Saturday, December 31, 2011

More Passing Tones of 2011

I missed a few very important musical passings in 2011. I probably missed many more. Pete Rugolo was one of the great arrangers for Stan Kenton and many great singers, died at 91. He was in an army band with Paul Desmond and studied with Darius Milaud at Mills College in Oakland CA, as Brubeck did.

Joe Morello, the drummer who played all the odd time signatures in the Brubeck Quartet, died at 83. Paul Motian, the drummer behind Monk, Bill Evans, Arlo Guthrie, Charlie Haden, Joe Lovano, and many others, played and recorded until his death at 80.

Gladys Horton, soloist of the Marvelettes ("Please, Mr. Postman"), died at 66.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Music Within Me – By Some Musicians Who Left Us in 2011

In my college dorm in 1962 one of my vinyl records was San Francisco Scene by George Shearing. The album is long gone, but one of my sons-in-law retrieved it from the ether last week. Because the album never made it to cd (except in a huge collection of all of Shearing’s recorded live performances), this electronica even has the pops and hisses of the original record. How odd it is to re-live feelings from 50 years ago. He died this year at 91.

I am amazed at how unsophisticated I was; how much I didn’t know and understand when I was young. I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet in ‘63 and “didn’t get it.” My granddaughter is approaching 4 years old and is absorbing all she can of this world which is still new to her, and yet she will not be able to keep up. I think she is doing better than I did. I lived too much in my head and not enough in the outer world. It’s a way of engaging with the world. I wanted to examine things within and not pursue them by seeking out other people or going other places. Ah, the senior years are time for reflection and a new kind of meaning making.

Moving ahead a few years, I am in a coffee shop on N. Dubuque St. In Iowa City. The Swingle Singers are jazzing up some Bach in the background. Why didn't I run off to Paris?? I have re-aquainted myself with them this year and learned that the soprano with the clear, vibrant voice, floating above the harmonies was Christiane LeGrand, sister of Michel LeGrand. She died in November at 81.

I researched her family and learned that their father was Raymond LeGrand, who had an orchestra in the ‘30's and ‘40's. I can't seem to embed the video but check out "Raymond Legrand et son Orchestre & Irène de Trébert filmés en 1942" for a film clip of Raymond from war time Paris. I especially like the feathers as snow clogging and then unclogging all the instruments.) What a surprise to learn that Raymond had been a student of Gabriel Faure. (Musical genealogy is tres interesante, such as Dave Brubeck attending Mills College in Oakland after the war, and having as a teacher, Darius Milaud.)

The songs of Lieber and Stoller ("Stand By Me," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Young Blood," "On Broadway," "Yakety-Yak," etc.) accompanied my youth. Jerry Lieber died this year at 78.

I could write at great length about these folks who left us this year, but I will only name others who meant something special to me:
Phoebe Snow died at 60, her career shortened by her decision to care at home for her severely mentally impaired daughter.

You all know John Barry’s  movie themes (77).

And Clarence Clemmons (69) was more familiar to us, especially if we spent any time at the shore in Jersey.

If you ever heard Count Basie, you have heard Frank Foster (lead tenor sax player and a song writer for the band, which he later led, at 82).

Only in recent years have I been learning to appreciate Margaret Whiting's clear voice, who died at 87.

There are many I won’t mention because they weren’t on my playlist, such as Amy Whitehouse. And let’s think about all those artists who struggled and didn’t become famous, or like Tom Garvin, who worked in the background and aren’t well known. He accompanied many great singers like Peggy Lee and Diane Shurr, wrote music for the Doc Severinson’s Tonight Show band, struck out on his own and won aclaim in LA as a jazz pianist. He was 67.

I have noted the age of people when they died. This is because I am 67 and thinking about death more and more. It could happen at any time or not for another 20-30 years. I want to think it through in 2012 so that I can tell my family how not to think of my death. What I have so far isn’t much: We simply live the years of our lives, however long or short. We cannot say what might have been or should have been. An appropriate expression of our times is – “It is what it is.” It’s OK. It’s all tragic. We’re all special, but mostly important only to a few. When they are gone we really will be gone. So live for life - Michel LeGrand wrote that - “Yesterday’s a memory, gone for good, forever, while tomorrow is a guess.” Well, l’existentialisme aside, we should try to learn from the past and try to contribute to tomorrow, while we live for today.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Pageant for Christmas Babies

This morning at the local UU congregation, there was a Christmas/Holiday/Solstice pageant called “The Shortest Day.” It (and several songs) was written by Neal Herr, an English prof at SUNY Adirondack. The congregation has performed it three years running. It was serious and funny, and I think respectful in its own way of the Christian tradition.

The central character is “Questioning Girl,” who was born on Christmas and feels cheated. Her father gives her money and says, “Here, this is for Christmas and your birthday.” She wonders if she matters and falls into a dream. Sir Isaac Newton appears (“I am the greatest scientist who ever lived.”) and tells Questioning Girl that he too was born on Dec. 25. He gives the meaning of “Life As We Know It” as about the cosmos and laws of physics. She responds that this view of life is “cold.”

Her dog appears in the dream as “Og,” a caveman (who doesn’t know when he was born) and says “No. There is a good and evil spirit in everything. Light fire to make sun return.”

Clara Barton arrives to tell Questioning Girl that she, too, was born on Dec. 25, and that life is about giving and loving. (Good timing for the offering.)
The Egyptian, Horus, tells about being born on Dec. 25 of a virgin.

The rapping “Three Wise Kids” (the photo is what you get when you Google "3 rappers") tell the origin of our Christmas customs. Questioning Girl wonders if there is anything special about Christmas. “Nothing original!” shouts the cast.

She sings about how maybe “Nothing’s Special,” and the ensemble answers with a rousing song, “Light Up the Night.” Everyone in our hemisphere sees long winter nights and short spans of daylight. We all have holidays that light up the night. Celebrations bring families together, and while darkness surrounds you, there’s something we all do and you can too: Light up the night with cheer and love and giving.

Well. This is the most intelligent and moving pageant I have ever seen. Kudos to Neal and all who had a part in it. I demand that next year we set up three video cameras, produce a dvd, and sell it as a fundraiser for the church. What talents we do employ.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Trajectories of Hope for the Church

[You may skip to the last 6 short paragraphs for the kernel of this post.]

I still care about the Presbyterian Church (USA). It’s just that I have other more immediate and satisfying concerns in my retirement. I am weary of fighting for what should be little things like acceptance of gays and gay marriage.  The PCUSA stopped fighting about war and peace, and social transformation a long time ago, so it is now irrelevant. That is why I think it has declined from about 6 million to 2 million members.

I joined the church in ‘66, the year the decline began. One might conclude that I, therefore, am the cause of the decline. No. It is the church that has been afraid to be progressive that has caused its decay.

Recently Jack Haberer, the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, an independent magazine of news and opinion within the church, hosted a “Webinar” on the topic “What’s to Become of Our Church?  …Trajectories of Hope.” I did not attend. Today Carmen Fowler Laberge, editor of The Layman, a newspaper of the right-wing orthodox within the church, wrote a response. She writes that “we have but one hope and His name is Jesus. The trajectories of hope are then:
a return to a unified declaration that Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation;
a resurgence of evangelistic fervor to convert the lost;
a rediscovery of the Bible and a renewal as in the days of Josiah;
a repentance of our departure from and active participation in the suppression of the Truth; and
a recommitment to a pattern of discipleship that produces people mature to the stature of Christ who are able to speak the truth in love to a generation of itchy ears.”

The Layman began in the ‘60's in opposition to the adoption of "The Confession of ‘67" and the Book of Confessions of which it is now a part. Prior to this book of historical and time related declarations of doctrine, the "Westminster Confession" of 1647 was supreme. From the point of view of The Layman “Truth” was being surrendered. Westminster had said that the Bible was the foundational Truth. The Confession of ‘67 said that Jesus the Christ was that foundation.

This meant endless war in a church more concerned with words than with life. One of those who opposed both the bureaucracy of the church (of which I became a part) and the reactionary elements was John Fry, a saint from the south side of Chicago. He wrote this interesting book about the PCUSA in '76, which should be the subject of a blog post itself. One thing he said was that “The human race needs all the friends it can get.” The church was not being that friend.

If we want trajectories of hope for the church, here are mine:

A return to the teachings of Jesus about life. Downplay or forget teachings about judgment and damnation which probably are not from Jesus himself. Emphasize Jesus’ teachings and way of life and death as a revelation of God. Put aside unnecessary concern about divinity.

A return to teaching and learning of everything: the world from the sciences, from whence we have come in history, who we are from anthropology and biology and evolution, recognizing that we are all lost unless we learn, adapt, and act.

A return to prophetic witness and ministry by study of  the problems that confront us now and in the foreseeable future. A willingness to stand up and speak out for human rights and the common welfare.

A rediscovery of the Bible and a discovery of world religions, learning of the human spirit and our common search for self-transcendence.

A repentance of the many ways we have harmed people by teachings that we thought were ultimate truth, which has profoundly created conflict and opposed peace.

A recommitment to a pattern of discipleship that produces people mature to the stature of Jesus as a model human being, who are able to speak the truth in love to the world and risk their lives for these truths.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Planting a Peace Pole

No it is not a phallic symbol. Could be, sub-consciously, but no one wants it to be so. It's not a rocket or an arrow. It is not a “Festivus” pole. That would be aluminum and is about feats of strength and declarations of disappoint-ments.  This is wood and is a marker saying “Here is a place of peace.”

We dedicated this one at the UUA congregation in Queensbury NY Sunday. We even had a rabbi to bless it. The peace committee that tackled and completed the project admitted that they argued about many things before they settled on a design and location. Ironic and fitting.

These peace poles are all over the place. Several churches I have served had them. Now I learn that it is a movement that came out of Japan as a response to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is the work of the World Peace Prayer Society. Read about it here. There are more than 200,000 of them planted all over the world.

The prayer is simple and non-sectarian: “May peace prevail on earth.” We learned the word for peace in 19 languages, printed on the pole. The local native Abenaki word is “kamignokawogan.” A turtle, which is the Abenaki symbol for the earth is on the pole. So is a whale, a lamb, and another creature I forget.

Maybe you saw the Oneida nation float in the Macy’s parade. It is a turtle, with a pine tree, topped by an eagle, the essential religious symbols of the Algonquin confederacy. We have a large metal turtle above our fireplace.

Hey, I can use the mast from my small sailboat as a Festivus pole!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I’ll Be Bach – I Catch Up on My Childhood through Music Theory

One of the big reasons for this blog is for me to keep active in my retirement. I think it is natural to seek meaning in one’s life when approaching the end of it. My retirement project is quite extensive. I want to be expressive of my thoughts and opinions. I want to fix up my Alfa (or find some kind of convertible that doesn’t need fixin’ up).  And the thing I have been telling people for years: “When I retire I want to go back to school and major in music.”

My band director at Sioux City Central High School was Robert Brooks (no photo available). I played alto sax in band and oboe in orchestra.  He approached me about majoring in music after the senior winter orchestra concert, in which I played really well the oboe solo on Bali Hai from South Pacific. But I wanted to be an economist (before I understood that it involved math). And there was a ninth grade girl who played oboe better than I. I didn’t believe that I had the talent for music. And I didn’t like to practice, and still don’t.

So I look back to when I was 10 or 11 years old and took 2 or 3 years of piano lessons. I didn’t like my teacher. She was a perfectionist and wouldn’t tolerate wrong notes. This made me so anxious I could not play. Even though I loved music and wanted to play, I quit.

I still have the music book I was studying when I quit: A Little Treasury of Classics, Vol. IV. I can play several of the pieces by Purcell, Chopin, and Bach, with frustrating hesitation. One piece, a Bouree by JS Bach really intrigued me. What were the chords? What made the chord progressions so interesting? How did it get from here to there? What made it sound the way it did? What made it work?

So now with three semesters of music theory under my belt (no, they are not there, but somewhere!) I took an entire day of Thanksgiving weekend to find answers to my questions. Here is my analysis, which pleased my professor, but me even more.
I discovered a modulation from e minor to G major and back again. I found lots of overlapping ii-V7-I progressions, which I am used to in popular songs. I found a number of unusual chords, called secondary dominants. It is very satisfying to me, to have some understanding of music.

Now on to transcribing Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky from orchestra to symphonic band....

Friday, December 2, 2011

Oxymoron - “The Civil War”

David Goldfield, in his wonderful book, America Aflame, makes numerous pointed observations about US history, and several claims. First, the observation that this country was, and perhaps always has been, marked by a high degree of conflict and violence, having to do mostly with national origin, religion, and political interests and ideology.

He begins his analysis in 1834, in Boston, when a Congregationalist preacher, Lyman Beecher, fired the flames of anti-Catholic hatred against an Ursaline Convent (in what is now Somerville). A young Episcopalian woman who had attended school there (Only 6 of 47 students were Catholic) had written an attack on the nuns. It is hard to believe now that there was no Diocese of Boston til 1820, but Catholics were new to New England, and a threat to the Protestant establishment. Rumors arose about nuns being kept in the Convent against their will (by the priests, for sexual purposes!), and in two nights of riots, the convent was burned to the ground. The Diocese petitioned the state many times until 1855 for restitution. The legislature repeatedly denied it. To get a grip on this religious, nationality, and cultural conflict think the film, Gangs of New York portraying a situation in 1857.

1834 seems to be a good place to begin a 550 page book on the Civil War. When did it begin? Perhaps in 1834. Ah, those evangelical Protestants. In 1833 The American Anti-Slavery Society was established. They convinced many people in the following 30 years that slavery was sinful. This leads to Goldfield’s claims: That northern Evangelicals (we might call them “liberals”) were a major cause of the war by insisting on an end to slavery, slavery could have been ended without a war, therefore the war could have been avoided.

It is difficult for anyone now to believe that slavery was anything but sinful. But Goldfield comes close to blaming the anti-slavery religious folk for causing the war. As he lays out the complicated and polarized history of the 19th century, I cannot see how the war could have been avoided or that slavery could have been ended without the war.

But let’s give him a break. England ended slavery throughout “her” (an interesting locution) colonies officially in 1833, taking effect in August, 1834, the time of the Ursaline Convent violence. However, a judicial ruling in 1772(!) (Somersett’s Case) had already eliminated slavery in England, but not the profitable slave trade. I had to learn of this and the details of the anti-slavery act of 1833 elsewhere. Here is how England ended slavery:

(1) Immediate and effective measures shall be taken for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies. (2) All children born under the passing of the Act, or under the age of six shall be free. (3) All slaves over the age of six years would have to serve an apprenticeship of six years in the case of field slaves, and four years in the case of others. (4) Apprentices should work for not more than 45 hours per week without pay, and any additional hours for pay. (5) Apprentices should be provided with food and clothing by the plantation owner. (6) Funds should be provided for an efficient stipendiary magistracy, and for the moral and religious education of the ex-slaves. (7) Compensation in the form of a free gift of 20 million English pounds should be paid to the slave owners for the loss of their slaves.

Basically, these provisions worked, but the U.S. did not try to emulate them. (I think there was no money to pay off slaveholders and no desire to do so.) In the U.S.the fight was over extending slavery or not into the new territories of the west, the subject of another blog post. Meanwhile, violence continued. The New Yorker reported last summer that Charles Dickens visited America in 1842 and wrote this about it:

“Look at the exhausted treasury; the paralyzed government; the unworthy representatives of a free people; the desperate contests between the North and the South; the iron curb and brazen muzzle fastened up on every man who speaks his mind, even in that great Republican Hall, to which Republican men are sent by a Republican people to speak Republican Truths – the stabbings, and shootings, and coarse and brutal threatenings exchanged between Senators under the very Senate’s roof – the intrusion of the most pitiful, mean, malicious, creeping, crawling, sneaking party spirit into all transactions of life.”

(Congressman Thomas Arnold of Tennessee was threatened and beaten in 1832 on the steps of the Capitol and in 1842, in the chambers. Reporters did not write of these and other similar events because their lives were threatened. This changed with the introduction of the telegraph, evidence perhaps that technology makes us more human.)

Let’s all go watch 30 minutes of Fox News and celebrate being Americans.