Two Countries, Divided by a Common Notation System

Two things are generally true about choirs as compared to orchestras. Orchestras don’t breathe, and choirs don’t count. Specifically, it is rare for the entire orchestra to have a lift or hesitation for a catch breath. The brass and woodwinds might, or they might just take turns grabbing oxygen. Choirs usually have musical cues written into their scores, or a piano reduction for practice, and so don’t count constantly the way most instrumentalists do. It is very unusual to see the markings for, oh, a 12 measure rest, then a time-signature change, a three measure rest, and then choir notes.

That is, unless an orchestral composer writes something with a choir in it . . .

I was reminded of that recently, when grousing about crazy key signatures with some symphony members. The composition we had performed had, at one point eight sharps. [Waits for music people to finish face-palming]. There is no such thing as a key with eight sharps, as normally written. If you need something that odd, you toss in a few accidentals (notes that are raised or lowered a half-step temporarily) or just use the key that matches the sound you want. This led to grumbling about “composers who are showing off,” and use way too many keys in their music. Key changes are not, in themselves, bad. Changing which notes are sharp or flat, oh, say, nine times in a six page church anthem for choir? Not a way to win friends from either the choir or the organist.

So . . . Some years back, the choir I sang with got the choir parts for a joint forces exercise, er, choir with orchestra, composition. The composer was not used to writing for choirs, and thus did as she would do with instrumental parts and just put in a bunch of resting time before the choral entrance. And a few key and time changes, but nothing too wild. However, there were no hints for the choir (or accompanist) as to when we came in or what our cues were.

Predictable chaos ensued the first time we rehearsed it with orchestra. After perhaps ten measures of no choir, the conductor (who is primarily a choral conductor) realized that four parts were missing and stopped the orchestra. “Come in this time,” came the order. Fifty pair of eyes glowered down from the risers, because we had neither cue nor clue. “I’m starting seven before the choral entrance.”

Right. The handful of us who had some orchestral experience started counting under our breathes. One of the others held up a hand behind the music folder and gave the folks behind a count down. Four measures. Three measures. Two measures. [Rather like the start of a Tour de France time-trial, actually]. Launch.

After the third run-through, I sorted out some cues and where they were in relation to the choral entry, and marked that on my music. It helped. But I still had to spend — a while — counting like mad.

I’m not sure some of the alti ever forgave the composer for that. We sopranos had our own beefs. (“We’re not violas – that’s LOW.”)


Marinated Pickled Mushrooms

I like mushrooms, especially cooked in a stew or pickled. When I had to come up with a relatively simple-to-make hors d’euouvre, I went through one of my many cookbooks, found a starting place, and set to work.

The original recipe also calls for some salt, but we don’t use that in anything other than baking.

You need: two pounds baby mushrooms (little white ones. Four boxes the way the local stores package them)

2/3 cup [red] wine vinegar

1/2 cup oil [I used basil infused olive]

2 cloves garlic, crushed [a small dollop]

1/2 cup parsley chopped [I used three Tablespoons dried flakes]

1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard [I used German]

2 Tablespoons brown sugar.

Clean the mushrooms and trim off the ends of the stems if needed. In an medium-sized, acid-proof pot, bring vinegar, oil, garlic, parsley, mustard and sugar to a boil. Add the mushrooms and return to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes or a little longer, depending on altitude. Allow to cool in the liquid. The mushrooms will shrink a lot, so the liquid will probably cover them. That’s good. Store in the fridge in a sealed container until time to serve. Drain and serve with toothpicks or allow guests to help themselves.

Makes a lot. Could be halved, but remember, mushrooms shrink. These keep well, and really are better the next day. Feel free to tinker with the spices and the type of wine vinegar and oil.

Original recipe from: Savoring the Southwest: A Cookbook and More from the Land of Enchantment Published by the Rosewll Symphony Guild, Roswell, NM. 1983. (The book is part of the long tradition of fund-raiser cookbooks that go back to the original Charleston Receipts by the Charleston SC Junior League.)


A little past peak, but acres and acres of color . . .

Mid-June is a little past peak for wildflowers in the Hill Country. The Bluebonnets have already come and (mostly) gone, and the hot-season flowers are starting to rev up before the July-August Wilt. However, as you can see from the above photo at the LBJ State park (adjacent to the federal park, which is mostly closed for needed repairs), color still abounds. Indian Blanket (gaillardia) is the most common in the photo.

OK, so not all of the bluebonnets are gone . . . Coreopsis with bluebonnet and gaillardia. Still at the LBJ site. They have acres and acres of pasture that were in bloom in early June.
Just in the ditch, no place fancy . . .
A rather large blooming cactus . . .

Alas, when MomRed went back three days later at sunset, to catch the cactus in full glory, it had disappeared. If it hadn’t been for the bare dirt, she’d probably have thought that she’d lost her mind. The cactus was the second thing to vanish without warning.

The bar ditch of the same yard as the cactus, ten minutes after [yaaawwwnnn] sunrise. The home-owners left the ditch and large swaths of the front yard unmowed until the flowers set seed.

What? You want a few to take home? How many acres worth would you like?

One of the fields at Wildseed Farms, a commercial wildflower farm very close to where I stayed. I left the buffer between the parking lot and the flower field in the image to give you an idea of how big this is. The buffer is 20 feet. (I got seeds. And a tee-shirt. And walking stick. But that’s it. Really.)

People are encouraged not to pick the wildflowers growing in yards or by the road. Bluebonnets are protected by state statute. However, not everyone studies law . . .

Sicut chervus . . .

We were waiting for the bats to emerge from Old Tunnel State Park. A deer showed up first. As you can guess, it doesn’t really worry about all the gawkers taking pictures of it instead of the bats.

Book Review: The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

Ellenblum, Ronnie. The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072. (Cambridge University Press, 2012) Kindle.

Everyone knows that the 900s-1200s were a great time to be in Europe – warm, good weather in general, leading to a period of cultural and economic development that is often called the High Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals were built and chivalry flourished and the Hansa cities were at their peak. That’s true, but only if you were in western or central Europe. The Levant, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, the Pontic Steppes and Egypt? Endured bitter cold, drought, plague, and economic collapse. Invasion came with the cold and drought, and pushed the Byzantine Empire into rapid decline. North Africa went from semi-bread-basket to desert with pockets of irrigation, and Jerusalem was almost abandoned. When the warriors of the First Crusade breached the gates of the holy city, they found very few people compared to the population in the year 1000 or so.

The weather patterns that warmed and moistened western and northern Europe froze and desiccated Southwest Asia.

The book’s origins stem from Ellenblum’s curiosity about the lack of water in Jerusalem vs. the population it was supposed to have supported during Roman and early Byzantine times. This led to studying the hydrology of the city, and the discovery that most of the springs had dried up by the time of the First Crusade. Why? Bad land management? Climate shifts that caused the springs to lose groundwater and fail? As it turns out, the answer is a series of cold, dry years that caused the local water table to drop. This dried the springs, many of which never returned even after the rains came back. Jerusalem had to shift to relying on rainwater caught in cistern during the winters, meaning it could no longer support even half the population it had boasted at the time of Jesus.

When the author looked farther, it proved that Egypt, the rest of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Pontic Steppes (area north of the Black Sea) also suffered severe cold and drought during the period of roughly AD 950-1100. The lack of rain, and the bitter cold (snow on the ground in Baghdad for 40 days!) caused already tense relations between settled peoples, Bedouin nomads, and steppe nomads to collapse. The governments could not feed the people in some cases, nor could they keep the Turkic nomads out of the river valleys. When the Turks arrived, they burned, looted, carried off people to sell or ransom, interrupted trade, and eventually took over swaths of the area. The great centers of Islamic and Jewish learning in Baghdad disappeared, and Islam (Sunni) took on a different intellectual focus, one less interested in preserving the Classical philosophies and more on Islam’s own philosophy.

This is one of the books that I read and slap myself on the forehead and go “Duh.” I’d always wondered why the Seljuk Turks suddenly appeared in Southwest Asia. We went from Byzantine vs. Arab to “Turks in Charge” in the 1050s and later. Why? Where had the Seljuks come from? Why had they left the steppes? Well, they were pushed by the need for fodder and food, because the terrible weather drove them south and west. This also caused the Magyars (Hungary) and Bulgars to raid the edges of the European part of the Byzantine Empire just as Constantinople was cut off from major sources of food and military personnel. Toss in the plagues that always break out in cold, undernourished populations, and you can see why the empire started devaluing its currency and could no longer hold onto the edges of its territory, especially in Asia Minor.

Elllenblum is tightly focused on the region, so there are no cross-comparisons with western Europe or Russia (Kievan Rus). I do know from other reading that China experienced cold and drought in the 1000s, with floods and the disaster of the Yellow River floods following (1090s-1140s). The author alludes to the push to the east, and into South Asia, leading to shifts in Muslim control over northern India (the Lodi Sultanate). The book is also somewhat episodic, and focuses on weather and its direct effects, rather than on telling human stories. If you are looking for the tales of people, or a seamless, flowing narrative, you will be disappointed.

The book also lacks a bibliography. This is inexcusable on the part of Cambridge University Press. The notes are extensive, but readers are forced to comb through them at the end of each chapter to find material and primary sources if a reader wants to follow up on a topic.

I highly recommend this book for students of medieval Middle Eastern history, for those interested in the environmental history of all of Europe, and scholars wanting to fill in gaps about the causes of movements, migrations, and the shifting attitude of local Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. A basic background in the overall history of the region is good, but not really necessary depending on the reader’s focus. I found the book easy to read, but this is my baliwick. Non-specialists might not be as enthralled.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or the publisher for this review.

Stonehenge? Why not!

So, what happens when you have a rancher with an artist friend, a large left-over slab of rock, and display space?

You get Stonehenge II, just outside Kerrville, TX. In 1989, Doug Hill had a slab of rock left over from a patio project. His friend and neighbor Al Sheppard took the rock and made it into a menhir in a pasture. And since one rock needs a few friends, one slab became a rough arch became . . . a stone henge. The replica is only about two-thirds as tall as the original, but is nine-tenths of the horizontal size, so yes, the proportions are a bit off. In the early 1990s, Mr. Sheppard went to Easter Island, and two Moai-head statues now mark the ends of the henge.

After Mr. Sheppard’s death, the family gave the stones to the Hunt County Art Foundation. The rocks had been on private property but open to the public. Now they are in a public park across from the open-air theater and art center.

I didn’t inquire about renting the place for the Solstice.

It’s amazing what happens when you get two Texans, some unoccupied ground, and a slab of stone together. Why Stonehenge? Why not? It’s fun, makes other people happy, and gives the neighbors something new to talk about.

Great Small Museum: The Museum of Western Art, Kerrville, TX

Clan Red was in search of something to do indoors. That was open on Tuesday. So we ended up going 20 or so miles south to Kerrville, and visiting the Museum of Western Art. The museum began as part private collection and part museum for the Cowboy Artists association. Now, while not formally affiliated with the Cowboy Artists association, it features their works along with those of working ranch women artists. Most of the works are related to the American West*, or to American Indians.

The museum is a whisker bit south of the river, up on a hill. Enormous bronze western statues have pride of place outdoors. The museum was originally an open rectangle with a courtyard and fountain, but after some needed repairs arose, the trustees opted to enclose the courtyard and use it for display space. Currently, western saddles from the collection surround the mesquite-floored space. A large case full of all kinds of katsina dolls, a beautiful banker’s desk from the late 1800s, and other artifacts, with more saddles, line the walls, alternating with statues. All the work is by working cowboy or rancher artists, with special displays of Indian beadwork, rugs, and other applied arts.

The cartoonist Ace Reid’s saddle, donated by his wife Madge. Property of the Museum of Western Art.

I wish I could include photos of the artworks, but the museum docents were not certain about obtaining copyright permission from the various artists or their estates. However, the image below is from a gallery that shows the work of Eric Slocombe, the artist. The real statue “Owl Witch” is amazing, and very eerie.

“Owl Witch” (C) Eric Slocombe. Available through Pitzer’s Fine Arts.

The museum does have a wonderful “virtual tour” that allows you to see many of the fine art works remotely. You can access the virtual tour via the main web site, or here:

Red 2.0 is a little young for fine art. However, she spent at least half an hour, closer to 45 minutes, in the Oregon Trail display. It is built for kids, and has a miniature Conestoga wagon they can climb on, interactive activities to try, and tells via “diary entries” the experience of traveling the trail. At the “end of the trail” kids can try on pioneer clothes, hats, sunbonnets, and so on. Adults can also try on the sunbonnets (I might own some of the dresses already, in a larger size.) Red 2.0 is nine years old, and likes to play Oregon Trail on the computer. The display kept her happily fascinated for quite a while, so it is kid approved.

Another small display, across from Ace Reid’s saddle, has derringers. One was a real Derringer, and the rest are “derringers,” meaning small, concealable one or two-shot self-defense weapons.

Did I mention that some came in “odd” calibers?
For formal occasions . . .

I highly recommend the museum for fans of the art of the American West, applied “cowboy” art, and as a place for kids to look at the art and to get a little history lesson. The gift shop has prints of some paintings, jewelry, leather crafts, and books about Western art. Military and fire/police/EMS get an entry discount or are free.** They also have an archive of references and materials by and about Cowboy Artist Association members, as well as other research opportunities.

No, it’s not as large as the museum in Oklahoma City, or the Gilcrease in Tulsa, or in Cody. But it is kid-friendly, small enough to keep you from being overwhelmed, and provides a very good sample of what western art can be.

*Western art in this context is art depicting Western North America, including bison, Indians, cowboys, landscapes, wildlife, pioneers, and western related things. It’s a genre that is often looked down upon by sophisticated consumers of fine art.

**I have not seen so many museums that offer discounts to military and first-responders as I encountered in the Hill Country. The Red family chipped in a little to the kitty to help defray the deferred admissions.

Odd Name, Fun Place

I wasn’t certain what to expect when MomRed announced that she’d booked a small cabin “with a loft.” Actually, it started with “how do you feel about climbing a ladder into a loft?” Since RedQuarters lacks lofts, I wondered if this meant that she was hiring me out to help someone at church or who she knew. No, it had to do with sleeping quarters.

So, seven and a bit miles east of Fredericksburg, TX, we pulled onto a small side road and wound through houses to a set of four small cabins, very much like the Sunday Houses found in the region. “Rumpelpunzeldornaschenwittchen” filled a small sign. I had been warned that the cabins were named for fairy tale characters, and that the hosts Heinrich (Henry) and Barbara were German, so I sorted out “Rumpelstiltzken, Rapunzel, Dornrose, Aschenputtel, Schneewittchen.” My parents and I stayed in “Rapunzel,” a lovely small cabin with a tiny half kitchen (no stove but has small fridge and microwave), bathroom, sitting area, large downstairs bed in an alcove, and a twin bed upstairs.

Lurking at the top of the ladder . . .

OK, any place with a dragon waiting in the loft can’t be too bad.

Not recommended for those who dislike heights.

The ladder’s not as bad as feared, although making multiple trips up and down per day reminded me why I don’t like stairs. The cabin was very quiet, and comfortable (good Air Conditioning). Breakfasts were semi-German, meaning that Barbara used US meats and cheeses to provide a German-style breakfast with cold cuts, boiled eggs, bread and cheese and butter, fresh fruit, fruit juice, yogurt, and occasionally pastries. The cabin came with a coffee maker and microwave and hot-plate, as well as plates, bowls, glasses, and utensils.

The landscaping is attractive, and you don’t feel as if you are surrounded by houses (aside from the chickens from across the creek who sometimes visit). There’s a nice little pond, and fireflies at night. Hummingbirds, cardinals, and other birds nest in the area, and swallowtail butterflies worked over the clover in the yard. Yes, mosquitoes, but that’s par for the course in this part of Texas, especially after the wet May and early June they had. All damage from Snowvid 21 has been repaired.

The other place of note where I stayed was the Whitten Inn.

Yes, there are two cats who supervise housekeeping and maintenance.

The Whitten is in Abilene, TX. It is just off I-20. It is not fancy, but it is amazingly clean, with very reasonable rates. The family is pro military, and there are retired and active duty military and police/fire/EMS discounts. The place advertises that they use My Pillow™ brand bedding, which tells you a bit about their opinions, if the USMC flag flying beneath Old Glory wasn’t a clue. However, they don’t make a big deal about politics. The big deal is a quiet, comfortable, no-frills stay. The furnishings are not fancy, but they are comfortable, at least for me. I was delighted not to have a pillow-topped mattress for once (I prefer firm rather than “disappears into the fluff never to be seen again.”) The Whitten Inn doesn’t serve breakfast at the moment, but there are several eating places close by.

Dining in Fredericksburg ranges from chain restaurant (pizza, Diary Queen, and so on) to German-style and German. There are several very good Italian places, a number of bakeries and coffee shops, and so on. One thing to be aware of is that even in tourist season, Monday and Tuesday, or Tuesday and Wednesday, are often closing days. Tuesday is the most common “closed” day. The bakeries are good, and if you want snacks, well, bakeries, popcorn shops, candy shops, fudge, ice cream . . . And then there’s the peach ice cream from the farm stands by the highway . . .

A Dream that Came True

When I was 10-20 or so, I was hooked on unicorns. Unicorn books, china and glass unicorns, unicorn stickers, unicorns in art . . . It was probably the only “normal” thing about me, until the fad for all-things-unicorn passed but I kept collecting them and reading about them. Oops.

When I was still in high school, one of the adult choirs I sang with went to New York to perform at Lincoln Center (late 1980s.) Mom and I took one day and hopped on the bus (educational) and went from one end of Manhattan Island to the other to visit the Cloisters Museum. The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum. In 1913 George Grey Barnard, John D. Rockefeller, J.P Morgan, and a few other guys bought four French church cloisters and moved them to New York. And added appropriate art, furnishings, and so on. When the museum opened in 1938, it became the home of the Met Museum’s medieval art and artifacts collection (not that the main location lacks medieval art, but this is more in situ.)

Why the Cloisters? The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series. And the rest of the stuff, but it was the tapestries that I desperately wanted to see. And so we did. They were wonderful – as was the rest of the museum.

Fast forward to 2012 or so. Mom, Dad and I were wrapping up a tour of the highlights of France. It ended in Paris – which was miserably hot. As in the 90s. Street temps in the 100s. Not fun. But, one morning we skipped the official whatever and went across the Seine to the Muse´de Cluny. This is an old Cluniac monastery and church that is now a medieval art and artifacts museum. Why the Cluny? Well, because it had old stuff, in an old setting. And because of the Unicorn Tapestries. These are “The Five Senses,” the ones with the unicorn and lion holding standards, and the lady and her servant hearing, smelling, looking, and so on. We got shooed out of one gallery because the guard was going on break (ah, France), and hurried into the tapestry gallery. We were the only ones there.

Remove the people and you see what I saw.

You don’t walk straight into the gallery, but around a wall. The space is dimly lit and cool, in order to preserve the tapestries. They are displayed in a semi-circle, so you can stop and look at each one without blocking other people’s view.

I walked around the partition wall, saw the singing colors and designs, and wept. Tears rolled down my face as I stood there, truly awe filled. The weavings were so beautiful! So perfect! Everything I’d every hoped to see existed before my eyes. As I type this, I feel the awe once more, the sense of wonder. It wasn’t sacred wonder, like I’ve felt in some churches, or when worship does everything it should but so rarely does. No, this was . . . an echo? Something in me resonating with the art, like a perfectly tuned musical chord raising a harmonic. The tapestries are secular, not sacred, works, but something about them . . . My heart truly overflowed with joy. Not happiness, but joy, the deeper emotion.

The rest of the museum was quite good, and I learned a great deal. Of the museums I saw in Paris, I’d say I liked the Art of Northern Europe part of the Louvre, then the Cluny, then the Southern European section of the Louvre, in that order. I didn’t get to the Impressionist museum or the military history museum.

“Sight” Image source here:

Fur in History: A Quick Overview

Another repeat. I’m still on the road.

So there I was, trotting along under the January stars, pleased that I had found my fur-lined winter hat, and my fur neck-piece, and my fur muff, and thinking about fur, who wore fur, fur in art, and realized that I have not yet seen a book about the history of fur. The North American fur trade, yes, lots and lots of books, because my early childhood was spent at a place where two major rivers and multiple trading trails crossed, trade routes that predated Europeans by quite a while. So I grew up reading about fur trappers and beaver and that sort of thing. But what about fur in world history? Fur is a no-no for some people today, although that seems to be changing a little, and no one seems to shed tears over lining a hat with rabbit, or using rabbit fur to make felt hats. Back in the day, before central heat, fur meant survival and was one of the most important trade items around. Fur carried status, even squirrel and other “low-class” furs. Continue reading