Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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Special announcement: an online conference devoted entirely to educational songs!

May 1, 2017

Here is something I’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while:

VOICES: Virtual Ongoing Interdisciplinary Conferences on Educating with Song

I’ve made a few quick comments about this at my other (equally neglected) blog … but I mostly want you to go to the VOICES website and explore that. And ask me questions, if you have them!

2017_03_07_main_logo_piece

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Introducing Samuel John Zelnick-Crowther

February 4, 2017

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My son Phil, 10, now has a younger brother. Leila gave birth to Sam on January 31st.

Me being me, I have been processing this event, in part, by writing a letter (below) and a lullaby.

* * * * * *

Dear Sam,

The circumstances surrounding your birth were both unique and universal.

While your mother was deep in the throes of labor, she listened to music played on the mbira, a “thumb piano” of metal keys that was developed in Africa thousands of years ago.  In particular, she listened repeatedly to a song called “Tadzungaira” (“We Are Suffering”) as performed by the Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda.  

Mbira songs like this one have a relatively short “theme” of what might be considered 8 to 16 measures of Western music.  But those 8 to 16 measures are repeated over and over and over, with a seemingly infinite number of improvised variations.  A single song may last 30 minutes or more.

Mbiras often defy time in another sense, too.  Traditionally, they are played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to summon the spirits of ancestors.  In other words, they connect the people of today with those of the past.

Here in the United States, mbiras are virtually unknown.  If the doctors and nurses who attended your birth had given the matter any thought, they might have been incredulous that a white woman raised in Oklahoma and living in Seattle would, in the depths of her despair, draw strength and tranquility from the plucking of an African instrument that they had never heard of.

Yet she did.  She was hurting profoundly, but she knew the stakes and soldiered on, steady and insistent, like an mbira melody that would not be stopped.

As I listened to your mother’s grunts and groans intermingled with Forward Kwenda’s ceaseless variations on “Tadzungaira,” I felt a rare solidarity with humankind.  While your mother’s struggle to deliver you was specific to her situation — her life history, her anatomy, her hospital — it was also a struggle as old and as familiar as the human race itself.  African women were giving birth long, long before the first mbira was a gleam in its maker’s eye.

Sam, you are here today as a unique descendant of your unique mother.  There has never been another person quite like you, and there never will be.  But you are also here as someone connected to those who have gone before you, those who are with you now, and those who will follow.  

Sam, I will strive to love you both for what you share with these others and for what makes you different.  You, in turn, should strive to love others this fully.  At times this will be hard — perhaps as hard as childbirth itself, and just as important.   Please do your best.

Love,

Dad

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dbs1dbs2

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Update, Feb. 16th: Here is Leila’s birth-day narrative.

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Recent videos

December 5, 2016

As long as I’m using this blog to support family causes such as my parents’ anti-fluoridation work, I should also throw in a plug for my sister’s company’s new video, which nicely showcases their customizable dresses and headbands for girls 3-7 and their dolls. Great fun for those who enjoy spontaneous, open-ended accessorizing!

Other recent videos of possible interest: my song Cranial Nerve Functions, performed by Do Peterson; my song Kidney Wonderland, performed by me at the UW Nephrology holiday party.

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A shameless plug for the music of my friend Do Peterson

July 31, 2015

My good, good friend Do Peterson, a musician-turned-biostatistician, has turned back to the full-time pursuit of music. He is a gifted and hard-working songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. His music is not easily categorized, but “folk rock” is perhaps as good a label as any. Please check him out at dopeterson.com.

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OK, sure, I’ll play

April 1, 2015

Thanks to my friend Holly for pointing me to Song Lyrics in Chart Form and challenging me to do better.

And so, without further ado…

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock KNOW:
1. just how to whisper
2. just how to cry
3. just where to find the answers
4. just how to lie
5. just how to fake it
6. just how to scheme
7. just when to face the truth
8. just when to dream
9. just where to touch you
10. just what to prove
11. when to pull you closer
12. when to let you loose
13. the night is fading
14. time’s gonna fly
15. I’ve got to … try [to tell you everything I’ve got to tell you]
16. the road to riches
17. the ways to fame
18. all the rules
19. how to break ’em [i.e., the rules]
20. the name of the game

The VALUE of this knowledge, until given to you:
0

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock CAN MAKE:
1. the runner stumble
2. the final block
3. every tackle, at the sound of the whistle
4. all the stadiums rock
5. tonight [last] forever
6. it [i.e., the night] disappear by the dawn
7. every promise that has ever been made
8. all your demons be gone

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE:
1. it, without you
2. love out of nothing at all

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Dear Mr. DJ…

June 15, 2014

First of all, I want you to know how lucky I feel to have you DJing my wedding. What a relief it is to know that this critical aspect of the event will be in such good hands! You know music, you know me and Leila, and you know how to read crowds, so you’ll do a terrific job. We trust you completely.

Nevertheless, since you’ve asked for guidance on what I want to hear at the reception, the following thoughts may be helpful.

For starters, can we please avoid “I Will Survive”? Yes, it gets people dancing, but it’s basically a tale of stalker-ish behavior — not great source material for this particular occasion. Ditto for “Every Breath You Take” (The Police) and “Possession” (Sarah McLachlan). Actually, beyond stalker songs per se, let’s just veto all songs about ill-advised romances. Even ones like “Stacy’s Mom,” in which the relationship is mostly hypothetical. That still leaves us with plenty of good, wholesome songs, right?

Speaking of wholesome: since many family members of varying ages and tastes will be present, we probably shouldn’t use music that is fixated on specific body parts (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” comes to mind), the physical act of making love (“Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood), or one-night stands (“December, 1963 [Oh What A Night]”). Likewise, I have no interest in tracks that condone excessive drinking (“Margaritaville”), drug use (“Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35”), reckless driving (“Fun Fun Fun”), belligerence (“Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting”), lying (“Better Man”), larceny (“Been Caught Stealing”), egotism (“Big Time”), or jingoism (“God Bless the USA”). Or carelessness with baked goods (“MacArthur Park”).

Not everyone who will be at the wedding is married or in a relationship, so we should avoid songs about the hardships of being single. But if a song sounds too lovey-dovey, that gets uncomfortable as well. I guess what I’m saying is that you should play realistic love songs — stuff like “Love The One You’re With.” Well, not that one, because it seems to advocate “settling,” and this marriage is NOT an example of that. But you get the idea, don’t you?

I hope it goes without saying that any song over five minutes long (“American Pie,” “Stairway To Heaven”) is tedious and unwanted. This is a wedding reception, not a Grateful Dead show.

We’ll probably need some mellow tunes for the cocktail hour, but let’s not use Dar Williams. She’s an alum of Wesleyan, and, as you know, Leila and I went to Williams — Wesleyan’s rival in the Little Three. So we really want to feature Williams artists if at all possible — for instance, Fountains of Wayne, co-founded by Chris Collingwood ’89 and Adam Schlesinger ’89. Just don’t play their biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom” (see above).

Some songs, while safe according to the above criteria, are just too sad for a wedding. Any Beatles song, for example, will remind people of John Lennon’s tragic demise. So please do not feature anyone who died prematurely. (This includes Mozart, by the way.)

I realize that these restrictions are a lot to keep track of. Would it be easier if I just provided a list of songs that you CAN play? You know, totally uncontroversial material like, say, “99 Luftballons.” Oh, wait a minute — the accidental release of the titular balloons supposedly causes a war or something. I’m not sure, because the lyrics are in German, but just to be safe, let’s skip that one too.

Tell you what — let me think about this a bit more and get back to you.

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Random thoughts while procrastinating, #2057

May 31, 2014

Whenever I hear “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” or “Knock Three Times,” I chafe at the preposterous scenarios therein. How can Tony Orlando & Dawn have not one but TWO #1 hits celebrating convoluted communication strategies? Why can’t their characters just use words?

That thought is often followed by another one, though: given the existence of these two atrocious nonverbal-communication songs, wouldn’t it be nice if TO&D had a third one, just to complete the set?

I’m imagining something like, “If You Can’t Stay Away, Make Me A Soufflé; Otherwise, Pasta Is Fine.”

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Prof Don’t Preach

March 24, 2014

The song below is dedicated to the hordes of students in PhD programs at the University of Washington and elsewhere — especially those who remember the 1980s. It’s not my best or most polished parody … but the idea came to me in a dream, and when I woke up humming, “Ohhhh, I’m keeping my thesis,” I was tickled enough to spend an hour fleshing out the lyrics. So here you go!

Prof Don’t Preach
(a parody of “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and recorded by Madonna; new lyrics by Greg Crowther)

Professor, I know you’re going to be upset
‘Cause I was always your protege,
But you should know by now (that)
I need to finish.
You’ve been my adviser for seven years;
I need your help, professor — let’s be clear:
If we can’t work this out,
I’ll convene my committee….

CHORUS:
Prof don’t preach!
I’m in trouble deep.
Prof don’t preach!
I’ve been losing sleep.
But I made up my mind:
Oh, I’m keeping my thesis!
Oh, I’m gonna keep my thesis!

The firm says that it’s going to hire me
As soon as I receive my PhD.
Maybe I’ll be all right; it’s a sacrifice.
But my friends keep telling me to give it up,
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up.
What I need right now is to schedule my prelims….

CHORUS

Professor Gray, if you could be in my place,
With three full square feet of office space,
You’d give me your blessing right now,
‘Cause I’m not in love
With this life any more….

CHORUS

madonna-wearing-eyeglasses
Doctoral candidate Madonna L. Ciccone. Photo from celebie.com.

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A bridge too far

March 20, 2014

A Matter Of Trust – The Bridge To Russia, a CD and video set based on Billy Joel’s 1987 concerts in the Soviet Union, is available for pre-order.

An “Editorial Review” at amazon.com says the following:

Billy has always considered that going to Russia was the most important thing he’d ever done. The freedom and excitement of his presence permanently affected the country and played no small role in the ultimate dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

I fear that this “Piano Man Diplomacy” hypothesis has not yet had a fair hearing among 20th century historians. Aren’t many of them still naively attributing the Soviet Union’s collapse to economic problems and the like?

the music that toppled an empire

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A brief history of Uli’s times

March 8, 2013

So there I was at a birthday gathering for Uli Steidl, wanting to sing him the parody I had written at the gym that day (“Uli Uli,” to the tune of “Louie Louie” as performed by The Kingsmen). But I couldn’t comfortably sing and play the keyboard simultaneously, and nobody else would join me on either keyboard or guitar.

“Come on, people,” I pleaded, “it’s three chords! A-A-A, D-D, E-mi-nor, D-D … over and over and over again. Anyone? Anyone?”

At last Joe spoke up. He had played the piano a bit as a teenager and was willing to unretire for an evening. For 15 minutes we worked in the corner of the room while the others ate cake and talked. Once we labeled the keys with a dry-erase marker, he started hitting the right ones pretty consistently, but I worried that he might never get the rhythm down. Like the long-distance runner that he is, though, he persisted until he got it.

Then he tried to continue while I sang softly. That derailed him, but only temporarily. He tried ignoring me, focusing only on his notes while I followed his beat, and that seemed to work.

Finally we got everyone’s attention and gave it our best shot. Joe hung in there like a champ, others joined in on the chorus, and, if I do say so myself, my lead vocals were appropriately gritty and emotive.

the Gray/Crowther warmup
Gray and Crowther warm up. Photo by Joe Creighton.

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ULI ULI

sung to the tune of “Louie Louie”
as recorded by the Kingsmen (1963)

CHORUS:
Uli Uli, oh no —
He’s gettin’ old!
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said,
Uli Uli, oh baby —
He’s gettin’ old!

He grew up in southeastern Germany;
Rode his bike all around the country.
At 17, he went to a 10K race;
Didn’t have a clue, but took 1st place.

CHORUS

Uli came to Portland and then U-Dub;
Joined the Seattle Running Club.
Once got invited to go to Pyongyang, [rhymes with “song”]
So he ran a 2:13 marathon!

CHORUS

Uli got lonely; he made a wish.
Things got better when he met Trish!
Now they coach together on Capitol Hill,
But he keeps running and he’ll beat you still!

CHORUS