Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

William James

Sunday, October 10, 2010

'I heard the Bells' ~ thoughts on my creative process

I'm not sure how interesting this will be to other people, but I thought I'd document the thought processes behind my latest peice of music which you can listen to here :)

I first encountered the Poem 'Christmas Bells' by Longfellow when I was a teenager. I was browsing through a compilation of the music of 'Carols for Choirs' books 1-4 when the page opened at a text and a melody that I had never seen before.

The original poem text is this:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The setting I heard was not the famous one by Johnny Marks (click the links to listen) that has been recorded by Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby and even Pedro the Lion and it wasn't the John Baptist Calkin setting made famous by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was a little known setting by Allen Percival which I cannot find a recording of.

I had never heard the text before and the Percival setting was the only one I knew so a couple of years ago I started my own setting.

It languished in a forgotten file for many years until I recently pulled it out and gave it a shiny new finish.

I was inspired by the first 2 lines of text that the setting really needed to include a) Bells and b) An old familiar carol.

Some of the versions I've seen referenced carols by having some kind of prelude or postlude of a familiar melody that then morphs into the Longfellow text, but I wondered whether I could find a way to set the lyrics to a melody that would fit over the top of an existing carol. Quite a challenge!

I settled on 'Silent Night' - one of the most familiar carols of all time, and one that I had already done some subtle reharmonizations with. Because the melody of Silent Night has a lot of pauses it had the space required for me to weave in a counter melody for the Longfellow lyrics.

I chose to set 6 of the 7 verses as I was concerned about length (I omitted verse 2 which seemed the easiest one to skip without upsetting the overall meaning of the text.)

Verses 4, 5 and 6 have a different emotional feel to them compared to the others so I knew I had to do something musically different at that point.

The piece opens with the bells playing a gentle flowing carillon pattern over the sustained lower chords. The choir sings the first stanza of Silent Night in German, while the soloist sings the Longfellow text over the top. I'm hoping that this juxtaposition creates a sense of familiarity along with curiosity. The bells are playing a very idiomatic pattern, and Silent Night instantly conjured up Candle light carol services. After the first verse Silent Night fades away as the Choir takes over the text.

The soloist ends verse 2 (verse 3 of the text) singing 'Good will to men', but this melodic phrase is engulfed by new musical material. The choir sings of 'Canons thundering in the south' while the bells create sounds by Mart Lifts - the bell is rung by being slammed into the foam padding on the table and then lifted in the air. It's an urgent aggressive sound in contrast to the earlier section. The melody moves faster and uses darker sonorities and lots of diminished chords to paint with the music the dark images in the text.

The choir sings unaccompanied the stanza 'It was as if an earthquake rent....' The idea is that the choir is totally alone, the message of hope that the bells ring has deserted them. This section finishes with a unison held pitch, the harmonies and rhythms have abandoned the the piece and we are left with a solitary note.

The tenor soloist gives voice to this abandonment in the stanza 'And in despair I bowed my head...' He sings to the original melody of the Longfellow, but transformed into a minor key. His accompaniment is very sparse, just a few bells played with soft mallets hanging in the stillness.

But his despair isn't hopeless. The choir re-enters slowly layering their entrances over top of one another, as hope comes tumbling back to fill the silence. When the choir reaches its climax the handbells triumphantly return playing the melody of Silent Night, but this melody is now a song of triumph. 'God is not dead nor does He sleep!'.

As the choir fades on the final chord, the bells gently peal away to stillness.

Well that's the plan anyway :)

The piece will hopefully have it's first performance Monday Nov 29th at Rice University, but you can take a listen to a computer rendition of it (with the bells and the singers played your computer's sound card) by clicking this link here.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Jesus? Is that you? ~ You've Been Framed.

(Thoughts for Sunday's Contemplative Service)

Mark 6:1-4 (The Message)

Jesus left there and returned to his hometown. His disciples came along. On the Sabbath, he gave a lecture in the meeting place. He made a real hit, impressing everyone. "We had no idea he was this good!" they said. "How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability?"

But in the next breath they were cutting him down: "He's just a carpenter—Mary's boy. We've known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?" They tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling. And they never got any further.

Jesus told them, "A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child."

I think anyone who has gone 'home' after a significant period away has had an experience like this. I remember when I went back to live in my home town after many years of living away including 6 1/2 years in Texas. I had transformed into a different person, but because the people in my home had not witnessed that change it came as quite a surprise, and I found myself feeling uncomfortable in the place where I should have felt the most 'at home'.

Jesus was not recognized by the people who should have known him best. They saw with wonder that he had changed. How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability? But all they could see were some of the external defining characteristics. Family. Occupation.

Aren't you the Carpenter? Who are you to put on airs? We know your family, your brothers and sisters are right here. They are good people. You had the same upbringing, what makes you so different, so special? We know the facts about who you are Jesus, we know what you are really like.

From the vantage point of history it's easy for me to be amazed that Jesus' hometown of Nazareth missed seeing what I think is obvious, but am I really that different?

I have my own framework of who Jesus is and how He works in my life. When something happens that falls out of my framework then it can't possibly be Jesus because 'Jesus wouldn't do that!' Most of the time my frame is invisible to me. We group ourselves with people who's frames resemble ours and spend our time maintaining the frame and defending ourselves against anything that would seek to put the slightest dent in it...

...until life happens and the frame that functioned so well has to be dismantled and rebuilt anew.

For me, the most recent frame shaking event was walking through the death of both my parents. It caused me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about God, The World, Salvation, and Myself. The new frame I constructed from the rubble of the old one is more delicate and expansive, it lets more light shine through, it's not as oppressive. This is all good, but I need to be aware that it is still a frame, and so when life causes me to question it, I mustn't cling to it too tightly.

If I live by the mantra, 'Jesus worked that way, Jesus is working that way, Jesus will always work that way' I am in danger of missing Him when he does something different.

That's why I need Community. I cannot see my own blind spots, I don't perceive them as blind spots at all until someone else demonstrates them to me by walking into them and disappearing. I cannot see how my frame is obscuring Jesus from me until someone else in my community sees Him in a place that I cannot see.

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.

You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them? "From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

If all I keep is my old frame, then all I will sing are old songs.

Wander through the frame of your life, explore its depths, marvel at its beauty, and be willing to dismantle it.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

September Games!

September was a slow month for games - 21 plays of a total of 15 different games, but there were some surprises to the list.

Ad Astra

This game of space exploration and colonization had not hit the table since 2009, and then somehow in September we remembered how good it was and it hit the table 3 times! Given the number of games we have, this is quite exceptional. The game plays like a hybrid of Settlers of Catan and Wallenstein/Shogun. Trading happens less in this game than Settlers, but the random element of what gets produced each turn is eliminated. With the clever card mechanism you can always guarantee that you can get what you want, but sometimes it's better to hope that someone else chooses what you want to do (so that you can do it as well and then use your turns to do something else). I'm not that good at predicting other people's moves as yet, but I enjoy the game :)

Castle Ravenloft

This game garnered 2 plays. It's based on the Dungeons and Dragons System, but this game has no need for a Dungeon Master to run the adventure and doesn't really feel like a role playing system. I used to play D&D as a teenager....I know in some people's minds that could mean I am 'Tainted by Satan' as D&D gained a ridiculous reputation as a gateway to Witchcraft and Satanism.

In a random aside, my parents were perfectly content for me and my friends to sit at the dining room table playing Dungeons and Dragons, but I was severely chastised when some of the Youth Group held a prayer meeting at our house!!!!!

But back to Castle Ravenloft. I'm not sure how it would bear up to repeated plays, the game is definitely one that I am sure the company will milk for expansions as some have already been announced. Having said that, it is a lot of fun and the way the game handles the monsters is very clever. It's also the kind of game you can teach as you play which is a bonus. The miniatures that come with the game look cool and add to the ambiance, and as it comes with many different adventures and a random modular board system I think it would be fairly repeatable, which means I probably just contradicted myself :)

Going back to the theme of old games making a surprising reappearance, with 2 plays, here is Dvonn. It's a 2 player abstract game, that plays quickly and offers some very interesting tactical decisions. Dvonn hadn't been played since July 09, so again it is surprising that it hit the table twice in September, though it is a great game to play while waiting for others to arrive.

Other older games making surprising reappearances include:

Bohnanza - fun planting beans :)

Notre Dame - watch out for those plague rats.

Stone Age - keeping your tribe alive.

The most interesting new games were Innovation and Hansa Teutonica. If I have to pick between the two I'll probably go with Innovation. Hansa Teutonica felt to me like a complex version of Thurn and Taxis, though to be fair, I was in the mood to play a different game, so I was a little biased against Hansa Teutonica before it hit the table. I'll definitely try it again.

For all of 2010 I have now played 119 different board games and logged 275 plays!!! April was my highest month with 47 plays, and June my lowest with only 19 (but as I was in nightly rehearsals for a musical during the entire month of June I'm impressed I managed that many)