8.21.2015

Baby Songs

Today my daughter, Penelope, turns four months old. Many life-changing things have happened since that day — for instance I am currently writing this post with my left hand alone, a skill I've become somewhat proficient at, as my right hand is preoccupied with calming an infant whose sleep regression threatens to startle her awake.


Milestones like this allow the opportunity to consider the passage of time. Time with an infant is complicated, demanded, constrained, but also expanded, inverted, and even negated. (Parents will understand what I mean.) As music is a temporal art form that moves through time, it's interesting to note what being a new father has done to my perception of and dealings with music. I'll keep my musings limited to music directed at Penny, to infant music, specifically the what and the why.

What: We sing to Nelly. (Yes, she has at least three names and a variety of nicknames.) What we sing most is a variety of nonsense songs with simple, metrically regular melodies taken from just about anywhere (SpongeBob, Protestant hymns, Spice Girls, Mexican folk songs) or improvised. The words, when they make sense at all, are topical and specific to the moment ("Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! etc."). I also find delight in singing songs from a variety of sources that I have come across and enjoy for a variety of historical, linguistic, or musical reasons. True to my form, they are mostly not in English:

  • Italian arias like A. Scarlatti's "Già il sole dal Gange"
  • Eighteenth-century German Lieder such as Zelter's setting of Klopstock's "Das Rosenband"
  • Knipper's "Polyushke Polye"
  • Selections from Schumann's Liederalbum für die Jugend ("Frühlingsgruß" and "Schlaraffenland")
  • The medieval chant "Ave Maria"
  • French marching songs like "Au jardin du mon père"
  • Selections from Gay's The Beggar's Opera ("Oh, what pain it is to part")
  • And several Gàidhlig songs such as "'Illean bithibh sunndach," "Fear a' bhàta," and "Tha mi sgith".
Why: What is our purpose for singing to our four-month-old? Cognitive development? Language acquisition? Enculturation and socialization? There are a lot of literatures and opinions out there about what music for infants should be about, what is appropriate and what is not. As a music scholar I find it all rather daunting, and as a parent I find it downright overwhelming. So I've come to my own personal conclusion that the reason I sing to my infant daughter is simply because I enjoy it. It's fun! Singing marks the passage of time with an immediacy and vivacity that we usually don't notice in the daily humdrum of life.  Singing is about making time intentional and noting its preciousness. It pauses "ordinary time" and enters into "special time."

It's also communicative. This may seem counterintuitive; I do realize that Penny understands neither the nonsense songs, nor the foreign language songs, nor the English ones for that matter. She can't speak. But because she can't speak, it's all music at this point: melody and rhythm and consonants and vowels. And what I believe comes across through music's sheer musicality is simply a parent's affection for their child. Without words to get in the way, I believe that Nelly can somehow, on some level, be aware of my fatherly affection for her. This is why instead of singing songs that have at some point been categorized as "children's songs," I sing songs that I enjoy, like Gàidhlig folk songs or Soviet era pseudo-folk songs. I enjoy these pieces, they fill my heart with joy, and by singing those sorts of songs to my infant I practice sharing a deep part of my soul with her. In pouring forth my voice, I expose her to my vulnerability and enthusiasm and desire to connect at simple yet deep levels.

I'll end by saying that Penelope has recently begun to "vocalize;" she sings back to us. Sometimes her songs communicate specific desires or needs, but other times she seems to be singing for the sheer fun of it. At these moments she sounds like a tiny, shrieking Nazgûl, but I'm guessing something more joyful is in her heart.

8.05.2015

One Moment to Breathe

Today a year ago my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant. Forty-some weeks after that Jess birthed our sweet, little wonder, Penelope, a healthy, feisty, strong infant with bright, blue eyes. In the three and a half months since we brought Penny home, Jess and I have been privy to a constant spectacle of discovery: smiles, car rides, lip-quivering cries of fear versus ear-splitting cries for attention. Jess and I are both more exhausted than we have ever been and we are grateful to those who have helped us and stood with us through this challenging, life-transforming time.

I am hoping to have some time this summer to write more often. Penny's arrival came at the very end of a year-long battle with COMPS, and actually overlapped with me creating and presenting a "Music Appreciation" course for a summer session at UCSB. There hasn't been much time. :)

Next time I will be continuing my coverage of my adventures in parenting by talking about music for infants. What is its purpose? What type of music is preferable?

See you then.

6.04.2015

This Woman!

Today Jessica Roy turns thirty! That's right—this woman!


For all those of us who have known Jess, there is so much to celebrate! I count myself wildly blessed to have made her acquaintance just over ten years ago and for a decade's worth of beautiful adventures, challenging ordeals, and unexpected surprises.

I have found that much of what we try to learn in life, those important words or concepts or ideas, actually cannot be fully or even adequately understood aside from real experience. The word "friend" accrues new meaning when one experiences fierce, sensitive, and compassionate companionship. The word "laughter" is immediately contextualized by a plethora of remembered giggles, guffaws, snorts, and happily tear-stained faces. "Forgiveness" is no longer an idealized moralism, but a hard choice, a deep, heavenly breath. "Beauty" blooms in variegated hues. "Resilience" has a face and serious attitude. "Motherhood" shines in the dark night. "Conversation" seeks connection on candle-lit nights and cross-country car rides. "Love" is the curve of a smile and encircling arms. "Honesty" gracefully knocks down walls.

All these words I have experienced, I actually have lived, because of Jessica. And she continues to teach. She gives of herself richly, passionately. I can't wait to see what the next decade has in store for her and for her family which she blesses so much.

Happy Birthday, Jessica!

4.10.2015

Buccaneer Academia

The reader of these pages should not look for detailed documentation of every word. In treating of the general problems of culture one is constantly obliged to undertake predatory incursions into provinces not sufficiently explored by the raider himself. To fill in all the gaps in my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write.
These are the concluding words of the Forward to the 1950 English translation of Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938). They jump out at me not only due to their style of writing but to their sentiment. Regardless of any purported translation deficiencies, this combination of colorful imagery, conversational style, and personal voice, all of which continue into the body of book, turn a complex sociological argument into (dare I say it?) playful literature. This is the sort of writing that makes Arthur Loesser's Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (1954) so delightful. His description of the state of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia has an undeniable snarkiness to it.
The violence had ceased now, but generations of small, mean living were ahead. Germany was broken: irrevocably split down the middle religiously, and politically shattered into three hundred fragments. Some of these were sizable realms such as the Kingdom of Saxony or the Kingdom of Bavaria, but most were pintsized principalities—"duodecimo states" they were contemptuously called later. Some had curious names that came unscrewed in the middle, such as Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, Oettingen-Wallerstein, or Schaumburg-Lippe. Each was headed by an absolute sovereign princelet, who owed a theoretical and ceremonial allegiance to a Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, but who in practice did pretty much as he pleased with his domain. Each strutted about, affectionately coddling his ornamental army, his hunting apparatus, and his little orchestra.
Pieter Brugel the Elder "Children's Games" (1560)
Going back to Huizinga's example, I also appreciate the way in which he embraces incompletion or openendedness, and highlights the tension between intellectual objectivity and the pragmatism of putting pen to paper. True, it is possible that such sentences may simply be attempts to cover up sloppy or lazy scholarship. Or it could be a simultaneous application of scholarly bravery and humility. Based on the importance of Huizinga's work for later scholars in this area, I would hazard a guess that we are here dealing with the later. The sociologist Norbert Elias also falls into this category for me, with such seminal works as The Civilizing Process (1939) painting in broad and intelligent strokes while avoiding extreme or totalizing statements or conclusions.
  • What writers and styles of writing do you admire? Why?
  • What writers and styles of writing do you dislike? Because it's too pedantic? Too familiar?
  • As I look forward to a life of academic study, I hope that I can find the proper balance between research and writing. How do you negotiate this tension? Goals? Assessments?
  • When do you consider yourself ready and what gets you to that state? Mentors? Peers? Liquid courage?
Sources:
Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Hoboken: Wiley, 2000.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950.
Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.

3.26.2015

Listening to the Unknown

On December 1, 1930 a concert was held at the Glasgow-based Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. It featured a live performance by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, the highly-idiosyncratic and somewhat eccentrically reclusive English pianist-composer, playing his Opus clavicembalisticum, an extremely complex, long-winded, and demanding piece: demanding equally for the performer as for the listeners. Check out John Ogdon's 1988 recording on YouTube for a taste. Here is section five out of twelve. (Note the multiple staves!)

"The Grand Piano #3" by Colette W. Davis. link

Diana Brodie, the wife of the Active Society's president, Erik Chisholm, was present at this unique event and had the following colorful recollections.

"The music, so unlike anything I had ever heard before, was literally terrifying... Floods of notes, cascades of arpeggios, fugal subjects a mile long, yet all conjuring up the most fantastic pictures in my mind. But there was nothing I could understand.
"After about 10 minutes of this, I found myself sitting twisting my fingers in sheer misery, hoping against hope that each crescendo was the final one so that I could get out of the hall for a breath of air. But it went on and on. The whole audience was spellbound. Never have I known such absorbed listening. I really believe that, if the work had continued for 15 hours no one would have dared to leave the hall before the end. Sorabji had his audience mesmerised...
"The second part seemed to be a complete repetition of the first! My musical friends however assured me afterwards that I was quite wrong. 'Well' I said, exasperated, 'I bet there were a lot of other people in the hall who couldn't tell the difference either.'
"By the time the performance had been in progress for two hours and five minutes (never have I looked at my watch so assiduously) even Sorabji was beginning to show signs of war and tear. By now, I was beyond showing any reaction, whatever, except an occasional wistful look at the door, and praying that I would soon be at the other side of it. The old proverb 'It is always darkest before the dawn' was definitely proved to me on that memorable evening. the last 10 minutes were almost unbearable; the perspiration was pouring down Sorabji's face. It was pouring down mine too if he had but known it, only in some mysterious way I seemed to be crying at the same time, filled with a strange sense of fear and frustration. In some ways I think it must have been the same sensation you would expect to feel if a snake had you hypnotised and you were completely unable to break the spell.
"Up and down with tremendous crescendos, down and up with beautiful diminuendos (I did like the diminuendos) each crescendo raising my hopes, each following diminuendo flattening them till at last with one might cataclysmic sweep Sorabji finished playing his first and only performance of 'Opus Clavicembalisticum,' which by the way, in simple language means 'a piece for the piano.'
There was an utter stillness in the hall and then a tremendous applause broke out. Whatever one thought of the music one could not fail to admire the virtuosity of the performance.
"Slowly, so very slowly, Sorabji took out his pocket-handkerchief and wiped his face. Slowly inch by inch he lifted himself out of the piano stool and holding on to the piano lid supported himself to give an enfeebled bow and left the platform to return many times.
"Slowly, so very, very slowly I managed (without the aid of anything) to get out of my chair—I stood up, and at my feet fell a veritable bag of confetti! Unconsciously during the performance I had been tearing my programme into little bits!" (Purser, 64–65)

Sorabji in 1977 (Sir Jeremy Grayson)

The demands such music places upon listeners easily justify Diana's reaction. Many musical trends that emerge in the twentieth century are equally concerned with complexity and incomprehensibility for a variety of aesthetic, intellectual, expressive, or cultural reasons. A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear a live performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire (1912) at Eastern Washington University. I took along my wife. She has not forgiven me!

  • As performers of twentieth-century musics how should we negotiate this communicative gap with our audience? Pre-concert explanations? Disclaimers? Analyses?
  • As teachers of twentieth-century musics what approaches have been most helpful in explaining the music's raison d'être to students? 
  • Is it worth the trouble? Or should listeners simply be overwhelmed by the unknown and frightening?

Source:
Purser, John. Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904–1965): Chasing a Restless Muse. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009.
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