Plot Bunnies! Arrrrrgh!

So there I was, minding my own business, when a gang of plot bunnies showed up and chased me into an alley.

OK, maybe it just feels that way.

For non-writers, the term “plot bunny” refers to ideas that show up and won’t leave you alone, demanding to be written, or added into as story they have no, zilch, zero place in. Some people say “plot kittens,” with the mental image of the (in)famous video of “popcorn kittens.” I think of plot bunnies the same way as I do dust bunnies – I wish they’d go pester someone else.

I’m trying to get the draft of the next Familiar Generations stories done. I know where one is going, I’ve got chunks of the second one done, and the third and fourth (both shorter) are sketched out. Except . . .

That story I began that’s based on Dark Ages Scotland is pestering me, and I’m finishing the last research reading on it so I can really dig into the tale proper. No, I don’t know what role Myrdden-the-Wild is going to play, but I’m starting to get an idea as I read this book, as well as locking in geography. I’d thought the story would be set in the Pictish lands, but it wants to happen mostly in Dal Riata. OK, fine. Be that way. Dun Add here we come.

And then, as I was driving back from the Metroplex, listening to Avantasia (the next album releases in late October), plot stuff attacked. It started riffing off of a scene in Preternaturally Familiar, then spun into a completely different direction that only fits the “Blue Roses” short story. Short story? Novella? Not novel, I know that much. And it is the end of the story, not what I need. And it sort of wants to have a moody Gothic atmosphere, which completely breaks what I thought it would be. Maybe. Or maybe the main character is playing Byronic Hero just to jerk my chain. Twit.

Oh, yeah, and Paulus and Attila from the Elect are poking me to get that book done, too. Because it is dark, and spooky, and it’s a dark and spooky time of year, yes?

So, at the moment, I am going to finish the main story of Familiar Generations, get “Blue Roses” out of the way, do the Elect thing, go back to Familiar Generations, and then the Indus Valley fantasy book.

Unless more plot bunnies mug me.

Same Psalm – Different Tune

So, some of us in choir were batting around “how many tunes can we find for [text]?” In this case it was “Come, Thou Fount” and between us we had nine that we’d sung in different churches and choirs. Four of those tunes were from the Sacred Harp and related books. This led me to thinking about a psalm I know that has three very, very different settings.

First, the text, KJV.

2 “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,

Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.

I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.

Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

10 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”

Now, the oldest of the three tunes, and one that most people would recognize as part of an orchestral work.

Sort of a cross between Plainsong and Renaissance madrigal. Ralph Vaughn Williams used it as the base for Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and kept several of the harmonies Tallis used.

Now, what is probably the first setting I heard, although I’ve never sung it, for obvious reasons.

Then comes “He shall break them like a potter’s vessel.” It’s the “Hey, folks, you might want to straighten up and fly right” section of the Messiah.

The more recent setting, in Hebrew, with a very minimal accompaniment. Psalm 2 starts at 3:00 in.

I’ve sung this twice. Both times, the tenors glowered at the alti and soprani. “You can just float around up there! We’re doing battle,” is the frequent grumble, although the lone counter-tenor looked rather smug. I’ve always done it with unison women on the solo, or a mezzo-soprano, rather than the countertenor or a boy.

Brain-Tired from Music?

No, I’m not trying to do a music theory analysis of free-form academic jazz. That falls under “These are trained professionals, do NOT try this at home.” No, I’m talking about why it felt like I was thinking through a fog after back-to-back intense rehearsals.

The group I sing with is at the point that we are moving away from “repeat phrases and sections until we can’t get them wrong” drill-n-kill practice to “what is the composer trying to accomplish?” In this case, it is a very unusual marriage of liturgical text with technically difficult music. In some ways, it’s easier to do Christian religious music from the Medieval to the Baroque because the Catholic Church had official and customary ways of setting certain texts in order to emphasize certain meanings. That started to go out the window in the mid-1700s, if the composer was good enough and if his patrons were willing.

So now, in addition to remembering the notes, the text and its meaning, and the special technique needed to do this music properly, the chorus is having to try and understand exactly what the composer wanted the listeners to feel. No, I’m not naming names, because this isn’t unique to this person. However, we, the chorus, generally don’t tackle this kind of work. We’re better known for purely vocal things like Renaissance madrigals and modern a capella pieces. Piano or organ and a few strings or woodwinds are the usual accompaniment, if there is any. The current cantata is a big mental shift from our usual.

I’ve had this feeling before, when doing some organ music as an undergrad. The organ requires both keyboard technique and an understanding of what sounds are required. A piano varies in volume, and in duration of notes, but an organ has a lot more sound possibilities. However, you can’t change the volume by pushing harder on the key. You either use the swell pedal (which changes the sound color as well as volume), or add and remove stops. When was the piece written? What sound did organs of that time and place have? How would this music be used? All those shape your interpretation as you adapt a modern instrument to older music. A Spanish early Baroque “Tiento de Batalla” is going to be hard to register on, oh, a church organ that is based on French Romantic sounds. Likewise a composition by Gabriel Faure isn’t going to work on a Bach (German baroque) instrument. It can be done, but the sound is not French Romantic, exactly.

Humans can’t change our stops, unless you count the male falsetto register. So we have to use a lot of other tips and tricks and techniques, all of which require both physical and mental effort. So I end rehearsal in a brain fog from trying to remember everything the music, text, and conductor demand. It’s a much an intellectual exercise as translating German into English, or reading an academic work in an unfamiliar field (say, geochemistry or paleo-mammal taxonomy). I’m a much better vocalist for all this work, but my brain is mush.

Cool and Warm voices together

It’s hard to find a good recording of a warm, rich voice and a cool, pure voice together. Here’s one, with the soprano Anna Netrebko and a boy soprano Andrew Swait. His is the second voice, and he has more vibrato than I usually hear in a boy’s tone.

Here’s a cool voice doing “Once in Royal David’s City.”

In total contrast:

I’ve heard a true cold pure boy soprano with a warm soprano doing “Pie Jesu,” but it was not recorded as far as I can find.

That Explains the Cold Temps . . .

Monday, Herr. Dr. Director said, “Sopranos, I need more of you. Sing louder, those of you who can.”

Sopranos: Looking at each other with growing elation and anticipation*. Boss Sop: “Can we get that in writing, for posterity?” Much choral laughter ensued.

Wednesday, Senior Conductor said, “Basses! Where are you? The tenors are drowning you out, and they’re not even trying.”

Tenors: Much hand-slapping, and “At last!” and “We did it!”** Much choral laughter ensued.

Based on this, I think it is safe to say that a certain perpetually warm location is starting to suffer the effects of the energy crunch, and has lowered the thermostat.

*Sopranos are never, ever ordered to sing louder. Usually we get the polite version of “down boy! Heel!”

** The basses outnumber the tenors two to one, and there are two true operatic (professionally trained, sang operas in the US and Europe) basses in the herd.

Memorial Day, Decoration Day

This year, 2022, Memorial Day’s observance falls on Memorial Day (actual), May 30. The United States did not have a day set aside to honor war dead until after the Civil War/War Between the States. Because so many families lost sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, the Grand Army of the Republic (northern veterans’ organization) pushed for a day to be set aside. On May 30, 1868, then US Representative James A. Garfield – a veteran – spoke these words:

Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them.”

The cover of what I suspect was a little history or civics book. Creative Commons fair use. Original source:

He was at the then-new Arlington National Cemetery. Some in the South had already selected a different date, April 26, to use. However, after 1898, May 30 became the common date in all states. In 1971 Congress changed things so that federal employees got three-day weekends, and Memorial Day was shifted to the last Monday in May. Some people still do not care for this, or for the commercialization and loss of focus that followed.

As my readers know, this is not Veterans Day, or July 4. It is to remember the dead. Celebrate life, enjoy time with family, friends, and comrades, but we should not forget those who never came home.

The YouTube video is John Williams “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan. The images are of memorials, and US and Allied military cemeteries around the world.

Below are links to two history sites with more information:

Warm and Cool Voices

One of the intriguing things about the human voice is the sense of “color” that voices can convey. Vocalists, and some instrumentalists as well, talk about warm and cool sounds, or dark and bright sounds. It has to do with the depth and shading of the tones involved. A warm or dark tone sounds richer, with more harmonic shading while still holding a single note. A cool or bright tone tends to be clearer, with fewer overtones or less vibrato shading the pitch. Older singers often have richer, darker voices, but this is not always true [waves paw]. Certain instruments have darker “voices,” and organs can be registered for a bright or dark tone, depending on the stops chosen.*

I was thinking about this as I listened to a recording of a Spiritual that one of my choirs is considering doing. Here’s the recording:

Both the women’s section in general, and the soloist in particular, have a very dark, warm tone, especially for such a young choir. Many Spirituals and Gospel songs require a darker vocal tone, a mature voice that fits the emotions and depths of the song. (This carries over to R&B as well, where older women vocalists are preferred to younger ones. It’s probably the only place in pop music where this is true.)

Renaissance and madrigals, and some Baroque and classical music, demands a purer tone, either to keep the slight pitch variations of vibrato from interfering with the actual notes, or because of the tight harmonics. Or because they were written for boy sopranos or castratos, and so just don’t work with a darker voice. It is hard for someone with a fully developed voice to keep all vibrato and color out of his or her voice, although men in falsetto come close. The easiest way is to tense the vocal cords, which strains the voice and interferes with tone quality. Try doing that for an hour – or better, don’t do that in the first place. Mozart’s choral works, Handel, Hayden, Bach, Scarlatti, Vittoria, they all need clearer voices that blend well, especially in the quieter passages. Solos often do better with a darker voice, but not always.

Some of us have naturally lighter vocal colors. My voice is somewhat warm, but very clear, because I damaged my vocal cords when I was a teenager. (Sopranos should not try to sing tenor at full volume. Bad things happen to the vocal instrument.) My voice remained a “boy choir” voice until I was in my mid-thirties, and even today I have no vibrato to speak of. I can blend with pretty much any other voice. This makes me in high demand for Renaissance music, and as a choral-support singer. I can’t do the great soprano solos, even when they are in my range, because I sound “funny” compared to a woman with a truly developed, darker voice.

MomRed’s voice is like warm cinnamon bread with raisins, or was when she was in her prime. She’d be ideal for the solo in “In the Cool of the Day.” It was a dark, rich voice perfect for lullabys, Spirituals, and other roles. I wanted a voice like that. I’m smaller than Mom (strike one), built more like Dad (a tenor. Strike two), and then had the vocal damage (strike three). So I sing boy-choir solos and Renaissance and folk music.

*Within the constraints of the instrument. A Bach organ, or French Romantic, or Spanish Baroque, will sound very different, and some pieces won’t work as well on each one. Older instruments tend to be brighter and “buzzier,” in pert because of technologies at the time, in part because of sound preferences from different places and cultures.

Classical Creep

I was listening to a song by Blue Oyster Cult and recognized part of “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.” Granted, that was a very popular composition among rock guitarists at the time, but I had to grin. They also slipped in a bit of “Hall of the Mountain King” in a different piece. Classical music appears a lot more than people would think, once you really listen carefully. Bach, of course, and Sabaton uses Bach at least once per album, or so it feels. Orff’s Carmina Burana and the tune of the “Dies Irae” are also found in many places.

It’s intriguing how rock borrows from classical and liturgical sources. Soundtracks are (in)famous for it, and Basil Poledouris got into legal trouble for the original Conan score. Why John Williams didn’t get in similar trouble I’m not sure (both borrowed from Holst). The invention of the leitmotif by Wagner was a boon for later generations of composers. But to pull entire patterns and chunks of a composition . . . You don’t have to dig very deep into many rock-song writers’ backgrounds to find at least a basic education in the western musical canon. They have that tool in their toolboxes, and know what is available to fit the sound they want.