Saturday, February 6, 2016

Can Women Order From the Menu of Fiction?

Shortly after the publication of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma (1815), the greatest English writer of the day, the now largely-forgotten Sir Walter Scott, wrote an unexpected review of the work which brought her attention and acclaim. Though he praised the work on the whole, he hastened to add that,

"The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting.  The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader” (1815).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

“Punished For the Loveliness of Summer”: Willa Cather’s My Antonia

In Book II, Chapter 6 of My Antonia, Jim, the young protagonist, is fighting against the cold winter wind which has just overtaken the land. As he reflects,

“The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify—it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: “This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.” It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE SCORE AWAKENS: Listening to the Soundtrack to Star Wars VII

The cassette soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back was my first musical purchase way back in 1981. I listened to it until the tape wore out, by which time I had two CDs of the score, each one claiming to be more or less “complete” (yet they never quite have all the music, do they?). John Williams’ scores not only lead me to his other film music, but to classical music itself, becoming a ‘gateway drug’ to Orff, Holst, Mussorgsky, and within a decade, to the entire canon of classical musical from Bach to Bartok. Williams’ music offered me the greatest musical appreciation course of all, since he showed me—and a million others, I imagine—how orchestral themes and colors ‘painted’ the various moods and emotions of a film. After watching the film umpteen times, I could ‘see’ how each piece of music conveyed these ideas to the listener, and before long, I could ‘read’ other music along the same lines, even when there was no story attached. While many composers argue that there is a strict difference between absolute and programmatic music, a keen listener can find the program in anything—even a twenty-second piano prelude by Chopin. So even though I went on to hundreds of more established composers, I always returned to John Williams’ music, particularly when a new film came out boasting his signature themes and orchestration. I still remember the thrill of running to the Tower Records on Wabash Avenue in Downtown Chicago the day The Phantom Menace soundtrack was released (you won’t find that place anymore). New Star Wars music—that was as exciting as a lost symphony by Beethoven or Sibelius! That score didn’t disappoint even if the film did, and his music for the Prequels almost (almost) made those clunky films worth watching. Hell, at least those three films gave us The Duel of the Fates and Anakin’s Theme! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Composing Jane Austen: The Soundtracks

In Volume II, Chapter VIII of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine intrudes on a conversation with Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam on music. Delighted by the subject (or simply the chance to monopolize the conversation), she replies, “Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient...I often tell young ladies, that no excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice.”   

Of course, this scene largely convinces the reader that she has absolutely no taste or understanding of music, and that she is far keener to give advice than take it herself. Yet it also underlines the importance of music in Jane Austen’s society: music brought young people together (as it does today), and was a necessary backdrop for all the dances and card playing that gave life to an endless round of social engagements. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone knew something about music, or at least thought it was worth knowing about. Elizabeth herself plays—though very ill, as she informs all her acquaintance—and Darcy complements both her and her sister’s abilities, and takes great pleasure in their performances. In a world without the ability to play pre-recorded music, one had to provide one’s own entertainment, and a skilled musician in the family must have shortened many a long winter’s night. In a famous letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen is willing to take the burden of entertainment on herself, writing, “Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good as one can be got for 30 guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company” (1808). 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Vote for Shakebags & Co. on Kindle Scout!

Amazon has a new contest running where authors can submit never-before-published novels and have readers nominate them for publication. Books with the most nominations will get a contract with Amazon and considerable marketing support as well. So I've thrown my first novel into the ring, the only one of my 4 novels I've never published (constantly tinkering with it), which got a good deal of notice on Inkitt a few months back. However, I've renamed it Shakebags & Co. and hope some people will find it interesting: it's a humorous fantasy novel about three hapless thieves trying to make their name in the world. You can read the first 3 chapters here and nominate it if you find it worthy. Thanks!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Composing With a Russian Accent: The Orchestral Music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

 In some ways, the most “Russian” of all Russian composers is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (the name alone would place him high on the list!), as he not only jumpstarted Russian orchestral music and opera, but he was deeply connected to the wellsprings of Russian folklore and literature. Rimsky-Korsakov’s work can be seen on some level as an attempt to translate the Russian spirit into purely musical terms, and his innovations have been followed by generations of Russian composers, not to mention film composers in Hollywood. It’s hard to truly pin down Rimsky’s compositional persona, as his greatest achievements—his 15 operas, on a range of fairy tale and historical subjects—are almost completely unknown in the West, while his memory lives on in a handful of orchestral gems which often disguise his Russian heritage, such as Capriccio Espagnol, Scheherazde, and the infamous Flight of the Bumblebee. Ultimately, what distinguishes Rimsky-Korsakov’s art is his masterful orchestration and sense of musical color: he believed strongly in the idea that notes represented colors, and clothed his music in the most lavish tonal raiment. Rachmaninov once said that with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music you could ‘hear’ the seasons, with the right combination of notes and instruments creating snowflakes, driving winds, budding trees, and falling leaves. He saved his greatest orchestral effects for his operas, where sadly few listeners are able to find them, though a few orchestral works betray this talent, even though his heart wasn’t always in ‘absolute’ music. However, even a lollipop of a piece like The Flight of the Bumblebee (a little interlude in his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan) is a masterful tone poem of sound and fury, suggesting how with the simplest of means he could conjure up an entire world, large or small.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Free Gothic/Fantasy Novel, Academic Satire, and More!

An Ad for my story made by the editors at Inkitt

Here's a few quick updates about my published novels and stories for those interested:

My third novel, The Winged Turban, published this September is FREE to download on Amazon for the Halloween week. It's a humorous Gothic Fantasy novel and I (think) is the best of my three books. It's been slow getting people to notice it, because there's just so much out there in the Kindle-sphere. Please download it if you get a chance, and if you don't have a Kindle, you can download the free app on Amazon and read it wherever you want. The link follows where you can read a sample:

I also posted my satire of college life, "The Textbook Confessions" on Inkitt to give it an airing as well. It's about the "confessions" of a textbook abandoned in a students' car over the Winter break,  including its laments on life, love, and the state of higher education. It's really short and you can read the whole thing for free here:

And as always, my other two novels, The Count of the Living Death and The Astrologer's Portrait, both fantasy novels, are available to download for 99 cents on Amazon. You can find links to them on my Amazon author page:

Thanks and hope you find some of these works worth your while!