Friday, April 19, 2013

Pending Execution Revives Prison Staffing Debate

Photo by Tamir Kalifa


In December 1999, Daniel Nagle, a correctional officer, stood on the Texas Capitol steps, leading a rally to ask lawmakers for a pay raise for his fellow prison employees. His union had been at odds with the prison administration for months over whether a staffing shortage was compromising safety.

“Someone will have to be killed,” he said at the rally, “before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does anything about the shortage of staff in Texas prisons.”

Two weeks later, Nagle was fatally stabbed by an inmate while working at the McConnell Unit in Beeville. “There was nobody there to call for help,” said his sister Della Nagle. “It was just him and the inmates.”

Officials of the prison workers' union, a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, including Nagle’s former colleagues, said that understaffing and low pay continue to put officers in danger today. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs Texas prisons, counters that all of its critical security positions are filled. And the inmate convicted of Nagle’s murder says the staffing issues created a situation that was ripe for corruption and led him to being framed.

Read the rest in The New York Times, or a slightly longer version in The Texas Tribune.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What It's Like to Play in Mother Falcon


Here's a little piece I wrote for the Austin American-Statesman about playing violin in the band Mother Falcon:


For several years, during visits home from college in New York, I drifted in and out of a loosely organized group of Austin musicians. By 2010, when I came back to play violin full time, the group was growing, as friends of friends sat in on jam sessions and stuck around. Since then, audiences have grown from dozens to hundreds, and Mother Falcon, as we called ourselves, has transformed from an unplanned experiment into a proper band, with a manager, an LLC, and soon even our own van.

We’re now at a critical juncture, taking the first steps up a steep learning curve to understand the industry we’d like to join. The group has ranged in size between 12 and 20 members, all now a few years older or younger than 23. Many are finishing college. Others are considering alternate careers. We recently recorded a second album, and this summer we’ll travel to the coasts to try to take the band from local notoriety to some level of national attention.

Mother Falcon started around 2007 when Nick Gregg, a student at Westlake High School, began jamming with other cellists after orchestra rehearsals.  Gregg and I had been in a string quartet, learning Mozart and Shostakovich at the Austin Chamber Music Center and working on the side with composers Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski on playing music that offered more room to improvise.

Six years and a college education later, the band has expanded to a swirling network of friends who play all sorts of orchestral, rock, and foreign instruments. We rehearse in one of several tiny living rooms, in a tangle of bows, arms, chairs, and brass. Occasionally, a song will come to us nearly fully formed, as with the dense and ambling guitar-based pieces by Claire Puckett. Usually, though, a small group will tinker with some basic musical ideas— a riff, a few chords, or a melody— for many hours before showing the pencil sketch of a song to the rest of the group.

Then comes a seemingly endless process of refinement. Gregg will turn a string of incomprehensible syllables into words. Isaac Winburne, the drummer, will try about a hundred options before picking one. Then, a week later, he’ll pick a different one.

It’s a collaborative process unlike anything I’ve experienced before, but which probably shares a lot with building a company, designing a building, or sculpting a sports team. It demands that a lot of people learn how to be diplomatic and work through the thought processes of one another patiently.

The songwriting method is creatively liberating, in part, because you have so little control. You’re only responsible for a tiny piece of the final song, so you can feel free to try whatever you want, knowing you’re not responsible for fully designing the musical moment. “To let someone else make half the decisions, or some big part of them, absolves one of the need to explore endless musical possibilities,” David Byrne, former leader of the Talking Heads, has written about collaborating with other musicians. “The result is fewer agonizing decisions in the writing process, and sometimes, faster results.”

In Mother Falcon’s case, the results actually come slower. We’ll sometimes perform a song we’ve spent weeks preparing, and then decide it needs to be drastically reworked. Saxophonist and guitarist Matt Puckett and I often bemoan how much more quickly we might write a song alone. But then we shake our heads and remember how much we like the product of the big collective process, frustrating as that process can be.

Other times a song that has taken tons of work will die in committee, to borrow a phrase from politics. It loses traction as excitement wanes and we eventually forget about it.

Then comes the live show, which is exhilarating or exhausting depending on my mood. Often, as a violinist, I won’t know which other violinists in the band will be joining me on stage. Once the set has started, we have mental shorthand for figuring out who will play each part.

For example, on the song ‘Kathryn’, which opens with a violin solo, I play the lead part when University of Texas student Clara Brill, who wrote it, is at home in California. Clara and I take turns playing a certain solo in the song ‘Fireflies’ that was written by Rita Andrade, who now studies viola in Chicago. Sometimes we double up to cover a part written on the pedal steel guitar by Evan Kaspar, because he has a conflicting gig in another part of Austin.

Of course, there are balls dropped, parts missed, entrances fumbled, but we all trust that the music is rich enough that a missing piece won’t keep the audience from seeing the bigger picture.

We’re still surprised when audience members think we use written scores. Recently, I received an email from a high school band director asking if we could send him our sheet music. I had to tell him that none existed, but I got to work shortly after on a songbook, so that people can take our music and rework it for themselves.

It’s a comfortably fluid situation made possible, in part, because we’re young. The real struggle down the line for Mother Falcon, as I see it, will be to try to preserve our creative dynamic as we professionalize.

At this point, everyone fits the band into their lives differently. Several band members, including bassist Dusty Rhodes, cellist Diana Burgess, and trumpet player Matt Krolick, are still students, so they rehearse and then stay up all night with their class work. Sterling Steffen and Andrew Fontenot, who both play saxophone, and violinist Kira Bordelon, who plays violin, all teach. Accordionist Tamir Kalifa is a photojournalist, and I’m a print journalist. Both of us are trying to build careers as freelancers so we can make our own schedules and mold those schedules like clay in the cracks left open by the band.

Everyone has other, burgeoning careers, whether in music or another field, be it architecture, photography, journalism, or education. We’ve all got competing life choices, and when we choose Mother Falcon these days, we also choose not to do something else.

What we are choosing to do, in effect, is run a small business together in a wildly unpredictable industry. In that environment, we’ll be confronting bigger questions as we figure out how to meet the demands of a brutally unpredictable music industry while preserving the mutually-trusting, creatively rich group ethic that made us want to confront that industry in the first place.