Onward and Upward

It feels like a long time coming, writing this.
After five years, half a decade (to make it sound more impressive), I’m bidding farewell to my school and am working in the private sector. The new gig is at an ad agency in the city, where the hip people are. I’m still doing IT support, but then again I’m going to go way beyond that. There are opportunities to wield computer systems in ways I’ve only speculated on before. I’m going to become the second in a two-man team to keep these systems running. It’s very cool, geeky stuff.

I found this gig through Craigslist of all places. To add to the utterly coincidental nature of it, it was using an utterly unprofessional cover letter. They hired me on for a month of contract work this summer. Following some very kind compliments, I was offered to stay on full-time. After much deliberation over the weekend, on Monday I accepted the offer and submitted my resignation to the school.

Still, so many years and misplaced ventures are being left behind. I will miss some of what I used to do, but oddly most will have nothing to do with my job requirements. The computer work was fine, but stagnant. Working with the kids, though, was great. Between the occasional snot-nosed punk were huge swaths of good-natured, budding minds that were as insane as they were delightful. And I learned so much from the good people who stood in front to show them their world.

I’m glad to be moving on. Very glad. There is a lot of ground to recover for them, and I wish them all the best. But I’m happy to move to a place where I am the one learning so much and getting inspired again. I’m surrounded by incredibly creative, savvy people and I can only image what I will glean from them. Hopefully they won’t mind me asking questions about their work.

It has been a long, bittersweet day. I’m not a very sentimental person, and I loathe goodbyes, so I’m glad the school was nearly empty as I carried my banker’s box out.

I’m not one to believe in signs either. But after loading my box into the back of my little station wagon, buckling up, and turning the ignition, the classical station came on. It was in the middle of playing Shostakovitch’s Festive Overture.

It felt appropriate.

Sick Again

I woke up feeling awful yesterday morning. I still braved going to work (and doing a band field trip to the city). Then I went home and crashed. Luckily other people were taking my kids so that made it easier.

Having rested so much, I woke up at 5 o’clock this morning. Running a fever, I grabbed some medicine and water and went back to bed. As I was laying there waiting to fall back asleep, my fever-addled mind was whirring.

I need to join up with three other jazz musicians to form a quartet again. My friends and I formed a group my final year of college and it was great. And we were a little different since we had an amazing guitar player rather than a piano player, as well as bass and drums.

I want to do it again. Four dudes playing jazz for small gigs. We did cocktail parties and weddings; very mellow stuff. If I can get a quartet together once more, I know just what to call us:

For Jasmine.

Music for the Ages

So my friend has asked me to help him find some classical music to get him into the genre. Tricky part is that the genre encompasses about a quarter millennium of great art. So how does one help a non-music major get into it all?

I don’t think chronological really works. Bach and Mozart mean far more if you have a bit more of a formal understanding of older musical forms. So better start with the Romantic era, or 20th Century. There needs to be a familiarity with melodies, faint enough to catch one’s ear. Also, the pieces should be a tad shorter than Beethoven’s Ninth. After all, we’re most familiar in the mp3 era with 3- to 4-minute radio tunes. Lastly, perhaps some of the avant-garde or supremely dissonant could be left until a foothold has been put in place. As I’ve said many times, you can’t think outside the box if you haven’t seen the box. So no John Cage just yet.

It also leads me to the question: what if I could only pick one orchestral work to open the door to this music?

George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to bridge the gap for those used to American pop and jazz?

Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to touch the heart of anyone who isn’t deaf?

Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to reach those of us who grew up on Bugs Bunny?

Beethoven’s, well, anything? I’m too big a fan to be picky, though the Sixth Symphony comes to mind.

What if you got to pick the very first piece of music a person would hear? I always go back to the sounds from my father’s old LP collection. There was album in particular, Ormandy by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mea Culpa: “Finlandia” by Sibelius, I thought of it as “Dragnet” music. “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saëns, I thought it was Christmas-y (it had ringing triangles and soft flutes and I was six. Shut up.)

For my mind, I keep coming back to one piece. I don’t know why. Antonín Dvo?ák’s New World Symphony (his 9th).

I’m still building my playlist, but for sure all these will be on it.

Following Up

Here is a follow up thought to yesterday’s post:

I’m a sucker for waltzes. That lilting triple-meter does something to me. I feel it inside and out. That lingering 2-3 after the strong 1 that gets the beat conveys time and motion so well.

Also, I think that as a native to English our language has a natural lilt. We have small prepositions and articles fed in between our heavy nouns and verbs to give our voices the sway of the triplet. I hear lots of phrases in either 3/4 or 6/8 time.

So I’m tossing this question out to my few loyal readers: what music are you a sucker for? It doesn’t have to be your favorite, or particularly good, but what draws your ear?

Like I said, I’m a sucker for a waltz.

And 80s pop music. (For some reason; Heaven knows why.)

Something About Art

I can’t help but listen to the Erik Satie piece that I posted this weekend over and over. Something about that music haunts.

I hear a memory. Of course, being of the age that I live in, it plays back in my mind as a movie soundtrack. It is not a movie I’ve seen before, though. And in it, I’m the one remembering.

There is more to it than that. It feels like a future memory. I first heard it on the radio, and it was a different musician playing. That performer drew out time a little more slowly and softly, as if there was a haze around it. I barely heard half of it while driving kids to school and I was hooked.

There is love in that piece of music. Part of it is sentimental. Most of it is simple fondness. A life lived together, remembered at the end? Something that happened over a Spring as a young man that disappeared as quickly as it came? Childhood friends goofing around the neighborhood?

To anyone else, they may hear more of a circus in their mind. Or just a piano. Or nothing and change the station. Art strikes us all in different ways. That is what is amazing, and what I try to teach my kids. I ask my son what he sees when he hears things. Sometimes he sees something, sometimes he doesn’t.

With any art, you are not obliged to feel anything at all. It should mean something to at least a few, otherwise it is meaningless and therefore not art. I don’t get much out of paintings or sculptures. Music and movies, though, can hit me hard.

To each his own, as long as something is conveyed to your soul somehow.

Forced Patriotism

During Sunday’s ballgame, my wife gave me a weird look. That in itself is not an uncommon thing. I am who I am, so it comes up regularly. But I got this look during the 7th Inning Stretch. I was apparently grimacing or furrowing or something.
I have always been bad at concealing my feelings. The look on my face or my posture instantly gives away my opinion on a current subject. It makes my wife’s job of reading my mind most of the time much faster and easier. You’re welcome, honey.

M asked me why I was angry. I told her that I was sick of this false, forced patriotism. The middle of the seventh should be devoted to singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and standing in line for the bathroom.

But no. After the choir of grade schoolers finished “Take Me Out” (apropos), another woman came out to sing “God Bless America”. That was when I started getting annoyed.

Aside from the lyrics being trite, why are we bothering to do this? Because we started it after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fine. It’s been over eight years. We don’t need another reminder that we were attacked and to reaffirm our allegiance to the United States.

I have spent two hours sitting and watching a game of baseball being played in the middle of the North America continent. Is there any doubt where I could be? I have eaten food born from four cultures in two days. Where else does that happen?

Let baseball be baseball, let everything else that surrounds us be great and plentiful, and let the fact of our location be implied. Even when I sat in the freezing wind of a rugby pitch in England, I didn’t go, “Oh no! Where am I? I better check my passport and make sure I didn’t go Brit.” I loved enjoying that game as a part of their culture, just as I love our game as a part of ours.

I don’t need reminders that a) I’m in America, b) people died so we’re singing this stupid song, c) I’m not a believer in half of the lyrics, and d) we’re in the midst of poorly guided wars. Let me watch my baseball, even if the Twins are playing like fools, and forget the fact that bad things are going on.

Then “God Bless the U.S.A.” came over the loudspeakers.

I’ll bet I looked like a kid who just got told he couldn’t have a second helping of ice cream. If “God Bless America” is trite, this song is all-out asinine. Before the game began, there was a high school marching band roaming around the warning track playing Sousa marches, for crying out loud. Is this garbage really necessary?

I pity anyone who has to sit through that nonsense for every game.

Oh, and as any writer or drug addict can tell you: excessive use diminishes effect.

A Little More On Music

A cool article showing how the advancements in making pianos have changed the sounds of music from what their composers may have heard.

The prime example of what I’m talking about is perhaps the most famous piece ever written: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Hector Berlioz called its murmuring, mournful first movement, “one of those poems that human language does not know how to interpret.” At the beginning, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustain pedal through the whole first movement, so the strings are never damped. With the pianos of Beethoven’s time, on which the sustain of the strings was shorter than today, the effect was subtle, one harmony melting into another. On a modern piano, with its longer sustain, the effect of holding the pedal down would be a tonal traffic jam. Today you have to fake the effect, and it never quite works as intended. Here’s Alfred Brendel playing the beginning of the “Moonlight” about as well as anyone on the ubiquitous modern Steinway.

Compare that to Gayle Martin Henry playing a piano from around 1805 by the Viennese maker Caspar Katholnig.

The sound is startlingly different from a modern piano and takes a while to get used to. These instruments were mostly played in small to medium-size rooms. The sound is intimate; you hear wood and felt and leather. The voicing is varied through the registers rather than the homogenous sound of modern pianos. On the Katholnig, the effect of holding the pedal down in the “Moonlight” has a ghostly effect, most obvious in the longer-sustaining bass notes that can sound like a distant gong. All these elements of the pianos Beethoven knew shaped the music in the first place, including the way he picked out high and low notes around the murmuring figure in the middle of the keyboard.

You’ll have to click over to the article to hear the music clips to hear what he’s talking about. It’s very cool, and something I’ve often wondered. It is a bit of a musical history musing as to what Mozart would have come up with if he had access to more modern pianos with far greater dynamic ranges.

(Found via Megan McArdle :: The Atlantic.)