Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rounding the last turn and heading for home

So how was your Christmas?

Mine was the usual blend of wonderful and stressful, with some bleh thrown in for good measure.

I use the past tense even though it really isn't over yet.

For me, the Christmas season is the most intense, exhausting, demanding time of year. Every organization I work for puts on a great big Christmas show (or two) and every night for at least three weeks I have either a dress rehearsal for something or a concert (or both). There are days when I am supposed to be in two places at once (sometimes three) and have to negotiate who needs me more and how I'm going to manage both (or all three) obligations.

Eventually, things slow down a bit, but even then the marathon aspect of the season can make things especially hard. From the last week of November through early January, life is not normal. It is overdrive all the way.

This year I discovered the importance of the afternoon nap, every day of the week. I'd be embarrassed to say so but if you were me and noticed how much energy I was able to put out every evening, and then again when I practiced in the morning, you'd have to conclude that there is much wisdom in splitting each day into two parts with a rest period between. I can do that because I am rarely required to work in the afternoon. Most of my jobs take place in the evenings and on weekends. So periods of intense concentration and physical energy alternated with absolute stillness and unconsciousness. A bit manic, but it all worked pretty well.

The flaw in the plan became apparent on Christmas Eve, though, when the first service and the preceding two hours of rehearsal were all scheduled at the time my body was used to sleeping every day for the past month--Also, toward the end of the Christmas season in general, when I started getting gigs in the afternoon as well, or various other obligations prevented me from avoiding long periods of unconsciousness.

The Christmas Season for a musician can be thought of like a game show where the stakes get higher and the competition gets harder as you graduate from level to level. It has a marathon aspect to it, which is perhaps the greatest demand. The first two weeks of December--when our church choir and the children's chorus have their big Christmas shows one weekend and the band and choir and drama team at our church have their big hooha the next, surrounded by the Children's concert with the symphony, a few assorted gigs and parties for good measure, and the Chorale has stepped up rehearsals (three hours, usually, plus extras) for their New Year's Eve concert--are followed by decreasing amounts of time before the next gig with a completely different program, a flagging energy level, fewer ways to get rest, and so on. The ability to fake all kinds of things you haven't practiced is one way to survive it all, but it takes every talent a musician can have to negotiate all the various demands of the season.

I still haven't counted up how many pieces of music we had on Christmas Eve. I haven't found time.
Some of these required sight-reading or near sight-reading skills, some playing from lead sheets, on the spot transposition, improvisation, stage managing skills, going from style to style and instrument to instrument---but you know what, this is all making me tired. I'll elaborate on this over the next year and those of you who are musicians yourselves may find it useful for surviving your own whirlwind.

It's the usual assortment, really, just more of it every year in December. I try to remember what a privilege it is to be able to bring a bit of Christmas to so many so often. And it really is a wonderful time of year. But as a child I was taught to consume it's magic just like the rest of you, so I supposed I get a bit jealous when it turns out to be so much work. And exhaustion affects anybody's mood.

The crazy thing is that, anymore, I can't have Christmas without the insanity it's become. The joy of the season won't happen except in the midst of all the rush. I don't get one without the other. That seems like it ought to be some kind of zen koan.

And each year, I try to be a bit more "zen" about Christmas. Figure that out.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Seven things I learned from the Norad Santa Tracker

My wife thought I was a little bit cracked, but she humored me. This Christmas Eve I kept a close and fascinated eye on the Norad Santa tracker.

If you've not heard of it, let me catch you up. In 1955, one company decided to advertise in the newspaper that kids could call in and talk to Santa Claus 24/7. The number they published was off by one digit. It actually (and I am completely not making this up)--it was actually a very restricted number for a senior officer at the command center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD (this is where they launch the nuclear missiles, kids!). The commander who answered the phone from the first kid asking to talk to Santa Claus wasn't very pleased. Apparently he made the kid cry.

Eventually he decided to play along, and a Christmas tradition was born. Every year, some people at Norad would do what Norad would do best in such a situation (beside shooting Santa out of the sky should he forget to receive permission to enter U.S. airspace before delivering the presents) which was to tell the kids where Santa had last been spotted and where he was off to next, making good use of their sophisticated tracking equipment. A few years ago, Santa got on the internet, and now you can watch him as he makes his trek across the world, zigzagging up and down, gradually making his way east to west. There is a map of the world below, with major cities and geographic points of interest marked, and you can see Santa's sleigh, naturally led by Rudolph and the elite eight, soaring high above an image of our planet brought to you by quite a number of mapping services, all working together in the spirit of the season (and good publicity). If you play with the buttons you can see him from different angles as well. It's quite a production.

I made a few comments on Facebook about the enterprise, one of which was that the Norad Santa Tracker was another way for Americans to learn geography. Some smart fellow once snarkily suggested that war was the method by which Americans learned about their world, but here, I thought, was another. Which is my first point.

1) If, like most of us, you don't spend much time thinking about the world at large, this is a chance to do it. While you are waiting for Santa to get to your little neck of the woods, you have time to notice just what all else is out there. There is a great deal of ocean, for one, and a whole lot of desert, and mountains, and places with no vegetation. There is a lot of inhospitable terrain, basically. A whole lot of it. And if you've forgotten where half the places on the news are, this is a way to remember. The Santa Tracker could be an excellent crash course in where all of those cities are that you only hear about when there is an epic disaster.

2) As I mentioned, it isn't just the places inhabited by humans that are noticeable. As Santa makes each delivery, two places are on the screen: where Santa was last seen and where he is going next (as well as his ETA to get there). As I wrote on Facebook,  "I didn't realize he delivered presents to the Amazon Rain Forest. Some tree frog must have been really good this year." If you're like me, you have no idea about Santa's methodology, nor how he could possibly cover all that terrain on 24 hours. Now you have no excuse not to know.

3) In many ways, Santa is just as ignorant as the rest of us. Most of us come out of the womb assuming that all life and all experience matches our own, and don't have much tolerance for people with other traditions and ideas. Apparently Santa is also blissfully unaware of the diversity of the earth's peoples. As he traversed the globe on the evening of the 24th of December, I watched him deliver presents to a number of places where I was sure the populace wouldn't want them: even though there is a Christian minority in many of these places I doubt they would appreciate the attention, nor would they even welcome such an display of gifts. And the Christian world itself is divided on the matter of timing. For the Eastern Orthodox world, Santa is a few weeks early, since Christmas comes to them on January 7th. In parts of Europe, Santa is three weeks late, St. Nicholas Day having passed on December 6th, when presents are given. I could see Santa wanting to get it all over with on one day, but given that it is such a gargantuan task, I wondered if he would really mind parceling it out (sorry). And it would be better customer relations than forcing one practice on everyone.

4) Santa is one lucky b----d. I noticed that Santa flew over a number of war zones; how can one with his mission avoid it? I grew white knuckled for him each time. I spent quite a lot of Christmas Eve working, and missed seeing Santa fly over the Ukraine, or Afghanistan. I did catch him delivering presents to the South Sudan. I remember him flying over Saudi Arabia, as well. I am a little surprised he was not taken out by a surface to air missile in any of the earth's "conflict" regions. If he has a way to defend against these, it is unknown to me. Not to mention he had to land in each one of these places a number of times, though the Santa tracker did not show us these (probably for security reasons).

5) Santa skipped Baltimore. I lived there for a decade and grew to appreciate our civic inferiority complex. I also noted how often we were ignored by people from the rest of the nation. My own friends and family kept asking how Boston was. Even the media at large routinely forgot about us. I remember a major snow storm with reports coming in from every major city on the east coast except Baltimore. So I'm not really surprised that Santa flew from D.C. through parts of Pennsylvania (State College, for Pete's sake!) and on to Delaware and New Jersey.

6) Apparently if you aren't in bed by 10:30 Santa will pass you by. I was surprised to see how early Santa got to parts of America. Given that most of Florida probably goes to bed by 5, I didn't think that would be much of a problem. But I had always assumed he waited until around midnight just to make sure he didn't run into any night owls. I suppose he came through Champaign while we were at the 11 o'clock service at our church. When I went to bed he was delivering to western Canada. I suppose if you want to make the whole thing work you can't be too picky about when. The Cable guy has the same window and far fewer stops to make, so I'll cut him some slack. Plus the milk is less likely to curdle that way.

7) Santa helps me think of my friends. I know people from several parts of the world, it turns out, and though I missed at least half of Santa's delivery, I noted on several occasions that Santa was delivering presents to my friends in far off places. That gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. I hope they liked what Santa got them.

I went to bed before Santa made it out to the Pacific, and missed what time he finished up. I can tell you, because I couldn't sleep the night before, that takeoff is 6am Eastern Time (noon UTC?). I hope that information doesn't compromise his flight path for next year. You can never be too sure.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Who's telling the story?

Each Christmas a little drama unfolds atop our entertainment center. To you it may be just the same old Christmas story, with some people in a barn having a baby and a cast of handfuls looking on adoringly. Well, it may be the same old boring story to you, but it depends on how you tell it. We start with an empty stable.

There's nothing particularly unusual about having some (or all) of your characters arrive throughout the season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, although I suspect most of us just put everybody in there and get it over with. Letting everyone arrive on their own timetable puts the story in motion, and gives it a beginning, middle, and end.

True, it's a pretty conventional structure, and, if you've been through the season enough times it can get a little stale. Starting with the holy family, adding a couple of sheep (last year I think they were the first to arrive, actually) and a shepherd, a random villager or two, and finally a trio of wisepersons just in time for Christmas Eve; it's a nice discipline in gradual evolution and waiting, but you can also use a calendar to the same purpose. Even the two-inch characters seem to get bored. Then things start to happen.

For instance, no sooner did the wiseguys arrive but they suddenly remembered they forgot to do something at home. Or Mary sent them off to boil water.

Don't worry--they got back in time. Plenty of time. This was Mary's first baby so it took a while. So what do you do while you wait? Remember, the wisemen like to look at stars. Since Bethlehem apparently did not have an observatory, they did the next best thing, which was to go up on the roof. By the way, kids, it is not recommended to climb to the roof of your house and look directly at a supernova.

We won't ask where that peasant is going with that sheep. All I can say is that the poor sheep had to put up with a lot. One of the wisemen, Belshazaar, I think, decided that one of the sheep would make an excellent circus animal.

At one point, there was a game of sheep hoisting. I am afraid to ask, but I think the shepherd may be attempting to knock the other sheep off the roof for points by launching the other sheep into him. I think the wisemen put him up to it. Entertainment is difficult in 1st century Palestine where there is no football.

Maybe you are wondering how the first sheep got up in the roof in the first place. Apparently they are good climbers. We never seem to be able to keep ours off the roof; that is, when they are not plummeting to their deaths on the ground far below. They tend to do this in the overnight hours. We've asked our night watch-cat, but he seems not to know anything about this.

A good game of sheep hoisting makes everyone hungry (the wisemen won, by the way, 6-3) and so when a boy from the village shows up with a casserole, he is given a round of applause.

It is not all fun and games, of course. Everybody has to get in a line so they can take turns holding the baby. When it is time to go, everybody is sad. Wave to the wiseguys, kids!

We wouldn't want to argue with received wisdom--surely getting there IS half the fun. But it clearly isn't all the fun. Still, it can be a challenge.

Last year there was a new wrinkle in the story. My wife put up the stable, and the various characters in our drama were again positioned offstage, so that they could gradually arrive a few days at a time during Advent. But there was a new problem.

Our storage unit has four stories. And some of the personnel were placed on lower levels. Anybody looking at this could see the logic problem in asking those folks to simply walk over to the stable and take part in the pageant. Obviously two inch high figurines make of paper and cloth have to obey the same laws of physics as the rest of us. Duh.

There were only a few days left until the big event. The three kings from the east sweated. They paced. They conferenced. And they came up with a plan.

One morning my wife woke up to find the kings climbing their way to glory and a part in the play:

Once all three of them were safely to the top, they kindly lowered the rope so Random Peasant Woman with Son #1 could also join the festivities. Wasn't that swell of them?

There was a joyous reunion.

The last to arrive was the reindeer. Everybody knows clothespin reindeer with red felt noses can fly, so this one was easy.

 Which brings us to this year. We put up our stable on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, but this year it remained empty for an unprecendentedly long time. Then I got this email:,
 Sent: Saturday, December 20, 2014 4:06 AM
 Subject: Re: stable for rent

 Dear Dr. Hammer,
 My name is Mary. My husband and I are looking for a nice barn for a few days and noticed that you seem to have one available. We are only a couple of inches tall, and we don't play loud music or anything. We have with us three kings and a shepherd. They also keep to themselves and don't listen to loud music. Do you allow animals? We also have a couple of sheep. We will clean up after them; their poop is probably so small to you that you wouldn't notice it anyhow. We really like the pictures you have on your entertainment center and hope we will have some like that when we can afford it. Unfortunately, the inns around here are really expensive. We tried the one next door but they said they are full. Could you please let us have a place to stay until Dec. 26th?

 Mary and Joseph

 p.s. Do you have a cat? We will stay with you regardless, but we are hoping not. Our sheep had accidents last year by falling off the cliff and we are sure they are not suicidal.

I dutifully forwarded this to my wife, and she agreed they could stay with us. The response was effusive:

----- Forwarded Message -----,
 Sent: Saturday, December 21, 2014 3:09 PM
 Subject: Re: stable for rent

Dear Dr. Hammer,
That sounds wonderful! Thank you so much for your generosity this holiday season. My husband and I will move in right away. We will probably see you tomorrow. Again, thanks so much!


On December 20, Michael wrote:,
 Sent: Saturday, December 20, 2014 7:45 PM
 Subject: Re: stable for rent

Dear Mary and Joseph,
We would love to have you come and stay with us. You can come as soon as you want and stay through Epiphany. We do have a cat, but he is not as much of a climber as he was in his younger days, so your sheep will probably be safe, although if they fall to their deaths, we can reincarnate them and put them back in the stable for you: no worries. Also, the sheep poop is no problem. A little Pledge at the end of the holiday season will take care of it, I'm sure. See you soon!

All of them arrived in a pleasant mob, and promptly set up shop in their usual positions. When Dear Wife awoke on Tuesday she was surprised to see them all, including the baby. Well, I explained to her, this is Mary's tenth baby Jesus (she has been having one every year since we were married) so he must have come quickly. She said she had heard Mary arguing with the angel Gabriel because she had really wanted a girl this year she could named Jesusina. But no dice. The story is the story and it has to go the same way every year.

Well, sort of.

Take a bow, cast people!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

And to all a good night

Vacuum the house, do the dishes, practice for church, giftwrap the presents, blog...

Blog! Oh, no! I forgot to blog!

Well, aren't we in a state of whirling around on this blessed day of the year.

I'm off to the Christmas Eve Marathon at my church once again, so lucky to be able to bring music and the joy of the season to about 1000 people in the next 8 hours. Our services are at 5, 7, and 11. Shortly before midnight, I'll be signing off with this little piece by Franz Tundor.

If you have a minute (90 seconds, actually), have a listen. If not, have a happy holiday. It'll be here when you get back.

Merry Christmas!!!!!!!!

Tundor: Canzona

Monday, December 22, 2014

By invitation only

Our previous selections were already skirting the boundaries of good liturgical decorum, but today's are definitely of the full festive variety. And so the question: is this sort of thing really appropriate for church?

Of course not. Definitely not. This is music of the countryside, and the type of folks who work in it. What would make you think it belongs in a church?

I'm not answering the "should" question, or offering a personal answer. I'm answering on behalf of the Church Historic, which has a long tradition of drawing lines between what is couth and what is not couth. Shepherds are definitely of the un variety.

Let's face it. They smell. Maybe if they cleaned themselves up a bit and adopted a romanticized mien, we could let them in to the edge of our crèche, so long as they promised not to say anything and make a scene.

Bit of irony: We have a gate between the congregation and the altar space at our church, just like most Methodist churches. A former pastor told me how this works. It was first put in so that animals who managed to get into little country churches wouldn't gain admittance to the altar area. It is known as a "sheep gate." What seems to have happened here is that a couple of animals and their ignorant shepherd have wandered across the sheep gate and right on to our altar. Even if they are made of plastic, that shows pretty poor manners. We don't want to make a scene, though. We won't say anything about it as long as he stays where he belongs.

We can't expect the same for our organist, though, who is planning to play these licentious works on the Sundays of Christmastide. Seems the shepherds are making their presence known after all.

One more thing that I find interesting about this little party on the altar. The kings, promoted by legend, and seated by status, near to the couple, have had to work hard to get where they are. They doubtless feel, having used their knowledge and persistence to figure out where to go and to traverse "afar," that they have earned the right to be there. The freeloading shepherds, on the other hand, didn't need to use their mad navigation skills to chart the skies, their extensive knowledge of a foreign country's prophetic tradition to interpret what they saw. Presumably without any marketable skills besides trying to keep sheep from getting killed, they were just going about their business, ignoring that supernova in the sky, and counting the days till Friday, when the weekend shepherds took over. Just kidding! They probably didn't have any relief. And yet, they too are to be found manger-side in Bethlehem. The whole lot of them, in fact, regardless of what our crèches have to say about it. And why? Because they got a celestial invite from a horde of angels, that's why. And I guess that's worth celebrating. Because maybe nobody else bothered to include them in something so obviously important. But here they are. Because somebody invited them. Now who would send a gilded, singing telegram, ridiculously expensive(?) invitation to a bunch of yokels like that?

God did. That's who.

Not that that's ever stopped anybody from complaining about it. You can be shocked, or horrified, or certain that this organist has gone off the deep end, along with the composer of these little pastorales. We know very little about him; much like the shepherds, he doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of press. But here is a little of what he left behind, from 300 years ago in Croatia. Two more pastorales (I played the others in the previous installment). A genre associated with shepherds, and bagpipes. That's right. Bagpipes. And you know how popular those things are in church (or anywhere else). Well, Mr. Pintaric let in the bagpipes. And, apparently, all heaven broke loose.

Pintaric: Pastorale no. 1 in C
Pintaric: Pastorale no. 4 in F

congratulations! You made it to the end of our ten-part series. Unless you joined us somewhere in the middle and would like to start over to see what you missed. That can be accomplished here. Or you can look for the "shepherd series" in the lists on the right hand side of the blog.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Who let the bagpiper in here?

Finally, it's time to hear what made me want to spend three weeks writing about pastorales in the first place. A few months ago, I discovered a short set of pastorales by a Croation composer named Pintaric. I like variety; I like the unusual, some of the time; these were new to me, and they looked easy enough to ease my way through the Christmas season, given no time for advance practice during the summer this year with the organ console having been removed.

I should also mention that my grandmother was born in Croatia, and my father besides, though they are actually Austrian (long story; involves a little spat called WWII), so I was also interested in them from a heritage point of view.

The first thing I noticed about these little pieces is that they were all wrong! What happened to triple time? These were in four. What about that rocking rhythm, preferably with dots? Gone. And the drone? Well, it's there, but it doesn't sustain. It is repeated hypnotically in the bass, but not the pedals. In fact, there seems to be no pedal part at all. And tranquility? These are downright festive. I'll share the two more subdued ones today; on Monday you'll hear two that could pretty much pass for polkas.

Before we retroactively yank Mr. Pintaric's composer's license, perhaps we should do a rethink on the matter of the pastorale. That's what I did. And it dawned on me that I had been letting city folk do all the talking for the shepherds. Nice, artistic, profoundly moving, and/or idealized works of music all. But suppose these shepherds had little ipods to pass the time while they were up on the hills of Palestine back in the 1st century (and some daggone good cell towers). What would they be listening to? Not oratorios, I'm certain. No, I think polkas are a more likely musical symbol for a person that has to muddle through all week tending sheep and then goes home to party with his friends and watch football on the weekend. Now, as it happens, these two contestants are maybe a bit refined for all that. But there are two more to come. And then let the partying begin!

Pintaric: Pastorale no. in A
Pintaric: Pastorale no. 3 in Bb

If you feel the urge to party hartily, the final installment of the series can be found here!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

This one really drones on and on

Mr. Bach's rendition of a pastorale does have a lot going for it, artistically. Not only is it technically finished, but it has depth, imagination, drama. On an emotional and intellectual level it is deeply satisfying. No wonder it is a major part of the organist's Christmas repertoire. Buxtehude's contribution is also intriguing, and quite beautifully done. Notwithstanding, these gentlemen have gotten us sidetracked.

You remember when I talked about the characteristics of the pastorale having to do with life in the country, and--oh yes--shepherds? Yes. The shepherds. What happened to them? They seem to have been marginalized again.

he's the one on the extreme right--behind the animals

I mentioned before that one of the attributes of many a pastorale is that it was written by a cosmopolitan city-dwelling composer, and that, along with its corollary in the other arts, a pastorale romanticizes, rather than accurately depicts, a life that seems inviting to people who have never lived it.

I mean, who wouldn't want to be a shepherd after listening to Bach tell us about them?

But I'd like to set the stage for some pastorals of a rather different sort that I discovered a few months ago and will be playing for Christmas this year, and to get there, I'd like to return to some of the pastorale's more basic elements. Simplify a little.

Here is a little example by Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi. It has a hybrid title; it is a both a pastorale and a capriccio (which basically gives him license to take license, though it doesn't sound all that capricious to me). Frescobaldi's "Cappricio Pastorale" is in a relaxed triple meter (check!) and it contains a drone bass (check!) which not only opens the piece, but is present from beginning to end (the note changes only a few times, and remains on a G for more than 2/3 of the work's length). It certainly seems evocative of a simple country life. And this time, there is no story telling. The shepherds are not interrupted by any bothersome angels; life is peaceful and unchanging, just the way we like it.

Frescobaldi: Cappricio Pastorale

well, that was short, wasn't it? That should give us the impetus to get to part nine of this series. You're nearing the summit!

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's a story but not really

We've spent the last four posts listening to the gradually unfolding story of the shepherds on the hillside, the angelic announcement, the trip to Bethlehem to see the newborn babe, Mary's meditating and the shepherds rejoicing--in other words, the story millions of Christians will have read to them this coming Christmas Eve at church.

I should point out that this approach is nothing less than heresy to many musicians. The very idea that someone--particularly an extraordinary composer like Bach--would "tell a story" in music is beyond the pale. Let me first state for the record that I am the last person who would tell you to simply bliss out and imagine sheep on a hillside for the duration and not pay attention to the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms Bach employs to get us there.

But also, let me explain something about music and story telling. Suppose you were to write a poem. In order for it to be a good one, you will need to choose appropriate words, with pre-attached meanings, so you can actually communicate intelligibly. Further, you will need to pay some attention to established rules of spelling and grammar, getting the words to co-exist agreeably. You will also want to pay attention to their sounds so you can employ repetitive word beginnings, or indulge in various rhyme schemes. Meter will be important; your poem will ebb and flow as the drama dictates. All of this exists as a rich tapestry of words on the page.

But your poem will be more than simply a collision of sounds. It will have meaning. Images and ideas will be present in the reader's mind as the poem is read--or heard. Is it so bizarre that music should operate similarly?

For a good composer, the movement of harmony, the flow of melody, the life of rhythm, all are important. But it is a rare piece indeed that has no connection to human activity apart from its component parts. A piece may suggest the dance--it may even be meant for dancing (though not necessarily). It may move us deeply in some way by making us feel a strong emotion. It may be inspired by and relate somehow to a picture, a painting, or a series of events (a story). It need not tell us the Gilgamesh Epic every time out. Nor does it have to be very specific about any of these things. In fact, most composers would agree that there is generally some vagueness about non-texted music as to what exactly it is telling us as to its meaning beyond its notes. And usually, when it tries to get very specific about relating each incident in a story in notes, it has a difficult time keeping its internal sense of flow--of musical grammar. So, when someone like Bach tells a story, he doesn't include things like the bleating of the sheep or the tramping of the shepherd's feet. The general outlines are enough. But it should be obvious they are there. For one thing, Bach worked in a church. He dramatized the Christmas story lots of times in choral pieces with text. Why not do it once in a piece for organ?

There is another reason. Bach was an inveterate learner. He learned from all kinds of traditions. And one of those includes pieces that relate stories--even the Christmas story--for keyboard instruments.

This time of year my article about Bach traveling over 250 miles to see Buxtehude gets a lot of foot traffic (sorry). Buxtehude was probably THE organist at the time, and the 20-year old Bach just had to go see him in December of 1705 to learn what he could. Here is something he might have heard. MIGHT, mind you. But still, don't you think it's a strong possibility? He spent three months in Lubeck, and probably looked at most of Buxtehude's organ works by the time he went home (there aren't all that many; I could probably learn them all in three months if that's all I did).

Here is Buxtehude's piece. It isn't a pastorale. It is a chorale fantasia, based on the hymn "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star." Now, the text of this hymn doesn't suggest a story. It is filled with imagery of rejoicing angels, rejoicing people, and plenty of doctrine. But listen to Buxtehude's piece unfold. It could have simply presented the tune with some nice counterpoint and gotten it over with (as some other composers did). Instead, it comes to us in four parts. The first is serene and tranquil. But Suddenly (there's the Christmas tale's favorite word again)--Suddenly, there is a commotion. Specifically at 1:56 in my performance. After the heavenly hosts are done with their proclamation, a period of profound wonder ensues (2:35). Mary pondering again? And us? Then, a gigue breaks out (4:38). Is it the shepherds rejoicing?

The general plan of the work seems to follow the same outline by Bach in his Pastoral in F major.

Buxtehude: How Brightly Shines the Morning Star BuxWV 223

We're almost there! Part eight of ten coming right up. And thank you for reading!

Friday, December 12, 2014

One holiday party every couple of thousand years ain't so bad

In doing a minimal amount of research on Bach's Pastorale in F, I came across two things. One is that musicologist Christopher Wolff has detected the presence of a Medieval melody in the fourth movement of said Pastorale, called "Resonet in laudibus" which was sung at Christmas to depict the rejoicing of the shepherds upon finding the baby Jesus. Why is this important? Well, because it supports my contention, of course!

The idea here, which, so far as I know, hasn't been advanced before (surely, somebody must have though of this, though; it strikes me as pretty obvious, and I have hardly exhausted the literature, so I'll let you know)--the idea here is that Bach is modelling his pastorale after the story of the Shepherds as related in the 2nd chapter of the gospel of Luke. Pastorales, as a genre, as a musical and artistic movement, are associated with shepherds and rural life in general, and feature idealized views of country life. Bach decided to go a bit further than this, and elaborate on his study of sheep safely grazing under the watchful eye of the shepherd by musically depicting what comes next in the sequence according to our gospel writer.

By the way, I'm going to temporarily sidestep the argument about musical storytelling being a guarantor of bad music, though that assumption is surely much of the reason that some very astute observers often miss obvious clues like this one; it also helps if you know the Bible fairly well, as Bach evidently did.

If you gaze upon the contents of the second chapter of Luke, starting with the 8th verse, what happens?

First there are sheep grazing contentedly on the hillside, being watched over by the shepherds. Got it. That's the first movement. Then there is an angelic announcement. This is the one spot that I don't notice anything musically obvious; does Bach skip this part?

Next, the shepherds rush off to Bethlehem, where they all crowd into the stable and adore the baby. The second movement seems to evoke this precious atmosphere.

Then, completely at odds with all of the rejoicing, which the shepherds start doing almost immediately (when was the last time they got time off work, anyhow? and did they serve spiked eggnog in Bethlehem?), the story continues with the verse about Mary, "pondering these things in her heart" which suggests that the joy, and sorrow, connected with the deep issues at hand, rather than merely the surface merriment, is the subject matter for Bach's third, plaintive movement. By the way, here I found the second item of research, which is that some commentators have found this movement connected with the angelic announcement. How? It sure doesn't sound like it. Their reasoning is evidently that the key signature has three flats in it, which is a number associated with angels. No idea why. Besides, it could also be connected with the Trinity, or the Three Bears. It seems like a paltry rock on which to construct such an edifice.

Finally, another sudden and dramatic shift. Mary only gets one verse to ponder, because in the next, the Shepherds are going everywhere, telling everyone what they have seen, spreading the news, and there is much rejoicing. And not only does Bach give us lots of musical mirth, he includes the afforementioned song,  "Resonet in laudibus" to reference the event itself. Which I think makes the case rather well.

So here now is the whole story--shepherds, angels, baby, (rejoicing) pondering, and (more) rejoicing, in above twelve minutes. I present you, Bach's Pastorale in F:

Bach: Pastorale in F, Bwv 590
movement one
movement two
movement three
movement four

more pastorales to come in the seventh of our ten-part series

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


A church in town holds a Blue Christmas service each year. This is for folks who have lost loved ones around the holiday season, or in the past year, or are just not generally feeling very ebullient around Christmas for a variety of reasons, from depression to seasonal affective disorder to grief. I attend this service practically every year.

I feel like a bit of an imposter, sometimes. I did lose some relatives around Christmas. My grandmother died of cancer on the 7th of December. That same year, on the 23rd, my cousin wrapped his car around a pole and effectively died that day, though he spent years in a coma before the official end. That was over 25 years ago, though. I still remember, but I'm not dealing with powerful waves of grief over it.

No, I'm afraid the real reason I attend the service has largely to do with the fact that, as a musician, I spend most of my holiday season putting on Christmas for everybody else. This is the one time I get to sing Silent night and hold a candle and not play the organ. I can sit in the pew and not be fiddling with organ stops, running from instrument to instrument or from worship space to worship space, checking the time all morning, making sure not to miss a cue, or a downbeat. I can actually think, or meditate, or pray, without getting a poke in the ribs from somebody because I'm supposed to be playing music during the prayer. I get to do what the rest of you get to do. Once a year.

That may seem like a very utilitarian reason for being there, but I think I end up crying practically every year. A couple of years ago a pastor friend of mine died. During the blue Christmas service, some six months later, I finally got a chance to light a candle for him. I couldn't do that during our All Saint's Day service with everyone else because I was playing the organ to provide a comforting atmosphere for the congregation to do that. Because this isn't my church, I become one of the congregation. As the organist played, and I lit the candle, I realized I was finally getting a chance to say goodbye to a friend.

It is a small congregation. I don't think attendance usually rises much above 10 or 12. One reason surely must be that there is still a stigma about admitting you might be a little depressed this holiday season. It takes some strength to say to a society that thinks there is something wrong with you if you aren't hohohoing with the rest of them, look, this is just the way it is. Deal with it. I am.

The artist in me finds this appealing. Life isn't one vast plunge through sheer joy; it is visited by plenty of sorrow. We can try to pretend it isn't so, or we can acknowledge that. Generally, works of great art by great artists show us this dual experience of life. It doesn't take a break for Christmas, either. The light shines in the darkness. My friend liked to say that you can't have a light without a dark to put it in (He said he was quoting Woody Guthrie). At Christmastime, ever since my teen years, I find myself meditating on the darkness in the world, made all the more apparent by the presence of light in it. How far short we fall as a species in performing simple acts of humanity; hoarding our resources, ruining our environment, making war on each other, unable to get along, or to show the slightest concern for other members of our human family. The light shines in the darkness; the light makes the darkness all the more evident, and all the more obviously dark.

The reason I am telling you all this is because we are taking a journey through several works with the title "Pastoral" this season. This week, we are examining the most well known and profound of them, by J. S. Bach. Bach's piece began with the same evocation of shepherds and serenity, but continued with a second movement of peace and joy. Now comes something more arresting.

Bach is in a minor mode now, giving us a touching arioso full of pathos and suffering. Why?

I suggested previously that Bach was telling us a story, that story being the Christmas story, as found in Luke chapter 2. In it, the shepherds are tending their sheep when they receive a heavenly announcement. Go see a baby lying in a manger, say a horde of angels. Don't have to tell us twice! Say the shepherds (Yes, but this is the Baroque era, say the angels, all text must be repeated in short fragments and repeated and repeated until you come to a cadence.) So the shepherds run off to Bethlehem. They see the precious, innocent little baby in the arms of its beatific mother. Then something else...

Mary remembered these things, pondering them in her heart.

What did she ponder? And what was the nature of her pondering?

If you are a musical theologian, you might want to remind people that this story which begins in promise will have a powerful, dramatic end. It's a story your congregation knows, and they've been taught that everything hinges on the eventual death of that baby for the sins of fallen humanity. For Baroque Lutherans, that was the lynchpin of the whole story. The climax. The point.

That idea is older than Luther. Even Luke has a prophet named Simeon hold the week-old infant and tell Mary that she is overjoyed by the birth of her beautiful new baby but that she will eventually be visited by grief; that someday "a sword shall pierce your own soul, too." She is going to know great sorrow, and witness the cruel death of this son of hers. Was that what she was thinking about, a grim foreknowledge mixed in with the bliss of the tale's opening? This is only the start, for beyond this joy there is tragedy to come, and behind that, and even more profound joy. And from this vantage point we get just a glimpse....

There are even Medieval Christmas Carols reminding us of the other pole of the story, the part that will be celebrated on Easter, in which everything we see at Christmas is a symbol of that story which is to come. I'm thinking specifically here of "The Holly and the Ivy" but there are others.

So as Bach continues his tale, or, I suggest, Luke's story, he, too, pauses to meditate on the profounder issues at work here, to plumb the depths of sorrow in the midst of this Christmas joy.

The story so far....
Bach: Pastorale  part one
Bach: Pastorale  part two

and now...
Bach: Pastorale  part three

continue to part six of ten and the glorious conclusion of Bach's pastorale

Monday, December 8, 2014

Apparently there's more to this sheep herding thing than I thought

If you are the type of careful listener I like to have at pianonoise, you probably went away from Friday's listening example a little puzzled. Sure, everything was fine for a while, nice bucolic tune over a pleasant drone, but as the piece unfolded things got away from all of that undisturbed bliss, and the piece actually came to an end on a minor chord. Which might lead to two thoughts:

1) that didn't end well


2) it's not really over, is it?

No, it isn't. Bach's Pastorale in F actually has four movements, which means we still have three to go. And the strange ending is probably the strongest case for concluding that Bach intended the piece to keep going, because instead of returning us to where we started, he's left off in what feels like the middle of musical nowhere, besides leaving us kind of depressed.

 I feel like making a case for it because there seems to have been some musicological disagreement on that point. I don't know the details, because it is December and I am too busy to bother trying to find out, but I do remember once acquiring a score that only contained the first movement. Maybe the publisher simply made a mistake. Or the last three movements have some doubt about authorship.

Some hasty internet research buttresses this last point. But it seems likely to me that Bach wrote this multipart work. We don't know why, and we don't know how it was used during church services, but I have an idea about why it unfolds as it does. Bach is telling a story.

It's not that much of a stretch which story he has in mind. It's the same story Bach has been telling and retelling all his life, most of which was spent writing sacred music for the church. And it's a pastorale, after all. Begin in the same place, with the shepherds on the hillside tending their sheep. Only because this is a Christian story, the Christmas story, those shepherds are about to get a very special announcement from some angels. They've been invited to go see the babe born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger. So they do.

On to part two. It leaves off where part one ends. In fact, the first part of this piece does something Bach never does. Instead of finishing in the same key in which it started, to give balance and finality to each individual movement of a large scale work, this piece ends in a way that doesn't finish, and thus it absolutely depends on the piece's continuation. I don't know Bach's entire catalogue like the back of my hand, but as far as I know, this is the only time Bach has ever used this technique. A piece that begins in F major concludes on an A minor chord, which acts as a pivot to pave the way for the tonality of the next piece, in C major.

Immediately, in just a verse, Bach has those shepherds down off the hillside and in the stable, gazing in rapturous wonder at the baby born that night. Us too.

(here's the first part again as well, so you can listen to them continuously)

Bach: Pastorale in F, movement one
Bach: Pastorale in F, movement two

onward to the fifth article in this series of ten on Shepherds and Pastorales

Friday, December 5, 2014

History is mystory

There's a little exchange between Scrooge and the first of the three spirits, when Scrooge wants to know if the spirit is taking him to see Christmas "long past?" "No, your past," she answers. He's probably relieved. A lot of folks seem to think that if it doesn't directly deal with themselves it isn't important. Scrooge is definitely one of these people.

The piece I'm going to share today is from the "long past." It's around 300 years old. And it is probably the most well known of the pastorals I'm going to play for you this Christmas season. In case you missed it, I'm on a "pastorale" jag this month.

This one is from a Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach. If you don't know it, you should definitely make its acquaintance. But before going on to the new pieces I discovered for this season, I feel the need to review.

Like the other pieces we've explored this week, it is in a triple meter. Like the others, it has a drone note in the bass. Those simple shepherds! And a kind of hunting call (similar to Grieg's idea of morning in the country from the "Peer Gynt" suite, an observation you can borrow if you really want to show off at parties).

Like the others, it evokes the countryside, and the simplicity of the past. Though for me, it may be the complexity of the past as well. You see, for me this piece is not simply a relic of musical history; it is intertwined with my personal past as well.

I've been playing it now, on and off, for over 20 years. The first thing I remember about it is the organist from my very first church job mentioning his own Christmas tradition of playing this piece every year. I suppose that may be how it became mine.

Except that I don't play it every year. I've probably played it five or six times in those twenty plus years. I like to find something different to play each year, which not only expands my repertoire, it gives each Christmas its own unique musical identity. But that isn't what customs are built on. They involve a return to the same thing you did last year, in the hope that it still has meaning, and, in each individual instance, comfort comes from being part of a larger tradition. Also, you can turn off your mind and just do it because you are supposed to. That's got to have mass appeal.

I'm writing this blog while staring at a large bit of herbage we displaced from a local tree farm and decided to place in our living room, to be festooned with lights and ornaments.  Objectively, I'd say we are nuts for doing that, but it's a Christmas tradition, so not only are we allowed this bit of looniness, we are even encouraged. We've been doing it every year we were married save the first year. This year makes tree number nine. It's actually the nicest specimen yet. Want to see it? (of course you do)

Here is Bach's pastorale: comforting, serene, an evocation of the halcyon past. Enjoy!

Bach: Pastorale in F  (movement one)


proceed to article four (of ten) in this series

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It's got a nice beat...I can tend sheep to it

You didn't know it on Monday, but what started out as an innocent little blog is just the beginning of a multi-part obsession. This is the "Year of the Pastorale."

Just what is a Pastorale? As I mentioned on Monday, the word is related to shepherding, to pasture, to the countryside. In music, a Pastorale is supposed to evoke the world of the countryside, specifically, as Wikipedia puts it, the bucolic world of the country. In other words, that world is being Romanticized. It is being imagined as a simple joy. All of the sheep and the shepherds on a scenic hillside, getting along blissfully with each other, no dangers in sight. It is a remembrance of the good old days, the way things used to be.

Except that they never were. The Pastorale is for city folk, imagining life in the country where, obviously, people have no cares, and life is easy. Shh! Quiet, country folk! We city folk don't want to hear your rebuttal. You have it easy. Case closed.

One of the things that makes a pastorale pastoral is its rhythm, a gently rocking rhythm, in three. But it's not a simple waltz. Often, there is a snap between beats one and two so you get a sort of dum  dedum figure. You'll hear what I mean. To demonstrate that, here is another piece from Franz Liszt, country romanticizer extraordinaire. He could also play a mean piano, and it is really admirable to hear him restrain himself to such a simple texture. The mood here is quite bucolic:

Liszt: The Shepherds at the Manger

The piece does not call itself a pastorale. It is from Liszt's "Christmas Album"--obviously, it is a setting of "Good Christian Men Rejoice." But Liszt refers to shepherds in the title, and in order to conjure them up musically we need the rhythm of the pastorale.

Before I go, let me take a minute to romanticize about last year, when I made this recording. On a Saturday afternoon in December, I was recording this serene little piece when some fellow across the street from the church started up his riding mower and interrupted my calm. You can read about my genteel reaction here. I spent the next hour working on something else instead. I forget now whether the take I chose to use includes the mower or not. I think I edited it out. You can find out by cranking the volume way up, but I don't recommend it. It would destroy the mood of the placid countryside, in the land that never was, where you and I don't have a care in the world.

Must be nice, being a shepherd. All you have to do is enjoy the smell of sheep. Plus, with unions these days, they probably make nearly 8 bucks an hour.

on to the third article in this series

Monday, December 1, 2014

It's not just for shepherds anymore....if at all

I keep thinking about that shepherd over there on the right.

If there's ever been a more visually obvious way to emphasize the word "marginalized" I don't know what it is. There is only one of him, and he is right at the edge; it looks like he barely made the cut. They'll let him be part of their tableaux if he doesn't say anything and doesn't draw any attention to himself. They're ignoring him.

Well of course they're ignoring him, you say. All their attention is on the infant in the middle. He's the reason for the season. Not the shepherds.

Shepherds, you say. Oh, right. The Bible says there were shepherds. Plural. More than one. Possibly lots of them. So why do we only have the one?

I'm not accusing our crèche of anything unusual, here. Most of the ones I've seen in fact only have one shepherd, with a sheep over his shoulders so you can tell what he does for a living. And it makes him look cute--by proxy, since the little lamb he's chosen is always adorable. He's usually on the periphery, with the sheep.

The kings, on the other hand--the Bible says nothing about the "wise men from the east" being kings, nor does it say there were three of them--but there they are, right up with the holy family, all three of them. They are also centered on the action--sort of. Actually one of them is turned a little awkwardly so he seems to be presenting his gift to us, rather than the infant in the middle.

They must know somebody to get those front row seats right next to the holy family.

This Christmas season I'll be sharing several pieces with you that bear the curious title "pastorale." This word is a cousin of the word "pasture"--also "pastor" as in "shepherd of his flock."

The reason these pieces bear witness to the season is precisely because of their connection with shepherds and the shepherds connection to the Christmas story. See, in the Bible, a whole throng of angels decided they had some news they wanted to go tell the shepherds. So they went right to where they worked (they knew the shepherds were in a job that wouldn't give them any time off) and they told them that news. And the shepherds left their flocks and went to see the baby that was to be a Messiah.

I wonder if their employers ever found out, and if they got fired for their civil disturbance. The citizens of Bethlehem couldn't have been all that pleased to see them.

Shepherds aren't exactly at the top of the food chain when it comes to social importance. They are right at the bottom. And like people on the bottom, they don't get to speak for themselves. Which is where things get interesting.

Typically, a composer with the ability to speak so that others will hear, and listen well into the next century, is a highly trained fellow with at least a spark of genius and a cosmopolitan background. Let's put Mr. Liszt in that category. Here is a little piece he wrote when he was on a three-year journey through Europe. His musical travelogue (he called it "Years of Pilgrimage") contains this little specimen. It has a few "rustic" touches, seen through the romanticized gaze of a city boy. It is also fairly simple of construction, and contains plenty of repetition. The entire first part unfolds over a bass note that does not change--a drone note, common to many pastorales.

Would actual shepherds approve?

Is anybody planning to ask?

Here it is, anyway. It's a pretty little piece, not the sort of thing that would disturb us in any way. Unless you start thinking outside the music, and start asking troubling questions about who gets to speak for whom and so on. Next I'll be wondering if it actually snowed at the first Christmas.

Liszt: Pastorale

on to the second article on this series

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Beginning is Near!

Last Friday I mentioned that this weekend is the start of another church year, and if you are a church organist or pianist that might affect your choice of music. The curious thing about the first week of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is that the scripture readings chosen for that Sunday are usually pretty gloomy. Much gets written by church folks about being out of step with the surrounding culture (often but not always that is viewed positively) and this time of the year illustrates that pretty well. While the culture at large is looking for good vibes and happiness during the entirety of the Christmas Season, which has been underway for quite a while already, the church is under the impression that Christmas won't arrive until, well, Christmas Day, and that the season beforehand is actually a rather bleak time. Time for reflection, penitence, giving up things, self-examination--much like Lent, actually, which gets more press. People not from a liturgical church tradition must find this rather odd.

The readings for this first week are particularly dire; signs of the end of days, stars falling from the sky, earthquakes, wars, dogs and cats living with each other (or was that from Ghostbusters?)--so, given the liturgical emphasis of the day, I chose a piece for the organ that is less warm and fuzzy and more apocalyptic.

I bring this up both so you can listen to this hair-raising but wonderful piece, and also so we can have a debate about it in two days. This is the Wednesday portion of the blog, wherein we don't generally discuss matters of religious or church music, but I hope you'll forgive the setup, because on Friday I'm going to be talking a lot about interpretation, which is really more of a Wednesday thing.

I'm going to be thinking about how we play Bach, and what does, or doesn't, constitute a legitimate interpretation, how we think we know, and so forth. I'm also going to play for you three different versions of the same piece I recorded this week and see what you think about them. That's my preamble. Now go digest your turkey and I'll see you in 48 hours!

Monday, November 24, 2014

We Gather Together

I'm continuing my miniature crusade to make Thanksgiving a more significant holiday and rescue it from the shadow of its louder and more commercial cousin, the 250 days of the X-mas season.

Maybe that's the problem with my campaign: just like the holiday, it's too modest. And I don't have any corporate sponsors.

You might be wondering how I could get corporations to sponsor diatribes against commercialism and against materialistic excess. Well, here's something I've learned by observing the Christmas season come and go these many years. Corporations have no problem at all putting their names to television shows with the message that there is more to life than buying stuff. They aren't worried that we'll take that too seriously. As long as you've trampled your quota of people at BestBuy getting what you think is a great deal on a plasma television and THEN come home in a foul mood from circling the mall trying to find a parking spot for four hours to put your feet up and watch a feel good special about how it's really all about that special feeling you get from the season or whatever muck it's about, that's all good. Capitalism first, rhetoric later. It's actually a pretty cozy relationship.

Sooooooo, anyway......

At our church's Thanksgiving dinner last week, I played this little number, which my buddy Marteau wrote for me. It is based on a Thanksgiving hymn but the poor hymn has a little trouble being heard over the noise of some of the OTHER tunes that keep intruding. Some of you might want to play along and write down the "extraneous" tunes as you hear them. If you'd like, you can send me an email ( I haven't decided yet what the winner will receive beyond my astonishment at their superior aural skills, but I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, here is the music, prefaced by what I said at the Thanksgiving dinner. I'm also adding a transcript of my remarks, which are almost verbatim, except I think I skipped a couple of lines:

commentary  (the music is below the transcript)

Transcript of remarks:

[The piece I’m going to play for you now was inspired by an historic discovery.]Archeologists have recently unearthed evidence that suggests that the minor holiday we call Thanksgiving was once a stand-alone holiday, rather than a day that merely reminds us that we are already three-quarters of the way through the Christmas season. In fact—and I found this really hard to believe—Christmas was originally just a day long. The first attempts to expand the holiday into the mega-festival that we know and loathe occurred during the Middle Ages, when the science of assault-by-holiday was still in its infancy. In fact, the Medievals showed their incompetence by expanding the holiday in the completely wrong direction. Starting from December 25th, they decided to make it last until Jan, 5, with Epiphany to follow on January 6th. This rather quaint custom has been preserved in a song, which like so many Christmas songs, we sing without having any earthly idea why. Show of hands—how many of you have actually ever gone dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh? I didn’t think so.

The song I’m referring to is called “The 12 Days of Christmas” and you’ve probably suffered through it a few times yourself. You know, the one with the fifers milking and the drummers swimming and the partridges throwing gold rings at each other—it’s chaos, I tell you.

Well, we sophisticated modern types have our own twelve days of Christmas. Before the hostile takeover, these were separate holidays, but now they are part of the Christmas season, as evidenced by the fact that on any of these days you will find Christmas items available for purchase to give to your true love. Beginning in the middle of August, the twelve days of modern Christmas are:

The first day of school
Labor Day
Grandparent’s Day
The Autumn Equinox
Columbus Day
Turn your clock back day
Veteran’s Day
Beethoven’s Birthday
Christmas Eve and of course

Christmas day until 10 am when your tree is on the curb with or without your screaming children, the house is a mess, and you collapse in a chair exhausted and vow never to do this again, confident that you have until the middle of next August before the process starts over.

Now the reason I bring all this up is that I’m going to play a piece based on the Thanksgiving hymn, “We Gather Together.” Ordinarily the tune would get center stage surrounded by some adoring chords and some admiring filigree, but this particular Thanksgiving hymn finds itself struggling to hold forth, under what appears to be a sustained assault by some tunes that you’ll probably recognize.

Kristen [my spouse] suggests that when you hear one of these rogue tunes you might want to write it down and see how many you come up with. Maybe there are extra mash potatoes for the winner—I don’t know. Anyway, here we go....

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Time for New Beginnings

Next weekend--I'll tell you now you so won't miss it--is the beginning of another church year. Happy New Year!

I almost titled this blog "New Year, again?!?" because if you're scoring at home, this is at least the third installment of our annual reset in the last twelve months. Going back to January 1, we have the "official" or civil, new year, in which the number on our calendar changes and 2014 becomes 2015 and so on. This is the New Year which gets the most press, and the most resolutions for reform and improvement of our lives as we head into the new year. Which is odd, because, aside from that change on the calendar, nothing really new happens. There isn't any natural boundary. We are still in the middle of winter--not quite the exact middle, either. Meteorologically winter begins about ten days earlier, with the solstice, though the manifestations of said season have at this point already been with us for as long as there has been snow; generally about a month or so. So there we are, in the deadest part of a cold, dark season (if you live in the Northern hemisphere, anyhow), and the groundhog won't even poke his head out and prophecy comfort for another month. And yet, we feel something new has happened. Out with the old. Let's start again.

The new year with the most effect on our behavior is the one associated with the school year. You don't have to be a child in school, or an adult in school, or a teacher, or a parent, to have the rhythms of the academic year hold sway over your life. Every August there is a great gearing up. Activities, scholastic and otherwise, begin. Both choral organizations I serve begin their rehearsals at this time. Our church choir also begins to sing. People stop going on vacation and get down to business. This great spasm of activity proceeds, with the occasional break until summer, when, as if it were a week writ large, there is a Sabbath for a couple of months. July is a particularly dead time at our church. Everyone is out of town, getting rest, preparing for another spasm of intensity to start in August. We don't have to attach any new year rhetoric to this one. It is new enough on its own.

At the other end of the spectrum are cycles like the fiscal year. Nobody much concerns themselves with those unless you happen to be the treasurer of an organization or work for public radio. Then the fiscal year matters a great deal. It begins with July. If you are a Methodist pastor that is also the beginning of another year, which might bring with it a change of venue. It is another mid-season beginning which exists in our minds, in the realm of numbers. Nature absents herself from those.

Many ancient cultures liked to begin the new year with the beginning of the growing cycle in the spring. Or with the harvest in the fall. If you live in the United States but have you roots in another culture, you may be celebrating their new year as well (ie., Chinese new year), on whatever date it occurs, based on whatever reckoning those in charge thought appropriate.

And if you still haven't had enough newness, along comes the church calendar, which begins anew on the First Sunday in Advent, generally the first Sunday in December, but this year on November 30. It falls four Sundays before Christmas, whenever that happens to be each year.

This yearly reset goes largely unnoticed, I think, unless you happen to work in a church, and it needs to be an uncommonly liturgically aware church at that, at least if you happen to be Protestant, when it is far from a given that you will follow, along with our Catholic cousins, the liturgical year as it was established so long ago.

Still, it is a beginning, even if it begins in sackcloth and ashes, rather than in the promise of spring, the smell of new textbooks, or the steely resolve to hit the gym every day. Our psychology seems to need the promise of the new pretty often; it is never long before we think we've screwed up the old and long to get another chance. Give us a blank slate and before long it is covered with illegible scrawl descending into incoherence and suspect meaning; give us another chance! We'll do better.

So if you are feeling like you need a new beginning, a chance to start over, to renew, refresh, jettison the burdens of the past, don't pass up November 30.

For my money, a new cycle begins with the promise of every moment. If you want to embark on a plan for Bible reading or exercise in the middle of February, go for it. And if you miss a few days, get back on the horse and keep going. Don't wait until next year because you broke the streak! But if you need some sort of officialdom to confirm you in your sense of purpose, then here it is: The start of a new church year. The cycle begins again, like freshly fallen snow. Oh, it'll get tracks in it, eventually. The paper boy won't think to use the side door and will wade through three feet of snow in your front yard and create a royal mess. But, at least for a moment, everything is new again. Always.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting Organized

Now that I have over 200 blog entries, it seemed prudent to get around to organizing them. That way, you won't have to fish around for what you might find interesting, and I won't forget what I've already written about, and what music I've already featured. This could come in particularly handy for the Wednesday portion of the blog, wherein I write about diverse topics like being an accompanist, learning about pipe organ registration, being a composer, effective ways to practice, and so forth.

Of course, that would really be handy, which is why I haven't managed to do it yet. Instead of a topical index for those really useful seriesi on various concerns, I have so far only managed three chronological indexes for each of the three main concerns of this blog: Listen up! on Mondays, wherein I play mainly piano music for you to listen to and read about, Wednesday, addressing topics of interesting to fellow musicians intent on improving their craft, and Fridays, when the subject is being a church organist/pianist, featuring music and discussions around the music and the vocation.

And, just to really sell this thing, I should also mention that these indexes are also already out of date. I did them over the summer and plan to update them at the end of each semester when I have a little time. So at the moment, they only run through summer 2014.

You've got to start somewhere, though, haven't you?

The three index pages will appear this week as tabs at the top of the blog. Enjoy.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Poor Thanksgiving. Being an American national holiday, it isn't even celebrated in most of the world, and in the one country--my own--where it has found a home, it gets squeezed between Halloween and Christmas, both of which have become more commercially useful and involve candy and goodies rather than boring old nutrient-rich food. And while some churches actually hold special services for this holiday, every pastor I've worked with in recent memory would just like it to go away. It is, after all, not part of the church calendar. And it is also a violation of the separation of church and state--though in this case, in favor of the church.

Thanksgiving seems like an important concept, too. For one thing, people don't spend much time on gratitude without being heavily encouraged. For another, the thanks being given is supposed to be tied to the yearly harvest, which is sort of important for a species that likes to be able to eat.

Since the day itself has just become another excuse to trample each other at the mall (Christmas shopping, you know), it seems like maybe the only recourse is to extend the Thanksgiving season a bit, start early, like all the other aggressive holidays. So this post's a week early; Thanksgiving itself isn't until a week from Thursday.

And who do we have for a spokesman? Mr. Edvard Grieg, with a simple piece from his set of "Lyric Pieces"--entitled simply "Thanks,"

Oh dear, I'm afraid that won't do. I was looking for something more attention grabbing. How on earth is anybody going to notice a holiday without flashing lights and lots of loud, zany acrobatics? How indeed. Well, Thanksgiving comes anyway. Blink and you'll miss it.

By the way, I'm thankful for my audio software, which allowed me to edit out some very long pauses between sections while I waited for the sirens and the very loud truck and bus to go away. You are too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Grieg: Thanks, from Lyric Pieces, book seven, number two

Friday, November 14, 2014

Finale (wrapping it up)

George Lucas has said that movies aren't ever finished, they just escape. So it seems with all large projects. In the case of this particular blog series, which has run to 24 installments and run parts of seven months, it seems time to end. The blog itself will continue, and so will thoughts about the organ and organ playing, but I'm getting tired of updating the table of contents every week!

Let's review where we've been with our "Faith UMC organ project" series:

In May I explained what was going to happen to our organ console over the summer, why we needed to fix it, and asked for donations. Then you got to see the organ console being removed, got to visit it in the "hospital," and rejoice in its return. Finally I gave a re-dedicatory organ recital with a little help from my friends.

Along the way, we delved into the history of this amazing instrument, from its beginnings in the days of the Roman Empire, to the thunderous, completely unsubtle Medieval instrument, and stopped just short of getting around to what makes the modern instrument so interesting. I'll fill in that gap in a moment.

We also explored the workings of the instrument itself--how different sounds are the results of different types of pipes, and how the organist can call forth all of them singly or in combination, how he or she can add octaves above and below, move sounds from one division to another, suddenly change dozens of settings with a flick of the foot or the finger.

What I didn't get around to is the difference between a mechanical action and what happened to the organ as a result of electrification. Many organs, including ours, don't have levers and springs to carry the impulse of the player on the keys to open the airflow to the pipes; instead, this is done via electrical impulses. If an organ console is not close to the pipes, or is at a funny angle so that the organist is not facing the pipes, you are probably not dealing with a mechanical action.

This new approach allowed the console to be located far away from the pipes; it also allowed organs to get larger and larger. Adding stops used to make it harder to depress the keys; now none of that mattered.

In the middle of the last century, however, organists and organ builders began to get interested in mechanical action organs again, just as the musical world became more diligent about adopting historically informed performance practices. Many of the organs in our town, particularly those at the University of Illinois, are mechanical, and the students swear by them. I guess that makes us sort of infidelish. Not as bad as if we had an electronic organ, of course!

I admire our big-little organ, however. It is not enormous, but it has a little of everything, stop-wise, and enough features that you can play a variety of literature on it and it will sound not too bad. A mechanical action organ is often designed for playing Bach and while it sounds great in that corner of the literature, it does not do so well for the grand compositions of the 19th century French organists. Our organ, by contrast, while being a bit small for such an undertaking, still handles itself pretty well.

Which is perhaps a small miracle, or the result of foresight on the part of the builders (I was told a University professor was involved in the early plans for our organ). It is particularly suited to music for the Baroque, but it can do other things. It is large enough (too large, some of my congregations would probably say) for the building, and it has a variety of sounds, none of which are bad; some of which sound quite nice by themselves. And they blend well. Our organ, made possible by a very generous donation 30 years ago, cost 150,000 dollars to install, and today would cost nearly a million dollars. So in that context, the cost of the project was not so large after all. And it shows off one more facet of our organ; and indeed, organs in general.

It can adapt. It can adjust to new technology. We added a new stop (sort of) and a digital interface with a lot of interesting features. And the organ, far from being diminished, plays on into its fourth decade. I am proud to say that before I leave this church I had a hand in making sure of that. Longstanding problem with the relay system solved, organ improved, new features added, and away we go, 55 years after the church began, three sanctuaries later.

Thanks, everybody.

I still mean to post some of the music from the recital. Watch this space the week of Thanksgiving when I may finally have the time to do it!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Man and machine

As I mentioned at a recent organ concert, our updated church organ has a digital playback system. This means that, if you hit the "record button" before you start to play, every note, stop change, volume pedal control, and so on, gets recorded as MIDI data, so that when you press the PLAY button it will replicate your performance using the pipes and shutters of the organ. In other words, the organ will play itself.

We didn't ask for that feature; it came as part of the package. But now that we have it, my fertile brain has been coming up with ideas for what to do with it. There are the usual solutions:

--an organist who came to "guest practice" on it recently mentioned being familiar with such a system, which can be used for feedback. You can record your performance and listen to the results, with an ear toward what could be improved. This is just like recording your practice for critical listening, except that you can do it in the actual space, listening to the actual instrument "live." I have to say, it was a bit disorienting, not to say very cool, to be able to walk around the sanctuary and hear the organ from different angles, not to mention head on instead of from in the corner where the console sits. And it does provide useful feedback.

--the fellow who installed the system mentioned that one church wanted one so the organist could go on vacation once in a while. She had nobody to sub for her, and just wanted to get away, so she left a playlist for the service and had somebody pressing buttons. I'm not planning to record the hymns that way; we have other musicians to fill in, and live singing with a prerecorded track is always dangerous. But I did tell our choir director that for Christmas this year I'm giving her a prelude and offertory that she doesn't have to play when I'm gone the week after Christmas. She'll do the hymns live, but the other pieces will be available at the touch of a button. Any cookies she makes as a result of not having to spend that time practicing have to be shared, of course!

ok, those uses are somewhat boring. Here's where it really gets interesting.

---Since the console is not disabled during playback, you can play on top of any prerecorded material. That means I can play a duet with myself. I told my congregation to look out for a piece in which I am listed twice, as both organists in a piece for organ, 4-hands. I've been too busy so far, but in January, I'm going to do it. Of course, I already played a duet for piano and organ at my concert. There will be more of those also.

---there are certain logistical problems needing a solution. Whenever the choir needs the piano to be close by we put it next to the choir loft. Since the sanctuary's architect thought it would look pretty to put the instruments on one side of the altar area and the choir on the other, the choir is about 30 feet from the organ. So is the piano. When we move it for better ensemble, what it means is that, supposing I play an offertory on the piano, I then have to run to the organ to start the doxology. If I prerecord the introduction to the doxology, I can have somebody just push a button and then just saunter over there at my leisure just in time to take over live when the introduction is over.

--Maybe sometime I'll get in line to take communion with everybody else while I'm "playing."

--because I record the voluntaries and offertories I play each week to post on the web, I often run into problems with the annoying birds nesting just outside the wall of the sanctuary where I typically place the microphones. During the month of June I have to wait until they go to bed to record; however, by then I may be too tired. With the new system, I can do the performance whenever I want, and then return later, set up the microphones, and capture the audio as the organ plays back what I've already performed. This also saves me running up the aisle every time I do a take, since the microphones are in the back of the church and the console is in the front.

--another advantage to performing a piece and waiting until later to do the audio capture is that you can record a piece at the console while it is still under your fingers, and, if the organ is badly out of tune, say,  because it's November, and the organ gets tuned in December when you are really too busy to record much of anything, you can save it for days, weeks, or months, until the organ is tuned and even if you are too tired to do anything at that point because it's the middle of December but hit the play button you can make nice, in tune recordings anyway. Now that's progress!

--I can also do several takes and decide which one I want to use before I even set up the microphones, saving time later on in the process.

It seems like I had a few more fun things I could do with this system but at present I'm drawing a blank, so if I think of them, I'll divulge them in a future installment.