TBT^4: Hand it to Handel

Autumn is here, and it’s a time for music!  There is something about the fall that makes music even better.  Sure, summertime is for outdoor concerts and music festivals, but I find music sounds better in the fall.

There is some science behind this feeling:  sound waves travel farther in colder weather.  It has something to do with air particles being further apart in the cold, so sound waves can keep going.  I’m sure I’m explaining it incorrectly, and I’m too lazy to look it up, but just trust me on this one.

Unfortunately, I am no longer teaching the Pre-AP Music Appreciation course that saw me steeped in the best that medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, classical, Romantic, and modern composers had to offer.  That doesn’t mean I have to stop enjoying these composers, though!

One of my all-time faves—and a composer who is quintessentially English, even if he’s German—is George Frideric Handel.  His works are among the finest from the Baroque period.

With that, here is 18 November 2021’s “TBT: Hand it to Handel“:

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TBT: Mahler’s Composing Shack

We’re getting into the time of year when my personal creativity seems to spark.  I should be way more productive creatively in the summer, when I enjoy loads of unstructured time, but I find that I work better in the constrains and confines of a busy schedule.  For whatever reason, that extra pressure helps me to eke out, if not diamonds, then at least some lesser gems.

One well from which I have drawn some considerable inspiration the last couple of years was my Pre-AP Music Appreciation class.  It was a broad survey of Western music from the medieval period to the present, with a strong emphasis on the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods.  Due to a combination of scheduling difficulties and lower enrollment last year, the class did not run this year.

On the one hand, I’m thankful—it’s given me more time to focus on other endeavors.  On the other, I do miss the almost-daily baptism in the works of some of the greatest composers in the Western canon.

One element of the course that was particularly intriguing was learning about the lives and creative processes of the composers.  Many of them lived quite tragic lives; others (rarer, it seems, among composers) lived quite contentedly.

Gustav Mahler seemed to have developed a nice little work routine, as detailed in this post from October 2021.  I like the idea of having a stripped-down cottage by the sea, with a healthy breakfast brought to me as I work.  Sounds like the good life!

With that, here is 13 October 2021’s “Mahler’s Composing Shack“:

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SubscribeStar Saturday: Recording Contest Winner EP

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.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been writing about the six tracks from my 2015 release Contest Winner EP, the only recording of my original songs I’ve ever released.  I’ve released several other albums and singles, but  I’ve written a lot of other songs that I have not recorded.  Indeed, I plan on doing some simple cellphone videos of some of those unreleased tunes for subscribers in the coming weeks.

One reason I have not written another album is because I hit a songwriting drought somewhere around 2015.  Sitting down and writing songs is difficult and time-consuming, and while I love it, my schedule grew increasingly hectic around that time.  I began teaching very late nights at a local technical college (I could only keep it up for a year—even I can’t work that much), and the Artsville Songwriting Competition, which gave me the incentive to write regularly, folded.

Still, I have managed to write a few more tunes in the intervening years—maybe not enough for a proper album, but certainly enough for another EP.  But that leads to the other reason I have not released a second album:  the recording process is tedious and expensive.

It is also super fun, despite the long hours and late nights in the studio.

Today, I’m going to give a brief overview of the recording process, way back in 2014 (yep, it took me over a year before I finally released the album).

To read more of this post, subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more.

TBT: The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”

It being a week of romance and lots of artistic endeavors, I decided to look back this Thursday to a post about the great French composer, Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz is the quintessential Romantic:  he wrote the subject of today’s post, the very fun Symphonie Fantastique, to deal with his lovesickness—and he ended up getting the girl because of it!

Another Berlioz heartbreak anecdote:  after his fiancée left him for another man (note, this woman is not the same as the subject of the Symphonie Fantastique), Berlioz plotted her and her new husband’s murder.  He traveled to Nice, where the couple was living, and took along weapons, disguises, and other murder paraphernalia.  When he disembarked from the train, he came to his senses, and abandoned his ill-conceived plot.  Instead, he spent a couple of weeks in Nice composing.

Talk about a whiplash!  I’m a sensitive poet-warrior at times, and I’ve experienced lovesickness, but never to the extent of Berlioz.  Still, I identify with his desire to compose music to get (or to cope with not getting) chicks.

With that, here is 29 January 2021’s “The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’“:

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Paradise By the Dashboard Light: Rest in Peace, Meat Loaf

On 20 January 2022 Heaven added a powerful new voice to the Heavenly Choir:  Marvin Lee Aday, better known by his beefy stage name, Meat Loaf.  Meat Loaf passed at the age of 74 surrounded by family.

Celebrity deaths don’t usually hit me all that hard, but Meat Loaf left his mark on me.  My older brother played “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” for me when I was in high school—and I initially didn’t like it!  But a friend reintroduced me to Meat in college, and by then I’d come to appreciate the cheeky melodrama of Jim Steinman’s songwriting combined with Meat’s gospel-drenched vocals.

As one of the early members among the ranks of Obese-Americans—now a protected class, I think—and a young man with ambitions to bring panache and humor back to rock ‘n’ roll (which in the early 2000s was moving from angsty grunge to angsty new rock), Meat Loaf left a big—no pun intended—imprint on my musical imagination.  His powerful, sweaty vocals and Broadway-meets-rock-meets-gospel style really spoke to me:  a perspiring, fumbling mass of dough and latent musical ability.  I don’t go in for all that “representation” stuff, but if a dude like Meat Loaf could make it, so could I.  Fat White Guy Solidarity!

The songwriting of his frequent collaborator (and legal rival), composer Jim Steinman, also captured my fervent imagination.  The ironic lyrics (“but there ain’t no Coupe Deville hidin’ at the bottom of a Cracker Jack Box”), the hilarious titles (“Life is a Lemon (and I Want My Money Back)” and—of course—“I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)“), the bombastic composing techniques.  Suddenly, Broadway, rock ‘n’ roll, and even Southern gospel fused into this incredible music that elevated doughy teenaged ennui and youthful passions to Wagnerian heights.

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TBT^2: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

One of the many benefits of teaching music is (re)discovering beloved favorite works.  During last week’s round of distance learning, I had to pull out some of the classics.  If we’re going to sit on a Google Meet call, let’s listen to some music, not just talk about it.

I really love programmatic music—instrumental music that tells a story, often accompanied by program notes explaining (usually very briefly) what the listener is supposed to hear in the musical “story.”  Students often like to imagine their own stories when listening to instrumental music, which is great, but I find that programmatic works give students (and myself!) some guideposts to follow.

Fortunately, Ludwig von Beethoven provided some handy ones for us in his Sixth Symphony, quite possibly my favorite symphony, and certainly my favorite of Beethoven’s.  It’s the so-called “Pastoral” symphony, as it depicts a pleasant trip to the country (besides the roiling thunderstorm in the fourth movement).

It’s also unusual in two respects:  instead of the standard four movements of the classical symphony (a fast opening movement, a slow second movement, a dancelike third movement, and a fast fourth movement), Beethoven includes five; and the third, fourth, and fifth movements all flow seamlessly into one another, without the customary pause between each.

It is also long, especially by the standards of the classical symphony (the Romantics, however, would have easily matched Beethoven for runtime), clocking in at nearly forty-five minutes (the typical classical symphony averages around twenty-five-to-thirty minutes, but forty-five would have been the upper limit for the time).  But that length is in service to Beethoven’s vision, and he fully explores every theme in this symphony.

Here is a particularly excellent performance—the one I showed, in part, to my classes last week—by the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Bernard Haitnik:

With that, here is 4 February 2021’s “TBT: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony“:

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TBT: The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau”

In “The Worst of 2021” post, there was a much-neglected gem amid all the filler:  this January 2021 post about Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau.  My good friend and former colleague H. L. Liptak—herself a noted writer and a recent subscriber, *hint, hint*—praised it in her a comment on “The Worst.”

That got me thinking about this post, and that it deserved a comeback.  Thus, here is January 2022’s “The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s ‘The Moldau’“:

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TBT^2: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

It’s Exam Week again, and I’ve managed to stay on top of grading as of the time of this writing.  My school only requires teachers to be on campus this week for exams we’re proctoring, so it’s been much quieter and more relaxed than the two weeks preceding this one.

It’s interesting looking back at this post in its prior permutations, though they both explore the same idea:  the genius that arises from pressure.

I don’t work well under pressure, but if I have to twenty-three-skidoo together a song in twenty-four hours, I’m far more likely to get it done than if I have an amorphous, open-ended deadline.  I’ve been approached on a small number of occasions to compose music for certain purposes, and I usually fall down on the job.  I find that while I can write a song fairly quickly, I do not compose instrumental music terribly well under pressure.  That requires a great deal of thought, especially if the music is programmatic in nature.

That said, I’ve been listening to more of my buddy Frederick Ingram’s work, and even some of my old EP.  It’s pretty remarkable listening back to some of the songs that I wrote, a few of them nearly ten years ago!  I also realize that I actually wrote some pretty good songs—and I’ve been trying to figure out where that inspiration and lyrical subtlety went.

For example, I’ve long written off one of my songs, “Funeral Pyre,” as kind of a throwaway tune.  I wrote it the morning I was supposed to begin recording the record (but that session was rescheduled due to a snowstorm).  It was based on an interesting line that popped into my head one night before bed:  “That crackling fire/was the funeral pyre/for the flame that I held out/for you.”

The song was intended to be a Meat Loafian ballad about unrequited love and romantic mistakes that, despite the pain, bring with them growth.  But it’s never been a fan favorite, and I gradually stopped playing it at live shows except only occasionally.

In listening back to it now, I’m actually pretty darn impressed with some of the poetic imagery I managed to evoke (I was probably twenty-nine at the time I wrote it, if I have my dates right).  It is very much inspired by Jim Steinman’s writing for Meat Loaf, and the piece is actually quite vocally demanding (though not nearly as impressive as Loaf himself).  It doesn’t have the toe-tapping, singalong quality of “Hipster Girl Next Door” or the iconic hooks of “Greek Fair,” but I find that I am finding depth in my own song that I didn’t realize was there!

Well, anyway, that’s enough navel-gazing.  I promise I’m not trying to brag about how brilliant younger me was, but it’s pretty cool revisiting my older works.  To be sure, listening back to some of those tracks now almost sounds like karaoke, with my voice over pianos that are mixed—why am I only noticing this years later?—a little too loud, giving the sensation of a karaoke track.

With that, here is “TBT: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting“:

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TBT: Singing Christmas Carols with Kids

December is here, and that means it’s time for Christmas music!  My students and I are prepping for our annual Christmas concert—back after The Age of The Virus—and have been playing and singing quite a bit of Christmas music.

Indeed, my Music Club—a club designed to get students involved in playing and performing music who, for whatever reason, could not get a music class fit into their schedules—met Tuesday to sing some carols, with the idea being that we will spend lunch and break periods next week caroling for the student body.

As their voices came together in sparkling purity, it reminded me of this post from last year.  We started our short rehearsal with “Silent Night,” one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, and the sweetness and fullness of it with eight or so singers really swelled my heart.  We also sang “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and one or two others that escape me.

I once heard that singing is good for you, both physically and mentally.  Christmas carols—songs about the Birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ—surely are good for you spiritually, too.  Sing some today.

With that, here is 4 December 2020’s “Singing Christmas Carols with Kids“:

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