Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

There are two possibilities with regard to this amazing piece of music, which I've just heard for the first time ever the day before yesterday: Either this amazing work has been studiously ignored for decades since its composition, when it should be heard every year around Passover time, much as The Ten Commandments is screened each year; or, it is heard every year around that time, and White Musical America is just that good at ignoring the amazing work of Black composers.

Sadly, I can see it breaking either way.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was a Black composer, native to Canada but who eventually spent most of his life and career in America after his family moved there when he was eleven. Dett was born in 1882 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and would die in 1943 at the age of sixty, from a heart attack while touring with the USO as a choral director. In between he wrote a good amount of music, apparently making heavy use of Black folk songs and spirituals in a typically Romantic style.

Dett's oratorio The Ordering of Moses was premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1937. That performance was to be broadcast live by NBC, but the broadcast was cut short due to "technical difficulties" that apparently left many wondering if the issue had been technical at all, or due to large volume of complaints lodged with NBC for broadcasting a Black man's music. That doesn't matter now, because we can hear Dett's amazing work now.

Here is The Ordering of Moses by Robert Nathaniel Dett.

(The entire work isn't available in one video, so the above is an embedded playlist. As this doesn't always work well for me, here's the link to hear the work directly on YouTube.)

Monday, August 03, 2020

Happy Birthday, Martin Sheen!

Today is Martin Sheen's birthday! He turns 80 years old, which I can hardly believe. In his honor, I'd like to note just one scene from his amazing life of work. This is from The West Wing's Season Two opener, called "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen". The previous season had ended with an assassination attempt on President Bartlet (Sheen), and as the finale ended we didn't know who had been shot or even killed.

When Season Two began with this two-part episode, we learned that President Bartlet and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), had both been shot. Bartlet's injuries weren't life-threatening, but Josh's were critical, and the episode unfolds as doctors work to save Josh and the White House and the nation react to the attack. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we learn how the cast came together in a quixotic campaign to elect a long-shot candidate President.

Throughout all of the flashbacks, much is made of Bartlet's prickly nature, the fact that he's not especially nice to those in his inner circle, and that he simply isn't ready to be President. Aaron Sorkin's script even has a description: "There's something about Bartlet that seems smaller somehow." I don't know how Sheen managed to suggest "being somehow smaller", but at the end of the episode comes this scene.

It's one of the flashbacks. On the very night that Governor Josiah Bartlet wins the Illinois primary, thus becoming the almost-certain Democratic nominee, Josh receives the phone call that his father has suddenly died of cancer. As the campaign celebrates and gets ready for the trip to California, Josh instead has to go to the airport to fly home for his father's funeral. He's sitting at the gate when he notices Secret Service agents forming a perimeter around him...and then there's Bartlet, the last person he expected to see.

In this scene Bartlet finally shows some warmth to the people who have given up other careers to try and elect this guy, and it really is quite a wonderful scene between Sheen and Whitford. But the real amazing thing comes at the end of the scene, when Josh is heading off to catch his flight. Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Bartlet's oldest friend and campaign manager and eventual White House Chief of Staff, comes up from behind and asks Bartlet if Josh will be OK; Bartlet replies, "He's gonna be fine," and then...Bartlet turns around to face Leo.

And in that simple act of turning around and straightening up just a bit, we see that indeed Bartlet had been "somehow smaller", but now...he's not. He turns to face Leo, and he straightens just a bit, and he says: "Leo, I'm ready." I love when actors can create a completely different tone in their characters just by altering their posture in the tiniest bit.

Here is the scene, and Happy Birthday, Martin Sheen!

Wise Words from Samira Ahmed

Author Samira Ahmed, writer of the amazing YA novel Love, Hate, and Other Filters as well as others, recently appeared on one of my favorite podcasts, 88 Cups of Tea. Her main takeaway that she pushed hard was the need for creative people to "say yes to themselves", because we live in a world that puts up an awful lot of roadblocks in front of creatives. We don't need to add to the roadblocks ourselves; self-obstruction is not healthy. It was a wonderful conversation (this podcast is always full of them), but there was one particular quote from Ms. Ahmed that knocked my breath away. Seriously, I almost had to pull my car over, so amazed was I to hear this.

She specifically referred to the habit a lot of writers have of describing their first drafts in extremely non-complimentary terms. There's even a quote that gets shared on the online writing communities a lot that goes along the lines of, "The first draft of everything is crap!" I've  been pushing back on this notion for a long time (here's an old essay of mine about it, over on ForgottenStars.net), but to hear a published professional author echo my thoughts was unimaginably refreshing. And Ms. Ahmed frames the problem in a way that I had never considered. Here is what she said:

SAMIRA AHMED: One piece of that kindness to myself--and I say that this is just for me, but I hope maybe it can speak to just one of the other storytellers out there--which is, I am gentle with the language that I use about my writing. So what that means is, I never say to myself that my first draft is 'trash'. This is something for me; maybe this is OK with everybody else, your mileage may vary, but for me, when I was little one of those racist experiences that I had was a grown-ass man telling me, a kid, that I was 'trash that America needed to take out.' Words can be weapons, and I'm not going to use weaponized language against myself. So I don't say that my first draft is 'trash.' I don't say it's 'garbage'. I say it needs improvement. I say it needs work. I say I could make it better...but I don't say that it's trash.

I could not possibly agree more. Be kind to your own work, folks. It's yours, after all!

(I featured the Samira Ahmed quote in a new post over on ForgottenStars.net, just in case you're wondering how writing is progressing of late!)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

You may remember a hilarious sketch comedy show from the 2000s called Key and Peele; and if you do, then you likely know that Jordan Peele, one half of the comedy duo from that show, has gone on to an impressive career in filmmaking, mostly in the horror genre. He even won an Oscar for one of his screenplays a couple of years ago.

Peele, like many directors, seems to have established a partnership with a particular composer for his filmscores: a man named Michael Abels, who in addition to his film work has composed a number of meaningful works for the concert hall and who has worked hard to increase the visibility of composers of color. This particular piece dates back to 1990, and its title--"Global Warming"--refers not to the ecological challenge of our time, but the specific feeling of international goodwill that was emergent in the handful of years immediately following the end of the Cold War.

The piece opens with a coldly stark sound that gives way to exuberant dance which blends a number of elements from national music all over the world. One might expect that character of music, given this theme...but at the end it returns to that coldly stark sound, as if to express skepticism and a return to wariness even as old enmities were seemingly falling by the wayside. In this Abels may well have been prescient.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Not even a pandemic can stop summer!

True, the pandemic has put the kibosh on a lot of things we normally do this time of year: no trip to the Sterlink Renaissance Festival for us, nor will there be an Erie County Fair. But we still eat like it's summer, though! Every year when the ripe tomatoes start showing up at the Farmers Market, it's BLT time.

Since work I have: walked doggos, listened to 1/3 of #folklore, eaten this BLT, and quaffed this beer. #ahhhhh #yum #blt #beer

Sweet corn can't be far behind!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Something for Thursday (Friday edition)

Yeah, the usual disclaimer: a busy week full of activity has led to a day's delay. I don't have a great deal to say about this song, so just listen to it. This is one of those songs that takes you places, which is fitting given its title and lyrics. Here is "Midnight Train to Georgia", by Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

RIP, Pizza Hut

Every Pizza Hut restaurant in Western New York has permanently closed.

I'm not going to pretend that this is a loss, except in the sense that this is a few hundred jobs down the drain. I worked for Pizza Hut back in the 1990s, when we lived in Olean, NY, and I posted years ago what that was like. It wasn't a horrible place to work back then, but it sure wasn't great, either; pay was a joke, and for all the lip service paid to the idea that Pizza Hut was supposed to be a step above fast food, it was clear that even then the higher-ups had no idea what they were doing with respect to the shifting restaurant scene.

I have no idea how long it's been since I've even eaten at a Pizza Hut, and it's something of a long-running joke in this region that the number of buildings that used to be Pizza Huts far outnumbers those that house actual Pizza Huts.

Oh well. Support your local pizza joint, folks. Let the chains figure it out on their own.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

Ulysses Kay was a Black composer who lived from 1917 to 1995. Born in Tucson to parents who encouraged music-making in the home, Kay went on to study music at the University of Arizona and the Eastman School of Music, working with such musical luminaries as William Grant Still and Howard Hanson. Kay's music is (so I've read, having not heard much of it at all!) mostly written in the neoclassical style, which makes sense from my hearing of today's piece. I don't hear a great deal of jazz or African influence here. This work has an almost academic kind of feel to it, which may be simply because the piece is called "Fantasy Variations" and does not seem to have any programmatic content at all, which puts it in a different category, more of an "absolute music" kind of piece, than a lot of what I've been featuring over the last few weeks.

This work rewards several listens, I have found. It opens with a lyrical passage that quickly gives way to stark modernism, and then the mood alternates several times before arriving on an almost hymnlike conclusion. The piece stands in much the same kind of musical tradition as a great deal of American 20th century music, and I am entirely unsurprised to read that Kay studied with Still and Hanson.

Here is Fantasy Variations by Ulysses Simpson Kay.