Solstice Reflections (with Bonus Soundtrack!)

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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

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Laughing Ludwig, or Reconsidering a War Horse

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As thinking, rational, yet feeling creatures, we often turn the table on the Gods.  We make them into our image.  They embody the traits and qualities that we fear, covet, or esteem.  But like the Greek pantheon, this tends to be rather narrow.  Only certain traits are represented in the deity.  We have done the same for Beethoven, I’m afraid–put him so high on the pedestal by enshrining him in the halls of fate and struggle. He becomes everything we fear will control or destroy us.  He heroically overcomes it all through his art, of course.  This transformation places him atop our pantheon of the greatest composers.  The Zeus of the classical music world.  But, is it a fair assessment?

“Rule Number 6: Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously”–Benjamin Zander

Let’s imagine Beethoven composing.  There is a piano.  There is an inkwell and a quill pen.  As he scratches in the motives and melodies he is…smiling.  Smiling?  Yes. And perhaps giggling.  This leads to fits of open chuckling.  The master is laughing.

But this is not the Beethoven we are accustomed to imagining, nor interpreting, and that leads to interesting questions.  We say, “It’s BEETHOVEN after all!  Thunderstorms; Fate; Shaking fists; Despair.”  When there is joy, it is often related through energy, transformation, and mastery.  But funny?  Witty? Playful? Smiling?

Rarely do we consider Beethoven in these lighter terms, so pervasive is the cultural image that we have invented.  We have molded him and his music into something wonderful, yet tragic and struggling.  Indeed some of his music is exactly that.  I’ll posit that Beethoven must have been more than that, though.  Like us, he was human, and the human condition involves the entire gamut of emotion.

Truly, his struggle defines much of his music and philosophy.  It even launched the Romantic image of the quintessential composer.  However, Beethoven, we must remember, was subject to the same basic human traits as the rest of us.  These traits include humor.  The include laughter.  They include happiness.

By 1811, Beethoven had been deaf for a number of years.  But he was far from frail as he began this symphony.  Although he suffered from illness while writing the symphony and struggled with writing the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter during this time, he still enjoyed a good meal.  He still read with enthusiasm.  He still had hopes and dreams.  And, I’ll wager, he also found humor in life and music.  We must remember that Beethoven was a student of, and held in high esteem for, the greatest musical punster of all time, Franz Joseph Haydn, whose music is full of musical surprises, jokes, and winks.

Such is my preface to this week’s concert with the University of Utah Philharmonia. I’ve had a great time introducing the 7th Symphony to our fine student orchestra.  And I hope we will communicate Beethoven’s sense of play.  In our reading, Beethoven is never intended to be heavy handed.  Beethoven is boisterous.  Beethoven is clever.  Beethoven is folksy.  Save one repeated moment in the second movement, there is no deep sense of fate or impending doom, transformation for mankind, or struggle for meaning.

To be sure, many conductors and performers have put that light on this work.  Some versions of the first movement rhythms are heavy and pounding.  Hopefully, ours will come across as boisterous and playful.  While there are stodgy versions with pauses hidden with existential meaning, ours will be a wink and a nod to Papa Haydn.  Rather than a dirge-like second movement, ours will be an exploration of texture and a nod to the past.  We have found Bach, Haydn, Mozart and perhaps even religious chant embedded in our interpretation.  The Scherzo is truly a joke.  Form, key, and tempo all hint at a grand ruse.  I can hear Beethoven smiling.  The last movement is virtuosic, but it is also a peasant dance, full of stomps on the “wrong” beat.

All of this hints at one thing, in my opinion.  Beethoven, no matter the key, mood, or motive, is, in the final assessment, a master story teller.  He takes us on a journey with more twists and turns than expected, all with a twinkle in his eye.   The story he tells in the Seventh Symphony is not about fate or some heavenly future.  Some days are just like that.  Some days we are simply in a good mood.

“When you discover just how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky”–Buddha

And Beethoven.  See you at the concert!

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

University of Utah Philharmonia
Thursday, September 19th
Libby Gardner Hall 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $10/ Students FREE

Image by Erika Iris Simmons: http://iri5.com/
http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/beethoven-made-of-his-own-musical-notes

Perception and Assumption: Does Authentic Anything Really Exist?

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Perception is a major aspect of a musician’s life.  We perceive sound, rhythm, and phrasing and relate it to all of the stimuli around us, from our fellow musicians on stage to the drone of an air handling unit.  Hopefully, our attention is focused and blended with those around us.  Often times it is not.  And we can get pretty fussy about the score and the notes that are within, claiming some sort of ultimate authority on the subject.  But doing so without regard to different options, interpretations, and traditions can create assumptions that may actually block creativity. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

“Our human species…is distinguished by the fact that the action-releasing mechanisms of its central nervous system are for the most part…”open.” They are susceptible to the influence of imprintings from the society in which the individual grows up.”  –Joseph Campbell, the Importance of Rites, 1964

Our music teachers, conductors, and the times in which we live all provide a large measure of our awareness and perception.  These people influence how we conceive and execute our music.  I am eternally grateful to the many teachers who told me what to listen to, who to listen to and who the authority was for a particular composer or style.  I am also thankful for the many friends and colleagues who have expanded my horizons with suggestions and ideas.  This, of course was determined for them by someone else and subsequently passed on to them.  Of course, personal likes also have something to do with it.  If we like something (for whatever reason) we are likely to seek out others who have the same interests.  This is how a style becomes codified.  Which is good.  It is also how style can become stagnant, which is not so good.

This idea that there is only one way or that a different way is inherently wrong is the bane of musical expression.  It represents an orthodoxy that is stifling.  Luckily we live in an age that allows for the shattering of this orthodoxy.  Recordings abound, both historical and current, proving that different is possible, if not preferable.  Scholarship and discussion are at an all-time high for all types of music: classical, popular and ethnic traditions.  And we can often have the freedom to experiment and grow by learning new instruments or trying cross-over styles different from our training. 

My colleague Pedro De Alcantara is in the middle of a series of Blogs regarding perception and music.  Here’s a memorable quote:

“When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, “Bach was Bach.” When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn’t Bach.” He’s . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.” Pedro de Alcantara

Pop on over to his site here. It’s worth a visit.

http://www.pedrodealcantara.com/blog/2013/2/9/reality-illusion-part-4-bach-dead-and-reborn.html

The awareness that there is more out there is extremely important to musicians at every stage.  It helps us to become “unstuck.” Healthy musicians are continuously evolving, an important aspect for honest expression.  Styles would not have changed, composers would not have created, and fundamentals would not have been altered had this not occurred.  And it occurs to me that we need reminding of this.
 
“God [is] not the exclusive property of any one tradition. The divine light [cannot] be confined to a single lamp, belonging to the East or the West, but enlightens all human beings.”
― Karen Armstrong

Copyright, 2013 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

A Matter of Perspective

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We tend to think of classical music as “old.”. After all, much of the orchestral repertoire was written  100, 200, or even 300 years ago.  This was my assumption as our troupe, the Utah Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra, arrived in Britain last week.  Certainly, we were playing some “old” music on the tour, works by Handel and Geminiani being the oldest pieces.  Piazolla, Gershwin, and Joplin were the more recent selections. Grieg fell right in the middle.

Any concept I had of old was immediately dashed as we entered the churches for our concerts.  Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge was 15th century.  St. Nicholas Church, Potterspury, 13th century. St. Mary’s, Chalgrove,  11th century. By comparison, the music written in the 1730s was positively modern!  Even the “old”  Baroque music was closer to our own century when compared to the era of two of the churches.  It didn’t stop there.  We drove down remnants of Roman Roads, and saw Roman ruins.  A trip to the British Museum put time into even deeper perspective as we gazed upon artifacts from ancient Greece, and  Egypt.

This journey back in time became a reminder of the great responsibility we have as musicians.  We are stewards of the past, charged with keeping the sounds of bygone eras alive (even relatively recent ones).  We must study, reflect and ultimately present the great music of the past.  In this way, the musician becomes a conduit much like an ancient edifice, only presented aurally for modern observers to reflect and find meaning.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin