A composer’s life…or at least this composer’s

Many people who compose music these days have academic jobs. They are instructors, profs, teachers, etc. When not composing, they give lectures, grade papers, go to committee or departmental meetings, and hang out in their offices. This must make composing hard work. I’ve been around a number of colleges and universities, and I know more than a few academics, active and retired. I think many academic settings must dull inspiration and creativity.

Composers in those settings do have advantages. One is that their music will get played. It’s hard to get people to play your music, but if you are a faculty member, you may even have some sort of arrangement that guarantees that what you compose will get a performance. I don’t have that going for me, and I have to hustle and “sell” my music to performers. I’m not one of nature’s salesmen, either.

Then again, I’m not grading papers and the rest of it. I have much to do where I live that takes me away from composing or playing music per se. But maybe not…We have a garden and a large yard. I bake our bread. I do a lot in the garden and save some of my grass to be cut with a scythe when it gets long. These are wonderful things to do anyway, but they have the result of aiding composition and music-making. Whether on a fine, sunny day or a day that puts one in mind, say of the Hebrides Overture, or when the snow is very deep, at least I’m not tied to papers, the classroom, or committee and departmental meetings. Much of what I do is soul-enriching. Much isn’t, of course, but much is. I remind myself of this when I am faced with composer’s block, and how much worse it would be if I were in a university department.

Now, I readily admit that I never liked school at any level. I may have a graduate degree, which shows that I went through a number of years of university education, but they were not pleasant. At the same time, I like being on campuses, maybe especially ones of institutions in which I am not enrolled. I like being a scholar without being an academic, and I like university libraries. I have library cards at two.

I’m able to be a composer under these circumstances now because we’re retired. Actually, it’s my wife who is retired. I was a house-husband doing odd bits of work before she retired. Much better now that we’re together all day most days. We live a simple, frugal life on the whole.

My latest composition projects have been to write unaccompanied pieces for players to play during the pandemic, specifically for themselves, neighbours, or friends. I’ve done two for cello (both in transcription for viola), one for clarinet, and one for recorder, and one for kantele. The first of the cello pieces has been recorded by the very fine young Chicago cellist, Alexa Muhly. These works are available upon request. I only ask that you play them, from porches, balconies, backyards, etc. for your friends and neighbours. The general title of these works is Solos in a Time of Pandemic.

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A Modest Mandolin Proposal

I play the mandolin. Not as well by a long way as I play the flute, but I do play well enough.

I’m also a big guy. I’m six-five and though my hands aren’t huge, they’re big enough. Moreover, in the last several years I’ve had some inflammation in my arms and wrists that have made my hands hurt a bit when doing some things. One of those is turning mandolin tuners. I use a speed-winder made for guitars, and I’m about to get one more suitable for the smaller mandolin tuners, but I think there is a better way.

Recently, when looking at pictures of the old and famous Rickenbacher 12 string favoured by the likes of Jim McGuinn of the Byrds, I noticed that the tuners on that guitar are put on alternately on the side and on the bottom of the head of the instrument. Now, if one did this sort of thing for the mandolin, the keys or buttons used to turn the pegs could be larger and would be farther apart, making it easier to get one’s fingers on them. The best thing here would be for someone to manufacture tuners that could be retrofitted. I’ve been exploring the idea of alternating guitar and banjo (planetary) machines, but I’m not satisfied that this would be the best approach.

This alternating approach that I’m proposing would certainly mean a different look to the mandolin, or mandola, for that matter, but it would make it an easier instrument to tune and play.

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My Grant Project Launched

My Hatchfund Grant project has been launched. I’m hoping to raise at least $3,500 for a composition project I have had in mind for several years. Follow this link to the project, learn about it, and I hope when you do, you’ll share my enthusiasm for it and donate to it.

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Bach Conundrum

I listen to CBC Radio 2 from time to time. I used to listen a lot more often, but many long-time listeners can guess why I don’t listen to Radio 2 much anymore.

There are two things that happen all the time on Radio 2. The first is that Radio 2 never plays solo harpsichord music. It plays transcriptions for piano, guitar, and, for all I know, caliope. However, it appears that playing harpsichord music on Radio 2 is against policy. Possibly it is against the law in Canada to play a harpsichord in a solo or featured way.

The other thing is more insidious. Much of the time, the music of J. S. Bach is played in transcriptions, sometimes quite unusual transcriptions. This is often accompanied by the presenter telling us that Bach was the greatest of Western composers. Of course, the strong implication is that Bach was a terrible arranger, and hence we should never play things as he arranged them. Recently, on Shift, Tom Allen justified playing the four harpsichord concerto in a three-guitar arrangement by reminding us that the four harpsichord concerto is itself an arrangement. The fact that we are more likely to hear the Vivaldi original or any number of arrangements by any number of other people than the one the World’s Greatest Composer made speaks for itself.

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Poverty In America

I wrote this after the election.  I didn’t realise that it didn’t get published.  Let’s see if it does now.


The election is over.  In addition to denying climate change, the Democratic and Republican candidates denied the fact of poverty.  There will be those that say that Obama was not a climate-change denier, but he was — at least during the campaign.  He was, by virtue of never bringing it up, and by virtue of advocating policies which will result in more global warming (his love affair with clean coal and the oil industry).  In the same way, he denies poverty in the United States by never bringing it up, and by endorsing, supporting, and championing the very policies that will make poverty worse.

A few generations back, politicians did mention it, and realised that it is a national shame.  The War on Poverty of the sixties was a response to widespread poverty in the cities and rural areas.  I am not suggesting that this was revolutionary or anything like it.  What I am suggesting is that people in public life then — and these were the elite, make no mistake — saw such injustices as poverty and racism as matters of concern for the whole society.  These were not revolutionaries, and their “solutions” were not those meant to change the world, or overthrow capitalism.  They were an indication that poor people at least came to the minds of politicians.  We all of us expected Romney to be clueless about this, and we were not disappointed.  Obama, though, was every bit as clueless, and he’s at least as callous where poverty is concerned.   There is nothing to suggest, however that we have any hope for change here, no matter what delusion the hope-a-dope followers of BHO might currently be under.

We need to see an end to poverty and homelessness. They are abominations. When Jesus told Judas that the poor would always be with him, it was an indictment.  Judas was a cheat, and was stealing money from the Twelve.  His worries over the fine ointment and its cost were so many empty words.  Jesus’ words are an indictment of our society, and any others that tolerate and, indeed, as ours does, promote poverty.   The message is that there is enough for all but for greed.  As St. Augustine said that one man’s superfluity is another man’s poverty.
It’s too much to ask Obama to get out of the pocket of corporate America.  He won’t; it’s nice and warm and friendly there.  We need to ask whether we need him or any of the other Washington prostitutes.  The Occupy movement shows us that we can build a new society in the hulk, the shell of the old.  As free people in community, we don’t need the political whores.  One day, the president will wake up and find there is no one to govern.  We will have made a new world with no place for him.

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Opening Day

I have come to Word Press because the blog on my own site has been badly spammed.

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This was the most commented-upon post on my old blog.  Spammers trashed the comments.

When I was about seven or eight, I had my first hero. He was an unlikely hero for a kid of seven or eight, but that’s the way it was.

It was in the late fifties. We had just moved back to the Detroit Area, and we listened to CBE, the CBC Radio station in Windsor, Ontario. The morning presenter was a man named Alex Pavlini. Alex, as we referred to him around the house, was a zany character who played everything from classical music to pipe bands (at six-thirty AM, obviously, Alex was of the opinion that if he was up, we should be, too), to the Weavers (banned in the United States) to rather formal arrangements of folk songs. Although he was in his twenties, one could be forgiven listening to him for thinking that he was much older. He had a decidedly British accent.

Alex did truly zany things on air. He would sometimes pick up and strum an out-of-tune banjo (not trying to play anything) and once, he produced a piece of radio drama about the first Canadian satellite, which was launched from Windsor and orbited the globe on the top of Detroit’s Penobscot Building (then the tallest building in Detroit). He would juxtapose seemingly unrelated pieces of music.

Alex had other shows on the radio throughout the day. On one, he’d often read a book aloud. One of his favourites to read was The Wind in the Willows which, to this day, is my favourite book. I remember being sick one time and hearing part of it read over the course of my illness. I think it was things like that that made me hate going to school, which was far less interesting that what I heard on the radio.

Alex Pavlini, then, introduced me to music, and my favourite book. I enjoyed his antics all the way up until we moved away, to San Francisco, and then to Chicago. I didn’t hear him after we moved.

When I was contemplating going to university, I considered Canadian institutions. One was the University of Windsor. I wrote for their calendar, and leafing through it, found a mention of an “Alex Pavlini Memorial Bursary”. So, Alex had died. My many efforts have never led me to finding out what happened to him. Indeed, in looking at the online calendar for University of Windsor a few years ago, I discovered that they no longer have such a bursary. I expect that they consolidated a lot of smaller bursaries or something like that.


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