PhD Attained!

I am pleased to announce that last week—Wednesday, December 12 at 8:21pm—I completed the last hurdle between me and attaining a Doctorate of Philosophy in Music from UCSB!

  • The signatures have been given.

  • The forms have been filled out.

  • The fees have been paid.

  • The online surveys have been completed.

  • The dissertation is absolutely enough.

I feel so happy at bringing this monumental achievement to it’s conclusion! I’m thankful to all who have supported me in my journey and look forward to new horizons!

Boom! (I understand the pun, but it’s not in the best taste given the Procrustean Bed of proofreading that I just put into my dissertation.)

Boom! (I understand the pun, but it’s not in the best taste given the Procrustean Bed of proofreading that I just put into my dissertation.)

Holiday Blessing: Samin Nosrat, Good Tidings, and "Feuch"

The holidays are here, and with them are all the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Between last weekend’s pre-Thanksgiving hosted lunch with my parents (lemon chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, cranberry relish, herb rolls, and pumpkin pie), the bags of aromatic delectables from Apple Hill sitting here on the counter (fritters, donuts, and Fujis), and Jess and Kathy brainstorming potential dessert and vegetable options online (I believe a pumpkin pie à la Zoe Bakes is in the works), I’m feeling the love. Because I’m off from work this week, my mind seems particularly open, and I made a wonderful connection about three seemingly unconnected things.


Samin Nosrat

Jess and I have been enjoying Berkeley-based chef Samin Nosrat immensely. Jess has her cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, on the shelf (which strives for a freeing sense of wabi-sabi through Wendy MacNaughton’s hand-drawn illustrations), and the Netflix documentary of the same name provided a beautiful, inspiring, and informative investigation of her four foundational cooking concepts. She contends that mastering salt, fat, acid, and heat is not merely a matter of following a recipe, but part of a larger practice of learning to hone and trust your senses.

Samin Nosrat cooking while smiling! Yum!

Samin Nosrat cooking while smiling! Yum!

An interview she gave on Discourse entitled “Engaging the Senses” extend this idea into her philosophy of cooking, in which she sees the kitchen as a place where all people can be welcome because everyone can use their senses.

I think it’s about engaging the senses. That’s something my cooking really focuses on: using your senses to become a better cook. Cooking really does engage all of your senses — at least, good cooking does — but for the most part, I feel like I’ve spent the last fifteen years honing, above all, my senses of taste and smell. —S.N.

Because everyone has the capacity to improve their senses, Samin contends that anyone can cook. This viewpoint transforms the kitchen from something potentially shameful to a place where humanization and amateurism invite participation from all. I love this idea and see many parallels to the ways that I understand musicology, language learning directing choirs…


Good Tidings

My Providence School choirs are in full Christmas music tilt. I’ve taken the traditional “Nine Lessons and Carols” service that has been done in the past and changed it to allow for more instrumentalists and different choral repertoire. I’m calling it “Come to the Cradle: A Service of Lessons and Carols”, and the great majority of the music focuses on various aspects of the postpartum manger, especially the visitation of the shepherds.

Christina Saj,  Shepherd

Christina Saj, Shepherd


This had me reading through the second chapter of Luke for inspiration; if you’re familiar with Linus’ King James monologue from the Peanut’s Christmas Special, one scene goes something like this:

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

However, I tend to read the Bible in different translations, especially non-English ones; I find that this sort of alienated reading is a practice that breathes new life into old stories in humbling and challenging ways. As I read through Luke 2:9-11 in my Scottish Gaelic translation, a certain word popped out at me…


“Feuch”

The Gàidhlig translation that I own, Am Bìoball Gàidhlig 1992, is written in a somewhat archaic style (both ABG and KJV begin almost every sentence with the word “and”/“agus”), and the imperative verb “feuch” (pronounced IPA: [fiax]) pops up twice in that section of Luke 2, corresponding to the KJV “lo” and “behold” that I underlined above. I looked the word up in the LearnGaelic Dictionary and found that it is particularly rich in meanings:

1 feel! (test by feeling)
2 taste! (test by tasting)
3 try, attempt!
4 test!
5 behold, look, lo!
6 reconnoitre!
7 rummage!

The spirit of this word extends far beyond the observational (and archaic) sense that I get from “lo” and “behold”. “Feuch” is dynamic! It involves the senses of touch, taste, and sight; it is messy and exploratory; and it implies a learning curve without any actual guarantee of success.

An illustration by Scottish-born artist Jessie Marion King (1875–1949) from the book  The Fisherman and His Soul .

An illustration by Scottish-born artist Jessie Marion King (1875–1949) from the book The Fisherman and His Soul.


The angel commands the shepherds to “feuch”, to engage deeply and bodily with the good news of the Savior’s arrival, pushing the boundaries of the known and hoped for. Luke the narrator challenges his readers to “feuch”, to rummage and reconnoitre through their minds to understand the palpable intensity of a supernatural encounter that entered reality from seemingly nowhere. And Samin reminds us to “feach”, to seek our way towards a sensitivity to the smells and sounds of cooking and the human connection that such an activity brings.

This holiday, may we all be present to what is immanent, simple things, true things.






Incredible.

Just about fourteen years ago I was a sophomore in college. The latest Pixar movie The Incredibles had just come out and I was eager to join the group of friends who were heading down to the Metro 4 Theater on State Street that evening to see it. I was bummed when I found out that a girl I liked wasn't going to come—some sort of Gospel Choir leadership meeting—and even more bummed when she expressed her own disappointment at missing this outing. I told her that I'd watch it again the next weekend if she'd like to come. So that next Saturday she and I boarded the Westmont shuttle—or as the carless kids called it, the Shame Shuttle—and passed some down time people watching on State Street. We watched The Incredibles and loved it: a well-told family drama about identity, desire, and authenticity, set within the thrilling context of the superhero genre, supported by incredible visuals and stylish music. That night we lay beneath the cloudy November sky on the soccer fields, our conversation swirling.

Possible Eric Tan art.  Link

Possible Eric Tan art. Link

This evening I went to see The Incredibles II, the much anticipated sequel, and had the pleasure of going with that very same girl, who's obviously now a woman, my wife, and mother of my children. In the intervening fourteen years neither of us are quite the same. We've had our own adventures, told our own stories of identity, desire, and authenticity: home, work, schooling, learning, failing, choosing. No Shame Shuttle tonight, just our well-worn CRV, which has gotten us across the country and back, has been the site of some amazingly meaningful conversations, terribly growthful arguments, and currently has two children's car seats strapped into the back, littered with the detritus of childrearing. It's largely because of our two wee ones that this date marks the first time that my wife and I have been to a movie theater in over three years. It was a powerful experience. This sequel seems to have grown up along side us, exploring themes of parenthood, childhood, and vocation, touching upon multiple strands of human relationships, offering poignant probings of questions of power, of powerlessness, and of self. We're both rather shaken up. Wider perspective. Deeper echo.

I'm thankful for these memories and stories, these deep reminders of who I have been, sharpening my awareness of who I choose to be. 

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."

The Sacred Music of Harry Potter: The Hogwarts School Song

For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.

Unknown artist. Dumbledore  would  own a combustable bird...

Unknown artist. Dumbledore would own a combustable bird...

This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.

For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:

  1. Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
  2. Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
  3. Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
  4. Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
  5. Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?

Here goes!

You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

1. Context

This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.

 

2. Musicology

Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.

However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.

The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaosDepending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.


*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!

**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!

***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!

 

3. Metaphor

I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.

First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.

Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.

 

4. Personal

Owens Valley, We Love You.png

My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.

In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.

 

5. Action

Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?

I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest? 


NEXT: Ghost music...

 

Good for Them, Not for Me

I've been told by several people throughout my schooling that excellence, be it studying for the SATs, performance on a musical instrument, or musicological research and writing, only comes at the expense of normal life. Should an academic make that mistake to get married, it shouldn't effect their study or career. Same goes with parenting. To be the Man of Steel (read: PhD) one needs a Fortress of Solitude (read: Ivory Tower) and nothing should impede your labor. There have been times when I've attempted to live this out. But I'm not very good at it. I won't give up on spending time (or even wasting time) with my wife or my daughter or other loved ones.

Don't misunderstand me! I've gone to school for 23 years. I've worked extremely hard. I'm proud of what I've accomplished and I'm excited by what's coming. But to some, I have not gone about this right. I haven't suffered enough. Or fretted enough. Or regretted enough. Or picked a boring enough dissertation topic. To them I will quote the great Amy Poehler: "Good for them, not for me."

To this end, I am letting go of my grand vision, The Mumford & Sons Project (for now). You may have noted a slight half-year hiatus in the this blog's writing, and the reason is that the M&S Project was meant to be a chill, low-stress sideshow that would give me relief from dissertating and parenting. Yet, in fitting Matthew Roy fashion, what it became was something that I found inspiring, interesting, complex, subtle, and deserving of intense thought, consideration, nuance, and footnotes. Not exactly a side project. And I have a toddler whom I love. And the dissertation sometimes feels like a toddler, whom I also love.

This blog also began to feel like it was another place to prove that I am an academic. (People, serious, scholarly people, may see my unpolished writing!) But it's not. It's a side project. In the future I will inevitably talk about scholarly things, because I truly enjoy investigating the world that way. I will also likely betray my penchant for jocularity and nerdiness. (If you doubt the scholarly as well as soulful importance of laughter, take a look at Mikhail Bakhtin's introduction to his study on Rabelais.) First and foremost, it will be an outlet. And I will perhaps begin to enjoy it once again.

Perhaps you will to!

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.

This Woman!

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

A few of my wife's more heroic, beautiful, and inspiring moments.

A few of my wife's more heroic, beautiful, and inspiring moments.

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!

Comps!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I've passed my comps!

Hello, horizon! (John Bauer) Not sure if the Comps are the geese flying into the distance, the horse I'm riding, or the body-sized sword slung to my side!

Hello, horizon! (John Bauer) Not sure if the Comps are the geese flying into the distance, the horse I'm riding, or the body-sized sword slung to my side!

For those of you who don't know what this means, let me elaborate. "Comps" or "comprehensive examinations" (alternatively known as "compies", "the Thirteenth Labor", "cromps", or "the Grinding Ice of Helcaraxë") are a series of capstone tests in which the doctoral candidate demonstrates a level of mastery over their academic subject. I had been studying for this event for almost a year, refreshing my general music history knowledge, paying particular attention to five specialty topics for which I would need to have deep historical and scholarly knowledge: Counter-Reformation, French Opera (Lully to Revolution), Nineteenth-Century Character Pieces, Soviet Music (Revolution to Death of Stalin), and Genre. My comps were administered over the course of four days: I spent two days writing lengthy and detailed essays on my specialty topics (A Questions) and on general music history (B Questions); a third day was devoted to score identification where I had to use sheet music excerpts to make inferences on mystery pieces' style and history; and the last day, scheduled for the week after, consisted of an oral examination with my committee of three musicologists. All in all, about 19 hours worth of comptastic excitement!

Of course, every discipline and every institution has different methods for measuring and assessing said mastery, but once passed, the candidate is declared ABD, that is, a PhD in "All But Dissertation". It's a big deal. Having emerged victorious from this ordeal here are some thoughts on the process. Hopefully they may prove helpful, not just for those of us whose comps are yet on the horizon, but for anyone considering doing something intimidating, complicated, and absolutely worthwhile.
 

  • Seek Out Guidance and Support


The challenge I faced in comps not only concerned needing to establish the scope of my project early on, but to continually assess the project as it threatened to overflow its boundaries. Any progress I made inevitably expanded my horizons, a sensation simultaneously thrilling as it showed me exciting new paths yet to take, and mortifying as it emphasized how much further I had yet to go. The only way for me not to be derailed by the details or overwhelmed by the big picture was to seek out people who could guide and support me. Doing so requires admitting your confusion, fears, and limitations, a difficult exercise that turns an academic requirement into a stretching opportunity to mature on a variety of levels.

 

  • Be Careful Who You Talk To


Just as important as opening oneself up to others for help is the need to guard against negativity. With my mental constitution pushed to its absolute limit there were enough negative voices in my own head without adding outside influences. Whether they come from well-meaning but frightened people or from outright jerks (aka mean spirited and frightened people) these sorts of comments end up being nothing but distractions from doing your best.
 

  • Get Organized and Know Yourself


With all the moving parts that make up comps, a big part of my process involved figuring out how to organize myself and discovering how I work best. In these endeavors I found that it worked best to pick a method and roll with it. Some particulars included taking hand-written notes on lined paper, organizing my A Question notes in color-coded binders, writing out my reading assignments on a wall-sized calendar, and distilling authors onto notecards for quick reference. At the same time I would regularly assess the effectiveness of my workflow and make adjustments if I had gotten into a rut. My wife Jessica (an organizational goddess) and my colleague Luke (an insatiable optimist and pragmatist who was studying for his own comps at the same time) were essential in this regard.
 

  • Love It


In order to pass your comps you have to work very hard. It is difficult to conceptualize or evaluate the many hours that I've devoted to this monumental project over the past ten months; the strains that it has put on various aspects of my mental, personal, and social life; and the extent to which it pushed me further than I had ever been pushed before. While I definitely can't say that I enjoyed every minute of the process (my tailbone particularly disliked prolonged hours in uncomfortable chairs) comps have more than ever solidified my personal conviction that this is what I was made to do. Many of us have passions that seem crazy to others and it is in times of extreme testing that you might realize just how deep that passion goes.
 

  • Embrace Real-World Distraction


Doing something amazing and difficult naturally involves stress. It reminds you that you are growing. Yet throughout my comps process my wife occasionally marveled at my lack of completemental breakdown beneath the strain. I attribute this overall, foundational-level calm to a variety of factors, but I'd like to particularly mention the value of cultivating a perspective that sees beyond the present moment. Occasional reality checks grounded me and made me more excited and able to devote myself to studying. Just some of the most helpful distractions include:
 

  1. Pregnancy: It's hard to freak out about comps when my wife is due to deliver my first child a month after they're done! Birthing classes, breathing exercises, rearranging the house, setting up the crib, beach walks, driving my pregnant wife everywhere, attending baby showers... nothing gets you out of your own head as much as stepping up to fatherhood!
  2. Birthday: My wife planned a veritable extravaganza at our home for my thirtieth birthday which happened to fall on the weekend between the written and oral portions of my comps. Friends, family, food, twinkle-lights, a Costco cake bigger than my head... so fun!
  3. Multiple Illnesses: The week before comps I came down with a nasty cold. Then I broke out in partial body poison oak rashes due to a hiking incident from the week before that required the administering of mood altering steroids... Not fun! However, and I'm serious, it ended up helping my nerves, forcing me to relax, drink liquids, and take it easy.

 

  • Be Thankful


The night before comps I was struck by the propitiousness of my situation: I was on the brink of doing something extremely difficult, I had worked diligently towards mastery, and I felt confident in my abilities to succeed. And I knew that I had not gotten to this point alone. My present moment was due in large part to the long line of supportive, patient, and enthusiastic teachers who had encouraged and guided me along the way: family members, piano teachers, choir directors, conducting coaches, band leaders, theory professors, composers, musicologists. In their own way they helped to guide me along my way and I count myself greatly blessed at having been their student. I find that the things worth saying are rarely said often enough. Now as a teacher myself I cherish those rare moments when students articulate the difference that your teaching efforts have made on their lives.

C.S. Lewis' Dufflepuds know how to party! (Pauline Baynes)

C.S. Lewis' Dufflepuds know how to party! (Pauline Baynes)

  • What has been a monumental capstone moment in your life or an important project you see as a turning point?
  • What got you through your trial?
  • How do you take time to savor victory before plunging into your next adventure? :)

Sumer is icumen in!

Happy summer everyone!

Rackham perfectly capturing the feeling of making it through finals...

Rackham perfectly capturing the feeling of making it through finals...

Graduate school gives summer an extra feeling of arrival and victory. As of today, all grades have been finalized, all papers have been turned in, all boxes have been checked. Now is when we finally have the opportunity to turn to those things which we haven't had the time, mental energy and spiritual fortitude to enjoy. Here's what I'm excited about this summer:

  • Reading more George MacDonald just for fun
  • Playing more piano and chamber music with some friends
  • Actually visiting the beach, and improving my freestyle stroke
  • Meeting up with friends more often
  • Make new friends to improve German and French skills
  • Take naps!

This summer feels even more different from previous ones because not only is my wife no longer working in a job that had her busy the whole summer, but we just moved to a new house! It is such a beautiful, small, functional building with a wonderful landlord who lives on the property. Everything feels so full of life!

What are you doing this summer?

Happy Birthday, B!

Twenty-two years ago yesterday my little sister, Bethany came into the world. Apparently I wasn't all the thrilled, having gotten real hyped up for a baby brother, but I was completely and swiftly won over by her sheer awesomeness. Since then I have been so happy to see her grow up into a person of such spirit, thoughtfulness, intelligence, humor, and positivity.

She is currently in Canada, entertaining thoughts of going to the country of Georgia for an ESL adventure. In that spirit, therefore, I offer this ancient hymn in her honor. B, you shine like the frickin' sun! Keep being brilliant!

Georgian text:

შენ ხარ ვენახი, ახლად აყვავებული,

ნორჩი კეთილი, ედემს შინა ნერგული,

(ალვა სუნელი, სამოთხეს ამოსული,)

(ღმერთმან შეგამკო ვერვინა გჯობს ქებული,)

და თავით თვისით მზე ხარ და გაბრწყინვებული.

Latin transliteration:

shen khar venakhi, akhlad aqvavebuli.

norchi k'etili, edems shina nerguli.

(alva suneli, samotkhes amosuli.)

(ghmertman shegamk'o vervina gjobs kebuli.)

da tavit tvisit mze khar da gabrts'qinvebuli.

English translation:

You are a vineyard newly blossomed.

Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,

(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)

(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)

You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

Boris on Butterfly Beach

The past week and a half has been quite eventful. Jess and I pulled the trigger and came down from Roseville to our new duplex in Santa Barbara. We made due for the first few days with two chairs and a mattress on the floor - just until my bargain huntress of a wife found a free dresser, free bed frame and box spring, free couch, and $10 bookshelf. Things are starting to look like a house. Santa Barbara is starting to look like a home as well, with familiar beaches and streets, new discoveries and surprises, and the constant bumping into old friends in the most providential places.

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch  by Chris Potter. 

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch by Chris Potter. 

Amidst looking for summer employment and networking, I'm trying to keep loose by brushing up on my German ("shadowing" and "dictation" with a podcast), rereading some history books in preparation for the UCSB placement tests (history, theory, and musicianship), and going on very long walks with Jess and Numi on various beaches and through various parks (Numi is a complete nutter for the waves!). Check out Jess's blog for upcoming pictures that attempt to capture something of the outrageous beauty that overflows everywhere in this place. I'm going to write a bit on Boris Goltz and his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 2 (1934-35), getting some mileage out of my thesis and keeping up those writing and analyzing skills for the two months before school starts.

Boris Grigorevich Goltz (1913–1942) was born in the city of Tashkent. I wish there was more information on his family - their ancestry, how long they had lived there, why, what they did during the 1916 Basmachi Revolt, or where their sympathies lay in the violent anti-Bolshevik riots that lasted into late 1920s. All we know (thanks to a short monograph by Rafael Frid) is that thirteen-year old Boris moved to Leningrad in 1926. He worked, like Shostakovich several years earlier, as a silent movie accompanist, and took piano lessons, again like Shostakovich, from Leonid Nikolayev. It wasn't until the Leningrad harmony professor Venedict Pushkov saw the young pianists sketches for twenty-four preludes that Goltz gained the confidence to pursue composition. He graduated from the Conservatory in piano in 1938 and composition in 1940. Within that time he had composed or sketched out quite a wealth of pieces (almost all completely lost), got married to a piano colleague, and had every mark of excelling as a composer.

In 1941 Russia entered into WWII. Goltz, apparently not senior enough to be shipped off to one of those artistic refuge communities in Siberia, joined the Baltic Fleet Political Administration, a group of composers stationed in Leningrad, charged with the task of writing patriotic songs and plays for performing groups and military choirs. His songs in particular enjoyed wide success, one-hit-wonders like “The Song of Anger,” “The Song of Vengeance,” and “Shining Star in the Heavens.” Despite the idealized texts, Goltz and his colleagues worked in debilitating hunger and cold, crammed into a small room and composing without the aid of a piano. Seven months into the Siege of Leningrad, Goltz died of malnutrition.

It's a little ironic to write about the tragic, 1942, shivering-in-the-Leningrad-winter death of a Soviet composer with the sunny Pacific Ocean breezes wafting through my 2012 window. I can only hope that as I write about this composer and his music that I not be disingenuous and that I attempt to come from as good a place as I can - that of breathing a small measure of life into the memory of a nearly forgotten, but ultimately noteworthy individual.

Three States After

We are in California.

Let me explain.

On Monday the 18th, three days ago, Jess and I literally stuffed our belongings into a 5x8 trailer attached to our humble (but ultimately Herculean) Honda CRV. It was raining and it turned out that several of our things wouldn't fit, resulting in the hasty posting of "Free" or "Today Only" Craigslist adds. A Russian lady collecting things for her church charity went away with the box-spring and gave us a huge bag of apples (more on those later). Several breakdowns, moist towelettes, and oven cleaner later, there we were, standing in an empty, echoing structure that had been our home for a year.

On Tuesday the 19th, two days ago, we got up early with the sun, around 5:30, cleared out the rest of our essentials and hopped in the car. Numi had his dog bed situated in the back seat behind me, the navigator, out-loud reader of Sherlock Holmes, and occasional DJ, although we spent a great deal of the drive in contented silence, listening to the wind in a very zen-like way. Jess required only iced coffee to drive the pants off the western end of the country, and that with a frightening trailer behind us. It was heavy. It was sluggish. The chain occasionally came off, making sprightly jangling noises and requiring a speedy rescue. The tongue was quite low and made getting in and out of gas stations an adventure. We were so concerned with the maneuvering of the trailer that we entirely forgot to feel sad about leaving Spokane. Before we knew it, we were in Ritzville (not quite as ritzy as we hoped), taking the 395 to the Columbia River. We ended up staying on the north side of the river, an undulant road that made up for efficiency in poignant beauty. Passing into Oregon, the plants became a bit hardier, the roads windier, and the semis crazier. We stopped at a KOA outside of Culver, the same camp ground we used two years ago. Jess has a great picture of our stay. Hot dogs and Safeway salad-in-a-bag never tasted so good and 'smores are just as good on a BBQ.

On Wednesday the 20th, one day ago, we got up and went south, spending the long, wooded corridors of the Deschutes National Forest in good conversation. Through Klamath Falls and out through the border town of Dorris, CA. (We forgot to declare our Washington apples to the border inspector, and I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize for any environmental catastrophes that may ensue.) Around this time the temperature jumped about 20 degrees and our black lab let us know that he was warm to say the least. Butte Valley is lovely and Shasta Lake quite picturesque. Though I have seen it before, Mt. Shasta struck me differently this time, its vastness and solitude giving it a bit of a mystic, elemental, Titan quality that I don't usually catch. We got off the 5 and went through Chico (ew), and through two-lane, fruit stand-lined byways through Oroville and Marysville, driving past the very Carl's Jr. where we purchased Numi, almost four years ago, popping out in Lincoln. We made it into Roseville and squeezed through the back alleys in my mother-in-law Kathy's house.

On Thursday the 21st, today, I am sitting on a bed writing a blog post about an epic, 815ish mile trip that has already begun to fade into shadowy memory. The reminders of change are constant and often overwhelming, but I have my Jess and my Numi and my boxes of sheet music and the prospects of more adventures to come. I think we'll start with dessert.

Dues Paying Member of the ISFA

Packing all your possessions into brown boxes eventually uncovers all manner of interesting things. There’s the Tupperware full of miniature Star Wars figures. A one hundred page book I wrote in sixth grade called “The Three Treasures”. A flash drive of Jessica’s Dad’s ebooks. Prayer beads. A broken accordion. Postcards from London. It’s challenging to encounter these reminders and symbols of life. You have to come to grips with your own materialism.

On the brighter side I found my old acceptance letter into the National String Figure Association. Yes. No joke. Just imagine 15 year-old MR with a length of knotty yarn eagerly flipping through a highly pedantic anthropological journal. “String figure enthusiasts are everywhere, but notoriously difficult to identify — I’m glad you found us!” Yes, Dr. Mark Sherman sure was glad of my support in September of 1999. In addition to ISFA I also remember memorizing whole sections of a C.F. Jayne’s “String Figures; A Study of Cat’s-Cradle in many Lands” (1906) in a corner of the Inyo County Library as well as printing off pages of the Arctic String Figure Project. Let’s just say I was serious.

A photo from Jayne's book. Essentially a picture of me.

A photo from Jayne's book. Essentially a picture of me.

The funny thing is that the moment I found these old journals and pamphlets I scrounged around for a length of twine and plopped myself on the couch to make a Kiwi and a Boat and a Gourd (and failing miserably at the Fox and Whale). String figures are truly fascinating. I always consider the ingenuity of people who did not have television. Instead they composed visual aids to epic stories, made magic tricks, constructed devices for predicting the gender of a baby, engaged in creativity competitions, or just passed the time. I love to consider the infinite possibilities that lay latent in a ridiculously simple length of string. The dancing of the fingers call forth all manner of beautiful things from such humble beginnings. I also love that moment when a tangled knot wrapped around your fingers suddenly stretches out into a beautiful image, mathematically proportioned, fragile and sustained by the even tension of your fingers, shining for a moment before slinking back into a common loop of twine. It’s like music, that structure from chaos and manifold variations.

Another picture from the Jayne book. This is one of my favorite figures, but it really only works if you have a 10-foot loop. 

Another picture from the Jayne book. This is one of my favorite figures, but it really only works if you have a 10-foot loop. 

I think I’ll hold on to some of these things a little longer. Who knows when I’ll find another “string figure enthusiast.”

PS!Just found two string figures collected from the Salish Native Americans who lived in the Spokane area. Extremely cool. Check it! One is called “Dressing a Skin” and the other “Pitching a Tent” which is identical to “A Fish-Spear” (and was called “Witch’s Broom” in my little Sister’s book as a toddler).