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Lessons From Tchaikovsky

I used to be a classroom storyteller.  As an English teacher for middle school kids, I often would give brief biographical insights into famous people we were talking about at the time.  I told them about Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe, Roger Bacon the alchemist and inventor of chemistry as a science, Mark Twain in Gold Rush California, and many other people I have found fascinating through my life as a reader and writer of English.

One bright boy in my gifted class remarked, “Mr. B, you always tell us these stories about people who did something amazing, and then you end it with they eventually died a horrible death.”

Yep.  That’s about right.  In its simplest form life consists of, “You are born, stuff happens, and then you die.”  And it does often seem to me that true genius and great heroism are punished terribly in the end.  Achilles destroys Hector, but his heel is his undoing.  Socrates taught Plato, and was forced to drink poison for being too good at teaching.  Custer was a vain imbecile and got what he deserved at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse, who made it happen, was pursued for the rest of his short life for it until he was finally captured and murdered.  Roger Bacon contributed immensely to science by experimenting with chemicals, but because he blew up his lab too often, and because one of his students blew himself up in a duel with another student, he ended his days in prison for practicing sorcery.

But if you have listened to any of the music I have added to this post, the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then you recognized it, unless you have lived your whole life under a rock in Nomusikvetchistan.  And why is that?  Because even though it is all classical music written in the 1800’s, it’s basic genius and appeal is immortal.  It will outlive all of us.  Some of it, having been placed on a record on the Voyager space craft may get played and appreciated a million years from now in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  It will still be a work of pure genius.

And, of course, the horrible life and terrible death thing is a part of it too.  Tchaikovsky’s work took an incredibly difficult path to success.  He was criticized by Russians for being too Western and not Russian enough.  He was criticized in the West for being too exotic and basically “too Russian”.  He railed against critics and suffered horribly at their hands.  Then, too, his private life was far less private than it had any right to be.  He was a bachelor most of his life, except for a two year marriage of pure misery that ended in divorce.  And everybody, with the possibility of Pyotr himself, knew it was because he was a homosexual.  He probably did have that orientation, but in a time and a career where it was deemed an illegal abomination.  So whether he ever practiced the lifestyle at great risk to himself, or he repressed it his entire life, we will never know for sure.

But the music is immortal.  And by being immortal, the music makes Tchaikovsky immortal too.  Despite the fact that he died tragically at the age of 53, possibly by suicide.

So, this is the great lesson of Tchaikovsky.  The higher you fly, the farther you fall, and you will fall… guaranteed, but that will never make the actual flight not worth taking.  Some things in life are more important than life itself.  As I near the end myself, I cling to that truth daily.

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Why Do You Think That? (Part Two)

In my short, sweet sixty years of life, I have probably seen more than my share of movies.  I have seen classic movies, black-and-white movies, cartoon movies, Humphrey Bogart movies, epic movies, science fiction movies, PeeWee Herman movies, Disney movies, Oscar-winning movies, and endless box-office stinkers.  But in all of that, one of the most undeniable threads of all is that movies make me cry.  In fact they make me cry so often it is a miracle that even a drop of moisture remains in my body.   I should be a dried-out husk by now.

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I wept horribly during this scene.  Did you?

And the thing is, people make fun of you when you cry at movies.  Especially cartoon movies like Scooby Doo on Zombie Island.  (But I claim I was laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes.  That’s the truth, dear sister.  So stop laughing at me.)  But I would like to put forth another “Why do you think that?” notion.  People who cry while watching a movie are stronger and more powerful than the people who laugh at them for crying.  A self-serving thesis if ever there was one.

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Movies can make you cry if you have the ability to feel empathy.  We all know this.  Old Yeller is the story of a dog who endears himself to a prairie farm family, saves Travis’s life at one point, and then gets infected with rabies and has to be put down.  Dang! No dry eyes at the end of that one.  Because everyone has encountered a dog and loyal dog-love somewhere along the line.  And a ten-year-old dog is an old dog.  The dogs you knew as a child helped you deal with mortality because invariably, no matter how much you loved them, dogs demonstrate what it means to die.  Trixie and Scamper were both hit by cars.  Queenie, Grampa’s collie, died of old age.  Jiggs the Boston Terrier died of heat stroke one summer.  You remember the pain of loss, and the story brings it all back.

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Only psychopaths don’t feel empathy to some degree.  Think about how you would feel if you were watching Old Yeller and somebody you were watching with started laughing when Travis pulls the trigger on the shotgun.  Now, there’s a Stephen King sort of character.

But I think I can defend having lots of empathy as a reason for crying a river of tears during Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  You see, identifying with Quasimodo as the main character, hoping for what he hopes for, feeling like a monster and completely unloved, and fearing what he fears connect you to the story in ways that completely immerses you in the experience.  This is basically a monster movie.Original-Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame

But the film puts you inside the head of the malformed man, and you realize that he is not the monster.  Righteous Judge Frollo and the people who mistreat Quasimodo for his deformity of outward appearance are the real monsters.  If you don’t cry a river of tears because of this story, then you have not learned the essential truth of Quasimodo.  When we judge others harshly, we are really judging ourselves. In order to stop being monstrous, and be truly human, you must look inside the ugliness as Esmeralda does to see the heroic beauty inside others.  Sometimes the ideas themselves are so powerful they make me weep.  That’s when my sister and my wife look at me and shake their heads because tears are shooting out of me like a fountain, raining wetness two or three seats in every direction.  But I believe I am a wiser man, a more resolved man, and ultimately a better man because I was not afraid to let a movie make me cry.

The music also helps to tell the story in ways that move my very soul to tears.  Notice how the heroine walks the opposite way to the rest of the crowd.  As they sing of what they desire, what they ask God to grant, she asks for nothing for herself.  She shows empathy in every verse, asking only for help for others.  And she alone walks to the light from the stained glass window.  She alone is talking to God.

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Yes, I am not embarrassed by the fact that movies make me cry.   In fact, I should probably be proud that movies and stories and connections to other people, which they bring me, makes me feel it so deeply I cry.  Maybe I am a sissy and a wimp.  Maybe I deserved to be laughed at all those times for crying during the movie.  But, hey, I’ll take the laughter.  I am not above it.  I am trying to be a humorist after all.

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What the Heck is this Blog About?

I read a lot of other people’s blogs for a lot of reasons.  As an old writing teacher and retired Grammar Nazi, I love to see where writers are on the talent spectrum.  I have read everything from the philosophy of Camus and Kant to the beginning writing of ESL kids who are illiterate in two languages.  I view it like a vast flower garden of varied posies where even the weeds can be considered beautiful.  And like rare species of flower, I notice that many of the best blossoms out there in the blogosphere are consistent with their coloring and patterns.  In other words, they have a theme.

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So, do I have an over-all theme for my blog?  It isn’t purely poetical like some of the poetry blogs I like to read.  I really only write comically bad poetry.  It has photos in it, but it isn’t anything like some of the photography blogs I follow.  They actually know how to photograph stuff and make it look perfect and pretty.  It is not strictly an art blog.  I do a lot of drawing and cartooning and inflict it upon you in this blog.  But I am not a professional artist and can’t hold a candle to some of the painters and artists I follow and sometimes even post about.  I enjoy calling Trump President Pumpkinhead, but I can’t say that my blog is a political humor blog, or that I am even passable as a humorous political commentator.

One thing that I can definitely say is that I was once a teacher.  I was one of those organizers and explainers who stand in front of diverse groups of kids five days a week for six shows a day and try to make them understand a little something.  Something wise.  Something wonderful.  Something new.  Look at the video above if you haven’t already watched it.  Not only does it give you a sense of the power of holding the big pencil, it teaches you something you probably didn’t realize before with so much more than mere words.

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But can I say this is an education blog?  No.  It is far too silly and pointless to be that.  If you want a real education blog, you have to look for someone like Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Education is a more serious and sober topic than Mickey.

By the way, were you worried about the poor bunny in that first cartoon getting eaten by the fox and the bear?  Well, maybe this point from that conversation can put your mind at ease.

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Mickey is tricky and gets good mileage out of his cartoons.

You may have gotten the idea that I like Bobby McFerrin by this point in my post.  It is true.  Pure genius and raw creative talent fascinate me.  Is that the end point of my journey to an answer about what the heck this blog is about?  Perhaps.  As good an answer as any.  But I think the question is still open for debate.  It is the journey from thought through many thoughts to theme that make it all fun.  And I don’t anticipate that journey actually ending anytime soon.

 

 

 

 

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The Lyrical Imperative

Creativity

I am always amazed by the fact that things which are inherently silent in nature make music in your mind.  Writing is like that for me.  Drawing is like that.  And so is photography.  That is an actual musical score from Chopin in the background.  My son recognized it from a book of piano pieces I bought for him because he reads music and can turn those squiggle-bugs on the fence into the right plinkety-plunks on a keyboard.  But there is more music in that picture besides.  The nude young girl at the keyboard softly rendered in velvety colored pencil tones is also musical in nature, for more than just the fact of fingers on a silent colored pencil keyboard.  The lyrical loops of black and yellow in the wings of the tiger swallowtail butterfly also make music in my head, sprightly piano music like Chopin’s, or possibly Vivaldi’s violins.

Did you listen to the music?  I don’t mean Vivaldi’s, although if you haven’t heard it, you certainly should.  I mean the music in the words.  The music has to be there for me for the writing to be good.  That’s why I consider Ray Bradbury and Walt Whitman to be masters and Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James to be unreadable hacks.  The beat and the flow of the words need to be patterned and patient and wily.   Do you not hear it in that last sentence? The alliteration of the first two adjectives set off by the counterpoint of the stressed-unstressed beats of the third?  How can I explain this?

Iambic pentameter is the true genius of Shakespeare’s plays.  What the heck is iambic pentameter, you ask?  Well, I realize you have probably never needed to teach poetry to seventh graders, a truly impossible but infinitely rewarding task.  So let me tell you.  Units of stress called iambs consist of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.  So naturally, if iambs are put into pentameter, then there must be five of them in a line of iambic pentameter poetry.  It is a simple, rhythmic way to say something profound and interesting.  The classic example is the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18;

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Translating that into X’s and O’s where X=stressed and O=unstressed;

O X O X O X O X O X

It’s simple, five oxes, all in a line.  Except that last one about oxes is actually O X O X X O O O O X, a less simple pattern, yet still organized on the beat.  Two iambs, a dactyl and an anapest.  Okay, now I am talking like a poetry geek, and I have to stop it before I hurt someone.

The whole point is, words should be musical, even when they are not the words to a song.  And now I must close on the verge of starting a ten-thousand word thesis.  I shall shut up now.  Here endeth the lesson.

 

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“It’s a Hard-Knock Life… for Us”

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Yes, this is another in a series of reviews from the Uncritical Critic where I gush endlessly and almost mindlessly about movies, TV, books, and other sorts of stories that I love.  And just like other reviews that I have done, writing mainly to myself, this will probably bore you to the point of having to sandpaper  your tush just to stay conscious through it.  But I do, in fact, have a social conscience.  I do care about things moral and ethical.  That’s why I’m not going to talk about this Annie;

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I want to talk about this one;

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I am not sure how any of my white, conservative friends can work up such an angry fizzyblackengrrr about the remake of the musical using black actors as the principles.  I am not saying I don’t see color and I don’t notice the changes in the basic story to make it fit a more different-race-friendly cultural magnetism.  I am saying I love the changes.

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Quvenzhane Wallis is one of those little girls that, if she were actually an orphan, would be adopted in record time.  She sings, dances, and exudes a personal charisma to a degree that is not only perfect for this particular musical, but is not an act.  It is obviously her real, perky, upbeat self.  I would adopt her instantly even though I don’t have the finances, energy, or good health necessary to make that kind of commitment any more.  And the changes made to the songs, setting, and themes of the basic story I think are not only brilliant, but so very appropriate to our times.  The story of an orphan connecting to a lonely, power-hungry billionaire is transformed by the idea of finding the best way to connect the family that you not only want, but desperately need.  The Daddy Warbucks character, played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx, is able to realize his connection to his own lost father as he transforms himself into the father figure that Annie needs.  Songs are added and dialogue is changed in ways to bring out these complex themes of love and need.  It is a very different story from the one found in the Aileen Quinn/Carol Burnett film of the 1980’s.  And it is a story that needs to be told.

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“You are never fully dressed without a smile!” is an important theme for any person of color, or any outsider in our American society today.  The troubles and strife related to race tension, violence, and the American struggle to rid itself of racism are best faced with a kind of confident optimism that this musical was always intended to be a vehicle for.

It is a statement about the basic goodness of human beings.  This version of the musical even redeems the vile Miss Hannigan, leaving her at the end with a change of heart and a Hispanic boyfriend.  So, I really think that anyone who has a problem with this remake of a beloved musical made by Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith ought to examine the real reasons they feel troubled by it.  I think they really ought to let go of all baggage, especially the alligator-skin bags of racism, and just immerse themselves in this wonderful movie full of singy and dancy stuff.

 

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The Silent Sonata

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Being a writer is a life of music that happens only in your head.  You hear voices constantly.  They pulse rhythmically with insights and ideas that have to be written down and remembered.  Otherwise  the music turns clashing-cymbals dark and depressing.  Monday I wrote a deeply personal thank you to the Methodist minister who saved my life when I was a boy.  I posted a YouTube music video by the acapella group Pentatonix with that essay in a vain attempt to give you an idea of the music in my head when I composed that very difficult piece to give myself a measure of peace.

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I realize that I am not writing poetry here.  Poetry can so easily slip into melody and music because of rhythm and meter and rhyme.  And yet, words to me are always about singing, about performing, about doing tricks with metaphor and meaning, rhythm, convoluted sentence structure, and other sneaky things that snake-oil salesman do to get you to think what you are hearing is precisely what you needed to hear.  The Sonata of Silence…  did you notice the alliteration of the silvery letter “S” in that title?  The beat of the syllables?  Da-daah-da a da-da?  The way a mere suggestion of music can bring symphonic sounds to your ear of imagination as you read?  The way a simple metaphor, writing is music, can be wrapped into an essay like a single refrain in a symphonic piece?

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A sonata is a musical exercise in three or four movements that is basically instrumental in nature.  You may have noticed that the movements are loosely defined here by the accompanying pictures, of which there are three.  And it is silent only in the way that the instruments I am using themselves make no noise in the physical world.  The only sounds as I type these words are the hum of an old air conditioner and the whirr of my electric fan.  Yet my mind is filled with crescendos of violins and cellos, bold brass, and soft woodwinds.  The voice saying these words aloud only in my head is me.  Not the me you hear when I talk or the me I can hear on recordings of my own voice, but rather the me that I always hear from the inside.  And the voice is not so much “saying” as “singing”.

Writing makes music.  The writer can hear it.  The reader can too.  And whether I croon it to make you cry, or trill it to make you laugh, I am playing the instrument.  And so, the final notes of the sonata are these.  Be happy.  Be well.  And listen for the music.

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A Night at the Symphony

Last night my wife took us to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied (The Song of Lamentation).  So, you can bet we were in for a happy night just based on the title of the piece.  As you might’ve detected from the post title’s similarity to the Marx Brother’s movie A Night at the Opera, I took along my wacky mental versions of the Marx Brothers… whom I call the Snarcks Brothers.  They are Scarpigo, Cinco, and Zero Snarcks. Think Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, and then my mental fartgas won’t prevent you from understanding quite as easily.

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Jaap Van Zweden, conductor of the DSO, and aspiring impersonator of Grumpy from the Seven Dwarfs

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Scarpigo, Cinco, and Zero Snarcs… so to speak…

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love classical music and I like Mahler okay.  But his music tends to be depressing and sad.  I don’t mean merely depressing and sad, but deep down at the bottom of the canyon with hill giants tossing boulders at your head in the midst of a thunderstorm symphonic sort of depressing and sad.  It could really bum me out, so I was prepared to have Scarpigo lean over the balcony rail numerous times to shout “Booga-booga!” at the concert goers.  And the Blues lost to the Sharks in the Stanley Cup playoffs already this past week.

Fortunately the DSO often adopts the old movie theater tactic of cartoon shorts before the feature film… the same way Pixar does for Disney now.  They chose Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto as the cartoon short.  Now this is also supposed to be sad music, a single clarinet, a single harp, and a single piano… surrounded by violins, the gushing tears of every symphony orchestra.  But it is Copland, my fourth favorite composer of all time, behind only DeBussy, Motzart, and Beethoven.  As a synesthete, I can tell you that Copland’s music is always no bluer than silver, and tends to be more vermilion, rosy pink, yellow-orange and carmine red… more happy and passionate than depressing.  Then too, Cinco Snarcks whispered in my ear that since I have this Van Zweden/ Grumpy thing going on already in my head, I should look carefully at the clarinet soloist.  Yep, bald head, white hair and slight white beard and glasses… Doc!  And the pianist, bald head and big ears… Dopey!  The night would be Gustav Mahler and the Seven Dwarfs.  Zero Snarcks was thinking about squeezing off a toot or three from his little horn and maybe using light cords hanging from the ceiling for an impromptu trapeze act, but he took one look at the elegant, swan-like harpist  and fell too much in love to interrupt.

The main show, however, was everything I thought it was going to be, and worse.  They had a translator screen hung from the cords Zero wanted to go for a swing on, that took all the incomprehensible choir-crooned lyrics and translated them from German into English.  The story of Das Klagende Lied is taken from the Grimm Fairy Tale, The Bone Flute.  It tells the tale of two knightly brothers, one good and one evil, who set out to win the hand of a very self-centered but beautiful queen.  She can only be won by the finding of a special red flower that grows under a willow tree.  The knights agree to split up and search the enchanted forest for the flower.  Naturally, the good knight finds it and plucks it, putting it in the band of his hat.  And just as naturally, the good knight flops down stupidly under the willow tree to take a nap.  The evil brother finds his brother sleeping and sees the flower in his hat.  So, like any evil knight would, he kills his brother and takes the flower.

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Scarpigo’s comment on this particular story.

The evil brother then rushes off to the queen’s castle.  A minstrel wanders past the willow tree, finds a gleaming leg bone, and immediately thinks, “I have to make that into a flute!”  And when he does, the only song the flute will play is the lament about how the evil brother made meat pie out of his good brother and stole the flower.  Then, naturally enough, the flute forces the minstrel to go play at the wedding.

I’m sure you know how it goes from there.  The queen hears the bone flute’s enchanted song and flops down dead, apparently a heart-attack from shock.  And if the queen dies, then the castle has to magically fall down on the new king, the minstrel. and all the wedding guests.  A gruesome, terrible time is had by all.

So, I had a good time after all.  Scarpigo leans over to whisper to me, “That was more fun than a barrel of monkeys smoking crack, wasn’t it?”  Yes, purple, blue, blue-violet, and indigo music, and I am left depressed as hell. But when my wife asked how I liked it, I put on a happy face and said, “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard!”

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