by Harriet Wagner
Between now and Rogue Festival 2014 we will be featuring several of the performers who will be at this year’s festival, so keep watching for more! Also, we will have a preview of the Festival itself. And if that wasn’t enough, we will have show reviews and video interviews during this year’s Rogue Festival. So keep an eye on our Arts & Entertainment section to catch them all! Also check out our Rogue Performer Event page for fliers and press releases for more of the performers!
She was an only child for the first ten years of her life. The winters in Philadelphia were snowy and damp and every winter she was ill, wistfully watching the other children careening down the hill beside her house on their magic carpets better known as Flexible Flyers. She was, in those long-ago days before television, blanketed on the carpet next to the big, bay window, in front of a huge Westinghouse radio that sat on the floor, as tall as she was in the beginning. She kept busy with coloring books and paper dolls and listening to music.
Radio in the 1940’s was full of 15 minute soap operas (The Romance of Helen Trent, One Man’s Family), 15 minute adventures of mythical heroes (Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy, Captain Midnight), 15 minutes of news (with Lowell Thomas, Gabriel Heater) and, best and luckily for her, the popular music of the day, what today we call the Standards. Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, Bing Crosby, Margaret Whiting, Dinah Shore, Vaughn Monroe, Lena Horne, many others, singing the great songs by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and the like. She’s been told that she started singing at about the same time she started to talk and what you learn in those early years stays with you forever. Who could possibly have foreseen that 70 years later she’d have the opportunity to sing the music she’s loved for so long with someone she loves! It doesn’t get better than that.
Fast forward forty-some years. They’re living in Fresno and her younger son, Matthew, who had started piano lessons at about six, as children in their family seem to be expected to do, exhibits his sixteen year old independence and wisdom, announcing that he isn’t going to play any longer! She begs, pleads, threatens and cajoles, all to no avail. Then, in a rare instance, she finally shuts up and lets it drop, as heartsick as she is. He definitely has talent, wonderful technique and an amazing ear. For any number of months he ignores the instrument. Then, serendipitously, one afternoon he comes out of his room, goes to the piano and begins playing. He says he’s just heard something on the radio and recreates it then and there! Again, luckily, her higher self kicks into gear; she says, “Oh, that’s nice.” and goes back to what she was doing, silently shouting “Hallelujah”! That was about 28 years ago; he hasn’t stopped playing since and now he sings, too!
In the next few years Matthew left Fresno, living in Santa Cruz for more than a decade and then on to Los Angeles for almost as long. He was doing in-home care for the elderly and when a client might eventually have to move to an institutional setting; Matthew would often visit them there. He has an affinity for older folks and it shows. He was composing and doing other things musically too, but he learned quickly the music with which older people identified. When she would visit him he’d sometimes have a gig at an elder-care facility and would ask her to sit in with him. That’s when she discovered that he had taken it upon himself to learn a lot of the music she had learned as a child all those years before. He would sometimes ask her if she knew a particular tune and she always did. She also learned that these songs have special meaning to older folks, especially for those with impaired memories. Music is often the only stimulus that can reach them, triggering memories while at the same time bringing them into the present and they’ll often sing along.
She has wondered–if she’d been healthy and outside with her little friends, her life would have taken a different tack–she wouldn’t have spent untold hours at the radio, absorbing the music, she wouldn’t have needed to go to California for her health, this talented son would not have been born and so on. Life is a series of conditions and events, largely out of our control; as John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans”.
Matthew returned to Fresno nearly two years ago and a while after suggested to her that they form a musical duo, concentrating on what has come to be called The Great American Songbook, performing this timeless material for the audiences that really love it – the older generation! Technically, this was the music of her parents’ era. They were dancing to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman in the 1940’s while their small daughter was soaking in an art form that became and has remained a classic part of 20th century American culture. I was that little girl.
A few years ago I retired from Fresno County’s Social Services Department, have gotten involved in the rescue and re-homing of homeless cats and have plans to write a memoir. I want to put down on paper parts of my life to share with my children and grandchildren. You see, I still think in terms of paper and pens. I’m a Luddite to the bone, even though circumstances lead to this being written on a computer. I traveled the West with a Top 40 band out of Los Angeles when my boys were quite young and later, intermittently over the years, I would have a club gig where I could perform tunes from “the old days” but not as often as I would have liked. Here was an opportunity to share the music I know and love with audiences who also know and love it and perform it with my own son! That was just too happy a development to pass up. I said yes and No Strings came to be. We’re hoping that sometime in the near future Matthew’s older brother, Darren, may be able to join us with his vocals, bass and arrangements, on a CD, if not live. Of course, then we’ll be No Strings with strings; there’s an oxymoron for you.
We’re kept very busy performing at retirement facilities and really enjoy the work; you get back more than you give. The power of music is particularly visible in Memory Care settings. Its ability to stimulate the minds of those lost in dementia seems almost miraculous; melody and lyric can be locked in the mind when other memories are lost and then be called up when heard again. Somehow this act of recall allows the person to reconnect with the present moment also, re-establishing awareness of their surroundings and their ability to respond to others. Like opening a door that has long been locked, as simple a thing as singing an old song can open the mind of someone lost in another world and bring them back to this one. These are powerful moments. No, music won’t cure dementia. It can, however, give back moments of recognition of their surroundings, interactions with those around them and, for a brief while, enhance lives so tragically constrained. I would encourage all caregivers of those with dementia issues to utilize this avenue of communication. If you can ascertain or already know songs or singers that were favorites of your charge, the impact can be even more dramatic.
So, here we are, Harriette Wagner and Matthew Embry aka No Strings, in our 2nd year performing in elder-care venues and our second year in The Rogue Festival. One of the many aspects we like about the Rogue is that it gives us a chance to share the Standards of The Great American Songbook with younger generations that may not have had an opportunity to hear them. It’s nearly impossible to find them played on the radio any longer even though some major stars have done albums of these tunes. But never fear; No Strings is here! If you want to hear what your parents and most likely your grandparents or great grandparents were jiving to between the 1920’s and the 1950’s, drop by Studio 74, 1274 N. Van Ness (a bit north of Olive on the East side of the street) during The Rogue and grab a listen. This gallery has a wonderful ambiance, delightful proprietors; walls always covered with stimulating, thought-provoking art and provide a very welcoming musical space.
Of course, No Strings does digress a bit into a little country, some old rock and roll, traditional folk and some original Wolk/Wagner material (I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to add lyrics to some wonderful melodies by a local retired oncologist, Dick Wolk). We think you’ll find our eclectic show entertaining and fun.
In addition, Matthew, as Matthew Embry + 1, composes and performs on his own. The “+1” sometimes refers to another artist who sits in with him and always to the audience in a sing-along mode, which he encourages. (He does a pretty fair Pete Seeger impression when it comes to getting the listeners to join in!) His music is a little difficult to categorize–diverse, challenging, and sometimes startlingly unconventional with occasional political overtones.
Another of his creative endeavors involves Clatterbox, a live electronic radio theater collective formed on Free Radio Santa Cruz 1994. No known adjectives can adequately convey this project – an experiment in sound and visuals. Come by for an opportunity to stretch your mind and your appreciation of sound and image, maybe beyond your comfort zone. Art can and should play a variety of roles, and, as does the best Haiku, draw the connection between seemingly disparate objects or events. Clatterbox just may accomplish that.
No Strings, Matthew Embry +1 and Clatterbox will each be performing for The Rogue at Studio 74 for a $5.00 cover, cash or Rogue Bucks, with the following schedule.
No Strings Friday February 28 Saturday March 1 Sunday March 2 `6:45-7:30
Saturday March 8 4:15 -5:00
Matthew Embry +1 Wednesday March 5 6:45-7:30 Saturday March 8 3:00-3:45
Clatterbox Friday February 28 Saturday March 1 9:15-10:00
Sunday March 2 8:00-8:45
We hope you’ll include Studio 74 in your Rogue schedule – there will be other performers at this venue also, so make sure to check out The Rogue promotional material, online and in print and make it a grand week for the arts! We’ll be looking for you.