At The College Of Musical Knowledge

When it comes to rock music, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on its history and principal performers.  I lived through most of the history of that particular musical genre, was immersed in it when I was in high school and college, and read about my favorite artists and the early days of rock ‘n roll, the British invasion, and psychedelia.  I can pretty easily identify songs that fell into subgenres like doo-wop, bubblegum, acid rock, and disco and can identify obscure songs and artists.  And even though I don’t listen to current rock music much these days, I still carry around that history.

2014-ryan-stees-featureWith classical music, that’s not true.  I didn’t pick it up because it was the prevailing musical form in my formative years; instead, the apogee of the classical period happened decades or even centuries before I was born.  I’ve listened to it over the years, but my knowledge really is narrow and about an inch deep.  I’ve watched Amadeus, listened to a kid’s tape we had when the boys were little called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and am generally familiar with at least some of the creations of some of classical music’s biggest names, like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.  I know that I really like baroque music.  But . . . that’s about it.  I still confuse Schubert and Schumann.

For a fan of the music, my knowledge is pretty dismal.  It’s embarrassing.

Recently I’ve decided that I’m not just going to accept my state of blissful classical music ignorance, and am going to try to broaden my horizons by discovering some new composers, learning about distinguishing between the different classical musical periods, and trying to understand the whole composing process and how orchestration works.  I’m not going to try to learn how to read music — we’re talking baby steps here — but I’m hoping to end up with a better appreciation for the music that I listen to most frequently these days.

Thanks to the great Idagio app that I’ve written about before, I’ve already discovered a few previously unknown composers whose music I really like, and learned some interesting things about process.  This year I’ll be reporting from time to time on what I’m getting out of my enrollment in the College of Musical Knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s no curriculum, and there won’t be any midterms.  I’ll just be auditing the classes.

War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.

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Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?

The Last Star Wars

The new Star Wars is out in the theaters.  The commercials for Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker have been running for a while now, and the expected Star Wars movie hype machine is in full swing.  In one article, for example, a former Disney executive reports that George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, felt “betrayed” by the studio’s plans for the last trilogy in Lucas’ contemplated nine-part opus, and fans and critics are already emotionally debating whether this latest film is a disaster or is helping to get the Star Wars franchise back on its footing.

f9c0b8_f7ef85e98f5449c6b4f994a9f6e1507fmv2All of this, I think, is part of the fundamental problem with Star Wars.  It’s clearly a “franchise,” and it feels like a “franchise.”  When the first Star Wars came out 40 years ago it was fresh and new and funny and interesting and ground-breaking in its use of special effects.  Now the Star Wars model is old and tired.  When was the last time somebody had a good laugh, or even a chuckle, at a Star Wars film?  I’m guessing it probably coincides with the last time Harrison Ford was on the screen.  And when you’ve got obsessive fans debating every instant of a film for consistency with what has gone before and comparing it to the eight prior episodes, you’re never going to achieve “fresh” and “fun” status.  Every successive film is weighted down, more and more, by the ponderousness of the Force and the Jedi and the Sith and the increasingly confusing plot lines and story arcs.  How can anybody be expected to keep it all straight?

And the fact that every Star Wars movie seems to involve a lightsaber duel between a good character and a bad character, and a Death Star plot device, and heroes saving the universe from evil and seeking redemption, doesn’t help.  Who here didn’t react to the commercials for the new film with a shrug and the rueful thought that there’s another long lightsaber duel we’re going to have to sit through — like the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader, or the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul, or the lightsaber duel by the molten lava that caused Darth Vader to need all of his protective clothing, or the lightsaber duel in the forest.  Lightsabers are nifty, elegant weapons, to be sure, but there are only so many ways to have a lightsaber duel — and changing the setting for the duel really doesn’t change that.  I find myself longing for Han Solo to pop up during one of these interminable lightsaber duels and shake his head and say there’s no substitute for a good blaster.

I’ll go see this newest Star Wars film because I’ve seen the prior eight and I suppose I need to, to close the book on what once was great.  But I’m hoping that this latest Star Wars is the last Star Wars.  Really.  It’s time.

Involuntary Singing

I’m in the midst of a two-day singing binge.  Yesterday I sang in the “Vorys Choir” at the firm — an ad hoc group that sings a few Christmas carols and parody songs at the Columbus office every year.  I’ve been doing it for years, and fortunately there is no requirement of any talent or singing ability.  The main criterion is that you are willing to don a Santa cap and sing out loud, as Buddy the Elf instructed — and that’s something that I can do.  It’s fun.

hqdefaultToday, we’ll be going to the all-day Beatles marathon at the Bluestone.  Starting at 12:30, the performers will run through every song in the considerable Beatles repertoire — with a few others thrown in.  The Sgt. Peppercorn performers are a lot more talented and professional than the “Vorys Choir,” but there’s no doubt that, at many points during the show, I’ll be joining in.

When I hear Christmas songs I just find myself singing along, and when I hear Beatles songs I do the same.  I can’t help myself, really.  I know all of those Christmas and Beatles songs by heart, and I’ve sung along to them since I was a kid.  When I hear them now, I just naturally join in.

For the record, I think it’s easier to sing along with the Beatles, because all you need to do is follow the lead singer in the Beatles’ recordings, in whatever key and tempo and vocal stylings they chose.  When I sing Ticket to Ride, I think I sound like John.  When I sing Hey Jude, I think I sound like Paul.  Christmas songs sung by the “Vorys Choir” are harder because of the key chosen by our musical accompanists — so you might start out in a comfortable vocal range on Silent Night, for example, and mid-song find yourself beyond the top end of your capabilities and needing to downshift into a lower register.  In any professional choir, that would be verboten.  Fortunately, with the racket created by the “Vorys Choir,” nobody notices and nobody cares.

I hope that every Webner House reader gets to sing a favorite song of their choosing, aloud, during this holiday season, and enjoy the chance to make a little noise.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2019 (II)

The internet is a wonderful thing — at least, some of the time — but sometimes sifting through the mass of available information seems overwhelming.  Run a search for Christmas cookie recipes and you will get an avalanche of hits that leaves you no method, aside from random chance, to pick which website to review.  They all promise to offer favorite recipes that people will love.

That’s where the use of finer search terms become necessary.  I realized this when I happened across a website post that featured the best soft Christmas cookie recipes — just in case you’re baking for the toothless among us who must gum their holiday delicacies.  So this year I did a search for Christmas cookie recipes from the 1960s and ran across a treasure trove of options, including this gem, which is described on yellowed print as “Easy-to-make cookies for those who like a not-too-sweet dessert” that are “good keepers and shippers.”  I’m pretty sure Mom made these, by the way.

Swirl cookies

2017-11-18-holiday-pinwheel-cookies-coloradjusted-7Ingredients:  1 cup soft butter; 1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar; 1 teaspoon vanilla extract; 2 1/2 cups unsifted flour; 1/4 teaspoon salt; red and yellow food coloring

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla until light.  Stir in flour and salt until well blended, then divide dough in half.

Color one half with 1/4 teaspoon of red food coloring and 7 drops of yellow food coloring.  Leave other half uncolored.  Chill the dough.

Press together one level teaspoon of each color.  Roll into a pencil shape, then form in a coil on the baking sheet.  Bake for 8 minutes at 375 degrees.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2019

When Do You Eat?

Most families have their own unique Thanksgiving Day traditions.  Sometimes the traditions come in the form of a special food — like Aunt Sue’s candied yams, or Uncle Frank’s oyster stuffing — but other traditions may involve who gives thanks, who sits in which seat at the table, and who carves the turkey.  One tradition that often differs from family to family is:  when do you eat the primary meal?

us-thanksgiving-me_3510533aI say “primary meal” because, in our household, Thanksgiving Day typically involved pretty much uninterrupted eating, from stem to stern.  There was the initial breakfast period, followed by the light grazing period, the heavy grazing period, the meal itself, and finally the irresistible post-meal, belt-loosened extra piece of pumpkin pie or leftover turkey sandwich while watching the last football game of the day.  So, just to clarify, here I’m talking about the table-groaning meal where you actually sit down together, eat the freshly carved turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and a few rolls, and take a slice of the cranberry relish that still is in the form of a can because somebody has to do it.

In our family the primary Thanksgiving meal came at roughly 4 p.m., depending on whether the turkey was done.  The meal was strategically positioned between the end of the first football game broadcast and when the next game started to get interesting.  At our house, that timing of the meal was so deeply engrained that it never occurred to me that you could eat your Thanksgiving meal in any other time slot.  When I later realized that some people ate at noon, or 2, or (horrors!) 6:30, it was an astonishing revelation.  And I often wondered how you could move the meal and still fit in the other parts of the Thanksgiving Day festivities, like watching the parades, the various grazing periods, the backyard touch football game, and the evening card games.

So, when do you eat?  And if you doubt that the timing of that primary Thanksgiving meal is a tradition, ask yourself why you eat when you do.  If your honest answer is a shrug and the response that you’ve always eaten at that time, that sounds like a family tradition to me.

When Christmas Comes Early

Normally I hate the too-early anticipation of the Christmas season.  When I  walked past a Starbucks this week and saw that the outdoor sign was advertising all of the sugary Christmas concoctions, I groaned.  When I walked past St. Mary Church and saw that they were setting up the Christmas tree holders for their annual Christmas tree sale, I groaned  again.  And when I saw that the Hausfrau Haven was selling egg nog, I groaned still more — and also felt a little sick to my stomach at the thought of the coating, cloying taste of egg nog, because I really don’t like egg nog.

IMG_9059In my book, Christmas shouldn’t be anticipated until Thanksgiving is over, period.  I know that some people can’t resist jumping the gun, and have already started listening to Christmas music. wearing red sweaters with reindeer on them and watching the saccharine Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel, but I’m not one of them.

I do make one exception to my no Christmas before Thanksgiving rule, however.  If I see that Great Lakes Christmas Ale is for sale, I’ll always pick up a six pack, whether Thanksgiving has passed or not.  The Great Lakes Brewing Company can be depended on to brew a high-quality, spicy, holiday ale that Old Fezziwig would have loved.  I picked up some of this year’s batch yesterday, and it’s excellent — packed with flavor and a little holiday dash, besides.  After savoring a bottle, I felt more in the Christmas mood already.  Hey — when is the first showing of It’s A Wonderful Life, anyway?

If you like a seasonal brew, I highly recommend this year’s edition of Great Lakes Christmas Ale.  But be forewarned: consistent with the generous spirit of the holidays, it comes in at 7.5% alcohol by volume.  Pace yourself, or you might not be able to finish trimming the tree.