Lest We Forget: A Brief Memorial Day Essay

I am a product of both war and peace.

My father’s side of the family includes several men through the generations who did their military duty, including my grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War era.  He is a hero for many reasons, although his military service was not heavily involved in combat.  When I lived in his house during college, I was touched by the reverence with which he would raise the flag on the pole in his front yard every morning, and every night he would bring it in.  He and my grandmother would fold it together, just like I learned to do as a boy scout.  Love of this country is not casual for them.

On my mother’s side of the family, most of my ancestors were Mennonites, including several ministers.  They were pacifists, and they lived their religion.  This was a people that had been evicted from several European countries because of their beliefs, until they finally landed in the barren heartland of America.  They set to work, growing crops where nobody else could – making a bit of Heaven in places other settlers saw as Hell.  I can imagine the disappointment and the fervent prayers of my great grandfathers, ministers who preached in both English and German, as the dark days of the second World War dragged on.  How frightening it must have been, living in that uncertain world of constant threats, but holding to the conviction that it was better to die than to kill.

Memorial Day is about memory.  It is certainly about the memory of those who died to give us the freedoms we now trample under our feet.  But it is also about the memory of those who lived to preserve our freedom – those who survived to tell the stories, and to write new ones.  The Greatest Generation was not only composed of the dead – it was the generation of those who picked up the pieces of the war and fashioned them into a shining new America.

How many of our young people understand the sacrifices of the past?  The immediacy of technology has produced a silent cultural nihilism.  We live so much in the now that even what happened this morning is old news.  We are losing track of where we came from, not stopping to realize that those points in the past are vital to understand our current trajectory.  We have lost the skill of sacrifice.  And yet, the ability to live happily in this ignorant state was purchased with the lives of men and women who did their duty when the need emerged.

I am indebted to hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the rights to speak my opinions, to pursue my goals, and to worship my God.  But in my remembrance, I must also remember the wives and parents who stayed home and waited by the radio and the mailbox.  I must also tip my hat to the factory workers who made tanks and uniforms instead of cars and pretty dresses.  I have to remember the American people as they were back then during the world wars – and hope that by some miracle I will someday measure up to their standard of hope and patriotism.

Thanks to the veterans who bought our freedom.  Thanks to the Americans of the past who help me remember what that freedom means.  Most of all, thanks to the Christ who bought all of us with an infinite price to give us an infinite freedom.  In Kipling’s Recessionalwe read, “Lord of the nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget, lest we forget.”  If we forget our veterans, we miss the rich lessons of our nation’s past.  If we forget our God, we jeopardize our nation’s future.  The best honor we can give God and our veterans is to live up to the brilliant potential they have granted us.

Practice is theory is practice.

I’ve been pondering the idea of music theory lately.  As some of you know, my choral setting of the text Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains has recently been published by Jackman Music.

Having a print publication out there opens me up for some criticism.  On the one side, I’ll hear from people who know just enough theory to be dangerous: “Um, didn’t you see all the parallel fifths?  They’re even in the first measure!”

For the record, yes.  I saw them.  Actually, I wrote them.  On purpose.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll have some comments from people who are very well-versed in theory: “It was a good attempt, I suppose.  But didn’t you it came out a bit predictable?

If you equate listenability with predictability, I suppose you’ll apply that label to most music.

The trouble is that for so many musicians, a working knowledge of music theory gives a false sense of expertise.  Traditionalists want stringent adherence to rules.  Never mind that the greatest composers in history intentionally broke those rules on occasion; we must honor their memory by following the rules without deviation.

Some modernists, on the other hand, find the rules of tonality and trite and boring, and they dismiss any music that follows the rules as unoriginal, repetitive, and dull.

The problem in music theory, as in politics, is that there are so few moderates.  I suppose this makes sense: how many people are passionately moderate about a given subject?  I have never seen a rally to encourage moderation on any issue; it’s either left or right, either for or against.  In music theory, it’s either traditional or modern.

Here’s my trouble: I agree that music written strictly by the rules is often dry and unappealing.  I also agree that music written without any rules is often unpleasant and irrelevant to the audience.  I want to have it both ways.

So like so many other composers do, I pick and choose.  I decide when I want to be tonal and when I want to be atonal.  I sometimes resolve suspensions properly, and I sometimes don’t.  I am not a Mozart or a Beethoven, but I do something they did: I write what sounds good to my ears.  My audiences generally seem to appreciate and agree with those choices.

In my listening, I also try to be empathetic.  I listen for what the composer was trying to accomplish and the road he took to get there.  I consciously choose to avoid thoughts about how I would have done it differently.  All composers (even those I really can’t stand) have lessons to teach and techniques to examine.

Theory is a science that simply examines practice.  Practice comes first.  Musicians make music first, and then theoreticians dissect it.  Some theoreticians do become great composers, but they must bring more than theory to the table; they must combine their knowledge with an undefinable human element in order to make organic music.

Essay: Why I Don’t Listen Like You

I teach music for a living.  At the beginning of the semester, kids who are just getting to know me always ask the same question: Mister, what music do you listen to?

I never know quite how to respond.  If I say I don’t really listen to much music, I sound like the least credible music teacher in history.  Occasionally I fib and name a few styles that I enjoyed . . . back when I listened mindlessly.  The truth is that I still listen to plenty of music, but the way I listen is weird.

Getting Consumed

Let’s go back for a minute.  Do you remember the days when the primary way to find new music was the radio?  For decades, we cared about the top 40 – that is, the top 40 songs that were played on the radio, as chosen mainly by people who ran the stations.  The record companies and station managers largely dictated our taste in music.  They were right a lot of the time.  From the Beatles to Sinatra to Journey, they placed pop music in our ears that was worth hearing.  They also promoted some music that was not so great.  That’s radio – delivering popular products to a large consumer base.

Fast forward to this decade.  Radio is still around, but we have Pandora, last.fm, and hundreds of smaller internet radio options.  Those services still take on the job of curating and promoting music, most often by genre.  Although the range of options has expanded, the idea is the same: you will hear what somebody else thinks you will like – and what they think you will buy.

We’ve added deeper social connections to the process, too.  Now if I listen to a song on just about any online music service, my contacts on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks can see what I heard and click to listen themselves.  The addictive system is optimized for maximum consumption.

YouTube, MySpace, and related technologies have democratized music promotion a little bit.  It is now possible for a kid making music in his mom’s basement to become moderately well-known (like Adam Young of Owl City); however, the big labels are still heavily promoted, and the little guys with real talent are hard to discover.

So basically, it’s very difficult to find music that I like because I like it, and not because a company is trying to sell me something.

Learn More = Consume Less

When I first began really looking at the labels on the food I eat, the immediate effect was that I consumed fewer calories.  I never try to diet, and I still eat some junk, but simply knowing what is in the food I eat causes me to make conscious choices.

Music is similar.  A person without a good music education may happily listen to whatever music is in the environment.  When people truly don’t know about music, they can listen without listening.  They can consume without caring.  But as soon as they start to understand how music works, they cannot listen without noticing – and having a strong opinion about – certain components of every song.

For me, that means that much of the pop music my peers have adored over the years seems bland and formulaic.  After a very satisfying half hour listening to Brahms, it’s hard to turn around and try to enjoy Taylor Swift’s latest offering.  I suppose if you’re accustomed to eating handmade artisinal cheese, it’s really hard to go back to Velveeta.

That’s not to say that all people who know a lot about music end up liking the same music.  Whether it’s the Foo Fighters or Stravinsky, interesting music will always have educated critics and advocates.  But education always encourages the formation of an opinion, one way or the other.  There is no neutral ground.

That’s why the radio (analog or internet) is hard for me to consume: if I have time to listen to music, I want to choose what I hear.  The iTunes music library is already so vast that I cannot hear everything in it by the time I die.  Life is literally too short to waste with music that I find annoying or uninteresting.

The Real Reason

These frustrations are not the primary reasons why I don’t listen to music nearly as much as my students.  They are convenient excuses, but they don’t tell the real story.

I listen less because when I listen to others’ music, I am not creating my own.  This applies to the broader scope of creative experience: When you read, you are not writing.  When you watch videos, you are not creating them.  Consumption and creation do not generally happen at the same time.

I have students who claim they cannot do homework without listening to music or watching TV at the same time.  Conversely, when there is music playing, I cannot ignore it.  I may dislike it, but my mind must dissect it.  Analysis has become involuntary.  That is the biggest reason I must do all of my real work in silence.

One of my kids stuck the change from my ashtray into the tape deck in my car, and the resulting electrical problems rendered my radio useless.  That was about two years ago.  At first, I was annoyed at the inconvenience of having to fill long drives with my own thoughts instead of having them given to me over the air.  Now, I appreciate the rare solitude provided by my inability to tune in during my brief commutes.  I develop my best musical and poetic ideas when I am on a bicycle, but now my car is a close second, because I have to think for myself.

Music is more powerful than we acknowledge.  The next time one of my students asks What do you listen to?  I’m still not sure how I will answer.  But inside, I know what I will think:  Less is more.

May we all consume our media with a little more attention and intent, and a little less by accident.

Now with 100% fewer ads!

In my recent site redesigns on nathanhowemusic.com, I rearranged some pages, changed some colors, and got rid of Google ads.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with AdSense for nearly a decade now.  In the beginning of my self-publishing life, it brought in a couple hundred dollars that I really enjoyed having at the time.  But the internet has changed more than a little bit since then.

One of my big motivations for dropping Google ads was the issue of privacy.  I don’t believe in collecting identifiable data about my site visitors unless they choose to give it to me in the form of a donation, comment, or message.  Google feels pretty differently about collecting information from people who visit sites that display AdSense ads.

While this change removes a portion of my funding strategy to support the creation and distribution of my music, it seems like the right thing to do.  As more people find out about my music and click the “donate” button when they use it, I expect that soon I will not miss the meager revenue AdSense previously provided.

Notes on For the Beauty of the Earth

After Martin Prachař had spent many hours working on a beautiful instrumental recording of my men’s choir arrangement of Abide with Me, I asked him if I might arrange one of his favorite hymns.  He said, “as the spring came in fast this year and brought in hope, I have been really feeling like singing For the Beauty of the Earth…”

I began work immediately on an arrangement that I soon discarded.  When I arrange, I want to bring something fresh to the song.  If I cannot improve upon the original, an arrangement is a waste of time.  I felt that the tune of the hymn was already well harmonized, and I didn’t want to tinker with it too much.  I got frustrated and walked away from the project for over six months.

In January 2013, my family and I attended the funeral of a brilliant mathematician and scientist, John Downing.  The closing hymn at the service was For the Beauty of the Earth.  This brought the song back to the front of my mind.

Last week, I was sitting at the piano and working out a little tune, and the lyrics to For the Beauty of the Earth began to fit with it.  I wrote and harmonized the tune, and then I went back to the original hymn tune by Conrad Kocher.  I was able to quote that melody in the bass line of verse 2.

To me, beauty in music is achieved through shimmering dissonance as much as consonant chords.  That aesthetic idea guided the voicing of this piece.  See and hear the results here.

Notes on Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy

Occasionally I share a bit of my musical process when I publish something new.  My new arrangement of Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy is a bit different from my usual approach to choral music, so I thought I’d give a bit of insight.

The first verse is a very exposed solo section.  I envision it sung by a baritone, but that is usually my bias.  I sing baritone and love that vocal color.  The accompaniment is just enough to keep the soloist on track.  Since this hymn is written in the second person, the singer literally speaks to the audience.  I didn’t want over-arranging to interrupt that in the first verse.

The second and third verses are built on an ostinato in the piano part.  The right hand has only one measure-long pattern which is repeated in alternating octaves.  The left hand has a palate of seven different closely related ostinati which define (or at least suggest) the chord for each measure.  You may also notice that there is not an accidental in this piece – it is entirely diatonic (and at some brief moments may verge on pandiatonicism).  This is a departure from Bliss’s original harmonization and every other arrangement I have encountered, which all rely on secondary dominants in the chorus.  I also took the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 to smooth out the piece.

I am both sorry and proud to say that this approach with the repeated ostinatos is a direct nod to minimalism.  When I first started listening to examples of minimalist music, I was pretty snarky about it.  Much of it is unpleasant for casual listening; some have suggested that Terry Riley’s In C is only listenable under the influence of drugs.  However, as I listened beyond some of the obvious musical gimmicks of minimalism, I found value in many of the underlying principles these composers used.  I am especially interested in the work of John Adams and Steve Reich, who over time have both found ways to elevate some initially trite minimalist concepts into meaningful music.  I do not consider myself a minimalist, but this idea of repetition of a musical over extended time has been quite influential to the way I think about music.

In the case of Brightly Beams, I think the ostinati are the right vehicle to subtly suggest the waves of the ocean.

Over the top of the second and third verses, two violins chase each other around in a quasi-canonical fashion.  (If I call it a loose canon, I suppose that means something else.)  These violin passages draw heavily upon the rhythmic and melodic elements of the hymn tune, but they never play along with the choral parts; they exist independently.

Verses 2 and 3 are nearly identical in all respects, but the choir splits in verse 3, and the two parts sing the melody in canon, separated by two beats.  This is not a complex device, but it creates such interesting consonances and dissonances while remaining understandable.  This verse brings to my mind the concept of voices echoing across the water.

Hopefully the arrangement is enjoyable for those of you who choose to use it.

Technical Notes about O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This year’s Audio Christmas Card project was again recorded in Audacity.  Last year I took a little more time, but this year I had a strict 2-hour time limit for arranging, recording, and processing.

To save time, I arranged as I recorded, and I didn’t bother with any notation. The arrangement is pretty simple this time – simple solo first verse, duet with a drone for second, and fairly standard four-part third with a brief tag and pickerdy third at the end.

I began with the solo line for the first two verses.  Then I recorded and looped the oohs over verse two, followed by the second verse duet harmony.  Then I recorded the third verse, beginning with soprano, then bass, then alto and tenor.  I usually record the inner voices last because they anchor themselves on the soprano and bass notes.

I was not pleased with the stock Audacity reverb plugins, so I installed and applied Freeverb.  I wanted to apply some chorus effects during verse 3, but I wasn’t satisfied with the sound I got from the plugins I tried.  If any of you have a recommendation, I would love to hear it.

For a two-hour project, I thought the results were decent.  Obviously not studio-quality.  Hopefully Santa will bring me a Blue Spark Digital microphone for next year.  🙂

Merry Christmas!