Monday, July 28, 2008


Okay, so all I've been able to think about this week is El Sistema. I was so moved by the program mentioned in my previous post it's all I've talked and thought about for a week.

I've contacted some people who have started programs in New York City and Birmingham, AL, which are based on the one in Venezuela. If there are budding efforts here in Chicago, I will offer to help in whatever capacity I can. If not . . . well, I suppose we could try starting something from scratch. And by "we," I mean me.

The woman I contacted in Birmingham donated her life savings to start her program. So they had more than 30K to start. I have nothing, financially speaking. But I do have contacts. Hopefully I'll have more once school starts.

I don't know how I intend to start a program based on El Sistema while I'm in graduate school. Not to mention, I have to move to L.A. for three months to complete my degree in 2010. Probably I will stay in L.A., as that is where the work will be in my field, mostly. I'm sort of hoping there are budding efforts already underway where I can simply donate my time. The thought of being in school, teaching to make ends meet, trying to compose for film, practicing, and starting an El Sistema program on top of all that makes me a little nauseous. It will be a lot more time-consuming if there's nothing underway already. Well, we shall see, I suppose.

Okay, yes, this is turning into Freddie's music blog. Sorry - probably some of you have lost interest. Ah well. I've not given up on writing completely. But the music thing is sort of taking off, in its own way.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Unintentional Hiatus

Don't have much to blog about. Starting a new piece today (composition, not story). Really getting antsy for school to start.

Don't ever let any artist tell you that if they could stay home for months on end, they would produce a novel or a symphony or a series of paintings. I've learned two things about myself this summer: 1) I often avoid writing to avoid research. 2) I really produce a lot more when I'm busy.

Often my days fly by. Before I know it, it's 5 p.m. and I've gotten very little accomplished. Other days I accomplish a lot before noon. Going to have to set a schedule now. I may post it so you guys can help me stick with it.

On the other hand, I saw something wonderful last Sunday. Don't know if any of you caught last week's 60 Minutes (I've been a huge fan of that show since I was a kid, but that's another blog entry), but they had another airing about el Sistema, the orchestra program in Venezuela. Check it out if you haven't.

Now, if that violinist's smile isn't enough to make a composer want to compose a symphony for one of the orchestras of this program, I don't know what is. And I'm officially now a HUGE fan of Gustavo Dudamel, the highly celebrated conductor who came out of el Sistema, and who is taking over as Music Director for the L.A. Philharmonic in 2009. Now I can't effing wait to move to L.A.!

I hope someone with enough flair and stick-to-it-iveness starts something like this in the United States. We need it.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I've learned something important today. I often avoid writing not to avoid writing, but to avoid research. Grrrrrrr.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Into the Wild

Yesterday I popped one of D's many DVDs into the DVD player: Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn.

The story is based John Krakauer's book of the same name. The book tells the story of Chris McCandless's journey through the United States to Alaska, where he planned to live in the wild for a few months before returning to civilization. Because it's a true story, I have no qualms about talking about the story here (or revealing 'spoilers') or my reaction to the film. (I haven't read the book yet.)

McCandless, after graduating from Emory University, finds the eternal American quest for more material things and career success repulsive. He gives the vast majority of his college fund to charity ($24,000), cuts up all his identification (except his Social Security card, which he burns), buys a few necessities, and sets off on foot across the U.S.

Along his travels he meets various people, all of whom he manages to touch deeply. Yet he has cut off his family by not letting them know his plans. They hear nothing from him directly, though the police in Arizona find his car. To his family he becomes a missing person, and their lives become shadows of what they once were. Yet at first it seems they have no real reason to worry. Chris does fine in his travels and meets wonderful, if quirky, people.

The film juxtaposes his travels and his time in Alaska, and we see an obviously generous young man who cannot forgive his parents for their mistakes. The people he meets along the way encourage him to contact his family, but he ignores this advice. They also try to convey a deeper truth: He won't find what he's looking for in Alaska, in the wild. In order to be truly happy, he has to be willing to share it.

Chris finally makes it to Alaska, where he crosses a stream and finds an abandoned bus with some necessities and niceties. (There's a wood-burning oven and a mattress, some silverware, and even a can opener.) He dubs it the Magic Bus and fills his days hunting for small game, talking to himself, writing, and reading the few classics he has brought with him.

Fall gives way to Winter, which in turn gives way to Spring. Now Chris decides he is ready to go home. But at the stream he finds the winter snow has melted, turning the stream into a rushing river. He is trapped.

His days become an increasingly futile attempt at survival. He fails to skin big game in time to prevent flies and maggots. He accidentally eats poisonous plants (that look similar to their non-poisonous brethen), which he initially survives, but the experience weakens him a great deal and hastens his starvation because, even if he could find game, the plants inhibit digestion. As you watch, you realize he hasn't considered the utter indifference of Nature to us humans. He romanticized the wild. Yet you feel for the boy because he now realizes what people were telling him was right: alone in the wilderness, he is no good to anyone. You watch in horror as an already small man becomes tinier. Soon, even if there were game, he is too weak to hunt it. When he realizes he is going to die, he makes a sign that identifies him and says goodbye.

I'm not sure how I feel about this film, other than it stayed with me. I didn't expect Chris to die. I thought, like a typical American, that he would find a way out. But he didn't. The film did touch off a minor essay in my head regarding technology vs. nature. I think many people who claim to 'love' nature don't—they admire nature. We all claim to love being out in it, and we do for very short periods of time, but eventually we want our technological comforts. People like Chris really do love nature, and had he been a bit older he might have been more aware of nature's indifference humans, and therefore a little more prepared. It took an older man whom he befriended for him to have a machete, a knife, and a fishing rod. I think Chris's mistake—and you see it throughout the film—is that a larger part of him than he would like to admit accepts both technology and humans. It takes total isolation for him to see that. Yet, if he had never gone, he may never have been able to work out his demons.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Podcast Number One

This was fun. I feel like I need to listen to more audiobooks, though, to get the hang of this. You might want to keep your volume down, as I clip on a couple of the p's.

The Beginnings of An Old Story

"You must be freezing," the old woman said—who, incidentally, smelled as if she bathed daily in urine and feces. "Come warm yourself by the fire." She pointed to the group of people huddled around the trashcan. The cars overhead rumbled by steadily, their occupants oblivious to the people below.

Sammy gathered her pillowcase more tightly in her hand. The pillowcase held the only possessions she had left. After a moment of consideration (and only a moment—it didn't take much persuading in this weather, no matter how the person making the offer smelled) she said, "Okay."

"There's food, too. Soup. We got it from you-know-where." Sammy knew the woman just couldn't remember the name of the shelter from which the food came, but in the dark, the woman's statement sounded secretive. Sammy swallowed a lot of things in that moment: her pride, her sense of dignity, and the growing sense of dread she felt throbbing in the middle of her throat—the sense that she'd run out of chances, that she was becoming invisible, like the group standing under the bridge. But she was hungry and cold. She'd take the offer. 

They walked toward the overpass, making their way slowly because of the woman's bad back and knees. Sammy held her elbow, trying not to breathe too deeply. She imagined the stench would be worse when they got to the fire, and she told herself to get over it. It was, and she did. 

When they got to the overpass, a man who was sitting on an up-ended crate offered her his seat. Sammy thought back to all the times she'd been on the train, surrounded by bankers, lawyers, salesmen, and students—supposedly respectable people—and only one time had anyone offered her a seat, a small, Spanish-speaking woman who undoubtedly made no more than ten thousand a year, judging by her clothes. 

At first, she tried to wave the man off, but he took her by the elbow and sat her down. Then he went about getting her some soup and some bread. The old woman took a seat on the ground beside her. 

"Oh, you should take the crate," Sammy said, starting to get up.

"No, dear, I'm fine," the old woman said cheerfully. "Doctor tells me sitting on the ground is better for my health." She cackled heartily as she said this, as if she was a comedienne trying out a new joke on the house before she took the stage. "Once I get some soup in me, I'll be as good as new."

"I don't think I ever got your name," Sammy said.

"I never told you," the woman said. She shrugged at Sammy's expression of surprise. "Anyway," she said, as if she'd gotten off-subject. "I have a lot of names. You will, too, if you stay one of us."

"One of you?" Sammy said. She tried to keep her expression neutral. It wouldn't do to insult the only people who'd offered her warmth, food, and a place to sit in the past two weeks.

"Yes, Samantha Charmaigne, one of us," the woman said, rolling her eyes. Sammy couldn't be sure, but it looked to her as if the woman's irises rolled all the way back to the opposite side of her eyeballs. For a split second the woman looked as though she was blind, or an alien. Sammy couldn't help but think of Reagan from The Exorcist. She decided to put it out of her mind. Then she realized she'd never told the woman her last name. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Nerdy Happiness

The best part about going back to school is having access to a university library. *inner nerd grins widely*

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


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I don't mind being rated "R," but I really must start using bigger words.

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Book List for Writers Part 2

This was originally a response to Fairyhedgehog, who asked whether I would recommend any books from the book list in my last post. My response was so long, I decided just to make another post out of it.

I've only read a few books on that list. I suppose they would work for any writer, fantasy or not. They're just meant to show some of the weird things people have believed over the years. I think they would work well for science fiction writers, too. Definitely. Here's what I've read so far:

Mad Travelers: sounds interesting at first glance, and the subject matter is fascinating. It's a book of true cases of people who go into trances and travel, mostly by walking. Some people wind up traveling thousands of miles. When they "wake" they have no idea where they are or how they got there. The debate seems to be whether the patients had multiple personalities or some other mental illness. Overall, while the subject matter was intriguing, it was a somewhat dull read. But I may go back and give it another shot. I have trouble reading certain texts on the train, and that's where I read it.

The Serpent and the Rainbow was a pretty good and engaging read. It's about Haiti and voodoo and its practices and the zombie cult. This one was turned into a horror movie, which I've yet to watch. I'd recommend this one. It's less sensational than the film (I would think), as it goes into historical and anthropological reasons for the belief in zombies. Kind of spooky, but nothing over the top.

The Song Lines is about Bruce Chatwin's travels across Australia. It's also a loose history regarding the Aboriginal belief that the world began with a song. I liked reading this one a lot, because I've come across this idea in literature (most notably in The Chronicles of Narnia). It's a little disjointed, as some of it reads like a journal, but still enjoyable.

I'm going back to reread 1491, a book about Native Americans and their relationship with nature, as I abandoned the book in the middle of it. This says nothing about its quality; it's quite a good read, and I'd recommend it based on what I've read so far. The writer gives a fair and balanced account (so far) of Native Americans and how the universal belief that they never tried to control or change nature or their environment is not accurate about them at all. Eventually I'll get around to reading The Night Battles, an alternative account of witchcraft and its practices in medieval Europe. But that one will have to wait, I think.

In other news, I went down to the Taste of Chicago for its last day. D had some tickets left over from when he went yesterday, and he didn't want to go again, so he gave them to me so they wouldn't go to waste. I tried a BBQ buffalo burger for the first time, sweet potato hash browns, taro french fries (asian french fries: dense mashed potatoes with a sweet breading and sweet and sour sauce), and cheesecake. Managed to spend all the tickets without having to buy more. But i felt a little nauseous on the way home. Still, it was nice to get out of the house for something other than lessons. On the other hand, I was bummed to have missed Bonnie Raitt's free concert.

EDIT: Be sure to scroll down into the comments after clicking the above link for more book suggestions.

Book List for Writers

A while ago I came across a reading list for fantasy writers on John Crowley's blog. I've since read a few of these books: Mad Travelers, The Song Lines, and The Serpent and the Rainbow. I've started 1491 and The Night Battles, but my roommate's cat peed on TNB, so I am waiting a while to pick that one up again. At some point it will not smell, and I can just pretend I spilled tea all over it or something. I don't really want to have to order another copy of it if I don't have to, but I may anyway. His target being the bathroom rug, he only caught the corner of it. Sigh. I've gotten much better about picking up my things after a bath, I can tell you that. Now I rest the rug on the edge of the tub. I still have yet to train my roommate (hereafter referred to as "D") to leave the lid (not just the seat) of his toilet down, as his cat likes to drink the toilet water—something that drives D crazy.

1491 was a little too dense for my overtaxed brain while I was reading it, so I will read it again. Hopefully I'll be able to absorb more from it, as it is an engaging and well-written book. I'm looking forward to ordering more of these books from the list once school starts. (It seems whenever I have money, I have no time to enjoy it, but whenever I have time, I never have money to spend on leisurely pursuits. Sigh.)

Just finished The Road last night. It's still with me.

My newest read is The Art of War. I've always been a terrible strategist as far as life is concerned, and I think it might get me thinking outside my "take things as they come" box. I'd like to temper my decisions with a little more intelligence and foresight. Of course, there's always the "take things as they come" element, because there's always stuff you can't control. Yet I figure it can't be the worst book I ever read if I want to learn to strategize. I'm such a terrible strategist it's amazing that I win at poker as much as I do.

In other news, my little teaching studio is growing. 

Friday, July 4, 2008

Brief Thoughts on Fantasy Writers

I set a schedule for myself to start at 6:30 a.m., but of course I've been online all morning checking out the blogs. Really gotta stop this habit. I'm two hours behind.

I've been thinking a bit, in brief interludes between practicing and composing and teaching (I have some time on my hands right now), about fantasy writers who really know their history. You can feel it as you read. Gene Wolfe is a good example of this in his Book of the New Sun (at least the first half; I haven't gotten around to reading the second half yet). But the MC, Severian, is an apprentice in the Torturers' Guild. The detail with which he infuses this guild and the world surrounding it is rather astounding. Many fantasy writers tend to gloss over the small details in the hopes the reader won't notice. The result being of course that you can't imagine the world the writer tried to build. Somehow the supernatural elements become the only thing holding the story together. But with Wolfe, the supernatural takes a backseat to Severian's story. You accept the supernatural along with everything else. He's one of those writers who can make you believe in the supernatural. (He's also one of those writers who makes me want to impale myself on my pen.)

But in reading the first half of this series, I almost felt as if I was reading a slice of history—one that was so real that so-called accurate history, with its absence of witchcraft and the supernatural, is some bastardized account of what really happened back in the good ol' days. And you can tell Wolfe has read a lot. It's just something that wafts off the pages.

Neil Gaiman and Rowling are another two I can tell really know their history, mythic and otherwise. I'm looking forward to reading John Crowley's Aegypt series, too.

But now that I'm going back to school, I'm fighting guilt when I read. It feels too luxurious to read fiction. I have some blogs I use for my teaching, and I don't post to those nearly enough, so I'm trying to refresh myself on music history and so forth (interesting reads in themselves). Just trying to use this time to prepare as much as I can.

One thing I notice when I read music history now is that I absorb a lot more regarding time and place and the political/historical situations surrounding the development of music. I think this is because of my interlude into reading so much in the last four years.

So what about you? Do you notice that your favorite writers are sort of unpaid historians as well? (Not that a few of these writers don't make up for that in their royalty checks . . . )

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How We Treat the Powerless

This video reminds me of a couple of incidents I've had working in the restaurant industry, although it might not seem that way at first glance. (I cribbed this from Janet Reid's blog; my original comment was so long I decided to turn it into a post.)

What I mean is: Even if this is an isolated incident (which I don't think it is), it makes me ashamed to look at it.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked in a restaurant that was next to a state-run mental hospital. Every day a few patients would come in for pie and coffee. I'm afraid the staff had a lot of fun at the expense of these people (myself included, on occasion, I'm ashamed to say). That changed the day I sat down after a shift and talked with a patient who was having a cup of coffee.

I don't remember the gentleman's name. He was a jazz musician in the sixties; a good player who had plenty of work. Until he got sick with schizophrenia. Then he had many electroshock treatments (that was the preferred method at the time), and after wasn't "too good with numbers." His hands shook like he had Parkinson's. He seemed like a gentle soul. After that conversation, I never made fun of a mentally ill person again. When another patient came in alone and ordered a beer for himself and his "friend." I gave him a beer and two mugs, and he split the beer by pouring half of it into the other mug and setting the mug on the opposite side of the table. As the evening wore on, the "friend" turned into his wife. I found out later her death was the trigger for his illness; he was so overcome with grief he just started pretending she was there, and after a while that became real to him.

Although I'm afraid I still didn't handle things well. When he asked for a fourth (or fifth?) beer, the manager told me not to give him any more. Not wanting to upset him by telling him we were cutting him off, I simply told him we were out of beer. All of it. He peacefully left, but I'm afraid he looked rather confused.

Not to bring a national debate into this, but I'm all for national health care if people like this get better care or are prevented from falling through the cracks all together.

The other day I was waiting for a bus, and when it came, a guy in a wheelchair actually had to demand that people let him board first so he could find a space for his wheelchair. I saw a lot of people rolling their eyes, like the guy was demanding so much. But I thought the fact that he had to not just ask—but demand—said a lot. And what it said wasn't good.*

*Don't get me wrong. I'm no saint. I've shoved my way in on days when I'm in a hurry and not paying attention, even when people were trying to get off the train. But I do make an effort, especially these days, to have some manners.