Hallå, Sverige!

This summer the Roys will be saying “Hallå, Sverige!”—pronounced [haˈloː sværjɛ], we will have to practice!—as we travel to Sweden. I submitted a panel proposal to the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) 2019 Congress and it was accepted! I and two other musicologists who are doing pioneering work on music and childhood/children will give papers on the theme of “The Sounding and Silencing of Musical Childhoods;” more on that soon!

Princess Tuvstarr in the Field  (1913) by Swedish illustator John Bauer.

Princess Tuvstarr in the Field (1913) by Swedish illustator John Bauer.

I am getting more and more excited about this trip, not just because the IRSCL will undoubtedly be an amazing experience, but because I know very little about Sweden and it gives me a wonderful opportunity to delve into its music, language, literature, and myths. By far the most compelling thing I have found recently is Rosenbergs Sjua (Rosenberg’s Seven), a musical ensemble comprised of four female vocalists and a string quartet. Their second album, R7 (1999) consists of arrangements of Swedish folk songs that are singularly riveting and haunting.

Vocal Polyphony

The driving force behind Rosenbergs Sjua is Susanne Rosenberg: singer, composer, musicologist, and professor in the Royal College of Music, Stockholm. Her arrangements for R7 reflect her mastery of an eclectic variety of singing styles ranging from Swedish folk to Baroque to jazz, as the singers create amazing textures ranging from playful to epic to lyrical. The sixth track “Pris Vare Gud”—a nineteenth-century hymn text written by Johan Olof Wallin—begins with a layering of an improvisatory motif that creates a sort of drone for the mournful melody. Alternately track two “Min Bröllopsdag” alternates between tight harmonies in homorhythm and polyphonic scatting.

Kulning

Another sound that adds a certain northern wildness to R7 is kulning, a vocal technique practiced since ancient times in Scandinavia—primarily by women—as a means for calling livestock in from their grazing pastures in the mountains. Different melodic shapes and timbral colors echo and clash with high-pitched intensity throughout track seven “Jorid Lockrop” and offer a visceral example of female vocal power. This is apparently the function of kulning in Karin Rehnqvist’s composition for two singers and percussion, Puksånger/Lockrop (1989), which Rosenberg premiered. (The link in the recording is not professional, but the rawness speaks for itself.)

Fiddling/Riffing

The string section of R7 simply rocks! In addition to several instrumental dance tracks (four “Artos Julpolska and thirteen “Nattöga”) which feature a wealth of idiomatic ornamentation, many of the songs are grounded in heavy, syncopated riffs worthy of a metal band. Listen to the first track “Leja Tjänstepiga” or the epic tenth “Balladen Om Liten Karin”. (The whole effect reminds me of the amazing instrumental arrangements of folk songs by the Danish String Quartet in their Woodworks (2014) album.) The contrast between voice and string in R7 —both equally strident at times—has a sort of hi-fi brutality that I prefer when it comes to modern arrangements of folk music.


Your suggestions for further reading/listening as we look forward to Sweden are welcome! Ha det så bra!

Baby/Piano Juggling: One-Handed Music, Pt. 1

Felix, my robust five month old, is quickly exceeding my ability to hold him with one hand. For the first few months I could easily tuck him into the crook of my elbow and sit quite nicely at the piano doing what any pianist-father would do: play piano music using only my left hand! Now that my son is healthfully growing (97th percentile), I fear for the muscular integrity of my spine in such a position, so I’ll reminisce about my brief stint in this interesting category of music.

Life-size Felix…

Life-size Felix…

According to Dr. Hans Brofeldt’s exceedingly informative website “Piano Music for the Left Hand”, this kind of music rests upon several interesting cultural factors. First, the invention of the sustain pedal allowed for a single hand to sound like several; technology opened up new musical possibilities. Second, the impetus for writing music of this sort could either come from the physical loss or injury of a hand—such as Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961) who had his right arm amputated after sustaining a bullet wound to the elbow in WWI—or from what Brofeldt calls “musical-intellectual gymnastics” in which a composer simply limits their composition to a single hand to see what is possible. The two pieces that I’ve enjoyed are from the latter category.

Scriabin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2

Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915) wrote Opus 9 in 1894 and it consists of a Prelude and a Nocturne for left hand alone. I was drawn to the Nocturne for a variety of reasons, such as the piece’s remarkable playability with a single hand, the lavish beauty of the Romantic style (Scriabin, like many Russians, was simply gaga over Chopin), and the (impassioned) lullaby mood which perfectly suited the lulling of an infant. But most of all, at the time Felix cried consistently at a steady Ab pitch, which happens to be the first note of the piece! (My friend Alissa Aune—who has perfect pitch—suggested that I get him up to A-440 with a little pinch… I would not recommend this. It does not work!) I like this rendition by Martina Filjak that I found on YouTube. The camera starts in a way that really has you wondering how many hands she is actually using. It’s only when it moves later on that you see the left hand’s dexterity (pun intended).

Reinecke’s Sonata

Carl Reinecke ((1824–1910) wrote Sonata für die Linke Hand alleine, op. 179 in 1884. Out of the four movements I was most attracted by the second, marked Andante lento with its tuneful melody interspersed with pianistic filagree. Reinecke wrote the words “Ne menj rózsám a tarlóra” at the start of this piece, the title of a Hungarian folk tune. (Reinecke’s setting of the tune is looser than, say, Bartók’s grammaphone recording, which is pretty standard as far as nineteenth-century folk song use goes.) Takeo Tchinai plays the whole sonata, with movement two starting at 4:45. Once again, the melody starts on my son’s Ab! (Check out lefthandpianomusic.org for more quality recordings of interesting pieces, including a one-handed fugue by Kalkbrenner!)


My resilient first-born, Penelope, with her own baby at the piano bench. Scriabin sheet music on the stand.

My resilient first-born, Penelope, with her own baby at the piano bench. Scriabin sheet music on the stand.

I’m finding these pieces to be a really boost to the left hand ego… A real shot in the arm, so to speak. #toosoon Has anyone had experience working on these? If so, what have you been doing with your free hand?

Winter's Lullaby

Yesterday the stillness of Santa Barbara, wrapped in the brisk and earthy air that follows a bout of rain, was punctuated by the sound of the pounding rotors of military helicopters. Every hour or so one would thunder across the blue, winter's sky. And every time we were brought back to the present reality of shock at the terrifying events that have come to call this season.

In the first weeks of December, California's largest wildfire on record came plundering across several counties, engulfing homes, causing massive evacuations, and sending up sun-choking clouds of smoke that descended upon our cities with ghostly blankets of ash. From San Louis Obispo where we escaped to keep our children out of the fumes, we received word that the evacuation zone had reached our house; I drove back that day, the yellow-dead sky thick with quiet urgency, and loaded the car with a hasty selection of valuables, closing the door on the rest for perhaps the last time. The smoke followed us north and eventually we decided to seek hospitality from relatives further afield, ending up in Roseville, above Sacramento, checking the news compulsively only to hear that the fire would likely burn on until Christmas.

Our house survived. We returned from a month spent in other people's guest rooms to a home that seemed odd in its familiarity. We spent the holiday in Pasadena, driving past hills that looked moon-blasted, charred trees blackening both sides of the coastal 101 highway. When we returned to Santa Barbara I spent an hour in a breathing mask with a push broom, scrubbing away the soot that covered our walkway and carport as we moved towards life shaken and hopeful.

Two days ago it rained. In the middle of the night avalanches of turgid mud tore through the hills of Montecito. Houses, streets, cars, people, gone, replaced by wreckage and sludge. Highway 101 closed. Westmont College evacuated. The sight of first responders and rescue dogs and muddied survivors and devastation vivid on the news. And helicopters, rumbling piercingly through the sky, bringing in supplies, transporting the injured, and seeking out those still stranded before the chill night. 

Those are streets I have walked many times, now impassable wastes. Those are people I have conversed with, now drenched with devastating loss. Those are people I have known, now missing in the dark.


This was not how I envisaged this season. The warming, lulling carols of Advent and Christmastide were conspicuous in their absence, save in the form of the Quadriga Consort's two winter albums as the soundtrack to my solitary return to Santa Barbara. Late at night in northern California I found myself mulling over one of my favorites, a Scottish Gaelic carol sometimes known as Tàladh Chriosda or Christ's Lullaby. Its melody rises and falls with a comforting ease and stark beauty. Its words describe Jesus from the point of view of his mother, Mary. This imagined mother's perspective is conspicuous for its unremitting combination of intimacy with awe, circling around the mystery of the incarnation just as Mary cradles and fondles the Holy One of Holy Ones in her arms. But she also expounds upon the experience of the Holy Family, a harrowing story of tumult: a mandatory relocation issued by the ruling colonial authorities, rejected from familial hospitality, Mary delivering her first child alone and friendless in a barn, and later a midnight escape from the genocidal soldiers of a malicious tyrant. This is no idealized cherub-Jesus, no placidly docile, haloed caricature of infancy. This is a baby born to the life-threatening and heart-breaking challenges of human existence.

"O hard-hearted Herod / Your plan will not be victorious / Many are the mothers you left wretched / When you vehemently pursued the death of my little one."

This is a mystery to me. I walked around the block today with 3.5 month old Felix in the front carrier as black helicopters fly desperately and purposefully in the distance.  I thought about Jesus born to the rush and tears and pain of homelessness and rejection and devastation. Of the fragility of his existence, the vulnerability of mortality, the tears and words and sighs and laughs and cries that would accompany his short life. I picture him walking beside me, hand shielding the wintery sun from his eyes. Or him knee deep in mud, keenly following a rescue dog into the wreckage of a house. Or him at a counseling center, anguished people haranguing him for news, screaming directly into his face until they are hoarse, or crumpling into sobs across from him at a card table.


Not One Is Alone / Shepherded by Beth Allen.  Her stirring art can be found here.

Not One Is Alone / Shepherded by Beth Allen. Her stirring art can be found here.

I do not know if this is comforting to me. Perhaps it is too soon for comfort. I do know that it is something deep and close and fervent. I cling to that.

"Neither holy angels nor men will understand / Until the last day of the world / The extent of your mercy and love / Coming to take a human body."

A Parent's Guide to 'A Young People's Guide to the Orchestra'

Perhaps you haven't heard... toddlers have some pretty strong opinions! Lately my two-year-old, Penny, has been weighing in on everything from who gets to screw on the lid of her water bottle (her), what we should eat for dinner (strawberries with yogurt), where we should go for an afternoon outing (Target), and who should sit in her car seat (me, but eventually her, but then she gets to put on the shoulder straps and buckle the top clasp no matter what!). It makes sense—her world is daily expanding through new experiences and experiments, which means this young person is in a state of continual boundary creation, testing, and maintenance. Sometimes all at once. No wonder she tries to up the number of bed time books to six!

Musical preferences are no less subject to the toddler's strong opinions. By and large my daughter's tastes tend toward "children's music": a fluid genre that includes, among other things, African American spirituals, nonsense songs, English Puritan nursery rhymes, anti-war songs by Pete Seeger, Japanese folk songs, and newly-composed works about everything from public transportation to families of ducks, and personal hygiene to lovable arctic aquatic mammals and their daily schedules. This music is characteristically catchy, repetitive, and singable (and on many occasions has miraculously deescalated tantrums during long car trips).

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny feels much differently about "daddy music", by which I basically mean "classical" (though there's also a good mix of Gaelic EDM, Hungarian folk bands, and whatever freaky magic Matthias Loibner does with his magnificent Drehleier). Often the act of turning on flute fantasias by Telemann in the car results in a flurry of protestations from the back seat followed by heated negotiations. Indeed, "classical music" tends to be a hard sell for toddlers; very broadly speaking, the sort of musics that fall into this category tend to be long, developmental, enigmatic, and played on a wide range of old instruments.

This is not a post about the aesthetic merits or shortcomings of "children's music". It's also not about the "Mozart effect" and scientific or pseudoscientific arguments for guilting parents into playing more Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It's not even about how Raffi is somehow still recording and performing, and how his eponymous "Down by the Bay" is a song that maddeningly straddles realism and nonsense! This is a post about how I shared something I love with my two-year-old daughter, something that, because of a little parental participation, she has come to enjoy. Here's my guide for engaging your toddler with "classical music".

I started with a specific piece of music: A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra or as I call it in this post YPGO written by British composer Benjamin Britten in 1945. Despite the clear appeal to children in the title and Britten having written it on commission for educational purposes, it seems unlikely that my daughter would choose it over, say, Elizabeth Mitchell's "Little Bird". At face value, YPGO sounds "classically" complicated: it's a twenty-minute series of thirteen variations and a concluding fugue based on a rondeau by seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell written by a twentieth-century composer performed by a room filled with about twenty-five different types of acoustic instruments under the leadership of a stick-waving interpreter!! Sheesh... #canibeexcused

Take courage! What I discovered with Penny was that those very complications listed above which seem to discourage toddler (and sometimes adult) involvement are exactly those things which can hook the young person's interest. You could say that this piece of music has a lot going on. Rather than be intimidated by that, try to see that as the very point of the game. Here's how:

  1. Active Participation or Make it fun! The first thing to do is ditch the audience etiquette we associate with "classical music" concerts, namely, sitting silently in a darkened concert hall in detached cerebral contemplation waiting for the right moment to applaud. Rather stifling, even for adults. My solution is to hold off on the live concert experience and instead find a high-quality video of YPGO online to watch at home. This way you can interact with you child and the musical experience with as much enthusiasm as is necessary to keep things interesting. Penny sat on my lap, I opened a YouTube window, and these are the ideas that I kept in mind to actively participate with my daughter and the concert.
  2. Performative Listening or Use your eyes and say what you see! I developed this idea from teaching "Music Appreciation" to undergraduates at UCSB [link to post]. An orchestra is such a visual experience: bows gliding up and down, gleaming metal surfaces, dancing fingers, crashing cymbals, gesticulating conductor. It's well worth drawing attention to these things as the camera pans around the ensemble and focuses in on a particular section. These observations do not need to be particularly profound or insightful. Penny and I talked about how some instruments were big and some small, some performers had curly hair and some wore glasses, how some instruments were brown or silver or gold or black, and how some instruments are tucked under chins or held between legs or laid upon laps or held in front, etc. etc.
  3. Physical Mimicry or Use your eyes and do what you see! Who doesn't love to "air guitar"? #bohemianrhapsody Observations of how performers hold their different instruments easily morphs into a game of charades. All it really takes is for the parent to initiate by moving their hands and arms or with the use of a prop like a pencil or spoon. Moreover, the panning of the camera to different instruments will keep the game fresh and dynamic as you and your toddler quickly switch positions from sliding trombones to transverse flute to sawing violin to enthusiastic xylophone.
  4. Intuitive Listening or Use your ears and say what you hear! I also developed this idea from my collegiate teaching. The human auditory system comes prewired to detect even the smallest changes in sound. It's how we detect sarcasm in a person's speech patterns, the location of someone talking in a building, the presence of an ambulance. In the case of music, "classical music" in general is known for wide variation, often utilizing every shade of fast-slow, up-down, loud-quiet, happy-sad, etc. Once you notice a change (and in YPGO they are rather blatant) describe it using whatever words or phrases you can. It does not need to be technical. It can simply be descriptive. Or emotional. Or pictorial. The cool thing with watching a video of a concert is that often when there is an important change in the music the cameras will highlight the source of the sound giving a visual correspondence to an aural event. Here's some examples from my time with Penny:

"Wow, that sound was high like a bird!" [Camera focused on piccolo.]

"Those ones play very low because they are so big." [Group of double bassists.]

"They are going a lot faster now!" [Bows jerking up and down quickly.]

"Those ones play loud and strong!" [Group of brass players.]

"This part is very quiet. I wonder when it will get loud again." [String players motionless.]

"It's like they're swinging on a big swing!" [Clarinets alternately playing up and down.]

"I think it sounds like galloping horses." [Trumpets and snare drum clipping along.]

"I'm lost at this part. It sounds like lots of people whispering at the same time." [???]

That last example is extremely important. Whatever you do, don't make it seem like you are only participating in this experience because you have complete confidence in what's going on at all times. In fact, it's best if you aren't for the sake of your toddler. Sometimes the music will sound vague or overly-complicated and you will get lost. Own it! Show your toddler that it's ok to be lost. It's musical hide-and-seek! It's part of the game!

Below is the video I used with Penny. The music starts at 2:00 and they didn't get as good a shot of the percussion section in action as I would have liked, but besides that, I would highly recommend it! Good camera work, lots to see and hear, and very well played. If this one doesn't strike your fancy, find your own, for whatever reasons suit you.

My hope is that this approach to listening to "classical music" with a toddler sounds doable to any parent out there. You don't have to be a musicologist to do it. You don't even need to know the names of the instruments. Or the form of the piece. Or the socio-historical context of YPGO and its meaning for England at the close of WWII. All you need to do is actively participate with your toddler on a visually and aurally interesting journey. If you don't know the way, be attentive and courageous in the face of the unknown and point out all the things you notice. Show young people that life is full of wondrous and exciting things and that given a context of safety, curiosity, fun, and empathy, everyone is equipped to make something of it. #babysteps

My LEGO Rant

Whenever my wife and I are fortunate enough to walk through the air conditioned aisles of a Target (most recently on road trips between Santa Barbara and Sacramento in an attempt to lull our five-month-old to sleep) there comes a moment when Jess, without even looking at me and in her off-handed way, asks that I spare her the ritual of "my LEGO rant". Since I've subjected my family and many of my friends to this particular topic to no avail, I've now decided to unleash it upon the Internet, that rollicking sea of discursive opinion.

(The embryo of this rant already appeared in a previous post entitled "The Merest Set of Blocks" where I hold LEGOs up as an example of "life creating" play. The current post takes its departure from this idea, problematizing current trends in LEGOs and drawing out some criticisms and observations.)


Here it goes: LEGOs are a type of toy that allows the literal construction of Tolkienesque co-created worlds. Yet as I roam Target (Jess is probably meanwhile looking at patterned workout pants), I become concerned by what I see as a development in LEGOs that would seem to fundamentally limit the toy's creative power. I'm talking about the overwhelming presence of specifically marked, franchise characters and worlds. In other words, why all the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel comics?


I see these sets as a problem when I compare them with more basic, unmarked sets from the 90s: City, Space, Medieval, Pirates, etc. These older genres seem to offer the perfect balance of marked specificity and unmarked generality. They have enough connection to a widely-known and accepted, constructed world to give basic parameters for play, basic rules and norms. But at the same time the genres are loose enough to allow for the widest possible variation and manipulation.

Take for example the following, common City character: Body design (black with pockets and silver badge), face (smile with black shades), helmet (white with clear visor), and vehicle (white motorcycle with radio antennas and "police" on the side). All these things mark this figure as a police officer on a motorcycle. Certain generic rules come into play as soon as this concept is accepted: the "good guy" role, power relations to "bad guys" and "innocent City dwellers", the narrative of the "high speed pursuit", etc. But these rules can easily be bent, challenged, or otherwise problematized. Is he the hero? The sidekick? A husband? A father? A son? Happy with his job? Overworked and mentally unstable? Does he have a dark and obscure past? Does he have a criminal brother who pits family against justice? Is he a cop by day and freelance web designer by night? There's nothing to stop you from pretending that the cop is really a criminal in disguise. Or he's in a Halloween costume. Or he's a displaced cyborg from the future. Or a displaced knight from the past. It can be almost whatever you want! You could even insert him into another context; with a little imagination and the addition and subtraction of a few choice pieces he could be a Scout Trooper on a Speeder Bike. (I may or may not have done exactly that as a child...)

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

Specificity meets possibility. LEGOs and genre at their best!

Not so, I argue, with the franchise sets. Everything here is heavily marked. The "Indiana Jones" figurine isn't just any "good guy". He's Harrison Ford. He's a specific persona built upon a solid and controlled tradition of movies and books and video games. He has his own soundtrack. He has specific catch phrases, personality traits, and accouterments. He comes preloaded with certain relationships towards women, snakes, Nazis, his father, America, collegiate teaching, epistemology, mysticism, the use of force, etc. 

Similarly, whoever "Malekith the Accursed" is (I say as I walk through the LEGO aisle in Target perusing the available sets), he obviously has unique characteristics, a specific story and a point of view that puts him into relationship with other characters within his world. If one is unfamiliar with these things, there is a risk of using him "incorrectly". (A lesson I learned with certain "Ninjago" figurines while playing with my nephews.)

I'm not arguing that specificity is in and of itself negative. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others have all created rich worlds that have had a lasting effect on our culture in important ways. I'm also not saying that the mixture of genres (eg. "Indiana Jones" having tea with "Darth Vader" in a "castle" with "Iron Man" playing saxophone in the background) is impossible or undesirable or bad. The LEGO Movie in particular uses genre mixture in a particularly powerful, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque way, that reveals the need for reassessment of meta-narratives both in fantasy and reality. I am saying that the specificity of this overly-marked characterization limits the possibility inherent in LEGOs as toys. Their worlds are pre-constructed and much less open to manipulation. And this manipulation is what truly makes LEGOs great.

Co-creation vs. participation. Light generic marking vs. meta-narratives. Open vs. limited.


Obviously any rant is fraught with loopholes and problems. Perhaps I betray my ignorance of the Marvel multiverse, or my dissatisfaction with Peter Jackson's adaptation of LOTR. Perhaps I see limitations where others see potentialities. Perhaps I betray my jealousy of today's purple bricks, the pre-made "Darth Vader" helmets (I had to use the visored knight helmet for that character), the cannons that actually shoot. ("Today's youth don't know how good they have it!" says the old man.) But, also, perhaps I've touched upon something that speaks directly to the fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

What do you think?

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.

Photo taken by sister-in-law K8 Weber at Hendry's Beach—the same beach Jess and I walked for months while Penny was cooking.

Photo taken by sister-in-law K8 Weber at Hendry's Beach—the same beach Jess and I walked for months while Penny was cooking.

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.

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.

The Family with Penny in her (daddy's) favorite TMNT onesie. #wishihadone Photo probably by sister-in-law K8 Weber.

The Family with Penny in her (daddy's) favorite TMNT onesie. #wishihadone Photo probably by sister-in-law K8 Weber.

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.

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:

  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:

  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Retro LEGO add from  Fat Brain Toys

Retro LEGO add from Fat Brain Toys

Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:
 

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!

Apples Falling From the Baum

Amidst TAing an “Enjoyment of Music” summer session at UCSB and preparing to teach “Survey of Western Music” at Westmont beginning next week, I’ve been getting in a little last-minute reading. This summer has been an enthusiastic adventure through a variety of books concerning fairy tales: from Propp’s morphological theorizing and Todorov’s definition of the “fantastic” to bios of George MacDonald to fascinating contes by seventeenth-century, female, French writers like d'Aulnoy and l’Héritier, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bizarre Der goldene Topf. I recently finished a book entitled Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, a collection of essays by prominent fairytale scholars, which gives a wide swath of perspectives and analytical positions to consider and apply in my own thinking. I’m having fun!

With this exploratory thought-lust in mind, I’ve made some preliminary observations concerning one of our read-out-loud-while-my-amazing-wife-prepares-dinner books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Since I’m currently diving into a chapter entitled "Inverting and Subverting the World with Hope: The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde and L. Frank Baum" by Jack Zipes, which is sure to give me a lot to think about, I’d better get out my initial perspective out now before anything else happens.

Illustration by W.W. Denislow

Illustration by W.W. Denislow

What initially struck me was Baum's introduction, a short one-page disclaimer in which he advocates for fairy tale modernization (particularly doing away with old European motifs, characters, and gruesome scenes) and aims at creating stories of pure, juvenile entertainment (Dorothy's innocence is a constant theme throughout the book). This strikes me a a pretty gutsy and bravura move and it brings a lot of questions to mind:

1. Does Baum succeed in divorcing himself from European tradition? His narrative structure seems particularly Proppian; his characters, though packaged differently, function much like those from a stock fairy tale; and the amount of gruesomeness tends to rival that found in some Grimm stories, for instance Dorothy viewing a decomposing corpse upon entry to the Land of Oz, as well as frequent and well-nigh habitual decapitation and dismemberment by the Tin Woodman's axe. Even as I write this, however, I wonder if there is a symbolic gesture involved in the violence. What if the Wicked Witches of the East and West somehow stand in for European tradition itself, something that Dorothy's purity must somehow (effectively yet simultaneously innocently) eradicate, both by the fall of the house (building something new over old foundations?) and through the cleansing power of water...

2. What about the dialectic between childish entertainment and moralizing symbolism? Baum's self-conscious story advocates for the former, but his pugnacious introduction, seemingly directed at adult purchasers/readers complicates matters. It makes me critical of the fantastic elements in the story as I attempt to understand their potential purpose and position. It seems like the fantasy can act in at least three ways:
     A. As pure childish fancy: primary colors, glittering objects (so much you have to wear protective eye-wear), wondrous exoticisms, delicious fruits, soft sheets... in effect anything that gives a sense of delightfulness and potency as wonder-inducing symbols for youth. Seen in this light, it would seem that Baum's choices are nearly random. Does it matter that the Munchkins like blue and the Winkies like yellow? Why a Stork? Why Wolves and Bees? Why this appearance of symbolism, of potential? Why does unmasking the power structure (the Wizard as a humbug) accomplish so little in the paradigm of the story?
     B. As cultural critique: I read somewhere that Baum may have had a "yellow-brick road = money power structures" vendetta. Maybe also an American/democratic, anti-monarchical message? But in the end, despite the Wizard's banishment, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all become monarchs... I don't have any biographical knowledge that could enrich this idea as of yet, plus ideological application is so tricky.
     C. As a tongue-in-cheek, adult-directed message: the brainless Scarecrow a great thinker, the heartless Tin Woodman constantly crying and sighing, the frightened Lion facing death to protect his friends. Where is Propp's Lack? Where is the real problem that must be fixed? Also, the use of "magic" seems extremely complicated: sometimes mere smoke-and-mirrors; sometimes, genuinely borrowed from Europe (Dorothy's silver slippers and petit Poucet's seven-league boots); and sometimes so random as to appear ridiculous (the Good Witch of the North balancing her pointed hat on her nose and counting to three, as it turns into a writing tablet)... Does magic exist here or not? Is it powerful or not? Does it matter? Who makes things happen? Who has power?

3. Lastly, why has it become such a powerful American cultural symbol? The MGM movie, The Wiz musical, Wicked the book and the musical? Does it contain something potent after all it's deconstruction?

What do you think? What pops out at you when you experience this story? What do you like, dislike, not understand? Why did they change the color of her slippers in the movie!?!?

Two Observations on Plato, Aristotle, and Harry Potter

I'm taking a Dramatic Theory seminar through the Theater Department this quarter. In addition to the outrageously comfortable conference room chairs and meeting a new group of colleagues, Dr. David King has us wandering through an etymology-strewn, philosophy-riddled history/mind/soul-scape including the Caves of Lascaux, Nietzsche, Horace, Ruth Padel, Benjamin, and so many others. We have one session a week, almost three hours long, after which my sluggish mind, waterlogged with knowledge and hopefully a little wisdom, wants nothing more than to go home and read Harry Potter out loud (lautlesen) as my wife makes dinner. Yet, you can't really halt rumination, and here are two small connections that cropped up:

Aristotle and Plato from Raphael's  School of Athens  probably deep in conversation about why Harry decided to wear the horcrux around his neck rather than put it in the mokeskin pouch  around his neck . 

Aristotle and Plato from Raphael's School of Athens probably deep in conversation about why Harry decided to wear the horcrux around his neck rather than put it in the mokeskin pouch around his neck

  1. The word mimesis is outrageously difficult to define. It can imply imitation, or representation, but also ideas like copytranslationinventionillusion, or lie. It's often used in dramatic theory to talk about the theater as a crossroads of reality and fantasy, not only in terms of whether or not the plot is historically accurate or realistically feasible, but whether or not one thinks of the actor as actor or as character, the prop or the object. At one point Plato, who has an extremely complicated view of theater, uses mimetic in conjunction with the word diagetic to talk about ways of delivering a text. A diagetic delivery involves simple reading of the text, word for word, in your own natural voice; to read in a mimetic manner means giving different characters different voices. Essentially the former is Madeline L'Engle in her audiobook for A Wrinkle in Time (quite monotone), and the latter is Jim Dale reading the Rowling's Harry Potter series or Phillip Schulmann reciting C.S. Lewis' Narnia books (inflected, character-full voices galore). While one is not necessarily better than the other, I am definitely of the mimetic cast, a trait I inherited from my father's inspired readings of Verne, Lewis, and Twain when I was a child. In my mind, it's simply a lot more fun! However, Plato adds an aspect to mimesis that has some of that ancient world magic to it: the mimetic reader, as they invoke the voice of the character they are portraying, will actually, in a way, become that character and even feel what that character feels. A powerful idea! What do you give of yourself when you enter into a part? What might you receive? I caught myself thinking of this as I spoke Voldemort's "high, cold voice" and in a way count myself thankful that I got through it alright.
  2. A smaller observation stems from the intensely etymological exegesis of Dr. King. Two words: splanchnon and peripateia. The first, dealt with extensively in a reading we did by Padel, is regularly translated as stomach or guts. For the ancient Greeks this is the place of emotions, of black fear, of the touching point between mortality and the divine. (Next time you get stressed and feel your stomach clench, that's your splanchnon ringing with the sound of eternity!) The second word, peripateia, is dealt with by Aristotle when he's laying out the proper disposition of a theatrical plot. It involves the moment of a plot's change of direction or reversal or twist, and constitutes an extremely important, catharsis-rich moment in a performance. After reading the Poetics and basking in the import of these two ideas, my eye was quick to pick up on a passing, but perhaps pivotal moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: literally, Harry's "stomach turned over!" There it is! His splanchnon peripateia-ed! Blammo! ... (This is when Jessica shrugs her shoulders and allows me a moment of intellectual nerding-out, before we continue the thrilling saga and and she resumes crafting our dinner (which will soon end up right in my splanchnon!!!!))

Here's to the beginning of Week 6. Cheers!