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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Practice What You Preach, Part III

When last we left our musician-with-a-fledgling-composition-gig, he was thrilled with having two anthems in such shape that he didn’t hate them, even the next morning. He was also giving a faint edit/update to that “Part II” post, thanks to a stray paragraph that got copy/pasted incorrectly. He was also recognizing that all he had to do was find five songs just like the first two.

(Theme music UP, then fade DOWN. Narrator speaks.)

I’m still trying to decide whether writing two pieces out of a total of seven … and then spending two weeks on the road, away from a computer or piano keyboard … is a BAD idea (you’re on a roll and you stop?!) or a GOOD idea (give the material an opportunity to marinate inside the brain; step back and get some perspective). But it’s what I did. Went on the road with DMA, and to visit various friends, over the course of 15 days – give or take a 36-hour stop home to do laundry and not much else.

So I had what I felt were solid bookend pieces … and needed to fill in the guts of the Large Work. Piece o’ cake.


Back to the poetry of Ms. Rossetti and Ms. L’Engle, as has been previously discussed to death. I found a poem by Christina Rossetti that began, “This Advent moon shines cold and clear, these Advent nights are long…” and for the first time, a musical idea leapt to the forefront and demanded my attention. Thus far, I had finished [1] a sort of slow, straight-ahead opening song (don’t honestly know how else to describe it, other than perhaps “your choir will shine with this pensive Advent text treatment”) … and [2] a showy, funky final movement that was trying not to be a disco song. Early on, I’d wanted to have something swing out a little bit, since a few years ago I wrote an Easter anthem in the style of an Ellington big band original (Just Not As Good! … I am still humble) which kinda caught on.

Weird, I thought, to have a song swing out when the only loud part of the Advent story is usually the angels carrying on about peace on earth, goodwill to men (and women). BUT that first line of text transported me musically to the land of Guy Noir, Private Eye. I refuse to write a Christmas Pageant script with a Philip Marlowe-style narrator … but I did hear a muted trumpet wailing in the distance; I sensed Manhattan Transfer-esque choral harmony with lots of stray ninths and 13ths; and I felt a slinky, slightly desperate swinging of eighth notes coming on. At the very least, it could cause people to sit up and scratch their heads.

I will now admit that shortly after that tune got into some next-to-next-to-last-draft form, another poem wandered in front of my eyes that caused me to teeter on the edge of musical composition mimickry. This past spring, I heard a choral piece that knocked my socks off. It was slow; it was written specifically for a large number of voices, in four parts, emoting in a contemporary gospel genre (not the classic spiritual style, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, so much); and it was a monstrous hit with the audience of which I was a member that night. I admit … I’m not for plagiarism; and I’m trying to be original here … but I really wanted to write something that would have a comparable effect.

The poem I was looking at, describing the newborn baby Jesus, had relatively few words in it. Perfect for a slow tempo. Problem: as is often the case with Christina Rossetti’s poetry, it was basically in hymn form. So, no refrain to hit the listener over the head with … to put a big pretty bow on the package … to be the earworm that listeners can’t get out of their heads.

Solution? Simple. Re-visit Latin class.

Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te … and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, for good measure.

(‘Twould have been truly odd to have a Large Work, written for Advent and Christmas, without that line in it. Phew. Rescue!)

There was one more item that would come out of the week following the fortnight of my Mid-Atlantic Summer Tour. A Madeleine L’Engle poem called “The Glory” turned out to be a text that I really liked, a text for which I immediately came up with an appropriate idea for a musical setting, and a text that with a lurch I realized had to be presented prior to the text that comprised my current “opening song”.


I had written that opening song, and especially the beginning of it, to be absolutely the beginning of the Large Work. Two quotations of that aforementioned four-note motif, like a call to prayer from a minaret (use your imagination; go with me on this one, for the moment). Brilliant. And now, the high General Effect score might have been in danger from the actions of its own composer?

Yep, pretty much. The new opening song was lots more contemporary-sounding than the old opening song, and probably laid out that element of the Large Work much more effectively. But I was still a little deflated. Wish I’d seen that coming before. Ah well.


So, a productive week following the Summer Tour. Then, a productive week following that – just not productive in the service of the Large Work. A brief, previously-scheduled trip to Cape Cod … and then the few days that remained between my Cape return and my re-immersion into School Teaching (oh yes! –my day job) were going to have to be pretty productive. I had no illusions: once the school year kicked in, accompanied by the beginning of the regular church-gig program year, composition time was going to be sparse…

Will our hero finish two more anthems before the giant stone door slams down and leaves summer vacation on the other side of it? Will the basses finally get something melodic to sing? Find out … in the next exciting installment of … “Humility Takes a Holiday”!

August 24, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Under the Influence

Lately, happily, I’ve received a number of comments about my posts here that were very kind indeed. Arguably, overly kind! One or two have rendered me speechless (with gratitude and amazement!) – and if you know me at all, or my writing, you know how rare an event that is.

It got me to thinking about where my style of writing came from. Every so often, I’ll write something, just a phrase or a sentence, and read it back to myself, and think, “Well, that was very…” [whichever author I had just emulated or imitated or committed thievery upon]. The advice to writers has always been, “write what you know”; similarly, you can’t write in a style that isn’t yours, or at least you can’t write well in a style you don’t know very well.

So… here’s a page of navel-gazing in the guise of trying to trace my writing’s ancestry, to wit: authors whom I’ve read extensively, or writers whose style has made enough of an impact on me to affect what rebounds back out of my brain after I’ve read their stuff.

First things first: I had to learn to read, and I had to learn that reading was the thing to do. Mom and Dad were steadfast in carrying out their responsibilities: teach the toddler to read. Make sure he shows up to first grade ready to go. So: gigantic poster-paper flash cards, seven inches tall by as much as three feet long, containing various fun words to read.

Next: the teachers who didn’t just assign books to read, they found us fun things to read and then sent us off to find our own.

[] Joan Baird was my first-grade teacher; she put me in a reading group of exactly two people (and herself). We spent time reading the textbook full of stories and just took off. Pretty soon, we were making regular pilgrimages to the school library to find books we wanted to read. For me? Significantly, I think, the first book I remember pulling off the shelf and being intrigued by: “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet”. Insert punchlines here…

[] Barbara Howe was my third- and fourth-grade teacher (she had a weirdo experimental combined third-/fourth-grade class which was about thirteen different shades of awesome), and she was the first teacher who gave me packets of pages with prompts and empty lines upon which to write creatively. I probably have those packets buried in a closet somewhere, and I probably don’t want to read what at the time (at the age of 8) I thought was clever – but it was undoubtedly the moment I figured out that as cool as reading was, it weren’t nothin’ compared to writing my own stuff.

First major literary influence? Interestingly, a comic strip; but not surprisingly, Charles M. Schulz. I acquired curiosity about World War I while reading about Snoopy’s imaginary flying-ace exploits; I got early theological training from Linus Van Pelt; and I remember very clearly reading Peppermint Patty’s dressing-down of Charlie Brown, “C’mon, Chuck!” and trying to pronounce the first word “see, mon!” How much more than just a comic strip was Peanuts?

Summers at the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, Massachusetts ended up cementing my love of musical activity, but they started out with a pretty firm pursuit of writing, creative and otherwise. The arts day camp’s daily newspaper, “The Daily Double,” featured a number of luminaries (who to the outside world probably looked like 14-year-old campers and high-school-/college-aged camp counselors) who already wrote like nobody else I knew. David Zakon introduced me to the voice of the cynic – writing with a perpetually raised eyebrow. Mark Tavares’ writing voice I couldn’t even classify but it was some of the most inventive forms of self-expression I’d bumped into to that point. And Julie Sade represented the voice of cool, calm, collected journalism, with a slight edge of goofy.

And possibly the most ridiculous concept ever, which the CRCAP world perpetrated twice a summer, was the production of a complete musical theater show (from auditions to curtain call) over the course of a three-and-a-half-week camp session. The shows were usually written by the camp’s playwriting class, led by a writing department counselor who would thereafter polish the script. Add musical score, stir and serve. Some of the results were at best “workable”; some of them were very good considering they were the writing equivalent of short-order cooking; and a few were just plain brilliant. David Downing’s script, called “Food For Thought”, was a cautionary tale about nutrition choices, and if that sounds bland as tofu, you haven’t seen the show. On top of which, “Food” features a musical score by Tom Megan that includes a finale so good (with wise lyrics and music that is a hybrid of Dave Brubeck, 70s soft-rock and Claude Debussy) that if you heard it on its own somewhere, you’d be shocked to know it came from a children’s musical.

The other show that you never forgot, if you were involved with it, was called “The Titanic Goes Hawaiian -or- The Great American Disaster Musical.” Talk about a script that swerved crazily from one topical parody to another, from one awful pun to a worse one ten seconds later. Sam Abel was the writer, able to manage wisecrack and wisdom like Joe Torre juggled the various monumental Yankees of the late 1990s. And I learned from his play “Left Out” two summers later that one can write a deadly serious play with very funny lines in it.

Meanwhile… I’ve been thinking of published authors whose material so struck me that the style of their writing made it firmly into my own…

[] Whoever it was who wrote the Marx Brothers movies. The Marx Brothers, probably. As a fourth-grader, I discovered Groucho Marx cracking wise, and it was a discovery that no one else really grasped, in the circles I ran in. So I just walked home from school, put my “Three Hours, Fifty-Nine Minutes and Fifty-Seven Seconds with the Marx Brothers” record on the turntable, and snickered.

[] David Gerrold. Again, my 11-year-old nerd self bought the book that Mr. Gerrold wrote about his 1967 Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, partly because I was (and still am) a nut for anything “behind-the-scenes”. Also because that Star Trek episode was going primarily for laughs, a rare thing indeed. The wry humor contained therein kinda struck me. It also set me up for life with a propensity for writing single-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect.

That propensity dogs me still.

[] Ogden Nash, most famous for punchy, pun-laden short poetry, e.g. “A wondrous creature is the germ / Though smaller than the pachyderm” and “Why did the Lord give us agility, / If not to evade responsibility?” A couple of years ago I wrote a children’s musical, and some of the lyrics, now that I look back at them, were Nash all the way:

In the ancient of days, back before you were born / Our poor planet was quiet from evening till morn

Not a life form was stirring, not even a germ / Or a virus or fungus or insect or worm

Not a thing there would scurry or amble or crawl / And it wasn’t inspiring; ‘twas nothing at all

Did the Earth wonder to itself, “what’s this about?” / As a thunderstorm gathered and ended the drought?

Then the lightning flashed once and things started to swirl / And we started evolving toward boys and toward girls

Soon the bugs became fishes and lizards and such / And the moment had come, and it didn’t take much

[] Bob Ryan, acerbic sportswriter for the Boston Globe (back when he was pushed to write better, by Globe sports page competition on the order of Peter Gammons and Leigh Montville). His columns about the Boston Celtics of the 1980s never disappointed; his “cleaning out the desk drawer of the mind” quick-hit pieces still stick with me.

[] Garrison Keillor – not so much when he’s spinning tales of Lake Wobegon, but more when he’s quietly laying out political leanings and personal philosophies in something like his book “Homegrown Democrat”. If I get going on topics like inexplicable politicians, or a lack of common sense on display (or my early writing influences), his voice informs mine.

[] An undeniable influence on my writing has been the curious, humorous, theatre-of-the-absurd turns of phrase created by Douglas Adams. As a high-school freshman nerd, I discovered the radio drama version of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and knew I’d found utter perfection: science fiction that was really, really funny. And English. Adams’ work has been called a cross between “Monty Python” and science fiction. I go back and forth: sometimes I agree; sometimes I think it’s too easy to label English humor as strictly “Monty Python”. But if some weird literary catastrophe happened and all that remained of Douglas Adams’ writing was his spectacular adverbial creations (“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see [the Babel Fish] as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God”), it would be enough.

And then there are a few authors whose writing I would one day like to be able to emulate and incorporate into my writing without being accused of plagiarism!:

[] Molly Ivins, whose Texas drawl came through loud and clear in her political commentary. There are elements of Texan-ness that I have trouble with, but not Ms. Ivins.

[] Harlan Ellison, except I can’t muster up the kind of vitriol he can put into his commentaries when he gets aggrieved (righteously or otherwise); and I can’t invent speculative fiction storylines anywhere near as great as his.

[] Roy Blount, Jr., whose style of writing or speaking I cannot hope to emulate as I am not nearly as Southern as he is (highly recommended is his “Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South”).

[] Bob & Ray‘s quiet lunacy.

[] Raymond Chandler. I’d love to say I can write like he can. I can’t. I’ve tried, and it sounds pale and paltry by comparison. I love the hard-boiled private eye detective fiction sound, but even Garrison Keillor’s “Guy Noir, Private Eye” radio ad libs are better than my finely crafted fake Chandlerisms.

Okay. Navel-gazing over. But if I am to be subjected to compliments about my writing, I must acknowledge the people who helped me get writing, because I must acknowledge that whatever writing style I may have didn’t just spring forth from Zeus’ head. (See, I did retain something from my high school Classical Literature class.)

May 28, 2011 Posted by | books, education, journalism, literature, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

What To Do In Worcester When You’d Rather Not Leave The House

As long as I’m still creebing and moaning about Facebook’s profile adjustments and other neat innovations that nonetheless completely muck with my finely-crafted (and not a little narcissistic) view of My Own Darn Self …!

And as long as the weather outside encourages a fellow to stay inside … I’ve been re-acquainted with a number of trusty tomes.  It’s been awhile, books… sorry I’ve been away.


Favorite Books:

[] Season Ticket, by Roger Angell. Just one of Angell’s books about baseball, chiefly about major-league baseball – behind the scenes with players and scouts, accounts both of important games and of smaller events not covered by worldwide media.  Angell can make you care about athletic millionaires and minor-leaguers desperate to get to the Show, equally. (If they deserve your sympathy. If not, he can explain why not, as well!)

[] Bushwhacked, by Molly Ivins. I miss Miss Ivins. Left- or right-wing, there’s no one who comes close to sounding as common-sensical as this Texan wit.

[] Anything by John Feinstein. He could write a book about tiddlywinks and make it work.  I read his golf books and I’m on the edge of my darn chair.

[] The Big Show, by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. Backstage at ESPN’s Sportscenter, circa about 1995. Before Sportscenter became a gigantic corporate shill full of unfunny anchors with cloying catch-phrases, Olbermann and Patrick defined the time when Sportscenter was a gigantic corporate shill full of funny anchors with literate and deft catch-phrases. “Houston, hello!” Or, more subversively, “For those of you scoring at home; or even if you’re all alone…”

[] Homegrown Democrat, by Garrison Keillor. He’s not necessarily the first guy you’d think of if you were looking for an author who “relentlessly pulls no punches,” but he definitely found the strength to get up and write what needed to be written, a few years ago.

[] Happy To Be Here, also by Garrison Keillor. A collection of short stories and other brief items culled mainly from Mr. Keillor’s 1970s New Yorker days. Amongst its treasures is “Jack Schmidt, Arts Administrator”, a precursor to his current “Guy Noir” radio private eye series and possibly what a Raymond Chandler novel would be like if the hero were wrangling grant money; a couple of wonderful approaches to baseball; a pitch-perfect sendup of macho war-hero comic books (sorry, graphic novels); and a story of a train wreck – the wreck of a fictional train that ran (in Keillor’s imagination) between Minnesota and the Dakotas, and if you think that sounds like a bit of a dull concept, keep reading: his description of a burning train coming to a loud end is positively poetic.

[] Spock’s World, by Diane Duane. I know; I know. Star Trek fiction is usually not on anyone’s list of serious reading (and dear Lord, Star Wars fiction even less often than that). I’ve read a few really good Trek novels, but mostly they’re only really good if you know the Trek canon backwards and forwards, at which point people start to make jokes about you.

BUT. Spock’s World almost literally veers back and forth between being a Star Trek story (without a phaser being fired!) and a historical novel. It digs deeply into the ancient history of the planet Vulcan and its formerly emotional and violent people. The 1988 book has since been revealed to be “non-canonical”, which is to say, divergent from histories and details set out by the official, Paramount-Pictures-released TV series and movies … which is NOT to say that it’s no good. Here’s where I start to reveal my Trek nerd-ness: to my mind, Diane Duane’s Vulcan history is a heck of a lot more (gulp) logical than most of what the “official” Star Trek producers have dreamed up in the last 20 years. Besides, Duane writes Trek dialogue better than anyone including the official producers. Doctor McCoy has a multiple-page soliloquy which makes you wish DeForest Kelley were still alive so he could read it aloud. [Follow the link below to a Trek forum page about favorite Trek moments, ignore the first thing you see!!, and instead search on the webpage for the words sloppy thinking and read THAT post instead.  It quotes the entire passage from the book.]


[] Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Douglas Adams takes his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” brand of writing and applies it to this Earth, specifically his expedition to Madagascar and other places which contain animals on the verge of extinction. Komodo dragons and the Yangtse River dolphin are big loud examples, but there are lots of others just as interesting, and I suspect Mr. Adams could make an nearly-extinct germ come off sounding Monty Pythonic.

Some years later, the book was turned into a BBC television series, with Carwardine and Stephen Fry (http://www.bbc.co.uk/lastchancetosee/). About a year ago, The Rachel Maddow Show unearthed a video clip which made its host giggle so furiously that she went happy-verklempt on the air. I dare you not to giggle as you follow this link and watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQfNZWEwN0I

[] The Parables of Peanuts, by Robert L. Short. When I was about 9 years old, I went to the library inside the church my family attended, and my eyes lit upon a book with Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt on the front cover. Sold!! As I was a complete Peanuts fanatic at the time (and what, exactly, has changed since?), I knew I had found a book whose existence in the church library mystified me, but I thought I’d just found a happy accident. Pretty soon, my fourth-grade brain caught up with the rest of the world, and I realized there were only a few actual Peanuts strips, and lots of blocks o’ text. Much later in life, I actually read through the first few pages, and discovered that Charlie Brown etc. were being utilized to make theological arguments – in fact, Charles M. Schulz was being touted as “no mean theologian” himself. The Parables of Peanuts is something of a primer on the basic tenets of Christianity. This past week I saw a number of people post links on Facebook to the wonderful speech that Linus gives, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, in which he explains how the original meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with the financial bottom line… and I guess it’s no wonder this book still sells fairly well.  (It explains why Peanuts hits so many people so close to home: it’s not just moving pictures with banging and crashing and action figures.  It has a soul.)

And when you get tired of the theological and philosophical writings, you can just skip from comic strip to comic strip and chuckle. Not a bad option, often.

December 27, 2010 Posted by | books, literature, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment