Monday, November 30, 2015

Touching Music: Guitar in Recital with the Assad Brothers

[Photo: by KQED, recital by brothers Odair and Sergio Assad in 2012, similar to what we saw November 21 at Spivey Hall, Clayton State U., Morrow, Georgia]

The Assad brothers strum and pluck the strings, also press, tickle, and slide fingers along them.  They hold their faces sometimes right up against their instruments, cradling them.  I have never been so conscious of touch in music making. 

Guitar has always been a pleasant sound on recording, but three rows back, in such a "live" room as Spivey Hall at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, I was drawn into the world of guitar sound.  The music for two varied in texture, sometimes being dialogue passed in flashes and gestures between the brothers' instruments, sometimes combined in dramatic statements or ambient scene painting, sometimes like song with accompaniment.  The first half of the concert featured composers  Granados, Albeniz, Rodrigo, familiar from symphonic works.  The second half featured shorter pieces from mostly Brazilian composers, Piazzolla the exception:  Pernambuco, Jacomino, Baden Powell, Gismonti, and Bellinati.  Introducing us to works by their countrymen, some of them friends, the Assads spoke more and laughed a lot.

For once, I left thinking more of the instruments' sonority than of any particular piece.  The mood could change, but the voice of the guitar always felt affable, hopeful, and considerate.

I may be conflating the sound with the brothers' own characteristics.  Sergio (photo: R), the older one, did most of the speaking.  Both men have soft voices and unassuming stage presence.

The audience  asked for two encores before we let the brothers go.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Eleanor Spears, 7th Grade English

Eleanor Spears at Spalding Drive Elementary school in Fulton County, north of Atlanta, seems more remarkable to me every year that I teach seventh grade myself. 

We had no books, not even workbooks, only a classroom set of very dull grammar exercises. We sat in neat rows. We met her class just before lunch, just after a class called "Spelling" where my classmates mercilessly reduced the soft-spoken spelling teacher to tears by interrupting and ridiculing her. (I didn't -- that class was agony for me.) But then we'd file across the hall to Mrs. Spears, who never raised her voice, never punished anyone, and never had to. We never interrupted. We never misbehaved. 

How did she do it? That's a mystery to me even today. A student once paid me the compliment, "You're strict, but it doesn't feel like it." That's how it felt with Mrs. Spears, and she was much more successful at that than I've ever been.

[Photo:  While we had no class text to read, Mrs. Spears did show us Encyclopedia Brittanica's short film of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The discussion that followed taught me how to test theories with citations of evidence from the story itself.  I now show the same film to my classes.]

What she taught was, I'm afraid, superfluous. My verbs had agreed since third grade, and I'd used commas and quotes correctly since fourth grade at least. From her I learned easily to diagram sentences, and never have found any use for doing so. 

What she did for her students, however, was to encourage what was good in our writing. It's the same technique that Dr. Sclater would use to teach me music composition (read more). From time to time, we would take a break from grammar exercises, and she would have us write stories that we could read aloud to the class. 

My first story was, I'm afraid, more sermon than story. It told of a boy who wanders off alone in a public place and gets in trouble with delinquents. He escapes, barely, and concludes that he has learned his lesson. She praised it to the class as a prime example of "dry humor."   I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained, "The story seems to be serious, but that's what's funny. It makes fun of that kind of preachy story that tries to teach children a lesson." 

She was wrong (or, as I think now, she was pretending to be wrong). I truly had taken my preachy story seriously. But I tried from then on to live up to her opinion of my work. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Dr. John Clum, Writer, Dramatist, Scholar

Dr. John M. Clum at Duke University showed me a deeper way to enjoy literature when he became the first English teacher to ask me a question I couldn't answer. 

"Don't you see the structure?" 

I was puzzled. "You mean, how many chapters the book has?" Yes, he said, that's part of it. "You mean, whether it's in first person?" Yes, he said, that's part of it. I ran out of ideas then, but I spent the rest of my semesters at Duke trying to find out what he meant. 

For the first time, after years of getting an A for essays that simply stated what was obvious to me, I started to use every essay assignment as a challenge to work out ideas that were new to me. I took risks, and, all of a sudden, the student who knew everything about art realized that he had barely begun to appreciate it (for the same lesson applies to music and visual arts). 

Dr. Clum led me to the right destination following the pivotal wrong turn in my life, the very same day it happened. Nothing in my freshman year had excited me or challenged me so much as "Music 101-102" taught by the university chapel's gentle and jovial organist Fenner Douglass. On the first day of classes in my sophomore year at Duke, I took my seat in "Music 103," anticipating that I would declare a music major and pursue a career in music composition. Then the head of the Music department entered and announced, "If you're interested in composing music, get out now: this department is for scholars and performers only." I stood, walked out, and phoned Dr. Clum to enroll in his class as a drama major. Years later, I had to recognize that music was my true love, and I still regret not withdrawing from Duke right then and transferring to some school where I could have pursued music composition. 

I may have made a wrong turn, but Dr. Clum led me to the same destination anyway. (As Sondheim wrote it in a song: "I chose and my world was shaken / So what? / The choice may have been mistaken, / The choosing was not. . .") Besides the insight about "structure" in art, Dr. Clum taught me these lessons:
  • Following a monologue that I performed for his class, using all the actors' tricks I knew, he gently pointed out that I was "acting" instead of trying to communicate what was specific to the text. That was the first of many times that he confronted me with how much more I had to learn about things I'd thought I knew.
  • When he cast me as the husband of the heroine in the nineteenth-century classic Hedda Gabler, he created a seminar for the cast so that we could study the social and artistic context of that play. Rehearsing and studying for four months, I experienced depth in a role for the first time.
    Another experience I had for the first time in that course: He gave me the first grade lower than "A" that I ever received on a paper about literature. I was indignant. In a conference, he said, "Lord knows, it's a good paper. I just expected more from you."
  • That "B" actually precipitated a crisis for me, and Dr. Clum was again there to help me towards the right goal. After I'd calmed down, I recognized how right he was. After eight years of secondary education, I'd never had to think in a literature course. All of my work had been reporting or describing what was obvious to me. I went back to Dr. Clum, who was also my academic advisor, and asked him about that. His answer was simple: Enroll in a certain unusual course taught by General Irving B. Holley, and that course redeemed all the others, and became the basis of everything I've taught my students in history and literature courses ever since (read more about General Holley).
  • He did me a favor by casting me (for a class performance) in a play by Pinter. I hated the play, I hated the role, I didn't understand it, it seemed stupid, it seemed sordid -- and then he helped me to understand how the words could say one thing but mean another, how characters can use words for weapons (or defenses). Then his question, "What animal is your character like?" got me to think about a cat, with its caution, its alertness, its laziness, its hedonism. Portraying that part in that play taught me the main lessons that I've been imparting to my drama students ever since.
  • In a playwriting seminar, I treasure above all the conference I had in his office on the top floor of the old Carr building. My play about a busybody secretary named "Lotty" was going nowhere. It was a true-to-life depiction of real experiences I'd had in a summer job at a department store -- but, just like real life, it had no direction. "What can I do?" I asked him. Without speaking, he rose from his desk and closed the door to the hallway. Then, smiling, leaning up against the door, he said in a low voice, "Kill Lotty."  I laughed. First, it was such a shock, and it felt like a real conspiracy. Then, I saw pretty quickly that he was right. Murder would be an exaggeration of what we all felt, and that would make our feelings more clear than my accurate report of actual events. I'd learned how something can be more true than actual.
The academic program in Drama that he created now thrives. The story of his struggle to raise drama from a club activity to an academic discipline was the subject of my researched paper for Dr. Holley, which can be found in Duke's archives -- listed on the archives web page. I hear from Dr. Clum that my history "Dramatic Changes" stands today as a reference for researchers.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Frank Boggs, Choir Director

Frank Boggs taught me in "chorale" at Westminster Schools from 1973 to 1977, but he has remained my mentor and friend to the present day. 

If my deepest ambition is to write sacred music that communicates mystery and grandeur of God, that's my response to glorious music that I learned to love through Mr. Boggs. Throughout my adult life, I've spent almost every Wednesday night in church choir rehearsals, always seeking the joy of hearing my voice blend with others, creating a piece of music that glorifies God in its expression and craftsmanship -- regardless who else may hear it. Truly, my religious faith comes from music more than from scripture or doctrine.

If I love musical theatre (not just Broadway, but opera), that comes from Mr. Boggs, too. He directed me in OKLAHOMA and LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, and he stoked my interest in Stephen Sondheim with clipped articles and saved programs, giving me the opportunity to direct a suite of Sondheim songs for our small ensemble (see photo below), and, later, to direct the full Chorale's Broadway revue.  My first song was a lyric that he set to music for me. 

Singing is not all that happened in choir rehearsals. Mr. Boggs exposed us to music, cartoons, reviews of theatrical productions, memories of performers, and discussions of religious meanings behind music. He once asked us, "Why did Vivaldi set the happy words 'peace on earth, goodwill to men' to slow, somber minor key music?" (I'd never thought to ask why any artist does anything -- and now it's what I always do.) 

At fifteen, I liked performances that were loud, fast, flashy, with some growls and maybe some screaming thrown in. Then I saw Frank in concert. I and my fellow members of the Westminster Ensemble had performed some numbers at a church in Tennessee, and we were pretty proud of ourselves. He'd told us that he'd be "singing a few numbers," but we realized later that he'd been kind: we'd been his warm up act. I remember that he sat at the piano, sang a song or two. Then, while he played some chords, he described for the audience how his grandfather used to sing a certain hymn while tending his garden. Then he lifted his hands from the keys, turned on the bench towards the audience, and sang softly, unaccompanied, a hymn of anguish:
Oh, Lord, if indeed I am thine,
If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say why do I languish and pine?
And why are my winters so long?
Drive these dark clouds from my sky,
Thy soul-soothing presence, restore --
Or take me unto Thee on high,
Where winter and clouds are no more. 
That night I saw the difference between showiness and authenticity, the same difference between entertainment and art.

Frank also gathered the young people in his care to discuss what he called "Quaker Questions," allowing us to share our memories, concerns, and questions -- bonding us and helping us to grow up. I remember asking him about the intense friendships I was enjoying at the age of sixteen: "Do adults have the same kind of friendship?" He answered honestly that the intensity probably would dissipate with time, but that friendship could deepen. Of course, now we're living that truth.

Two Mentors, 
One Photograph
[See photoFamed composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim sits on stage while my teacher Frank Boggs (the other bearded man) looks on. I am the worshipful seventeen-year-old second from the right. The photograph was taken in Broadway's Music Box theatre, June 1977. 

Knowing how I idolized Sondheim, Mr. Boggs had told me to write him to ask for an interview, and Sondheim instantly replied. This taught me a life lesson: If you don't at least try, you'll regret it the rest of your life. 

Twenty years later, Mr. Boggs again met Sondheim during a "meet the audience" talk at London's National Theatre. Sondheim asked, "Are you a teacher?" Mr. Boggs nodded. Sondheim said that he'd always wanted to teach, and he said how grateful he was to his teachers. Speaking of the importance of his teachers to him during a national broadcast on his 70th birthday, Sondheim actually had to stop talking, overcome with emotion.

Seated with us in the photograph are my peers in the Westminster Ensemble, who, under Mr. Boggs, sang a program of songs by Sondheim. On the way to a tour of Poland and Russia, we stopped in New York to see the Broadway revue SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, when this picture was made. This photograph is a detail from a photo collage I made for Frank Boggs's retirement celebration. 

[See my Stephen Sondheim page.] 

Saturday, November 07, 2015

What is Sue Grafton's X For?

We loyal fans of Sue Grafton's long-running series of detective novels stayed awake nights wondering what her antepenultimate title would be.  From A is for Alibi to W is for Wasted, the titles have often suggested ideas for Grafton.  Q is for Quarry comes to mind, having been a "hunt" for the truth about a body found in a stone quarry. 

So would X stand for xenophobes, or maybe prescription drug abuse (X is for Xanax)?

Grafton's solution was simple and brilliant:  X doesn't have to be an initial to suggest myriad meanings.  Marks the spot?  Ten?  An unknown variable?  A chromosome?

Maybe because I was interrupted so often during my days of reading the novel, I'm left with a few strong impressions but no strong sense of a story, not even what "X" stands for, other than initials of several entities (a couple of characters' names, a firm called XLNT...).  We seem to have caught detective Kinsey Millhone in a bad week.   She falls for an elaborate hoax, finds contact info for an ex-con, takes marked bills from a years-old stolen art caper, deals with some parasitic neighbors, looks into a late colleague's unfinished business deals, and delivers a mailer packed decades before by a woman who may or may not have committed suicide:  all interesting, all resolved separately, none compelling.

I've recommended many of Grafton's other books on this blog (see my Crime Fiction page).  Not this one.  Grafton told in an interview how the alphabet ploy opens her to snarkiness, at least since a review was headlined, "B is for Boring." For this one, my capsule review would have to be Zzzz.  

Friday, November 06, 2015

Sunday, Art, and "Forever"

[Note: This article was prepared for middle schoolers who visit my class web site.]

What does this painting have to do with classes I teach?   The short answer is, we make stories, even history, from little pieces, and it takes our imagination to bring it to life.  That's one reason my middle school students have seen, for decades, this iconic pointillist painting on my bulletin board, on my necktie, on a coffee mug, on my class web site.  

More Alive
The artist George Seurat painted this "Sunday in the Park" on a canvas twelve feet wide, using tiny strokes of unmixed paint. Seurat's notion was that the viewer's eye would take in the dots' clashing colors, while the viewer's mind composed the peaceful scene. The result would "shimmer," be more alive to our eyes than if he had done all the mixing for us. 

Everything we do this year will reflect the technique of this painting. We will collect the pieces all jumbled together, and we will use our imaginations to compose something satisfying from them.

Musical Play Based on the Painting
The painting became important to me because of another work of art. The musical play Sunday in the Park with George (1984) by James Lapine, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, captures what it feels like for an artist to concentrate, to be "in the world of" a work of art. 

The play introduces us to the artist as he interacts with the real-life people in a real-life park. These people "do not belong together," clashing like the colors on the canvas, like Sondheim's dissonant clusters of notes; yet the story, the staging, and the music all come together at the end of Act One at the moment that the artist speaks the word "harmony." The artist composes the painting before our eyes, moving characters and even repositioning trees (and that monkey!) into the pleasing patterns of the painting. 

Art and "Forever" 
An odd thing happens in the theatre whenever the play reaches this climax: all over the room, people cry. My student Katie Friedgen, age fourteen, laughed through her tears, asking "Why am I doing this?" Letters to the New York Times from audience members asked the same question.  No one dies at the end of act one, the lovers already split up several scenes before, and the words of the stately, hymn-like song are as detached and cool and odd as the painting itself:
by the blue
purple yellow red water
on the green
purple yellow red grass.
Let us pass
through our perfect park...
That last word is one key to the audience's reaction. We cry at loss. That's why we sometimes cry at the best moments in life, knowing that they cannot last. The play, like the painting, brings everything together -- story, words, staging, costumes, music, ideas -- then holds up that ideal moment for one verse of a song, and is gone. The best things in life are like that, holidays are like that, seasons are like that, and so is life itself. 

Art and Faith 
Sondheim has no faith in any religion of the world, but this show is a religious statement. It expresses what's at the core of every religious person's belief: nothing in this world lasts, but what we do matters. We're all "just passing through," like the people in that painting on that perfect Sunday. Yet what we create (be it art, or understanding, or family) gives those passing moments meaning to others.

Novelist John Updike, who does accept the Christian creed, says that art for him is an act of worship, to honor with his creation what God has created. Sondheim says something like this in non-religious terms, when his artist sings:
"Pretty" isn't "beautiful"...
"Pretty" is what changes.
What the eye arranges
is what is beautiful...
I'm changing, you're changing:
I'll draw us now before we fade...
Translate "beautiful" as "eternal," and Sondheim will be speaking the same language as Updike.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Dr. James Sclater, composer

[Photo from Dr. Sclater's website ]

At age twenty-eight, I had to admit to myself that musical scores, not words, were what I wanted to write more than anything else. I thought I'd quit teaching and go back to college. Fortunately for me, a top-rate composer lived nearby and he took me on as a private student. He told me not to quit doing what I loved, and he advised, "If you get a Ph.D. in music composition, you'll still end up teaching," adding, "unless you're Andrew Lloyd Webber." 

Seriously, he assured me that I'd learn as well by composing what I wanted as by reading about others' works or by doing workbook assignments. There's a lesson in that for all teachers.

Dr. Sclater (pronounced "slaughter") taught by encouragement, and that's not the same thing as praise. He'd study what I'd composed, withholding comment for what seemed to me a long time. He'd ask questions about why I'd written certain passages. Finally, he'd point to a portion of my work and say, "Now, that is interesting!" and he'd point out how good it was, in ways that I wasn't even aware of. Then he'd advise me to "do more with it." That's as close to praise -- or disapproval -- as I ever got. Still, I always left his office feeling that, though it would take work, there would be something good and my own at the end of my labors. That is, he gave me courage to go on.
Here's what I wrote about Dr. Sclater in the preface to my Master's portfolio:
My musical composition teacher, Dr. James Sclater, freed me right away from a misconception. Composition was not about fulfilling grand harmonic designs, though music theory class and program notes at the symphony might give that impression....
Instead, musical composition is about playing with sounds the way children might invent a game with some found object. "Find something that sounds good and develop it," Dr. Sclater said.
But he cautioned, "You need rules, even if you have to make up your own." 
For example of both principles, Dr. Sclater showed me a stripped-down notation of Brahms's Second Symphony, final movement. He pointed to the start, a flourish of just twenty notes. For the remainder of the movement, Brahms tosses around the first four pitches; repeats, transposes, segments, elongates, shortens, and reverses them. Each new use leads to another musical episode, until he moves on to do the same with another distinctive passage from that opening flourish. Dr. Sclater's punch line was that the opening theme itself grew from the bass part in the first measure of the symphony! But one idea's leading to another helter-skelter doesn't satisfy an audience's need to feel a piece's movement towards a goal, just as a game without rules is only chaos. For this example, Brahms followed models that limited his options of key, length, tempo, and final chord. 
Dr. Sclater gave me another useful piece of advice, another way to use material economically. "Never think of just one song," he told me. "Make it a suite."