led a full house through selected phrases of two Morris pieces (the famous L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and Looky) — though obviously those of us in our seats had to be a little less exuberant than the lucky folks on stage! It was great fun, silly and yet rather beautiful, and surprisingly workable. If Cal continues to do the Free for All every year, I feel sure this will become one of the hottest attractions, and next year we may not even be able to get in!

What did I say makes a successful artist date? Spontaneity, lack of obsessive planning, physical comfort, sensory stimulation, learning something new. Check, check, check, check, and check! I find that the best artist dates linger on my spirit — the way a striking landscape does, or laughter shared with loved ones — and this one certainly has.