Some thoughts about the music I heard at Severance tonight with Dan and Melinda Perttu. At the pre-concert talk Roger Klein quoted critics who found Mahler’s music, particularly the Seventh Symphony, banal. As I listened this evening, I realized that really isn’t other music like Mahler’s by composers of his own time. It is banal, and that is what makes it significant. Mahler may have been writing the world within his symphonies, but his basic musical language is exactly that of the commonplace, the street, the Gypsy camp, the shtetl, the nursery, the cathedral, the bedroom, the privy. His point is that the meaning of life is in the living, in the filthy, disgusting, degrading living, and that by living for our best even among the worst, we achieve the transcendence that Mahler saw in the human condition. Mahler acknowledges that we live in a world where children die young and are warped by abuse (or even well-meaning parenting), wives cheat on their husbands (and vice versa), governments persecute minorities, musicians care for their beer more than the music they are rehearsing, and wars, famine, pestilence and the rest are all realities. By taking the songs of childhood, worship, the poor, the illiterate into his music, he points out that the solution is to live life all the same, that transcendence can come from the common, the ordinary, the plain, and, yes, from the banal.
One of my challenges now that I teach at a community college is to find ways of promoting my composition career that don’t center on out-of-town travel. In the Oklahoma Panhandle, of course, all travel was out-of-town, but I now find myself in a part of the universe with a new music “scene.” In fact… there seem to be multiple scenes, which is exciting.
So, I submitted my portfolio and joined the Cleveland Composers Guild, a venerable group that also includes several of the other music faculty at Lakeland. My first meeting as a member was prior to the Sunday, March 17 concert, and I’m happy to be a part. Sunday’s concert, featuring works performed by the Solaris Wind Quintet, was a nice introduction to the variety of styles and approaches represented by the Guild, and I hope I can find a place on their concerts in the future.
Tonight, Becky and Noah are at the in-laws, so I looked online to see if there was a free concert I might take in (tomorrow night, I’ll be at the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, leaving me with only two more Mahler Symphonies on my bucket list). Lo, at Cleveland State University, there was such a performance, and of new music, too! The NO EXIT New Music Ensemble gave a fantastic performance of five works–two by local composers.
Two of the pieces were unaccompanied flute pieces by Brian Ferneyhough, and shame on me for not digging into his “new complexity” sooner (I think it’s a law that if you mention Brian Ferneyhough, you have to say “new complexity” as well). In the hands of guest flutist Carlton Vickers, Cassandra’s Dream Song and Sisyphus Redux (for alto flute) were spectacular. If this is what complexity means, then sign me up. I’ve never written particularly “complex” music, and I often find that the nested-tuplets sort of approach to composition is simply difficult for its own sake (this is my beef with Elliott Carter’s work, too). Of course, another aspect of this dilemma is that much of my music has been written for student and amateur ensembles–which I love about my ouevre, frankly. I like the idea of writing for people who don’t have multiple degrees in music, and I’m glad that a good chunk of what I’ve done is at this level. (Another issue might be that, as a trombone player, the music that I’ve played has tended to be the type of thing that, if you handed it to a cellist or a bassoonist with similar experience to my own, would seem laughably easy, thus my lack of experience with really technical music makes me less likely to write really technical music). At any rate, these two pieces are an argument in favor of complexity, and they make me wonder what I’ve been leaving out of my own work.
Since Alberto Ginastera was roughly contemporary to Benjamin Britten, I shouldn’t have been surprised at his Puneña No. 2 for solo cello, performed splendidly by Nick Diodore. My experience with Ginastera has been the Estancia suite and the Variaciones Concertantes, an orchestral work with a fiendish clarinet solo that my college girlfriend had to learn (if nothing else, being around her made me learn about the clarinet). Ginastera incorporates the name of conductor Paul Sacher as the musical basis for the piece, which also depicts a specific Argentine setting, and it never once seemed contrived.
I was particularly taken by the world premiere of the evening, a piano quartet by Matthew Ivic. This work combined a variety of techniques and approaches, from minimalist textures and more dissonant passages to surprising and refreshingly tonal chord progressions. The final piece of the evening was a piano trio by Andrew Rindfleisch, head of composition studies at Cleveland State. This work, celebrating its 20th birthday, was deemed complex enough that Dr. Rindfleisch conducted it, although I wonder how necessary that was, and he didn’t conduct all the way through. I have also written chamber pieces that ended up being conducted, and while I stand behind the music, I always felt that I had conceived them to be playable without a conductor, and that to use one was only an expedient in the case of limited rehearsal time. The piece tonight, however, was a joy otherwise. The temptation in writing a piano trio is to let the namesake instrument dominate the texture, as in many of the examples in the genre from the Romantic era. Rindfleisch, however, named his piece Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello, and it was just that, with some wonderful passages of two-voice counterpoint between the bowed instruments, including one spot where the D-string of the violin acted as a drone against a haunting line in the cello to make an almost Medieval sound.
So–new music is alive in Cleveland, and it will be up to me to become a part of things here.
My last post described some things that I learned from another art form, woodcarving, through my father and his teacher, Spirit Williams. Here’s another in the same vein, purely by chance, mind you.
I firmly believe that other art forms have a great deal to tell us about composing, which means that if I have a chance to chat up an artist during a plane ride, I’m going to take it. Last Spring, I met Kiersi Burkhart on a plane from somewhere to somewhere (I think it involved Denver, a city where I one day hope to see more than the airport and the hotel where the airline sends me when my flight is screwed up). She writes young adult novels, and also a blog. This post showed up the other day, about how to help the middle of a novel. Her five suggestions have me thinking about the middle of pieces, so here are my thoughts about Kiersi’s thoughts and how they might relate to composing.
1. Raise the stakes. This “tip” gets thrown around a lot, and for a long time I wasn’t really sure how one could implement such broad-sided advice.
The easiest way I’ve found is to first work out what your characters’ goals are (both small and large), and then determine: what are the consequences of your characters not achieving those goals? Now make them even more dire. Life and death. Death and destruction. Whatever you can do to make the repercussions of your characters’ not achieving their goals worse, do it.
I think the best way to raise the stakes in a musical composition is to move beyond your starting material in some way. I’m not suggesting that you string together theme after theme after theme (although it worked occasionally for Mozart), but if you’ve focused on one melodic idea up until this point, say, a third of the way in to the composition, it’s time for some contrast. This new material should relate to earlier portions of the piece in some way–a similar harmonic framework, or a motivic relationship–but there is a need for variety as well.
Another way to raise the stakes might be to employ a change in texture–if things have been very homophonic up to now, it’s time for some counterpoint; if you’ve been writing lots of interwoven lines, it’s time to pare the texture down. All kinds of great things can happen in the middle of pieces–the classical approach to creating a movement has a middle that is much more loosely-constructed than the beginning, and even in the middle of a Bach fugue, we can go long stretches without either a cadence or the fugal subject, just riffing on little ideas that have come up. Speaking of riffing, think of the structure of a bebop jazz performance, with its tightly-constructed presentations of the head at the beginning and end and the loosely-constructed solos in the middle.
2. Lower the low points. The best part of middles is when it seems all hope is lost–that there is no possible way your character can achieve his purpose.
Remember in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo gets trapped in carbonite? Even worse, he’s shipped off with a bounty hunter to see Jabba the Hut, and our heroes are too busy trying to save Luke to chase him down.
At this moment in the story, we (the audience) feel somewhat defeated, like there’s no possible way Han can be rescued from his terrible fate. And in Return of the Jedi, this situation only gets worse when Leia is enslaved by Jabba.
Find that low point in your story (make one, if it’s not there already) and then make it worse. While you’re beating your hero into the ground, beat harder. Did something go wrong in his heist plan? Find three other things to go wrong, too. And it’ll be really satisfying to your audience when your clever protagonist manages to worm her way out of this ridiculous bind.
I think what Kiersi is getting at here is dramatic tension–the middle is the place where we really aren’t sure how things are going to work out, and as such, it has the possibility of being the most exciting part of a piece of music. Certainly, as a composer, I often view my pieces this way when they are in process: there comes a point when I know what the rest of the piece is going to look like, and I know that I will be able to finish it. Composing the middle, though, can be frustrating for exactly that reason–I don’t know how I’m going to get out of the situation in which I’ve placed myself. There’s a famous moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica where the texture devolves into these dissonant, repeated chords, as though Beethoven threw up his hands, smacked the piano keyboard, and wrote down the results. Beethoven takes this almost-mistake and slowly winds his way out, with a diminuendo and resolutions of dissonant notes that leads back to the main theme–the beginning of the ending. In my own Piano Sonata, about three-quarters of the way through, the relatively-complex rhythms and texture dissolve into a single line, notated in stemless noteheads, a moment of repose for performer and audience, and a summation of what has come so far in the piece, and preparation for some of the breathless material that lies ahead in the push to the climax.
3. Up the conflict. Are your characters friends, lovers, or comrades in arms? Are they getting along, smooching, snuggling and heisting in perfect harmony?
This is the primary way in which I find middles sag: the character relationships stale. Either they are at peace with one another for too long, or they’re at odds without any moments of relief.
Cause some conflict. Stir up some drama. But be wary of falling into common conflict traps: misunderstandings that would be easy to resolve, unlikely coincidences, or blowing up a small issue into a big one (this is my biggest complaint with romantic sub-plots).
Use inherent character flaws to guide your conflicts. Is one of your characters prideful? Have that pride lead her to hurt the other character in a way that seems irreparable.
Again, we have to turn to Beethoven, who can’t seem to write a middle section of a symphony movement without a fugato (and who was imitated by countless others). As Kiersi mentions, though, it’s easy to fall into some common traps, and fugato is one of them (why does Brahms turn every movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem into a fugue? I submit that it may have been youthful inexperience). Unless your piece has been somewhat contrapuntal up to now, throwing a fugue in seems kind of desperate (Berlioz writes scathingly about this practice in his orchestration treatise). But the beauty of fugue is that it does have that “cool” factor, and it’s critical to find something to do with your materials that propels the piece forward. Look for the same kinds of rhythmic intensification that fugue can provide–change the position of motives within the bar, let them happen sooner, and closer together. Foil the listener’s expectations about when things will happen: sooner (more drama), later (more tension).
4. Comic relief. I might be the only writer with this particular problem, but I have a hunch that I’m not. Why so serious? If things are getting intense in your middle–as it probably should–be cognizant of how your reader is feeling. In the middle of drama and conflict, give your reader the occasional break.
The break doesn’t always have to be comic. Let your characters have moments of tenderness or insight into one another. In a romance, let passion momentarily override conflict (leading to more conflict, of course). In a thriller, let your protagonist feel victory–short-lived victory. A good middle is a combination of low and high points, leading up to your dramatic finale.
This can be hard to remember, but great music can be funny, not just serious. Whether it’s Bach’s quodlibet in the Goldberg Variations with its use of street songs (not funny to us, but probably hysterical to Bach), or the trio of the Scherzo in Persichetti’s Symphony for Band, where a little group of instruments, pulled along by a muted trombone, plays a little march that sounds like it would go with a Dr. Seuss story, there is humor in good music. A composer is a human being, and being human means being both tragic and comic. Some composers do this better than others: think of the burlesque version of the march from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony that shows up in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. I’m sure that Shostakovich laughed the first time he heard it, because his own music is filled with irony and parody as well.
That said, it’s easier to plant comic relief in a dramatic work–the Papageno subplot in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example, and of course the dark humor of the graveyard scene in Hamlet that adds levity while staying on topic–the downstairs view of the goings on at Elsinor, perhaps. Kiersi also suggests that intimate moments in the middle provide a break–it works in music, too, as in the piano-cello duet in the second movement of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1–intimate not only in texture but in meaning as well.
5. Escalate tension. A good climax is the tip of the highest peak of your story arc. Leading up to that peak are your second, third, and fourth-highest peaks.
I suggest doing this with “post-outlining”: now that you know all the plot points of your story (all the “ups” and “downs,”) organize them in order of severity. Your lowest lows and your highest highs should come near the end, leading up to your finale.
This is especially important when revealing important plot information. You don’t want to save all of your high-value cards and staggering reveals for the very end; drop some of your big bombs (but not your biggest bomb) during that sagging middle section, then escalate leading up to that super mondo finale–and hopefully leave your readers panting.
This suggestion may or may not apply to a given situation–sometimes the beginning of the end of a piece of music is a moment where tension is released–the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement, for example, or the beginning of the “Simple Gifts” variations in Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The ending of a piece is inevitable once it begins, and layering coda upon coda (in the way Tchaikovsky does in his Fifth Symphony, for example) doesn’t move the beginning of the ending anywhere closer to being the middle. In good music there is a crucial difference between music of the beginning, music of the middle, and music of the end. Some great middle moments, though–the trombone chorale in the last movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony comes to mind–are the last moment of calm, an eye in the hurricane. The birdsong section of the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony is a change of character that builds into a critical statement of the motto theme of the symphony before the return of the main theme for the movement. It would behoove all of us to study the Romanza movements that Mozart frequently uses in his later piano concerti–the quick middle Sturm und Drang sections like the one in K.466 are the uber-middle–the middle part of the middle movement of the three-movement structure. The formal considerations of music are somewhat different than those of the novel, of course, because of the way that repetition is a critical component of good composition, but the dramatic concerns are similar.
Ralph Vaughan Williams is said to have said what every composer (and author) knows: something to the effect that starting a piece is easy, but getting to the end is hard. This is the difference between being a tunesmith and being a composer: a song is all theme, but a composer has to be able to take themes (or the equivalent) and connect them in meaningful ways, constructing the musical equivalent of a novel.
When I was in high school, my father took up a new hobby: woodcarving. He was inspired to do so by the work of Spirit Williams, a woodcarver and artist who lived in Columbus, and whose work is, frankly, wonderful, at least in my memory. One of her more fantastic pieces, Kenya Bush, used to hang in the administration building at the Columbus Zoo, in a public area, and I remember it as a mural of African animals, in high relief. I also remember seeing a work in progress, an in-the-round depiction of the Last Supper.
I was surrounded by creative people as a young person, and but my connection with Spirit was mostly secondhand–my father eventually took regular classes with her, but I spent time talking to him about his work, as I was fascinated with the way he learned to take a plain piece of basswood and use simple hand tools and his eyes (and Spirit’s eyes as well) to shape deeply realistic relief carvings. Through my father, I learned three lessons Spirit that have served me well as a composer (and so the implied fourth lesson, that all artists can learn from other artists, no matter what the medium).
The first: treat your materials with respect. In Spirit’s studio, this meant that you could have a glass of water at the workbench, but it had to be a double-walled plastic cup, to avoid condensation that could drip onto the work. In my work, this means writing always with the eventual human performer in mind.
The second: don’t buy a new tool until you’ve done everything you can do with the tools you already have. In woodcarving, this means don’t spend sums of money on specialized knives and gouges that promise to get you out of a jam when, with patience and ingenuity, the tools you already know how to use will serve you better. Tools are not the answer: creativity and patience are. In composition, this means having a “toolkit” of techniques, devices, and methods at the ready, and knowing when and how to apply each one. To my music, it means not going for the flashy, novel, or merely schematic ideas when something more meaningful might be created through means that are more conservative, and, usually, more accessible, and–I’m out on a limb here–likely more durable in the end. I learned this from the experience of a woman who began carving with a kitchen knife on a shelf pilfered from the closet in her bedroom–she discovered that she was able to make art with these sparse tools and materials, and in the end, it is the art that matters, not the medium or the technology that manipulates it.
The third: sometimes you are being creative, and sometimes you are just “moving wood.” Relief carving begins with a flat surface, and the excess material must be moved away. It takes attention and technique at every phase, but clearing the field around the carving proper is one of the “chores” of the process–crucial, yet not as explicitly creative. In composition, this is the endgame of my process, particularly when I’m composing for band or orchestra and switching from a short score to a full score. In some ways, it’s the least frustrating part–predictable, full of skill as much as art, even somewhat capable of being automated by my notation software (ahh… the time saved over manuscript by the computer; in manuscript, it would be drudgery, but in the digital workspace, it is a romp). The beauty of the “moving wood” phase of the work is that it can be done hodge-podge and higgeldy-piggledy–sessions of a half-hour can be productive, unlike the earlier parts of the process, which require either weeks of carrying ideas around in the mind, or uninterrupted hours in which to pound out the first drafts. I currently have two projects in the “moving wood” phase, and being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel on both is encouraging, and gives me a sense that my time is being well-spent.
So, those are three things I learned from my dad’s woodcarving teacher, Spirit Williams, without ever picking up a knife. Hopefully, they will serve others just as well.
In the five years that we lived in the Oklahoma Panhandle, it only snowed two or three times, and the sheer novelty of seeing snow made me not look at it too carefully. Yesterday I went out to my car in the faculty lot at Lakeland, though, and found it covered with about another inch of snow (yes… one of the joys of living in Northeast Ohio is cleaning snow off of your car multiple times in a day). As I was brushing, I noticed that the snow was extra fluffy–if I were a skier, I would probably have loved it. Looking closer, the flakes were very large, and mostly planar, like little pieces of plastic that almost looked fake… up close they were shiny and had the six-pointed structure we associate with snow flakes, writ large so that I could examine it easily. I realized that in the six or eight times that it’s snowed this season, the flakes have been different every time. I knew this–the eskimos famously are supposed to have 30 different words for snow in their language–but the reminder was fantastic. Winter can get to be grind, but we have to remember to stop and notice the beauty of Creation whenever we can.
It’s important to try new things, and I was inspired by BJ Brooks’ presentation of his silent film scores at the SCI Region VI Conference back in October. Now that I’m conducting the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, and I can pick our repertoire, I have the chance to try my own hand at such a thing. The orchestra at West Texas A&M, where BJ works, has been presenting silent movies with BJ’s scores every other year for the last few years, and they’ve been doing feature-length films, which is an exciting proposition. I decided for Lakeland’s first effort to choose a shorter film (more on the difficulties of that later), but even at 13 minutes, this will be the longest single movement I’ve written for orchestra. The film is Georges Melies’ Le Voyage Dans la Lune, from 1902, a somewhat groundbreaking piece from a groundbreaking era in cinema.
If you watch the film, you can see that Melies is operating in an era when the technology of film was brand new. Many of the things that we take for granted about cinematography aren’t present–the movie is shot as though the action were happening on a stage, and the camera were an audience member, with no close-ups, no pans, no framing shots… some of the things that make film what we think of it today. What is present, though, is the magic of cinema, which is not surprising, since Melies started out as an illusionist of note before switching to film. Particularly fascinating are his special effects, which are somewhat crude, but surprisingly effective.
Composing to this has been interesting–I’ve completed the piece in short score, and will be orchestrating over the next couple of weeks. I’m not the first to score the film–there is a score by George Antheil, and at least one uploaded to archive.org. I made the decision early on to stick to sounds that could have been a part of the musical sound of 1902, so my score has references to Debussy, Elgar and Strauss, although not specifically. The tricky part has been making things fit–identifying the places where the music needs to change, and making the notes change at the same time. This is my first film score, unless you count my entry a few years back for the TCM Young Composers Competition. Since then, Sibelius has added the ability to sync a score with a video, which has been invaluable–both in finding “hit points” and in seeing how my ideas fit the action on screen.
The style that’s coming out is different from how I usually write, which is somewhat intentional. I’ve ended up with more repetition, and a great deal more of a “tonal” style than I’ve customarily used; in some ways, this is some of the most predictable music I’ve written. Part of this is a decision to use the sounds typical of 1902, and part of this is knowing that I’m dealing with an orchestra and audience who aren’t expecting dissonant, angular music that might have been my first choice.
The sense of time in the music is intriguing as well. Watching the movie with no sound, alone, as I have several times, is somewhat difficult. A few weeks back, some of the orchestra members and I watched it together, again with no sound, and the experience was more rewarding. But–now that I have a draft score to add to the film (which I now know very well, of course), the story seems to come to life–it will be incredible to see and hear it with live instruments! The dimension that the music adds to the film is even more important than the “dimension” that 3-D aims to add. Thirteen minutes that seemed to positively crawl by in silence are enlivened by the music in a way that explains why, as Richard Taruskin writes, “the movies were never silent.”
The other challenge has been dealing with the inherent flaws in Melies’ narrative–events are repeated (the moon landing, the celebration at the end), and the pre-launch events dominate the structure in a way that is somewhat unfortunate. Melies was dealing with this brand-new idea–telling a story in moving images–so it’s not surprising that his early work moves somewhat creakily, but making my music work with this narrative has been tricky in the sense that some things go longer than I would like them to, while others peter out just as they are getting going in the score, but there are no more images for them. Melies was really making science-fiction, which, for a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, is exciting–he made this movie at the same time that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were inventing the literary genre.
The premiere is in April, and rehearsals start in five weeks, giving me time to finish the scoring and get the parts to the concertmaster, if I work hard. Look for more as it progresses.
I’ve also spent some time over the last few days helping Daniel Perttu with his new trombone sonata, which has been interesting. It’s been interesting to consider someone else’s ideas about my own instrument (it’s almost been an education in Dan’s instrument, the bassoon, because I feel like much of what he’s written for the trombone would work better on bassoon). It leads me to wonder about how I know what I know about “how” to write for an instrument, and how best to communicate that. Certainly part of my training as a music education major has been useful here–the chance to take “methods” classes and get to play every instrument, even if only a few notes, makes writing for that instrument a different experience. This is why I required two instrumental methods classes when I wrote the composition degree plan at OPSU, and I would push for the same thing again if I had the chance (now that I’m at a two-year school, I don’t think it makes much sense to be thinking about an Associate of Arts in Music Composition). I recall an incident in Jean Sibelius’ biography where he spent an afternoon with an excellent English horn player–I don’t recall whether that correlated with his composition of The Swan of Tuonela. It’s too bad that he didn’t write any film music.
2013 is my 36th New Year (and I’ve got lots of good friends for whom it is number 37). For those of us born in 1976 in the United States, there were (at one time) about 3.1 million of us–not a particularly high number given the booms before and since (there were about a million more in my son’s birth year, 2010). This doesn’t take into account those of us who were prevented from entering the world by contraception or abortion, but that’s only a statement–this isn’t a political blog. There will never be any more of us, and I’m sure an actuary could give us an idea of how many are left. That makes this post important, and I’m speaking to my cohort, specifically, but to all of us (humans, that is).
I know people my age who are dead before their time. I know people who have essentially been lost to addiction, to abuse, to every other form of death-in-life that our species has devised for itself. We mourn those who are gone, and of course, we help those who can be helped.
More important, though, halfway through our short lives, is that we pick up the slack they have left for us and continue to make our contributions to the Human Project. Every one of us has some unique thing that only we can do–raising our children, improving our communities, making art, understanding our world–and we must all press on an do it. Do it for those who have gone before, and for those who will follow.
Write that book, start that movement, talk to a lonely person, worship as you will, study that phenomenon. Your species needs it. You don’t have to have an advanced degree, or a huge pile of money, or enormous political power. Whatever it is that you are passionate about, whatever you “geek out” over, this is your thing.
My fellow Bicentennial Babies (and those close by): our time is probably ahead, not behind. Our generation isn’t known for its amazing positive contributions, and we have often been in the shadow of our parents and grandparents, but leadership now falls to us as more and more of them pass on. Be a part of the Human Project. Make your impact, and if your life is too messed up to make an impact, then now is the time to get things in order.
This is not a New Years Resolution as much as it is a challenge to make the most of what we’ve been granted in this life and to make our mark on the legacy our species will leave behind. Only you can do what only you can do.
Happy New Year!
For years, I’ve been telling students that they need to be composing daily, and I still believe it, but the reality of my approach to composition over the last couple of years has been something different. I’ve become the person who doesn’t compose for weeks, then sits down and pounds out the draft of something in a few hours, tweaks it over the next few days and calls it finished.
This is not intentional, but for the last few pieces, it seems to have been working–from my Piano Sonata (composed in late 2010) forward, this has been my modus operandi, and it’s produced several strong pieces. It’s as if in some sense I’ve paid my dues, and now the skills are just there, ready when I need them. To try to use them every day might prove counterproductive–the result might be a dilution of the available resources (I’ve always thought of Saint-Saens in this way–he wrote so much music that the really good ideas were spread too thinly for him to be a “great” composer, and he became a merely facile one with a couple of memorable works and a lot of forgotten ones).
This new approach isn’t by choice–having a child under three and a wife who likes to see her husband regularly just isn’t conducive to consistently doing creative work once you throw in the full-time teaching position. But it seems to be working.
I have no desire to continue this way, and I have no illusions that I’ll be able to maintain my “hot hand” indefinitely, but it’s interesting. At some point, I’ll want to get into a better routine, but it’s thrilling right now to carry around ideas for a project in my head for a few weeks, and then pour them out into a new piece.
How in the world have fifteen years gone by? The world has changed since November 1997, my friends. I don’t even know how to begin to explain this, but it’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Matt Specter hasn’t posted this yet, so here it is, with his attempt at an explanation (to which I would add that some things can’t ever be fully explained):
To some of you, welcome! To some of you, welcome back. Like it or not, everyone on this list has deemed themselves worthy of the strangest Thanksgiving tradition ever. From old friends, to former students, to current colleagues and graduate school mates, you are all about to experience the wonder that is Chapter 51.
Please allow me to explain for those who are totally lost.
Many years ago, I was but a mere undergraduate student in Music Education at CCM. While there, I and my closest friends began what can only be described as a serial story, told by email, detailing our many adventures together. A work of fiction which spanned several years, it chronicled our struggles to, among other things:
* Rid CCM of the demons which had overrun it.
* Close the portal to Hell which was a part of CCM
* Escape from Hell
* Travel to alternate universes
* Travel in time
* Destroy and save several universes along the way
* Continue to attend class and get our degrees.
This story (which simply became known as “The story”) grew into a life of its own, lived through three incarnations, and became a personal legend for all of us, as we used our writing abilities to vicariously live through our other selves, releasing some of the frustration we felt with our lives at the time.
Alas, The Story has ended, but every Thanksgiving, I send the most famous of all episodes, Chapter 51, to all I deem worthy. Most likely, you will end up shaking your head in confusion or disgust. If you find it funny, God help you. You understand my bizarre mind.
The background: In Chapter 51, my friends and I have been travelling from universe to universe, each universe being based on some TV show or movie from our own universe (how this is possible is explained in great detail in previous chapters – if you want to know more, ask me about the photon leak). We are trying desperately to get home, and have landed at last in the “Star Wars” universe. Naturally, we seek guidance from the great Jedi Master, Yoda.
Enjoy the chapter. And believe it or not, this is really my way of sincerely wishing everyone a truly happy Thanksgiving.
Author’s note – Due to recent years’ increase in the number of people who don’t ‘get it’ – I have done the unthinkable. I have made a slight edit to the text. Purists forgive me. Anyone who can spot the difference will win a free copy of the Specter Family 2009 Road Trip DVDs – all 5 discs.
Chapter 51 – Zek
“Mmm, come, come. With a Jedi it is time to eat as well,” said Yoda.
Yoda had laid out quite a spread. We didn’t know what anything was, but
there sure was an awful lot of it.
“Eat, eat. Mmmm, good food, yes? M-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm. Ohhh.”
We sat down around the tiny table, careful not to bang our heads on the
“Mmmm…Came you very far, yes? Hungry you must be! Eat, eat.”
We looked at each other hesitatingly. Quite frankly, the stuff looked
and smelled gross. Finally, Saunders decided we had better not make an
incident, and started scooping himself some glop.
“Why all the food?” asked Saunders conversationally, as the rest of us
followed his lead and helped ourselves.
“Is it not holiday in universe from where you came?”
I almost dropped by plate of swamp algae. I wasn’t shocked that Yoda
knew where we were from, but Yoda’s use of the word ‘Holiday’…
I looked at my watch, which still continued to function as if I were
walking around earth. The date said 11/26.
“You made us Thanksgiving dinner?” I asked Yoda.
“Yes! Yes…good food we have, talk we will. Work I not on holidays,
whatever universe may they be in. Come, eat, eat.”
I paused for a moment, then said genuinely and sincerely, “Thank you.”
The others turned to look at me, shocked by my sudden mood swing.
Slowly they seemed to realize that this really was our Thanksgiving
dinner, and that we should be truly thankful for it. Yoda had gone to
great trouble to make us feel welcome. I smiled, and took a bite of my
It was nasty. I chewed slowly, fighting the urge to spit it back out.
Everyone around me was having a similar reaction, except for Yoda, who
ate with wild abandon, constantly commenting on the quality of the food.
Suddenly, he stopped, and looked up in shock.
“Ohhh…” he said, “Forgot I the most important thing!”
We all watched with intent curiosity as he picked up an empty bowl, got
up from the table, went over to the corner of the room, and opened a
large door, revealing a small horse-like creature. Yoda placed the bowl
on the ground in front of the horse-thing, then calmy went to its side
and punched it in the gut. The horse responded by vomiting into the
bowl. We stared in a mixture of horror, confusion, and nausea, as Yoda
brought the bowl back to the table, and began to spoon it over his food
like gravy. Suzanne had her hand over her mouth, and Loren looked
Yoda finished scooping, and offered the bowl to us, speaking with a quiet intensity.
“Use the horse puke,” he said, “Use the horse puke!”
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
P.S. If you don’t get it, say it out loud.
And there it is. You are now one of the select few. Try not to let it go to your head.
On Saturday, November 17, I’ll be in Dayton, Ohio for the world premiere of Daytime Drama, a concertpiece for clarinet and band. Magie Smith, a classmate from Ohio State, will be the soloist and she’ll be accompanied by Ken Kohlenberg leading the Sinclair Community College Wind Symphony. The next day, I’ll make my debut as the music director with the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, one of our five community-based ensembles at Lakeland Community College. Looking back on my career as a musician, this is not at all unusual.
The list of community groups I’ve been a part of over the years is long–I’ve spent much more time being a non-paid member of a community musical ensemble or paid director of one than I have getting paid for gigs or performing with professional groups. The list of groups is long–the Middle Georgia Concert Band, Tara Winds, the Sinclair Community College Wind Symphony, the Ohio Valley British Brass Band, the Community Concert Band, Community Orchestra and Community Jazz Ensemble at Lorain County Community College, the Oberlin Choral Spectrum, the Oklahoma Panhandle State University Concert Band and Concert Choir, and now the Lakeland Civic Orchestra.
What makes next Saturday’s premiere so exciting, though, is that I credit the Sinclair Wind Symphony with saving my life in some respects.
In September 1999, I was starting a new teaching job in Springfield, Ohio. I had gone through a divorce over the summer that came as a complete surprise to me, and had decided to move back to Ohio after what had been a very difficult year teaching in an inner-city school in Georgia. Getting a late start, I was glad to have nailed down a full-time job teaching choir, as it meant that I wouldn’t be living with my parents, but it was not the direction I thought my career would take. I was lonely, despite being close to my parents, and the weeks seemed simply endless. One of the ironies about teaching is that you are surrounded by people all day, and none of them can really be your friends. Trying to become friends with students is almost always a mistake, and I’ve always found it difficult to befriend my colleagues; at this particular job, I traveled between two schools and didn’t share a common lunch hour with the rest of the faculty, which made the situation even worse.
One day, a representative from a fund-raising company came to visit. Don Rader was a former band director, as so many of these reps are, and we got to talking about music. He mentioned that he played in a group in Dayton, about a half-hour drive from where I was living, and that I should look into joining. Desperate to get out of my apartment, I called the director, Ken Kohlenberg. Dr. Kohlenberg explained that they didn’t need trombone players, so I quickly volunteered myself for euphonium, and he invited me to come on in, and I joined the Sinclair Wind Symphony that fall.
There was something fortuitous about this–I’m not a particularly good euphonium player, and I have a strange bell-front instrument that doesn’t always blend well. Furthermore, the band already had two euphonium players and probably didn’t really need a third. Somehow, I ended up in the back row of the band, as though Ken realized that I needed to be there.
And that fall, I needed to be there. More importantly, I needed someplace to be where I wouldn’t hang out with my cat and feel sorry for myself at least one night a week. That fall, there were days that I just wanted to quit my job, get out of music completely and find something that would let me wallow more than getting in front of thirty seventh-graders seemed to allow. I thought there might be something where young, eager minds weren’t depending on me to somehow pull it together. There were weeks when the only thing I had to look forward to was the Wednesday night rehearsal, and it wasn’t even about making through the week until Friday–it was about getting to 3:30 on Wednesday, when I would take myself to a fast-food dinner and drive over to Dayton. In the band, I was a musician, not a divorced guy on his second teaching job in as many years–I was doing what had got me into music in a serious way in the first place, namely, playing in a band.
I spent three years in the Sinclair band, until a new job took me away, and I didn’t do a particularly good job keeping in touch, as with many other parts of my life in those years. I know that some members of the group have probably moved on–at least one, Joanie Apfel, who mentored me as a teacher, has died, a loss for the profession and for the world. Next Saturday, when I get to rehearsal, I hope to see some familiar faces, and I hope to take a moment to express to everyone what that group has meant to me–if not, there will at least be this blog post.
I hope my story makes the point of why we need community music-making. In a society in which we are increasingly distant from our “friends,” neighbors and even our families, community music groups offer the chance to be together, enjoying something we are passionate about. They keep us young, and they keep us happy. They keep us from disappearing into our iPads or Androids or whatever other technology vies for our attention. They keep us human.