Saturday, May 30, 2020

Why he took the knee

Meanwhile, in America, yet another demonstration of why Colin Kaepernick took the knee, a simple act that got him run out of the NFL.

He was right.

"It wasn't a miracle. We just decided to go."

That may be my favorite quote from the movie Apollo 13. Jim Lovell says it to his wife as they relax in their backyard, after all of their guests have gone home from their watch party for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Lovell's amazement at the feat of landing on the moon isn't just at the fact of the location, but that all it took to get there was a decade-plus (well, with a lot of stuff coming before) of applied human ingenuity.

The human presence in space hasn't quite gone according to the plan my six-year-old brain thought it would, way back when I first became aware that space wasn't just some grand cosmic realm where the mysterious stars lay; it was just a gigantic place of which we were a part, and we humans could simply go there. When I was six, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that within a short time--thirty years? forty? fifty, tops!--we'd have permanent space stations, the first moon bases, and maybe even the makings of a colony on another planet, maybe Mars. Of course, it didn't go according to plan, did it? Nothing big ever does.

We humans lost a bit of focus on space, and we made some choices that weren't obvious or perfect, and we have proceeded in fits and starts. As we lost the Cold War impetus that drove so much of that initial development, an impetus of which I was unaware when I was six, it seemed that we lost a lot of focus. The space shuttle was initially exciting but it became less and less so, until one of them exploded; then it settled back into routine until another one failed on re-entry. America had a small space station, that didn't last long; the Soviets had one that lasted a bit longer. Then a bunch of countries got together to build the "International Space Station," which is somehow both amazing and...well, it seems just a bit small to the part of me that still dreams in the same way that I did when I was six.

But it can still be exciting. We got a big reminder of that today, when NASA and SpaceX teamed up to finally succeed in launching a rocket carrying American astronauts into space. Ever since the shuttle was retired, Americans have been hitching rides with the Russians. That may be good from an international cooperation standpoint, but America still needs its own launch capability if it's to maintain a presence in space, and the SpaceX rocket has seen increasingly promising results for the last few years. No longer are multi-stage rockets just dumping their spent stages to fall into the ocean; not only are the stages recoverable, but they actually land on their own power to live to fly another day.

Today, America returned to space under its own power. Maybe I'll get to see those moon bases and Mars colonies yet!

Here are a few screenshots I took from my phone as I watched live streaming coverage of the launch this afternoon (and really, how amazing a sentence is that?):

Just over a minute into flight.

At left, the second-stage engine firing; at right, the first stage's re-entry rockets firing.
More than any aspect of this launch, this blew my mind.

They briefly lost the signal from the ship where the first stage was to land, alas!
But they got it back to show the first stage having successfully landed. At right,
our astronauts in their capsule.

Second stage separation.

The second stage falls farther and farther behind. Ahead, Earth orbit and ISS rendezvous!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Something for Thursday

Alas! We have just learned yesterday of two major event cancellations this summer, two beloved events that we attend each year, pretty much without fail. One is the Erie County Fair; the other is the Sterling Renaissance Festival. We completely understand why each one had to be struck from the 2020 calendar, as neither is likely to be safe during this pandemic. But still...what a bummer!

Especially the Renaissance Festival, which is just such a charming bit of mental escapism, a kind of stepping back in time. No joust, with Milady In Blue and the Impressive Scotsman! No Queen Elizabeth, presiding over the whole thing! No smoked turkey legs! No...oh well.

But at least I can summon up the mood a bit, through music--actual Renaissance and Elizabethan era music, or contemporary music in that vein, like this from one of my favorite bands, Blackmore's Night.

Here is "Under a Violet Moon".

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Something for Tuesday: Happy Birthday, Stevie Nicks!

Stevie Nicks, that wonderful singer for Fleetwood Mac, turns 72 today. I always find it hard to describe her voice, which is somehow sultry, nasal, and gravelly all at the same time. Her voice is utterly unique; she only need sing a single syllable for one to know that it's Stevie Nicks.

Here she is with a live performance of "Landslide," which is a song that I either find beautiful or emotionally destroying, depending on how much rum I've consumed.

Tone Poem Tuesday

An interesting piece today that I had forgotten about, by American composer Frederick Shepherd Converse. Converse lived from 1871 to 1940, and he was a fairly prolific composer who wrote in a late-Romantic style, not unlike Richard Strauss, but his inspiration often came from American subjects, and this piece is no exception. It's called Flivver Ten Million, so called because it honors the production of the ten millionth Model-T Ford. The piece has a quiet and mysteriously lyrical beginning, almost suggesting a foggy morning, but as it progresses it becomes more and more frenetic, and includes such wild sonic devices as a wind machine, interesting percussion use, a hammer on an anvil (at least that's what it sounds like), and even a car horn. I imagine that Shepherd was depicting the shift in American life from the pastoral to the frantically urban. One hundred years ago America was in the middle of the first great dawning of the Automobile Age, for good and for ill, and this work is a contemporary meditation on that shift which did not abate a single bit as the Model T went into eclipse when newer and better makes and models of cars came on the market.

This performance is by my own Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, by the way! They recorded this piece for the Naxos label almost twenty years ago.

Monday, May 25, 2020

On Memorial Day

An annual reposting of some things pertaining to Memorial Day. First, a remembrance of a soldier I never knew.

Fifteen years ago I wrote the following on Memorial Day, and I wanted to revisit it. It's about the Vietnam Veteran whose name I remember, despite the fact that I had no relation to him and clearly never knew him, because he was killed four years before I was born.

Memorial Day, for all its solemnity, has for me always been something of a distant holiday, because no one close to me has ever fallen in war, and in fact I have to look pretty far for relatives who have even served in wartime. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War I, but both had been dead for years when I was born. I know that an uncle of mine served during World War II, but I also know that he saw no action (not to belittle his service, but Memorial Day is generally set aside to remember those who paid the "last full price of devotion"). My father-in-law served in Viet Nam, but my own father did not (he had college deferments for the first half of the war, and was above draft age during the second). So there is little in my family history to personalize Memorial Day; for me, it really is a day to remember "all the men and women who have died in service to the United States".

One personal remembrance, though, does creep up for me each Memorial Day. It has nothing at all to do with my family; in fact, I have no connection with the young man in question.

When I was in grade school, during the fall and spring, when the weather was nice, we would have gym class outdoors, at the athletic field. On good days we'd play softball or flag football or soccer; on not-so-good days we'd run around the quarter-mile track. But the walk to the athletic field involved crossing the street in front of the school and walking a tenth of a mile or so down the street, past the town cemetery. I remember that at the corner of the cemetery we passed, behind the wrought-iron fence, the grave of a man named Larry Havers was visible. His stone was decorated with a photograph of him, in military uniform. I don't recall what branch in which he served, nor do I recall his date-of-birth as given on the stone, but I do recall the year of his death: 1967. I even think the stone specified the specific battle in which he was killed in action, but I'm not sure about that, either.

That's what I remember each Memorial Day: the grave of a man I never knew, who died four years before I was born in a place across the world to which I doubt I'll ever go. And in the absence of anyone from my own family, Mr. Havers's name will probably be the one I look for if I ever visit that memorial in Washington. I hope his family wouldn't mind.

I looked online and found these images, first of Mr. Havers's obituary and then of Mr. Havers himself. The things you remember. I wonder what kind of man he was. He has been gone for more than half a century. His name is not forgotten.

Mr. Havers's service information can be found on the Virtual Vietnam Wall here. He was born 14 October 1946 and died 29 October 1967, in Thua Thien.

Next, my annual repost for Memorial Day.

Tomb of Unknown Soldier

Know, all who see these lines,
That this man, by his appetite for honor,
By his steadfastness,
By his love for his country,
By his courage,
Was one of the miracles of the God.

-- Guy Gavriel Kay

"The Green Field of France", by Eric Bogle

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile 'neath the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death-march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that faithful heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enshrined then, forever, behind a glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death-march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death-march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And I can't help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did they really believe when they answered the call,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing and dying, was all done in vain,
For young Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death-march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Something for Thursday

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back! I have a longer piece in the works for The Geekiverse, but for now, here is John Williams leading a pretty good music group in one of the most famous themes he has ever composed: the "Imperial March" from that very film.

And the music group? None other than the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

In honor of yesterday's 40th anniversary of the major eruption of Mt. St. Helens, a musical work devoted to that very mountain. Alan Hovhaness was an American composer of Armenian descent, and he was very prolific, eventually producing over 500 numbered works in his almost 90 years (and in reality more than that, as when he was a young man he purposely destroyed his entire output to that point in an effort to start again). In 1982 he composed a symphony, his fiftieth, that was inspired by Mt. St. Helens and the 1980 eruption that destroyed its Alpine grandeur and reduced it to a moonscape of rubble. Hovhaness lived in Seattle at the time, so he was about as close to the mountain as I was in Hillsboro (he might have actually been farther away). The piece is in three movements, which Hovhaness described as follows:

When Mount St. Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, the sonic boom struck our south windows. Ashes did not come here at that time but covered land to the east all across the State of Washington into Montana. Ashes continued to travel all around the world, landing lightly on our house a week later, after their journey all around our planet. In my Mount St. Helens Symphony I have tried to suggest a musical tribute to the sublime grandeur and beauty of Mount St. Helens and the surrounding majestic Cascade Mountains.

The first two movements are evocative of the mountain itself and of Spirit Lake, while the third is most clearly a depiction of the violent cacophony of the May 18 eruption. I don't tend to hear specific things in program music when I listen to it, even if supplied with a program by the composer, but it's not hard to pick up on Hovhaness's mysticism and is willingness to depict that mysticism through interesting orchestral effects. I haven't heard a lot of Hovhaness, and in general he's the kind of composer whose music I find more interesting than emotionally affecting, but this piece is certainly interesting and it does musically depict a sort of naturalistic majesty.

Here is the Symphony No. 50, Mt. St. Helens, by Alan Hovhaness.

Monday, May 18, 2020

"Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" Mt. St. Helens, 40 years later

The anniversary is something of a misnomer.

Mt. St. Helens, a mountain in the volcanic Cascade Range in southwestern Washington State, was always thought to be on the verge of significant volcanic activity, and one day when I was in school in March, 1980, my fourth-grade teacher wheeled a teevee cart into the classroom. She plugged it in and started tuning to one of the local stations, which was carrying the event live. An earthquake had jolted Mt. St. Helens, and the mountain was now venting steam from its summit.

If it seems odd that this was on local news, at the time my family and I were living in Hillsboro, OR. We were about sixty miles away from Mt. St. Helens. We had day-tripped there a few times. I don't remember much of those day trips, but I remember the mountain being a lot less of a jagged peak than Mt. Hood, which so famously looms over the Portland skyline. Mt. St. Helens was more graceful, a rounded cone.

I remember watching that exciting footage from the summit of Mt. St. Helens with my classmates, although we were all thinking the same thing, having seen so many movies of volcano eruptions from places like Hawaii: "Where's the lava?" Over the next few weeks we heard about more earthquakes and bulges and things called lava domes. Maybe there'd be lava eventually!

Scientists seemed more and more convinced that a major eruption was likely, and an unlikely local folk hero turned up in the news in the form of an old guy who owned a lodge on the very slopes of the mountain. His name was Harry R. Truman, and he refused to leave his beloved mountain. He was staying right where he was, with his cats. I honestly don't recall if Truman genuinely believed that the mountain wouldn't kill him, or if he couldn't bear leaving it. Given what the mountain looked like for him and what it would look like very soon, I almost can't blame him.

The big blast that everyone was awaiting finally came, forty years ago today, on May 18, 1980. There was no lava, just an enormous earthquake followed by a landslide that took away one entire side of the mountain. And then? Ash and steam and smoke, in a cloud miles high. More than fifty people were killed in that blast, including Harry R. Truman, whose lodge was buried under hundreds of feet of mud and ash and rock and debris.

The scale of destruction is astonishing for me to contemplate to this day. On May 18, the winds were out of the west, so we in the Portland area were spared large amounts of ash-fall. Not so later follow-up eruptions; I remember hosing an inch of ash off our driveway one morning. It was a fine, heavy, gray powder that covered everything. I also remember one day when some friends and I were playing outside and someone's father told us that Mt. St. Helens was erupting again. We rushed to the best vantage point in the housing development, just beyond a stand of trees at the eastern end, and there we saw something that looked very much like this (in fact, it may well have been this):

Although from where we were, we couldn't see the mountain itself. Just this gigantic tower of ash rising into the sky.

Mt. St. Helens continues to be somewhat active to this day, though nothing like what happened in 1980 has happened since.

I remember reading, years later, that as enormous as the devastation was--entire forests leveled, lakes literally sterilized, thousands upon thousands of animals dead--the region came back to life far faster than anyone ever expected. There are fish in Spirit Lake again, and forests are slowly coming back. The evidence of the eruptions still exists, though; Mt. St. Helens will never again be that graceful rounded cone, but a marred shell of a crater, and to this day the waters of Spirit Lake are partially covered by a solid carpet of destroyed trees, blasted from their roots.

Mt. St. Helens and its eruption rank among the most amazing things I've ever lived through (weird phrase, that, since it implies that it was somehow an ordeal in which I took part), and it is thus far the largest natural event I've ever witnessed. It was, quite simply, stunning. I'm glad I got to see it...from a distance. And upwind.

(Images from Wikipedia: here, here, and here. The title of this post quotes the radio transmission sent by geologist David A. Johnston, to his USGS colleagues. Johnston was encamped six miles away from Mt. St. Helens on May 18, and in this transmission he became the first person to report that the eruption was happening. Johnston was swept away and killed by a lateral blast seconds later, and his remains have never been found.)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Something for Thursday

I haven't seen the movie since the year it came out--1998, I believe--but Shakespeare In Love has always boasted one of my favorite filmscores, composed by Stephen Warbeck. Looking over Warbeck's filmography, it turns out that Shakespeare In Love is the only score of his that I've ever heard. He takes an interesting approach to the film, mostly eschewing the kind of "Elizabethan" sound one might have expected. He also keeps the score mostly on the introspective side, but he also depicts in music a rather optimistic London, which may not exactly be accurate. Warbeck's musical focus is on the developing, and forbidden, relationship between Shakespeare and Viola. This short suite captures a bit of the emotional heft of the music, even though the complete score is well worth a listen. (It's actually joined my rotation of filmscores I play while I write Seaflame! Book Two.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

Wow, am I stretching the idea of a tone poem to the breaking point today. This isn't even an entire work, just an excerpt from one...and it's not even a complete excerpt, just a part of the excerpt! Let me sum up:

As the Covid-19 disaster has brought the arts to a standstill just as it has so many other aspects of our lives, people who work in those fields have looked for alternate ways to keep making meaningful art. One thing that's become popular is "socially isolated" musical performances, where individual musicians record their own part, and then the entire thing is stitched together into a larger performance. I've seen a bunch of these over the last few weeks, ranging from performances of the Neil Diamond song "Sweet Caroline" to Ravel's Bolero to...this.

Mahler's Symphony No. 2, subtitled "The Resurrection," is a gigantic work. It's scored for a huge orchestra, full chorus, a soprano and an alto soloist. It takes around an hour and a half to perform, and it runs an astonishing emotional gamut, from stormy and angst-filled passages to meditations on mortality to mysterious passages of solemn power, until it all ends in mystical vastness that is nearly impossible to describe.

About an hour into the symphony, the entire brass section plays a chorale that marks the beginning of the symphony's third act. The strings aren't silenced, but this section belongs to the brass, and I can only imagine what this symphony must sound like in a concert hall with good acoustics. So here we have the brass players of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (plus a snare drummer and a contrabassoonist) playing the chorale theme from the last movement. It's a fascinating listen, even if it is incomplete.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

From the books: THE HIGH KING

Today, a passage from one of many books that my mother required me to read in moments when my behavior wasn't the best. Actually, though--this isn't from one of those books, but a book downstream in the series that she made me start with Book One. Funny how often those books she made me read were Book's like she knew what she was doing.

This is the closing two paragraphs from Lloyd Alexander's The High King, itself the final volume in Alexander's series The Prydain Chronicles, which was my gateway into epic fantasy and adventure stories. I suppose there are spoilers here, but these books have been around forever, so I make no apologies.

This ending is one of the most perfect endings I know. I hope I can end at least one story half so well as Alexander ended this one.

In the waiting throng beyond the cottage, Taran glimsed Hevydd, Llassar, the folk of the Commots, Gast and Goryon side by side near the farmer Aeddan, King Smoit towering above them, his beard bright as flame. But many were the well-loved faces he saw clearly only with his heart. A sudden burst of cheering voices greeted him as he took Eilonwy's hand tightly in his own and stepped through the door.

And so they lived many happy years, and the promised tasks were accomplished. Yet long afterward, when all had passed away into distant memory, there were many who wondered whether King Taran, Queen Eilonwy, and their companions had indeed walked the earth, or whether they had been no more than dreams in a tale set down to beguile children. And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it.


Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

Film music fans often notice how frequently their favorite composers are tasked with writing wonderful music for movies that really aren't very good. Jerry Goldsmith in particular seems to have made a career of suffering this fate; the poor guy wrote a lot of amazing music for movies that were outright bad.

The phenomenon goes back a lot farther than that, however! Many operas are now rarely heard in full because the librettos aren't very good or the stories have fallen out of favor, but the music lives on, at least in excerpt form or in the overtures. There was also another outlet for dramatic music in the ages before film: incidental music to plays. The famous march that we often hear at the end of weddings? That's by Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote that as part of a suite of incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Of course, the Shakespeare play has not vanished into obscurity. But virtually gone is a play called Rosamunde, which would be completely and utterly forgotten today if not for incidental music written for it by the great Franz Schubert.

Schubert is, depending on how you think about his music, either the last of the Classical composers or one of the earliest Romantics. Schubert did not live long, but in his short life music poured out of the man, including this suite of incidental music for Rosamunde, a play by Helmina von Ch├ęzy. The play, by all accounts, was not terribly successful, and in fact the original text is now lost. The story apparently involved (according to this old New York Times article): "a cursed princess, who had been brought up by sailors, a pursuer, who travels around with poisoned letters - whoever reads them, dies - and a prince, who has to live among shepherds; there is a mysterious shipwreck and, further, ghosts, hunters, and shepherds." Frankly, all that sounds kind of fun to me, so for the play to have failed miserably must be indicative of some terrible writing.

But Schubert did able work in writing the incidental music! The overture is best known, being a suitably thrilling piece that almost evokes Rossini, but the entire suite from the play is something of a delight. Hearing this music, written by one of the greatest composers of all time, we might be tempted to think that the play must have been good, if it inspired music that good. Take the lesson we learn from Jerry Goldsmith's career, though, to heart: This is not so.

Here's the overture and incidental music from Rosamunde, by Franz Schubert.

Monday, May 04, 2020

May the Fourth, and so on and so on....

It's May 4, otherwise known as Star Wars Day! Because "May the Fourth be with you!"

I don't have any major new thoughts to offer today, but here's a bit of music.

The Slow Awakening

I say it every year, and every year I'm given more evidence to back up my hypothesis: Buffalo Niagara's winters wouldn't be nearly so hated by people living here if our springs weren't so godawful each and every year. The three months of winter aren't that hard to negotiate; it's that they are always followed by two more months of cold, muddy, grayness that makes the winters feel less like a season and more like a slog that consumes nearly half the year.

Anyway, it's May now, and only now are the trees starting to show signs of awakening, and only now am I able to see wisps of green around the peripheries of the forests.

The giants are awakening! #KnoxFarm #eastaurora #wny #spring #nature #hiking #trees

Green is starting to show, around the edges.... #KnoxFarm #eastaurora #wny #spring #nature #hiking #trees

"You can't take the sky from me!" #KnoxFarm #eastaurora #wny #spring #nature #hiking #trees #Firefly

I think of this tree as Yggdrasil, writ small. #KnoxFarm #eastaurora #wny #spring #nature #hiking #trees

Of course, it's still Buffalo Niagara. Today it was in the mid-60s, and it's supposed to get colder through the week until the high temperatures next weekend are back in the 40s.