Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The history of Medieval organ in French cathedrals

 Every great cathedral has its embarrassing secret, a shameful little inadequacy that historians and tour guides prefer to downplay. Notre-Dame de Paris has its own secret: for a good portion of the Middle Ages it had a really lousy organ. Hard to believe, isn't it? Comparing apples to apples, the sister cathedral in Reims was a much more mature Gothic building with superior acoustics. It was there that the Medieval giant of ecclesiastic music, Guillaume de Machaut, served as a canon, composed and performed his pieces. He simply would not be able to fully manifest his genius in Paris. 

To be fair, installing an organ is always a huge gamble - artistic, financial and acoustic. The architects can do their due diligence, make all the right calculations in terms of the height of the ceiling and the width of the windows, use the best materials, and the end result is still not stellar. That was the case at Notre-Dame de Paris. The first instrument was installed circa 1330, and it was a dud pretty much from the start. Take two. By early 1400s a second instrument was installed on a high and narrow stone gallery above the western portal while the old organ was still being used. The new endeavor took us from bad to worse. Finally, 70 years later, in 1473 a major restoration began, including service of a large number of pipes. The process would take fifty years! According to some sources, the restorations were paid for by the Reims precinct. Louis de Beaumont de Foret, who served as the Bishop at the time, was reluctant to dish out a considerable amount of money on the instrument that nobody seemed to be able to fix. 

Naturally, one would wonder what kind of man would it take to operate such a temperamental instrument. An organist is much more than a musician. He (forgive me for defaulting to the masculine pronoun - we are talking about Late Middle Ages here) must be a musical theorist, a sound engineer, and above all, a diplomat. In addition to building a relationship with every key, every pedal of the organ, he must build a relationship with every stone of the building itself. That's the easy part. Try building a relationship with the clergy, the choir and the people who come to mass. All those diplomatic obligations do not leave much room for personal artistic ego. 

During the Middle Ages, the job of the organist usually went to an older, calmer musician, whose job was to serve as the "glue" and not necessarily showcase his own talent. Notre-Dame de Paris did not really start hosting truly remarkable musicians until the early 1600s. The first notable world-class organist was Charles Racquet, who was appointed to the position in 1618. Until then, the position was not all that desirable or fulfilling from the artistic standpoint, as there were too many physical and political restrictions.

As a historical novelist who likes to write about some of the more obscure historical periods and figures, I became obsessed with the idea of writing about the ecclesiastic music tradition in Paris on the cusp of the Reformation. After the death of Guillaume de Machaut, there was a huge void in the world of church music. Pulling figures out of obscurity gives the author a lot more creative freedom.  You can weave loose strings of biographies as well as urban lore to create an archetype. "Blood of the Stone Prince" is a tragicomic account of a fictitious child genius who rose to dangerous prominence in the 1470s. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Half-Siberian kitten needs a home

Commies, I normally do not post ads on my blog, but this lovely half-Siberian kitten needs a new home. He is a product of accidental mating of a purebred Siberian queen with an anonymous, undocumented male. The family is moving to Colorado soon and would like to find a new home for this kitten beforehand, if possible. He is going to have semi-long hair and his mother's coloring. If you are interested in this spunky illegitimate, please contact me. He is currently in Rye, NY.

I hope you do not judge the young mother too harshly. Sometimes hormones get the best of us and override common sense and modesty. Everybody makes mistakes. Innocent children should not be ostracized and penalized for the indiscretions of their mothers. Thank you, and God bless!

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Pay for my Sin" by Iryna Combs - a daringly literal approach to the Apocalypse

Maria is a Christian woman with one purpose – save her corrupt family from eternal death. As the apocalypse rages around her, she makes an unlikely friendship with one lost soul and the two women flee into the southern wilderness. Forced to take shelter in a long-forgotten church, they fight to survive as all hell breaks loose outside.

My thoughts:
Following her bestselling debut sci-fi novel Black Wings, Iryna K. Combs comes back with a bold, graphic and eloquent Biblical fantasy. You do not need to be a born-again Christian to enjoy the novel for its literary value, but it does help if you understand some of the religious references. The author takes a pretty literal, straightforward approach to the Apocalypse - as the cover and the title suggest. I applaud her for taking the risk and the literal approach that has been out of favor with authors and cinematic directors. There is a movie from the 1990s called The Rapture, where the end of the world happens exactly as presented by fundamentalist Christians, with the skies opening and trumpet sounding and people being physically pulled into the clouds. It leaves the viewer with a sense of shock. Pay for My Sin is that kind of novel.

The protagonist, Maria, is refreshingly naive, with a bit of Mary Magdalen complex going on. She is not mystical or scholarly woman by any means. She is the matriarch of a family that she perceives to be "corrupt" and in need of salvation. Her faith in the Gospel is straightforward and complete. So when the world starts ending in the way she had imagined it would - she is left with a strange sense of peace and comfort. How far will she go to ensure that her unsaved family has a place in Heaven?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Stones Don't Speak - WWII fiction beyond the Holocaust - Nazi occupied Norway

Welcome to Nazi-occupied Norway where people try to maintain a sense of fragile and nervous normalcy. Yes, people still attend classical music concerts (as long as the program is ethnically neutral and doesn't include pieces by German composers). Regular flour is in short supply, so you have to get creative about making pancakes. Sure, they taste a little chalky, but if you add enough berry jam, they taste just like they did in the good old days. If you are a woman who is "lucky" to have naturally blonde hair, you just might capture the heart of a Nazi officer who will make your life considerably more pleasant.

You don't get too many books covering the occupation of countries like Holland and Norway. Nordic nations were considered en par with Germans more or less in terms of "racial purity". I almost wonder if authors hesitate to write on this subject, because n their eyes the Holocaust dwarfs the suffering of the Dutch and the Norwegian population. They are afraid of being met with "How dare you complain? You don't know real suffering." I've actually met authors who confessed to that. They say, "Who cares about our stories?" Well, those stories need to be told, because they involve real men and women who took part in the resistance movement. So I applaud author Gry Finsnes for writing her Tall King's Country series. "Stones Don't Speak" is her second book in the series, a sequel to "Vanished in Berlin". To set the stage, you have a German musician Friedrich who falls in love with a Norwegian pianist Ellen. Given that their respective countries are at war, the lovers face that uncomfortable dilemma. Can you still be a German patriot if you hate the Nazi regime? "Stones Don't Speak" picks up with Ellen back in Norway, trying to reestablish a relationship with her ambivalent parents and contemplating joining the resistance movement, which entails pretending to get chummy with the Nazi occupiers and tolerating a great deal of unwanted sexual attention with a straight face. But hey, wartime is not the time to get squeamish and prudish. She must put her disgust aside for a greater cause.

Author Gry Finsnes has already won my respect with her understated eloquence and no-nonsense, no-melodrama narrative style. She has that seasoned temperance of a worldly, well-traveled individual with a broad perspective. I adore her Nordic, masculine style without any needless hysteria. Her ability to describe dramatic events in a matter-of-factly, laconic fashion is what sets her works apart.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bill Thurman - brilliant musician, instructor and cancer survivor

Every once in a while, in the process of researching a particular era for your next historical novel, you stumble across a literary or musical gem that introduces you to a new realm of beauty. Sometimes it's a familiar tune with a new twist. This is how I came across Bill Thurman's music. Bill is multi instrument musician. His repertoire spans broad classical and folk selection. He was kind enough to open up about his career as performer and teacher, his inspiration and collaboration with other artists. Bill is also a sarcoma survivor. He is very candid about overcoming this challenge. The title of his last album is "Nothin' but Fiddle and a Sarcoma Survivor."  Please, check out his music. His CDs make a great gift for those who like early and folk music.

MJN: You were born in Nashville and later moved to Memphis. It is a well known fact that folk and country music are very prominent in the South. Do you feel that your renditions of European classics have been influenced by the Southern flavor?

BT: To me, regional differences in musical dialectics are really similar to the differences in language dialects. I grew up with the blues, jazz, Elvis and old "country" as well as classical music like Bach, Mozart, etc. In my teens I continued to hear more music from around the world like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky as well as Jewish and Arabic music. Much of that was because I played violin and viola in orchestras. I was also a member of the Memphis Symphony for years. In my heart I have always been a musical internationalist, even though I have loved all kinds of stuff called "American music." Like one of my old teachers stated, "If it's good music, I want to play it no matter where it comes from."

My voice and my playing and phrasing definitely has a "southern accent" about it. It's the culture that I grew up in. I would say that is probably true for most people, wherever they have come from. I am pretty good though about imitating other dialects and accents from different cultures or countries. It's my musical "ear." In some of the songs and instrumentals I have played, I have done several different accents within the same piece of music.

MJN: You teach fiddle and violin. What are some of the most popular requests from your students? Are there any skills and/or "touches" they are trying to cultivate?

BT: Most of the students I have received simply wanted to learn to be a "fiddler" or possibly a "violinist." The sad truth is that most of them did not have the time or the patience or the basic "drive" to listen, learn and WORK/play at it. Being a good or great musician takes a combination of things, not just one or two. A lot of them wanted to sound like one of their musical Heroes. But I often said, "you've got to make Mary Had A Little Lamb or Twinkle Little Star sound GOOD before you can hope to sound like one of your heroes.

If they wanted to hear some good country fiddlin' I would play them some of it. If they wanted to hear some good jazz or blues I would play them some. But still they MUST practice and take the time and trouble. If they don't do that, they can't get better. I also tried to teach them all how to read musical notation as well as possible, and to appreciate the difference between "reading" the music and "hearing" the music. My students who had already had some training and discipline seemed to do a good bit better when trying to learn new things.

MJN: You have performed some of the most iconic pieces like La Rotta and The Foggy Dew, pieces that will be recognized even by those who are not passionate fans of Renaissance or traditional folk music. So many people don't know what they are missing. What do you think is the most effective way to popularize some of the forgotten masterpieces? How do you take your music and put it in front of the people who did not know it existed?

BT: For music like La Rotta and The Foggy Dew as well as other old seldom heard music, I often will record another new album. My latest one is called, "Nothin But Fiddle And A Sarcoma Survivor." It has a combination of musical styles on it, and some that are rarely heard. Like "Sugar in the Gourd", an old Appalachian fiddle tune. Like Black and White, and old jazz violin tune from Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Also "Glory Be To God", a southern Black Gospel song that I learned at an African American church long ago. When I speak and play in public places I will often play these tunes and songs to people who have never heard them before. Most of the people like it when I do that.

MJN: It is no secret that Renaissance Fairs are filled with anachronisms and people seeking escape from daily routines, not necessarily seeking a better understanding of a particular era. At the same time, for many people, it's the only gateway into another century. Have you made any valuable professional / artistic connections at such events with people who truly understood and appreciated early music?

BT: Yes, I have met some wonderful people because of Renaissance Fairs, Celtic Music fests and others. I love Greek music. I have gone to quite a few of the Greek food fests just to hear the great music AND sample the delicious food. Yes, I have made valuable connections with people from ancient music fan clubs as well as modern music circles. I have met good people from all over the world because of my lifetime involvement with music.

MJN: One of my favorite videos on your site is that of you playing La Rotta and Kristy Barrington performing the interpretive dance. La Rotta, an Italian piece, is said to be written by a Hungarian composer. So many Medieval and Renaissance pieces are marked as "Anonymous". Did composers strive or anonymity, or were those folk tunes truly a product of collective creative process?

BT: I believe that most of these ancient folk music tunes whether they come from Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Italy or England and Germany were born from one group or one individual at a CERTAIN point and then just played and spread around to different parts of the original areas and some even farther to other countries. Most of these people could not read, but often had a keen ear for music - true folk musicians in any country. Some would travel and teach their music to others BY EAR. Almost always the music will have all these regional variations, but a good chunk of the Old flavor will often remain. Some are better at that than others. :)

In Spain, North Africa, Central Africa and the Middle East, you know that much of this same idea has to be true. Most musicians for a long time have learned by what they heard, not by what they read on a piece of paper. However I am a firm believer in learning to read!

The "collective creative process" is like The Great Ocean of Life where the little streams and creeks flow into the larger rivers and the rivers flow into the seas and largest lakes and then the oceans of the world. Some in this process have become truly universal. Every country has contributed. To me this is one of the great beauties of music and art. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Goodbye, My Love - paranormal romance through the eyes of a cynic

Greetings, commies and lovers and kinky nannies!

Today's spotlight is on Maggie Tideswell, a South African romance author and her latest release Goodbye, My Love. As you all know, I am the most unwholesome, twisted soccer mommy in Connecticut, and I find something ugly about everything beautiful thing. I also find something beautiful about every ugly thing. In fact, pretty-ugly things are my favorite things in this world. I like ambiguity and uncertainty, room for dirty fantasies and doubt.  But how ambivalent can be a novel in such a seemingly straightforward genre as romance?

Jessica James needs a new job and her only prospect as a nanny is with a remotely located veterinarian who only wants a “mature” candidate. But youthful Jess has faced tougher challenges, and she is determined to show the very handsome yet rude widower that she is the perfect choice to care for his autistic 4-year-old daughter, no matter how much he scowls.

Dr. Ben Arnold is still grieving, and not only about the recent death of his beautiful wife. He is still coping with the knowledge his profound love for her was unreciprocated. The demands of working and taking care of Amber, his autistic young daughter, have Ben overwhelmed and the last thing he needs is an insanely strong physical reaction to a nanny who is the first to seem to connect with his beloved delicate daughter – and the last he thinks he can handle in his life.

Jess is an unseasonal storm to suddenly sweep through Ben’s life, and may be the balm he needs. While strange occurrences all around them defy answers and explanations, the unexpected arrival of Ben’s late wife’s sisters, including her identical twin, on the one-year anniversary of her death does nothing to help dispel the intense and instant desire between Jess and Ben – and Jess’ glimpses of a life long past only adds to the surreal sense of the estate called Weltevreden.

My thoughts:
They say behind every cynic there is a frustrated romantic, and I guess, the same is true in the reverse. I got a free advance copy of this novel, and even though it's labeled as a paranormal romance, I read it through the prism of my own cynicism and misanthropy. My impression is that the author Maggie Tideswell is mocking some of the traditional tools that romance authors employ to solicit an immediate emotional reaction from the reader. There's nothing like a widowed dad seeking a caregiver for his daughter Amber who also happens to be autistic (and blonde, and beautiful, and ethereal). You have the main ingredients for a classic tear jerker. But it's also how you mix them and how you present them that affects the overall impression. There are subtle clues in her narrative that suggest that the author might be mocking the genre itself. The very title Goodbye, My Love borders on tongue-in-cheek. Her choice of profession for her male protagonist Ben is also interesting. He is a veterinary surgeon, so he spends his days serving the needs of creatures who are non-verbal. I am not comparing an autistic child to an animal - I'd get crucified for it. But I can see the parallel between the way he interacts with his animal patients and the way he interacts with his child. Also, I know firsthand that veterinarians are often socially awkward and have trouble communicating with fellow human beings. Ben certainly does not come across as suave or even civil in the beginning of the novel, when Jess, a vocationally frustrated young woman, comes to interview for a nanny position. He greets her with a few rude comments regarding her age and - gasp - a boner. In a way, their interaction reminds me of that of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. The lovemaking scenes, I must remark, are very traditional. Do not expect anything kinky. Eventually, Dr. Ben Arnold melt and evolves (or devolves?) into a traditional romantic leading man with bronzed muscles, even though his breath smells of whiskey and cigarettes. Being a sadistic pervert, I would have liked to see more bondage and S&M and dirty talk. But then again, I am not a typical romance reader. If you like more tame, traditional romance novels with just a touch of black pepper on your vanilla scoop, Goodbye, My Love is for you.