Saturday, February 28, 2015


by Cornelia Funke
Recommended Ages: 13+

Several years ago I read and loved the book Inkheart, the first novel in a trilogy by the same name, featuring a bookbinder named Mo (sometimes known as Silvertongue) and his daughter Meggie, both of whom have the power to summon characters out of stories by reading them aloud - and who sometimes, even inadvertently, send real people like Meggie's mother into the world where the story takes place.

I read and loved the book, I say, yet I didn't read its sequel until now. Part of this has to do with the movie based on Inkheart starring Brendan Fraser as Mo and Andy Serkis as the villain Capricorn. Even though Funke intended Fraser to play her hero from the moment she conceived the character, the fact that the film effectively burned any possibility of a sequel somehow turned me against reading the rest of the trilogy. I know, that's unfair of me.

One of the ironies of my reconciliation with the series is that Brendan Fraser read the audio-book that brought me back into the Inkworld. And though on film I have never been impressed when he attempted to play anything but a vanilla blockbuster hero (see The Mummy, etc.), I was surprised by the versatility of his reading voice. He may have limitations as a actor, but as an audio-book reader he has a voice and even a dialect for every character.

As for Funke, the peril and magic of her Inkworld still speak for themselves. Translated by Anthea Bell from the German title Tintenblut, this middle book of the trilogy inverts the first installment's flow of characters from book to reality, sending most of its real-world characters into the world of the book. The magic happens in part because of the power of great words, like those written by Fenoglio, author of the book-within-the-book, and in part through a rare talent for reading aloud shared by Meggie, Mo, and only a few other people.

But once they've read themselves in, or been read by, say, the nefarious Orpheus, things do not unfold in the expected storybook fashion. The story Fenoglio originally planned has grown out of control. Inkheart is going all wrong. The villains are too strong, and the good characters are too vulnerable, and every time the old man tries to write something to fix the situation, he just makes it worse. The Laughing Prince isn't laughing any more. An attempt to bring his heir back from a grim fate leads to even grimmer results. The witch Mortola, the tyrant Adderhead, and many of Capricorn's cruel henchmen have joined forces and are turning the Inkworld into a place of fear and death. A bitter doom steals the sweetness from the fire-dancer Dustfinger's longed-for homecoming. And for Meggie, separated from her parents so soon after seeing them reunited, her dream of visiting the Inkworld becomes a nightmare.

Mo arrives in a world of magic just in time to suffer a nearly fatal injury. As he heals, he gradually learns that Fenoglio has written him a dangerous new role as a heroic robber marked for death by the Adderhead. To save Mo and her mother Resa from the bad guys, Meggie must convince the Adderhead to try a dark, magical cure for his fear of death. And to help them all escape in the climactic battle, Dustfinger will pay a price that breaks his heart. When he gambles his life on a piece of storytelling that grew wild in the spaces between Fenoglio's words, the hook is set and the trilogy's third part, Inkdeath, begins to reel us in.

Funke is the award-winning author of The Thief Lord, Dragon Rider, When Santa Fell to Earth, Igraine the Brave, Saving Mississippi, Ghost Knight, and the MirrorWorld, Ghost Hunters, and Wild Chicks series. Every one of her titles looks like it would be fun to read, though you'll have to learn German to read a few of them.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Two Gruesome Parables

Everyone is a theologian. Most people are bad theologians, that's all. Some theologians, like my late stepfather, consider themselves too wise to accept what God has told us about, for example, His existence, His power, His goodness, and the reality of heaven and hell. And yet a few snarky parables may show just what their wisdom is made of...

To what shall I compare the theologian who says, "I cannot believe in a God who would be so cruel that he would send people to hell for not believing in him"?

He is like a man who walks off a cliff into a deep chasm after being warned by a park ranger to stay on the path. As he plunges to his death, he curses the park ranger for putting the chasm there.

He is like a woman who falls asleep while smoking in bed and awakes trapped in a burning house. When the fire chief risks his life to enter the inferno and save her, she threatens to sue him for letting her live in a flammable building until he leaves.

102. Creation Hymn

Further to "Useful Hymns Part II"... In case you missed the previous announcement, I am tentatively numbering the hymns I am writing for a projected second volume of 100. Obviously, the hymn numbers will change by the time that book comes together, because they will be topically arranged; I am numbering them here just to mark the progress of Volume 2. Click here to buy a copy of my first set of 100 hymns for only $10.

Creation Hymn

God, who called the light from darkness
And from nothing made all things
Through Your Word begotten, uttered,
And Your Spirit's hovering wings,
Even You, to call men righteous,
Bore creation's bitter stings,
Making dead hearts live and own You:
For this grace all heaven sings!

God whose willing, working, naming
Separated day from night,
Earth from sky and land from ocean,
Clothing them in verdure bright,
Setting stars for signs and seasons,
Sun and moon to rule the height,
Keep anew Your ancient promise:
Call them good, Your heart's delight!

God, who set the waters teeming
And the birds to heaven assigned,
Brought forth all things walking, creeping,
Multiplying kind by kind,
Last of all to crown creation
You in dust Your image limned,
Breathing life into our father,
Making him a living mind.

Now that mind, though darkened, hungers
To regain that holy shape;
Now that world groans, fallen, longing
Its sore labor to escape.
By Your Word's incarnate merit
All our sins in justice drape;
Make creation new, immortal;
Call us good for Jesus' sake!

UPDATE: Here's an original tune to go with this hymn. Title: GENESIS.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Gott hat das Evangelium

Here is an artifact of a period when I did a lot of hymn translations. The German original was "Gott hat das Evangelium" by Erasmus Alber, 1551. The translation was mine, 1998. The tune was written for it by Alber himself.

1. God gave the Gospel so that we
Should live to Him and godly be.
The world at large is unconcerned;
Against such wealth its back is turned:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

2. For God’s Good News they feel no need.
Their bellies swell with worldly greed;
And as it grows day after day,
“It does no harm,” they vainly say:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

3. The wicked lay new snares each day;
It is their law, their time-worn way.
And so they would storm heaven’s doors,
Take all things good and free by force:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

4. They load the Gospel with high praise,
Yet wish that none would turn his ways;
Indeed, they scorn God’s call, and say,
“No need to hasten and obey!”—
A token that the Day is drawing near.

5. All life is vain futility;
The world seems full of misery,
As if there were no God to heed
The poor man’s cry in wretched need:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

6. Men bleed the Church’s treasures dry,
Yet little profit find thereby.
To taunt the poor is not enough;
They steal the breadcrumbs from their mouth:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

7. The holy things are deadly gall
To those who trust them not at all,
Yet see, what has their greed not done!
They take the Lord’s goods as their own:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

8. None sought the Lord, and none denied
The world its overweening pride;
Their vain conceit is on the rise,
Their crooked schemes and shameless lies:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

9. Can any brother-love be found,
Or is the world theft all around?
Nor faith nor honor live today;
“If I were only rich,” they say:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

10. The wicked world brooks no restraint;
Despite God’s Word, none will repent.
No truth or life have they discerned;
“Eat, drink, be merry” they have learned:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

11. Their highest art is revelry;
Their chosen science, knavery.
These, mindless of all else, they do;
The world is mischief through and through:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

12. The lovely sun can hardly stand
To look with horror on our land.
It seems to sparkle each day less,
As if to toll the Great Distress:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

13. The moon and stars, in pangs of birth,
Look in disgust upon the earth,
And dearly wish to be made free
Of such mischief and misery:
A token that the Day is drawing near.

14. Then come, Lord Jesus, come, make haste!
Come, lay this weary world to rest!
Have done with Satan’s fiery shells,
And make an end of death and hell:
We long to see that dear and dreadful Day!

Hymn 101: for a Replenished Prayer Life

Since I published my collection of 100 "useful hymns," I've had a wee dry spell when it comes to writing original hymnody. I already have some vague plans for starting my second volume of hymns, however. I imagine the title will be the super-evocative Useful Hymns, Part II or something to that effect, and the hymn numbers will start at 101. I'd better get hustling, however, if I don't want the second volume to be approximately 25 years in the making, like the first. So, apropos the dry spell, here is a hymn I've been thinking about for a few days...

Hymn for a Replenished Prayer Life

Stir up my still heart, Lord, to pray
And think on You from break of day.
Through hours of toil, at meals and play,
Till evening, be my rest and stay.

Refresh my dryness with Your dew
Through words both powerful and true,
That heart and hand and foot may hew
Unto the way they learn from You.

Lest I be led to trust in deeds
And close the mouth Your gospel feeds,
With medicine my sick soul needs
Choke out the foe's false, poisoned seeds.

And lest my pride lead me to death,
Grant me both penitence and faith
That, trusting in Your saving bath,
I feel Your Spirit's cleansing breath.

And lest the foe my thoughts confound,
Direct them where You will be found:
Not where men's boasts and blames resound,
But where Your means of grace abound.

Place all I've thought and felt and heard
In meek submission to Your word,
Till from this age abhorred, absurd,
To Your right hand I be transferred.

UPDATE: Here's an original tune to go with this hymn. Title: REFRESHMENT.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

How to Write a Tune 2

In the first installment of this brief series, I discussed the ridiculously obvious: Before you can begin to write down a tune, you need to know what key you're going to write it in. Hidden within that precept is the assumption that you'll have mastered enough music theory to be able to tell one key from another, and figure out which note is which in functioning tonality, and know how to write in music notation. Sorry, without those prerequisites, you're just going to have to go to somebody who knows this stuff and whistle your tune to them. If you are ready to do it yourself, however, read on.

Another assumption I have already hinted at is that you'll know what voice type or instrument your melody is for. Is it a song lyric for a vocal soloist? If it's a choir piece, what kind of choir do you have in mind--SATB, SSA, TTBB, other? Is the featured soloist an instrument, and if so what instrument? Is it a theme for an orchestra, a band, or some other ensemble? As a preliminary to writing a tune especially for any voice or instrument, it behooves you to know the melodic nature of that voice or instrument.

Some of the factors to take into account have already been discussed by way of choosing the key for the melody. But the shape, range, and register of the melody should also be considered in light of the limits of the featured performer's range, the tessitura (range of pitches predominating in the tune) that will showcase the best qualities of the instrument without unduly exhausting the performer, how the tune approaches the extreme upper and lower limits of his range and breaks between registers within it, how much consideration the tune's phrasing must give a singer or wind player's need to breathe or a string player's need to change bowing direction, the attack and decay qualities of the instrument and other factors relating to its agility, the interval sizes the instrument is best at navigating, fingering issues and any conditions that may affect the performer's intonation and ability to stay in tune.

Is it the kind of instrument that makes certain key changes or intervals difficult to tune? Is the performer likely to lose his way in a thicket of chromaticism? How virtuoso do you dare to go with the performer you have in mind?

So the next battle of the campaign is to write a tune that, as musical jargon puts it, falls gratefully on the target instrument. Not too high, not too low, not too fast, not to slow, not unplayably difficult, not absurdly out of character.

Actually singing the tune to be sung, or playing the tune to be played on the instrument in question, would probably be ideal. Most of us mortals, however, only ever master the playing of one or a handful of instruments if any. How do you find out about all this stuff? How do you prepare to write music for a lot of instruments you have never played? Here you actually have some choices.

Choice #1: Read a book on orchestration or instrumentation (or vocal arranging, etc.) and bone up on the vital stats of the instruments you plan to use in your work. There are books that will guide you through each instrument or family of instruments, showing you their range, register pitfalls, and what not. Absorb what you can, use the book as a reference for the rest.

Choice #2: Study lots of scores, which you may be able to find online via sites that purvey public-domain sheet music, or in a college music library, or in a used book store, a music store, an online sheet music store. There are miniature scores of whole symphonies, operas, and other major masterpieces that can be bought on the cheap and stand up nicely on an ordinary bookshelf. With today's recording technology you can also listen to a performance of the piece you are studying. A lot of the great composers cut their teeth on reading scores and, even better, copying them one part at a time. An attentive student can pick up a lot this way from the examples of great works.

Choice #3: Try typing your tune into a piece of music software that has the ability to show you (say, by the color of a note head) or tell you (by refusing to play back an audible note) that something you are writing for a given instrument can't be played.

Choice #4: Run a rough draft of your tune past someone who sings or plays that voice type or instrument and deal with the red marks they put on it.

Choice #5: Take a class or private lessons on instrumentation or vocal arranging. You may be able to find someone qualified to teach you at a nearby university.

Choice #6, and this is the one I personally prefer, is not to bother writing music I couldn't personally sing or play within a wide enough margin of error to feel confident that the work is practicable. So as I move on in this thread, I will be talking about the kind of music I feel qualified to write: music for keyboards (piano, organ) and the voice (solo, chorus). For more specific advice about how to write tunes for a banjo, accordion, bagpipes, or whatever, seek the advice of specialists in those instruments. Thank you. And farewell for now.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

An Irish Country Christmas

An Irish Country Christmas
by Patrick Taylor
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the third book of the Irish Country series, young general practice physician Barry Laverty feels the strain of distance on his relationship with the lovely Patricia Spence. She is studying civil engineering at Cambridge, while he is still settling into his role as assistant to Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly of Ballybucklebo, Northern Ireland. The question that nearly brings their budding romance to a halt is whether she will make it home in time for Christmas, 1964.

Meanwhile, a flame is rekindling between the older, widower doctor and Kitty O'Halloran, a senior nurse from the Royal Hospital in Belfast. Conflict is heating up between O'Reilly and an eccentric old rival who has moved into the next practice over. And his mind is turning over a devilishly clever scheme to help a struggling single mother give her children a merry Christmas.

While Barry carries more and more of the weight of the practice, especially during his senior's illness, he feels compassion for a lonely and often cranky older woman, temptation towards an attractive young teacher, concern about a variety of medical complaints presenting themselves at his surgery, and mischievous delight in one wicked little imp's improvisation during the village's ecumenical Christmas play.

Little Colin Brown's climactic line was a comic highlight in a story full of warmth, intrigue and the charm of Irish manners, dialects and cuisine. Again I particularly enjoyed John Keating's audiobook performance of this book. I look forward to checking out the next couple of books in the series, An Irish Country Girl and An Irish Country Courtship.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Note Blaster

My knowledge of the gaming world isn't comprehensive enough to tell whether this is an original idea or not. Actually, in a lot of ways I know it isn't. But I've been thinking about an idea for a game that could help teach people music.

The parts of the idea that I know are unoriginal have to do with games like Tetris, Asteroid, and Guitar Hero, where an object, shape, or musical note is falling at you and you have to blast it out of the way by hitting the right button, or positioning it just so.

There's also a game on my Android tablet where you try to play tunes by pressing the right key on a virtual piano just as a shape descending from the top of the screen reaches the keyboard. One problem with this melody game is that the keyboard on the touch-screen is so small that even a good pianist like yours truly has trouble hitting the right notes at the right time. Another trouble is that musicians like me who can read music are trained to respond to different visual stimuli than these dots or dashes descending from on high. It doesn't really seem to be a productive way to teach anyone about music.

I don't think Guitar Hero is much better. Even though the controller is bigger and easier to input, it isn't really anything like playing an actual instrument. All the game teaches you is to coordinate a cascade of lines and colors with a relatively simple pattern of finger movements. Someone could become an ace player on that platform without having a musical bone in his body.

I remember many years ago playing a typing tutor computer game that used an Asteroid-like format to build typing skills by dropping letters on you, which you could only blast out of the way by hitting the right key on the QWERTY keyboard. That was pretty cool. I think music-based video games should be nudged a little more in that direction.

An idea is now emerging in my mind out of the combined ooze of these memories. It's the basic outline of a game whose programmer's Birkenstocks I am not worthy to unbuckle. A multi-level game that could use a variety of animations to teach the basics of music, right up to intermediate music theory.

One requirement would be a computer controller that incorporates a range of piano keys, as well as keys for the letters A to G; the sharp, natural, and flat signs; treble, bass, and C-clef symbols; different note values such as half notes and eighth notes; and other keys whose need may become apparent as the levels progress.

Because different levels may require different input buttons, the ideal interface might actually be a touch-screen that lies flat on the table, perhaps with two or three octaves of piano-type keys besides. The game would also, naturally, include sound and might take input from the device's onboard microphone, but that would require programming to recognize sung notes and speech. While we're at it, let's include a little stylus pad to accept handwritten input, like drawing notes on a staff.

So, early levels could drill score-reading basics, like numbering the lines and spaces of the staff, identifying notes on the piano by touching its letter-name and staff position, identifying the notes on the staff by tapping its letter-name and piano key, seeing a note's letter-name and hitting the right piano key or tapping its location on a staff - beginning note-speller stuff.

The student-player might soon progress to identifying the clef when shown a note on the staff with a letter-name under it, tapping the place on the staff where a given note should be, identifying notes by rhythmic value, beating out simple rhythms, playing little tunes, maybe singing a bit of solfege. To balance comprehension with rote learning, at least some of the exercises will be randomly generated.

At a higher level, the exercises would drill correct identification of musical intervals, chords, scales and key signatures, successively requiring the player to enter the notes on the piano, the names of the intervals or whatever, their Roman numeral notation in harmonic analysis, and their position on the staff. Rhythmic and note-reading exercises could get more complex, and musical examples could progress to short pieces with full harmony.

There's really no limit to how high the levels could go. The exercises could end up including composition exercises, the solution of voice-leading and counterpoint problems, technique-building piano exercises, performance and analysis of significant pieces of music. It could end up being a tutor up to the level of advanced music theory, and with enough power behind it could include lessons in orchestral score reading, orchestration, sight-singing and ear-training, vocal and instrumental performance (again, using microphones to pick up the input), maybe even conducting.

And with all of this probably involving a continuously streaming interface between the user and a cloud-based database, big brother could probably keep an eye on rapidly developing talents and start fast-tracking them for a conservatory. Ha! That's insane! But I like it.