Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In Case You Want to Throw a Sibelius Party

Jean Sibelius is popping up everywhere recently, as more and more people become interested in his music. If you are one of those people (you know you who are) and you're tempted to throw a Sibelius party, you'll of course need his punch recipe. I think this should become a staple at our musicology gatherings around here.

In fact, Sibelius would probably be the life of any party as he was known during his lifetime (and after) as a man with a huge passion for drink and cigars. So in case you're curious, you can also find his personal choices in alcohol and in cigars. Is there nothing the internet cannot tell us these days about the lives of composers?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Henry Brant (1913-2008)

Although I've known about it for two days, I'm only now blogging about the passing of Henry Brant, one of Canada's greatest composers who often gets lumped in with all us Americans because, like so many composers, he was influenced deeply by the legacy of Charles Ives.

Brant took different lessons from Ives than most composers. In works like The Unanswered Question, Ives separated his musicians in space to create a different feeling than a closely spaced ensemble. Brant took that notion of spatial music to its logical extreme. So, for instance, in 1984 he wrote a work called Fire in the Amstel for four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four church carillons, three brass bands, and four street organs. That's right, 100 flutes, all floating along. Music sounds different over the water, and that was the sound he wanted.

I first became aware of Brant when I started my dissertation research. Brant actually played in Harry Partch's concerts sponsored by the League of Composers at Carnegie Hall in 1944. In fact, Brant had a double flageolet, so Partch even wrote two settings from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake for a second concert at Columbia that used the instrument (or two flutes if you don't have a double flageolet). So I decided to contact him as he was only 87 years old and interview him about his experiences with Partch. He remains the only composer who wouldn't consent to an interview, but I can't blame him; who would want to be interviewed about someone else's music. by all accounts he was a bit crusty in character and always wore his signature visor in public, but created an enormous body of fascinating music that eventually someone will attempt to tackle. for now, you can get recordings of the works, but I'm sure nothing matches them in live performance.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Sam's New Trick

I sometimes think Sam reads this blog regularly. He often jumps on the computer, clicks away with the mouse, and looks chagrined when we catch him, but I always assumed he was trying to play more Thomas games. Now I know that he's actually trying to read the blog.

I make this statement because last Friday, I posted about his sleeping. And sure enough, Friday night he decided to try a new trick. It used to be that when Sam woke up, he would lounge in bed, talking to himself and rolling around. Friday night, though, he woke up at 2:00 in the morning with a loud cry. I woke up at the sound of his voice and decided to wait and see if he was waking up or just crying out in his sleep. Then I hear the doorknob on his door click open, a quiet "pad, pad, pad" as he walked across the hall, and then the click of my door closing. Suddenly I feel Sam climbing over me, proclaiming that he needed to sleep with me.

I asked him if he were alright, but he just repeated his statement and snuggled down under the covers.

Cute, right? Well, Sunday morning at 6:00 he woke up again. Same clicking, same pad, pad, padding. But this time he wanted to play instead of sleep. He did it again this morning, only instead of coming to see me, he headed downstairs where Joy is sleeping in a recliner, wormed his way into the chair next to her, and asked if he could watch TV.

Next thing we know, he'll go out and get the paper and make us breakfast without waking us up to ask if we like our eggs over easy or scrambled.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Little Orphan Boy

You would think that, being over 2 1/2 years old, Sam would have finally settled down and become a good sleeper. If you put that logic into a paper and turned it into me next week, I would probably agree and put a blue smiley face next to your fine use of evidence to extrapolate a reasoned guess.

And we both would be horribly wrong.

Sam does sleep better. Most nights he sleeps through the night. He's learned how to settle himself down and drift on off to sleep. It just takes about an hour for him to settle down. So we shudder as feet kick against the window pane (since his bed is right up under his room's window), we listen in amusement to random stories about trucks and pumpkin patches that he tells himself to stay awake, and we feel the house shake as he stands up on the bed and throws himself into his pillows. We try to calm him down with soothing music and stories and cuddles and it sometimes works, but often does not.

And then there is the little orphan boy. On nights one of us returns late from a concert or from practice or from work, neither Joy or I pull into our garage. Sam's bedroom is right over the garage, and if he is halfway asleep, the knowledge that someone has returned to the house wakes him back up as he demands new hugs from whomever has arrived. So we park in the driveway. Since our lights will shine in his bedroom (since the curtains aren't finished yet), we even often even turn off our headlights as we pull in the driveway. But by the light of our parking lights, we sometimes see Sam peering out his window at us, as if begging to be released. You know those films where the hungry orphan gazes wistfully out his window, his gaunt cheeks illuminated by the moon? That's Sam. That's our little orphan boy. It is such a funny sight, that I'm sad when I don't see it, even though it means I'll have to go in and try to help him get to sleep. So tonight, when you pull in your driveway, look in the windows of your house and imagine our little orphan boy. And then go inside and get the sleep since the little orphan boy will wake you up at 5:45.

Monday, April 21, 2008

We All Need a Little Poetry

Someone has recently decided to pepper my campus with small sections of poems pasted to red construction paper. These poems have bloomed more reliably than our tulips and have provided, for me at least, a small mental oasis as I stop and take time to read the poetry.

As a result, I thought I would share a few poems from Ron Padgett, a poet with a delicious sense of whimsy and irony. Who else would write a poem like this one:


First: five syllables
Second: seven syllables
Third: five syllables

Or another favorite:

"You Never Know"

1) What might happen.
2) How people will behave.
3) Oh anything.

Three rules that live
in the house next door.

Along comes the big bad philosopher,
and at their door
he hurls the mighty bolts
of lightning
from his brain.

The door is unimpressed.
Behind it the rules
are chuckling.

I witness this scene
through the kitchen curtains
as I rinse the dishes.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obsolete Skills - Vinyl Music in a Digital Age

This afternoon, I'm giving a lecture at the National World War I Museum as part of an interdisciplinary class on the Great War. Coming at the end of the semester, my lecture deals with the cultural impact of the war, specifically on music, while another professor is speaking of its legacy in drama and poetry.

To prepare for the lecture, I began gathering recordings. As far as I know, none of the students (who range in age from typical college-age to retired and interested in WWI) are musicians so I'm assuming no musical training on their part. That means I need many recordings to illustrate what I mean; no shortcut to understanding as with my normal students. And since we are at the museum, we were encouraged to use artifacts from the period, either in the museum's holdings or in other area libraries. What better artifact than recordings of songs and bands from the era? Talking about the type of jazz that went over to Europe with American troops is one thing, playing them a recording from 1919 makes it come alive in a new way.

There's only one problem. Most of those recordings are on vinyl. The brand new, state-of-the-art museum's education room has all manner of digital toys, but not a record player to be seen. I could have taken my own, but I'm not even sure they have the set-up to plug in my player. More likely than not, the CD player I've been promised is part of a computer system.

The knowledge that so much of our recorded history is disappearing has long been at the edge of my consciousness - after all, so many of the works I want to play my Music Since 1945 class exist only on vinyl - but I hadn't realized what an obsolete skill even using a record player had become. Most of my undergraduates have no idea how to operate the turntable in my classroom. Many have never even heard a record. The CD was introduced in 1982 and successful sales of CDs were begun in 1985. My undergraduates were born in 1988.

This sobering thought (at least for me; many could care less), led me to a wonderful new website that I cannot stop exploring called, fittingly, Obsolete Skills. It collects and catalogs all those skills once necessary for contemporary life but now left behind as technology marches on. Skills like knowing to blow the dust out of your Nintendo cartridge before putting it in the player, formating a floppy drive, making a mix tape for that special someone, filling a fountain pen, and memorizing telephone numbers. Some of the list is silly, some bizarre, but all of it thought provoking. Any obsolete skills of your own?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So, How Did You Spend Your Weekend

I haven't been writing much recently because I've been a bit too sore. "Too sore to write?" you may be thinking. "Indeed," I think in return. The reason I'm so sore is the same reason Sam is sitting there to the right of these words, smirking as though he owned the world - after five months in our garage, his swingset is finally built.

The instructions on the swingset proudly declare "Can Be Put Together in a Day!" That statement is surely true, if there were not mitigating factors. Such as it being 34 degrees on a Saturday in April. And it snowing. Fingers crippled by cold make it a bit hard to properly put nuts on bolts and hold a wooden roof aloft over your head for any time at all.

But even with those factors, I did have all the right tools to get it done. Saturday morning, I unloaded the boxes, found the instructions, and went through the list of necessary tools. Socket wrench? Check. Hammer? Check. Tape measure? Check? Adult helper? Check. That's right, the instructions declare you need an adult helper and I had one in Joy's Dad. I truly could not have gotten the swingset together without his help. And because of his help, I'm living with one happy little boy. Last night at dinner, Sam would eat a bite of food, then stand up in his chair to look out the window and gaze wistfully at his swingset. Then he'd reach down for another morsel before hopping up to make sure the swingset was still there.

That look was worth all the cold and all the time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

What's Cooking, Sam?


Sam is the original iron chef. Watch out Morimoto!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mr. Fix-It

I'd like to officially ask everything in my house to stop breaking. It has gotten so bad this week that as I was leaving the house this morning (after, yes, fixing something) Joy remarked off the cuff, "Aren't you the Mr. Fix-It this week?"

Let's catalog this week's breakage:
  1. Evidently, Canon printers have a pesky little design flaw where, after a few years, what they call the "waste ink tank" gets full and your printer flashes at you until you empty it. I checked with Canon and they said that it was a messy job and so I should take it in to get it serviced to the tune of $80 or so. I did a little research (knew my PhD would come in handy some day) and discovered that the waste ink tank is a large felt pad on the bottom of the printer. I unscrewed the printer, took out the felt pad, washed and dried it (and took Clorox to my hands to remove the excess ink on them), and put it all back together. Problem solved. $80 please
  2. Our vacuum cleaner hasn't been picking up all the little crumbs of food Sam kindly leaves on the floor for it to eat. The attachments worked fine, so I opened up the vacuum's head and discovered a broken belt. One trip to the appliance store and you can eat off our floors again along with Sam.
  3. I was taking a shower yesterday morning when I noticed the water pooling at my feet. Last night I got to stand in cold, 10-hour-old shower water and plunge away at the drain. All sorts of lovely things came up, but the drain is open now.
  4. We've had the table pad underneath the tablecloth on our dining room table for a few months, so Joy decided to remove both and move to placemats for a while. But when we pulled off the pad, a chunk of the felt elected to remain with the table. I'm still working on that one, so any hints would be welcome.
As a result of these fixes, Sam has declared that I can fix anything. Last night at supper, the plastic handle of his fork broke. "Fix it, Dada!" he insisted, shoving his greasy fork at me. I dutifully glued it back together. The day before, I was playing trains with him when he chunked Percy across the room. Percy, who is battery powered, split in two. "Fix him, Dada!" Sam cried, and I did, only to put Percy away for a while for throwing. (I'm a cruel Dad, I know) I'm just waiting for the inevitable escalation as our boundary-testing toddler sees just how far my fixing powers will go. "Fix it, Dada!" he'll gleefully shout as he runs through the house frightfully wielding his giant plastic hammer. Perhaps it's time for something to stay broken.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

More Listening Journals for your Enjoyment

As the semester rolls along, my students continue to listen to music that surprises and enthralls them and then write about their reactions on their blogs. The newest round of listening journals is now up and my students are busy commenting on each others' thoughts. You are welcome to join in and discover some music that might lead to a new discovery for yourself.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Pulitzer Prizes I Actually Appreciate

A larger update on Sam is in the works, but I couldn't help but comment on the new Pulitzer Prize's that were handed out yesterday. In general I tend to not pay attention to whomever receives the Pulitzer in music. They've had an amazing track record for giving awards to composers I find boring and pieces that are bland in the worst sense of the word. I even often joke with Joy by labeling pieces I don't like "Pulitzer music." It's been a handy code for the past few years, but I might have to revise my nomenclature.

Yesterday, the Pulitzer went to David Lang, one of a trio of composers who collectively founded the Bang on a Can Festival in order to just get their music (and other music they admired) heard. I've admired Lang's music and perspective since hearing him talk at U of I many years ago, and have long found Child to be a beautiful, fascinating piece of music that you slowly dig into and wrap around yourself like a quilt to better see and feel its intricacies.

He won for his The Little Match Girl Passion, a commission from Carnegie Hall that premiered last October. In it, he took the Hans Christian Andersen's story, which he saw as religious allegory, and placed its heroine in Jesus's place in a traditional passion setting. He was inspired by Bach's St. Matthew's Passion and wanted to recreate that sense of musical intimacy and grandeur. That he did so with only four singers who also play percussion instruments as accompaniment is remarkable. You can hear the entire 30 minute work here and listen to an NPR story from yesterday afternoon here. I've been listening to it this morning and am stunned by the emotional power he pulls from such minimal material. I'm also stunned that I'm writing these words about a Pulitzer winner. I guess I'm now open for a new disparaging musical term.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Fountain Day!

I know that technically spring begins with the vernal equinox, which is usually around March 21st, but those "facts" don't really matter to me. March 21st in Kansas City is often windy and chilly and feels and looks a lot like October. No, since moving here, I've discovered that spring actually begins on April 1. Why? Because of this:April 1st is Fountain Day in Kansas City. You probably didn't know that Kansas City was officially the City of Fountains, having more fountains than any other city excepting Rome. There are majestic fountains, small streams of water you barely want to call a fountain, and everything in between. Fountains are such a big deal here, there's even a website trying to keep track of them all. But starting November 1 each year, all the city's fountains run dry.
As a result, although I drive by this beautiful fountain on my way into work every day, in the winter it sits forlorn, dry, abandoned. Yesterday afternoon, I was headed home with Sam in the back seat and I saw the fountain's jets shooting high into the air. Even though it is still chilly here and new growth is only beginning sleepily open one eye towards the sun, it now feels like spring.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sam and Baby Ana

Last week, we traveled to visit Joy's sister Heather, her husband Adam, and their brand new baby girl, Ana. We were eager to see them and get to know our new niece, but we were also anxious to see how Sam would respond to their being another little person, one who cannot fend for herself, in the house, vying for Mom and Dad's attention. The picture speaks for itself:

Sam was fascinated by Ana. He asked to feed her, brought her a pacifier when she began to cry, and even gave her a hug when we were getting ready to go. Since coming home he's prayed almost every night for Baby Ana, and last night even threw in her bed and her house into the prayer.

This doesn't mean that things won't be tough when our new little one arrives in a few months. Every night while we were there, Sam refused to let me put him to bed, loudly crying that I needed to leave so Mama could tell him a story. I spent my days playing blocks, feeding the ducks, throwing balls to the dogs and generally being his playmate. It stands to reason that he needed Mom each night. But except for those instances, he was very accommodating about our spending time with Ana. Hopefully the same will be true at our house come June.