Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Time: It’s Good – and Howe

Steve Howe: Time
Warner Classics

Time is a collection of highly personal pieces by former Yes guitarist Steve Howe. As a solo project, it works pretty well.

If the last time you heard Steve Howe's work was when he was with Yes or Asia, then you won't find many similarities here. But if you've been keeping up his twenty+ solo albums Howe's been releasing since 1975, then Time will seem just another step in the growth of this artist.

With this album, Howe keeps his musical focus tight. The pieces are small -- almost miniatures -- with  stripped-down instrumentation. Even when he brings in classical musicians, the sound is transparent, light, and delicate

Personally, I don’t think much of classical crossover material, which colors my reaction to some of the tracks. Howe presents his own  versions of works by Ginastera, Bach and Vivaldi. While I understand the concept behind their inclusion – these are melodies that inspired Howe – I find them little more than pleasant background music.

Of greater interest to me are his original tunes. Howe plays a variety of acoustic guitars (all carefully documented track-by-track in the liner notes). Although there’s a consistent sound throughout the album, there’s also enough variety in the character of the individual tracks to make for a rewarding listening experience.

Don’t expect a lot of blistering guitar solos on Time. Howe displays his virtuosity in a more subtle form – by playing complex music effortlessly. If you’re expecting a return to Yes, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re interested in some solid guitar artistry, Time might be worth your time.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Barney and Clyde and the Deconstruct.

This past Sunday Barney & Clyde managed to do two things simultaneously – deconstruct humor and deliver a visual pun in the process. That’s actually a neat trick, and a little above the average gag-a-day writing of most strips.

As the strip proceeds, the character describes each element of a joke. The setup, the delivery. And then comes… the punchline. Which in this case, is literally a punch line.

Visual puns are tough to pull off. A pun has to have two meanings, one obvious and one unexpected. The unexpected meaning provides the humor. But while it might be unexpected, it can’t be obscure (or else no one gets the joke). So the setup is crucial. It has to prepare the context for the pun, without telegraphing it. Few things are worse than getting the punchline before it’s delivered – that’s why I have little patience with sitcoms. A visual pun can’t be a rebus – it has to be a graphic representation of something that also can be something else.

Barney & Clyde’s creative team pull this off brilliantly. The context of the party is established, so when we get to the last panel we’re ready. If that panel had been first, I might have thought “refreshment table” (although notice that there’s only one thing pictured on the table). But after the setup, I see the punch bowl, the people in a queue, and I know that this is a punch line.

And thankfully, the team assumes a certain amount of reader intelligence and lets the pun go unlabeled. I got it. (Although the rimshot at the far right of the panel is a nice touch.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Does this make my blog look fat?

I've been thinking of reworking the layout for this blog for a while now. So today I decided to take the plunge and go with a dynamic view.

Although I'm fairly happy with the result, that doesn't count for much. What really matters is your reaction. Whether you're landing here for the first time, or you've been reading for a while, please share your thoughts on the new dynamic view (but keep it clean).

And whether you like the changes or not, let me know if there are features you'd like to see, or perhaps not like to see again. Should I bring back the blog roll? Most popular posts? Viewer stats? You decide!

My goal is to present this content in the most user-friendly way possible. So I'm relying on friendly feedback from you, dear user.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Engaging the senses

One man's religion is another man's belly laugh
 - Robert Heinlein

It can certainly seem that way standing on the outside. Take the ritual surrounding Ash Wednesday, for example. To most people, it must seem odd to voluntary walk around with a gray smudge on your forehead. And with no context, it is.

But I do have some context for this service. 

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season, which leads up to Easter. It's a service that reminds us of our mortality, and begins a 40-day period of contemplation and reflection so that the promise of Easter -- that the end of life isn't, well, the end of life -- can be more fully appreciated.

The Ash Wednesday service at our church this year was particularly moving, and one that fully engaged my senses. First, holding a service at night on a weekday is something different for us. The light coming through the windows was different, more diffuse.

We began the service outside the church with the burning of the palms. Traditionally, we wave palms in our Palm Sunday service (which is the Sunday before Easter). This represents Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem (when the crowds greeted him with waving palms) before being betrayed and arrested. The joy of that arrival turned to sorrow pretty quickly.

The palms used in our service are gathered up and kept for the following year. They're burned on Ash Wednesday, and their ashes used for that service. Symbolically, it ties the high and the low of the season together.

Watching the dry palms blaze gave me time to reflect on the passing year. The fire consumed the greenery quickly, and within moments it was over. How many times has my own life been changed as quickly?

When we went inside to complete the service, I could still smell the smoke which had permeated my clothes. Another reminder that this service was different.

At the end of the Ash Wednesday service, all the participants come forward and are marked with a cross on the forehead with ashes. The pastor reminded each of us that "from dust you came, and to dust you shall return."

The feel of the thumb making the mark on my forehead pulled my attention to that thought. I had recently been treated for cancer and survived. Survived this time, I reminded myself.

When I returned to my seat, I watched a young man from our congregation receive the mark. He had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This would most likely be his last Ash Wednesday service. What did those words mean to him? To his wife? To us as their church family as we support them through their time of trouble?

I must not have been alone with these thoughts, because I felt a wave of emotion move through the room as he walked across the front of the sanctuary.

There was much to reflect on that night, as we filed out silently.

Perhaps I looked a little odd with my forehead smudged. But I didn't feel silly at all.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Overlays of time

Grandma used this watering can on her flowers.
My mother used it also, and fifty years later
it still hangs where it always has (and is still used).
I went up this weekend to be with my Dad. He's in the hospital right now, and doing well. I stayed over at the house to take care of some things. It was an unusual experience.

The house was built by my grandfather (well, not with his own hands -- but by contractors hired by him) in the 1920's. It was the house my father grew up in, and it was the house that I knew as grandma's. We'd often visit, and sometimes spend the weekend (it wasn't very far from our own home). After grandma died, we moved into the house, and in later years it became the house my parents lived in. And now it's the home my father lives in by himself.

There's been a lot of changes over the years -- small trees have grown large, large trees have died and been cut down. Inside, new furniture has been moved in with legacy pieces from two generations of occupants. Needlepoint done by my grandmother hangs on the wall where she placed it. The dining room hutches and cabinets show off the dishes as my mother arranged them.

I could sit in a room a mentally strip away the layers of time. I could easily see how the room looked when Mom was alive, or when we first moved in, or when Grandma was still alive. Who knows how it will look in the future?

I'm reluctant to say it's a house full of ghosts, because it's generally been the location of happy times and memories. Rather, it's a house full of family history. And I've come to appreciate and savor my time there.

Friday, February 24, 2012

CCC 019 - Avner Dorman

Next in our Consonant Classical Challenge is young Israeli composer, Avner Dorman. Dorman has an extensive film score background, which may explain his concert music's accessibility. Dorman uses familiar tonal structures in refreshingly new ways.

One could possibly describe his music as neo-classical. There are elements of baroque structure in them. To my ears, I also hear something of Prokofiev and the way he sometimes played off expectations, especially with simple scales and patterns. Dorman's 2003 Concerto Grosso showcases his basic compositional style. As you'll hear, while there are echoes of earlier style periods, there's a lot of the here and now in Dorman's score.

 A good portion of Dorman's orchestral output is devoted to concerto writing. Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins! is a concerto for two percussionists and orchestra. Although the texture is decidedly contemporary, it's presented in a harmonic context that puts even the most hidebound concert-goer on familiar ground.

Another good example of Dorman's style is his Piano Concerto in A. As with the major piano concertos of the romantic era, this is full of big, dramatic gestures and plenty of material for the pianist to dig into. And personally, this is the work that reminds me most of Prokofiev (which is not a bad thing.).

Avner Dorman is an innovative composer who's found his creative voice in the traditions of classical music. This is the kind of music that can provide a bridge between the old and more adventurous scores -- and give everyone something new and rewarding to listen to in the process.

Recommended Recording 
 Dorman: Concertos for Mandolin, Piccolo, Piano and Concerto Grosso

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barney and Clyde and Van

This past Sunday Barney & Clyde had another great strip that depended on meta humor. The foundation of the joke -- Van Morrison's contractual obligation songs -- was certainly real enough. Although they're no longer so easy to find online. All of the sites I checked had the content removed or blocked (like WFMU's Beware the Blog entry).

As I noted in "Meta Barney & Clyde," the characters are aware they exist in a comic strip when it serves the story. And that's exactly what happens here.

What I really like is the double purpose of panels 5 and 7. They serve the traditional function of adding a beat before the next line. But once you get to the last panel, you realize they also serve as filler.

Impromptu genius? No, just some well thought-out humor that plays with the medium.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

75 Years of Adventure -- Part 2

Last Sunday the current creative team for Prince Valiant -- artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz -- marked the 75th anniversary of the comic strip ("75 Years of Adventure"). This Sunday, they followed up with another retrospective, this time looking back over some of the monsters Val's fought in his career.(click on the image to enlarge)

There's an interesting mix of creatures. The first panel shows the Loch Ness monster, which Val encountered fairly early in the strip's history. The giant crab (in panel 3) and the lizard (in panel 5) come from a more recent adventure in the Sargasso Sea (I say more recent, but it's about four or five years ago at this point).

Still, for those who've been reading the strip for a while, it's a nice tribute. Some of us can look at those panels and think I remember when...

Here's to the next 75 years of adventure -- and the occasional over-sized monster.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: Music for private devotion

Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart
Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi

There have been many albums of English renaissance music, but none quite like this. Tune thy Musicke brings to light some truly neglected repertoire -- sacred music for the manor home.

From the time of Henry VIII through James I, amateur musicianship flourished to a high degree of proficiency. Stile Antico shows just how high with this new release. Most recordings of renaissance sacred music are works that were written -- and meant to be performed -- in churches and chapels by professional choirs. Neither is the case with the music on this album.

Although the compositions may be unfamiliar, the composers are not. Thomas Tomkins, John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons are among those represented. As with their secular music for the home, these composers didn't sacrifice quality simply because they were writing for amateurs.

The works presented fall stylistically between the two camps of secular domestic music and sacred church music. Some compositions, such as Thomas Campion's Never weather-beaten sail are jewels of four-part harmony and sound very much like hymns. Although if they were treated more lightly, they almost might sound like secular frottala.

Others, such as John Amner's seven-minute O ye little flock owe more to the madrigal tradition. Amner's ambitious work has several sections that change tempo and mood to suit the lyrics. Counterpoint, supported by instrumental doubling, further illuminates the text. And yet, as the contrapuntal lines spin outward, they seem to evoke the chapel more than the dining room.

Stile Antico performs with clarity and precision. Fretwork lends support on some selections, their viols adding a warm richness to the ensemble. Even if you have a lot of renaissance music, I highly recommend this recording. It fills in a missing gap in the English renaissance repertoire, with music that has a character all its own.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Night in the O-Gauge Zen Garden

Things have been pretty rough this past week. A family member's in the hospital (recovering at this point), there's a storm brewing at church (see yesterday's entry), crushing deadlines at work, a disagreement with our neighbor (not uncommon, he can be pretty disagreeable), all coming together to make a perfect storm of emotional turmoil.

Fortunately, I have a solution that works for me. The other night I spent about twenty minutes operating my O-gauge Zen garden (or layout, if you will). It had absolutely nothing to do with anything else that was going on in my life. For a little while, I was content just to let my imagination run free as these sturdy trains went grinding around the track.

And, for fun, I also shot some video. This week's started out a little less stressful, thanks in part to my ability to take some mental time out. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I enjoyed making it! (And I'm not kidding about "grinding." Just listen to the racket these things raise!)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Crises and a Challenge

There's trouble in our church. One group of people, not happy with things, have suggested changes that a second group doesn't like. Tempers are starting to rise, and it seems only a matter of time before cross words are exchanged and we're engaged in conflict

Now, I've been deliberately vague about the actual cause of the tension, because that's not what this post is about. Rather, it's about how we can resolve our church differences in a Christian manner.

The first thing we'll need to remember is that, while we disagree, we're all supposed to be part of the same family. Jesus has some thoughts about that:

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, For if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? And if you exchange greetings only with your own circle, are you doing anything exceptional? Even sinners do that much. 
 - Matt. 5:43-50

It's going to be difficult. For one thing, whenever people square off into two groups, if there's a conflict, there will be a winner and a loser. Jesus had some thoughts about conflict resolution, too:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 
 - Matt.5:38-42

(Not that I think the other group is evil. But unintentionally hurtful things can be said by even the best of us. Retaliated in kind is the cycle Christ's interested in breaking here.)

And what happens when someone steps over the line and says something that can't be taken back? Well, according to Christ, it can be -- if not taken back, at least forgiven.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." 
 - Matt. 18:21-35

(I'm doing well if I remember to forgive one time!)

Although this disagreement is foremost in the minds of the people involved (yes, including me), most of the congregation  has no idea there's anything wrong. The natural thing to do is to enlist more people to the cause. But that's not a good idea -- as Paul pointed out:

For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ.

And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee: or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.... that there should be no schism in the body; but the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
 - 1 Col. 12:12-26

So it's not about one group being bad and the other good, or one being right and the other wrong, or even one group being important and the other unimportant.  I think if we can keep those concepts in mind, we'll weather this crises in a a Christian manner. There won't be a winner or loser, but two groups who reach an accord that binds them tighter together in harmony.

That's what I'm praying for, anyway -- and that I can  do my part to make it happen.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Janacek: Choral Works - Going back to the roots

Janacek: Choral Works; Six Moravian Choruses (after Dvorak) 
Cappella Amsterdam 
Daniel Reuss, director 
Radio Blazers Ensemble 
Harmonia Mundi

It's no secret that Czech composer Leos Janacek used the folk traditions of Bohemia and Moravia for the basis of his own musical language. In his most advanced works (like his string quartets), those folk traditions are heard but faintly in the background. As this new collection shows, the folk music of Janacek's native land was front and center in his choral compositions.

The Cappella Amsterdam and their director Daniel Reuss may not be Czech, but they perform these works with conviction and convincing authenticity. The most musically complex are the stand-alone pieces. Some, like The Wild duck and the Wolf's Trail our straight-forward settings of folks songs. Others, such as the Ave Maria, Our Father, and the heart-breaking Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga use folk material as part of a deeply personal expression of piety and yearning.

Also included are two large collections. Nursery Rhymes are just that -- twelve children's songs. While not sounding entirely care-free in Janacek's settings, they still retain a simple innocence that makes this set particularly appealing.

The album leads off with Six Moravian Choruses. Janacek transcribed these works from Dvorak's Moravian Duets, and results are wonderful. These choruses combine the best elements of Czech folk song, Dvorak's and Janacek's compositional styles.

If you enjoy the music of Dvorak, Smetana, or Janacek, then this album will be a treat. If you just enjoy good choral singing, then give this a listen -- the Capella Amsterdam will not disappoint.

Friday, February 17, 2012

CCC 018 - Max Richter

British composer Max Richter is the next candidate in our Consonant Classical Challenge. Max Richter has strong academic credentials. He studied with Luciano Berio and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music.

After graduation, Richter co-founded the contemporary ensemble Piano Circus. During his tenure, the group commissioned works by Arvo Part, Philip Glass, and Brian Eno, among others. Richter's own music reflects some influence by those composers, as well as some contemporary pop sensibilities.

Richter has also written extensively for films and documentaries, and his music is well-suited to those forms. His work is richly atmospheric, almost impressionistic in feel. You won't necessarily hear catchy tunes you can hum along with, but if you like Debussy, you'll find a kindred spirit in Richter.

On the Nature of Daylight, from his 2002 project "Memoryhouse" is a good example of his orchestral writing.


Most of Max Richter's compositions are short (by classical standards). And that's not necessarily a bad thing. In programming a classical concert, there's always a need for short works of musical substance. Imagine a work like Last Days opening the second half of a concert...

Max Richter works comfortably in the world of classical music, film music, and even popular music (he produced Vashti Bunyan's comeback album). I think it's his strength. Richter speaks the musical language most classical and non-classical audiences understand.  

The Trees is another of Richter's fine miniatures. Note the piano work -- Max Richter is an accomplished pianist as well as composer, and often blends those two talents.

Max Richter works comfortably in the world of classical music, film music, and even popular music (he produced Vashti Bunyan's comeback album, "Lookaftering"). I think it's his strength. Richter speaks the musical language most classical and non-classical audiences understand.

If more concert-goers (regardless of age) were exposed to his music, there might be an increased demand for it in symphony hall. There's plenty of demand for Max Richter outside of it.

Recommended Recordings

Max Richter: Memoryhouse

Max Richter: Songs From Before

 Max Richter: 24 Postcards in Full Colour

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Swinging London 64-66 – A WTJU special

For the Rock Fundraising Marathon at WTJU, I programmed and hosted a show entitled Swinging London 64-66. It was an overview of the musical scene of the day, focusing on UK artists (especially those that were bigger in the UK than the US).

It would have been easy to stick with the leaders of the British Invasion – the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Who – but those artists have plenty of representation on other stations. This show attempted to show just how diverse the scene really was (by playing lots of groovy music).

 Below in the complete playlist, along with videos for some key tracks. As you can hear, even though a variety of styles were represented, there was something uniquely British about the sound (and what a great sound it was).

We were also luck to have Steve Myers on the broadcast team. At 15 he actually worked for one of the legendary pirate radio stations that presented exciting alternatives to the conservative fare of the BBC. The parallel between that, and WTJU’s relationship with local commercial stations was noted (see the second paragraph above). Steve brought in some sounders from Radio London and Radio Caroline, which we used liberally. If you missed the show, you can still play it from the WTJU archives through 2/30/12. After that, you can just browse these links – you’ll get the flavor of it.

The Swinging London 64-66 playlist:

"Something Better Beginning" - The Kinks
"Little Children" - Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas
"Downtown" - Petula Clark
"Have I the Right" - The Honeycombs
"Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" - Gerry and the Pacemakers
"Hey Hey Hey" - Chris Farlow & the Thunderbirds

"He's in Town" - Rockin Berries
"High Wire (theme from "Danger Man" - Edwin Astley Orchestra
"Watcha Gonna Do" - Billie Davis
"One Fine Day" - Shel Naylor

"He Who Rides the Tiger" - Patsy Anne Noble
"I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" - Rod Stewart
"A World Without Love" - Peter and Gordon
"Gimme Some Money" - The Thamesmen
"Snakes and Snails" - Alma Cogan

"Cups and Cakes" - The Thamesmen
"As Tears Go By" - Marianne Faithful
"Its Love I Should Have Tried" - Rick Minas
"I Like It" - Gerry and the Pacemakers
"Sounds Incorporated" - Sound Incorporated
"She Wanted Me" - Tony Jackson

"Something Good" - Herman Hermits
"Go Now" - Moody Blues
"Stop Breaking My Heart" - Tom Jones
"Some Things Just Stay In Your Mind" - Vashti Bunyan

"True Story" - Twice as Much
"Crawling Up a Hill" - John Mayall
 "For Your Love" - Yardbirds
"Tired of Waiting for You" - The Kinks
"When I Think of You" - Twiggy

"Gloria" - Them
 "Sweet and Tender" - The McKinleys
"Tobacco Road" - Nashville Teens
 "When You Walk in the Room" - The Searchers
 "Tin Soldier" - Small Faces

"Somebody Else's Baby" - Samantha Jones
 "Money" - The Beatles
"That's How Strong My Love Is`" - The In Crowd
 "Heart Trouble" - Eyes of Blue

"You Really Have Started something" - Britt
"Get the Money" - Gary Farr and the T Bones
"Make Her Mine" - Hipster Image
"Theme from the Saint" - Original Soundtrack
"Theme from the Avengers" - Original Soundtrack
"That's the Way It's Got to Be" - The Poets
 "You Too Can Be a Beatle" - Polly Perkins

"She Loves You" - The Beatles
"Look Through Any Window" - The Hollies
"Ferry Cross the Mersey" - Gerry and the Pacemakers
"I'm Telling You Now" - Freddie and the Dreamers

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

WTJU and the lost benefit

I just finished another fund-raising program for WTJU, (the station I volunteer for) and raised a decent, if not great, amount of money.

For those not familiar with the station, we do things a little differently. Unlike other non-commerical radio station that simply fund raise around their programming, WTJU segments its fund drives (something I’ve written about before). The staff of each of the four musical genres represented at the station (folk, rock, classical, jazz) take over programming for a week. So this past week the Rock Department was in charge, and it was a week filled with special rock shows.

As always, several announcers from other genres helped out (just as some of the rock DJs help out with the jazz, folk, or classical marathons). In this particular case, I was hosting a program entitled “Swinging London, 64-66.” It was aired in my normal Wednesday 6-9am time slot, in place of my classical music show.

 The program was outstanding – and it’s a shame almost no one heard it. Helping me out was Paula O'Buckley, the host of the Thursday morning classical program Classical Cafe, and Steve Myers, the host of the Friday classical music program Classical Comfort. We all were very familiar with the music we were playing (see tomorrow’s post for show details) – we don't just listen to classical music.

We were having a great time – there was real chemistry in the studio. And Steven, remarkably, lived the UK music scene. He told stories about being taken to hear the Beatles in 1964 for his 11th birthday. At 15, he was an engineer at Radio Caroline, a pirate radio station operating off the coast of Britain in the North Sea. He wore Carnaby Street fashion, and had stories for just about every artist we played.

It was great radio – for the few who heard it.

Because, of course, WTJU normally airs classical music from 6-9am. Our regular audiences are used to hearing me on Wednesdays, Paula on Thursdays, and Steven on Fridays presenting and discussing classical music. I’m sure most of them simply tuned out this week. And who replaced them? Our rock audience is used to late-night programming? I’m not sure most of them would be tuning in that early –especially just for one week.

In the right time slot, broadcasting to the right audience, this show should have raised several thousand dollars. It didn’t. It wasn’t a case of casting pearls before swine – we were casting pearls into a vacant lot.

This program will remain one of my favorite radio experiences. I’m just sorry it wasn’t one that was shared.

(If you want to hear the program, it’s available through 2/29/12 at the WTJU show vault.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Same place, different time

I visited my friend in the hospital yesterday and made an unexpected emotional journey.

It didn't directly involve my friend. He had been admitted with a mild coronary and was doing well (as I write this he's getting ready to return home).

No, it was all about coming back to a place I hadn't expected to revisit. My friend was in cardiology, which was on the fourth floor of the hospital. A year and a half ago, when I was in the same ward, it was oncology. It was very strange walking back through those double doors and seeing the same layout, the same walls, the same fixtures -- but an entirely different staff.

Still, it brought back a lot of memories.

The last time I was on that floor, I was receiving (and recovering from) chemotherapy. I had made it a point to walk as much as possible (which usually wasn't very far). I moved slowly through that hallway then -- I traversed it comfortably now.

On good days, I went down to the first floor food court to get some Higher Grounds coffee.

I usually had just enough energy to get down to the stand, receive my coffee, and take it to the outdoor courtyard. I spent several mid-mornings on the same bench in the courtyard, sipping a house blend grande with one hand, and steadying my IV rack in the other.

After leaving my friend's room (fortunately not one I had stayed in -- that would have been really weird), I went down to the coffee shop. I took my house blend grande out to the courtyard and sat down.

I reflected on the difference time can make. There's been no recurrence of the cancer (always subject to change). I'm currently in good health, and with the sun warming my face, I felt good.

It's been an eventful year and a half. I've weathered the crises with a lot of help from friends and family, and those relationships are much stronger for it.

It was the same courtyard, the same bench, the same coffee, the same time of day -- but the person in the courtyard wasn't the same man who sat there 18 months ago.

Monday, February 13, 2012

75 Years of Adventure

Long-time readers know of my appreciation for the Sunday comic strip Prince Valiant. This past Sunday there was an unusual panel that was more than just another box that furthered the story.  (click on image to enlarge)

In a contemplative mood, Prince Valiant thinks back over all the people he's known in his life -- which the panel depicts. Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the strip, and that panel commemorated the event. In the center are Val and Aleta, surrounded by their family and friends. But not quite as they are in the current continuity.

Karen and Valeta, (Val's twin girls) are in their early twenties. In this strip they're shown as young children. Their youngest son Nathan is shown as a toddler (he's a pre-teen at this point). Arn, the oldest son, and Galan, second oldest are shown about the right ages compared to each other, but decided younger than they are now.

In the back are a number of important characters. Some, such as Sir Gawain are currently in the storyline. Others, such as Tristam and Gundar Harl from adventures long past. Makeda (in the upper left) is from Valiant's adventure in Africa with King Solomon's Mines. Steadying Nathan is the wife of Gundar Harl's (he's also in the picture) -- who he met when Valiant and Aleta ended up in North America, where Arn was born.

And the supporting cast from Camelot is there -- King Arthur and Merlin, along with Valiant's father King Aguar of Thule, and many others. But what makes this special is the homage by the current creative team to those that have gone before. Coming in from right is the originator of the strip, Hal Foster who wrote and drew the strip from its inception in 1937 until his retirement in 1970. Just to the left of Merlin is John Cullen Murphy, who took over the drawing of the strip 1970. In 2004 the current team of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz took over.

It's one of those little touches I appreciate. Gianni and Schultz's tribute to Foster and Murphy was subtle, but much appreciated by fans of the strip. I grew up reading Prince Valiant, and for over 40 years it's been a Sunday treat. Here's to the next 75 years of adventure!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Leading by following

I just finished a 2-day Session retreat. It was a great time of renewal, as I and my fellow Session members welcomed a new group of elders on board.

Session? Elders? A brief explanation might be in order here.

Not every denomination (or church) is organized and run the same way. Some denominations, like the Episcopal and Methodist churches, are organized from the top down. Bishops make the decisions, transfer priests, and and so on. Congregational churches, like the Baptists, are organized bottom up. The congregation makes all the important decisions like hiring a minster, usually by voting.

In the Presbyterian church, it's a little different We have Session made up of elders (ordained laypersons) that handle most of the business of the church. These elders are elected by the congregation, and make most of the decisions independent of them.

Being a ruling elder (as I am) is a big responsibility. And the interesting part about it is that, at least in my church, almost no one wants to do it. And yet, most of our congregation have served on Session at one time or another.

How is that possible? Well, although it may look like the Session has a large amount of power over the congregation, it really doesn't. The congregation may not vote on the budget with their hands, but they certainly can with their wallets. The Session may decide to launch new programs, but without congregational participation, they won't go far.

And that's fine, because being an elder isn't about bossing other people around. And it's certainly not about power. It's about service, both to the other members of my church family and to God.

How to best use the church's resources and assets to further Christ's ministry is the Session's aim. We're simply stewards of the gifts. And "further" can be all kind of things. Sure, it could be mission trips and community outreach, but it can also mean nurturing the congregation, providing services for groups that have none, maintaining facilities so that they can be available in the future, and many other things besides.

It's a big responsibility, and a lot of work. If you're looking for fame, prestige, and power --  keep looking. But if you think the best way to lead is by serving, you've got the right attitude.

No one wants to be on Session. But we all feel like we've been called to be. It's a nice attitude for a governing body to have, I think.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Learning by doing

I've really taken Ira Glass' thoughts about creativity to heart. With each of the short little videos I've been doing I've learned some more about the technique of video story-telling. I've still got quite a way to go but still, there's nothing like doing to learn how to do.

And it helps to learn from others.

Here's another video I've worked on recently. I did the writing, producing and directing, and benefited greatly from having a talented videographer, editor, and actors who taught me even more. Having people who know their craft really made a difference in the execution. The journey continues!

Friday, February 10, 2012

CCC 017 - Einojuhani Rautavaara

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features a prominent composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara. This Finnish composer's music has been often performed and recorded (especially in Europe), although he's not too well-known to American audiences.

Considered to be the creative heir to Jean Sibelius, Rautavaara has grown into the role as his style's matured. His first works were serial compositions, but as time went on Rautavaara became more interested in traditional chordal structures (if not necessarily harmonic motions).

Rautavaara's later (and more popular) works blend austere melody with lush harmonies to create music that conjures up the frozen landscape of Finland.

This excerpt from his seventh symphony, "Angel of Light" is a good example of Rautavaara's mature style. Note the richness of the orchestral ensemble.

Rautavaara's written eight symphonies, several concertos and many shorter works for orchestra.
His concertos don't contain showy fireworks, they still challenge the soloist and provide substantial music for the audience to listen to. This is from Rautavaara's third piano concerto.

There are some composers you can always count on orchestras programming: Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. Wouldn't it be nice if Rautavaara could be added to that list?

Recommended Recordings:

Rautavaara: Cantus Articus; Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 3

Rautavaara: Angel of Light

Rautavaara: Violin Concerto; Angels and Visitations; Isle of Bliss

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Straco Layout, Part 17 - Let's Run Some Trains Again!

The Straco Layout project has been going well, recently (read more about the whole project here). It seemed like a good time to run some trains -- after all, that's sort of the purpose. I'd added a new station (Part 16 - Station-Aero) and had all the locomotives in good repair, (see Part 14 - Bandai band-aid) so it was time to send them around the track and watch what happened.

One thing you'll notice in this video is that all three trains are loud.

The Bandai diesel sounds better than previously thanks to its recent cleaning, but it still made a racket. The worst of the lot was the Cragstan Santa Fe set. It sounded like it had been buried at the beach, unearthed and put on the track. Yikes!

The Straco switcher was still the best runner, but for some reason during the day I shot this, the cars had problems staying on the track, so its segment is the shortest in the video.

Oh well. These are all inexpensive toys that were marginally operational even when new. Nevertheless, I enjoyed getting these trains up and running them again. And I hope you do, too.


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Albert Roussel's "Spider's Banquet" provides an aural feast

Albert Roussel: Festin De L'Araignee
Padmâvatî – Suites 1 & 2
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor

Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conclude their survey of Roussel’s orchestral music with two important stage works: La festin de l’araignée, and the suites from the opera Padmâvatî. The previous four volumes from Naxos each focused on a  Roussel symphony, filling in with shorter orchestral works.

This time the centerpiece is his most popular ballet score, La festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet). This 1912 ballet-pantomime depicts insect life in a garden (especially those trapped in the spider’s web). Its impressionistic score reminds me somewhat of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, only in sharper focus.

The performance features the complete score, and the 32-minute work moves along briskly. Denève and RSNO dig into the lush harmonies and sparkling orchestration with gusto. It’s easy to understand the popularity of the work based on their performance.

The remainder of the album is devoted to two orchestral suites Roussel extracted from his opera-ballet Padmâvatî. Based on a tragic Indian legend, the score is full of exotic color and melodies. As might be expected, the music is much more serious and dramatic than the lighthearted Spider’s Banquet. The orchestral suites are full of appealing music, though it sometimes sounded to me like Mussorgsky with a French accent.

If you’ve been following Denève’s Roussel cycle, you’ll be happy to know this release makes a fine conclusion to the series. The ensemble and conductor turn in some fine performances that match the quality of those in the previous volumes.

If you’re not familiar with Roussel, this disc might be a good place to start. The Spider’s Banquet just may entice you into Roussel’s charming musical web.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Straco Layout, Part 16 - Station-Aero

The Straco Express pulls into the Bandai
Areo Station.
The little layout I've created for the Straco Express has come together slowly (read more about the whole project here). I've only had two basic rules for the setup.

1) All the pieces must be Japanese toys of the same vintage as the train (late 50's - early 60's).
2) No item can cost more than $10 (and the cheaper the better).

I recently came across something that fit both those requirements -- a Bandai Aero Station.

This lithographed tin station doubled as a battery power pack for an early 1960's HO train set, an "Atomic Armored Train Set," no less. I suppose such a space-age atomic train needed not just a station, but an aero station!

The Aero Station originally came
with this Bandai train set.
The complete set is worth several hundred dollars, which is a little beyond my budget. But there was the station on eBay, being auctioned separately (I suspect it was one of a few surviving pieces of the set). I won the auction for $8.99, and then got to work.

As I explained in Part 15, The Roads Must Roll I created a parking lot for the new piece. When it arrived, I found I had a little more work to do. It needed a some cleaning, and I had to crimp the roof so it would latch properly and stay closed.

But when it was done, I was glad I'd made the (modest) investment. The bright, lithographed colors fit right in with the trains and accessories.

The Bandai freight at the Bandai
Areo Station.
In order to get the station to the right height, I made a small platform for it out of some scrap wood.

And there it is. The layout's mostly filled in now, and the trains have a destination.

That parking lot looks pretty vacant, though...

  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Moulding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99

Total Cost: $34.61


Monday, February 06, 2012

The Other Side of the Badge

We're helping my Dad clean out his attic, and in the process we're unearthing some long-forgotten artifacts. For the most part, they're items that any normal family would have thrown away long ago. But in a way, I'm kind of glad we didn't.

One of the things we found this time was a giant (3"W x 4"H) toy police badge. It's a pretty odd item.

First off, it's outsized even for an adult. It must have just about covered my chest back in the day (I think I was about five or six).

Second, of course, it's something that could no longer be sold. A single piece of stamped metal with sharp pointy edges a child's toy? What were parents thinking?

Third -- and most interesting to me -- is what's on the reverse side. Clearly this badge was stamped from a can of peaches. How cheap can you get?

But there's a little more to it than that.

Consider: you can't just run an old can through the stamper. It would crush the can flat and you'd have two layers of metal, one with a good impression, the other not -- and they'd be difficult to pull apart. The crumpling would also chip the painted label (and it's not).

So the metal was flat to begin with. But it was also printed with the peaches label. So where did it come from? Was the Japanese metal can company making these badges on the side, using overruns and scraps? Or were said overruns and scraps sold to a third-party manufacturer?

I have no idea. But I think I'll hold onto this oddity, at least for a little while longer.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Using the Bible in Arguments - An Observation

One of my FaceBook friends got into an argument, which played itself out in her comments. It involved civil marriages for gays. Yes, this is a hot button issue, but this post isn't about that. It's about what happened in the argument.

My friend is for allowing civil marriages, and it wasn't long before others jumped in with opposing viewpoints. Very quickly Biblical scripture started being tossed back and forth.

And that's what I want to focus on. Because, for the most part, the scripture being quoted against civil marriages came from the Old Testament, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

What's the significance of that?

Those two books are the ones that lay down the foundation of Hebraic law. The Ten Commandments first appear in Exodus, but they're repeated and expanded upon in Deuteronomy. That's the book that goes into the "shalt nots" in detail, along with punishments, reparations, and other aspects of civil law.

Leviticus is more of a handbook for priests, and so is more concerned about the details of worship, sacrifices, holy days, and religious law. It too has plenty of detail about what's allowed, what isn't, and the punishments for the latter.

In the New Testament, Jesus somewhat simplifies things.

When asked which was the greatest commandment (out of all the body of religious law), he said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:34-40).

Jesus got into trouble for many things, such as associating with those who the religious law proscribed as unclean and undesirable, breaking the Sabbath, not observing all the rules and customs and so on. His actions as well as his words showed that Jesus was more concerned with the spirit, rather than the letter of the Law.

And which Law was that, exactly? See the quote above.

So in a way, using Old Testament law to determine Christian behavior is like using an outdated copy of a statute to argue a case in court. Doesn't matter what the rule used to be, what is it now? The Old Testament's definitely important, because it provides context for the New. But if I really want to use scripture to guide my actions, then the New Testament's the place I look.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Straco Layout - Part 15, The Roads Must Roll!

Before: The subdivision's road just stops. That house next to
car will have to be moved for the new intersection.
The small little setup I've built around a Japanese toy train continues to grow (with minimal cost).

There will soon be an addition to the layout (read more about the whole project here), and so it's time to finish the roadwork. Unlike real life, extending a road and creating a parking lot had no environmental impact.

To make room for a new intersection, I just moved a house over, and for the parking lot relocated the potted trees (if only it were thus in real life).

The new road, ready to travel.
Like before, creating the new roads was a simple task. I just outlined the area with painter's tape and started painting. I let the new paint dry for a day, and went back with my white paint marker and did the outline around the edges. Using painter's tape on either side of those lines meant I didn't have to worry about having a steady hand.

So what's new? I extended the road on off the board, creating another railroad crossing. When I originally laid out the road, I wasn't sure what would go there, which is why I left it blank. I also created a new intersection and added a parking area.

For what? Stay tuned for Part 16!
The new intersection and parking lot. There are very good
reasons why it's the shape it is, as you'll soon see.

Since I just used more of the Testor's paint I previously purchased, there wasn't any additional cost to the improevments.
  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Moulding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00

Total Cost: $25.62


Friday, February 03, 2012

CCC 016 - Samuel Adler

American composer Samuel Adler is next on our Consonant Classical Challenge list. Adler's a respected composer and is currently on the faculty of the Julliard School. Among his many students who've gone on to successful careers is Eric Ewazen, who we've featured earlier in this series.

Adler might not be familiar to the average concert-goer, but he's well-known in professional circles where he's accumulated numerous awards and citations. He's written over 400 works, including six symphonies, three piano concertos and many other orchestral, chamber, and choral compositions.

In his viola concerto, you can hear the major elements of his style. The orchestration is solid, and somewhat traditional. His harmonic language is original, but certainly not outre. And his melodic lines are interesting and engaging.

In his work"Requiescat in Pace," (a 1963 composition written in response to JFK's assassination) you can hear influences of American composers such as Aaron Copland. But Adler's compositional voice is clearly his own.

Samuel Adler writes music that's meant to communicate in a meaningful way with the audience, which (in my opinion) makes him one of those composers who should be programmed more often. Personally, I think a few less warhorses and few more fresh-sounding compositions (like Adler's) might be welcome to both old and new audiences alike.

Recommended Recordings  
Samuel Adler: Symphony No. 5 "We Are the Echoes"; Nuptial Scene; The Binding (Milken Archive of American Jewish Music)

Piston, Harbison, Adler: Viola Concertos

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Many Faces of Me

I've noticed something interesting as I flit from social media site to social media site. Although I share a lot of the same things, the overall pictures they build up are different.

So the folks who only follow me on FaceBook have a different view then my Twitter followers, or my Google+ circlers, or even my LinkedIn contacts.

I don't think that necessarily a bad thing. Some of these sites have specific functions, and so broadcasting the same post to all doesn't make a lot of sense. LinkedIn, for example, I use for business purposes (which was its original intent), so not a lot of personal stuff gets posted there. FaceBook is more for family and friends-style content (at least for me), while Twitter is just for light conversation. Google+ I'm still just getting into, so I'm probably somewhat of a cypher there.

If you follow me on more than one of those sites, you'll have a more complete picture of who I am and what's important to me. And it's something I've noticed in others. Some people have almost have a completely different personality for each site.  Which is something I need to keep in mind.

In real life, we all fill different roles -- what I talk about at work is different than what I talk about among close friends (and even if the subject is the same, the tenor of the conversation is usually not). There was a time when I thought I had but one online persona. Glad to realize that's not the case.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

eBay - Knowing when to quit (Epilogue)

It's nice, just not $23.99 nice.
Earlier I wrote about an eBay auction I decided to walk away from because of the true -- rather than apparent -- cost. To recap, I was bidding on an item that was worth $10-$15 to me. With shipping, my max bid of $10.00 obligated me to spend $19.49 if I won the auction. Well, I didn't.

The winning bid was $13.50, for a total cost of $23.99. I'm glad I didn't go on. After the bidding fever subsided, I would have been upset with myself for paying about twice what (I think) I should have.

I'll just add that $23.00 to my money for the York train meet -- where I can usually find these items for around $10.00.