Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


I was going to record more tonight but it’s late & I’m tired. So -- well, I’ll see how I feel after I’m done here.

It’s not done. A few days ago I realized I had no strategy for sequencing and mastering. Borrowed analogue equipment, and no mix-down capabilities at home. Write write write, and then record, and that was as far as my little brain took me in the planning. And then the recording didn’t go as well as I’d hoped anyway.

I plan to re-record most or maybe all of it, and hopefully release it as planned. And hopefully stop maundering on about it hereabouts, until it’s done!

But since we’re talking about it, here’s what I got done, a bunch of things in 3 sections, plus an epilogue.

Part 1, Four Songs:

“Ms. Dish and Mr. Spoon,” a love story ballad of running away. Wrote the words first, then wrote a melody, then realized I didn’t like the melody. Wrote a new melody, then thought it was missing something. Wrote another verse and a coda, which may be my favorite part of the song. I love it when a nagging something pushes me to write further, and the nag ends up being right. On guitar.

“I Want to Talk About You,” a very short, repetitive love song. On piano! One of those songs where tunesmith John was working on something, and wordsmith John was working on something, and they got together and said, hey, these things go together! At which point wordsmith John had to rewrite everything.

“Go Back to Sleep My Little Cosmos,” a lullabye in 6/8. On guitar. Had a title, started playing a lick, started singing the title, went from there. Pleased with it.

“Guitar Guitar,” an ode to my longtime companion. (I bought mine in 1982.) Played (rather badly, so far) on piano, because it’s slightly tango-esque and lends itself thus.

Section 2, Improvisations and Sketches

“Lament (Improvisation 1),” fast legato play-anything piano, trying to play pretty and un-keyed, while improvising singing a slow modal wordless melody. Cathartic to do.

“No Insurance,” a very short (3 lines) a cappella song I mostly improvised. Made it up while playing a scratch rhythm on guitar-string-squeaks and recorded it that way, then decided I’d like it better a cappella.

“Words Words Words (Improvisation 2).” The idea was to strum the pitched metal bars of my toy piano while improvising talk-singing a nonsense word salad I wrote late one night. Recorded it, and close-miked the toy piano sounded like an awesome free-jazz gamelan thunderstorm, and the talk-singing sounded like a bad poetry reading. So I did it again and improvised words, words like, “Yeah, well, you know. . . . Oh no, that’s not, no, no. . . . You know, you know what I mean! . . .” And so on. Goofy -- hope you like it as much as I did!

“Still Seeking (Improvisation 3),” quiet pretty fast tone clusters on piano. Inspired by something Kyle Gann said on his blog: “Not all clusters are percussive.”

“Blue,” a 2-note harmonica thing, played 3 times, very slow.

“The Night Comes Crashing Down,” a poem spoken over a dissonant 6/8-ish guitar riff. Don’t know whether I pulled it off. Poem written the day after the election, which brings us to . . .

Section 3, The Most Important Demos of Our Lifetime

“Red State Blues,” a piano blues, with the climactic line borrowed from my friend Julie, who said it at a party the day after the election: “The point I’m making / With my song / 59 million people can be wrong!”

“Post-Election Unity March,” a setting of a piece of internet doggerel I pieced together from several sources, accompanied by crashing pot lids. According to a web search, the last lines date back to the aftermath of the 2000 election. “The election is over, the voting is done / My side lost, your side won / We should show by our thoughts and our words and our deeds / That unity’s just what our country now needs / Let’s all get together, let bitterness pass / I’ll hug your elephant, you kiss my ass.”

Medley: “A Lot of Us Were Hoping” / “Oh, It’s Nothing.” The first song is a bit of prose adapted from my first post-election blog post and sung to the Civil War-era song, “Aura Lee,” which later became “Love Me Tender.” Everybody sing along: “A lot of us were hoping we could finesse the inherent contradiction / Of being an enlightened empire / Spread peace prosperity and human rights at home and abroad / While still hanging on to our relative wealth / But on November Second a slim majority of the voters said / To hell with all that / They misunderstood forgave or supported the horrible track record / Of the anti-enlightenment incumbent.” And then it goes into an uptempo acoustic guitar rocker detailing some of the horrible track record, each item of the litany being answered with “Oh it’s nothing,” followed by a spoken-sneered wrongwinger rejoinder. Sample line: “Torture our prisoners to death, oh it’s nothing -- IT’S A FRATERNITY PRANK.” Not sure that it’s a good song, but it features a good harmonica solo.

And then the album’s epilogue, “God Bless America,” the Irving Berlin hymn, sung with bitter sincerity in very free rhythm with arhythmic guitar chord pulsing.

The only thing I didn’t record that I wanted to was a 3-word post-election-anti-unity chant, an homage to Judy Garland’s backstage pre-show warm-up with a 3rd word occasionally added, “all,” chanted over dissonant pounded fast quarter note 4/4 piano clusters. I may still record it.

A little disappointed at not having a finished Thing by now, but a mostly positive experience. Back to blogging about other people’s music soon!

And planning to keep writing songs and recording.

Sunday, November 28, 2004


I think it was Susan Sontag who said that anybody being photographed is looking at death, because the photo will potentially outlive the subject. Certainly the same is true of recording -- of writing too.

This week-end I faced the abyss of recording, and I flinched.

Acchh, that's too melodramatic -- fake noble. The truth is, I have never gotten my recording life together, so the guitar tunes, which I recorded in the backroom, have a vicious electronic buzz, and the piano tunes, which I recorded in the living room, lack the buzz but feature a sub-mediocre pianist who had the vanity and laziness and foolhardiness to try to record everything live -- me.

I got almost everything recorded that I wanted, but just not as well-played as I had fancied. The folk-jazz ideal holds that any live recording records the truth of who the player is at the time. And the truth of who this player is -- well, he could use another year or six of woodshedding before hauling the piano out in public.

A couple things came out better than I had imagined. But those were the guitar tunes, and they have bad distortion. I may have figured out a solution to that, but I haven't tested it yet, and it would entail rerecording the ten tunes. I'll test the solution tomorrow night and try to record Tuesday night.

The piano tunes -- I may have another chance at them Tuesday afternoon. We'll see. Good news is: I'm liking the songs themselves.

This puts my wounded vanity in context: We found out today that a friend had a heart attack yesterday. He's in his 60s and has done nothing to change is life since his last heart attack -- still smokes, still gets no exercise, still carries a few score more pounds on him than would be good -- and this after decades of taking speed. He's more than once said, "If I'd've known I was gonna live this long, I would've taken better care of myself." So he and his friends have known that he could drop at any time. But it would still be awful to lose him -- he's a grand guy who saved my butt once when I was in deep emotional water -- he threw me a liferaft. I spoke to him on the phone today and tried to visit but he was being tested and I was with the toddling dude. The toddling dude wanted to wait -- they're friends too -- but after an hour and a half it was time to go home. I don't know whether my friend will be able to go back to work. Here's hoping so.

Other than that it's been a great holiday week-end. Building the ties that bind with family and friends. And one thing the Buddhists had damn straight right -- all of those ties, they get broken eventually, every last one of them, and the more attached you get, the more painful it can be when the attachment severs. And that is the bitter grandeur of life, that we can love with all our hearts, and that our hearts are bound to be broken.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


To everybody who's dropped me an email or responded to one of mine. To any blogger who has linked to me. To you, whoever you may be, just for reading. The pleasure is mine. Hopefully not ALL mine.

To Douglas Wolk for suggesting a November album project. It's been great to write songs again after writing very little for the last few years. With luck I'll record between 9 and 11 new ones plus 4 or 5 new outlined-improvised pieces this week. Only 2 or 3 or 4 or maybe 5 or maybe just maybe 6 of the songs would I consider performing with my band. Fine for listening (I hope) but wouldn't fit into my band. The project makes me question everything about my music, which is weird but good. I doubt that these will end up being among my "best" songs. But they're truest to my life RIGHT NOW. And that feels right. (Thanks to Jake London for loan of recording gear.) Plus "God Bless America." I'm grateful to live in America, and appalled at what we're doing now.

Thanks to my family, for, forEVER, forTUNATELY, for everything. Thanks to the Great Whatever for the miracle and mystery of life and consciousness.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


In pre-rock pop songs, the introduction to a song is called the “verse.” Most jazz singers and almost all jazz players have skipped the verses of most songs. There aren’t very many examples of songs from the rock era with pre-rock style introductory “verses.” The only ones I can think of are by the Beatles: “You’ll never know how much I really love you, you’ll never know how much I really care” -- to introduce “Do You Want to Know a Secret”; and “To lead a better life, I need my love to be here,” which introduces “Here, There, and Everywhere.”

In pre-rock pop songs, the main body of the song is called the “chorus.” Jazz crit is full of talk about soloists “taking” X number of choruses on any given tune.

One of the songs for my November project, I wanted to write a pre-rock-style “verse,” because I had the words for it written, and the words and music for the main body of the song, which is in the rock-era style verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure (which derives from folk ballads). The introduction I had written is prosy and contextual, not given to lyric emotion. Yesterday I started singing the introductory words to the melody of a well-known Civil War-era tune that became a hit in the 1950s with different words. I like the quotation for a few reasons, which I won’t go into here, but I may be breaking the rule of “one cover only.” But this isn’t a cover, it’s a quotation! Of a traditional, anonymous song! (Another song for the album sets an anonymous bit internet doggerel to music.)

Thinking about it, and working it out yesterday and this morning, it occurred to me that the verse-chorus structure of Tin Pan Alley song is analogous to the recitative-aria structure of opera. The recitative and the verse set the scene and convey the context, the chorus and the aria burst forth into a heartful of song. Generally speaking, of course.

Monday, November 22, 2004


My sense of harmony is mediocre; it’s my weakest musical faculty. Still, I thought that the esteemed advocates of alternate tuning Kyle Gann and Devin Hurd would be interested in knowing (if they didn’t already) that some popular harmony singers have been on the case for decades:

“We realized that there was more to singing harmony than just what the piano played. You can’t get beautiful overtones if you sing the notes a piano plays; you’ve got to tweak the vocal notes, making them a bit sharp or flat in certain places. Then, you must go for those chords with a distinctive coloration in them, like major sevenths and flatted ninths. Some of those ‘far out’ chords can make such pretty sounds when you sing them. It can make your hair stand up when a chord rings. We sang those chords because they harmonized and made overtones in our ears.” -- Ross Barbour of the Four Freshmen, who were a huge influence on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

“Good vocals are much more in tune than the keyboard. The keyboard is out of tune by virtue of Bach’s tempered scale; it allows for modulation, but it doesn’t really present any given key in tune. A good vocal ensemble finds that finer tuning. Even though they may have instruments in the background, the three or four voices that are finding each other find those correct mathematical relationships. Therefore, you get a kind of stability that we call ‘ring and lock.’ When the Beach Boys hit a good major chord it locked, and sounded just beautiful.” -- barbershop vocal arranger David Wright

Both quoted in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’” by Charles L. Granata

While out and about yesterday with the toddling dude, I discovered and bought “Old Troubadour: Carl Sandburg and His Guitar Friends.” Gregory d’Alessio wrote it. He belonged to a guitar society in the 1950s that Sandburg joined, and they played together at a lot of parties. Book came out in 1987, 20 years after Sandburg died at the age of 89 in 1967. D’Alessio transcribes a parody lyric to a famous patriotic hymn by Irving Berlin that Sandburg liked to “boom out” at parties:

Goddam Republicans
Scum of the earth
We will meet them
And beat them
And show them what we are worth.
Out of Wall Street,
Came a Wilkie
He’s a silkie
Goddam Republicans
The Geee-Ohhh-Peee!

For a flicker, I considered using this as my “cover” for my November Album, but then, nah, forget it. Few people remember Wilkie and I have enough scurrilous doggerel to finish without worrying about updating Sandburg’s parody. But then I thought, wait, I’ll cover the real “God Bless America.” I’ve been performing it since shortly after the atrocity of 9-11, in a passionately ambivalent arrangement -- this is the land that I love, despite everything, it is my home sweet home, despite its bitters and its terrors; and, the song is a plea for guidance. I change one word of the lyric: “Stand beside her. Please guide her.” Please. I’d settled on “Alfie” because the lyric’s plea for love could be read as a social and a metaphysical vision -- “are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind then I guess it is wise to be cruel.” I wanted something to bridge the family love songs I’ve been writing with the political jokes and rants; the private and the public; one thing I’ve written since learning Alfie may do that too. I dig Hal David’s lyric. “Without true love we just exist. Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing.” I believe in love. I would have gotten rid of “true love,” with its romantic connotations, and replaced it with “real love.” And I would have added a word: “As sure as I DON’T believe there’s a heaven above, I know there’s something much more, something even non-believers can believe in. I believe in love.” Making the singer an agnostic seemed to fit the point of the lyric better; plus, it fits me. Which makes “God Bless America” an odd choice, but there you go. I was having trouble with one phrase in the singing anyway -- Bacharach songs are tricky; I wanted to undersell the climactic phrase, thinking it would bring out the meaning of the words better and give it a nice emotional spin, more pity, less fear; but since the climax is near the top of my range, it’s hard for me to get the notes out quietly -- gotta do it loud. Acchhh. I’m glad to have learned the song & may still record it. Hell, I’ve got a whole week left, who knows whither my mind will change! A man’s prerogative, you know.

Anyway, after posting yesterday, I almost finished one song and made a lot of progress on another before the toddling dude woke up from his nap, and I worked on some stuff again after work tonight. And am off to go work on some more soon.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


Received an almost finished album from my friend John de Roo yesterday. I play and sing on one tune, and he covers two songs I wrote, in versions I like better than mine. One of the songs I co-wrote with Jay Sherman-Godfrey 8 or 9 years ago. I had asked Jay if he had any melodies that needed words. He gave me one and I used it. (Jay later used the tune, without words, on the soundtrack of Michael Moore's movie The Big One.) It's great to hear John's version, and it makes me feel sheepish for wanting to cover "Alfie" on my November 2004 Album. John and Jay and my friend Jake London have boodles of terrific songs -- wouldn't it be cool to cover one of theirs? But then I think -- well, I have nothing to add to any of their songs; I could only do something similar and not-as-good.

I'll think more about it, but the month is 2/3rds over and I haven't started recording! Haven't finished all the songs I want to finish! Haven't adequately learned the ones I have! What am I doing here blogging!

'Bye for now!


My siblings and I have always called our parents Mom and Dad. My spouse and her siblings have always called their parents Mommy and Daddy. We both seem to want our son to call us what we call our own parents. The coming-on-2-year-old has only recently added 2nd syllables to his speaking repertoire. On Friday he started calling his mom, “Mommy.” I was still “Dad,” and oddly, I was a little sad not to have the extra syllable, a little jealous, a little out-of-sorts. But then I became “Daddoo,” which I like very much. (My wife points out that he probably got “Daddoo” from “Doo dah.”) Today my wife became “Mommoo,” and our son was very pleased indeed when I started calling him “Nattoo.”

I think it was Jack Spicer who said that everybody speaks their own language. Spicer (1925 - 1965) was a great poet and a professional linguist; if I recall correctly, he said this at a lecture on poetics, and when making the comment he mentioned his work as a linguist. My wife’s and my relationships to the distinctions between “mom” and “mommy” or “dad” and “daddy” illustrate the wisdom of Spicer’s observation.


I haven't read Thomas Frank's book about the trouble in Kansas because I don't like Thomas Frank's writing -- his style is dry snobbery, which is ironic, because he can get things wrong. He wrote some byzantine piece for Harper's about the trash trash trashiness of pop music, and how unjust it was that his talented friend failed to strike it rich with his ironic version of the stuff. Yucko, on several levels. Keep your uncomprehending condescension to yourself, please.

Another, infinitely more consequential thing Frank gets wrong, according to the myriad mostly glowing and uncritical reports I've read of his new Kansas book: Frank says that the plutocrats who run the fanatic Christianist and plutocratic Republican Party never deliver on the abortion issue. Not true. According to this web site, "86% of US counties and 95% of rural counties do not have an abortion provider. This means that many women must drive hours and even cross state-lines to obtain an abortion." Myriad legal restrictions have been placed on abortion as well, and the number of ob/gyn's willing to do it has been shrinking and shrinking. The Christianists are getting what they want, little by little.

Maybe Frank addresses this, but from what I've read, people seem to take his thesis straight up and agree with it.

Anti-abortionists claim traditional morality, but they're freaky radicals. No society that I've ever heard of celebrates conception. (Well, sure, maybe a cigarette -- but at that point whether conception has occurred is still unknown.) People celebrate birth. People attain legal driving age, voting age, and drinking age based on the anniversary of their birth, not their conception. The census taker counts live humans, not live humans and fetuses. This is the way it has always been.

But who care’s who’s radical and who’s traditional -- what pisses me off is this. If Christopher Hitchens and the various Christianists were serious about the idea that abortion is murder, they would put a lot of energy and money into promoting contraception. But they don't. It's a war against sex.

Guess who’s winning. S-E-X.

Women pay the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, whether they have the abortion or carry the child to term, whether they give the child up for adoption or raise the child on their own. Some new Republican Congressman has said that single mothers should be barred from teaching in the public schools. He hasn't advocated the banning of absentee deadbeat fathers from public sector jobs.

It's a war against women.

As many people have said, and everybody should hear, the pro-zygote brigades think a rape victim should have to bear her rapist’s child -- even if bearing the child kills her. Thomas Frank apparently thinks the Bush Administration isn't going to “deliver” on this issue. I'm quite sure that if he's wrong, it will only be because of the filibustering powers of the Senate Democrats, but I hope Thomas Frank is right.

Friday, November 19, 2004


Lower lip stuck out and curled down and trembling, saucer eyes starting to moisten, quavering voice.

Is Big Bird gone?

(We’re reading a book, a book he’s read before. He knows the ending -- he figured it out right away -- but now he’s chosen to have forgotten the outcome.)

“Let’s look for her. I bet we’ll find her.” (As I recall, on the TV show they kept Big Bird’s sex ambiguous. The book IDs the big yellow feathered thing as a He. But since all the Sesame Street principals are He’s, we’re going with Big Bird being a She.)

We page through the book, and the coming-on-2-year-old finds her. “Ohhhh!”


Every year I’m gratified to see the Michigan - Ohio State game rated as the top college football rivalry -- sometimes even the top sports rivalry -- in the country. Having grown up in a Michigan family, it’s one of the only games I’ll watch. The greatest of all the games is usually held up to be Michigan’s 1969 upset of Ohio State. I was there -- my first football game, six years old. My parents had season tickets, my mom didn’t want to go, and she made my dad take me, to his chagrin -- he could have sold the ticket. The only thing I remember is that my dad made a five dollar bet with a Buckeye in the parking lot. I scolded him, told him betting is wrong. Some things don’t change -- moralistic prig at 6, moralistic prig at 41. He told me I could have the money if he won, and then I was excited. Other things don’t change either -- easily bought-off hypocrite at 6 . . . After the game, my dad went to collect, and the Buckeye refused to pay.

A year ago, my college pal Jake came over and we watched with the then-baby-dude. He was 10 and a half months old. My beloved spouse had to work that day. Michigan won. After the game, the baby dude was so excited that he took his first steps.

Go Blue!

(Out of context, it’s almost a Dada phrase, no?)

Go Blue!

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Thinking about the relative paucity of nonsense syllables in Anglophonic song in the period between Shakespeare and doo-wop, I remembered cowboy songs. (“Dip-de-dip-de-dip” is one of the finest lines the estate of the late great lyricist Lorenz Hart refused to accept credit for.) Could cowboys have gotten the idea from minstrelsy? Sure. Did they? Dunno. (Did nonsense syllables exist in minstrelsy? I’m guessing they did, on the evidence of Stephen Foster’s faux-minstrelly “Camptown Racers.”)


The other night I reviewed a piano recital by William Chapman Nyaho and said that outside of a few Bach pieces, the program was probably unfamiliar to everybody in the hall. I have no way of knowing the truth of that statement, and I would bet that a couple people in the hall had heard a number of the pieces. This question is secondary to the beauty of the recital, of course, despite one of its beauties having been the reclamation work performed by Nyaho on behalf of not-widely-known, wonderful music by composers of African descent.

In the same review I said that the composer and pianist Margaret Bonds arranged spirituals for Jessye Norman. A web search tells me my memory of Mr. Nyaho’s remarks was faulty. Bonds arranged spirituals for Leontyne Price.


Last night I mentioned having gotten 2/3rds of the way through a new song. Today I scrapped the melody. I’m going to have to sing this one out & figure out chords later. Here’s hoping.

Despite today’s setback, I’m excited. Got closer to the feel I wanted in my planned cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Alfie.” A stripped down bare-bones rubato ruminative conversational take on it. With feeling. (Rumination and conversation can be emphatic. Of course you know this.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s I lathered myself in self-pity as I watched tribute albums to the music of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Disney films, and Cole Porter come out, after I had been covering Guthrie, Leadbelly, Disney, and Porter songs already, in some cases better -- really!! So now I’m working on this November 2004 album project (tentative title-in-progress: “The November 2004 Album Project: The Most Important Album of Our Lifetime”), and the rules allow one cover song. I’d been thinking of covering Bacharach & David’s “Alfie,” when I turn on the TV last night and see the Tonight Show’s Kevin Eubanks making his public debut as a singer singing “Alfie”! He sang it nice and pretty, sweet soul style. I hadn’t decided for sure whether to cover it, and still haven’t, and I’ll try not to let my helpless trendiness be a factor one way or the other.

Last night I posted quick thoughts on nonsense syllables in Anglophonic song and titled it “Doo Dah.” Today, out of nowhere, the coming-on-2-year-old started shouting “Doo dah!” I sang him “Camptown Racers,” taught him to join in on the “Doo dah”s, and we both liked it very much, singing it over and over.

AS FOR THE ALBUM PROJECT, I have another song 2/3rds finished and another possibly started, bringing the total to 8 or 9 songs in various stages of completion (though I may drop one or more), and from 2 to 5 instrumentals. We’ll see if I make it.

Monday, November 15, 2004


Listening to the Disney tribute album “Stay Awake” tonight reminded me:

In the history of nonsense syllables in English lyric, in the large gap between Shakespeare’s “Hey nonny nonny” and 1950s doo-wop’s syllabic explosion there was:

Disney’s “Hi Diddley Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” which echoed Mother Goose’s “Hey diddle diddle”;

And, Mother Goose, dates undetermined, but probably for the most part post-dating Shakespeare;

And, improvised scat singing;

And, Disney’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”;

Which was a faux-Fosterian homage to Stephen Foster’s faux minstrelsy -- “Camptown Racers Sing this Song, Doo-dah, Doo-dah.”

Leaving aside Louis and Ella as vocal improvisations meant to be heard, not read (though transcriptions are fun to read), and leaving aside Mother Goose as a special case (“my godmother Goose,” Robert Frost called her), between Shakespeare and doo-wop we got Stephen Foster’s faux minstrelsy, and probably real minstrelsy as well. I don’t know enough to know, nor do I know enough to know whether the minstrel tradition would have taken it from existing African American practices or invented it. Question for further reading.

Saturday, November 13, 2004


It’s difficult for a classical layperson to understand just how much latitude a performer has even when performing the most familiar scores. From my own thin collection, the differences between Glenn Gould’s and Mieczyslaw Horszowski’s readings of the Prelude to J. S. Bach’s English Suite Number 5 stand out starkly. Gould plays the piece about a minute quicker, and his tone is bright, alert, forceful, sharp, with his unique almost-staccato touch. Horszowski is ruminative, softer, and with a much smoother articulation. They both bring out Bach’s counterpoint clearly. And most surprisingly, to someone who equated classical playing with a strict tempo, they both take liberties, speeding up and slowing down subtly across the weave of the piece. Horszowski gives the impression of playing at the speed of quiet thought, with the tiniest occasional hesitations. Gould’s rhythm is equally personal, though I can’t say what it conjures for me other than I like it. (I don’t like Gould’s occasionally audible, very soft moaning and groaning in the background. It’s disturbing and distracting.)

I thought of this Friday night while attending a recital by the Ghanaian-born, English- and American-educated, and Northwest American-dwelling pianist William Chapman Nyaho at the St. Ignatius Chapel of Seattle University not far from my house. In his renderings of piano transcriptions of Bach pieces, he would place the slightest pause between phrases, a sort of musical comma. It was one attractive feature of an enrapturing recital.

Nyaho opened with three Bach pieces as a sort of pianistic introduction and familiar audience warm-up to a concert of music that was probably otherwise unfamiliar to everybody in the hall, including me. His Bach was a lovely getting-to-know-you greeting, because Nyaho specializes in music of composers of African descent.

He’s a charming and personable performer, introducing each set of pieces amiably and knowledgably, giving biographical and other contextual details, as well as a few musical hints, including occasional previews of important licks to listen for, and what they mean to him. When he said about the movement “Egwu Amala” from the suite “Talking Drums” by the contemporary Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe, that he had never seen a piece in 19/8 meter before, but that it was really quite easy because it broke down into 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3, many of us laughed. He smiled and said he would not ask us to clap along. But the comment wasn’t merely funny; it helped me hear the piece. Similarly with his other introductions, including his remark about the “Ukom” movement of “Talking Drums,” that although the meter says 12/8, the left-hand figures really range across a measure-and-a-half, twice, followed by a measure. I couldn’t hear that phrasing while listening to the piece, but I benefitted from trying to.

In addition to a thoroughly expert and very personal approach to rhythm, Nyaho draws a wonderful array of colors from the piano. Treble phrases can sound like trumpets or flutes; chordal passages can call to mind string sections or trombones. “The piano is like an orchestra” -- I had never experienced the truth of this old saw with such clarity before.

The program was a cabinet of wonders. The Bach was enchanting; “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in Myra Hess’s transcription, made my eyes water. “Deep River” by the African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912) brought a gorgeous romantic sweeping landscape into sonic view, very cinematic. “Scherzo” by the African American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932 - 2004, who was named in honor of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and who may have written the piece for Nyaho) was a fiendishly virtuoso piece of dramatic, dissonant, and witty modernism. “Talking Drums” provided a beautiful link between West African folk and pop music on the one side and the minimalism of Steve Reich on the other. “In the Bottoms” Suite by the African American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882 - 1943) offered lovely African American-flavored melodies in the bittersweet harmonic language of Chopin; the closing movement “Dance: Juba” was a hoe-down fiddle tune that pre-saged Copland’s “Rodeo” and ‘60s jazz evocations of white country music by Oliver Nelson and Nat Adderly (I’m guessing the link between Dett’s version of African American folk music and Copland and Nelson and Adderly’s versions of white country music is minstrelsy).

The concert’s highlight, for me, was “Troubled Water” by the African American pianist/arranger/composer Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972), an awesome arrangement of the traditional African American spiritual also known as “Wade in the Water.” I’d never heard of Bonds. According to Nyaho, she was the first musician of African descent to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and she wrote arrangements of spirituals for Leontyne Price. “Troubled Water” is one of only three works for piano of hers that survive, and the other two have never been published but are stuck in an archive in Chicago. Bonds is said to have had many other arrangements in her repertoire, but she didn’t write them down. “Troubled Water” is powered with a rhythmically propulsive riff that would have done Mingus proud; it has the rhythmic power of jazz, with the rhythmic and formal and structural complexity and flexibility of classical and a harmonic virtuosity that outshone Art Tatum. Based on Nyaho’s rendering, I’m confident that had Bonds recorded as a jazz artist, she would be in the pantheon. As it is, I don’t know whether she recorded at all. A search on Amazon coughs up a few scattered pieces on a few anthologies devoted to African American composers. I’m going to have to buy Nyaho’s CD, because I want to hear this piece again, and I’m guessing that after that I’ll want to hear it again and again. And mourn the lost legacy.

I thank Mr. Nyaho and the composers for a wonderful evening of music.


Did the great doo-wop groups of the 1950s read Elizabethan poetry? From Hey, nonny, nonny to Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang / Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay.

Does any English poetry between, say, Shakespeare and The Chords use nonsense syllables?


This evening, getting the coming-on-2-year-old ready for bed, I sang “Hey Diddle Diddle” to him, a song we both like. The cat and the fiddle and the cow and the moon always make him smile, but tonight, when the dish ran away with the spoon, he made the saddest face in the world and said, “Back?” His face got sadder and sadder as he repeated “Back?”, until finally a tear formed in his eye, and then he was sobbing, tears flying outward from his eyes like in cartoons. “Back!” I had to reassure him that the dish and the spoon came back, because they love to eat O’s with him in the morning. He cheered up before too long.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The worst of the sick feeling went away the other night after an impromptu dance party in the living room initiated by the coming-on-two-year-old. Not at all confident that the sick feeling won’t come back again, and again, and again, as the lying thieving cowardly war criminal Christianist administration does its ghastly song and dance.

Getting deeper into the November album project. 7 songs close to done, 3 of them directly topical reactions to the election, and 2 more of them emotional reactions to same but with un-specific words. Plus 2 instrumentals for sure and maybe 5. I’m guessing that most of the songs are under 2 minutes, and all of them under 3, and one of them under 1 minute, so even if all 12 maybe-almost-dones work out, I’m not up to 30 minutes yet. Which is good, because I want to write something better. The itch feels good.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Douglas Wolk asks how the album is coming.

I’ve been in a rather blue state. Working on the project has been distracting and sometimes even maybe cathartic. 2 songs just about done (one very short, the other a blues); another song about 2/3rds done; a few instrumental improvisations mapped out; a couple other songs started which may or may not pan out. Don’t know if I’ll make it to the 29 minute, 9 second minimum (which I’d round up to 30 minutes). Am glad to be trying.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

POST MORTEM ("after the death")

some people cry, some sleep a lot, some briefly take to excessive drink. for the first time since junior high school, i avoid newspapers.

a quiet time of reflection and regrouping, for the coming struggles to try to prevent the worst ideas from coming to fruition. and -- we'll get to "and" later.

in the nice-as-we-can-make-it meantime, there are jokes and love and music. and we'll have those things with us always.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


We deserve whatever we get now.

Or, well, a slim majority of us do. The rest of us deserve mercy. As my friend Julie said, “58 million people CAN be wrong.”

Gonna gotta keep on keepin’ on, fighting the bastards (who look to have legitimized themselves now) and living our lives.

After voting yesterday morning I listened to Martha Reeves & the Vandellas singing “Dancing in the Streets” over and over again. Big crowd at the poll, reports of big crowds everywhere, so hopeful. “It doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there” -- utopian and joyous. Then I listened to the first 2 movements of Ives’s “Holidays Symphony,” Washington’s Birthday and Decoration Day, which was the precursor to Memorial Day, a holiday so-named to decorate the graves of Civil War dead. The “Decoration Day” movement quotes “Taps,” followed by a wild rousing victory march, underscored by Ives’s trademark quiet lovely slow-moving dissonance. Chills. The symbiosis of life and death, the necessity of someone else’s death for a community’s triumph.

America has been top dog empire at least since WW2, and in the top 5 since the Spanish-American War. Bush is gonna run this empire into the ground -- he’s well on his way. A helluva lot of suffering for us Americans here, though possibly not so much for me or my family, skilled healthy college-educated white people. And Bush’s adventurism abroad is gonna see that a lot of people have violent bloody early deaths, including a lot of Americans. But maybe it’s time for America to lose its top dog empire status. After all, we’ve just proved to the world that we’re no more enlightened than any other top dog empire ever. Certainly our history shows that our victory marches were built on a lot of violent bloody deaths -- the conquest of the Indians, the building of a lot of the empire’s wealth by slaves, the economic degradation of laborers producing cheap commodities worldwide for our private consumption and for our owning classes’ private profit. A lot of us had hopes that we were somehow going to finesse the inherent contradiction of being an enlightened empire, work for expanded human rights and peace and prosperity internationally while keeping our relative wealth and power. Bush’s supporters said to hell with all that. Why should we be different than any other empire?

Last night as the vote counts were coming in, and nothing unexpected was breaking for Kerry, I threw up my dinner, probably from worry. This morning I felt fine, except shaken up. Like I’d witnessed a murder. And then huge crowds of people I didn’t know were wildly cheering the killer.

They won on an agenda of hate. Hatred of gays and lesbians. Hatred of women’s reproductive rights. They don’t give a whistle about the number of abortions. Abortions in America have increased since Bush’s accession, after having decreased during the Clinton years. And of course Bush cut funding for measures specifically designed to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies through contraception. No, the religious wrongwing isn’t about preventing abortion, they’re about hating women’s sexuality. And last but not least, it’s about hatred of Arabs, poorly gussied up with talk of liberation. 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, and hundreds of Iraqis tortured, many of them to death -- that the so-called conservatives didn’t throw Bush out on his ass over either of those counts shows the emptiness of their liberationist rhetoric.

The rule of the unrighteous cannot last forever. The rule of the liars and incompetents cannot last forever. The hateful house of cards that they’ve kept delicately in place will continue to crash around their ears. We’ve seen pieces of the structure fall and fall and fall already -- it should have been enough to get them thrown out, but it wasn’t. A whole lot of suffering is going to crash down with the piercing of their carefully managed illusions, and it’s a goddamn crying shame. And when the time comes we’re gonna keep on rockin’ to try to soften the blows and salve the wounds and prevent the worst from happening.

And we're gonna hold onto what is good in our lives, whatever that may be.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


do so today. And tell everybody you know.

Monday, November 01, 2004


Will I get the present I want, or something much worse than a lump of coal? Here’s hoping.

Worked on writing some songs this evening, a few beginnings. A pleasure, though I’m not sure how I’ll feel about them tomorrow. Course, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about anything tomorrow.

An e-mail from my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, who took his 5-year-old son and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter to a concert of mostly 20th century music:

“Saturday, I took Mac and Lil to a concert at a local church. The group is called the Astoria Music Society, and I had seen fliers around and had been intrigued. This night was billed as Kreepy Kids Koncert, so I thought this would be a good first live thing for the kids. The group advsertises new music concerts once a month -- modern classical and/or commissioned works. It all seems to be the labor or love of the conductor, one Silas Huff, who looked mid thirtiesh. Looking at the calender, he has arrangements or pieces in almost each show. They also do standard repertory. They work out of two local churches. Tix were $10, kids always free.

Sat, they played a mix of stuff, most new to me. It began w/ a Henry Cowell piece, The Banshee, which two “pianists” played inside the piano. Dense arpeggios, string scratching, and three instances of the same three-note pattern, repeated about a minute or so removed from each other. Sounded great. Mac's fave. Really nice accostics in the church. And the painists were dressed as bllod-sucking witches,

Next was a Debussy solo flute piece, Syrinx, which the group spokesman (the trombonist) announced was based on the familiar Greek myth of Pan. Very nice. Once again the flute really sang in the room.

Next was a George Crumb piece based on the Debussy (quotations of the main theme) for flute and 3 percussionists. The percussionist were placed far stage left, center behind and above the flute, and far stage right. Really cool -- the right/left percs essentially acting as each others echo, the center maintaining a barely audible bass drum roll, and then burst of fff unisons. [Ed.’s note: “fff” means fortissimo, “most loud.”] The flutist also spoke lines across the hole to eerie effect.

Next, a very satisfying Night on Bald Mountain arranged (by the conductor) for eight: Piano, Double Bass, Violin, Flute, Clarinet, Trombone, Trumpet, Percussion. The really worked the dynamics to get the most out of the small ensemble.

Next a Meridith Monk vocal piece. I can't recall the name, but it was a round sung by two altos, the same phrase slowly repeated with one voice or the other peeling off into quarter tone above the other. Lilly sang along. Malcolm asked "What does it mean?"

Last were a suite of traditional cowboy songs arranged by the conductor for bass voice and the octet. We had to leave just as this started, as Malcolm began to melt.

The ensemble was good, self described as "pre-professional" though there were, to my ear, some pros among. It was a treat to see a live performance, and the quasi-amateur setting was perfect for the kids. I like it that way too. When we came in, they were still warming up and trying over some hard bits of the Mussorgsky -- a tricky entrance (which they blew in he program as well, but to no detriment). All the classical musicians I've known have a goofy streak, and the Halloween program brought it out. No tuxes to cover it up Saturday, and in the way back basment of the church, the alternate Korean congregation's Christian rock combo was rehearsing. You could hear them ever so faintly, and a basketball game in the gym, with the loudest sneaker-squeaks audible when someone went out to the bathroom or for a smoke. And at the intermssion, the local PTA offered refreshments for a dollar.

Oh, the Crumb piece had a great title:

An Idyll for the Misbegotten.”

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