Monday, January 26, 2009

Resolutions for my Imaginary Museum

I imagine that when I retire I will volunteer in a museum and try to make things interesting.  I’m motivated in that direction by a little section of the patchwork-quilt-song-lyric, “Mississippi,” by Bob Dylan. 

Stick with me, baby,
Stick with me anyhow,
Things are gonna start to get interesting
Right about now. 

We’ve got to stick with our local museums, anyhow.  My imaginary museum wishes there were more volunteers.  It wishes that visitors were more in evidence.  It wishes things were in better order, that the place looked less cluttered, better lit, cleaner, more interactive, and…there are so many ways to say this…more like the product of a lively mind.  There are any number of museums that are already delightful, but it will be just my luck to retire in a place where the museum faces a world of challenge. 

So I’m putting myself into the situation of the people I visit, cheer on, and admire and I’m assigning myself an imaginary retirement in their shoes, with only two months to go before the doors open again.  Here is a list of resolutions about what to attempt in those two months.  There is no chance I can accomplish all of these, but I’ll see what I can do to make a difference.

  • I will create an interesting activity at the museum entrance, which I will clear of all distracting clutter so that the visitor’s first impression is that of being welcomed into an “introductory” space that feels “hospitable.”

    The activity will involve the visitor and also launch the visit.  The Blackworld History Museum in St. Louis “launches” each visit with a handout.  It’s a list of things to find in the displays.  The visit becomes some kind of scavenger hunt.  People love having that list to focus their attention.

    The activity will be germane to the museum’s mission.  If the museum is in Missouri’s prairie region, and if there are farm implements on display, maybe I’ll create some kind of hands-on experience involving sod, soil, and plows of several designs.  Much of Missouri was once tallgrass prairie.  I have not yet seen a museum in Missouri that conjures up the appearance of tallgrass prairie or the special technology (a plow of specific design) that made agriculture possible.  I can’t remember seeing a county museum that oriented the visitor to the interesting features of The Earth at this county’s location.  Was the county a buffalo range, an ancient sea bed?

  • I will look at the old photographs in the collection and gather a set of them together in a little display about “how to read a photograph.”  I won’t need more than a handful of pictures.  I’ll find one that is superb as a grayscale print and use it to teach about the range of tones in a fine print.  (I saw one such picture in the museum in Unionville, and it was arranged with other objects so that they all made more sense of each other.) Then I’ll state a few facts about what one sees in the image and pose a question or two.

    I’ll find another one that serves a purely documentary purpose.

    I’ll find a third one that’s a standard business portrait in color from the 1960s or 70s and compare the portrait style from that era with the earlier era.

  • I will make a little display called “Hand Made, Tailor Made, and Catalogue” for ways of obtaining clothes.  (Hmm.  I could add “hand-me-down” and Army to that list.) There’s a doll in the Clay County Museum with a label from the doll’s donor saying, “Whenever I made a dress for myself I also made one for my doll.”  There are several “feed sack shirts” in the museum in Unionville.  There’s a 1920s fashion catalogue in the Morgan County Museum in Versailles.  It belonged to one of many traveling salesmen who came through town on the railroad and stayed in the hotel that is now the museum.  There’s a tailor-made suit in a small historic house in Chamois; it was made in that town for the wedding of the donor’s husband.  I’ll find a few examples and pose questions about remembering home-made clothing, tailors, seamstresses, or catalogue shopping.

  • I’ll organize one small display area to look like it’s lived in.  I saw such an idea at the Bates County Museum last summer.

  • I’ll have an interactive military display where people can polish brass and spit-shine a black shoe, hopefully with experienced instruction.  If possible, I’ll have some complete military outfits available for kids to put on and “fall out for inspection,” again with someone experienced.

  • I’ll see what I can do with color in the museum.  The Harlin Museum in West Plains has a small workbench of a local sign painter.  My eye always goes to it, when I’m not wishing I could play that Porter Wagoner guitar.  I’d try to do something about the skill of sign-painting or lettering people’s names on glass office doors.  I’ve always wanted to know how painters of those doors really steadied their hand with the stick they use.  I’ve wished for a museum that would let me try that out.  Now that I’m making resolutions, maybe I can figure out how to schedule such an experience one Saturday morning a month, for the kids primarily, but also for the parents as a “benefit” for people who drop a donation in the cigar box.

  • I will subtract objects from the displays one at a time for as long as I can get away with it or until the entire museum looks appealing, whichever comes first.  (Never underestimate the value you can add by subtracting something that competes for attention.)

  • I will pull various things that are currently displayed with other things just like them into new relationships.  I will try to create expectations that displays in my museum stimulate thought.

  • I will think of the other volunteers whose friendship is essential to the success of our museum and I will bake cupcakes for them, or go visit them, or take them out to tea, or invite them to go visit and evaluate another interesting museum with me.  I will remind myself every day of the off-season that people volunteer for positive social interaction and fulfillment of some kind.  I will create positive social interaction with the other volunteers this winter.  I will mend fences and build bridges and make friends.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Detail in Classical Music

I recently bought a stack of complete recordings of Handel operas, going with "Used-Like New" whenever possible to spare expense.  The initial motivation was to hear more of the work of one of my favorite conductors, Nicholas McGegan.  Another motivation was to hear more of the glorious singing of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.  I now own a lot of her recordings!  The subject of this short blog is "authenticity" in Nic's work.

This subject of authenticity is something experts and critics love to chew over.  There are no recordings of 18th century concerts, of course.  There are, however, reproductions of 18th century instruments.  There are contemporary accounts of some of the details of musical taste and interpretation.  Conductors can make educated guesses about sound from the number of musicians that Handel used, the size of the performing space, etc.  All of these ways of knowing are based on forms of evidence that are one step removed from the music on the page and the words beneath the music.  It is in the deep thinking about the expressive potential of notated music that I believe Nic McGegan soars!

I have listened to many live and recorded performances by Nic.  I've sung in several concerts he conducted and have seen firsthand the way he releases the expressive potential of the details in the scores.  The question critics may pose is, "how plausible is it that such attention to detail ever took place in the real-world performing conditions of the 18th century?"  Put another way, "Is Nic McGegan over-expressing what is in the score?"

These questions came to mind the first time I worked with him.  The details were refreshing in ways I had not heard before.  The overall integrity of his conception was compelling.  While he is not the only "leader" in the pack of 18th century specialists, he is distinctive in the way he conceptualizes the sound.  Other leaders are distinctive, too.  That is in the nature of leadership at the top level.  I love them also.  I would not say flatly that I think he is better than his peers; only that I am more refreshed by his renditions, more thrilled by what I hear in his concerts, than I am by the others.  

If you want to hear what I'm talking about, borrow his recording of Rameau's music from Nais and compare it with any other good recording.  You'll instantly hear differences in the "thickness" of the sound and in the balance and in the ornamentation and in the phrasing.  You don't have to pick a winner; you may actually love contrasting approaches to the same pieces, as I do.  But if you compare them, you will begin to hear what is distinctive about Nic's gifts.

I've about finished my first listening to the full recording of Handel's Ariodante.  I've got another full recording lined up to go through the same opera, start to finish, with another five-star ensemble.  I may have more to say on this subject as I get deeper into these performances.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Anthems For The Stadium

Just sitting and listening to music can bring on thoughts of improving the world.  I have wondered recently about updating the moldy oldies that people sing at baseball and football games.  I don't mean to replace the National Anthem, of course.  That uniquely unsingable anthem stands as the supreme challenge to singers young and old, strong and weak of mind or voice.  

Even if you can remember the words, you really can't remember where to breathe.  Not that anyone would fault you for breathing before "see" in the first line.  Nor will  anyone fault you for sounding as if you are being slowly impaled when you sing "free" after an ill-considered breath in "land of the free."  That, too, is expected.  The singer of the National Anthem is expected to suffer greatly during the task and to emerge alive, though seldom victorious.

Bad style and bad technique do not mar our love of country.  We have heard so many spectacularly bad renditions that we have come to accept them as a part of our Heritage.

So leave the National Anthem alone and let it survive serial attempts and assaults by one and all. I have in mind other opportunities for updating the music at our sports events.  I envision the replacement of a moldy oldie like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with something really suited to the lungfull of air you can take after five beers, several hot dogs, a plate of melted cheese product with traces of corn chip, and many bags of popcorn or peanuts.  What I would much rather hear is a chorus of 40,000 fans singing either of two Three Dog Night hits from the Golden Age of Polyester, "Joy to the World" or "Shambala."  Yes, I really mean it.  Imagine the joy of thousands of people singing the much easier words and tune of Shambala:

Wash away my troubles, wash away my pain
With the rain in Shambala
Wash away my sorrows, wash away my shame
With the rain in Shambala

These are confessional, hopeful, wholesome sentiments made into prayer with the three-part harmony of Ah-ah-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo, Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah!  After several choruses of that, they'll all be primed for an astroturf-melting shout of "HOW DOES THE LIGHT SHINE in the halls of Shambala?"  People will be so happy they will forget that the teams have resumed play.  Verily, if the beer hasn't intoxicated you, the singing of that Ah-ah-oo-oo chorus will do the job!

I think the Cardinals organization should take this seriously.  I think our government should take this seriously.  I am seldom happier when chiming in with a song than I am when I sing this great rock anthem, Shambala.

There are certain songs that every adult should know by heart.  Especially in these hard times, we should all know the timeless one by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Free Falling."  That's the tune for the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, the Stock Exchanges, and the hyper-compensated thieves who have been pushed out of the aircraft with golden parachutes.  Rather than have it sung at those times and places, I'd have it sung by the hundred thousand Penn State fans in Happy Valley.  They'd sing it in place of "Fight On, State!"

On the Home Page of the investment brokerages, I'd have a singable audio clip of Paul Simon's "Slip Sliding Away."  Doesn't that make sense?  "You know the nearer your destination, the more you're slip sliding away."  These are songs everyone should know.  Besides, the Paul Simon "investment anthem" is less troubling than the Beatles' "HELP!!"

Another really good one for those who are embattled and resisting impeachment is also a Tom Petty tune.  "I won't back down" is the name of it. Tom sings, "you can stand me up at the gates of Hell and I won't back down."  Then comes the big refrain that 40,000 fans should chime in with..."HEY, BABY!  THERE AIN'T NO EASY WAY OUT.  HEY, YEA!  And I'll  And I won't...back...down."  

These songs should be required learning by one and all because they represent the vanishing legacy of My Generation.  My 15-year-old granddaughter, who wants to play electric guitar, does not recognize the name "Tom Petty" and can't sing or play any riff or phrase from "Free Falling."  You can say all you want about a generation that doesn't realize that Muhammad Ali was an American boxer, doesn't recognize the phrase, "it depends on what "is" is," thinks the American Revolution was a rock band, and is bewildered by telephones with dialing mechanisms.  All these things can be remedied or punished.  But you can't replace a timeless cultural legacy that is embedded in these singable evocations of History.  

Ah, Paul Simon, how you grind up syllables!  My personal theme song is one of his.  I'll sing the refrain in Paul's pronunciation: "But I would not be cawn-vic-ted by a jury of my peers; still crazy after all these years."