OCTOBER 3rd 2018 — Here and embedded below is a great concert performance on YouTube of a terrific piece from the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA version of 2003–2010.
Mister McCreary conducts, and the vocal soloist is Raya Yarbrough. Recorded in July 2010 at the Tenerife International Film Music Festival, Canary Islands, Spain.
For me, music for American science fiction series stagnated for a long time following Gene Roddenberry’s death in 1991. From then on the producers of the STAR TREK spin-offs actively worked to push music as far into the background as possible.
They even fired their best and most interesting composer, Ron Jones. Fortunately all his soundtracks for THE NEXT GENERATION are now available on Spotify, for example.
From that point in the early 1990s, music in the TREKs became a thin, disappointing hum in the background, rather than being an active, strong voice or even character of its own.
This was not the fault of the composers, all of whom would have been capable of much more, as shown for example by Dennis McCarthy’s soundtrack for the seventh film, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, where he was allowed more range and freedom. He was one of the most active composers for the spin-offs ever since the debut of THE NEXT GENERATION.
BABYLON 5 fortunately went for strong, powerful music, by former Tangerine Dream member Christopher Franke. And then later the GALACTICA reimagining with Bear McCreary was just wonderful in this area.
He scored every episode of those four seasons as well as the associated TV movies, having started as assistant to Richard Gibbs on the miniseries that preceded the first season.
Bear McCreary’s official site is here. And you can find him on Twitter: @bearmccreary.
OCTOBER 2nd 2018 — There’s a fresh wind blowing. Some corner has been turned. I don’t know why or how. But that’s the feeling.
I was thinking this with some wonder on my way to the grocery store, and next thing I knew, this book, THE UNASHAMED ACCOMPANIST (1984) by Gerald Moore, fell in my lap — I found it on the free book exchange rack at the nearby shopping center.
Gerald Moore is a pianist whose work I got to know in the early 2000s when I acquired a collection of back issues of BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE, the cover CDs of which featured full, quality performances of classical music. He played on some of them.
(I still have that collection of magazines and CDs. I packed them and only a small number of other important things into plastic storage boxes and asked my parents to keep them for me back in Finland.)
I also remembered an interview with him from those issues. And the thing is, he was already active in the 1920s, so I’m currently coming across his name in the back issues of THE GRAMOPHONE I’m now reading.
To paraphrase from memory one of my favorite writers: We respect serendipity around here. I’ll share the exact quote in a later entry when I come across it again.
Or, for another paraphrase of the general thought, when two meaningful events occur in such close succession, it means something.
Somehow, the things we need seem to find us sooner or later, wherever we go. At least, as long as we follow our hearts. No matter how strange or difficult the road.
P.S. “There’s a fresh wind blowing in THE WILD SHORE,” is what Ursula K. Le Guin said of Kim Stanley Robinson’s debut novel, which I only just realized was published the same year as THE UNASHAMED ACCOMPANIST. Mister Robinson is the only living science fiction author whose work I read.
SEPTEMBER 29th 2018 — As a little exercise, I turned a “chip tune” ditty from the first LEISURE SUIT LARRY game into sheet music.
This is one of the most famous themes in the world, from the 3rd movement (Marche funèbre) of Chopin’s PIANO SONATA NO. 2 IN B FLAT MINOR, Op. 35 (FUNERAL MARCH).
Anyone who grew up playing computer games in the 1980s heard this theme in dozens of games, and it probably appeared in hundreds, typically as the game over music. A lot of classical music ended up in games in those days in particular, as various creative adaptations for often highly limited sound chips or synthesizers.
Chopin wrote this theme in B flat minor, but for this game it was transposed up a whole step (two keys on the piano keyboard, whether white or black), to C minor.
As the first step, I extracted the sound file from the game, then used a free program to convert it into MIDI data. But it turned out that — whether the problem arose from the original sound file format, the conversion process, or the eccentricities of the MIDI standard — the resulting MIDI file was unusable as such. It looked nothing like the above orderly notation, the score instead being full of 64th notes and rests and so on, and the measure breaks were all off.
I could always have gone to sheet music of the sonata as Chopin wrote it, but I wanted to follow this particular adaptation of it. So I wrote the above based on the messy data from the MIDI file, correcting the timing and other issues to create this still very faithful result. It follows the rhythms and of course exact notes of the piece as it appears in the game.
Finally I analyzed the piece for the chords and added those. I’ve done this kind of analysis of hundreds of pieces and I find it a great way to learn. It means going through every note and rest and every other detail in a piece of music and seeing how it all fits together.
And one of the nice things about it is that no piece of music is too short or simple for this type of analysis. Every piece is rewarding to do and can teach something.
Chopin is one of my favorite composers. But I want to write more about him in an entry of his own. So that’s another story.
SEPTEMBER 27th 2018 — Things have been moving in this direction for me for a long time, and it’s now true to say that music is my most absorbing pursuit and interest. It’s become much more than a hobby.
I’ve come to feel that music is the highest language. I don’t mean this as a quaint metaphor but the literal way of it. More can be expressed with music than words, and it can go further, and there is more beauty for me in a few well chosen words, such as good lyrics or lines of poetry, than a whole novel.
And it has gotten to the point where I would prefer to be pursuing music full time, which is what I do in my free time already.
I am so aware that life is a limited thing. I would prefer being able to pursue only things that have my fullest interest, and that has become music and other arts that involve the possibility of performance, rather than what I have been doing so far with my life, in terms of studies and work.
I will keep doing as much as possible on my own, but I wish I had someplace I could go study and learn music among professionals. A school or apprenticeship of some kind.
SEPTEMBER 26th 2018 — Welcome to the first installment of “Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland”.
Join me on this journey through all of Dylan’s recorded and officially released tracks in chronological order — the order in which they were recorded, as listed in the massive, useful reference tome BOB DYLAN: ALL THE SONGS: THE STORY BEHIND EVERY TRACK (2015) by Philippe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon.
I’ll be sharing Spotify playlists of all these songs, to go with each entry. I have no particular agenda with this series other than to enjoy, educate myself, and see what thoughts occur. I also welcome comments and thoughts from my readers.
For those looking to go deeper, I recommend the book mentioned, and likewise a free PDF that can be found online, THE BOB DYLAN SONGBOOK by Eyolf Østrem. It includes background information, lyrics, tabs, and fingerpicking patterns.
Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 in recognition of the enormous contribution to culture he has made with his songwriting. I was actually in Iceland the day this was announced, visiting the Icelandic family that were my gracious hosts, and chatted about it with them, between bouts of the middle sibling of the family strumming his guitar (a musically gifted family).
But now we rewind back to 1959 and a soft start for this series, since only one song from this year is part of our syllabus:
“WHEN I GOT TROUBLES” (E major) — May 1959
Bob Dylan — born Robert Allen Zimmerman — has just turned 18 and remains undiscovered and without a recording contract.
At the home of a friend in Hibbing, he sings into his friend’s microphone and tape recorder a blues song of his own, “WHEN I GOT TROUBLES”, accompanying himself on the guitar.
The recording is of poor quality and cuts short, but for anyone interested in tracking his progress, this is of course gold. As pointed out by the authors of ALL THE SONGS:
“His voice remains in a lower register, almost confidential in style, and the guitar playing is quite poor. Yet an impression of depth emerges from his interpretation.” (p. 13)
Young mister Dylan is on the path.
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland: 1959”:
SEPTEMBER 24th 2018 — The third issue of THE GRAMOPHONE bears the cover date August 1923.
Reverend Edmund H. Fellowes, Doctor of Music, contributes a one-page article on English Renaissance composer William Byrd to mark the 300th anniversary of his death. This was a time when music from times this far in the past was only starting to be recorded, and its admirers therefore treasured every new release.
Few of these early recordings of Byrd are on Spotify, but four that are are mentioned in the reviews section. All played on the harpsichord by Violet Gordon-Woodhouse:
“ROWLAND OR LORD WILLOBIE’S WELCOME HOME”, FVB. 160.
“THE QUEENE’S ALMAN”, FVB. 171.
“GALIARDA”, FVB. 255.
“EARLE OF OXFORD’S MARCHE”, FVB. 259.
See this earlier post in this “Let’s read” series for a photo of Ms. Gordon-Woodhouse. She did a lot to increase the popularity of the harpsichord and awareness of its importance in the history of music.
I have to mention one more Byrd song cited in this issue, though the recording is not on Spotify, because it has such a great title: “WHY DO I USE MY PAPER, INK, AND PEN?” Most great composers also had great senses of humor. Bach composed a COFFEE CANTATA.
An aside: These back issues of nearly a century ago (at the time of writing this) are treasures. But they are also relics. For example, the N word appears in this issue.
As someone with an academic background (the unwelcome effects of which I have long worked to shed), I am personally not shocked by such things — because anyone who has done any reading of old texts has seen this type of language in old texts all too often. But it is good to realize times have changed since then.
That said, I assume an intelligent readership, so I won’t be climbing on any soapboxes or wasting space commenting further on matters like this. But I did not want to sweep this under the carpet.
Francis Brett Young in an article called “At Random”:
“A little time since, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on a question raised in America […]: whether the cinematograph had not rendered the novel superfluous. The question seemed to me a silly one, for it disregarded one of the fundamental functions of the novelist, which is the achievement of verbal beauty, with all its suggestions, in prose.”
“Z.” rues the loss of a record:
“I only had an opportunity of playing the last-mentioned record once, when the interpretation made a great impression on me, and I am sorry to say that the disc has disappeared from my review shelves. Perhaps my colleague, Mr. J. Caskett, was so much pleased with it that he has literally devoured it, or it may be that he sat on it by accident and buried the fragments in the garden without daring to confess his crime.”
I miss this kind of relaxed, conversational style in publications like THE GRAMOPHONE (these days minus the definite article). Also, digital music — much as I deeply appreciate it and its availability — means no such anecdotes or musings could come about anymore, except with the hardy souls who never abandoned physical media.
Another flight of fancy from “Z.”:
“Much is lost if they are not played with the loudest needle, and although the scratch is not unduly in evidence, so exquisite is this music that I have never felt such bitterness against chemists for not being able to do what they ought to be able to do. If I were a despot, I would summon before me the leading chemists of the day; I would immure them in a completely equipped laboratory, and I would give them two years to eliminate the scratch from gramophone records. The penalty for failure should be imprisonment for the term of their life in a cell lit by acetylene gas and covered with encaustic tiles. Here they should spend the rest of their unnatural lives, listening day and night to the strains of a cheap gramophone playing on a scratchy record ‘I’M FOR EVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. Their food should be sent in to them from the Eustace Miles restaurant in Chandos Street; their lightest reading should be Freud, Jung, and Ernest Jones; and doubtless, if I really were a despot, I should be able to devise all sorts of additional horrors, which in my present state of limited power I have neither space nor time to enumerate.”
He did well enough already. Eccentric digressions like this in these vintage issues often make me smile. They are very human, and more of human life and of humanity comes through when writers are allowed real freedom of thought and expression, and the luxury of enough space. Something has been lost since these days, at least when it comes to most music journalism.
Less charmingly, “Z.” strays from the eccentric to the crude with this:
“Not that I crave to hear the words of what is one of the most tiresome songs ever written, and one that by some curious misfortune of mine second-rate sopranos always choose to sing whenever I go to a concert in Italy. I nearly committed sopranocidio by throwing a lemon squash at the last woman I heard sing it.”
Hardly gracious or gentlemanly.
So while I admire some aspects of these older approaches to music journalism, things like this occasionally cool these warm feelings.
Back along more amusing lines, “Z.” again of a record:
“I thought that it was a really good record; but, alas, with each succeeding performance it becomes more tinny, and if I play it much more I shall be able to preserve tomatoes in it.”
Frank Swinnerton comments on the limitations of the day’s recording technology:
“The gramophone cannot yet reproduce the letter ‘S’. It cannot yet render satisfactorily the full volume of an orchestra or the pure tone of the pianoforte. Always the orchestra has a tinny vibration — a dwarfing of the original; nearly always the piano has many notes — particularly loud notes — resembling the banjo. Pang, pang, pang… Strings are still the most satisfactory instruments for mechanical reproduction.”
A recording already mentioned in this “Let’s read” series and available on Spotify:
Norman Allin singing Albert Ketèlbey’s Shakespeare setting “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND”. “Z.” says it “can be used for frightening cats.” I like this composer’s orchestral pieces more, though.
In the “Gramophone Societies’ Reports” (yes, people used to gather together to listen to music on the gramophone), Ernest Baker of The South-East London (Recorded) Music Society comments on Wagner’s music:
“It covers the whole gamut of musical emotion; it has such amazing descriptive power and is so full of pure musical beauties. We have the music of the sea, of fire, the air, love, life, and death — all painted by a master-hand upon an immense canvas.”
All this reminds me of Iceland as well.
An article called “A Decca Romance” tells the story of a portable Decca gramophone that a British battalion hauled around in “a large clothes basket” in World War I. Everyone brought back records when on leave, in England or Paris, for example, and records were also ordered by post.
“Strange homes that old Decca has had, up and down the villages of France, in ruined houses, in huts, in tents, in transport lines.”
After the war was over:
“It was put up for a raffle in the village, and no less a sum than five pounds was raised for the Benevolent Fund of the battalion’s Old Comrades’ Association, while the man who won it for one shilling is not grumbling at his bargain. Long may it flourish in its new home!”
Wagner pieces or extracts mentioned in this issue with some relevance to Icelandic sagas (though none of the recordings mentioned is on Spotify), cited again here for their evocative titles (Wotan = Óðinn / Odin):
“Forging Songs” / “Siegfried Forges the Broken Sword”
“Mime’s Treachery to Siegfried”
“Siegfried Follows the Forest Bird”
“Brünnhilde Hails the Radiant Sun”
“Brünnhilde Recalls Her Valkyrie Days”
“Introduction: Wotan Invokes Erda”
“Siegfried’s Ascent to the Valkyrie Rock”
“Brünnhilde Yields to Siegfried”
Plus the related composition, not part of the opera:
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (TWILIGHT OF THE GODS)
“The Parting of Brünnhilde and Siegfried”
“Hagen Meditates Revenge”
“Gunther and Gutrune Welcome Siegfried”
“Prelude: The Rhinemaidens Scene”
“Brünnhilde Kindles the Funeral Pyre”
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 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.
SEPTEMBER 20th 2018 — Ray Bradbury loved cinema and cinematic storytelling all his life.
From trips to the movies with a beloved family member when he was a boy, he fell in love with the form and it never ended.
Two characteristics permeate all his writing: all of it is lyrical — he had the soul of a poet and that’s why he’s one of my favorite writers — and much of it is powerfully sensual. It engages all the senses.
He said one could film any of his stories by simply turning each sentence or paragraph into a shot. All the information was there, he said, in his writing: what to show and when and how.
From 1985 to 1992 the world enjoyed his TV series THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER. It was filmed on location in many countries: Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and France.
Ray personally scripted every episode and proved his profound and natural understanding of how to tell a story in this form. His work for the series is a model of what to do and not do in scripting film and television.
(I prefer saying just “film” from now on. These are mini-movies in all but name.)
Scenes are allowed to unfold without drowning everything under too much dialogue. Just enough is said and not said. Sights, sounds, and yes, through the power of his work and that of his collaborators, also smells, tastes, and tactile experiences come through.
Iceland is to me Bradbury country and more like the remembered land of my childhood than anywhere else I have been as an adult. Magic is still possible here. The elements have power, like in his stories. The wind has a presence unlike anywhere else. There is the sea, there are mountains and waterfalls, and dark nights and summer cottages in pristine nature.
Stories live here and are respected. As is poetry. As is music. I write this in a snug bedroom with a great big bed and a slanting ceiling of the kind that through some geometrical alchemy seems to fire the imaginations of all creative people. I wish more than anything that I could really share all this.
In any case, Iceland is a great place to watch THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER. I also did so in Paris last winter, and before that in Finland. As an adult, and long ago, first in childhood.
“Marionettes, Inc.” (1985), directed by Paul Lynch (who also directed many episodes of the STAR TREK spin-offs), is not among my favorite episodes. I felt casting James Coco (1930–1987) as the protagonist was not the best choice.
But like all these episodes, this one too affords many incidental delights. Here are some of them.
This and every other episode of THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER is available as part of a DVD box set. Despite nearly VHS-quality video, it comes with my warmest recommendation.
SEPTEMBER 15th 2018 — My studies in Icelandic as a Second Language at the University of Iceland started with an orientation week in the penultimate week of August 2018. The first day was beautiful and sunny, warm but not too warm.
I was especially impressed by the warmth radiated by the head of the program, Professor Jón Karl Helgason (“Jón Karl, Helgi’s son”). He spoke softly and with a glint of humor, starting his introductory talk with a photo of his newborn son. He told us this was going to be our competition for the coming year — he expects us to match or exceed the progress of the young one.
This warmth is something I have rarely felt in the presence of Finnish teachers, but in Iceland it is not uncommon. Many Icelanders know how to bring warmth to a whole room, as Jón Karl did. It made the place feel welcoming and supremely safe. Whereas in Finland, in my experience, it is more common for rooms to have a constant low-level tension. It makes a huge difference.
But I don’t mean to put down Finns, who can have fine qualities of their own. And I have been fortunate enough to have studied under several exceptional ones.
During a break I found my way to the canteen, where I ate healthily: vegetable balls in curry pineapple sauce with pasta and salad, with a vitamin drink.
Other orientation week activities included a guided tour of the campus, hotdogs and soda in the open air, and of course a student party at the on-campus Stúdentakjallarinn (“The Student Cellar”) — with free bjór (beer).
As we were told during a later visit to the Settlement Museum, beer has long been important in Iceland. In the old days, no feast would have been possible without it, and feasts were very important community-strengthening events.
I headed home in the evening to my apartment in Kópavogur (“Seal Pup Bay”), feeling it had been a good start.
I would soon be moving much closer to the university, however. But that’s a different story.
SEPTEMBER 14th 2018 — Our minds work in mysterious ways. Why are we sometimes suddenly reminded of something long in the past, with no obvious trigger for that particular memory? Things just find their own time to happen.
Today for some reason I was reminded of Garibaldi’s alcoholism storyline in BABYLON 5. The actor who portrayed him, Jerry Doyle, passed away in 2016 at the age of 60.
Along with those of G’Kar (the wonderful Andreas Katsulas) and Londo (the equally wonderful Peter Jurasik), his was one of my favorite storylines in this series that for many these days seems to have fallen between the cracks between the latter-day STAR TREKs and Ron Moore’s reimagined BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which went darker than any popular TV SF series ever.
I just think there was particularly much truthfulness and emotional resonance to Garibaldi’s story, including the story thread of his struggles with alcohol. It was introduced in the first-season episode “Survivors” — still one of the early episodes I remember liking best — and came to play a bigger part later on.
I let my complete VHS collection go many years ago and haven’t repurchased the series since, as I rewatched all of it so many times in my earlier years that I still remember most of it nearly photographically.
From “Survivors”, for example, Garibaldi’s sad, regretful, softly spoken lines about how, long in the past, after a tragic event he crawled inside a bottle and didn’t come out for a long time.
I guess characters with regrets, and the numerous ways they cope or fail to cope with them, will be around, and relatable, as long as we human beings continue to fail so spectacularly and so often at being kind to one another.
Googling some of this today, I also noticed something interesting. In a much later episode, he sings “SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME”, which became one of my favorite songs long after BABYLON 5 — so I didn’t remember it had featured on the show. (More of the interesting workings of our minds.)
Specifically, I came to feel very fondly about this song after a friend posted a few years ago that scene from JAWS with the main characters singing it, badly (that’s why it’s so good), in the little boat at night. I’ve since gone back to watch it again a few times.
One of those rare songs that can bring you up when you really need it.