Monday, September 29, 2008

"Take a sip of air... hold, two, three, four and hiss..."

I've had three rehearsals now with the Youth Choir at First Pres, but this last one was quite different. During the week I was able to spend a good hour and a half on the phone with Linda Beaupré, my friend and mentor (I hope she won't mind me calling her either of those things!) After two practices I was really feeling my lack of knowledge in the area of coaching young guys whose voices are in transition. Aside from wanting to be able to really help them with the quality of their sound, I really didn't have a great idea of what range to put them in (since most of my knowledge comes from how I sing myself, and I've never been an adolescent guy). So, if I asked them to sing a particular melody line and they faltered on it or were very soft and tentative, I didn't know if it was just them being uncertain of the line, or if I was asking them to sing something way not in their range. Linda was a huge help in giving me tips on how to help them, and reminding me of how to foster good singing technique for the girls as well as guys.

Ken and I have decided to take a chunk of time in practice for the next few weeks to split the sections up, so the guys and girls get to work separately part of the time. Ken took the guys this past week, but I think I'll be confident to take them myself in the future. It was great to get to work with the girls, helping them to find their head tone and support the sound. Sometimes they shied away and laughed, especially if they thought something was high, but we did make some progress and I thought they were sounding pretty great afterwards. Music is so exciting in that you never stop learning. I am so grateful to Linda for all she has helped me with. (It's almost a year since she led the BCC so beautifully at our wedding!)

In other news, I'm going to Tulsa! In November the Youth Choir is taking a trip to visit a university and sing in worship on Sunday morning. They do this each fall, picking a city with a university where a Youth Choir alumnus or alumna is attending, so they get the chance to show their friends around. So, I get to go along and make my Oklahoma conducting debut. How much Andrew Donaldson can we learn in the next six weeks...? ;)

Putting the 'mess' in Messiaen

This week was the joint Perkins-Meadows Symposium on Olivier Messiaen, French avant-garde composer, ornithologist, and Catholic mystic. On Thursday the MSMs – dubbed with the temporary title of Musica Schola Cantorum – helped lead a worship service of Gregorian chant, reflecting Messiaen's beliefs about liturgical music. He held that, while many kinds of music could be "religious", the only liturgical music was chant (note that in this way he effectively removed all of his music from liturgical possibility). It was all plainchant, all the time, from the Pange lingua to the Agnus Dei, and we read it all straight from the unmetered neumes (yes, I am a nerd).

On Friday, I had volunteered to help with a couple of the events for the symposium. The conference consisted of academic paper sessions, live performances of Messiaen's works, and a film screening of a documentary related to Messiaen's Apparition of the Eternal Church. The film, bearing the same name and directed by Paul Festa, was to be screened in the auditorium at the Meadows Museum, with Mr. Festa in attendance. The screening room is modern and decked out, and I had gone over the drill with Dr. Anderson a couple of days before – insert DVD into DVD player, press play, hit the lights. Watch film. Repeat previous tasks in reverse.

No problem.

I was the first to arrive in the screening room and all seemed to be working with the DVD. The filmmaker arrived and suggested we play the middle of the film, where there is loud organ music, to set the best volume level for that part. So we skipped to that part – and the speakers responded with horrible electronic static, completely garbling the sound. Hmm... this is a problem. About twenty minutes before the event was set to start, Dr. Anderson arrived and I told him the bad news. He left to get the liaison from the Meadows Museum, whose solution was to go find the tech guys. She came back and said they were at lunch. So, the filmmaker is asking if we're going to be able to fix it, the liaison is asking me what I think we should do, Dr. Anderson is basically just trying to keep a cool exterior and I'm wishing I had signed up to sell tickets for the welcome dinner. Unfortunately, the event couldn't be moved to another room and the crowd was growing outside the doors. They delayed letting the people in while I kept trying to fix the sound (why am I tech support all of a sudden?) and the liaison went to get her own laptop (tech guys are still at lunch) to play the movie from. But, when she got it hooked up, it started playing music from a website she had been looking at! After that, it was a miracle that I knew to press function+F5 to get the computer screen to toggle to the big screen (again, why am I in charge of knowing this?)

Finally, I had picture but for some reason no sound – and, I didn't know if the sound would be any better once we did get it. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get the sound to play. By this time, we were past the start time of the event, the filmmaker is looking pretty unimpressed and they've let the audience in to stare at me while I fiddle with the computer. It was really fun doing battle with technology with my classmates and most of my professors watching me. Finally, with no idea what else to do, I took the image down off the screen and went to open the control panel of the laptop to try to figure out what was wrong with the sound. Lo and behold, the laptop was muted – I unmuted it and the website music started playing again! The liaison lady had muted her computer when the funny music started to play... (?!)

Okay, so I find the browser, close it, and go to the "organ" section of the movie – sounds great! Thumbs up from the filmmaker. Okay, Dr. Anderson, I'm ready when you are. We put the movie on, I sat down and quietly had a heart attack.

Afterwards, Dr. Hawn asked people to give me a round of applause! At the end of the event, I went down to retrieve the laptop, and it had shut off – nobody had plugged it in, and it had played the whole movie on its battery. Because the situation wasn't dramatic enough already.

I hope the tech people enjoyed their lunch.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

One Month Down and Still Spelling "Honour" Like a Brit

We made it past the one-month mark! David and I arrived in Dallas on August 18th so we have officially been south of the border for a month. And still going strong! I don't think I merit the term "buried" in work yet, but close. I spent today in the library studying facsimiles of Beethoven's sketchbooks and autograph scores (very cool) and am now taking notes for my Old Testament class. I'm reading about the various sources that went together to form the Pentateuchal (big word – master's student) narrative, such as the Yahwistic "J" source and the Priestly "P" source. P is where we get cut-and-dried descriptions and brisk storytelling ("God did this, God made that, God rested") where as J is lyric and personal, with God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and animals talking. I find it all really exciting to learn about.

Next week I'm looking forward to preparing to conduct the Adagio from Daniel Pinkham's Christmas Cantata (which is serene and mysterious) and helping out with Perkins' symposium on Olivier Messiaen. I get to sell tickets and play techie by providing the sound clips for a paper session. Go me. :) Dr. Anderson sent out a list of tasks he hoped we MSMs would take care of, as long as we felt capable of carrying them out "with Stalinesque precision." I like his style.

...and furthermore, yesterday I got a pair of Steve Madden tapioca-brown Mary Janes on sale at Macy's for twenty bucks. Oh yeah oh yeah - I think I'll stay down here for a while.

Vibia Perpetua

For my Spiritual Formation course, I had to do a quick report on a Saint from the history of the Church. Mine was on a female figure from the very early Christian church, Vibia Perpetua. I thought some of you might be interested in it so I'm posting it. Enjoy!

At the time of Vibia Perpetua, around the year 203 C.E., the nation of Carthage in North Africa was under Roman occupation.[1] Rome imposed its culture on the people of Carthage and required its citizens to make sacrifices to the Emperor. The distribution of power in the country at that time was divided among three strata of society; the powerful Roman citizens, the colonized Carthaginians (who enjoyed a fair amount of influence), and the indigenous Berbers who had lost whatever power they once held, and worked in the olive groves and grain fields of the Romans.[2]
These were the early days of the Christian church, and the Roman authorities under Emperor Septimius Severus went to great lengths to suppress the new sect. Politically, they viewed Christians as dangerous because they refused to partake in Emperor worship, and the Romans wanted to avoid political upheaval that could disrupt trade (Carthage being a central trade port at this time).[3]
Perpetua was a Christian catechumen (or person who has been instructed in the faith for the purpose of baptism).[4] She was arrested under the authority of Emperor Septimius and, upon refusing to deny her Christianity, was martyred in the arena. We have a first-person account of her time in prison leading up to her death. From this, we learn that she was a young mother nursing an infant son at the time, and that she willingly accepted death as a means to uphold the truth of the church and to confirm her faith. She was given multiple visions during her time in prison, one of which showed her she would become a martyr, and one which gave her insight into her time in the arena and brought her to the belief that she would be struggling against not an Egyptian warrior or ferocious beasts, but the Devil himself. In an epilogue added later to her Passion, describing the scene at her death, she is described as "singing victory psalms... [and rejoicing] in that [she] had already obtained yet another share in her Lord's suffering].[5]
Perpetua's account of her time in prison is characterized by a deep selflessness – she speaks only of her fear and anxiety for others and never for herself. She worries for her family on account of their grief at having her in prison, and is intensely worried for her hungry child until he is permitted to stay in the prison with her, at which point she says "I immediately regained my strength. Suddenly the prison became my palace, and I loved being there rather than any other place."[6]
We know that Perpetua was a young, educated, newly married and probably beautiful young woman from a prosperous Roman family. Her death left her son without a mother (and possibly without a father, as his conspicuous absence from her account suggests he may have been the one to turn her in to the authorities).[7] Her sacrifice is exceptional for these reasons, because it shook the view of Christianity at the time. The gory public spectacles in the amphitheatre were intended not only to dispatch Christians but to dissuade others from joining the sect – the Romans sought to disprove the value of Christianity by showing that their faith would not save them. That Perpetua, a wealthy Roman citizen, would die for this faith was alarming. So was her friendship with people of all strata of society, such as her companion Felicitas who was martyred with her. Indeed, Perpetua embraced martyrdom as a chance to evangelize for her faith, both in her public "trial" (such as it was) before the spectacle, where she declared herself a Christian before the Roman authorities, and in the very act of her death itself.
Perpetua's writings are important for all Christians, but especially for Christian women looking for examples of piety and strength in the early church. In the words of church historian Frederic Palmer, in reading her account we are struck by "the nobility of human character it reveals, the sturdy loyalty to conviction, the courage that rises to joy, the triumphant dominance of the spirit over the body."[8]

P.S., this week we got to work with another amazing Christian woman – Dr. Mary Oyer. She has received a long list of well-deserved honours, not least among them a designation as one of the twenty most influential Mennonites of the twentieth century, and Fellow(ess?) of the Hymn Society of Canada and the United States. She has traveled all over the world learning music of different cultures and is a champion for congregational song. She's also in her mid-eighties and feisty! We had great fun singing with and learning from her.

[1] Shawn Madigan, ed., Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women's Spiritual Writings (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, s.v. "catechumen," Donald K. McKim (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 40.
[5] From handout distributed by Rev. Marilyn Dickson [as quoted from Wilson-Kastner, G. Ronald Kastner, Ann Millin, Rosemary Rader, and Jeremiah Reedy, trans., "The Martyrdom of Perpetua," in A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of the Early Church (Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1981), 20-29], 63.
[6] Ibid., 61.
[7] Palmer, Frederic. "Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs and Saints", in Heretics, Saints and Martyrs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925), 180.
[8] Palmer, 184.

Monday, September 15, 2008

"I wonder if they take polyphonic requests?"

I had to share this – I was studying for my music research exam this Thursday and came across it on the wonderful internet. Someone out there took it upon themselves to render the Constance Gradual – the first example of printed music – in needlepoint. Looks pretty nice – framed and everything. I sent the link to my prof and he liked it – see the title of this entry for his response.

P.S., they don't say "prof" here – when I do, people look at me funny.

From now on, you are 'Hortence' - first practice at First Pres

This past Sunday was my first turn as youth choir director at First Presbyterian. It went very well – there are about twenty singers in the group so far and we had a fun first rehearsal. I wasn't too nervous and they seemed to like me enough. Though apparently some of them were switching their nametags around when I wasn't looking (as if I would know the difference??) I told them if they kept that up I get to pick my own names for them (I'm thinking Zelda, Aloysius, Gertrude, Hewlett....)

I broke the ice with Dad's arrangement of Van Morrison's "Whenever God Shines His Light on Me"... mostly just the "do do do" part. I got them singing that and then I added the solo parts. We may work up to the whole thing but for now it was just a fun way to get singing, and they were able to keep their parts. That made me happy. After that we looked at "This Banquet Has No Walls"... hmm... I'm going to have to reign in the Andrew Donaldson content... but, not the CanCon by any means. We're going to do a couple of good'uns by Stephen Hatfield, as well as some Eleanor Daley and Mark Sirett. Wee....

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane Ike

I just want to let everybody know that David and I are safe and sound and really pretty far from the serious hurricane activity. We are north in the state and far from the coast, and they are saying the storm will be down to a "1" by the time it gets to us - just some heavier rain and windiness.

Please pray for my "classmates" in the Houston-Galveston extension programme of Perkins, however - their classes were cancelled toward the end of this week so they could prepare for the weekend. I'm sure many of them have been evacuated from their homes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Was that a podatus or a clivis?

In our Church Music Colloquium led by Drs. Hawn and Anderson, we are preparing some Gregorian chant material to use in a chapel service during SMU's symposium on Olivier Messaien. Messaien was a 20th-century French composer, very influential in his ideas about music and a very devout man. (He is known for his interest – obsession? – in the notation of bird song... but more on that later) How are Gregorian chant and the work of a 20th-century ultramodern composer connected? You'll have to come to the symposium and find out.

It is so amazing to be learning these chants. We are singing them straight from neumes, which are little squiggly ligatures that suggest the melody rather than concretely notating it; this practice would later lead to the flagged notes we're familiar with today. They are meant to be sung in a free, speechlike manner so that they clearly represent the text. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you are supposed to sing a particular figure down-up-down or up-down-up (we sound really great when half of us choose one and half the other). The melodies are modal, and you can just smell the incense curling up towards the ceiling and hear the echo against stone cathedral walls.

In another class today I learned about early music manuscripts and the practice of making parchment and vellum for writing. The professor had a wry way of talking about Bessie the cow who "volunteered" to be a parchment. ("And if you wanted a big manuscript you needed a big cow. France. Big cows they had in France.") Vellum is parchment specifically made from calf skin, and since it was so labour-intensive and expensive it was exceedingly precious. For really special commissions – like for example, a small Book of Hours made as a gift to a king – the vellum would be made from the embryo of a calf, producing material that is almost transparent. Many manuscripts had illustrations which we're used to calling "illuminations", but I learned today that a manuscript is only technically illuminated if it has been laid with gold leaf (of course - what a perfect description).


This past Saturday was a home game at SMU and you know what that means (and if you don't, act like you do): Tailgating. This is a big, big deal here. The main street on campus is a wide separated boulevard called Bishop Blvd. On home game days, you can rent your very own parking spot along the boulevard for the rock-bottom price of two hundred dollars. (If you just want to bring your barbecue stuff and leave your car at home – or more to the point, bring it and park it off campus – you're free to do that for a reduced rate).

Everybody gets into the spirit of this event, and I mean deep. I don't think I saw a single person there not wearing SMU regalia or at least the requisite colours of red and blue (I luckily had recently purchased a pair of SMU shorts, and David wore a blue shirt... by accident). There are temporary tattoos, pom-poms, megaphones, painted chests, and (I truly saw this at the SMU store) a cedar plank for barbecuing your salmon with the Mustangs logo carved into it. That's right! But wait, there's more. We saw a five-year-old girl in a mini Mustangs cheerleader uniform, a full brass band in red and blue serenading (more like rallying) the tailgaters, a demonstration by the spirit squad, and there was even – no foolin' – a bouncy castle in the shape of an SMU Mustangs football helmet. (I knew you'd have trouble picturing that one, so I documented it). Don't have the right gear for the next tailgating event? Fear not! Simply go to the local SMU bookstore, where there is a "Tailgating" section with everything you need (don't forget to pick up your SMU Mustangs truck hitch cover).

It was an amazing event to be a part of, but I definitely felt like as a participant I was missing some cultural assumptions. Maybe next time I'll put on my SMU Mustangs lip balm before we go.

Farmer's Market

The Dallas Farmer's Market is just two blocks from First Presbyterian, so I've been going over on Wednesdays (choir night) and Sundays to get produce for us. The so-called "Yellow Shed" is apparently the place to be, with farmers selling their produce straight from the farm (as opposed to so-called "produce dealers", whatever that means). Of course, since everything's bigger in Texas, it's quite large (much different from our beloved Trinity-Bellwoods Farmer's Market... with the sheep's milk cheese... mmmm.......) and there is lots of choice. We've had a couple of rounds of delicious peaches, tomatoes and corn so far, and I'd like to get us some honey there – there is a honey farmer who comes dressed up as a bee (seriously) and has a small glass hive of bees on display.

I knew I was in the South when I noticed, at almost all of the different farmer's booths, cartons of small, light green tuber things with blunt ends – okra! Nick at school says I should really try it, that it's not hot at all (not sure I believe him) and that you just fry them up and eat them. After some more conversation I got it figured out he meant bread them and fry them – I should have known.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Seminary Singers

David and I have joined the Seminary Singers, the chapel choir of Perkins Chapel. Dr. Hawn leads them and so of course we do a really exciting variety of material. One student who has a previous Masters of Music was commenting that she finds all the things we learn "off the page" difficult, because she's pretty tied to the music. (I guess I grew up with the right crowd for this choir.) I'm so happy that David and I get to sing in a choir together while we're here (less than three weeks in Dallas and I'm already in two choirs...!)

The flyer around campus for the Singers quotes Psalm 150: "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!" Then the flyer goes on to say "If you can breathe, you just passed the audition for the Seminary Singers... free backrubs at every rehearsal!" It's so great to be a part of a singing community right off the bat – it helps to make Perkins feel like home. I was really moved by communion yesterday. We supplied the music by singing a cappella as we moved down from the chancel to take part. I think with working in a church this past year, I had gotten used to the service being a working time and didn't get many chances to pray and praise. This felt like I was a part of worship.

On October 1, the service will observe World Communion Sunday (Wednesday, really) and will be led by the international students. We will learn a Congoese song from Christian Kwaramba (a theology student) and sing "Enter into Jerusalem" from the Caribbean where Ulston is from. I get to be in charge of CanCon – I'll be conducting Dad's song "This Banquet Has No Walls". That will be so cool!