30 December 2007

2007 Year-end

1) New Year's Eve concerts
2) Teaching update
3) Year-end Reflection

1) My New Year's Eve concert this year is "Great Melodies from Movies" with compositions by Bonfa, Tarrega, Rota, Albeniz, Myers, Debussy, Couperin, Chopin, Bach and myself. While some pieces represent the main theme from a movie (such The Deer Hunter or Romeo & Juliet) others are pre-existent works chosen by great (and perhaps not-so-great) film-makers. Thanks to the internet I know that the Prelude to Bach's First Cello Suite as well as Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude figure into at least eight films each. This recital theme unites some of my favorite, but otherwise unrelated, pieces -- and will undoubtably have a nostalgic appeal for some listeners. The performance takes place at the Baptist Church in Rockport -- part of "New Year's Rockport Eve" -- which is at the corner of Broadway and Mt. Pleasant (which most of us would call Main St). The first show will be 8:00-8:45 PM with a repeat at 9:00-9:45.

2) "Changing Winds" never ceases to be the appropriate title for my newsletters; as change has been a constant in my musical life. I returned to the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Urban Voices program this past Fall, where I have enthusiastic choral students at two welcoming schools. Akin to a residency, Urban Voices is designed to reach new students every year, and therefore one cannot do the kind of program-building that results from working with the same students for consecutive years. In Peabody, I am at a Catholic school, where I work with the music teacher and (mostly white) students who come from relatively stable homes. In Lynn, I work with six classroom teachers and a more at-risk, ethnically diverse population. While I did teach a similar demographic last year at Chelsea High School -- and even though students met with me daily rather than weekly -- I feel more effective in Lynn both because students are younger and I am better supported by administrators and teachers. I also appreciate the professional development and supervision offered by the MOG.

I also taught, at MassBay Community College, a course titled "Rock & Roll and American Society, 1945-1980." This opportunity came up suddenly when teacher there had to abandon the class after three meetings and the Assistant Provost found my resume at higheredjobs.com. It just so happened I had for some months been planning a class like this without any idea where I would teach it. I stuck with the readings that were already assigned in two textbooks -- and the writing assignments -- but otherwise personalized the curriculum significantly. The hardest part was deciding what to leave out in this survey of 35 years' worth of popular music and its times -- sifting through hundreds of songs that (I believe) played a role in the remarkable evolution of musical style. I was excited by the challenge of lecturing and leading discussion on much of my own life's soundtrack. It gave me an excuse to supplement my collection of recordings and to articulate ideas I had stored away for decades. Youtube and Wikipedia both proved invaluable resources. Students were engaged by my personal recollections -- particularly of attending Woodstock -- and patient with my forays into music theory. I had a guitar on hand to demonstrate concepts and occasionally lead singing. If I had it to do over, I would have worked in more assignments aimed at improving students' expository writing; and if I were planning the course from the ground up, I would allot two semesters.

3) As mentioned, preparing these classes gave me cause to research and archive the music of my youth. This professional excuse launched a personal quest, akin to an adoptee's search for his/her biological parents. But now that the course is over, I've continued collecting period songs for the next as-yet-unknown opportunity to teach on this material. Wherein lies this pull to resurrect and enhance my understanding of the past? Is it a mid-life pursuit of lost youth or bona fide scholarship?

Paul Krugman (born the year before I), in the opening to his new book The Conscience of a Liberal, writes "It's only in retrospect that the political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional episode in our nation's history." Although he is referring to socioeconomic matters -- a time before the undoing of the New Deal, when the Common Good had support within both parties -- I carry a similar feeling about the music. The young people I've taught connect with this 60s and 70s music in ways I never connected with music of my parents' generation, and there clearly are aesthetic reasons for this. But I don't think this particular music would continue to have this hold on me if it did not date from my own youth.

For it just so happens that the time of greatest idealism within the society and its music was also the time of greatest idealism within myself. Many of us "boomers" grew up certain we would be changing the world for the better, but only a small percentage outwardly appear to have kept that fire burning. Others of us have settled for seeking to better our immediate world, such as family, school, neighborhood, twelve-step community, etc. I wonder if the large market for boomer memorabilia has as much to do with lost youth as with lost idealism . . .

I have heard talk of disappointment in today's 20-somethings for their lack of activism. Reasons may include: 1) Without a draft, there are not enough of us affected by the Iraq/Afghan war to generate a significant movement. 2) Though millions may perish from the effects of global warming, the water is not yet lapping at our doorsteps. 3) The foreclosure crisis brought on by unregulated financiers is too much of a moving target to strike at. 4) The suffering of so many abroad or in our poorer neighborhoods does not translate into suffering most of us experience firsthand. 5) Technology, in spite of the many communication options it provides us, removes us from community. 6) Or perhaps, as the case with most adults, we're busy just staying afloat.

As a younger person I was naive and ill-equipped to foster the changes I wanted to bring about, but I believed I could. This level of belief -- a faith that anything is possible -- is reflected in much of the music I listened to. Young people today are probably less naive and better equipped, but probably don't feel they can change things. One of the things I owe them is to share what I have come to understand about the music and times of my youth so that they may bring the best of it with them into the future.

Peace, Jeffry

01 August 2007

2007 Summer

In this issue:

1) 8/11 concert

2) New web page looks back

3) My dad's book

4) Our life direction

1) 8/11 concert

I hope your Summer is going well, providing opportunities for relaxation and rejuvenation. I always try to do something new to challenge myself as a guitarist each Summer and this time it has been to work up a recital that includes Bach repertoire I have secretly wanted, but never quite prioritized learning, to play. It then occurred to me that having the talented Carol Burnham living just a few houses away was a compelling reason to add dance to this program. Fortunately, she agreed. Then my wife suggested we do the performance as a benefit for the wheelchair accessibility project underway at St. Paul's Lutheran (which where I've been giving my Summer concerts for years now). What follows is the press release, under that, the poster and then this newsletter continues.

Classical guitarist Jeffry Steele, in collaboration with dancer/choreographer Carol Burnham, will give a performance titled "Partitas" on Saturday, August 11 at 8 PM. Performed in the sanctuary of Lanesville's St. Paul Lutheran Church -- 1123 Washington St., Gloucester -- the entire proceeds will benefit the "Building the Dream" fund to make St. Paul wheelchair accessible. All the music on the program was composed by J. S. Bach.

"A Partita is like the Baroque suite, consisting of movements based on dance forms," says Steele. "The word literally means 'variation' -- and while the technique of variation is present in all of Bach's music, it seems to be implemented in very particular and meaningful ways in these, his Partitas for Solo Violin." The program begins with the last half of the Partita in B minor, continues with the complete Partita in D minor and concludes the the first half of the Partita in E major. "This last one," Steele goes on, "also had a life as Bach's Fourth Lute Suite, and I'd like to think that had there been players (or instruments) sufficiently advanced at that time he would have arranged the other partitas for plucked strings as well. Though we think of Bach playing keyboard, he was also an accomplished violinist -- so it isn't surprising he would have put so much soul into these works. The Chaconne from the Partita in Dm was way beyond its time, not only in depth of expression, but in length."

For this concert Carol Burnham has choreographed two movements each from the B minor and E major Partitas. Also participating will be dancer Nick Rapoli. "This is our first time out," adds Steele, "and we hope to see more movements choreographed down the road."

In addition to being a classical guitarist who has performed for 30 years around New England, Jeffry Steele has his Masters in Composition from New England Conservatory and has taught both guitar and chorus to all age groups.

Carol Burnham has been director of the Windhover Dance Company since 2000, and is a life-long student of Ina Hahn. Carol has a BFA in Dance from SUNY Purchase and danced professionally in New York and Boston.

Tickets for the concert are $15, $10 (students/seniors) and $5 (children). For more information about the performance call 978-282-3106 or visit jeffrysteele.com. For more information on the "Building the Dream" fund call 978-283-6550.

Some of you may have recently received a message from Carol promoting a Windhover performance with the same picture of her on the floor (I don't know who took it). . . just another variation, I guess! My photo was taken by Thomas Nola-rion.

I am also, by the way, playing a short set one week later (evening of 8/18) at the Lanesville Community Center (8 Vulcan St, Gloucester) as part of an evening with local performers. All I can say at this moment is check local listings for details.

2) New web page looks back
Not surprisingly, the amount of storage available to me from my web host has been growing over the years; I just hadn't taken notice. When I did discover a ten-fold increase in available space (over what it had been when I began the site nine years ago), I couldn't resist putting it to use. And so you will find, if curious, Compositions & Arrangements 1974-2005: An audio-visual scrapbook . While perhaps of most interest to those who figured into my musical history during that 31-year period, new acquaintances and strangers alike may also find it engaging. There are many mp3 files, accompanied by photos and commentary on the people, the instruments and the 'gear' involved in each recording.

3) My dad's book
Some months ago, my mother handed me a cardboard box with the manuscript to a 'novel' that my father, Robert R. Steele (1915-1998), had written at the age of 32. Being very busy at the time, I did not open it until earlier this month when my wife was gone for a week to the National Pastoral Musicians Conference in Indianapolis. While I always knew my father wrote well (taught me everything I know about writing), I wasn't expecting something of this calibre. After reading the first few chapters, I decided to scan (as in scanner) the whole opus for the sake of preservation and to make it accessible to all who might want to read it as well. The rusted paper clips that held each onion-skin chapter together appeared not to have been removed in 60 years. The book would fit in the category (if there be such a one) of 'autobiographical novel'. That is, the events follow very closely those my father underwent during WWII and the main character (Dudley Hamilton) has his personality pretty much intact. The supporting characters are probably from the real past also, only with different names, and with their traits possibly exaggerated in Dickensian fashion. Perhaps the reason publishers would not take it on (back in 1947) has to do with its unique mix of technical commentary and dramatic action -- though my 14-year-old step-son pointed out that The Perfect Storm is that kind of read.

To summarize the plot: Dudley bails out of a crashing small plane, determines that he is the only survivor and devises to swim for shore -- which he calculates to be as close as eight miles if he can only head in the right direction. Now this part did not happen to my father; he was indeed in that small plane heading homeward over the Red Sea, but the crash was a product of his imagination. Dudley's resolution to keep his mind occupied while swimming is the pretext for flashback to all the events leading up to his present circumstances; every chapter ends in a brief return to the struggling swimmer. We read of his civilian naval architecture job and budding romance with the secretary there; of how he cannot resist an offer to salvage sunken ships and docks in Eritrea, Africa; of his journey there and the harsh working conditions under an egocentric commander (whose real name is changed from Ellsberg, I believe, to Harmon); of his loneliness but also his resourcefulness; of his affection and admiration for the salvage tug crew he worked alongside and of his philosophy on a variety of topics interjected into correspondence with his would-be fiancee or into conversations engaged in along the way. Each character, situation and surrounding is depicted through all the freely associative metaphor and wit we loved my father for. His pedanticism also comes through -- though it's easier to take than when he was around; one, because we're reading it and, two, because it is supposed to be Dudley Hamilton, rather than Robert Steele, speaking. Likewise for his character's 'locker room' talk. Then the book has this ulterior purpose as a primer on nautical physics (excuse me if I've invented another category), in sections that he encourages the reader to skip over if not sufficiently interested. If this has piqued your interest, you may download the nearly 500 pages of The Enduring Mirage [77mb] and read for yourself. Please, however, do not use it for any further purpose without consulting me.

4) Our life direction

On every long journey what drives you to go
Is half what you know, and half what you don't...
The dream has been calling, been calling to you;
The dream is the only thing you want to do.

These are my favorite lines from the Ann Reed song (sung by Bill Staines), "Every Long Journey." While some of us manage to step unambivalently into 'the dream' that 'is the only thing you want to do' -- maybe even without thought of doing anything else -- for most of us one 'right' choice does not stand out clearly. In the former category I think of guitarist Pat Metheny, who developed his unique easy-going style at an early age and was duly recognized for it -- such that his path to fame may also have been the path of least resistance.

Then there are those effective leaders who began as humble citizens with no aspirations to notoriety -- who may not even have had the luxury of choosing a 'career' -- but who, when they saw what needed to be done, simply didn't inhibit themselves from doing it. Could have been altruism; could have been survival. I read about them in the Oxfam newsletter.

There must exist, I keep telling myself, a perfect blend between meeting essential needs around us and putting to use all the unique skills we have each developed. Virtually all of my 'jobs' have ostensibly been about teaching, leading or performing music. But in some of these situations I witnessed more immediate needs -- people from students to supervisors whose dysfunctional behavior belied deep emotional hurts. Sometimes I took the initiative to help, sometimes I got mad, sometimes I made mistakes, sometimes I kept quiet.

Imagine no possessions;
I wonder if you can...

In "Imagine", John Lennon invites us to re-think all we've accepted as 'normal' ('just the way things are') and picture ourselves (and others around us) suddenly being free of the shackles binding our imagination and initiative. How have I limited myself by maintaining the self-concept as Guitarist or even as Musician? What if I instead challenged myself to meet the needs of my human community with whichever of my skills happened to come into play? What gratifying opportunities am I passing up because I cling to the idea of music being at the core of my 'work'? I may have a gift and a love for music, but I also had to earn an advanced degree-worth of personal and spiritual growth credits to have such a successful marriage. Suppose I decided to prioritize the liberation of human individuals, even when it means over-stepping the bounds of -- or side-stepping altogether -- any music-related job description?

I can't answer these questions. Perhaps you have a related set of questions you ask yourself as well. Many North Americans are probably stymied by the number of options they appear to have (not one of which includes not having options). Sometimes I think I'd rather raise children somewhere beyond the reach of TV or the internet, the overpowering definers of culture and standard-bearers for our youth -- for the creed of this society is focused on us imagining more possessions.

Keep your hand wide open;
Let the sun shine through,
'Cause you can never lose a thing
If it belongs to you.

These lyrics by Abbey Lincoln -- along with her smokey voice singing them -- echo in my ears and resonate in my soul (as do the other examples cited). One thing I'll say for music, it can smuggle a thought or a feeling past our line of defense in a way the spoken word cannot (not always good, I suppose). I imagine Bach is happy I'm working hard again at his music, and those who attend my upcoming performance will be glad to hear it (not to mention see it expressed in movement). When that's done I have many options to consider and needs to meet -- and somewhere my father's legacy figures into that picture. Oh, and who is the guitarist backing Abbey Lincoln on the above track? Why, Pat Metheny, of course.

Peace, Jeffry