Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Decimated Walnut Forest: Miesville Ravine County Park

I have often canoed the Cannon River and have drifted right by the trailhead of this nifty county park. From the river I did not know that this park existed. The park is about five miles or so southwest of Miesville and you need to take some back roads to get there. The park has two hiking loops, one leading from the parking lot on the north side of 280th Street and the other from the south.
I decided to take the north loop first. The first thing that I noticed was devastation from a tornado that had passed through the area less than two months before. The damage to the forest was extreme. Mature trees were snapped off half way up, some were pushed over by other falling trees, and others were even totally uprooted. The county has done a nice job of clearing these trees in a very short period of time, but I'll bet it will be fifty to a hundred years before the damage will be undetectable. Opening the canopy like this always gives some non-dominant species opportunites. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes in the flora in the coming years.

The dense woods that line this ravine are dominated by black walnut, which seemed pervasive. I have never seen so much black walnut in my life. Many of them were dead and dying because of the tornado damage, but there is still an impressive aggregation of a species that I do not often see dominate a forest. Along the path to the north I spied Lobelia siphilitica, Great Blue Lobelia. Other than that, not much more than the usual suspects: White Snakeroot, Spotted Touch Me Not, Chickweed, and various species of Helianthus. I can tell that this would be fantastic spot to photograph woodland wildflowers in the spring.

The north loop is not particularly long, only about a mile and a half in length. It turns back on itself, though there are a couple of loops that assure the return is not wholly along the outgoing path. I saw and heard a wide variety of birds and a ran across a half dozen species of butterflies.

The southern loop is different in that whereas the northern loop proceeds up a ravine, the southern loop proceeds along the north bank of the Cannon River. After about a quarter mile the path turns to the north where one comes across an old abandoned stone building. It was quite large and I wondered about its use.
I liked this little county park. It will be interesting to see how the woods fill in after the devastating tornado damage.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Whence the Future of Classical Music

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus,
Let no such man be trusted. . . .
The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene i

One night I was spending time listening to music from my iTunes collection. I sorted for my five star selections and played them straight through without shuffling. When I came to the middle movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, I stopped everything else I was doing and just listened. Sublime. The clarinet enters right at the beginning of the movement and sings a plaintive, smooth line that melts my cares and grabs my heart.

I think about the music’s pedigree, the fact that it’s been preserved for more than two hundred years, and how much this music has to recommend it. It was composed by a great musical genius when at the height of his powers. It is highly melodic. There is nothing offensive or weird about the tune—except for a few occasional interesting dissonances. The composer was particularly gifted in the concerto form: an artist working in a favorite medium. The music contains repetition, a key ingredient of many likeable pieces; but there’s also plenty of variety. There’s even a bit of playfulness and if not humor, at least good humor. The particular performance was by a great clarinetist and a highly respected orchestra—not that this really has much to do with my enjoyment of the music, since I’d probably enjoy it if it were played by a high school orchestra—so the performers did nothing to interfere with the music’s original essence. The piece is in some way ubiquitous music in movie and television soundtracks. It’s been featured in four or five movies, including Greencard, American Gigolo, and Out of Africa. Once you know it you realize that it’s played pretty often during peaceful interludes in television programs.

On a whim, I Googled “K. 622” and “hate,” wanting to see if anyone really had expressed hatred of K. 622. The only relevant hit showed that the middle movement was a track on an old RCA Victor release: “Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music.” I guess the notion that K. 622 was not very worthy of hate had probably occurred to someone else then.
And this question occurred to me: Why is it that some do not care for this music? Why is it that some would greet the notion that this is good music with contempt? What is it that people say in opposition to Classical Music?

First let me disclose that I enjoy a wide variety of music. My music collection includes the entire works of the B-52’s. I enjoy listening to Counting Crows, The Eagles, The Beatles, R.E.M., Enya, Green Day, Dylan, The Cranberries, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Glen Campbell, James Taylor, The Beat, Joan Baez, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Julie Andrews, Simon and Garfunkel, punk, new wave, and Joni Mitchell. And oddest of all perhaps, I really love trance music. So I’m not locked in to one style of music.

One frequent objection is that all classical music sounds alike. Well, I think this is a pretty dubious objection. If we consider “Classical Music” as a genre akin to “Country Music,” or “Bluegrass,” or “Rock,” one would think that Classical Music really has a totally unfair edge in diversity. It can sport, for instance, solo piano pieces, string ensembles, opera, orchestral music, songs for the male voice, songs for the female voice, songs for chorus, songs for duets, trios and quartets, solo cello, violin sonatas, pieces for piano, violin or cello and orchestra. And this list just goes on and on.

Beyond the diversity in the instrumentation is the diversity in the form of the piece: single movement overtures, multi-movement symphonies, sonata allegro movements, rondos, finicky fugues, nocturnes, ballads, preludes, variations, arias, lieder. And again the list just goes on and on.

Variety in length is also a hallmark of classical music. “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the prototypic ginormous rock songs, is about eight minutes long and some of the early short Beatles songs about two minutes or so—a ratio of about 4:1. But my iTunes shows a movement from a Shostakovich symphony coming in at almost a half hour, while a terse Eric Satie piece comes in at fifteen seconds—a 120:1 ratio. Even if we go with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the rock song lags.

But all of these differences pale in the face of stylistic differences: Haydn vs. Chopin; Beethoven vs. Debussy; Shostakovich vs. Bach—unique idioms all. There's no confusion who’s who in any of these couples. And the number of composers with their own distinctive sound is fantastic. If we just take the “B’s” we have Bach, Barber, Bartok, Beethoven, Bellini, Berlioz, Bizet, Brahms, Britten, and Bruckner—and that’s not even bringing in Bax, Buxtehude or the other second stringers. Variety and distinctive musical signatures abound in classical music.

How about variety in volume or loudness? Again, most of these other types of music are left in the dust. A full orchestra playing the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays so loud that the European Union has considered regulatory action to protect the hearing of musicians playing it. Yet when the “Ode to Joy” theme is introduced it comes on quietly, barely audible over the road noise on your car stereo. And no other form of music can meet the disciplined crescendos of classical music, the gradual piling on of more and more sound: think Bolero; again, the “Ode to Joy” passage of Beethoven’s Ninth; Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”

So this stuff simply does not all sound the same. But how does it differ from the music that its objectors listen to? There are differences: 1) it often does not include the human voice; 2) the instrumentation is different—no electric guitars, no rock drumset; 3) voices often sing in foreign languages; 4) classical music often is quiet and reserved; and 5) contemporary pop music follows a known pattern that some find more pleasing.

In these times it is particularly dangerous to make sweeping generalizations and absolute statements about what music the majority of people prefer. If a teenager wished to focus on East African songs for solo voice, or sounds of the Australian Outback, no doubt such specializations could be entertained. But there is, nevertheless, a musical mainstream. Here’s what we can we say about the songs of the musical mainstream: 1) they include songs of approximately two minutes to five minutes in length; 2) the songs are sung in the listener’s native language; 3) the songs generally include electric guitars and a drum set or rhythm component; 4) the music is generally of a constant dynamic range; and 5) the structure of the pieces is highly predictable, usually AABA-or something like that.

Despite what on paper would seem to be some obvious advantages in favor of classical music, one must acknowledge that pop music reigns supreme (by definition?). To ignore this fact and to pretend otherwise would be to ignore basic realities, like gravity or the sun rising in the east. One possible explanation could be the whim of fad and fashion, which seem to have no rational explanation. In the late 1970’s fat ties were all the rage. Ties as wide as six inches passed muster. Was there any rational reason for this? No. Just as there was no rational reason for two-inch ties a couple of decades earlier or later. It was just a product of the popular culture. So, as the argument would go, the preference for pop music is an irrational preference for one thing over another and this preference should not much concern us, since it is simply dictated by fad or the whim of the moment.

Yet one wonders if there is not a substantial difference between the world of fashion and music. It seems to me that there is no objective answer to the question of whether a wide tie is better than a skinny tie or whether the fashion of wearing ties of any particular width is worthy of memorialization. But the same cannot be said about the great works of classical music. They have obvious merit and, like mankind’s best inventions, buildings, or societies, deserve to be remembered, recognized, and appreciated. How can we pass on these gifts?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fort Snelling State Park

Fort Snelling State Park is a park of contrasts. On the one hand, its location and the sounds one sometimes hears are the sounds of the city. The park is located on the stretch of the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul. It is right under two major freeway bridges, is traversed by a major powerline, and is right under the primary landing path for the main Twin Cities airport. Besides the roar of planes, one hears speed boats buzzing by. Maybe you're saying "Not my style."

But wait. On the other hand, this is a park with much to offer. First of all, it has geography: it lies at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Then it has history: Fort Snelling, which lies up on the bluff, was an early military settlement. It is well preserved and offers historical tours. This park was the site of the negotiation of an 1802 treaty between Mdewakanton Dakota and Zebulon Pike that ceded nearby lands to the United States government. Sixty years later, following an "uprising," it was the site of the internment of hundreds of members of the Dakota tribe.

And the natural parts of the park are surprisingly satisfying. As one enters the lower part of the park one comes across Snelling Lake, a beautiful jewel that appears not to be as well known to Twin Citians as it deserves to be. There is a nice little swimming beach and a launch for canoes and boats with electric motors.

Past Picnic Island is Pike's Island, where I did most of my hiking during this visit. From the parking lot I went to the visitor center where there were some tame wild turkeys scrounging for seed near the center's bird feeders. From there it is a few hundred yards to a bridge that takes one to the west end of Pike's Island. The north shore of the island is the south shore of the Mississippi River and the south shore of the island is the north shore of the Minnesota River. From the island's west end I followed the Hiking Club signs down a trail that split the middle of the island. When you are on this trail it is really quite difficulty to believe that you are in the heart of the sixteenth largest metro area in the United States. While the ear knows otherwise, the eye tells you that you are in remote northern Minnesota woods. About 20 minutes up the trail I saw a whitetail fawn, which seemed a bit uncautious. She gave me time to set up my tripod and snap several pictures.

The woods were filled with common bottomland species of trees: Cottonwood, Silver Maple, and Ash. During my visit there was a profusion of Helianthus, though I was not sure which species. I frequently ran into Tall Bellflower, Campanula americana, but it seemed a bit past its prime in late August. Spotted Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum, was also fairly common in the areas closest to the rivers.

Despite its proximity to the urban center of the Twin City metro area--or maybe because of it--this park has much to offer. The park is only about a two mile hike from Minnehaha Falls by paved path, so it offers much to anyone out for a stroll in natural setting.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.