Calling All [Music] Composers!

Photo: Head in the Clouds

To all the teachers and grownups who ever complained that I always had my head in the clouds: [insert vigorous *RASPBERRY* here]!

I said I would do it long, long ago, so ready or not, here goes: a passel of potential poetic [and other] lyrics. When I write, rhyming or rhythmic or not, I very often hear music in my imagination. Too bad I don’t have the musical chops to set my own texts, whether for solo or ensemble singing, accompanied or a cappella…or maybe it’s not sad at all: I also love collaborative arts. So join me, if you like!

I will likely publish some of this stuff in my upcoming books. The only published book so far, Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Emporium of Magical Thinking: Drawings & Other Artworks, Tall Tales and Weird Creatures (Volume 1), is up for your perusal as well—just grab a copy through Amazon.

[May I suggest that you use Amazon Smile——where you can get Amazon to make a small charitable donation of your choice from their profits]).

This post is not an endorsement of Amazon, paid or otherwise, though I happily use the behemoth’s services extensively myself. Including as my book publisher, since I am far too “unmarketable”—thank you, gallerists, publishers, and agents of the past who classify anything non-repetitive, unprecedented, or wildly varied as impossible to package and sell. This post is not meant to be a whining snark-fest, either, since I am genuinely grateful that said business persons were honest enough with themselves to recognize their limitations in promoting unusual or unclassifiable works, and honest enough, in turn, with me to help me recognize that my vocation isn’t in making a living out of my arts but in making a life with and through them.

Meanwhile, I still love to join forces with other creatives, no matter what our project or theme, when the muse brings us together. I have collaborated with other artists to create numerous visual, written, and performed artworks over the years and am always delighted with the learning, bonding, challenges, inspiration, and joy that come from such interplay. If you find anything in here that sparks (no pun intended) your imagination, I welcome you to my playground. If you’re just here to read and—hopefully—enjoy, you are most welcome as well. I’m happy for the company.

Photo: Afire with Inspiration

Here’s hoping to fan the flames of your imagination…

To read any of the dozens of sets of poems and texts, grouped loosely by theme or topic or mood, just click here or on the freshly minted Poems & Lyric Texts link at the top of my homepage.

Photo: CHEESE!

I’m not above grinning at you crazily if you’re even remotely a kindred spirit. Cheese!

Let Me be So Attuned

For those of you who would like to Tune In suitably, the concert that was being prepared when I wrote today’s post will be performed tonight by the University of North Texas A Cappella Choir, conducted by my esteemed spouse Richard Sparks. Click on this link, and it’ll take you to the live-streamed concert at 8 pm Central Standard Time. Or, if you can, come on over to UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center and enjoy the concert (with me and a host of other fans) in the lovely Winspear hall.

Digital illo from a photo: A Cappella HarmonyI am listening to a superb vocal sextet as the singers demonstrate the purity of tone and the achingly clear, clean dissonances and harmonies that their conductor has just been coaching the listening university choir to attempt. When they two sets of singers all join forces and achieve this without putting undue stress on their breathing and without letting anyone’s vibrato widen far enough to fall off its assigned note, the whole room, no matter how large or small, dry or reverberant, empty or crowded, becomes electric. The power of even the faintest pianissimo, when perfectly tuned to the chord of the moment, scintillates in such perfect proportion, one note to another, that involuntary shivers of pleasure run up and down my spine.

The conductor admonishes the singers to embrace the more tender expressive qualities of the passage they’re singing; instead of attack-and-cutoff beginnings and endings to notes and phrases, they attempt to let the notes open and close naturally with the breath. Attack becomes the almost imperceptible awakening sensation of even, steady onset, and cutoff loses its hard artifice in favor of the easeful grace of release. I think that this, too, makes a fine representation of what it should be to live in tune with my fellow beings, to breathe in consonance with them whether we are making pretty and perhaps predictably agreeable chords or exact and shivering dissonances.

This is the gorgeous, staggeringly intense experience of listening to genuinely sensitive music-making, of powerfully accurate tuning. A wonderfully skilled musician will no doubt say that the experience is even deeper for the singers themselves, as the physical sensation can only be intensified when one is physically part of the sounding instrument in this fundamental way. But I have been in those rooms, at times, where the perfectly timed phrasing of notes and passages and the confluence of vibrations are so perfectly aligned that I feel I am no longer a solid object, distinct from all other things, but have become an integrated element of the glittering cosmos. This, I think, is what it means to gain true harmony.Digital illo from a photo: Score

My Little Night Music


From the settling of the evening to the whispering of dawn

Lies a tenebrously winding way that wanders bleakly on…

What’s ahead is hid in veiling; what has been, lost in a mist,

And with strength and spirits failing goes the wayfarer, who kissed

Fond farewell to all familiars, bade goodbye to every known,

And set off to see tomorrow; now it seems all hope is flown.

But a flicker in the darkness sparks the vision of a wing,

And the silence now is shattered as a voice begins to sing!

Glorious, the song is lifted in its swelling, sweet refrains,

And the wayfarer is gifted with new courage in his veins.

What a loveliness is in it when such music comes along

To illumine every minute; what great powers in a song!

When the journey seems unending and the dark rules every vale,

For whoever needs the tending, let me be

A nightingale.Digital illo: Nightingale

Scream It Like You Mean It

Digital illo: B&BIf you’ve never experienced the almost ferally visceral adventure of hearing a performance where the formally clad male chorus belts out the lyrics of each work, each man in perfect time with what would ordinarily be his voice part (first tenor, bass, baritone, etc), but screaming so loudly that there’s no discernible key singly or altogether—then you’ve never heard the Finnish performers known as Mieskuroro Huutajat (Screaming or Shouting Men). In their performances, even the most famous and familiar songs are deep mysteries to be unmasked gradually by focused—if slightly frightened—listeners. If you haven’t had the Shouting Men experience, however, you might still have had such a hair-raising listening adventure in a supposed concert or rehearsal. Many an ordinary choir has its moments of being involved in an almost unbearable shout-fest.

Sitting in the back of a hard-surfaced rehearsal space packed with a mass choir in prep for the famously big and bombastic Beethoven Nine‘s ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken,’ with a chorus of big-voiced collegians full of energy and enthusiasm, no less, could conceivably deafen you. Or drive you mad. ‘Ode to Joy‘ becomes almost insufferably opposite to joyful, the choral equivalent of being carpet-bombed, if the singers haven’t already been subject to a goodly quantity of training prior to your visit.

The recent evening where the latter experience reminded me of the aural dangers with which such rehearsals can be fraught was, thankfully, not that group’s first foray into the depths of the piece. They had worked past the awkward or tuneless point of flogging notes and were more focused on nuances of the sound in various parts of the composition where phrasing and textual emphasis begin to be more significant than learning individual notes or when strictly turning the volume ‘up to eleven‘ is the goal. Now it was time to be subtler, to learn why Ludwig van Beethoven or the text’s poet Friedrich Schiller might have chosen a particular word, or what singers in the rehearsal might need to be prepared for when they were handed off in a week or two to the symphony conductor who would lead the public performances. And, of course, it was time to be untying some more of the knots in the choir’s German pronunciation.

Getting the sounds of the language right and even, sometimes, appropriate to a period in history when the language was significantly different from the present version, if that’s when the composition was written, always makes as much improvement in the overall sound of a piece as getting the notes right. Most composers’ works are heavily flavored as much by the natural vowel and consonant sounds and rhythms of their textual languages as by their personal compositional styles and languages. If you’re singing in German but your first language is English or Korean or Spanish or Chinese, as is the case with most of these students, that can take some serious learning and practice.

On the night in question, the big Beethoven rehearsal was followed in less than a half hour by a full concert performance of another massive German choral classic, the Johannes Brahms ‘Ein deutsches Requiem.’ This piece was performed by the most advanced and experienced of the university’s choirs, with even bigger voices among them, in the main concert hall of the campus. That group was, of course, at the end of its whole rehearsal period of work on the Brahms, and was in concert dress and on stage in the far finer and more refined acoustics of the performance space. Attending audience members would hardly think about it, most of them not having just sat in the foregoing rehearsal, but despite the potentially deeper well of experience among the singers, their later stage of preparation, the improved acoustic, and the attentive state of the choristers that arises in performance mode, the problems and possibilities remained pretty much the same. If the German pronunciation was any less accurate, the pitches any less solid and informed, the changes in meter and volume any less clear, precise, subtle, and graceful, there could still be the risk of concert attendees being deafened or merely battered about the head by the cacophony. You might not always think of concert attendance (especially outside of death-metal arena performances) as being dangerous, but there it is.

As a favorite opera educator was fond of saying, practice and preparation could mean the difference between Bel canto (beautiful singing) and Can Belto (a humorous American coinage meaning, roughly, I Can Shout). The zone between these two can be remarkably small when the music is as grand-scale, powerful, and emotionally charged as Beethoven and Brahms’s superb works. No matter which the piece, far better that both performers and audience leave feeling joyful than near to needing their own requiems sung. Yelling “songs” can be an interesting stunt (and one I have experienced in a small and resonant space with that chorus of Finnish gentlemen blaring away at me), and it’s often a state that must be visited sometime during the preparation of a major choral work, too. But unless the goal is actually having listeners’ heads explode, it’s ever so much better that everyone does his and her preparation diligently until the big sounds, even in rehearsal, are not constantly terrifying but in fact mostly soul-stirring. Nice when we can save the shouting for a good standing ovation’s “Bravissimi!” at the end of the concert.Digital illo: Can Belto

In fond memory of our dear James Dale Holloway, who was known to exhort his singers to “never sing louder than Lovely!”

A Very Brief Tribute—and an Invitation

Life never ceases to astound me, the people in my daily experiences in particular. This Friday evening, for example, I am going to another concert that will involve a whole host of dedicated, skilled, passionate musicians all working together to make history come alive in their performance. There will be wonderful music from greats like George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell, and less widely known stars who also had connections with the London musical scene in a time when instruments were quite different, compositional and singing styles distinct from what we know nowadays, and the world, even of a metropolis like London, much smaller and simpler than the bright lights and wild energy we know now—yet the stories that the songwriters and performers of that age were telling differed rather less than you might think.The College of Music here at the University of North Texas where my husband conducts and teaches is gigantic, in some ways rivaling the sensation of a city itself, at times. Little London, if you will. Nearly sixteen hundred music majors and their teachers and peers work together to make all of these impressive performances, and of course they are far from limited to early music, though that’s the focus of the concert I’ll be attending. Tonight, there was music of Frank Zappa; tomorrow, voice and instrumental recitals precede the early music performance by the Collegium Singers and Baroque Orchestra; next week, along with many more spring recitals, there will be the Grand Chorus performance of Beethoven Nine and Vaughn Williams, and there are more wind symphony and jazz and chamber ensemble performances yet to come before the school year ends. It really is a bustling metropolis of its own kind, dazzling and almost losing me in its complexity. But again, the stories remain the same. It’s always about adventure and drama, love and longing. We seek to connect through the communal experiences of music.

So if you want to join in and can’t get to the campus, you can always tune in via the live stream, with many of our friends and relatives, by clicking on the link here. Or play or sing your own song, among your own friends and relatives. I imagine your stories will be familiar as well. I think I can hear them across this vast city of ours.Digital illo + text: Maze/Amaze

Not in Our Stars

Methinks Shakespeare’s man Cassius, saying that ‘the fault…is not in our stars but in ourselves,’ spoke to a much broader expression of fault than that of his moment. I’ve seen many people apply this aphorism to support their private or corporate ambitions; to excuse their chosen ways of achieving that preferred brand of greatness, to defy what they thought was their fate or any law standing in their way, and certainly without much regard for the effects on others. If any god or philosophy can be interpreted to endorse, whether overtly or semantically, that an individual or group should hold privilege or power, why then, whatever it takes for that party to take over is entirely permissible, if not necessary. It’s a central reason, I think, for most human strife, whether petty divisions or all-out wars: my beliefs tell me that I should run the universe, and anything that stands in the way of that is wrong, evil, and must be stopped. Exterminated, if need be.

Digital illo: Not in Our Stars

Does claiming that wickedness is all an external construct absolve me?

What a frightening world. What a sad, ugly, and pusillanimous philosophy. I suspect that if we allow that we ourselves might be the cause of the problem, and look into our hearts and minds to see how we might turn, instead, toward finding and contributing toward the many possible solutions, we will find that our stars shine more brightly on us and our fellows all around this little hunk of terrestrial rock and water that we call home.

Digital illo: The Fault Lies Within

What if I can’t pretend to be anonymous and powerless? Maybe I do have both responsibility and, perhaps, even, some little tiny bit to offer…

NSFW / mature audiences only: the band Honningbarna‘s short video, filmed in Kabul in January, says through punk music and visual images that we might do well to pay less attention to fear-mongers and more to what makes us all more human, more happy to be together and alive. I think it’s a raucous, raw, rowdy, and ultimately mightily uplifting piece of admonishment.

Think about taking a look into the benevolent businesses/social causes mentioned at the end of the video, too, if you will: Skateistan and the producers of Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children. There is peace and goodness in the world, even in places we might never imagine. Perhaps we all need to expand our thinking beyond how we can bend the universe to our individual, personal benefits and toward larger things like a small child’s joy in juggling or the great youthful freedom and camaraderie found in a skate park.

Digital illo: We are the Circus

Maybe *I* am the clown in this circus…


Photo: Early WindsRehearsals of Early Music vary more than those unfamiliar with the stuff would guess. Explaining to others why I, a non-musician, love sitting in music rehearsals of any sort is an iffy enough proposition in itself, but at least I can condense my main reasons enough that they may appreciate how much watching and listening in on the preparatory process—hearing what the musicians are working on, how, and why, not to mention any backstory of the pieces in question that gets shared en route—informs and enriches my experiences in concert performances. Tell them I love sitting in on rehearsals for early music, and I can get quizzical stares as though I’d said I love the temperate climate of Seattle. Isn’t that where it rains all the time? Well, the Pacific Northwest gets a fair quantity of rain, or it might be hard pressed to maintain its evergreen status, but in addition to lots of other notable and varied climatic features of the region, it gets truly spectacular sunshine as well.

Rehearsals of early music, too, are far more varied and nuanced and, at times, downright surprising than you’d guess if all you’ve ever heard of the entire body of work leading up to the Baroque period is that 30-second clip of background music advertising the local Renaissance Faire.  It can range from the most tender, measured votive chant to the rollicking, rowdy, and bawdy; from plaintive solos through angel-choir harmonies and right on to shockingly modern sounding rhythms and dissonances, early music is an incredibly rich tapestry of sounds.

One thing that does remain consistent in a great deal of accompanied or instrumentally supported vocal music from early Western sources is the use of continuo. To a layman or amateur listener like me, this means that while there will be portions or movements of larger musical works when either the choir sings a cappella (unaccompanied by instruments) for a while or, conversely, together with the majority of the orchestra ‘singing along’ in accompaniment, there are often sections where one or more of the singers, or the entire chorus, is supported by a small group or individual’s continuo playing, too. Continuo is not an instrument, or at least not a specific one; rather, it is the practice of supporting sung music with a continuing and enhancing undercurrent of instrumental accompaniment.

The result, at its best, is that the sounds blend so seamlessly that listeners might well forget that they’re not hearing human voices exclusively, and the instrumental strains seem to disappear into the sound. Yet when the continuo is not played in the same passages, as may be the case in rehearsal, the phrases can sound strangely pale or incomplete.

A great continuo player, like a great accompanist, is a species of artist quite distinct from the great solo instrumentalist or even orchestral player. It is, in very rare instances, possible for one player to excel in all of these roles, but such magical creatures are truly few and far between. What distinguishes the fine continuo artist, and to some extent accompanist, is not only sheer musicality but an extrasensory ability to think in sync with the other artists in the performance—the other players, the singers, the conductor—and a remarkable degree of prescience in always giving just the help or polish needed at just the right instant without either being asked or demanding the spotlight for it. The best so seamlessly enhance the work of those around them that they raise the level of the whole performance in ways that a self-aggrandizing soloist cannot. There’s an element of generosity in the skill set that not only shows true mastery but also the confidence of knowing that such excellence is its own reward and the beauty and pleasures of the concert are great enough to cast their golden glow over everyone.Photo: Lute's Heart

There’s a good lesson in there for all of us, musicians or not, isn’t there.