Fun is Fun: November with Bombadil

In the still locked down but waning days of last winter, when pandemic podmates were all digging very deep for new conversation topics, we did an evening on the topic of “What band would you most want to see live” (with time for both fantasy/dead options and currently playing ones). I wanted to see the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth. I forget the two others. But my friend said her #1 wish was to see the band Bombadil play.

In an idle moment a little later, I Googled to see if Bombadil had any upcoming tour dates that we might be able to swing to see them. But alas, the list of tour dates was empty. However, there was the tag line “Email us if you want to host a show or need help with tickets or just have questions about life.” I had many questions about life, but I was wondering … could it work? Were they still a going concern? Could they possibly come here? With little to lose, I dropped an email. And so it came to be that this fall, Bombadil was coming to play the street, making my friend’s dream come true in her own home.

We’d asked the band what they might need for the concert. The answers were a gentle preference for selzer, red wine, and cake with milk. I took responsibility for the cake with milk. The morning of, I cheerfully made about 60 cupcakes in my favorite kinds of cake, and liberally frosted them. As the dark began to fall, I brought them across the street to join the other offerings, and watched the band set up. Friends had come from all over – states away – for this event.

The sense of anticipation when you are mingling with the band while guests arrive and the equipment gets set up was singular. And this night was exceptional. November it might have been, but even in the dark the weather was in the upper 60s with clear skies and gentle breezes. Sure, climate emergency. But on this night it was a glorious feeling of liberty as the walls between inside and outside were literally down. As the hour came, we all gathered with our backs to Nobility Hill. Above us sat a gaggle of teens, sitting close on a blanket. The lights were soft and the moon was rising over my house across the street. And the first chords fell upon hushed and listening ears.

A small number of people gather below to watch a band play on a back porch.
Tilly wandered in and out among the band as they played

I am not sure I’ve ever been happier, for an hour and a half. I think that this depth of joy is only possible by contrast – after sorrow and pandemic and isolation and loss. You don’t understand a perfect moment until you have comparisons for it. And this was a perfect moment. We’d spent the lead up to the concert listening to the music, so when it finally came they were all familiar, I had favorites, and I could sing along with the choruses. Also, I got to actually ask the band what the heck the words to the chorus of “When We are Both Cats” actually are. We held our breath as to whether or not Daniel would fall off the steps where he was precariously perched. And around the circle of light the faces of my friends were glowing with a similar pleasure. It was a sweet loss when the set finally wrapped up, with the tear jerker, “Thank you“. The kids all bought tshirts, I got a vinyl (seriously 45 rpm dudes?!) signed by the band. We had another cupcake. The cables were all rolled up and carried to the van. We reluctantly found our ways back home.

A small group of people outside at night, all watching a band play on a back porch.
The entirety of the assembled.

My heart is still warm, thinking about it. My lips pull up in a smile. It’s a moment I would wrap in honey, capture in amber for a future, colder world to marvel at. It was singular, and I’d almost be afraid to do something similar in case it bled any bit of the perfect color from this picture.

We have come through so much together, friends. And so much remains of sorrow and fear. I don’t need to tell you – you hear tale if it every hour of every day. But there is also this moment, this opportunity for a new and beautiful thing to emerge and be all the lovelier for the dark background it is set against. More things than I believed are still possible. And it gives me hope.

A musician sings passionately into a microphone while playing guitar, under hanging lights in a backyard.
Move aside Pixies in Amsterdam. THIS is now the coolest thing I have ever been a part of.

What a wonderful feeling to feel like everything is right
What a wonderful feeling to know that everything is fine
Keep your family close
Because when you get in trouble they’ll be the last to lose their hope

A middle aged woman with short hair, smiling at the camera. She is wearing a pink and orange dress, a black jacket and a  thick braided chain choker
Not a fake smile

#28daysoftshirts – Day 28 Sigh No More

I’m sad to see this challenge come to an end – not least because I have 4 more tshirts I was planning on wearing, and probably another 10 that I wasn’t. So last night, when I went to a Mumford and Son’s concert, it was clear that I definitely did NOT need to get a Mumford and Son’s tshirt, no matter how much I like their music.

Mumford and Sons


Color: Gray
Fabric: Soft
Text: Mumford & Sons
Attributes: Throwback sleeve design and wings on the back

It was a fantastic concert

I needed to make today a two-fer to get in my favorite hoodie design. The hoodie itself has alas been washed too much to be that super soft I so prize in my hoodies (like stuffed animals). I also disagree slightly with the attributes. I’m not +9 speed. I think it should be +9 alertness, which is a more useful attribute anyway.

Backstory: In roleplaying/video games, you sometimes get magical potions that temporarily increase your capabilities. This hoodie is making the point that coffee is totally a magical potion that temporarily increases your capabilities. The font and pixelation make this seem more like an old school video game stat.

Color: Black
Fabric: Not as soft as it used to be
Text: (Picture of coffee)
+5 Wisdom
+9 Speed
+8 Energy

My favorite potion

#28daysoftshirts – Day 13 is a different kind of nerdy

Hard times!

I’m going to be trying out an orchestra thingy here in Cambridge today. It’s small and unofficial enough that there are no auditions. I still wish I’d, you know, practiced the music ahead of time. But still. Why not try? So in honor of that I went with a music geek shirt. I also wear this when the political situation gets me down.

My only objection to this shirt is that while 13/8 is a hard signature, 6/4 is a downright easy one. Even 5/4 would’ve been better.

Color: Barney purple
Fabric: Stiff
Text: 13/8, 5/4 These are difficult times

Gone to Melville Castle

Last Saturday, our wheels cut through the early morning mists on a journey North through just-coloring leaves towards our summer haunts in Lincoln New Hampshire for the New Hampshire Scottish Highland Games. As we sped away, I turned on a playlist of ALL THINGS SCOTTISH, landing as I always do on “All the Best from Scotland v2“. (No, I do not have and have never heard volume 1.)

This album has been, uh, enjoyed by my family often, and Adam and I certainly know all the words. And as we passed red-limned swamps and yet-green-groves, Melville Castle came on. Since there’s an off chance that you are unfamiliar with this apex of Scottish accomplishment, here’s a version for you to listen to:

Anyway, as the song went on, a small – anonymous – voice from the back seat joined in the chorus. When the song ended, he asked for it again. And again. When the album was allowed to continue, a wistful voice said that it couldn’t wait until it could hear it again – a wish soon to be granted.

We arrived at the games – a chaotic and crowded enterprise with pipe bands to the right of you, Red Hot Chili Pipers to the left of you and Haggis straight ahead. (Yes, I did have haggis for lunch.)


No one would dare make fun of these guys for wearing pink and skirts.
No one would dare make fun of these guys for wearing pink and skirts.

I explained my Scottish heritage to my sons. I told them the rated-G version of what it meant to be a Johnstone of Clan Johnstone. (“Now what’s your clan crest again?!”) Then I took them to the Clan Johnstone tent where their great-uncle was presiding as Clan President (US) over the annual Clan Gathering. Accidentally showing up just during the clan meeting, my eldest son (the one with the Johnstone in his name) proposed that there should be awards such as best video game player (he would win) and best pie maker (an apparent shoe-in for his mother).

The boys with their Great-Uncle
The boys with their Great-Uncle

We wandered the booths, bought shortbread, watched the world championship caber toss, and saw more people in tartans than I thought possible. (I mean, I don’t have a tartan skirt and I really want one and am a Johnstone of Clan Johnstone! How do so many people gear themselves up so well and so expensively?!) My sons did this super cool bungy jump flip thingy. And a few hours later, we left the buzz of the bagpipes behind and returned home.

Not Scottish, but fun!
Not Scottish, but fun!

My son demanded “Melville Castle” on his DS. While I was at it, could I please add the depression era anthem “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”:

These two songs have been ringing through my house ever since. Two young voices in my backseat, this morning, were arguing through the lyrics of Melville Castle (is it ‘what will all the lassies dae‘ or ‘what will all the lassies say’? and singing together.

So music, this folk music – the kind sung by people you know who are like you – has been much on my mind lately. On Wednesday, word came through my Facebook feed (is it heretical of me to admit that I really love Facebook, and how it has helped me preserve relationships that otherwise would have long since withered?) that one of my old Tacoma Youth Symphony alumn friends was in the region, and playing house concerts.

Ryan McKasson was a violist when we played through Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov together in the first flowering of youth. We probably played together for four or five years. So when my Friday was inexplicably free, and my babysitter (God bless having a babysitter!) was available, and … I found myself in a house in Lexington with the lights on, original art on the walls, an expensive grand piano and cheap folding chairs. Ryan recognized me, remembering my instrument if nothing else. We chatted briefly, and then the sparks flew.

Is there a better way to listen to music than in a small group of music lovers, in the aging house of retiring patrons of the arts? I watched the shy boy I once kind of knew strike like flint against the steel of his pianist friend, challenging with fiery eyes to go one farther and one better. Physics cannot explain how fast those 20 fingers flew across string and ivory. I was rapt, and entranced. (As an aside, Ryan is one of the best all-over performers I’ve seen. If you ever have a chance to watch him play, do so. And try to figure out a way to stay late for the after-concert-session that is apparently an inevitability.)

Ryan's skill was only exceeded by his passion
Ryan’s skill was only exceeded by his passion

There were a few moments, in this modern-day-salon, where I thought about the choices of my life. I come from a corporate job, a skilled craftsman in the new economy. I sit in a cube from 9 am to 5 pm writing emails and connecting threads of different thoughts to weave into a complete cloth of strategic understanding. But perhaps I could have been a musician, an artist. Perhaps I could have chosen to write books or perform trumpet, or teach. I did not. Even in the rosin-dusted air, although I am wistful for my choices, I do not regret them. While there is no art without the artist, there must also be an audience or there will be neither art nor artist. The Tacoma Youth Symphony made my high school years joyous, but it also taught me to be the audience and patron. I gladly and cheerfully accept my role, and would love to practice it even more actively!

You can see pictures from the Highland Games, plus a few more fall pictures here.

Love that will not

In August, I packed my boys into a car an went on a road trip to Middletown, New York. My husband was off killing orcs and aliens at Gencon in Indianapolis. My mouth felt dry as I belted the kids in the car. I felt tired and very grownup and a bit alone as I drove across I90 through thunderstorms in the dark.

Legos with Unka Matt
Legos with Unka Matt

I’d been meaning to visit my brother for months. He was installed as a part time pastor in a small congregation in January. For the first time, my brother and I were both out of school, both professionals, both grownups. (Although I will never confess that to him! Tragically, he reads my blog.) Saturday, we schlepped the boys around. I felt bone-weary, the way it’s only safe to do around family. We watched tv, went out for lunch, watched JourneyQuest, ate at the Texas Roadhouse. Thane fell asleep in the booth to the dulcet tones of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” with the Yankees on the overhead tvs.

When the night was finally quiet, my brother and I talked. There is an ease that comes to talking with one of the few people who grew up in the same strange world you did: this is the great consolation of family. I never have to consider my words or my references. I have this narrow set of humans who also grew up in a town of 400, know the legends of Tuffy Suter, sang the old old hymns that even the elderly have forgotten in the mountain church we attended, consider Georgette Heyer, DE Stevenson and Patrick McManus to be canon, know the winding paths and theatrical finer points of the Oregon Shakespeare festival, and think of “Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump” Alberta as a top-tourist-destination. This is what it means to be family.

At some point, we started talking about music. I have an odd relationship with music. I love it, of course. I’m particularly fond of classical music, but I rarely listen to it. (I like to listen to radio with voice, in truth.) I do end up listening to a lot of folk/celtic music, but have no reliable sources of new introductions to music. I have always considered myself not a person who listens to popular music. You can have a lot of fun plumbing the depths of my ignorance, if you choose.

So my brother said, “You have to listen to Mumford and Sons” and he put on “Sigh No More”.

I was hooked. In return, I turned him on to Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span.

I immediately loaded “Sigh No More” onto my various devices of digital distribution and have not stopped listening since. The voice, the banjo, the lyrics have embedded themselves into the warp and woof of this time of my life, and I shall likely never hear them without being once again at this time of my life when my sons were young, my parents healthy and my love strong. The title song, in particular, speaks to me.

Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you. It will set you free to be more like the man that you were made to be.

“Yes” I think. “That is the standard to which we should hold anything we call love.” I find myself wondering, is that God’s love? Is that my love for my sons? Is that my love with my husband? Does the love I give conform to this high calling?

May I confess that I was shocked _SHOCKED_ when their next album beat out Bieber in popularity? I hadn’t intended to be listening to music that was actually popular. Ah well – so were Simon and Gurfunkel in their time.

I’m looking forward to delving the depths of their music. So far, I have what shows on the surface of the songs, and questions they raise. Are they Christian? Use to be Christian? Using Christian language? They are certainly not priggish. (Hey mom, that’s a warning that you might not totally like them. Let’s just say some of their songs cannot be played on radio.) There are allusions running through their music to Shakespeare. When you tie those allusions out, how do they change the meaning of what I hear?

I deeply appreciate this new music. It makes me aware how well I know the music I listen to, and how my ears seek out new songs. So… have you heard these guys? What questions do they raise in your mind? Do songs tie you to place-in-time, like they do me? Do you ever try to manipulate that, by introducing new music to something you’d really like to remember? And critically – who else should I be listening to?

If you are going to San Francisco

Veterans of the 60s
Veterans of the 60s

The other day I created a new Pandora station. It goes back to the guitar lessons, you see. There’s this Simon and Garfunkel song (Kathy’s Song) that I want to learn how to play. I then discovered that somehow my Simon and Garfunkel hadn’t made it to my new computer, and thus not to my phone. Let’s just put some ellipses in here that cover the fact that 4 interventions later, I still do not have Kathy’s Song on my phone to play for my teacher nor my oldest favoritest CDs onto my new laptop which is synced with my iPod.

But in the long journey towards getting my music in a place I can listen to it, I realized I hadn’t heard much Simon and Garfunkel lately, and that cannot stand. Enter the Pandora station.

And people, this is the best Pandora station ever. It’s basically the singer song-writers of the 60s, with these great voices, acoustic guitars and fantastic lyrics. This year for Valentine’s day one of us got tickets to the ballet and one of us got an awesome sound system for the tv. Adam has a blast with him mom at the ballet, and with the Roku I can stream my music and it sounds great. So I’ve been listening to Pandora through this sound system with this rocking new station. Now, back in the old days, before they invented NPR (or more accurately, before any sort of talk radio actually made its way to the boonies where we lived – and yes I am older than talk radio) my family listened to the Oldies station. This was like the 80s, so oldies meant the 60s, as opposed to now when oldies mean the 80s. These are songs I actually recognize!

The other day, I stayed up way too late with some friends playing a game that had been popular in my youth. This game is basically, “Just how out of touch is Brenda with everything pop culture”. In the modern edition it involved a playlist of Songs I Should Really know and then gales of laughter as I guessed Completely Inappropriate Bands. Let’s be honest… while I stand a decent chance of correctly pairing a aria with its composer, if not its opera, I can’t tell Aerosmith from Lynrd Skynr.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to these old songs, new songs, lovely songs. I’ve been hearing the words far more clearly than I did in the back seat of the station wagon, waving in and out through distant FM waves. Some of the songs I completely misinterpreted. For example, I was listening to My Sweet Lord. At first I thought, ‘What a beautiful Christian anthem! Wonder why I haven’t heard it sung at a church service?’ All the “alle”s heading up to an “alleluia”. Yeah, I hear you laughing now. It’s not “alle” like “alleluia”. It’s “Hare” like “Hare Krishna”. Oops!

Some of the other songs from the 60s break my heart and make me want to cry. Long on that list have been Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream and Imagine. This particular playlist is fond of If You Are Going to San Francisco. I’m increasingly struck by the hopefulness, the belief they had that this time it could really be different – the world could really be new. There was a spirit of joy that is so compelling, so lovely. The song simply promises that if you come to San Francisco, you should wear some flowers in your hair, and you will meet gentle people there. Gentle people. How often today are we offered gentle people? When is the last time you heard someone called gentle, or were called gentle yourself. We do not aspire to gentleness, we do not claim to desire gentleness.

The flower children of the 60s were younger then than I am now, and their childhood seems lovely to me. My parents were of that generation (although decidedly not flower children). The persuasive hope and gentleness and optimism of a generation were erased, assassinated, worn down, made illegal, caricatured and faded. There are not unironic people in San Francisco – gentle – with flowers in their hair. We would say that John Lennon was a dreamer – and he died a violent death. He might not have been the only one when he sang, but I hear many fewer dreamers on Kiss 108.

I get tired of irony, cynicism and self-consciousness. Our artists cannot afford sincerity. The internet, the media channels… they stand ready to mock the slightest weakness. Hope seems impossibly naive. The Boomers couldn’t change the world – what chance do the Millennials have, or those of us whose generation comes at the end of the alphabet? I look back to the childhood of my parents, the thrill of change, and I wish I had gone to San Francisco with flowers in my hair.

I leave you with some thoughts from Bob Dylan:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

Daydream believer

A while back, Grey begged to start guitar lessons. After lots of “blah blah blah” about commitment, fortitude, perseverance and a lot of other highly unpopular and multisyllabic attributes, I bought him a guitar and started guitar lessons and nightly practice sessions.

Yeah. That didn’t go well.

I wanted him to play for several months, knowing well that in music you don’t get a sense of accomplishment and fun until you’ve put in some significant grunt work without any real psychic kickbacks. You don’t sound good for a while, and you can’t really play songs for a while. It turns out this is even truer on guitar than, say, piano. Two months later we were having nightly bitter “discussions” about practicing (in which there was a lot of “how little effort can I put in and still get my parents off my back”), he wasn’t playing anything that he found fun, and his behavior in lessons was execrable. I probably should’ve called uncle, but I was all like Commitment! Perseverance! Fortitude! When what I was really teaching him was to hate it, while severely impinging our domestic tranquility.

It came to a head last week. For the second time in a row he refused to play during his lesson when his teacher asked him to play. Now, I’d already expended considerable parenting creativity on guitar. I created my first ever sticker chart. After one appalling lesson I stopped the lesson halfway through and dragged Grey out to a rock in the middle of the woods with night falling until he and I could see eye to eye about how we Treat Other People Especially Teachers. But this night I just didn’t have any shots left in my parenting pistol. I guess some times it’s good to know when to give up.

I’d been sitting in every lesson for the last several weeks (at his teachers request), and so in a fit of inspiration, I told Grey to have a seat in my chair, I sat in his chair, picked up the guitar, and resumed his lesson – asking all the questions I’d been sitting on because it was his lesson not mine and I was going to shut up and be the background already. (A hard thing for me to do.) So the teacher taught me four chords, answered some of my questions (Is the intonation different depending on where your finger is in the fret? How do you read guitar notation? Which string is which? What chords are these?) When I left, the tips of my fingers tingled for days. I practiced a few times.

This week, I went back (carting Grey). The admin and I simultaneously told each other this wasn’t working out, but I have two more lessons paid for… so I went in. And I learned how to tune the guitar (kind of) and two more chords. And you know what? I’m totally digging it.

One of the prices you pay for living the life you want to live is a paucity of daydreams. Almost every big change that could happen to me would be worse than what I have. I have found the love of my life. I have a great job. I live in a neat house with fantastic neighbors. I have just the right number of awesome kids. So daydreams about, oh, being a firespotter in the mountains, or becoming a professional musician or author, being *noticed* (somehow) and transformed into someone rich famous and fabulous… the kinds of things I dreamed about as a kid. Well, they’re all hollow, unsatisfying and ungrateful daydreams to me now. I don’t really want any of those things anymore (mostly. It would be cool to be an author). So I’m really happy with my life, but I miss the fun of daydreaming.

Guitar has given me some daydreams. I probably started off on the wrong parenting foot, daydreaming for my kids. This is natural, understandable and dangerous. These daydreams are how we end up with parents who try to make their children into people they’re not, and it can end unhappily. (Of course, the flip side is that this is the only way we get Olympic gymnasts and violinists who’ve been playing since they were three.) The person who should be daydreaming about what Grey will be and do is Grey. My daydreaming on his behalf was likely inaccurate. I was imagining a Paul Simon type guitar player. He’s imagining a, well, let’s just say the he’s currently *totally into* KISS 108, which they play at afterschool. He has opinions about Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez.*

Anyway, back to me. I’ve been having fun imagining becoming an adequate guitar player. I mean, I’m never going to be on stage playing Concierto Aranjuez. But maybe I could become accomplished enough to accompany myself in Kathy’s Song, or play the (pretty darn simple) accompaniments to most youth group songs. Maybe I could play guitar around the campfire while we’re camping. Or maybe in some late-night hangout, after the games have finished, I could be sitting on the couch picking an accompaniment to our conversation. I mean, trumpet is the most antisocial of instruments. If you’re playing it, you’re doing nothing else. But guitar eases itself into company and makes itself welcome. It’s not too late, and I am not too old.

It’s also been extremely refreshing to learn something so new. Yes, I have a musical background, but it’s an extremely different musical background. Mine is linear, melodic and strictly conforms to written music. Guitar is so not linear. The guitar teacher had no music at all in the lesson room. It is terribly exciting to me, at the entrance to my middle age, to be doing something I have not done before.

So who knows. Maybe I just have one more lesson and we put the guitar away and I opened my mind a little. Or maybe someday, well, who knows.

*And to all you parents of five year olds who are thinking I would never let my child listen to Lady Gaga!, JUST YOU WAIT. You will be driving in the car in some foreign state flipping through channels on the radio. Your child will pitch a fit because they want you to stop because they love that song. And then they will sing along to it, with most of the words correct. And you will never have heard this song before in your life. And then you will find yourself confronted with the choice to either ban all rock and roll as the music of the devil, or accept that your child prefers Pokerface to Prokofiev.

I was born with music playing in my ears

Little boy, little guitar
Little boy, little guitar

When I was about ten, my parents signed me up for piano lessons. The genesis of this decision is lost in memory to me. Did I beg and plead? I know I exhibited musical interest, but piano lessons require a piano. Pianos are expensive, and I know for sure we didn’t already have one. (We bought a player piano so that my father, who is not a musical genius, could also play pian.) My parents were far from wealthy, but somehow there it was. A piano. And there I was in lessons with Mr. Hunter, while his two young children listened in the next room.

I have an excellent memory, so I’m a little appalled at how little I recall of these lessons. They went on for years with two teachers. I remember that my mom combined the piano lessons with my brother’s weekly trips to Yelm for futile vision therapy. I remember the silver books and the arpeggios. I remember that I was terrible at site reading but could memorize pretty easily. I remember some recitals most vividly playing “Take 5” with Tyler in a duet. I don’t remember practicing particularly diligently. And I certainly don’t – can’t – remember being successful. After years of piano lessons, we were left to conclude that maybe I wasn’t so musical after all. Then I got a trumpet, got my pride in a huff and became one of the best high school trumpet players in the state — playing in a premier Youth Symphony. I briefly considered going to conservatory for college.

All this is to say: I love music, I care about music, I want my children to love and play music, and I know that sometimes you have to try a few instruments before you get to the right one.

Grey and Thane both show musical interest and some aptitude. They both sing nicely, and have at least partially inherited their parent’s tendency to sing often. Last year, we tried a piano lesson for Grey. It went ok. But he was dutiful instead of passionate. We didn’t do a second one. Then Grey started asking for drum lessons. Heaven help me, he wants to be a percussionist. My orchestra-snob instincts rebelled. I mean, do percussionists even use notation? Can they read music? I struck a bargain: become a competent guitar player (still a cool rock ‘n’ roll instrument) and I’ll consider your percussion request. He reminded me several times: how about guitar lessons, mom?

Finally, I found a school (right next to our library!) and took him to a free trial lesson. His teacher, shy with distracting earlobe extensions, emerged from the room half an hour later. “We don’t usually take kids this young. But Grey seems really passionate, and ready to work hard. He’ll need a half size guitar, but I think I can teach him.”

And so it is. We tracked down an adorable half-size guitar for him. He’s gone to two lessons so far. He’s supposed to spend 5 minutes at a time pressing down on the frets to build up finger strength so he can actually play. He talks about the “1-2-3-4” (clearly he’s being taught to count time). He daydreams about sounding like Simon and Garfunkel. He looks proud as punch with his guitar strapped to his tiny back.

A few years ago, on a cold night, we were camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The boys were scattered across the floor of the test, and Adam and I tried to catch some chilly sleep, knowing that Thane would wake us up at a brutal hour. In the campsite a few twigs away, friends were gathered around a fire. One of them, some anonymous voice, pulled out his guitar and sang. Despite our weariness, the cold, the knowledge of an early morning, Adam and I listened and loved every moment of it – this shadowed serenade.

My son may give up after a few months of guitar, with no mastery. He may rise to the level of mediocrity through years of practice, as I did with piano. He might find an enjoyable level of accomplishment – enough to break out his guitar around a campfire and make his attempting-to-sleep neighbors glad instead of grumpy. Or perhaps he will become a master – classical, jazz, rock. Perhaps he will forget that it is possible to have uncalloused fingers, and find it hard to imagine not knowing how to turn those strings to music. Whichever way he ends up, I wish him the joy and the love of it.

A boy and his guitar
A boy and his guitar

Faure’s Requiem and Mull of Kintyre

It’s a rainy day here, and that has doubtless informed my music-while-coding choices. I have a playlist on my iPod built from pretty much all the music I loved and listened to over and over again before I graduated from college. That was back when you could only listen to music that was either played on radio, or which you had purchased (or painstakingly bootlegged). This playlist is heavy on the King Singer’s, Peter, Paul and Mary, Faure’s Requiem, “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, Handel’s Water Music and “All the Best From Scotland vol. 2” which is quite possibly the high point of Celtic music ever. Or, more likely, just a trip back in memory lane for me.

I’m sometimes still amazed at just how the music can bring me back to who I was. Each piece is precious in its evocation of a prior me — the child who gazed out the window of her home at tall mountains and dreamed dreams and for whom the world was a simpler place. I’m not surer that all the lessons I have learned since are well learned, or even true. While perhaps the possibilities of magic I learned from Tolkein and Lewis have never been my lot, I’m not so sure that the lessons of CNN and NPR aren’t just as skewed towards the venal, frustrating and cruel. The kindness and exultation of humanity are not news items.

I feel lucky that I have such a consistent and kind way to reach back to who I was and what I felt. I can’t be that person again, but I can remember what it was like to be 12 and in love with magic, mystery and music.

I remember weeping from the beauty of the cello in “Watching the White Wheat”. I had the Canadian Brass version of Pachabel’s “Canon in D” on constant loop on my fidgety portable CD Player as we drove past the ancient winding rivers of Yellowstone — and possibly that was the moment I truly and finally fell in love with my trumpet. We drove across the Missouri river in the dead of night on an impossibly high bridge, my father, brother and I, listening to the Kingston Trio’s lament on the same theme. Lying in my bed with the rhythm of the rain tapping on my windowpane, I longed to assure Paul Simon that by no means did his words “Tear and bend to rhyme”. In one of the last moments of my childhood, driving through a late spring snowstorm coming out of Missoula Montana listening to Therese Shroeder-Sheker’s Geography of the Soul, which would be the theme music of my thesis-writing, and falling in love as thick snowflakes drifted past dark pines on an impossibly distant road.

There is so much beauty there, in those memories.

For someone to whom music is so important, and reaches so deeply, I often feel like I have not maintained my connection. Sure, in the last few years I’ve added in Folk Rock in the form of Steeleye Span. There’s Kate Rusby, who’s released the same album about 4 times. (Or maybe they just all sound the same.) There’s Madeleine Payreoux. I’ve made a few forays which I haven’t ended up loving, as well. It seems like one more way where I am starving my soul of the nutrition it so desperately needs, through my own neglect. But I hardly know where to start, or how.

There is one completely new form/kind of music I’ve fallen head-over-heels for this year, though. It’s so new to me I’m not even entirely sure what genre it falls into. The music is from Symphony of Science

I like the beat. And for me, listening to what I listen to, Auto tune is actually new and exciting. (I KNOW I KNOW!) But what I really, really, really like about this is the poetry and optimism. I’m pretty sure that generally this would be called techno or electronica, but is it standard for techno/electronica to be cheery, uplifting and speak towards the hopeful future of our species? And there is no genre designation for “Good lyrics/uplifting”. So given that I have downloaded/purchased all their existing albums, help me oh great internet. Who else out there is doing this? Is anyone setting poetry to this kind of beat? The good stuff, too. Is there a Donne/techno or a Spenser/electronica? Is there a fantastic lyricist I should track down? How do I expand this newfound fondness of mine? Or, as I fear, is Symphony of Science a unique exemplar of it’s kind?

The 8 modes

I’ve sat down at the keyboard the last two nights to write one entry about music, and different ones keep coming out. Let’s see if I can get the one I intend out.

When my parents came to visit, we stopped by a store that sold sheet music. This is rarely a satisfying experience for me. My library usually knocks the tar out of their trumpet selection. But we stopped and I looked because I could tell Dad needed to sit.

I found this book: Plainchant for Trumpet. I was enchanted. The composer (W. Jonathan Gresham) took 22 chant lines from the Liber Usualis (Medieval Big Book o’ Chants) and wrote etudes on them. The etudes are quite nice. But my favorite part is that he highlights the medieval mode in which the music was written.

Medieval theoretical musicians (the best kind, according to my buddy Boethius who’s responsible for transmitting most of this stuff from the Greeks to the middle ages) thought there were 8 different modes of music. It gets all squishy in my brain, what goes where, because they stole this from Ancient Greece and didn’t completely understand it. The Greeks thought that the modes inspired different methods of action (here we’re getting into my thesis topic). For example, music in a Phrygian mode would cause someone to be warlike. A Lydian mode, on the contrary, tamed inflamed passions. I can’t remember which (the Dorian perhaps) the Greeks discouraged ever using because it made men timid and weak.

Medievals pulled across this idea of modes, but they sort of ignored the alchemical nature of the modes. There are 8 medieval modes (which act similarly to keys in modern music), four of which are authentic and four of which are plagal. They are the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian and Hypomixolydian. The very names to me are magical. They carried a significance, a meaning along with them.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. In some ways, I’m being nostalgic over my own past, when I was given the marvellous opportunity to delve into these mysteries and call it homework. I’m not sure I ever truly mastered my subject, but I was fortune enough at times to see glimpses of a whole and coherent picture.

If I won the lottery, and I had the time, energy and attention to devote to whatever I wished, I’m sure I could find more meaningful and more important things to do. But what I would like to do is delve even further, understand even better, and see clearly and laid in front of me that picture of the genesis of music that I made the barest pencil outlines of in college. I’m not sure what I would do then — if I could transform my understanding into a communication for others.

That day will probably never come. But that doesn’t stop me from rolling the words off my tongue and dreaming about how the obscured picture might look. Dorian. Lydian. Phrygian.