Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

I've love reading Neil Gaiman's books since I discovered Sandman. I listened to The Ocean at the End of the Road on audible last year, and enjoyed his short stories in several different anthologies. So I listened closely on my way to work when I heard Gaiman giving an interview on NPR. As part of the interview, he read aloud part of The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and I was entranced. I found the book on one of my trips to the library so I could read it.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a graphic novel with haunting illustrations by Eddie Campbell. It feels shorter than a typical novel--more like a novella or a short story in terms of word count. Yet each scene has an intensity and dread that builds to a harrowing climax. The  main character is a man the size of a dwarf, but he reveals that he can run faster and longer than a normal man, and he's far stronger than he looks. He opens the story with a heart-rending monologue about whether he can forgive himself for the things he's done, and he can, except for the year he spent hating his daughter. The mystery of the man's daughter and her cruel fate hang over him as he journeys to a cave filled with cursed gold. His guide, a wolfish man, is a former reaver with dark secrets of his own. He warns the dwarf about the curse, which made life seem duller, colder, and less beautiful after he took the gold.

This book is excellent for anyone who enjoys dark fantasy or graphic novels. It's creepy psychological horror at its best--a treat for all Neil's fans. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: The Goblin Emperor

I'd heard about Katherine Addison's new book, The Goblin Emperor, and since it seemed like a story I might enjoy, I decided to give it a try. I'm happy I did, since it's one of the most refreshing and wonderful fantasy stories I've read in a while. Addison's main character, Maia, the half-goblin fourth son of an Elven emperor, is one of the most likable, sympathetic characters I've read in fantasy since Samwise Gamgee.  

Unlike much of the fantasy released today, The Goblin Emperor has very little darkness or dramatic action. It's a novel about how Maia, a neglected, exhiled fourth son, becomes emperor after the murder of his father and brothers and learns to navigate the treacherous, complex intrigue of his court. Yet the book has a profound emotional resonance, considering it's the story of a young man thrust into a new world were he struggles to find friends and allies, while worrying that people's lives depend on his every decision. Maia grew up untrained in the skills he needs to rule, but he throws himself into learning everything about his court with enormous dedication. His compassion, sensitivity and willingness to defy traditions at first seem like terrible weaknesses in a place more used to the impassive, often cruel reign of his cold-hearted father. But as Maia grows into his role, his kind heart wins him the loyalty and love of his servants and some of his family. Although there's an intriguing mystery that unfolds as Maia searches for the people responsible for the airship crash that killed his family, the book on the whole is a domestic drama. Indeed, while the assassination and coup attempts against Maia give the book moments of intense drama, the true story feels more like a Bildungsroman (a coming of age story). 

While I enjoy Game of Thrones and other dark fantasy, I'll admit it was a huge relief to read this somewhat light-hearted, optimistic book about courtly intrigue. It shows how much real drama and emotion can revolved around the fear of public embarrassment or the longing for acceptance and friendship. I nearly cried in the last few pages when Maia ultimately rejects cruel, if well-intentioned advice to avoid friendship. The book's warm, positive message was a healthy reminder that while cruelty exists, there are far more Maias out there than Ramsey Boltons. Indeed, in The Goblin Emperor, Addison shows how love and loyalty can ultimately defeat ambition and cruelty. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the lighter side of fantasy, especially intrigues. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Art of Patience

One of the most essential skills musicians and music teachers need is patience. Practicing takes time and discipline, and often we have to work a long time before we see exciting results. Without patience, musicians become frustrated and discouraged. For teachers, patience is a crucial necessity. Without it, we can quickly grow bored, irritated, and even angry about the slow pace of a student's progress, or his/her difficult attitude, or other minor annoyances. While some people think of patience as some kind of inborn quality, I think it's more like a skill that we can develop with awareness, attention, and discipline.

So how do we learn to develop patience? First, we need to have realistic expectations. The violin pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki was one asked how he could have so much patience with his students, many of whom were only three or four years old. He said, "I have a great vision of what kind of violinist they could grow into, but I have no expectations." He realized that lessons should be about the students, not the teacher's ego, and every student needs to set their own pace. If we try to rush our students' progress, or push them too hard, our impatience can rob them of the joy of music, and even frustrate them into quitting. Likewise, if we have unrealistic goals for our own practice, we end up feeling discouraged. When we forgive ourselves for our mistakes and struggles, we're often more likely to keep going until we persevere.

Another important aspect to staying patient is a healthy perspective. When I see impatient teachers or parents, I often notice how an outside goal, like a performance or an audition, has become like a massive weight dangling over their heads. Among musicians with this attitude, they fear and dread public performances and see auditions as sheer torture. While it's okay to be nervous before performance, try to have a reasonable perspective. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and it's rare for a musician or music student to go their while career without a few bad performances. One bad audition will not ruin your career--indeed, it's unlikely anyone will even remember your name once it's all over. When we lose perspective and attach too much emotional baggage to one performance, than we often lost patience for ourselves or our students as well, creating a negative feedback loop of frustration and stress.

Finally, it's important to understand that everyone has limits. Patience is a skill, but like many mental or physical skills, we're best when we're comfortable, well-rested, and relaxed. In a fast-paced, stressful, or exhausting environment, we can burn through all of our patience. It's important to recognize signs of fatigue or stress, so that we can be aware when our patience starts to run dry. Then we can take a break, or switch to a different task, or take a deep breath before we get too vexed. Staying patient benefits our students and keeps our practice focused and productive. It's far too important to lose.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tchaikovsky's Iolanta at the Dallas Opera

I love going to concerts and other musical events, so this year my husband and I decided to get tickets to one of the Dallas Opera's performances of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. This opera is rarely performed in the United States, even though it's by a prominent composer. In fact, Iolanta is Tchaikovsky's last opera, and he wrote it at the same time as he wrote the Nutcracker. Both works premiered on the same night, and to moderately good reviews. Like Tchaikovsky's more famous work, Iolanta has a light-hearted plot and a happy ending, with gorgeous melodies to spare.

One of the highlights of this opera is its strong cast. Their voices were near flawless--every single performer sounded gorgeous. The rich duet between Iolantha and her beloved Vaudemont, gave the opera more emotional depth than the plot suggested, and the male cast members played exceptionally well off each other. I loved the acting as well--Ekaterina Scherbachenko's Iolanta was pure and innocent without ever becoming saccharine, and the pathos of her disability never overwhelmed the character's sweet grace. But the most engaging scenes of the opera had to be the interactions between Sergey Skorokhodov's Count Vandemont and Andrei Bondarenko's Duke Robert. The two men got plenty of laughs as they wondered through a forest discussing their ideal women, until they happen upon Iolanta's hidden garden. Other acting highlights were the dance-like movements of Iolanta and her maidens as they awaken in the garden, or swirl about Iolanta as she searches for the right rose (the plot summarized quite nicely here).

I'll admit the costumes were a bit disappointing. I understand that opera companies often operate at a loss and elaborate costumes are a huge expense, but I wish they'd dress the cast in Medieval or Romantic attire. The modern clothes did not complement the whimsical, fairy-tale plot. The sets were similarly austere, but the elaborate lighting helped to set the mood of each scene.

Whatever Iolanta's weakness in terms of costumes or sets, the music makes up for it. The sparkling cast and the sensitive, responsive playing of the orchestra beautifully expressed Tchaikovsky's gorgeous music. I'd recommend this Iolanta to any opera lover or Tchaikovsky fan.

Monday, April 13, 2015

All About Where You Place The Frame: On The Sad Puppies’ Hugo Victory

Check out Ferrett Steinmetz's great take-down of the Hugo Award's Sad Puppies Fiasco:

All About Where You Place The Frame: On The Sad Puppies’ Hugo Victory

Keeping a Writing Journal

Like most modern writers, I mostly write on the computer. But computers, and even smart phones have many limitations. The internet is full of distractions, and constantly staring at screens can give me a headache. Moreover, there are times when I like feeling a pencil or pen in my hand, or when my creativity flows better when I'm physically writing, not typing. For these reasons and many more, I often write in a paper writing journal.

I jot down story ideas, outlines, notes on topics interesting to me, and random thoughts that pop into my head. When I get struck writing or feel like I'm out of ideas, I look through my journal for inspiration. It's immensely helpful for coming up with ideas for blog posts or working out tricky plot questions. Since writing on paper feels more private than writing on a computer, I often feel like I can take more risks in my journal. I can notice problems but give myself time and space to think about solutions. Often, the writing in my journal is fragmentary and chaotic. I doubt much of it would make sense to anyone else. But as a way to brainstorm, it's amazing.

It's true that I can take notes on my phone (in fact, I sometimes do), so I don't truly need a physical journal. But it feels more satisfying to write by hand. My journal has a weight and substance that a phone doesn't, and it never crashes or runs out of batteries. Also, if I'm caring for my toddler, she's much less likely to want my journal than my phone (she loves my phone and pretends to call people all the time :).

Many famous writers kept journals to record their lives or work out their ideas, including Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Dostoevsky. Aspiring writers are often told to "write everyday," but we all know how difficult that can be. Keeping a journal or diary allows us to write regularly with any pressure or expectations. It's a great tool for all writers.      

Monday, April 6, 2015

Scarborough Renaissance Festival 2015

Scarborough Renaissance Festival was the first Ren Fair that my husband and I visited together, and it's still one of my favorite places. This year, we saw plenty of new and exciting performances, including this lovely demonstration of Renaissance dance! King Henry VIII looked so realistic, and his commentary was quite funny.

Musicians played Renaissance dance music on authentic period instruments, including a pardessus de viole. They sounded gorgeous, and I was excited to hear true Renaissance music.
We watched many fine artisans crafting their wares, including a sculptor hard at work on a block of stone or concrete. 
Of course, my little girl wanted a pony ride! She had so much fun!

She also got to pet all the animals in the petting zoo. Here's my daughter and her daddy petting a little piggy.
She was fascinated by the emu, which was surprisingly friendly. 
She gave a big hug to a tiny calf as well. It was so small, I think it may have been a mini cow. 
We watched a parade of all the performers! 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lost Classical Music

In the digital age, there's an enormous wealth of classical music available online to listen to or perform, so it's easy to forget how rare and fragile musical scores and compositions used to be. Yet as recently as WWII, many musical compositions, even works by well-known composers, were lost or destroyed. This is a tragic loss for musical culture and history. In honor of these missing works, here's my list of lost classical music.

1. Mozarabic Chant

All Medieval plainsong was originally written in neumes, but after Guido d'Arezzo developed the four-line staff in around 1026 CE, monks notated Gregorian and Ambrosian chants in the new system. For good reason--neumes were imprecise, so much so that without an unbroken performance tradition, we can't interpret them. Mozarabic chant developed in Spain around the same time as Gregorian chant, and from what we can tell, it had many unique characteristics. Yet, though we have thousands of Mozarabic chants, they're only written in neumes, so this wealth of music is lost to history. 

2. Music by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

J.S. Bach's youngest son was a prolific composer and keyboard virtuoso. While he was overshadowed by his illustrious father and famous brothers, he still composed over twenty symphonies, significant keyboard works, and an extensive collection of vocal music. Tragically, much of his music was lost or destroyed during WWII, when the State Institute for Music Research in Berlin was bombed by the allies. While the Germans evacuated some of the music, the lack of security meant most of it disappeared, along with thousands of antique instruments.

3. Music Lost in Concentration Camps

During the Holocaust, Nazis ruthlessly suppressed modern music as well as music by Jewish composers. Music by composers like Viktor Ullmann, a Jewish composer who died in Auschwitz, was burned, suppressed, or simply lost in the chaos of war. The terrible loss of Jewish composers during the Shoah meant that many promising careers were cut violently cut short, leaving us bereft of their musical gifts forever.

4. Claudio Monteverdi's Lost Operas

Claudio Monteverdi composed one of the first operas, L'Orfeo, which is the earliest opera that's frequently performed today. Yet, though Monteverdi composed a total of eighteen operas, only three of them survive intact today. Many of his most beloved works from this time period, including his L'Arianna, are lost (apart from a few arias). In this case, it wasn't war or political suppression that destroyed Monteverdi's great works: it was a lack of regard. People at the time preferred new music to repeat performances, so once an opera's performance was over, the music was disregarded, with maddening results for music historians everywhere.  

5. Shostakovich's Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2

This is another piece of music that was originally lost in WWII. Unlike most of the other pieces on this list, however, a piano score of the work was found in 1999, so at last some of the original music remains.