2 JUNE 2021 — I never meant to keep such a long break from posting here — thank you to everyone reading this! — but I got incredibly busy and hope to make up for it in time.
Right now happy to announce my first large-scale composition, An Iceland Symphony, Op. 1: A Theatrical Symphony for All Ages, is available as sheet music in both paperback and ebook form.
At the time I’m writing this, very glad to see it’s actually at #1 on Amazon’s list of Hot New Releases in the category of Opera & Classical Songbooks! My first time seeing that #1 New Release banner on one of my books.
This is a large-scale work of 21 sections that calls for musicians of all ages and includes theatrical elements. The sections range widely in style and complexity. It leaves no one out.
Every note and rest has been carefully tested through hundreds of listenings since I first realised in early 2019 I had started writing this. I hope it may one day be performed live in Iceland by Icelandic musicians.
Until then, here is the full sheet music complete with performance instructions for the theatrical elements as well. I understand Kindle Unlimited members can view the ebook for free, but until the Look Inside previews come up for the paperback and ebook, here are the covers and some sample pages.
Ideally this music would be performed by live musicians, and there will be recordings sooner or later. The audio versions I have now are basically helpful demos only, to be shared with close friends, prospective performers, and writers on music, for example.
I continue to work on high-quality renditions of my own, but more on that later. I’ll also talk more about this in the next episode of my podcast. And as mentioned, one day I hope to see a full, live, staged performance of this.
Many thanks to everyone who has supported and encouraged me on my compositional journey.
I just uploaded podcast episode NX1.1: “Pilot”, which is wholly made up of excerpts from Chapter 1 of this 6-volume book series.
These excerpts are just a small selection from the more than 20,000 words for this chapter. These excerpts may give some sense of the scope and my approach. The episode is up in the places listed below.
I also updated my site a bit to give a better impression of my current activities.
I’ve been recording and writing material for the first chapter of the Northern Exposure book series and its associated podcast all this week, an average of something like 5,000 words a day.
This and some planning and preparatory work mean that I should post the first regular podcast episode only next week, after completing work on that first episode of the TV series.
I also ended up burning the midnight oil last night continuing finalising work on An Iceland Symphony, when solutions to remaining matters occurred unexpectedly.
Starting recording and using that as part of my writing has led to a great increase in productivity in terms of finishing material. I’ve been writing all along through these years, but this seems to have been a missing piece that for some reason completed that circuit.
Thank you to everyone interested in that book and podcast series for your patience! It’s important to do this right.
Thank you to everyone visiting this blog even after so long without any updates! I wanted to share what I’m doing right now: making two podcast series with their associated book series. One of them prioritises the book series, with the podcast featuring excerpts as I write.
EDIT 30th May 2020: See this post for an update on — a later adjustment to — the nature of the Northern Exposure podcast.
I’ll do this with every season. At the time of writing this I was recording Season 2. I’m sharing the introduction and a sample chapter from the Season 1 book below.
Then I’ll be covering all 110 episodes of the lovely TV series Northern Exposure in another podcast called As Fresh as Northern Exposure.
Episodes of this podcast will serve as a basis for chapters in a series of books, published after each season, with extra materials that could not be included on the podcast.
So the result of this NX podcast will be a 6-volume book series covering every episode from every angle interesting me (storytelling, screenwriting, music, art, and lots more — I outline my approach in the introductory episode NX 1.0).
This NX podcast will initially appear as a “sub-podcast” of What Now with Simo because my preferred podcast host, RSS.com, doesn’t yet allow for more than one podcast per user. That will hopefully change in the future, at which point I would properly separate the two podcasts.
For the time being, I’m simply labelling each Northern Exposure episode NX, and the numbering for each podcast runs independently of the other.
This latter is also the handiest place to check out the extensive episode summaries for each episode done in a style that used to be popular with books.
Plus there you can also download the episodes, for free, of course.
Between Seasons 1 and 2 of What Now with Simo, I was transcribing the episodes for my own later reference (among other reasons because I’m also writing books on some of the topics I talk about in the podcast), but then I realised it made sense to also publish them in book form.
Reading the same material is an experience all its own. The reader can proceed at his or her own pace and of course flip through and zero in on interesting passages and skip over uninteresting ones.
Plus of course this makes the podcasts available in their entirety for anyone with any hearing loss.
All these books will be 6×9-inch paperbacks plus ebooks, and I’m pricing them all as low as Amazon / Kindle allow. Please see the end of this article for all the links.
Also, I welcome audio messages to both shows. You can connect with me on social media (links at the end) and send any kind of comment or feedback. Written comments of course also welcome.
(Please note that if you do send in an audio message, it means that you are also giving permission to include it in the podcasts in both audio and book form.)
But now here are the introduction and sample chapter from the Season 1 book.
I wish you good reading and welcome you to join me for either one or both of the podcasts.
And if you don’t have the Northern Exposure Blu-ray set yet — with the original soundtracks now intact for the first time on home video! — you can find it on Amazon.co.uk (UK discs — they require a player capable of playing those).
A freeform, wide-ranging podcast on any topics foremost on the host’s mind at the time of recording. Particular favourite topics include creativity and all the arts — music, films, screenplays, fiction, poetry, comics, games, comedy, and everything in between. Messages from listeners welcomed for possible inclusion in an episode. Note that sending a recording for inclusion in an episode of this podcast does indeed implicitly give me permission to do so.
What is this?
It is a transcript of every episode from the 1st season of my first podcast series, What Now with Simo.
I would have named it just What Now, but that was already in use, many times over, plus it would have been hopeless in terms of searchability.
There are some benefits to having a name described by one friend as Lovecraftian. Even one fragment of that name makes for instantly improved findability.
* * *
Editorially there were two choices for this book: faithful transcription or wholesale re-editing into something like essays.
For numerous reasons I by far prefer the first option. This is another form of presenting the same material, and I did want to present the same material.
I also find the resulting texts more interesting in this unedited form. There are also questions of information density and memorability that make me sure this was the best decision.
Plus this way all the content becomes available for anyone with any hearing loss.
* * *
For grammar and punctuation hawks:
As happens with spoken language, there are moments of creative grammar here. Mistakes, some call them. All those were knowingly left in.
Likewise I adopt a relaxed and flexible attitude towards commas. Every comma and absence of one is intentional. Languages are living, creative things.
When writing, editing, proofreading, or translating something for someone else, I’ll produce 100% accurate and grammatical English, as sophisticated as desired. And since I may also in the future wish to write something for someone else, the direction in which I’ve consciously taken my use of language in my private life and for my own projects might be seen as shooting myself in the foot.
The fact remains that as a private person and for the purposes of my creative work I now prefer to use English that doesn’t stray too near to the Queen’s English.
Poetry, the First Nations short stories of W. P. Kinsella, David Lynch, and many other influences have shown me there are more expressive and meaningful forms of English than that. So these days I aim for something in that direction.
* * *
Most of the people in this world don’t speak perfect English. Many haven’t had the opportunities in life for schooling like that, and many have dyslexia. That is no reason to look down on or make fun of them.
So no, I have no sympathy for language Nazis. It’s a selfish and entitled attitude to take, especially in this day and age, when everyone should know better.
* * *
I’m also really interested in the evolution of non-fiction as well as fiction books. Among my favourite books and inspirations for this and future works have been John Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (1961) and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (2006). Both blew away the assumptions I had subconsciously had about the limits of what books can be.
I was also thrilled when I flipped through one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novels in a bookstore and saw that he had whole chapters that were just lists — listing landscape features or things seen, or something of that nature. (I have read his works intermittently in chronological order and haven’t yet gotten to that novel, so I’m vague on this point.)
And I enjoy reading materials that were originally spoken. Interviews, transcribed talks, dictated memoirs, and such. Rod Serling wrote by speaking into a recorder. David Lynch often writes by speaking. Reading text produced this way is a whole different thing than reading something created all along as text on a page.
There’s a biography of J. D. Salinger called Salinger (2014) by David Shields and Shane Salerno. It’s an oral biography made up of segments of interview materials, quote after quote, with each person telling things in their own words. A collage of quotes. Again, spoken words on a page.
Books can be anything.
* * *
I’m interested in the relationship between spoken and written language. How something written sounds when spoken aloud and how something spoken aloud reads when written down.
Spoken language moves through time and appears to us one word at a time, whereas the written word we can see in diagram, from a height, the layout of it, as it lies on the page, and our eye can go sometimes in less than a blink of an eye from one part of the text to another.
A thread of thought may seem to be leading somewhere, particularly when being spoken, and on the written page it can be seen to be a side path that is only seen so far until it disappears behind the trees — like one of the “that’s another story to be told another time” crossroads in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979). I see value in such meandering.
Sometimes meandering down little byways that peter out — or seeing others do so — can lead to things more useful than fully completed roads or thoughts.
* * *
Many thanks to everyone who has listened to the podcast or is reading this book, and extra special thanks to Maren for her great message for episode 1.7 and for her permission to include it in this printed edition.
Wishing you a great day and good reading.
— Simo Sakari Aaltonen, Tampere, 24th of May 2020
* * *
1.13 Simple Human Decency, Field of Dreams, and Some Humour
Greetings, and welcome to episode 1.13 of my podcast.
Today I really did not feel like recording an episode. The answer to the question, “When did I go to sleep last night?” would be that I went to sleep last night about 11 a.m. this morning.
And when I woke up after a few hours, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I looked like death warmed over — pale, red eyes, and so on. I thought there was no way I was going to record an episode today. I simply did not feel up to it, and my voice is probably not in the best shape right now. But I’m going to do my best.
When I woke up, I was exhausted and feeling totally wiped out, but as I slowly woke up, thoughts started coming, and before I knew it, I was writing them down as fast as I could, and I ended up writing several pages of notes. I usually have not had any notes prepared when recording these podcasts. I have usually talked off the top of my head. But this time I felt like I did not want to lose any of the thoughts.
So even though I would have preferred to sleep last night, at least the result of that and just getting a few hours of sleep was a sudden tumble of thoughts. So something happened creatively, and maybe that’s just sometimes what it takes.
And now the problem I have is that I have so much I would like to talk about, and it will take a long time to cover this ground. I want to get to all the topics at some point or other.
Well, a good creative principle is that when any task starts to feel unwieldy, you can simply break it into smaller, more manageable chunks. And the smaller the chunks you break the overall task into — in other words, the more modular you can make it — the easier it is and the more freedom you have. The more freedom you give yourself.
So what I’m going to do is make a sort of serial — short episodes recorded in quick succession, maybe daily or every other day — and simply take things in small chunks.
One step at a time.
* * *
I think the real heroes in life are the people who keep life going no matter what. Even when it’s the last thing they feel capable of doing at that moment.
It’s not enough to manage that only on the good days.
The people that are real heroes in life are those who keep life going also on the bad days, also on the very worst days, and when the last thing you feel capable of doing is, for example, taking out the trash, or putting food on the table, or taking care of other things that must be done to keep life going. Those are the real heroes.
So in that spirit, or at least with that intention, I decided to record an episode today and get back to podcasting after about a week’s break.
This planned quick succession of episodes is also more in line with my original plan for this podcast, which took as its main inspiration or guiding principle to be like a radio programme, something with a comforting regularity that you can tune in to and listen to whatever this guy in Finland might have on his mind this time.
* * *
When I was younger, I read a lot of superhero comics. And of course I thought because they were called superheroes that they must be the greatest heroes.
Well, I wasn’t really thinking about it this analytically. I read them because they were fun.
But they were called superheroes. They weren’t just heroes, they were super.
But as time passes, perspectives change, of course, and you start to see things from a different perspective.
If you consider for example Superman, the history of Superman, it seems like about 50% of the time he goes crazy and becomes a murderer or something, or drops his best friend Jimmy Olsen into the blowhole of a whale.
And when the whale blows it, Jimmy goes flying over the horizon. And Superman laughs, leaning back against some air molecules as he hovers there, and laughs.
Well, as far as I know, this isn’t an existing Superman story. But I don’t want to google it, because it just might be, from the old days.
And even today, about half the time it seems like Superman is turning evil. And when he’s not doing that, when he’s not throwing his best friend Jimmy Olsen into the blowhole of a whale, the other 48% of the time he is engaged in brawls and fistfights with some bad people, like a bad drunk who always ends up fighting with his peers.
And only about 2% of the time he’s being a good son or potential future husband — pretending to be Santa Claus, or sitting down for a cup of coffee with his parents like a good son, and turning down a third cinnamon roll.
So, statistically we know from the evidence at hand, from all these stories, that about 50% of the time, about 50% of the days and nights, Superman throws Jimmy Olsen into the blowhole of a whale and Jimmy goes flying over the horizon, and most of the rest of the time he’s fighting some bad people that he just doesn’t know how to stay away from.
So Superman would be about the worst choice anyone could make for a husband. Unless one wants one’s life to be a living hell of Jimmy stuck in a whale and flying over the horizon and daily fights with bad people.
And only 2% of the time turning down a third cinnamon roll.
Going crazy about 50% of the time is not good.
* * *
Well, in case this sounded like I’ve gone crazy, I haven’t. This is just my sense of humour.
But my main point, which I’ll now pivot into, is how these days I see simple human decency as the greatest thing in the world.
And a film that made me really see that for good in my life was Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson, based on a book by W. P. Kinsella, and starring Kevin Costner.
* * *
A few years ago, someone asked me who my favourite actor is, or was. That question took me by surprise, and now that I look back on it, I think the reason it took me by surprise is that I don’t think anyone had ever asked me that question before. Which sounds pathetic — that no one seems to have been interested enough to ask me who my favourite actor is.
Well, I don’t actually really think in those terms. Usually it’s more that I like a particular film or TV series or story in any other storytelling medium. So I don’t really follow actors that way.
And because in that moment I was taken aback — I didn’t know how to respond, suddenly I felt self-conscious — I didn’t actually answer naming any of the people that I would put highest on my actor list — whom I appreciate the most. Those would include people like Edward James Olmos and Christopher Walken and so on, but it’s not like I follow their every film.
So I didn’t really have a good answer to that, and because I didn’t, yet I wanted to keep the conversation going and I felt like I needed to say something, what popped into my mind was Field of Dreams and Kevin Costner. So that’s the answer I gave.
But the reality is I haven’t seen many Kevin Costner films and he’s not really someone I’m a fan of in particular.
It’s more that at that point I had rediscovered this film that I had seen when I was younger, and I had spent a lot of time thinking about how that basic human decency that he was able to portray in that film had come to mean more to me than any kind of heroics — things that are considered usually hero stuff. Like superheroes fighting supervillains or that type of heroism.
I came to see that this most unassuming form of heroism is the type I really appreciate and value in life. It seems to be also the rarest form.
A lot of people do things for the wrong motives. Out of narcissism or desire to impress other people or to stand out in a selfish way…
The people who simply keep life going, who are good people, who provide for their family and make sure the home is a safe place where nobody needs to fear or live under a dark cloud when somebody gets angry — that’s what I value most in life. And that’s probably what gets the least attention when it comes to heroism.
The character that he plays in this film is called Ray Kinsella, and he has a humility and a gratitude at what he has in life, which is really the greatest treasure a person can have in this life: a happy, loving, healthy family.
That quality of course blossoms even further at the end, when he has worked through his issues and the simple pain of never having been able to say to his father that he’s sorry for something he said.
At the heart of this film, its emotional core, is not a murder, and it’s not a physical confrontation or assault, or any kind of physically violent occurrence.
It is simply the pain of having said something you regret and that you were never able to take back because the other person died. And it’s too late for that.
And you are left to deal with that pain by yourself.
* * *
Well, this film is a story of a second chance, in more ways than one, and for more people than one.
It is very moving to me that a film can be made whose heart is simply having said something awful that you regret.
I can’t think of another story like that. Certainly not one told with such humanity and, on the other hand, also genuine feeling. This kind of story would not work if it felt inauthentic.
* * *
Another facet of that diamond-hard pain of this character is his awareness that his father never got to see his grandchild born. He died before that.
This was an element that hit home also for some of the main people behind the film, since that was how it was with them too.
I know for my own part that I wish I could give my parents more than I have been able to so far.
* * *
I don’t know how widely we realise that our parents go through literal trauma in raising a family. I don’t think any of us realise that when we are young. But when we do, when we start to see the price they pay and how they go on from day to day to make the family get through it all, the very least we can do is give them respect and give back as much as we can.
* * *
Field of Dreams is a film that I never get tired of thinking about. It’s very beautifully constructed, and it has a really exceptionally beautiful soundtrack by James Horner.
When James Horner was approached to write the music for this film, they showed the film to him in a theatre on a movie screen, without music, of course, or I think there may have been a temp score (a temporary score).
And when the film was over, he didn’t say anything, he just left the theatre. And the director thought, “Oh my god. He really hates the film. He’s not going to do it.”
But the reason he left the theatre was that he couldn’t speak because it had moved him so much. And of course he went on to write the score, and I think it’s his best one — at least the one that affects me the most, and the one I keep thinking about because of its simplicity and how it also takes its cue from the film itself.
Some of the people high up at the studio — they kept asking him to write a big symphonic score, but he felt that would have been all wrong. Because it’s a personal story. You don’t write — at least if you have any sensitivity to storytelling and what is appropriate — you don’t put in a huge orchestral score when you are telling a very personal story of personal pain and redemption.
At the end it builds up to more, and then it blossoms, but that’s because that’s appropriate at that point. Before that there are just a few instruments used, and it’s completely enough.
This is one fascinating thing about writing film music. As in so many things, often less can be so much more.
* * *
I think the greatest people are those who, despite everything, despite whatever difficulty they may be facing on that day, or in the night, they still keep going and they do what is necessary to keep life going.
This is a crazy and unexpected time for many of us. And anyone who can act as a beacon of sanity, to whatever degree, or at least aim for that — I think that’s a really good thing to do and aim for.
We don’t need any more drama, and we don’t need angry outbursts or outrage. I think most of all we need people who carry on. And not people throwing their best friend into the blowhole of a whale.
* * *
Thank you for listening and putting up with my strange sense of humour if you made it this far.
NOVEMBER 19th 2018 — A report from one of the London gramophone societies discusses Italian composer Pietro Mascagni’s 1890 opera CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (“RUSTIC CHIVALRY“). The writer comments:
“[…] probably the most original point is the INTERMEZZO — which even the errand boys know — played while the curtain remains up and the stage is empty. It is a refreshing lull between the various passionate episodes of the drama.”
This INTERMEZZO is one of those pieces I listen to every available recording of mentioned in the pages of THE GRAMOPHONE. I believe I first heard it in two episodes of NORTHERN EXPOSURE: 3.23 “Cicely” (1992) and 5.22 “GRAND PRIX” (1994).
In the former, it accompanies a beautiful dance by town co-founder Cicely, and in the latter it plays as Ed Chigliak physically fights “the demon of external validation”. But no recording available is mentioned in this report, so no playlist item of this for now.
An article about a visit to a record-pressing factory of His Master’s Voice (HMV) mentions in passing a musician who was to die at the age of 35 later this decade (the 1920s) after a short illness:
“We saw the whole process of record-making. We heard an orchestra, with Max Darewski at the piano, in the recording room, and heard the piece instantly returned from the wax.”
I also mentioned him in the previous entry in this series in connection with a ragtime piece of his.
Also interesting to note the word “robots” already being used in this 1923 article (“automatic machines which worked like Robots at the making of screws, etc.”), considering that this word was coined only three years earlier, in 1920.
The review pages quote Debussy’s delightful comment on Grieg (many of Grieg’s pieces are among my favorites):
“Grieg is like a pink bon-bon stuffed with snow.”
I’m not sure whether Debussy meant this as a slight or not, really, but to me it’s quite charming and creates a vivid sensory impression. Also, like most northern kids, I’ve eaten snow more than once in my life — just for the taste or because thirsty when playing outside as a kid.
This issue was short of any references to recordings that hold special appeal for me. But rather than skip the Spotify playlist for this entry altogether, these would be my choices from an unexciting selection this time:
Two takes of the same Chopin piece by pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch: IMPROMPTU NO. 2 IN F SHARP MAJOR, Op. 36 No. 2. The difference in tempi makes one of the takes ten seconds shorter than the other.
Tenor Roland Hayes singing the American spiritual “SIT DOWN”.
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 5 — October 1923”:
This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.
OCTOBER 28th 2018 — In Paris I started a personal catalogue of rhythmic patterns to help me with my music-making. I just now strung them all together one after the other, and so far there are 6,762 bars (measures) of patterns and variations. I add to it daily.
This has been all about laying a solid foundation and has involved hours and hours of painstaking, methodical work.
I have every pattern: 1) on paper, in a notebook I bought in Paris, 2) on my iPad Pro, which is my main creative multipurpose tool, in four separate apps (if anyone is interested: Notion, DrumPerfect Pro, Patterning, and Cubasis 2), and 3) in cloud storage. So it would take quite the calamity for me to lose them.
But yes, I decided the foundation is now solid enough and now I can start really building with this resource to draw on. I have been doing that all along in tandem with this, but I mean even more actively.
Now comes melody, instrumentation, and all the really fun stuff.
As this series progresses, the variety of music will grow ever wider, since my interests in music extend to all types of music and since for decades THE GRAMOPHONE covered all types of music, not only classical, as today.
The quality of recordings will also soon improve radically, since the late 1920s marked the switchover from the much less advanced (and so-called-then) acoustic process to the (again so-called-then) electric process of recording.
From my rudimentary reading on this topic, this basically meant that microphones started being used for recording. Up until that time, music was recorded by singing and/or playing into a kind of tube.