Detroit Blog, Written June 30, upon return to Reno (Dallas Smith)(A harpist’s Olympics, A tour of downtown Detroit, and comments on urban benefits.)

Why blog now? When traveling, I find that in a new setting every day is stimulating (mostly). When I find myself in relatively unfamiliar surroundings, I am better able to make cultural observations, compared to being at home. Of course, I could attempt to blog from Reno. However, writing about my day-to-day life would require a different type of analysis, more akin to writing a daily diary, in which the external world is mostly unchanged, and one is compelled to write more about one’s inner world. Thus, for me it is much easier to blog “on the road”. Blog Summary: 1. The Harp Olympics: a report on the American Harp Society’s bi-annual convention 2. Re-building inner-city Detroit The Harp Olympics This week I heard more harp music in the form of concertos and chamber music than I had previously heard all my life. Sometimes, there were as many as three different concerts in a day, each featuring from two to five harpists. The soloists included many of the world’s top orchestral players, as well as both classical and jazz soloists. The harpists were accompanied by world-class string players, pianists, and flutists. It was amazing to hear challenging compositions performed that had required months or even years of practice and preparation, all performed one after another in concert after concert. One truism is that most harpists have relatively few opportunities to appear in solo or chamber ensemble concerts. And so, the intense efforts needed to prepare these pieces for performance are often followed by a feeling of let-down once the performances are over, since the repertoire cannot be repeated very often. The repertoire of the convention’s performers ranged from Bach transcriptions to modern pieces. (One measure of the quality of Bach’s compositions is that they sound good on any instrument, not just in the original versions.) Some of the modern compositions included unusual sound effects: tapping rhythms on the sound board, weaving a piece of cloth between the strings to deaden their resonance, and even striking the strings with a metal rod for dramatic effect. I am so glad that Susan and I play jazz, as compared with much of the relatively esoteric classical harp repertoire. One highlight of the convention was a concert in honor of harpist Alice Chalifoux, who just had her hundredth birthday. We watched an interview with her on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, when she was eighty. The ensuing concert featured some of her most famous students performing “war-horses” from the traditional repertoire. A list of Ms. Chalifoux’s students is practically a who’s who of professional classical harpists. Another name from the harp world that is worth calling to the attention of all, especially my musician friends, is composer Carlos Salzedo. Salzedo was a prize-winner at the Paris Conservatory in the 1930’s in harp, piano, and composition. Many of his compositions were performed during the course of the convention, revealing an amazing depth and variety. Indeed, from what I have heard, Salzedo stands out as the major composer for the harp in all of music history. One new event in the history of AMS conventions was to feature jazz harpists at the opening grand concert. Previously, according to Susan’s experience, jazz was ignored, dismissed, or disrespected at the conventions she had previously attended. Two names to watch for in the harp world are: jazz harpist Park Stickney and Edmar Castaneda, a young harpist from Columbia. [Google ’em, listen, and be amazed…] Another aspect of the inclusion of jazz in this previously classically dominated convention was the use of the electric harp, without which, it would have been impossible for the jazz harpists to perform in their jazz trio and quartet ensembles. Susan has been a pioneer of the electric harp, having been chosen to write the official company manual for the instrument. Susan and I had the honor of being asked to perform for the closing banquet of the AHS conference. After having listened to four days of solid concerts, it was a little intimidating to think of following some of the world’s most famous harpists. Ultimately, we just had to do what we do, to the best of our abilities, which is to perform “straight-ahead” jazz, which I think we do better than anyone at the convention. And so that is what we did, performing for an audience containing Susan’s teacher, long-time Detroit Symphony harpist Liz Ilku, and my specially-invited flute teacher, Detroit Symphony flutist Erv Monroe. It was a great way to end the convention. Downtown Detroit Even more important in Detroit’s history than the decline (corporate suicide?) of the auto industry is the fact that the 1967 race riots in Detroit continue to cast a shadow on the city’s development. While the number of deaths in 1967 was small compared to the on-going violence in Bagdad, thousands of houses were burned, businesses were looted, and race relations were strained for decades. As a direct consequence of the riots, “white flight” resulted in many businesses relocating from downtown Detroit to the surrounding suburbs. The population of inner-city Detroit diminished from 1.6 million to its current 900,000 (surrounded by a greater metropolitan area of over four million people). There are still burned-out buildings from that time that have never been razed, similar to what I saw in Berlin in the seventies, with its lingering devastation from World War II. Susan and I stayed with our good friends, urban planner Harriet and physics professor Al Saperstein. We had a week of lively conversations together. Harriet is supposed to be retired…Susan first met her at age 18 (Harriet was 28), when Susan had Harriet as her sociology teacher at Wayne State University. Harriet was instrumental in managing and encouraging the economic re-development of downtown Detroit, especially the town of Highland Park and the Detroit riverfront. On the first night we arrived, we visited a river festival attended by thousands. The most noticeable difference from a similar street fair in Reno is the large percentage of African-Americans. Detroit is also famous for being home to the largest Arab populations in the USA. One visible group are the Chaldeans—Christian Arabs from Iraq. Susan and I, as usual, ate Middle-Eastern food at every opportunity. Harriet led us on an interesting excursion–a bicycle tour of residential inner-city Detroit and Belle Isle island, which lies between Detroit to the north and Canada to the south (the only place in the USA to look south toward Canada). We cycled over 15 miles in all. Harriet pointed out the various housing developments. There are quite a few vacant lots where the original structures had been torn down, but nothing had been rebuilt in their place. And as mentioned, there were quite a few burned out buildings, both homes and former factories. Indeed, America’s beloved Ford Motor Company has left its huge abandoned factory in Highland Park, site of the assembly line that produced the Model-T. Ford would sign over the property to any willing receiver for a dollar, but the buyer would have to pay millions to clean up and restore the site. Ford doesn’t choose to clean up its own mess, and so the old broken-down factory has sat as a vacant eye-sore for many years. An interesting encounter enroute was with an artist who has turned his house and surrounding lots into an art exhibition consisting of “found objects”, e.g. doors, vacuum cleaners, phones, tires, etc., painted bright colors and then labeled with provocative graffiti. Some people hate it. Others recognize it as “art”. Its presence certainly begs the question: what is art? One can find equivalent chaotic, garish, discomforting art in any modern museum, so why not on the streets of this inner city black neighborhood? The art can be viewed at The artist, Tyree ( offered the following quote: “People talk about the need to heal the e
arth. I say, put energy into healing the people, and then the earth will heal itself. Indeed, the earth would heal itself fine if people would just treat her right.” Real estate values are quite low in Detroit. Harriet and Al’s apartment is valued at only $130,000. It would be double that in Reno, quadrupal in San Francisco. The target price for affordable housing in downtown Detroit is $85,000, often in a duplex or four-plex. However, the typical resident for this part of town cannot afford the $85k. And so, a secondary “soft mortgage” for $30k is carried by the federal government, reducing the price to $55k for the initial buyer. There are abandoned, sometimes new “fixer-uppers” that can be had in Highland Park for $35k. There are certainly opportunities for tremendous growth and development here, for anyone willing to invest their time and energies in building the community, as Harriet and Al have. Final Thoughts It was great staying in downtown Detroit. The cultural diversity and artistic expression are on a world-class level comparable to New York’s, Stockholm’s, or Bombay’s, but on a smaller scale, without the traffic. It is a wonderful thing to be able to go out for world-class entertainment practically any night of the week. Our last evening was spent at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA), home of unique murals by the renowned artist Diego Rivera. We did not have enough time to explore all the DIA’s different exhibits, both permanent and temporary, which could easily fill a whole day. Reno’s museum is good, but only a fraction as large as the DIA. In all these and other aspects, the contrast between world-city Detroit and the Biggest Little City Reno is clear. I think it’s necessary to periodically check-in with such urban culture centers in order to witness and take part in the cutting edge of the arts, compared to the relative isolation of Reno. Of course, San Francisco is within easy reach of Reno, if only we would get around to booking the time to avail ourselves of the Bay Area’s urban riches. Hopefully, this coming year, I’ll be posting a blog from San Francisco.

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One Response to Detroit Blog, Written June 30, upon return to Reno (Dallas Smith)(A harpist’s Olympics, A tour of downtown Detroit, and comments on urban benefits.)

  1. Anutep says:

    I was a late-starter to playing music. I was itrdonuced to music as a child, and one of my few regrets is that I didn’t stick with it but because I didn’t, I’m much more ferocious’ in terms of developing myself as a professional musician. After years of unrewarding academia, it’s time to switch to doing an ancient art music making. I want to go out there, and tell people You can play music! And when they say I can’t do that work with them from there. EVERYBODY can play music it’s hardwired into the brain. Many people think that if you didn’t start as a child you can never play music, and that, my friends, is a big fat lie! My experience has been that people are itrdonuced to instruments they may not have an affinity for, and give up b because it does not touch their soul. Others may switch to another instrument, and it becomes theirs. The first instrument of many the piano is very well suited to learn music theory, and is an important tool for almost any melodic musician. But you don’t have to learn theory to play music! Just pick up the damn instrument and start noodling with it. Listen to a tune in your head, and put it on the instrument. Christina Tourin taught me the greatest, liberating force of a musical instrument improvisation! Take a tune, bend it, twist it, toss it in the air, look at it from both comfortable and uncomfortable perspectives! Improvisation is taught as sprinkles on a sundae, but it should really be the ice cream! The piano f s/he starts with another instrument, my bets are that at sometime during their ongoing musical development, they will begin to do some work with a keyboard. The harp spoke to me 5 years ago, and I’m a 57 year old guy trying like hell to get good on this instrument. I live in Hawaii, where I’m the only guy that I know that plays a harp. Novelty aside, I could make my mark here and it’s sheer determination, dedication, practice, and the occasional harp conference, a class or two with people of Deborah’s caliber that will get me there.I’ve always avoided reading music until the last few years, and now I relish in it! A whole new language and tons of material have opened up to me. I also ear-train, improvise, AND read music as well. All on my own time and my own dime. I wake up at 0430 to practice for a couple of hours (in-between walks and cat-breaks) before heading off to work.And you know what? The road to professionalism and quality playing is a whole lotta fun I’m enjoying every single moment of this journey! Aloha, and the very best to you all!

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