Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Birthday For George, Walter, And Me

Today marks the birthday of two American artists, one recognized by almost anyone, the other an obscure introvert who remains almost unknown outside a small but growing circle of admirers. Both were filled with creative genius.

George Gershwin in 1937

George Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a wonderful career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to us had he lived.

Walter Inglis Anderson

The second artist, Walter Inglis Anderson, was born on September 29, 1903 in New Orleans. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1920s, he spent most of his career associated with Shearwater Pottery, a family enterprise founded in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Though deeply troubled with mental illness for much of his life, he produced thousands of vivid works of art - often called "abstract realism" - seeking to celebrate the unity of human existence with nature. I often describe his work as decorated illustrations that play freely with figure and ground and the positives and negatives of visual perception. His realizations of nature explode in the mind's eye. Observing Anderson is a meditative experience. Visit the Walter Inglis Anderson Museum of Art site to learn more about the life and work of this regional artist who only recently has taken on national significance.

If I had to choose two personal favorites among American artists, I would choose Gershwin and Anderson. My mom and dad enjoyed listening to Gershwin's music on the radio and records, and later on television. I discovered Anderson on my own in the 1970s during the dedication of a National Park Service visitor center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The award-winning center featured architectural elements incorporating his motifs as well as interior displays of his nature paintings. Unfortunately, the center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. 

Studying these artists came much later in my life and, in the last five years, that study led to a startling revelation: I share a birthday with them.  George, Walter and OTR, a coincidence made somewhere in the stars beyond time. I don't want to attempt an explanation. And there's no delusion here; OTR will never approach their genius. Not sure I'd want to. I'll simply leave it at that and enjoy their greatness knowing that we share a quiet and inconsequential commonality.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Golden Days

Every year there are a few days so compellingly beautiful you simply stay outside and take in the experience with all your senses. Today was one of those days. With the sun approaching the western horizon and painting the scene in red, orange, and yellow, this music by Mark O'Connor seemed a fitting way to greet the sunset and the end of this perfect day.

Mark O'Connor, composer and teacher, does much more than the classical genre - try bluegrass, jazz, and country. Sometimes it's a violin; other times a fiddle. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

John Rutter's Birthday - This Is The Day

John Rutter at Clare College, Cambridge, England

John Rutter, the notable British composer, conductor and arranger, turns 68 today. He is best known and loved for his choral music; his professional choral group, The Cambridge Singers; and their recording label, Collegium Records. Doing an Internet search for Rutter doesn't bring up much more than the same brief biography. Though far from reclusive, the composer enjoys his privacy, but he does have a fairly active Facebook page. In addition, there is the occasional article here, and here that gives readers some insight into the man behind the music. My take on this relative dearth of information is simply that one should get to know the man through his music. Here is an anthem he wrote for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011:

Rutter is well known for his carols. This 1980 composition, Candlelight Carol, is rapidly becoming a Christmas standard around the world:

Some in the classical music world, mostly in Great Britain, find Rutter's compositions to be a bit simple, repetitive, and stylistically confused. Others place him at the top among 20th century composers.  I have to side with the latter appraisals.  The melodies are generally simple, the harmonies beautiful, and the style affords a perfect balance of music and message. Furthermore, choirs of all sizes and skill levels perform his work to appreciative audiences everywhere. If popularity is any indicator, John Rutter's music will be enjoyed for a long, long time. 

Photo: Clare College Alumni

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fall 2013 Arrives

To Autumn

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

'The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

'The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.'
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

                                 William Blake (1757-1827)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Harvest Moon

Georgia Sea Island moon rise on US-80 east of Savannah, ca. 1950                     

The full "Harvest Moon" casts its shadow across the planet tonight and tomorrow night. As the moon emerges from the sea, coastal residents can experience the sublime event precisely as it has been viewed by humans for thousands of years. It is no wonder a star-filled dome over land's end and the timeless sound of surf capture and command our consciousness so easily.  Add a moon rise and all reason flees.

Neil Young - over fifty years of fine composition and performance, and still going.

Photo: National Park Service

Thursday, September 12, 2013

First Fall Front

The Georgia Piedmont east of Atlanta has been hot today and our little creek is hardly more than a series of small ponds. That is about to change overnight as the first Fall front of the year moves southeast out of Tennessee. Our topography on the east side of the city has created a micro-climate that almost always spares us the worst of violent weather in the region. I expect the weather with tonight's front will be no different. Few leaves have given up to a waning sun and taken on the colors of the coming season. Still fewer have made the fall, including the vines from my sister-in-law's Missouri prairie farm. I suppose it's in their genes and only time - lots of time - will bring an adaptation to Georgia's endless late summers. Speaking of "endless." here's a perennial seasonal favorite most of us have heard since early childhood. Enjoy.

H.L. Mencken: A Foremost American Humorist And More

The Sage of Baltimore (r.) celebrates the end of Prohibition, 1933
Today, September 12, marks the birthday of Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), the "Sage of Baltimore." He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. P. J. O'Rourke seems to have picked up the Sage's role as iconoclast and debunker during this period.

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-30's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's.

Those who want the full story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed the biography by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers but did not find it as readable.

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year -  two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part.  My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection were thousands of magazines.  No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection would bring a nice six figures at any literary auction. If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised:
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

N.B. Terry Teachout is about to publish a biography of the great American jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader, Duke Ellington. It's getting some outstanding reviews.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Patsy Cline: Her Music Never Ends

The Maryland-Virginia area has produced a number of entertainment celebrities over the years. Just last week, I posted about Arthur Godfrey, a star in early television whose name is rarely recognized today. There was another tremendous star that rose out of the region in the 1950s. This star still shines bright fifty years after her tragic death in 1963.

She was born on September 8, 1932 in Winchester, Virginia. In her early teens, she began singing locally on the radio, in clubs and at special events. By the mid-1950s, she was singing with a young Jimmy Dean on a popular country music show broadcast from Washington. A year after her network television appearance on The Grand Ole Opry, she auditioned for the nationally popular show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The public loved her. Godfrey loved her. He made Patsy Cline a star.

Read all you want about Cline, but the best way to know her is to listen. The voice said it all. The ten minutes of music that follows is some of the best country-pop crossover and early Nashville sound one can hear. It consists of three songs, her first hit, "Walkin' After Midnight" (1957), followed by "I Fall to Pieces (1961), and "Crazy" (1961), her signature song.

Never met Patsy. Never knew anyone who did. But I did grow up with her music often hearing it over the radio all day at our family's summer haunt in Burlington, West Virginia. The village was on U.S. 50, just a dozen ridges and forty miles west of her first home in Gore, Virginia. Maybe a bit far to claim her as your own, but still close enough to make one proud of a country kid who made it big. And we're still crazy for her after all these years.

This post first appeared  in 2009.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Surrendering To Endless Fall

Today's weather in Atlanta sang of high country: remarkably clear, hot, and exceptionally dry. Such perfection is normally reserved for later in the endless Fall that is so characteristic of the Atlanta region. It reminded me of times in Montana and Colorado and many months spent living in and traveling the sacred high deserts of the Southwest. Tomorrow will bring some haze, but today is a harbinger of that spectacular season that is but a few weeks away.

I made a special effort to be outside today. The joy of it all wore me out and I am left to sink into a welcomed rest, cradled by the music of Eric Whitacre and lyrics from the pen of Charles Silvestri.

The evening hangs beneath the moon
A silver thread on darkened dune
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon

Upon my pillow safe in bed
A thousand pictures fill my head
I cannot sleep my minds aflight
And yet my limbs seem made of lead.

If there are noises in the night
A frightening shadow, fleeting light
Then I surrender unto sleep.

Where clouds of dreams give second sight

What dreams may come both dark and deep

Of flying wings and soaring leap

As I surrender unto sleep
As I surrender unto sleep