Monday, February 28, 2011


Paul McCartney certainly had his moments of lyrical elegance. But he wasn't at his best in "Live and Let Die." For instance, the line
But if this ever-changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry

gets me every dang time I hear it. "World in which we live in?" Really? No one caught that before it went to press?

I just heard that sung twelve times. I cringed every time.

And, for the record, that mistake is called a pleonasm.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

art and inspiration

From Muriel Spark's Loitering With Intent:

When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

things i did in 10

I started off doing this yearly thing on Valentine's Day several years ago: it gives me enough time to digest the previous year and see what may be worth remembering.

Check it out (and see previous years as well) at

Friday, February 18, 2011

a friend's milestone

Last night right before curtain on opening night of Baylor's All-University Sing, Jason caught my eye and said, "Twenty years."

Yep, he's been arranging music for the show for twenty years now. Like many of us, he saw the show and had an I-should-be-doing-this moment. Then he went out and conquered. His first few years went in a normal way: he was one of the handful of arrangers for the show (each year there are usually between fifteen and twenty acts). Then one year he took on eleven acts, more than any arranger had ever done. Each act is a massive amount of work; the director at first wanted to limit him; Jason said, "just let me try it and you'll see." Anyone who knows Jason knows what happened next. The eleven arrangements turned out just great, and the show went on.

A Sing arranger doesn't just do music. You advise, cheerlead, rehearse, audition singers; sometimes you help pick themes and do other big-picture stuff. Jason, a gifted carpenter, now helps a number of acts build their props. On top of doing Sing, he also does mastering for Word Music: hundreds of recorded songs a year. On top of that he does audio for films. (His latest, "Paradise Recovered," is getting national attention, not least because of his exacting standards and artistic touch.) And then there's all the other stuff: he's a dedicated outdoorsman and mountaineer who has conquered over half the nations fourteeners; he's a superb craftsman, not just in music but in carpentry, having made everything from lovely tables and cabinets to lathed Cocobolo pens to a giant duck; he even combined his passions to build his own music studio — every wire and window and drop of paint and bit of fine cabinetry. He's a skilled pilot, a slightly mad maker of things that blow up, an ardent astronomer, a voracious reader, a terrific and inventive cook (and foodie), a wine enthusiast, and, I'm proud to say, a friend. He also seems to be a perfect husband, and he and his wife Erin are treasured friends to Catherine and me.

It's only fitting that in his twentieth year he also celebrates another milestone. This year, in Sing, Jason is the only arranger. All seventeen acts, every note. All up to his usual high standard, with lush orchestral sequences and (his specialty) beautiful choral writing. That's around 120 songs, roughly 5000 measures, probably 15,000 active frames. The rock rocks, the swing swings, the electronica pumps, the orchestra soars, the funk grooves. The audience is moved.

Congratulations, friend.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

thanks, george shearing

Growing up with my parents' record collection at hand, I had a rich source of musical input. One album close to my heart is George Shearing's Shearing On Stage, whose liner notes I pored over as I listened and listened. Later, I bought more of his stuff for my own shelf.

I found out today that he died on Valentine's Day. Fitting: so much of his music was so romantic. What a fantastic musician. His quintet lineup, with guitar and vibes, and no trumpet or sax or trombone, introduced a distinct sound to jazz. His unusual technique, limning melodies with whole chords rather than just soloing with the right hand and comping with the left, made his piano sound like a horn section.

This astounding clip says it all. Notice that he starts off his solo with the traditional solo-and-comping, then at about 2 minutes breaks into his nimble one-man-sectional sound. Man! He had heart, he had technique, and close observers will remember that when this clip was filmed very few bands, even in jazz, included both white and black players on the same stage. I guess some things are hard to explain to a blind Englishman.

His signature sound was famously imitated in the theme music to "Frasier." Here's a clip of his most famous composition, "Lullaby of Birdland."

We'll miss him.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

a cultural question: drivers

Is there any city or country that brags about how good its drivers are?

What does this say about us?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

pajamas, quilts, and the invisible truth

In a recent Dear Prudence — one of Catherine's and my favorite semi-guilty pleasures — there's a question from a woman who wonders whether it's creepy that she wants to keep her dead grandmother's pajamas and wear them. Prudence quite reasonably says it's a heartwarming thing and not creepy at all. Then there's a note from the Editor that says this:

A Note From Prudie's Editor: Here's another idea for Grandma's P.J.s—have them made into a quilt, along with some of her other clothing or belongings.

Our truest messages are often invisible, and often encoded within our very grammar. Did you notice? "Have them made." Go find yourself one of those quilters and have that person make you a quilt. The editor, quite rightly, assumes that the reader would never dream of making a quilt herself.

Monday, February 7, 2011

the national anthem vs the star-spangled banner

Much has been made of Christina Aguilera's performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the game the other day. But I think people may be focusing on the wrong thing.

Yes, she botched some of the lyrics. But, at least in my hearing, she did what every professional should do in a situation like that: she played it off, and played it off well. She just filled in words from another part of the song, and it was seamless. I'm not quite sure if I'd have noticed had someone not pointed it out. And, of course, Aguilera being Aguilera, she sounded magnificent. She has one of the best instruments in pop music, honed by hard work and terrific musicianship.

On the other hand, there was something troubling to me about the whole thing. First and foremost, it has always bugged me whenever one performer performs the thing rather than having the entire congregation sing it themselves. The way I see it, when everyone in the stands puts their hands over their hearts and sings, it's the National Anthem. When a superstar performer offers up a rubato version, littered with ornamentations, it's just "The Star-Spangled Banner." The point of having the National Anthem at a game is completely obviated when this happens: the whole point is the ceremony of it, and it's killed when we sacrifice yet another community activity to the American cult of the superstar.

Come to think of it, we could be spending a Sunday afternoon outside playing football ourselves.

But hey, the Super Bowl is, at its best, a great show. This leads us to the second point. Because the ceremony of an anthem has been killed by gospel-inflected soloists (or, more accurately, by our hiring of them), the other participants in the ceremony have followed suit, and the camera has caught up. So, during Aguilera's performance, we no longer see Aguilera from beginning to end. The camera cuts to the day's gladiators, who are very obviously using the Star-Spangled Banner not as a National Anthem but as a Personal Psych-Up. One by one, we see players using this time to mentally and physically prepare for the game to come. One player seems to be worshipfully gazing at the flag with a tear in his eye: the rest are already playing.

Wouldn't it be great to see one of those uprisings of popular opinion, a demand that next year we get our National Anthem back?

Friday, February 4, 2011

which ten commandments?

Were you aware that different people count the Ten Commandments differently? It's always an interesting subject to explore.

"Honor thy father and mother," for instance: is that the fourth, or the fifth? If you answered fifth, you're probably Protestant or Jewish. If you answered fourth, you're probably Catholic. (If you answered that you have no idea, then you're probably [insert name of denomination famous for their Biblical illiteracy].)

Yep, it's true. The commandments take up sixteen verses in both their iterations (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). How you divvy those into ten is a different matter. Jews and Catholics seem to take the view that the second iteration is the most current one (and Jews especially unite it with what comes shortly after, in chapter 6, the Sh'ma Yisrael, which begins with "Hear O Israel" and is considered a central statement of the faith).

Jews do it like this:
1. I am the Lord your God
2. Worship no god but Jehovah; Make no graven images
3. Don't take the Lord's name in vain
4. Keep the Sabbath
5. Honor your parents
6. Don't kill
7. Don't commit adultery
8. Don't steal
9. Don't bear false witness
10. Don't covet your neighbor's wife; Don't covet your neighbor's possessions

Catholics do it like this:
1. I am the Lord your God; Worship no god but Jehovah; Make no graven images
2. Don't take the Lord's name in vain
3. Keep the Sabbath
4. Honor your parents
5. Don't kill
6. Don't commit adultery
7. Don't steal
8. Don't bear false witness
9. Don't covet your neighbor's wife
10. Don't covet your neighbor's possessions

Protestants do it like this:
1. Worship no god but Jehovah
2. Make no graven images
3. Don't take the Lord's name in vain
4. Keep the Sabbath
5. Honor your parents
6. Don't kill
7. Don't commit adultery
8. Don't steal
9. Don't bear false witness
10. Don't covet

Look at the covets. Protestants seem to take the view that the earlier iteration is the original and better one. Just about the only difference between the two is the wording of the part about coveting: in Exodus, the earlier one, it lists things you shouldn't covet in order as house, wife, servants, animals, anything else. In Deuteronomy, the later one, it's wife, house, field, servants, animals, anything else. If you take the earlier account, you can't very well separate the human possession (wife) from the other possessions and keep it in order. Therefore, you lump all the covets as one big thing, and you split the first commandment, about having no other gods, into two, with the second talking about graven images. Theoretically, you could consider all the bit about idols as part and parcel of the "no other gods" clause, but then you wouldn't have the immense satisfaction of saying the idolatrous Popish Catholics, with their stained glass windows and statues of Mary, are breaking one of the Ten Commandments.

Not that any of it actually matters, of course: all the bases are covered, no matter how you number them. Still, interesting questions arise. How are they displayed in a place of worship? No problem at all: you do it according to your faith's tradition. How are they displayed in a public place? Again, no problem: you do it according to the tradition of whoever's displaying them. How are they displayed publicly on government property, paid for by taxpayers, who may be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or something else entirely, or nothing? (Good question. For this reason among others, I like the traditional Baptist answer, and humbly suggest that we practice civil discourse with our brethren of different faiths and no faith by ... spending our hard-earned taxpayer money on something other than religious monuments.)

All this is pretty interesting to me, and it offers an explanation for a phenomenon you may have wondered about: whenever Moses is pictured holding the tablets, they often have no writing on them but simple numbers (usually, preposterously, Roman numerals). But they're almost never evenly split, 1-5 and 6-10. Instead, it's either 1-3 on the first tablet and 4-10 on the second, or 1-4 on the first and 5-10 on the second. The split, then, in both Protestant and Catholic cases, is the split between matters of faith and matters of civil law; between rules that govern the relation of person to religion and the relation of person to person. (Jews split them 5 and 5, because they count the 5th, honoring your parents, as a religious duty rather than a civic one. Go figure.)

Catherine, who went to eight years of Catholic school and attended a Church of Christ college, reports having had several Nowwaitjustaminute! moments as she tried to reconcile two branches of the faith that expressed such different theological understandings with such similar terms. Must be like listening to two people with the same vocabulary but different dictionaries, or sitting at the same board and discovering one's playing checkers and the other's playing chess.

The whole thing makes me think Jews (of which Jesus was most definitely one) have the right idea in Deuteronomy 6: you can hardly go wrong regarding your neighbor as you regard yourself.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Protag love in the San Antonio Express-News

Here ya go. A real nice write-up by the eminent Jim Beal Jr., hot off the presses. It's all in anticipation of our massive 20th Anniversary Shindig on Saturday, February 5th.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

honor and life

We're going through the Ten Commandments at Holy Trinity Anglican. Every Sunday a different one; this last week's was "honor thy father and mother."

The pastor, Chuck, said something arresting: in trying to define and enact "honor" (simply obey? simply love?), one thing you might do is to finally forgive your parents. Wow! It's true that some folks go through life never having forgiven their parents for all the wrongs or imperfections visited upon them (generational legacies appear earlier in the Ten, when it's mentioned that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons, a harsh-sounding but psychologically accurate fact of human life and society).

This struck me, not because my parents were so gosh-durn awful (though human and flawed, they were pretty much exemplary: I can't think of a single Big Thing they got wrong), but because I was thinking about Moses' audience. In giving us these laws, I think God was speaking not only to the vast audience of humankind, but also to the Chosen People, Israel; and not only that but also to this specific group of people waiting (or not particularly waiting) at the foot of the mountain.

Think about it: the people of Israel were only moments away from being starkly divided into two groups. There were those with a future in the promised land, and there were those who were carcasses. Remember? Everyone knows the Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years, but not everyone recalls why. Only weeks after Mount Sinai, they sent spies into the promised land; the spies found enemies; most voted against going in; Joshua and Caleb were confident that God's promise was true; they were outvoted; boom, we're not going in. So God says to his people that everyone over 20 will in fact die in the wilderness, and people under 20 and yet to be born will be the only ones who will actually make it across the border and set up shop in that conflicted land.

His actual words here are, "But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness." Ouch.

Just as the people are processing this list of rules they've been given, they commit this great act of unfaithfulness, and everyone over 20 now has no hope of ever seeing the place they were escaping to. (With two conspicuous exceptions: Joshua and Caleb.) Meanwhile, there's everyone under 20. What then do you say to your parents? How do you treat them, and their peers, and your grandparents, and their peers? They just made it so that you have to be a nomad for 20 years (more than the length of your entire life up to that point). God himself has already condemned them, called them corpses. What do you call them, in your unguarded moments?

And right here, there's been a new law handed down. Along with the unsurprising rules (no other gods but Jehovah) and shoo-ins (no murder; no stealing), there's this law that comes attached to a promise. After all, the whole thing says: "Honor thy father and mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." Twisty promise there, yes? Your very longevity in the land is explicitly tied to honoring those who have just kept you out of it.

This overlooked dimension — these two words from the same Jehovah, the stark word of condemnation for an entire people except for their youngest generation (things never change!) and the stark order for that generation to honor the condemned, the double-edged message that vengeance belongs to the divine and the divine alone — this overlooked dimension could not have been invisible to those people at that time. It had resonance for them, and it has resonance for us.