Thursday, February 06, 2020

987 Words About Winter, Few of Them Good

It's not that I hate winter: it's just I have few reasons to like it. But now that Groundhog Day is past, it feels like the season is, at best, half-over. The only reason I would hesitate wishing for an early Spring is because that means next Winter will get here all that much sooner. Technically, Winter begins, astronomically speaking, with the Winter Solstice in mid-December, though weathermen have decided, for ease of record-keeping, that it begins on December 1st and consists of three months: December, January, and February.

But since Man invented the calendar as a matter of convenience, it should be pointed out Mother Nature – or whatever deity you wish to invoke in Nature's name – doesn't give a fig for convenience. Last year, the Winter Solstice was December 21st; this year, the Spring Equinox will be March 19th (though at 11:50pm EDT).

It's perfectly logical those people who deny scientific evidence supporting the dangers of Climate Change would prefer folksy predictions fabricated from the habits of a rodent who happens to wake up on February 2nd. (It's enough of a challenge explaining the scientific basis for the Change of Seasons to someone convinced the Earth is flat.)

Another problem for many of us northerners is realizing that, in Australia, Christmas is the peak of the summer holiday season. (This may be something else Flat Earthers have difficulty explaining, but I digress.)

It's surprising how close ancient astronomers were to figuring out so much about the Earth and the Heavens, lacking "modern technology," creating a primitive 12-month lunar calendar at the end of the Stone Age. Yet look at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice's sunrise to wonder how they could have figured it out, everything perfectly aligned.

Whatever Prehistoric Mankind needed was dependent on weather, knowing when they had to store food or else starve during the cold. They needed to know when warmth might return, always afraid maybe it wouldn't.

Over the millennia, certain corrections and adjustments had to be made: witness the inclusion of Leap Day once again this year. The lunar calendar proved ineffective for agriculture; the solar one was more efficient. Dividing time into years and months was one thing, but days and minutes were another. A watch was merely a convenience.

According to the Christian calendar, not codified until the 4th Century A.D., forty days after Christmas (the birth of Christ set opposite the pagan winter festival, Saturnalia) came 'The Purification of the Virgin' or the 'Presentation of Jesus in the Temple,' as required by law, placing it on February 2nd opposite another pagan festival, Imbolc. On February 1st, ewes were purified by being driven through hoops of flame, receiving the protection of Brigit, goddess of fertility. February began with ancient Romans carrying torches through the streets, fending off evil.

Around 600, when the Pope established the festival on February 2nd known as Candlemas, he knowingly combined these two ancient observances but the celebration became one more about light than with fire and frenzy. If Christ was "the Light of the World," the priests then blessed the candles to be used in the coming year.

Instead of Romans and evil spirits, parishioners now lit candles and processed home with them, symbolically taking the Light of the World home in the midst of the darkest, most hopeless days of Winter. Instead of sheep, the badger (the gentle European version, not the snarling American beast) might see its shadow and resume hibernating.

When Germans came to America, bringing along their folksy customs, they found no badgers for Candlemas, but they did see groundhogs. On a cloudy day (with no shadow), the worst of winter was past.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The summer solstice is also called “Midsummer's Day” (or, in Shakespeare, “Night”) with all those celebrations held over from pagan days; and one of my favorite English Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” How can the observances for the start of summer and winter be Midsummer and Midwinter, and all at the same time?

Originally, the solstice marked "the extreme" of summer or winter, the sun's farthest point in the sky before it turned back. These were balanced by the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, equal darkness and daylight.

We approach the start of Summer, aware the days are 'getting longer'; we complain the days get shorter as Winter arrives. But it wasn't until I was reading Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain when I was in my mid-30s I realized Summer's start marks the gradually increasing loss of daylight, the inexorable decline into Winter's darkness.

The older I get – speaking of a metaphor for one's declining final years – the more time itself, however you measure it, feels like it's gone into fast forward and I can't find the remote. Except during the dreariest days of Winter when time comes to a standstill and it feels like Spring will never come.

Today's political climate doesn't help much, either, thrusting us back into another Dark Age where science, logic, even decency are ignored. It's the perfect time to watch the groundhog, hoping Spring, metaphorically, arrives early.

One who's constantly reading, I rarely go out without a book in hand, though more to ward off intruders by opening it to show any approaching extrovert, “See, I'm busy; please don't bother me.” There's nothing more pleasant on a winter night than snuggling with the cats to catch up on some great, fat novel.

Perhaps it will be an entertaining mystery or maybe a thriller, but often it's time to pick up something more challenging. Too often, I find epic Russian novels don't always help the winter doldrums.

Right now, I have only 50 pages to go in my second reading of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, challenging my concentration. Meanwhile, I'm also finding myself eager to finish my Piano Quintet (so close...).

Unfortunately, these weekly posts, intended as an incentive to keep writing, have become a major distraction, regardless what the groundhog says.






Thursday, January 30, 2020

987 Words About Almost Finishing the Piano Quintet

Brahms' original manuscript for a passage in his Piano Quintet in F Minor

When you're a composer and the end is in sight on a piece you've been working on for over three years, especially considering you've been thinking about it, one way or another, for decades, it's easy to become excited – “yes,” you think, “the piece is almost finished!” – but there's still so much to be done. It's not just more creative work, filling out everything from beginning to end: there's the busy-work of realizing the sketches, making the necessary final revisions, then copying the score and parts for a performance.

Following my back injury after dealing with 30” of snow in January, 2016, and while recovering from the inevitable back surgery, I began thinking of what new creative projects I'd want to focus on. Eventually, the pain had become too intense to concentrate on much of anything, but my mind was full of 'general' ideas.

Despite having been retired several years earlier, I never acclimated to the idea I could now compose whenever I wanted to (there had been numerous issues about that which I needn't go into, here). Was there some “Bucket List” – Things I'd Like to Compose Before I Die – I should be keeping and checking things off?

Ever since the late-'70s, asked to write incidental music for it, I've wanted to turn Euripides' The Bacchae into an opera. Whenever I considered it, it seemed the greatest challenge with the least practicality.

Then there was a piece for English Horn and orchestra, not necessarily a concerto but something a little less mellow than standard English horn repertoire like Sibelius' Swan of Tuonela or Copland's Quiet City. I'm not sure when I first thought about writing this, probably back in the late-'70s, too: I'd even sketched the ending! In 2000, I began a 21-minute work for violin and orchestra inspired by the Creation of the Universe opening Tolkien's Silmarillion. But its extensive part for English horn, a secondary soloist, proved more stimulating.

And then, last but not least, there's the matter of a piano quintet since I knew I'd been thinking about one even before I kept my 2002 String Quartet from inadvertently turning into one. Considering the four great ones by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, and Shostakovich, there's plenty of historical baggage to worry about there, right?

I recalled taking the sketches for this unnamed Silmarillion piece into work one night, leaving it on the desk I shared with my daytime office-mate, Ellen Hughes, a long time friend and long-suffering colleague. Seeing these e.h. markings everywhere, she wondered what her initials were doing there. I explained it meant “the English Horn part.” She told me, “You should dedicate it to me: after all, my initials are all over it!” – and we both laughed. The “Silmarillion Piece” went nowhere, but the English horn remained on my mind.

When Ellen died in June, 2015, leaving a big hole in so many lives, I began thinking of a “memorial piece,” something that would be a personal statement just between the two of us. The “English Horn Piece” was the most logical choice, becoming a set of variations with orchestra, an aria over a chaconne.

It wasn't until Summer, 2017, however, that I started realizing I had some ideas that needed a lot of working out. In fact, “work” was the problem: it had always come so easily before. Giving up composing so many times, I realized it would take lots of work to renew my old spark of creativity.

The most realistic choice, the initials “E.H.” aside, wasn't really an orchestral work with limited performance options, but a piano quintet. It gave me more control over how I could explore these new ideas.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Inspiration is simplistically perceived as that magical spark in the imagination that gives birth to a melody and the composer then takes that melody and, by adding others, turns it into a new composition. Inspiration can also be the establishment of a challenge, perhaps something entirely intellectual, then finding the solution that meets the challenge.

Maurice Ravel, who enjoyed clockwork toys, once said he'd finished his Piano Trio and all he needed now was the themes. Yet listening to Ravel's music, you wouldn't think he's more “brain” than “heart.”

To many, that sounds artificial – books could be written about art versus artifice: you can't build clockwork toys without meticulous planning. Tonality (like “clockwork”) requires certain expectations: intuitive creativity wasn't in Ravel's fastidious nature.

So rather than figuring out where it should go, he built a frame for it and filled it in as needed.

For over twenty years, I'd never struggled with what a mid-life crisis style-change required, the complete rethinking of my musical style, figuring out what I found dissatisfying and what I could do about it. If I used four triads in succession using all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, what about cadences? What about tonality?

Without getting into the complicated theory behind it (I considered it a new approach to tonality still using all 12 pitches), I took Ravel's advice about a structural frame and then filled it in.

It turned out to be more challenging than I thought: there would be four movements over a projected length of 25 minutes, but those individual movements were to be broken into shards and put back together in some kind of musical mosaic. I have three fat ring-binders full of sketches to attest to the struggle.

Eventually, the piece became a labyrinth – tonality providing the path through its winding structure – where I would meet friends and family who've died before, a memory piece in an abstract, not a literal, sense.

I became easily distracted, especially given certain health issues, and once put it aside for a while to finish another novel but finally, eventually, after three years, it happened: I realized “It's almost finished!”

The light's now at the end of this long creative tunnel, something in every one of my Piano Quintet's 375 measures.


- Dick Strawser

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Classical Grammy Winners, Class of 2020

The winners of this year's Grammy Awards were announced yesterday, Sunday, January 26th, 2020, and while little attention, as usual, is paid to the Classical Music division, I thought I'd post the list of nominees in each category for any Classical Music fan who happens to stop by: the winners are highlighted in red. 

For those of us in Harrisburg, PA, my home town, there's special news in these awards because the winner of "Best Contemporary Classical Composition" was Jennifer Higdon's Harp Concerto -- recorded for the Naxos label with Yolanda Kondanassis for whom the work was composed, and the Rochester Philharmonic conducted by Ward Stare. It received its second performance shortly after its premiere in Rochester with Ms. Kondonassis and the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina in May, 2018.
Jennifer Higdon's "Harp Concerto" with Yolanda Kondonassis and the Rochester Philharmonic on the stage of Eastman Theater
And while Third Coast Percussion, appearing earlier this month with Market Square Concerts at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center did not, unfortunately, win their second Grammy for the album featured in their program here, Perpetulum, nominated in the category "Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance," the award did go to the recording of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Caroline Shaw' "Orange" by the Attaca Quartet. Her "Plan & Elevation: the Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks" was performed by the Dover Quartet at Temple Ohev Sholom in February, 2017.

Congratulations to all the winning performers and composers, as well as to all those who'd been nominated!


75. Best Orchestral Performance - Award to the Conductor and to the Orchestra.
BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9 – Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
COPLAND: BILLY THE KID; GROHG – Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
NORMAN: SUSTAIN – WINNER Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
TRANSATLANTIC – Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS. 2 & 21 – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor (City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica)

- - - - - - -

76. Best Opera Recording - Award to the Conductor, Album Producer(s) and Principal Soloists.
BENJAMIN: LESSONS IN LOVE & VIOLENCE – George Benjamin, conductor; Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare & Gyula Orendt; Raphaël Mouterde & James Whitbourn, producers (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House)
BERG: WOZZECK – Marc Albrecht, conductor; Christopher Maltman & Eva-Maria Westbroek; François Roussillon, producer (Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus Of Dutch National Opera)
CHARPENTIER: LES ARTS FLORISSANTS; LES PLAISIRS DE VERSAILLES – Paul O'Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Jesse Blumberg, Teresa Wakim & Virginia Warnken; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)
PICKER: FANTASTIC MR. FOX – WINNERGil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children's Chorus)
WAGNER: LOHENGRIN – Christian Thielemann, conductor; Piotr Beczała, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier & Georg Zeppenfeld; Eckhard Glauche, producer (Festspielorchester Bayreuth; Festspielchor Bayreuth)

- - - - - - -

77. Best Choral Performance - Award to the Conductor, and to the Choral Director and/or Chorus Master where applicable and to the Choral Organization/Ensemble.
BOYLE: VOYAGES – Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
DURUFLÉ: COMPLETE CHORAL WORKS – WINNERRobert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
THE HOPE OF LOVING – Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
SANDER: THE DIVINE LITURGY OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM – Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)
SMITH, K.: THE ARC IN THE SKY – Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

- - - - - - - 

78. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble PerformanceFor new recordings of works with chamber or small ensemble (twenty-four or fewer members, not including the conductor). One Award to the ensemble and one Award to the conductor, if applicable.
CERRONE: THE PIECES THAT FALL TO EARTH – Christopher Rountree & Wild Up
FREEDOM & FAITH – PUBLIQuartet
PERPETULUM – Third Coast Percussion
RACHMANINOFF - HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO – Hermitage Piano Trio
SHAW: ORANGE – WINNERAttacca Quartet 

- - - - - - - 

79. Best Classical Instrumental SoloAward to the Instrumental Soloist(s) and to the Conductor when applicable.
THE BERLIN RECITAL – Yuja Wang
HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO – Yolanda Kondonassis; Ward Stare, conductor (The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO; FIDDLE DANCE SUITE – WINNERNicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)
THE ORCHESTRAL ORGAN – Jan Kraybill
TORKE: SKY, CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN – Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

- - - - - - - 

80. Best Classical Solo Vocal AlbumAward to: Vocalist(s), Collaborative Artist(s) (Ex: pianists, conductors, chamber groups) Producer(s), Recording Engineers/Mixers with 51% or more playing time of new material.
THE EDGE OF SILENCE - WORKS FOR VOICE BY GYÖRGY KURTÁG – Susan Narucki (Donald Berman, Curtis Macomber, Kathryn Schulmeister & Nicholas Tolle)
HIMMELSMUSIK – Philippe Jaroussky & Céline Scheen; Christina Pluhar, conductor; L’Arpeggiata, ensemble (Jesús Rodil & Dingle Yandell)
SCHUMANN: LIEDERKREIS OP. 24, KERNER-LIEDER OP. 35 – Matthias Goerne; Leif Ove Andsnes, accompanist [sic]
SONGPLAY – WINNERJoyce DiDonato; Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Charlie Porter & Craig Terry, accompanists (Steve Barnett & Lautaro Greco)
A TE, O CARA
Stephen Costello; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra)

- - - - - - - 

81. Best Classical Compendium - Award to the Artist(s) and to the Album Producer(s) and Engineer(s) of over 51% playing time of the album, if other than the artist.
AMERICAN ORIGINALS 1918 – John Morris Russell, conductor; Elaine Martone, producer
LESHNOFF: SYMPHONY NO. 4 'HEICHALOS'; GUITAR CONCERTO; STARBURST – Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
MELTZER: SONGS AND STRUCTURES – Paul Appleby & Natalia Katyukova; Silas Brown & Harold Meltzer, producers
THE POETRY OF PLACES – WINNERNadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
SAARIAHO: TRUE FIRE; TRANS; CIEL D'HIVER – Hannu Lintu, conductor; Laura Heikinheimo, producer

- - - - - - - 

Ward Stare, Jennifer Higdon, Yolanda Kondonassis
82. Best Contemporary Classical CompositionA Composer's Award. (For a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year.) Award to the librettist, if applicable.
BERMEL: MIGRATION SERIES FOR JAZZ ENSEMBLE & ORCHESTRA – Derek Bermel, composer (Derek Bermel, Ted Nash, David Alan Miller, Juilliard Jazz Orchestra & Albany Symphony Orchestra)
HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO – WINNER – Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO IN D MAJOR – Wynton Marsalis, composer (Nicola Benedetti, Cristian Măcelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra
NORMAN: SUSTAIN – Andrew Norman, composer (Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic)
SHAW: ORANGE – Caroline Shaw, composer (Attacca Quartet)
WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH – Julia Wolfe, composer (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People's Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

- - - - - - -

73. Best Engineered Album, Classical An Engineer's Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
AEQUA - ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR – Daniel Shores, engineer; Daniel Shores, mastering engineer (International Contemporary Ensemble)
BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9 – Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
RACHMANINOFF - HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO – Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Hermitage Piano Trio)
RILEY: SUN RINGS – WINNERLeslie Ann Jones, engineer; John Kilgore, Judith Sherman & David Harrington, engineers/mixers; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering engineer (Kronos Quartet)
WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH – Bob Hanlon & Lawrence Rock, engineers; Ian Good & Lawrence Rock, mastering engineers (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People's Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

- - - - - - - 

74. Producer Of The Year, ClassicalA Producer's Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
BLANTON ALSPAUGH – WINNER
• Artifacts - The Music Of Michael McGlynn (Charles Bruffy & Kansas City Chorale)
• Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Fantaisie Sur La Tempête De Shakespeare (Andrew Davis & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
• Copland: Billy The Kid; Grohg (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
• Duruflé: Complete Choral Works (Robert Simpson & Houston Chamber Choir)
• Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Julian Wachner, The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices & Novus NY)
• Sander: The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom (Peter Jermihov & PaTRAM Institute Singers)
• Smith, K.: Canticle (Craig Hella Johnson & Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble)
• Visions Take Flight (Mei-Ann Chen & ROCO)

JAMES GINSBURG
• Project W - Works By Diverse Women Composers (Mei-Ann Chen & Chicago Sinfonietta)
• Silenced Voices (Black Oak Ensemble)
• 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos (Jory Vinikour, Scott Speck & Chicago Philharmonic)
• Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas (Alex Klein & Phillip Bush)
• Winged Creatures & Other Works For Flute, Clarinet, And Orchestra (Anthony McGill, Demarre McGill, Allen Tinkham & Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra)

MARINA A. LEDIN, VICTOR LEDIN
• Bates: Children Of Adam; Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem (Steven Smith, Erin R. Freeman, Richmond Symphony & Chorus)
• The Orchestral Organ (Jan Kraybill)
• The Poetry Of Places (Nadia Shpachenko)
• Rachmaninoff - Hermitage Piano Trio (Hermitage Piano Trio)

MORTEN LINDBERG
• Himmelborgen (Elisabeth Holte, Kåre Nordstoga & Uranienborg Vokalensemble)
• Kleiberg: Do You Believe In Heather? (Various Artists)
• Ljos (Fauna Vokalkvintett)
• LUX (Anita Brevik, Trondheimsolistene & Nidarosdomens Jentekor)
• Trachea (Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl & Schola Cantorum)
• Veneliti (Håkon Daniel Nystedt & Oslo Kammerkor)

DIRK SOBOTKA
• Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

987 Words: Saying Good-Bye to Max


Last Friday afternoon, Max caught the 3:14 Express Train to the Rainbow Bridge.

Max was my almost-18-year-old cat, a stray I'd taken in off my porch when he was seven or eight months old. At almost-18, he was the equivalent of an 80-year-old human who's grown frail and had several “life-style challenges” to deal with. He could still get around, walking stiffly, up until a few days before he died, not that cats can use canes. In the end, he became totally bedridden only in his last two days.

After a November examination, his veterinarian confirmed some of Max's issues included a heart murmur and the start of kidney failure, not uncommon in “senior cats,” but not something that necessarily proved immediately worrisome. Max could live a few more years before kidney failure might prove fatal. His liver was good, no signs of diabetes.

But it was what wasn't showing up in his tests that worried me. In September, one of the five kittens whose mother I took in two days before they were born, died of cancer. Freddie was 12 years old by then, but that was not yet “old,” my first cat to be diagnosed with cancer.

Yes, Max could also have “something going on” in his intestines which may account for the weight loss over previous months. Whatever it was, at his age treatment much less surgery was too risky.

There's an expression I've heard used lately when someone is diagnosed with something like an advanced stage of cancer, often terminal. There are many variables, given the disease, dependent on age and life-style, but also on strength and the will to fight. As one friend said, “I just know now what will probably kill me.”

Alex Trebek, long-time host of the TV game show “Jeopardy!,” announced he had Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, nearly always fatal. His “I'm nearing the end of life” was reported as “Trebek says he's dying.”

True, philosophically, every day we are one day closer to dying, whenever that may occur, but there's also a difference between this “nearing the end of life” and the gradual process of leaving it.

I was saying the same thing about Max, then, “nearing the end of life,” not knowing how long he might live.

A week before Christmas, something happened to Max, I'm not sure what: I thought he wouldn't make it through the night. Then, by morning, after I'd sat up with him, he seemed to stabilize. Twice before, there were sudden changes like that, like a cat shedding another of his nine lives, but he always recovered. Since November, these started happening more frequently, when after a bad night (and often on a weekend) he would come back to only about half what he'd been before, like he would fade away.

So I had to go from “Max was nearing the end of life” to “Max is dying.” It was only inevitable. After all, he was pushing 18: I knew it had to come eventually. Would he make it to Christmas? He did. The New Year? He did. His 18th birthday in April? Well, we'll see...

So now, we moved into hospice care and I was his 24/7 care-giver. If he needed held or wanted to curl up on my lap, that was more important than my doing any composing. He'd stretch out across my chest, purring away, cradled in my arms, while I sat at the computer, trying to write.

I didn't want to have him “put to sleep,” not while he's still fully conscious and could still enjoy my company. By Friday, there was so little of him left, the decision was inescapable.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It's strange to find the place so lonely, coming back from the vets. The loss of a pet, no matter how old, doesn't end with holding him in your arms as he passes on. I walk around the house, seeing the places where I used to see him, his favorite haunts, his waiting food bowl. Everything, especially the chair we'd spend so much time in, him curled up on my chest, is full of his absence. The other cats aren't sure what's happened, maybe, but they sense something has.

I wonder if they know he's gone – 'gone' like we use the euphemism? They're not wandering around trying to find him, looking under the tea-caddy, wondering why he's not coming to dinner any more. They spent time with him those final weeks, sleeping beside him, sitting nearby. Whether they understand Death, surely they must “know”?

There are four cats in the house, Max's “cousins,” I think of them. When Freddie died, he left behind his brothers Abel, Baker, and Charlie – initially indistinguishable orange tabbies – and sister Blanche, a tortoiseshell. They had been born in my bathroom almost thirteen years ago, now, growing up with Uncle Max whom they never challenged.

The night before Max died, they all sat quietly on the bed and took turns gently licking him on the forehead. It was like they'd all come to say good-bye, one last loving act.

Maybe cats don't believe in the Legend of the Rainbow Bridge, the meadow where our pets wait for us after they die, eventually to be reunited as we cross over the bridge into Heaven. Perhaps there's an old song cats sing to each other to comfort themselves when they cannot understand the world around them?

“Good night, sweet cat,” I imagine it goes, “now it's time for sleep:
Don't worry about the things to do tomorrow.”
(The song continues gently, soothing.)
“But now let's sleep, and you can dream.”

For me, I'm glad I'd looked out on my freezing cold porch at that moment over seventeen years ago and decided, “That cat looks like it needs to be brought inside where it's warm.”

I thought of all the warmth he'd returned to me over those years, holding him in my arms, and said good-bye.

- Dick Strawser

= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The words for the old cat's song are adapted from a post at Abbie the Cat Has A Posse

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

987 Words of Short Fiction: A Thing From the Past

In the background, maybe coming from a distant room, I could hear the sound of a barely audible piece of music, enough at first only to judge it was classical music and something familiar. Since I rarely found him alone in the house, especially at night, there was usually some kind of commotion going on. It might have been on TV or maybe one of Ben's grandchildren was listening to it on-line (part of an assignment?) though I didn't recall anyone in his family being interested in classical music.

As our conversation continued – I don't remember about what – I found myself paying less attention to what Ben was saying and more to trying to hear the music better so I could identify it. For some reason, the fact I found myself humming along with it but still couldn't think what it was, bothered me.

It was a "Tip-of-the-Tongue Moment" – when I stuck my tongue out, Ben would lean forward and say, "nope, can't see it" – a joke we'd often used when we were kids so many years ago. It was a way of breaking the awkwardness caused by some momentary forgetfulness, but our parents never found it very funny.

"Just wait," their looks would say, especially my curmudgeonly grandfather's, "till you're our age, then you'll understand." (And they were right.)

But Ben couldn't see it this time because we're on the phone.

"Salome!"

Ben stopped abruptly. "No... what? I was talking about the cheese at the market. I guess they might've had salami, but..."

"No, sorry," I stammered. "I meant the music – in the background? Strauss' Salome?"

"Oh, that." He paused. I could imagine him suddenly listening to it. It had been wallpaper for him up till then.

"I meant, it's the 'Dance of the Seven Veils,' right? I can barely hear it but I still couldn't place it."

"Yeah, I guess," then went right back to yesterday's trip to the supermarket.

Cheese and its availability at the local Shop Rite grocery store – remembering Stravinsky's great ballet, I'd always called it Le sacre du boutique – was not a topic that held any real interest for me. But I let him drone on because, whenever I talked about my love of music, he was bored but always polite.

Ben Hoyle's parents were what we'd call "Big Cheese Buffs," not that that was anything I or my family considered odd, and trying some new variety was always a major part of any dinner. Ben would rattle them off as enthusiastically as I would list any new composers I'd just heard for the first time. Over the years, I had been a guest at many a family dinner when Ben and I were neighbors growing up, less often after his parents moved to the suburbs and another school district.

Quite often, after school, I would join Ben and his older brother and sisters at the kitchen table for a snack, which was cheese and crackers rather than the more traditional milk and cookies. When we'd sit down to dinner, Ben's mom "presented" standard favorites of cheese rather than risk possible disappointment, spoiling the experience.

I didn't know his sisters, Emily and Ruth, very well, and his brother, Nick, older by about seven years, always treated Ben and me like we were too young for him to bother with. Even their dog, Ralph, some black-and-white random terrier, was a year older than Ben, the true baby of the Hoyle Family.

Ben's mom, Mrs. Hoyle, was a tall, quiet woman who grew up on a dairy farm, often talking about childhood memories. Ben's father was more distant from us kids, aloof and dignified, a teacher.

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What my family did consider odd about Ben's family was Mrs. Hoyle being a Baptist and Mr. Hoyle apparently a "non-believer." They assumed Baptists were country-folk, where, in the city, many Baptists were black. My parents, always finding some excuse not to go to church themselves, never thought "Cheeses" was an issue worth worrying about.

It wasn't so much either of the Hoyle's beliefs but that the combination didn't create more obvious friction than it did. The girls went to church with their mother, and the "men-folk" stayed home.

One afternoon, near the end of the school year, Emily brought home a friend – "boyfriend," Ruth chided her in that annoying voice little sisters always used when making fun of others. "His name's Ralph."

Mrs. Hoyle said she recognized him from church and you could see what was initially alarm quietly shifted closer to approval.

"Ralph?" Ben asked, looking at his sister, confused. "You mean like the dog?"

"How're we ever going to tell them apart," Mrs. Hoyle quipped. It was as if they boy wasn't even standing there.

"Well, I refuse to call Ralph the dog 'Ralph the Dog'," Ruth pouted. "He has seniority. He's even older than Ben!"

"I suppose we could call him 'Ralph the Human'," Ben suggested, Ralph blushing to the roots of his very blonde hair.

"Or instead," I offered, "maybe you can call Emily's friend 'Ralph the Baptist'?"

Everyone else seemed to think I'd made a joke, judging from the way they'd laughed. Even Mr. Hoyle cracked a smile. I hadn't meant to be rude and I suspect the others hadn't either. Ralph – not the dog – apparently'd had enough, running out of the kitchen, the back door slamming behind them after Emily followed.

I tried to recall if I ever saw him around after that, always thinking I'd ruined a good friendship for Emily. She soon stopped going to church, then, probably too embarrassed to face him.

Over the years, it never occurred to me to ask Ben "whatever happened to that guy – you remember, 'Ralph the Baptist'?" I'd completely forgotten Ralph till something reminded me of him and that afternoon.

"So," Ben was saying, "should I pick up some of that for you?"

"Cheese?" Salome's 'Dance' had stopped. "No, that's okay."


– Dick Strawser



Wednesday, January 08, 2020

987 Words About Resolutions that Have Nothing to Do with the New Year

Okay, I've made it to the second installment of 987 Words and I'm seriously wondering how this is going to work, not that '987 Words' trips off the tongue all that lightly, does it? The first post took almost a full week to write and I'm finding it's time consuming keeping to the Fibonacci Structure. Predictably, given the New Year – not to mention a whole new decade – thoughts might turn to Resolutions: a self-disciplinary writing exercise? But in this case, I'm thinking more of 'resolutions' in the musical sense.

In music we have lots of terms that are easily misunderstood: for instance, dissonance is usually taken to be 'ugly' and, if you want to enjoy yourself, best avoided. 'Art should be beautiful,' right? What it really means is 'something that creates anticipation,' building a sense of tension that will somehow need to be resolved.

So when you watch TV and see a character's eyebrow rise a bit, you probably think, 'Aha, she's discovered something: what?' And you'll have to wait till after the commercial break to find out. It's a way of creating anticipation requiring future resolution (otherwise, what's the point?), drawing you on so you don't tune away.

A musical dissonance might be the equivalent not only of that raised eyebrow, but of many other regularly accepted, stereotypical 'dissonances.' Imagine a horror show without a monster or a plot without a twist.

Another word we hear when talking about music is 'harmony,' which we usually think of as something 'harmonious' and therefore beautiful, though it originally meant 'living together in peace' or 'forming a pleasing whole.' But in music, it's the process by which an individual chord combines with other similar chords to create a 'pleasing whole.' Anyone who's ever taken music classes learns how these chords, building blocks of most Western music, classical and otherwise, work in certain standard ways despite tons of often confusing rules and even more exceptions.

Without getting into the particulars of how chords are built, let's just say a chord by itself is just a sound. Putting a bunch of chords together could create a string of pleasing sounds. Most of Western music is based on the idea chords together go somewhere, a journey with a beginning and a destination.

Not that I'm writing an entire Music 101 course in 987 words, but think of a piece of music as a story with a beginning and an end, and lots of stuff in between. You meet characters (themes, motives), situations evolve (the expansion of those themes, motives), things happen (contrasts), eyebrows get raised (unexpected modulation). Structurally, a longer composition, like a novel, could have several movements instead of chapters, each one subdivided into sections like scenes, and, on the micro-level, there are musical paragraphs with phrases instead of sentences.

To carry the analogy further, cadences act like punctuation – a full cadence for a period, a half cadence for a comma – shaping the music, giving it a chance to breathe both melodically and harmonically. A cadence is also a formula, a standard-operating-procedure or cliché, with specific chords which define what kind of cadence it is.

Analogies may not be the most accurate way to describe something, taken literally, but realizing there are certain generic parameters we can talk about in music might help explain the significance of each one. It's called SHMRG, an acronym standing for SONORITY, HARMONY, MELODY, RHYTHM, and GROWTH, allowing us to focus on smaller, specific details.

Basically, sonority refers to anything to do with the music's sound in general. Growth concerns structure on any level, like the overall form (like Sonata form) or the shape and expansion of a phrase.

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Now, if you take those categories and describe them not in terms of a story but, not taking it too literally, in terms of the human body, you could think of them this way:

SONORITY is like the person's appearance in general – say, the color of the hair or eyes, recognizing somebody by their voice;

MELODY is like the skin, a surface covering everything we can't see underneath;

GROWTH (or form) is like the skeleton, giving the body support and shape: without it, we certainly wouldn't look very human;

HARMONY is like the muscles which give the body not only a sense of definition but also the power to move;

RHYTHM is like the blood that brings energy to everything, giving it life.

So, let's think about cadences which we think of primarily as HARMONY, but which also fall under MELODY, GROWTH, and RHYTHM.

A cadence is a pattern of chords which, depending on how weak or strong it is, creates some level of finality, the chords building up to it generating a sense of direction and anticipation. Increasing the harmonic rhythm – the rate the chords change – also gives the chord progression more energy and defines the phrase's structure.

A melody, supported by its underlying chords – real or implied – is not just a memorable series of pleasing pitches randomly chosen. It follows the harmony's contours, and usually takes its breath at the cadence.

We all know how important breathing is and what happens if we don't: eventually, we'll keel over from lack of oxygen. Well, what happens to the music if the performer doesn't let it breathe? That whole breathing-in, the act of, like a singer, taking a breath, allows the phrase to play out in the breathing-out.

Pay attention to the hierarchy of these breathing cadences, the open-ended ones and those that sound more – and eventually, most – final. They create a sense of direction allowing this 'tension,' these uncertainties, to increase.

How does the composer heighten tension through the use of chords, the rhythms, the high-points of phrases, the approach to cadences? Discover how any digression away from the expected can increase the listener's anticipation.

How can you, the performer, bring these different discoveries out in your interpretation? It's always more satisfying when tension is released.

– Dick Strawser

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

987 Words Which Have Nothing to Do with New Year's Eve...


Like a sequel to the recently released film-version of Cats, something else no one is likely to be waiting for is my imminent return to even moderately regular blogging at Thoughts on a Train, since it's been over a full year since I've posted anything after my latest serial novel, another “classical music appreciation comedy/thriller.” The idea to resume writing – and more importantly to post the results – was a fairly spontaneous but not necessarily welcome idea. Long retired, why not sit around watching TV or staring disconsolately into space?

Perhaps practicing my so-called writing skills could help keep what's left of my mind sharp, or sharper than it seems to have become as the world sinks into an increasingly darker pit of despondency. New posts should come easily, railing at life's indignities assailing us from every angle, but that's why there's Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from wondering what I might want to write about, whether anybody wants to read it or not – considering I usually write rather long posts – I was wondering how I might keep them within certain, more manageable, potentially realistic bounds. I mean, many of them, even after editing, ended up around 4,000 to 5,000 words.

Inspiration came from watching an Australian TV drama called 800 Words where, the basic plot aside, the main character writes a column called “800 Words” which, not surprisingly, consists of exactly eight hundred words.

Doing a bit of on-line searching (is it still “googling” if Google is not your default search-engine?), I discovered several websites geared for writers who want to write in compact units of 800 words. That could be a free-range essay or short story (a very short story), or a way to work on one's self-discipline.

I'd participated in several “November-Is-National-Novel-Writing-Month” (NaNoWriMo) challenges where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. Not necessarily a 50,000-word novel, but at least 50,000 words toward the novel-length-of-your-choice.

Granted, it's a challenge for many people to find time in their days to write at all, but it's easier if you break it down to a goal of, say, 1,613 words a day. Some days I could barely manage 600 words, compared to those days I'd rattle off a few thousand for a blog-post.

Clearly, I have no problems blathering away on the keyboard just putting words on paper – or, rather, on my computer screen – so, for me, what's the point of trying to write only 800 words? Why try my hand at writing compact short stories when both of my last two novels were almost 200,000 words long? Yes, “learning” to write shorter works, especially in this day of short attention spans and non-taxing tweets, might be highly recommended. But it is also an age of binge-ing, a dichotomy I find intriguing.

It's not that “writing 800 words” wasn't a sufficient challenge, since many would consider writing even 100 words a daunting task. I just didn't feel drawn to writing that number of words, you know? It also didn't appeal to me because the “word goal” seemed so arbitrary, not being particularly interested in writing self-contained stories.

In addition to those essays by E.B. White about his living in Maine, I also found myself intrigued by the feuilleton, originally “a supplement to the political portion of French newspapers, containing non-political news and gossip, literature and art criticism, a chronicle of the latest fashions, that also contained epigrams, charades and other literary trifles.”

Now, that's something I'd find more interesting and certainly fits in with the original, free-range idea behind Thoughts on a Train. One week I could write about something musical; the next, maybe something “literary.”

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A few decades ago, I'd become fascinated by the Golden Section and how it relates to symmetry and proportion in art, plus the unique numerical series that reflects it: read more about it, here. (Seriously, you expect me to explain the Fibonacci Sequence and still keep this under 5,000 words? That's what Wikipedia is for!) So rather than write 800 words, I chose the oddly specific number 987, only because it's part of the Fibonacci Series. I'll explain later, but let it suffice that's only part of the reason.

It should be more than just an arbitrary choice of another number, something I'd chosen at random but still within reason, so I thought my feuilleton could reflect the proportions of the Fibonacci Sequence. Like a piece of music in, say, “sonata form,” everything could be structurally subdivided into a pattern reflecting the Golden Ratio.

Drawing a line and dividing it at the Golden Section – see illustration, left – results in two unequal parts, not exactly “halves,” and subdividing each segment further results in smaller segments but with similar proportions. If this line represents the time-span of a novel or piece of music, various subdivisions could help create chapters or phrases.

Rather than producing a sequence of equal, box-like units dividing everything in halves, it creates an asymmetrical sense of rhythmic flow. If handled properly, it can propel the reader or listener toward the conclusion.

This so-called “Golden Proportion” occurs frequently in nature – in nautilus shells and sunflowers – or in pleasant balances of art or architecture, where you can, with a practiced eye, at least see these proportional relationships. How do you do that in something unfolding in time, not just space, like listening to music or reading a book?

Like many things we look at, listen to – or read – and find satisfying, we cannot explain why we respond to it. But we do and do it without really understanding what initiates our response.

If you listen to a symphony by Beethoven or a song by Beyoncé, you can enjoy it without any musical training, so much technical stuff going by unnoticed even if you are musically trained.

So we'll see how long I can keep up a weekly 987-Word Challenge, though it's not really a New Year's Resolution...