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Goodbye, Summer

I know when summer’s about played out when the “end of season” catalogues begin stuffing my mailbox.  “Seventy percent reduction,” they scream.  All the wonderful merchandise the shop couldn’t peddle during spring and summer (and some left over from last summer’s sales).  There’s that suit I craved when I first laid eyes on it in the spring catalogue.   “New for summer!” the headline blared.  “Cool, well-styled, just the outfit for office-to-evening,” they promised.  But, oh boy, it wasn’t cheap.  Now it’s the perfect “transitional” suit – whatever that means – and the price is half what it was in the spring catalogues.  I’m not biting.  I’ve gotten this far without it; what’s a couple of months more.

Another catalogue that arrived yesterday was filled with merchandise for Halloween and, yes, Thanksgiving.

Another catalogue that arrived yesterday was filled with merchandise for Halloween and, yes, Thanksgiving.  Oh, pul-eeze!!  I’m sure the next one will be touting Christmas wares.  Can’t we just enjoy the waning and still beach-worthy days of August without the constant reminders that time is marching on?  I don’t know if I’ll even survive until Thanksgiving, let alone decorate my Thanksgiving table with themed placemats, napkins and centerpieces.  Ugh!

In the interests of complete disclosure and truthfulness, I used to write advertising copy for a long-gone department store (remember those?).   The challenge was to grab the attention of the newspaper reader (SALE! In 36 point letters would usually accomplish that) and then to convince them that this was an item he or she had to have.  Oh, and everything had to fit in the space allocated by the evil layout designer, Helen.  I still have my well-worn and thumbed through Roget’s Thesaurus.  How many ways can you say “exquisite”?

And while I’m confessing my sins, I might as well tell you that I voraciously read out of town stores’ ads, magazine copy and even catalogues for bits and pieces I could use.  My boss thought I was a creative genius.   If only she knew….

I recognize the challenges faced by a catalogue copywriter and, really, I sympathize.

So I recognize the challenges faced by a catalogue copywriter and, really, I sympathize.  But just as it was hard for me to gin up enthusiasm for Christmas copy in September, it must be murder for these poor hacks to rhapsodize over fall fashion sometime in April to make their mid-summer deadlines.  If you’ve just walked two or three blocks to your cubbyhole (copywriters don’t get real offices) in the blazing heat of July, it’s darn nigh impossible to switch your gears to contemplate the wools of November.  To write about ski gear in August, swimsuits in January and, gag, Christmas wreaths in September takes a very special kind of crazy.  I know.

Check your personal stack of newly-arrived catalogues, though.  Lurking amid all those incredible bargains and must-have merchandise, I hope you’ll find one that reads (in 18 point), “2018/19: A Stellar Season.”  That’s doesn’t qualify as a “screamer,” as we say in the trade, but I hope it speaks to you.  That’s the season offering of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society and the subscription form.

Lurking amid all those incredible bargains and must-have merchandise, I hope you’ll find one that reads (in 18 point), “2018/19: A Stellar Season.”

If you have to say goodbye to summer, what better way than starting off the concert season with the Brentano String Quartet plus soprano Dawn Upshaw on October 7?  “Glittering clarity” is how The Strad described their music.  Man!  I wish I’d written that phrase!

The season gets better and better and, really, you won’t want to miss one concert.  Just look:

Reverting to my copywriting days – Only $100 will buy a season ticket PLUS 1 bonus ticket that can be used at any concert!!!  AND  any ticket may be used for any of the 5 concerts!!!  And students and active-duty military attend our concerts FREE!

Just call 210-408-1558 to reserve your season ticket or order online.  I will recognize you, you know:  you’ll be the one in the “transitional” outfit, right?

– E Doyle

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

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

Trees

Bear with me, please:  I’m off on yet another tangent and I ask your kind indulgence.  The subject is trees.  My dad loved his trees and I suppose, therefore, that there is something genetic about the love of trees because I love my trees, too.

Let’s talk about oak trees, those friendly stalwarts of the South Texas landscape.  They live to an incredible old age and faithfully tolerate tire swings hung from limbs, small children climbing where their mother’s expressly forbade (as in, “Don’t you dare climb up that tree and if you do, I’ll kill you!”), the pure beauty of Christmas lights and piñatas and the indignity of generations of cats, squirrels, raccoons and dogs with a death wish clawing their way up the trunk.  Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.  How many storms has it weathered, how many droughts have sent its roots ever deeper into the earth?  How many generations of birds have called it home? This and more:  have you ever noticed areas of worn bark about 4 feet up on oak trees?  If the tree is very old, that comes from cows and horses rubbing against the tree, scratching what itches and smoothing the bark in the process.

Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.

I grew up with oak trees and experienced their welcoming shade and shelter.  There was no better place to be when one needed to ponder the deeply serious problems of adolescence than at the base of an oak tree.  Being of Irish heritage, I was also pretty sure that “my oak trees” housed leprechauns in their roots.   I remember that, during droughts, my dad would carry buckets of water from the barn to the trees to help them survive.  In return, the oak trees gave my family never-failing beauty.  Now I live in a neighborhood that was once an oak grove; this land was once on the banks of a creek and, historians say, was part of the ranch that was home to the vaqueros of the missions and their herds.  There are huge oak trees lining our streets and gracing our yards and, yes, I’ve found the tell-tale signs of cattle and horses rubbing their imprints into the bark.

Developers tend to take down these wonderful, old trees and replace them with fast-growing intruders that can’t survive our climate for more than a few years.  It will take much patience and probably many generations of homeowners to see the results of a new oak tree.  That phrase doesn’t even look right; “new oak tree”?  What’s that?

But I’m not done, you’ll be so very happy to know.  Let’s talk laurels.  We call them “mountain laurels” in these parts, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with mountains.  Our treasured little laurel trees (aka, Sophora secundiflora) love our limestone-enriched soil and, with their wonderful flowers and scent, give us the hope of spring.  My experience with laurels goes back a few generations (it’s the old DNA thing again).  My grandmother planted laurels from seeds and nurtured them so that when I was a child, I knew them as a part of our home landscape.  As an adult, I decided to buy a house on the basis of a 30-foot tall laurel growing in the front yard with a grove of her children nestled around her.  (Did I mention that laurel trees are female?)  I wasn’t as concerned about the stability of the home’s foundation or the beauty of its design, but it was love at first sight for that laurel tree.  Years later, when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive.  It did and I did.

…when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive. It did and I did.

There’s another feature of laurel trees that, if you didn’t grow up here, you may not know:  laurel trees produce these beautiful bright red berries.  They’re not edible – in fact, they’re poison – but if you are a mischievous child bent on revenge, you could take the berry, rub it vigorously on concrete (think sidewalk) and then apply it smartly to the arm of your big brother who had been bullying you.  It burns like fury when properly prepared.

I haven’t even started on mesquite trees, pecans and chinaberries.  Perhaps a later walk through the woods?  But aren’t trees really incredible?  Just think about it:  shelter, beauty, sound, scent and a symbol of continuity and strength.  Poems, music and art have all praised trees and with good reason:  just like poems, music and art, trees are gifts to be treasured.

And speaking of treasures, there’s that music – you knew I’d get there, didn’t you?  There are two glorious concerts remaining in this our 75th season:  the American Brass Quintet (March 4th) and the Orion String Quartet (April 15th: at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, don’t forget).  We are not quite as old as my favorite oak trees, but with your continued support and attendance at these delightful concerts, we may just endure.

– E Doyle

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