My Latest Crackpot Theory

September 2nd, 2017

This summer,  I taught MUSC 1800: Popular Music for the 25th time since coming to Lakeland.  It is not a course that I ever trained to teach, or ever envisioned myself teaching before I accepted my current job.  Once I finished graduate school, I assumed that I would be teaching music theory, which I taught my first semester at Lakeland, and, for various reasons, have not taught since.

So it has been an interesting journey teaching the history of Popular Music, which has become the bread and butter of my work life.  I like to think that I’ve become fairly good at it and developed some insight into the topic.  Here’s an idea that occurred to me this week:  The shape of popular music in the 20th century is indicative of a very different kind of middle class that developed during that period, in contract to what I will call the bourgeoisie of earlier eras.

A hallmark of middle class or bourgeois culture is that it tends to strive to emulate the culture of the wealthy:  thus, first names that begin by being applied to upper class babies filter their way to the middle class, and then to the lower class; upper class estates are mimicked in suburban lawns.  One need only listen to the lyrics to rappers to realize how pervasive this impulse still is:  Rolex watches, Mercedes Benz cars, expensive liquor, and designer clothes all feature prominently.  The middle class may shop at Target and Wal-Mart, but they (and increasingly the lower class) aspire to the trappings of wealth and the status symbols that, at least in the middle class mind, suggest it.

In music, this was also the case.  As the bourgeoisie expanded in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, it tended to lay aside the folk music of the lower classes in favor of the “cultivated” music of the upper class–what we today call “classical” music, which for centuries had been the music that kings and princes listened to while they ate dinner.  Public performances of instrumental music and opera became more common as a middle class began to be able to afford the price of admission.  The “true” art form of opera was even adapted for the working classes as singspiel and zarzuela, often with tickets available at cut-rate prices, but the story was always the same–middle and lower class audiences striving to engage in the culture enjoyed by the wealthy.  In middle-class homes, the piano and its musically-literate culture became an important status symbol, and every family aspired to own a piano, and middle-class daughters were trained in its use.  Alongside social dance, home music-making using the piano and printed sheet music (again, a more mass-produced version of the manuscripts that circulated among aristocrats) became a key part of the middle-class social life.

Folk music, the music of the lower classes, was, in part, left behind.  Composers like Haydn and Beethoven refer to folk music, and Beethoven even paid his bills by arranging folk music for publication (a lot of it–it seems to have been quite lucrative for the publishers), but by Beethoven’s intervention, it becomes very different from actual folk music.  Beethoven considered himself an equal with the aristocrats with whom he associated, even if they didn’t, and didn’t understand why he couldn’t marry into that world.  After Beethoven’s death, he became legendary, and middle-class pianists across the continent and in America began to pound through the Moonlight Sonata, which acquired its nickname around this time as it became the ultimate expression of bourgeois musical aspirations.

Yes, there was also the nascent sheet music industry during the 19th century.  But Stephen Foster had studied music with a German composer, and created music that he thought of as parlor music–meant to be performed in the home as part of courting rituals or simply for the entertainment of the middle-class family.  His sentimental songs are very much in the style of European song of the same era, even if some of his more famous–and infamous–songs refer to blackface minstrelsy.  In Europe, Brahms and Chopin were indeed staples of the middle-class repertoire, and Brahms became quite wealthy, starting with the sales of his sheet music (which proceeds he invested shrewdly and successfully–an upper-class behavior, enabling him to live a wealthy lifestyle).

This is a very different landscape from the one which emerges in American music of the 20th century.  Every major movement in American popular music, from minstrelsy, through ragtime, jazz, blues, country music, rock’n’roll, and hip-hop, has emerged from the working class, and often from the most disadvantaged and dispossessed cultures in society.  Minstrelsy apes mid-19th-century plantation culture and the music of slaves.  Ragtime was developed by composer-pianists playing in saloons and brothels.  Blues and country music have their roots in the rural South, and rock has its roots in the blues and country that remained behind when those styles moved to the city.  Hip-hop began in the ghetto among imigrants and teenaged street-gangs, expanding on a practice, toasting that was ubiquitous in Jamaican prisons.  Nearly all American popular music, beloved of the middle class, has its origins in music practiced by people who are poor, dispossessed, disenfranchised, and robbed of their liberty.

Even while the rest of middle-class culture looked aspirationally to the wealthy for cues through much of the century, music was drawn from lower-class models.  Why?  And are the instances in other realms of consumer culture where working-class and poor models have come to define the status symbols of the middle-class?

A theory:  the American middle class is fundamentally different from the various forms of bourgeoisie that preceded it.  The middle class and its values are a 20th-century creation, the result of industrialization, war, and the quasi-socialist state (never called such by its governing class) that developed during this time.  The enormous consumer culture only follows where the trail of spending leads it, at least in the early 20th-century.  The government played a crucial role in the creation of the middle class and its culture, through its efforts to assist in electrification, create guaranteed old-age pensions, allow organized labor to flourish, subsidize industry and the automobile culture, encourage middle-class home ownership, and provide public education to all students.  The Depression, and, especially, the two World Wars, especially, the Second, led to the creation of America’s mass middle class.  It is fairly homogeneous, as so many families were relocated during the 30s and 40s.  It was, for many years, well-educated by historical standards, but originally not college-educated.  The rapid modernization of America meant that the first generation of the mass middle class moved directly there, in many cases, from abject poverty; “born in a barn, died in a skyscraper.”  And this is the fundamental difference that accounts for the lower-class origins of American popular music.

Imagine a first-generation suburbanite, in Levittown, or elsewhere, in 1950.  Born around 1915, possibly in a rural setting, possibly to immigrants in a large city.  He grew up with lower-class music, and because of the availability of the phonograph, could access recorded music as long as he can remember.  While he may tolerate “mainstream” popular music, what he yearns for is music that reminds him of his youth, as will all of us.  So maybe he listens on the radio to the Grand Ol’ Opry, or purchases country and western records.  Maybe he developed a taste for other kinds of music during his military service, listening to V-discs with his comrades, or maybe he grew up listening to ethnic music, and those same records introduced him to a wider musical world.  At any rate, the music that is valued in his home, and that his kids grow up hearing, is music with its roots in the lower class, among the poor.  He may have a piano–after all, next to the television set and the automobile, it’s still a hallmark of the middle-class lifestyle–but it really is only played when the kids practice for their weekly lessons, or on rare special occasions, and while he knows he should care about Beethoven and Mozart, they don’t pull on his heartstrings the way Hank Williams or Louis Jordan do.

This man’s children, the Baby Boomers, will proclaim working-class music to be an art form, to be granted the same status and respect as the music of the upper classes.  It happens through the culture industry and consumer culture, which begins with attempts to prioritize classical music and high culture, but very quickly moves to giving the mass middle-class what it wants.  Toscanini steps aside for Elvis Presley and Mitch Miller and Lawrence Welk.  Classical music for decades lends prestige to a record label, but even that dwindles by the end of the 20th century as working-class music becomes the singular musical expression of American culture.  This is the music that is exported en masse to the rest of the world, and which the rest of the world will eventually echo back–British invasion, afro-pop, “world music,” J-Pop, K-Pop, narcocorridas, and all the rest.

The second generation of suburbanites–the Baby Boomers–make working-class music (and to an extent, dress) the core of their mass middle class, and from this point forward, Americans cease to have a need for the music of the elite, and increasingly, the elite are steeped in that music as well.  The irony is that, having so recently clawed its way out of poverty, the middle class often looks to the poor for a sense of authenticity, and holds a (usually false) nostalgia for “the good old days.”  For the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers, who know only the middle-class culture, there is no reason to look to the music of elites.  They may study it for a time (in its often-bastardized forms in high school marching band or show choir), yearning every second for “their” music and often secretly disappointed that their musical education isn’t helping them learn to play the music they truly love.  For a few, the bug for “classical” music bites, and with parental support, they carry forward the traditions of elite music-making, but the vast majority put down their instruments after graduation and immerse themselves in the mass middle-class culture, where opera is Il Divo, and classical music is watching an orchestra accompany an old blockbuster film.

This fundamental difference in origin stories between the old bourgeoisie and the modern middle class, would seem to account for the very different origins of the music preferred by those groups.  Any thoughts?

 

Summer?

August 24th, 2017

All summer, I kept meaning to post something–I was somewhat lazy, but a few things happened, so here is an update.

I’ve started and finished two pieces since May.  My new work for Galo Arboledo is On a Clear Night You Can See Forever for violin and piano, and is an ode to the Shafran Planetarium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  We are hoping to premiere the piece in the Museum on a Cleveland Composers Guild concert on November 26, but we’re still awaiting the decision of the program committee on that.  The piece is a fantasy that explores the wonders of the Universe, starting close to home with the aurora, and zooming out to the ultimate panorama.  More updates on this piece in the near future!

I’m also ready to send copies of my first big band piece to Ed Michaels, who will premiere it with Lakeland Jazz Impact this year.  Appropriately, the title is Maximum Impact.  I’m always pleased when my work can intersect with my job in some way.  Jazz Impact has a storied history, and is the only high school honors jazz band in Northeast Ohio.

A big first for me was conducting the Resonanz production of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges.  I can now call myself an opera conductor.  Even just conducting a piano-vocal arrangement was an amazing challenge, and while I felt some trepidation, I’m glad that I took it on.  I’m also pleased to be working with a group that is bringing serious music to Lake County, where, outside the schools, there isn’t enough.

The Lakeland Civic Orchestra will start up on Monday.  I’m excited to see our group again, and it looks like a good season ahead.  We are starting our season with a concert on November 5 that includes Massenet’s Ballet Music from Le Cid, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and Alice Mary Smith’s The Masque of Pandora.  It is always hard to choose music for the orchestra–nothing too easy, nothing too hard, and always the knowledge that whatever I pick we have to live with for a few months while we prepare it.  Sam Rotburg, violin faculty at Baldwin Wallace University, approached me with the idea of the Beethoven Triple a couple of years ago, and that is now coming to fruition.  His wife and colleague Sungyeun Kim will play piano, and Chauncey Arecet will play cello.  The Massenet is a piece I first encountered in college in a band transcription, and when I was playing the CD in the car recently, Noah reminded me that he had heard it in a cartoon, as well.  The odd duck, then, is the Smith.  A composer who deserves to be better known, certainly.  I resolved this season to begin to make more of an effort to include music by under-represented voices in our concerts, after I realized that Jennifer Jolley’s Ferry Crossing was the first piece by a female composer that we had played in the five years that I have conducted the group.  The challenge, then, is that we are not a new music ensemble, so I need to educate myself and find repertoire by female composers and composers of color of the past.  Hence, Alice Mary Smith.  Since her style is close to Mendelssohn, she will fit nicely into what we do, and I’m excited to give the local premiere of this piece.  If the Cleveland Orchestra won’t do any better than it has in programming diversely, the Lakeland Civic Orchestra can lead the way.

We had a wonderful trip in June to Dearborn, Michigan to see the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.  It was great family time, as we stayed at “the pink hotel” and absorbed some of the history of our nation.  The Henry Ford is really a Smithsonian West in many ways, and Noah was especially excited about seeing the chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated.  I’m moved that my kids were able to sit in the same bus that Rosa Parks was arrested in, and a little stunned that the exhibit on consumer technology now includes things I had in my house as a high schooler.  We also lived more history at Hale Farm and Village here in Cleveland, when we attended their Civil War reenactment earlier this month.  Noah has developed in interest in this, and he was fascinated by it, of course.  My first orchestra conducting gig was conducting artillery reenactors for the 1812 Overture, but I had never been to an encampment like this.  The tough part of it all, is trying to explain why people do this–not only to my son, but also to my sister-in-law Connie and her two nieces, who were visiting from Germany.

I also took Becky to see Billy Joel perform at Progressive Field in July.  I’m glad we went, but the musician in me found it too loud.  I can’t imagine a concert by a group meant to be loud.  He only sings hits now, of course, since he hasn’t had a new album in 15 years.  He threw in a couple of deep cuts, but mostly, everyone got to hear what they came to hear.  One of my favorite sights of the evening was a man wearing a Fantasies and Delusions t-shirt.  That is a true Billy Joel fan, and having had my music on the same program as some of those pieces (thanks, Avguste Antonov), it’s fun to know that I’m artistically connected to such a big name.  I’ve always loved his music, even before I realized it was his music, and I’m glad I had a chance to see him while he is still performing.  Not bad for my first stadium concert.

Now fall semester looms.  Noah is back in school, everyone who has visited has visited, and it’s time to open the folder called Compositions Fall 2017.  Ahead of me are a trio for piano, violin, and trumpet for Troika Melange; a piece for soprano and jazz trio for Carrie Hennessey; and possibly some songs for a connection from Resonanz.  Dianna Anderson has agreed to premiere Sisters in Stone, but we haven’t figured out when; I would like to do it at the High Museum of Art, since the statues that inspired it come from there.  I would like to get Twenty Views of the Trombone out there as well.  I hope to present it at Lakeland and in some other college venues this year.  I’m also hoping to return to the CMS circuit, since their Great Lakes Regional conference is in Columbus, and I wouldn’t have to spend my entire travel budget on one trip.  I had a great opportunity to reconnect with Nancy Joy, who commissioned South Africa, my horn and marimba piece which is just about my greatest hit.  She is planning to record the work sometime this year, which will be another boost for that surprise success.

Where did the summer go?

On the Horizon

May 1st, 2017

I managed to get nothing up here in the month of April, but it has been a busy time.

In the past two months, I have completed one piece, A Clarion Voice is Ringing and it has been premiered at the installation of the president of the University of Dayton.  I’m very close to wrapping up Sisters in Stone, although I’m not sure that this is the final title.

Happily, new opportunities have also presented themselves, and I have three projects that will take me into next fall.

I will be writing a piece for violin and piano for Galo Arboleda, a violinist recently graduated from Kent State University who was our substitute concertmaster in the Lakeland Civic Orchestra earlier this year.  I approached Galo, and I will submit the resulting piece to a planned Cleveland Composers Guild concert at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the fall that is looking for works inspired by science and nature.

Last month, Alan Wenger, trumpet professor at the University of Central Missouri, approached me about writing for his ensemble Troika Melange.  I will be composing a piece for trumpet, violin, and piano, which they will take on tour overseas, and record in 2018-2019.

Finally, a first for me, Ed Michaels has asked if I would write a piece for Lakeland Jazz Impact, the all-star high school jazz band.  I’ve never written for big band, although I’ve always wanted to, and I’m looking forward to trying out that language.  The premiere of that piece would take place in Spring of 2018.

It’s good to have work!

Work in Progress–Sisters in Stone

March 30th, 2017

I had a fantastic trip to Georgia last month, over the first part of Presidents Day weekend.  I flew to Atlanta on Wednesday, February 15, and drove straight to Blairsville, Georgia where I stayed with Leigh Miller and her wonderful family for two nights.  Leigh is the professor of clarinet at Young Harris College, a school nestled in the mountains of North Georgia.  On Thursday, I met with students and gave a masterclass, which was a discussion of my work through a series of excerpts of Twenty Views of the Trombone.

Then on Friday morning, it was off to the big show.  Olivia Kieffer, a fellow CCM alum and transplant to Atlanta, booked me for the Composers Concert series at Eyedrum, a wonderful little venue right in the heart of downtown.  I decided that this would be the premiere performance of the complete Twenty Views of the Trombone.  After a relaxing sunny afternoon, I headed over to the gig.  The crowd was small, but enthusiastic, and the music was well-received.  If you want to read more about it, check out Mark Gresham’s review for the ArtsATL blog, which tells the whole story.

I then found myself with a full day on Saturday and no commitments beyond an early-evening flight home.  Not needing to be at the airport until about 5pm, I decided to visit Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.  I found parking within a couple of blocks on the street, and began to walk.  It was a rainy day, so I was beginning to be glad to have chosen an indoor activity.  Before I got to the High Museum, though, I discovered MODA, the Museum of Design Atlanta, directly across the street and decided to check it out.  While not particularly extensive or comprehensive, their exhibit on designing for sustainable food was fascinating and thought-provoking.

The rest of the day I spent at the High Museum.  As is to be expected in a younger city like Atlanta, the strengths of their collections are in newer works, but in somewhat niche areas.  I was particularly affected by their current exhibition, Cross Countrywhich groups works by the part of the United States they depict.  Having visited most regions of the United States, I felt a deep connection with many of the works, but I kept coming back to Dorothea Lange’s well-known photograph Migrant Mother.  Despite having seen it reprinted countless times, seeing it up close, in large format, and in its original medium was revelatory.

It was a part of the High Museum’s permanent collection, though, that has spurred my creative imagination.  The High displays a number of life-size or near-life-size marble sculptures, many of full-length female figures.  I was drawn first to Giovanni Benzoni’s The Veiled Rebekah, displayed at the top of the ramp to the second level, and as I walked through that gallery, an idea for a piece began to take shape.  Benzoni’s Rebekah, depicting the Biblical daughter-in-law of the patriarch Abraham, captured a woman at the moment of meeting her destiny–brought from her homeland by a servant, she pulls her veil over her face just as she is about to meet her husband  for the first time.

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Benzoni’s The Veiled Rebekah

Other statues in the area seemed to be captured in similar moments.  I had been in search of a new composition project, and I found the inspiration in these four subjects.  Two on the cusp of tragedy:  William Wetmore Story’s Medea holding the knife while she contemplates her revenge;

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Story’s Medea

Chauncey Ives’ Pandora with her infamous box;

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Ives’ Pandora

and one, more peaceful, yet pensive, Hiram Powers’ La Penserosa, the thoughtful one.

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Powers’ La Penserosa

Each is a depiction of a woman on the cusp of something momentous–named or unnamed–as she considers her destiny.  Each also is a product of the interaction with and imagination of a male-dominated world, and each is sculpted by a man who interprets these moments and emotion.  And now this man composes a piece about the four of them:

Earlier this month, I began a new work for solo piano with the tentative title Sisters in Stone.  Unusually for me, I have not made plans with a specific pianist for a premiere, and I’m not writing on commission.  Borrowing a concept from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I’m creating a musical walk through the gallery, considering each statue in turn.  The walk begins with music I call “lattice” representing the stone from which the sculptors created these images–I’m unclear about whether I will actually keep this music that currently precedes the section depicting La Penserosa, followed by Medea, The Veiled Rebekah, and Pandora.  I may return to the lattice music at the end–my intent at this point is a single-movement piece of about 12 minutes’ duration.  I hope to have it completed by the end of April, and ready for a performance (and a performer) sometime after that.

 

A View of Twenty Views, part 4

February 9th, 2017

In February, I will be travelling to Atlanta, where I will give the premiere performance of the complete Twenty Views of the Trombone at Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, at the invitation of Olivia Kieffer.  This is the third in a series of posts about that piece and how it has come to be what it is.

Read the first post, on the history of this piece’s composition so far, here.

Read the second post, specific comments on the first seven movements, here.

Read the third post, specific comments on the eighth through the fourteenth movements, here.

I performed Twenty Views of the Trombone in October 2013 on a concert of the Cleveland Composers Guild.  At that time, it was still a work in progress, with only eight or nine pieces complete, but you can listen to that performance here.

The premiere performance will be Friday, February 17 at 8pm at Eyedrum.  Admission is $7 at the door.

I will be tweeting using the handle @MattSComposer before, during, and after this process.  Join the conversation with #twentyviews–the final post in this series will be a Q&A, so send me your questions about the piece, or composing, or life in general, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


Twenty short pieces is a lot to keep track of, even for the person who is writing and performing them.  I’m not completely sure how to keep the audience on track–perhaps they should open their phones to this blog during the performance!

At any rate, here are my thoughts on the last six pieces, in the order in which I am currently planning to play them at the premiere.

15. What They Might Think It’s Like

Another of the group of pieces written in 2016 to bring Twenty Views of the Trombone to completion.  This is the only political piece in the group, and I have generally not been a political composer.  The revelations of warrantless wire-tapping and domestic surveillance by the United States government, however, are concerning and troubling to me, and this piece imagines snips of phone conversation that might be misconstrued or misunderstood as they are picked up by massively parallel copies of speech recognition software in a government computing center.

16. What It Might Have Been Like (II)

Another of the 2016 crop of pieces–a bumper crop, if there is one, since completing the piece for the upcoming premiere required writing as many pieces as I had already composed.  In 2007, after applying to full-time college teaching jobs across the United States and in Canada, I accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Bands at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.  It was as far off as it sounds, but my wife and I learned to love the people there, if not always the place itself, and we look back on it as a wonderful adventure in our lives.  It was also where we found our family, since both of our children were born there (although, not to us–adoption is a wonderful thing).  In 2012, we moved back to Ohio, again after an intense job search on my part.

In Oklahoma, the wind never stops, and in the Panhandle, it seems particularly strong all the time.  The first really windy night, Becky and I lay in bed in our apartment wondering if the roof of the building would be torn off, but we soon came to realize that it was nothing special.  We could have stayed in the Panhandle–our chief unhappiness was the distance from our families (a two-day drive).  “What It Might Have Been Like (II)” imagines a counterfactual in which we stayed there.

17.  What It Could Be Like (III)

This piece, also from 2016, wraps up the “life after death” group of pieces, which considered first oblivion, and then Heaven.  This final piece imagines Hell.  Gary Larson’s The Far Side gave two images of musical hell:  Charlie Parker trapped in a soundproof room with easy listening music, and a conductor being led by the Devil to his room, filled with banjo players.  I truthfully find it harder to imagine Hell than it is to imagine Heaven.  I can imagine unpleasantness and pain, but to imagine them going on for eternity is another thing.  All of our metaphors likely fail.  So, perhaps this: just as the music seems to get good, it is interrupted, and the interruption, becomes the final word.

18.  What It’s Like at the End

Another piece from 2016, in fact, the last piece to be composed.  In a way, this is a slower, more reluctant answer to the assignment that inspired “What It’s Like” in the first place–a one-minute composition that describes the experience of playing trombone.  Have I answered this question completely in Twenty Views of the Trombone?  I have left something crucial out, perhaps, and that is the resting.  Trombone players are great at counting rests, which is probably why we’re called upon to do it all the time.  As I’ve been preparing to play this entire piece, it is not lost on me that playing a forty-minute composition with no long rests is a very rare experience for a trombonist–I am pleasantly relieved that my chops seem to be up to the task.  Last night (February 5) I played through the complete piece for the first time, and it is a testament to the great teachers I have had over the years that I didn’t come out particularly fatigued at the end–not ready to do it all again, perhaps, but not completely exhausted, either.  I can thank Tony Chipurn and Joseph Duchi for their guidance in this area–I’ve been fortunate to have had two great teachers with different approaches.

19.  How I Remember What It Was Like

The other piece composed in the summer of 2013 for a first performance with the Cleveland Composers Guild in September of that year.  Over the last few years, I have been writing pieces that give into a sense of nostalgia that I have felt increasingly.  Both “How I Remember What It Was Like” and my 2015 orchestra composition …into the suggestive waters…  explore this aspect of my inner life–something I outwardly denied myself for a long time. Both pieces reflect on my childhood and teenaged years growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and both are centered on a motive derived from one of the Remington Warm-Up Studies for trombone.  “How I Remember What It Was Like” recalls my experiences in high school band, when playing the trombone slowly changed from something I did to something at the center of my college and career plans.  This piece also contains quotations from my high school fight song, “Stand Up and Cheer,” (borrowed from Ohio University) and “Simple Gifts,” a tune which kept appearing through high school, first in Copland’s Variations on a Shaker Melody (in both band and orchestra versions), then in John Zdechlik’s Chorale and Shaker Dance, then, in youth orchestra my senior year, in Copland’s full Appalachian Spring.

20.  What It’s Really Like

The last piece in the cycle is from 2009, and was first performed that year on a faculty recital at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, and then formally premiered at an Oklahoma Composers Association Salon Concert in Norman, Oklahoma.  Once I realized that there was going to be a Twenty Views of the Trombone, and that it would grow and develop over a period of years, adding pieces as they were needed, I decided that the best way to tie the entire group together would be with a closing piece that echoed the opening piece, “What It’s Like.”  So, every performance since 2009 has begun with “What It’s Like,” and ended with “What It’s Really Like,” and any partial performances should do the same.  In fact, all of “What It’s Like” is contained within “What It’s Really Like,” making the first movement a synecdoche of the last movement.  Both, in their ways, are synecdoches of the entire work, and of the experience of playing trombone, and perhaps, of the experience of listening to trombone music.  “What It’s Really Like,” then, amplifies “What It’s Like” by extending phrases, by repeating some ideas, and by inserting additional developmental material.  The piece ends where it began, and the composer ends where he began–a man who loves to play the trombone, and wants everyone to know What It’s Really Like.

 


This is the third of a short series of posts about Twenty Views of the Trombone.  The first post gave an overview of the history of the composition of the piece.  The second post describes the first seven movements in detail, the third describes the eighth through fourteenth pieces, and the last will answer questions about the piece, received from facebook and Twitter.

A View of Twenty Views, part 3

February 6th, 2017

In February, I will be travelling to Atlanta, where I will give the premiere performance of the complete Twenty Views of the Trombone at Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, at the invitation of Olivia Kieffer.  This is the third in a series of posts about that piece and how it has come to be what it is.

Read the first post, on the history of this piece’s composition so far, here.

Read the second post, specific comments on the first seven movements, here.

I performed Twenty Views of the Trombone in October 2013 on a concert of the Cleveland Composers Guild.  At that time, it was still a work in progress, with only eight or nine pieces complete, but you can listen to that performance here.

The premiere performance will be Friday, February 17 at 8pm at Eyedrum.  Admission is $7 at the door.

I will be tweeting using the handle @MattSComposer before, during, and after this process.  Join the conversation with #twentyviews–the final post in this series will be a Q&A, so send me your questions about the piece, or composing, or life in general, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


Twenty short pieces is a lot to keep track of, even for the person who is writing and performing them.  I’m not completely sure how to keep the audience on track–perhaps they should open their phones to this blog during the performance!

At any rate, here are my thoughts on seven more pieces, in the order in which I am currently planning to play them at the premiere.

8. What It Will (Not) Be Like

Here’s a movement in imitation of the strict serial style of Arnold Schoenberg, who claimed that he had invented a musical language for the next millennium.  It didn’t work out quite that way.  From time to time, I have included twelve-tone rows in my work (in the final section of Martian Dances, for example, but this “What It Will (Not) Be Like” is my only purely dodecaphonic composition to date.  Also following Schoenberg, it follows a traditional model–Baroque binary form, with the 3/8 time signature suggesting a siciliano or slow gigue.  I have found this sort of approach useful from time to time, particularly when I was starting to compose and struggling with melody.  I’m less conscious of my anxiety about melody these days–I understand melody as an outgrowth of rhythmic expression, and I have also learned to be patient with my material and trust that the first note I try is not necessarily the right note.  I will never be an essentially melodic composer, but as someone writing a 40-minute piece for unaccompanied trombone would have to be, I have made my peace with melody (by making pieces with melody… ha!).

This was one of two movements that were composed for and first performed at the 2011 Aspen Composers Conference, an annual event organized by Natalie Synhaivsky adjacent to the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, but not affiliated with it.  I drove from Guymon, Oklahoma to Aspen, and the trip from the High Plains, over the Continental Divide was incredible.  In the summer, I highly recommend the “back” route into town, avoiding Denver.  My hotel was wonderful (and cheap in the off-season), and I met some intriguing people.  It was one of my favorite trips to date as a musician.  The conference featured both paper presentations (more on mine later) and a recital, so the ability to play my own piece without assistance paid off again.

9. What It’s Like After a Cup o’ Joe

This movement is one of my favorites.  It was written and first performed in late 2012 for a John Cage Musicircus held at MOCA Cleveland in December of that year.  It was also one of the first pieces I wrote after I moved back to Ohio from Oklahoma, and one of the last pieces, along with Lady Glides on the Moon, and La Voyage Dans La Lune, that I wrote prior to moving to our house in Willowick.  It stands at the end of one era and the beginning of the next.  It’s the first piece to be solidly technical in nature–something that a better trombonist might find missing from Twenty Views of the Trombone as a whole, but I find that it lies well on the instrument while being sufficiently jittery, as befits the title.

The title has two meanings: first, the effects of a cup of coffee (a drink I do not particularly like, but imbibe on occasion); second, a more personal, autobiographical meaning.  When I returned to Ohio in 1999, newly single, I did a fair amount of online dating.  My preferred place to meet a woman for the first time was a coffee shop near the Ohio State campus called Cup o’ Joe.  After one of these meetings, my adrenaline would be high, and even though I didn’t usually order coffee (they had a great cider drink called Hot Apple Pie), I would be on the same kind of comedown.  None of those meetings worked out, thankfully: the first time I met Becky, we ate Mexican food, which is a thousand times better than a lousy cup of coffee.

10. What It Could Be Like (II)

This movement was composed in 2015 and first performed at the Manchester New Music Festival at Manchester University in Indiana in March 2015.  This is the second movement that considers what might happen after death–in this case, a minimalist depiction of the eternal worship and praise that take place in Heaven.  My limited mind, of course, chafes at this more than a little–it may be the many distractions of this life, or it may be my sinful nature, but I have trouble focusing on worship for an hour or so each week.  Unending worship for eternity?  To my busy, ever-spinning mind, that doesn’t sound like Paradise, although I hope to find that it is, in some way that I just can’t understand.  I rather like this description, which seems to be based in Scripture.  “The best music you’ve ever heard will pale compared to the music of heaven. The most awesome worship you’ve experienced on earth is but a dim reflection of the praise we will render around the throne of God.”  Of course, he earlier describes Heaven as “more fun than the best party you ever attended,” which, frankly, is a relatively low bar for me, since I’m not much of a party-lover, notwithstanding a few very memorable parties I’ve attended.

11.  What My Greatest Hits Are Like (Synecdoche South Africa and Elementary, My Dear Noah)

If there are two pieces so far that seem to be making an impact, they are my 2009 piece for horn and marimba, South Africa, and the music I wrote for an educational YouTube video about the elements of music, Elementary, My Dear Noah.  South Africa was commissioned by Nancy Joy of New Mexico State University after we met on a flight from Columbus to Albuquerque (thanks to my wife, who started talking to Nancy when she saw her horn case).  It was premiered in 2010 at the International Horn Symposium by Nancy and marimbist Fred Bugbee, and has caught on a little bit.  It is by far my best-selling composition as of this writing, and is one of my most-performed (my most-performed music is three pieces from my piano cycle Starry Wanderers that Avguste Antonov has had in his repertoire for several years now; South Africa has been performed by a greater number of players).  I harbor hopes that South Africa will one day appear on repertoire lists.

Elementary, My Dear Noah, is a surprise hit.  I wanted a short YouTube video that would introduce my students to the seven elements of music.  I have taught the same list of seven elements for twenty years now–melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, timbre, dynamics, and form.  It works for middle school and it works for college.  My current music appreciation textbook, Take Note by Robin Wallace, substitutes meter and texture for tempo and dynamics, but ametrical music is quite common, and texture is an outgrowth of rhythm and timbre, so, I have my reasons for holding on to my list, which was taught to us at CCM in Elementary General Methods by Dr. Rene Boyer-White.  At any rate, in June 2013, I decided to make the video and try it out on my Popular Music class at Lakeland.  It took an afternoon to create, from start to finish, using the sound library included with Sibelius 6, along with some vocals by my family.  I began incorporating it in my classes regularly, but made the video public on YouTube, thinking others might find it useful, and at some point, it seems to have become a resource for music students around the US and around the world.  As of this writing, it has amassed over 33,000 views, far surpassing all my other videos combined, and giving it the largest audience of any of my compositions.  The average view time is about half the length of the video, so at least some people seem to be watching most of it, leading me to think that it is helping someone.  Viewing also seems to spike at the beginning of fall, spring, and summer semesters, just when a class like mine is covering the topic of the video.  I’m no YouTube star, but it’s fun to watch the counter tick upward.

“What My Greatest Hits Are Like” is a mashup for trombone of material from South Africa and Elementary, My Dear Noah.  It also constitutes a synecdoche of both pieces, and of my compositional output as a whole.  It was composed in 2016, and will  be premiered at Eyedrum this month.

12.  What It’s Not Quite Like

Along with “What It Will (Not) Be Like,” “What It’s Not Quite Like” was composed in the summer of 2011 for a premiere at the Aspen Composers Conference in August 2011.  It partnered with my presentation there, “Quintuplous Meter: Notations and Applications.”  I spent several years considering the best way to notate five-to-a-beat music, and incorporating it into my compositions.  It appears in my clarinet concerto Daytime Drama, my Piano Sonata and Piano Concerto, and in this short piece, which is a demonstration, as much as anything else, of what I still think is an untapped rhythmic resource.  As unlikely as it seems to catch on, it is fun to have a notational quirk to pull out from time to time, and I’m thinking that I haven’t used it in a while, so maybe it’s time to write something with it again.  From 2010 to 2012, I presented on quintuplous meter in several venues, where it was generally well received by colleagues in music theory and composition.  Most fun was presenting it as a poster session at the 2010 College Music Society National Conference.  My poster was in the front of the poster area, near a set of elevators, and I got to talk to nearly everyone who came by.  I also met Nolan Stolz, who I had known only through the Internet before, and Rachel Ware Carlton, with whom I would end up collaborating on a piece (that we still hope to be able to premiere!).  Here’s the PDF of my poster.

13.  What It Might Have Been Like (I)

The tracks of our lives all have places where they fork irrevocably.  It’s ironic that the first complete performance Twenty Views for the Trombone will take place in Georgia, a state where I once assumed that I was going to spend a substantial chuck of my life.  I lived in Macon for one frustrating, life-changing year, and in a different universe, I would have stayed much longer and become a person who I would be hard-pressed to recognize, I think.  “What It Might Have Been Like (I)” imagines how that might have turned out, a counterfactual, as it were.

This movement was composed in late 2016, and will be premiered at Eyedrum this month.  I knew that I wanted to learn the technique of multiphonics, and incorporate it into some of the movements I had yet to write, and this piece includes both that and some tongue clicking.  It sounds nothing like the rest of my music, as that life unlived in Macon would have been nothing like my life has been since then.

14.  What It Once Was Like (II) (Synecdoche Homo sapiens trombonensis)

In 2005, I was finishing my master’s degree at Ohio State, and my advisor, the late Donald Harris, wanted me to write a composition as my thesis.  He suggested a trombone concerto with winds, a piece that would certainly play to my strengths.  The result was Homo sapiens trombonensis, and when I showed it to Russel Mikkelson, he immediately agreed to program it the following spring, so in March 2006, I appeared as the soloist in my own concerto with the Ohio State University Wind Symphony, under Dr. Mikkelson’s baton.  It was one of the highlights of my career as a musician so far.  In 2013, Mark Wade invited me to play the piece again with his band at Denison University, and I began to relearn it, as it had been quite some time.  At the same time, I was preparing for a performance of Twenty Views of the Trombone for the Cleveland Composers Guild.  It made sense to kill two birds with one stone, so I created a “highlight” reel of the concerto to premiere that October, with the concerto performance following in November, the last performance of my music before the birth of our daughter Melia.

The time I spend with the trombone has dropped significantly since I returned to Ohio to take my current position at Lakeland Community College, although I am hoping to change that.  I did not immediately start looking for gigs, and the demands of family life limit the time I can spend honing my skills as a trombonist.  Thus, “What It Once Was Like (II)” is a snapshot of a time when I was still growing as a performer instead of (I’ll kid myself) holding the line.

And at this point, I begin to wonder–is there something valedictory about this piece and this premiere?  It seems unlikely that the trombone will ever be as important in my life as it once was.  Am I in a way getting ready to say goodbye?  My hope is that the answer is “no,” and I’ve recently started teaching trombone again, and perhaps as my children get older there will be more chances to play.  Since 1986, the trombone has been a part of my life, and ready to take whatever time I chose to give to it.  As a fifth-grade band student at Windermere Elementary School, I had no idea that I would still be worried about the trombone as a grown-up.  In those days, I wanted to be an astronaut.


This is the third of a short series of posts about Twenty Views of the Trombone.  The first post gave an overview of the history of the composition of the piece.  The second post describes the first seven movements in detail, and the fourth will describe the remainder of the piece.


Bonus: Here is the coffee shop Cup O’ Joe in Columbus, Ohio that inspired What It’s Like After a Cup O’ Joe:

IMG_20170408_161513

 

A View of Twenty Views, part 2

February 2nd, 2017

In February, I will be travelling to Atlanta, where I will give the premiere performance of the complete Twenty Views of the Trombone at Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, at the invitation of Olivia Kieffer.  This is the second in a series of posts about that piece and how it has come to be what it is.

Read the first post, on the history of this piece’s composition so far, here.

I performed Twenty Views of the Trombone in October 2013 on a concert of the Cleveland Composers Guild.  At that time, it was still a work in progress, with only eight or nine pieces complete, but you can listen to that performance here.

The premiere performance will be Friday, February 17 at 8pm at Eyedrum.  Admission is $7 at the door.

I will be tweeting using the handle @MattSComposer before, during, and after this process.  Join the conversation with #twentyviews–the final post in this series will be a Q&A, so send me your questions about the piece, or composing, or life in general, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


Twenty short pieces is a lot to keep track of, even for the person who is writing and performing them.  I’m not completely sure how to keep the audience on track–perhaps they should open their phones to this blog during the performance!

At any rate, here are my thoughts on the first seven pieces, in the order in which I am currently planning to play them at the premiere.

1. What It’s Like

This is the piece that started it all.  The title is deliberately incomplete: the full statement is “What It’s Like to Play Trombone.”  Every idea behind Twenty Views, musical or otherwise, grows out of this one-minute sketch from 2009, first performed at Jan Hus Church in New York City in March 2009 on a Vox Novus Composer’s Voice concert organized by David Morneau, with a preview the month before on a faculty recital at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.  I had been out of graduate school less than two  years at that point, and I hear quite clearly my style from that period.  There are distinct resemblances to my graduation piece for orchestra, Five Rhythmic Etudes, especially the first movement, “Hobnob.”  Thirty-seven measures of mixed meter, an essentially pentatonic approach, and is it in the key of A?  Possibly.  I tried to write a piece that was comfortable, humorous, and light-hearted, and I think I succeeded.  I also succeeded in creating a piece that was exactly one minute in length, and this was useful a year or so later when I arranged it for orchestra to enter in Vox Novus’ call for scores for 60×60 Orchestra.  It was selected, but that project has yet to come to fruition, so the amplified version of this piece has yet to be performed.  Luckily, I amplified What It’s Like in another way: the final piece of Twenty Views of the Trombone, “What It’s Really Like,” is an expansion of the first piece.  I don’t know what “official” order I will eventually settle on for these pieces, but I do know that “What It’s Like” will be first, and “What It’s Really Like” will be last.  Any partial performance should begin (and always has) with “What It’s Like” and end with “What It’s Really Like.”

One idea that I incorporate in Twenty Views of the Trombone is synecdoche.  I didn’t start out thinking this way, but as the movements accumulated, it turned out that there were some opportunities for pieces to represent parts of a whole.  (The phrase All hands on deck is a synecdoche because the word hands substitutes for entire human beings).  Thus, “What It’s Like” is a synecdoche both for “What It’s Really Like,” and, in a way, for Twenty Views as a whole, and for the entire experience of playing the trombone or listening to trombone music, or for the experience of life.   Libby Larsen said that music tells us something about “what it’s like to be alive,” and there is that sense in the title as well.  As Twenty Views of the Trombone came together over the years, I found that in many ways it was a piece about my life–I have played trombone for most of my life, after all, and my love for doing that has determined the course of my life.

2. What It Once Was Like (I)

Also from 2009, as I began to expand upon “What It’s Like.”  First performed on a faculty recital at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, and then premiered formally at an Oklahoma Composers Association Salon concert in the fall of 2009, alongside three other movements, and, again, Let Everything That Has Breath Praise the Lord.  This is the first of several backward-looking pieces–in this case to my studies with Tony Chipurn at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in the mid-1990s.  It begins with an interval–Bb3 up to Gb4–familiar to any trombonist as the first two notes of Alexandre Guilmant’s Morceau Symphonique.  

3. What It Could Be Like (I)

The third piece that I presented for the Oklahoma Composers Association in 2009.  The “What It Could Be Like” pieces envision the future–specifically, life after death.  As a Christian, I accept salvation, but more on that later.  This piece envisions the mind fading away into nothingness as the brain fires off a last few electro-chemical bursts.  Marked Sempre rallentando e diminuendo, it is written in free rhythm, and calls for the Harmon mute, which has me greatly concerned, as I’m not sure how to safely get my mutes from Cleveland to Atlanta on a commercial airliner.

4. What One Philistine Thinks It’s Like

First performance at Eyedrum in February. From the sublime to the ridiculous, then.  I don’t know if I should call the method for playing this piece an “extended technique.”  There are plenty of people who choose not to understand what it is that musicians do.  This is a reminiscence about one of them, and something of an inside joke between my wife and me.

5. What It Sounds Like When the Philistines Talk About What It’s Like

First performance at Eyedrum in February.  I am an expert in the field of music.  Over the years there have been many ways in which people have said things about playing the trombone to me that, if they only knew what they were saying, they probably wouldn’t have said.  Am I an elitist snob?  Probably, but no more so than anyone who involves himself deeply in some area of endeavor who then has to speak to people about it outside the field.  I try not to be a jerk about it.  This piece explores what I’ve heard from people–most well-meaning, some not–over the years, starting in the 1980s, when everyone I met seemed to mention Glenn Miller.  This is the first piece in the cycle to employ spoken word, something I have been thinking about for quite some time, since I heard Dan Trueman’s doctoral composition recital in college in which the Amernet String Quartet spoke a somewhat Dadaist text.  I incorporated a “commercial” with a narrator in my clarinet concerto Daytime Drama in 2011, but the use of speech in these pieces is somewhat different–perhaps as a shorthand for musical expression, since these are short pieces.  Perhaps a better composer would not require such recourse.

6. What I Thought It Would Be Like (I)

First performance at Eyedrum in February.  A short piece as a sort of march with lots of 16th notes.  You enter a career with certain expectations, and sometimes those are met, and sometimes they aren’t.  This piece isn’t not what being a trombonist has turned out to be (especially since it has turned out that I am playing this piece), but it isn’t exactly it, either.  It would be more fun if more trombone music were like this, but it would also be much more stressful.  Woe to the trombonist who would write music for himself to play.

7. What It’s Like When I’m Working (Aubade)

First performance at Eyedrum in February.  As a father of young children, the solution to my need for a set composing schedule over the last two years has been met (somewhat) satisfactorily by getting up an hour before everyone else.  This works because I compose at the computer and can do so in silence.  It then becomes a race between my ability to keep working and not get distracted by email or social media, and my children’s desire to awaken seemingly earlier every day (my daughter is stirring right now…).  So, the piece begins with a warm-up, and just as it seems to get started, it has to stop.


This is the second of a short series of posts about Twenty Views of the Trombone.  The first post gave an overview of the history of the composition of the piece, and next posts will continue to discuss the individual pieces and serve as a program note.

A View of Twenty Views, part 1

January 27th, 2017

In February, I will be travelling to Atlanta, where I will give the premiere performance of the complete Twenty Views of the Trombone at Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, at the invitation of Olivia Kieffer.  This is the first in a series of posts about that piece and how it has come to be what it is.

The premiere performance will be Friday, February 17 at 8pm at Eyedrum.  Admission is $7 at the door.

I will be tweeting using the handle @MattSComposer before, during, and after this process.  Join the conversation with #twentyviews–the final post in this series will be a Q&A, so send me your questions about the piece, or composing, or life in general, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


 

In 2009, I was teaching at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.  David Morneau invited me to come to New York City as a composer, with a piece he remembered from our days together as graduate students called Let Everything that Has Breath Praise the Lord.  A short piece for trombone and electronics, I could play it myself on a Vox Novus Composer’s Voice concert that he was curating.  David asked if there was anything else we could program, and told him there wasn’t, since I didn’t have any other connections in New York, and no money to pay them, anyway.  He suggested that I write and learn a second short piece, for unaccompanied trombone, and I remembered the first assignment I like to give to new composers:  write a one-minute piece for your instrument that describes what it’s like to play your instrument.

The result was What It’s Like.  I played it on a faculty recital in Oklahoma before I left, and then in New York City in March 2009 at Jan Hus Church, alongside pieces by David Morneau, Jeremy Ribando, and Milica Paranosic.  That trip was many firsts–my first time bringing my trombone on an airplane; my first time missing a connection and getting stuck in Denver (on the way home, luckily); my first time visiting Queens, where David played the host with his gracious wife Jolayne; the first performance of my music in New York City, or anywhere on the East Coast; and the birth of what would become an eight-year composition project, Twenty Views of the Trombone.

I quickly discovered that having music of one’s own to play alone is a useful thing.  What It’s Like expanded from one piece to four for an Oklahoma Composers Association Salon Concert in 2010, and to six pieces for the Aspen Composers Conference in 2011.  I’m not sure at what point I began to think of an eventual large-scale work–twenty pieces, in homage to Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jesus–but by the time I left Oklahoma in 2012, I’m certain that was the plan.

In Cleveland, more new pieces followed–for a John Cage Musicircus organized by Chris Auerbach-Brown at MOCA Cleveland, for the first performance of my work on a concert of the Cleveland Composers Guild, and for the 2015 Manchester New Music Festival in Indiana.  By that point, there were ten pieces, with ideas for a couple more. I didn’t know how I would wrap things up, but the plan was to always begin with What It’s Like, always end with What It’s Really Like, and include at least one new piece in the bunch every time I played the piece until there were twenty of them.

Meanwhile, I was playing trombone less and less–I wasn’t teaching lessons, or actively seeking gigs.  I don’t think there has been a time in my life since I started playing in 1986 that I was spending less time with the instrument, and that concerned me.  Two decades of developing my skills, of pushing my own limitations on this instrument would be lost, withering on the vine.

It reminded me of how, once upon a time, I knew Spanish fairly well.  Fluent might be an overstatement, but I think after five years of study in middle school and high school, I was relatively comfortable with it.  When I arrived at college, I had the chance to study the language further.  I had taken the AP exam in Spanish, but the modern language department wouldn’t grant credit for it–only placement by taking a computer-based test.  I took the test to see what might come of it, but chose not to enroll in the class.  There were other things to pursue, despite how useful fluency in a foreign language might be, and while I retain some limited ability with the language, I would say I’ve forgotten most of it.  Losing my skills as a trombonist would be much worse, a far greater loss.  I have difficulty imagining becoming an ex-trombonist.

I have friends in this situation, of course.  Not every college music student continues to pursue music seriously.  The horn player who develops focal dystonia and changes directions.  The violist who becomes a realtor, or the clarinetist who ends up in law school.  The many of my female classmates who simply seem to have gotten married and become mothers, leaving little time for music.  The music education major who ends up an administrator.  This is not what I want for myself, and in an important way, Twenty Views of the Trombone has been a reason to forestall it.

Continuing to play the trombone gives me a connection to some of what brought me to music in the first place.  It helps me meet people who can relate to playing an instrument much more than they can relate to composition.  And it gives me a certain credibility when I place my music before other musicians.  It keeps me grounded and realistic in my expectations as a composer–my flawed, often rusty technique reminds me that most of the musicians I will work with possess the same.  My music is performed mostly by amateurs, students, and teachers, most of whom face the same challenges that I do when it comes to building or maintaining their skills.

In my fortieth year, then, 2016, I heard about Eyedrum.  One of my Atlanta connections posted Olivia Kieffer’s call for composers to present their music at this club/gallery/venue in a city I hadn’t visited in a very long time.  I contacted Olivia, and told her my proposed work, and shared the recordings I had of existing movements.  A forty-minute work for unaccompanied trombone is daunting on many levels, but it’s the kind of thing that works well at Eyedrum, apparently, and I was booked.  The plane ticket purchased, arrangements made.  I had only to write the remaining pieces, and, as always when I have a goal and a deadline, the music came quickly.


 

This is the first of a short series of posts about Twenty Views of the Trombone.  The next posts will discuss the individual pieces and serve as a program note.

Play Day

January 5th, 2017

Noah is just past six-and-a-half years old now.  Before his sister Melia, who just turned three, came along, I was often Noah’s primary playmate, the one who would get down on the floor with him and play with toys.  I’ve been doing less of that, and at home his play is often circumscribed by this other, newer, smaller creature.  Melia only seems to know how to make messes, and she can’t yet play with the sophistication that her brother, with a head start of almost four years, can bring to the table

But for the first part of this week, Melia visited Becky’s mom, and for about twenty-four hours, Noah had us to himself again, and it was like old times.  It was a snapshot of what things would be like without a second child, and Noah and I both had a good day.  Tuesday, January 3, 2017.

It was a dark, rainy day, all day.  I woke Noah up at about 7:30.  He was sleepy, although I had just had a good work session, so I was not.  He initially didn’t want to wake up, so I hopped on his bed and cuddled with him for a moment.  He asked me to carry him into the kitchen for breakfast, so I did.  There will only be so many more days that can start like that, I thought.  Chocolate Pop-Tarts for Noah, and generic Cheerios for me, with orange juice for both of us.  A much quieter breakfast than when his sister is here.  Noah can be a loud kid, but appreciates quiet, too.

Noah had bathed the night before, so it was left only to get dressed, and brush teeth and hair, before heading upstairs for a piano practice session.  He is most of the way through the primer book after about four months of piano lessons, and he wants to do well, but he isn’t ready to practice on his own.  Too many distractions, perhaps.  A shower for me, and then we were off to his piano lesson–a mid-morning make-up lesson made possible by Tuesday being the last day of his Christmas break.  Usually, the studios at the Fine Arts Association are filled with the sound of many students having lessons at once, but on Tuesday morning, Noah was the only student, and for a change, I was essentially able to listen to his lesson in detail through the door.  He and his teacher, Rita Cyvas-Klioris, have a good rapport, and she has adapted well to his impulsive personality.

Then to the library to return the books that were due and select new ones.  Home for lunch.  After lunch, Noah wanted to play Legos, and I spent my afternoon with him in the basement building vehicles and acting out scenes with his minifigures.  He is interested in A Christmas Carol, and he named the figures Scrooge, Marley, and Cratchit, although once we had rehearsed Dickens’ story, there were myriad other adventures.  We took a break for a few hands of Uno, and then went back to Legos until dinner time.  Then Noah, Becky, and I went to Cracker Barrel.

We returned home and reinstituted Noah’s bedtime routine–earlier than it had evolved to be over the holiday break, and everything simplified by Melia’s absence.  Life would be simpler, I thought, with only one child, but once Melia is older and more reasonable, all of our lives will be enriched, I think.  I need to find way to play with Melia the way I did with Noah; I just haven’t seen her as much as I did Noah in his first three years.

But Tuesday, that was a good day, and there aren’t so many of those.

 

Grandmotherology

November 30th, 2016

In the 19th century, when Columbia University was getting ready to appoint its first faculty member in musicology, a board member scoffed at the notion of musicology, saying that there might as well be a professorship in “grandmotherology.”

Yesterday, my family lost my grandmother, Doris Farber, at the age of 89.  She was the only person I knew reasonably well who knew people who remembered the 19th century.  Her mother, my great-grandmother Edna Baum, was born in 1898, and I knew her as well.  My grandmother’s father, Elijah, fought in World War I, and four of her brothers fought in World War II.  My grandmother was a “Rosie the Riveter” during the war at a ceramic plant up the road from the town where she was born, lived the bulk of her life, and suffered the stroke that led to her death.

She was a woman of her time and place.  Raised in and faithful to the Lutheran Church, she rarely missed a Sunday, even as the congregation dwindled around her to the point of an eventual merger.  I don’t know the circumstances of her birth–I’m hoping to learn more at the memorial this weekend.  Once my then-girlfriend, now my wife Becky, and I asked her about Christmas in her childhood–during the Great Depression.  She replied that since her family owned a farm, there was always plenty of food, but never much in the way of Christmas.  After all, she was one of twelve siblings.  She came to adulthood at the end of the war, and married my grandfather, Thom William Farber.  They began to have children–my mom and my uncle close together, and then my aunt a few years later.  A lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians (they had been playing for only eighteen seasons when she was born), she listened to their last World Series win on the radio while she was pregnant with my mother.  My grandfather was not well, however.  He had a weakened heart as the result of a childhood case of scarlet fever–a disease that subsequent generations don’t have to worry about, and a condition that would be readily repairable today, but their generation was born into a world with few vaccines, and no antibiotics or open-heart surgery.  He died in the mid-1950s, leaving my grandmother a widow and single mother of three.  He was buried in the town cemetery, across from the Lutheran church, in a plot that had room for my grandmother.  He waited sixty years for her there.

Grandma didn’t know how to drive a car when Grandpa died.  She had a large family who helped, but she didn’t rely on them, remained in the house that she and her husband had bought.  The social safety net in those pre-Great Society days was of limited help as well, and I’m sure there were my grandfather’s medical bills as well.  So she took her ninth-grade education and went to work.  Some of it was the backbreaking work that she would have been familiar with from the farm–my mother describes being taken to a farmer’s field with her mother and brother to weed the corn by hand.  I know that she also cooked in a restaurant, and did factory work.  I will always remember her, though, as the cashier at Crossroads Supermarket, at the intersection of Ohio State Routes 800 and 183–the origin of her Universe in so many ways.  When we lived nearby and shopped there, before we moved out of town when I was eight, she rang up our food, and sometime after we left, made the transition to barcode scanners.  Like so many things, that store, which seemed enormous to me as a child, is actually a relatively small supermarket, for a small community.  But Grandma worked there for decades, until she finally retired in her late 70s.

There is much of the pre-history of my life in my family, of course.  Grandma was 50 when I was born, and sometime during the 1970s, she was remarried and divorced to a man named Chuck, who I’ve never heard her speak of, and whose name is usually accompanied by the word “jerk” when my parents mention him.  She moved with him to South Carolina, bringing my teenaged aunt along, but quickly returned–less than a year, from what I understand.  It was the time when my mother and my uncle had found their spouses, and my parents had moved to Texas.  Perhaps Grandma worried about being left alone.

Ironically, that would never happen.  My uncle, a carpenter, added a large living room to her home, the first of several renovations and additions.  During the energy crises of the 70s, this room would be closed off during the winter months, but I remember it mostly for the way that it was always filled with guests.  Grandma lived in the kind of place where people just dropped by, and if she wasn’t at work, she was usually at home.  There were comfortable chairs for the grownups and always a stash of toys for any kids who came along.  My son and daughter played with some of the same toys in Grandma’s living room that I did, some of which belonged to my mom and my uncle.  My great-grandmother was also around–I always remember her living in a mobile home behind Grandma’s house.  I knew Doris as “Grandma Farber,” and Edna as “Grandma Baum.”  There was also a “Grandma Kellogg” who lived on the West Coast, and who sent me a jar of volcanic ash spewed out of Mt. St. Helens in its eruptions in 1980.  In the 80s, by aunt moved back in with Grandma, bringing her daughter, my cousin Pam, for whom Grandma was a second parent in may ways.

Grandma was a fastidious housekeeper–I always knew that if I came over and you couldn’t eat off the floor, that something would have gone wrong.  She lived in her home, in her town, until last Friday, when my uncle found her on the floor of her bedroom, having suffered the stroke that would end her life.  She would not have wanted to have her life prolonged by life support–she had made this clear to her family–and she would have hated the idea of spending any time in a nursing home.  On Saturday, I’ll see her home one more time–soon it will still be there, but it won’t be hers anymore.  It was the center of her long, eventful life, and where I remember Christmas, and sleeping over, and visiting, and showing off my children to the family.  I now begin the part of my life without her, and we are the poorer for it.  I love you, Grandma, and you will be in our thoughts every day, as you have always been.