Friday, October 30, 2015

My Favorite Renaissance Faire Music

I love attending Renaissance and Medieval Faires, and one of the highlights is seeing some excellent musical performances. I've made it a habit to try and buy CDs from my favorite performers so that I can listen to their music year round. It's become some of my favorite music to listen to when I want something upbeat. My daughter loves it too! Here are some of my favorite acts--check them out the next time you're at the Fair!

 1. Sarah Marie Mullen, Renaissance Harp

I first saw Sarah Marie Mullen playing harp at Scarborough Renaissance Festival. I loved her music so much I've bought two of her CDs, We Brought the Summer With Us and The Wild Woods. I listen to them constantly. It's gorgeous music that feels peaceful and upbeat at the same time--the perfect soundtrack to a busy morning. It just puts me in a good mood, and I think it has the same effect on my sweet little toddler. Mullen plays both traditional Irish harp tunes as well as Renaissance favorites. I'd recommend her music to anyone who loves classical or folk music. 

 2. Circa Paleo

I've loved watching this band perform at the Sherwood Forest Faire just outside of Austin, TX. They have great energy and an eclectic sound that draws on music from around the world, from gypsy violin to Led Zeppelin. I have two of their CDs, Eleven Lives and Roseland; I love their upbeat violin solos and blend of Old World music and modern sounds--we listen to their CDs all the time. Their shows are always fun to watch.

3. Saxon Moon

These guys are Renaissance Faire staples! I've seen them at several faires, including Texas Renaissance Festival, Sherwood Forest Faire, and Scarborough Renaissance Festival. I bought one of their CDs, Opera Omnia, and I've enjoyed listening to it regularly (it's fun to dance to it with my little girl). They have a more "Rock" sound than other Renaissance acts, but it still captures the feeling of a Renaissance Faire.

4. The Bedlam Bards 

I first saw the Bedlam Bards at Sherwood Forest Faire. In fact, I had a lovely conversation with the fiddler, Cedric--he's a great guy, very approachable and fun to talk with. He's got a "pocket" violin, which is a small sized violin that French dancing masters used to carry around with them to play music for nobles learning how to dance. What's more, the Bedlam Bards are huge fans of one of my favorite science fiction TV shows, Joss Whedon's much mourned "Firefly." I found their CD On the Drift an irresistible purchase--it's a collection of original songs inspired by Firefly: The Complete Series and the great Joss Whedon. Their music is wonderful "Renfolk"--a mix of Celtic, English, and other folk tunes mixed with Renaissance and Medieval songs.

5. Tartanic

This is every Renaissance Fair attendee's favorite Scottish band. I've seen them perform at Sherwood Forest Faire and the Texas Renaissance Festival, and their performances are always tons of fun. While I haven't gotten one of their CDs yet, it's on my Faire wish list:) We're planning on going to the Texas Renaissance Festival the first weekend in November, and I can't wait to hear all the great music there!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

This is another short story collection that I checked out from my local library. I'm a fan of Neil Gaiman, and I really enjoyed reading Smoke and Mirrors, so I figured I'd read another of his short story collections. Besides, I've been writing a lot of short stories lately, so I thought Gaiman's stories would be a good inspiration. 

Overall, this collection is even stronger than Smoke and Mirrors. Every story hooked me, and many of them left a lasting impression. I loved "October in the Chair" which had all the ethereal beauty of Gaiman's best stories, yet with a creepy, unsettling note that felt more terrifying for being understated. Likewise, the bizarre, surreal world of "A Study in Emerald" left me deeply uneasy (in the best kind of way), all the more so for the main character's placid acceptance of a horrifying status quo. Other stories, like "Feeders and Eaters" or "Bitter Grounds" had more overt horror.

Not all the stories were creepy, however. "The Problem of Susan" addresses the casual cruelty of C.S. Lewis' dismissal of Susan at "The Last Battle." It's a thoughtful story that manages to call into question the entire "Narnia" series, or at least C.S. Lewis' intentions with it, while telling a haunting story of survival. Fragile Things finishes with a novella featuring Shadow, the hero of Gaiman's American Gods. The novella is easy to follow even if you haven't read American Gods, though it definitely leaves the reader wanting to know more about Shadow and his past. 

I'd definitely recommend this books to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy and science fiction. As I've mentioned before, short stories can be great to read if you feel you don't have the mental endurance to dig into a novel, and this book has a wide variety of fascinating tales.   

Saturday, October 17, 2015

My Early Baroque Listening List

Often, classical musicians (especially those of us in Symphony Orchestras) spend most of our time listening to and performing Classical, Romantic, and Modern music, while ignoring music from earlier eras (with the exception of J.S. Bach). Yet there is so much wonderful early music out there! I've found some exciting artists and pieces I'd never heard before. Here's some excellent examples.

1. Marin Marais: Pièces de viole, Book 5

I found this CD collection at Half Price Books, and I've been listening to them like crazy. The bass viol, Marais' instrument of choice, has sloping shoulders and a flat back, which distinguish it from the members of the violin family we use today (with the exception of string bass). It's slightly smaller than a cello, and has seven strings which are tuned in fourths instead of fifths (with a third between the middle strings). Marais' music is by turns haunting and light-hearted. The structure of the movements from his viole suites is similar to Bach's cello suites, but Marais always includes a basso continuo part, and often has several viols playing a consort. It's gorgeous music, somehow evocative of the 16th century while remaining timeless.

 2. English Lute Song
This is another discovery from Half Price Books (I must be seriously supporting their early music sections). This CD is by Julianne Baird and Ronn McFarlane, and has lovely, expressive female vocals over delicate lute accompaniments. Baird has a purity of tone and intonation I love, yet she sings elaborate ornaments with seeming ease. The lyrics of the songs are all in English, which gives the listener a chance to enjoy their poetry and occasional humor. While some of these songs are anonymous, others were written for and performed as part of Shakespeare's plays, including the “Willow Song” from Othello and “Come Away, Hecate” from Macbeth.

3. Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
This is probably the most frequently heard and performed of all the pieces I'm mentioning here. Yet, while Dido's heart-breaking Lament is rightfully part of the repertoire, I've rarely ever heard any of the rest of the opera. It was surprising to hear the variety of singing styles Purcell uses to tell his story, with the witches having a completely different timbre than Dido. Yet, the whole opera gives the famous tragic aria greater pathos—Dido's disillusionment and sorrow reflect not only a broken heart, but the realization that Aeneas is a coward. His devotion to duty is only an excuse to avoid the true power of love (in this version of the tale).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Viking and Celtic Festival--Videos

In addition to the pictures I took last weekend, I got some great video of the demonstration fights from the Music in the Mountains Viking and Celtic Festival. They're pretty intense! The weapons are real, although the blades aren't sharpened. They hit very hard. Do NOT try this at home.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Viking and Celtic Festival in Heavener, Oklahoma 2015

My husband has been doing Viking reenactment with the Jomsborg Black Wolf Vikings. We've got costumes for ourselves and our sweet baby, which turned out super cute. The group went to Music on the Mountain, a Viking and Celtic Festival in Heavener, Oklahoma, this past weekend.  
My little Viking princess drinking from Mommy and Daddy's horn mug. We had her costume made from the same material as mine, so we matched!
There was a great bird show! This is a Eurasian eagle owl, one of the largest owls in the world. The birds were all rescued and rehabilitated, but this poor guy imprinted on a human. Now he thinks he's a person, and can't live in the wild.
My Little Shield Maiden
My Costume
A group picture of the fighters!
On the battlefield--the show begins.
Sword and Shield vs. Spear and Sword
In front of their traditional Viking tents
The Heavener Runestone--A mysterious stone carved with Viking runes found in the middle of Oklahoma. Though the stone was dated to the Viking period, it's possible the runes were carved by Norwegian settlers or railroad workers from more recent times.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reading the Witcher: The Last Wish and Blood of Elves

I'm a huge fan of the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt --it's got great game play and an excellent story. I enjoyed the game so much that after my first play through (I'm on my second right now), I decided to try reading the books that inspired the game. The Witcher books were written by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish author who's considered the Tolkien of Poland. He's had a huge influence on fantasy in Poland, and it's clear why--the books are fun to read, with compelling characters and great, if episodic, storytelling.

The first Witcher book, The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher, is a collection of short stories linked by the main character, Geralt. Many of them are extremely dark, heart-rending re-tellings of fairy tales, including a brutal version of Snow White. The book tells about many of the key moments of Geralt's early life, including his first meeting with Yennefer and how he invoked the Law of Surprise to become Ciri's eventual guardian. While some of the language in translation is a bit clunky, the characters and stories in the book make it a compelling read, especially for anyone who loved the game.
The next book in the series, Blood of Elves, is more of a cohesive novel, but since it tells its story from multiple perspectives it's still a bit episodic. Nonetheless, it tells an excellent story and as usual, the characters are one of the best parts. Geralt seems like the strong, silent type, but Sapkowski gives him a depth and mystery that make him compelling even when he's understated. And Yennefer develops into a complex, intriguing woman with a subtle intelligence. If you don't understand why Geralt is so in love with her after playing the games, this book shows why. Sapkowski draws a complicated web of relationships between Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri and Triss, creating both understanding and mystery.

Reading these books had deepened my appreciation for the game, yet they are excellent reads even if you don't ever play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt . I'd recommend them to anyone who enjoys fantasy. They have a world as deep and fully realized as anything in Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, and rich, intriguing characters.

Monday, October 5, 2015

My Favorite Quotes

While I was browsing in a bookstore the other day, I noticed a book of quotations. It got me thinking about some of my favorite quotations, and what they meant to me. 

1. "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

This is a quote by the Spanish Poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. Ray Bradbury used it as the epitaph for his book Fahrenheit 451, which is where I first heard it. I love this quote because it succinctly points out the mindless conformity that is inflicted on us in a thousand different ways, large and small. Though writing the other way may seem like a small act of rebellion, small rebellions can help us recognize the larger and more dangerous ways that we accept the status quo without thinking critically about it's effects. 

2. When the ax came to the forest, the trees said, "The Handle is one of us."

This is an old quote that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. There are different interpretations about what it means. In some versions, it translates to "don't give succor to your enemies." However, what I like about the version above is how treacherous it can be to trust someone just because they are superficially like you. For example, misogynists often point to women like Anne Coulter or others who agree with their hateful venom as support for their arguments. But women are perfectly capable of attacking other women. The fact that some people of a given race or sex might agree with mean-spirited stereotypes or oppressive laws doesn't make those thing any less awful--it just means that those sad individuals have bought into some nasty beliefs about themselves (or more likely, think they are special, while others of their gender or sex deserve unequal treatment). 

3. "Fear is the Mind-killer"

Ahh, Dune. It's a classic of science fiction, and Frank Herbert created many memorable characters. But the litany against fear is still one of my favorite parts of the book. As a musician, I struggled with stage fright and other fears for a long time. But I chose to face my fears and work through them. This quote helped me recognize how destructive fear can be, and it gave me the courage to "turn my inner eye to see its path," instead of giving in and giving up.

4. "It's better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness"

This quote is associated with Amnesty International, an international human rights organization I worked with in college. It's so easy to complain, or say that nothing ever changes or gets better. But even small acts of kindness, love, generosity, and goodness can make an enormous difference. And when enough people do those things, it can change the world. As Margaret Mead wrote:

5. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change 

the world"


Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Art of Working With Other Musicians

One of the great things about music (and teaching music), is that unlike many other art forms, music often requires collaboration. Anyone in a string quartet or a rock band needs other musicians to play with them. Likewise, composers need other musicians to play their music, and music teachers need students. But all this collaboration has its difficulties--arguments and strife within a group can mar cooperation and break up the most brilliant groups. That's why it's essential for all musicians to learn how to work together effectively.

Be on Time and Prepared 

I'd like to think it goes without saying to show up on time and ready to play, but I'm always amazed at how many people ignore basic professionalism. It's one thing if you get stuck in traffic once or twice. It's another when you consistently waste your group's time by making everyone wait for you. It's disrespectful to the people you're working with, and keeps rehearsals from being productive. And if you're late to a concert or gig without a great excuse, don't be surprised if your ensemble replaces you. 

Keep Group Discussions Civil and Professional 

It might be fascinating to hear about Robin's wild weekend, but when you're in a rehearsal, keep it professional. Rehearsal time is sacred; the more you get off topic, the less you accomplish. Besides, everyone will enjoy Robin's story more when they hear it over a celebratory drink after an amazing concert. 

As for arguments, every group has some conflict. Staying professional and to the point will keep it from spiraling out of control. Avoid name calling and personal attacks like a plague of locusts; people are passionate enough about musical interpretation without making things personal. 

Learn from your Colleagues

In one teaching job I had, we were encouraged (and even paid!) to observe other teachers when we didn't have students ourselves. It was a valuable experience for me--I got to see all the creative ways that other teachers engaged students and helped them learn. Maybe not everything someone does will work for me, but even then it's inspiring to see a great teacher in action.

As a performer, I also made a point to attend my friends' and colleagues' recitals and performances when I can as well. It shows support to fellow musicians, and gives me an opportunity to hear great music. Outside the concert hall, I enjoy exchanging practice tips, getting recommendations on new music to play or listen to, and hearing about new opportunities. What's more, most people love having someone listen to them, so it builds goodwill.  

Musicians are often intense, exciting, interesting people. If we treat each other with dignity and respect, then we can make great art together. Don't let arrogance or disrespectful behavior ruin beautiful music.

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