Stranger Things (than nostalgic memories are exactly what we need today)

 

netflix stranger things poster

As a fan of nostalgia, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Netflix’s Stranger Things on a variety of levels. The show does a remarkably good job at catching the zeitgeist of the era–the early 1980s, and includes music, both old and newly composed that set the scenes perfectly. Two members from the Austin based group S U R V I V E, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, provided the eerie original music for the series.

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-stranger-things-netflix-survive-score-20160727-snap-story.html

Set in 1983, the show uses, sights, sounds and nearly forgotten period costumes and props to set the plot in the tradition of such classics as Super 8, the Goonies, and E.T. This was the era of my high school and early college years, so even with my having grown up through the 1970’s there is still enough there to make me feel as if I’ve traveled back in time. I’m not really feeling “old,” per se, just feeling the passage of time, stemming from experiences and things—how they change and yet also stay the same, and what our past might mean for our future. Here are my thoughts on a trip down Memory Lane, inspired by Stranger Things. Some will correlate somewhat to the show, others are simply curious observations of life, then and now.
“What you talkin’ about, Willis?” Words and meaning change over time.

For example, the “Amazon” I grew up with was a river in South America. “Amazon” also referred to the race of super women, aka Linda Carter as Wonder Woman. (Ok, now I’m feeling young again). Some other examples include:

  • Social media” was a wall-mounted telephone with a 6-foot cord. “I can’t talk right now” was code for “my parents are listening.” (and not very good code, at that…) Social media could also refer to the notes that were passed in class or left on your locker. The most important happening in one’s “social media life” was getting a note with someone’s phone number and the words “call me” written on it.
  • My Space” was my room. No Sisters Allowed!
  • Tinder” was something you used to start a fire. I also ironically note from experience that such skills were not very conducive to getting actual dates (or a note with the words “call me” written on it). ☺
  • Speaking of that last symbol. The ONLY emoji was the smiley face. And it wasn’t called an “emoji.” It was simply a “smiley.” We were trying to stay positive.
  • “Bad” meant good. “Face” meant getting caught doing something you should feel embarrassed about. “Burn” was used to diss someone. Additionally, TV gave us the most useful phrases to make our parents and teachers cringe: “Sit on it!” “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” “Nannu-nanu.” “Boss, ze plane, ze PLANE!” “Jane, you ignorant slut…” “Dyn-o-mite!” “Goodnight, John-boy.”
  • Just like the when Joe DiMaggio didn’t understand the reference in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” our teachers and parents TOTALLY missed the point of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” (Side note: was it possible we somehow understood metaphor better?)
  • The closest thing to “Facebook” back in the day was a yearbook. This meant you only got to update and post messages to your friends using this method once a year. And you were stuck with those words and that terrible school photo forever.

Like the kids in Stranger Things, we used walkie-talkies with friends and dreamed of the coming realities of Star Trek communicators. (Side note: The flip phone I owned in the early 2000s was my favorite because it made me feel like Captain Kirk). While the Corvette, Porsche 911, and Ferrari were the cars I dreamed about owning someday, I simply “got by” riding my Sears Spyder bike (just like the kids in Stranger Things-REALLY) and, later, a bright yellow Schwinn 10-speed). I continue to dream…

And, upon reflection, DREAMING was a lot of what that era represented. In those, my formative years of the 1970s and early 80s, people still had hope for the future and did things to forward our goals. Men walked on the moon; space shuttles flew; and the Computer Age matured into something we now take for granted. Yet we also realized the dark side of our activities. We read books about overcoming adversity, from Tolkien’s LOTR (representing an earlier age) to King’s “The Stand” (representing the future). Those of us who took the time and energy to think about it realized there would eventually be a price for everything.

This is where the setting of Stranger Things coincides beautifully with the emotional motivation for the plot. The Duffer brothers, creators of the series, found a way to capture both the hopes and the fears of the time. Spoilers follow—skip the next paragraph if you still want to watch Season 1. Examples abound and are too many to list here, but here are a few. Again: Spoiler ALERT!

Will’s mom, played by Winona Rider, displays constant anxiety and paranoia and is on the verge of falling apart throughout the entire first season. Her obsession with the idea that she can almost fix everything—almost reach her lost son—is a reflection of both the hope and the feeling of impending doom many people felt at the time, and also the increasing loneliness of a population. As a single Mom barely tying ends together, raising two boys, she is faced with a new challenge far above her comprehension and education. Nevertheless, she uses both intellect and ingenuity to discover ways to communicate with her son, lost in the Upside-Down. Similarly, Police Chief Jim Hopper’s frustration and despair over losing his daughter to cancer, in an age that supposedly would promise the eradication of disease through technology, is challenged as he both fights the system of crooked medical research gone and also connects with Eleven, the young girl with paranormal powers made possible by that very misguided research. On a certain level, he knows the very same technology being used to destroy, can also be used for good, and ironically seems to have produced a surrogate daughter for him (we’ll see in Season 2). But beyond all that, human connection is what matters. And let’s not forget the very real situation of nerdy kids throughout time both facing their fears and overcoming them. In this case both the Demogorgon, a monster of of their fantasies, and the awkwardness of human interaction in their everyday realities are brilliantly met and resolved in the series.

In the 70’s and early 80s we were faced with problems and seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, no matter how overwhelming the situation seemed, we acted. We simply had to take action. The horror of how we were polluting the environment resulted in the invention of a new science: “Ecology.” The horror of ongoing war opened doorways for the exploration works and words, old and new. The wisdom of Ghandi, Ram Das, and the Dalai Lama came into our world and helped us both see and heal. The lasting horror of the nuclear age also provided advances in medicine, space and research to save our planet. We yearned to find ways to co-exist with progress…and each other. We still do. We simply have no choice.

I continue to dream…

(and eagerly await Season 2)

Until then, here’s the complete soundtrack used in the entire first season, including the haunting title theme by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, two members of the Austin, Texas, instrumental electronic group S U R V I V E. The compilation includes original music and a lot of great pre-existing music that set the mood of the show perfectly. Thanks to Luciano Milici for the excellent compilation.

 

 

Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

The Problem of Pigeon-Holes

Could it be that the accepted practice of categorizing musicians into subsets is affecting our ability to make new art and advance what we do?

Pigeons

Today’s 6-hour drive back from adjudicating an orchestra festival allowed me to kick around the above idea—something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The basic issue at hand is the continuing trend of how we reduce everyone into categories, and progressively smaller and smaller subsets, eventually limiting all of our potential. For example, the musician today might be thus categorized reductively:

musician to instrumentalist,

then to violinist,

on down to orchestral violinist,

to specific section violinist (1st or 2nd),

to a section player in a specific orchestra,

 which belongs in a specific category,

with a specific budget,

in a specific region,

of a specific city/country

likely sitting in a specific

chair.

Similarly, composers only compose (and usually only certain types of music); conductors only conduct, and get typecast even more strictly into career straight jackets, etcetera etcetera, etcetera…..And God forbid the musician who goes into administration. That choice is seen as some sort of betrayal of the muse: “The Artist Formerly Known as Worthy.”

I contend that this is a 20th-21st century phenomenon, unlike the accepted understanding of an educated professional artist (or professional in any field) from past eras. For example, Franz Joseph Haydn was a musician, perhaps now only remembered as a great composer, but in his time also hailed as an excellent singer, performer of several instruments, and a most able composer of a variety of types of music (everything from religious music to operas, concert works, and “background music” for royal patio parties). He was also a pretty effective music director, music administrator, music teacher, and all-around-great-guy. His story is not an anomaly. Wagner was also admired for his writing, stage direction, and unfortunately, some of his philosophies. Liszt could play a mean piano, and later in life, pray a mean Catholic Mass. Bach, well, I’ll let you read the tomes about everything he could do, including handling a sword as well as a manuscript pen. The list is endless.

I’m not referring to hobbies or interests here. It was considered part of the complete package to be involved and competent in a variety of things. While Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may be America’s great examples of Renaissance Men, it really was considered the model for anyone of a certain education. Sadly, today it is relegated to the quaint last sentence found in professional bios about how: “in his spare time he enjoys reading, writing, hiking and spending time with his family.” (Source: the actual last sentence of my current professional bio).

My point is this. When the 20th century came along, we were required to specialize. There are exceptions (Leonard Bernstein among the most obvious), but think about 20th century musicians and what they are known for. Shostakovich played piano (WELL) but was forced by the system to be first, a composer. True, he was used, but also the expectation changed. Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was also a fine composer, was mainly promoted as and encouraged to encapsulate the image of the “Modern Maestro.” Had he been allowed to fill the old role of Kappelmeister or Impresario, we might still enjoy hearing his music. Indeed, his entire career would have been different.

DBPB_1955_128_Wilhelm_Furtwängler

Starting from about 1920 or so, musicians were expected to specialize in a certain instrument and even narrow it further into genre. “Oh, you play viola? Are you an orchestral player (principal or section, please state who, where and how many famous people you’ve studied with); or are you a chamber musician, soloist, or ahem, a TEACHER? Such a shame you had to “settle” for teaching music.” Double-God-forbid if you ventured into alternative styles like jazz or fiddle music! Special curiosity points are given for musicians who are also pretty damn fine composers. Tibor Serly, Alan Shulman, and Emmanuel Vardi being three from the ranks of my particular instrumental specialization: the viola.

Please understand, I’m not complaining about anything. I’ve no personal gripe, in any way. It is what it is. That was the expectation—the way the profession developed. It was the same for scientists who developed things so specific for NASA that they barely saw the end product, perhaps spending an entire career developing a rocket booster O-Ring that could not fail. Well, ok—maybe that’s a bad example.

But the arts are not as specific, nor should be as complicated, as rocket science. We are now on the other side of that century of specialization, faced with a choice. We’ve been teaching music to the test: The Major Professional Audition. But for certain, not everyone can, nor should, play with the Chicago Symphony. Not everyone will play in a major string quartet or play a concerto with an orchestra, either. But musicians must have the liberty to have different choices on the horizon. I look forward to the day when musicians might have the freedom to market themselves as “musicians” again, and are not forced to sub-categorize themselves into packages that fit into the mail slot. Let’s allow some latitude to build our own slots.

So I’ll start.

Hi, I’m Rob. I’m a professional musician with training in viola and conducting, recently branching into viola d’amore, and writing about music. I make my living as a conductor and music professor today. But remember, first and foremost I’m a musician who loves to perform and discuss music—any music. Highlights of my career include such disparate events as playing with the Moody Blues as well as concerts with Native American, Iranian, American-folk, tango, jazz, opera and a myriad of other artists. I’ve worked with all ages of musicians, and at all levels of achievement. I’ve also had a great time conducting and performing in thousands of concerts since I began playing viola at age 9 in Mrs. Brown’s 4th Grade Orchestra Class at Madison Elementary. Like Mrs. Brown, I’ve had some success teaching music, too, and am very proud of my students’ accomplishments, no matter what field they may ultimately choose to pursue. I’ve served in a variety of administrative roles in the arts as well, although admittedly that is not my favorite activity in the field. I simply cannot wait for my next musical adventure. I love music.

Oh, I also write poetry, and enjoy hiking, reading, and spending time with my family.

Copyright, 2017 Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat

Julie’s Back: The Hills Are Alive Again!

julies-greenroom

There comes a time when all the vitriol and social media scrums need to be backed up with action. And perhaps it is now time for those who really care step forward and do something about it. Kudos to Julie Andrews, megastar over 6 decades, for stepping up with Netflix to produce a new children’s show that celebrates the Arts.

For my entire life, this talented artist has represented the highest standards for all that is good in the Arts. She represents integrity, quality and talent at the highest levels. Thank you, Julie Andrews and Netflix for continuing the tradition of inspiring young people through exposure to music, dance and theater! This link includes a preview to the show which is sure to appeal across multiple generations of arts lovers, both seasoned and emerging.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/02/10/new_trailer_for_julie_andrews_jim_henson_co_netflix_kids_show_teases_guests.html?wpsrc=sh_all_dt_fb_top

According to Wikipedia:

The show will star Julie Andrews (best known as the star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins fame) who will be joined by her assistant Gus (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and “Greenies,” a cast of original puppets built by The Jim Henson Company.

The episodes will include elements of the performing arts such as an original song. Furthermore, every episode will feature a guest star who will engage the puppets in a specific area of the performing arts. Guest stars will include Alec Baldwin, Sara Bareilles, Joshua Bell, Tituss Burgess, Carol Burnett, Chris Colfer, Robert Fairchild, Josh Groban, Bill Erwin, Ellie Kemper, Idina Menzel, Tiler Peck, David Hyde Pierce, and Stomp. The thirteen 30-minute episodes will premiere simultaneously on Netflix in March 17, 2017.

I, for one, will be tuning in, and possibly binge-watching this new show at a critical time for arts support in this country.

Solstice Reflections (with Bonus Soundtrack!)

music-for-the-winter-solstice-1920x1080

A light snowfall welcomed me this morning as I rose to meet the day, casting a white glow upon the neighborhood. It was an appropriate greeting, as today is the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, the first day of winter, the darkest day of the year. But what this day may lack in minutes of sunlight, it makes up for in its promise of renewal, allowing us to emerge from darkness again into light. Winter weather may just be gearing up, but there is already a hint of spring under that snow.  The days only get brighter from here on.

Now it is true that our friends in the southern hemisphere are celebrating the summer solstice today, so the feeling is reversed for them. The dominance of our current holiday rituals are merely proof of the historical realities and a colonial-cultural dominance we simply cannot ignore. It’s OK if this makes us uncomfortable. That discomfort simply provides another opportunity to emerge from the metaphorical cave of darkness.

This day has always meant much to me, even before I learned of the many rituals and traditions across time and culture that celebrate it. As a boy, the first day of winter signified a passage, perhaps initially a rather selfish gateway to Christmas presents. But as I grew up, a different feel to the day set in, an inner knowing related to the passage of time and life itself. As I lay on my bed looking at my Christmas countdown calendar, the day—December 21 or 22, depending on the year—simply felt different. It remains so today, gathering in depth with each passing year.

I find it interesting, though not surprising, that so many holidays dealing with the return of light occur at this time of year. Both the ancients and moderns look to the heavens for metaphors for their lives. Many holidays deal with concepts of light, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Yule. Just a little research into the holidays that preceded our current calendar of events show the rituals are similar, be it Saturnalia, the birth of Mithras, or elaborate rebirth rituals the world over. (Remember, those in the southern hemisphere would occur in June!) But it is little wonder that Pope Julius I chose December 25 date as the date on which to place the then new celebration of Christmas. There were already many pagan festivals honoring the time of year and the return of light. We had already understood this for thousands of years.

Each of us has darkness to deal with in life. Our personal as well as our collective darkness may sometimes haunt us. I may know a little of yours and sometimes you know a bit of mine, but mostly it is something we deal with in solitude. No one can truly know what someone is dealing with, and when (and how) they will emerge again. The light ebbs and flows in each of our lives at different times and rates, unlike the calendar that we rely upon. But perhaps the scientific reality of solstices can give us a reminder of constancy, regardless of religion, belief system or lack thereof. The light begins its return today, just as surely as it will ebb again at its zenith next June, reminding us that everything in life is a cycle.

There are many metaphors for light, and one is definitely music. It includes the music we make for ourselves and the music we share with others. The memory of the past music we have heard and the anticipation of music yet to be performed and composed. I look forward to sharing the “light of music” with you at concerts and other encounters during the year(s) to come. For now, let us all remember that the day ever brightens if we allow it. Listen to some music. Make some music. Experience Light.

Please enjoy one of my favorite renditions of a classic song by Nina Simone. Hope this day finds you “Feeling Good,” too.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat
Photo credit: http://www.wallpapersonly.net/view/music-for-the-winter-solstice-1920×1080.html

You never know who is at your concert

“Problems can become opportunities when the right people come together” ~ Robert Redford

dt-common-streams-streamserver

No, Robert Redford was not at last night’s Salt Lake Symphony concert. At least I don’t think he was in attendance. By the title of this post, one might think someone really famous was at the concert last night. That may indeed be true, but this is about the regular patrons, people who I spoke with or heard reports from others regarding their experience. While perhaps not as spectacular as saying someone “famous” was in attendance, recognizing the importance of every person is more important in the long-run.

For example, there was the unexpected visitor, a man from France who decided to attend our concert as part of his ski-vacation to Utah. Incidentally, he’s also the man who chuckled at the end of the concert, and reported that he found great humor and joy in the Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony. There was also a woman who was so moved to hear seasonal music other than the Messiah and Nutcracker that she asked if we do these pieces every year. She wanted to hear them again. (Sorry, no, but every year’s concert is different!).

Perhaps the most important patrons were the teenagers and young adults who were in attendance. Now, of course, teenagers are not normally thought of as happy concert-goers. More likely they are stereotyped as sullen types who don’t have a choice, being dragged to the concert hall by their parents. While there were undoubtedly some of those, there were also several young people who excitedly reported afterward that they played music, or had just started new instruments (French horn, percussion, violin). When asked why, they reported it was because they had been coming to concerts and love the sound of a particular instrument. They also said they love the sound of a full symphony orchestra. Their eyes were smiling, practically shining, as they said this, almost unable to contain their excitement. It is significant that they made a point to come to the stage and talk with our musicians after the concert. It is also very important that our musicians graciously engaged with them—the musicians of today together with both the musicians and audience members of tomorrow.

There was indeed a person of some local concert fame at the concert. We lovingly call him “Delta-Guy,” but his real name is John. He works for Delta Airlines, and seemingly attends every cultural event in Salt Lake City. He is spotted at Utah Symphony concerts, Utah Opera, Ballet West, collegiate concerts, high school concerts and practically every Salt Lake Symphony concert I’ve conducted for the past 12 years. He often is still wearing his work-clothes and airport ID badge, coming directly from SLC Terminal 2 to the concert hall. He is a consummate consumer of everything classical. We had a nice conversation after the concert about Samuel Barber’s Die Natali, which was on last night’s program.

We musicians sometimes worry about who is “in the audience.” Will this “person-of-note” hear me and be impressed? What does she think?” etc. “Will it lead to something further for me, my own fame, fortune, or maybe at least a gig?

There may indeed have been someone famous there last night. Actually, I have no idea. More importantly, there were several hundred people who wanted to be there and for which we made a difference with our performance. That is why we do what we do. And that, my friends, is what assures the future of our art form.

Copyright 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo credit: http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment/1414530-155/redford-weinstein-100-influential-filmmakers-robert

Vital Vulnerability

fruit_autumn

Opening ourselves to our environment is vital to life, and critical to those desiring a life in the arts. I was happy to discover this poem by Ellen Bass, which beautifully illustrates this concept. It is important task for musicians, artists, writers, etc., to open to the experience beyond ourselves. It is one of the reasons I sometimes take my conducting students hiking, and tell them strange things like, “Before studying the score, go study one square foot of nature.” We all must experience the world outside of the music we so vigorously study. If neglected, we perhaps risk losing both the forest and the trees. Only once our attention is widened and our vulnerability exposed do we have a chance of reaching others with our art.

Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

~ Ellen Bass, Copyright 2016

Thanks to Ms. Bass for permission to reprint her poem. For more information on Ellen Bass and her poetry: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781556594649

Copyright 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat