Pantomimes, Polar Bears, and Mince Pie

Just got back from a visit with my extended family in the London metro area. When was the last time you shared Christmas with your Grandma’s sister’s family? It was an experience quite relaxed considering how well I knew them before. I had visited for a few days back in 2006 en route back to the USA, but this trip was a bit more extensive considering we all stayed under the same roof together for a week in the middle of the holidays. With any family, that kind of trip can get heavy but I must say we pulled it off quite well.

The most traditional thing we did was attend an English pantomime. Pantomimes are a strong Christmas tradition in the UK, and they are geared towards kids. The audience (adults too) is encouraged to interact with the characters on stage, usually in the form of cheering for the hero and hissing and booing the villain. Other common characteristics include the hero being a man character played by a girl actress and lots of jokes pertaining to current events (for example, Kate Middleton and Prince William). We attended the classic “Aladdin.” Although I’m not sure what it had to do with Christmas, there were many flashing lights, disco ball, scene changes, smoke and special effects, and cheering kids. It great fun and I thoroughly relished the opportunity to cheer and boo at the actors on stage. For all the fun and games, they were actually quite professional.

I went with Holly to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve inside a centuries old Anglican church. Outside it looked like the perfect scene for a Hollywood ghost movie with ghoulish tombstones and eery shadows cast by torch-like white lights outside against a cool mist. Inside, about 25 people gathered to sing Christmas songs and listen to my great-uncle Dan Mullin preach about Polar Bears and Jesus. He described how both seem so cute and cuddly when they are born as they pose in Coca-Cola commercials and mangers, but went on to note how much we shy away from them when they get older. They become stronger and more dangerous, capable of making us react and respond—not nearly as easy to control. Father Mullin reminded us that the baby Jesus came to change people’s lives for all of time, not just to pose for nativity scenes. It was certainly a unique way to celebrate Christmas, I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to take communion (a rare sacred moment in this whirlwind life) and read Luke 2:1-20 during the ceremony.

I spent a lot of time checking out surrounding cities such as London, Berry, and Cambridge. So much of it reminds me of the US and home compared to where I am now. Still, all I had to do is wait for people to speak and the accent snapped me back to where I was. My nephew of some sort once removed had a few laughs at his American uncle’s expense for his Midwest accent. Sausage and mash, fish and chips, mince pie, all of the food was great. The very fact that I didn’t have to worry about getting my own food was fantastic; I’m such an illiterate bachelor cook. Played a little bit of saxophone Christmas music and enjoyed some folk jamming with Heather on the ukulele. Worked often at keeping Scion in line and entertained, no small feat for a 10-year-old kid with more energy that he knows what to do with. I played lots of Moo; Bill Hallman apparently inspired Myrt the last time she was in the states to the ways of this slightly addicting die game. Saw some really good drama movies such as Juno, Walk the Line, and MacBeth (Shakespeare!).

No matter where I am in the world, my family is fantastic company. Thank you Mullins!

The Saxophone in Baroque Music: A Performer’s Perspective

The history of Baroque music certainly carries a distinguished tradition. From the courts of kings to the Catholic mass and Protestant service, there were a number of acceptable venues for this music that would carry on melodies forever in honor of the un-penetrable power of the upper-crust aristocracy or sacred recognition of God’s kingdom which would never end. From Arnold Schoenberg to the Modern Jazz Quartet, there is no denying the influence of this venerable music tradition in our current musical world. Unlike most of the music we listen to today, Baroque music was not instrumentally idiomatic—there was often simply counterpoint, intersecting yet independent monophonic melodies that sound harmonies when played together, and whatever instruments were available at the moment. Such a pragmatic solution was considered perfectly reasonable to express the elegance of the music. By the end of the Baroque period, St. Mark’s Basilica (Venice) organist Giovanni Gabrielli started writing for specific instrumentations and from then until today, we have a venerable classical tradition of writing music for specific instruments.

In our day and age, people make careers out of arranging music of all shapes and sizes. Arrangers at Hal Leonard fashion the latest Christina Aguilera pop hits for marching band, Oliver Nelson arranged the combo music of Thelonious Monk for big band, and there are enough distinct versions of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to write a book. On an aesthetic level, the realization of the Second Bach Cello Suite on saxophone is a beautiful continuation of a veritable tradition that existed hundreds of years ago. Listening to sensitive and talented musicians performing Frederick Hemke’s saxophone quartet arrangement of D. Scarlatti’s Sonata for Harpsichord in F Major K 44/L 432 is, at face value, a charming engagement. As a saxophonist myself, studying with Leo Saguiguit and Steve Geibel proved essential in helping me develop a respectful and aesthetic understanding for Baroque performance practice—it opened up my world! So why am I making an issue of saxophonists playing Baroque music?

Simply put, it is a matter of identity. The lens of time carries with it a confining perspective that relegates certain instruments with certain music periods. For example, we generally think of the lyre with ancient Greek music, the electric guitar with American rock n’roll music, the shakuhachi with traditional Japanese music, and the turntable with German techno/house music. The very fact that the saxophone was not invented until the 19th century puts it in a relatively late circle in the world of classical music, something I view as a double-edged sword. We don’t have the veritable literature of a Telemann or von Weber, but neither do we have the tremendous weight of history on our shoulders to remain faithful to a concretely traditional repertoire.

If we lean on establishing ourselves as classical saxophonists by playing the music of composers who came before the instrument was even invented, we pigeonhole ourselves as musical imitators. Already, the saxophone carries a reputation as principally a jazz instrument. Why confuse the public even more, much less arouse the consternation of other classical musicians who view such programmatic efforts a cheaper imitation of the real thing? Even today, there exists an opportunity to make new music for ourselves and create a body of definitive music that will remain sticky and influential beyond our time. If we are making music for the beauty and expression of an aesthetic inside of a vacuum, there is no problem. Great music should transcend medium and time period. If we care, however, about defining a legacy for the saxophone as a veritable concert instrument, we as performers and composers owe it to ourselves to promote a repertoire and a tradition of our own instead of looking around in an effort to be inclusive and cosmopolitan. At some point, it just seems watered down.

Niccoló Machiavelli and King Solomon

Recently, I found a book that reminds me of the Italian-Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli, “The 48 Laws of Power, a modern work written by Robert Greene. His writings lately have challenged me to reconsider the way I approach life. I hazily remember studying Machiavelli while I considered double-majoring in political science at Oral Roberts University. The Machiavellian principle says that human nature is immutable and driven by passions. If we are called, as it says in Matthew 10:16, to be wise as snakes and innocent as doves, I imagine Machiavelli would feed the dove to the snake so it could help that snake get ahead of the others. With paraphrased concepts such as “Never Compromise Your Master Plan,” “Sell Your Dreams to People’s Passions, Not Their Reason,” “Play the Dumb Blonde to Your Boss,” “Honesty is Not Always The Best Policy,” and “Don’t Shout to Everyone What Your Dreams Are Because They’ll Squash Them,” it seems Robert Greene’s work fits in neatly with Western society’s understanding of the rat race: eat or get eaten.

When I think about the writings of Solomon in Ecclesiastes, I see a man disconsolate in spite of all the power and pleasure he has obtained. Here we find a leader on the world stage of his time who concretely understands that the wicked may live long and successful while the righteous may perish, even in vain. The wisdom of Solomon remains that in the end, we all look to the same fate. This 10th-century B.C. premier had an ability to see through conflicts straight to the core of the matter such as the story of the two prostitutes arguing over a dead child and the remaining one each wanted to claim as their own. The king initially won the respect of his people not through force and bravado but with keen decision making and a form of justice. In the end, Solomon’s life principle elucidates that there are no righteous people who do what is right and never sin. He looks to a higher power for guidance in the rat race of life in spite of his at times disheartening outlook.

Where do Machiavelli and Solomon intersect? Both have an acute awareness of the power-structure of government with a foundational understanding that men are weak and broken creatures, subject to corruption and manipulation. These great men realize there is a quantity of  good and evil in the world, although the tendency is more often towards evil. Initially at least, Solomon deals with it through a philosophy that looks to God as his source of wisdom for dealing with life. Machiavelli deals with it through a philosophy that endeavors to beat the enemy at his own game. One is mostly moral, the other is somewhat amoral. The two men are worthy of study for their intertwining and diverging views on how to deal with universal issues we all face.

Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a Prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.” Niccoló Machiavelli 1469-1527.

Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise—why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes. Ecclesiastes 7:16-18

For further reading, I recommend the writings I’ve already mentioned: