Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Frank Boggs Celebrates "71 Years of Song"

[Photo: Very early Frank, first artist with Word Records]
A once-in-a-lifetime event is more relaxed the second time around.  Seventy years after he first sang professionally, Frank Boggs brought in soloists and speakers from all over the country to help him remember his career.  A year later, a group of close friends and loyal locals came together more to appreciate and support what Frank calls "this kind of music" sadly missing from public and church life these days.

Songs were arranged in sets according to theme, such as "Heaven," "Jesus," and Spirituals.  Frank contributed anecdotes about when he met (reluctantly!) pop-Gospel star Andrae Crouch and prominent Anglican evangelical John Stott.

But mostly we had music.  Frank started us off with his rendition of Crouch's "Through it All," acting the words as if it were a dramatic soliloquy.  "I've been lots of places / I've seen lots of faces / There've been times I didn't know right from wrong...."

Now, I may have an insight into Frank's secret of success, as we share an appreciation of live musical theatre.  When I was a student of Frank's at Westminster in the 1970s, he encouraged me to explore musicals of Stephen Sondheim and the dramatic nuances of singers whose repertoire includes show music, Cleo Laine, Bobby Short, and Mabel Mercer.

When Frank conducts the Georgia Festival Chorus, a group he founded a couple decades ago, his gestures draw drama out of the group, 120+ singers rising and falling, giving dramatic emphasis. He punched the air on certain syllables of "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name" to turn the chorus into a single personality, responding to the emotional highs and lows of the lyrics.  The number got a rare mid-concert standing ovation.

While pieces were conducted by his deputies David Scott, Michael Cromwell, and Ken Terrell, Frank was often singing the bass part from his seat on the side.

Though pianists Cathy Adams and David Carnes and organist Phillip Allen bring fine technique and a variety of colors to the music, the chorus is at its best when singing a cappella, as in the penultimate verse of "Jesus Paid it All."  The voices blend to produce a powerful sound, rich and warm.

Happy anniversary, Frank!  The Lord bless you and keep you adding to your legacy as you teach new generations to be sensitive to the words as well as the musical markings.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Philip Glass: An Affinity with Bach?

"Do you think you have a special affinity with Bach?"

Terry Gross asked this of composer Philip Glass on NPR's program Fresh Air.  They were discussing Glass's new memoir Words Without Music, recently published.  

Glass deflected the question with humor, laughing that his teacher Nadia Boulanger had "pounded" Bach into him.  Indeed, Boulanger would extract an alto part from a Bach piece and Glass could derive Bach's bass line and melody from it.     

A longtime fan of Glass, I'm on the same page with Terry Gross: I've always thought of Glass as a Bach for our day.   As Gross mentioned, arpeggiated chords and rapid scales are characteristics of both composers.   They re-arrange old music for different instruments to present under new titles. Both directed small ensembles to perform their own works.

Having read the memoir, and having recently seen Scott Hicks' documentary Glass: A Life in Twelve Parts, I have fresh insights into Glass's affinity for Bach.

The composers seem to stand in roughly analogous positions to the concert music of their times. Bach was a bit isolated from the musical mainstream in his day, stuck in a backwater parish and unappreciated, but his work came to define what we hear in tuning, harmony, and key relationships;  Glass, though a gregarious artistic collaborator, remains isolated in the niche he carved for himself during the 1970s and 80s, and yet his work "permeates" our culture. So said the judges of Canada's biennial Glenn Gould Prize who honored Glass this year.

Their music shares a quality of feeling that transcends the personal.  I hear the orchestral preludes to both Bach's St. John's Passion and Glass's opera Aknaten as giving us the same sense of roiling notes, implacable forward movement, and tightly sprung energy, detached from the personal inner-drama we're accustomed to hearing in Romantic music. Glass aimed for a quality he found in cutting-edge theatre of the 1960s, especially by Beckett and Richard Foreman, a "detachment" from the world of the rational storytelling to reach "transcendent" emotions (Glass, Kindle edition location 3233).  Glass prized "joy" in Beckett's work, a "clearing of the decks" (i.e., of dense personal expressions such as plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller), and humor (1699).   He credits John Cage for the insight that the joy and feeling come from the cognitive work performed by the listeners (1552).

A "quality of feeling that transcends the personal" would be a pretty good definition of "spirituality," something quite apart from Bach's devout Lutheran faith or Glass's many years of yoga, travels to eastern shrines, his photo with the Dalai Lama, or his sessions with a Native American shaman.  Glass's choice of texts and subject matter often take us to a place where the world as the character knows it is challenged at its root.   (See links below for my articles about Glass's works on Gandhi, Kepler, Aknaten, and "barbarians at the gate";  I'm thinking also of The Making of the Representative from Planet 8, his opera with librettist Doris Lessing about a planet that learns to accept its rapid extinction.  I saw that in Houston, 1988 -- not a success, though Glass suggests that strife between director and designer were to blame (4969).) 

Compare their catalogs to find books of etudes, suites for solo cello, and encyclopedic works that methodically demonstrate all the composer's techniques, such as Bach's Art of the Fugue and Glass's Music in Twelve Parts.   This is music as music, written for study, for exercise; but anyone who attends closely to the form will find "feeling has become unrelated to the actual material you're attending to" (3238). 

Both men worked tirelessly to support themselves and their families.  Bach cranked out a cantata per week for years, and whipped up specialty works on commission (Goldberg variations, Brandenburg concerti).  Glass's pride in work well done shows in the detail he gives about the many jobs he kept to support his family while he worked on music after hours:  nail factory worker, wood stacker, truck loader, plumber, taxi driver.  (He also devotes a lot of ink to detailing costs and savings.)  When Glass gets into the avant garde art scene, he describes his fellow artists in exactly the same terms as he described co-workers in the other jobs: physically strong, with "very regular lives, rising early and working all day" (3755). 

About working, Glass explains how he "tamed his muse," forcing himself to sit at the piano three hours straight every morning, whether ideas came to him or not (1349).  Eventually, musical ideas did flow during that time, and did not bother him later in the day, though he does tell Scott Hicks that music is always running "like an underground stream" through his day.  In the documentary, we see Glass at the piano, staring at manuscript paper while Glass says, in voiceover, how he often has no idea what he's supposed to do.  Then, he jabs the pencil at the paper and fills in a measure.  Other times, his work involves rehearsing with a group on tour, preparing for a solo concert, meeting with Woody Allen about scoring for a movie, reviewing a score with conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and listening to his music programmed into a synthesizer by young Nico Muhly (who tells Scott Hicks, "I talked him out of using just a string sextet, and that's my victory for today").

Optimism, sometimes blithe self-confidence, is another quality that emerges from Glass's memoir.  He never doubted that he'd get into a program for young teens at the University of Chicago, or Juilliard, or Boulanger's group.  When it took seven years to sell the LPs by Schoenberg that young Philip had unwisely purchased for his dad's store, the lesson Philip derived was, "Give me enough time, and I can sell anything!"  As a student scribbling music late in a cheap diner, he saw in a similarly-occupied middle-aged man not a caution that composers can't rise, but an affirmation that he had chosen a good life.  He hired his ensemble before he could make a living as a composer, accepting that he'd have to support them with his day jobs for awhile.  He borrowed $30,000 to rent out Town Hall, hoping to sell out the crowd for Music for Twelve Parts. 

The shadow side of that quality is a certain obliviousness to others.  In the memoir, when Glass falls for a young woman and wants to set up a new home for the two of them away from his wife, he evidently thought it was a great idea to borrow thousands from his children's savings accounts.   His sister remarks in the documentary about how his "wife du jour" has to be "half his age plus seven years."  In an unguarded moment, Holly Glass (wife number 3? 4?) tells us how this marriage was not quite what she signed up for, as he is so unavailable while he's so wrapped up in his music. 

After all this, my favorite Glass quote is still the one from his interview with cousin Ira Glass on This American Life back in the early 2000s.  Ira wondered if the composer ever tried to write something that wouldn't sound like Philip Glass, the composer replied, "All the time!"  and laughed.  He added, "It never works." 


Elsewhere on this blog, I've written appreciations of Philip Glass, his music, and certain operas:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why I'm Episcopalian, continued

Here's a splendid expression of the Episcopalian approach that came out of the decennial Lambeth Conference of 1968:
Comprehensiveness demands agreement of fundamentals, while tolerating disagreement on matters in which Christians may differ without feeling the necessity of breaking communion.  In the mind of an Anglican, comprhensiveness is not compromise.  Nor is it to bargain one truth for another.  It is not a sophisticated word for syncretism.  Rather it implies that the apprehension of truth is a growing thing: we only gradually succeed in "knowing the truth." It has been the tradition of Anglicanism to contain within one body both Protestant and Catholic elements.
Source:  Kwok Pui-Lan. "The Anglican Church as a Cultural Hybrid." Education for Ministry: Reading and Reflection Guide, volume B: Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2014.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Standards v. Specifications

[Picture: Every standard has its shadow. (Smoot)]
A standard, originally meaning the flag that soldiers followed into battle, connotes a moral cause worth dying for. 

I used to count myself as one of those teachers upholding "standards," but now I draw a distinction between "standards" and mere "specifications,"

"Specs" are fine.  I want a car with hatchback.  I want a paper that cites its sources, or I want a personal essay that integrates a real-life experience with reflection on its meaning. In church, I prefer a service that connects present to past through music, ritual, and contextualizing of scripture.

But whenever we make a specification into a moral "standard," we should be aware that every front has its back, every standard casts its shadow -- in Karl Jung's sense of the word "shadow," meaning all the qualities we suppress when we choose to present ourselves a certain way.  These may be very good qualities suppressed for some social purpose -- the way girls learn not to be smarter than the boys, or a person in authority suppresses his impulse to use clever sarcasm with a subordinate.   

The danger of focusing on the teacher's standards lies in losing sight of a student's other strengths. I learned this the hard way, dismissing weeks of progress by a girl who in the end still didn't "get" the idea of a topic sentence; and forcing a talented boy's writing into a formula (read my blog article Assessing Students' Writing with Rubrics: First Do No Harm).

I got a sense of what this must feel like for the student when I once brought an essay to a fellow teacher who bemoaned the sliding of "standards."  I thought it was great work from a boy who hadn't put much effort into school so far:  He had conceived a distinctive metaphor to shape his essay, and he displayed deep understanding of a complicated subject.   She handed the paper back after reading the introduction, commenting only on two misspellings and an error of punctuation. 

What's important?  Is it creative thinking, engagement with the subject, a stretch in the right direction?  Or is it upholding certain specifications as moral "standards?"  Let's not confuse the two.

By the way, my first sentence ends with a preposition, a violation of grammatical standards that derive from a misapplication of Latin grammar rules to English.  As Winston Churchill wisely said, "That is something up with which we cannot put!"  

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Forward Day by Day: A Look Backward at January 2015

[icon written by Rev. Paige Blair]
I mark pages of the quarterly Forward Day by Day booklets whenever a daily meditation strikes me.  I'd have those little booklets crammed into every cranny of my roll-top desk by now if I didn't use this blog for storage of thoughts.

In the issue ending January 2015, the most striking pages were co-written by Barbara Baumgarten and David Catron, who work together in a mission among the poor in Rio de Janeiro and Santa Rosa.  They self-published a book, Don't Touch Me! Daily Stories of Gospel Relevance.

Here are some of their responses to daily readings in scripture:

  • John 15.5 I am the vine, you are the branches. When we read this, we don't often picture the man-made trellis used to support the growing vines.  We miss the implication of community of believers when we think only in terms of one grape, one vine.
  • Psalm 4:4 Speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.  Catron writes simply, "Today I missed an opportunity to do good."  His ex-wife of forty years dropped off a present for their daughter; he failed to invite her in.  Immediately after she left, "It was too late.  A moment for grace had presented itself, and I failed to honor it."  He knew that night, on his bed, he would "ponder the encounter...and be silent."  
  • Isaiah 41.6 Each one helps the other, saying to one another, "Take courage!" A Brazilian's promise, "I am going to buy you!" though puzzling, conveyed confidence.  "If we did not possess the qualities he professed to admire, we worked to develop them so as not to disappoint him."  This strikes me as a great approach to leadership and teaching.  
  • Isaiah 43.5 Do not fear.  Or, as a Buddhist expression has it, "Invite the dragon to tea." Or, as a Quaker Gene Knudsen Hoffman has said, "An enemy is one whose story we have not heard." The authors tell of introducing themselves to the threatening shady characters encountered at the train station each day.
  • Matthew 16.15 Who do you say I am?  Who is Jesus for you? "How a person answered that question" during the process of ordination became a guide to more general behavior to others. "Was Jesus a buddy?  A severe judge?  A mediator? ...alive... or always the same, as if still dead?" One called him a "troublemaker," upsetting a life already settled and doing fine.
  • Psalm 39:4 My heart was hot within me; while I pondered, the fire burst into flame; I spoke out with my tongue.  Catron recalls feeling this way and how he shouted out "the truth" at a clergy conference.    But "the truth did not set me free; it cut off all meaningful communication with my colleagues in Christ."  I often fantasize -- usually in traffic -- about speaking that kind of truth, and tremendous energy builds up inside my body, heart rate shooting up, arms and back tensing.  Good thing to remember: that's a dream that must never come true!
  • Mark 4:11 ...for those outside, everything comes in parables.  When a group examined pictures of Christ from around the world, the authors observed, "Like a parable, no artwork communicated the absolute truth about Jesus, but each caused us to struggle with who Christ is."  They conclude, "Truth is a creative act. We enter not through dogma or law but through personal engagement."  
  • Isaiah 51.7 Do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you.  The authors' anecdote concerns a bad doctor, good doctor experience.  What struck me was the coincidence of coming across this reading a day after I was indeed dismayed by Mom's accusations.  I'm learning that "dementia" can be like the weather, clouds coming in out of the blue, and vanishing as quickly.  I must not take it personally;  I must not be dismayed.

The Forward booklets are available in "tract racks" at many churches for one dollar; the organization sells subscriptions and many other valuable, thoughtful guides to spiritual life via www.forwardmovement.org .

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Legally Blonde, Jr: The Musical: Five Minutes to Magic

[This is the text of an article I wrote in October 2014 for The Walker School's blog.]

Scott Smoot 
I’m director of the Middle School’s W.arts (“Walker Arts”) Drama Team, here at a virtual round table with my colleagues responsible for music, dance, and art work for W.arts’ production of Legally Blonde the Musical, Jr. At two performances October 2 and 3, audiences packed our auditorium and cheered the show, giving our kids immense satisfaction and happy memories for a lifetime.   

But we say at Walker that we “value the experience above the applause,” and we’d like to share something of fifty hours’ experience that went into a performance of just over one hour. Let’s take a slice, less than five minutes, to show you how a musical works.
 
The portion I have in mind begins at an emotional low point of the story involving the young heroine “Elle” (sixth grader Hannah Bachman) and “Warner” (seventh grader Robbie Hedden), the young man she expects to marry. At a fancy restaurant, flanked by a chorus of waiters, he has just told her in song that she isn’t “Serious” enough for him, a future senator on his way to Harvard Law School. She storms out, and Warner ruefully says, “Check, please.” Blackout on the restaurant, house right; lights up stage center on a banner that sets the scene as “Elle’s” bedroom in the Delta Nu sorority house.
 
Two hours’ work went just into that transition. That’s how long eighth grader Michael Johnson and seventh grader Jeff Murchison aimed lights and programmed the dimmer board to create four distinct areas on the auditorium’s floor and stage. Thanks to their work, the story moved along without a pause, fading on a scene in one area and and lighting up the next.

Wendy, you were our stage manager. What was happening behind the scenes at that moment?
 
Wendy Hawk 
Those “waiters” dropped their linens on the props table and changed costumes right there in the stairway to become frat boys and a Harvard dean. They had only four lines of dialogue and three verses of a song to change. Meanwhile, on her way to center stage, Hannah grabbed a pink bathrobe planted before the show by sixth grader Brooke Baughan, who managed Hannah’s transitions from scene to scene.
 
Scott 
The robe’s pockets were stuffed with candy wrappers to show that “Elle” has binged on candy for days. When I told my 7th grade English classes that we had to consume dozens of Milky Ways, they were willing to help for the sake of the show. Regena, we haven’t even mentioned the other costumes.
 
Art Director Regena Simpson 
The Delta Nu girls, all sixth graders, wore matching tee shirts. We’d tried brushing on sparkly “Delta Nu” symbols with fabric paint, but the insignia didn’t stand out enough. So we cut the Greek letters from sheets of felt and glued them to each shirt. That took hours, but the effect was worth it. We had the process down in time to do different shirts for the frat boys.
 
Scott 
So, in our five minute slice of the show, we’ve advanced about fifteen seconds. Talking to her sorority sisters, “Elle” gets the idea that she can show “Warner” how “serious” she is if she just gets into Harvard Law School.

Choral Director Samantha Walker 
That’s my cue. It was a tricky moment. Jeff in the tech booth started the recorded track. Hannah timed her spoken lines around three chords and then launched into a song, “What You Want,” stepping into new light, house center.

The next three minutes of music took us a couple of hours to learn back in August. The Delta Nu chorus joins in, and then there’s sung dialogue between “Elle” and the character “Kate” (sixth grader Tonya Dadlani), who helps her to study for the LSAT. But “Elle” is tempted by a chorus of men to put down her books and join in spring parties. The boys are singing a fast reggae tune about how she’s missing out on fun while the girls sing a counter-melody about how “she’s doing this for love.”

Wendy 
We choreographed that dance with the girls in a line confronting the boys, pushing them away from “Elle”. Only we were short on boys. Then Sam had a great idea to invite her Upper School men’s a cappella group to join in.

Samantha 
They were excited to do this. Most of them had been in W.arts musicals during Middle School. We learned the song in about half an hour, and they showed up for rehearsals in the last week of the show.

Regena 
The boys’ lead singer (seventh grader Spencer Duncan) was great with six guys backing him up, some of them twice his size. The cool thing about that was how wonderful it was to have the Upper School boys step in to help the Middle School’s musical.

Scott
Staging the next transition was a tough one for me to figure out, until I was inspired by a Middle School pep rally. I thought, “That’s what we need!” when the team burst through the “Wolverine” banner. “Elle” and her friends make references to cheerleading in the script, so it’s natural that pep rallies would inform our thinking about design and movement.

Regena 
So Wendy and I painted this giant “Delta Nu” sign on a giant roll of banner paper, then on a separate matching size paper, we painted the Harvard seal in gold . We taped the two banners back-to-back.
 
Wendy 
When “Elle” completes the LSAT, the chorus turns the giant Delta Nu banner like a revolving door and they all disappear behind a huge Harvard seal…

Samantha 
,,, as the loud party music turns into a little gavotte, subito piano. So it seems like, out of nowhere, we’re at a meeting of Harvard’s admission committee (seventh graders Zach Martin and Blair Elliott), speaking their lines in time to recorded accompaniment. When they get to “Elle’s” application…

Scott 
… all “Elle” breaks loose! She, her sorority sisters, and six big guys ripped through the Harvard banner —
 
Wendy 
— thanks to Bill Schreiner, the Upper School stage craft teacher, who advised me to perforate the paper with an Exacto knife so ripping it to shreds would be easy. We needed a fresh sign for each performance —
 
Regena 
–which is why we had to paint everything twice. That took about eight hours for an effect that lasted one second.

Scott
Ah, the magic of musical theatre!
 
Wendy 
The chorus overwhelms Harvard with the message that “Elle” is “What You Want.”
 
Samantha 
Although we learned the song in August, it was hard for the kids to remember their parts with all this activity, so we were re-learning right up to the last week.
 
Scott
Song over, wild applause received, Jeff cued traveling music, Michael shifted the lights, and actors dressed as Harvard students revolved a wagon that was painted to look like bookshelves and a chalkboard by Wendy, Regena, and volunteers from our parent booster club POTA (Patrons of the Arts).
 
Every individual involved put about five hours into these five minutes that cover half a year of “Elle’s” story. We worked hard together to create something original: that’s my definition of “fun.” Thank you, ladies, students, and parents!
 
Legally Blonde the musical, Jr. has music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin with book by Heather Hach, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture. Produced at The Walker School by special arrangement with Music Theatre International, Inc. (MTI).

Monday, April 06, 2015

Melissa Manchester, Singer and Songwriter: Home to Herself

 "I don't have the soul of Joni," Melissa Manchester sang in 1973, but none of the anger or angst, either.  For spirited, intelligent, fun music with a healthy outlook, Manchester still stands out from other singer-songwriters.  Although she had her greatest commercial successes in the late-70s and 80s, and though I've checked in on her career every few years since then, right up to her new release You've Gotta Love the Life, it's the earlier stuff that sticks with me.  Hardly a week goes by when this introverted middle-aged man doesn't sing lines she wrote:  "It's not so bad all alone, coming home to myself" (words by Carole Bayer Sager) or "I've got a place in me / And I have to be there / Alone" (words by Adrienne Anderson).

In 1973, I was fourteen, crazy for Carly Simon and Bette Midler, ready to risk my Record-of-the-Month-Club bonus points for a cassette called "Home to Myself" knowing only that Melissa Manchester had been one of "the Harlettes," The Divine Miss M's back-up singers.  For a good high school freshman like me, she seemed exotic and dangerous. In the cover photograph, she reclined in a low-cut gypsy blouse on a bed of Persian carpets, one shoulder and one eyebrow raised, giving me the kind of disdainful once-over I'd received from some older girls.  Then, she growled the first words of the album, "I don't know why you're here, / You like the way I move," but, "If it feels good, let it ride... I don't want to spend all day on what may come tomorrow."  In the next song,  Manchester coos, "If you want me, you can have me. / ...That's why they call me 'easy.'"  This was a girl with an attitude that my mom would not approve.

In her music, too, Melissa Manchester stepped out of bounds.  The songs of her first album, mostly written with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, seemed to blend into a suite of dramatic arias for a young woman who invites a handsome stranger up to "stay at my place, / I have music that's mingled with lace," ready to skip introductions to just "start off with hello."  What starts a cappella moves into hard-driving rock with gospel organ in the background, then comes to a sudden halt for steady piano chords played pensively under an inchoate little lyric, "Pick up the good stuff, if you left it outside...."  Bits of songs and accompaniment return to other tracks, one phrase transformed into jagged counterpoint played by a string quartet.

[Photo at piano: M.M. as I remember seeing her.]
In the opening song to her second album Bright Eyes, we hear four distinctive riffs on the piano, when most pop songs are lucky to have just one.  The rest of that album could be a set for a jazz vocalist, including a couple of slow-swinging one-o'clock ballads, an uptempo Latin number, and a bad girl's gospel song, along with a standard by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, "I Can't Get Started."  At age fifteen, I was carded and almost denied access to see her perform this set live at a dive called "The Great Southeast Music Hall" in Atlanta, until the management decided I wasn't much of a risk for consuming illegal substances when I wailed, "I've been planning to see her for six months!"    

From a later album called Tribute, we know what singers influenced her before she joined the cohort of soft-rock singer-songwriters.  In those first two albums, she belts sustained high notes like Streisand, she's by turns brassy and coy as Judy Garland, and, like her models Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald (with whom she once shared a commercial -- "Is it Ella, or is it Memorex?"), she rarely takes the straight path between one note and the next..

After she found commercial success with a gentle ballad, "Midnight Blue," from her third album, her voice hewed closely to the melody as written, over homogenized arrangements, with steady rhythm tracks, overlaid with strings.  Hearing her later albums, I have a feeling that she's like a sports car stuck in traffic: there's a lot more under the hood than she's getting to show. 

I confirmed this once about fifteen years ago, when I met her backstage after a varied and delightful show in a casino in Tunica, Mississippi.   A friend of the editor of Tunica's entertainment magazine, I tagged along as "photographer" for an interview with the star.  I had the opportunity to express gratitude for her anthems of introversion "Home to Myself" and "Alone," and to remind her of an incredible bit of virtuosity she had displayed on a Boston Pops broadcast, when she sang Gershwin's tricky "Fascinating Rhythm" while simultaneously playing "Rhapsody in Blue" on the grand piano.

What I recall most about her, though, was her attitude towards "the life."  She was proud to have been happily married to one man all her career. She told how her teenaged son had suddenly understood how big a star his mom had been in the 80s -- hit records, appearance on "The Muppet Show," attention from the Grammies and the Oscars -- and had hinted that he wouldn't mind if she wanted to become famous again. But she preferred to be able to wear the glittery gowns for a concert in the heartland one day, and shop in jeans at the local grocery store the next.  She had friends stuck in mansions behind gates, and that, she said, was no way to live.

At that time, she was branching out as a songwriter, doing scores for Disney made-for-video animations (Lady and the Tramp II, Finding Nemo II, etc.) and for an off-Broadway musical.  On her website, she's in a photo standing next to master Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

She had one other salutary effect on my life, early on.   Once I'd seen her live, I was sorely disappointed to see her on The Mike Douglas Show, lip-synching to the commercial recording of her hit "Midnight Blue."  I felt embarrassed on her behalf.  Formerly addicted to TV, I was cured.

Dead Water by Ann Cleeves

[Link to photos of the Shetlands.]
Detective novelists are in the same boat as sports announcers:  everyone knows the broad outline and moment-to moment rhythm of every basketball game, and the only question is, will the favored team win?  So NPR's sports announcer this morning had to fill that outline with background and themes, Coach K's playoff history with Duke,  Wisconsin's penchant for surprise last-second three-pointers, and the many upsets of this particular round of "March Madness."

With Dead Water, Ann Cleeves extends her Shetland Islands series of detective novels with fresh characters, new angles on the natural and social environment of the craggy archipelago,  and some pleasingly bizarre discoveries of corpses -- equivalent to slam-dunks and three-pointers.

Cleeves alternates points of view, chapter by chapter, giving us each character's take on the events and on the other characters.  It's a useful technique, though some characters are more fun to be with than others. 

Our chief detective Jimmy Perez is in mourning, so there's welcome focus on his diffident sidekick Sandy, whose well-earned modesty makes his foibles endearing, his successes satisfying.

Cleeves fleshes out the character of Perez's boss, an official known as "The Fiscal," taking her out of her office and impeccable wardrobe, and putting her in a boat with a body, in a place where she feels vulnerable.

We also meet Willow, a young woman attractive to both Sandy and Perez, immediately inimical to the Fiscal.  She's tall, frizzy-haired, daughter of hippies, product of commune life, with a "hard edge" from the way the trusting community was betrayed (128).  Willow gives Sandy some insight into why her parents persist on that old commune, or why anyone persists a lifetime in something unrewarding: "How can they admit to themselves that they made a mistake?  It would be as if they've wasted the last thirty years" (129).

When Willow realizes that she's out of her depth, her faltering self-confidence stimulates Perez, who wants "to look after her, to give her small treats" as he does for the child of his late fiancee (284). Learning that the victim, a journalist bent on tell-all exposes, turns out to have been a recent convert to Christianity, Willow's rad-lib atheist background makes her incredulous,.  She wonders with alarm if Perez "might be a god-botherer too," being native to islands where "superstition would be rife" (231).  Perez offers the insight that the victim, meeting a Christian girl with a fortune, may have wanted to believe, to please the girl, and "to become the center of attention again"  (243).

Cleeves engaged me in the texture of her story and its characters, while the line of the plot ramified; chapters 46 and 47, telling us who did it, how, and why -- comprise the least interesting, least believable part of the book. In fact, glancing over the last pages just now, I realize that I'd forgotten the culprit.  Well, no matter:  Final score is 45 to 2.

[See my Detective Fiction page for more about works by Ann Cleeves and others, with capsule book reviews and links to reflective essays.] 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

April Fools: 8th Graders' Original Play from Scratch

When my 8th grade Drama class first aimed to create an original play, we knew nothing about it except that it had to involve three girls and four boys, and that it had to be ready by April 1st.  Its running time would have to be around 45 minutes.  Right up to dress rehearsal, I had doubts that we'd make it.  Having seen it played to an audience of family and friends in a preview on March 27, I now wonder at how it all fits, as if the whole thing were inspired. 

No one sat down to write April Fools; the play emerged from interactions during class.  Alison and Andrew K. improvised dialogue for a CEO’s interrogation of her daughter’s boyfriend in a coffee shop.  Davi and Stewart improvised the daughter’s attempts to get her dad’s help at a golf range.  Andrew W. “drove” the CEO’s limousine, improvising banter with Solomon at a drive-through.  As the daughter’s friend, Lily Grace found her motivation in three “takes” of a scene at a baseball game. 

After we’d laid the groundwork, the actors took a couple weeks to act their answers to the questions, “What goes wrong when all the other characters see the mother with the boyfriend at the coffee shop?” and “What do they do the next morning to try to make up for their mistakes?” 

The final piece of our story came from the first days of its creation. In January, Solomon had created “Rico,” a shady visitor to the campus who charmed the girl characters.  We abandoned that subplot, but it inspired the chauffeur’s undercover role, and “Rico” was reincarnated when Alison suggested how a shady character could help everyone to find success in the final scene.

I guided the process, but all of us created April Fools.  

cast (in order of appearance)

James, the chauffeur …………..……….ANDREW WAIBEL
Gwen Woodsen, CEO ………………..… ALISON HEBERT
Alex, Gwen’s daughter …………..………….... DAVI NEILD
Maddi, Alex’s friend …………....… LILY GRACE SHERAM
Dylan, Alex’s boyfriend….………………...  ANDREW KOO
Holt, Gwen’s Ex..…………………….  STEWART McCUNE
Everyone else ……………………...… SOLOMON LOMAX

Technical director, guest student Michael Johnson
Director, Mr. Smoot

Scenes i - iv take place on March 31; v & vi April 1
. L.A. streets and a private high school, morning
ii. the country club driving range, later in the morning
iii. press box at the high school baseball game, afternoon
iv. a crowded coffee shop, after 9 p.m.
v. various locations in LA, 10:30 a.m.
vi. luxury hotel event room, LA  11:10 a.m.