“Art of the Accompanist”, a book by Mike Greensill

February 6, 2011

My father, Frank C. Newman, was an amateur accompanist for most of his life. He used his talent on the piano to support himself through college, arrange and accompany dozens of Boalt Hall faculty skits, and host boisterous Christmas sings at our family home in Orinda.

As a result of some crazy twists of fate and circumstance in the late ’70s, my mother became friends with Wesla Whitfield, who is widely-acclaimed as one of the great cabaret singers of our time and master of the Great American Songbook. Through her performances, my father found himself mesmerized by her accomplished accompanist, Mike Greensill. The friendship between the four of them grew (and eventually extended to me as well), and in 1986, my father had the honor of officiating their marriage ceremony. (As an aside, I think that performing weddings for friends and family, including my own, was his favorite legacy of his time as a judge.)

My father often said that Mike was the best arranger and accompanist he had ever encountered, with an uncanny sense of subtlety, timing, and intuitiveness. The world seems to agree, because the Mike Greensill Trio (both with and without Wesla on stage) is an established presence on not only the local jazz scene, but in New York as well. In addition, Mike is the resident piano player on Sedge Thomson’s weekly Public Radio show to the world, West Coast Live.

Art of the AccompanistMike’s latest ambition is to share the tricks of his trade with the music world by writing a book – “Art of the Accompanist”, subtitled “A Practical Guide for the Jazz / Cabaret Piano Player.” Though I love music and played a little when I was younger, I am not the target audience so I didn’t think it would be of much interest to me. But because of my father’s connection and my friendship with Mike, I explored a little further.

He has published the first chapter on-line as a sample so I read it. It is terrific. Far from being just a “how-to” book for students, it’s a primer in music appreciation for fans. His engaging personality shines through in his writing, and he includes anecdotes and quotes from legendary performers which adds a delightful a touch of music history. He has managed to express (in very readable prose) some of the practical theory behind the nuance that so impressed my father. You needn’t be an accompanist to enjoy this book, although I concede that it might not be quite as readable without some music background.

The book will be published both in hard copy and digital formats. As illustrated in the sample, Mike is taking full advantage of digital enhancements by including recorded examples with associated images. This technology adds a richness that is simply amazing.

The book is self-funded, which means that there is no big publishing house fronting the costs. Mike is taking time away from his performing schedule to pour his energy into this project. As such, he is reaching out to backers to help support the project, using Kickstarter, a unique online funding platform for the creative arts.

I encourage you to take a moment to read the sample chapter and review the proposal and videos on his Kickstarter page. My father would have loved this book and I will be contributing to this project in his honor. I hope you can too. Either way, I will update this post when the book is actually published.

Adventures of a Silver Spoon

July 11, 2010

The story of the Silver Spoon is the stuff of family legend, a saga spanning two generations and two significant wars. I had almost forgotten about this chapter of my family’s history, until Wendy Vogelgesang, current caretaker of my family home in Orinda, unearthed the evidence in a bedroom closet. She photographed the spoon and the supporting documents – which include a letter written by my maternal grandfather and a rubbing of the spoon itself with explanatory notes.

Here, for your historical viewing pleasure, is the whole story.

PG&E gets to send ME money!

April 29, 2010

I am eternally indebted to Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who just happens to represent my district (Marin and Southern Sonoma County). I don’t honestly remember if I voted for him in the last election, but I guarantee I will vote for him if he runs for reelection. Why? Because he sponsored AB 920: the California Solar Surplus Act of 2009. If you don’t have solar power in California and never intend to, you can stop reading now. But if you are thinking about installing or expanding a system, or if you think you might have overbuilt the one you have, Mr. Huffman is your hero.

Thanks to AB920, people in California will have even more incentive to install significant solar power systems on their homes, because they will be compensated fairly (instead of not at all) for net excess generation over a 12-month period. This bill eliminates a perverse feeling (one that I have felt) that we’d rather waste electricity than to give any away to PG&E (for them to sell).

Until AB920 came along, private solar generation remained a hard sell and somewhat of a balancing act. There are significant incentives to help offset the cost of installation – rebates from the state, substantial (30%, no cap) income tax credits from the Feds (thanks to Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), unsecured loans from Sonoma County (although I opted for the home equity avenue because I’m one of the lucky ones that still has some – equity, that is). The sticking point was the mathematics game of designing a system that would generate “just enough” electrons. In our case, that was complicated by the fact that we were doing energy-saving home improvements at the same time, which made our historical data fairly worthless. With this new law (which was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in October), that is no longer as much of an issue.

Under the previous rules, if I overbuild my system (which I probably did, and not at a trivial cost) and generate more than I use (which I probably will), PG&E would just take the excess for free (thank you very much) and then turn around and sell it at retail rates to other customers (like you!).

I have a sense of responsibility to the earth, but not to PG&E’s bottom line. I was already trying to figure out ways to use up my projected excess – perhaps buying a plug-in car (like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf), which don’t exist yet. But in the meantime, I had stopped worrying about leaving lights on. This bill will bring me back to a more responsible position of conservation because I will be fairly compensated for my excess electrons.

The amount is still to be determined by the CPUC, but in a recent letter I received from PG&E, they’re proposing 8.1 cents per kWh. They claim that “represents a proxy for the market value of the power”. I figure that is a low water mark, and the CPUC will probably negotiate it up. Either way, anything more than zero cents per kWh is better than what we had before.

The Irony of Energy

January 20, 2010

We are all doing our best to endure the great storm of 2010, as evidenced by Facebook posts that refer to monstrous wind, grape-sized hail, nearby condo fires caused by lightning strikes, flooded yards and outbuildings, highway closures all over the state, tornado warnings (huh?), filling sandbags, and record lows in barometric pressure. We’ve done remarkably well on our little hill in northwest Petaluma – so far, all I have to complain about is bored dogs, muddy carpets, and a fairly tense commute to work this morning.

So I thought I’d reach a little farther and ponder the Irony of Energy.  We have been affected by this phenomenon in two ways – too much gas and too little sun. Our Energy story over the past 8 years is Murphy’s Law exemplified.

The Propane Paradox

The first year we moved to the country, a storm like this knocked out our power for well over a week. Our house is 100% electrically-powered, so this was a pretty big deal. For you city folks, when one depends on a well as one’s water source, electricity to run the well is a fundamental requirement (or the toilets don’t get flushed).  Thus, we were smugly delighted that the house had come equipped with a stand-by generator. The secondary benefit was that the refrigerator and a few lights/outlets are also wired into the bypass circuit panel, so the food doesn’t spoil and the TV and computer can easily be powered by an extension cord to the bathroom.

However, the previous owner apparently did not see the value of a permanent propane supply, instead relying on an ancient 25-gallon portable tank as the fuel source. During that extended outage, we quickly learned the truth about the three adjectives describing that tank:

  1. 25-gallons of propane lasts about 18 hours when powering a house generator 24/7.
  2. Said ‘portable’ tank weighs about 150 pounds, and is thus quite challenging to transport to the local filling station, especially in a storm.
  3. By ‘ancient’, I mean equipped with a no-longer-legal filler valve, which meant we had to (a) choose a filling station where we were personal friends with the CFO, and (b) slip an extra bill to the guy doing the filling.

I lost track of how many times we loaded that damned tank into the truck in the rain, headed out to the [to-remain-nameless] filling station, bribed the guy to fill it, and dragged it out of the truck and across the yard to hook it back up. But it was enough that when we repaved the driveway, we also had the contractor dig and plumb a trench and pour a concrete slab, all in hopes of installing a more permanent solution.

We quickly learned that a permanent propane tank was a considerable extravagance for our house because the stand-by generator was the ONLY consumer of gas on the property. Here’s how the propane companies work: if you can demonstrate consistent usage with a one or more ‘systems’ (stove, water heater, central heating, dryer, etc.), they will rent you the tank for a nominal annual fee and rely on the refills for their profit. Not us, we were stuck buying the big ugly thing outright. So when my mother asked me a few years later, “What do you want for your birthday?”, the answer was immediate – a propane tank! Thanks, Mom!

The 250-gallon tank was installed and filled exactly four years ago in January 2006. Since then, I doubt that our combined power outages have exceeded 24 hours. At this point, the tank exists to support the weekly automated generator self-tests, and the occasional power outage when some fool takes out a power pole on Stony Point Road. At last check, the gauge still showed 80% from the initial filling.

So this is my first 2010 offering to Murphy’s Law. I shudder to think what meteorological nightmares might have occurred had we not installed this tank. All of you in Southern Sonoma County, indeed perhaps all of Northern California, should thank me now. But I can’t help wishing that this 2010 storm of the century had caused more of an electrical impact on my house so I could feel justified about installing that tank.

The Photo-Voltaic Puzzle

Late in 2009, we decided to install a significant solar-energy system. We were motivated by our electrical usage (remember, our house is 100% electrically-powered – bad for the propane but good for the PV system), and we were further pushed by the alternative energy incentives included in Obama’s Economic Stimulus Package of 2009. Seriously, a 30% tax credit against the cost? How do we ignore that?

We spent much of the fall researching options, getting bids, selecting a contractor, getting a new roof, watching panels get installed. Fast-forward to January 5, the date the system went live. We were SO excited! We have 44-235W panels, two 5000W inverters, our entire roof faces the south, and we live in California, for gawd’s sake. Now’s the time for the meter to begin spinning backwards, right?

And so we move to our second 2010 offering to Murphy’s Law. Because in the two weeks since the system was officially turned on, we have had nothing but inland tulle fog that was pushed west by a freakish pressure inversion on the coast, and now the worst winter storm the area has seen since the invention of the wheel (or thereabouts). By our latest calculations, I think we have generated enough energy to power our house for about a nano-second.

So that is my current storm story  – the Irony of Energy in my little microcosm of the world – too much of what I don’t need and not enough of what I want. I’m trying to do the right thing for my carbon footprint, but so far, it isn’t quite working out as I’d planned.