Speed, Skill, and Age

A friend of mine and I were discussing a musician colleague of his, and one of the third-party’s compositions. The runs up and down the scale are brilliant, but my friend does not do them as fast as some. He’s not trying to show off, but to be precise and do justice to the piece.

That led to mutters and grumbles about people who think that certain pieces *coughOrangeBlossemSpecialcough* are a race to get through. Especially some Baroque and classical compositions that are *coughWidorToccatacough* used as encores or to show off with. “You lose the power,” my friend sighed. I looked at my notes on the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and agreed. It’s not a race. You have to be steady and precise. Bach is not Brahms or Durufle, where you emote all over the place and can mess with the tempo. Baroque is different.

Then we switched to grumbling about weather changes and mileage. My friend lamented a composition that he’d played frequently in his younger days, but now required checking the forecast before attempting. Otherwise, his arthritis made it too painful and messed up his finger pressure on the instrument. He’s at the point where his physical ability has peaked and is starting to fade a little, even though his knowledge of his craft and its history is still growing. We come from different musical traditions and instruments, but I love listening to him talk about technique and styles, because I always learn something I can use on my own instrument(s). He thinks he’s got four or five more years left, then he will have to retire because his hands and neck will have reached the point of interfering too much with his craft. He’ll still play for his own pleasure, but not as a career.

I do several activities where smoothness has to come before speed. Keyboard music. Vocal music. Shooting. Fencing (sword, not barbed wire). Carpentry. Yes, it is fun sometimes to see just how fast a choir can get through “And He Shall Purify” before the last vocalist crashes and taps out. Or to race through the Toccata of the Toccata and Fugue at top speed, leaving wrong notes scattered all over the place and not caring. But that’s after you already know the piece, know it well, and are funning around. More often, the instructor or conductor will hold you back, insisting on precision and smoothness. We’ve probably all heard choirs who accelerate through the “Alleluia” chorus, leaving the orchestra or pianist/organist two pages behind.*

My voice has peaked. I’m still gaining skill in technique, but I will soon lose more and more of the upper register. That’s what happens with ageing. Since I’m already a switch, meaning I can sing soprano 1, soprano2, and alto 1, in a year or two I will stop worrying about the high Bs and Cs. Right now, high B-flat is the effective end of my register. Yes, I can go higher, if all the stars align, and sound good. Not coluratura or bellcanto good, but “dogs don’t howl and people don’t flee” on pitch and clear. Given the damage I did to my voice when I was a teen, that’s amazing in and of itself. But time passes, and my instrument is not as young as I want to think I am. Technique can only balance time for a while.

There are people who can maintain peak skill until they die. There are people who should have quit a decade before they finally stop (or the Grim Reaper taps on the door.) Frustration is when the mind, ear, and heart want to keep going, but the joints get in the way.

*It usually traces back to the “For the Lord G-d Omnipotent Reigneth” section, and clipping the eighth-notes too short. That leads to shortening the quarter notes as well, and then it’s off to the races!


Start With a Work Song …

Actually, I first heard the— Parody? Tribute? Homage?

Anyway, a song based on the tune, theme, and pattern of the chanty via Peter Grant and a host of other bloggers. The original was a work song from New Zealand, sung by on-shore whalers (about whom more later.)

The parody is “The Kittyman” by the Trailerpark Boys.

It’s a great parody, and you can hear the work-song rhythms.

The original is “The Wellerman.”

An artistic version of the original.

So, who was a Weller Man anyway? He was an employee of the Weller Brothers, a trio of settlers in New Zealand who made their fortune supplying whalers with tea, sugar, run, rope, harpoons, clothing, flour, and everything else you can think of. They were chandlers in the early 1800s. The song originated, as best anyone can tell, from an on-shore whaling station, where whales were dragged onto the beach to be butchered.

Supply boats went out to some of the whaling stations, and to the whaling ships that hunted there and brought supplies. Tea, sugar, rum, rope, “slops” (sailors clothing), food, and other things came, and whale oil, baleen, and teeth went back on-shore. Or the ship’s master and crew bought on credit, and paid after they got paid.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up listening to sea shantys of various kinds, from “Blow the Man Down” to “Shenandoah” and “Mingulay Boat Song” and “The Greenland Whaler.” They were songs for civilian ships, merchants and whalers. They set the pace and kept men from getting too bored with the work. “Shenandoah” and “Mingulay” were both capstan shantys, sung when you needed a slow, steady pace as the capstan wound in the anchor chain or ropes. Mingulay is an island near Scotland.

I prefer a little “rougher” sounding version from a Revels record, but it doesn’t seem to have been uploaded by anyone.

“There Was a Time in This Fair Land …”

Do you hear the rest of the phrase?

How about, “The legend lives on from the Chippawa on down …”?

“If you could read my mind love,” …?

I grew up listening to, and singing along with, Gordon Lightfoot. And Ian and Sylvia, Odetta, and other folk-rock musicians. Lightfoot’s music is what I remember the most, and what I can sing at the drop of a hat, or without dropping the hat. The ballads sank in early, probably because MomRed sang the Child Ballads to me and Sib. (Which probably explains a lot about my morbid turns of plot and personality …) I could warble along with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” I didn’t always understand all the references in things like “Black Day in July” or “Circle of Steel,” or “Go-go Girl,” but I got the basic idea.

Lightfoot was a storyteller in song, catching current events and framing them in music. It’s an old tradition. He also critiqued society at the time, pointing out the flaws “see the soldier with his gun/who must be dead to be admired:” Vietnam-era anyone? Some of his songs ache, because he screwed up a lot of things with alcohol and bad choices. It was partly a generational thing, I suspect, given how young a lot of the folk-rock and folk singers of the 1960s-70s died. “Early Morning Rain” ranks up there with “Summer wages” (Ian Tyson) as odes to bad decisions and their consequences.

Gordon Lightfoot had a magnificent voice, which is probably why my parents locked onto him. He was a baritone, meaning I could sing along without hurting myself.

I also like his descriptions of nature. “Pussy-willows, Cattails” comes to mind.

Is it a ghost story? Is she a woman, or a dog?

The next one is probably the first of his I taught myself to sing. Growing up in a railroad city (Omaha – Union Pacific) had something to do with it, I suspect.

And speaking of children, this one ranks there with the Irish Rovers’ “Winkin, Blinkin,’ and Nod” and “The Unicorn” as a childhood favorite.

For some reason, this last one always haunted me. I think because it is a nod to the problems of communication, and to Lightfoot’s many personal problems, but made universal.

And of course, the one song everyone seems to have heard of, one that has some of the most effective use of steel guitar/pedal steel ever. The shipping museum in Duluth, MN has a great display about the Big Fitz and other ships of the Great Lakes.

Bourbon, Cwm Rhondda, Llangolfin, Ein Feste Burg

Confused yet? Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of tune names in many hymnals. Sacred Harp and its derivatives often had tune names that leave people scratching their heads: what does this have to do with Boston, or Charleston, anyway?

When you thumb through the tune names section of a hymnal, you will find that the names are the first words of the original text (“Herrlibster Jesu,” “Ein Feste Burg,” “Veni Immanuel”) or the Psalm tune from the Geneva Psalter (Old 100, Old 113). Occasionally the title comes from a folk-tune name (Captain Kidd, aka “Wondrous Love,” Ash Grove, Slane, Ar Hyd Y Nos). Sometimes the name is jettisoned because “Star of the County Down” is probably not a great tune name, besides being long. A few are renamed because the folk-tune inspiration had a text that was, hmm, less than traditionally devout (see “Captain Kidd.”) Some Sacred Harp tunes also nod to the original text, such as “Promised Land” – “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” – which has a chorus of “We’re bound for the promised land.” Holy Manna is another tune like that “…holy manna will be showered all around.” “Morning Trumpet” includes the phrase “And shall hear the trumpet sound in the morning” in the chorus and verses.

Cwm Rhondda and Llangolfin are both Welsh tunes. The first one is probably better known “Guide me, o thou great Jehovah.” Some Welsh and other tune names are translated, but these were not. Methodists tend to have a number of the Welsh titles, because the Methodist Movement really caught fire in Wales in the late 1700s, and almost replaced the Church of England among the ordinary working folk. Rhondda was a valley in Wales known to the composer, who was Welsh.

“Sicilian Mariner” was attributed to sailors from Sicily. It probably didn’t come from there, but no one’s going to argue now. “The Austrian Hymn” was written by Hayden for the imperial court in Vienna, so the name does fit (“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” or “Deutschland Über Alles”).

American hymns, namely those written by American composers and often found in collections like The Sacred Harp or Southern Harmony have names from all over the map – literally. A lot of them are city names, but might have nothing to do with the city. Charleston, Boston, Abbeville, Fairfield, Corinth, Liverpool, Detroit, Nashville … “Bellevue” might be one of the familiar ones, since it is incorporated in the modern setting of “How Firm a Foundation.”

And no, I don’t know how “Bourbon” became a tune name, although the off-kilter part of me wonders if the composer had indulged too much in said liquid and had a conversion experience. Alas, more likely, it was named for the French Bourbon, like the place and the dynasty.

Stay On Your Clef!

So there we were, trying to semi-sightread the second movement of the Chichester Psalms. I say semi because about a third of us had sung it before. That doesn’t make it easier, especially for the men.

Normally, the solo comes first, then the women in a canon, then the men, then everything else. We were starting in the middle, for Reasons.

The men begin the rehearsal run by just doing their part, which comes in after the initial theme. They half-chant the Hebrew text of Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage and the heathen imagine vain things?”) The notes and rhythm are harsh, angry, and insistent. Then a soprano, boy or woman, comes back in with a slow, gentle floating recitation of Psalm 23 (“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want …”) Then the rest of the women come in, echoing the soloist.

(The men’s part starts at 3:08 in)

We had not set a soloist yet, so all the sopranos who felt like it were to come in on the repeat of the solo line, then shift to our proper part. The guys were being angry and fast, as best they could since they were sight-reading a hard part. The cue came, the sopranos inhaled …

And a high, straight-tone part came from NOT the soprano section. We turned en-herd to glower at that most smug of beasts, the countertenor. This particular gent has the purest falsetto for an adult male of almost anyone I know. And he was hogging our solo!

He smirked and subsided, allowing the women to come in.

Tenors. Grrrrr.

So Much for Stereotypes!

I was reading Metal Hammer magazine for the interviews with Floor Jansen and an article about Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish. Those were interesting. I disagree about “best Nightwish album,” but hey, he’s the composer and boss, I just listen.

However, one of the first articles was about a member of the band Obituary and his feline rescue charity. Yes, he has a cat shelter and also does trap/spay/neuter/release in the Tampa, FL area. The charity is called …

Metal Meowlisha.

Farther into the magazine is a full page ad for the Mystic Festival in Gdansk, Poland. Ghost is headlining, along with Gojira, Danzig, and there will be a “few” other bands. In the fine print at the bottom, it says “Dinner: from 4 Euro., incl wide selection of vege and vegan options” The site is 10 minutes walk from historic downtown Gdansk [Danzig] and 15 minutes walk from the beach. Vegan and vegetarian catering at a metal fest.

OK, given the number of metal musicians that say they are vegetarian, I’m not entirely surprised, but it sort of ruins the stereotype.

Of course, I ruin the stereotype. A lady in my semi-pro chorus was looking at one of my Avantasia shirts and asked what it was about. When I told her, her jaw hit the floor, because she could not imagine me, Alma-the-soprano, listening to rock, let alone metal, even symphonic metal. So I played part of “Raven Child” for her. It wasn’t quite what she was expecting (but we didn’t get as far as the chorus, where the metal aspect really kicks in.)

Oh, and just for fun, there’s also a history article about metal musicians and fans, and Dungeons and Dragons™. And a few of the songs and albums based on D&D.

Since it’s a British publication, there are also some fascinating euphemisms in the music reviews. Because you can’t come out and say, “This album stinks,” quite like you can in the US, so you find work-arounds. (And there are a number of bands reviewed that I wouldn’t touch without wearing a hazmat suit. I’d also insist on clergy backup. Erk. To each their own. There are also some songs by bands I generally like that I heard once and deleted, or skip when I play the CD.)

The Stillness In-between

This is a wandering, rambling I have no idea quite what. You’ve been warned. 🙂

Pauses are important. They give you time to breathe, to regroup. They can be physical, mental, or just a chance to breathe before the next phrase begins. Some pauses feel endless, building tension that aches for release. Others pass too quickly, barely time for a hesitation before life races on.

The new-to-me conductor uses pauses – rests and caesura – in fascinating ways. I’d not noticed it before, because I’d been on the audience side, listening to compositions that are either not familiar, or that are so familiar the orchestra is sort of locked into a certain style. With this big choral and orchestra thing, Maestro had some flexibility and I knew the music well.

Tension. The focus, which fit the composition, was on building and holding tension, establishing and continuing a mood of dread and relentless Fate. So pauses before resolutions, holding the moment longer than the listener expects, stopping time and forbidding completion, then abrupt release. It was very disconcerting the first few times, for both chorus and orchestra. We too want to resolve the chord, the moment. We want to return to auditory harmony. We know what’s coming next, and please, Maestro, let us get there! No, hold for an extra half second, sustain the waiting, then launch into the next passage, driving and harsh. And it creates drama, and passion, and beauty.

I think, perhaps, that sometimes writers and composers forget that it is the hesitations, the stretching of tension, the desire for resolution are necessary for a satisfying story or song. [And not just as a vocalist, brass, or woodwind player who does need to breathe every so often!] I’ve read technically brilliant short stories with amazing use of language that went thud. There were no pauses, no tension built, nothing hung in the balance. There was no growth because the words never stopped flowing to allow for that. The reader never got a pause to savor anything.

In writing we talk about the need for down-moments after action scenes. Let the character recuperate and rest. Let the reader catch her breath and relax, mentally shift gears perhaps before the next plunge. It builds excitement and tension, keeps interest. YOu also need pauses to increase tension. The character listens and hears—nothing. Or a different character does not reply to a question or compliment. Why? What is wrong? Where is the signal, the call to action? When will the waiting end? And then after the action peaks and the evil forces are defeated—a pause. A breath, time to rest, to consider what happened, to resolve the smaller matters, to return to as much of a normal world as the character can. Without that denouement, a story goes splat. “It just stopped!” We need a return to stillness, to calm.

I suspect one reason people in general are snappish and twitchy is because we have inadvertently developed into a society without caesura. Stuff never stops. TV, media, texts, emails, everything demands attention. Lights burn 24/7. There are very few spaces in between. Think about the political “season.” It now seems to start two days after the last election. Or sports. In some cases, relationships. We are expected to race from one to the next to the next, without time to stop. Or we are supposed to provide constant feedback and assurances. There’s no time to pause. Either boredom sets in, or we break from the constant stimulation and sound. There are no rests. Or so it seems.

Perhaps it’s just an introvert’s take on a world that seems aimed at extroverts and the mildly hyperactive, people who love constant stimulation and encouragement.

Revisiting Music: Adiemus

I was reading a semi-recent issue of a heavy-metal music magazine (interviews with Floor Jansen and Tuomas Holopainen) and for some reason, the very not-rock group Adiemus floated out of the depths of my memory. It was actually a project of the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, and became a surprise sensation after part of one song was used in an airline ad and a car commercial.

I have the cassette somewhere, but didn’t feel like digging for it, so I went to the Tube of You.

Yes, it is still a cross between pop, New Age, and classical. That might be why the interviews brought it to memory, since they were discussing symphonic metal, which combines heavy metal and classical instrumentation. Adiemus was also good for “music without understandable lyrics” when I wanted something melodic but that faded into the background when I was writing or being brain dead (as happened once a week while I was in grad school. I’d lay on the floor with my headphones on and just listen and let my brain disengage.)

Adiemus uses vocals and orchestra to paint sound pictures. Think of it as Impressionist music. The voices don’t sing actual Latin, or they repeat a Latin word or phrase, but for sound reasons. It’s meaningless. The voices are “untrained,” because that’s what the composer wanted. It’s not bad, but not opera or another specific style. It works, at least for these recordings. There’s a lot of layering of voices, up to 40 layers, plus strings, woodwinds, some brass, and percussion. The songs range from driving “tribal”-type pieces with fast tempos to slower, very meditative compositions. They flow into each other.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. I have to be in a mood for Adiemus and stuff like it. But it’s not bad, and it works as background when I need something between me and house sounds that doesn’t have a specific flavor or reason for listening.

Oops, He Made Eye Contact

There we were, standing on the choral risers, waiting for our cue. All of a sudden the brass blasted the rest of the orchestra, and those of us in the sonic path, with a lot more sound than they’d used on the previous run through. The conductor waved everyone to a halt. Once our hearing had recovered, he said, “Sorry, that was my fault. I made eye contact.” Laughter ensued as he continued, “I know better. Never make eye contact with the brass. They think it means ‘play louder’.” Several of the people in question nodded gleeful agreement.

I’ve been singing under a spate of new conductors recently. There have been retirements, contract conclusions, surprise complications (someone was double-booked so a replacement was recommended and hired) and so on. It’s always a bit stressful until you see how someone conducts. Does she use an American or European down-beat? Big gestures or small ones? Minimalist (“I keep time and give a few cues, you do your homework.”) or a maximalist (“I will show everything. And you will follow.” [Occasionally said with a German or Hungarian accent.]) In this case, I’d been able to watch from the audience side a few times, so I got a sense of his general style. That helps. Semi-minimalist, low key but intense focus. And American downbeat, which the choir is used to, although we can read both.

The first rehearsal went the way they usually do, “Down choir, this is piano. Down orchestra, DOWN!” “Quiet but more energy, please. You are supposed to be scary.” “My tempo please.” “Strings, what if you [arcane technical string thing]?” “I may regret this, but more percussion and more soprano, please.”

Your pretty usual rehearsal, in other words, aside from the accidental alarm (painful and loud) that went off briefly while the soprano soloist was singing. So there we were on the risers, minding our own business and listening to the strings and the basso soloist being quietly profundo, when clang! The percussionists looked innocent. The woodwinds and choir looked at the brass. The horns looked at the tuba. The tuba player looked at the floor, found the piece that had dropped off his instrument, and put it back in place.

An Homage?

Beast in Black is a European (Finno-German-Greek) group. This was released in 2019. (And yes, it is playing a role in the story I excerpted above.)

Sabaton is, well, Sabaton.

Released in 2016.

There are some musical parallels. Make of it what you will.