Something happens in the third semester of music theory. Sometimes it’s early in the semester, sometimes it’s later in the semester, depending on which book (if any) you’re using and how the class is overall. Currently, it’s happening right now for my Theory III kids this year.

It’s the point where we’ve cleared most of the *conceptual* framework and can start getting more into analyses and study of entire pieces. There are still concepts to cover (extended chords, other modulatory techniques, etc.), but most of the puzzle pieces are in place. We can move into analysis that transcends the descriptive and start thinking in terms of prescriptive; that is to say, we can start applying what the analysis yields to actual performance.

For various reasons, most books/sequences use German Lieder as the springboard into this new analytical world. There are piano pieces, chamber works, and symphonic works that could show these concepts equally well, but it is almost always Lieder that we use. Part of this is because there are so many songs out there; you could get the entire third semester and a good hunk of the fourth just with four composers (Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Schoenberg for the fourth). Part of it is because you can bring in text for discussion, taking things out of the realm of absolute music and into something more programmatic. And part of it is simply because it’s just so wonderful. Schumann’s cycles especially do such a great job at showing the totality of human emotion.

I leave you with a video. This is tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Graham Johnson with what is my favorite Lied – Robert Schumann, Myrthen, Op. 25, no. 1, “Widmung.” Du meine Seele, du mein Herz…


(Does anyone blog anymore?)

This ought to be fun.

Since I don’t have any immediate compositional projects (the last three were the opera Bedtime Story, Vegas Vespers, and the solo violin suite pARTita), I decided to stretch out a little bit and challenge myself to write for instruments for which I have not yet written. The first fruits of this project have already appeared in the form of Small Movements for a Big Harp, written with the much-appreciated input of Shana Norton. So on to the next thing…but first, some background:

The above video is Roy Acuff singing “The Great Speckled Bird.” It’s fairly standard country-gospel, and the tune is quite simple. “The Great Speckled Bird” also happens to be my father’s favorite song.

I’m not going to lie: My father and I are very different people. It’s not always been an easy relationship, for either of us. At this point in our lives, I doubt there is anything either of us could say that would change the other’s mind on a point of disagreement – and there are plenty of points of disagreement. (Most kids nearly come to blows with their fathers over issues of a car, or of money, or of respect; the only time I nearly swung at the old man was during a “discussion” about whether Lt. Col. Oliver North was a hero who deserved the thanks and praise of a grateful nation or a traitor who should face the proscribed punishment for treason swiftly and certainly. Guess which side I was on!)

I don’t want Dad to stop being cantankerous, conservative, and stuck in his ways. It’s part of his charm at this point, and he’s nearly 79. He’s earned the right to be darn well whatever he wants to be, and we’ll love him and respect his choices no matter what. But in recent years, as we’ve both aged, I would like to think we’re at a point where none of that matters anymore. So, while I can, I want to do something nice for him.

Let’s connect the two threads: I want to write something for an instrument that will make me grow as a composer, and I want to honor my father in some way.

Re-enter “The Great Speckled Bird.”

I have decided to write a set of variations on “The Great Speckled Bird” for solo guitar. I’ll be working with Jim Flegel, our guitar professor, and hopefully I can get it performed at some point in the next year. When it’s all said and done, I want to get a nice bound copy of the score and a good clean recording, and give them to Dad. He built a home, a business, a farm, a family, a church, and he did it all without complaint. He deserves a little gratitude from his youngest son.

So watch this space and my Facebook page for updates on the piece.


This day is always a little tough for me.

A flashback: October 9, 1982. I am nine years old.

It’s a Saturday, and my sister Betsy is getting married. At the ceremony, she’s asked my maternal grandfather to give a short prayer. Grandpa (born Feb. 13, 1912) was a preacher for years, so this isn’t a big deal for him, yet he’s struggling. He’s clearly emotionally overwhelmed by his oldest granddaughter getting married. This was a side of Grandpa I had never seen. Grandpa was an extremely funny man, clever but never biting. And how he loved his grandchildren. (Aside to any fellow grandkids reading: Remember “Caught in a trap and you can’t get out!”?) The man taught himself enough Greek to understand his beloved Bible better. He was a voracious reader. He was also a fantastic musician, though he couldn’t read a note. Until a farming-related accident (and for the record, I don’t think there’s a man born before 1935 in that family with all his fingers), he could play fiddle, guitar, banjo, piano, and organ by ear. And we’re not just talking picking out melodies – the man had chops. My cousin Doug has restored his old fiddle. He could sing – oh how that man could sing. As much as he was known for being a preacher, he was probably known more for being a song leader. In tune, in good tempo, and it stayed there; this is no mean feat for a mostly-untrained a capella country church. So when I heard him sobbing a little during his prayer, it affected me deeply, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

So that’s just one day. Why does it still resonate?

Soon thereafter, Grandpa took ill. He’d had diabetes, but around late December 1982/early January 1983 it turned much, much worse. For ten months, I watched him deteriorate, his once-sharp mind clouded with painkillers and kidney failure, his round face thinning out, his robust voice now barely more than a whisper.

We were at church on a Sunday morning when my uncle Lowell came in (Mom and her sister Patsy were already at Grandpa’s bedside). Lowell walked to the pew where Grandpa’s sister Virginia (my beloved Aunt Ginny, the only other liberal in the family!) was sitting. He whispered something to her, and she immediately began crying and walked out with Lowell.

Grandpa – David Alvalee Williams – passed away a few minutes later.

The date of his passing?

October 9, 1983.

One year to the day.

It’s been thirty years. He’d be 101 now.

I still miss him.


So’s the missus and I are at the Perkins restaurant in Alexandria, MN for a post-movie dinner (the movie was Gravity; short review: SEE THIS MOVIE ON THE LARGEST SCREEN POSSIBLE), and I check Facebook and see this message:

“Do you know what’s fun? Casting your opera is fun.”

I haven’t stopped smiling. Bedtime Story, my Very Short Opera, is going to be performed by North American New Opera Workshop, probably in late March 2014.