Situational: music-arranging and letter-writing

In my experience, ensembles have rarely if ever been perfectly chosen and thoroughly balanced, so musical arrangements for those ensembles must take into account the needs of the situation.

In Paul’s and John’s and James’s experience, churches were rarely if ever perfectly taught and “thoroughly furnished unto every good work,” so letters and epistles addressed to them took into account what the recipients needed in their situations.

To illustrate further:  During June and July I took the opportunity to adapt and arrange a previously transcribed orchestral piece—Fromental Halévy’s March Funebrè (1835).  Alterations from the first phase (ten years ago) moved from D trumpet to today’s normative trumpets in C and Bb, from horn in D and and piston horn in A to horns in F, and from ophicleide to tuba.  In some cases, the modern equivalents can project and resonate more than the 1835 instruments, and in other cases, the old instruments don’t exist anymore.  My earlier transcription, then, was situational in that it was, loosely speaking, for the “situation”¹ of the modern orchestra, as opposed to the orchestra and instruments that had existed two centuries prior.

The present (2017) adaptation was for a special, one-occasion summer orchestra—actually more like an oddly constituted pit orchestra band with a pipe organ than an orchestra per se, and this reality led to numerous changes in my score.  The situation called for it.  There were to be four trumpets (five appeared on the night of the first rehearsal) but no bassoon at all.  There were five violins total instead of the 12-16 I’d hoped for.  There was no viola; there were 0-2 cellos, depending on the night; and there was no double bass at all.  The original score called for two clarinets in A, but the sole Bb clarinetist couldn’t make the rehearsal.  There was one flute at the rehearsal, then another for the first performance, and a third appeared for the final performance.  And (gasp) a saxophone was present each time.  Fortunately, she was classically trained and sensitive and did a nice job blending with other woodwinds on a part originally intended for bassoon.  As arranger/adapter-for-situation, I considered the characteristics of the saxophone in its low range and wrote the part up an octave in spots.

I had about 35 minutes total to rehearse (20 at the rehearsal proper, plus 7 and 8, respectively, during “spot checks” prior to each performance).  Fortunately, the players were all capable, and most were at least moderately artistic, so they were responsive.  But the performing space is exceptionally live², and there was that (double gasp) organ, so I had to adjust some dynamics and even re-choose instrumentation on the fly.  These decisions are part of my training, and experience, so it’s no problem, but it does require awareness of the situation.  Remember, the original composition had already been transcribed for a somewhat updated orchestral medium, and then it was further adapted for about one-fifth of the original complement of strings; too few woodwinds, and too many brass to balance the strings and woodwinds; synthesized drum, cymbal, and timpani; and (ahem) organ.  Here are the opening measures:

Arranging, much more than transcribing, takes the situation into consideration.  Here’s a summary of the arranging proposition, speaking in general terms:

Musical arrangements should take into account all aspects of the setting, including personnel and their abilities, instrument sonority and quality, balance, acoustics, and rehearsal time available.

First-century letters and epistles also naturally considered aspects of the setting, including culture, recent events, relationship and interpersonal dynamics, prior teaching, and recent/current events in the locale.³  Take for instance the churches at Philadelphia and Philippi:  they seem to have been in good health, relatively speaking, but they still needed some communication directed to them specifically.  On the other hand, the churches at Korinth4 and Kolosse4 and in the Galatian region stood in sore need of teaching and directive, so Paul taught them according to their situations.5   The written correspondence was occasional . . . situational . . . written for, or into, specific occasions/situations.


¹ More specifically, the original transcription was also for the occasion of my doctoral dissertation.

² When reading “exceptionally live,” one might legitimately translate, “objectionably, ear-splittingly resonant to the point that most spoken words, many musical tones, and a few pitch centers were lost in garbled oblivion.”  The sounds rang so much and so long that the Doppler effect was noted.

³ We might refer here to the presence of inspiration.  In the case of music, some works might be thought of as more “inspired” than others.  In the case of scripture, it’s a more thorny proposition, yet highly consequential.  I’d suggest that the involvement of God’s Spirit in the process of, say, Paul’s letter to the Galatians means, among other things, that that letter was exceptionally well targeted:  it was written for a specific situation, a defined setting.  In other words, , if a document is situational, God can in the writing just as much, if not more.

The original has the Greek letter kappa, which equates to the English K.  I believe it’s because of the later Latin influence that we have Cs in our English Bibles for the initial consonants of these and other K-words.

5 Romans and perhaps Ephesians might be thought of as somewhat general and less specifically, situationally targeted.

Historical insights, “position players,” and “Judaism”

I can attribute my relatively newfound affinity for history to three sets of people/experiences:

Two musicology professors second to none:  Jonathan Bellman and Deborah Kauffman of the University of Northern Colorado

As an undergraduate, I had no appreciation for music history at all, and one of my two music Publication Coverhistory courses was the only music class for which I ever earned a B.  On the master’s level, I wasn’t taught much in this area.  At UNC, though, during my doctoral studies, Bellman and Kauffman led me down paths of historical connection and insight, bringing alive for me so much more than the progression from one “style period” to another.  Presently, Kauffman is Editor-in-Chief of the journal shown here, and Bellman is on its editorial board as well.  Both of them honed my writing skills.  I seized on several opportunities in their content areas, going beyond my curricular requirements and almost earning enough credits for a minor in music history.

Historical fiction

The Blue Orchard: A NovelHistorical fiction is about the only kind of fiction to which I gravitate.  Even in my video entertainment choices, I like things that are, or at least could be, real.  In recent months I’ve read Blue Star and The Blue Orchard.  In case you wondered, neither has anything to do with the color blue (or much to do with stars or orchards, either).  These books were engaging and instructive—the former, about persons in an Appalachian town during the build-up to WWII; the latter, about an abortion doctor and his nurse in Central Pennsylvania during the same time period (expanded a bit).  Both were authored by individuals with academic credentials, and their abilities with language and with storytelling kept me reading.  Read my brief reviews of these books here.  I think my wife started me down this path; we enjoy certain historical documentaries together, and she reads historical fiction, too.

The pursuit of early Christianity’s history

Although I’d say I’ve always been interested in first-century Christianity, I began to pursue it with more energy after reading Paul R. Barnett’s The Birth of Christianity:  The First Twenty Years.  The two decades that began in approximately 33 CE constitute a period exceedingly worthy of our reach to comprehend—from both intellectual and pragmatic standpoints.  Barnett’s book laid groundwork for me in clearly presenting, e.g., these facts:  (1) Saul was blinded and converted on the Damascus Road within months of Jesus’ crucifixion, and (2) not more than two decades transpired between those events and when the first extant Christian writings were penned.

It must not go without mention that engagement with the years leading up to the time of Jesus and the apostles is also important.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the Davidic and later-divided kingdoms, and the impact on the “culture” of the people of God that resulted from the captivities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Neither may the influence of Greek culture or the Roman Empire be rightly discounted when seeking to understand Jesus’ message, the early disciples, and the teachings of Matthew, Paul, and other other writers.

Some feel that their denominations’ takes on things are as important as what happened at the beginning.  The logic tends to go something like this:  God and truth are pursued within the faith-community, so ecclesiological structures such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod, or the Vatican are repositories of authoritative truth today.  I demur.  Although I support the notion of “faith community,” in the later years far removed from the first century, I find more reason for scrutiny, suspicion, and distance than for support of church conclusions and directions.  If we understood the cultural-historical setting at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, we would understand and apply the period texts better in our faith communities and personal lives.

The backdrop unfurled above quickly became too lengthy.  Rather than making this a serial blogposting, I think I will just make a couple of relatively brief observations with historical implications and then invite comments.

Observation #1:  the term “position player”

Baseball commentators these days are fond of delineating between pitchers and “position players.”  Maybe I only paid selective attention to news media and commentators in my youth, but I don’t remember ever hearing the term “position player” back then.  (For the uninitiated, “position player” refers categorically to a group of field positions including shortstop, center field, and every position other than pitcher [which is also a position, I would point out].)  The professional game of baseball is these days much more focused on pitchers:  witness all the talk about pitch count and the speeds of their fastballs.  My historical hunch is that the category “position player” has developed along with the professional game of baseball.

Whether or not I missed the sporadic use of this term in my early years, I would probably stake my (lack of!) historian’s reputation on the assertion that the usage of the term has increased exponentially since the 1990s.

Observation #2:  the term “Judaism”

Notably, Paul used the term “Judaism” twice in the first chapter of Galatians.¹  These days, depending on who is using the word, and in what setting, “Judaism” might have multiple referents.  I pick up that scholars primarily use the word to refer to the faith-system of the people of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as it developed from the 2nd-Temple Period onward, i.e., after the return from Babylon.²  “Judaism” might be further delineated with respect to the downfall of Jerusalem in 66-74 CE, and/or the rabbinic period which saw the rise of the Talmud, or other developments.  My historical hunch is that “Judaism,” as the term is used by Paul, has more to do with the faith-system and rituals of the 2nd Temple period than with faith in the God of (all) the scriptures.  I find that the term “Judaism” is best thought of as referring to the Hebrew/Jewish faith-system that (has) existed during one or more time periods after 586 BCE.

It seems to me that the usage patterns of the terms “position player” and “Judaism” may be seen as historically based signs of the times.  These terms are aptly seen as speaking within, or to, historical periods.  Specifically in Galatians, Paul appears to call attention to the system of Judaism in which he had been “advancing . . . beyond many of [his] contemporaries” (NET Bible).  With a developing (but not by any means well defined) sense of the first century, I would suggest two things about Paul as revealed in this text.  In writing to the Galatians,

  1. Paul did not denigrate genuine faith in the God of the Old Testament.
  2. Paul employed a unique or at least patently uncommon noun:  Judaism.  He appears to refer, at best neutrally, to a system of faith-related rituals and practices; in doing so, he distinguishes 2nd-Temple Judaistic practice from genuine, post-resurrection faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

The specification of positions on the baseball diamond is obviously not a big deal, but in the case of “Judaism,” it well serves serious students of Christianity to think about historical development and the implications of Paul’s term Ἰουδαϊσμῷ | ioudaismo, opposite how the term “Judaism” is used today.

Please share comments, questions, and observations.


¹ There are no other instances of this exact word in all the NT (or the Greek OT, for that matter).

² There are ethnic and political implications of such terms as “Judaism,” and “Jewish,” but I’m intentionally confining my observation here.

Early summer potpourri

Summer Camps
For two extended periods in my personal history, Christian camping played a very important role in my spiritual and social life.  I began my summer Christian camp experience as an eight-year-old at Camp Hunt, a fairly small camp in upstate New York.  I was stomach-sick that week and had a bad time, transferring the next summer to a much closer camp with burgeoning loyalty.

Camp Manatawny in Southeast PA always offered something to look forward to.  From age 9 through 17, I annually spent a week there as a camper, and I also served a few weeks of my later years as a staff member (dish washer and counselor).  In 1998-2001, I returned as an adult and counseled and led hymn sings and devotionals, forming some lasting relationships.  My memories include cabin devotionals, hymn sings, campfires with equally rich silly and spiritual sides, and girlfriends.  It was an athletic experience, too, actually:  I have a few athletic awards to my credit, notably including placing in the softball accuracy throw and winning the push-ups event at least one year.  I don’t think I ever placed higher than 4th in a track event.  Manatawny and I parted ways (arguably its choice, not mine), but I still have many fond memories.

I was pleased last year to learn a little of my nieces’ Christian camp experiences.  They are growing similarly at other camps.  Last year, my son Jedd went to a day camp at Camp Wyldewood and enjoyed himself.  This year, baseball and a theater camp are filling the first half of the summer for him.  At some point within the next year or two, I want to find a good camp at which he can grow relationally with God and with others.  I want to start him fairly early, not waiting until the pre-teen or teen years for this important part of summer.

Naming Rights
Academic buildings, dorms, and fields, etc., are often named with the largest donor’s name.  This practice has always bothered me a bit, feeling that the “money talks” principle could end up compromising academics.  The problem becomes more acute when it’s a church room or building that’s named for an individual.  I’m such a purist about this that I don’t even think church facilities should be named for one of the twelve apostles.  Of course, this problem doesn’t occur when a Christian group owns no real estate.  Keeping it simple is better.  And living rooms are more homey and comfortable, too.

Time was when more pro baseball stadiums were named for their teams (Dodger Stadium, Astrodome, Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium).  A couple 1970s-built parks were named for their settings near rivers.  These days (see complete list here), only three stadiums use their teams’ names, and the rest appear to have large corporate sponsors that presumably paid for naming rights.  The ballparks now sport such names as Comerica, Miller, Citizens Bank, Minutemaid, and Target.  Having some knowledge of the Kauffman Foundation’s work in the Kansas City area, I don’t mind that the Royals stadium is named Kauffman, but I end up doubting the philanthropy of major insurance companies and banking conglomerates.  Incidentally, we’ve enjoyed one Royals game already and look forward to another.  Kauffman is my second favorite stadium experience, just behind Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, but Kauffman is easier to get to.

Kids’ baseball teams also have sponsors, and this scene is good for the community and for the kids.  Personally, I’m glad that my son Jedd’s team is sponsored by the River Cities Credit Union and not by a denomination or para-church organization like one of the other teams is.  I wouldn’t prefer to play a role in advertising for churchy business concerns.

Mulberries Revisited
The mulberries have just about stopped attracting the birds, which probably spend half their time now nesting in diabetic comas.  It is almost safe to park our cars in the driveway again.  See Mrs. Shuck and the mulberry tree for the backstory.  I’ve since learned that Mrs. Shuck did indeed have quite a Christian legacy, and that she passed from this life a year or two ago.

Summer Sounds
Time was when a friend and I attended a few Philly Orchestra concerts at the Mann Music Center.  One could often get cheap or free tickets to sit on the lawn.  Good times.

This year, I’ll again be missing the summer Concerts Under the Stars at the Garden Theater at UNC.   There is really only one UNC, by the way, and it’s in Greeley, Colorado, not in North Carolina.  Since I was a UNC grad student and was able to participate in one or two of said outdoor concerts, I’ve only been able to attend one or two other concerts there.  It’s always a nice time.  For some reason, I feel more loyalty to UNC than I ever did to my high school or to two other universities I had attended prior to my last degree.  I’ve never been a rah-rah type, but hey, “Once a Bear, always a Bear.”

Summer sounds in eastern Kansas have so far involved raucous, sporadically nocturnal neighbors who don’t handle the clock or their booze very well.  On the plus side, Jedd and I heard the Kansas City Symphony a few weeks ago, and I look forward to hearing a local jazz group and a children’s folk singer in July.

Bonus:  the Android “Gumdrop” ringtone sound
And now for a cool sound that has nothing to do with hot summer.  At some point while listening to this “Gumdrop” ringtone on my phone, I realized it included asymmetric meter.¹  I couldn’t resist writing it out.  For us rhythm geeks, the fun is built into the 7/8 bar, which makes it seem like the repeat comes an eighth-note too early.

Here is a recording, too.


¹ Since none of the first six WWW sources I found had a very good definition of “asymmetric meter,” here is my simple one:  a unit or measure of music in which not all pulses (beats) have the same duration.  

In the above case, the 7/8 bar

  1. contains one eighth note less than the 4/4 bars
  2. theoretically has a final, or fourth, pulse that’s only half the length of the others (one eighth vs. one quarter . . . or one quaver vs. one crochet, for the two Brits or British-trained musicians who might be reading this), but it
  3. would be conducted with three pulses—beats one and two are “simple,” containing an evenly spaced two eighth notes each; whereas the final pulse is “compound,” comprising three eighth notes, and requiring 50% more time than each of the first two pulses

Conductors: my most admired two

This post is a continuing tribute to influential conductors in my curriculum vitae—literally, my “life’s course.”  The first post is here, spotlighting several conductors who influenced me to one degree or another.  In concluding that essay two months ago, I purposed to offer some more detailed praise of my two most admired conductors.  By way of commentating on the one I know less about, I’ll comment on her impressive concert offered at the recent CBDNA conference.  That concert was a shining example of gesture (among other attributes) that is at once beautiful and distinctly connected with sound.  First, some important background.

Most of the non-art-music world comes to have a shallow view of the conductor as a musician.  TV and movies that depict conductors almost invariably use actors who may have little sense of what a conductor does (and the producers seem never to bother to call in experts to help).  Some even appear in caricature.  Other professions or cultural subgroups may receive more negative treatment, but that is beside the point.  The point is that few people whose worlds do not include ensemble music appear to have much idea of a conductor’s training, abilities, or activities.  The sometimes-arrhythmic waving of arms in nonstandard patterns in the movies needs a corrective, so I’ll offer one in two sentences:

A good conductor’s gestures (and other nonverbal signals) are not only in time and in style, using conventional patterns and cues.  Beyond those attributes, what a conductor does should also be in the music to such a degree that the nonverbals play a major role in evoking group sound—sound that turns out to be connected directly to the composer’s musical creation.

“In time,” of course, denotes solid rhythmic connection.  Most Western large ensemble music needs a conductor to help keep players together, and this factor demands the use of standard gestural “beat patterns” and other conventions that are executed at specific points in time.  Beyond tempo and patterns, and surpassing the other qualifier I used above (“in style”), “in the music” is all-encompassing.  To be “in the music” is to comprehend—and then authentically to elicit—the musical content of a given musical work.  A conductor “in the music” will of course be in tempo, and in style (for instance, not using accented gestures for smooth, flowing music).  He will also be so wrapped up in the musical content at hand that every gesture, every change in facial expression and barely perceptible move of the eyebrows, and every explanatory word offered will serve a faithful recreation of the composer’s musical work.

In the previous post on conductors, I had spotlighted three conductors as particularly strong examples of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound.  Steve Davis, Cynthia Johnston-Turner, and Jerry Junkin have all struck me as inimitable leaders and strong musical interpreters.  Their conducting manner and other leadership expressions are passionate (at times Bernstein-esque!), engaging, and infectious, but sometimes less than efficient and not always connected to dynamics.  Of course there are many conductors in the world that I’ve never seen or heard in action, but of the 1000+ I have observed, these six are some of the very best.  I would travel many miles to listen to them talk about music or to be present for a rehearsal or concert.

There are yet two conductors I consider my most formative and/or most deeply admired conductors:   Mallory Thompson, of Northwestern University in Chicago; and Allan McMurray, recently retired from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Mallory Thompson
Mallory Thompson

Several years ago, I observed Mallory Thompson demonstrating rehearsal technique in a clinic and was impressed.  It was not Thompson’s impressive CV (including an Eastman doctorate) that made the difference.  No, it was actually what she did as a teacher, ensemble leader, and conductor—as well as how she did it.  I have never had the opportunity to be directly taught by Thompson, so I cannot say much in personal terms.  I will merely say that her ensemble’s concert at the CBDNA conference in Kansas City was the most nearly perfectly conducted concert I have witnessed.  I don’t remember a single moment that called for criticism, and that in itself says a lot for a natural critic like me.  Her convincing programming was comparatively simple, with an introductory work (by Richard Strauss, 1864-1949) and two more extended ones (by living composers Carter Pann and Joel Puckett).  The program showed shape and balance in terms of style and musical depth.  The Pann work, a programmatic symphony laced with intense human feeling, required a special combination of mature control, serene sensitivity, and sustained awareness of musical direction and the approaching points of “arrival.”  Throughout the program, Thompson’s gestures kept my eyes riveted, yet I was peripherally aware of various players.  My ears were enthralled not only with the gloriously expressive ensemble sounds, but also a precise, focused, almost inhumanly perfect connection between the visual and the aural.  My own view was from about 10 meters directly above the vantage point from which this shot was taken during this very concert:

A Northwestern University follow-up article about this concert is found here.  Reading just the first few paragraphs provides a good overview.  Should I ever have opportunity to seek more training/mentoring from a more seasoned artist-conductor again, I think I will first seek it from Mallory Thompson.

Of all the conductors from whom I have learned first-hand, Allan McMurray has topped my list since the summer of 2000 when I first submitted myself as a conductor-participant in a symposium at CU-Boulder.  The next two summers involved similar but increasingly rewarding experiences.  Allan’s teaching collaborators at these symposia were strong, too, but none so captivatingly, pedagogically on-point every time—in terms of both overall musicianship and conducting.  It would be a gross exaggeration to say I entered into a “discipling” relationship with McMurray, but following in his footsteps from afar has been something of a goal, and an ongoing teacher-student relationship of the apprentice type, unrealistic in my life, was something I nevertheless desired.

In my experience, McMurray is a sterling, relational teacher who goes to great lengths to help each student move to the next level.  While a student-conductor works with players through a musical passage, McMurray will stand off to the side or in the back, taking everything in.  He allows the music to proceed for a good length of time, then comfortably engaging the student in dialogue, imitation, or merely another attempt, as appropriate.  There is always a sense that nothing is important at that moment except helping this one conductor to progress in his/her ability to conduct that particular music better.  McMurray is not likely to call attention to his own masterful technique with long Image result for Allan McMurraydemonstrations, rather choosing to show something for a few seconds, patiently assisting the student to catch the vision, emulate the gesture, or embody some other conducting ideal.  I have not yet been able to part with VHS recordings of my own work in these workshops; they are priceless to me.  This brief video shows just a bit of Allan McMurray in his natural teaching habitat—possibly with his own graduate students—but cannot do justice to his teaching method and manner.

I distinctly remember a moment during the third or fourth day of a five-day symposium, probably 15 years ago.  At this point, I was playing horn when one of the other 19 conductors was on the podium leading the rehearsal ensemble.  We were nearing the lunch break time, and there was some question as to how to spend the next 15 minutes since all the scheduled conductors had received instruction for the morning.  Feeling we could all use a sort of synthesized lesson, I took the step of nearly begging McMurray to conduct us in a demo of an entire movement.  Unassuming as he is, he was difficult to convince, and I can hardly remember whether he actually did engage in conducting for 10 minutes or not.  I only remember the feeling of the moment:  (1) deeply wanting to be shown how by this master—through an extended example of his abilities to lead willing musicians, evoking sound with gesture and eyes and posture and all the rest—and (2) his humble spirit in the face of the public request I made.

Here, McMurray and CU colleague Matthew Roeder discuss an upcoming concert in a 3-minute video, providing insight into thought about music and programming.

And here is a rare find:  a video of a McMurray rehearsal with another university ensemble in his own rehearsal hall.  I would doubt that McMurray made any special preparation for the production here, but polish and glitz are not the point.  For him, music-making and connecting with real people playing real instruments are as natural as walking.  One deceptively significant practice I learned from Allan was the value of referring to the player by name in rehearsal:  e.g., “When Jacqueline enters with her line” instead of “When the 1st oboe starts playing.”  In the above-linked video and this one (part 2 of the same rehearsal), one might notice such aspects as McMurray’s complete, memorized command of the composition’s musical expressions and their “in the music” evocation, and his natural, unforced charisma.

Watching that rehearsal instantly took me back to the same room and the three extended symposia in which I participated there, plus a couple other times that Allan graciously allowed me to sit in for an afternoon even when I wasn’t a participant.  Far better players than I would also return, summer after summer, just for that unique, communal music-making experience.  I miss that kind of music-making, that kind of leader, and that kind of conducting in my life.

Allan, I am glad you are still active in your early retirement years.  The rest of us still need you. I didn’t presume on your time when I saw you in Kansas City, because twenty others probably wanted to talk with you at the same time, but if I had approached you, I know you would have received me with warmth.  I am grateful for your early patience with me, and your encouragement as I developed.  Your influence is extensive and has extended through many years.  As you often pay tribute to your teacher Bob Reynolds, I am paying tribute to you.  I am but one of many, but I will long remember your examples, your long-lived constancy as a musician and as a conductor-model, and your ability to make students know that you are genuinely interested in guiding, in helping each one move to the “next thing.”

Image result for Allan McMurray

Comparing two Mozart chamber works in Bb

As I set out to make a surface-level comparison of two Mozart works, I will first make two background observations.  First, an 18th-century composer’s choice of key was often quite intentional.  Each key was considered unique and had its own connotations of mood/affect.¹  For instance, C and D, although only a step apart, would have suggested different moods: the first, perhaps pompous and regal; the second, more exuberant and joyous.  Therefore, my choice of two works in the key of Bb makes for a closer comparison than works conceived in different keys.

Second, it may be interesting to know that, in some of the chamber scorings of Mozart’s culture (e.g., string quartets, wind sextets, and later, wind octets), wind instruments were most often heard in pairs.  Moreover, this was not “classical” music in any stuffy, go-to-a-concert sense.  Chamber music was typically more casual evening entertainment for large, well-to-do homes.  Compositions for these ensembles bore a variety of names such as Serenade, Partita, Divertimento, Cassation, and Notturno (Nocturne).  The minuet (menuet, minuetto) frequently shows up in this kind of suite since folks apparently liked to dance it.

  1. Mozart’s Cassation in Bb, K. 99 was written in 1770.  The work, scored for string quartet plus pairs of oboes and horns, comprises seven movements, including an opening march and two minuets.  It lasts approximately twenty minutes.
  2. Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in Bb, K. 361 was written ten years later and is known as the “Gran Partita.”  This latter work, scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns (something like an alto clarinet), bassoons, and contrabassoon or upright bass) is still frequently performed and is widely considered to be among Mozart’s two or three masterworks for the medium.  This work also includes seven movements, including two minuets and a theme/variations movement.  It lasts approximately fifty-five minutes.

Below is a listing of the movements titles in each work with rough tempo markings.  It should be noted that, in the 18th century (and beyond), movement title words such as “Moderato” and “Largo” were not taken as mere tempo markings, though.  These words originally designated a great deal more than tempo.  For instance, “Allegro” was not only moderately fast; it was lively and cheerful.  With that said, I present the tempo numbers below as reasonably indicative of common practice.  They are, within a beat or two per minute, those used by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, respectively.²  In the context of comparison, the numbers can reveal a kind of tempo “shape” of each work as a whole.

Cassation, K. 99 Tempo & Meter Serenade, K 381 Tempo & Meter
I.  Marche 124 duple-compound I.  Largo – Allegro Moderato 56 (8th note) duple 152 duple
II.  Allegro Molto 144 duple II.  Menuetto 108 triple
III.  Andante 60 duple III.  Adagio 72 duple
IV.  Menuet 148 triple IV.  Menuetto – Allegretto 144 triple
V.  Andante 50 duple V.  Romanze – Adagio 66 8th note – 92 duple
VI.   Menuet 152 triple VI.   Tema Con Variazione 72 duple
VII.  Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante – Marche 120 duple |    60 duple compound | 120 duple |  60 duple compound |  124 duple-compound VII.  Rondo 140 duple

I might observe a few things in analyzing the performance tempos and character of the movements of each work.  First, the strict numbers themselves are not always indicative of the tempo or the feel.  In some cases, as in the example shown here, there is a lot of “black” on the page of music—generally meaning there are many 8th and 16th notes in the parts, leaving little white space—yet the basic pulse unit may be quite slow.  Above, I also note the pulse groupings in twos or threes.  For example, a duple andante that gives way to a faster, triple minuet shows variety and contrast.

One may also observe balance and even symmetry.  In the Cassation, the work quite obviously comes full circle:  the “Marche” music heard at the beginning is quoted at the end of the 7th movement.  The even-numbered movements of this work are all relatively fast, while movements 3 and 5 are the slowest.  The minuet (menuet or menuetto) tempi are intriguing in their own right; these four minuets exhibit at least three different moods.  There is more to the technical makeup of minuets than this, but generally, a slower minuet may be considered more courtly and/or stately, whereas a faster one often connotes peasant or country dancing of the time.  The most subdued, elegant minuet of the four would be Movement III of the Serenade, being performed at roughly 72 pulses per minute.

In music of this period, tempo and key tend to be related.  For instance, rarely would one find an Allegro (generally “lively”) in C minor, because C minor carries a funereal association and wouldn’t be performed in a moderately fast, lively manner.  Keep in mind that most works of art music in this time modulate to different keys as a matter of course, but note below the primary key of each movement.

Cassation, K. 99 Key Serenade, K 381 Key
I.  Marche Bb I.  Largo – Allegro Molto Bb
II.  Allegro Molto Bb II.  Menuetto (courtly) Bb-Eb-Bb
III.  Andante Eb III.  Adagio Eb
IV.  Menuet Bb-F-Bb IV.  Menuetto – Allegretto Bb-F-Bb
V.  Andante Bb V.  Romanze – Adagio Eb
VI.   Menuet Bb-Eb-Bb VI.   Tema Con Variazione Bb (includes minor)
VII.  Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante – Marche Bb VII.  Rondo Bb

Both works come full circle in terms of key, and that is no surprise.  Each creation is successful and worthwhile.  (That may go without saying for Mozart, but it is not always the case with even the best composers.)  The Cassation was the product of a 14-year-old prodigy, and the Serenade was written when the composer was 24; the latter work does seem to manifest more maturity, more depth.  Its tempi and character show a greater range of emotion:  the opening Largo is deeper, and the presence of an adagio, in comparison to the andantes of the Cassation, seems to reveal a progression in Mozart’s explorations.  Moreover, the Theme and Variations, sometimes an exercise through which a composer challenges himself to be creative, was (wisely? ³) not included in Mozart’s teen work.  The Serenade’s Rondo is a rollicking finale that might not have been as effective if written ten years before.

Both these Mozart chamber works could have provided good “dinner music” for a wealthy family (and guests) in the Austrian countryside, and I’m glad I get to experience them still today—sometimes, during my own dinner.  I listen to these and other Mozart chamber works multiple times every year, and that is saying a lot for a guy who’s not really a Mozart aficionado and who has as many listening options as I have on hand!  Within the next two or three years following the “Gran Partita,” Mozart would go on to write a Serenade in Eb and the Serenade in C Minor.  The Serenade in Eb contains some truly sublime chamber music, and I consider it a chamber-music must-listen for the true music lover with any breadth of taste.


¹ Arguably, this sensibility stemmed from the non-equal-tempered tuning of the time.

² In actual performances not governed by electronics, there will naturally be some variation in tempo.  Also, it bears mention that there were no metronomes of any kind in the time of Mozart, so there was no absolute standard, although historical research has shown generally acceptable windows for most such markings.

³ I myself wrote an elementary Theme and Variations for Horn Quartet as a college student, and it’s not very good.

Conductors from whom I’ve learned

This post is a tribute to influential conductors.  I’ve learned things from all of these; in some cases, the impact has been broad and deep.

I’ll start with men I never had the opportunity to learn from in person but whose conducting has, in one way or another, had strong impact on me.  Of the conductors I have only seen on video, three deceased men rise to the top as those I would like to have learned from, had I the opportunity:

Image result for carlos kleiber

Carlos Kleiber

Image result for leonard bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

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Frederick Fennell

Kleiber is perhaps most admirable for his depth of score knowledge (albeit, reputedly, with a limited repertoire) and ability to show the music’s character; Bernstein and Fennell, perhaps for their unbridled passion and command.  If I knew his work better, one living composer might fall into a similar category for me:

Gustavo Dudamel

I played or sang under these next two only once or twice, back in the 1990s.  Those occasions are now in my distant memory, so I am not altogether sure how I would assess them as conductor-musicians at this point:

Mary Woodmansee Green
Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Green and Harth-Bedoya have the distinction of being conductors who had multiple, standing appointments (as opposed to being a principal guest or regular guest conductor) in different cities.  That always struck me as a goal to which to aspire, but I’m not so sure anymore.  A life of perpetual flux and travel is not very desirable.

Of all those conductors under whom I have performed on a regular basis for some period of time, the next two seem the most exemplary to me at this juncture.  One is deceased, another in his seventies.  Their personalities were markedly different, and I learned very different things from them in vastly different scenarios and phases of life.  In their respective idioms and milieux, they were strong leaders and rehearsers, and they both had impact on me:

Image result for "kenneth davis, jr"
Kenneth Davis, Jr. (Harding University)
Robert Streckfuss (University of Delaware)

There have been many conductors that I do not feel I have learned much from.  Some of these seem to be viewed by others as iconic, and at times, I have been unable to discern why.  Other times, I happen to have had similar skill sets and values, so I didn’t particularly take anything from them.  I suspect the strengths of some lie not in conducting per se, but more in their musicianship or program leadership effectiveness or administration than in their conducting and artistry on the podium.  I will not list names in this category, because it is not my desire here to be critical of any individuals in the slightest.  There are actually two or three from whom I learned negative lessons, i.e., “Brian, do not do as s/he did!”  Like many others, I witness unhelpful and/or stylistically inappropriate division of beat, spasmodic gesture, and other nonverbals that should be checked in a mirror or on a video recording.

Other lessons have been interpersonal in nature:  one has consistently modeled, as a gentleman musician, how to treat people with dignity; another once displayed in the starkest terms what a travesty can be made of the communal music-making experience when a conductor shows no human concern or care for what an individual musician is going through in life.

Leaving generalities and negatives behind . . . the next group is short list of conductors whose work has impacted me in unique ways.  They have affected me for good and have been particularly exemplary in one or more respects:

Richard Mayne
Kenneth Singleton
H. Robert “Bob” Reynolds

I never had the opportunity to play under Reynolds, a true prince of conducting pedagogues, but I did spend a little time with him, both personally and in a group.  At summer symposia, he shared a lesson or two I won’t forget.  Here, I honor Reynolds (who taught some who taught me) along with two graduate professors who were and are examples of generosity, teaching, and devotion to music-making and students.

The next list includes a few more I’ve learned from at symposia, plus others I have observed on only one or two occasions.  These conductors strike me as highly artistic, but they have not been specifically formative in my development.

Patrick Casey (no relative)
Steve Davis
Craig Kirchhoff
John Lynch
Cynthia Johnston Turner
Jerry Junkin
Sarah McKoin

In some of the above instances, chronologically distant memories are still strong of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound (McKoin, Casey, and Kirchhoff in particular).  From Lynch I learned the necessity of correlating baton “travel” distance with the relative duration of pulses in asymmetric meter.  In all of these, the traits I admire include visible, artistic passion.

These last two conductors exhibit different yet overlapping sets of strengths.  Among all those I have played under or observed on multiple occasions, I have learned most from these two, who rise above all the rest, in my estimation.  One knows me, and the other doesn’t.  These are the two most formative, most deeply admired conductors in my experience.  Image result for allan mcmurray

Allan McMurray

Image result for mallory thompson
Mallory Thompson

Above, I have opted to show McMurray and Thompson doing one thing they both do very well:  teach younger, aspiring conductors.  In the next post on this topic, I will offer some more detailed praise of these two, as well as the concert offered at the CBDNA conference by Thompson’s ensemble, the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

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Acoustics, concert programming, and the “new band-y”

In hearing nine concerts in the Kaufmann Center’s Helzberg Hall during a period of four days, I began to perceive (I’m stopping short of “concluding”) that wind bands play too much loud music too often, especially when they are trying to impress more than their normal audiences.  Image result for image "helzberg hall"Moreover, the amazing Helzberg Hall may be slightly better for intra-ensemble acoustics (the players can hear each other really well) than for audiences listening to wind and percussion instruments.  Helzberg’s acoustic design, based on the interior of a cello, produces fine results, not to mention being visually appealing, but it can be almost too resonant for the typical dB output of a modern wind band with strong tone and a high performance level.

During the CBDNA conference, I made it a point to sit in four different areas of the hall, and it seemed to me that the wind band sound tended to be the most overwhelming in places that might be assumed to be optimum seating.  Another attendee and I briefly discussed the sound and the concerts, and he suggested the ensembles might have needed more rehearsal time in the hall.  (I observed that one group had at least an hour to do sound checks.)  Another variable could be the artistic leadership and musicianship level of certain groups.  In other words, I think it is the most mature groups with the most discerning leaders that have been the most sonically successful, and the least overwhelming, in the aggregate.

Hearing new repertoire is always a great benefit of Midwest and CBDNA conferences, and this event was no exception.  Despite the overwhelming positives, some of which I will caption below, I think that too much of the new rep tends toward what I might call “the new band-y.”  Stereotypically band-y sonorities of the second half of the twentieth century have their place, and I love some of those pieces, but variety is good—if not to save the ears or delight the senses, then to continue developing the outside world’s perception that wind band music can be artistic music and is not to be relegated to a second-class box behind string or full-orchestral or choral music.  The music of some of these CBDNA concerts struck me as too much “in your face”—too loud, heavy-hitting, and too much brash, full-ensemble texture.  Those accusations (and others, e.g., “humdrum, formulaic compositional technique”) could also be leveled at much of the 1970s and 1980s school band repertoire—a repertoire that in general terms has been pejoratively labeled “band-y” by those of us who want to move toward a richer, more nuanced repertory.  Although no observation here is intended as absolute, I’d say that several of the ensembles featured at the conference could have spent more time exploiting transparent, one-on-a-part chamber textures and softer dynamic levels.  One university performance in particular showed a lack of discerning programming:  stylistic, textural imbalance was evident.  On the up side, some of the in-your-face pieces were very effective and even powerful, but there were simply too many of them.  None of this is to say that the ensembles didn’t have the capacity to play varied kinds of artistic music; it is to suggest that some of them didn’t display enough variety in their programs.

With those criticisms behind, I’d now like to highlight a few positives from some of these programs.  I was enraptured buy a new (transcribed) clarinet concerto¹ by Jonathan Leshnoff and was also wowed by Mason Bates’s 2015 percussion concerto Sideman—both premiered by the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music Wind Ensemble.  This ensemble is now led by Rob Carnochan, a conductor I met in at my first CU-Boulder symposium in 2001, as I was at the dawn of my conducting training.  Here are some other notable pieces on my “yes” list:

MSU

KU

  • BJ Brooks:  The Butterfly Chaser (2016) (YouTube link)
  • Aaron Perrine:  A Glimpse of the Eternal (2016) (an impressive, four-minute work with fanfare figurations)

UMKC

  • Zhou Long:  Concerto for Wind Symphony:  Ancient Echoes (2017)

OSU

UG

UT

  • Adam Schoenberg:  Symphony No. 2:  Migration (with movements about aspects of emigration/immigration)
  • Jennifer Jolley:  The Eyes of the World Are Upon You (2016) (homage to the deceased and survivors of the first mass school shooting on record, at UT in 1966)

Scott McAllister’s Freebirds (2010) didn’t work too well for me; it seemed a gratuitous, vain attempt to bring Lynyrd Skynyrd into the realm of wind instruments.  Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront (1955), transcribed in 2012 by Jay Bocook, was performed by the UMKC Conservatory Wind Symphony and Conservatory Dancers.  This piece does work, and very well!  The performance was one of a kind in spatial and visual terms, and the music was celebratory, energetic, and musical, to boot.  I had the added pleasure of seeing a former student from South Texas perform in this group.

It should be stated that the schools represented above are some of the finest, most highly reputed schools of music in the country:  Michigan State and the universities of Georgia, Texas, Kansas.  (These schools tend to rank alongside the U of Mich, Eastman, the New England Conservatory, U of North Texas, CU-Boulder, Indiana U, and others.)  In a future post, I will treat the concert I considered the best of the entire conference—a Saturday afternoon offering by Northwestern University’s (Chicago) Symphonic Wind Ensemble—specifically appraising two stellar pieces that ensemble performed.


¹ The other clarinet concerto heard during this conference was transcribed by Craig Davis from John Corigliano’s original orchestral version, was performed virtuosically by Jonathan Gunn, but it is not high on my list as a composition.

Blocked content

A Netflix history series caught our eye, and we watched nearly an entire episode, but I decided to quit because of issues related to narration style.

A Social Justice Week lecture by a nationally recognized speaker had much to offer, but I left in the middle—with acute ear pain.  Again, I had to quit because of peripheral issues.

For me, the sound of things can get in the way.  A lot.  Another way to say this is that the content of things can be blocked by side factors.

It can be difficult for me to concentrate on important material when there is a lot of hubbub.

The hum of a machine can drive me up a wall.

I have a tough time listening to voices that speak in grating tones (e.g., overly nasal, very scratchy-sounding, a lot of high overtones) or with monotone pitch, uninteresting declamation, halting/agitated bursts, or unvaried tempo.

At most contemporary-style churches, sound gets in the way for me, too:  maybe it’s bad sound, poorly mixed sound, or just way-too-loud sound (or all three).

When I play an instrument in a group, I sometimes choose to stop playing because of intonation issues.  When I’m distracted and it seems impossible to tune well with the sounds around me, it is better to stop than to add to the problem, I figure.

Various sound factors are distracting, and I can become almost claustrophobic (soniphobic?).  Above, I referred to the history series titled Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.  I didn’t really even know who Oliver Stone was (still don’t know much), but he has a national reputation, which makes his terrible narration habits all the more surprising.  Someone should have taught him how to read aloud!  The narration is so sonically distracting to me that I have trouble concentrating on the information he’s relaying.  He routinely pauses between word-pairs  that are inherently connected:

  • a preposition and its object
  • a verb and its complement
  • an article and the word it attempts to specify
  • the “to” and the other component of an infinitive

90% of the time, he mispronounces “a” as “aye” (never correct) and “the” as “thee” (only correct when the next word begins with a vowel sound).  Arrgghh.  Here are sample extracts with intentional misspellings, forced punctuation, and line-ends that I hope will somehow visually demonstrate the sonic effect:

This went on in . . .

far greater proportion than has ever ||

been officially admitted.

 

Such was their pride:  many refused to || 

evacuate thee ||

city when given thee | 

chance….

 

Stalin now began thee | greatest forced evacuation in …

human history, evacuating some 10 million people to the | east of the || Ural Mountains in Central Asia and | 

Siberia and to thee | South and to |

Kazakhstan

… to rebuild thee | U.S.S.R in a second Industrial Revolution that matched that of thee |

1920s and 30s 

The transfer of thee || greatest part of thee |

Soviet economy was accomplished in two incredible years and by ||

1943, thee |

USSR was the equal of |

any industrial power in Europe.

If the problem wasn’t clear, it could be because you’re used to seeing PowerPoint slides poorly laid out, so try reading a few of the above lines aloud, observing the indicated breaks.  Oliver Stone’s hiccup-infused style blocked a lot of the content for me, raising my blood pressure a couple of points, because I was actually trying to learn something and couldn’t.

John Leonard Harris

Content can become obscured by other sound factors involved in transmission.  Just this afternoon, I intentionally cleared some time so I could go hear a speaker during the local college’s observance of Social Justice Week.  I figured I could use more education and personal connection around civil rights and just treatment of people of color in this country.  The lecture was free and student-organized, and those factors were plusses for me, too.  The speaker’s content turned out to be strong, and he certainly knew how to present, both dramatically and persuasively . . . but whoever was running (or not running) the sound mixer was asleep, deaf, or missing.  My eardrums were bursting, and I simply had to leave.  I could speculate that the rest of the (mostly younger) crowd was more polite or tolerant than I, and that may be true, but it’s equally likely that their ears are simply more damaged than mine since they’ve been using .mp3 players and earbuds since they were this high.  In this case, the sound didn’t entirely obscure the content, but it surely made it difficult to listen to.

Some of my problem with sound (and other peripherals) getting in my way, I’ve come to know, is that my ears are extra sensitive—because of (1) anatomy and (2) musical training.  I’m actually kind of tired of having non-central things get in the way of my experiences, but I can’t change the ear pain, and I wouldn’t trade being a musician for anything . . . so I think I’ll carry earplugs with me more often.  I wish the content weren’t blocked so often, but I can probably also work to become even more adept and comfortable with leaving sonic crime scenes when I need to.

B. Casey, Friday, 2/17/17

Fun music (for a serious musician)

Yes, I consider myself a serious musician.  But that doesn’t mean music isn’t fun for me.

I confess that I get a little smug inside when a teenager says he knows music or is “into music” but hasn’t ever been in a band or a choir or had theory class but maybe had a “music production” class and actually listens to hip-hop on purpose.  Now, you don’t have to know who the “Three Bs” are (NOT the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Boston) in order to love music deeply, and you don’t have to love so-called “classical” music at all, but it does help to be familiar with different types/genres. Also, some comprehension of the basic elements of music (rhythm/duration, melody, harmony, and timbre) can enrich your sense of it and what it takes to create a viable composition. I think much of the public must believe that composing music is nothing more than strumming chords on an electronically tuned guitar or belting out a non-tune with weak rhymes (and maybe hiding your face with a mic so you look cool).  That’s like believing that being a chef is just putting a pizza in the microwave or pouring some canned vegetables into a bowl of chicken broth, turning up the heat, and serving up a cliche, claiming it’s a recipe.

I was starting out to talk about fun music. This might surprise some people who think I’m a serious-minded purist when it comes to music, but actually, I also enjoy me some classic and progressive rock.  Kansas is the go-to when I’m looking for some rock, because most of their songs are interesting compositions. There are some real melodies, some complex harmonies, and a lot of terrific play with mixed and asymmetric meter.  A little less often, I’ll choose Chicago or ELO or Boston or Styx or the Steve Miller Band.  Since I only had about a half-decade of following much popular music, finding a few songs on used albums by REM, Grateful Dead, and Jethro Tull can be a new experience for me.  Yes, one has to be selective lyrics-wise, but the sounds were so much more interesting back then. (Sorta like classic cars — so much more interesting to look at than cars built in the last couple decades. As my wife said once, “No one in 2050 is going to look at a 2005 Corolla and say, ‘What a beautiful car!'”)

I am listening to “Free Bird” right now.  This reminds me that I was once enough of a music geek not only to learn the piano solo in the middle of the long version of “Free Bird,” but also to **write it out on manuscript paper.**  This is not as challenging as a jazz sax aficionado writing out a Parker or Coltrane or Gillespie solo, but it’s a fun fact, and I can still play it. 🙂

Now, my desert island music is more likely to be chamber winds or brass quintets, but lots of different music can be fun.  Tonight, it was the Commodores big band and then Lynyrd Skynyrd.

 

  1. Casey, 2/25/17

The above was originally a Facebook post.  Here are most of the comments made there:

Joachim Reinhuber For me it’s 6 B’s – the three plus Bruckner, Bartok, and Berg 🙂

Brian Casey Interesting. Bruckner is growing on me, and I respect Bartok, but Berg, not so much. 🙂

Randy Runyan I’m not so sure that there isn’t any interesting popular music being created today. One must work harder to find it, perhaps because the digital age has made it so easy to produce.
I’m also quite sure that there was plenty of uninteresting music made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. (And before). We just don’t hear it much because it is, well, uninteresting.This comment is oversimple; it’s a result of ‘typing’ on a phone. However, I feel that far too many of my friends who are musicians too easily dismiss contemporary music. It’s a shame, because far too many of my students do the same with the music I most enjoy. Perhaps if both groups were able (willing?) to invest the necessary time to find the good stuff, the perceived chasm between the two worlds would seem a mere crack.

Brian Casey I do hear some interesting AND uninteresting music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I find the Beatles overrated and overplayed, for instance, although of course quite a few of their tunes are interesting. I’m sure you’re right that there is interesting music being produced (if not composed) in the 2000-teens. Why is it that every time I’m in a store or restaurant, I’m subjected to the same nothingness and vocal glottal attacks with a slightly varied wrapper? (The answer to that, I suppose), is marketing.
Michael Asbell I don’t know music, but I do know about learning and having a passion for a subject, and I would suggest that you and other music geeks OUGHT to enjoy “fun” music more than the rest of us. You hear more; you understand more; you are more capable of appreciating what’s going on. I would even go so far as to suggest that serious musicians who don’t get this have robbed themselves of one of life’s simple pleasures because they take themselves too seriously. I’ve seen this for years with my wife and son. They know a good deal more about music than your average Joe, so I recognize that they’re better equipped to enjoy whatever’s playing on the radio than I am. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy music a lot. But they can enjoy it more. My full enjoyment and their full enjoyment are not the same. Learning and interests are like that. In a similar vein, lots of people enjoy trees and wildflowers, but I assure you I enjoy them more than 99% of the public. I can’t imagine that ignorance ever leads to a greater enjoyment. Carry on wayward son.
Brian Casey Yeah. Totally w/you about deeper enjoyment’s relationship to deeper knowledge. I guess each person can decide what is “fun” to him/her. My fun music tends to be well-composed, interesting music that’s not very derivative.
Dorothy Lutz I agree with you totally. I know so many people that think they know music but They enjoy what they are listening to or what they are participating in! We can’t educate everyone but we can share our talent with them!
Beth Nie You forgot the people who think playing real instruments should be like Guitar Hero. I’ve actually had parents (yes, more than one…) tell me: “Well, little Snookums here LOVES Guitar Hero and he’s GREAT at it, and now you’re making him re-do his lesson page for trumpet because he didn’t practice enough. Guitar Hero never needs to be practiced, so there’s no reason trumpet should be, you must be teaching wrong.” They’ll be shocked when Mario Kart doesn’t get Snookums his drivers license…
Brian Casey Hahahahahaha! This is wonderfully funny, and I feel your pain nonetheless.
Hannah Beecher “Tango Misterioso” by Pedro Gomez captured my notice almost five years ago when I went through a brief stint of watching “Dancing with the Stars.” (Excuse categories include “pregnancy” and “needing distraction from the question of whether we were about to move or not.”) Lately if I ever find myself in the car alone, my most frequent mental project is to try to put the base part of said tango to solfege. Aural Skills live on in this heart 🙂 I guess all this is to say, I can only imagine that, given more musical training and aptitude, I would only expect to have more fun–at least with complex music.
Brian Casey Aural Skills. Yay! And I like your last sentence a lot. …
Lisa Manning Perhaps ignorance really is bliss. Why must we understand to enjoy? I enjoy a lot of what you might deem inferior because I don’t spend my time analyzing and criticizing it: stars, flowers, pop music. And I’ll take Brubeck over Bach any day.
Brian Casey I suppose there are different levels/types of enjoyment. My enjoyment is deeper and more … well, enjoyable with Kansas than with Boston, for instance, but I can still enjoy the latter. I’d probably agree with you on Brubeck and Bach.

Brian Casey  This has been on my mind and bothering me off and on. I think you misunderstood my intent if not my words, Lisa Manning. I wasn’t trying to say one has to understand in order to enjoy. However, I do embrace my capacity for some analysis as a means to what at times *feels like* deep enjoyment at times.
Overall, I was hoping my tip of the hat to some pop/rock would be taken as just that — not as an appeal for everyone to criticize or to see some music as superior or inferior. For the record, I think Bach is probably just about as mixed as the Beatles. I only own two Brubeck CDs, but I like them a lot. Bach cello suites are excellent to calm the soul, but I had more Bach than I could take during a certain 6 years of my life.

Stan Manning I like Willie.
Brian Casey I can’t even name you three Willie tunes and have always found that curious. Your tastes are varied, so I excuse your Willieness. 🙂
Stan Manning Haha! You have heard HUNDREDS of Willie songs, and have likely played many. Interestingly, he is a highly versed serious jazz guitarist.

Brian Casey Ha. You may be exaggerating my familiarity with the corpus. I would guess I have heard 20, but not a hundred. I’m really pretty ignorant about most popular music. It would be hard to imagine that I’ve heard more of his tunes than James Taylor or Billy Joel, and I don’t think I know more than 40 or 50 of the either of the latter.

Scott Mills This is akin to appreciation of poetry and even movies. I can appreciate the poetic language of poetry without fully understanding the true meaning. I can love a movie for it’s simplistic message and completely miss the meta-narrative that exposes a much deeper treatise on the human condition. In both cases I recognize that I’m not realizing the author’s deepest intention, and I may be the worse for it, but missing their intention doesn’t diminish my own enjoyment of the work.
Brian Casey Somehow I missed this comment earlier. I see your point(s) as important alongside one I was trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to make. I didn’t mean to suggest, because I understand this or that at this or that level, that my enjoyment is superior to someone else’s. Enjoyment is what it is for each person, I suppose. I probably should have been more clear about one or two things I was downplaying. Apologies for that.

 

James D. Wallace I am feeling so much cooler since I know the 3Bs of music and its “more than a feeling”.

Stan Manning Well played!
Stan Manning Brubeck, Byrd, and Basie is my three B’s.

 

Scott Mills Bruce, Browne, and Bonnie for me.
Oh No, and there’s the 3 A’s – Atkins, Alison, and Al. And then… the C’s…
Stan Manning This could be a fun game!
Andy Pearce Can B.B. count as two?
Brian Casey Haha. Only if the Bee Gees count as negative 3.

A lady and her songs

400.  It’s not a magic number, but when it refers to a collection of songs by a single person, it might just elicit a “wow.”

Almost four years ago, an acquaintance had been in touch with a mutually respected undergraduate music professor.  My parents regularly see the same man at church meetings, and the subject of the prior dialogue came up in conversation with him.  Within a couple of weeks I was in contact with Carole, a dear lady, and we began work on her musical creations together.

The backstory:  Carole Obrecht, born in 1935 in rural Indiana, now lives in Nebraska.  Now a widow, a few years ago, she was taken to the hospital with a serious illness (MRSA), and her children were told she had about two weeks to live.  She spent 43 days in the hospital, recovered, and was referred to as “a miracle patient.”  With a new lease on life, about a month later, she experienced a fountain of gratitude in her soul and began composing words and melodies—most of them in the broad category of congregational gospel songs.  Many times she has looked back in amazement at this burst of creativity.  For each song, Carole would eventually

  • type a lyrics sheet (in Word)
  • sing the melody into her computer’s microphone
  • (initially) use her keyboard to devise rudimentary harmony

By the time I got to know her, Carole had created more than 100 songs.  She needed someone to edit and notate them properly for potential church use and for posterity.  That’s where I came in.  It takes a certain complement of proficiency and experience to do this type of work.  I happen to be agile with music notation/engraving, I have some good software, and I know fairly well the kind of music Carole creates.  In the spring of 2013, I also had some extra time available, so Carole sent me a handful of songs, and I began work.  It soon became clear that I would not be able to use her keyboard work as a basis, so I would work out new harmony in all-vocal arrangements.

Carole and I worked with each other patiently (she, all of the time; and me, most of the time) in the early phases, trying to figure each other out.  Almost always by e-mail but periodically by phone, we would discuss this issue or that.  We worked through a standard template (the style, typeface, size of musical staffs, how to show her name, the copyright, my name, etc.).  I believe she still overestimates the limited value of filing her materials with the U.S. Copyright Office, but one of her goals is to make things easy to navigate for her children, should any issue arise, so it’s understandable that she would spend time and money on copyright filing.  Carole has been a perpetual model of consideration and grace in responding and thinking out loud with me, even when she doesn’t quite agree.

Behind the backstory:  When Carole and I began our partnership, I was deep into what I might call a disadvantaged phase of vocational life.  My musical creativity had begun to be squelched and constrained.  I have written more than 100 songs myself and have arranged many more than that, not to mention a sizable catalog of instrumental works, but I’ve had little inspiration to produce music in the last decade.  When one is discouraged, he needs something to do in order to feel useful, and a little extra money would be good, too, but how to negotiate. . . .  Although I had arranged for hire before, I had not engaged in any sort of ongoing relationship.  Carole and I easily reached an agreement under which I would be paid on a per-song basis.  Now that that was out of the way, we moved ahead with the substance.

The process:  I receive a dozen songs at a time, each song consisting in a .docx lyrics file and a .wma audio file.  These are the three phases of work on each creation:

  1. Melodic dictation—listening to Carole’s recorded voice and notating the melody (perhaps 20% of the time spent here)
  2. Harmonic arrangement—writing three underlying voice parts, arranging each song for congregational use (perhaps 50% of the time)
  3. Lyrics insertion—either retyping or reformatting and importing (30%)

carole-listWhen a sheet music draft is complete, I e-mail it to Carole, in the form of a .pdf file with an accompanying .mid sound file for her to listen to.  She will often note words or phrases she wants to change; seeing music and words on a page together can give her new eyes.  (At times, the changes can be extensive, and it’s back to the drawing board, but this is relatively rare.)  A typical song might require 75-90 minutes of initial work on my end, 2-3 e-mail exchanges, and 15-20 more minutes of editing work.  The final steps for each song are (1) my sending edited files (to the left is a group of the .pdf files) and (2) Carole e-mailing to confirm the files are received and saved on her end.

Carole had piano instruction as a young girl and also remembers vocalizing with her mother at the piano.  After childhood, Carole was not trained as a musician.  She hasn’t studied, for instance, any principles of melodic contour or the important balance between unity and variety (so, for example, some melodies are relatively predictable), but she produces some pretty good songs!  Most of them are tuneful and accessible to the average person.  During the process of notation, if I find a measure or two almost like the melody from two lines above, but not quite, I adjust the notes, and Carole is fine with this.  When a melody has too great a range or suggests a nonstandard harmonic progression, I often recommend a change, and most of the time, we move in that direction.  The style of many of the songs tends to reflect the generation in which Carole grew up and perhaps a halcyon sense of congregational singing that is on the decline, but the music is an expression of her genuine faith, and she trusts that the Lord will use the songs according to His pleasure.

A few challenges:  Carole’s voice is remarkably strong, so it’s rarely difficult to take melodic dictation on her tunes.  She has a wide range, but she sometimes starts a song too low for congregational soprano lines.  This doesn’t typically present much difficulty—I just transpose it up two or three steps—unless the melody ranges high as well.  Once in a while, she seems to meander a little, and I suspect such instability is attributable to her having had a cold at the time, or perhaps she was less focused than usual because the next song was on her mind, too.  Sometimes, apparently feeling some out-of-genre expressive impulse, she changes keys midstream; on a few occasions, we have decided to leave the key changes intact in the final product.  (Changing keys is difficult for an a cappella group to navigate.)  Her sense of rhythm is fine but sometimes presents challenges, as do a few other technicalities that require adjustments.

If I can’t figure out how to notate one aspect or another, I just say so, and Carole suggests something else or sometimes goes back to the drawing board herself to record another version of the melody.  My Sibelius music software has some bugs in the way it handles lyrics as they are being imported, matching syllables to notes:  it thinks “trials” has one syllable and “Savior,” three, so I have to manually divide those words and a few other frequently used ones.  The software also has no idea what to do with the word “reigns,” so I have to trick it and correct after the fact.

A few characteristics:  Carole loves words and phrases such as “thrill in His glory” and “our Savior has conquered sin.”  Even more, she loves faith- and hope-filled expressions that look toward Heaven.  In her catalog may be found strong notes of gratitude to a loving God, and of evangelistic concern for others, that they might share in what she has found.

Carole loves choruses and codas, and I have sometimes picked up that her others-conscious heart just can’t bear to let a song rest with the last word in the final stanza.  She is compelled to say just one more thing—in the hope that, eventually, some soul will be a bit more inspired to faith in God . . . and so she adds a chorus or a coda to say that one more thing.

Sometimes, in our e-mail exchanges, one or the other of us will refer to a song as though it is a “child” of hers:  “this one seems a little unruly and needs some parental love” or “you must feel this is a special child.”

My feelings:  We have been working together for nearly four years now, and I remain grateful for this working relationship.  My available time for “Carole songs” ebbs and flows, and Carole understands this and works with it beautifully.  She has become a friend.  We surprised her once by dropping in on her at church while we were traveling.  Carole is also my elder sister, sort of a “great aunt” in faith.  She prays for me and my family with great empathy, even as she cares for many others, including her own family.

Carole, thank you for your constancy and your example of faith.  They are treasures, as are the poetic expressions of your sincere heart—a heart so very thankful to God.  At times, you and your songs have amounted to a spiritual rope to hold onto—a constant in a sea of uncertainty and negative circumstances.

Our respective loose-lwp-1485716870438.jpgeaf binders full of songs grow by the month.  A couple of days ago, we reached song number 400.  As we celebrate this milestone, and as we move into what may be the last hundred, Carole, I pause in gratitude for you.

B. Casey, 1/29/17

ADDENDUM:  More info, along with song samples, may be found here:

http://tinyurl.com/co-songs