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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Something for Thursday

Twenty-one years of adventures with The Wife! Hooray and Huzzah!!! #happyanniversary

Twenty-one years ago today, a lovely girl I'd been dating for a little over six years stood beside me as we exchanged vows. And here we are.

Life's been hard and wonderful and fantastic and awful and great...and I'm ready for the next twenty-one years to start.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

Not really a tone poem, but it is a rather complete musical statement: "The Flying Sequence" from the score to Superman, by John Williams. This is in honor of the passing of Margot Kidder over the weekend. This music underscores one of the most perfect distillations of pure wonder ever put to film. Superman remains my favorite superhero film yet, and the chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder is a big reason.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Something for Thursday (for Dr. Janice Wade)

Last month Dr. Janice Wade of Waverly, IA passed away.

Dr. Wade was a member of the music department faculty at Wartburg College when I was there from 1989 to 1993, teaching strings and--in the part of her professional life that made her a part of my creative life--serving as music director of the Wartburg Community Symphony Orchestra, a joint collegiate and community ensemble that played five concerts a year. I played the trumpet in that orchestra all four of my years there, and for three of those years I was the principal. I got to see Dr. Wade's music making up close.

At first, she wasn't even Dr. Wade: she was still completing her doctorate when I arrived, and if memory serves, it wasn't until my junior year that she completed her requirements and became Dr. Wade. Before that she was Ms. Wade, and for a time it seemed to me like she was fighting an uphill battle. There weren't many string players at all at Wartburg when I arrived, and the orchestra was mainly a skeleton crew for most rehearsals. That first year and most of the second we never got to rehearse with full numbers until the dress rehearsals the day before the performance, and there were times when I wondered if the school's string program would ever get off the ground.

It did. Dr. Wade recruited heavily, and by my third year, we had a full complement in the orchestra for nearly every rehearsal, and we played some meaty works: Mozart's Requiem, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, a work by Amy Beach, and so on. We premiered a work by a Des Moines composer whose name escapes me (I still have those programs around and should look them up), and a lot of other fine works. The Symphony was kind of the odd-child out in the music culture at Wartburg at the time; the jewels in the crown were the Choir and the Concert Band, and then the jazz vocal group (called the Castle Singers) and the jazz band (the Knightlighters). But I was as proud to be a part of that orchestra's evolution as I was of any other musicmaking I was privileged to be a part of while I was there, and Dr. Wade was the driving force.

One particular musical memory: each year we did the Nutcracker Suite as part of our Christmas program, and to this day that is one of the few works I know that is tied in my mind to a very specific time and place. I remember sitting in the orchestra room, rehearsing that piece, while watching snow fall outside through the hall's big windows, and I remember Dr. Wade's annoyance with us each year at the very end of the Waltz of the Flowers. In the very last couple bars, it feels like there should be a dramatic ritardando, slowing to the final smash, but the thing is there's no such ritardando indicated in the score. We would try to play one, and Dr. Wade insisted that we not do it. To this day when I listen to a performance of that work and I hear some great conductor observe the unwritten ritardando, I smile a little and think how Dr. Wade would not approve. Indeed, when Leopold Stokowski conducts the Waltz in the film Fantasia, he does not observe the unwritten ritardando...and when friends and I who were in the orchestra at the time watched that sequence of the movie (it had just come out on VHS right then), we all yelped out, "Dr. Wade's right! It doesn't slow down there!"

Of all the pieces we played in the WCSO, this may well be my favorite. It's the Symphony No. 2 by Howard Hanson, titled the "Romantic". Hanson was a 20th century composer whose language is a conservative throwback to the previous century and its lush Romanticism. The symphony is perhaps the best illustration I know of how a very gifted mind can get a half hour's worth of deeply compelling music from about twelve minutes of actual material: the piece is cyclical to a fault, with the same ideas recurring in each movement, but the overall effect is so effective that one hardly cares. So it was with me when I got to play this symphony under Dr. Janice Wade's baton. As a conductor her overall demeanor was cool and analytical, but for all that she certainly programmed a lot of highly emotional and dramatic music. She kept her fire under control, but there was no questioning its heat.

Here, offered in memory of Dr. Janice Wade of Waverly, IA is Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2, the "Romantic."

And thank you, Dr. Wade. I never got a chance to say it, but I often thought of you as Maestra Wade.

Friday, May 04, 2018

STAR WARS at 40 (a repost)

This is an essay that I wrote last year on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the release of the first, the original, STAR WARS, even before it got retitled "A New Hope." I figured I'd repost this today since I am still working on my increasingly enormous reflection piece on The Last Jedi.

May the Fourth be with you!

D19 of #IGWritersMay: Novel aesthetics. I make no secret that at its heart, THE SONG OF FORGOTTEN STARS is really my love letter to STAR WARS. (This is a page from the book THE ART OF STAR WARS.) #amwriting #starwars #sciencefiction #spaceopera #Forgotten

I didn't see Star Wars on opening day. In truth I don't even remember exactly when I saw it, but it was later in the summer of 1977. We had just moved from Wisconsin to Oregon, and in that time I was not even aware of this enormous movie phenomenon whose popularity was sweeping the nation.

I finally saw it, though, with my sister, who is six years older than me.

I didn't like it.

It was very loud. It opened with big words flying through space and then there was loud spaceships and talking robots (one of whom only talked in beeps and whistles). There was a girl in white and a bad guy in black whose breath sounded weird. There was a desert planet with weird dwarf-creatures and a kid named Luke who lived with his aunt and uncle. (The uncle could be pretty gruff if Luke was goofing off, to which I could relate.) There were more loud spaceships and one really really big spaceship shaped like a giant ball. There was a guy dressed in black and white who helped the farm kid, and this guy had a giant ape-man friend. There were swords made of light and even more spaceships and a big battle in space.

All of that, and I didn't understand a lick of it.

In my defense, I was all of five years old at the time.

Until Star Wars, my movie experience was pretty much limited to stuff like Bugs Bunny Superstar and Disney live-actions like The Shaggy DA (which contained a hoot of a pie fight). Then there was this movie with loud spaceships and robots and a farm kid and a bad guy in black and...well, I had no idea what to make of this movie.

Luckily for me I had my sister, who is six years older than me.

She went all-in for Star Wars. She ate it, drank it, breathed it. She talked about it a lot, and gradually her enthusiasm began to win me over. She explained the story to me because I hadn't understood it all that well, and I decided that I wanted a part of her enthusiasm for my own. So I went with her to see the movie a second time.

I have never ever ever recovered.

I've been thinking a lot about Star Wars as it nears and achieves 40 years, and I find myself relating to it most as a storyteller myself. As a writer I tend most to look at Star Wars through the prism of story. Many stories have had a deep effect on me, on the stories I want to tell, and the way I go about telling them, but none moreso than Star Wars, even as the Star Wars story itself has changed over the course of its four decades. Most of the core ideas are still there, though, as Star Wars is now no longer in the hands of its creator, George Lucas. Star Wars is still a tale of heroic adventure unfolding in the sky. It is still a tale not just of the wars but more well-focused on the people fighting that war. It is a tale of improbably redeemable villains, of the way our paths mirror those of our parents, and of finding love in the face of desperation. It is a tale of family.

I can't help thinking in most, if not all, of these terms every time I write a story, no matter which genre it's in. Star Wars made me want to be a storyteller (what is playing with action figures, if not storytelling?). It also taught me that stories can focus at times on more mystical matters, and it taught me that story is an excellent way of addressing the challenges people face in their hearts. Most importantly, though, Star Wars taught me about heroes and quests and the wise elders who try to guide the heroes on their way.

Other stories have come since Star Wars arrived, and many have come to places almost as near to my heart. It's not only stories, either; it's all of creative art, really:

Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles
The Lord of the Rings
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
My Fair Lady
Much Ado About Nothing
The House with a Clock in its Walls
The Lions of Al-Rassan
Mary Stewart's Arthurian trilogy (plus The Wicked Day)
Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique
Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in E minor
Invisible Touch by Genesis
Once and Again
Princess Mononoke

These are all things -- and there are more -- that are at the center of my creative life, but none has ever quite dislodged Star Wars as my Prime Mover. Star Wars is, and continues to be, my Platonic Ideal of what story is.

Even so, I haven't always kept as close an eye on Star Wars as a massive universe as many. I've read only a small handful of all the many novels and comics written over the years, and I haven't played any of the video games. For me, my appreciation focuses pretty exclusively on the movies themselves, and not just the wonderful Original Trilogy but also the admittedly uneven -- but still, in my eyes, uniquely compelling -- Prequel Trilogy and even to a smaller extent the recent "Rebirth" movies, The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Those form the core.

Star Wars is as strong now as it ever was, and it is very likely even stronger. It has more fans than ever, and it is now in the hands of a corporate power whose pockets are deep enough to maintain it at a very high level for decades to come. More fans are created every day, it seems, and yet...I do have to admit to feeling a certain level of possibly grumpy oldsterism. Sure, you kids can love Star Wars and in fact I hope that you will, and that your love for Star Wars will lead you to other things. But I came in on the ground level. My memories may be hazy, but I do remember a time before Star Wars.

I believe that every story one writes -- or rather, every story that I write -- should be, in one way or another, a love letter, either to someone or something. The Song of Forgotten Stars has many influences, but it is ultimately my love letter to Star Wars. If not for Star Wars, there's no way I would be writing this story. It's not just about the internals of Star Wars, though: it's about the way Star Wars impacted me and shaped my life and helped reflected certain relationships in my life. Put it this way: There's a reason why the two main characters in my Forgotten Stars books are two Princesses, one of whom is six years older than the other. It's a dynamic that makes sense to me on a lot of different levels.

I also know, from reading a lot about the making of Star Wars over the years and about the life of George Lucas in particular, that the way by which a creative work comes into existence is often a messy one. Lucas's manner of creation is eerily similar to my own, or maybe vice versa. Lucas is someone who starts out by following ideas in any direction they might go, and only gradually whittles things down and discards this notion or that idea until a streamlined story starts to emerge. I work the same way, at least in part. My rough drafts are often very messy and they always contain entire ideas that I remove entirely, for one reason or another. Lucas has done so much mixing and matching of ideas over the decades (remember that for him, Star Wars is 47 or 48 years old, depending on where he dates The Beginning) that he at times seems to be misremembering his own history. I know how he feels. There are times when an idea seems so organic that it's hard to claim it for my own. Even if it is.

So thank you for forty years, Star Wars! And may the Force be with you, forevermore.

Bad Joke Friday: May the Fourth Be With You!!!

What do you call a potato that has turned to the Dark Side of the Force?

Vader tots!!!

(And there's more where that came from, folks!)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Something for Thursday

American treasure and icon (and one of my favorite musicians ever) Willie Nelson turned 85 years old the other day. This enchanting duet he did with Ray Charles years ago is, to this day, my favorite thing he's ever done. Congratulations on a great life, Willie Nelson!

And speaking of Willie Nelson, do read this wonderful article about his guitar, Trigger, which has been with him for nearly 50 years. And then there's Sheila O'Malley's tribute, which is typically terrific.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Tone Poem Tuesday

It's May Day, so here for the occasion is "A May Day Overture," by British composer Haydn Wood. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Something for Thursday

You know what? You look like you could use a half hour of Mozart. So here.

(And if you don't think you could use a half hour of Mozart? Shut up and listen to a half hour of Mozart.)