Posts Tagged music

The Summer of 2019

Well, the summer of 2019 is upon us and many things have slowed down.  People take vacations and try to get away from the hubbub of daily life.  Schools are out for the most part, and in the heat of the summer, relaxation is the order of the day.  I, too, have relaxed.

One regular part of my life that takes place largely during the school year are the weekly rehearsals for the concert band I play in.  And so, with band practice over for the summer, I had occasion to pull out my trumpet and give it a thorough cleaning.  It hadn’t been cleaned for over six months, not since I cleaned it during the Christmas holiday.  Cleaning a trumpet requires complete disassembly.  Not only does the mouthpiece come out (and get thoroughly reamed out with a stiff brush made for the job), but all the valves and each of the tuning slides have to be removed.  A trumpet has four tuning slides, one for each valve and one larger one that tunes the instrument itself.  Everything comes out.  If I wanted to disassemble any further, I’d have to get a soldering torch and unhook the different connections that hold the body of the trumpet together.  (Not a good idea.)

Now that everything is out, cleaning begins.  First I flush the entire basic unit with hot water and set it aside and turn to the valves.  The valves change the air flow through the horn and are what make it possible to play all the different notes called for in the music.  They are the most sensitive part of the trumpet, and I clean these with a rag soaked in isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol).  This removes all the old valve oil and any contaminants.  Note: Valve oil is slightly different from most lubricating oils because valve oil is an evaporative oil.  It doesn’t build up like other oils, it evaporates, and has to be replenished from time to time as one plays.  But contaminants, usually solids from saliva and in the water that condenses in the horn as one blows through it, do build up and they have to be removed.

Now the valve housings have to be similarly cleaned with alcohol, and everything allowed to dry.  I wipe off the Vaseline from each of the tuning slides and replace with clean Vaseline and put them back in their proper positions.  I add fresh oil to the valves and replace them in their housings and screw down the valve tops.  Success—we are done.  The instrument is in playing condition.  Replace the mouthpiece and away we go.

The whole process takes about half an hour, and there’s a real element of satisfaction in having a musical instrument that is clean and functioning properly.  The valves operate smoothly and the tuning slides slip in and out easily.  (That’s one way to tell if an instrument needs cleaning—the valves start sticking.  That can be awfully annoying if it happens during a concert.)

But in the world of trumpet playing, that’s the easy part.  Eventually comes the more difficult part: the actual act of playing.  Band practice will resume in August, and new music will be distributed.  I’m not a professional trumpet player; it can take me several months to master a piece of music.  By “master” I mean simply play the right notes.  I know how to blow through the horn to produce a sound, and every now and then I press down one or more of the valves to produce a different note or two, but putting all that in the proper order as called for in the music is a different matter.  A tricky passage can take a while to learn, but the final result is what we call “music.”

Music is a lot like writing.  At their heart, both are subjective pursuits.  Good music exists in the imagination of the beholder, as does good writing.  To a great extent, you know good music or good writing when you see it or hear it.  Anyone can string words together in sentences, but that doesn’t necessarily form good writing.  Likewise, anyone can play a set of notes, but will it always be good music?  Writing takes practice, just like the music, and the number of wrong notes in either can be, well, large.  For me, playing a trumpet is usually a straightforward process.  I practice the difficult passages over and over until I get them right.  Writing, though, can be sporadic.  Writing here and there, areas of relative calm followed by times of zealous production.  But in the end, one validates the other.  I take a break from writing to play.  I take a break from playing to write.  Does one help the other?  Perhaps only in the sense that one allows oneself to take a break from one to take up the other.

Either way, nothing is lost.



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Space Opera: A Definition

I have had, over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been trying to write science fiction, and on one or two occasions, to answer the question, “What is space opera?”  It’s a fair question given that space opera is the type of science fiction I write, and that it is probably the most popular subgenre of the overall class of science fiction literature.  The most common variation of the question has to do with the word “opera,” not so much the “space” part of it.  Most people, even those who don’t read or write sci-fi, are aware, to one degree or another, that sci-fi takes place largely in outer space.  That concept is so well ingrained in the popular consciousness it needs little further commentary.

To try and answer the question, let’s look at “space opera” itself.  In his excellent introduction to the space opera anthology, “Infinite Stars,” Robert Silverberg reveals that the phrase was coined by Wilson (“Bob”) Tucker, an early science fiction writer, in 1941.  He derived his term from the older term “soap opera” which arose in the 1930’s to refer to long-running dramatic radio shows (starting on radio and continuing into television) often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and from the similar term, “horse opera,” for low-budget westerns.

But what about the “opera” part of the phrase?  What does space opera, as I was once asked, have to do with opera?  My feeling is, nothing, and it’s kind of misleading to label space stories “opera,” as though there was some connection to the musical genre.  I don’t know why soap got connected with opera, and I can’t really imagine, since the two are so different.  Possibly it refers to the fact that soap opera or space opera tell a story, as does opera.  But space opera could just as easily be “space stories,” or “space novels.”  I say forget opera; just look at the story.

The connection to opera also fails due to the fact that in opera, the most important element is the music, not the story.  Operas are designed to present music.  With a full orchestra and singers, and tenors and sopranos and altos and bassos, and usually a chorus to fill out other vocal characters, opera presents music in all its forms and styles.  It’s the reason for the production’s existence.  As a result, it has little in common with outer space stories.  (I have no doubt, though, someone will eventually write a real “space opera,” set in outer space or on another planet.  But still, the music will be the foremost aspect of the production.)  Granted, opera does tell a story, but the music is the overriding factor, not the story.  The music is everything.  In fact, some stories in opera are rather thin, not much more than a vehicle for the “Bel Canto,” the “beautiful singing.”  Some operas, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, are magnificent in scope and production, (they can be five to six hours long) and tell a great story, but in the end, it’s the music, both vocal and instrumental, that make the opera.  We don’t go to an opera to see a story; we go to hear the music.  Conversely, we go to see Star Wars to experience the story, not simply to listen to the music.

So, what does music have to do with space opera?  Nothing.  Forget about it.

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Starting Slowly

Why do written works have to start with something that captures the reader’s attention immediately?  We novice writers are told repeatedly that in order to get a book to sell, we have to grab the reader’s attention with a boffo line or sentence.  This is because, we are told, readers are a fickle group and will not read into a book or even into the first chapter unless we capture their imagination right away.  Especially nowadays, what with so many other things competing for everybody’s time and attention.  Also, we are told, an agent or an editor won’t consider a book if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first paragraph or so.  But, why should that be?  Is that really essential?

I like to compare books to music.  A good book is like a great piece of music that takes you to an alternate world and leaves you there to explore on your own.  But many great works of music start slowly and build toward a stupendous ending.  Bolero, by Maurice Ravel, comes to mind in this category.  Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piece by American composer Joseph Curiale called Wind River (I am).  It, like the Ravel, starts slowly and quietly, and builds to a fantastic and masterful ending with drums and brass and all that sort of stuff.  Other pieces, too numerous to mention, do the same.  It’s not an unknown or unrealistic technique in music.  Like, for example, the “Invasion Theme,” in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which starts with a simple theme and builds to a martial ending.

Of course, musical compositions are much shorter than books.  A great symphony may take 45 to 60 minutes in performance, (the Shostakovich symphony mentioned above is about 75 minutes and that’s long for a symphony) and an opera is considered long if it runs four or five hours (some of Richard Wagner’s operas are that long), but a reader may spend several days or weeks enjoying a book.  It’s also true that some great symphonies, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, do start big, with a entrance that grabs the listener right away.  But not all.  And I maintain that isn’t entirely necessary.

I have tried in all my books (currently unpublished) to write a beginning that snags the reader’s attention and induces him/her to read on, and then buy the book.  I have to, if I want to get it published.  (For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel.)  Even if I self-published my novels, the reality of the situation is that books sell on the basis of the first several lines or first chapter.  I admit that I, too, look at the first few lines of a book when I pull it off the shelf when considering whether to buy it.  It’s a fact of life.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be.  A book that starts slowly should have just as much chance as one that starts with fireworks.  But it’s not likely to get published, or even read.  If listeners are willing to accept a slow beginning in a musical composition, why should readers not be content with the same in a book?

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