Day 175: "You've never received an icy glare…"

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Celebrating 175 straight days of blogging with another glance at The Man Who Signed the City: an excerpt of the chapter on Drew Daniel, English professor, half of the electronic band Matmos, veteran of world tours with Bjork. (And yes, that's a new cover mockup, ovr there on the right.)

Of the 1,000 copies of Quasi-Objects, they consigned five to a record shop in London called Rough Trade. Rough Trade’s customers included, on at least one occasion, Bjork, and she bought Quasi-Objects. She liked it so much she gave Daniel and Schmidt a call from Iceland. Would they like to remix a song of hers titled “Alarm Call”? “At first we thought it was a prank or something, one of our friends winding us up,” Daniel remembers. “It was a shock. Then, when she started thinking about making her album Vespertine, she approached us to make some rhythms for one song. Then we made a few more, and it started to snowball.” She came to San Francisco to work on the album with them at their house. The first day, Daniel’s computer crashed and he had to call a friend to fix it. “That was pretty embarrassing, but she proved patient with the way we operate.”

Then came the real stunner. “I was working at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles on my dissertation, in the archives looking for visual representations of melancholy, and I got a phone call from Bjork.” She was standing on a cliff in Iceland where, Daniel says, she goes to make big decisions, and she was inviting Matmos to join the backing musicians for her upcoming tour. The tour would be huge, traversing Europe, the United States, and Japan, and it would take a commitment of up to two years. Daniel was in the middle of his dissertation, and had to approach his adviser, Richard Halpern (now one of his colleagues in the Johns Hopkins English Department), and announce that he would be taking a few years off to go on the road. Halpern agreed to let him take a break. “He didn’t have to do that,” Daniel says. “Most people would have been, like, ‘Later, loser,’ but Richard knew I was serious.”

Daniel and Schmidt had to learn Bjork’s full tour repertory and figure out how to perform everything live. One song, “Aurora,” included the sound of Bjork walking through snow. “We couldn’t do snow on stage, though we looked into it,” Daniel recalls. “Martin had this idea to walk on rock salt on a contact-mic platform. So the rhythm of the song was Martin walking. It’s actually a challenge to walk at the right pace for a whole band.” They spent six months in rehearsal and preparation. Says Daniel, “I was scared at the idea that we were really going to do this. But Bjork said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got a lot of people to work with you and make this bullet proof.”

The touring ensemble included a 13-piece orchestra, a choir, a harpist, and Matmos. The first performance was in Paris. “We couldn’t believe what the audience for a pop star sounds like on stage,” Daniel says. “You know, we get good applause when we finish a show, but as soon as she walked onstage, the roar of the French fans was really frightening.” His parents were backstage. So was Catherine Deneuve. “We actually met her at the Dancer in the Dark premiere”—Deneuve and Bjork both had roles in the Lars von Trier film—“and Martin tried to bum a cigarette from her. You’ve never received an icy glare until you’ve tried to bum a cigarette from Catherine Deneuve.”

Day 52: Work in progress — "Profilia"

I really have to find a better working title for this anthology collection. Profilia sounds too much like a psychologically troubling sexual practice.

That's something for later. Today an excerpt from one of the pieces that might make the cut, a profile of the self-proclaimed world's foremost solo timpanist, Jonathan Haas. Johnny H.

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Jonathan Haas sits in a room back stage at Carnegie Hall, and with his hands bangs out the drum solo to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a tabletop. Those who were teenagers in the 1960s will know what that means. For those who weren't, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was a rock 'n' roll song, a 17-minute benchmark for all the young musicians who played high school dances in the late '60s. Only bands with real chops could play it. Haas was in that sort of band.

Now, in Carnegie Hall, he slaps the tom-tom rhythm on the table and sings the bass drum part. When he was a kid, he drove his parents nuts doing this; his sister once threatened to kill him if he didn't stop beating time on the furniture. Mom and Dad Haas finally gave up and bought him a drum set, no doubt to preserve the living room, and he's been drumming ever since. Drumming with the New York Pops. Frank Zappa. The American Symphony Orchestra. The Paul Taylor Dance Company. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own jazz band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing.

Haas has unearthed and recorded classical percussion concertos and jazz music for timpani by Duke Ellington. He's done a rock tour with Emerson Lake & Palmer. Recorded jingles for Budweiser and VISA. Drummed on a tribute album to Black Sabbath. Won a Grammy for a Frank Zappa record, Zappa's Universe.

And that's just some of what keeps him busy. Jonathan Haas is two parts musician, one part teacher, one part entrepreneur. He now estimates that he plays with 24 ensembles. As director of the Peabody Conservatory percussion program, he takes the train down from New York to spend two days a week teaching in Baltimore. Summers he teaches at the Aspen Music School & Festival in Colorado. From the house he shares with his wife and three kids in Westchester County, he runs a record company, an instrument rental business, and a musicians' contracting company. He seems ever in motion. A friend once said to him, "Man, you've always got two wheels off the track." Haas grins as he recalls this. It's an image he likes.

A few people around New York have begun to call him "Johnny H.," his jazz-band moniker, and he likes that, too. The nickname's overtones of brashness and street-hustle fit him. Haas has never been shy about promoting his career, and never much concerned about who might dislike him for that. Fresh out of the Juilliard School, he got so much press during a stint with the Charlotte Symphony that he alienated the conductor and some other members of the orchestra. He'll tell you that in 1980, after leaving North Carolina, "I hit New York like a load of bricks." He'll also tell you he considers himself "the foremost solo timpanist," presumably in the world. You could argue that such a claim places him atop a heap of one, but what of it? It's his spot, his turf, and how many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?

The New York Times once wrote of him in a concert review, "Jonathan Haas is a ubiquitous presence in the New York musical world; wherever one finds a percussion instrument waiting to be rubbed, shook, struck or strummed, he is probably nearby, ready to fulfill his duties with consummate expertise." That same review called him a "masterful young percussionist." It also noted, "There was a hint of P.T. Barnum to this entire undertaking."

A Barnum with timpani mallets in his hands. "Hit drum, get check," Johnny H. says, grinning.