This is the Day the Lord has Made; Let Us Rejoice and be Glad in it!

An ancient chant, taken from Psalm 118:24. In the modern usage, this text is used in the Divine Office and for the Gospel Alleluia verse for all 8 days of the Easter octave, today through Divine Mercy Sunday. In Catholic tradition, Easter is too big a deal to fit into just one day, so the celebration of the day of Resurrections is extended over 8 days, and then a season of 40 days until the Ascension to celebrate the Risen Christ with us.

This is the day which the Lord hath made:
let us be glad and rejoice therein.
Alleluia.

verse for Easter Sunday:
Give praise to the Lord, for he is good:
for his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalm 118:1)
[Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.]

verse for Easter Monday:
Let Israel now say, that he is good:
that his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalm 118:2)

verse for Easter Tuesday:
Let them say so that have been redeemed by the Lord,
whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy:
and gathered out of the countries.
(Psalm 107:2)

Every great composer in the West set this to music for centuries, so, in addition to the epic and wonderful chant setting above, we have any number of other glorious versions:

William Byrd. Perhaps the composer for our current age: by writing in Latin in 16th century England, he warranted a death sentence. That’s why we have dozens and hundreds of masses written by his older contemporaries Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, etc., but only 4 and a set of motets by Byrd. The only place these Latin works could be performed were in private country homes, where there were hidey-holes for the priests & altar fixtures. Get caught attending Mass – get your head chopped off or worse. Yet notice how joyful and this setting is!
Gallus (1550 – 1591), a contemporary of Palestrina and Lassus
Speaking of Palestrina. This version uses something some scholars think was common in the period: horn accompaniment on what is putatively an ‘a capella’ setting.

Bach set this, because of course he did:

Another 16th century setting. Jacob Arcadelt (c.1514-1568) (Pssst – the 16th and early 17 century were as great a flowering of music as anything up to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria belong in any legit discussion of the greatest composers ever. )

Happy, Holy, and Blessed Easter! He is truly risen!

Your Top Christmas Music?

Saw some lists like this on YouTube, thought to myself, I did: the Loyal Readers here could certainly do better.

Here’s my stab. Which one I like best changes depending, any one of these can be number one at any moment. Deal. Also, I’m a singer and a choir rat, so I favor choirs. You needn’t. Onward:

Alison Kraus & Yo-Yo Ma, the Wexford Carol:

O Magnum Mysterium, Tomas Louis Victoria:

Lots of good versions out there.

Nova, Nova, Ave Fit Ex Eva- Williametta Spencer:

Tempo is a little slow to my taste, but still beautiful.

Personet Hodie, a medieval carol:

Coventry Carol:

I like the traditional setting very much, but this arrangement and performance are excellent, too:

I’ll add more as I think of them or as your killer suggestions roll in.

Merry Christmas!

Late Advent Update

A. Since a certain number of my beloved readers come here for the Covidiocy bashing, we’ll start there before moving on to the more mundane stuff. One note on Fauxvid: no disease in history has ever been tracked like this. If we followed the same exact instructions for reporting deaths ‘involving’ COVID, except we substitute ‘stress’ for the kung flu, fairly confident we’d show 300K-400K deaths ‘involving’ stress since the lockdown.

I’m not kidding or exaggerating in the slightest. More on this later.

B. Not saying anyone in particular may or may not do this, but it would sure be a nice tidy little protest if a group of people more or less spontaneously gathered in the town plaza one of these Christmas Season evenings and sang some carols for the joy and enlightenment of passers-by, who, if they were following orders, most certainly wouldn’t be out on a public plaza on a Christmas Season evening in the first place. Lockdown! Curfew!

A certain prominent sociopathic toddler, who does as he’s told to keep us filthy little people in line, has been pasted in here by somebody. Marionette strings photoshopped out.

Would have a bit of that ‘show me the coin with which you pay the tax’ gotcha to it.

C. Will be decorating today, tree & house. Typically wait to the last minute because a) Christmas starts AFTER Advent, and b) historically, that’s when the strapping young college age people return home to do the roof-clambering part of the festivities, which I, an old guy, would rather not do anymore.

But nobody is coming in from college this year. Our three older surviving children are married off, living on the East Coast, or already live with us, as does the 16 year old. So, it ain’t getting any better.

And, I am happy to report, the Christmas lights in our neighborhood came out earlier and with more vigor this year than any previous year I remember. I think people are trying to find a way to express their unhappiness with the lockdown, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing.

We will of course leave ours up through Epiphany.

D. Piano hack – as in, I’m a hack piano player -alert! I’ve been working on the Sonata Pathetique for maybe 2 and half or 3 years now. Started out as a burn off frustration from work thing when I wasn’t inspired to throw bricks out front. So I took on what is, for me, a very difficult but beloved piece.

I spent 18 months just getting the notes, so I could stomp and stumble my way through it. Since then, have whiled away many hours trying to master the many ‘hard’ parts, so that they sound like music and doesn’t sound so much like a poorly-trained monkey working out his frustrations (however accurate that last image may be).

What I’d like it to sound like (in my dreams):

Three or four weeks ago, I started looking for something else to play, some Beethoven maybe not quite so hard, and much shorter so that I could conceivably play it decently in my remaining lifetime. I chose the 2nd movement of the Moonlight Sonata:

2 minutes long, and only maybe 2-3 sections that push my feeble chops. So I now have that one down to the point where I wouldn’t be too embarrassed to play it when other people were listening. Now I need to find some more.

Searching around, found this site, which lists a boatload of classical piano music and ranks them by difficulty. This sort of thing is probably common knowledge among real piano players, but I’ve only had a couple years of lessons spread out over the years from age 15 to maybe 25, so I’ve no doubt missed a lot of details (for example, how to actually play the piano).

So now I know that the Bach preludes and fugues that have been killing me since college are rated 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 5 – on the hard side of the scale, but not really hard. So are the 1st and 3rd movements of the Sonata Pathetique. You evidently have to be able to play arpeggios, scales, chromatic rifts and such to pull these off – who would have thunk it?

So it seems the hardest things I’m likely to able to play in a reasonable amount of time are in the 2.5 range – provided they are not too long. Thus, settled on this little ditty, the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Sonata 13:

There are a number of not too easy features here. Syncopations abound; there’s that one trill that needs to be played with conviction if it is not to sound lame, and that finish, with the hand 1/2 beat off from each other, ought to be fun.

November is Gone Update (plus some d*mn virus math)

A. The level of idiocy remains at critical levels. It’s looking likely that about 220,000 ‘excess’ deaths will take place in 2020, of which about 150-170K might be attributable to the damn virus. Back in April and May, I didn’t think 100k was likely; now, I don’t know if it’s possible to back out the deleterious effects of the lockdowns with any accuracy. It is clear that about 50,000 ‘excess’ deaths (and counting) are not directly caused by the virus, but it’s harder, conceptually, to show they are caused by the lockdowns. The anecdotal evidence is strong, as is my bias to believe it – therefore, I’m exercising caution.

What the CDC data shows is significant upticks in deaths attributed to stress and panic related causes, such as suicide and heart attacks. It would take a massive independent audit, however, to show how many such cases show up in the COVID numbers. We know that sickly old people do in fact have their deaths speeded up by stress and loneliness, which the lockdowns have ratcheted up to inhuman levels.

So, as of now, it’s pretty clear that there are not 250,000 COVID deaths, or whatever count is being bandied about at the moment. At most, there could be about 170,000 COVID deaths, max (the 220K ‘excess’ deaths minus the 50K non-COVID ‘excess’ deaths). Of course, one could cook up a theory that the lockdowns saved lives that would have been lost to non-COVID deaths, such that the net – 250,000 COVID deaths minus the ‘saved’ (from flu? Colds? Traffic accidents?) gives us the 220,000 ‘excess’ deaths the CDC’s data shows. Far-fetched doesn’t begin to describe such a theory. That won’t stop people from proposing it.

The plan is to take a detailed look at the final or near final numbers from the CDC in January, and back into some totals. Without that audit, there’s no good way to really sift out the effects of the lockdown versus the virus. I expect the excess deaths – which are merely the difference between the CDC’s estimated weekly deaths and actual deaths as counted by death certificated submitted to the CDC (with a lot of small, often pointless, and needlessly complex adjustments) – to stay right about 220K, or perhaps even drop some, as some of the sickly elderly who might have hung on until Christmas in a normal year are already dead.

The overall story remains the same: the original forecasts and model used to gin up the panic, put together by the non-scientist, non-medical finance guy and operative Ferguson, have proven wildly inaccurate. Real world experience has confirmed what I, and everybody else who took an intelligent look at the original numbers out of Wuhan, the Diamond Princess, Italy, etc., noted: the overall real-world fatality rate was nothing like the 2-4% Case Fatality Rate range typically reported. The real infection fatality rate – the number of interest – couldn’t be over about 0.25%, and is probably lower. This virus is no more deadly than a bad flu – the 1969 and 1958 flus were worse; 2018 was almost as bad. The 2017 pre-COVID planning literature, prepared by the same CDC that’s helped create the panic, did not propose lockdowns or mask for scenarios an order of magnitude worse than this – the theoretical benefits of lockdowns and masks do not offset real costs.

The CDC data, at least, the reporting of it, is already being monkeyed with. As William Briggs noted, the weekly fatality graph used to go back many years, but now only goes back a year. This is suspicious, as a glance at the longer-term pattern made it clear that, while 2020 was shaping up to be a bad year, it wasn’t significantly worse than many preceding years, and that the pattern of more deaths in the winter and fewer in the summer was playing out exactly in 2020 – that what one would expect to see, based on history, without lockdowns and masks is exactly what one did see with them. My confidence that any numbers that can be used to expose the fraud will remain available has thus decreased.

But we’ll see.

UPDATE: Seems someone has already done what I proposed above.

As seen on Clarissa’s blog

What this chart shows are the breakdowns between attributed COVID deaths and *excess* (as defined above) deaths from all other causes. You get this by looking at the details for each category the CDC tracks. They forecast, based on history, population growth & aging + some really minor adjustments, is of how many death there ought to be in each category. Here’s my comment from Clarissa’s blog post:

Last I checked, CDC shows 220K excess deaths total so far this year. If the attribution of every excess death shown here to the lockdown is roughly true – seems likely & reasonable – then there are fewer than 100K total deaths caused by COVID, rather than deaths where COVID appears anywhere on the death cert, which is the way you get that 240K number, as you noted. Even that 100K number is almost certainly high, as the bulk of COVID deaths – between 60-70% – were nursing home patients & other very sick elderly people, who had a median life expectancy of about 6 months even if they didn’t catch the virus. Over time, these slightly premature deaths would (if the lockdowns ended) show up as lower deaths in the corresponding age bands over the next year. But the lockdowns, and the deaths they cause, mask this effect.

Also, could you please post the source link? I know it’s on the picture, but tiny, I can’t quite make it out. Eyes are getting old. Thanks.

So, if these calculations are correct, and barring some unlikely and counterintuitive offsetting effects somewhere in here (somehow, many thousands of lives were saved from non-COVID death by COVID, lockdowns, and masks) the total death toll from COVID is under 100K; the total excluding very sick elderly people is maybe 30-40K. Most of that 30-40K seems to have had multiple pre-existing conditions.

Thus, as the CDC correctly believed right up until they stopped believing it around April, 2020, lockdowns do more harm than good. Lockdowns kill people, and, unlike routine airborne respiratory viruses like COVID, lockdowns are completely preventable and don’t run their course within a few months.

B. I want to do something, but I don’t know what. I’m praying harder than I ever have for God’s mercy on our country, because if we get what we deserve based on our sins, the Great Leap Forward will look like a picnic. I’d like to do something to put our little infant sociopath of a governor in his place. But I don’t even know how to fly a helicopter. (That’s hyperbole for your spy bots.)

Lord, remember your promise of mercy. For if you remember our sins, Lord, who could stand? For the sake of the Sorrowful Passion of your Son, have mercy on us and the whole world! Amen.

Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!

Holy Mother Mary, Queen of the Angels, pray for us!

St. Joseph, Terror of Demons, pray for us!

St. Michael, Prince of the Heavenly Host, defend us in battle!

C. About a week ago, started learning the 2nd movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the one everybody forgets is even there, as the 1st and 3rd movements are epic. Been working on a dozen or so pieces from the Well Tempered Clavier and on the Sonata Pathetique for years now, and have years to go at this rate, and I needed a break.

Almost got it down, as it’s very short and repetitive. Here’s someone who really can play it:

I find it very beautiful and fun.

D. Bunch of good stuff happening on the family side, but I’m sworn to silence for now.

E. I need to remind myself that I’m one of the most blessed and happy people I know, great marriage, wonderful kids, nice home in a beautiful state, lots of friends. Thank you, Almighty Father, giver of all good gifts.

Monday Thoughts

A. Is there anyone in America so clueless as to believe mail-in ballots, without any need for positive ID, are anything other than the hugest election fraud in American history (outside Chicago), and that 2016 marks the last free(ish) election in our late Republic?

Don’t answer that. Strictly a rhetorical question. Of course there are. Millions and millions of them. Many are terrified enough by the lock down & face diaper fraud to believe anything the nice men and women on TV tell them to believe. Many have their self-images so tied up in their political affiliations that they will, at the same time, 1) believe their party wouldn’t do such a thing; AND 2) that they are just stealing the election back from the Russians anyway, not disenfranchising enough people to make Jim Crow look like a friendly mistake.

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

B. Yet, the weirdest thing: when I pray, I don’t worry. These days, at least – I spent much of June, July, and August unable to sleep, waking up at 3 or 4, going to bed only to get up in an hour.

Now? Even though every logical part of my mind says we’re totally doomed, we’ll all be Seattle or Chicago or Baltimore after the next election, and that it would take a revolution we’re far too soft to pull off to escape it – I don’t worry. Not that I know what will happen, nor do I tempt God by expecting a miracle, but – something. It’ll work out, somehow, in some unexpected way, far better than we deserve. I know it’s crazy, and I can’t explain it, but there it is.

I’ve even dreamt of it. I had this one dream where something awful happened to Trump, someone had to replace him at the last minute, and yet, somehow, that person won, and the real battle began – it will start with banning mail-in ballots unless notarized and received before election day, and weapon-purchase-level ID for EVERY VOTER IN EVERY ELECTION. The next day, Trump was diagnosed with the ‘Rona – and promptly recovered (LIKE 99.9%+ OF INFECTIONS WHERE THE PERSON ISN’T ALREADY HALF-DEAD. FOR MORE INFORMATION, DIAL 1-800-GET-A-CLU)

A sign? Hell if I know.

This is totally out of character for me. I’m usually Mr. Doom and Gloom. I sound like a balloon-head Pollyanna, and I offer no reasons, but I can’t shake the feeling this will work out. God has, at times, come to the help of his people, because He remembers His promise of mercy. It’s not like we don’t deserve to burn – nuclear war or a century of gulags would not be unjust, given how we have used our freedom and plenty. But I don’t think so. Let us pray.

C. Invested $25 in a cassette tape player that coverts recordings to MP3 format; dug up some old tapes. Found one with a set of 6 songs I wrote over 25 years ago, and a recording of a choir performing a piece I wrote almost 40 years ago. Recordings of recordings of recordings, in one of the worst formats for long-term preservation devised by man. Which is to say: ended up with slightly glitchy MP3s that nonetheless capture all the wobble and noise of a 25 year old third or more generation cassette. Barely listenable.

I’d throw some up here, at least the choir piece, but it seems WordPress won’t let you upload an MP3 on the free version. Gotta pay the man.

On the one hand, I’ve used this site for free for a decade now, so I can’t say I’ve not gotten my money’s worth. On the other hand, I’m not exactly flush at the moment.

D. Those 6 songs reminded me that, at one point, I actually knew a little MIDI. The songs are entirely virtual instruments run by a computer, with some vocals – me, on all parts – layered over them. Dumped it into one of those old school 4-track recorders (which I still have! Pack rat much?) A buddy of mine did a guitar solo on one song; otherwise, everything one hears is my fault.

I was clearly getting worn out or bored or both by the end, as the vocals and final mixes are pretty poor. Too much bass, everything up front and center, no hierarchy on the part volumes, clearly single takes on the vocals. I did nothing fancy with the MIDI, just the notes, over-quantized, using stock sounds. Didn’t even do any panning or reverb.

Yet – I kind of like it. Of course, only listened to them about twice now. A few more listens and I’ll hate it. There are a few nice touches in the songs. I’m starting to hate them just thinking about it.

But this has made me want to get a decent keyboard (my 20 yr old Alesis died a decade ago) and do some more MIDI. Things are so much less expensive now days.

My Luddite head hurts just looking at this stuff. I like music, not computers.

E. Prepping for two middle school history & literature classes is a lot of work. Work I’m avoiding at the moment.

Home Improvement Project: Music Desk

Youngest son, who plays the fiddle, sings, and enjoys goofing around on the guitar, drums, and whatever else is lying about, got a little Akai mpk keyboard for his birthday a while back. He wanted to create And record music.

So do I.

Way back when hair bands ruled the earth, I was in some bands, and I, too, wanted to record some music. It was a little more complicated and expensive back then. Garage Band on your phone wasn’t a thing. So I have some seriously outdated experience, and, perhaps more important, some somewhat outdated equipment.

I had converted part of the garage into a recording studio 20+ years ago. Long story.

Anyway, space being an issue, cleared out a corner by my piano to set ups more modern, and much cheaper, DAW work area for the Caboose and me. Threw together a desk to maximize the available space. Like this:

The KRK V-8s I knew where they were, so I grabbed them (they’re sweet. Followed the advice I’d read somewhere: only spend real money on mikes, monitors, and instruments, because they don’t go obsolete every year. After the long obsolete Mac tower, the only real investment I made). Need to track down my little Mackie board and a bunch of cables and mics, download some software, hook it up, and we should be good to go.

The desk itself is oak veneer 1 1/4” particle board pieces I’d rescued from some old cubicles getting thrown out many years ago.

Anyway, could be fun. Let’s see if it gets used.

Beauty, Intellect, Beethoven & Scripture

A Happy, Holy & Blessed Christmas to all, and to all a happy and prosperous New Year!

Consider the 2nd movembt of Beethoven’s 7th symphony:

The story goes that when Beethoven debuted this work, the audience stopped the concert after this movement, and insisted it be repeated. Classical music audiences were a little more outgoing back in the day, it seems.

The audience’s reaction is perfectly understandable: pre-recorded music, one might die before getting a chance to hear this sublime and beautiful piece again, so why not now? A work this beautiful is life-changing. It may sound like just another overly-familiar classical work to jaded ears, but in context it is strikingly unusual: listen to the whole 7th, which is one of civilizations greatest works of art in any medium, and the 2nd movement still stands out.

But this Allegretto isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also deeply satisfying intellectually. The more you listen and think about it, the better it gets. Beethoven sets himself a series of puzzles or challenges, and ‘solves’ each one in inventive and unusual ways, yet, somehow, after you’ve heard it, all the little departures from expectations (or beauty where you didn’t know what to expect) sound utterly inevitable. And it fits perfectly within the symphony as a whole – as hard as it is to believe, it was only with this 7th symphony that Beethoven finally won over all the critics, many of whom had disliked his 3rd and nit-picked his 5th. The 7th is just perfect, and that 2nd movement slayed people.

Finally, as is true of all great art, the 7th, especially the 2nd movement, is bottomless: you can go as deep as you want, and there’s always more.

This confluence of soul stirring beauty and soul-stirring intellectual gratification is , of course, what makes great art great in the first place. Only in these dark modern times would anyone think to divorce emotional force from intellectual beauty.

These (mundane & traditional) thoughts were occasioned by the Christmas Gospel reading:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

LK 2:1-14

This Gospel story from Luke is beautiful in a specific and somewhat odd way. Consider these 2 sentences from the middle of the selection:

While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

This is the climax of the story: Mary gives birth to the son foretold by the prophets and announced to her by an angel of God, yet Luke gives it a sentence, as if it were any other birth of any man. The Lord and Creator of the the Universe, as described in the opening of John’s Gospel, or even as, in a similarly subtle and understated way, in Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth in the passage immediately preceding this one, is wrapped in the cloth of the poor and laid in a feeding trough for animals, with the casual, after the fact explanation: there was no room in the inn.

So, two matter-of-fact sentences that lay out the entirety of the Christian claim, paradox and stumbling block: That God became Man in this very specific time and place, utterly weak and humbled, and was wrapped and bound and laid among the food for animals by his own mother’s hands. He wasn’t even able to find a place at what was no doubt the very humble inn.

The artwork inspired by these two lines could fill any number of museums; a concert of the music written to commemorate them would go on for months; and the books holding the writings about them would fill any number libraries. And the flood shows no signs of abating.

Then, a great multitude of angels sing a song of infinite glory – to a bunch of sheep, and the shepherds watching over them.

The story of Christ’s birth is as beautiful as it is simple, and satisfies the soul. But it is also intellectually satisfying, not in the sense of providing a tidy summation, but in the sense of offering infinite depths to explore.

Glory to God in the highest!

A Personal Archaeological Coincidence (and pictures of bricks!)

A few weeks ago, some observations and advice crossed my Twitter feed (yes, I have a Twitter account. So sue me.) about how, as a man, to work more effectively. It came from Adam Lane Smith, writer of Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger and the Gideon Ira novels, whose day gig is psychological therapist.

The advice involved recognizing and capitalizing on the single-track nature of how men work, and building rituals and habits to enhance focus and eliminate distractions, and was just the little extra push I needed at the moment. So, I cleaned up my home office, which I’d allowed to get so cluttered that it had been unusable for about a year.

Some of the clutter consisted of boxes of old paper and files that had followed me around for decades. I bit the bullet and dug in, determined to find an appropriate place to file this stuff, with a bias toward the trash can.

Well. The oldest stuff was from college, and included the first serious musical composition I’d ever tried. It was hilarious in one way: the style changed not once, but twice between the opening and conclusion: I was figuring out stuff as I went, and incorporating it on the fly.

I have a file for such things. Filed it.

Then came writings dating back to the late 1980s. At least three novels in various stages – an outline, a couple chapters, a bunch of chapters – and a half dozen short stories. Also a letter from a professional writer-friend critiquing one of the short stories, a copy of which I did not find.

Finally, I found these:

Some clippings from the Sante Fe Reporter from December 14, 1983, announcing the upcoming Christmas Concert of the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, directed by Suzanne MacLean, who was my composition teacher at the time.
From the above piece.
This is from the same reporter, a few days later, a review of the concert.

While I remember the concerts well, and remember getting the review, I had forgotten what the reviewer had actually said. At the age of 25, I had found a composition teacher in Santa Fe, who also happened to be the founding director of the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, one of a number of pro and semi-pro classical musical groups in Santa Fe back then. While in 1983 Santa Fe had only about 40,000 residents, it punched way above its weight musically: in addition to the famous Santa Fe Opera, which attracted talent from opera companies around the world, there were at least 2 professional orchestras and 2 professional choirs, in addition to the Chorus of Santa Fe community choir (which I sang in sometimes) and the semi-pro Women’s Ensemble: Suzanne had assembled a group from the hired gun singer community, the kind of people you can throw music at and have it sung well with minimal practice.

Earlier that year, Suzanne had offered a once-a-week class in composition; I signed up along with a few other people. A few sessions in, she gave an assignment where we were to write a short composition using only ii-V-I chords. I was spending that week in Eugene, OR, and had no access to a piano, so I wrote something for piano and voice directly to paper and hoped it was OK. It came out well, and Suzanne offered to take me on for private lessons. She told me that if I wrote something for the Women’s Ensemble, they’d perform it.

So I did, a 3-minute loing Kyrie in 4 parts, SSAA. I knew in advance that normal voicing rules didn’t really apply – these gals were pros, and could sing very high, and very low. So I pushed things a little. The Kyrie section is very much polyphonic, but more after the modal fashion of Faure than classic Palestrina style. She liked it, but told me to cut loose on the Christe as a contrast. I was doubtful, but did it: it’s a bunch of very dense chords moving in a funky chromatic manner – you want contrast? I’ll show you contrast! – brought back around to F for a near-repeat of the Kyrie, in the traditional manner. Some soprano got to sing an a above the staff, mezzo-piano, and hold it for a while. Good times.

I know I have a recording, but can’t lay my hands on it. It’s in The Pile somewhere. When I find it, I’ll throw it up here for your listening pleasure.

After that concert, my next assignment caught me a little off-guard: Suzanne told me to write a string quartet after the style of Mozart. Um, what? This blue-collar kid from SoCal had never intentionally listened to string quartets, Mozart’s or otherwise…

But before I got too far, I had an opportunity to move to Albuquerque and attend an art school, where I could get piano lessons as part of the schooling and would have access to a nice grand to practice on. The piano teacher, Matalie Wham, was awesome, still the best I’d ever had. She is a tall as me – 6′ 2″ – with huge hands, and damn, she could play. I was blessed to study with her.

So I did that, and lost touch with Suzanne. For the next 4-5 months, I practiced anywhere from 5 to 10 hours a day. At the end, I knew that, if I stuck it out for another year or two, I could be good. My meager skill on the piano all traces back to this period.

But the art school was becoming intolerable. The director was, frankly, a sociopath, and many of the people there – it was a tiny school – were, let’s say, less than stable. Nowhere to hide. So I left, and signed up for classes at UNM. A few months of deliveries for Fox Foto and living in a freezing converted cinder block garage, and I’d really had it. My beloved future wife lived in Santa Fe, we saw each other only rarely (an hour drive each way, so weekends, pretty much), and I was burned out. So I packed my few belongings and a cat into my car, and headed back to SoCal, to get a job, settle down, with the goal of getting my beloved to marry me.

The whole marriage thing worked out very well, but I had to pretty much kill any musical dreams I had. Off and on, I directed and sang in some choirs, played in a coupole rock bands. But rock was never really my thing, and I frankly have very meager skill as a performer. I wrote some rock songs, but stayed away, mostly, from composing. Around age 40, 20 years ago, I found a composition teacher and signed up for some lessons, but we really didn’t hit it off.

A couple years ago, as my job started its death spiral, I started coming home from work and heading straight to the piano, and playing for an hour or two. Took out Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, and some Joplin rags, and had at it. This is the most I’d played since my time with Matalie. (The Beethoven was and is way over my head, BTW, but I can sorta hack my way through it.)

Here’s the coincidence part: Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco has founded the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. This institute sponsors the Benedict XVI vocal ensemble (16 members, get it?), a very impressive professional group of singers, under the direction of Richard Sparks.

The Benedict XVI performed settings of the O Antiphons as part of an Advent prayer service lead by the Archbishop at beautiful St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.

St. Patrick’s Seminary Chapel. Sorry for the poor picture quality. Under Archbishop Cordileone, old artwork – those angels, for example – are being retrieved from storage and put back where they belong. Unfortunately, the glorious main altar, removed years ago after V-II, has somehow disappeared…

It was awesome. In his opening comments, Richard Stark mentioned that they would be singing each of the traditional chant settings of the O Antiphons, followed by a choral setting, except in the case of the O Clavis David, where he had been unable to find a suitable setting.

Well.

So, for the first time in years, I grabbed some music paper and a couple of pencils, went to the piano, and started pounding away at a vocal setting. First, I printed out the texts and chant settings, sang through them a few times, made some notes on texts and music (the ‘O’ is set the same in all 7 chants; the ‘Veni’ is identical in all but one; each contains the same ascending climax figure; each ends with nearly identical cadences. And so on.)

I’ve gotten half way through a very rough draft of O Clavis David; plan is to set all 7, using related themes and treatments, but with unique twists to each, such that the whole represents a culmination and single statement.

Hey, dream big.

(Note: I’m working on the education history book in the afternoon, after spending the morning job hunting. Composing happens in my spare time, and will not interfere with other activities. )

On an unrelated note, while I have done no work on the Eternal Brick Project since the end of summer, a nice bit of moss has started growing on the path to front porch, and it looks cool!

Bach Will Break Your Brain

Here is Nahre Sol, a young and brilliant composer and piano player, talking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a teacher of hers, David Louie, who is an expert on Bach.

If you’ve never played any Bach or tried writing music, the discussion may seem so much arcane gibberish. But if you’re a player, and have tried to really understand what Bach is doing, this is just a deeper level of mind-blowing.

The thing to always keep in mind when plunging into the deep end where Bach swims is that it only matters because it is beautiful. Bach’s music is beautiful on so many levels. If you just want to lose yourself in sounds, you can do that. Try his famous Cello Suite #1 or Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. If you want something more emotionally complicated, how about Mache, dich, mein Herze, rein from his Matthew’s Passion. Composers since at least Mozart have found his Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue, in addition to the Goldberg Variations, dazzling intellectual and artistic triumphs.

I’m a hack piano player, but enthusiastic, and I love Bach. For the last 40 years, off and on (mostly off, sadly), I’ve been learning pieces from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. The ones that are currently open on the piano are the Prelude and Fugue in D minor.

They don’t sound that complicated, certainly not by Bach standards, and they are not too hard to play. But, man, there’s a lot going on here in three minutes of music.

The Prelude starts with that relentless repeated D in the left hand, while the right hand jumps in outlining a i-ii-V-i change over the D as a pedal point. What Bach is doing here, as he does in almost all of the Preludes, is setting up a rock-solid tonal center in as direct and economical manner as possible, while still laying out the melodic and rhythmic materials he’s going to use in the piece.

This prelude is going to feature 8th notes in the bass, 16th note triplets in the treble, with phrases beginning with an upbeat.

Bach then takes a quick tour of F major, and then starts getting more adventurous by playing sequences to move from F to G-minor to A-minor.

We ended the F major section on the first beat of measure 6, then add E-flat and C-sharp and run quickly through G-minor; then add B-natural and G-sharp and run through the exact same pattern in A-minor.

Pretty standard Baroque stuff, done beautifully, and illustrative of the pattern Bach follows in most of the Preludes:

  1. Strong statement of the tonal center (I-ii-V-I or equivalent) and introduction of melodic and structural materials over the first measure or 2;
  2. Quick tour of the key (or the relative key);
  3. Introduction of a little harmonic complexity that are almost forays into nearby keys;
  4. Brief strong reminder of the original key, used as a launching pad off into Bach genius land – about 1/2 way through.
  5. A ramp up into increasingly complex ideas/riffs off of the original material;
  6. A pre-ending climax where hacks like me can’t even figure out he’s doing, except that it sounds great;
  7. The end, which is where Bach tends to throw his ‘that wasn’t supposed to happen for another 100 years!’ stuff.

All this in under 30 measures, most of the time, with the feeling that, despite stretching the limits of understanding for us mere mortals, Bach tossed it off with a little smile.

Here’s the climax and ending, at 7 measures long almost 1/3 of the entire Prelude:

Up to measure 20, all we’ve heard is 16th note triplets in the right hand, and 8th motes in the left. Now we get a D pedal, with increasingly dissonant notes on top, and one of Bach’s little things where accidentals introduced in the right hand are immediately canceled in the left, to curious and beautiful effect.

In measure 21, the bass starts a chromatic rise and fall from G-sharp up to B then back to the dominant A, and 16th notes appear in the left hand for the first time as the action intensifies. A rising arpeggio riff gets us up to a high D, then a series of diminished chords brings us chromatically back down to a lower D, and then a vanilla cadance, and we’re done.

26 damn near perfect measures, a little over a minute of music. And the Fugue is worse, by which I mean better. Every time I play it, at the end, I’m thinking, if not saying out loud, that it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. (Of course, I think that a lot for a lot of music – immediacy bias. Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium is really the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. A lot of Bach is close, though.)

I have almost no idea what he’s doing. Starting in measure 9, he does this, whatever it is:

The more educated musician will tell me: it’s a descending sequence, the first development after the subject has been introduced in all three voices. And I’m like, no, he’s setting up some magic. Later, he does the same thing, a descending sequence, except the second time it has a completely different character. I can’t explain it. It all fits perfectly, and triggers in the ear some sense of recognition and appropriateness, yet, looking at it, it’s hard to figure out why. Two other passages he lays out in the first half of the piece get the same treatment, where he repeats them, sort of, in the second half, but they have that same/completely different vibe.

In between all this fancy-dan stuff, Bach weaves aurally satisfying and beautiful stuff that, again, I can’t figure out. It’s one thing to write a pretty passage, it’s another to follow the constraints of the form, it’s an entirely different game to use the constraints of the form to deepen the beauty of the pretty passages. As is explored in the first video above by people far better versed in this stuff than I, getting the math and mechanics straight is tough but conceivable; doing that and not only achieving beauty, but using the mechanical stuff to inspire and enhance beauty – well, there is where Bach’s genius stands alone.

And this little Prelude and Fugue is almost trivia compared to Art of the Fugue and Goldberg Variations. Yet Mozart, Beethoven, and a dozen other famous composers had *hand copied* sets of the Well Tempered Clavier that they studied in awe. So, at least I’m in good company!

Music at Masses Review: TAC Baccalaureate & St. Therese Alhambra

Was blessed this weekend to be present at two very beautiful masses, the baccalaureate mass for our son’s graduation at TAC, and a 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning mass at St. Therese’s in Alhambra, California. These masses were both very different and yet very much the same, one a huge celebration in a gorgeous church presided over by a bishop and half-dozen priests, with a amazing choir and organist, and all the pomp and ceremony one could want. The other was a low mass in a pretty parish church, with the only music being the typical Latin commons for the Kyrie (yes, it’s Greek, I know) Sanctus and Agnus. The priest also sang a bit of an old Marian hymn as an illustration of some point in his homily.

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Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Ojai, CA

They were the same in their reverence, and in being directed to the glory of God and not the glory of men.

The choir at TAC is amazing. A school of 350 or so students can somehow produce a choir more than worthy of their beautiful church and school. There has long been a frankly shocking amount of musical talent at that school, given that there’s no music program as such (the students study music a little as part of their Great Books program). Yet in the now decade that I’ve been going down to campus, seems there’s always something musically excellent going on. At the family of the graduates dinner Friday night, for example, two different acapella groups founded or peopled by students, or both, performed, and both were excellent.

Interior of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel
Interior.

Saturday morning, the baccalaureate mass began at 8:30 in a packed church. Here’s my one and only complaint about that beautiful building: site lines from anywhere other than the nave are terrible. When it’s a full church, half the people are in the transept or side aisles, and might as well be outside for as well as they can see anything. This obscured vision is a result of the sanctuary being recessed enough to be mostly invisible from the transept, but mostly from a nave and side aisle design in a building that’s not that big. In gigantic cathedrals, it’s often possible to see fairly well from much of the side aisles, as the columns are farther apart and the nave wider. In Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Chapel, all you can see from 90% of the aisle spaces is the columns and the nave – the altar and sanctuary are totally blocked. Of course, for 95% of the masses celebrated there, everybody sits in the nave and it’s no problem, so this is a minor complaint, really.

The Mass began with Come Holy Ghost while the faculty and graduates filed in, followed by the chant Introit while the clergy and Bishop Barron processed in and the altar was incensed. The mass commons were some lovely polyphony I didn’t immediately recognize, most likely Palestrina, perhaps – one of that crowd. They also did motets for offertory and communion including Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and more chant propers.

For the recession, the choir sang the hymn tune from Jupiter from Holst’s the Planets – an extreme case of redeeming some beautiful secular music, in this case, from the hands of a goodball gnostic astrologer. Lovely.

Or it seems you can just listen to it – here. Audio is a bit spotty, but you will get the gist. Bonus Bishop Barron homily.

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St. Therese of Lisieux, Alhambra, CA, interior.

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we – my wife, mother-in-law, our 15 year old son David, freshly-minted graduate Thomas, elder daughter Teresa, who lives in Alhambra, and our younger daughter Anna Kate who flew in from New Hampshire to surprise her big brother, gathered for the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Therese’s and brunch afterwards. Younger daughter also is graduating, in one week! She had handed in her senior thesis Monday, defended it Thursday, then flew out Friday, flew back Sunday in order to take her finals! Insane, but typical – those two are only 20 months apart in age, and were often thought to be twins growing up (and fought like cats and dogs). Despite needing special permission to defend her thesis early so that she could leave Friday, and despite having to try to study for finals on the plane, she was not going to miss this.

Our older daughter Teresa helped arrange all this, picking up Anna Kate at the airport and putting her up, and driving her to the graduation. I love our kids! There are far better than I deserve, that’s for sure.

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Modern-ish, but lovingly executed and not unlovely. It’s heart, and the hearts of all those involved, are in the right place.

Mass was what you’d expect early on a Sunday morning – very low key. The people, which included a passel of Sisters of Charity (they always look so happy!), knew the chant propers and sang them well. Quiet, reverent and of course efficacious.

We may not often get to have the 90+ minute high sung mass celebrated in a great church by competent, devote people, but I’ll take a revenant low mass celebrated by people who care any day of the week. I’m grateful to all the people who helped bring about both masses, even and perhaps especially those whose devotion helped to transmit a culture in which such things can take place.