I just lost another uncle. A musical uncle. He was also an artist. And a teacher. If my brother and I have any gifts to share with the church, I can honestly say we got some of them from him. We had a memorial service. I spent a lot of time documenting his life, with photos and memorabilia and eulogies. The day of the service arrived. A few family friends came, along with the lunch ladies from church, and our small family. This was in stark contrast to another recent funeral to which the entire congregation turned out. It’s not too late. I still have the memorabilia. If the same folks who stayed away would come to my house, I would serve coffee and tell my uncle’s story. The day after the service I sat in the front pew staring at the funeral flowers and I couldn’t help it. Tears flowed.
My uncle died in Chula Vista two weeks ago. Soon all his worldly goods, in three or four boxes, will arrive in the mail. Rather sad. He was an artist. He made jewelry and played baritone, French horn, and piano. His profession was teaching industrial arts. He had stubborn ideas about music and only liked jazz, and composers such as Shearing and Oscar Peterson. He didn’t like ordinary, predictable chords, which he called “churchy”. Once he took a correspondence course from some midwest Scandinavian college in theory or arranging or some such subject. He proceeded to make the chords interesting and received back his paper, from an instructor named Olafson, all marked up in red and the words NO! NO! NO! scrawled across the page.
I met an old friend who I remembered as a composer. He is still composing. He said my brother has a lot of music in him, and he asked “What is your forte?” I said I was a writer and he asked, immediately, “Would you consider writing a libretto?” I said yes, but I’m going to have to research this to see what I am up against. The subject he has been studying is about the Biblical King David. I thought to myself, what do I have in common with David? What can I grab onto that will keep my energy and interest level up? Not slaying a giant. Maybe the fact he was a shepherd? The way he put a soldier in the front lines so he could steal the man’s wife? Then….it occurred to me that David was a poet……
Åland is an autonomous region of Finland, Swedish speaking and with its own flag. It is an archipelago consisting of numerous islands. I looked up Åland music and found a calendar of events that includes no less than fourteen music festivals. Styles range from organ music, country, jazz, chamber, medieval, rock, pop, punk, alternative, big band, and Christmas music. They also have their own folk music.
My brother gives a presentation with a colleague at an elder hostel and elsewhere on the subject of Scandinavian music. He admits it is rather lame, and I have tried to help him research and put in order some of his information. So far he has not used anything I’ve discovered but he promises that will change in the future.
As a result I have learned quite a lot about Scandinavian music. We are of Norwegian and Swedish descent and do not come by the music of the other Nordic or Northern European music through our heritage. Maybe a little Finnish because we live in close proximity to the Minnesota Iron Range region. But there are other cultures in the pantheon including Danish, Icelandic, Faroese, Sami, Greenlandic, Ålandic….It’s quite an adventure.
The two Icelandic folk instruments I have encountered through research are the langspil, similar to the Norwegian langeleik which is related to the dulcimer, and the fidla, a bowed instrument. It is my understanding that both of these were resurrected from the Viking era by means of reconstruction of museum pieces, but are now used widely in contemporary Icelandic music.
Every erstwhile piano student, even those of us who quit, remember that the ideal in piano playing was that you really shouldn’t continually be looking at your hands. But it’s hard not to peek. This because even more of a problem when one reaches bifocal age. You now can’t surreptitiously glance at your hands; you have to move your head in an obvious manner, which looks ridiculous. I just found this really helpful article on the subject.http://www.helpandinformation.com/articles/10-tips-to-reading-music-for-the-piano-faster.html
According to my old friend Wikipedia, the hymnody of Jehovah’s Witnesses has not received much attention from academic hymnologists or musicologists. I know a little bit about it first hand.
The Kingdom Halls I have attended don’t have pianos. The congregations sing along with recorded accompaniments. I’m not sure if this is universal.
At first, the group used familiar melodies from other churches, and changed the lyrics of well known hymn composers to suit their own beliefs. Presently, all melodies and lyrics in their books are composed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. As with their other publications, these composers and poets are anonymous.
They use styles of music different from conventional hymns. Some are in march or waltz tempos. Sometimes the verse and the refrain are in different keys. One from their most recent collection is in quintuple rhythm.
I will likely attend their Memorial this year. This is held close to what others call Good Friday (which they don’t observe and theirs is not always on Friday) and the focus seems to be the same. Communion is held but the elements are just passed from hand to hand and not consumed. I guess there are a few people alive who actually eat and drink. These are the people who feel they will go to Heaven. Everyone else will live on earth.
I live four miles, as the crow flies, from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. Cass Lake (the name of both a lake and a town) is located on the reservation. On the lake is an island called Star Island, and on that island is Lake Windigo. Potato and Cedar Islands are located on Lake Windigo, and so on and so forth.
A windigo, or wendigo, was a malevolent cannibalistic spirit. The last known Wendigo Ceremony, to emphasize the seriousness of the taboo against cannibalism, was held on Star Island.
Today a satirical ceremonial dance called wiindigookaanzhimowin is held as a last day activity at Sun Dance. It is danced backwards around the drum, and the wearing of a mask is involved.
And that is a story of singing and dancing very close to me in a geographical sense, but very far away in a cultural sense. Or is it?
Every Sunday in a virtual world called SecondLife, a Danish electronic music composer gives a concert at the Open Arms Cross Church. He always includes a hymn selection from the Danish church. It is an hour for meditation and reflection, and immensely enjoyable. Yes, it’s pixels but the sound is real, the surroundings induce reveerence, and there are real people in attendance.
I was somewhat familiar with the Swedish troubador tradition, of setting poems to music, through the works of Bellman and Taube. What I didn’t know is that the tradition continues. Two current artists I listen to are Dan Viktor and Stephen Sundström. In fact, Sundström is a friend on MySpace. One of the most interesting artists is Cornelis Vreeswijk. He passed away in 1987 at the age of 50. Even though I am not fluent in Nordic languages, the biting satire of his songs comes through. He felt much of the tradition was insipid, and he proceeded to change that. He is quite famous as a composer of Swedish folk music. And continues to gain new fans even though he passed away quite a few years ago. What is interesting is that he grew up speaking Dutch. His parents moved to Sweden when he was about 12.