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!


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.

A Place for Beauty

What place exists for the beautiful, the inspiring, the work or scenery that speaks to the spirit as well as to the mind? Is beauty something you must go to see, to visit the shrines of art that we call museums, or to national parks and other places that society has determined are specially attractive or majestic, and thus worthy of preservation? Is it something we should strive to find and have for ourselves, small things that we can turn to at home when times are rough and we need inspiration or comfort? Is it a luxury that should wait until the physical well-being of all people [and “the planet”] is assured, and then perhaps society can find a place for beauty and art in all its forms?

One thing I’ve noted over and over in the past two decades or so is that certain ideologies are uncomfortable with what in the western tradition are called “great works of art.” In some cases this extends to the natural world as well. Paintings by the masters of their style, buildings of great beauty and spiritual or historical meaning, music that challenges as well as uplifts, tales and poems that entertain and encourage or that force the reader to work to fully catch all the shades and references that make a beautiful whole … all these things are derided, or waved away by some ideologies as luxuries, or corruptions, or as nothing but symbols of a corrupt and evil system that needs to be wiped away and replaced by a just, fair, and better world.

Certain religions-qua-religions worry about visual and musical art as leading to misunderstandings of Deity and as leading people into trouble. Given some of the music I’ve heard (and promptly crossed off my list), I can understand the concern. And some people do worship Art and Artist instead of what inspired that art. But people also worship athletes, actors, pop-music stars, politicians, and so on, so blaming visual art or music for a human tendency doesn’t seem quite fair.

For reasons beyond my ken, two weekends ago I started musing on the problem beauty poses for some people and ideologies. They don’t like it. They act uncomfortable with the very concept, or deride most works of art as decadent, unfair luxuries, tokens of power and excess wealth that should be in museums for all to see (the best response) or scrapped and replaced, or scrapped and not replaced because art is not needed in the world-that-should-be. Others insist that if it is easily understandable, obviously beautiful and attractive to the eye or the ear, then it is cheap, and wrong, and not worthy of true attention and study. They tend to be elitists of ugliness who insist that “Art that can be understood is not True Art” (with apologies to Daoists everywhere). Then there are the people who seem to recoil from the beautiful and the sublime, who seek only to tear down thousands of years of traditions all over the world, and replace it with— Nothing, as best I can tell. They act as if a Rembrandt painting, or a David portrait, causes them almost physical pain.

One link that might exist among all those different approaches, perhaps, is that making beauty or capturing beauty with a lens or words, requires effort and skill. It also implies a standard higher than the everyday, and perhaps a Creator greater than mankind, a force that made beauty in the world and that inspires men and women to strive to create as well. The idea that great results require great effort doesn’t fit some people’s world. It’s not fair, that some people are Jan van Eyche, and others are not. it isn’t fair or just that becoming a Tuomas Holopainen or Ralph Vaughn Williams or Johannes Brahms or Antonio Vivaldi requires so much innate talent as well as training and labor. Talents are not “equitable” or “fair” or “just.” Neither is working to perfect whatever skills a person does have.

Some great art is effortless for the beholder. You don’t need to know the stories of Christianity or Judaism to se the beauty in a portrait of the Virgin, or the drama of Judith sneaking back into the night with her maidservant and the head of Holofernes. A beautiful landscape captured by a photographer is beautiful in itself without understanding f-stops, depth of field, and other technical details. The knowledge helps, but is not required. You don’t have to know the complete story to be moved by Kenneth Branaugh’s speech before the battle in his film of Henry V.

The love of beauty is part of being human, I believe. Each culture defines beauty in a different way, but all value it to some degree. Those who refuse the beautiful, then inspiring, make a choice to reject. What they reject, and why, varies with the person, but that refusal carries a price. I fear, in the long run, some of those people end up rejecting humanity and their own spirits together.

“What profit a man to gain the world but lose beauty?” to tweak the Gospel verse. (Mark 8:36)

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.

Complexity as Rebellion?

One of the things that I enjoy about some symphonic metal is the complexity of the harmonies and parts. You have basic rhythm (percussion and bass guitar or equivalent), vocals (usually but not always), and then harmony instruments (keyboard, brass, woodwinds, other keyboard, entire orchestra, folk instruments . . .) Harmonies and rhythms shift more than the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-up a half step-verse-chorus-cadence. I also listen to much simpler music – chant, some folk music, early rock and metal. There’s a time, place, and mood for everything. Harmonies appeal to me, even in otherwise very plain-seeming music.

I’ve griped in the past about pop music, especially church pop (praise choruses), and how there’s no “there” there. Now, granted, praise choruses have a purpose and are supposed to be semi-hypnotic, because that’s their function in worship in that style of service. Chant can also have that effect, perhaps. Not for me, but if you have been doing it daily for decades . . . Why is pop music so simple now, more so than in the 60s-80s? Simple sells.


It’s not just me. And it’s not just AutoTune and programs of that ilk. The marketing people want to tuck performers into the same box, because that box sells. Like all the “produced by” “Irish” music that has some nice moments but all sounds the same once it comes out of the mixing equipment. “Celtic Thunder” ain’t early DeDannan or The Bothy Band or the early Chieftains.

The more popular a genre of music grows, the simpler it gets. Which . . . might explain why symphonic metal and its offshoots, folk metal, and some others remain thick and complicated. Not always, because not all songs and moods benefit from complexity. A ballad can work perfectly or even be more effective with just a lone voice. (“The Cruel Mother/ Greenwood Sidie-o” being one classic example.) Symphonic Metal and Friends has its own fan base, will probably never, ever dominate the pop charts, and will always have that outsiders’ edge to it. Given that two groups are composer led (Nightwish and Xandria, Avantasia sometimes), complexity will probably remain more of a trait in the genre, at least for the foreseeable* future. To have multiple harmonic shifts and to trade parts back and forth with a choir as the brass does their thing, then drop to lead vocalist, guitar, and keyboard for the core of the piece, and to do it all well, might be a way of rebelling against the mainstream.

“Simplify it? Oh [rude words] no. I’m gonna polyphony the h-ll out of it! Listen to this!”

(Hmmm. Does this mean that groups like Freedom Call and Twilight Force, which use no swear words and have no references to sex, are rebelling against the rebellion?)

*Covid19, the economy dropping as energy prices rise, especially in Europe, might continue to encourage smaller sounds. Perhaps. Or something else no one has predicted yet, like a computer virus that takes out all the electronic keyboards on the planet.

Music and Memory Lane

The house lights dimmed and the recorded message reminded everyone to turn off their cell phone sounds, please. Munching replaced beeps and chirps, and an unusually strong scent of popcorn teased my nose. Chattering became a hum as the concert master appeared, bowed, and tuned the symphony orchestra. Maestro appeared, acknowledged applause, and the orchestra stood. The snare drum rolled, and “The Star Spangled Banner” sounded. Everyone who could sang along, then sat. The conductor took the podium. He raised his hands. An expectant hush settled over the crowd. A series of very familiar trumpet and violin notes filled the concert hall, and in my mind’s eye, words began scrolling up a starscape, followed by the iron-grey hull of an Imperial Star Destroyer that just kept going, and going, and going. I was very young, and in awe all over again.

Scent is the most powerful invoker of memory, because it is so visceral. But sound can be almost as strong. Combine those five notes with the scent of popcorn? I’m right back in a theater in Omaha Nebraska, staring at something I’d never imagined could be. Robots, starships, Darth Vader and Obi Won Kenobi, the ‘Falcon sliding through spaces that only a fool or Han Solo would dare to tread . . .

I wasn’t the only one, because when the opening theme ended, silence, pure and absolute silence filled the hall until maestro lowered his hands. Almost 2,000 people in total stillness, holding their collective breath. Then everyone was on their feet, cheering like mad. Light-sabers waved, and it was off to the races, or at least to the John Williams tribute concert. After “Princess Leia’s Theme,” the hush lasted almost ten seconds before the applause and cheers. “Superman” didn’t get quite the same level of noise, “Harry Potter” and the “Raiders March” almost did. The concert closer, “Throne Room Scene and Final Credits” brought the house down. I”m sorry they had to trim “Jaws” from the concert, because it’s one of the best uses of a theme to foreshadow a story I’ve heard.

For over an hour I was a kid, or a kid-at-heart, seeing movie scenes and enjoying the talents of the best known currently active movie composer in the US. Yes, with so many scores back to back, you can hear the trademark John Williams intervals and pattern, and it becomes noticeable. Then you hear “Hedwig’s Theme,” and it’s something different. Or the opening of E.T., before the “flying music” starts, and again, very different. I have the album Three Sacred Trees, which includes several non-soundtrack compositions Williams did for the Houston Symphony and others, and you’d never know that they are by movie-score-Williams. Heck, some of his movie music doesn’t sound like John Williams. OTOH, I bet you can’t hear a trumpet fifth and not think, “Star Wars.”

It was the scent of popcorn combined with hearing the music without headphones that pulled me back so strongly into that magic moment in the theater. There’s power in “fresh” music, in the interpretation and variation and communication between performers and listeners. Even as many times as I’ve been to concerts, I’d forgotten that power. It will be very, very interesting to be back on the other side of the footlights, to see if the symphony and chorus can do it again.

Product Review: Xandria The Wonders Still Awaiting

CD and MP3 Xandria: The Wonders Still Awaiting (Napalm Records, 2023)

Short version: Despite the hiatus, they are as good as ever, with a thick sound and great lyrics that showcase very good vocals.

This has been a very rich winter and early spring for fans of symphonic metal. Avantasia, Twilight Force, Ad Infinitum, Dark Sarah, and Xandria all have new releases. Each is very different (OK, Twilight Force is pure Twilight Force, but they’re sui generis so you know what you’re getting.) Of these, Avantaisa and Xandria are the two I’d had the highest hopes for.

Xandria is probably my second-favorite symphonic metal group after Nightwish. Their music tends to be on the lyrical end of metal, with some numbers that are not “real” metal. They went into hiatus for a while, and rumor had it that they’d fully broken up and that was that. The rumor proved to be false. This album, the first in six years, is heavier than the bulk of their earlier work. The female vocals are less operatic overall, but just as good as earlier releases, and they work very well with the complex instrumentals, growls, and choral elements.

The preview songs, “You Will Never be My God” and “Wonders Still Awaiting” gave a good tease for the direction of this album. All the songs hold up, and repay close listening for both the music and the lyrics. The songs range from flat out heavy metal to introspective laments and meditations on memory and loss. All are very good. This far, I like “Wonders Still Awaiting,” “Two Worlds,” and “Your Stories I’ll Remember” the best, but there’s not a bad number on the album. It is longer than it sounds, and I didn’t realize that it’s over an hour. It’s that good.

The balance between guitars, vocals, and other instruments is very good. A full chorus fills out the recording, but never overpowers the other parts. Over-weighted instrumentals is a problem I’ve been hearing with a few other recordings, so kudos to the engineer and composer and arranger. All the parts are present, but they don’t drown the lead singer.

The album art is odd. Not quite Hyronemous Bosch strange, but definately goth.

Overall, I’d say the album is well worth the wait. It’s the first new release thus far to be everything I’d hoped for – rich, long, complex, with great vocals. I recommend it for fans of symphonic metal, people who like the Nightwish sound without Nightwish’s occasional occult inclinations, and goth-metal buffs. It’s not heavy-heavy, but it’s not pop, either.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this album for my own use and received no remuneration from the band or the record label for this review.