Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Upward Spiral

As every artist learns sooner or later, there is no force on earth as capricious as the Muse, who, being eternal, can do what He wants with Time, and all things, physical or mental, that have to function within it. "My ways are not thy ways," nor are His schedules. Who could imagine that a composer should have to wait until he was nicely into his seventies to have the grace to learn how to arrange? As late as 1996, when I launched into the opera - I learned yesterday that Public Broadcasting Atlanta began the same year - although I had the happy faculty of being able to write both lyrics and melody, I knew that the best arrangements of these would have to surrender to someone else's talents. I didn't mind. To repeat, I love teamwork. And would have thoroughly enjoyed listening to what someone like Brian Ahern, or Gordon Lightfoot's brilliant sidekick Nick DaCaro, could do with my stuff. I mean, with "Me and Bobby McGee" Kris Kristofferson had himself a great song, but it took Gordo and Nick to take it to the singles charts, and keep it there forever. But now I can do it myself, if I have to.
God actually once said to me, "What I have arranged, I have arranged," but at the time I had no sense of this applying to music. Oh well, live and learn. In retrospect, too, I have to recognize that what He also meant was that He had arranged for me to be kept relatively stupid about music so I could keep on keepin' on with the contemplative life and rim shots at Rome and assorted other authority problems.
But no more, and not only have I finally diagnosed the ivories to the degree that I need, but I've been let back into the guitar on a full time basis. Man, what you hear when you can count. And think correctly with truly disciplined fingering. Of course I've had my moments of inspiration and understanding with the Chicago-built Harmony that sits in the living room guitar stand about eight feet from my chair, but then there's been the long gaps in my attention span while I tinker at the keyboard. As long as I could keep ahead of the great McDaniel, I was doing my job. Problem is, he's been speeding up. At our last lesson, in fact, it was I that made the mistakes. Mind you, as far as I can see so far, we're doing stuff along educational lines that maybe no one has ever done before, and I can be forgiven for stumbling.
Now I can't keep my hands off the frets. Classical, electric, Hummingbird flat top, and the five-string banjo, on which, Thursday morning, I did some serious work on "Georgia".
Now there's a bit of a first. An opera selection composed on a banjo. Admittedly I started it, back in the middle of March, 96, on the on the old Heintzman upright grand, just so I could get a sense of the power or four or five voices, with a left hand sounding like the tenor and bass sections of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but we shall proceed with banjo, if only to start creating a true public sense of the nature of this particular creation. (And my fingers need the homework.) The banjo was invented by blacks, as they had the skill to make drums, but could not duplicate the craft of making guitars to replace or augment the instruments they got from Arab traders. And everyone knows that "Gone with the Wind" has a significant proportion of Afro Americans in its list of characters, and students of human character have often found them in fact the only people in the book who actually knew which end was up. So, when you think about, it's only reasonable that the banjo should call the tune.
And what better way to pay my respects to Pete Seeger, who by taking the trouble to come to UBC in the fall of 1957 created one of the first days of the rest of my life? Shawn was in that audience too, although we were not aware of each other at the moment.
She was not around for the onset of "Georgia", however. That was MT's doing. I had been blatting a lot about the opera, back in the spring of 96, of course still finding it hard to believe it was any of my business, till on the morning of the 16th of March she said, "When are you going to start on the songs?" And out came the chorale, instantly. Melody and words for the first verse, enough to let me know it was all very genuine, and I really did have a piece of music on my hands.
But not then, and not now - Tuesday, the 3rd of March - any real words for the second verse. I tried some sketches, mostly having to do with the moods and particular history of some pretty scrappy Crackers, but none of it felt quite right, although I was much fuller later on with some of the other numbers. Thirteen years later, I can only think that I'm going to need some feedback from the Cracker state itself to get on with it. The Almighty who knows how to freeze my brain also knows how to drive a bargain.
Today is Wednesday, and this morning I began the serious rewriting of scale studies for the keyboard. I had jotted the first three degrees of the scale possibly a month ago, and they were waiting for me to get on with the next five, with the four note harmony in the left hand. In the intervening weeks, as I was saying above, I've returned to the instruments you can hold on your lap, so that now the new photo is not a falsehood. M0reover, there are now printed quantities of music staves and guitar fret boards on paper, so that we can photograph the positions and fingering and so on, and show them on the blog. Also, the camera takes short films, with sound track, so the scales can be played and sung.
Also this morning I have a lovely note from the managing editor of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine telling me my little tale of Hemingway and some nearby huckleberries has made the cut, thus giving me a nice spot in the summer issue, going to design this Monday.
The spiral is still ascending.
The only thing that is descending for the moment is my weight. 174 on Saturday morning.
And in closing, a word from the BBC. Conrad Black is studying the piano. Maybe someone should send him my blog so he can save time and do it right. By the time he gets out of the joint in Florida, perhaps Ontario will have woken up and can give him a new career.

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