This morning’s low was a whopping -28 degrees Fahrenheit. Not gonna lie to you, Marge – very happy to have multiple cats and a fireplace.
In other news, while most of my performances have been cancelled due to the pandemic, Jason Ladd premiered my piece Thibodaux Breakdown for solo tuba (one of five miniatures I wrote for the Georgia Runoff Commissioning Project) on February 2 at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA. Also, I will be presenting this weekend (Feb. 19) at the South Central Society for Music Theory‘s virtual conference. My topic is “Looking at Music Theory through the Overton Window,” and it might ruffle some feathers. (I hope it does.)
I have a couple of big projects afoot as well. I’ve completed a concerto for piano and wind band in two-piano score and will be putting together a consortium to fund the orchestration. I am currently working on a trombone quartet, and then I will be writing a thing for alto trombone, soprano saxophone, and chamber ensemble based on a poem by Emily Vieweg. After that, well, I’ve got a super-secret project about another super-secret project, and I think you’re gonna dig it.
Trying to not be That Guy, but I’ve been able to do a couple of things I didn’t expect to do because the pandemic has kept us at or near home. I bought an alto trombone, and this is generating new ideas – plus, it’s fun to learn! I also downloaded Reason, and hope to spend this summer getting good at it.
Has it really been nearly a month since I’ve updated? Why yes, it has.
I went to the SMT conference in Charlotte and was blown away by the papers. This fills me with resolve. Next year, there will not be an annual rejection – next year, I will get in. I figured out a good approach for my current research (more on that once I get a couple of things nailed down), and this should work well with the direction of SMT.
Lots of good pedagogy stuff as well; that was the main reason I went. Also, because I livetweeted a couple of sessions, the number of Twitter followers I have jumped substantially. This is making me think about pedagogical applications of social media. We’re on the cusp of rewriting the theory curriculum in toto at UMM, and I want to make it one that implements all manner of tech (but not just because we like shiny new gizmos – everything must serve a larger pedagogical purpose).
The Great Speckled Variants are going well; I am meeting with a guitarist this week to see how idiomatic the writing is. I fully expect to do a lot of editing on this, but it’s worth it to get it right.
I’m sure both of you are disappointed by this, but I just haven’t been compelled to put up much in the way of political postings. I still follow it, but until next year’s election season begins in earnest (and until the Minnesota State Legislature is back in session), there’s just not a whole lot of the nuts-and-bolts policy stuff that interests me. Oh, sure, there’s the ACA and its computer glitches, but I am stupefied that people are upset that they might be getting better insurance. For 97%* of us, that means cheaper.
That’s all for now. Got some plans for the new year that involve expanding this website. More bulletins as events warrant.
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.
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.
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.”
Here’s a video of the premiere of my trombone quartet entitled Vegas Vespers, performed by the Las Vegas Trombone Company (Nathan Tanouye, Hitomi Shoji, David Philippus, Mike Dobranski). This may be the single best performance of one of my works.
The trip was fantastic. Saw some great scenery, got to see some old friends, and checked off two more states (we’re up to 43).
So this past week the missus and I set off (with the in-laws) for the Black Hills and Devils Tower. We took two days to get out there, stopping the first night in Mitchell, SD, home of the Mitchell Corn Palace (as well as the home of George McGovern). Long-time readers will know that I’ve done a musical “portrait,” albeit tongue-in-cheek, of the Corn Palace as part of my work Next Exit. The building is actually quite fascinating.
Go to their website and read about the artworks.
From there (after a brief stop at the tourist trap known as Wall Drug), it was out to a cabin at the Powder House Lodge in Keystone, SD. If you ever need a place to stay in the Black Hills, I highly recommend this place. This was the view from our cabin:
I haven’t been this relaxed in ages.
The first full day in the Black Hills meant monuments. We went first to Mount Rushmore, and I cannot overstate the power and majesty of this sculpture. The attached picture does not do it justice. (I chose this picture so you could get a sense of the scale of the thing.)
I also recommend having some of Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream (made from his recipe, the first ice cream recipe in the US) at the café. Very creamy, very sweet, not at all what you’d expect.
From there, it was off to the Crazy Horse Memorial. I have a larger post on that one; for now, here’s a picture.
Day two meant checking off states 40 and 41, as we went to Devils Tower in Wyoming and then clipped the far southeastern corner of Montana. I had seen this movie many times, of course, but I was caught off-guard by the beauty of the real deal. See for yourself.
Of course, no trip to Devils Tower is complete without mentioning the Prairie Dog Town.
After one more night in that heavenly cabin, we set out for home via the Badlands. The panoramic photo below gives you a sense – just barely – of this area, so famous in western American history.
The closest I ever got to the rim was about 6 – 8 inches; at that point, I had to pull myself back. It’s a long way down.
This little excursion came at the best possible time. We are back home now, and my life has returned to composing, working on this book chapter, and planning next semester’s courses. I am refreshed and excited about what the future holds again.
(1) A paraphrase/setting of the UMM Hymn, the Alma Mater of my current gig. This is for a concert in memory/honor of Ralph Williams, the first-ever music faculty member at UMM (and composer of the Alma Mater).
(2) A suite of miniatures for solo violin called pARTita, for David Cole.
(3) A very short opera, beginning what I think is a warm-up for a larger work (and eventually, hopefully, a full cycle of operas based on a science-fiction book that permeated my youth).
Since I’ve been taking on an administrative role this semester, I find my perception of how academia works shifting. Subtly, to be sure, but this is a noticeable shift.
To that end, I’ve decided to spend some time learning about the budget process at UMM. More on that later. I’ve also started reading some books and blogs; if I get the chance, once the semester clears I’ll start talking about that as well.
Thank you for your patience. It’s been a busy semester (a faculty search, the extra admin duties, trying to get some stuff published/out there), but a good one. Spring Break is next week. I am ready.
I had a brief conversation with a friend the other day, and we shared memories of marching band. I got to thinking about it, and when I get to thinking about something it usually ends up on here. So blame her for this.
I have talked before about where I grew up and the challenges facing the unathletic in a place where sports are even more disproportionately important than normal. I was spectacularly awkward physically as a youth (is it because I was born a month early? I wonder); if it were be possible to be picked after last in gym class, I would have been.
Then I started marching band.
I was still awkward, but for some reason, it would go away when I had a horn on my face and had to move from one dot to the next. My body, which I would fight every other waking moment, actually did exactly what I asked it to and when I asked it to. I lost weight, made new friends, and felt like I actually belonged somewhere for the first time in…well, let’s go with “ever.” I did it for four years, earning the marching band equivalent of a letter jacket, and decided to major in music in part because of the experience of marching band. Majoring in music led me to music theory and composition, so you could say my entire career exists because of one choice I made in 1986.
Slightly more than a quarter-century has passed, and I still remember aspects of marching band shows in incredible detail. I have done research on Jesus Christ Superstar because we did a JCS show my junior year. (Went to Finals with it too!) Playing those charts gave me a sense of how to write those charts, which led to all my drum corps arranging/composing.
So yeah, I’d consider my high school marching band years “formative” in just about every sense. There are many things I’d do differently, but I’d still march no matter what.
Well, I’m not down 40 pounds, and likely won’t be by the time Feb. 22, 2013 rolls around.
But, at least before the holidays, I was down 13 pounds. Given all that the past year has held, I’ll take that. That’s a pound a week since I changed my diet. Clothes are fitting more loosely. If I can keep up a pound a week, then in 2 – 3 years I’ll be in really good shape. We are hopefully joining the school’s gym this year as well, so even on those non-walkable days (and hey, it’s -3 out there right now, so this is one of them) we can still get some exercise in.