As I'm sure most people did, we enjoyed a quiet and socially-distanced Thanksgiving this year. But since Thanksgiving is always quiet and socially-distanced for us, it really wasn't a big deal. Thanksgiving is always a small event for us, in terms of numbers of people; it sure isn't small in terms of food!
Anyway, even though I had no intention of attempting any shopping, I also took Black Friday off as I always do these days; Thanksgiving Weekend has become over the years one of my favorite weekends of the year. It was pretty nice actually this year as well, even with COVID trying to ruin everything.
Here's some photographic evidence of what transpired this weekend:
Fifteen years seems like a lot, and sometimes it feels like a lot.
Other times it feels like yesterday.
We miss you, Quinn, and we wonder what kind of life you might be living now. How much fighting would you have done? Where would you be? You should be sixteen, not forever frozen in my heart and mind at fifteen months and two days.
According to somebody, November 27 is "National Pie in the Face Day". The last few days I've been posting some of my favorite photos of myself in a pied-face state, with nifty quotes attached, to social media because let's face it, if ever we lived in a time where humor of any kind was desperately needed, even if it's an old staple like the pie in the face, it's now. So here are a few selections!
Hey, folks! I'm doing this on Twitter and Instagram, and since this blog is the granddaddy of all my "social media" ventures, I should do it here, too. I am in the cover-design phase of The Savior Worlds, Book Four of The Song of Forgotten Stars, which means it's time to update the author photo on the back cover! I've pre-selected these four images, and if a consensus forms around which one is best, I'll go with it. (If it roughly breaks even then I will pick.) What should be my author photo? Let me know!
This has been a truly ghastly year, and even the weather today as I write this is metaphorically on point: it's drizzly and rainy and the screen on my library window is filled with raindrops so I can't really even see outside very well.
I won't write my usual long list of things I'm thankful for, but suffice it to say that even in a year like this, it's still quite a long list, when I really put some thought into it.
Stay safe, folks. Please don't take unnecessary trips and please oh please oh please, keep your masks on. It looks like we might very well get through this all right, but if this pandemic is a baseball game, we're only in the bottom of the fifth. Let's play the whole nine innings, folks.
If you're wondering what I've been up to in terms of writing of late, here's what! I'm doing some revision work on Stardancer, The Wisdomfold Path, and Amongst the Stars as part of a relaunch effort, at the same time that I'm getting The Savior Worlds ready for release. Yay! New stuff!
What's new in the first three books? I'm adding a "Dramatis Personae" to each book, and each volume after Stardancer will have a brief "Our Story Thus Far" summation of the story to that point. I'm also redoing the interiors with some new fonts, and I'm redoing the covers. Watch this space (or the Official Site) for more info as it comes along!
First off, I think it's high time I admitted that this series has morphed away from an exclusive focus on tone poems toward a general focus on whatever piece of classical music I'm grooving on at any point in time, so that's what it's going to be, even if I continue to call it "Tone Poem Tuesday" for reasons of alliterative nature (and the fact that I don't really feel like launching a new posting series with new title). OK? OK!
So, naturally, let's turn our attention to a piano concerto.
Florence Price, a Black composer who lived from 1887 to 1953, has appeared a number of times in this space over the last several months, and when 2020 is over, I wonder if her music might not be the finest musical discovery I make this year. Every work of hers I hear is vibrant and full of drama and color, and this concerto is no exception. It is lush and romantic in its orchestration, but distinctly Black in its musical language and its thematic material.
The work is in a single movement that nevertheless has three distinct sections within: the big first "movement", the slow second movement, and a spritely third. We open with a solo trumpet sounding the first notes of what will be the first section's main theme, a tune that is redolent of a spiritual, and that theme does in fact dominate a movement that is as big and bold in its statements as any great Romantic concerto. Then, in the slow movement, there is another gorgeous melody with a strong folk-like character (its pentatonic nature makes it even sound less moored in a specific time and place), before the final dance-like allegretto begins. It sounds like ragtime to me, but on reading a bit, apparently the finale is based on the juba, a specific dance from the plantations that predated ragtime.
Price's concerto is one of the most delightful things I've heard all year, and I've heard a lot of delightful music this year. There is sweep and energy and emotion and lyricism and, in the end, a compellingly rhythmic dance that leaves the toe tapping, if I may invoke a rather tired cliche.
And it does all this in roughly eighteen minutes. Florence Price does something wonderfully economical here.
The work was performed in the early 1930s, with Price herself as the soloist, but unfortunately it appears to have utterly disappeared since then, until apparently in 2012 a composer named Trevor Weston was commissioned to recreate the work based on orchestral parts. Price's own autograph score is long lost. Once again I am struck by how tenuous our grip truly is on the artistic work of our forebears.
Here is the Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price. Please give it a listen! And really, give it at least two. It deserves it.
A quite lovely article appears in The Buffalo News by Jeff Miers, describing his struggle with the degree to which the COVID pandemic has disrupted his lifestyle. It's not just his leisure that's affected; it is literally his entire life. Miers writes about music and the arts for the News, and with a beat like that, he's required to be out in the city almost all the time, interacting with music and art and musicians and artists. This has been his life for decades, and now, all of a sudden, he's been forced to...stay at home.
The Wife and I often comment that it's strange how this particular pandemic has basically forced so many other people into our lifestyles: we don't go out a lot at all, and when we do it's mainly to eat someplace, so getting takeout is just fine with us. My trips out by myself tend to be solo trips to the library, or jaunts to a local park to walk The Dee-oh-gee in solitude. We simply don't find ourselves often in situations that involve lots of people are in social situations. But our lifestyle isn't the only lifestyle, and Mr. Miers (who is, by the way, quite a fine writer whose work I usually enjoy) had felt the pinch very keenly:
After months of telling myself that I was far too fortunate to demand such a luxury, I finally admitted that I needed some help, that the ways in which I warded off depression and anxiety in the past – all of them involving music – were no longer enough. I began seeing a mental health therapist, virtually. She immediately pointed out that, in addition to the difficult situation with my parents, I was also quite likely in a state of shock resulting from a core feature of my existence – the live music experience, which has occupied my time an average of five nights a week for 30 years – being ripped away. Allowing myself to admit this, and to mourn it, in a sense, has helped me greatly.
In the course of his article he notes how he discovered that his son's girlfriend is actually the granddaughter of a noted jazz musician named Roosevelt Wardell. I found an album of Wardell's on YouTube, and though I am no expert on jazz by any means, I greatly enjoyed it! This record is quite a compelling listen. You never know which direction art will take in reaching us. Some guy asks a girl out, introduces her to his parents; Dad turns out to be a local writer who mentions her grandfather in a newspaper article, and now I'm listening to a jazz record.
Fifty-seven years since President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I'm surprised to note that I've never written a long piece about Oliver Stone's film JFK, and it's been so long since I last saw it that I don't want to try to write one now; maybe next year, after a rewatch. For now, here's my review of Stephen King's amazing novel 11/22/63, and here is John Williams conducting a suite of his music for Stone's film.
I wonder what kind of America would have emerged from the 1960s had Kennedy not been murdered.
The Moon put on a show at the very end of last month. Here's a bit of how it looked from my backyard.
That last is of the Moon and Mars, visible as the bright light off to the right. (The green is just a photographic accident...or maybe the mythical "Green Flash", meaning that some sailor has returned from Davy Jones's Locker to the world of the living...but more likely the first thing.)
I've been listening to Beethoven's Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra a lot over the last few months, and I've been struggling to frame how I want to write about it. It's such a scintillating work, full of wit and sparkle--qualities one doesn't always associate with a composer who, while on his deathbed shook his own fist at the thunderstorm raging outside--that stands out all the more when one considers that the Concerto was a failure in Beethoven's lifetime and did not take its rightful place in the repertoire until several decades after his death.
But last month, Edward Van Halen died, and that gave me a new way to think about this piece. Bear with me!
Mr. Van Halen was a self-taught musician, but he was also a curious one who had a strong love of classical music. He would even sprinkle quotes from favorite classical works into his solos on occasion. While his father, a musician himself, encouraged Eddie (and brother Alex) to learn music, Eddie never learned formally; he never learned to read music from the page. Everything for him was done by ear, and he had the kind of ear that only the very greatest of music virtuosi can boast.
Not unlike the inner ear of Ludwig van Beethoven, who would continue composing his greatest works even after his own physical ears had stopped working entirely.
My main thought in drawing Eddie Van Halen into a discussion of Beethoven's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra isn't just that both men had amazing ears, though. A concerto is as much a work designed to put a performer's virtuosity on display as it is a musical work with specific architecture. What makes the concerto such a compositional challenge is that the composer must balance the virtuoso's need to display their skill with the task of crafting a work that is satisfying musically. Plenty of less successful concertos exist that allow for all manner of virtuosic pyrotechnics, either from the piano or the violin or some other solo instrument, while failing to incorporate the soloist into the musical aspects of the work.
(Then there are works that go the other way: Hector Berlioz's second symphony, Harold In Italy, had been specifically commissioned by Nicolo Paganini, who wanted to show off his skill on a new viola he'd acquired, but Berlioz turned in a symphony with little to offer by way of virtuosic display opportunities. Paganini never performed the work.)
Beethoven's Violin Concerto does for the violin what Eddie Van Halen would do with all of his blazing guitar solos. Even when Eddie was "shredding" as hard as he could, there was always melody in his playing. You can always pick out the tune in an Eddie Van Halen solo, and sometimes a Van Halen song will feature a second solo, shorter this time, that is nothing but pure melody ("Dreams", which might well be my favorite Van Halen song, does this to wonderful effect).
Beethoven does the same thing in his Violin Concerto. Whenever the violinist plays, even during the cadenzas, you never get the sense that they are simply showing off. Every note that Beethoven writes contributes to the whole, for one of the most complete concertos I know. The concerto begins surprisingly, with five soft taps of the timpani before the woodwinds give us our first hint of melody. Beethoven's symphonic hand is firmly guiding us, to the point that when the soloist finally enters, it's almost surprising as we remember that we are actually hearing a concerto and not a symphony.
The first movement, comprising more than half the entire concerto's total time, is an epic movement in itself, and yet it teems with the kind of optimism that we don't always associate with Beethoven. This is assuredly the same composer who wrote the Seventh Symphony, and if the inner movement isn't as meditative as that great symphony's amazing second movement, it is still a lovely movement of introspective beauty before it closes not with a resolution but with an unresolved minor chord that leads to a short cadenza that is likewise unresolved--until the soloist brings us into the rondo of the last movement. And that last movement is full of Beethoven's humor. Again, a facet of Beethoven's that is often overlooked--but listen to how that rondo theme seems somehow to put the beats in the wrong place (until you hum it and realize that it's quite correct). Hear the way the soloist must make very wide leaps in the violin's register, and one musical joke where the soloist has to pluck two notes, pizzaicato, before bowing the next immediately.
Near the end of the work, when Beethoven almost gives the soloist free rein, there is a remarkable sequence of passages in which the soloist plays three brief flashy runs that soar into the upper register, alternating with brief orchestral passages. Even there you can hear melody, as those soaring runs are a part of the work's musical fabric and are clearly not just there for a violin virtuoso to enjoy. Even the concerto's very last bars contain good humor, as the soloist leads the orchestra to its final chords.
This approach to writing for a soloist in a concerted work, in which the soloist is musical partner first and virtuoso second, really does put me in mind of Eddie Van Halen's best work as a rock guitarist. There really is a line that connects the two. So it seems to me, anyway.
Here is violinist Hilary Hahn, performing Beethoven's Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
So, about that lack of updates in this space for something like nine days...this month has been rough, folks.
First, there was the final run-up to the election, which was nerve-wracking in itself. Then Election Night was its own category of annoying, as a hoped-for Democratic landslide resulting in the defeat of some of the more odious Republican voices in Congress failed to materialize. And then the results of the Presidential race just dragged on and on and on. Granted, we all knew that was going to be the case, given the giant emphasis on mailed-in ballots, but it would have been a lot less of a nailbiter if I wasn't also disgusted that the likes of Lindsay Graham, Joni Ernst, and Susan Collins weren't all going back for another six years of being singularly terrible people in the Senate.
Of course, the Presidential result looked more and more favorable as the week went on until finally all the news organizations concluded that yes, Joe Biden had won, and that yes, America had rejected another four years of Donald Trump. Good news, absolutely! That Trump won't be the one setting the nation's agenda is an unabashed good thing. But it definitely gives me pause to note that America seems to have said with this election not "We're rejecting that guy and his agenda," but rather "OK, we don't like this guy, but we do like a lot of what he stands for." Disappointing.
Through all this, The Wife had been suffering some increasingly obnoxious health issues, which finally led to her hospitalization this past Monday when her vitals got seriously out-of-whack. She's home now, having only stayed two days, and doctors are homing in on treatment options moving forward, and none of it is life-threatening...but still, that was very difficult. And now, as I write this, COVID numbers are relentlessly climbing as millions of my fellow citizens seem to have basically thrown in the towel and embraced life whether they get sick or not, and my government has likewise thrown in the towel in favor of election-related court cases that are not likely to do anything other than get tossed out.
I'm ready for 2020 to be over, folks. This entire year has been ghastly, even as the current crisis seems tailor-made to someone with my particular lifestyle: we're not particularly outgoing, and when we do go someplace it's always by ourselves. But still, this level of world-induced anxiety is not something I'm remotely used to. I was reminded just the other day, on the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, that the final transmission from the doomed ship was the Captain saying, "We're holding our own."
So, on Monday I made a post here, invoking the Les Miserables song "One Day More", as did many of my left-leaning friends on the Internet. And why not! It's a song that so ably lends itself to a Monday before a major election. In the show, all of Act One is building and building and building to a group of events, and then Act One concludes as the entire company gears up for the big day to come:
Tomorrow we'll be far away, Tomorrow is the judgement day;
Tomorrow we'll discover What our God in Heaven has in store, One more dawn, One more day, One day more!
Of course, it wasn't just "one day more", was it? As I write this it's looking promising, though everyone on my side of the fence was hoping for more out of this election. There will be time enough to figure out the way forward, but there's a reason that the first rule of treating injury is "stop the bleeding". We've probably done that. I hope.
What I can say definitively, right now, is that "Three days more!" wasn't nearly as catchy.
This is the photo I took on the morning of Election Day, 2016. It seemed like a bright and optimistic day. I captioned it on Instagram: "Looks like a nice morning to make some history happen!"
The next morning, in the midst of reeling with the eventual result of that election, the hulking husk of Bethlehem Steel, the old steel plant on the shore of Lake Erie south of Buffalo, caught fire. The blaze was enormous, and I was able to take this photo of the smoke cloud from the roof of The Store.
It was hard even then to not see these two photos, twenty-four hours and some change apart, as some kind of metaphor for what my country had just done...or, maybe if I'm feeling charitable, what my country had allowed to happen through various questionable voting decisions by her citizens and the fact of her simply nonsensical approach to the matter of electing presidents.
I've had various essay-ish thoughts in my mind about the nature of the 2020 election, but obviously I haven't written any of them. Every time I've sat down to do so, I've checked out. While I don't feel a great sense of impending doom just now, I know what America is capable of doing and I know that we still have a chance to snatch epochal defeat from the jaws of hopeful victory.
Suffice it to say that I hope every American who can will vote, and that I hope that when the dust settles, not only has America decided to scuttle the ongoing disaster that is the Donald Trump administration, but that it has also decided to harshly rebuke the party that gave him to us, the party that has been stampeding in this authoritarian and irrational direction for more than fifty years. I know that American voters love to balance things out: "I voted for a Democrat for President, so I'll vote for a Republican for Senate," for example. This is not the time for that. The Republican Party needs to be ruthlessly quashed at every single level for which it can run for things. Every ounce of what is wrong with America can be traced back to either their ill-advised action or their apathetic inaction, and as a party American conservatism needs to be banished to the wilds for years.
I hope that when the dust is settling, America can start to do things like address climate change, the horrible inequities in our economy, the pandemic that holds our country in its tightening grip, our centuries-long struggle with racial hatreds, and more. I hope that the 2016 election will eventually prove to have been a very strange historical accident, not truly indicative of anything other than the last gasp of a political paradigm that has been far too long in passing.