Chamber formations

Chamber music has for quite a while been a strong interest.  The first group I remember Image result for images chamber musicforming, or helping to form, was the Harding Brass Quintet.  One year, we had a euphonium instead of a trombone, and we enjoyed a few performances during a year or two of my later undergraduate years.  I remember playing the Ricercar del Primo Tuono and a Gabrieli sonata or canzona.  We did fairly well with the classic Sonate die Bankelsangerlieder, too.  The players were Glenn, Daphne, me, Ken, and Bob, and then Ken switched from euphonium to tuba, and we had Milton on trombone.  Good times.  I don’t recall significant chamber experiences before that time, so I suspect it was the HBQ (sponsored by the late, gracious Dr. G.E. Baggett) that started whetting my appetite for one-on-a-part playing.

As a master’s student at the University of Delaware, I formed a quintet that enjoyed, as I remember, only one gig—Easter Sunday at the church where the choral professor was also the music director.  This was a good group that included one nursing faculty member and four music students (Jon, Chris, me, Julius, and Al).  During roughly the same time, I was co-founder of Quintessence, a woodwind quintet.  I don’t remember performing at all with that group, but rehearsing was a pleasant experience.

Later moving to the Heartland, I did not form a group but played with a town-gown orchestra and auditioned for the Kansas City Wind Symphony.  Playing principal horn in the KCWS gave me inroads into both the quintet and large-ensemble iterations of the Kansas City Brass Project, and some great music was made.  Moving on to Colorado, in my second year as a doctoral student, I formed and conducted the Foundation Brass, a full-size brass ensemble of the most talented players in the entire School of Music.  I also co-founded the Grad Brass Quintet.

In New York, I was more creative with an ensemble name, founding the Alle-Catt Brass Quintet—students and faculty members from two colleges.  Respectively, we lived in Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties—thus the name.  We played all the good stuff, and some of my own arrangements and compositions, too.  I’ve kept in touch with a couple of those players but have lost touch with a couple others.

While I was Director of Instrumental Activities at Houghton College, student chamber ensembles were professionally highly significant, not to mention providing salve for the soul and a place to thrive and be encouraged.  Scheduling can be a problem in an academic setting, especially given the exceptionally time-intensive music major curriculum.  As reported in a faculty communiqué,

[I]nstrumental chamber music is being coached and rehearsed largely between 11:00 and 1:00 on Thursdays, during major ensemble time, during an isolated hour or two, e.g., Friday mornings, and as a matter of course in the studio enterprise.

I have frequently gone on record to sing the praises of chamber music in the collegiate setting.  Here are a few words from piece quoted above:

[S]tudents reap tremendous benefits through chamber endeavors of various shapes and sizes, [and] it is worth the effort in order to provide greater breadth of opportunity for musical maturing in terms of such aspects as stylistic matching, intonation awareness, and independence.

During that particular year, which to that point was the most active in terms of chamber music at that institution, I enumerated and provided some details on the following groups:
  • faculty-coached brass quintet
  • ad-hoc brass ensemble for one program
  • double wind quintet–movements from Mozart serenades
  • two woodwind quintets
  • string quartets
  • student-led vocal chamber group
  • flute choir
  • flute-oboe duo
  • double-reed trio
  • clarinet choir
  • saxophone quartet
  • horn quartet
  • percussion ensemble

Here is a sample program. from that very active year.

It has been said that a (high-functioning) string quartet is the most perfect example of positive, interactive human behavior.  I would expand that to all good chamber music-making.  For the last five years, I have not had the opportunity, drive, or resources to form or work with any small chamber ensembles.  I miss this kind of music-making terribly.

Image result for woodwind quintet

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Coordination

Here are some comments on coordination in three areas:  conducting of ensembles, PowerPoint slides in worship assemblies, and intersections/stop signs.

Conducting/cueing 
Student conductors sometimes have difficulty coordinating the cueing of entrances.  Although precise, technical attention is sometimes required, fledgling conductors tend to over-technicalize cueing.

Breathing is an important component of the whole.  I have encouraged students who are working on cueing simply to think as a singer or wind instrumentalist¹—breathing as if s/he were singing or playing the same passage.  A student will often do better if s/he doesn’t overthink it, rather simply coordinating the gesture with a breath.  One ought simply to breathe and move naturally, within the learned musical “habitat.”  It seems to me that this more organic approach—mentally placing oneself in the position of the musician(s) being cued, and breathing as though one is making the sound on his/her instrument—helps immeasurably in the process of mastering and coordinating the gesture.

Changing PowerPoint slides
In church assemblies (commonly called “services”), coordination of slide changes with musical phrases is rarely executed well.  In one recent church visit, the slide-changing effort was better than most, yet it was clear that no one was coordinating slides with actual singing.  A later experience at a different church was more typical—with three or four egregious errors (not changing the slide at all until all the words on the next slide were nearly complete!), and a split-second to a full second late on many other slide changes.  The timing does make a difference.

Again, I have found from personal experience that the natural approach works:  the person who’s changing the slides should be actually singing or at least mouthing the words.  Otherwise, the slide change will typically be too late, causing the singer to miss the first word or two.  It can be difficult to sing without a feeling of mild gasping or hiccuping.

Driving/stop signsImage result for stop sign
Poor driver coordination at stop signs hinders the flow of traffic.  A driver who arrives first at a four-way stop-intersection might think he’s being nice by gesturing to another driver to go first.  However, a clog can be the result.  The second driver doesn’t see the gesture made by the first, so both of them end up waiting, and the hesitation takes everyone’s time.  The system works best when everyone coordinates by following the established protocol.²

[If you have 4 more minutes for an earlier, lengthier (more entertaining?) post on driver issues at stop signs, go here.  Or just thank me for not adding more anecdotes here, such as one about the driver just yesterday.  Ignore the fact that I was dutifully stopped at a stop sign; he had no stop sign at all; and I couldn’t have begun to see any gesture on his part because of sun glare and tinted windows, anyway.  Wait.  I just added an anecdote, didn’t I?]

~ ~ ~

In the Middle Ages, a musical composition technique came to be known as hoquet (later Anglicized as hocket), meaning “hiccup.”³  That hiccup effect—involving the stopping and starting of different voices—can be entertaining and musically interesting when conceived intentionally.  On the other hand, hiccuping at stop signs and during congregational worship music is unintentional, uncoordinated, and largely avoidable.

B. Casey, 1/28 – 4/17/19


¹ Since string players and percussionists technically don’t have to breathe in order to play, some of them will naturally have more difficulty with this skill. 

²  Where I live, the stop sign issue is complicated at certain poorly graded and/or un-repaired intersections.  My little sedan will bottom out unless I approach slowly, at an angle.  In one case, I have to veer far to the left, using the lane reserved for oncoming traffic, which of course complicates everything further.

³ In that time, metric/rhythmic notation was relatively new, having been apparently absent for a millennium.  The lack of focus on rhythm makes the Middle Ages the Dark Ages in my book!

Real, live musicians

A full-of-life conductor
In June of 2002, my soon-to-be-bride and I spent a few minutes talking with H. Robert “Bob” Reynolds and his wife Kristin Reynolds.  This conversation, at a casual, post-conducting-symposium soirée, was rich because of musical and relational connections.  It was clear to both of us that this special couple had something going for them.  Kristin, an accomplished oboist, had returned again to CU-Boulder as a volunteer, offering her artistic talents to play in a rehearsal ensemble for the benefit of conductor-students.

Bob was guest lecturer in an afternoon session, and he did something “off the beaten path” that contributed, materially and memorably, to my education.  He shared with us the Jessye Norman recording of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs; these recorded performances, Bob put forward, were an example to all music-makers.  This lesson provided a model for a group of conductors—who are, after all, music-makers who lead and inspire groups of other music-makers.

Last night (November 18), Reynolds led portions of a rehearsal of two Baylor University bands, and I was privileged to watch a video feed.  Bob’s masterful, mature leadership actually brought tears to my eyes.  I knew two of the works he was conducting fairly well, but he knows them intimately.  His conducting was, to say the least, inspiring.  Anyone may tune in tonight for the live performance; several works will be conducted by Bob Reynolds.  The URL for the performance is https://www.baylor.edu/music/index.php?id=935526.

A living composer
Sometime in the summer of 2009 or 2010, I contacted composer Carter Pann about his music.  I had heard the wind band transcription of his orchestral work Slalom and wanted to acquire the piece for use with my orchestra at the time.  Pann congenially sent me a burned CD with Slalom and three others, along with a handwritten note.

These kinds of interactions with living composers of art music can be energizing.  I wish our performance had done his great music justice.  It was a technically demanding piece than my ensemble should have attempted at the time, but we do have fond memories of it.

~ ~ ~

The general public tends to think that “classical” or cultivated, artful music (1) is only of interest to dull people and (2) was only written by dead composers.  Reynolds and Pann are two fine examples of vigorous, living musicians who give the world something of beauty and artistic merit.

On summer’s end

Summer is over.  Or is it?

This will be a meandering piece about summer, with connections to reading, baseball, the calendar, kids, and the rhythms of life.

Books and baseball
People still have summer reading lists, right?  Maybe not so much anymore.  I spied the quip below on a ne’er-do-well’s Facebook page recently, in the spot where one’s favorite book title is supposed to be:

who reads

I thought, Well, I’m guessing you don’t read much, because you didn’t capitalize that or put a question mark after the question.  (This same person had proudly posted a video of herself drunk while playing video games, so I guess I wasn’t all that surprised.)

My summer reading list, if it really existed at all, was phantom-like.  Recent book grabs include one that presents three views on God’s will and decision making, a Duck Dynasty biography (couldn’t stand much!), and a Stephen Colbert book (I wish he weren’t so caustically one-sided, because he’s genuinely funny).  On my active shelf are a book on the history of words in religion, a history of the Silk Road, and two volumes on the kingship of God.  This summer, I have read some poetry, a little on baseball, and a few pages each from Richard Hughes and Frederick Buechner, plus a few other things.  Oh, and I’ve spent some time reading and studying an ancient, mid-length letter from Paul, including reading two paragraphs in Greek.  Sounds like a lot of reading time, you say?  Nah.  I’m talking about a total of less than 10 hours there.  Pitiful, I know.  And the progress in writing my own next book has been precisely nil this summer.

Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, is legendary.  My dad’s copy of that one remains where he would have seen it, high on a shelf in his/Mom’s study.  On a lower bookshelf in our home sits Dad’s coffee-table-sized book that chronicles baseball’s summers of ’47-’57 in the lives of the three New York teams—the Dodgers, the Giants, and those dratted Yankees.  The Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast in 1957, rendering summer fun permanently shut down for many.

Our family enjoyed seeing the KC Royals with a friend in Kauffman Stadium last Saturday.  It was a sticky, muggy, summer night, but it was not overly hot, especially after the sun was hidden behind the stadium on the third-base side.  This summer is not a good one for the Royals, to say the least.  It was a great game, though:  the last-place Royals, the 2nd-worst team in baseball, beat the even worse Orioles in the 9th.

Usually two or three times a summer, when I was a boy, my dad and I would go to the Vet to see Phillies games.  There was one memorable, July 4th double header, at which a friend sat with Dad and me in the lowest seats, in straightaway center field, just above the outfield wall with the “408” painted on it in yellow.  I’m not sure I’m creating memories like that for our son, but he has been to three Royals games, a Pirates game with cousins, and a Reds game before he could remember.  He has also played baseball three summers in a row.  According to his 2018 baseball season, summer lasted only about 6 weeks (May-June).

For me, despite one serendipitous baseball game I saw on a nice Minnesota afternoon while traveling, this summer has been the worst on record.  It is not over yet?

Summer, school, and children
For children, summer is almost always something to which to look forward.  They often have summer camp experiences.  Manatawny, a Christian camp in Southeastern PA, was the thing that we kids looked forward to most.  My sisters’ kids all go to similar camps now, too, and they seem to feel the same heart-tugs, while experiencing similar growth of all kinds.  Then there is marching band camp, and several of my sisters’ kids are now doing that annually, too.  Summer is certainly not all bad for kids.

For many, summer is over in the middle of August when school starts way too early.  Two private colleges at which I’ve taught hold classes on Labor Day, having started a week or two previously.  School always started the day after Labor Day when I grew up.  According to just about every U.S. school calendar, summer is by now over for everyone.

Jedd has had some great times this summer (for example, a children’s play, baseball, some travel, a lake, cousins, and swimming).  Speaking of swimming … they drained the town pool weeks ago here, which seems pretty ridiculous since summer persists.  The heat and humidity (or just heat, or just humidity, but rarely any relief) have been oppressive and unrelenting for so long, it seems.  We had a cold winter with little snow for playing, an almost nonexistent spring, and then this beastly summer.  We’ve had, what, six or seven nice days since June?

Summer’s entertainment
Remember the TV show “In the Heat of the Night?”  I never watched it, but I think it was based somewhat on the premise that crime heats up when the weather does the same.  (When is it not hot in a Mississippi town?)  I also recall an episode of M*A*S*H in which everyone’s nerves were frayed because of heat.

Last Sunday night, in the summertime cool of a Lutheran church building, I heard the Midwest Chamber Ensemble, and their opening selection was a rare performance of a work by Arthur Honegger titled Pastoral d’Ete (Summer Pastorale).  This piece shimmered and sang, and it led me to think of other summer-oriented art music. . . .

  • I have a CD of summer wind quintet music that includes Barber’s Summer Music, Op. 31, a provocative piece written well for the medium.  I return to this disc often, including a couple times this summer.
  • Barber’s Knoxville:  Summer of 1915 is not a favorite of mine.  (Few and far between are the sopranos I would listen to on purpose.)  Berlioz’s Nuits d’Ete (Summer Nights) is more pleasing, but still, it’s a soprano.  So, no thanks.
  • As Summer Was Just Beginning, a simple, tuneful, elegiac tribute to the late James Dean, enjoyed at least a decade’s worth of appreciation in the wind band world, but the piece’s fame is now approaching its winter.
  • Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons is well-known, but “Summer,” the second in the set, strikes me as more interesting.  Actually, this Vivaldi string concerto hints more at fall for me, but maybe that’s because I like the still, sometimes melancholy beauty of fall.  Then there is the tempest of the presto 3rd movement.  (May there be no tempests in life this fall.)
  • Frank Bridge’s tone poem Summer is simply wonderful.  What glorious sounds!  If I could rig some great speakers in a park, and if I could order a 70-degree, mosquito-less, summer night, I would sit out under a tree and listen to it again.

I remember a few summer evenings on the grounds of the Mann Music Center, north of Philadelphia, hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra free or at greatly reduced cost, with good friends.  And all these thoughts of music evoke pleasant, breezy, relaxed feelings.  Was this what Jim Seals & Dash Crofts were singing about?  “Summer Breeze makes me feel fine….”?  My summer of ’18 has not been blessed by many of those feelings.

So goodbye, summer of ’18.  I’m done wid’ ya.  I wish I could be assured that I’ll forget you, but I won’t be surprised if you haunt me.  I wish I had seen and hiked in the Rockies this summer, but, failing that, come on, cooler weather and breezier, more chilled thoughts.  Come on, fall concerts and crisp mornings with coffee on the deck.  Maybe I’ll soon be able to walk 20 yards sans sweat or anxiety.  Come on, Major League Baseball’s “Fall Classic.”  Just come on, fall.

To be honest (it hasn’t happened recently)

I have taken this down from the wall in my home, at least for a while.  It feels misleading to display it now, since what it declares hasn’t happened recently.

Believe it or not, I have actually never noticed the roosters until now.  I know the colors within this frame, and certainly the text, but the roosters have been hidden from my consciousness.  They seem to cheapen the whole thing, but if you’re a bona fide naturalist or animal lover or you have chickens, maybe the rooster-notion touches something deeper within you.  Anyway, when I see the words “He put a new song in my mouth,” I actually don’t think about singing (or crowing) like normal people would.  First, at least, I think about composing.  Composing has been an important “voice” in my life, but I have only eked out a couple of marginal, original songs and relatively un-creative arrangements of others’ music in the last half-dozen years.  If I hadn’t spent as much energy on arrangements and refinements, perhaps I would have had more “margin” in my life for creative bursts.  But that has not been the case.

Aside:  it’s not my goal to live in the past, but I often play “Monday morning quarterback” with things, including events in my life, on this blog.  I’m better with hindsight than foresight, I guess.  Rather than lamenting the lack of as much music as I want in my life, I suppose I could frame it in terms of celebration of some of the music of my past.  (That’s not as easy as you might think.)

The frame above has hung in my home offices in four or five houses.  It is coming down for a while now . . . until He puts a new song in my mouth again.  My composing and singing voices both feel weak at this juncture.  If nothing else, I am trying to be honest.

To edit and harmonize (opportunity for musicians)

If the publishers had only asked, I would have edited and re-harmonized this song for them in the children’s theater script!  First off, I would have researched whether the “Mexican polka” idiom is real.  Perhaps there is a better description.  Next, I would like to have known about the Spanish grammar in measures 1-2.  In context, it means “very clever/cunning, very devilish,” but, Spanish-speaking friends, isn’t “diablo” a noun, not an adjective?  Maybe this would be an idiomatic or slang expression?   Now to the stuff I know more about:

  • In the last line, “yip” is probably better as a staccato eighth than as a dotted quarter.  It’s impossible to sustain the “p” consonant, and a sustained vowel (“yiiiiiiip”) sounds dumb.  Practically speaking, a shorter notation would make the interpretation of those notes unmistakably clear to a less-than-confident, neophyte director.
  • I think I would have started it with a D (IV) chord through the whole first measure.  If so, maybe an Amaj7 in measure 2?  Better yet, how about this for the first 4 measures:

|  D ///  |  C#min ///  |   Bmin7 / E9 /  |  A /// |

  • Anyone for an F# minor (vi) chord in m. 6?  That would have helped to make it more of a real progression in measures 5 through 8 (whether or not one uses a secondary dominant in m. 7). One has to try things sometimes, and it looks like this tune benefited from precisely zero read-throughs before it was published.
  • Now, can you spot two outright errors (melody/harmony mismatches) in the last half of the song?

In the play, the college-student helper who played guitar did a great job, adjusting her rhythm to match the kids on stage, and her guitar stylings sounded pretty authentic to me.  Our son Jedd also did well as Puerco the porcupine.  He had quite a few lines at the beginning and the end, serving as the Master of Ceremonies at an animals’ fiesta.  And my TAMUK friends will be happy to know he pronounced “Armadillo” authentically!

To lead and serve (Houghton Philharmonia “officers”)

In thinking about some students of a decade ago, I came across a document that evidenced one of my somewhat creative approaches.  The orchestra at Houghton College was the “Philharmonia”—a bit of an aged designation, I thought, but it was what it was.  The two other “major ensembles” on campus were the Symphonic Winds and the College Choir,¹ and each of those had a slate of student officers, but the Philharmonia didn’t.  So I thought, I’ll get some student leadership going, but it needs to be special.  Not run-of-the-mill.  A new approach that melds the college’s Christian philosophies, my own scripture-moored take, and my penchant for heading off the beaten paths and ruts, making sure what was did was meaningful.

We would not have a president per se.  Nor would we call someone a VP.  A secretary of sorts was possibly indicated, but there was no need for a treasurer.  The very word “chaplain,” in use with the other groups, brought to mind the military, law enforcement organizations, and hospitals, and I wanted no association with those.  Further, and on the positive side, I did want to capitalize on connections to scripture and my own philosophy of leadership in groups (including church congregations), so I added the following as a footnote on the poster I prepared:

It is interesting to note that the single Koiné Greek (the New Testament language) word diakonos is alternately translated deacon, minister, and servant in our English versions of the New Testament scriptures.  Biblically, there is no conceptual distinction between deacons, ministers, and servants.  In all these word-concepts, service to the group is implied.  The British government terminology (Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Housing, etc.) might originally have had this fact in view, and we are following this nomenclature with the Philharmonia officer/servant roles.  You may also note the non-hierarchical order in which the offices are listed.  Ministry is service, and our officers will serve.

Below is a list of the roles I presented for student elections.  Each one was tied to another in partnership in at least one way.  These were not to be “offices” as such (note that they are not listed hierarchically) but would be roles for service:

Coordinator of Devotional Activities (replacing “chaplain”)

Ministers of Hospitality (plural, primarily to coordinate post-concert receptions and friendly interaction when prospective students visited)

Lead Organizational Minister (communication among orchestra members, problem solving with director, etc.)

Minister of Organizational Promotion (working closely with the LOM and giving special attention to development and growth)

Advisory Ministers (appointed, not elected, at the discretion of the Director)²

I note now that the only overtly “spiritual” role is the only one that didn’t have the word “minister” in it.  That was probably subconscious on my part, but perhaps not.  I might have intentionally avoided the perception that a devotional coordinator was an institutional staff minister-in-training.

As a student ensemble and college entity, the Philharmonia was hurting because of events that occurred during the prior two years.  It was depressed when I arrived; it had bought into a kind of step-child syndrome, playing third fiddle (to mix metaphors) to the Sym Winds and College Choir.  Those ensembles had little to no trouble gaining members and feeling good about their rehearsals and performances, but that was not the case in Philharmonia.  The ensemble needed promotion, energy, and a better self-image.  The group stayed depressed for a year and a half or so, but it began to experience growth in terms of musical achievement and esprit de corps after that.  I would not say that this particular approach to “officers” or student leadership had too much to do with the growth, but it might have contributed a little.  It did provide opportunities for students to lead and to serve—even as it showed my commitment to meaningful organizational roles and an egalitarian philosophy.


¹ Each of those appellations seemed somewhat uncommon, as well.  At Houghton, they did not seem old or “out of touch.”

² I tend to use the designation “Conductor” as opposed to “Director.”  The former goes to musical leadership.  “Director,” by contrast, while it can be used to refer to musical direction, tends to refer more often to organizational leadership.

Memories, poetry, and music

Last fall, the Benedictine College bands presented a program of instrumental music with a Veterans Day theme.

As it happened, the concert occurred shortly after the death of Karen Soyland, the wife of another member of the Brass Band, which is the ensemble in which I perform.  The memorial focus of the concert was therefore expanded to include not only deceased soldiers, but also, one known more personally.  I became inspired, and I offered, and the conductor of the ensemble (Director of Instrumental Studies Ted Hanman) graciously interjected my trio arrangement within the published brass arrangement—complete with the suggested oral reading of Tennyson’s poem, which may be seen here.

The Parry tune was new to me, and I find it a better marriage of music and words than the male quartet music I had learned as a youth.  There is a plethora of tunes and arrangements available, and apparently no one knows or sings the quartet arrangement I’ve known for decades, because it’s available nowhere on YouTube.  At any rate, regardless of the music, my favorite line in the poem—both the culmination and the closing—is this:  “I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have crossed the bar.”  The imagery, which I don’t claim to comprehend fully, is nonetheless rich, and the members of the Brass Band knew personally this one who had “crossed the bar” very recently.

Below is my arrangement.  (I started to retake the photo when I saw the light streams, but they struck me as a potentially inspirational symbol, so I left them in.)  I chose three instruments/players that could carry this off in little rehearsal time.  Each instrument has at least a few measures with the melody, and the counterpoint and harmony are somewhat more complex than in the full-band arrangement.  All the instruments in my arrangement are Bb instruments, meaning the written pitches you see below actually sound a whole step lower.  Note that the euphonium part is written in treble clef, as per convention in British brass band music.  The euphonium part sounds a major 9th lower than it appears here.

You may access the live performance sound file here.  The above “trio” portion, with oral reading, begins at 1:16.  The reader did not rehearse with us and did not read especially effectively, but the balance at least makes both elements audible.

 

It was my hope that this musical tribute to the dear, believing spouse of a believing friend would be meaningful and eventually be a good memory for him, for the deceased’s family, and also for others.


Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here, a tribute to caregivers here, and a mention of the exceptionally poignant funeral for Karen Soyland here.

Kansas in New York

Once upon a storm, Kansas blew into Western New York,¹ and it created some “Dust in the Wind.”  The event was part of the Kansas (rock band) Collegiate Symphony Tour, and it was huge fun.  Below is the program cover, in which Kansas fans will recognize the icon from the Leftoverture album cover.

Now that I think about it, the cover there was a brilliant stroke:  it used imagery from the album that had catapulted the heartland band into fame; Leftoverture, true to its classically influenced name, had used more orchestral instruments than before.  Still, Mr. Composer there on the cover looks baffled, and it’s no wonder.  An aging rock band with college orchestras on stages across the country?

Because of some issues Kansas and I worked through together, this particular concert event was problematic for them, but it certainly was a win for my college orchestra.  At one point during the planning conversations, mostly with Chad and then with Phil, I summoned my courage, drew on the relationship we had begun to establish, and asked really nicely . . . and eventually, Kansas let me conduct “Dust in the Wind” in the concert.  Using the collegiate conductor in performance was unprecedented, so I initially did not feel I should share the pic below, but now that the Collegiate Symphony Tour has been history for a few years, here it is.

That’s me between the keyboards and the plexiglass shield.  Most of the orchestra is hidden in this shot, but it was about 45 strong.  Also visible, from left, are Steve Walsh, lead vocalist and here, on keyboard; David Ragsdale, violin, guitars, vocals; and Phil Ehart’s massive drum set.  (There are no drums in “Dust in the Wind.”)

Below is the post-show pic with some undergrad and grad students, some of which have remained friends.

Kansas personnel at the autograph table (L to R): Phil Ehart, the cleanest-cut rock drummer you’ll ever meet; Larry Baird, conductor; David Ragsdale, violin and front man; Steve Walsh, vocals; Rich Williams, who with Ehart is one of the founding members of the band; and Billy Greer, bass.   2nd row college personnel:  J. Helsel-Raymond, H. Yanega, S. Stabley, K. Casey, B. Casey, D. Woodard, and E. Hall.

About the experience
I get annoyed when every routine business matter is labeled an “experience.”  I suppose one wants something of an experience in a pricey restaurant, but don’t ask me about my “experience” in Burger King or after a phone call or a web transaction.  On the contrary, let me tell you, this Kansas Symphony Tour thing was an experience.  There were a couple of relatively minor downsides, such as hoops we had to jump through, and the clueless, irresponsible promotional agency out of Buffalo.²  I never sensed anything but a commitment from the band, though:  the communications with Phil Ehart and his front engineer/manager Chad Singer were entirely pleasant and agreeable; the rehearsing, musically rewarding; and the concert, just what it was cracked up to be—an exciting, fun experience.

Here is a “behind-the-scenes” video look at another one of these Collegiate Symphony Tour concerts.

For any Kansas “Wheatheads” who might click in here but not be familiar with the Collegiate Symphony Tour repertoire, it involved orchestral arrangements of these:

  1. Magnum Opus (instrumental)
  2. Musicatto
  3. Point of Know Return
  4. The Wall
  5. On the Other Side
  6. Hold On
  7. Dust in the Wind
  8. Song for America
  9. Cheyenne Anthem
  10. Icarus
  11. Miracles out of Nowhere
  12. Fight Fire with Fire
  13. Carry On Wayward Son

#s 1, 4, 9, 11, and 13 were from the aforementioned album Leftoverture; the other songs, from albums that followed in the late 70s and 80s.

Monetarily, this project was terrific for the college orchestras.  All the college/university provided was the performance space, with air conditioning/heating and building staff.  On the other side of the equation, the college was given 100 free tickets to sell or give away at its discretion.  A $2000 scholarship was awarded to a string student, and about $1,000 of free products, to the college—all compliments of the D’Addario company.

Musically:  A student player was given the opportunity to improvise opposite David Ragsdale on stage, and the orchestra gained the experience of playing inventive, rhythmically challenging, classic/progressive rock music that most orchestras never touch.  I had falsely assumed that the orchestral parts would consist of lots of whole notes—you know, easy stuff, just to add texture and give the college players something to do.  Boy, was I wrong!  It was challenging music.  For rehearsal, I assigned a few pieces to each graduate conductor to prepare, taking the others myself (“divide and conquer”).  Tooting my own horn—which I took the opportunity to play in the orchestra, too (who could resist?)—I’ll say here that I was complimented for the preparation of my orchestra.  I don’t remember the exact words, but it was clear to me that Larry Baird (performance conductor) and members of the band were pleased by the fact that this little college in the middle of nowhere had taken the music seriously and was better prepared than some orchestras from major universities.

Spiritually:  There were some new connections, such as a sense of mission communicated by Kevin, then the college’s eminently knowledgeable, experienced recording engineer.  I had hoped to engage founding member Kerry Livgren in a pre-concert Skype dialogue, even though he was not part of this project, having had a stroke.  (Things became busy, and I didn’t follow through on that plan.)  I had read Kerry’s autobiography Seeds of Change, in which he describes philosophical and spiritual searching that came to rest with Christian belief.  He is now a committed Christian believer, teaches a Bible class in his church, and publishes through his own label Kergyma Records—a reference to the word used in the Greek NT for the proclaimed message.

In addition, former bass player Dave Hope was an Anglican priest and now works with that denomination in another capacity.  Phil Ehart mentioned church attendance and assured me that even the roadies of the band wouldn’t cuss backstage on our Christian campus.  That was nice.  Beyond that baseline, I did feel the ethical commitment and entirely above-board dealings throughout the project—which in turn fed my spirit through an uphill battle at points.

Finally:  Only a few students knew much about Kansas’ music, but some of their parents did—and traveled to hear the concert.  Some of us will never forget the experience of being on the stage of Wesley Chapel at Houghton College in New York—with Kansas.


¹ I refer not to the “Upper West Side” (which is probably six hours away) or to “Upstate” per se.  This is not the Finger Lakes area, either.  This part of western New York is between the Buffalo-Rochester industrial-technological corridor and the “Southern Tier” which runs roughly (I-86 ran very roughly in spots, until about 2013!) from Jamestown to Binghamton.  Western New York is beautiful in the fall, wet and gray much of the year, and often snowy between November and March.  Some counties in this region are home to many who live below the poverty line.

² Although this particular concert was in an isolated area, and although it was not well supported by the college faculty and students, I blame the agency for most of the monetary loss Kansas doubtless incurred.

 

Funeral music research

My broadest, deepest graduate research dealt with funeral music.  (I always feel funny when mentioning that, figuring I need to apologize for it, but perhaps not.)  Funeral music can be very rewarding, actually, and I periodically come across funeral or lament music I wish I had known in 2005-07.  One soul actually wrote to me in the context of her own research, purchasing a complete e-copy of mine.  Previously, a student asked to read (and actually read!) the entire thing, but these levels of interest are rare.

Despite the tendency to avoid talking about death, it has obviously been part of the cycle of things, ever since the first humans.  My personal cycle of life has involved a return to a town where I knew people in the past.  Two of those folks have recently lost relatives, and I attended the memorial events.  Last month, the family of another spiritually minded friend marked the anniversary of the death of their son/brother, and I was again reminded of the protracted nature of life-and-death memories.

Here is a passage from the introduction to my dissertation:

Although funerals and related ceremonies take different forms—depending on ethnicity, affiliation, preference, and other factors—death is universally experienced.  We most often perceive death as a time for reflection, for reverence, and for sobriety, if not gloom.  Yet death events are more emotionally varied than is frequently presumed by a casual observer. ¹

When someone dies, it is often possible to learn something valuable and/or inspirational, and the personal growth may come in different shapes and hues.  I first became interested in funeral music after having been introduced to a remarkable musical work written after the death of a friend of 19C Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  Perceiving the genuine pathos and artful composition of that funeral march led me to investigate other works, in pursuit of a thesis (that I ended up essentially disproving).

An abstract is generally a crystallized summary of a research article or paper and can aid a reader in grasping the paper’s purpose.  Below is the abstract from my dissertation.  Please ponder with me the implications, both human and musical.

The universal experience of death has for millennia been associated with music.  Wind instruments, in particular, have been the media of choice for many funeral music genres.

A proper historical outlook on funeral music begins prior to biblical history and continues through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque, stylistically culminating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Classical-to-Romantic transition years ultimately became a defining period for the Funeral March genre as the musical language was crystallized.

Funeral music types include both processional music and graveside subtypes—functional categories that intersect with two super-genres, the Funeral March and the Lament.  The Funeral March class includes the Dead March, the Pompe Funèbre, and the Equale; the Lament includes a broader range of genres such as the Planctus, the Déploration, the Dump, the Elegy, the Tombeau, the Threnody, and the Nanie.

The slate of musical topoi (topics) common in the Classical period includes the Funeral March, which in its purest form may be clearly defined in terms of rhythmic, melodic, and other musical characteristics.  Although the Funeral March is readily described and delineated, such music was not confined to functional, independent works; it was also found re-appropriated in many other genres—including opera, keyboard sonatas, and symphonies—that were intended primarily for the concert hall.

It is because the funeral musical codes were distilled into a style—and ultimately became a set of funeral genres—that most listeners can recognize funeral music, apprehending the Funeral March genre, in particular, without uncertainty.  Many funeral pieces are emotionally evocative and worthwhile, deserving of study and performance.

A decade after the original dissertation, I self-published the lion’s share of the prose, minus the actual musical transcriptions and minus the paper-waste required by graduate publishing conventions.  The paperback book is now available here

In reconsidering utilizing the material above, I am reminded anew of the historical association of funerals and mourning with wind instruments, and of the developmental connection between style and genre.  Musical coding—with such components as triplet rhythms, the sospiri (essentially a melodic sigh), and the subconscious or intentional utilization of keys such as D minor and C minor—continue to interest me.  Still, it is the authenticity aspect that draws me most:  when funeral or lament music draws from genuine human emotion in the face of death, the result can be evocative and compelling.


¹ Brian Casey, Funeral Music:  Historical Perspective, Genres and Styles, Semiotics and Musical Lexicography, and Exposition of Transcriptions (2nd ed., © 2015), 1.

May is vinyl month (3-final)

A year ago, I offered the last (so far) in a Monday (Worship) Music series of 96 posts.  For a time, I was writing regularly on church music and related matters, e.g., individual songs and hymns, music notation technology, and song leading.  The last post was MM: An inviting invitation (musical settings of Matt 11:28-30), a sort of travelogue through three musical renderings of this Matthew text, including a composition of my own.  Many of the posts in the series focused attention specifically on worship music—i.e. music with lyrics addressed worshipfully to God, regardless of the style or genre, and regardless of its use or non-use “in church.”  I haven’t titled today’s post “Monday Music: ____,” but it did strike me that it was a Monday, and I’ve written about music.

During May I listened only to vinyl records at home.  If memory serves, I started “Vinyl Month” a couple days late, so I ended it a couple days late, too, extending through yesterday.  Below I’ve shared the album covers of the final group of records I sampled, including piano concertos, Maynard Ferguson, Chicago, horn & trumpet solos, musical theater, and crazy Charles Ives.

First off, the piano.  I could have gone to my easy-listening jazz recording of Henry Mancini and Doc Severinsen, or to a record of three well-known Beethoven sonatas, or Bach’s Goldberg Variations on harpsichord, or Ferrante & Teicher’s entertaining duo music.  I went rather to celebrated concertos, thinking that there are probably no more famous piano concertos than Rachmaninoff’s, Grieg’s, and Tchaikovky’s.  Beethoven wrote five, I think, and a couple of those are often performed; Mozart’s and Schumann’s are not too shabby, and I had once conducted a Schumann movement with this young artist at the piano, but the three I mentioned first will probably draw the audiences these days more than most others.

  • When Jedd heard Rachmaninoff from the other room, unprovoked, he said, “This is cool music.”  The third movement includes the melody that inspired the words “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”  Grieg is actually more a favorite of mine, but I didn’t listen to that this time.
  • Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the piano; his preludes and nocturnes and waltzes are still go-to pieces for a plethora of pianists.  The preludes are ordered with a major key followed by its relative minor.  Pop singer-pianist Barry Manilow used No. 20 in C Minor in his love song “Could It Be Magic?”  “Musicologist Henry Finck said that ‘if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes.'”  (Wikipedia)  I later learned that a contemporary performing artist, a former colleague, viewed Martha Argerich as exemplary, whereas he had little appreciation for the glitzy interpretations of Lang Lang.

And then there was “pop,” which for me is a larger umbrella term than it is for most of the world these days.

  • Like operas in the 18C and 19C, musical theater material is largely pop-influenced.  I am not really an enthusiast but have been involved in probably 20 shows as music director or pit orchestra player.  Fiddler on the Roof is among my top three musicals, is relatively artistic and deep, and still manages to be entertaining.  I caught myself singing “If I Were a Rich Man” the other day and put this on.  This recording happens to have used renowned classical violinist Isaac Stern as the “Fiddler.”
  • A marching band demo record supplied by a publisher had some mildly interesting tunes.  My, has marching band changed in three decades.  If nothing else, this stuff is amusing and requires no brain whatsoever.
  • Chicago is always a good listen.  Gotta love trombone with the mild rock.  I never cared much for “Color My World,” but I like “Saturday in the Park” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”  I like my Chicago CD‘s later hits even better, but that’s for another month.

For the more serious, cultivated music of the last couple weeks, I chose horn, trumpet, and Ives.  Or, if you like the alphabetical:  André, Brain, and Crazy Charles.

  • A rare recording of the British horn genius Dennis Brain, who died young in an auto accident, this one includes interviews and Dennis’s favorite encore.  I have three other Brain records, as well.
  • The trumpet concerto record is one I’ve owned most of my serious-listening life.  Maurice André was a renowned master who taught many, including Guy Touvron who would later found a recorded brass quintet.  André  also “inspired many innovations on his instrument and he contributed to the popularization of the trumpet.”  (Wikipedia)
  • Charles Ives was the pet project of my doctoral professor and his colleague Jim Sinclair, both of whom studied at Yale, in Ives’s haunts.  Ives was a different sort of musical master, never making his money with music, succeeding rather in the insurance business.  This recording features a piece I’d never heard of before, so I listened to it first:  Robert Browning Overture.  I found more of a savant’s lunacy than a poet’s soul in this music.  Also included is the more famous Three Places in New England, about which Wikipedia reports, “Each is intended to make the listener experience the unique atmosphere of the place, as though they (sic) are there. . . .  Ives’s “paraphrasing of American folk tunes is a particularly important device. . . .  The intention was to make the music accessible despite its avant-garde chromaticism.”  (Wikipedia)  A large part of middle movement of Three Places is better known to many as the wonderfully quirky, quodlibet-ish “Country Band” March for wind band.

I couldn’t resist a little “high Baroque” with Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  Händel is no hero of mine; I don’t care for the oratorio and opera genres in which he gained much fame.  This brass-heavy, pompous music is nice, though, and almost as pleasurable as the Water Music suite (which I only have on CD).

Finally, the jazz I chose for the last couple of weeks included some personal favorites.

  • Charlie Parker, born in Kansas City, is a jazz legend and also a tragic figure who experienced depression and addiction to heroin, dying at age 34.  (Schubert, Mozart, Purcell, and Gershwin also died in their 30s.)  Parker’s improvisation is pure genius, and he is known as a paragon of bop and an intellectually gifted architect of jazz.
  • Maynard Ferguson produced three “M.F. Horn” recordings, and I like them all very much.  I think I acquired #2 first (just after “Gospel John”), and it is probably my favorite, including “covers” of James Taylor’s “Country Road,” arrangements of movie themes, “Spinning Wheel,” and “Hey Jude.”
  • Stan Kenton’s jazz orchestra has always attracted me, largely because he’s a piano player and also because he sometimes used orchestral brass (horn, tuba).  My Kenton knowledge is shallow.  This is one of four recordings I have, but I haven’t played Side Two in years, so I did in May.
  • A serious jazz musician today would probably not want to think of Herb Alpert’s music as jazz, and I suppose it’s more like pop-lite Latino novelty stuff.  It’s great fun, though!

I take the glories and varieties of music to be one of many evidences of the existence of God.  I liked forcing myself to get back into musical variety on my records for a while.  Compared with cassettes, vinyl records had the advantage of random accessibility of different “tracks,” so I sometimes took advantage of that.  I haven’t purchased any newly produced records yet, but I hear they can be amazing.  For now, it’s back to my ten-times larger CD collection.  But now that I’ve dug into the records with more purpose, I might also be prompted to find treasures in this collection more often.

– B. Casey, 6/3/18

May is vinyl month (2)

May is “vinyl month” in my house.  That means discovering, or re-discovering, some old “LP” records.  Listening is not necessarily all “serious music” but can be serious business for me:  I care about what I listen to, and I make conscious choices with a good deal of variety.  Here, I feature most of the records I’ve chosen during the last week or so.

  1. Dvorak:  Symphony No. 7   In my view, neither Dvorak nor Mendelssohn receives due attention as the effervescent, quintessential 19th-century composers they were.  Dvorak’s #7 and #8 deserve every bit as much play as the more famous #9, “From the New World.”  This composer’s Serenade for Winds is a piece that has been in my top 10 for quite a while, and his tone poems and piano works are wonderful, too.
  2. Kerry Livgren:  Seeds of Change   This is also the title of the songwriter’s autobiography.  For this post-Kansas album, Livgren utilized Kansas principals on some songs.
  3. Kansas:  Monolith   Yes, more Kansas!  This album came after the biggest hits and includes the interesting songs “People of the South Wind,” “On the Other Side,” and the tender, probing “Reason To Be.”
  4. Seals & Crofts:  Greatest Hits  Surely only the most hardened criminals rap fans wouldn’t like the fun, ever-so-pleasant, mid-seventies songs “I’ll Play for You” and “Summer Breeze.”
  5. Stravinsky:  Threni   The Latin vocals and quasi-serial composition technique make this absolutely horrific listening for me.  I’m sorry I had to pick this record out of my stacks in order to recall it.  (It is for good reason that I’d only listened to it once before.)  I only have this album because it potentially intersected with funeral music, which was the topic of my dissertation.  This “threni,” a shortened plural form of “threnody,” refers to the Latin title of the Old Testament book “Lamentations”—which is filled with Jeremiah’s lamentations of a different sort.  In any event, I recommend this music to precisely no one.  Much more interesting and provocative, although also generally unpleasant, would be Penderecki’s famed Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
  6. Canadian Brass:  A Touch of Brass   This has been a go-to quintet album of mine for quite a while.  It includes an arrangement of Bach’s Contrapunctus No. 9 and the ever-brilliant Malcolm Arnold quintet, a tour de force that requires technique, musicianship, and inner rhythm the likes of which most musicians can only hope to approach but rarely to achieve.  I saw these guys live when I was a teenager and still have the t-shirt and an autographed program!
  7. Jackson Browne:  Lives in the Balance   I’m still getting acquainted with this 1986 album.  Musically, I’d say it consists of appealing pop-rock.  Apparently the album is a favorite of Browne’s but was not received well critically or even popularly—because of its political commentary nature.
  8. Harding A Cappella Chorus:  Tour ’69   I don’t care for much choral music these days, but I particularly love former professor Bill Holloway’s works “Peace I Leave with You” and “Hosanna in the Highest.”  He would have been a young professor in his late 20s or early 30s when he wrote these pieces.  This is vinyl month, so I’ll stick with the above for now, but I just pulled out the CD of his choral works that Holloway place in my hands only about five years ago.  I’ll listen to that in a couple of weeks.
  9. Maynard Ferguson:  Carnival  This is pop jazz from around 1980—fun stuff, including the title track, Gerry Rafferty’s hit “Baker Street,” a beautiful arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” and an iconic, funk-bass version of the jazz classic “Birdland.”  I prefer the earlier Maynard albums, possibly for sentimental reasons, but some of the material here is really listenable.

I’ll probably write only one more “Vinyl Month” post, so I had better choose well.  I’m thinking Chicago, a couple of piano albums (Horowitz playing Beethoven?), John Denver or the Doobies, string quartets of Schubert, music for hunting horns or baroque trumpets or classical guitar . . . and, oh yeah, maybe a marching band demo album or some other novelty. . . .