Saturday, October 31, 2009

We're Pirates - Aaaarrrrrr


We'll be taking Sam out for his first true trick or treating tonight since he's fully discovered that Halloween is all about the candy. Hopefully we'll all still sleep tonight, even with the sugar rush. You can tell in the picture that he's not only saying "Aaaarrrr!" but also plotting about his candy. Noah? He's just along for the pirate ride. And wearing a hat.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Da Is

We've had many conversations around our house about the differences between our two boys. One loves to snuggle, one only snuggles when extremely tired. One has always had a mind of his own, one happily goes with the flow. One loves trains and the other loves trains...oh, wait.

Presently, the most notable difference is their acquisition of language. Sam has always been a talker. He babbled all the time as a baby and learned to talk early and quickly. Language simply fascinates him. Noah could care less. He understands everything we say to him and then some, but is in no rush to speak it back to us. In fact, most of his words are sounds for things - "woof" for dog, "moo" for cow, and the like.

But recently he's begun making stabs at English words and sentences. Our current favorite is "da is," for "there it is." We play peek-a-boo all the time and constantly ask him where things are, so he constantly needs to proclaim, "there it is!" You can see what I mean:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Can Help!

On Tuesday nights, we've started going to a living room group through our church. We meet together with other adults and discuss a Biblical passage and have warm drinks and conversation. The couple that host have a downstairs playroom where we send the kids to play and read. An ideal set until I fill in one final detail:

Sam is the only boy.

Currently, Noah is small enough to stay with us and wander around and not cause too much trouble. Sam, however, runs downstairs and plays with the three other girls. Well, perhaps "plays with" is too strong a phrase. "Plays around" is more accurate.

Last Tuesday night we heard a screaming cry issue from downstairs and Joy and the girl's mother ran downstairs to see what had happened. They discovered that the young girl had been playing with legos and Sam had, as is typical, come over and knocked down her carefully built house. Joy talked with Sam about how his actions made the girl feel, and he allowed that she was probably upset. Joy asked what Sam could do to make her feel better, and Sam responded by telling the girl he was sorry. Then Joy asked the fateful question: "Do you think you could help her with the legos." Sam nodded and walked over to her and in an earnest voice, desperate to please, told her:

"I can help you knock the rest over!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Seeing Classical Music

A few weeks ago, my brother Stephen posted a fascinating entry on his blog concerning visualizing music. I've been promising him a post on how the visual aspects of written music can drastically change the performed sound.

This is not that post.

I've been too swamped with writing and teaching and grading to fully form that post (which will appear in the future). But I recently came across these two videos from last year that almost perfectly captures, for me, the experience of listening to a work by Olivier Messiaen:


These films juxtapose the creation of a painting with Messiaen's stunning Quartet for the End of Time. Whoever had this idea hit on a brilliant notion. Color is a basic feature of Messiaen’s music as he felt the word "tonal" had no meaning. For him, music was not tonal or atonal, but either had color or lacked it. He experienced a mild form of synaesthesia, which in his case manifested as the experience of color when he heard music. And even though he never saw the colors visually, they impacted his composing. He even went so far as to notate the colors of his music in several scores, such as in one of my favorite of his works, Des canyons aux ├ętoiles.

This is one way to beautifully visualize a piece of music. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Musicians with Day Jobs

The first weekend of November, I'm taking a group of musicology students to hear Nolan Gasser speak. You may not be familiar with Gassar. He's a musicologist and composer who teaches part time at Stanford, but spends most of his time working with Pandora.

I wasn't familiar with Pandora until late last spring when a student introduced me to the music genome project, an attempt to classify all music according to specific characteristics. Like the human genome project, the music genome project is an attempt to outline the fundamental stuff of music. In the project, a group of musicologists take a song and classify it according to almost 400 characteristics, from "Blazin' Rappin'" to "Interesting Part Writing" to "Wah-Wah Guitar" (you can peruse the list of characteristics here). Those characteristics are grouped according to "genes," and those genes make up the vector of each song. Those genes and vectors are then related to the vectors and genes of other songs through an algorithm to begin to find commonalities among pieces of music. It takes almost half an hour to catagorize a song, so even though they've been working since 2000, they've managed to only scratch the surface.

Still, the project is a remarkable achievement, particularly through Pandora. With Pandora, you enter a song you like and the algorithm kicks in and finds a related song you might like. You then listen to the song and tell Pandora if you like it or not. As you continually rate songs, the genes between songs you like and songs you don't like are continually compared until, theoretically, Pandora only plays songs you will like, regardless of commercial interests pushing songs on you.

This past weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a story on Pandora and the music genome project that got me thinking about the ways Pandora is changing how we receive our music. With the iPod world, our music is extremely specialized - the notion of sitting around and listening together and sharing a sonic experience is diminished. In some ways Pandora takes the iPod idea to its logical conclusion. Now you never have to stretch yourself with music; you only hear what you already like. As a music educator there are parts of the process that thrill me (discovering new music) and parts that terrify me (boxing in musical taste). It will be interesting to see where the project develops from here.

Still, the article is worth a read if you haven't already, especially because it has given me my new favorite definition of musicologists: people "who, really, are musicians with day jobs."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Avoiding the Balls and Other Useful Life Guidelines

This past weekend, we celebrated Sam's birthday with my parents. Having another birthday was a huge deal for Sam; he kept mentioning this was his "third" birthday to everyone we met. His first birthday was the weekend Joy's parents and sister came. The second was his actual birthday when we took him to eat ravoli (his current favorite food). I'm surprised when he received more presents yesterday (this time from his good friend Alexander) that he didn't declare the day his fourth birthday. At least then we wouldn't have had to explain to everyone that he was actually turning four, not three.

As part of the birthday celebration, we went to a local play place. Sam loves this place. There is a pretend village, a giant water table to splash in, a train table full of trains he doesn't have, an area for cooking and one for doing crafts, a sprawling outdoor playset, and the ball pit and plastic tubes to climb through.

Beforehand, Joy and I agreed to keep the boys out of the ball pit. With the flu and other viruses circling around the city like buzzards, we thought it best to limit exposure to the petri dish that is a ball pit. Then we noticed that everyone else evidently had the same idea and the ball pit was essentially empty. Then our kids, playing the next room over, began to notice the ball pit. Then it was all over.

Sam is an old pro at ball pits. He jumped and tumbled and threw balls through the bullseye and in general had a great time. Noah? He stood.
That's right - Noah treated the ball pit as his own private runway. I'm filing this one away for when I want to ruin his life by being a stage parent for his modeling career.

They both had a marvelous time the entire weekend, but the germy pit of balls was clearly the winning moment.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Film Trailers and Music

Last Friday, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are hit theaters, carrying in its wake the expected critical reaction. My local reviewer found the film profoundly boring, a claim I can't counter as I haven't seen the movie, but one line in his review did provoke me to a response:

"A word about the creatures. Constructed by the Jim Henson workshop with their faces digitally augmented in post production, these towering, shaggy, overstuffed monsters perfectly capture the look of Sendak’s timeless illustrations. That’s why this film has one of the coolest trailers around." [emphasis added]

Have you seen the trailer? If not, or if it has been a few months, take a gander before continuing on:

Reading that line, I was amazed that he actually believed that creatures themselves made the trailer. They were certainly a part of the equation, and I'll admit to a thrill of recognition this summer when I first saw the preview before Harry Potter. The creatures are Sendak's drawings come to life. But the reviewer seems to forget that trailers are primarily visuals and music. The trailer for Where the Wild Things works because the trailer was cut to a song that perfectly matched the film's intent.

Most trailers are cut to portions of the temp track, a rough outline of previously composed music the director gives to the composer as a guide for the type of music he'd like to hear in the final mix. And most directors know little instrumental music other than film music, which is why James Horner's Aliens or Wojciech Kilar's Bram Stoker's Dracula keep getting used over and over. But occasionally the people who create trailers take the time to find a perfect marriage of sound and image, resulting in a powerful trailer.

Think back to earlier this year with the Watchmen trailer. The trailer opens with two cues from Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, "Prophecies" and then "Pruit Igoe." This is movie music, sure, but it moves at the same pace as the images on screen. Then, in a stroke of beauty, the music segues into Muse's "Take a Bow," a song that Matthew Bellamy claims is based on his listening to Glass's soundtracks. But beyond the musical coordination, the song's lyrics include the lines:

"And our freedom's consuming itself,
What we've become is contrary to what we want
Take a bow.

Death, you bring death and destruction to all that you touch."

These lines summarize much of Watchmen in a few short words. In other words, the trailer is a perfect match to the movie and works profoundly on multiple levels

Returning to Where the Wild Things Are, the trailer opens with footsteps, birds, and hints of the wild things themselves, allowing the impact of seeing those creatures to fully register. But then, the song "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire enters halfway through the song with these lyrics:

"If the children don't grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We're just a million little gods causin' rain storms turnin' every good thing to
rust."

Here is a song about growing up and closing off your heart to wonder and love and emotion accompanying a trailer for an adaptation of a book that celebrated how the imagination of children allows them to deal with complex emotions. And when the wild rumpusing begins, the trailer circles back to the beginning of the song, a wordless vocal jam that moves in tempo with the images. Sure the creatures startle and amaze us, but the music grabs our heartstrings and plays them perfectly so we respond intellectually and emotionally to the trailer. That's why some trailers last and why some draw us into the theaters to watch films.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Virgil Thomson's Plow and Image Manipulation

Last night I gave a talk on Virgil Thomson's film scores for Pare Lorentz's Depression-era documentaries The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. If you have never seen the films, they are powerful statements on how mankind has recklessly harmed the environment and the effects the nation was reaping at the time from agricultural over-cultivation (just think of the Dust Bowl) and deforestation (the regular flooding along the Mississippi and her tributaries). Thomson's scores work to crawl under your skin and help you feel the impact of the searing images on screen, and I firmly believe the films would not be half as successful as they are without the music. Though there is narration, these are essentially silent films and the music tells you what to feel long before the narrator in most cases.

But as beautifully constructed as the films are, as I was researching them for my presentation I was struck by their genesis more than their outcome. Both of these films were financed by the government. They are New Deal propaganda pure and simple. When Rexford Tugwell took the reins of the Resettlement Administration, he recognized that many were going to view its job of telling people where to live and how as socialistic (a view that did ultimately force him out of that job). Hoping to cut off criticism, he established an office of information for the RA and began churning out an amazing number of images that define the way we see the Great Depression. In the Photography Project, top-notch artists documented the Depression's human impact - resulting in the most iconic image, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. In the Special Skills Division, Sidney Robertson (who later married Henry Cowell) collected folk songs in California, music that was the basis for Woody Guthrie's career. And in the Film Project The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River transformed the way the RA and the Tennessee Valley Authority were viewed by the public. All these artistic products were paid for by the government, were produced during Roosevelt's bid for a second term, and told Americans why the New Deal was necessary.

We often moan about the ways politicians spin ideas and manipulate images from Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner to Obama's greek columned acceptance speech in Denver to the infamous death panels. But to see these films with newly recorded soundtracks was to realize that today's politicans are inept at harnessing the media to manipulate the public. No wonder Congress in Roosevelt's day scuttled his attempt to have a joint session viewing of The Plow that Broke the Plains.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Taking the Stairs

The following video came my way this week and I had to share:

I appreciate the idea of getting people to use their legs and try the stairs by making them fun, but my mind immediately wanted to hear the musical results of rush hour, midnight, and all the times in between. Just when the video was getting interesting and more people were going up and down it, they cut over it with nice, pleasant, tonal music. But the indeterminate possibilities of the resulting music boggle the imagination. This calls for a field trip with recording equipment.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Listening Journals for your Enjoyment

We're about 1/3rd of the way through the semester and that means that it is time for listening journals again. This semester, five students are braving the writing intensive class to produce writings about recordings they are exploring and what their friends are hearing as well. We're trying something new this semester by writing together on a wiki before we post our thoughts for the outside world to see. Hopefully, we're building a bit more community and polishing our prose a bit more as well.

You'll find the list of blogs if you head over to the class website in the toolbar on the page's right. Dig into these journals, find new music you've never experienced before, and join us in opening up our ears to the sounds of the medieval world.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sam Turns Four

Sam was born on a day very much like today four years ago. Fall had come in with a vengeance only days before and the evenings were cool, the days perfect.

Sam's birth was not perfect - we had several frightening moments leading up to an abrupt C-section. But by 4:30 that afternoon I was holding my first born, awed and scared at his 8 lbs, 2 ounces.

These past four years have only compounded my feelings of awe and terror. Sam has developed into a generous, funny, energetic boy who loves to sing and dance and run and jump and push every button he can, from elevators to his parents'. He stays on step ahead of us, always working to out think and out fox our plans, but never with malicious intent. His spirit inspires us and frustrates us and we work hard to keep from snuffing it out.

A few examples: This past weekend, Joy's parents and sister and our niece came to celebrate Sam's "first birthday," as he has taken to calling it since my parents are coming later to celebrate again. We went to a local pumpkin patch and played the games offered, rode the trains and the hay wagon, and even shot corn out of a corn cannon. Sam careened from location to location, embracing the day the way he embraces life - wholeheartedly with no reservations. It did not matter if the sign clearly stated it was for older kids; Sam wanted to try everything. He wore us out that morning.

That evening, after all our family had headed back home and we had taken well-deserved naps, we went to Toys R Us to purchase a new train for Sam. He was looking at his various options and decided against picking his favorite train because, as he put it, "I'm getting Henry for my second birthday." Who knows how he perceived that, out of everything on his birthday list, Henry was already purchased is beyond me, but he was right.

I cannot believe the 8 lb bundle I held four years ago is now reading Elephant and Piggie books to me at nighttime, that the baby who slept in my arms now stretches to almost half my height. But I see in the four-year-old who now lives in our house that baby's wide-eyed fascination with the world around him, and I pray he never loses it.
Happy Birthday, Sam.

Friday, October 2, 2009

My Teaching

Ever wondered what it's like to be in my classroom? Here's your chance. Last May I gave a presentation to the faculty on my use of blogging in the classroom. The presentation was recorded and then posted to UMKC's youtube.edu website as a resource.

Most of you are familiar with the end product, as I post links whenever a group of listening journals is finished, but you might not know the pedagogical reasons why I use blogs or even the mechanics of it. So if you are curious and have roughly an hour to kill, here's where you can see that particular talk. Enjoy.