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...

 

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

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.

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!

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.

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.