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The Pipes

Lucky me!  I’m just back from a trip to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Hebrides and France. The music that remains swirling about my poor, jet-lagged brain is the evocative, mysterious and moving music of the bagpipes. I know you’ve heard the joyful music of “River Dance” and the mournful music of “Danny Boy;” but have you heard the magical music of the Galician pipes the gaita?

Let’s talk pipes, shall we?  There’s a matter-of-fact and altogether boring description in Google:

“Bagpipes are a woodwind instrument using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag.”

Does that even begin to describe the lump in the throat caused by a solitary Highland piper playing in a cathedral?  There’s no explanation there either of the effect on the feet of a rousing Irish pipe melody played in a pub where the beer flows and the dancers twirl and tap.  And then there’s the smile that appears on the listeners’ faces when a well-loved tune like “Amazing Grace” is played on the pipes.

The bagpipes have a long and glorious history, you’ll be glad to know.  Evidence of pipes goes back as far as 1000 BC:  the Oxford History of Music, no less, says there’s a Hittite sculpture showing bagpipes at Euyuk in the Middle East.  The Greeks, too, had pipes and it’s entirely possible that Nero (more famous for playing violin) could play the pipes.  I wonder, was he actually playing the pipes while Rome burned?  Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?  By Medieval times, it seems as though everybody had taken up the pipes.  They get a mention in The Canterbury Tales (1380):

A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, / And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.

At the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh 1547 (surely you’ve heard of that), the bagpipes were used to bring the Scottish troops to battle and, they hoped, frighten the bejesus out of the English.  For a’that, the Scots lost and the Duke of Somerset won the day.  T’was a terrible waste of the music.  But this period saw the creation of the ceòl mór (great music) of the bagpipe, which reflected its martial origins, with battle-tunes, marches, gatherings, salutes and laments. [J. E. A. Dawson, Scotland Re-Formed, 1488–1587 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), ISBN 0-7486-1455-9, p. 169.]

Through the years, the pipes have become increasingly associated with the military – there were pipers in Afghanistan – the police and firefighters.  Could you ever forget the heartbreaking pipes playing after 2011? But I’ll bet you didn’t know that the bagpipes provide the “official music” of the sport of curling!   I haven’t quite figured out curling, but I’ll enjoy the music nevertheless.

So regard the bagpipes, in all their forms and nationalities: Scots, Irish, Spanish, French, Asturian, Portuguese and everywhere they’ve traveled with armies.  The proud music swirls, the pipes with their banners, the bags with their clan plaids lend their special lilt and flair to parades and commemorations.  The wonderful peals of bagpipes are music to the ears of so many people in so many countries, but I can guarantee that there’s nothing like the Great Highland bagpipes as they’re played in the Scottish highlands.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Piping in” someone or something.  You’ll be that happy to know that we’ll be “piping in” our 76th season at the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.  And if you wish to be piped in to the first performance on October 7, you’d best make haste and buy your season tickets online at sacms.org.  And give a wee listen to the Merry Ploughmen of Dublin.

Have a wonderful summer, one and all.

– E Doyle

When neurons fire

It would be great if I could call up a neuron to fire on demand…

It would be great if I could call up a neuron to fire on demand; to connect its spidery ganglia to the axon of another neuron; and so on and on, until I could place and clearly envision a memory that I’d like to re-examine. For instance, I would love to be able to locate in the clutter of my home that old address book that I kept for years as we moved around the world.  I want to remember the faces and names of the wonderful people we have enjoyed.  Question:  what did I do with it?  Surely, I didn’t throw it away in one of my previous downsizing, de-cluttering binges.  And which was the CD I used to play while driving, the one that had the music that could make me pull over and just listen or sit in the garage until it ended?  It’s somewhere amongst the multitude of CDs I’ve collected over the years, but which one was it?

Well, there are things and then there are memories.  Certainly, they are usually connected, but things are, after all, disposable.  I may grieve the loss of my favorite pottery bowl, but I will always remember its associations and why it was my favorite.

What brought on this particular meditation was a neuron firing at some nearby neurons and producing an image of Mrs. Dorothy Grady.  All of a sudden, and apropos of nothing at all, the wonderful Mrs. Grady (who I could never forget) emerged from the murky depths of my memory bank.  Why Mrs. Grady?  Well, there is somewhat of a connection.  I had been contemplating the truly miserable job of packing, downsizing, perhaps even moving.  Now I’m no stranger to moving.  In the first 30 years of marriage, I had already moved 20+ times.  Do the math.  I had looked around my household at all my accumulated treasures (and more than some accumulated trash; at one point, I actually had the corsage I received when I graduated from college!) and tried to decide what things I really need and am willing to clean.  Some stuff would have to go to family, and some would have to go to the Thrift House.  Some – sob! – would have to go out with the garbage.

I had looked around my household at all my accumulated treasures and tried to decide what things I really need and am willing to clean.

If you’ve ever had to pack up and move, you know just what a heart-wrenching – no, soul-wrenching experience this is. You are, after all, dealing with memories:  Mama’s iron frying pan; the collection of carefully de-wrinkled Christmas wrap; the picture frame I made in 3rd grade Girl Scouts; a whole drawer-full of miscellaneous pens bravely advertising businesses that had folded 20 years ago; a dried and discolored corsage still attached to its college-colored ribbons; and my vast collection of coffee mugs and CDs.

(Aside:  in one trans-national move, I discovered that I had packed the bottom half of my artificial Christmas tree.  The top half was in never-never land, as in never, never to be seen again.)

So let me ramble over to Mrs. Grady.  I’m sorry to say that when I met her she was dying.  She had inoperable liver cancer, and there was really nothing further to be done except to keep her comfortable and listen to her memories.  But her daughter was worried:  Mrs. Grady had begun to drift away, entering into a state that was something between a deep sleep and unconsciousness.  She asked if perhaps Mrs. Grady was receiving too much pain medication, but no, liver cancer can cause periods of mental twilight.  Consciousness flickers in and out like a firefly, sparking little vignettes of memory and then winking out.  The poisons that the liver normally clears from the body begin to accumulate and the brain dutifully tucks them away in its cortex.  But unlike my de-wrinkled and soon-to-be recycled Christmas wrap, the brain can’t just toss out the poisons.

If you’ve ever had to pack up and move, you know just what a heart-wrenching – no, soul-wrenching experience this is.

Most days, Mrs. Grady was eager to chat, spinning stories of her grandchildren or of her long-dead husband.  There were times, however, now more frequent, that she seemed to drift.  When I asked Mrs. Grady if she was aware of these periods of disconnect, she told me something that is forever etched into my own neurons:  “Oh yes,” she said.  “I’m up here (pointing to her head) doing some cleaning.  I’m leaving, you know.  So now I’m just doing some sorting, deciding what I’m going to keep and what I’m going to throw away.”  She made it sound so simple.  God rest you, Mrs. Grady, and thank you for teaching me this lesson:  the really important things can be found, we hope, tucked away in the neurons.

So now as I look around at my own detritus, clutter left over from a life of many joys, I remember Mrs. Grady and think about what I will always treasure, my memories.  And sparkling there among those memories that I will always treasure is my music – an eclectic collection to be sure, but music that reaches those neurons that connect to the heart.  Thank you, Mrs. Grady.

– E Doyle

Oops!

Don’t you just love it when a dignified, serious person makes a blunder?  Com’on.  Admit it.  I mean as long as it’s not your surgeon who is doing some local-anesthesia work on your person.  “Oops,” is the last word – possibly literally – you’ll want to hear.  But nothing so dramatic here.  I’m talking about dignified, professional, serious musicians.   I collect these anecdotes and imagine others, so allow me to open my treasure chest of oops moments.

First, there’s the trumpet player.  He’s doing wonderful things, finding tones, hitting every note with clarity and verve and then – wait for it – his mute gets away from him and goes rolling gleefully across the stage for all the world to see.  Yes, there’ll be a few titters and giggles from the audience, but the musician, like the true professional he is, simply walks over and picks the damn thing up and carries on.  Now that’s class.

And there’s not a cellist alive who hasn’t had a string break in the middle of a concert.  Of course, if it’s one of the bass strings and goes ka-blooey, it can remove his glasses, scratch his face and cause a really awful moment.  He can’t just carry on.  He’ll just have to sit there or try to play on three strings or just forget the whole thing and walk off to find a replacement string.

…there’s not a cellist alive who hasn’t had a string break in the middle of a concert.

But here’s my own recurring nightmare:  I’m a timpanist in a big, important orchestra with a grand and renowned conductor.  Not permitted to thump the kettle drums or even rat-a-tat the snare, I am given the lowly triangle and told, sternly, to follow the music very carefully.  This I diligently do.  So there I am, standing up with my triangle shining elegantly in my left hand and my little wand in my right, counting carefully for my big moment.  And I’m off by one beat.  I’m off by one beat.  It can’t be.  I’m off by ONE lousy beat.  And everybody, I mean everybody knows.  The grand and renowned conductor shoots me a look that would knock a pigeon off an electric line and the timpanist standing next to me gently removes the elegant triangle from my hand so that I can do no further damage and I sit down and try to make myself as small as possible.   It could have been worse, I guess:  I could have dropped the triangle right into the horn in front of me.  It could have been worse.  It could have happened, and I’m just the person it would have happened to.

Of course, I am not a timpanist and I’ve never even been close to a triangle, but I was sufficiently musically embarrassed in my misspent youth to convince myself that I should find a career other than music performance.  I was a member of a folk group – remember those?  I know I’m dating myself, but really, it was a lot of fun.  I was also working at a local television station, writing what is called “continuity.”  That’s all the stuff that’s thrown in so that there is no dreaded “dead air.”  Anyway, the lady who was host of the daytime show invited me to sing on her show, demonstrating the desperation daytime hosts feel when trying to fill a time slot.  So, with my trusty Nuevo Laredo guitar in hand, I sat before the camera and launched into a piece I had done a million times.  You may remember it, if you’re old enough:  “In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”  Well, the lyrics were pretty simple, the melody straightforward and I was on cruise control.  Until I got to the end and the song (and Peter, Paul and Mary, if memory serves), launch into “Wee-mo-way, wee-mo-way.”  So I launched into “Wee-mo-way,” but I couldn’t get un-launched.   Panic set in.  How am I going to end this?  What comes next?  So I tried to just kind of let my wobbly voice drift off into the void and bowed my head.  It was a brief career, but brilliant.

I was sufficiently musically embarrassed in my misspent youth to convince myself that I should find a career other than music performance.

I have a friend who’s a clarinetist and had a reed break in the middle of Cole Porter.  Of course, he had another reed, but there in front of the whole world had to extract it from his pocket, run it through his mouth a time or two and then install it in the clarinet.  Maybe no one noticed, but I’ll bet they did.

I don’t think there’s a musician alive who hasn’t had an “oops” moment, and maybe they can laugh about them, but I’m certain that – just like my wee-mo-way moment – they’ve never forgotten them.

And speaking of forgetting things and oops moments, don’t forget to get your tickets for the stellar season of 2018-19.  You don’t want to find yourself on October 7, when the Brentano String Quartet performs with world renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw, slapping yourself on the forehead and saying, “Oops!”

– E Doyle

…And Beethoven smiled

You’ve seen the drawings of Beethoven:  unsmiling, looking somewhat suspicious of the world, hair that looks as though it has endured many years of mismanagement and finger-combing.  He doesn’t really look like a happy man.  His visage is just short of a scowl.  This is the familiar Beethoven, but last Sunday (April 15, 2018) at the Orion String Quartet concert, there was a different Beethoven.  I caught a glimpse of him, perched on the organ bench – and he was – wait for it – smiling.  He was pleased at what he heard; he liked what the gentlemen of Orion had done with his String Quartet No. 14.  Okay, he didn’t actually slap his knee, but he did tap his foot.  Really.

So what did Orion do that made the master smile?  Simple.  They played the composition as it was intended to be played:  with emotion, with soul-felt love for each beautiful note, with enthusiasm and joy for the complexities of the composition.  (I’m reasonably certain that Sebastian Currier and Anton Dvořák were also enjoying this concert, perhaps perched on the crossbeams of this beautiful old church.)

I’m reasonably certain that Sebastian Currier and Anton Dvořák were also enjoying this concert, perhaps perched on the crossbeams of this beautiful old church.

Why is it that some groups do a perfectly workmanlike job of playing these wonderful musical compositions and others bring a special quality that goes beyond mere artistry to a profound understanding of the work and the ability to express the composer’s notes allowing the audience to rejoice with them?   Well, that’s Orion.  Thirty years together this group, so they communicate with one another on the level of performance DNA.

They take their name from Greek mythology.  Orion the Hunter, Orion the Warrior, Orion which can be seen from almost any point on earth.  The Quartet is cutting-edge in its interpretation of contemporary works (therefore, the sword) and muscular in its interpretation of the classics.  The four gentlemen of Orion have been visible and praised in every corner of the world and their reputation gleams and glitters in the musical firmament.  Besides performers, they are also teachers, generously passing their skills to a new generation of violinists, violists, cellists and string quartets.

We of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society are thankful that their light shone on us for one memorable Sunday afternoon and I am perfectly certain that Beethoven, Currier and Dvořák enjoyed the music, too!

And while we’re talking enjoying music, have a look at next season, the 76th.  You will find music to enjoy, but only if you subscribe.  The cost is the same, students and active duty military are still admitted free and I am certain that you will find some smile-worthy Sunday entertainment.

– E Doyle

Of cakes, biscuits and – oh, yes – focus

Have you ever tried to make a really magnificent cake from scratch?  Well, have you?  And how did it turn out?  That bad, yeah.  Some years ago, I, master of the oven, regent of icing, genius of the cake pans, decided I could make a Black Forest Cake.  For company.  If you’ve never enjoyed this masterpiece, a Black Forest Cake is composed of layers and layers of wonderfully rich cake interspersed with fillings of chocolate and nuts and fruit and pure magic and the whole thing’s topped with this chocolate icing that becomes a shiny, beautiful glaze.  There’s just one small problem:  it helps to know what you’re doing.  Four plus hours into this project, I had gone through most of the pots and bowls in my kitchen, there was chocolate everywhere and I was no closer to the imagined masterpiece than I had been when weighing the ingredients (oh yes, did I mention that this was a European recipe and the ingredients were given by weight?).  Sorry, guys, it’s chocolate ice cream over Oreos for dessert.  To quote a celebrity:  “So sad.”

But telling the story of my disastrous cake brought to mind the memory of my sainted mother – she with a degree in mathematics, minor in Greek; she who could make the world’s best roast beef and fried chicken – she whose biscuits would be coveted by the NHL as totally indestructible.  So maybe it’s genetic (not the math and Greek part).  My mother and I were not destined to bake wonderful things.  Or maybe it’s just a matter of focus.

…I had gone through most of the pots and bowls in my kitchen, there was chocolate everywhere and I was no closer to the imagined masterpiece than I had been when weighing the ingredients.

I have become convinced over the years of listening to and thoroughly enjoying musical compositions that are truly works of genius, that the secret of that genius, much like the secret of producing something as magical as a Black Forest Cake or a perfect biscuit, has something to do with the ability to focus.  Consider, for example:  Beethoven became deaf but could still compose music.  How?  His mind was such that he could not only remember sounds, but he could concentrate, focus on what he wanted to write.  I’m certain that the ability to do this involved enormous effort and powers of memory.

As you know, a great genius of our present day has just died. Stephen Hawking is another example of my thesis.  In his lifetime, he progressively lost the ability to express his genius by usual means, and yet he wrote books explaining some of the most complex concepts of the universe.  He couldn’t test concepts with his peers in the usual back and forth of creative conversation; he had a means of communication, but it was limited.  How much of what he thought was lost?  How much of what Beethoven heard in his mind was lost?  How much genius resides, untapped and unspoken, in the brains of geniuses?

Focus is the power to concentrate, to bring the mental powers we all possess to a greater or lesser degree, to the problem of musical composition or the power to intellectualize the workings of the cosmos.  Focus is also the ability that allows us mere mortals to appreciate the genius of music, the genius of beauty, the genius of astrophysics.

Focus is also the ability that allows us mere mortals to appreciate the genius of music, the genius of beauty, the genius of astrophysics.

And how many Black Forest cakes are out there, just waiting for me to bring my sterling intelligence and focus to bear on the task of creation?

– E Doyle

Review: The Brass Masters

You could have spent last Sunday glued to the television and watching the Oscar hoopla – or you could have enjoyed some real talent at the American Brass Quintet concert.  You could have paid homage to the little gold-plated statue at the Oscars – or you could have enjoyed some real, honest-to-goodness brass, learned something about canons (no, not the kind that fire cannon balls) and listened to music and poetry that go right to the heart.  You could have.

Just in case someone stole your pickup truck with your favorite hound in it, or Aunt Mattie over in Floresville was stuck in a tree, or your flu had come back so bad you couldn’t raise your head from the pillow – just in case, you poor soul, you missed this concert, I’ll be kind and tell you what you missed:

First there’s just the sound, the Temple-filling, soul-filling sound of five brass instruments.  Think about this:  can you imagine what honey or molten gold would sound like if they could sound?  Well, that’s what these five instruments in concert sounded like.  The tones and the harmonies blended and then flowed separately, then blended again.  You would have heard centuries’ worth of songs, music that would have been familiar to Queen Elizabeth I or King James I; music that would have been heard in old St. Petersburg; music that celebrates the common man and the joy of the everyday in the 20th century.

Can you imagine what honey or molten gold would sound like if they could sound?  Well, that’s what these five instruments in concert sounded like.

And there was a special treat:  music composed around a breathtakingly poignant poem by Carmen Tafolla, San Antonio’s own poet laureate.  The poem spoke ever so simply and ever so eloquently of the river, our river and, as recited by the author, it would have just broken your heart.  The music, composed by James Balentine, was equally simple and eloquent.  Performed as it was by this particular group, the music spun out the story of the poem in a universal language of pure beauty.  By the way, it was also a world premiere of the work and was commissioned for San Antonio’s 300th birthday. Take that, Hollywood!

And then the canons of the 16th century.  Imagine the great castle halls and the cathedrals with this glorious music resounding in the vast spaces.  Imagine the pleasure of following the musical lines through their twists and turns, counterpoints and harmonies, understanding the inherent structure where there seems to be none.  How do they do that?  I think it’s magic, pure and simple.  Finally, the composition by American composer Eric Ewazen, a work dedicated to the American Brass Quintet on the occasion of their 30th anniversary, demonstrated the artistry and complete versatility of these five musicians.  In three movements, the music went from languid to playful to joyous to sonorous.  Pick your adverb; it was all of that and more.

Michael Powell, the ABQ trombonist, described brass players as “plumbers,” since their artistry depends on pipes and tubes and conduits, but I assure you that if the ABQ are plumbers, then I am in line for a Pulitzer.  Just sayin’. No, these gentlemen, all teachers of the next generation of premiere artists, are truly brass masters.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you…

In three movements, the music went from languid to playful to joyous to sonorous. Pick your adverb; it was all of that and more.

And don’t forget the last concert of this exceptional, sparkling season:  the Orion String Quartet, a group that has become the standard of excellence in the world of chamber music, will perform April 15th at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, 227 W. Woodlawn (corner Belknap).  Buy Aunt Mattie a ladder and be there!

– E Doyle

 

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