Tics and Tones …

October 18, 2017 at 10:36 am

My wife told me a fantastic true story about a performance she recently attended.

The concert was of a large choir. Before the singing began, the director spoke to the audience (I’ve paraphrased here):

“Good evening. One of our choir members has Tourette syndrome, and he wanted you to be aware that his particular tic is a high-pitched squeal …”
tweeeeeeeeee …
“… kind of like that.”
(nervous laughter)
“He’s an important part of our choir and we’re really glad that he’s here with us.”
(thunderous applause)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how music has become a pastime of expertise. I’m thankful that there are musical superstars and ensembles that play with near perfection. I’m thankful that recorded music allows me to listen to any kind of music, anytime, anywhere. But with these wonderful gains have come a loss of personal music making. Many people are afraid to make music in public, lest it become known that they are not great. Many people abandon making music when they graduate from high school, and many never join a band or choir again.

Think back to the story above. This young man is aware that at any moment, he might make a sound that could mar the choir’s performance. The choir is equally aware that this might happen. But both the young man and the other choir members have accepted this reality and have chosen to sing anyway – and all of them are far richer for doing so.

So, if you are one of those people who “used to” or “haven’t since high school”, let me be the first to encourage you to start again. Join a choir, pick up your instrument, improvise, practice, mess up, have fun, work hard. Give thanks for the inspiration of the experts – but let the best music be your own. Don’t be afraid to make an unpleasant sound – because the good sounds will surely outnumber the bad.

The video below was from the whole concert. The piece that the choir sang is “Dwijavanthi”, an unaccompanied choral work that imitates an Indian Raga, written by American composer Ethan Sperry.

And, incidentally, I wasn’t able to hear his tic at all.

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Presidents’ Day: A Lincoln Portrait

February 20, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Last year I wrote a jollier post for Presidents’ Day, likening the political battlefield to a gladiators’ arena. This year, I’m feeling the need for something a little deeper than a Sousa march, though. Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait should do the trick.

The 1942 work is one of Copland’s Americana compositions, like Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, or Rodeo. But unlike those ballets, the Lincoln Portrait is similar to a tone poem, but accompanied by spoken text from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. And not surprisingly, the combination of Copland’s music and Lincoln’s words are powerful (and with James Earl Jones as the narrator, like in this video, how can you go wrong?)

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country. It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

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On Joy, Freedom, and Walls (An die Freude, Freiheit, und Waende)

January 29, 2017 at 3:46 pm

On Christmas Day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in Berlin – on the program was Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony. Germany was celebrating its reunification – the Berlin Wall had been torn down only a month earlier. The text of the “Ode to Joy” was altered – “Freude” (joy) was replaced with “Freiheit” (freedom). Some scholars argue that the original text indeed used the word “Freiheit”, and that the poet changed it out of fear of persecution.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a marvel. It is a symbol of the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil, always looking towards beauty, always dreaming of a better world. It’s no surprise that it is the Anthem of the European Union. It’s a symbol of the hope for human unity:

[Joy’s / Freedom’s] magic brings together what old traditions has unjustly divided. All men shall be as brothers where your gentle wings hover. Be embraced, you millions; this kiss is for the whole world!

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany was celebrating its unity, we Americans are building a new wall and actively dividing ourselves from our fellow humans. It is disgusting. We must do whatever we can to stop this. I am not a warrior, I am a musician; I cannot fight with weapons, so I will fight with Beethoven.

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