Gently Unfolding Beauty: Music for 18 Musicians

 

The world needs more Steve Reich music. His compositions, particularly Music for 18 Musicians, reward listeners with a sense of serenity rarely found in contemporary art. His works are an elegant counterpoint to the headlong rush of life.

18 premiered in 1976. It is written in the style of minimalism, in which melodies are repeated for long periods of time, varying slightly with each repetition.

Minimalism is not for everyone. It repeats itself at much greater length than in most classical music. It will either madden you or gladden you. If it clicks, you will be enthralled. If not, at least you will have been exposed to something different. At its best, I find minimalism exhilarating.

Wikipedia offers this explanation of the piece:

The piece is based on a cycle of eleven chords. A small piece of music is based on each chord, and the piece returns to the original cycle at the end. The sections are named “Pulses”, and Section I-XI. This was Reich’s first attempt at writing for larger ensembles, and the extension of performers resulted in a growth of psycho-acoustic effects, which fascinated Reich, and he noted that he would like to “explore this idea further”.

A prominent factor in this work is the augmentation of the harmonies and melodies and the way that they develop this piece. Another important factor in the piece is the use of human breath, used in the clarinets and voices, which help structure and bring a pulse to the piece. The player plays the pulsing note for as long as he can hold it, while each chord is melodically deconstructed by the ensemble, along with augmentation of the notes held. The metallophone (unplugged vibraphone), is used to cue the ensemble to change patterns or sections.

A good performance on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXJWO2FQ16c

You will need to set aside an hour to enjoy it. Yes, an hour. Great art requires commitment. If you find it hard to sit to sit still that long, do something that does not require your full attention, such as housework or laundry.

 

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Chatting With the Gov

I share my downtown Raleigh neighborhood with the Governor’s Mansion. Friday morning, July 6, about seven, I was walking by, taking pictures. Looking into the grounds of the mansion, I spotted a man in shorts and T-shirt, walking his white dog and leaving the premises. Odd, I thought, and went back to my walk.

Seconds later, I saw him again as I passed the gate. After a moment of disbelief, I recognized him as Governor Roy Cooper. I said good morning, quickly adding in his title. He smiled and returned my greeting. As he crossed the street, I wished him a great day, and he replied likewise.

Wow. I chatted with the governor. A famous guy right on the street. What impressed me most, aside from his friendliness, was the lack of a security detail. For that moment, the governor of North Carolina was just another guy walking his dog.

When I got home, I found a contact form for the governor’s office. I sent him a message recounting the incident. Being a partisan, I encouraged him to fight the good fight and said I would vote for him in 2020. Maybe someone on his staff will call it to his attention. I can always hope.

It was a welcome counterpoint to the impersonality of modern politics, where we know our leaders only through sound bites. It reminds me that behind the media image are real human beings, made in the image of God and trying to get through the day like the rest of us.

Sure we disagree with politicians and call them names. It’s the American way. But, just a little, let’s ease up on them. We elect them to take care of our country, but it’s our job too. Let’s put in a little sweat equity and do our part to improve our communities. Okay?

A Falsely Modest Appraisal of the Author

My bestie suggested I write a brief autobio. Far be it from me to ignore her advice.

Larry was born in Chapel Hill and moved at a tender age to Greensboro. His parents say he was a well-behaved child, though he once tore down a dilapidated doghouse for the sheer hell of it. He ate well, commencing a lifelong habit. Larry demonstrated an early aptitude for reading, which has served him well.

He enjoyed construction toys (bonus points if you have heard of American Skyline) and invited neighbor kids to have building parties. His lifelong admiration of the opposite gender began with a crush on a little Jewish girl named Sheila.

His early academic career was better than average. It peaked in the second grade when he earned all A’s the whole year. His secret? Looking attentive while daydreaming of rocket ships. Larry’s heroes were, and still are, astronauts.

In 1963, he trekked with his family to Raleigh, where he thrived on a diet of concerts at N. C. State and free admission to football games, courtesy of his Dad. He lived near a creek and upset a neighbor when a homemade dam backed water into his yard. Secretly Larry was proud.

He took part in Boy Scouts (reaching Second Class!), catechetical classes, and misadventures with his best friend Mike. He learned the virtues of noncomformity in middle and high school, and was once threatened with suspension for having “long” hair. He flirted briefly with athleticism on the Faculty Club swim team, but it didn’t take. Following his Dad’s footsteps, Larry learned to play the flute, um, adequately.

Encouraged by his family, he appeared in several plays in area theaters. Somewhere along the line he discovered girls (or as Dad called them, round boys). To protect the reputation of the innocent, we shall draw a discreet curtain over these pursuits.

Larry excelled in English literature, geometry, creative writing, and French. As the layout editor of the high school literary magazine, he snuck in a short poem that caused controversy among the other editors. It espoused the then-radical notion that some white boys dug black chicks.

He earned enough money as a copyboy at The News and Observer to buy an expensive stereo system. (Hey, he was still living at home.) At N. C. State, Larry made a name for himself as the author of a satirical column in the student newspaper. He failed to parlay his mild fame into sex. Yes, he regrets this.

Graduating with honors in Speech Communication, Larry embarked on a series of jobs without assuming the burden of an actual career. Stops along the way included advertising writing, graphic design, research telephone interviewing, tutoring, and magazine and publicity writing.

In college, he took up marijuana, a decision that proved to be, shall we say, sub-optimal. Weed consumed sixteen years, until God kicked him in the ass and forced him to seek help. The Twelve Steps cleaned him up, cleared most of the mental detritus, and generally made his life immeasurably better.

During his early drug years, God also prodded Larry into Christianity. He was as surprised as everyone else, and the church is still recovering. Using an impressive intellect honed in graduate school, he now sets up chairs for his Lutheran church and leads the Sunday adult Bible study in questionable directions.

Now retired, Larry still holds a part-time gig for mad money. He lives in a century-old brick schoolhouse that was converted into studio apartments. He still goes to meetings, enjoys readers theatre, and wastes time on the Internet. Along the way, he has successfully avoided commercial success as a photographer and recently began authoring these dubious essays.

His (aided) vision is excellent, and he retains an active eye for women of all ages, even his own. His hearing still permits him to rock out. He can still dance for short periods with only minimal wheezing. All his diseases are treatable. Larry is generally happy when he is not stuck on himself.

He looks forward to the autumn of his life with as little Donald Trump as possible.

This Is What I Dig*

Music became my companion in the mid-Sixties, the era of the Beatles, the Stones, Frank Sinatra, and the Supremes, all vibrating from my transistor radio. Back then Raleigh had exactly four AM stations (Anyone here remember AM?). My dial (anyone remember dials?) was set to WKIX 850.

In 1971, I began working. As my wealth increased I bought stereo components and listened mostly to progressive rock (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Yes). I was snobbish then toward Southern rock, but secretly enjoyed the melody in Free Bird. (Yes, Bryan, I feel your pain.) The Who’s sheer energy of course made a strong impression.

In the early Eighties, I worked at the Spectator magazine (anyone remem- never mind). Film critic Godfrey Cheshire introduced me to a then-unknown band called U2, and other off-the-beaten-path artists (the dB’s, Marshall Crenshaw, Let’s Active). The Clash astonished me with its sheer force and political savvy.

As the New Wave crested, I discovered Talking Heads, Big Country, and Simple Minds, who had only one American hit (Don’t You Forget About Me) but leaped to stardom in Britain. The wordplay of Elvis Costello never failed to tickle my fancy.

After these performers dropped from the commercial radar, I lost touch with rock and pop, keeping up with only U2. Of course I was exposed to rap, but felt I was no longer in the prime audience of recorded music. Although certain songs intrigued me on a sonic level, the language and misogyny put me off. My brother re-introduced me to rhythm ‘n’ blues, bless him.

Often thanks to NPR, I met such artists as Jane Siberry and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Somehow Dwight Yoakam made his way into the mix. My friend Tammy introduced me to a barely-classifiable band with the peculiar name of They Might Be Giants.

Also during the Sixties and Seventies, my best friend Mike insisted I listen to classical. I resisted. Much to his disgust, I only converted when I saw A Clockwork Orange and traced the originals stolen by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. For several years I focused on the symphonic work of the Romantics (Beethoven, Brahms). In my Dad’s music appreciation course, I discovered The Rite of Spring, which still thrills me.

During the Eighties, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s station, WUNC-FM, led to several revelations. One afternoon they played a harrowing concerto called Tabula Rasa, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Other programming sent me to minimalism (then a new movement) and its champions Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.

Since 2010 or so, I have discovered YouTube as a music source, and plumbed the back catalogs of They Might Be Giants and Simple Minds. Few new artists cross my path now, although a Facebook ad alerted me to the cheery synth-pop of CHVRCHES.

It all jostles for attention in my head. Music is the touchstone of my experience, and I hope it is for you too.

 

* Song title stolen from the Sneakers, whose members went to Let’s Active and the dB’s.

The Pale Virtues of Slow Cinema

OPEN ON a dark screen. No sound, no music. A dark image materializes with aching, enthralling slowness. A church, wide angle, compositionally centered. PUSH IN as the light creeps up, revealing the white wooden structure, angled roof, pointed steeple, steadily, majestically growing larger. Slow, slow reveal.

Slow.

This is the opening shot of First Reformed, a drama written and directed by Paul Schrader, best known as the author of Taxi Driver. Starring Ethan Hawke as a minister trapped in a crisis of faith, the film was released on May 18, 2018, in limited release. It cost $3.5 million to make, and as of July 1, it has grossed only $3.1 million. So far it’s losing money. It may eventually turn a profit from DVD sales and online access.

Odds are you have not seen it. It’s a great pity. I am not one to make ten-best lists, but if I did, First Reformed would surely be there.

It is a prime example of what Schrader calls “slow cinema”. As he said on Fresh Air, this style of filmmaking is “slow, long… where not much happens”. As the box office figures indicate, First Reformed is a minority taste.

Capsulizing the most salient feature of slow cinema, New York Times critic A. O. Scott said the film “asks nothing more than our quiet attention.”

I adore paying quiet attention. I saw it in Raleigh at ten in the morning with my Lutheran pastor. We were alone in the theater. I could not have asked for better surroundings. My friend and I watched in meditative silence.

Most movies are jazzed up with sharp angles, dense sound effects, loud music, quick cuts, and flying cameras. Slow cinema has none of these features. The camera in First Reformed is anchored for most of the film. Characters play directly to the camera in long takes, often arranged in absolute symmetry. There is little shouting, a subdued narration, and music is used so sparingly that when it finally emerges, it startles.

It is a film you walk through, rather than one that assaults you. You have time, precious time, to listen to and learn from the actors, to feel the story unfold at life-speed. You have time to think, savor, taking everything in. You experience that rarity in current movies: deep character development.

First Reformed rewards patience. I will not spoil it. Suffice it to say, Pastor Toller undergoes a radical emotional and intellectual transformation, clues to which are embedded in every frame. As he resolves his conflicts, the film’s pace quickens, draws you into the story, clutches your heart. The quiet attention you have paid offers rare insight into the civil war that rages in each of us. You will not soon forget it.

Slow cinema perplexes and frustrates most moviegoers. It runs counter to our hyper-kinetic box office smashes. You probably won’t see First Reformed. It’s a great pity.

Oak City Essays

 

This blog is a reboot of an earlier one that I played with in 2013. The impetus for this new start began first as a series of letters to a higher power that morphed into a series of observations and complaints about online dating. As my thinking calmed down with the aid of a good counselor, I realized I had begun a daily habit of writing.

At the same time, I began writing lengthy Facebook replies to political controversies, sometimes addressed to a conservative friend. It dawned on me that Facebook is a terrible venue for long-form writing, for reasons that will become evident if you ever go beyond, say, 50 words. I wanted a cleaner format and a less diffuse audience.

Hence, Oak City Essays. A few of those misplaced essays appear here, with more to come. I’m tickled to explore new ideas, proposals, contradictions, appreciations, and fulminations. Thank you for being a reader.

 

Confessions of a Space Geek (2014)

As long as I can remember, I have been a space geek. I was the kid in elementary school who the teachers asked about space travel.

I was six when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, even Scott Carpenter were household names for me. I stayed up late one Sunday night when Neil Armstrong made his one small step. I would have stayed up till Monday morning at oh dark thirty to watch those crude televised images. (You would think NASA could have sprung for a color camera…)

A little of me died when the Challenger blew up and the Columbia crashed.

So naturally, I watched with great interest the National Geographic Channel’s Live from Space, which aired last night. The 2 hour live program followed the International Space Station through slightly more than an orbit, 250 miles high.

The host of the program, Soledad O’Brien, had the good sense to let the astronauts do the talking. And let the visuals speak for themselves. The geek in me thrills when I see human beings floating in space. The program demonstrated what a unique environment the ISS is. The walls are chock full of instruments and computers and experiment packages.

The crew members, both on orbit and on Earth, talked repeatedly about what fun zero gravity is. They occasionally performed somersaults, effortlessly.

One small thing I noticed–the microphone. A commonplace item in showbiz, but in zero g, an amazing thing. Passing the mike on earth is a bit like running a relay, but in space, you simply let go of it, do something spacey like opening a freezer, and then grab it back. If you did that on Earth, the mike would be on the floor. (I have read that when space travelers return to Earth, they find it hard to undo this process; one poor fellow “parked” his grocery bag in midair while shopping.)

But, fittingly, the real star of the show was the Earth, gliding patiently outside the windows. Here all the spacetalk cliches (fantastic, phenomenal, awesome) fail us. We are left with wonder.

I wonder if the astronauts get so close to the window that they leave a nose smudge, as children do. Probably not–it’s an undisciplined thing to do, and astronauts are disciplined.

 

Gratitude x 10 (2013)

Today is my 59th birthday, one day before Thanksgiving. I believe in the spiritual principle of gratitude, so here goes…

I am grateful for…

1. My clean and serene (well serene is optional some days) time, without which any gratitudes would be hollow.

2. A nice apartment within my budget.

3. A live and beating heart. (Long may it wave!)

4. My freedom.

5. My extended family (Dad, brother, and Sis)

6. My friends on Facebook and Shutterchance.

7. My bundle of cat love, Miss Kai.

8. My writing ability.

9. My recently completed cooking class that slowly unfolds new horizons beyond store-bought (and slightly radioactive) mac and cheese.

10. My small-but-powerful church.

I challenge all who read this to make their own gratitude list. Odds are you will feel better. Enjoy your turkey/terducken/tofu Day!