I was going to be all serious and comment on Thomas Merton’s feast day, but I’m just not in the mood for that, even though I am wearing all black today. No! Instead, it’s time for novelty holiday music!
First up, Mannheim Steamroller. We kids wore out the cassette tape that this track is on, and I’m pleased to find it still entertains. Did you know that Mannheim Steamroller is from Nebraska? I learned that this summer in my online trivia league.
And next, a track that one year at least was a staple of retail stores — the year it got stuck in my head and I went looking for it to cure the earworm. It’s the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, remixed in a yes-it’s-campy-you-wanna-make-something-of-it kind of way. It’s about six replays of this between my house and fencing practice; ask me how I know.
Ah, good morning. It’s a lovely Saturday and I’m taking my sweet time about getting up and about. For today’s Advent window I bring something that has been the foundation for any number of songs for a couple of centuries now, and I do enjoy it in nearly every form. It’s variously known as “La Folia,” “Folias de Espana,” “The Folly,” and so on.
It’s St. Nicholas Day, which — aside from its associations with the Christmas season — is an opportunity to reflect on one of our tradition’s more interesting bishops. Besides resurrecting children pickled in brine and tossing dowries through the windows of young women about to be sold into prostitution, Nicholas is also said to have punched Arius at the Council of Nicaea. All of these stories are spurious to some degree or other, but you have to admit, there’s a certain swash to St. Nick’s buckle. Like, he’s the patron saint of nearly every member of the crew of Serenity, one way or another. What’s not to like?
Of course, if you’re aiming to misbehave, the early-modern and modern legends of Santa Claus are less friendly to your cause, as David Sedaris discovers in his essay Six to Eight Black Men. I do enjoy that essay, but because (mindful of St. Nick) I am moved to be generous, here in addition is David Sedaris reading my favorite of his essays, “Jesus Shaves.”
This has been your Hee-Haw Advent window of the day.
Inevitably, any Advent calendar of mine is going to contain a number of my favorite choir pieces. Here is my favorite Palestrina introit, “I Look From Afar.”
It’s part of the nature of Advent, too, that looking from afar is both looking at the past as from the far future, and looking at the future from an always-incipient present. Like gestalt arrows, it’s both at once: that on-the-cusp feeling belongs so completely to no other time.
A friend once observed of me that I want to “save the world,” and they weren’t wrong. Something in me is a perpetual paladin, and whenever I do something that matters to me, it matters because of that. Advent taps into and intensifies a feeling I have year-round, that there are lots of reasons not to act, not to do a thing — but if you’re going to do it, then do it.
I don’t mean do it perfectly, though. Long ago, a (different) friend was lamenting their depression and how it was causing them to “half-ass” their last semester of school. I said: “Sometimes half an ass is all you have,” and the other person in the chatroom suggested putting that on a cross-stitch sampler. But that’s exactly what I mean. If half an ass is what you have to give to a thing you want to do, then give half an ass.
I try to remind myself of this antidote periodically, because I too fall prey to the feeling that Advent (and Lent, too, often) got started before I was ready and I’m in a futile scramble to catch up. It’s not Fear Of Missing Out, it’s Fear Of Missing In, fear that I will have “had the experience but missed the meaning.”
But Advent is its own antidote. The answer to FOMI is to plant your feet, and your ass — whole or half — and look from afar.
To celebrate this website’s second year, I’m going to do a little Advent calendar of things that give me pleasure and gratitude.
A year ago I started building this website in preparation for launching my first novel in what I hoped and planned to be a series; a year later, I have launched the book, finished an interstitial novella and put it into edits, and started on the second full-length novel which I hope to finish over the course of the next year.
It’s been an intense and busy year on all fronts: but this, I hope, will be a relaxing exercise for me, as sometimes I get hung up on trying to remember what Significant Thing I had planned to blog about some time but didn’t write down. These little Advent windows are not going to be significant of anything in particular. I suppose that’s a measure of what the theme of this year has turned out to be: that even launching a book, significant as that is in my own life, is a granulation of little acts, little pleasures and struggles. And one might as well take note of them and do them justice.
Today is a two-fer, since I didn’t have this idea until last night and did not post anything on December 1. First, for those of you who like this sort of thing: Check out The Advent Project, an annual compendium put together by the staff at Biola University. Every morning there’s a Bible reading, a poem, a piece of art, a piece of music, a collect, and a meditation. Because these things are gathered from all over, many perspectives are represented, which frankly relaxes me because I know I don’t have to like it all. I signed up for this last year, and enjoyed it and the group’s Lent Project enough that I stayed subscribed this year. It adds dimension to my morning ritual of tea on the couch — especially when the mornings are so dark.
For the second — how about something completely different! I’ve already inflicted this vid on my Facebook friends and anybody else I can get to stand still, but it just makes me happy, so on the slate it goes: Pomplamoose doing a mashup cover of the Eurhythmics and the White Stripes.
(If I were going to make an out-verse playlist for my characters, this would totally be one of the songs I picked for Speir.)
You should totally check out the weekly cover vids that Pomplamoose is doing, because this one is not the only awesome one, it’s just my favorite.
It’s Saturday, nothing in particular is required of me, and though I certainly have a good deal of housework to do before the book club shows up here next Thursday, I have spent the morning puttering, going out only briefly to get an everything bagel with a garlic-herb schmear and a coffee.
I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole looking up music on Youtube. Seriously, sometimes I love living in the future. When I was a kid, if I wanted to sample a composer’s music, I had to walk uphill both ways to the library to put a hold on a CD. Now I can just click through to the next sample ad libitum. Which is precisely what I’ve been doing.
It all started when my friend Erica relayed the compliments of a friend who had bought and read Ryswyck on her recommendation. She mentioned rehearsing for a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony while she was reading it and thought they went well together. Now till yesterday, I had never heard any Bruckner; I have a sneaking affection for the Late Romantics, but my tastes tend toward the Slavs and the English rather than the Germans. So to the internets I went. On a cursory listen I can see why someone might find the symphony a good running background for Ryswyck, although (at a glance) I notice that the most salient feature of Bruckner’s 7th is that it is rather long, which I suppose is no more than I deserve, heh. It sounds like an interesting piece to play, which is something I would not say about Brahms or, God forbid, Mahler.
But naturally my thoughts turned to what music was/is in my mental background when I was writing or thinking about Ryswyck. Unfortunately, it’s rather like asking myself what I had for dinner two weeks ago: the fact is I just don’t recall listening to anything in particular while writing, and if any particular piece recommended itself to my mood, or to my concept of the atmosphere of the book, I can’t recall that either. Many years ago now I went ahead with the very bad idea of listening to Holst’s Hammersmith on repeat while writing a traumatic scene of a now-abandoned project; the experience rather soured me on the concept of composing under the influence, so to speak.
But, I finally recalled, I did put myself in the writing mood on at least one occasion with Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, at least the first movement anyway. So I listened to that again yesterday, and because that opening two minutes just fascinates the hell out of me, I googled for commentary on it (three cheers for the future!) and found someone’s music theory dissertation of nonatonic collections in Vaughan Williams and Bax. A lot of music theory is over my head; for a while I labored under the mistaken idea that “nonatonic” meant “non-atonic” before realizing it meant “nine tones.” Anyway it certainly satisfied my curiosity (and then some) about the chord structure of the opening theme, with its application of opposing forces and the way it takes what could have been a straight harmonic minor scale and makes a parallelogram of it.
And that in a nutshell is the problem I have trying to summon musical quotations for a Ryswyckian playlist. The ‘verse is not our world; it doesn’t have the same religious history, for example, and though the ethnicities are coded (in longstanding tradition) to groups we recognize as vaguely Anglo/Scots/Breton/Alsatian, the peoples in the ‘verse aren’t really those things. Yet music is very important in the story, as a cultural matrix and a motive (in many senses of the word) for the characters; if I had the facility for musical genius that Tolkien had for languages, I would be highly tempted to write the kind of music I imagine my characters singing. (I wonder if Howard Shore does pro bono work?)
As it is, I put some thought into assembling some of the eclectic flavors that go into the mood and outlook of Ryswyck. Besides the Vaughan Williams, a contemporary piece I’ve linked before by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Something for the Dark, moved me when I heard it in performance. I am not very enamored with the opening statement, but the fragile persistence of the second theme made me think right away of Speir, and the overall eclecticism seems fitting to me for a post-nuclear age.
A song I do remember listening to, though it doesn’t speak directly to anything in the book, is Agnes Obel’s “The Curse.” The collection needs an elegiac ostinato in there, and this one strikes a very appropriate note.
The “chants” described in the book are, to some extent, inspired by plainsong tones such as can be found in the Plainsong Psalter, particularly the Tonus Peregrinus, except that Ilonian chant supports both polyphony and drones, the latter of which would set it apart from Anglican chant. At its most sublime it would strike a note much like Ola Gjeilo’s “The Spheres,” from the Sunrise Mass.
In more martial contexts, and in the seasonal songbooks, the effect is similar to shape-note tunes like “Clamanda” and “Tender Thought.” (For the former I’m indebted to Ann Leckie; it’s not the only time I have progressed in my labors only to discover later that AL had broken the ground before me.) This is one example of the many ways in which I decided to put my own American eclecticism to use delineating a world in which cultures have painstakingly put themselves back together like the fractures of a bone. It’s more invocation than description.
The more playful songs, along with the reels, owe a lot to anything in our world played with the bodhran, the fiddle, the Celtic flute, and the pipes. But do you know just how much Session music there is to trawl through? I’d be reduced to a cobweb-draped skeleton before I could find the perfect tune to evoke the sense of it without indebting myself too much to the history built up behind so many of these tunes. I did find the fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll, however; a representative track (though sans bodhran) gets near the kind of thing that’s in my head.
And because it’s July and my friend K has got Summerfest tickets again, I have chamber music on tap every Sunday of the month. Till I started going to these concerts I did not realize just how much of the charm of chamber music depends on being in the same room with it — and that too is a part of the ‘verse. Recorded music is not a popular means of consumption in Ilona, nor do people go to large concerts unless they live in the capital. Music is very much a cottage industry, made by people whose names you know because you grew up with them, or the next town over; it’s the only form of corporate worship there is, and thus is oriented to the community rather than the individual. That’s one way in which eclecticism plays us false, I think: we have so much to choose from that it’s hard to get past thinking about what one likes and dislikes, about one’s own empirical autobiographical experiences, to the context of the people knitted in with us. A poised engagement: that is the ethic I’m reaching for here.
So, there you have it: an off-the-cuff playlist for the Ryswyck ‘verse. Probably ten minutes after I post this I’ll be slapping my brow at what I forgot, but it can’t be helped. Happy Saturday!
Musing this evening on the perils of self-censorship. People I know have started to read Ryswyck and are telling me where they are in the story. They make brief comments or ask me questions: “I’ll be interested to see how you develop the concept of undefendedness,” said one, and, “Am I right that this takes place in a sort of hypothetical Britain-like country?” another buttonholed me at church to ask. “I’m two-thirds of the way through,” said a friend last night, and proceeded to tell me what was happening with each of the characters as if they were people we both knew.
This is an ongoing source of quiet amazement for me. When I first thought up the story that would become this novel, I was convinced I couldn’t write it — and more than that, I was convinced I shouldn’t. A snippet from the first blog post about it:
Spring has definitely sprung around here. There is a profusion of daffodils everywhere, we’ve cut pink-blooming boughs from the peach tree for the chapel, and the mint patch has begun to sprout. And, I’ve been making myself up stories again. I won’t write the one I’ve been dreaming out, because it is just too idtastic: it follows two characters through a co-ed military school that has a reputation for turning out brilliant officers but has the air of a mystery cult, and for good reason. There’s lots of courtesy and kindness, and also a great deal of sex and violence. This poses a problem, not for me, but for the Sir William — now Lord — Rees-Mogg in my head who prefers that we keep up our standards.
Still and all, I reflect that most of the stories I’ve made up over the years come from my id originally. I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of this, but I really just can’t manage it: it seems more to me like the id-origins of my stories are the grubby roots and the stories rise from them aboveground as plants.
But one does prefer the aboveground plant to be what’s noticed, I must say.
(March 15, 2012)
Fortunately for the book, I only needed the slightest encouragement to write it anyway, which my friends were only too happy to provide. It’s one thing to know Joanna Russ’s list of ways women’s writing is suppressed: it’s quite another to realize that you’re doing most of the suppressing for them. And still another to stop doing it.
That’s the miracle of art, though: a divine stubbornness that doesn’t feel miraculous in the least. A cussedness, a grubby stamping on the shovel’s shoulder, digging up that flowerbed. From a dreamed-out story outline in the rough, to a finished project one is proud of: that is worth all the slogging in the middle.
I suppose the reverse benefit of such difficulty is that when you’ve finished the project, you can enjoy the result and stick it to The Man in one move.
Well, not completely: music and art make their way into my blogging on the regular, and there are plenty of interesting things to post about.
A couple months ago I bought a 24-pan set of watercolors, because I wanted to reproduce my cover-art concept for Beth Leggett. This is the best view of the result:
But the upshot is, I have new watercolors. Yay! So every now and then I pull them out and practice.
Ultimately I’d like to produce an image strong enough to cover “Household Lights,” but that stage is a ways off.
Meanwhile, I have discovered some new music! First, a piece by an Icelandic artist that crossed my path in a Lenten devotion, which informed me that “brot” means “bread” in German and something like “torn” in Icelandic, making a cross-lingual Eucharistic pun of sorts.
And last weekend I was at the symphony (no, I didn’t light my cell phone and call for the Widor Toccata — Carmina Burana was the featured piece and that was quite enough to be going on with), and the opening piece was a new one by Sarah Kirkland Snider called Something for the Dark.
None of my companions liked this piece, but I found it moving and interesting. The reflective motif introduced by the flute in the middle has a strong delicacy that is attractive in itself; and since my head’s been full of Ryswyck since ordering the proof, it made me think of Speir and her perspective, how it gets fraught by events; how it perseveres. If I were making a Ryswyck playlist, I would be tempted to put this piece on it.
Up next on my art-and-music docket: fun with photography. We’ll see if I can get a good walk in between thunderstorms.
Spring has sprung! I’m spending mornings with the balcony door open and feeling the itch to plot this year’s garden — along with a number of other allergy-related itches due to the neighborhood trees, but everybody’s got to live. And I’ve got to the point in preparing the ebook document where the light at the end of the tunnel looks less like an oncoming train.
So while I’m slogging through the last tedious bits of work, I give you two pieces of music pour s’amuser. One is a fascinating piece by a traditional Japanese drum ensemble, which I could watch over and over. One of the first things I noticed was that these young people played the entire piece while sustaining a lunge. Could I sustain a lunge for ten minutes straight? I doubt it.
The other is a piece I have long delighted in, ever since I heard it when it was being used as the postlude for ordinations at the cathedral. This is pretty great, but you really haven’t heard this piece till you’ve heard it in person in a resonant space. If I wanted to heckle Michael Stern at the Kansas City Symphony, I wouldn’t call for “Free Bird,” I’d call for somebody to get up in the organ loft and play the Widor Toccata. Every time I’m at the Kauffman I keep hoping the program will put that organ to use, but it rarely happens, alas.
Gusto is the thing. Sometimes I think it’s the whole point of music: if you have gusto and don’t know what to do with it, I say fire up one of these babies.
Now to await the first thunderstorm of the spring, when I will blast the “Dona nobis pacem” from the Bach Mass.