Sunday, October 19, 2014

Writing Retreat in Wisconsin

Last week at this time, I had just returned from an amazing four-day writing retreat at Faith’s Lodge in northern Wisconsin. I was even more productive than I could have hoped: during the retreat, I wrote two essays, worked on Chapter One of my book, wrote a scene for a later chapter of the book, and transcribed my two most recent interviews with Ted Papermaster, one of G. Oliver’s former band boys.

I am feeling even more excited now about the direction and progress of my book, thanks to the feedback of the other women writers at the retreat, and the encouragement of retreat organizer and facilitator extraordinaire, writer and teacher Kate Hopper.

I took a break from writing one afternoon to explore the lodge property.
And I saw this little guy on the path.
I am hoping to return for the next retreat in February. It will be colder and snowier then, no doubt, but all the better for sitting inside in front of one of the lodge’s many fireplaces and immersing myself in my writing.

How could I not be inspired to write, with views like this?!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Writing Accountability Plan – My New Great Idea

We have been celebrating my youngest child’s birthday for the past couple of days – first with a friend party/sleepover, then with a family party, and today with leftover cake and ice cream. Elias turned 14, which seems impossible in some ways. What’s even more unsettling than how tall he’s getting is what else his birthday represents for me – it marks the passage of another year of my work on the G. Oliver Riggs project.

Elias celebrates turning 14
It was eight years ago this month that I first began to help my dad with some research into the career of his paternal grandfather. At that time, I didn’t know where the research would lead, or how long it would take, but it seemed like an interesting and important project to pursue.

The project has come a long way in those eight years. And although I sometimes feel discouraged that so much time has passed without the completion of an “end product,” I also realize that the time has been necessary for the project to grow and evolve into its current shape: a narrative non-fiction book that explains G. Oliver’s pioneering efforts to shape Minnesota's community and school band traditions and explores the power of music to connect people across generations.

Because I do want to complete the book before another eight years have passed, I recently came up with a writing accountability plan. Instead of proceeding with a vague goal of finishing the book “soon,” I have created specific goals and deadlines for completing all of the chapters in the next 12 months. My friend and writing colleague Randy Brown, who inspired me to start this blog in 2010, has agreed to play the role of bad cop editor and help hold me accountable for meeting my deadlines.

I already achieved my first goal when I sent him a draft of the book’s prologue on Oct. 1. If I continue to meet the deadlines I’ve set, I will have a draft of the entire book done around the time Elias turns 15. That, my friends, will be an achievement worthy of several days of celebration and a generous amount of cake!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Channeling Family History

Help – I’ve already fallen behind in watching Ken Burns’ new film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS, and now I discover that season two of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. is starting tonight on PBS.

I never even saw one episode of season one! I guess I’m going to have to block out more time in my schedule to watch television. It counts as research, right?

I also never found the time to finish Gates’ four-part show in 2010 called Faces of America, although I enjoyed it very much. All of these shows are right up my family history/research alley. Maybe I can binge-watch this weekend, and get caught up on those Roosevelt episodes, too.

Tonight, the new season of Gates’ latest show kicks off with “In Search of Our Fathers,” an episode featuring writer Stephen King and actors Gloria Reuben and Courtney Vance, who learn more about their fathers’ histories.

Here’s a preview:

Other well-known Americans who will be included in this season include Tina Fey, Ben Affleck, Billie Jean King, Carole King, Anderson Cooper, Angela Bassett, and Ken Burns himself. You can’t get away from that guy these days.

I want to be sure to catch the episode he’s in, based on the brief clip shown in the preview, where he tells Gates: “My mother died when I was eleven. I think the reclaiming of the loss made me an amateur historian.”

The other quote I particularly liked from the preview was from Billie Jean King, who was busy making history herself when I was a kid. She tells Gates, “The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself.”

If you need to contact me tonight, don’t bother calling between 7 and 8. I have a date with Twin Cities Public Televsion, and I will be busy finding out more about myself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

12 Unbelievable Photos of My Great-Grandfather

You won’t believe where we’ve spotted Flat G. Oliver Riggs on vacation this summer! The 143-year-old bandmaster really got around, visiting his old music-related haunts in Bemidji, Des Moines and Chicago. He also found time to attend a Riggs family picnic in the Twin Cities. It must help to travel light.

Take a look and vote for your favorite!

No. 12: Reconnecting with old friends Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji
Paul Bunyan and Babe date back to 1937; G. Oliver directed Bemidji bands from 1919-1923.

No. 11: Admiring himself at the Beltrami County History Center
G. Oliver with his 1922 Bemidji Boys’ Band

No. 10: Along the Bemidji lake front, circa 1900 (via the history center exhibit)
Before G. Oliver’s time as director, band concerts were held along the lakeshore.

No. 9: Surrounded by descendants at the Riggs Family Picnic

No. 8: With his mini me, Griffin — or is it the other way around?

No. 7: Goofing at the Drake Tent at the 2014 Iowa State Fair
G. Oliver, Oberlin grad, class of 1892; Steve, Drake grad, class of 1990

No. 6: Strolling the grounds of the 1909 Iowa State Fair
G. Oliver played cornet in an Iowa regimental band at the 1910 State Fair.

No. 5: Visiting the Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair Exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago
G. Oliver’s future wife, Islea, attended the World’s Fair with her parents and sister.

No. 4: Admiring the Bean and the contrast between old and new in Millenium Park
G. Oliver studied violin in Chicago in 1894.

No. 3: Touring the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
G. Oliver and his Montana Cowboy Band performed in the auditorium lobby in 1912.

No. 2: Shopping for music at the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave.
G. Oliver studied cornet under Chicago bandmaster A.F. Weldon. 

No. 1: Pondering the quote in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building

The historic 10-story building was designed specifically for working artists – people like G. Oliver!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Vintage Band Festival 2014

We had the perfect weather on Saturday for the One Day Vintage Band Festival. The only thermometer that burst was the one we created with cardboard and a red marker to track our donations. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but the other board members and I were happy and relieved that it worked out.

While some audience members sat and listened to the morning concerts, others browsed the Riverwalk Market Fair.
My sincere thanks goes out to the members of all 12 bands that performed that day (13 if you include the Tuba Dorks, who played a special gig at the Contented Cow), to all the audience members who came and were entertained, to all of our business and other sponsors, to the organizers of the Riverwalk Market Fair, to the City of Northfield, and to all of the volunteers who helped make the event a success.

Our St. Olaf interns, Sarah and Emily, masterfully operate the donation/information tent.
One of my favorite moments of the day was when I was surprised by my childhood neighbor, John Engebretson, who found me in the crowd late in the morning. John is a band director who lives in a Twin Cities suburb, and he had come to the festival to substitute on saxophone for a member of the band Swing and a Miss.

That’s one of the things I love about the Vintage Band Festival – the event brings people together through a common interest, a love of music, and it makes the world feel smaller, in a good way.

John Engebretson performing with Swing and a Miss/photo by John Walters
John also comes from a musical family; his dad, Paul Engebretson, and my dad have played together in bands for as long as I can remember. This Thursday, they will perform a 7 p.m. concert on the courthouse lawn in Alexandria, Minn., as members of Doc’s All Stars, a group Paul founded in 1982. If you’re going to be in the Alexandria area, you should go; they will be playing music from the Big Band era, and the concert is free.
Sebastian and Steve, singing along with the Manitou Brass Regimental Band
Speaking of free, although admission to the One Day Vintage Band Festival was free, we planned the event as a fundraiser. It costs about $130,000 to host the four-day band festival, and the next one is only two years away. The other board members and I were thrilled to learn that people had donated so generously throughout the day on Saturday, we exceeded our $5,000 goal for the event. This is great news, because it helps put us on a more stable path toward planning the best four-day event yet, set for July 28-31, 2016.

Copper Street Brass Quintet, the last of 12 bands, prepares to perform in Bridge Square.
People were so enthusiastic and encouraging about the one day event, it’s likely we will hold another one next summer. Keep checking our website for more information about that and other Vintage Band Festival-related activities. And if you weren’t able to attend Saturday’s event and would like to make a tax-deductible donation, you can also do that through our website.

Friday, August 1, 2014

12 Bands in 12 Hours!

If you enjoy live music in a beautiful outdoor setting, get yourself to Northfield’s Bridge Square tomorrow for the One Day Vintage Band Festival. Twelve bands are performing over a 12-hour period, beginning at 9 a.m. The bands are all from Minnesota and will showcase a variety of music styles – from Civil War-era, to mariachi, to jazz  – so check out the lineup below and come for a concert or two or for the entire day.

The event is a fundraiser and also a fun-raiser, as the Vintage Band Festival board (I am currently its secretary) prepares for the next big four-day Vintage Band Festival set for July 28-31, 2016.

The festival has grown each time it’s been held (in 2006, 2010, and most recently last summer), and it takes a lot of coordination, effort and money to pull it together. Tomorrow’s event is free, but we will be gratefully accepting donations and donation pledge forms throughout the day; if you can’t make it to the one day event but want to support the planning for 2016, you can give online through our website: Vintage Band Festival.
And if you have a hour or two – or four – to spare tomorrow, we are still looking to fill a few volunteer spots. We can use help with tasks like handing out programs, taking donations, and assisting the bands with set up. You can sign up through our VolunteerSpot page; just click the button below:

The weather forecast for tomorrow looks extremely promising – low- to mid-80s and sunny – so you might want to bring sunscreen and sunglasses along with your chairs or blankets. The Riverwalk Market Fair starts at 9 a.m. and runs until 1 p.m., so be sure to arrive in time to browse the booths selling summer produce, artisan foods, and art. Then stick around to browse the downtown shops and get something to eat or drink at a local restaurant or one of the food booths supporting the VBF (Maria’s Taco Hut, the Cannon Valley Lions Club, and the Main Street Moravian Church).

It’s going to be a day filled with music and fun here in the Second-best Small Town in America – I hope you can join us!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Link Between Video Games and Classical Music

I turned on Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station (99.5) last week, on my way to picking up Elias from tennis, and I was immediately drawn in to the topic of discussion on the program Performance Today: the music of video games.

Host Fred Child was interviewing Emily Reece, the creator of Top Score, a weekly podcast on MPR that explores the art of music in video games. Reece joined MPR in 2008 and has hosted the podcast since 2011; you can read more about its origins here.

At the point when I began listening, Reece was making a connection between a video game called Guild Wars 2 and the turn-of-the-last century English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.

“[Vaughn Williams] just had a bead on writing lush music. He could write something that made your heart melt – and in a lot of ways, I feel that way when I listen to music that Jeremy Soule wrote for Guild Wars 2,” Reece said. “I feel it kind of borrows on that lush English tradition, even though I’m not even particularly certain that’s what he had in mind.”

Child then played a song from the game called “Call of the Raven.” You can listen to it here:

Reece and Child went on to discuss the connections between the music of Vaughn Williams and of Soule – the orchestral textures, the use of solo instruments and of the harp, which Reece said is often used in fantasy.

“It gives us the sense of being in a different place and in a different time. Instrumental choices like that can do that for us,” she said.

Child said the music of both composers also reminded him of movie score soundtracks, and Reece agreed, noting that Vaughn Williams’ unique sound, with full orchestra and lots of strings, reminded her of a song that John Barry composed for the movie Dances with Wolves: the John Dunbar theme, which is among my favorite movie songs.

I had to shut off the radio when I arrived at the tennis courts. But I was soon back in the car with Elias, telling him about the program, and we listened to it all the way home. Once we got inside, I turned on the radio in the kitchen so I could hear the rest of the hour-long program.

I should mention, in case you don’t know me well, that I am not a big fan of video games. I really have no interest in playing them myself. But my kids are fans of them, so in the past few years I have made a conscious effort to be a little more open-minded about recognizing the positive qualities of video games.

Thanks to Elias and Sebastian, I already was aware that some video games incorporate more complex music into their story lines, way beyond the bleeps and buzzes of 1980s arcade games. The boys often fall asleep listening to the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary special orchestra CD. It is a medley of music from the various Legend of Zelda games, all of which involve a hero named Link. I do like the songs on the CD – they evoke adventure, drama, and suspense, and the phrases and melodies can stick in your head much like the great music written for movies.

But still, my mind was a little bit blown last week when I realized that composing music for video games is a growing field. Listening to the radio program expanded my appreciation for the link between music and video games, and talking about that link with my younger son was one of highlights of the week for me.

What I find exciting, and important, is that it is another way to introduce young people to orchestral music – much like people of my generation were exposed to opera and Wagner through Bugs Bunny (“Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit”).

It’s impossible to know what my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, would have thought about music composed for video games. However, his band concert programs 100 years ago did include excerpts from operas and popular songs of the day as well as marches. He also liked to challenge his players with intricate pieces of music.

Program from a 1909 band concert in Crookston, Minn.
This link between video games and classical music reinforces a theme that runs through the book I’m writing about my great-grandfather and his career as a music man. The theme is this: music has the power to connect people among different communities and across generations. It is a connection worth promoting and celebrating.