The Joy of Music

One of the greatest joys in life is music.  Regular readers will know that I love musicplaying it, writing it, singing it, arranging it, analyzing it, launching it into space, etc.  As an art form, I believe music is uniquely suited to communicating ideas and beauty across time, space, and cultures.  It can be intensely nationalistic, yet still universal.

We’re back to distance learning today after a positive case of The Virus, and since it’s the day before Thanksgiving Break—historically the biggest blow-off day of the school year—my administration decided to play it safe and declare today a distance learning day.  As such, I took the assignment derived from The Story of 100 Great Composers and ported it to my high school music classes.  Those classes will share about their composers today.

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Friday Morning Reading: The Story of One Hundred Great Composers

Today my school is doing its second Live Remote Learning Rehearsal days.  These are days for us to test out remote learning in the event The Virus necessitates returning to distance learning full-timeLast time teachers tuned in from home while teachers were on-campus.  This time, both teachers and students are able to work from home, so I’ve been enjoying a more leisurely morning.

Indeed, I just wrapped up my first morning class of the day, a section of Middle School Music.  The students in that section wrote brief, rough draft biographies of renowned composers, and after giving them feedback in-class yesterday, they presented on their composers this morning.  It was a good lesson for digital learning, as it required their active participation for the bulk of the class, and they all did quite well.

I’ve assigned composer biographies in music courses for years, but what inspired the assignment this time around was the rediscovery of a charming little book I keep on a small end table in my den:  Helen L. Kaufmann’s The Story of One Hundred Great Composers.  Published in 1943, the book is a tiny, pocket-sized digest of two-to-three-page entries—arranged chronologically—of composers from the sixteenth century forward.

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Rock in Peace, Eddie Van Halen

It is with a heavy heart that we bid a fond farewell to the Mozart of our time, Eddie Van Halen.  Van Halen passed away after a lengthy struggle with lung cancer.  He is survived by his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, and his son, Wolfgang Van Halen, who joined the band as its bassist in 2006.

Van Halen was truly one of the guitar greats of the twentieth century, the second half of which witnessed the rise of many guitar heroes to the pinnacles of superstardom, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Van Halen’s licks didn’t stop with memorable riffs.  He could play neoclassical passages with ease, weaving them into songs about partying and and lusting after one’s teacher.  Learning his signature solo, “Eruption,” became a rite of passage for budding guitarists in the 1980s and beyond.  Van Halen also dominated on the keyboards—much to the chagrin of perennial showman David Lee Roth—as is clear from the entire album 1984, one of the best albums of all time.  Who can resist jumping when hearing the opening strains of “Jump“?

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SubscribeStar Saturday: Making Music, Part II

Today’s post is a SubscribeStar Saturday exclusive.  To read the full post, subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more.  For a full rundown of everything your subscription gets, click here.

This school year I began transitioning from teaching a blend of history and music classes towards focusing almost entirely on music.  While I still teach a couple of sections of American History, my teaching duties these days consist primarily music classes.

One of the real joys of teaching music—besides the fact that it’s just plain fun—is to see students inspired to create their own music.  I have been blessed over the years to witness the musical development of many students, and to hear some of their creations.

During our remote learning rehearsal day earlier this week, I pulled out some old concert footage to show my HS Music Ensemble class, a course that is entirely performance based.  That class does not port well to a fully online format, especially to a livestreamed one, as latency is so intense that it makes ensemble performance impossible.  Indeed, if that class goes to a fully online format, we’ll have to focus more on solo work and and music theory, which is what we did during distance learning earlier in the spring.

In watching that old concert footage, I was reminded of some wonderful moments in my school’s unorthodox music program’s history.  It also reminded me of the power of teaching music to inspire the creation of new works.

To hear my own musical works, visit https://tjcookmusic.bandcamp.com/ or www.tjcookmusic.com.

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Music Among the Stars

Back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I, which is some 14 million miles from Earth.  The super nerds behind the mission stowed two golden records on board.  Those golden records included various selections to represent life on Earth, from “Johnny B. Goode” to nature sounds to classical music.

Over the Labor Day weekend a colleague e-mailed me Classical Archivesweekend newsletter, which includes some musings about why humans developed the ability to create—and their interest in—music.  The newsletter features the blog posts “Can E.T. Carry a Tune?” and “Music for Extraterrestrials… Sampling the Music Selected for NASA’s Voyager I.”

The former explores the possible deep origins of humanity’s music-making abilities.  It posits several theories developed from evolutionary biology.  As  a Christian, I find these explanations ultimately wanting, though they each make interesting points (the second proposed theory, for example, suggests “that music arose because it was a social glue that helped our ancestors bond with one another and with a group”).  Music serves many purposes, even if those purposes are not strictly utilitarian (and even then music can serve that function, such as coordinating workers’ movements via work songs).

Chiefly, though, music is intended to praise God.  Like the other arts, music is God’s grant of a small sliver of His Creative potential to His Creation—Tolkien’s “sub-creation” of Middle Earth serving as a prime literary example.  The highest form of musical expression, then, lifts up songs of praise to God.

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Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”

This year, I’m teaching a new Pre-AP Music Appreciation course at my school.  The goal of the course is to teach students the language of music, as well as the different instruments, along with a broad survey of Western music from the Middle Ages to the present.  For the first week, we discussed dynamic contrast, tone color/timbre, and began going through the instruments typically found in the orchestra.  We’ve also listened to some excellent music, including a particularly dramatic performance of Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig.”

After we covered the different orchestral instruments, we listened to Benjamin Britten‘s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under the direction of Jukka Pekka SarasteBritten’s piece takes a theme from seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell, an important Baroque composer with a distinctly English sound.  Britten has the entire orchestra play the Purcell theme, then each section takes a turn.  Then each instrument in the orchestra—including auxiliary percussion pieces like the triangle—take solo or soli sections, starting with the piccolos and flutes.

It’s a charming bit of modern classical music, and this performance is a particularly good one.  The camera crew makes sure to highlight each section of the orchestra and each group of instruments as they perform (the oboes are particularly fun, as one oboist looks like his head is about to burst from concentration).  I remember Ben Shapiro recommending the piece to a listener who wanted to introduce his young children to symphonic music, and stating that his own young daughter loved it.

After thirteen (!) variations on Purcell’s theme, Britten introduces a lively new theme, starting with a jaunty, acrobatic piccolo solo, and then slowly building back in the woodwinds, strings, brasses, and percussion in turn.  The whole thing swells to a mighty crescendo, with a powerful, full orchestra finale.  When I played it for my Pre-AP Music Appreciation students Friday morning, a few of them were awe-struck.  We finished listening in the closing minutes of class, and one student left saying, “This is my favorite class”—always satisfying to hear as a teacher.

Of course, who couldn’t love a class that involves listening to and talking about great music?  As our primary resource, I’m using Roger Kamien’s Music: An Appreciation, the eighth brief edition.  We’re also using YouTube heavily to locate quality recordings of music, such as the WDR Cologne Symphony recording featured in this post.

I’m hoping to sit my niece and nephews down soon to listen to Britten’s piece, as I think they’ll enjoy all the instruments.  It might be a tad long to hold their attention, but it can easily be enjoyed in small chunks.  My niece is particularly musically inclined, and I think will have fun seeing and hearing the different orchestral pieces in turn.

After all, if we’re trying to save Western Civilization, that means learning to appreciate some our highest cultural creations—and sharing that love with the next generation.

Phone it in Friday VI: Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers!  Don’t try going out to eat tonight—it’s going to be a mad house.  Sensible couples will probably wait and dine out on a less sexy night, like Tuesday, or pick up Taco Bell.

We’re in the midst of a glorious four-day “Winter Break.”  The great thing about teaching is all the bogus holidays.  Valentine’s Day and President’s Day just happen to bookend the weekend, so why not turn it into a slightly-extended holiday?

In the spirit of Jay Nordlinger, today’s post is going to be a series of barely-related reflections, as well as some links to the stuff you should read or watch.  Speaking of Nordlinger, how do I land a gig getting paid to write about classical music in exotic parts of the world?

But I digress.  Here are some reflections on this Day of Love:

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Lazy Sunday XLVIII: Culture

A paradox of blogging is that the more I write, the more difficult (at least some weeks) it is to think up a good theme for Lazy Sunday.  Part of the problem is that the earliest editions often featured very broad categories; thus, the proliferation of “Part II” posts throughout.

Of course, that’s probably a problem for me, the writer.  You’re just looking to scan through a list of hyperlinks while enjoying your pre-church coffee (or—given my tardiness posting of late—your post-church nap).  Such is the nature of the relationship between creator and consumer—thirty minutes put into crafting a blog post equates to about thirty seconds of skimming.  But it’s worth it to have your eyeballs (eww…) for those thirty seconds!

On that note, I’m dedicating this week’s Lazy Sunday to matters of culture.  In compiling this short list of recent pieces, I came to realize that I way overuse the “culture” tag on my blog posts.  In my defense, I do so because I see most issues as cultural (or, even more deeply, theological and philosophical), rather than merely political or economical, in nature.  The major political battles we’re fighting in the West today are, at heart, about culture.

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Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

It’s been an artistically fulfilling weekend.  First there was the play (I’m sure readers are tired of reading about it) in which I performed.  After three successful performances, my girlfriend and I took in the South Carolina Philharmonic‘s Sunday matinee performance of their popular Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert.  Classical music is even more enjoyable when you get to wear jeans.

The SC Philharmonic’s energetic conductor, Morihiko Nakahara (a show in himself), didn’t pull any punches with this year’s B&BJ program.  It was, essentially, “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits,” as I remarked to my girlfriend.  Morihiko always tosses in one piece of weird modern classical music, but after enduring young composer Jessie Montgomery‘s 2016 tone poem “Records from a Vanishing City,” it was straight into the classics:  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the so-called Pastoral, rounded out the first half of the concert.  Then it was into the thundering “DUHN DUHN DUHN DUUUUUUH, DUHN DUHN DUHN DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH” of the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor after the break.

Everyone loves the Fifth Symphony, with its iconic opening theme (the first in symphonic music to make a rhythmic idea the theme, not a melodic one).  But for my money, the bucolic beauty of the Sixth takes the cake.

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