Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Tulsi Gabbard

In 2015-16, I supported Bernie Sanders. With millions of others, I watched as Mrs. Clinton stole the Democratic nomination from him, using the supposedly impartial Democratic National Committee as an arm of her campaign. “Democracy is messy,” I think Bernie said at the Democratic convention.

And I watched as Donald Trump became President of the United States.

Senator Sanders is running again, this time with a strong network of supporters and volunteers. They had an organizing day last Saturday, April 27, with three gatherings at homes in our county and thousands of similar gatherings across the country. I continue to respect Bernie, but this time, I am supporting a different candidate.

Tulsi Gabbard is a congresswoman from Hawaii. She came to my attention in 2016 when she endorsed Bernie, one of the few members of Congress to do so, and gave the nomination speech for Sanders at the Democratic National Convention.

She and Sanders are in agreement on most issues, with solidly progressive ideals. Bernie tends to emphasize domestic needs such as Medicare-for-all; Tulsi speaks constantly about stopping the stream of “regime-change” wars such as Iraq and Syria and Yemen and now Venezuela that are bleeding this country dry.

She is a long-shot among some twenty Democratic contenders. Like Bernie, she is loathed by the establishment. Unlike Bernie, she is going to have a hard time being heard, and she is not going to have the Big Money that some of the “safe” candidates will have to push their views in the media.

I commend to you this six-minute video, wherein an Afghan-American woman speaks her heart about the war that has destroyed her homeland and Tulsi responds. I think it gives a good sense of who she is, why she is running for president, and why it is going to be so difficult. Yes, she is a long shot. So was Bernie when he started, and he would have won on a level playing field. So was an obscure first-term senator from Illinois in 2007-08, some guy named Obama.

And that is what gives me a glimmer of hope. I think that Tulsi could come from nowhere in Iowa, as Obama did. But in 2007, it looked to me like Obama had a lot of money behind him. Tulsi is not going to have anything like that. If she is to win, it is going to have to be from the support of ordinary people. Like me.

And I am not going to be able to do much. I am barely able to hang on with my bounden duties as organist/choirmaster and husband. I have made financial contributions to both of them, Bernie and Tulsi, and will stand up for Tulsi on caucus night in February. And pray for both of them, and for this country.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The organ at Notre Dame: an update

This is worth a new posting, so that more people will see it:
From the online journal "Vox Humana":
After the fire: Here's what we know about the Organs at Notre Dame de Paris

From Philippe Lefebvre:
“After the stupor and the dread, the unbearable sadness, and the devastating images of this tragedy: the Great Lady has valiantly withstood the worst — Notre Dame is still standing. Thank you for your well wishes, your testimonies of friendship, and solidarity.

“It is confirmed that, for the moment, the Grand Organ has escaped disaster. No melted pipes, but a lot of dust, particles, soot, etc. Water, of course, but no flooding.

“It will require more in-depth expertise to measure the extent of the damage. The Choir Organ has been doused in water and it is undoubtedly more damaged than the Grand Organ.

Thanks be to God.

Notre Dame: 15 April 2019

There are no words.

This building, where all roads in France converge.... It survived the French Revolution, centuries of wars and tumults, including two world wars and Nazi occupation in the last century. And now much of it is gone.

In the larger grief over what has been lost, I grieve for Olivier Latry, organist of Notre Dame, who has lost the instrument and place that he loves.

I commend to you two videos: the first is a short excerpt which has been noted by many, wherein Kenneth Clark begins his work "Civilisation"
"What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it in abstract terms - yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it." He turned toward the cathedral, Notre Dame: "And I am looking at it now."

The second video is long, almost an hour. Among other things, it includes a lovingly detailed tour of the insides of the instrument, in its present form built by Cavaille-Coll and much modified, including a major restoration finished in 2012.

"In the belly of the organ of Notre Dame" (French, with subtitles).

If nothing else, watch the first moments, wherein Mr. Latry climbs the stairs, turns on the blower, seats himself at the console in the darkened church, and begins the Carillon de Westminster (by Louis Vierne, former organist of Notre Dame), and the lights of the church come on.

And now it is gone, or at the least extensively damaged.

When I wrote this earlier today (April 16), initial reports had been that the three rose windows were destroyed; now we know that they survived. Likewise, initial report was that the organ was destroyed; at this writing, they are saying its status is not yet known.

Another, more encouraging update on the organ, important enough that I made a new posting so that more people would see it:

From the conservative columnist and blogger Rod Dreher: I think that his thoughts on the survival of the rose windows apply as well to the survival of at least major portions of the organ.
Hope in the ruins
So: I see the image above [in the linked essay] — of the light shining through the rose window, onto the ashes of Notre Dame cathedral — and I see a Sign. Beauty, order, and harmony were not consumed by the fire. The light that streams into the cathedral through the rose windows passes through colors arranged in such a way as to illustrate scenes from humanity’s mortal life. The rose window tells us that God — who, to the medievals, is Light — manifests Himself by passing through the stains of our mortality. He is everywhere present, He fills all things. Even when we sin — as some of the smaller in the west portal rose window depict — God is present, illuminating the sacredness of life, drawing even our frailty and brokenness into harmonious lines bursting with color, and life, and meaning.

To hear all of the Vierne piece, it is here.
There is a YouTube channel for the instrument and its music: The Great Organ

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Fugue, and Five Hundred Essays

On Friday, I attended a lecture on Buxtehude by Craig Cramer, distinguished organist at Notre Dame University. Most of his talk was analysis of a Praeludium by Buxtehude. Not a “prelude and fugue” as they were called when I was an organ student, but a single unified piece that among other elements contains several fugues, three in this case.

Being an improviser, I tried it on my own later that day, seeing if I could make something in Buxtehude’s form. It was thoroughly bad.

Not a surprise; my first effort at anything new is always thoroughly bad.

But the idea percolated overnight, and bumped into my Sunday improvisation. I had been struggling with it all week, for the only one of the tunes in the service that I was willing to work with was Engelberg, the fine tune by Stanford often sung with the text “When in our music God is glorified.” In this case it is another text, “We know that Christ was raised and dies no more,” commenting on the selection from I Corinthians 15 appointed in the lectionary. I had been “learning the tune” as is my custom, playing around with it on the clavichord every morning, but not having any ideas as to how to approach it beyond a vague notion of playing variations.

Well! What if I were to begin with a fugue, with the subject related thematically to the tune, and give out the tune near the end as a coda? I spent about twenty minutes fiddling around with this on Saturday, still making no significant progress.

On Sunday mornings, I rarely have time to begin at the piano, for my organ practice must be completed by 7:15 and Matins. But today, I could spare a few minutes, so I made a beginning at the Steinway up in the church – and there it was; a fugue subject that was related to the tune, and with which I thought I could work. That was too good to leave to chance, so I scurried downstairs for staff paper and scribbled out the subject and its tonal answer, settling on the key of A Dorian by writing these things down. I improvised with it some more in the break between Matins and the 9:00 service, perhaps fifteen minutes, and it was time to play.

Here it is, my first public effort at an improvised fugue:

00’14” - I run off the tracks immediately; I play the tonal answer incorrectly, even though it was written down right in front of me. I turn it into a false entry, and give the real thing at 00’19”
00’27” - parallel octaves between bass and soprano. Red ink is mounting up, and I don’t even have all the voices in yet.
00’45” - a final entry in the bass
00’58” - time to finish the Exposition (the first part of a fugue) and go into Other Stuff (technical term: Episode). Again I fall off the tracks, and throw in a few more fugal entries in the existing voices. It could charitably be called a Second Exposition.
01’11” - finally, an Episode. About time.
01’24” - back to the fugue subject. At 01’30” I try to get fancy with the subject in inversion. I think it works pretty well. Heartened by this, at 01’39” is the subject in augmentation in the bass.

And so it goes: some good, some not so good. The opening fugal section winds down by 02’30”. Here, I am making a transition into the hymn tune. At 03’03” is a final (for now) harmonized statement of the fugue subject. It ends with an important transition: the C major chord at 03’20”. This sets the stage for the head motive of Engelberg, which (in C major, as I am going to play it) outlines a C major triad. I introduce the tune in the soprano, still overshadowed by echoes of the fugue subject in A dorian. This is a good idea, so I go with it to the 04’42” mark. Here I leave the tune and start a new fugal section, with a vague notion of suggesting rondo form: Fugue – Tune – Fugue etc.
05’08” - rather surprisingly (to me), the Tune returns in the soprano and takes over completely for a bit.
05’46” - Engelberg continues, now in minor, becoming major. This quiet little passage turned out well. And it keeps me on track with my notion of rondo form: so far we now have Fugue – Tune – Fugue – Tune.
06’42” - enough quiet; it is time for some motion and energy, leading back to the fugue. The subject enters in the bass at 06’55”.
07’22” - Coda (a bit early in terms of the clock: I still have almost two minutes to cover). I seek to make quiet combinations of the fugue subject and motives from the tune. By 08’05”, it leads to a final fugal exposition.
08’31” - Schoenberg wrote about “dissolving” as a way to bring a passage to conclusion, giving examples from Beethoven and others: take a short bit of your material, work with it, become simpler and simpler. This is what I am doing here, using a five-note descending scale.
09’01” - a final playthrough of the hymn tune in the bass, and we are finished.

Overall, I am pleased, especially as a first effort. I have listened to the piece several times this afternoon and I think it holds together, despite the red ink for contrapuntal errors. The problems I hear are these:
- It is too long for its material, and demonstrates why fugues tend to be a little shorter than this.
- Related to that, I got tired of hearing the fugue subject by the end. Were I to play another piece of this scale (and I must; this is the size of piece that is needed as a prelude to the 9:00 service), I should consider a double or triple fugue – perhaps something along the lines of a Buxtehude Praeludium. Of which I made complete hash on Friday afternoon; I am not anywhere near ready to try such a thing in public.
- There are too many passages where the texture is simply the longish fugue subject all by itself, or perhaps with one other voice or chordal accompaniment. This is Not Counterpoint. I would give these passages some more red ink.

But I really did like the transition to Engelberg (03’03” and following) and the quiet passage at 05’46”, and the ending, and my comfort level with the Dorian mode.

This is my five hundred and first post in The Music Box. I started in February 2010, nine year ago this week. Thank you, my readers. Most of the time, it is around thirty or forty of you. Certain categories of essays draw more readers, especially when I mention a conflict that tore the United States asunder in the mid-nineteenth century; I am trying to not write about it now that its sesquicentennial is in the past. Improvisation-related essays such as this and the previous are also popular.

The second-most-read essay is from 2012: In defense of choral evensong. Many of its 445 readers probably came from Bosco Peters’ excellent liturgy website, which is a Real Blog, the sort that reaches thousands of people and makes a genuine difference, which he does. But I still think I was right in defending choral evensong.

The most-read essay, with an astonishing 1457 readers, is one of the two sermons I have preached (there are several Imaginary Sermons in these pages as well, but this one was real, given at Choral Evensong for the Second Sunday of Easter, 2010): No more a stranger nor a guest.

I have been absent from the Music Box for two months. There are reasons, the first being Advent and Christmas. More recently, I have sought a Change of Habit, best expressed in the Zen proverb:
When walking, walk.
When eating, eat.
I used to do most of my writing as I ate at my desk at work. I love eating and writing, separately and together. But I decided to give Mindful Eating a chance, and I do not think that I will go back. Food is too precious and notable as a gift from God to do other than partake of it with mindfulness, thanksgiving, and full enjoyment. I should know this principle, for I have always been this way with music; I cannot comprehend how people can have music playing in the background as they work. When I listen to music, I listen. So I am simply doing the same with food.

The obvious drawback: I don’t get so many things done. It is not just the writing of essays; I am not reading much, something else I used to do with food and tea at my side.

But my sense is that the work I do get done is a little better, benefiting from better focus. My intention is to continue writing in the Music Box, but it may be infrequently.

Blessings be with you all, and God's grace.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Tail wagging the dog? Of improvisations and codas

Here is this morning’s piano improvisation, based on two tunes that were to be sung later in the service: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, and Bereden vag for Herran.

Key of A. I went into it with a vague notion of aiming for rondo form.

It begins with Nun komm, pretty much straight up and then with variations to the 2’43 mark. Then Bereden vag in the dominant (E major), likewise with variations.

At 4’03”, Nun komm returns, in combination with bits of Bereden vag. At this point, I started thinking “Sonata form, maybe?” and allowed it to become a Development section rather than the full-fledged return of Nun komm that would have been more characteristic of a rondo form. This goes on for about two minutes, until it slips into a Recapitulation at 6’02” with Nun komm in the tonic (I was pleased with how this transition turned out). At 6’40”, Bereden vag returns, likewise in the tonic (as it must be if it is to be sonata form).

7’58”: Coda. Time to wrap things up, or it should be in terms of the music. Still a lot of time on the clock.
8’50”: Musically, it should have stopped somewhere around here, but I still have over two minutes to cover. So, a “second coda.” At 9’44” it takes off in a different direction, and by about 10 minutes, I am thinking “big ending” and work in this direction with the last phrase of Bereden vag to the 10’50” mark.

But it wants to be soft, after all, so the texture settles down down to the 11’08” mark, and a “third coda.” Out of balance to have four minutes of coda(s)? Tail [Italian = “Coda”] wagging the dog? Possibly. But I think it ended up making the piece as a whole more interesting. And it was functional music; I am expected to end the prelude precisely at 9:00 am. Not 8:58 or 8:59, not 9:01 or 9:02. I do my best each Sunday to fulfill this functional need while creating a little composition that has a semblance of form to hold it together.

My preparation this week was simply "knowing the tunes" - playing around with them as I described here. I used to go to considerable pains to lay out a structural plan of key centers and thematic material. I rarely do that nowadays. Usually I have a vague notion (as I did today), which may or may not be how it turns out. Most of the time I will have formal ideas in mid-stream (again, as I did today). Sometimes it is no more than a feeling, an urge: “Time for the other tune,” or “It needs to go to the dominant” and it is only in retrospect, listening to the recording, that I can discern a structure.

One other thought: More and more, when I am working with a multisectional form such as sonata or rondo or what I call "overture form" (stringing several tunes together, one after another), I tend to make each of the sections out of variations on a tune rather than just the tune itself. The larger sections are then delineated by change of key center and tune-with-variations.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent, hymn-playing, and the AGO exams

Tonight was our Service of Advent Lessons and Carols. I could say much about this, not least that the choir sang with strong connection and beautiful phrase-shaping, but upon review of my reference recording, one comment:

I am playing the hymns better than I used to.

And I did not put a large amount of preparation time into them, not directly; two hours perhaps. But indirectly – yes. I could not have played tonight as I did without my work on improvisation, intensively in recent years, but in other ways for twenty years and more, often with little or no audible progress for years at a time. Improvement in hymn-playing was not my intent with this work; I did not even consider it as a possibility. But that is what happened.

From time to time, the AGO talks about revising their professional examinations to make them more relevant. I gather that such revision may currently be in progress. I do not think this is a good idea.

Many of the musical skills one must develop for the exams seem thoroughly irrelevant on the surface. Why does a modern organist need to sight-read in open score with C clefs? Or transpose? Or write a fugal exposition for string quartet? Or read the “square” plainsong notation and engage in modal analysis of chant, and write a short unaccompanied motet?

It took me a long time after I had completed my exams (AAGO, ChM, FAGO) to understand better how the various skills interweave and bear fruit in unexpected ways. Tonight’s hymn playing – and the singing of the choir, for that matter – are an example. All that time wrestling with plainsong and the modes laid the groundwork for being comfortable with playing in the modes, such as my improvised accompaniments for the three plainsong hymns in the service. Reading C clefs is a gateway to transposition (which I found exceedingly difficult and still do), which in turn is groundwork for improvisation.

In short, any work you do as a musician helps all of the other aspects of your playing, singing, and conducting. Any skill that you take the time to develop will pay dividends, most often when you least expect it. And there is hardly anything in music that comes on a straight, direct path; it all happens indirectly, a little at a time.

I came into this day, the First of Advent, hating the season, wishing it would go away. A look at my December calendar fills me with dread. And it is not unreasonable; I have lived through many Advents and know well what is involved. I do not want to do it for yet another year.

But tonight’s music, and the choir’s singing of the spiritual “Steal away to Jesus” in this morning’s service, saved me. I hope that the music may have had similar effect on others, for I am not alone in dreading this season, this month of darkness and cold and despair.
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
It came, a blossom bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half-spent was the night.
(German hymn, 15th c.. tr. Theodore Baker)

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Howard Riley: an aesthetics of imperfection

I would argue that improvisation as an art is informed by an aesthetics of imperfection. On this view, improvising musicians exploit the contingencies of the performing situation – the instrument, the acoustic, and their own capabilities – creating something out of apparently unpromising as well as promising circumstances. Age and infirmity are among these contingencies. (“Howard Riley,” by Andy Hamilton, International Piano Nov.-Dec. 2018, p. 89)

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (II Corinthians 4:7)

Riley is a jazz pianist, a “giant of contemporary piano improvisation, with a highly personal musical vocabulary” (Hamilton, p. 88). Now in his mid-seventies, he began experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease in 2011. Hamilton writes that since then, “Riley [has] pared down his approach, playing very beautifully and minimally” (p. 89).

His music is new to me and I haven’t heard much of it yet. There are some tracks on YouTube; most of them are from long ago, the 1960’s and 70’s, and the few of these that I have sampled so far are well worth a listen. I find only one that is fairly recent:

Piano solo @ Brookes, 29 Nov. 2012

Especially at the beginning as he walks to the piano and gets settled, one can see that he has become old. But much more than that, one sees and hears that he is still playing.

I love Hamilton’s phrase “an aesthetics of imperfection.” It is entirely foreign to the carefully manicured perfection of commercial recordings, pasted together from multiple takes. It is equally foreign to the world of piano and organ competitions, where one wrong note in your performance means that you are done.

Church musicians know about “creating something out of apparently unpromising” circumstances. For most of us, it takes a long time to figure that out. In my experience, some of the finest music-making has come by surprise – a congregational hymn that takes wing, an anthem that was shaky right up through the final warmup but goes right in the service, and much of my playing at the organ and piano.

Today is the Feast of All Saints. The glorious company of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, saints of all kinds, known to us and unknown, is a kaleidoscope of personalities, gifts, peculiarities (and some of them are quite peculiar), weaknesses and strengths. But they have this in common: none of them was perfect, not in this life. It seems that God works precisely through their imperfections – and ours – to manifest his glory to the world. Thus it is no surprise that Real Music happens in a similar manner.
Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of those who depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity: We give thee hearty thanks for the good examples of all those thy servants, who, having finished their course in faith, do now rest from their labors. And we beseech thee that we, with all those who are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 488)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Isometric Rhythmic Practice

My organ and piano practicing is based on modified rhythms, which I described here and here, and demonstrated on YouTube here.

Today I learned a name for it: Isometric Rhythmic Practicing. The magazine International Piano’s regular column “Key Notes” by Murray McClachlan is an excellent focus on one or another aspect of piano technique, which of course applies to organ as well. In the current issue’s column, “Clarity,” McClachlan writes:
One of the most common methods for developing clear, strong articulation which many tutors have traditionally recommended over generations of pedagogy is ‘isometric rhythmic’ practicing… (International Piano, Nov.-Dec. 2018, p. 49)
McClachlan then describes the method, with an example from a Bach WTC prelude.

Armed with a name, I eagerly launched a DuckDuckGo search for “isometric rhythmic practicing” and found… almost nothing. References to isometric rhythm as a medieval compositional principle. Medical references of various sorts. Lots of references to Harold Blomberg’s “Rhythmic Movement Training.” Further down the list, materials about Rhythmic Gymnastics. Keyboard practicing references? Nope, though I found one reference to guitar finger exercises.

The name was not as useful as I had hoped. And if this method is so common as to be traditional “over many generations of pedagogy,” why is it that I have never overheard anyone else practicing this way, other than one of my students?

But in some further looking around, I turned up this:

It is a web page maintained by Chuan C. Chang, which includes a link to a free download of his 300-plus page PDF book, “Fundamentals of Piano Practice.” His approach, based on the teaching of Yvonne Combe and behind that, her training at the Paris Conservatory in the early twentieth century, is not the same as isometric rhythms, but he does discuss “segmental practice” as an aid to overcoming what he calls “speed walls,” which are “conditions in which you can’t go above a certain speed, no matter how hard you practice. SW [speed walls] form when you practice incorrectly and create bad habits or build up stress” (p. 29). Segmental practice is helpful “because the shorter a segment, the faster you can play it without problems.” The shortest segment is two notes, and that is the basis of isorhythmic practice. If you can play a two-note group quickly and with ease, you can extend that to four-note groups and beyond.

Chang’s book looks to be fascinating. Besides the material on piano practice, he devotes space to choosing a piano [he shares my views concerning the digital pianos and their superiority over acoustic uprights, but not over the best of the acoustic grand pianos: pp. 184-195], and tuning your own piano, including discussion of historic temperaments. He recommends Kirnberger II for the beginning tuner because it is easier than equal temperament, and he notes that “once you get used to K-II, ET [equal temperament] will sound a little lacking or ‘muddy.’” (p. 227). He gives the “recipe” for Kirnberger II on page 228. Chang concludes with a long and well-annotated bibliography for further study.

I am going to enjoy reading this book.

[Edited 12/5/18 to add: Chang briefly dismisses my practice method as follows: "The literature lists numerous methods for improving technique such as the rhythm method (change the rhythm or accented note), tapping, etc. The biggest drawback with such methods is that they waste time because there are too many rhythms, etc., that you need to practice." (p. 58)

As expected, I am thoroughly enjoying the book. I disagree with quite a bit of what he writes, but have taken a few ideas from it, notably a reminder of how helpful it can be to practice short segments hands separately. Some of my disagreements stem from differences between playing the organ and the piano, and the literature for the respective instruments. Practice techniques that would be helpful for Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff might be less useful for Bach and Buxtehude, and the coordination issues that one dodges by hands-separate practice are increased when one adds feet as well as hands, so (in my opinion) an organist needs much more work with hands/feet together than would a pianist.

I thoroughly agree with what he states is the thesis of the book: "If you don't make any progress [on a new piece being learned, or a specifically difficult passage] after a few days... it is time to stop and think of new things to do... if you don't make progress, you are doing something wrong -- that is the basic principle of this book." (p. 51-52)]

Unrelated Afterword: Fear of Red Ink

I have been listening to some of my older organ and piano improvisations recently. Some are horrible; some are not so bad. But one thought that these improvisations provoked is worth mentioning, because I think it is a major obstacle to the musician who wants to improvise. I call it the “Fear of Red Ink.”

Back in undergraduate theory class, my harmony exercises were returned with lots of red ink, marking my mistakes. Lots of them. Dozens on every page. All circled in red ink, often with caustic remarks from the teacher (likewise in red ink). Most of them were parallel octaves and fifths which had entirely escaped my scrutiny in writing the exercises. Parallel octaves and fifths are Against the Rules, and rightly so in pre-twentieth century styles. The rule goes back at least to Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, which I revere, though we were not told that in beginning theory.

So, the pianist launches into an improvisation. Before the first phrase is done, a parallel fifth appears. The improviser stops, horrified that he has committed such a sin. He is more careful the next time, but this time a parallel octave shows up. Fear of Red Ink ensues, with painful memories of those first-year harmony exercises. The would-be improviser is likely to say “I can’t do this,” and gives up.

But with the broadening of horizons brought by harmonic and post-harmonic developments in the twentieth century comes greater freedom in the use of parallels. Vaughan Williams is filled with parallel fifths; it is a hallmark of his style.

So, my rule of thumb:
Ignore the Red Ink.
You can notice parallelisms when they happen, and if you wish, seek to do less of them, for in many styles they do genuinely weaken the contrapuntal structure. But you must not let them stop you or derail your improvised composition. You must press on.

One little trick that I use: when I accidentally play a parallel octave, I might turn it into the beginning of a passage in parallel octaves, doubling the melody an octave below, and similarly with fifths. Even though the initial parallelism was accidental, it sounds more or less like I planned it that way.

Cheating? Probably. But you must press on.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spark Joy

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014)
Spark Joy (2016)

(Both books are by Marie Kondo, or "KonMarie," her nickname and how I think of her.)

I’ve done it. Close to a year of KonMarie, of decluttering and organizing. The last bits were this morning, and I am taking a few hours to celebrate.

The essence: surround yourself with things that spark joy. That means keeping some things, and disposing of a great many things – for me, somewhere between half and two-thirds of my possessions. Junk. Old files. Several hundred blank 3-1/2” floppies. CDs and cassettes that have been a part of my life, but no longer spark joy. Books. Lots of books.

I did it by the book, or rather books: I read the first one (frugally, from a library copy), then the second (likewise, a library e-book in this case – twice, once when I began and again in the last fortnight to gather courage for the Final Steps).

Here is a summary from her website:
Rule 1: Commit yourself to tidying up.
Rule 2: Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
Rule 3: Finish discarding first.
Rule 4: Tidy by category, not by location.
Rule 5: Follow the right order.
Rule 6: Ask yourself if it sparks joy.

Three of the categories:
Clothing, because it is easiest. For me especially, this was a no-brainer. I don’t have a lot of clothing and wear most of it regularly, so the whole process took less than an hour.

Books. This was scary. As per instructions, I took down all of my books. Every one of them. I piled them in the middle of the floor; this pretty much filled two rooms at home, and my office plus two tables in the choir room when I repeated the process at church. My wife was about ready to pull the plug on the whole enterprise, for she doubtless had visions of walking around piles of books for weeks and months, if not forever. But she has been after me for years to “get rid of some books,” as I reminded her.

Pick up a book. Hold it in both hands. Sense whether it sparks joy; if so, it goes in one pile. If not, the other pile. Sheep and goats at the last judgement. Like many people, I had trouble grasping the concept of “spark joy,” so (as per instructions) I started with something for which there was no doubt: my Ballentine paperback edition of “The Lord of the Rings,” which I have read maybe a dozen times. Joy flooded my soul as I held these little volumes, along with “The Hobbit,” given to me by my sister.
The Road goes ever on and on;
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can…
I got the idea.

From there it went quickly, more or less: two ten-hour days at home, one at my church office. Plus the physical labor of boxing up the discards and hauling them to the conveniently-timed Shelter House Booksale, three trips with my little Prius C filled to capacity.

The biggest challenge, once I got started, was avoiding the temptation to sit down and read. No matter how tempting, put it down and pick up the next book. Otherwise my wife and I would still be walking around piles of books on the floor.

And on it goes: Papers, with multiple trips to the recycling center. “Komono” (Japanese for “Other Stuff”) – a day when I almost filled the apartment complex’s dumpster all by myself.

Last of all: Sentimental Items. Personal letters, keepsakes, photos. It was for this that I re-read “Spark Joy,” for I have lived long and gathered many such things over the years. KonMarie suggests that this step is last because it is the most difficult, and one must hone one’s discernment before attempting it.

She is right.

But she is also right about the benefit: working through such things is a way of coming to terms with one’s past, and it is powerful. The recital program from my musical debut: a piece called “Off to Camp” in my first year at the piano. Working my way down the page of the annual programs from little pieces with the beginners to Beethoven sonatas as the finales of the group recitals my last two years of high school, and the senior recital with three of my friends. An official-looking paper from the county Board of Education, certifying me as a Third Class Musician (this in the eighth grade; there are many who would still give me that label). More recitals at college, in churches, at graduate school. Academic things that dangerously sparked pride, such as a National Merit Scholarship and later a perfect score on the GREs, which doubtless helped my admission prospects at the Choir College – as I wrote elsewhere, the dean who interviewed me was extremely dubious as to my prospects, since I was self-taught as an organist. He said so in my letter of acceptance, which I kept. Notes from choristers young and old. Going-away memorials when I moved from one place to another. The one that brought tears to my eyes most of all was a sheet of paper I had quite forgotten from the little Baptist church I served after undergraduate school, where I began as a pianist and left as an organist, and discovered Choral Conducting. I will quote part of it:
The following people send you $451.00 worth of good wishes as you move further in your music career. We have a few requests:
- That you never forget us
- That you send someone in the church your new address.
- That you will come back sometime. Remember the latch string will always be outside.

It was then signed by about sixty persons and groups (such as “The Choir” and several of the Sunday School classes), which was pretty much the whole congregation.
I mused on the fact that $451.00 was a lot of money for those people in that time and place, and how much they loved me.

If that doesn’t spark joy, nothing will.

KonMarie tells us that we must thank our possessions before discarding any of them. That helped, especially with the books. I thanked each of them individually for what they had taught me, what they had meant to me. We should thank the things we keep as well, such as thanking our clothes as we hang them up at the end of the day or put them in the laundry. We should take care of the things we have, and always put them back into their proper place.

I get a little nervous about the theology of thanking the spirit(s) that reside in created things, and would prefer to thank the Maker, but I think of it in the way one considers the Holy Icons – in this sense, every created thing is a window into the divine and deserves an appropriate degree of respect. I have started greeting my little Prius with a bow every morning before I begin my commute and thanking it at the end of the day.
[The cellarer of the monastery] will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. He should not be prone to greed, nor be wasteful or extravagant with the goods of the monastery, but should do everything with moderation… (Rule of St. Benedict 31:10-12)
I believe that KonMarie would be in full agreement with this. One final quote:
If you are uncertain whether to keep it, ask your heart.
If you don’t where to put it, ask your home.
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (St. Matthew 6:21)
Be not overly attached to the things that "spark joy" in your heart. Respect them, use them well and with care, even love them. Above all, be thankful for them. But do not set your heart on them. That is not the path of life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sweet Hour of Prayer

It has been a long time since I have posted any music online.
Here is a piano improvisation on the Gospel song “Sweet hour of prayer,” from September 30. I played it twice that morning, at our 9:00 and 11:00 services: this is the earlier (and better) version. I considered posting both of them so that the listener could see how two improvisations on the same theme, played only a couple of hours apart, differ. But one is enough, and my (free) SoundCloud space is limited.

Singing the hymn elicited a lot of feedback, about equally divided between positive and negative. For some, it was profoundly moving, healing. For others, it was “like being in the Baptist church” (not usually a compliment from Episcopalians). One woman, who generally supports my musical choices, simply said (with disgust in her voice) “Please! No more of this!” She was no happier when I followed up by selecting “Jesus loves me” for the next week. For that one, she said afterwards “I almost walked out.” But the positive responses from others to both songs were equally strong.

I do not know if singing these two songs was the Right Thing To Do, given the divisions they awakened. In their defense, they did fit the lessons for the day, which was my primary reason for choosing them. Both of them appear in Official Episcopal Songbooks (though not our main book, the Hymnal 1982). And they represent a musical style almost never heard in this parish, a voice that in my opinion is worthy of our attention.

I can offer only one thought: with songs like these, both of them with simple three-chord harmonies, it is essential to respect them. The musician can easily trivialize them, which is fatal. With the piano prelude on “Sweet hour” (and the next week’s prelude, which included “Jesus loves me” alongside two other hymns), I wanted to establish the idea of taking these songs seriously.


Yesterday I spent close to an hour at the music store, improvising on their Casio GP-500 hybrid piano, with headphones as I will mostly be playing in retirement. I enjoyed it every bit as much as playing the Steinway at the church (the one heard in this and all of my piano recordings). The session with the Casio brought clearness to me: given all the considerations involved, this is my piano of choice. I am ready to write a check and buy it. Except there is no place in our current living arrangement to put it, and I would have little time to play it.

Before his retirement, one of my dearest friends longed for a yacht. I think he wanted to live on one. As it came to pass, he was denied that wish by health conditions, but I think the dream helped him make it to the finish line of his career.

And so it is for me: the piano has become a symbol of retirement and freedom. Some days it seems so far away. But I recall the Word that came to me through a friend over a year ago: “You still have work to do here.” I believe that is still true.

Good services on Sunday: good choral singing, good hymn singing (yes, even “Jesus loves me”), Choral Evensong with Wm. Smith (which all by itself is enough to make my day). I played the organ well enough, including two pieces by Bach, one of them being a piece where I had fallen apart with the “yips” a year ago. I could feel them coming on in one passage, but by God’s grace it did not fall apart.

It was especially good to practice the big C minor prelude and fugue (BWV 546) over the past fortnight and play it for the evensong. I am glad that it is granted me to keep doing this sort of thing.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live:
I will praise my God while I have my being.
(Psalm 104:34)