Sunday, August 3, 2014

“Classical” Film Scores: Inspiring the “Wild and Wanton Herd"


In Act V of The Merchant of Venice, the two lovers Lorenzo and Jessica are listening to music on a moonlit night.  Though Jessica is uneasy about the music—and possibly Lorenzo’s faithfulness—Lorenzo proclaims the power of love through music:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing, and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music...The man that has no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils...Let no such man be trusted (V.1.). 

In Hollywood, it’s generally assumed that there are few such men—or women—in the audience.  Indeed, the “wild and wanton herd” is always ready to be manipulated by the blood and guts power of music, which is arguably the key component to movie magic.  To test this, mute a particularly action-packed or emotional scene and compare it to the original.  More than the dialogue is missing: a crucial element of the atmosphere dissipates, leaving a kind of shadow play on screen, recognizable only to those who have seen the original.  Oftentimes scores can be needlessly obtrusive or sentimental, and for this reason can get in the way of the story and the actors.  At their best, however, music accentuates the drama and makes us feel things ‘between the lines’ of a film which no amount of acting or dialogue can possibly create.  Bette Davis famously complained that Erich Korngold’s surging, Romantic scores all too often upstaged her, which can be well imagined when listening to the soundtrack to Elizabeth and Essex or Captain Blood.  So what is the proper role of a movie soundtrack: background support or lead actor in its own right? 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Vaughan-Williams: the Greatest Symphonist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of


Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958) isn’t exactly a footnote in the musical history books, nor is he a one-hit wonder.  Nevertheless, he is still somewhat neglected in the concert halls (in the States, anyway), which rarely play his 9 symphonies, preferring his lighter works such as The Lark Ascending or Fantasia from Greensleves (fine works though they are).  The reason for his neglect is hard to fathom.  His music is full of gorgeous, memorable melodies, yet is hardly a throwback to 19th century Romanticism, being bold, exciting, and often dissonant.  Almost every bar of Vaughan-Williams’ music bears his unique thumbprint, and you couldn’t mistake him for anyone else, though others have freely borrowed from him (including his near-namesake, John Williams, the film composer).  He wrote in almost every form imaginable, leaving masterpiece after masterpiece: a gorgeous concerto for two (!) pianos, an outsized ballet on the Book of Job, folk-like chamber works, and numerous stand-alone orchestral works, such as the monumental Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which pits a solo string quartet against a string orchestra.  Yet it is as a symphonist that Vaughan-Williams found his truest voice.  These nine works sing out with incredible power and beauty, but also a sense of deep morality.  They seem, in some respects, to represent the voice of England’s conscience during the first 5 decades of the 20th century.  From the wide-eyed, philosophic Sea Symphony (No.1) to the stark, sometimes sardonic, mystical Ninth Symphony, his works seem a call to arms; not to fighting for king and country, perhaps, but as a witness to humanity’s horror and heroism.  Like his contemporary, the Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, Vaughan-Williams wrote for his generation in a voice they would understand, and that we, listening backward from the ‘future,’ can appreciate as one of the great hallmarks of orchestral literature.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Free Book Plug #4356

The Astrologer's Portrait is FREE this Monday-Wednesday at Amazonhttp://www.amazon.com/The-Astrologers-Portrait-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B00LKQ0DXC/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_tnr_1

But so are thousands of e-books, right?  So here are 3 well-argued reasons to download the book:

1. Did I mention it was free?  Nothing at stake except, well, the secret shame of owning a copy!  

2. It's an work of epic fantasy that isn't afraid to be funny.  You may crack a smile or two while reading it.  I don't think genre fiction should take itself so damn seriously (I  mean even Tolkein could laugh at himself!)

3. It's a work anyone could like, but English majors will particularly love.  Find all the hidden references to great works of the past!  Your college education will finally be put to good use!

Please download and give it a read...even the first few chapters.  Reviews are very welcome, since they'e a pain for people to write and most people choose not to.  But the world runs on reviews, so without reviews, Amazon ignores the book, people don't buy it, and then it winds up right back in my desk drawer where it's been for the past few years.  Remember a review could be 2-3 sentences, even!  

So that's it until Book Plug #4357, coming in a few weeks!  :) 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of Oathtaker: Writing Fantasy From the Outside




Like books in any genre, fantasy novels are often bound to the very conventions that once made them unique.  Forbidding quests, fantastic magic, terrible secrets, and unspeakable evils kept readers guessing as they race from one page to the next, their imaginations scarcely able to keep up.  Now, however, with so many books—and films based on those books—the surprise has lessened somewhat.  Indeed, we often know exactly what to expect, and many authors take a certain glee in re-writing exactly those works they once delighted in (Eragon, anyone?).  Unfortunately, fantasy literature is supposed to transport to forgotten realms, lands that exist in the mist between history and the imagination, fantastic yet faintly probable.  To do this, the world has to seem realistic, lived-in, yet unlike any other world we’ve encountered.  The characters, too, have to be like us, share our own emotions and ideals, while at the same time being not like us at all.  This is a tall order for a genre which, like most genres, seems to exist simply by writing-to-order, giving us yet another dragon story, or yet another mythical quest narrative.  Not surprisingly, even the most eager fantasy reader approaches the latest release (especially by an indie author) with considerable trepidation.  I approached Patricia Reding’s Oathtaker in this exact frame of mind: optimistic, yet skeptical that I would read anything I hadn’t read a dozen times before.  What could possibly make this work stand out in a field crowded with the great and the not-so-great? 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Buy The Astrologer's Portrait for 99 cents on Amazon!


I finally published my new book, The Astrologer's Portrait, on Amazon after the longest gestation of any book or writing project I've experienced.  I started it in 2008, worked like hell on it for 3 years, and had to put it aside, mostly finished, to work on tenure and promotion.  Once those were safely acquired, I wrote another book, terrified to look back at what I had done (it was in bad shape).  Last year I finally picked up the pieces, re-wrote large chunks of it, hummed and hawed, and spent most of this summer fine-tuning it. The result is a book I hope at least a few people will read and enjoy.  I can safely say I'm proud of it, and bad or good, the work is what I intended.  

Here's the official blurb: 
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.

You can find it on Amazon for only 99 cents: http://www.amazon.com/The-Astrologers-Portrait-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B00LKQ0DXC/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_tnr_1

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Bother With Classical Music? A Brief Q & A Defense:


Muti and the CSO: from The Chicago Reader (Jan 2013)
Classic music is too old fashioned—it’s all ballroom dancing, white gloves, and cups of tea.  Why should anyone in the 21st century listen to it?

If this were true, movie soundtracks wouldn’t be dominated by symphony orchestras.  Orchestral music is in our blood, and everything from the Jaws theme to the “shower scene” in Psycho reminds us of this.  Moments of great emotion, suspense, romance, anguish, fury, and revelation always reach to the seemingly endless resources of the modern symphony orchestra.  A great instance of this is in the conversation between the alien ships and the scientists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: they use music to find a common language, with the humans (ironically) using synthesizers while the aliens respond with tubas and other brass.  It’s a thrilling scene and it suggests something mythic about orchestral music and its ability to evoke fantastic worlds both past and present.  When you listen to past masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc., the emotions are right there—as raw as the day they were written, full of beauty, despair, anger, and pathos.  Like any art, it doesn’t age, and an attentive listener can sit down and become part of the drama. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Preview of The Astrologer's Portrait


I've spent months editing and re-writing my new novel, which I actually completed 3 years ago.  I wasn't happy with it and re-tooled it considerably after writing my second novel, which became my first.  I'm relieved with the result, but am still too scared to release the new work--not that many people will notice it, either way!  Still, I posted 3 chapters on Wattpad if you want to give them a look.  I really love the cover by Charlynn Estes, who did my first book as well.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/18214966-the-astrologer%27s-portrait