Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Don't put the host in the toaster
Or, What's better than the SCA?

What indeed? I'll tell you what. Being holed up on a college campus with three professional early musicians and 9 enthusiastic learners, singing nonstop. That's what.

I had the time of my life at the Rose Ensemble Cantiga & Lauda workshop, which was held at St. John's University and Abbey in Collegeville, MN (NW of the Twin Cities). My friend Peregrine (who has a name exactly like that of a prominent celebrity, so I'll refer to him with his SCA name) encouraged me to go, saying that the campus is beautiful and peaceful and it would be worth skipping Pennsic, if I had to, to attend this workshop. (I'll be at Pennsic after all, but I must agree, it would have been worth it if I could only afford one.)

We stayed in grad-student dorms, where we each had our own room but we shared bathrooms and a common area on the first floor. It was good that the weather became cool along about the second day, otherwise the sleeping conditions would have been intolerable: not only was the air conditioning mysteriously non-functional, they had also painted the entire interior within a week prior to our arrival. I kept the windows open most of the time and the smell didn't really get to me, but having the windows open sort of did--my throat was tickly and my nose not quite open for most of the time there.

All right, that's not why my voice is practically gone now. My voice got used, abused and hung out to dry because I was having such a fabulous time singing, I couldn't stop. We opened every day with the singers in a chapel with the director of the Rose Ensemble, Jordan Sramek, who is this wonderful energetic person who knows how to push an entire group of uncertain people until they make music they didn't think they could make--without making any of them upset or confused. We memorized the refrains to several songs so that the whole group could sing them, and talked about phrasing and letting the text dictate the rhythm and vowel shape. As I can say after my bad experience with voice lessons in college: it was like voice lessons, only it was actully fun and I learned stuff. Imagine that.

One of the instructors taught some medieval music theory classes. The teacher did all kinds of bizarre solfege/interval calculations on the board, then turned to us and said, "I do this sort of thing at home for fun...that's why I'm still single." By the end of the weekend he wasn't--my friend and co-Madisonian, mentioned in the previous entry, seemed to have gotten quite close to him. Good for them.

There was a session on Solesmes chant by a very opinionated monk, and a presentation on the stories of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (which are hilarious--each one has something bizarre happening to someone, whereupon the Virgin appears suddenly, a statue of her comes to life, or she causes odd things to grow out of someone's grave). The illuminations are wonderful too. There's a fun book called Daily Life Depicted in the Cantigas de Santa Maria that I would encourage any SCA person to take a look at, if they aren't familiar with middle-period Iberian life. The illuminators drew with a fabulous sense of humor and an understanding of facial expressions that was far beyond their drawing skill.

The other students were very warm, fun people who seemed, weirdly, to enjoy me--this is not a phenomenon I am used to seeing in other people, at least not outside the SCA. It made me perhaps a little more outgoing and confident than usual. It also made me feel really open about sharing my "SCA self" with people.

As an example, Friday night I was walking with my new friend Deb from St. Paul, who is a relative music newbie with a pretty voice, and who worked really hard during the workshop. I told her I had expected there would be more time for informal sightreading and "fun" singing. She agreed that she really liked that sort of thing. I asked if she would come sit and sing with me once we got back to the dorm, and she enthusiastically agreed.

Once we were there, I tried getting out all my madrigal books and such, but she was already going for my bardic book! We sang "Twa Corbies", we sang "Ca' the Yowes", we sang "My Thing is My Own", and I sang some other stuff, staying more-or-less away from SCA-specific things, but letting myself be talked into singing "If I Were to Marry". Some of the other workshop folks wandered down and seemed to be enjoying being serenaded. A bottle of wine came out. It was a veritable party.

Then Saturday, it was announced that we'd have a real party that evening. I think some of the other workshop attendees mentioned to Jordan that we'd been singing and carousing the previous night, and maybe he felt a little left out! So we all gathered in the common space in the dorm. Food/drink was brought out; Tom (another instructor, who plays with the Renaissance instrumental band Piffaro) brought his computer and played us CDs of Italian folksingers. Stories were told, people oohed and ahhed over the Marcona almonds I brought from the Willy St. Co-op, and everyone was relaxing, even several of the more reserved attendees. I told Jordan that I thought this was actually a bardic circle, and explained some of the formats we use, and how a bardic circle is an evolving organism, etc.

Then Jordan turned to me and said, "Jennifer, you said you were a bard. Sing us one of your SCA songs."

I figured, I had spent the week being fearless and plunging through music I hadn't thought I could sing. Now, I would continue being fearless with something I could sing. I handed my bardic book to Bill (the vocal instructor) and had him play beledi, and I sang "Three Words". The several percussion-dabblers in the group also began to beat on available surfaces. My voice was tired, but this was the first time I had shared that song with non-SCA people and I believe I sang my heart right out of my chest. The response was loud and appreciative and I felt like I had some fans in the group, after that.

Did I mention that when I was in fourth grade, I was the class pariah, teased on the playground and shunned by the popular set? Did I mention I didn't go out on a date until I was in college? Can I just say, occasionally you have to sit back and realize how far you've come in life?

Anyway, we were all up until nearly 1 am, some tipsy and some merely exhausted from all the laughter and singing. Luckily the next morning started slightly late; for me (since I wasn't joining the others to sing chant during Mass) it was quite late. I slept until 10 and met everyone for brunch and the concert dress rehearsal.

Yes, there was a concert. No, I didn't get a recording (they forgot to arrange it, and I tried calling Owen to come up with his equipment, but he was out of town). The instructors had tried to remind us from time to time that not everything we had been working on had to be in the concert, that perfection was not required and that there wouldn't be very many people at the concert, so we didn't need to be nervous. I think we were all somewhat nervous anyway; Jordan definitely was. When you think about it, this was a first for him: the culminating moment of the first early music workshop he directed. I hope we all did him proud. I felt good about it, for the most part.

I wore garb. Yeah, I know, I'm completely nuts. But it made me feel more comfortable performing this music than I would have been otherwise, and it was fun to see the looks on people's faces when I came out of the restroom in one of my Italian Ren gowns (with the chemise pulled up so the cleavage exposure wasn't at toxic levels--I mean, this did take place in a monastery, after all!).

The instrumental instructor also had me playing psaltery to accompany a fellow student's solo--just one arpeggio over and over again, but Tom has a genius for finding simple accompaniments that actually add something to a piece. I managed to get about 80% of the notes in the right place, which is a new record for me. But better than that, I am a firm believer that the way to get to know an instrument is to play it for other people, so it was a nice chance to get more "quality time" with the psaltery, as opposed to practicing the same several songs with boring 5ths accompaniment over and over again.

After the concert, there was a small reception; supposedly the workshop was over at that point, after many hugs and promises to stay in touch, but I couldn't stand just getting in the car and going home. Luckily one of the attendees was staying the night and agreed to go off in search of dinner with me. We had some wonderful conversations. She's a recorder player from Winnipeg and will be helping out at a madrigal dinner later in the summer, wearing garb, so we talked about the resources she might tap into through the local SCA barony. Staying to hang out with her meant that I didn't get home until 1 am Monday morning...but it was worth it not to have the workshop come to a screeching halt after the concert.

Overall I am really pleased with how much I learned and the comraderie the group developed. This could so easily have been a dry and boring workshop, in others' hands, but the instructors did a great job of putting us at ease. They got us all involved and working hard, without feeling too stressed (okay, maybe we were stressed early on, when they threw a lot of music at us, but for me at least, that dissolved as I learned the music and got the pronunciations down). Most importantly, they conveyed a sense of the variety that exists, both in this musical genre, and in the options for performers. We were encouraged to put passion behind the words and to have fun. It worked.

They plan on doing it next year and I'm already hoping to go; the tentative theme is "300 years of English music". I have Chris and a couple of others interested too. Maybe the SCA will overrun the workshop. ;) Well, if that happened, it could only be good for the SCA musical/bardic community...!

It's been weird to be back home, after the whirlwind pace of the workshop. I have this urge to e-mail everyone who was there (Tom put together a contact information sheet) and tell them how special I think the whole thing was, and how much I miss them. Of course that's a bit effusive for the real world; I am used to that sort of praise-fest e-mail in the SCA, but it's not as accepted elsewhere, I don't think. Think I'll wait until the urge subsides a bit, then call the other Madisonian to see if she wants to go to Michael's for frozen custard sometime, and we can reminisce together.

So anyway. I really do have a life outside of whatever I'm currently enthusing about, honest. I've been helping Iohanna paint street signs for W&W, and today I went grocery shopping at Woodman's, where my dad and I used to go every Saturday to shop for the family. Mom's right, Woodman's in Madison has changed. There are a lot more ethnic foods, which I love, and the selection's still great, but the overall quality has gone down, esp. in produce and baked goods. Also it was inexplicably crowded for a Tuesday early evening. I hate to say it, but I prefer the Woodman's in La Crosse.

And I will be going to La Crosse this weekend, to visit Sarra and assist with a practice dinner for Autumn Rose feast. It's Roman food this year, sans the fermented fish sauce they apparently loved to add to everything (thanks, Sarra, you're a wise person). Demo on the way back, for a 4-H camp near Wisconsin Dells. It should be a nice weekend. In the meantime I'm going to enjoy a quiet week, possibly get some sewing done, take some walks, and catch up on e-mail.

Friday, June 18, 2004
Salve, salve virgo PIa
Or, Discovering a new muscial literature

This'll be a short entry because I have to be in class in 1/2 hour and have other errands to run. I'm at the Rose Ensemble Cantiga & Lauda workshop and I'm having an amazing time. There are only 10 people (3 instrumentalists, 7 singers) attending, with 3 teachers (see the "information and application forms" link on the previously linked page), two voice folks and one instrumentalist. No youngish single men except the teachers; of the two single ones we know one is gay but we're still trying to figure out the other one. ;) But all the attendees are very friendly and warm, and the one other person from Madison, a grad student in music history, is really nice and suggested we hang out sometime once we're back home. She has cats, so it'll have to be at my place. Or Perkins. Better baked goods.

The music is incredible. I won't provide any links here because it'd take too long to go find them, but this whole idea of music that doesn't come with rhythmic indications is way new to me. It makes every person who arranges/performs it into a music history scholar, since they have to determine how the rhythm will go with only the text to go on. The Gallico-Portugues cantigas are more rhythmic in nature than the Italian Lauda; the Lauda are the ones with no rhythmic anything, and the teachers have given us plausible transcriptions in modern notation for the cantigas.

Note to self: the one that goes, "Laude novella sia cantata/All'alta donna encoronata" MUST be incorporated into Northshield's kingdom-going festivities in the fall. "Let a new song be sung/To the highest crowned Lady" is going to make Bridei blush, but I don't care. I'll do some useful patriotic filk for the verses and keep the Italian for the chorus 'cause I've sung it too many times to give it up.

It is a bit of a fast pace for a lot of people in the class. We've been here three days and we're just now beginning to understand the pieces we've been assigned. I finished underlaying text for two verses to Cantiga 40; along with the first verse that was already underlaid, I'm doing three verses solo. And I can't yet call up the melody in my mind, which is a bad sign, but I'm deliberately suspending dismay, so to speak, and figuring the concert will be more of a "let's do the cool stuff one more time" than a real formal concert.

That's what the teachers say, anyway. They're not terribly organized in general, this being the first time they've run a workshop like this, but they're all very nice and seem to be happy to work with us, esp. Jordan Sramek, the Rose Ensemble artistic director. He in particular has some ideas about text driving the musical line and syllabic/vowel accents that feel very validating to me. I told him how many people had told me I couldn't change the musical stress on the first line of "Douce Dame Jolie", from "douCE daME joLIe" as the music dictates, to "DOUce DAMe joLIe" as the natural word stress dictates, and he laughed and said, "Well, you can do it any way you want...but your way is right if you care about the text." Whether I'm right or wrong, I feel that he's right to say we can do it any way we want. If we're all scholars, we're all trying to make intelligent decisions about how we perform. Who's going to gainsay my decisions, if they haven't done the research themselves? It's a very comforting thought.

Anyway, I feel very energized about this musical literature, and can think of a dozen ways to bring it into the SCA. Pity the class teacher signup deadline for Pennsic has just passed. I feel like I could do a Cantigas intro class...well, maybe, anyway.

Thursday, June 10, 2004
Who wants...to live...forever...
Or, A nice week of favorite things

Over the last few years I've realized that half of my favorite non-'80's pop songs are by Queen. Why? I don't know. Never thought of myself as a fan before, but I like the close harmonies, the creative hooks, the refusal to be predictable, the strong sense of drama, the good cheer even when the song is serious.

So I have finally accepted the fact that I'm a Queen fan, symbolized by the act of buying their Greatest Hits 3-CD set. Best purchase I've made in ages. I highly recommend it. It has all the good stuff, stuff you've heard but didn't consciously realize that was Queen, movie music like "Flash", "The Show Must Go On", and "Who Wants to Live Forever", and good stuff that never made it onto the radio, plus the third CD has all their collaborations (with David Bowie, Elton John, Montserrat Caballe, George Michael, and more). I'm plowing through the set like a greedy child. It's extreme amounts of fun.

This past weekend, I never made it to "Don't Bluff Me" because I came down with a cold on Thursday night that was still giving me a high temp as of Friday night. So I called and told Iohanna I wasn't going to be up to going with them. The fever finally went down for good around the time we would have left Saturday morning, so it was the right decision. It did leave me with not much to do with my weekend, though.

I decided to try something new. Well, sort of new. Okay, see, here's the thing: I love improv comedy. I have since I was perhaps 14 and first convinced my parents to bring me to ComedySportz, which began in Milwaukee as TheaterSportz and then gradually went nationwide. In high school we even had high school teams; I was sort of a groupie for the West High team, which regularly trounced the Memorial team. And when in Madison (or Chicago, whose team is also consistently good) over the last 15 years or so, I've tried to go whenever I could.

Recently (I don't know when exactly) there has been a change: the entire former cast--which has been a changing organism since its inception anyway, with a few constants--resigned to form their own improv company, Atlas Improv, which has the suckiest webpage I have seen since I was in library school. There is actually more info about them at Ironclad Gusto (a blog by a former troupe member), and in an article from the Cap Times back in March.

The show was at Electric Earth Cafe, which I'd heard of but never visited. (Why? Few parking options on W. Wash, quite frankly.) The cafe was a great choice: wonderful moist ham sandwich, lightly dressed pasta salad, and a totally inspiring kale/white bean broth soup, easy on the beans. I ate like a starving person and it was all delicious.

I wish I could say the same for Atlas. Here's my perspective: I've been a ComedySportz fan for what, 20 years now? I've seen their good and their bad, here and elsewhere. I've seen similar improv of many different stripes, live and on TV, with everyone from celebrities to high school kids.

Most recently I went to several Comedy Alley shows at the Lone Wolf in La Crosse. I was interested in them as a newish group, or at least as a group actively bringing in new people, and doing weekly shows for the first time. They struck me as interesting but not very good. Now I think I was perhaps harder on them then I should have been. Compared to CA, Atlas is less shiny/new but also less organized, seemingly less willing to make the effort to organize.

On a tiny stage, Atlas seemed to have no leader (so what's wrong with keeping someone in the Referee role, or at least tag-teaming it in some organized fashion?), no plan of how to keep everyone in view of the audience during full-team pieces, no creative ideas how to handle mistakes or inappropriate audience suggestions, no schedule beyond "Hey, we'd like to do some short stuff in the first half, then one long thing in the second half", and not a whole lot of rapport between players. They play improv games, but they all know them by name from their CsZ days, and the audience (imagine!) doesn't, because we have no program outlining what the games are or even providing some interesting game names for us to choose without knowing what they are. Half the time the person in charge of a given scene would just say, "I'd like to do Game X, someone give me a noun, please," and the noun would go up on the clothesline at the back of the stage and be roundly ignored in the scene.

The long scene was a rambling 25-minute thing with the brother of a dead politician agreeing to run in his place, to honor his memory, but getting two-timed by a campaign advisor who was secretly working for the other side. I do have to say there were some well-done non-comedic improv moments in this; a couple of the players actually have decent acting skills (these were also the people who had impressed me in the first half, when the short pieces were largely comedic). But other members didn't seem to remember that they weren't obligated to be funny at all times (even though a member had expressly told the audience as much at the beginning of the show), which meant that they would often step on someone else's moment of pathos. Timing was also off in general, with people talking over others or leaving too long of a pause while they thought of what direction their next line should go.

I can see all this improving over time. And I can't find fault with the venue, except for the too-small stage; I much prefer sandwiches, soup and coffee drinks with my improv, compared to the fast food at the CsZ venues. But for my first time seeing them, Atlas didn't make much of a positive impression, especially given the fact that these are supposedly the seasoned former CsZ members, not a bunch of raw newbies. They really have no excuses for being so disorganized.

Of course I'll go back, to watch as they (hopefully) improve. Though I must say, between family events, traveling, and SCA events, my Saturday nights are very much at a premium these days...

Forgot to mention: one rather talented member of the cast (I don't know names, because like I said, there was no printed program) was wearing a blue "SuperTutor" t-shirt that said "Lawrence University Center for Teaching and Learning" on the front. I wonder if this is somehow an idea descended from my SuperTutor grammar fact sheets, which I used to write while bored staffing the desk at the Writing Lab (the precursor to the CfTL). Mr. Gajewski, who's still there, always seemed to like them, and posted them in the Writing Lab. I'm sure I can't be the first to come up with the "SuperTutor" title. Maybe I was the first at LU but someone else came up with the idea also, later on. Dunno. I just think it makes for a cute t-shirt--wish I'd thought of that while I was there.

Yesterday: I helped Eile sew an Italian gown that Iohanna had helped her draft a pattern for recently. She picked out lovely fabric: red and orange brocade for the bodice, and purple linen with a beautiful drape for the skirt. I wouldn't have thought the colors would go together, but they do. It makes me think that I should a) sew more and b) think harder about creative color combinations when picking out garb fabric. Anyway, we had a fun time sewing, I showed her how to do rolled pleats, and we went to Imperial Gardens for dinner, which was yummy.

Today: rainy. I met Iohanna at Caspian Cafe for lunch, where I discovered we both love Lubia Polow. I have the coolest friends on the planet. Then she was kind enough to go with me to Mills Music Library to check out some books for the Rose Ensemble workshop I'm going to next week.

Next: I'm not going to SCA choir; I wouldn't be singing anyway because my cold from last Thursday has descended into my bronchial tubes and my voice keeps fading in and out. (I also went to the first Summer Sing of the season Tuesday night and sang all the way through, which did a real number on my throat. Bad, bad soprano. But I rather like Mendelssohn and needed the sightsinging practice.) And it's rainy and yucky out. So I'm staying in.

Thursday, June 03, 2004
Back to the source
Or, Visiting the library library

My friend Susie from high school, who dabbled in library stuff while she was in college (I believe she was the "librarian" at Wisconsin Public Television for a few years), used to refer to the UW-SLIS Laboratory Library as "the library library". And indeed, that's what it is. It's a library about library topics, and all that covers, which is everything, only not quite everything because that would be duplicative when the library library is only a block from Memorial Library.

It's very strange to be back here. It's also two weeks after finals and the place is quiet as a tomb, which is kind of the way I like it. Not like I would actually enjoy seeing one of my old professors or some classmate who's made it good. I'm trying hard to avoid considering myself a pariah, an unsuccessful librarian returning to the source of her early library experiences, her library school. After all, didn't I just have an article published in the Journal of Hospital Librarianship? Aren't I secretary of CAPHIS? Don't I have a pile of thank-you notes four inches thick from my last job? Well? Why isn't this all making me feel any better?

Being unemployed is taking its toll in ways I hadn't really predicted. As long as you are unemployed, you are unaffiliated. And if you're unaffiliated, where do you do your librarian magic? Nowhere. You don't do it. Or other people assume you can't, anyway. I had to have them print me a new badge at MLA (which luckily they can do on-the-spot at the registration table now) because they used all my old contact info, including my job title and place of employment. The feeling of freedom only goes so far, and then you start to feel adrift instead of free.

But I'm sounding more sad than I actually am right now. It really is nice to be back on campus, esp. during the interim period when there are people around but not quite as many students. I woke up early-ish (for me) this morning, ran some errands, then came downtown with the intent of eating at the Caspian Cafe and then coming home. But it made me so happy to have Lubia Polow (with the crunchy parts! They're the best parts!) again that I fed the meter some more and walked down to the library mall. The food carts are getting a little thick on the ground...there have to be at least a dozen today, all types of food from Indonesian to African to Cajun to three kinds of Chinese to smoothies of all kinds.

I stopped at the produce stand, which was pretty much where I got my fruit intake when I was in grad school. They still had the nut mix that I liked, with corn parchies, which you can't buy anywhere else. They even had several other types with corn parchies. Nothing like diversification. I bought a bag and stood and smelled the nut mix, the peaches and nectarines, the lake, the lightly fried smell of the cajun food cart, and felt completely at home.

In short: I feel good today. That's more than I could have wished for at this time last year. I have got to not push myself.

In other news, my Pennsic trip buddy has backed out for this year, dammit. I've already decided I'm going and paid my deposit. Maybe I'll have to see who else I can travel with. I already know I can do it alone, but that would feel just too lonely this year. We'll see...

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