Thursday, December 18, 2014

An Old Fart's Holiday

I posted this on JoeMyGod and liked it enough I thought I share it with those of you who don't read that incredibly worthwhile blog.  Anyway...

Off-topic: "White Christmas" was first heard on Christmas, 1941. Although written in 1940, Bing Crosby introduced it on his radio show two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "I'll be Home for Christmas" was written in 1943, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in 1944. Both were written to help ease the holiday for those whose loved ones were overseas fighting in World War II.
There is a toast "to friends no longer with us." A few decades ago, with so many friends gone each year, there seemed little to celebrate and much to mourn. This year, many of us here at JMG have lost family and friends, both human and pets, and celebration may be tough...or at least tinged a bit. I offer these songs to you. I may sound like Debbie Downer, but I'm not. The songs are tributes to those friends no longer with us but live on in our memories and dreams.

That's the extent of it.  In my 25 years of directing choruses, I came to truly dislike this time of year.  It never goes away.  You might get January off, but by February the publishing companies are starting to make suggestions in their year 'round catalogs.  In March, the PR person wants information for that year's Christmas concert with a title for the concert and some titles.  Then there's going through the files for Christmas music you haven't done for a couple of years.  By the end of May, you have to decide what new music to order, since if you order it from the music store by a certain date, you get a pretty good discount.  Over the summer, you make up rehearsal recordings so the chorus members can practice on their own.  The music comes in sometime in August, and all of it has to be together for the first September rehearsal...and you have Christmas music in your head until January 1.

Yet I always tried to get one of these songs in the concert.  The holiday season is fun for a lot of people...lots of food, lots of beverages, lots of presents.  It's also a time of year when some people don't get lots of food, lots of beverages, lots of presents.  It's a heavy-duty family time of year; if you don't have family, you feel left out.  And if you've lost friends, whether human or animal, or members of your family of choice or blood family, it's difficult to be without them.  I always hoped one of these songs would offer a little consolation, a little hug, a little "I understand what you're feeling" to someone in the audience.

White Christmas:
I'll be Home...
Have Yourself...

Wishing you the best for your holiday season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Prayer Problem

My problem with prayer is most certainly of my own making.

I don't believe in coincidence.  I have no idea what the next part of personal theology leads when based on that concept.  It implies Someone/Something In Charge.  It implies that such a being cares about us.  It implies a Creator, and that's where I have to stop.

I think I can believe that we are the result of a creation, but I think there is a real evolution component to that.  It is possible that the Holy If Mad Scientist who started it all created up to the dinosaurs.  As with so many inventions, it started big.  Huge.  And lessons were learned.  So the Holy If Mad Scientist discovered that living creatures could be made smaller, much as player pianos went from around 70 keys to the full 88, as computers went from occupying a full floor of a building to being fully portable, as recordings went from wax cylinders to iPods.

The  Holy If Mad Scientist killed off most of his/her/its living creations and started over. But then I fall apart in my thinking.  If the Holy If Mad Scientist set things in motion and checked in from time to time, how do I explain "no coincidences"?  Or if he/she/it stuck around to see how things progress, then why does he/she/it seem to take a hands-off maintenance?  Has he/she/it created angels to intervene on his/her/its behalf?  Is that one-to-one or is it like a social service agency with one angel looking after a thousand people?

I haven't a clue.

I have a certain guilt about prayer.  Having been raised Presbyterian, I was taught to "take it to the lord in prayer."  And that's fine, except that it completely clashes with another way I was raised:  You don't ask others for help.  Because of that, I find it difficult to ask the Holy If Mad Scientist for anything.  Especially anything personal.

I always feel I'm asking Santa for what I want.  No matter how I try to phrase it, it boils down to "I want."  That's not how I want to talk to him/her/it.  Even if it's a need, it still feels like a wish list and I don't know how to get around that feeling.  Who am I to ask for something?  I'm supposed to work things out on my own.  I hear prayers by The Truly Religious and it's all "gimme gimme gimme."  I read prayers and see "gimme gimme gimme."  There's "I want" or "give me/us" or "kill those people" or "please don't let...happen to me."  Or prayers for others, but it's still a do this or do that approach.  With a "please" attached, but it's still a do this.

One of the few things I distinctly remember my favorite minister talking about concerned the hymn "In the Garden."  He quoted the chorus with emphasis:  "He walks with ME and he talks with ME and he tells ME I am his own."  He thought that was not particularly a good approach.  I agree.  But then, how do I talk to the Holy If Mad Scientist?  What is appropriate to ask?  How does one approach asking without sounding like a Santa wish list?

My mother used to remind that "God answers prayers, but he may not answer the way you want."  The thing is, I don't even know how to ask.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Would you run sound..."

Recently, I was asked to design and run sound for a production of A Christmas Carol. This is perhaps my least favorite of all seasonal stories.  I view this season as Scrooge did prior to the arrival of the Spirits.  On the other hand, I designed the original sound plot for this version of the play, and the idea was to have a reunion reading of it as a benefit for the theater.  Their original production premiered many years ago.  It became an annual affair; I always got someone to be board operator.

I was a sound designer and/or board operator for perhaps a little more than 12 years. (Alas, that's getting a bit fuzzy.)  During that time, I worked on almost 100 productions.  I was beginning to feel tired, that I was approaching the end of my run, that it was time to go.  And I think I was right, but as I wrote in another blog, I miss it.  I just hadn't realized how much until the night of the first rehearsal.

The performance was to be a reading.  Actors did the characters they originated once again, except they didn't have to memorize their lines.  Last Monday night, it clicked how much I missed that wondrous atmosphere in a rehearsal room.  The jokes and seriousness, the anticipation and the memories.  I also noticed that more sound cues had been added through the years.

I was around for the transition from mini-discs to computer programs.  In fact, toward the end of my time, everything was done by the touch of the space bar.  The computer program (SCS) was designed by someone who worked in community theater and understood what it was like, what demands were made of the designer, and how the impossible had to be done nightly.  The resultant program is a sound designer's wet dream.  A cue can be programmed to fade out automatically or fade out after another cue has started and trigger yet another cue.  One production I did had 53 cues in a 12 minute segment, something that would have been impossible if done manually.

We loaded the sound cues into the computer Thursday and did a rather crude attempt at getting cues in...hearing what was there as opposed to what I needed.  The real fun came Friday and Saturday, when I had to program the laptop.  It had been years since I did that, and at that time the main programming was done by my editing engineer.  Plus, I was now working with a "new and improved" edition.  Remembering and learning...with the performance on Sunday.

Naturally, I got better/faster at programming as I went along.  Because it was a reading and not a fully-staged production, some of the cues that were designed to cover action onstage had to be shortened.  The director wanted to add this and take out that.  By the time I finished Saturday evening, I had a list of 50 cues for a 90-minute reading on two files, because one file holds on 80 steps or tasks.

We had a final read-through Sunday afternoon.  Some cues had to be changed.  Music to fill a hole had to be re-programmed.  An automatic fade was mistimed.  Details, refining, setting.  And as frustrating as it sometimes was, I was eating it up.  After a short break for dinner, spent by me in transporting the laptop from the rehearsal room to the theater and setting up the soundboard, we had a cue-to-cue rehearsal.  A cue-to-cue is exactly what the phrase implies...the actors read up to a cue, which is then executed, and they continue until someone tells them to stop.  Readjustments are made, mostly with timing.  It was strictly a lights-up-lights-down show, so the cue-to-cue was for sound only.

The cue-to-cue ended around 6:30.  The performance was set to start at 7.  The cast was in the green room...resting, joking, reading, whatever it is actors do.  I, meanwhile, was in the theater making (literally) last minute adjustments for timing or volume.  At 7, when the cast walked onto the stage and took their seats, I had two files, one with 80 steps, nearly 40 on the other, for a new total of almost 60 cues.

And it came off almost perfectly.  What made me smile at some point during the production was that the actors were reading.  Their books were in front of them, they acted with their voices and a little with their bodies, but not really doing any movement.  The set was that of the currently running play.  There were no lighting effects, no costume changes.  Meanwhile, I was doing what I would have been doing for a fully-mounted production.  90 minutes of "being on"...and loving every second.

It felt so good to sit where I'd sat many a night for many a year, running the sound that I'd plotted and my engineer helped me prepare.  Decades ago, Gene Autrey sang a song, "Back in the Saddle Again."  I was.  And it was wonderful.  There's that line from the prologue to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:  "The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of Comedy and Tragedy."  It felt very good to be back in the temple one more time.