Moondog (Louis Hardin): Invocation followed by Pastoral

Something rousing and reminiscent of a Roman costume drama followed by sublime sweetness.  





Moondog – New Amsterdam

New Amsterdam was her name
Before she was New York
New Amsterdam is a dame
The heart and soul of big apple city

No matter what name she goes under
I dig her deeply and no wonder
For she’s been lovely to me
And I’m the better for having met her

New Amsterdam was her name
Before she was New York
New Amsterdam is a dame
The heart and soul of big apple city

No matter what name she goes under
I dig her deeply and no wonder
For she’s been lovely to me
And I’m the better for having met her




Moondog (Louis Hardin): Synchrony #2 & Vladimir Martynov: The Beatitudes

The reason I paired these two pieces for today’s post is because youtube automatically started playing the latter after I had typed in Moondog.  Scrolling through the list of Moondog’s works, I espied something performed by the Kronos Quartet.  Kronos has been around since 1973 and has been instrumental (no pun intended) in breathing new life into the string quartet form starting in the last quarter of the 20th century.  They accomplished this by adapting music from almost every genre–for example, “Do the Funky Chicken,” on their first studio album, “In Formation, ” (1982), “Purple Haze,” (1986), medieval music dating from the 9th Century, and modern composers like Riley, Glass, Reich, Feldman and Part.  Over 400 pieces have been written for them, and they’ve given over 3000 performances since their inception.  So maybe, I’ll feature some of their pieces in my next few posts.

I won’t say much about the Moondog, except, that it’s lovely, and you can hear the his fascination with the canon form. (Think “Row-Row-Row Your Boat.”)

After the Moondog finished, it served up Vladimir Martynov”s “The Beatitudes.” Martynov was born in 1946, was classically trained, and ended up in the The Alexander Scriabin Museum, which was the Russian equivalent of 20th century european electronic music centers.

He was much influenced by the serialist music and American minimalism, however, his interest in ethnomusicology and religious music, lead his music down a much more spiritual path than other composers of minimalism.

“The Beatitudes” was written in 1998 and was rescored by the composer in 2008 for the Kronos Quartet.

Being an American, I tend to gush enthusiastically at anything that’s new to me, and I splash the word “sublime” over a lot of things like I do ketchup. But this piece really is sublime.


Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, the Byrds and Buddhas

There is a Theosophist saying (sometimes attributed to Buddha) that goes, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” The origin of the word Buddha means “to wake up” and people think of the Buddha as a great teacher. And what is a great teacher but someone who wakes you up? Why this is important to me is because, whenever I most needed it, a person has appeared in my life to either teach me or point me in the right direction. There have been three outstanding Buddha’s in my life.

In my junior year of high school, I became good friends with a classmate whose family was completely different from my own. They all listened to classical music, read The New Yorker, discussed classic works of literature, and studied languages. That’s where I first heard this Brahms trio:

They opened up a whole other world for me. I felt so uncultured in their presence that I devoted myself to turning myself into an “intellectual.” I read voraciously, bought tons of classical music, and studied the works of great artists.

This became a problem, though, when it came time to go to college. My three older brothers had gone to a state university that had good math and science programs and it was expected that I go there. What’s more my father was convinced that computer science was the wave of the future, so that’s what I declared as my major. I was profoundly unhappy. It seemed so dull compared to the world of art and literature I had come to love. That is when the first Buddha showed up.

One day after my biology class, the teacher singled me out from a lecture hall of over two hundred students and asked me to come to talk with him. He listened to me as I explained my dreams, ideas, and dissatisfaction. Then he told me that I had to look really hard into myself to find my true desires and then follow them. I was listening to a lot of Dvorak at the time.

At the end of the semester, I transferred to a liberal arts university and went on to major in French and then got a masters degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

That degree took me to Algeria in 1980, where I taught English at a technical institute. There I met another Buddha. The school provided me with an apartment, which I shared with a fellow ex-patriot from Michigan. He had lived there for several years and had figured out all the tricks to survive in a bureaucratic socialist country. He loved this Byrd’s album, which is a classic as it’s probably from the first country rock album.

From him, I learned how to be self sufficient, but he gave me another gift as well. One day, he told me that the Fulbright foundation was offering scholarships to do teacher training in English as a Second language in Italy. He knew of my love of Italian movies and told me to apply.

I applied–and won! For the next two years, I lived first in Naples and then in Rome and traveled extensively throughout the south of Italy. In Naples I met a woman, who was teaching English at the British council, whom I convinced to marry me. When my two years were over, we returned to the States and after getting another masters degree in educational technology, I ended up Washington, DC developing training programs in the late 1980s for a large development organization to teach people how to use an amazing new technology–email! I wonder if it was coincidence that I started listening to minimalist music like this piece by John Adams:

The organization had just started a fitness center.  After 10 years, I read an announcement in an email that came round about a new session of Tai Chi for beginners that would soon be starting. Something told me to go. There I met a remarkable man, master Quyen Tran, who had been teaching the class for some 10 years. Mr. Tran comes from Vietnam, and though one of the most important financial analysts at the our organization, he was a very humble and unassuming man. His teaching technique was as old as the hills–you follow a master, learn by doing, observing, and practicing. It is a type of teaching which has almost died out in the West, except in some of the trades. Once upon a time, this is how all knowledge was passed down. Not only is it a transfer of knowledge, it is the building of a relationship.

Around this time I discovered Mahler’s 3rd Symphony and this wonderful 4th movement, which both grounds me and elevates me at the same time:

It turns out that Tai Chi has been the one activity that has really brought the two parts of my being-mind and body–together. You must use your mind and body together, and you can’t focus on anything else. The more I practice it, the more I find an increased ability to concentrate, to let go of stress, to figure the right way to treat people and the right answers to the problems and challenges that life and work throw up.

I’ve been doing it now for 16 years and people who know me will tell you I sometimes backslide and get insanely stressed out. But where would I be if I hadn’t found these Buddhas who’ve pointed me the way along this wonderful journey called life?

Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

In the summer of 1979, I rented half a small house south of Indiana University’s school of education where most of my classes took place for my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of English as a Second Language. It was a great university in so many ways–it offered almost every language, a world class department schools of psychology (think BF Skinner), comparative literature, medicine, film studies, and of course, music.

The school of education sat next to the school of music where you could the strains of students practicing their chops floated out of nearly every every window of the great, tall round music building that housed nothing but practice rooms.

Every night you could hear either a symphony performance, a senior, masters or doctoral recital and there were plenty of record stores (vinyl) where you could buy anything you wanted. Every dorm on campus had a library with an amazing collection of records as well, so any piece I heard on the radio or in concert could be found somewhere.

I can’t remember who introduced me to Béla Bartók, Romanian Dances, but I am so grateful for whoever did.  It touched a nerve, or perhaps I was genetically wired to love Hungarian music.

My dad’s parents had emigrated from Hungary in 1904. Every Sunday after church and dinner, my dad would turn on the local radio station, WSBT, which devoted an hour each to “The Polish Hour,” and “The Hungarian Hour.” The Poles played polkas and the Magyars played soaring, soulful “gypsy” melodies. The theme for the Hungarian Hour was a schmaltzy violin backed by an orchestra and cymbalon (a cousin of the hammered dulcimer).  You’ve heard this melody if you ever had a friend to whom you told a sad story and they said, “Pity Party,” and hummed a few notes of the melody while running their index finger over the thumb like a tiny violin.  I’d heard the song in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I think, (thank you Carl Stalling), so I called up the radio announcer to ask what the name was.  He sounded surprised that anyone was calling to ask and in fact he didn’t know it, which I thought odd because, it was the theme song after all.  He took a moment to look it up and said it was called “You’re the Only Girl in the World For Me.” “What?” I thought. That’s so hackneyed.  Eventually I heard the melody pop up on the local classical radio station from Notre Dame University, and called that radio announcer.  He said it was Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen,” (Gypsy Airs), a piece which borrowed a few folk melodies from Franz Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.

My father, when talking about famous Hungarians, would alway mention the Gabor sisters, Ernie Kovacs, and of course  Béla Bartók, so when I started really listening to classical music I was proud of my Magyar heritage and claimed him as my favorite composer.

The Romanian Folk Dances became and still are one of my favorite pieces of music by the composer.  What’s even more wonderful is that you can find many different versions of it for solo piano, violin, orchestra, among others, as well as the original field recordings Bartok made of folk songs from which he took the melodies for this work (and even a performance by Bartok himself at the keyboard.

Solo Piano (with Bartok playing)

Violin and Piano

Cello and Piano

Muzikas, Hungarian Folk Ensemble playing melodies of the Dances with Danube Philharmonia

Another version with piano and Muzikas Folk Ensemble

Which do you prefer?

For me, I really love the version at the top, which was released in 1979, and performed by I Musici:

I Musici

The the solo piano and violin are great, too. There’s one movement that’s really haunting with harmonics on the violin, that my friend David Hendrickson said was so piercing that whenever he listened to it he said if felt like someone was cleaning his ear with a Q-tip.

Since I posted the above, I found this original field recording that Bartok made in Romania.

It’s a amazing!

Arvo Pärt: Fratres for 12 Cellos

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer, whose haunting music is inspired by the tintinabulation of bells.

I first heard this piece in the early 1990s, after my daughter Claire was born.  Her mom is a Brit and we met a group of British ex-pats living in Gaithersburg, Maryland when we lived there.  One invited us to a party, where we met a friend of hers, Michael Moore (not the film maker) who was a lobbyist and had gone to Georgetown Law and graduated with Bill Clinton.  Michael introduced me to “Fratres” along with a number of other works by Arvo and John Adams.  I became addicted.  One reviewer has describe the piece as a “mesmerising set of variations on a six-bar theme combining frantic activity and sublime stillness that encapsulates Pärt’s observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us.

Thinking back to those days, I was reminded of what a snob I was at the time.  Here is why and why I hope I’m not any longer.

The Wizard of Snot

I grew up in a family of sinus-sufferers. We were constantly beset by colds, had never-ending post-nasal drip, and frequent sore throats. Though my mother said my problems were caused by a deviated septum, much later in my life, I realized all our suffering was self-inflicted.

See we were swimmers. When my mom was 40, shortly after I was born, she took swimming lessons and eventually became a lifeguard and swimming instructor. My three brothers and sole sister swam competitively at the local YMCA and then in high school. We spent Friday nights at open swim at the high school. When I was 4 I taught myself to swim, by watching and imitating others. And when I was old enough, my parents made me join the swim team and I swam competitively for the next 12 years.

Now here’s where the masochism comes in. For some reason, we were all allergic to chlorinated water. One drop up the nose would burn like acid, so we had to wear nose clips. Even wearing them, though, we still had burning sinuses that eventually lead to the aforementioned head colds. And that meant we always had copious amounts of phlegm.

The result of this was that on any day you entered our household, you could hear someone hacking, blowing their nose or spitting. Sure we had Kleenexes and even cloth handkerchiefs, but we still spat, even my mother. We’d spit while walking outside onto the ground. We’d spit while taking a shower. We’d roll down the window while driving along the road to spit. Once my sister spit into my face after having an argument with my parents.

We took it for granted as a fact of life and even laughed about it. Once, when we were on a drive one Sunday afternoon, I heard my mother clear her sinuses and we all knew she was preparing to spit. It was so commonplace we didn’t even look up. But when she did spit, we heard her yell, “Oh no.” We looked up. A huge wad of spit was plastered on the inside of the window. She had forgotten to roll it down. My brother Ken and I broke out into howls of laughter from the back seat. And even my father laughed.

Now, there’s something magical about spitting to boys. Projectiles are wonderful, and especially if you can produce them yourself. And on the swim team, we raised spitting to new heights. We had spitting contests. A really effective way to prank someone would be to spit into his locker. In high school, the pranks became even more vicious and the best prank of all would be to wait at the end of the pool when doing laps and when a teammate, of course smaller than you, would finish and come up for air, you’d plant a lung-er right in his face.

Now this might make you think that my high school swim team was a bunch of ne’er do wells. But in fact, my swim team had two of the smartest kids in our school. They were brothers, Paul and Mark. Their mother taught English and their father had studied at the University of Chicago. We’d go to their house on the weekend and the parents would be listening to classical music and reading the New Yorker. It was a whole new world I’d never known. Paul and Mark had three sisters, who were as smart as they, and I fell in love with all of them.

Once in the locker room after a really good spit fight after swim team practice, in a feat of braggadocio to impress Paul, I told the story about the time my mother had spit on the car window. I was almost in tears laughing so hard as I uttered the punch line:

“…and she had forgotten to roll down the window!”

I looked at Paul thinking he would really be impressed.

He was silent.

“Isn’t that hilarious?”

“I’m just amazed that your mother would think it’s OK to spit out of a car window,” he said and walked away.

Of course, peer acceptance is the most important thing when you’re an adolescent, but Paul’s remark went way beyond fitting in with the swim team. In a split second he had shown me that my entire family and I were low, common, and uneducated.

In that instant, I decided I didn’t want to be like my parents any longer. I wanted to be like Paul and his family. So I devoted myself to becoming an intellectual. I started buying and listening to classical music. I started reading only the classics. I pored over books on art. And I came to disdain my parent and their life style.

My father had dropped out of school in sixth grade and spent his life working in factories. My mother left school before graduating, worked as a maid, then in a factory, and finally as a housewife raising five children. They always planted a garden which kept us fed as my dad was often laid off in summer. I was the youngest of the family, and by the time I got to high school, they were able to take summer vacations and started square dancing. For me, who wanted to be like the Paul and Mark, this drove me nuts.

In college I studied English and then French literature. Then I went on to graduate school to become an ESL teacher. As soon as I graduated, I moved to Europe, where, as Eddie Izzard says, “the culture comes from,” which I truly believed. I returned after two years with a British bride and settled in Maryland, which was about as far away from my parents as I could get.

I got a good job using my brains, not busting my back like my parent had done, and moved to the suburbs. My wife and I raised two beautiful daughters. I kept visits to my parents at a minimum and would cringe when my mother made her weekly call to give me the news about the rest of the family. For some reason, there was a big hole in my life and I became depressed. Eventually I got divorced.

Well, I had arrived all right. I was the intellectual I had always wanted to be, but I was absolutely alone. Some good my life’s ambition had done me.

After foundering about a year, I got settled and feeling better about myself and even started dating again. Eventually, I met the woman whom I would marry. in case you’re wondering. Perfect match, by the way.

My parents took the divorce hard, of course. They were in their nineties and had been married 64 years. My marriage had only lasted 22.

Shortly after I told them, my mom developed Alzheimer’s. I had to return to my boyhood town to help my brother move my parents out of their house and into an assisted living facility connected to a nursing home.

This required doing for my parents, at their advanced age, the things they had done for me as a kid—driving them to doctor appointments, cleaning up after them, making hard decisions about their finances and living arrangements. I reckon I spent more time with them in the three years after my divorce than I had during my 22 years of marriage.

On many occasions, I found myself in a car with dad, who told story after story that showed how much he had enjoyed his life with my mother and raising us five kids. As he spoke, his stories started to remind me of what a nice childhood we did have. It was almost like those cases you hear of adults who’ve repressed memories of childhood and all of a sudden something triggers them and they come tumbling out.

And here’s what I remembered. My father taking me to an art museum at the local university and then to the big museums in Chicago. My father bringing books home from the library for me to read—The Cat In The Hat being the first. My mother standing at her ironing board on a Saturday afternoon listening to the weekly broadcast of “Live from the Met.” My parents going to night school to get their GEDs because they wanted to better themselves. And finally, my parents relentlessly telling me to study, get good grades and go to college so I wouldn’t end up working in factories as they had done.

So some 35 years after Paul’s remark caused me to turn my back on my parents I realize that what started out as a funny story about snot, had, for most of my adult life turned me into one big, stuck-up snot.

As it turned out, I was not able to ask my mother to forgive me for the way I shunned her before she slipped into that netherworld called Alzheimer’s and died. My dad, loving man that he was, forgave me.

Arvo Pärt : Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

My father, Albert Nemes, passed away yesterday at the age of 96.  This is the saddest music I know–full of longing, yearning and the unbearable ache of loss.    I can’t write more.

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