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“The only proof he needed for the existence of God”

And now it’s time for another round of Music In Books Not About Music! In case you’re curious, previous entries have included Welcome to the Monkey House, All Creatures Great and Small, I Am Legend, Good Omens, A Fine and Private Place, and Have Space Suit – Will Travel.

I’ve mentioned my literary crush on Kurt Vonnegut, the whole “he’s dead” thing notwithstanding (so it goes). His writing style was unique and his outlook on life was cocked slightly at an angle to make things more interesting. And on top of that, he was a great supporter of the arts! Check out this passage from one of the last works he published in his lifetime, A Man Without a Country:

No matter how corrupt, greedy, or heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


… It makes practically everyone fonder of life than they would be without it.

The book is somewhat politically charged, and veers toward the left, so be warned. If you’re cool with that and/or willing to ignore it, it’s a great, interesting read – one which, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you will not always agree with, and that’s always beautiful for sparking a thought or two.

Until next time I ferret out music where I don’t expect it! (Have any suggestions in that area? Pass them along.)


“The Mother Thing sang to me and I understood”

And now it’s time for another round of Music In Books Not About Music! In case you’re curious, previous entries have included Welcome to the Monkey House, All Creatures Great and Small, I Am Legend, Good Omens, and A Fine and Private Place. And now for an author near and dear to my heart…

If you ever want to see me REALLY ANGRY, all you have to do is mention the movie version of Starship Troopers. I love that book with such a fervor that I am constantly having to replace my copy, as I can’t shake the habit of forcing people to borrow it. Even knowing the return rate on books tends to be poor, I want to spread the love.

But that movie. UGH. THAT MOVIE. I refuse to dignify the director by looking up his name, but he clearly didn’t even read the thing. Never mind the deletion of the mobile suits – how could they take out the classes in History and Moral Philosophy?! It isn’t Starship Troopers without the classes in History and Moral Philosophy!!!! And Johnny Rico is Filipino and Dizzy Flores is a GUY who dies at the end of the first chapter and NONE of the aliens can fly OR suck out your brains and –


Thanks! I needed that. Now where were we? Right, Heinlein. I love Heinlein. I love Starship Troopers, I love The Door Into Summer, I am confused by I Will Fear No Evil but love it just the same. And I really love The Star Beast, ostensibly written for children but exhibiting some of the most sophisticated and clever examples of diplomacy I have ever read in a novel. So, having taken great pleasure in his children’s literature, I picked up another: Have Spacesuit – Will Travel.

And saw this:


The aliens speak in song!


Well, not ALL the aliens; there are several kinds in the book. But the main alien, the protagonist alien if you will, communicates entirely in song, although it is overlaid with something akin to telepathy that allows the listener to understand even if they don’t speak the song-language.


Heinlein stops adding bars of music every time the Mother Things speaks after a chapter or so – gotta save those trees – but every once and awhile it does pop up again, making my want to prop open the book against a piano and figure out what she’s saying, exactly. The whole thing is just begging to be turned into the world’s most avant-garde opera. C’mon, composers of the world, make it happen!

So yeah, that’s my beloved Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit – Will Travel. Until next time I ferret out music where I don’t expect it! (Have any suggestions in that area? Pass them along.)

A proper warmup is key

From The New York Times:

In a strip from 1953 Schroeder embarks on an intensive workout. He does push-ups, jumps rope, lifts weights, touches his toes, does sit-ups (“Puff, Puff”), boxes, runs (“Pant, Pant”) and finally eats (“Chomp! Chomp!”). In the last two panels he walks to his piano with determination and begins playing furiously, sweat springing from his brow.

The eighth notes above Schroeder’s head are from the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata (Op. 106), a piece so long, artistically complex and technically difficult that it is referred to as the “Giant” Sonata. When Beethoven delivered it to the publisher in 1819, he is believed to have said, “Now you will have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played 50 years from now.”

Surely Schroeder himself has kept the pianists — and the pianists’ audiences — busy with his torch for Beethoven. Read the full article here.

The Greatest

Note: By the end of this post I will ask you to create your own list of the top ten composers. I’m ruining the ending for you because I think it might be neat if you do it now, before you’re corrupted by my list or the NYT list or your grocery list or what have you. Just a thought. Thank you; good morning!

Hey, remember how I said the lynchpin of the Composer Cagematch! is not who you feel is the better composer but rather who you love more? Well, put a pin in it. We’re playing a new game now.

A couple weeks ago while at my grandmother’s house my family got into a discussion about who the greatest composers of all time were — greatest, not our favorites. (Yeah, my family has random chats about classical composers — just wait until I tell you about the great Dvorak’s Origins Argument of Thanksgiving 2011. That one still resurfaces from time to time.) My mom pulled up a list from The New York Times music critic to get his top 10. Take a gander here.

His list began with the traditional top three but then had me ducking a few curveballs — Brahms? Really? Then he said in his article he would expect such skepticism — and it got me thinking as to what MY top ten would be. Naturally I don’t mean to say I’m a completely impartial judge (I’d say the immediately preceding sentence already knocked me out of contention for that title), but in making such a list I think one would have to look at quality over blind adoration. You’ll see what I mean.*

So… for now, here’s my top ten. I betcha my list could change as early as tomorrow, but in this moment, here are what I call The Greatest:

  1. Bach
  2. Beethoven
  3. Mozart
  4. Stravinsky
  5. Schubert
  6. Bartok
  7. Shostakovich
  8. Handel
  9. Haydn
  10. Prokofiev

What I find most interesting about this exercise is less about who made it but who didn’t — or rather, which sorts of composers didn’t. I didn’t name a single composer outside the Austro-Hungarian or Soviet area; nary an opera composer to be found. This is the hole in my classical understanding; this teaches me where I need to go next to expand my repertoire — and maybe revise my list once I have.

Well? How do you feel about my list? I expect some fightin’ words as opinions must always create. And what about you? For bonus points, how has your list evolved? If I can remember, I want to make this list up again next year and see if it’s changed. Someone remind me in 11.5 months, okay?

* Do you SEE that? Do you SEE how I put Mozart at number 3, even though he makes me want to sic a fictionalized Salieri on him? He’s there because he was a genius, and even if I don’t dig most of his works, I can recognize that. Incidentally, this is also how I feel about Faulkner.

Look quickly before it all bursts into flames

Someone left a few old New Yorker magazines on the table in the lunch room at my old job. I found this particular cartoon while flipping through one, and naturally I confiscated it. I think that’s very Wagnerian of me; I expect to be smote by the gods any moment now.

Part 1: The good music teacher

Here’s another one of my music-in-literature-that-isn’t-about-music discoveries, or should I say rediscovery because I’ve read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn like eight thousand times. If you haven’t read it, you are dismissed from the human race until this situation is rectified.

Done? Okay, good, you may come retake your place as a citizen. Now cast your mind back to the bit where Smith describes Mr. Morton, the music teacher who comes around to the public schools of Brooklyn in the 1910s once a week…

He drew notes on the blackboard; he drew little legs on them to make them look as though they were running out of the scale. He’s make a flat note look like humpty-dumpty. A sharp note would rate a thin beetlike nose zooming off of it. All the while he’d burst into singing just as spontaneously as a bird. Sometimes his happiness was so overflowing he couldn’t hold it and he’d cut a dance caper to spill some of it out.

He taught them good music without letting them know it was good. He set his own words to the great classics and gave them simple names like “Lullaby” and “Serenade” and “Street Song” and “Song for a Sunshine Day.” Their baby voices shrilled Handel’s “Largo” and they knew it merely by the title “Hymn.” Little boys whistled part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony as they played marbles. When asked the name of the song, they’d reply, “Oh, ‘Going Home.'” They played potsy, humming “The Soldier’s Chorus” from Faust which they called “Glory.”

And now I invite you to think about all the good music teachers you’ve had, both in a school and in private, of your instrument and of music as a whole. The ones that loved music so much they gave it to you like an infection. The ones that didn’t just make you try harder; they made you want to try harder.

Think about them and tell me about them now, because tomorrow I’m going to rant and rave about the bad ones. Oh yes.

After the apocalypse, only vampires will like Rachmaninoff

I just read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which was, as is almost always the case when you’re not talking about Neil Gaiman, way better than the movie. Without giving anything away, the bit with the dog made me cry. If you’re not familiar with the plot, the basic premise is that the entire human population has been taken down by some sort of plague that has more or less turned them into vampires; one man, Robert Neville, remains fully human.

It’s essentially well-written survival horror, which may or may not be your thing, but what I find interesting is that throughout Neville’s post-apocalyptic, fear-driven hermit existence, he plays classical music to help — to fill the silence, to drown out the vampires calling for his blood, a balm for his psychological wounds. He plays Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe.

And then one day he comes across another person, a woman named Ruth. Maybe she’s infected too, but she’s alive, so he takes her in and they talk and listen to Schubert’s fourth symphony.

The music ended. She got up and he watched her while she looked through his records…. “May I play this?” she asked, holding up an album.

He didn’t even look at it. “If you like,” he said.

She sat down as Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto began. Her taste isn’t remarkably advanced, he thought, looking at her without expression.

I have nothing to add to this except: bahahahaha.

What music would you take with you in the vampire apocalypse?

“Live and constantly changing, like a concert or ballet”

Hey! Remember when I said I wanted to talk about Fantasia periodically? Like, a year and a half ago or something? Let’s do it! Take it away, David Koenig, in your awesome, I-once-read-this-instead-of-playing-in-an-arcade book, Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks.

As his excitement for the project grew, Walt [Disney] wanted to issue a partially new Fantasia each year, every few months replacing an old number with a newly animated one. That way, people would look at it not so much as music frozen on film, but as live and constantly changing, like a concert or ballet. They would have to ask not only where and when Fantasia was playing, but what Fantasia was playing.

Disney got as far as animating one whole sequence for inclusion in a future Fantasia, set to the tranquil “Clair de Lune.” Six years later, the animation was set to “Blue Bayou” and inserted in Make Mine Music, along with another previously scrapped idea, “Peter and the Wolf.” “Flight of the Bumble Bee” was finally used as a swing version, “Bumble Boogie,” in Melody Time.

I already gave you Peter, and I’m saving “Bumble Boogie” for a rainy day. Here’s “Clair de Lune.” Enjoy your Memorial Day!

“Let him who has never played an organ cast the first stone”

I am sad.

I am sad because I have this habit of finding great stuff for a topic mentioned on the blog AFTER I’ve mentioned it on the blog. The other day I found a fantastic music gift, and it’s January. I simply do not have the patience to wait till next November to share it with you. So consider this a Valentine’s Day present suggestion, assuming that what you’re trying to communicate is “we share a wonky sense of humor” (good!) or possibly “I am extremely unromantic” (also good if you’re spurning, I guess).

You might be familiar with the below, as I understand it has made the viral email rounds and shown up on a variety of musical message boards and the like. It is by the unparalleled humorist and soothing-voiced radio host, Garrison Keillor.


1 And it came to pass, when Paul was at Corinth, he and certain disciples came upon amob that was stoning an organist. 2 And Paul said unto them, “What then hath he done unto thee that his head should be bruised?” 3 And the people cried with one voice, “He hath played too loud. 4 Yea, in the singing of psalms, he maketh our heads to ring as if they were beaten with hammers. 5 Behold, he sitteth up high in the loft, and mighty are the pipes and mighty is the noise thereof, and tho’ there be few of us below, he nonetheless playeth with all the stops, the Assyrian trumpet stop and the stop of the ram’s horn and the stop that soundeth like the sawing of stone, and we cannot hear the words that cometh out of our own mouths. 6 He always tosseth in the variations that confuse us mightily and playeth loud and discordant and always in a militant tempo, so that we have not time to breathe as we sing. 7 Lo, he is a plague upon the faith and should be chastised. 8 Paul, hearing this, had himself picked up a small stone, and was about to cast it, but he set it down and bade the organist come forward. 9 He was a narrow man, pale of complexion, dry, flaking thin of hair. 10 And Paul said unto him, “Why hath thou so abused thy brethren?” 11 And the organist replied, “I could not hear them singing from where I sat, and therefore played the louder so as to encourage them.” 12 And Paul turned round to the mob and said loudly, “Let him who has never played an organ cast the first stone.” 13 And they cast stones for awhile until their arms were tired and Paul bade the organist repent and he did. 14 And Paul said unto him, “Thou shalt take up the flute and play it for thirty days, to cleanse thy spirit.” 15 And afterward, they returned to Corinth and sang psalms unaccompanied and then had coffee and were refreshed in the faith.

Funny, right? I know I giggle every time. But it gets better — you can now put it on your wall!

Great for organists, skeptical pianists, and my dad, in case you need a present for him, too. Your purchase supports NPR, or as one of my arts management professors used to call it, “Communist talk radio.”

And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all of the children are above average. Holla!

Quick, read!

All right, Captain Last Minute of the Procrastinator’s Brigade, you need a music gift you can pick up in a hurry? Most bookstores are open till six pm today. I can think of no type of store more likely to have stuff actually in stock, y’know?

Lucky for you, I did an informal poll on Facebook and Twitter earlier this week and collected a small list of good music-related books. Seek these out, and good luck to you!

  • Christine Petrolati says: “Music & Silence by Rose Tremain. I like the way it gets you to see how powerful and passionate music can be. I love how it shows you music can live on… That even in the silence, you still hear the music…”
  • StaffNotes says: “Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within by Kenny Werner. I tend to enjoy reading about the more heady aspects of music and performance.”
  • I say: “Evenings With Horowitz: A Personal Portrait by David Dubal. More than a simple biography of the famed pianist, it offers insights into the bizarre and fragile world of musicians. Because let’s face it, 99% of them are stark raving mad.”

Okay, kids, I’m out till December 26th, when I will post to enable you all to wish me a happy birthday. Then the rest of the week I’ll be doing something of a “greatest hits” retrospective, with links to previous posts that you or I seem to be particularly fond of, again on Facebook and Twitter, so you’d better follow/like me now so you don’t miss out.

Right then. Merry Christmas, everybody, if you celebrate it, and if you don’t, happy time off for no reason!