Sunday, April 26, 2015

Escaping the Cliche of Canon: 5 Lesser-Known Works of Mozart

The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is as canonical as Shakespeare, no longer a matter of taste but a statement of musical fact.  However, as with Shakespeare, this is a double-edged sword, since once anything becomes a museum piece we begin to lose our connection to it.  The nervous, mercurial energy of Symphony No. 40 becomes background music in Panera Bread, and the bitersweet lamentations of the Requiem floats through a car commercial.  It’s a sad fact that even the most inspired music, if played too often—and in the wrong context—can become a cliche.  So how do we rediscover the Mozart that his contemporaries heard, the one that made Haydn (arguably the greatest composer of his age) to exclaim, “I tell you before God and the world, he is the greatest composer known to me”?  In the end, you have to “unhear” every musical cliche and start from scratch, listening to the music of his contemporaries and work your way forward to the musical masterpieces.  Or, perhaps more simply, you could listen to the lesser-known works of Mozart which, for one reason or another,  have escaped the broad brush of cliche.  Here are 5 works which I think represent every facet of Mozart’s genius: his melody, his harmony, his orchestration, his eccentricity (especially his penchant for the minor mode), and his forward-thinking appeal to modern audiences (at times you really think Mozart is a Romantic).  There is no good reason these works have not passed into the public domain, so to speak, but I’m glad they haven’t.  When you listen to them, you almost go, “my God, what music—who composed it?” and then remember, right, it’s Mozart.  Then you start to realize why great composers become great; not just because your teachers said so, but because you, too, can hear this greatness.  Just don’t tell the people who supply music to on-hold services and Panera Bread! 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vote for "The Cutpurse Code" on Inkitt's "Echo of Another World Contest"

I recently resurrected a novel I finished about 10 years ago to see if I could still stand to look at it.  Though written when my first son was born (he's about to turn 11!), I had revised it in subsequent years, so not surprisingly, it wasn't as awful as I feared.  It's called The Cutpurse Code, and follows three down-and-out thieves (in the quasi-18th century world all my stories are set in) as they are given an impossible mission: to steal the minute hand of the Great Stanislav Clock that looms over the city on the coldest day of the year.  This, however, is merely a test; their true commission awaits them once they return with the hand...and it will make stealing 50-foot minute hands seem tame by comparison!   

For fun, I entered the first 5 chapters in Inkitt's Echoes of Another World contest, where voting determines the top 10% of entries, and these go on to win prizes.  So far I'm in position #5, so please check it out and tell me what you think (or just vote for it!).  If I finish editing it this summer and get a decent-enough response, I might publish it next year.  You can find the story here:  You'll have to sign in with FB or create a login.  Once you do, click the "heart" at the bottom to like the story, and/or leave comments on the right-hand side.  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tarzan of the Apes at 100 (well, 101)

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan in 1914, after successfully serializing it in 1912, and it quickly became a modern myth: radio adaptations and movies followed as soon as technology could catch up, as well as a bewildering 22 sequels from Burroughs himself.  While the character of Tarzan is certainly nothing new, as he is equal parts Caliban, Crusoe, and Mowgli, it goes much further than any of these in its frankness about racial identity and the true meaning of civilization.  Few readers know the ‘real’ Tarzan, as the 21st century has to combat the cultural dissonance of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” movies (he never says this or speaks like ‘Tarzan’ in the books), or the New Age noble savage we find in Disney.  Probably the closest media depiction of the book occurs in the 1984 film, The Legend of Greystoke, which preserves many of the trademark elements of the book, and interestingly casts Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman, as Tarzan (since Tarzan initially learns to speak French, not English).  What we find in the book is astonishing and quite unusual: a Tarzan who kills indiscriminately (often for the clothes on a natives’ back), yet is capable of compassion and downright maudlin behavior.  The book is at once better than you were lead to believe while at times staying true to its pulp origins.  Is it great literature?  No, but it has the makings of a great myth, and there are moments that match Kipling or Defoe, and at times anticipate the darker worlds of Conrad.  If nothing else, it merits its inclusion as a seminal work of 20th century popular culture, and should be read widely (and by young readers) because, when all is said and done (and making allowances for some of the dated contents of the book), it is full of imagination and delight. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Rachmaninov in St. Louis: the Complete Vox Box Recordings

Leonard Slatkin Conducting Rachmaninov 
When I first started collecting classical music in the early 90’s, I caught the Rachmaninov bug: a piece called The Isle of the Dead enraptured my heavy-metal heart and never let go.  It was darker, more intense, and more exciting than any piece of music I had ever heard—and there was so much of it: 20 minutes of brooding, spine-tingling music!  Not even Iron Maiden could match that!  :) I quickly began investigating everything Rachmaninov wrote, though in the early days of CD, there really wasn’t much available other than two of his three symphonies, the piano concertos, and a handful of piano music.  Until one day I stumbled on a chunky three-disc set of Rachmaninov’s Orchestral Works performed by Leonard Slatkin (a new name to me back then) and the St. Louis Symphony.  Vox Box recordings exciting in those early days, since each one had anywhere from two to four discs, but were economically priced and contained a thick, detailed booklet inside with a wealth of information about the composer and the works included.  This set introduced me to works I had never heard of, many of which still remain rarities.  Besides the relatively familiar Symphonic Dances, Isle of the Dead, and Vocalise, Slatkin included works which really stretched my understanding of Rachmaninov’s orchestral language: the epic, powerful choral symphony, The Bells, which should really have been called his Symphony No.3, the creepy, Mussorgskyian choral piece Spring, the uber-Romantic, Rimsky-Korsakovian tone poem, Prince Rostislav, and an Tchaikovskyian overture, the Caprice Boheme (Capriccio on Gypsy Themes), among others.  Where had these works been, and why did no one else seem to bother with them?  For despite the derivative nature of some of the earlier works, I heard masterpiece after masterpiece, any one of which could have been a concert-hall staple. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Free This Weekend: The Astrologer's Portrait

My new comic fantasy novel, The Astrologer's Portrait, is free to download this weekend on Amazon.  Click on the link to find it:

Here is a brief synopsis of the book if you're still on the fence (did I mention it's free?): Prince Harold has fallen in love with a portrait, which he much prefers to his real bride-to-be. However, the portrait may be a hundred years old, and only the greatest sorcerer in the land can verify her existence. Unfortunately, Turold the Magnificent is currently on trial for maliciously impersonating a person of quality and despoiling her family history. Harold gets him off on the condition that they locate his lady love before his wedding to Sonya, who vows to kill him on their wedding night. Along with his faithless Russian servant, Dimitri, the three steal off to locate the true identity of the sitter—only to confront a curse much older than the portrait. To dispel the curse the prince must lead a revolution, fall in love with his wife, and release the centuries-old hands of Einhard the Black, who are eagerly awaiting their latest victim.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Can Writing Be Taught In College?

The Department of English in any university is predicated on the idea that writing is a skill that can be studied, learned, taught, and to some degree, mastered (at the undergraduate level, at least).  We have innumerable theories on how to teach writing, and each teacher does his or her variation on some of these approaches, funneling their ideas into at least two core classes, Freshman Composition 1 and 2.  The goal of these courses is that students leave with a knowledge of writing critical essays using sources, and are able to understand how to write for various audiences by employing different rhetorical strategies to make his or her argument coherent and, perhaps, persuasive.  Sounds simple enough, but it’s a pretty tall order considering students have a very tenuous relationship with writing.  Sure, most have a passing acquaintance with the basics of writing an essay, and if pressed, some will admit that they have at least heard of MLA documentation.  A few even know the difference between primary and secondary sources (but only a few).  However, the idea of making an argument and responding to other ideas and conversations out in the world is completely foreign to most students for one simple reason: the vast majority of students don’t like to read.  They didn’t read as high school students, and they don’t magically read once they come to college.  Sure, they (usually) dutifully read assigned pages in a textbook or a novel assigned for class, but reading is seen as an artificial activity, something remote and academic.  It’s not something “real” that occurs in an organic form out in the world...and if it does, it primarily takes the form of Harry Potter or something they would consider “fun reading.”  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

THE EARLY DVORAK SYMPHONIES: A Trial Run or a Complement to the Famous Three?

Dvorak’s ‘Early’ Symphonies have a checkered past, even though the final three (Nos.7-9) are considered cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire.  I’ve always found it curious that an audience that embraced one (much less three) symphonies by a great composer wouldn’t be the least bit curious to hear the works that came before, particularly when Dvorak wrote six (!) symphonies that lie in relative neglect.  What separates the ‘early’ symphonies of Dvorak from the three late masterpieces?  Did it truly take him six attempts to hammer out a competent symphonic language?  Conventional wisdom would tell us that, yes, the first six are so-called apprentice attempts, useful for scholars but not the lay audience, that simply wants tunes and dance rhythms in equal measure.  However, conventional wisdom, particularly when it comes to art, is usually wrong.  The Dvorak symphony cycle is (I feel) the most consistently rewarding 19th century symphonic cycle after Beethoven, rivaling for sheer variety and gusto even the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner (Schubert’s are a near rival, though the early symphonies lack variety for all their charm).  From the very beginning, there is a clear voice that speaks Dvorak’s language, even if the earliest works are a tad verbose and under the spell of Beethoven.  Yet the mastery of form is there, the creativity, and the jaw-dropping orchestration.  Almost every one of these symphonies could be a “greatest hits” piece of a lesser composer, and Nos. 3, 5 and 6 in particular are masterpieces that by some fluke of fate escaped the orchestral canon.  Luckily, in our age of cheap music downloads you can sample these works at leisure, deciding for yourself if history has been unjust to Dvorak’s symphonic legacy.  As you do, here’s a brief rundown of each piece and its chief points of interest (click below to read about them...)