Tuesday, December 28, 2010

more greta

Now that's one cute girl.

more here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

here's to the crazy ones

I was just thinking about my favorite Apple ad, one of the few advertisements that really gets it.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

thoughts on the lunar eclipse

Did you see the eclipse the other day? Wow. The winter solstice, the full moon, and a lunar eclipse. Last time it happened all at once was 1682.

I saw nothin' but fog.

But I did go out and look up, and I remembered all the people who went out and looked up — shepherds, wise men — as well as a famous one, Galileo, who was sitting in jail the last time this eclipse happened.

So, this season, a prayer: that we may become more like the stargazers, the wonderers, the awestruck, the curious — and that the jails we all build for such people will burst open.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

modes and the arranger

Do you know the difference between a scale and a mode? At least colloquially, we usually call major and minor scales "scales," whereas we call other Western scales "modes." Not very scientific, but that's just how it is. The major scale is, for instance, all the white keys starting from C to the next C. The minor scale is, for instance, all the white keys starting from A to the next A.

Generally, classical music and church hymns and what you might throw in the barrel of "traditional" music is in a scale. Might not be white keys, but it'll all be either major or minor. The thing is that that's relatively recent. In older days — not too long before, say, Bach — you could go from D to D or G to G on all white keys and it sounded just great to their ears. We call them the "modes," and there's a name for each one of them. (Those last two are the Dorian mode and the Mixolydian mode.) Nowadays it sounds great to modern ears, because we can use those modes in jazz or rock and it works. But it most definitely doesn't sound like a classical song or a great old hymn. It sounds older or newer than that.

So, for instance, play a fun game here: take the same passage, and play it in G-major, then play it again in G Mixolydian. The first one sounds just as classical as can be. Mozart or Haydn would just love it. The second sounds like something from the Renaissance Fair. All because of a single dang note!

Crazy, yes?

Anyway, I was thinking about all this when preparing "What Child Is This" for a church service. The melody, "Greensleeves," is one of the oldest we've got. It was all the rage when Shakespeare was writing, which is why his characters get snarky about its popularity. (Some things never change.) So, when played in its natural way, in the Dorian mode, it sounds very Renaissancy. Usually, though, in hymnals, it gets "corrected" to a simple minor scale. The result is that you're used to hearing it both ways, and either way sounds just fine. The only question is which way are you gonna do it this time?

Here's the "fixed," classical way:

Here's the original, Dorian way:

This is where I come in as an arranger. What if you could make everyone sing it one way or the other? Well, you can. Any tune can have any number of different chord structures, different harmonies to surround the melody and give it context. With those harmonies, you can lead people to the next note. Have you ever been in one of those churches where all they give you is words, and you notice that some songs end up being easier to catch on to than others? The arrangements are a big part of it.

Naturally, once I'd formulated that What If, I had only one choice: to do an arrangement that makes people sing it both ways, one right after the other. The melody repeats itself: why not do it once with a C-natural and once with a C-sharp? Better yet, make it so that people don't even know they're doing it.

Here's what I came up with. Try it on someone. It absolutely works, with people who know music and people who don't. I've now done this in 4 different church settings, and never once has anyone — even music geeks — mentioned that we're actually singing the melody differently each time. It just goes down easy.

This, this is why I love music.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

video: beyond the rim of the starlight

I can't tell you how many times I've been criticized for taking seriously something that people don't take seriously, or don't think worthy of it. But that tendency has led me to some rewarding moments.

Case in point: the theme from Star Trek. The melody, by Alexander Courage, has gradually become respected as a 20th-century icon. (Read more here.) The lyrics are another story. Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, wrote them, never intending to use them on the show, but enabling himself to get half the song's royalties. Though this had been written into the contract, Courage was exasperated when he found out Roddenberry actually did it; he never wrote any more music for Star Trek episodes. Meanwhile, as far as I know, no one has ever recorded a serious version of the song — not once. Can this be?

Roddenberry, who was apparently trying for the Grammy Award For Most Uses Of The Word "Star" In One Song, certainly commits some doozies, the most scorned of which must be "Love, strange love a star-woman teaches." Horribly corny, yes, but behind the corniness is a very real dread, known by women from Phoenicia to Nantucket. Smirk all you want: the song taps into something universal here.

This is why I chose not to switch the genders. In jazz, songs that are gendered get switched up all the time depending on whether a man or woman is singing. On the face of it, that's odd. After all, city-dwellers can sing about daisies in green pastures, gray-haired singers croon about first love, but it's rare that a male sings a song from a female perspective, or vice-versa. The lyrics are almost always fiddled with — sometimes jarringly, as with Ella Fitzgerald's "Have You Met Miss Jones," which she changes to the lame "Have You Met Sir Jones." Sir Jones? Really? (All is forgiven, Ella being Ella.)

But I claim license to deliver a song from a woman's perspective, and I think it's important in this one to keep the genders where they are. This song could be sung by Filipa Columbus, Sophie Aubrey, Ahab's wife. It would certainly be understood by them. Note the phrase "as he wanders his starry sea," rooting this song in our watery planet. Also note the emotional pronoun: Roddenberry could have written "as he wanders the starry sea," and it would have been fine; that single word "his," though, is a touch of genius, showing some psychological insight.

Singing it, I also caught onto the song's final words: "Remember me." It echoed in my mind with one of the most indelible songs ever written, Dido's Lament from Sir Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Of course, Dido would relate to the singer here too, and, read this way, the final line suggests a darker ending to this portrait of a woman left pining.

Recently, I threw a chart in front of my fellow Jazz Protagonists. They didn't disappoint. We at once settled into an unusual, haunting mood, with Darren Kuper's percolating beat setting off Greg Norris's sinuous bass line. Only later did I notice Greg's spontaneous reference to the original show's opening fanfare at just the right time in the coda.

All in all, I had tons of fun taking this song seriously.

(If you can't see the video, click here)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I met a Greta

It happened, for the first time in 5 months. I was at a Christmas party, and found myself introduced to a woman named Greta. That's such a rare name! I was glad to tell her about our kid; she said she'd always been the only Greta around, but lately has been running into the name more and more. How odd, to meet a grown Greta.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

the ministry of magic

Every couple knows it's hard to find good couple friends. Cate and I have a few sets of those, one being Erin and Jason. Jason's a fellow composer and kindred spirit, Erin's a concert pianist and chief of a massive and dynamic music school in Austin, and together they match us well, with broad interests in culture and politics and ideas and food and drink and religion and travel and the life well lived.

Recently, Erin mentioned that she "came down the stairs, expectantly sat down next to the Christmas tree and said 'Accio tea!' and Jason swirled my already-made tea through the air all the way to me from the kitchen."

Everything about that is fantastic. Of course, it shows that they're big Harry Potter fans, with reference to a spell that brings things flying to your hand. (In Rowling's world, Latin has powers. What on earth did wizards do before Romulus and Remus came along?) It also shows a different kind of magic, though. Having a loving spouse invokes a deep magic of its own; that we know, many of us. Even better, a spouse who lovingly engages in an act of servitude; even better, does so with creative whimsy.

But a few of us — who knows how many? — get to experience a spouse who understands us. So often I see couples in which one person makes a great show of putting up with some feature of the other (love of opera, enjoyment of Thai food, woodcarving hobby). That's not the same thing. I feel so fortunate to be married to Catherine, who not only understands and shares my passions but, crucially, understands that I have passions, and has them as well. I'm not being poetic when I call life with her divine.

Ah, to turn to another person and dare to say, "Alohomora!"

Wingardium Leviosa.

Friday, December 3, 2010

300 sextillion

300 sextillion: that's the number of stars we now think we have. That's 3 times larger than we'd thought.

Yep, scientists have discovered 200 sextillion stars we hadn't seen before. (Possibly.) The deal is that an astronomer figured out that elliptical galaxies (unlike our spiral galaxy) contain more red dwarf stars than we had calculated before. I pretty much love everything about this article, which points out that lots of folks are frustrated by the report and hope it's maybe not true, because that makes the universe more complex than we imagined. One scientist says, "It's a little alarmist," and it's shaking up the field "like a cat among pigeons."

A little shaking up now and then is good, no? Religious folk are often the ones getting quoted on not wanting to believe something new because it doesn't fit in their boundaries, but anyone can be guilty of that. I've always been beguiled by the idea that God not only made the stars but has gone to the extravagant length to name them all. So that's a lot more names, a lot more identities, quirks, lovingly crafted idiosyncrasies.