Friday, March 20, 2015

Rich Days

This March has been perhaps the busiest ever at our house or at least for the people who live at our house. But I could be wrong about that as there have been some really busy Marches before.

At any rate, last Thursday I enjoyed an evening of "ekphrastic" poetry featuring poets from Southeastern reading at the Polk County County Art Museum. They were responding to large canvases of imaginary seascapes. Their words left me with a desire to listen to whale songs and shrimp songs. A composition is forthcoming.

If you're not familiar with the term "ekphrastic" I suggest looking it up as it's a fun one to know.

On Saturday night, I had the privilege of coordinating a concert to conclude the 2015 conference of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. Our aim was to convey a sense of diversity, and we did so with a range of ensembles and repertoire including
  • a piano solo from Arthur Farwell's Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas
  • a Chinese folk song sung by a colleague
  • a pasodoble played by our string quartet
  • a string quintet I wrote based on a phrase from King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail
  • several Latin selections played by our big band and a combo   
It was a joyous experience as a result of much collaboration between members of the Society, our students and faculty, and the folks at the Lakeland Center (the venue where the event took place). We were touched by the enthusiasm of the Society's members who noted the special appropriateness of the program as a bridge to the theme of next year's conference. To me, that says the Spirit was also involved in this collaborative effort. For anyone who might be interested, I've copied my comments from the event at the bottom of this post.

Then on Sunday, I attended the Central Florida Bach Festival where soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists were joined by the Florida Southern Girls Choir, which Kathy conducts, for an inspired afternoon of Bach.

The program was the life Christ through the works of Bach, a "What if Bach wrote Messiah?" if you will.  Movements from various cantatas and from the Christmas oratorio and St. John Passion were masterfully programmed to create a new oratorio of sorts. It was a combination of works Bach could possibly have arranged that way but didn't. The audience was exhilerated by the experience.

I expect to remember these rich days for a long time.



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SPS Concert Remarks

My name is Charles Hulin and I am the chair of the Department of Music at Southeastern University. On behalf of our music students and faculty, I want you know that we consider it an honor and a privilege to share with you this evening. It is our sincere prayer that the Spirit will use this musical offering to provide each of you some distinct blessing as you go from this place.



In choosing the repertoire for this occasion, we sought to create an atmosphere of reflection as well as celebration. And in keeping with the nature of this conference, we are also presenting works that move beyond some of the usual boundaries of our music-making.



We begin with a performance by one of our piano majors, Caitlynn Christiensen.  She will be playing an early 20th century work by the American composer Arthur Farwell. It is titled “Receiving the Messenger” and it comes from Farwell’s work Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas, which expresses both the composer’s European schooling and his engagement with Native American culture.



Next, Dr. Shudong Braamse, one of our voice faculty members, will perform a stirring Chinese song in which the singer, who has travelled far from home, addresses her mother. She says to her, “When the ripples in the river smile at you, when the bamboo flutes are played for you, when a beautiful boat is sailing toward you, when you hear a folksong floating from far way – that is me!”   



We now turn to our string students for a very famous piece of Spanish dance music, a joyful pasodoble by Pascuel Narro. Our string quartet consists of Wesley Mason and John Morgan Roe on violins, Lorenzo Sanchez on viola, and Ronnie Wiesniewski on cello.




Violinist Winter Jackson and percussionist Mike Tuck will join the quartet for our next work, which is an arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River.” A few years back, I wrote this arrangement to commemorate Martin Luther King Day. Its title “Psalm of Brotherhood” comes from a passage in King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he wrote: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” (I would submit that in some ways it might still be that time.)

  

Now is it is my pleasure to introduce my colleague and friend, Dr. Mark Belfast and the Southeastern University Jazz Ensemble.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Psalm 23

Last night, I was reading the prologue to the Gospel of John with some friends and it struck me that only one portion of one verse of the passage is in present tense. Verse 3a reads, "The light shines in the darkness . . ."

My mostly subconscious assumption seems to be that one can and should always be in the light. But this passage acknowledges that light shines in the darkness in the present tense.

Such a beam of light fell across my soul during an SEU chapel gathering yesterday. In the early morning, we were led to read and pray Psalm 23. I suddenly found myself reading and praying it in a way I never have before.  

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
     I have to stop here for some time to acknowledge that so many do want.
  
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
     Green pastures -
           Under monuments or no monuments, 
           we eventually lie down for eternal rest 
           in the earth's great green pastures.
                  Thanatopsis  
     Still waters -
          Prayer for clarity and peace
          for myself and others. 

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
     What is this psalmist's idea of the soul? And what is its restoration?
          Whatever the idea, it seems that he, too, 
          was seeing himself as more than meets the eye
          all those years ago.
 
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
       Even in the face of death and evil,
            security in the spirit can remain.
                   
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
       Essential to faith is relationship with enemies.
            In that regard,
            Christ enacted sacrificial love,
            removing emnity.
            The cup of his blood overflows.
            That is our model.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
       A moment of receptivity and openness before the richness of God's self.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

First Mozart

These days, I am having the privilege and fun of supporting a piano student in his first serious efforts at engaging with Mozart. He has played two or three Beethoven sonatas and done so rather well. A couple of lessons into his Mozart experience, he initiated a thoughtful conversation about how playing Mozart is distinctly different from playing Beethoven.

In Beethoven, there are many details to which the pianist must constantly pay attention. The type of change that occurs in the music is characterized by many different types of detail that create an expressive type of beauty from one moment to the next. The first movement of the Pathetique Sonata is a clear example of this.

The beauty of Mozart, on the other hand, is a matter of aesthetics - a matter of pattern, balance, and proportion. (Dr. Kaplinsky taught me this comparison many years ago.) What this means for the pianist is consistent emphasis on clarity and phrasing. This requires getting your ears around all the turns of Mozart's melodies and disciplining your hands and feet so that you can keep your listeners deftly moving along those melodies, too. Solomon's playing of K. 576 gives an idea of this.  

Playing either composers' music is demanding. In Beethoven, you have to keep up with the pace of change. And you're performance will never rise to the level of the goodness of the music. In Mozart, you have to stay in that focused Mozart mode I just described. It has been likened unto an act of musical hygiene. Your playing of Mozart will reveal, pretty much in every moment of the performance, your commitment to good planning, your responsiveness, your sense of legato, and your ability and willingness to serve the composer by applying the parts of your brain and heart his music requires. Exposure in the pure light of Mozart's genius will illuminate the true state of your musicianship.        


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Diversity

These are the remarks I shared this afternoon at the beginning of our departmental concert "Diversity: A Celebration of the Power of Music to Move Us." It took place at the Polk State College Lake Wales Arts Center. The program is listed at the bottom of the post.


Good afternoon. My name is Charles Hulin and I am the chair of the Department of Music at Southeastern University. On behalf of the students and faculty whose performances you are about to hear, I would like to thank the Lake Wales Arts Council and Polk State College for the invitation and the opportunity to be heard.

As you can see from the printed program, the emphasis of our concert is on the power of music to move us as an expression of diversity. As an aspect of cultures around the globe, music reminds us of what we share and of how we differ. Sometimes this delights us, and sometimes it distresses us. With that said, I would like to take a few moments to frame our time together.
   
We come to you as members of an Assemblies of God institution, a Pentecostal school. As such, we hold dear the belief that on the birthday of the Church, diverse peoples were gathered from the far corners of the known world and the Holy Spirit poured out rich gifts upon them. Diversity has been a key element of our faith from its very inception.

Beyond this religious conviction, we celebrate the role diversity has played in making the United States a great nation. Whether we assimilate in the proverbial melting pot or maintain customs of our home cultures as ingredients in a tremendous salad bowl, we continue to fulfill our original motto, “Out of many, one.”

With these things in mind, we will begin today’s concert with music from the first Americans as transcribed and transformed into piano pieces by Arthur Farwell who was a pioneer in the idea of American music. We will follow that prelude with a series of songs that spans cultures and continents while witnessing to universal experiences of love. We will conclude our first half with fresh sounds of percussion that have potential to lead us beyond the words that sometimes limit our thinking.

After intermission, we will shift our focus to the sounds of strings with a work which the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, dedicated to his own country. Then, we will return to American soil as my friend and colleague, Emile Hawkins, recites words of Martin Luther King, words that are relevant to all of us since, as author Chris Sunami writes, “King . . . saved the nation as a whole . . . (by charting) a peaceful way forward from an intolerable situation (that was) descending into violence.” I invite you to reconsider that peaceful way forward as you listen to the musical reflection that follows, a reflection based on the spiritual “Deep River.”

Finally, we will turn to the quintessential American musical style.  It was here in the complexity of our social landscape that the cultures of Africa and Europe came together to create jazz. That intermingling, that diversity, has changed and invigorated music the world over.  

Thank you again for this opportunity. It is our prayer that you are inspired by these musical offerings.


                       Diversity - A Celebration of the Power of Music to Move Us

Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas                  Arthur Farwell
            Receiving the Messenger
            Raising the Pipes                                                                              

Allqamari Kanki!                                                                                  Quechua Song
The singer compares her love to a dove.

Amor . . . Dolor                                                     Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales
The brokenhearted singer sends her love away.

“Lenski’s Aria” from Eugene Onegin                                            Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Of the eve of duel, Lenski sings to his wife of their life together.
  
Red Bean Song                                                                                            Xue’an Liu
The singer considers a token of love.

Under the Silver Moonlight                                                            Chinese Folk Song
The singer wonders where her love is hiding.

“Sevillana” from Don Cesar de Bazan                                                 Jules Massenet
Maritana, a street singer, celebrates the beauty of Seville.
  
Pure Imagination                                                  Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley                                                                                                      Alex Stopa, arranger

Gymnopédie No. 1                                                                                        Erik Satie
(vibraphone)

INTERMISSION 

Quintet in G major, Op. 77                                                                 Antonin Dvorak
            Allegro con fuoco


“I Have a Dream” Speech                                   Words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Psalm of Brotherhood                                                                            Charles Hulin
A musical memorial to King, based on the spiritual, “Deep River.”

Jazz Selections                                                  Southeastern University Jazz Combo
                              Take the A Train, My Funny Valentine, St. Thomas

Monday, February 09, 2015

First Beethoven

Every classical music blogger ought to write at least one Beethoven post a year. This is mine.

For fun, I did a search of my blog and discovered that I've managed to write several most years since 2008. The only exception was 2010 when I appear not to have mentioned Beethoven at all although I did lots of blogging.

Here's the series of those Beethoven posts, just in case someone (other than me) wants to peruse them.

Last week, I had the great privilege of introducing a piano student to the world of playing Beethoven. This excellent student had not yet played any Beethoven and wanted to. Opus 109 had appealed to her but we agreed it probably wasn't the best first Beethoven work to try to play.

Our discussion of Beethoven turned to the attitude with which it should be performed. In general, the pianist needs to realize that this music comes from an overall  environment of struggle and effort that gives it its strength. In addition, it should engender a mood of profound reflection, deep understanding, and sympathy typical of German Romanticism.

Its greatness is not primarily in the beauty of its melodies, the novelty of its harmonies, or the compelling quality of its rhythms. No, as Bernstein put it, its greatness springs from its sense of inevitability.

This is not to say that Beethoven was not a fine melodist, a harmonic genius, or a composer of highly propulsive gestures. All those things are true, but they are so well-integrated into the intention of the music that they rarely draw attention to themselves.

Indeed, Beethoven's music strikes us as having only one way of existing and that is as he composed it. The lines are so incisive and the textures so clear that there's never a moment when the listener can really imagine an equally likely alternative path for the music to follow. (A particularly muddily textured passage by Arthur Farwell was also on the music rack as we discussed the first two pages of Beethoven's "Pastorale" Sonata. We could both imagine several other options for Farwell's measures - measures that Beethoven would never had written.)

As Dr. Falby taught back at Peabody, Beethoven's music is incredibly end-oriented. From its first note, it lets us know it's on its way to its ending. At any moment in the music, you can, without question, tell which way it's going and how far it is to home. This focus, which is so very western, makes the music singularly arresting and affecting, and it powered Beethoven's works to the very highest ranks of the canon.





Sunday, February 01, 2015

Spiritus

Hands are a bit tired and a concert is coming
but I want to get these thoughts out tonight.

Spiritus -
our trio's name.
A good name for a trio
and a trio at a Pentecostal school in particular.

Why?

Our music and our faith are conversations.
We listen for each other
and for the Spirit.

That said,
I now consider music -
that so-called "universal language."

In all honesty,
music has some of the aspects of language
and lacks some of the others.

Within a given culture,
it communicates some things pretty well.
Adverbs,
for instance,
but it's not so good at nouns.

Really,
music is universal like language is universal.
We all have some.

But it's no Esperanto.

And as it turns out,
neither is Esperanto.

Last Saturday,
we played our program for the first time.
The evening's masterwork:
Mendelssohn C Minor. 

I was well-behaved.
Basically,
I whispered politely
so my very fine string colleagues could converse unimpeded.

Whispering in this context is pretty good.
It says you listen.
It says you embrace being part of a community.

Whispering is also tricky.
You have to always listen for the cello.
And it helps if your violinist is careful not to get too quiet.

You have to keep decrescendoing.
You have to find opportunities to decrease,
opportunities you would never notice in solo playing.

And you have to pedal carefully.

Better said,
you mostly have to not pedal.

When you do pedal,
you have to pedal creatively.
Add just a bit when you want a swell
but don't play louder with your hands.
Or hold the notes longer in your left hand
but play the right hand staccato
for a combination of clarity and sustaining.
(In that situation,
your left hand is the pedal.)
Or pedal short segments after beats
to tie things together without building up lots of sound
so your colleagues want be drowned.

Next time around (Monday night)
I want to contribute a bit more.
Mendelssohn deserves it
and I would like it.

In that music "speaks" to us,
it is a language.

And we can always learn to speak it better.

I have a heart language.
I'm speaking it when I play my own compositions.
I don't have many questions about how they should played.
And if I do,
it's probably that I haven't yet made up my mind
about how I want something to sound.

I've also explored that big language group "classical" for a long time.
A lot of its words and phrases feel almost as familiar as a mother tongue.

But it is,
as I just said,
a big language group.

In Brahmsese and Schumannian and Mendelssohnglish
the same sounds are employed in different ways
implying subtle differences of meaning.

As students
and professionals
we spend a lot of time learning vocabulary lists:
the right notes and effective technique.

Even if we master those,
we're not yet dealing with grammar.

Grammar involves functions and purposes:
What goes with what?
What's the trajectory of the line?
Is this a beginning or an ending,
a fulfillment of expectations or a surprise?
Is excitement building or is energy waning?
And to all of the above  - why and how?

Here's where music theory meets the road.
Analysis lets you know all of these things.
Once you have some good ideas about them,
your performances are likely to make sense.
You'll be speaking the language
and you'll be understood.

But there will still be tell-tale signs
that you're not a native speaker.

A funny accent always lets people know
you're not from around here.

Perhaps your accent adds a bit of charm,
but you'll still be pegged as an outsider.

Most likely,
for the sake of some sort of authenticity,
you'll want to learn to inflect the sounds
with a greater sensitivity to the richness of the language.

How do you do that?

You listen a lot.
You listen as you practice.
And you listen to your instincts
as you listen to what's coming from the instrument.

You'll discover that
you're doing the wrong things
or too much of the right things.

But with lots of time and attention,
you'll find lovely ways of shaping the music
that reveal its true grace and joy.

That's what I want.









 



Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Trouvering"



We composers and teachers of composition do well to understand ourselves as trouveres. "Trouvere" is one of the oldest words for "composer" and I think, at its root, it tells us more about what we do than our word "composer."

The newer word "composer" tends to wash over us as simply meaning someone who writes music. We add to that whatever mental images or baggage our individual knowledge of composers brings along with it.

However, the word "composer" actually has layers suggesting one who arranges things into a whole. That already speaks much more of the real composing process. We are almost always assembling and organizing. That's what our creating involves. We never make something from nothing and the most exalted composers in the classical tradition - Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven - never seem to have created so much as a new chord.  Instead, their monumental compositional efforts consisted of profoundly moving, ingenious new applications of what they inherited.

"Trouvering" (my word), on the other hand, addresses something even more fundamental. It references an earlier phase in the compositional process or at least a more basic disposition of those who excel at the discipline of composition. The etymology of "trouvere" involves an Old French word which also means "to find."

To me, this information is very liberating. It is also very grounding. It cuts through all of the romanticizing, all of the agendas and personalities, and all of the hyping accretions that paralyze us when we start down a creative path. Behind their studio doors, composers are trying to find things: arresting sounds, fresh juxtapositions, compelling lines . . . They are all there to be found, and we're looking for them.

Until you realize you are on such a search, the process can be frustrating, to say the least. Imagine a toddler alone on the edge of a great wood. This little one has no concept of path or thicket, clearing or stream, let alone county line or the ocean beyond all of it. The grasp and ability to differentiate are not yet developed enough even to be overwhelmed. Instead, there is a nebulous lost-ness and probably a panic if a trusted hand is not felt soon.

The beginning composer might be good at finding things intuitively or at least at knowing where things are in the immediate setting. Another might have a knack for grasping big shapes but have no sense of how to fill them. Whatever the case, there must always be work for the teacher of composing to do along the lines of trouvering. The student simply hasn't spent the time on these paths that the teacher has. And so the teacher can move the process along for the student by pointing out possible ways forward. Then, the student can respond, "That's what I was looking for." or, "No, that's not quite what I'm hearing on the inside."

As I was looking around for things at the keyboard last night (improvising), I caught myself in that same old unhelpful and unrealistic dialog against which I am constantly campaigning in the lives of others. My fingers found their way over some bi-tonal things that were reminiscent of Prokofiev. "Ah!" I thought, "I could write something using those sorts of sounds." And then I said the following to myself, but I didn't put it into words until now. It was more of a feeling. If I had "languaged" it, I would have immediately realized how stupidly I was short-circuiting my own creative process. "But the music in which the mature Prokofiev uses these materials is so much better than what I can imagine myself making up off-the-cuff that there's really no point for me to even try to compose."

Obviously, I need to remember that I'm a trouvere and a composer. Keeping that perspective allows me to enjoy the processes of seeking, finding, and arranging into a whole.