Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: The Seventh Bride

The Seventh Bride is a fantasy novel by T. Kingfisher. I discovered it while reading an essay about realistic fantasy heroines, and I loved it so much I read the whole book in one night. It's that good. It's a creepy, terrifying story about a young peasant girl who finds herself caught by a rich, powerful noble, who's also a deranged sorcerer. 

What makes this story fascinating is the heroine, Rhea, a 15-year-old miller's daughter. She's not particularly pretty, though she works hard at the mill and knows a great deal about flour. So it's a mystery to her why a rich nobleman, Lord Crevan, who she's never met suddenly decides he wants to marry her. In fact, Rhea's tempted to refuse him when he makes a show of asking her and her family for her hand in marriage, even though that would be unthinkable. But Rhea is ever practical, sensible, and kind, and she knows that an angry Crevan could destroy her family if she dared to tell him "no." Yet the more she discovers about the selfish, cold, cruel man she's about to marry, the more horrifying the prospect becomes. Especially when (spoilers) she discovers the shocking fates of Crevan's six other wives.

A brilliant re-telling of the "Bluebeard" fairy tale, The Seventh Bride captures the horror of the original story, but Kingfisher creates a wonderful character in Rhea. With only a hedgehog for a companion, Rhea defeats her evil captor in part by befriending his other wives and treating those around her with compassion. It's noteworthy that unlike most novels about a young woman in danger, The Seventh Bride makes it clear that Rhea and the other wives have done nothing wrong and do not deserve the punishments Crevan inflicts on them. He justifies his cruelty, even convincing one of his victims to serve him. Yet practical Rhea immediately recognizes his weak excuses, and takes comfort in the fact that she's done nothing wrong except somehow attract the attention of a maniac. Her attitude is a great antidote to the enormous amount of victim-blaming we see in our culture.

I enjoyed this novel from beginning to end, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or dark, twisted fairy tales. While the book has a youthful heroine, Rhea has the voice of an old soul, and the violence and horror of the story make it more for adults (or at least very mature young adults). It's such a great read, I'm hoping to read more books by its author, T. Kingfisher, soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Don't Be Exploited! Learning the Lessons of Professional Music

When I was a young musician, still in high school in fact, one of my friends asked me to play a wedding gig with them. She told me that we'd only play for about an hour, and though the bride and groom didn't have much money, they'd give us "at least" twenty bucks apiece. That sounded good enough to my 16 year old self, so I took the gig. Except nothing went as planned. Because the ceremony was "delayed" several times, we ended up playing for nearly three hours. I wondered if the bride and groom would compensate us for all the extra time. Finally, the bride's father handed us an envelope. It had a single twenty dollar bill in it, which he expected we'd split between the four of us. I left the church shaking with anger, but with a hard-learned lesson. Never, ever play a gig unless you know exactly how much you'll be paid, and make sure you have a contract.

Since then, I've had countless brides promise that if I play their weddings for free, "they'll tell all their friends about what a wonderful musician I am!" Surely, no one would expect their caterer to serve free food in exchange for "publicity," yet somehow your wedding is so awesome that it's going to launch my musical career. I think not. Sadly though, some musicians get so desperate for work or an audience that they sell themselves short and end up exploited. So how can we avoid this kind of exploitation?

First, always have a contract! If I'm organizing a wedding, I have a standard contract, which requires an advanced deposit and makes it clear how long we will play. I've also learned to include policies on outdoor events (we must have shelter from rain and sun, and will not play if it's too cold), cancellations, and other contingencies. Every professional orchestra I've ever played with uses contracts, and most people are happy to write/sign one if they're legit. 

Second, never play for free unless it's for your immediate family. It's one thing to play violin for your mother's art show opening, it's another when your distant cousin invites you to her wedding, but only if you can bring your friends and play some string quartets. Likewise, I've seen many churches suggest that they only want to hire "good Christians" who are interested in making "music for God," and thus play for free. If a church can afford to pay a minister, rent a building, and has more than a hundred people in the congregation, they should pay their musicians as well. Don't let people guilt you into giving more of your hard-earned time, energy, and talent to their events for free.

Finally, if something sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Do your research about potential clients that promise the world but don't want to sign a contract or give you any hard guarantees (like a deposit). If a bar won't pay you, but promises you'll make great "tips," talk to other bands they've hired to make sure they're being honest. 

It's tough out there for free-lance musicians, but as tempting as it may sound, I've never known of a free gig turning into something more substantial. Act professionally, treat yourself like a professional,  and demand that clients treat you like a professional.  

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Noble Starving Artist

"There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn cash for your art.  That gives you more time to make art, more cash to pay doctors’ bills so you can stay healthy, better equipment for you to make art with.  If you can make some cash for doing what you love, then do it."

--Ferrett Steinmetz

The Noble Starving Artist



So true. Too many artists and musicians sell themselves short. Well worth reading the whole essay at The Ferrett.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Classical Music for Christmas 2014

Last year I wrote a blog on some of my favorite classical Christmas music. I got a great response in the comments section, and several people recommended some other excellent Holiday-inspired classical pieces. This year, I decided to make a new list of some of the great Christmas music I discovered this year, thanks in part to people's comments!

1. Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols"

After someone recommended this piece in my comments, I decided to listen to it. Britten wrote "A Ceremony of Carols" for soprano choir (my version used a boys' choir) and harp. The music is ethereal and otherworldly. In a time when Christmas often feels hectic and commercialized, this music captured the spiritual and peaceful side of the holiday well. Britten combined ancient carols with his modern musical language, making the music sound timeless and profound. For modern music, it's highly approachable, even for novice listeners. What's more, my version included his "Hymn to St. Cecilia" and "Missa Brevis," which are both gorgeous pieces as well. 

2. David Lovrien's Minor Alterations 1&2

I learned Minor Alterations 2 for a recent Christmas concert with a local symphony. It's a fun and fascinating piece that reinvents traditional Christmas carols in an exciting way. Lovrien changes all the carols into a minor key, then rewrites them in the style of famous classical (or even non-classical) pieces. Have you ever felt that Christmas carols should sound more like the theme song from the original "Star Trek"? Or perhaps the idea of a mash-up of "O Holy Night" and "Ride of the Valkyries" appeals to you. If so, this is the music for you. I had a great time performing it and listening to it as well.

3. Heinrich Schutz's The Christmas Story

Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) was the most important German composer before J.S. Bach, and his music had a profound influence on many German composers, especially J.S. Bach. I hadn't heard his "Christmas Story" until someone suggested I listen to it in my comments. Schutz studied with Gabrieli, and he brought new Italian musical ideas to Germany, thus inspiring the New German School of composing. His music sounds halfway between Monteverdi, who influenced him considerably, and Bach. Schutz's "Christmas Story" reminds me of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and I wonder if Bach used Schutz's earlier piece as a model. The music has wonderful melodies and beautifully represents the style of early German baroque. 

I love listening to new music and finding pieces I've never heard before, so if you know of any more great classical Christmas music, let me know!

 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Musician's Guide to Surviving the Holiday Rush

Like many musicians, my holiday schedule is packed with gigs and concerts in addition to the usual run of family visits and Christmas shopping. If you're still in school, the odds are you can add finals, juries, and recitals to you list as well. December may be the most lucrative month for classical music, but it's also a scheduling nightmare. So what can a musician do to survive and thrive with all the enormous pressure that the holiday season brings? I have a few ideas.

First, write down everything. Having a written schedule (or an online one, if you prefer), keeps you from forgetting vital deadlines, rehearsals, or performances. It also helps you figure out when you have some down time, because you're going to need it. A few free hours can give you a break or time to catch up on much-needed practicing or studying. Take advantage of even small breaks--fifteen minutes might be enough time to look over those three octave runs the music minister added to "Silent Night" to spice it up this year.

Which brings me to another suggestion: Keep Practicing! I know you're busy with performances and there's an unbelievable amount of music you have to play, and certainly a professional like you can wing it for a Christmas concert, right? Wrong. Remember that music minister? He also added five key changes to "O Holy Night," including one that goes from E-flat minor to C-sharp major. Fun! But seriously, you don't want to be the person who ruins a five-year-old's Christmas when you miss the high G-flat in "Let it Go." Playing professional gigs means you make an effort to show up as prepared as possible. After all, you want these people to hire you again next year. Yes, you do, even though you despise the music minister's key changes and three-octave runs.

Next suggestion: buy some hand sanitizer  and Vitamin C, then wash your hands like mad after your private student with the runny nose coughs on you. There's something diabolical about the fact that the busiest season of the year coincides with flu season, but if we can't play well when all we want is enough chicken soup to drown in and a nice long nap. Besides, the flu can tra around orchestras (especially college orchestras) faster than those rumors about the flutist and the 3rd trombone. I remember my college orchestra after H1N1 hit; we lost two thirds of the string section and half the winds. So take care of your health!

Last, while I know the dire poverty musicians face (especially when we're in graduate school) can make us desperate enough to take ALL THE GIGS, try to pace yourself. You control your schedule--it shouldn't control you. If it comes to it, try to negotiate a better schedule--maybe your teacher will let you have a different time for your jury, or the music minister will be okay if you're late to a rehearsal.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

I got the first book of Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy as an from the library. I'll admit, it wasn't my first choice. It seemed to much like Twilight or some other vampire romance novel, and while I don't mind occasionally brain candy, it wasn't what I wanted at the time. But there weren't that many audio books in the library that appealed to me, so I decided to risk it. I'm glad I did. A Discovery of Witches is a fresh, exciting take on creatures like witches, vampires, and daemons, with an actually intelligent and interesting female lead character. After I finished listening to it, I downloaded the next two books to my kindle and read them.

I liked Diana Bishop so much because she's a scholar. Though she develops her magic throughout the trilogy and becomes deeply involved in the world of creatures, in the end she's still in love with history and books. What's more, she asserts herself with Mathew Clairmont, instead of forever bowing to his whims. In fact, she ends up rescuing him as much as he rescues her, which is a refreshing change of pace. By the end of the trilogy, Harkness depicts a mature, respectful relationship between the two of them, where Mathew trusts her to protect herself when necessary and learns to let her go a bit. I also loved the fact that Diana develops close friendships with other people throughout the book. All too often, it seems as though female protagonists (like Bella in Twilight) ignore anyone who isn't their primary love interest. But Diana actually grows closer to her two lesbian aunts who raised her as a child, and we see her make friends with many other women, including Mary Sidney and many of her fellow witches.

Likewise, Harkness' vampire characters defy stereotypes. Mathew Clairmont is a scientist who's interested in studying creatures' evolution. If his protectiveness of Diana is typical of "romantic" vampires, his fondness for modern science is not. Further, instead of being some perfect being, Mathew's depicted as a flawed individual who bears the scars of hundreds of years of violence. He has complicated relationships with his family, and a deeply guilty conscience. The other vampires in the series are great characters as well--they're a diverse set of fascinating characters from all eras and walks of life. (Spoilers) In particular, I liked Mathew's father, Philippe. He came from ancient Greece, and he ruthless controls his children even as he protects them. Yet Diana learns that he also has a loving, compassionate side, and he's devoted to the cause of justice.

I seriously enjoyed all three books of the All Souls Trilogy, and I'd recommend them to anyone who'd like to see a more intelligent, adult depiction of vampires and witches. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Discovering Five Modern American Composers

I recently performed a symphony by Howard Hanson, a modern American composer I'd never heard of. I'll confess, I sometimes dread playing new music--it can be frustrating to play and can alienate the audience. In this case, however, I'm happy to note that Hanson's music was very approachable. I enjoyed playing it, and the audience (including my somewhat non-musical husband) liked it as well. It made me think about all the excellent modern music we have, much of which doesn't require a devoted interest in atonality or game theory to enjoy. Here's a list of five modern American composers you should check out!

1. William Grant Still

I discovered William Grant Still (1895-1978) when the orchestra I played in, the Fort Smith Symphony, recorded a CD of his works for Naxos. Called "the Dean" of African-American composers, Still wrote eight operas, a symphony, a tone-poem called "Africa," and many other works. He also arranged music for several movies. His music often uses blues progressions and rhythms. I found it beautiful, fun to play, and approachable.

2. Margaret Brouwer 

While I was a graduate student at SMU in Dallas, my viola professor, Ellen Rose, commissioned a new viola concerto from Margaret Brouwer and premiered it with the Dallas Symphony. I had the chance to see how the relationship between a composer and performer can influence the development of an incredible piece of music. Brouwer's concerto was lyrical and full of gorgeous melodies, and she used a diverse array of tonal colors, especially from the percussion section. It's truly a beautiful addition to the viola repertoire.

3. Howard Hanson

Hanson directed the Eastman School of Music for forty years, and he received numerous awards for composition. I played his Symphony No. 2, "the Romantic." Its tonality is modern, but not strident, and it has many lush, expressive melodies. My husband commented that it reminded him of movie music, and I was pleased to discover it was actually used for the closing credits of the movie Alien, and John Williams used it as a model for the music in E.T. 

4. Daniel Bernard Roumain

I performed Roumain's Darwin's Meditation for the People of Lincoln with the composer himself for a benefit concert for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. Roumain is a classically trained violinist and composer, but he's influenced by hip-hop, Haitian folk songs, and other contemporary music. A Haitian-American composer, Roumain brought boundless energy to the stage, yet his music was shadowed by tragedy, from Lincoln's battle against slavery to the present conditions in Haiti (Roumain is Haitian-American). Alternately haunting and vibrant, Roumain's music is well worth listening to.

5. Diane Thome

I discovered Diane Thome when I performed Like a Seated Swan, a piece for viola and computer-realized tape. She might be one of the most obscure and least approachable composers on this list, but her music is fascinating. Like a Seated Swan wove the warm richness of the viola into ethereal, other-worldly computer-generated sounds. The effect was compelling, if unusual.