Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Invasive Species Update!

Color me thrilled and grateful. Our Kickstarter campaign has raised its required 3k minimum, and will thus pay out on March 11, the day of the premiere for which the campaign was created. However, my dearest, darling, beneficent, generous-to-a-fault friends (was that treacly enough?), the cause of new American music is a good one, and while we’re raising money for such, we might as well go whole hog and keep the dollars coming in for the remaining five days. All additional funds raised via the Kickstarter will go into the coffers of the estimable Composers, Inc., the mission of which is the performance of new American music by living American composers.

The essential beneficiary of the Kickstarter is the premiere of my piano quintet “Invasive Species” by its dedicatees, the brilliant pianist Roger Woodward and the magnificent Alexander String Quartet.

We’ve been in rehearsal all week. As a teaser, I offer up a brief video below, which features the conclusion of the final movement of the piece, entitled “E. globulus (10-20-1991)” “E. globulus” is the species name of the Blue Gum Eucalyptus tree, an incredibly fast-growing weed of a tree that was planted across the San Francisco Bay Area in the nineteenth century in an attempt to create harvestable lumber after the eradication of the local redwoods. It was a mistake, as the eucalyptus wood turned out to be too hard and too oily to be useful as lumber. The mistake was amplified by the eucalyptus’ tendency to spread like acne on an oily cheek and finally, to explode like incendiary bombs when they burn.

We here in the Oakland/Berkeley hills learned all about burning eucalyptus trees on October 20, 1991, when they did much to power what is known today as the “Oakland Hills Firestorm.” It was the biggest urban fire in the history of the United States. It killed 25 people and destroyed 437 apartment/condo units and 3354 single family homes, among them some of the most beautiful and pricey homes in the Bay Area.

I was sitting at my piano in the Oakmore section of Oakland that morning, working on a piano piece called “Dude ‘Tudes” for the pianist Robert Helps. I was finishing up the sixth and final movement when I looked out my window and saw a HUMONGOUS plume of white smoke rising from just over the hill above our house. Within a couple of minutes the plume went from white to black; I later learned that the change of color indicated that the fire went from consuming foliage (white smoke) to structures (dark smoke). I ran out of the house to take a look and walked up the hill (Leimert Avenue). At the top was a crowd of locals, all gaping in amazement at the same thing: a gigantic fire just across the valley occupied by Highway 13, burning down from the ridgeline and through neighborhoods with what seemed to be incredible speed. You could actually hear the eucalyptus trees pop as they exploded, spreading burning pitch everywhere around them. I said something on the lines of “holy crap” and high-tailed it back to my house. I told my wife what I had seen, turned on the TV, and sure enough, within minutes, we were told to be prepared to evacuate.

(That was an interesting exercise. What do you take when you have 15 or 20 minutes to decide? Yes, first you take the kids; my eldest daughter Rachel was 5 years old and my son Samuel was 20 months old. But then what? We grabbed the kids’ favorite toys, our photo albums, the checkbook and our passports, and my sketchbook for “Dude ‘Tudes”. I’m sure my wife took her jewelry and we must have packed clothing and diapers as well, but I have no memory of having done so.)

As it turned out, our neighborhood was spared. My wife and kids took off immediately however, as the smoke was a semi-toxic mix of burning wood, appliances, plastics, cars, and poison oak. I stayed behind with a couple of neighbors to look after two elderly couples who simply refused to budge. Among them were my next-door-neighbors, Agnes and Harry Christiansen. Harry was a big, bluff Norwegian guy, in his late 80’s, who said he’d be damned if he was going to leave his house of 40+ years because of a little fire. So we all sat in his kitchen and looked out the window at the Pompeii-like scene of smoke, soot and ash settling on our yards while we drank Harry’s best Scotch and got totally snookered.

It remains an inspiration for me to this day: the realization that no matter how dire the circumstances, people cannot (and will not) resist the temptation to party when given the opportunity to do so.

In a nutshell, this is what the last movement of “Invasive Species” is all “about”; okay, not the snookered/party bit, but for sure the burning eucalyptus trees.

The Kickstarter page can be here.