I don’t teach for a living and I’m not a student (except in the interest of improving my chili recipe), but I still organize my life in semesters. Maybe you do too. For me, it’s a good way to divide up the year. One 12- to 14-week period seems to be just enough time to write one large(ish) piece of music, score a few films, write two or three songs for my jazz band, and acquire perhaps one new skill. This semester, that new skill was learning to play the ukulele. I had been hearing the Hawaiian instrument on the radio and TV a lot, and now I have this wonderful sound in my quiver of musical arrows. Of course, if I need a master uke player for a recording, I will still hire one, but for a few chords in a pinch, I’ll do. If you divide your years the way I do, I hope you had a fruitful fall semester and that you’ve got big plans for the spring.
One of my favorite museums is the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which features amazing works by self-taught artists. Years ago, I brought a bit of that museum home (via its gift shop) in the form of several retablos. These are paintings, mostly from Mexico, each commissioned by someone who has had a brush with death and wants to honor the saint who saved them—often the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their messages are both dramatic and heartfelt.
I recently received a grant to write and record a piece for strings, harp, and percussion with Latin rhythms. When I sat down to write, I took inspiration from these moments of danger on my walls—and from these life-saving saints. I’m pleased to say that the piece is now written. Naturally, I called it Retablos. It’s a 20-minute work in three movements, which are called “Songo,” “Fandango,” and “Cumbia.”
The most challenging aspect of this piece, for me, was the dialog between the harp and the vibraphone. My worry was that the sound and the effect of the two instruments was too similar in timbre and likely to get lost in each other’s sonorities. Luckily, I was able to figure out a way to use that to my advantage. I gave the vibes and the harp a duet section in the middle of each of the movements. I feel very fortunate that there is already a performance planned for this work. The redoubtable David Fanning, conductor of the National String Symphonia, has decided to premiere Retablos in 2017. If you’d like to hear it in the meantime, you can find a synth version, along with PDFs of the score, here.
I heard my first Christmas carol of the year on the speakers at Home Depot before Thanksgiving. Ugh, thought I. But I am probably like a lot of us…conflicted about these chestnuts. If you examine the traditional carols one by one, they are usually pretty good hymns—well crafted and perfectly seasonal. Too bad we get so sick of them. And yet we need them, and not just to make a living as musicians during the season the public wants to hear them. We need them for how they connect us through the years, both with our younger selves and with carolers who have gone before. This week, my band Chaise Lounge will perform our annual Christmas show, with tunes from our Christmas album. One song we always play is “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a sci-fi-tale of the Duke of Bohemia in the 13th century, who leaves heated footprints in the snow as he travels on foot to give alms to a peasant. The melody might be Finnish from the 1600’s. The version we usually sing dates from the mid-19th century. What is astonishing to me is how the fiery silver nugget of wonder in this song burns its way through the centuries to have fresh meaning every time it’s sung. That is some powerful Christmas hoodoo, my friend. If you’re in the DC area, I hope you’ll consider coming to our show at Blues Alley. And if you’re by chance planning a holiday pops concert for a future season, drop me a line and I can tell you about our orchestral arrangements.