Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaching Literature: The Light and the Wind

It is heartbreaking to teach literature sometimes. Very rewarding, but often heartbreaking. I teach a lower-level group of high school juniors this year -- nice bunch of kids and many of them way smarter than their work habits show. We are studying American literature and, believe it or not, I insist on teaching them Moby Dick. How do you study the foundations of American lit. without Melville's greatest work?

No, I don't have them read the while book. (I didn't read it until grad school.) We read selections and we watch the movie with Patrick Stewart as Ahab. It is a pretty good Cliff's Notes version that manages to keep many of the themes intact; it also remains faithful to a lot of the book's dialogue. And, the kids like it.

What's heartbreaking is teaching sections like the St. Elmo's fire scene and being (every time) chilled to the bone by the profundity of it; being ignited with my own internal fire of appreciation for the lofty heights that the human animal can achieve in seeing Melville's brilliance in action.

How do you teach that? How do you impart the soul-deep fulfillment -- the actual "high" -- that rises up in you when, for instance, Mr. Starbuck, brought to his lowest of lows, seeing Captain Ahab posing with the aid of a natural phenomenon like static electricity as a God figure, utters the phrase, "Forbear, old man -- God has turned his back on thee. This light is not thine. This light is not thine..."

Literature and music have always been to me as is wind to Coleridge's Aeolian harp; the strings vibrate into feelings of wonder and beauty. Forgive the purple prose, else can one say these things? No wonder the Romantics were poets.

I know it is probably something one can't teach; the strings are either there or they are not, I suppose. I just wish.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

All the World is a Stage, Until...

As a boy, I knew, for sure, what I wanted to be.

As a young man, I began to feel an internal wrestling match: What I wanted to be versus what I wanted to be perceived as. 

We could very well want to be something because we want to impress people. There are doctors who live for the wonders of medicine; who deeply feel a calling to help others. But I am sure there are also doctors who wanted to be doctors so that they could be seen as doctors.

Sometimes we want to be a thing because that thing is respected or because it carries with it the trappings of "image" that we covet, but if that thing is not what we truly want to be -- or, more accurately, to do -- can we be happy? 

I actually never had any dreams of being a teacher. It sort of happened by accident; however, I love teaching. I always wanted to be a full-time musician, but when I started doing it, I realized I loved music too much to enslave it. I sure did like the idea, though, of telling people "I am a musician" when they asked what I did for a living. 

I had a friend who was, as a profession, "a writer." I felt some jealousy about this. Why, I don't know, because he wrote medical texts, and I would rather rub my face on stucco than write about medicine. Or, rather, I do know: I was tempted by the desire to be able to tell people "I am a writer." Like, really. Like, for a living. 

Well, I am a writer and a musician and, now, it is enough to know that...and to just do it. It's sad that we need to make life decisions when we are young -- when we still feel as if leaving the house is like stepping onto a stage. All hail happy accidents. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Dancing with Catherine, Again

I remember sitting in a classroom at Rutgers University, in a class with my teaching hero and most inspiring professor, Robert Ryan, an expert on and a deep lover of British Romanticism. Sadly, this is not a reference to his brilliant teaching, but to a simple statement that he made, in passing, one day, that has stuck with me ever since. He simply said, "I have been teaching for twenty-five years, and..."

I remember thinking: "Imagine, having done something for as long as I have been alive..." I was in my twenties. I had been in existence for less time than Dr. Ryan had been teaching at the college level. It seemed impossible. It far away.

With the release of my recent collection of piano music, American Sketches [No, I am not ashamed to promote it, even when promotion is not the purpose of a blog post! CD version is available HERE.] I mentioned that it is comprised of music written over the last three decades.

What the hell happened?

The oldest piece was written at Penn State in 1987. I remember lamenting my state; a young man -- as I saw it -- who wanted to be a composer but who was being forced to get a non-musical degree by his musician parents. I'd walk, at night, through "the quad" of the Mont Alto campus under outrageously beautiful night skies so full of stars it looked like a movie effect.

Not even sure who took this, but there I am,
bottom right, blue shirt
with white sleeves, Mont Alto, 1987...distant
and still so close, thanks to that piece of music,
written only months before this.
On some nights, I would walk into the old, empty Science Building, and the auditorium would be silent and the piano would be free: a beautiful Bosendorfer grand piano. Other nights, some other misplaced artist would be at the piano. On those nights, I would stomp angrily back to my room. But on the nights I got the piano, I'd sit there for hours, enjoying the solitude and enjoying the atmosphere of the old theater, writing piano piece after piano piece. That's when "Dancing with Catherine" was written.

It almost didn't make it onto the CD. In my mind, I had labeled it as immature -- a piece from my late teens that I had outgrown, harmonically and compositionally. But my wife remembers it from our early days -- when I would play it for her. I was twenty-four, then; she was nineteen. She has always loved it and she convinced me to put it on the CD. So, I did include it, smack up against one of my newest and most ambitious pieces, the "mini-symphony," "The Widow's Walk." I like it there. I like the contrast; I like the truth of it. (A composer simply cannot lie when he writes music; to write instrumental music is to open the living room curtains wide...)

I like that the early me and the current me are contrasted; innocence and experience, if you will. But what really moves me when I hear it is the "time machine" aspect of it: there, in "Dancing with Catherine," is an exact record of my nineteen-year-old mind; its feelings and thoughts; its frustrations and ambitions; its dreams... It is a record of uncountable truths.

...thirty years ago. Astounding.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

American Sketches

Many apologies for being pretty inconsistent with posting recently. Life. Such a bother.

At any rate, I thought I would post to tell you about my new musical project, American Sketches. It has been mentioned here before as a work-in-progress thing and I have even posted some rough versions of the pieces. I am happy to say that the project is complete.

It is a CD of piano pieces that are all, thematically, tied to my own version of the "American experience." The best way to describe the music is that it is "impressionistic." Each piece is entitled with a place or scene and the music is meant to recall my own experience with that scene -- the feelings and...well...impressions.

The music, I think, is a little more sinewy than the kind of impressionism we tend to think of as related to the French Impressionism masters Ravel and Debussy, but it is composed for the same purpose as that of the work  of all impressionists, so I can't think of a better way to label it...

Of course, I like to think that there is a great deal of "me" in my music, but I do think that the influence of my favorite American composers (Barber, Harris, Copeland, etc.) is present -- but there are probably some Ravel moments as well... (I spent the years between the ages of, say, seventeen and twenty listening to just about no other composer.)

I wanted to make an actual CD, even though that is going out of fashion, for two reasons. 1) CDs sound better than MP3 downloads and (2) I wanted to create a cool package, because I miss the days of listening to music and either reading album liner-notes or flipping through a CD booklet. My sister, Gina Matarazzo a professional designer and artist, who now does books but who designed CD packages for many years, did the work. The beautiful photography on the CD is by my lovely and talented wife, Karen (who also designed this site for me), and Gina used computer magic to turn the images into "sketches."

We created a package that reflects the pieces in quite a literal way. (I have always liked that, for some reason. I think of Rush's covers for, say, Moving Pictures [movers actually...moving pictures] or Permanent Waves [pictorial representations of each song].)

The cover is a photographic "sketch" of my son, Will, seven years ago, on the baseball field. In looking for images, I found this in some photos that Karen, had taken over the years. This one struck me as timeless looking and it was the perfect reference to the piece "Little Boy, Right Field."

The back of the box contains the track listings, but, also, a picture of the moon in the morning sky, a reference to the piece "The Morning Moon," which is based on something my father never finished composing before he died two years ago. I finished it for him, because I had always loved it.

The booklet insert contains the back-stories to each of the pieces on the CD, as well as internal illustrations of some of the pieces. The photo on the outside is of Widow Harding Pond, on Cape Cod -- the pond that gives the title (and mood) to the piece that is its namesake. The inside of the CD box contains the "thanks yous" and credits as well as an illustration of a whaler's wife on a "Widow's Walk" waiting for her husband's ship to come home...a reference to the "miniature symphony," "The Widow's Walk."

The pieces on the CD were written over the course of almost thirty years. (The liner notes say "fifteen," but Karen convinced me to put a piece on there that I wrote when I was nineteen because she has always loved it. It's called "Dancing with Catherine." I like it too.) Nothing is virtuosic -- I'm not a concert pianist -- but everything is more meant to be more like orchestral pieces on the piano; sort of a score to some of my life's experiences. There is almost an hour and twenty minutes of music, so a lot of "bang for the buck" as they say...

It's not available in CD just yet, but downloads are available on Amazon, iTunes and CDBaby. I will stress, though ,that the CD is worth it, if you still have a player and like interesting and artistic packaging...

Thanks to everyone who reads for their continued support. I'm very proud of this one.

Friday, January 15, 2016

On Celebrity Deaths

I hope no one sees this as a critique of their emotional ractions, because it is not meant to be. If anything, maybe it is a critique of my own. Perhaps I'm insensitive...

But, with the passing of David Bowie, I am once again reminded that I really don't get very upset when celebrities die. I hear people talking about being "heartbroken" by the loss of a celebrity -- a lot of this went around with Robin Williams -- and I feel a bit callous.

Sure, I always have a moment of "oh, what a shame..." Then, I continue eating my sandwich. I don't drag through the day.

I had a lot of respect for Bowie. I was never a big fan, but I always respected his artistic integrity and even his sense of humor. He seemed like a good guy. I guess if he were one of my musical heroes, it might have hit me harder...

No sarcasm intended: one of my
favorite acting performances by Bowie.
He voiced the character on the steps.
(Note the different-colored eyes.)
I have to admit that when Arthur Miller died in 2005, I was driving and I felt upset enough to pull over to the side of the road for a minute. I suppose that when John Williams, the composer, dies, I will have a similar reaction. But these people contributed to my growth as a musician and as a writer. They affected me directly and deeply. That feels a bit different than if, say, an actor I really like dies.

Maybe I am underestimating the power of art. Maybe I am being something of an artsy elitist. I am questioning the connection of the artist to the common audience and chalking that connection up to something less than the connection of an artist to an artist. I probably shouldn't do that.

Still, I remain skeptical that there is a lot of hyperbole out there on the social media sites... I'm not saying everyone is overdoing it, because, surely, many people really loved Bowie (and maybe even Alan Rickman) but, there has to be a little over-dramatizing going on out there.

All I know (all any of us really knows) is the world inside my own head, and, in there, the losses of celebrities who haven't profoundly affected me are simply not that deeply felt, no matter how much I liked them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Make America Classy Again

At some point, at some indistinguishable time in recent history, someone decided that it would be cool to dispense with the traditional notion of humility and to brashly brag about his or her worth or achievements. At that moment, and for some moments after, it was refreshing; it was refreshing because it flew in the face of propriety. But because of this, eventually, confidence got confused with arrogance, and braggadocio became the norm.

Then, the landslide began and it went out of fashion to be subtle or to maintain composure, at least in terms of one's words, and people started just saying whatever they felt like saying. And that is where we are...

...and that is why we have a presidential candidate openly saying that America is no longer great.

I'm not a flag-waving patriot. I don't dwell in America as if I were a rabid fan at a football game: go team, and all that. But I do have a deep pride in many aspects of American culture; in its literature and in its music and in its historical sense of rugged individualism. There is a spirit here that lives nowhere else; maybe not better than anywhere else, but a spirit all its own. There are also numerous, gaping flaws in this country, but, as a whole, we do pretty well. And there is still "greatness" here.

Donald Trump wants to "make America great again." Further, I just head a senator on the radio refer to "our broken government." Could we possibly hearken back to the old days when we exercised restraint? Might it be wise not to trumpet our feelings of internal collapse (true or not) to the world?

As President Obama pointed out last night, we are a world leader. We ever have been and we still are. We still have the most powerful military in the world. We still innovate and we still have some of the finest educational institutions in the world. There's a lot of greatness in America.

If Trump defines being great as being a world bully; if he defines it as bragging to the world about our power; if he defines it as turning our backs completely on those who need our help or if he defines it as completely abandoning diplomacy, whatever the consequences, then, no we haven't been great. If he does define greatness this way, I don't want us to be great.

It amazes me that social mores have shifted so much that we are okay with (even enthusiastic about) a presidential candidate saying that the country is a mess. Brashness has become so accepted that we cheer it, no matter the stage on which it appears. Of course, there is a lot wrapped up in people's acceptance -- and even strong support -- of this, not the least of which is a suspiciously vigorous disliking ("worst president ever") for the first African American President of the United states, but that's a whole other issue.

What we really need to do is to make America "classy" again.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Week in Pain

I just spent a week in pain, discomfort and delusion. I learned what it means to reach "the breaking point."

I'm not trying to be dramatic. In fact, sadly, I am being quite literal with all of the above. 

One night, during Christmas break, I felt a familiar pain in my back: kidney stone. I'd had one before. Last time, I went to the emergency room, got some pain meds and "passed" the thing the next day. So, although it is the worst pain I've ever felt  (or am ever likely to feel), I sort of blithely went off to begin the process. No biggie. Right?

Wrong. This time, the pain continued for about five more days. Five days of a kind of pain that I have heard several women say is worse than labor pain. On or about the fifth day, I was "at my breaking point." Really. Quite simply, I could not stand it any longer. During one particularly strong attack, I felt my throat muscles contracting -- that pre-cry feeling. It wasn't that I was going to cry because of the pain, itself -- I'd already dealt with if for almost a week -- but because my mental strength was giving out; there was a crack in the damn and it was going to blow. Back to the hospital.

This time, I was admitted. Pain medication was administered and the pain disappeared, but after several doses of the narcotic meds, and after a few nights in the surreal atmosphere of a hospital room, I started to feel reality unravel. I literally thought my intravenous pump was talking to me. I began dreaming before falling asleep and would wake myself completely up as I drifted off by answering, out loud, the people who were talking to me in the dreams. I did not sleep at all for two nights. I tried to wedge reason in by stopping myself from responding to my dream figures. I even succeeded a few times. But the drugs were too powerful. 

After a procedure to remove the culprit, I awoke in the recovery room, literally punching at the male nurse (so glad it was a guy...) who I was convinced was trying to turn me into some kind of cyborg. It took three people to hold me down. I feel badly about this, but...I was just full of narcotics... A glance at my hospital bracelet brought is back and I realized where I was. And I was not happy about it. 

The whole point of writing about this is not just to recount a weird and unpleasant experience, but to explore my failure. On the night after the surgery, I was miserable. I had spend the better part of a year advising my father to try to accept his plight -- when in the hospital, just accept it. It is what it is; you will go home; what cannot change must be endured, etc. But I could not follow my own advice. I was ready to chew my way through the mattress, down to the first floor and out the door. Nothing appeased me. Nothing was interesting to me ("this most excellent canopy the air...this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours..."). Nothing entertained me. I did not want to smile. I did not want to talk. 

I lost. Reason did not defeat emotion as I believe it always can. The fog of anger was thickened with the smog of medication and sleep deprivation... So, there's a kind of excuse. But it can't be. In the end, I just lost. I let the situation beat me. 

Next time I will do better.