The BBQ Joint Principle

Upon hitting Alabama soil for performances of Liquid Interface with the Mobile Symphony this month, I headed straight for the iconic BBQ joint known as The Brick Pig. You roll down Old Shell Road and look for the smoker stationed out front, gently leaking sweet pecan-wood smoke.  A tiny shack greets you.  Inside, friendly I-ate-here graffiti covers every square inch (and not many inches at that).  Whether you get the rack, the pulled pork, or the chicken, you’ll soon experience meat with a depth of flavor that comes only after a few days in the brick pit out back.  The shabby surroundings seem to verify the authenticity.  BYOB.

A few miles away is an entirely different spot, Dreamland, whose neon and glass sparkles with the shine of new construction.  While the original spot in Tuscaloosa is as much of a shack as the Pit, Mobile’s version is a comparative estate.  This is the result of the success of the franchise, which is older and more pedigreed than the Brick Pit.  Dreamland is nationally known, on just about every BBQ shortlist.  I’ll always side with the shack turning out the deeper smoked flavor; but hey, it’s ‘Bama, and there’s room for both.

In comparing ‘big-budget pedigree’ versus ‘hole-in-the-wall,’ my mind drifted, pecan-smoke style, to the symphonic world which I inhabit.  Sure, I absolutely loved when the National Symphony gave the flashy premiere of Liquid Interface years ago, or when the LA Phil played it under John Adams or the Chicago Symphony under Jaap van Sweden.  The big-name orchestras – the Dreamlands – bring top-notch musicianship and shiny prestige to the table, and that brings one’s music to the attention of the national community.

But I am just as happy that, in just one recent week for example, a slew of Brick Pits played my music.  From the Boulder Philharmonic (Rusty Air in Carolina) to the Oakland Symphony (Mothership) to Mobile and others, these are wonderful orchestras that certainly aren’t shabby; but they don’t have Dreamland budgets.  There’s a gratefully high volume of performances of my symphonic works that cannot attend most of them, so I have to rely on my spies to get an idea of how things went (or post-mortems with the conductor, or archival recordings etc).  But one thing is consistent: regional orchestras come with a soulfulness, a depth of flavor, a sincerity and warmth.  If your music can work in front of those players and audiences, where encounters with new music are more rare, it’ll work anywhere.

That doesn’t mean you write easy music or easy-listening.  Liquid Interface is goddamn hard (music about water often comes with a zillion notes).  Rusty Air in Carolina piles clouds of ambient, fluorescent textures atop one another that, like the buzzing insects of the South, rub against each other with a strange friction.  Mothership, being an opener, is certainly more user-friendly, but its electro-acoustic soundworld is a completely left-field experience almost anywhere that hasn’t played Rusty or other electro-acoustic works of mine.

Getting the electronics to work without a hitch in dozens of Brick Pits is the result of a Manhattan Project on my end (with kudos to software developer Barry Threw and music distributor Bill Holab).  But it’s given me an infinite new palette of sounds.  My work on expanding the orchestral soundworld has been as much indebted to the San Francisco and Chicago Symphonies as it has been to, say, the Winston-Salem and Portland Symphonies.

So when I kick off the Beethoven & Bates Festival early next year with the MTT and the SFS, I’ll certainly enjoy the sparkle of the fine establishment.  But I won’t forget about that pecan-wood smoke drifting down Old Shell Road.