Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Beverly Cleary on Procrastination

This is not advice from Beverly Cleary about how or how not to procrastinate, but reading this bit from My Own Two Feet gives me courage. The creative process is rife with interruption and insecurity, and, in Cleary's case, rich in the everydayness of what it means to be a child. Reading her books helps adults remember what it was like to be in the third grade, to be a fifteen-year-old girl (even if they had never been a girl of any age), or to be part of a family.

This passage comes from the end of her memoir. Beverly and her husband Clarence had just bought their first house. She had been through college and library school, and had worked in a few libraries. She always had the desire to write children's books, but had never written anything longer than a 24-page paper for a college English class.
We had discovered in the linen closet a ream of typing paper left by the former owner. I remarked to Clarence, "I guess I'll have to write a book." My ambition, refusing to die, was beginning to bloom again.

"Why don't you?" asked Clarence.

"We never have any sharp pencils" was my flippant answer.

The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener.

The trouble was, I couldn't think of anything to write about. Besides, I was busy turning our house into a home. We bought dining room furniture to go over the braided rug. I braided another for the living room from my army uniforms, Clarence's wedding suit, and other memories.

* * *

On January 2, 1949, I gathered up my typewriter, freshly sharpened pencils, and the pile of paper and sat down at the kitchen table we had stored in the back bedroom. Write and no backing out, I told myself. In all my years of dreaming about writing, I had never thought about what it was I wanted to say. I stared out the window at the fine-leafed eucalyptus tree leaning into the canyon and filled with tiny twittering birds. I looked out the other window at a glimpse of the bay when the wind parted the trees. There must be something I could write about. The cat, always interested in what I was doing, jumped up on the table and sat on my typing paper. Could I write about Kitty? He had a charming way of walking along the top of the picket fence to sniff the Shasta daisies, but children demanded stories. A daisy-sniffing cat would not interest them. I thought about the usual first book about a maturing of a young girl. This did not inspire me. I chewed the pencil, watched the birds, thought about how stupid I had been all those years when I aspired to write without giving a thought to what I wanted to say, petted the cat, who decided he wanted to go out. I let him out and sat down at the typewriter once more. The cat wanted in. I let him in, held him on my lap, petted him, and found myself thinking of the procession of nonreading boys who had come to the library once a week when I was a children's librarian, boys who wanted books about "kids like us."
After that Cleary started thinking about the kids in her neighborhood when she was growing up, and then she started thinking about plausible story lines and characters, and then, after several interruptions, she came to the realization that writing for children was the same as storytelling, which she had done a lot as a children's librarian, and she was on her path.

An extra treat: In 1985 Beverly Cleary wrote this article for the New York Times.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Is Art Powerless Against Reality?

From Romain Rolland, as quoted by Stefan Zweig: "Art can bring us consolation as individuals, but it is powerless against reality."
This simple statement has been rattling around in my brain for the last 24 hours. Romain Rolland, who, in addition to writing novels, plays, and essays about art wrote a great deal about music. [The internet archive has some of his musical writings here, and you can find the text of his well-known book, Beethoven the Creator here.]

Rolland lived in France during a time when I thought that art (or Art) was considered a vital part of reality, but I am learning, little by little, that a general "reality" is something controlled not by the people who make art, but by the people who have a great deal of power. We have had, during the past few centuries, people of power who were consumers of art. The world is indeed indebted to the artistic tastes of Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Princess de Polignac, and those three Americans named Henry: Frick, Huntington, and Higginson.

Cue Herman's Hermits for a bit of comic relief:

It seems to me that many of the people of wealth and power living in this century (the one percent, and the politicians representing them) aren't particularly interested in art, music, and drama beyond celebrity and investment value. I fear that art has lost even more of what little power it might have had when Rolland considered it powerless against reality.

I think I'll poke through those Rolland essays now. I'm hoping for a bit of consolation in them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Notes on Reflections

I have spent the last couple of months working on a piece for flute and strings in memory of my mother, who died this past Valentine's Day. I finished the piece yesterday, and it is now in the IMSLP. I thought I would use this virtual "space" to write some notes about "Three Reflections for Flute and Strings."

The first movement has the title "Was will die einsame Thräne?" I began this as a setting of a Heine poem which I encountered, through a reference to it, in Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, one of the books Michael and I read earlier this summer. The poem has been sitting next to me all summer, copied onto a yellow legal pad.
Was will die einsame Thräne?
Sie trübt mir ja den Blick.
Sie blieb aus alten Zeiten
In meinem Auge zurück.

Sie hatte viel leuchtende Schwestern,
Die alle zerflossen sind,
Mit meinen Qualen und Freuden,
Zerflossen in Nacht und Wind.

Wie Nebel sind auch zerflossen
Die blauen Sternelein,
Die mir jene Freuden und Qualen
Gelächelt ins Herz hinein.

Ach, meine Liebe selber
Zerfloß wie eitel Hauch!
Du alte, einsame Träne,
Zerfließe jettender auch!
The poem from the section called "Die Hedmkehr," XXVII from Heinrich Heine's Buch der Lieder, and it has been set by at least 81 composers. Here is a link to a good English translation.

I didn't do a full setting of the song, but I used the lines of poetry to write the major thematic material of the first piece of the set, and allowed the music to reflect poetry. The artwork on the Soundcloud link is by my mother.

The second piece in the set, "The Silence," is from a group of songs I wrote in 2002 to poems by Federico Garcìa Lorca. I made an arrangement of some of the songs for flute and piano, but left "El Silencio" out of that set. It works really well for flute and strings. Here's the poem:
Oye, hijo mío, el silencio.
Es un silencio ondulado,
un silencio,
donde resbalan valles y ecos
y que inclina las frentes
hacia el suelo.

Lee todo en: El silencio - Poemas de Federico García Lorca

Here is the setting:

The third piece is a "Yahrzeit" tribute to my mother. I re-used and adapted material from a set of calendar preludes for piano that I wrote in memory of my brother Marshall for the Jewish year of 5775, the year that began right after his death. The time for my mother's Yahrzeit is in the month of Adar, so I used material from the piece I wrote for the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, so the piano piece runs like a kind of story that is interrupted by explosions of noise (whenever the name "Haman" is spoken). For this setting I lightened the mood. I also reduced the number of "interruptions," and I turned them into trills. Here is the updated setting:

(For reference, and in case you are interested, here is a link to an audio file for "Adar.")

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stefan Zweig on Fate

From the chapter "Bypaths on the Way to Myself" in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday
It was natural enough for me to think that I was being persecuted by fate, since at the very start the theater had so temptingly offered me undreamed-of possibilities only to snatch them cruelly from me at the last moment. But it is only early in life that one believes fate to be identical with chance. Later one knows that the actual course of one's life was determined from within; however confusedly and meaninglessly our way may deviate from our desires, after all it does lead us inevitably to our invisible goal.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Note of Thanks

While recovering from the thankless task of cutting the overgrown weeds and invasive vines on the wall that separates our property from our neighbor's property, I am overcome with gratitude for having the time and physical ability to perform such a task, for living in a house with a yard to tend, for being able to drink and shower in fresh water after I have exhausted myself, and for knowing that I will be able to sit down for a nice lunch soon.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Questions Concerning Sound and Music

In an essay about Charles Ives, Jan Swafford writes about George Ives, the father of Charles Ives:
As importantly, George Ives taught his son to respect the power of vernacular music. As a Civil War band leader he understood how sentimental tunes such as "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," "Aura Lee," Stephen Foster songs, and marches and bugle calls were woven into the experience of war and the memories of soldiers. Much as did Gustav Mahler a continent away, Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: "Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds-for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."
At some point Charles Ives uttered his famous (perhaps rhetorical) question "What does sound have to do with music?" Swafford puts it in an appropriate context:
Thus Ives's comment, echoing his father's words: "What does sound have to do with music?" For Ives, music is not mere sound but the underlying spirit, human and divine, which the sounds express even in the inexpert playing and singing of amateurs. Thus the paradox of Ives's music, echoing his paradoxical person: he could be realistic, comic, transcendent, simple, complex, American, and European, all at the same time. If some of his music seems crowded nearly to bursting, it is a vibrant and entirely realistic portrayal of his conception of life, his sense of democracy in action, and of his own all-embracing consciousness. As Ives once said, Music is life.
We now live in a time where sounds can be lined up, preserved, and incorporated to any situation, and played for reasons both musical and non-musical (consider the white noise used to drown out possible outbursts of opposition in the areas of the hall that held Sanders supporters during the Democratic National Convention). Ives's statement "Music is Life," does not strike the same rebellious chord (or discord) it struck during Ives's lifetime.

We live in a time when someone who is not able (for whatever reason) to translate what s/he plays into musical notation is capable of making a functional sound-track for a video (see the post below from yesterday). Someone who doesn't play (or even own) a traditional instrument can use household objects to generate what would function as music, and that person could record it using a smartphone and share it for all the world to hear. Or a person who doesn't play a traditional instrument could use a device like the Koka's Soundtrack Box No. 1, and get stunning results.

Koka's Soundtrack Box No. 1 from nikoladze on Vimeo.

Does this box make sound, or does it make music? Do we need to expand our vocabulary to express the capabilities of our technology? Does using an instrument like this (and it is indeed both an instrument and a beautifully and thoughtfully constructed piece of art) generate sound, or does it generate music? When playing a traditional instrument in a non-traditional way (using extended techniques, for example), is the result music or sound? If there is a difference, where does that difference begin and where does it end?

Friday, August 05, 2016

Hotel Electric (Partial) Performance

I wrote this piece as an experiment in writing for film. My intention was to try to illustrate the actions in the film with music. I tried to write music that was appropriate to the era of the film, and I tried to make the music reflect the pacing of the film. My ultimate goal was to write music that was boisterous and colorful, but that would essentially function as an accompaniment, rendering itself, through repetition of material, as invisible as a trio of woodwinds could possibly be. It was great fun to experiment with the zillions of musical possibilities, and it is very interesting to hear it (well, some of it) performed in this concert setting.

The woodwind trio music at the beginning is mine. After a few minutes the students in the mixed ensemble accompany the film with what seems like a well-prepared collective improvisation. The improvised music ends up being very much in the foreground, with the film serving as a kind of visual accompaniment to it.