Pipes Up!

I came home to an empty driveway and darkened house tonight.  This did not alarm me overmuch, but I did wonder where my housemates might be spending their Friday evening.  Annnnd then I went inside and got on Facebook, which reminded me that ah yes, they have made their way to Mackinac Island for the weekend.  Which prompts the question: what to do with an empty house?

Obvious, really: listen to really, really loud music!  And maybe vacuum up cobwebs at midnight because I can.  Mix up some really weird drinks.  Do some utterly tragic dancing.  Shower with the bathroom door open.  What can I say?  I live dangerously.

So dangerously, a thought struck.

Why just listen to really loud music when I could make it?

I don’t mean singing at the top of my lungs, nor playing the piano exceptionally ill.  No, this goes further back, back to college days and a rickety old house.

I headed down to the basement and retrieved my bagpipes.

It’s been years since I’ve even touched them.  Hillsdale had a ramshackle house for the pipers, back in the day, such that one could go and practice at any hour without disturbing anyone (much).  Whether one sounded like Donald MacLeod or a dying cat, the Pipe House was there, a judgment-free zone that mostly muffled the sounds from the neighbors.  There’s been nothing like that since – not at my parents’ house, certainly not in the apartment I shared with Thalia, not at my current home.  Not until this moment.

Down the Bagpipe diagramstairs I went to fetch the silver case.  It’s been waiting patiently for me.  I opened the case, took the pipes gently upstairs, and hunted down my water traps (which protect the reeds from getting too wet and mouldering).  There are four, but I could only find the three for the drones; in my eagerness to play, my attempts to find the fourth were half-hearted at best.  I fixed them into place, attached the dangling top joint of the long bass drone, carefully put the chanter in without disturbing the reed, zipped the bag shut, stood and blew.

The bag didn’t inflate and the chanter didn’t sound, but the noise that came out the drones vindicated every joke comparing the sound of the Highland pipes to the shrieks of a thousand tortured souls.

My kneejerk thought was Oh no.  I’ve lost all strength in my diaphragm, so much so that I can’t keep the bag inflated.  But that didn’t make sense – partly because singing ought to have kept my diaphragm strong enough; partly because the bag is meant to serve as a reservoir, pressured by the left arm to press air through the chanter and drone reeds.  So the second thought was Oh no.  I haven’t played it in years, and the seasoning wore off so the bag’s no longer airtight.  That seemed likely enough, but some examination revealed that oh hey!  I failed to zip the bag completely shut.  No wonder the chanter wasn’t sounding!

Scotty...you must have known this wasn't going to work...

Scotty…you must have known this wasn’t going to work…

Zipped properly, the bag inflated and the drones…well.  The drones still sounded bad.  But then I adjusted the second tenor drone and voila: the golden ringing tone of drones which might, just possibly, be in tune.  Sure, the stock needs new hemp wound around it to keep the reed in place, but it can be tuned!

My fingers still remember Bonny Galloway, Abide With Me, and Amazing Grace.  I got out my binders of pipe music, and it’s amazing what comes back: the hornpipes that I loved despite their being too fast for me (Honey in the Bag!); the numbers we rehearsed so much that it’s abhorrent merely to set eyes on them (ugggggh, Mull of Kintyre); the songs that accelerate like a train; and the piobaireachd with its elaborate ornamentation.

So housemates, be prepared: my pipes are up, and I don’t think I’ll put them back down.

…well, okay, except for right now, because my lips just gave out.

Joyrides

I took a different road to choir the other night, since rehearsal was on north campus instead of our usual room in Palmer Commons. Huron River Drive took me through the woods, around the river, away from all the shoppers and students and sidewalks of my normal route down Washtenaw Avenue. The windows were down, the air gently breezy and free from summer’s mugginess. Not too hot, not too cold, no bugs, as my uncle always describes a perfect day.

Zipping about with Carbon Leaf blaring filled me with a quietly piercing sort of contentment, the music underscoring the freedom and possibility inherent in the spring. It all struck me as so appropriate: the alternately intense and mellow music, the car, the weather, the drive. I felt the right age, for once. Not too old to discover new things, not too young to do something of consequence.

The delight spreads out like a vapor to fill the heart it’s in, leaving me ready to face the formidable, ready to rejoice.

*

I took a different road to work yesterday morning, since Ruby was due for her three-month checkup and my father graciously allowed me the use of his vehicle once more. I-96, my typical freeway from Detroit to Plymouth, has been ripped up for replacement, and traffic has been shunted to the parallel roads. So I headed down Fenkell, which was livelier than I’ve seen it quite some time, trying to hit the green lights as ZZ Top sang about cheap sunglasses on 94.7.

I had already forgotten, for the most part, what it’s like to drive a big boat of a Buick: the wide circle of the thin steering wheel, the weight of the car and resulting momentum, the noise of the engine, the raspy speakers. This, too, felt appropriate. Like Fenkell and classic rock and a Buick Century were meant to be together.

The delight rumbles and burns, a Motor City jalopy that keeps on keeping on.

Lightsabers, and Other Sundry Issues

A friend recently remarked on the Book of Face that science does actually have the ability to make lightsabers. But most scientists prefer to spend their efforts on more worthwhile endeavors, such as discovering the “hemihelix”.

In the immortal words of this friend,

Look, I’m not saying the hemihelix won’t end up curing cancer or something — I’m just saying, WHERE’S MY LIGHTSABER?!”

I can only concur, and invite you all to sign a lightsaber petition and send it to the nearest scientists with a degree in  . . . . physics? what type of physics would produce a lightsaber, astrophysics?

But before you run off to do that, I have two things for you to watch.

The first is beautiful, excellent, and well done.

The second is a terrible idea, horribly made, and with very bad props. (Don’t worry, I found the edited version that contains only the BEST 15 minutes of an otherwise hour-long program.)

Guess which one was done professionally.

 

 

P Stands for Paddy, I Suppose

It is St. Patrick’s Day!

So it’s the official day of reading, praying, or singing The Lorica of St. Patrick.

It is, somewhat less officially, the day of wearing the green, pledging with the claddaugh, listening to uilleann pipes, watching step dancers, drinking beer, sipping whiskey, eating potatoes and corned beef, etc., etc.

Reveling in some W. B. Yeats is a delicious part of this balanced breakfast celebration of Eire.  Here are a few poems of his:

The Wheel

Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter’s best of all;
And after that there s nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come -
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.

Into the Twilight

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Listening to The Sound of Silence

Originally I was going to muse in a distressingly solipsistic fashion about writing and reality.  I might do so yet, but Internetland has informed me that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s tune “The Sound of Silence,” so.  Priorities.

My brother Mark and I reckoned it was a fine time to listen to that song, and (despite its later debut date) the Sounds of Silence album.  Sitting wrapped up in afghans in the basement, we sang the first few songs with our mum: the most appropriate company and atmosphere, outside a family road trip.  Having loved every single one of them for some 15 years, I relished harmonizing during each song.

Halfway through “Blessed,” Mum headed upstairs to fetch her original-issue LP*: one of the first albums she owned, she told us.  The sides are taped, but the record’s in good shape by the look of it.  For those of us unaccustomed to records, it might be strange to recall that they have sides, and the first side ends with “Angie” (a guitar piece riffing on “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”), and the second side starts with “Richard Cory.”

Listening to the album straight through is lovely, and a bit curious: I loved the songs before I was quite old enough to catch all the subtext, so it took me years to recognize how melancholy it all is.  It manages to be rather upbeat, considering it treats the passage of time, the underprivileged, a robbery and the attendant flight from justice, a suicide, a different suicide, an April-September relationship, and a man determined to be an unfeeling island.  It’s not quite Old Blind Dogs level-buoyancy – they can sing about syphilis and the gallows and make it sound cheerful – but there’s a lovely pensiveness to Sounds of Silence which reminded me of Chesterton’s line about the Irish: All their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

I’m left wondering whether I would have delighted in the melancholy regardless, or if my listening habits in younger days shaped me to it.  But either way, we’ve got a groovey thing goin’, baby.

Sounds of Silence
*A note on the back of the album cover says “This Columbia high fidelity monaural recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old.  If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true-to-life fidelity.  In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future.”  What a claim!  I admire your pluck, Columbia.

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Carmina Burana

It’s concert week once again!  For the next four days, the Choral Union is performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, so it’s looming large in my mind.  Last night, as we went to dress rehearsal, I read the translation of the Latin and Middle High German choruses to my brother.  Wouldn’t you know it: I then had an easier time singing the words, knowing more or less what they meant.  So I thought I’d share.

Go here to see the live-stream of the performance, 7:30 PM Eastern TONIGHT!

When I was in college and our choir director announced that we’d perform Carmina Burana, I was nonplussed as I’d never heard of it before.  But, as he then pointed out, every single one of us had probably heard its first movement, “O Fortuna,” at least once.  It’s very popular for any given Moment of Epic Import, so much so that it’s a bit cliché.  Typically the folks using it ignore the fact that it’s crying out at Fortune, lamenting and snarling in anger at the whims of cruel Fate.  This is how Carmina Burana begins, and it’s also how it ends – angrier than ever at the Wheel of Fortune for spinning onward.

But what about the other 23 movements?

Well.  That’s why I’m here. Continue reading

Rhyme Schemes Send Me Silly Places

Merry 6th day of Christmas!  I hope your home is not overrun by poultry sent by your true love.  In lieu of six geese a’laying and a summation of other bird-gifts, I have some exploration of a hymn for you.  Just what you always wanted, right?  I know, I know, I shouldn’t have.

Yesterday at church, we sang “From East to West.”  I’d call it a run-of-the-mill Christmas hymn and forget about it, but it struck my ear with a thing I call Éponine rhymes – so called because of a section of Les Miserables that always stuck in my brain:

Marius:   Get out before the trouble starts!
Get out, ‘Ponine, you might get shot!
Éponine: I’ve got you worried now, I have.
That shows you like me quite a lot!

If you don’t know that “quite a lot” is coming, you sit there wondering why Éponine would fail so badly at rhyming with the fellow she adores.  How else to prove you were made to finish his duet?

Taking a musket ball for him is not conducive to singing duets with him, I'm afraid.

Taking a musket ball for him is not conducive to singing duets with him, I’m afraid.

It’s not unrhymed; the rhyme just takes longer than expected to show up.  Thus with “From East to West”: it’s an ABAB rhyme scheme, but was set to a tune more frequently employed for “From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come,” which has an AABB scheme.  The ear expects a rhyme immediately, and is startled by the wait.

I contemplated sending a note to Thalia, saying Thought of you this morning whilst singing LSB 385.  The power of rhyme, it is not strong with Mr. Ellerton.  But John Ellerton, as it happens, was but translating the words of 5th century poet Coelius Sedulius.

Obviously I had to see what sort of rhyming Coelius Sedulius did or didn’t do.  This is what I found: “A Solis Ortus Cardine,” or “From the point of the rising of the sun,” is an acrostic with twenty-three verses about Christ’s birth, his ministry, his miracles, his betrayal, his death, and his resurrection.  Coelius Sedulius used every letter of the Roman alphabet to start the verses, which calls for some creativity: not only does he juggle different rhyme schemes (ABBA, ABCB, AABB, AABA, etc.), but he had to be extra inventive when he reached the letter X.  So far as I can determine, “xeromurram” is a hapax legomenon referring to myrrh (myrrham, rendered as murram for postclassical vulgar Latinate Reasons) intended to anoint the body of Christ, whose name is alluded to via a spelled-out Chi Rho.

Since it’s not always practical to sing all 23 verses, the church used the first 7 (plus a doxology) as a Christmas hymn, and 4 of the later verses (plus a doxology) as an Epiphany hymn.  Luther translated these two hymns into German (with an AABB scheme throughout), and later on Ellerton translated the Christmas hymn into “From East to West” as we sing it today.

Admittedly, these renditions do not necessarily reflect how we sing it today.  I thought they were interesting, though, and wanted to share them:

Gregorian plainchant hymn adapted to English by St. Meinrad Benedictine Archabbey in Indiana

Alan Charlton’s Advent motet, sung by the Meridian Singers

Guillaume Dufay, or so it says, alternating polyphony and chant.

All glory for this blessed morn
To God the Father ever be;
All praise to You, O Virgin-born,
And Holy Ghost eternally.

Review Part 1: Disney’s Frozen

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Did you read The Snow Queen? It is my favorite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. And I grew up on fairy tales: Andrew Lang’s books, many beautiful picture books, and sundry collections of various folklore! (For some reason, Grimm’s fairy tales were not so big in my home. It might have been the R rating most of the originals have.)

Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, is a tale of true love saving an icy heart through hard work and sacrifice. I loved the edition my family had, as it was gorgeously illustrated, highlighting the sharp, biting beauty of Ice and Snow.

 

When I heard that Disney was “reimagining” Andersen’s tale, I was both worried and intrigued. Frozen premiered yesterday, and my housemate and I went to see it.

And I like it. Maybe more than “like”. The more I think about it, it gets higher on my list of favorite movies. I want to share it with people I love.  Starting with you. You should go see Frozen.

It is not perfect by any means, so I am wary of overselling.  But I need to talk about it! My compromise is to make a list of pros and cons for the movie. (If you are fearful of spoilers, read carefully. A few might slip in.)

 

The Story

Cons: It is not the original Andersen story. There are significant changes, mainly shifting the focus from a boy-girl pair to a pair of sisters.

Pros: It works. The heart of the story is figuring out what True Love is, and removing the possibility of romantic mushy feelings from the central pair certainly crystallizes our definition. 

 

The Plot

Cons: There are a few holes. Mainly, the sudden ability to control magical icy powers.

Pros: The holes are not in important parts. The magical abilities are a part of the setting, not the focus. And the story telling does a good job of making that clear.

 

The Art

Cons: It is a cartoon. Which means round faces and unlikely body proportions for all living things. Maybe I am spoiled, but I expect animated characters to make better use of  facial expressions.

Pros: It is a cartoon. Which means stunning closeups of snowflakes an ice and an ICE PALACE that will take away your breath. (Not to mention an ice dress.) And there are a few good faces. Also, there is a pretty scene of Anna imitating classical works of art that are hung around her palace.

 

 

The Music

Cons: It is not the Lion King. Or Prince of Egypt.

Pros: HARMONY! CHOIRS! SOARING NOTES! Songs than capture the moment and plot and emotions! Background music that works with the story so well I barely noticed it! Melodies that work with the lyrics, lyrics that appreciate pretty words! (“Frozen fractals”!!!)  But seriously, how long has it been since Disney actually used harmony and choirs? And lyrics that have united and developed the narrative themes and motifs? You can listen for yourself, if you wish.

 

Our Protagonist Sisters

Cons:  . . . . None

Pros: SISTERS! Their relationship is the center of the story, and . . . I can’t say more without spoilers. I really want my own sisters now.

 

The Side Characters

Cons: There is an annoying talking snowman named Olaf.

Pros: Other than Olaf, all the side characters are excellently crafted, acted, and used. Each has a purpose AND a personality. Even the snowman. (Supposedly he is the personification of the sisterly bond. But he is still annoying.)

The Wit

Cons: Not so witty. There is a tad bit of mild potty humor. And the kind of things that 5-year-olds find funny.

Pros: Fortunately, it has enough substance that it doesn’t need wit.

 

The Villain

Cons: There is no villain! There is a cad, but he is easily spotted, serves an important narrative purpose, and get his boring comeuppance.

Pros: There is no villain! Our two protagonist sisters face a true battle against FEAR. Yes, the real opposite of love is not hate, but fear. And this movie states that baldly. Which brings us to . . .

 

The Subtlety

Cons: Frozen has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The themes, motifs and morals are so obvious, a five-year-old can identify them. Even the humor has big, blinking arrows pointing to it. (Not literally. But it may as have have.)

Pros: A five-year-old can identify the themes. Does a good fairy tale need subtlety? I have spent years looking at the art of literature, savoring the delicate images and tastes of humanity and truth. I appreciate those, but I recognize that sometimes bluntness is needed.

It is almost as if Disney is trying to reverse years of overly mushy ideas of romance and impractical ideas of love in one movie. It has the same theme as all real, important, fairy tales: True Love. It even correctly identifies the true opposite of love as fear! (I really can’t get over that.) The motifs (storms, doors, creation vs. control, etc.) are well chosen and well used.

To be fair, our modern society has stopped using or understanding  subtlety well. Those who do look for subtlety are the academics, most of whom tend to read their own insane symbols and agendas into the work. The frankness of Frozen does forestall this misunderstanding or misinterpretations.

While Frozen might have appealed to a more adult audience had it used subtlety, it adheres to the structure of old fairy tales and is accessible to all ages. It is blunt, but I can forgive that when it is blunt about Truth and gives the theological definition of love.

The Theology

Cons: Shockingly, there are no cons. There was a moment when I thought there might be, but then the characters very helpfully and carefully explained themselves, and all was well.

Pros: There must have been a solid Christian crafting this story. It is possible for  clever and thoughtful agnostic to have written it, but my instinct says otherwise. This movie not dares to ask and answer the question “what is love?” Their answer (as closely as I can remember) is “Love is wanting what is good for another person, and acting on it no matter what the cost for another person“. What does the Catholic Catechism say about love?  “To love is to will the good of another.'” Brilliant.

And because there is no subtlety, they even point out the in-movie examples. Just in case we missed them. But the examples are good, realistic, and, like all good theology, filled with common sense.

 

Conclusion

In his chapter, the Ethics of Elfland, G.K. Chesterton describes a fairy tale as being built on common sense and the ideals of eternal Truth and Reality. Frozen does fit this definition: it adhere to its internal logic, and is surprisingly well rooted in common sense. The characters ring true as portraits of humanity. The story is well crafted, if obvious, and holds fast to the heart of all good stories: love and sacrifice.

In short, go see Frozen.

And then come back and discuss it with me! When I have had time to percolate ideas, I will come back and expand on the themes and story telling. As obvious as it is, it might be a good teaching tool to point all those literary devices!