From the blog

Today is a special day. 

Good beautiful morning!

This is a special day!

The Battlescapes EP is now released on most digital platforms! Pick your pleasure to listen:

AMAZON

SPOTIFY

ITUNES / APPLE

YOUTUBE (this is a playlist on the VR channel; the videos themselves were not created by Vandalia River)

Thank you so much for following this journey so far. I hope the music finds a good place in your life. And now for a little fun…

POSTER GIVE-AWAY

I’m expecting a delivery tomorrow of 16x12 posters of the unique map rendering that was made just for the Battlescapes CD. I’m giving away five posters! Share the news about the Battlescapes release, and you’ll be entered into a drawing. This can be by e-mailing a friend, sharing on Facebook, or sharing on Instagram. Just make sure I somehow know you did it so I can include your name (like, send me a screenshot or tag @vandaliariver. Privacy settings on Facebook often keep me from knowing).

AND THE CD IS IN PRODUCTION!

The final design for the Battlescapes CD was submitted to CD Baby this week. They will probably be ready in early December. You can still order one for $10 here. All CD orders include a download of the album (in WAV files).

That’s all for now! No deep thoughts for today. Have a good weekend and keep in touch.

Down-Home Domestic Art 

Literature professor Laurence Perrine sums up literature as either interpretative or escapist (or a blend thereof). A classicist might instead say the function of literature is to teach and delight. 

I think these categories can be applied pretty well, in different degrees, to all forms of art. Art has the potential of helping us interpret and intensify our experience of life. No matter where the art falls on a scale of brilliance, its effect can be the same. You can have the history-making character of a da Vinci painting or a cathedral’s architecture or a Shakespearean monologue. You can have the closer-to-home music of a jazz band at your local restaurant. You can have the home decor that comes from your kitchen garden or local boutique. All of it has the potential to teach or delight; to help us interpret life (not necessarily in an absolute or moralistic way) or take restful flights of fancy. 

Which has an (obvious) implication: art is for people. Good art ends up enlivening the existence of many. 

Just as art is for people, tech is for people. Talent is for people. Hospitality is for people. As human beings we can passively experience all these things—and join in as creators, too. When we do the latter, we find a myriad of ways in which to love our neighbors. 

This is what went down in a wonderful way last Friday night at the Selby home. A busy family opened up their house so folks could experience live music from Wild Harbors and Vandalia River. Someone brought dinner so we could “eat and be satisfied.” (Food is underrated.) A childhood friend of mine stayed up late two nights in a row setting up and tearing down the portable PA system. Someone else brought in lighting equipment despite a flat tire. There were others whose planning, words, and presence helped make it fantastic. 

The house concert production certainly was a level up from ordinary events. But I could tell as I saw everybody work in a mostly relaxed way that pulling together with their gifts, possessions, time, and ability was par for the course. This was a community that was used to living life together. And because they did, as they made way for musicians to present their art, they produced a down-home domestic art that enriched everybody present. Not least of all me. I’m still in an afterglow.

Bringing a piece of home to home 

Ken Lund https://flickr.com/photos/75683070@N00/7992968569

The experience of staying in one place most of your childhood is irreplaceable. Stasis allows depth. 

This is what I had in Akron from age four to nineteen. It was there, in an old gritty neighborhood just west of downtown, in the company of folks I knew through church and classes, in a home culture driven by brothers, that the fundamentals of my creative taste and vision were formed. 

When I moved away, I bragged about Akron. I talked it up so well I think I lost some credibility. I can see why: if newcomers were to take a trip through the city via I-76, they wouldn’t see much to entice them. I think that’s why I praised it - I knew there was more than the first impression. I walked, biked, rollerbladed, and drove on the brick streets and cracked sidewalks. I hiked the trails (which sometimes could be hilly!). I knew some of the cultural centers and institutions all blessedly within driving distance. I stayed in the children’s hospital not knowing how convenient it was to live just ten minutes from one. And the folks I grew up with - oh, we were as human as anybody. But to see how they welcomed and delighted Virginia friends when they came for my wedding - that said everything I ever wanted to say. 

Today I am going back to Akron to bring a piece of home to what was once my home. In a suburban house, close to the one where I once scared the sleep out of a kid I babysat, in a mid-sized city pie-cut by two interstates and built by the tire industry, I’ll get to bring stories and music from Harpers Ferry. 

And, in fact, just as Akron was the incubator for my adulthood, Ohio had something to do with what developed in Harpers Ferry. I once watched contestants from Oberlin Conservatory perform in a piano competition, and I once went to my friend’s piano recital at the Western Reserve in Hudson. Both institutions, in their earliest forms, were either founded or supported by John Brown’s father. John Brown had grown up in abolitionist Hudson, Ohio, watching his father aid escaped slaves. He also had known one of his father’s apprentices, Jesse R. Grant. Jesse regarded John Brown as “a man of great purity of character, of high moral and physical courage, but a fanatic and extremist in whatever he advocated.” It was his extremism that led him to try to seize the armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and start a slave uprising with less than twenty men. 

That act accelerated the secession of the South, whose army was finally extinguished by the present-minded war execution of Jesse Grant’s son, General Ulysses S. Grant, another Ohio boy. (Read his memoirs sometime.

Ohio may not have the buried bullets or plunging vistas of Harpers Ferry, but it has the soil where great things can grow. Of course, the greatness of the Civil War is quite mixed - but that's not all that's come about. The Wright Flyer flew in Kitty Hawk, but the Wright brothers built it in Dayton. Apollo 11 launched from Florida, but Neil Armstrong learned to fly in Ohio. 

I don’t mean to get sentimental. But I truly believe Ohio was and still is a great place to grow up.

Confluences 

Once upon a time, not so long ago, free spirits could walk to the edge of the cotton factory ruins on the Shenandoah River. These are square-cornered stone walls two or three feet wide with a drop of, oh, ten feet or more into the shallow water. These walls once begged to be walked, but today a spit rail fence is in the way.

The fence wasn’t there in 2007 when I followed Jacob to the edge of the wall. We sat down, our legs dangling over the river. “It’s like a river glorious, Rebekah,” he said. He was happy in his resolve to ask me in a few minutes to marry him. He did ask, I did whisper “yes,” and we did get giddy. 

Then we walked up the steep steps past Jefferson Rock to almost the highest part of the town of Harpers Ferry. We sat down with the sunset behind us and the mountain view in front. At our feet, a cemetery cascaded downhill. What is better, I thought, than to consider a graveyard after you’ve pledged your life to someone? 

We were happy but conscious of the secrets of the future, conscious that no one makes it out alive, no one makes it through untroubled. What would our troubles be? 

One of Wendell Berry’s characters says, “The mercy of the world is you don’t know what’s going to happen.” That’s a mercy indeed that should be quietly accepted. Since the day we got engaged we have experienced much good, but also enough bad that one could consider the words of the hymn Jacob quoted and get cynical. 

“Like a river glorious is God’s perfect peace.” 

And it would be right to be cynical if the “peace” preached by the hymn was a mere inner zenlike tranquility. But God’s peace isn’t just an inner peace; it’s an outer peace with God. It’s an objective reality that happens when we are brought into his family through the work of Christ. It’s an increasing wholeness as our lives align with what is good and right. 

The Lord promised - promised - that in this world we would have trouble. But, “take heart,” he said, “I have overcome the world.” The mercy of the world is one thing. God's mercy is so much more.

Twelve years ago, that giddy young couple sat near the confluence of two rivers as they began the confluence of their two lives. And ever since then they have been learning to hope in the confluence of God’s sovereign and good way with the troubled waters of life. 

These thoughts are behind a piano composition called “The Confluence,” which uses a theme from “Like a River Glorious.” Though it is instrumental on the record, one of the highlights of my year was to hear Chris and Jenna Badeker from Wild Harbors bring a lyrical version of mine to life. It was a message for that young, inexperienced couple that sat on the stones twelve years ago; and it was a word for the older, weathered couple that lives today.

Come now, let us test the waters: let us feel the cold; let us feel the cold and the rushing strength... Let us take the life we can't choose to make.

I would like to share a video of that rendition, as well as video of the five other pieces, as a thank you for pre-saving the album on Spotify (or pre-ordering the CD). Pre-saving tells Spotify that the music matters to you. Of course, not all music is for everyone - I get that - but if you like what you are hearing, this is for you. 

Thanks for reading today.

The most expensive piece 

The biggest disappointment from my first trip to the studio was that one of my pieces wasn't ready. It was, technically and compositionally, the most difficult piece. I wondered if I would have to hack it to bits before coming back to record. 

I sat on it, practiced it, hand-wrung about it, made some changes, and booked the studio for a September Sunday evening. 

"Wow," said the engineer after I played it twice.

Phew. It was going to work.

It had to work. How could an album commemorating Harpers Ferry be complete without a tribute to "The Heights?" 

Besides lower town, Maryland Heights is probably the most visited part of the park. It gives you this view. 

Across from Maryland Heights is Loudoun Heights. And some of my favorite pictures are taken from Bolivar Heights:

This piece is dedicated to the Harpers Ferry Ultra Running Team. For why that is and more of the backstory, this video is for you. 

 

That video was filmed at a get-together we had last Sunday evening, which was the twelfth anniversary of the day Jake and I sat down in Harpers Ferry and got engaged. It was very special to share not only the music but also the thoughts and stories behind the music. (If you tried to livestream, I'm so sorry the audio quality failed. It's better in the videos!)

The final piece of the album is named for the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Though it is instrumental on the record, Chris and Jenna Badeker from the band Wild Harbors were present to sing, for the first time ever in public, a lyrical version of the song. That performance was a highlight of my entire year.

You can now pre-save or pre-order the entire Battlescapes album. If you do, I'd love to thank you by sharing videos of the live performances of all six pieces from Sunday.

Pre-save on Spotify:

 

or

PRE-ORDER THE CD

Seedheads (and news!) 

At the end of the summer the grasses unsheathe their seedheads, spraying the field with a million points of light. It's as if they are finally acknowledging the sun's work all season long by reflecting its brilliance. 

I guess an album cover can be like one of those seedheads. This one, coming at the end of a long season of preparation, gives away the inspiration for the whole Battlescapes project: the area I call home, as viewed from Bolivar Heights.

Pleased to announce that the piano tracks have been sent to the distributor and they will be released online on Nov. 8! 

I miss how easy it used to be to get or give a CD. So I've been designing one. If there is enough interest to cover the cost of duplication, I'll order a batch. If you think you would like one for yourself or as a gift, you can pre-order here at the site for $10/CD, including delivery to you. If I get 45 pre-orders I'll be able to make CDs.

Meanwhile, here's a new Spotify playlist. This mostly instrumental mix favors the harmonic strains of Appalachia and nineteenth-century hymnody, with some fresh interpretations by modern composers. Often plaintive, sometimes dancing, always beautiful. It includes numbers from 

  • Edgar Meyer 
  • Doris Johnson 
  • Jay Ungar and Molly Mason 
  • Mark O'Connor 
  • Yo-Yo Ma 
  • George Winston 
  • Laura Leon 
  • Fernando Ortega 
  • Pa's Fiddle Band 
  • Julyo 

(and one modest piece by yours truly). 

 

 

Treasurekeeping 

Photo by Tania Melnyczuk on Unsplash

Tania Melnyczuk

I had a pleasant dream one Saturday morning about an auction. I hadn't been to an auction in a while, even though two fifty-cent La-Z-Boy armchairs in the living room testified of my success. This unexpected dream prompted me to look up the listings, and what would you know, there was an estate auction just across the highway that very morning. 

The quality of an auction is always hard to tell from the pictures. Jacob noticed a pair of over-ear headphones in the listing, but as far as we could tell they were cheap and generic. I had been eyeing ninety-dollar Sennheiser 280 Pros so I could record someone singing into a mic without the accompaniment track bleeding through the monitor headphones. In the end, I crossed the highway because of a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Not our dream car, but what if it was a deal? 

I had to remind myself that estate auctions wouldn't happen if they didn't attract a throng of buyers, so I had better not hope for much of a deal. Indeed, the street was lined with parked cars almost as I soon as I turned into it. In my snow-colored rainjacket I was a white vulture amid the committee; but, we were innocent vultures, meaning no disrespect to the deceased. 

At first I was disappointed. Rows of seeming junk sat on the grass getting wetter every minute under soft drizzle. I might have gone home had I not spotted the pink desk lamp my daughter wanted. I nabbed it for a buck. The more I stayed, the more I saw, and the more I wondered about the man whose estate this was. "Jack," he had been called. Stereos, speakers, microphones, a four-track cassette recorder, synthesizers, an electric guitar, MIDI controller, cables and cables, multimeters, at least one oscillator, radio and telegraph devices, boxes with switches and plugs whose function I didn't understand, and tools upon tools were spread throughout the eclectica. "This guy was quite the hobbyist!" I couldn't help but say.

He was also someone who wanted to take care of his property, judging by the automotive products, trimmers, lawn mowers, seed spreader, and pruners. His movie and music collections had nothing dirty or (in my opinion) poor taste and were found in VHS, DVD, CD, cassette, and vinyl forms. (Oddly he had multiple sets of Anne of Green Gables.) His books ranged from chemistry and math texts to Calvin and Hobbes to Ronald Reagan biographies and piano books and hymnals. "Gladys" was engraved on one of those hymnals. His wife, perhaps? 

And to my slow belief, there was a pair of over-ear headphones that said "SENNHEISER HD 280 pro" on the side. I listened carefully for the auctioneer to get to them, hoping none of the other buyers would pay attention.  


Clyde wasn't a hobbyist like Jack, but he was his own jack-of-all-trades and master of insurance. The latter business laid his nest egg while he also repaired cars, learned Tae Kwon Do, cooked food he liked, piloted his single-engine Cessna - and wrote songs. Some of these songs were sung at his memorial service. Not long afterward, his wife sat in an armchair and sang a few into a tape recorder. 

That cassette lay in a box of mine for years as well as a manila envelope full of Clyde's lyric sheets. In 2015 I finally overdubbed her voice with a piano track and converted the audio to digital. I did this because, of course, they were the songs of my grandfather. Every melody was telltale of when he came of age. They seem to spring from the soil of military marches and mid-century hymns, yet I can see how in another generation they could turn into Maranatha songs. They were all praise songs. And though they sound dated now, they were the sincere, complete, and catchy psalms of a man who came to love Jesus after a mid-life repentance.

 

 

Granddaddy and Grandmama left us in their mere sixties, much too much too soon. My mom gave me his songs in the hopes not just of saving them but of someday notating the melodies and adding harmony. As I bent over the piano working on one of the songs, I suddenly imagined a descendant of mine doing the same for me. Not so much for the merit of my work, maybe, but for the place I would hold in his or her history. The notion was wonderful. Granddaddy has better things to think about right now, but if I could go back and tell him I would keep his songs, I think I understand how he would feel. 


After I got home from the auction, Jack's obituary revealed to me that he had died a childless bachelor. Gladys had been his mother. Not much close family was named, though there were two nephews. Jack's nephews may have preserved mementos I don't know about. In case not, he has an entry in my journal and a blog post here. 

And, I have his Sennheiser 280 Pro headphones. 

They helped me edit one of Granddaddy's songs.

Note: Grandmama never supposed I'd put her voice on the Internet, so I debated whether to do so. She sang with neither accompaniment nor studio conditions to speak of. In the end, I decided that sharing a part of Granddaddy and Grandmama was worth it.

Letting Art Adorn 

Parallel principles exist between disciplines. What is true for, say, writing is often true for music. I recently subscribed to the Habit Weekly, a writing advice resource by Jonathan Rogers. This week he brought his readers to an observation of Stephen King's: "Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around."

We live first - we love our families and our neighbors - we let that life inspire art - and we let our art adorn that life. Not that the craft can't be serious and time-consuming (and often must be), but if it becomes too much so it may exhaust itself and become pointless. 

That sentiment and this picture capture the genesis of a piano piece released today.

You see the shadow of a man, husband, and dad who is taking his son for a walk by neighboring fields. So much is pleasant: the openness, the accessibility, the beauty of the hillside. So much is right: this man loving his son with a simple act. But this field had been a scene of war, and to this day a shovel would find lead artifacts from that era. This man is pushing his son because a mysterious disorder has robbed the boy of most of the abilities the rest of us enjoy. 

When playing these piano pieces, all these things come to mind. We are living, literally and metaphorically, in battlescapes.

"Schoolhouse Ridge" is a solo piano piece named for a series of fields in which Stonewall Jackson based maneuvers ahead of Antietam, maneuvers which led to the largest capture of federal troops during the Civil War. Today, we walk our dogs and take our children to Schoolhouse Ridge. And it was because the dad in this picture developed a running hobby - for his son's sake - and ran the Schoolhouse Ridge trails that the idea for this piano piece formed.

It's now available for stream or download in most places. 

ITUNES / APPLE

SPOTIFY

AMAZON

YOUTUBE

 

 

Digging for Heaven 

It seems like the people who have the most heavenly stories are the one who've dug deepest into the earth. 

Corrie ten Boom lived a war, provided a hiding place, survived a concentration camp, and forgave. 

Gladys Aylward boarded a train to go through Europe to China. When it stopped at the edge of a warzone in Russia, she started walking. Both the regularity of her ordinary service to the Chinese and the spectacularity of events that arose from it qualify her story. 

Similarly, the most creative people are the ones getting their hands dirty with real stuff. The early Disney animators didn't get their inspiration from watching cartoons (there weren't any!). They had been boys in the early 20th century, and, I wager, that gave them the imaginative kindling they needed to animate their cleverness. Much more recently, Garrett Taylor tells one reason he was hired as an artist for Pixar: "To my amazement, the man that chose me for the position said he particularly liked that I had a knowledge of carpentry, and could see that understanding in my portfolio." Carpentry had been his back-up job and the only thing on his resume - but it was this physical craft that made his illustration rise above that of others. 

This all reminds me of that writing advice to live first, write next. Douglas Wilson ("love him or hate him") writes in Wordsmithy, "Live an actual life out there, a full life, the kind that will generate a surplus of stories.... Picture your writing corpus as the mouth of a great river, and all the life you have experienced as the various tributaries that feed the river." 

And, indeed, modest though they be, the projects that appear here at Vandalia River were inspired by real, regular life. This weekend is the anniversary weekend of releasing Heaven and Earth: Scripture Songs for the Old and New. These songs came about because I had kids; I was going to church with kids; I was living life with folks in church; and I was reading Scripture. I was living life, and life gave me something to write about. 

On Sep. 20 - next Friday - another bit of music will be released that was borne out of non-musical living. This track inspired the whole Battlescapes album I've been working on. Jacob runs. He runs because he likes it, but he really runs because he loves his son, and it's one of the few things they can do together. We know this town, this park, and this community all the better for his running pursuit. One day, as a service to my daughter's cross country team, he took video of a trail route on Schoolhouse Ridge, a series of fields that are part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. He set an early draft of a piece I was creating to the video.

Years later, remembering that video and that piece, I realized it needed to be finished and named "Schoolhouse Ridge." And it needed to be accompanied by other pieces commemorating places linked to our home and story. 

Schoolhouse Ridge. Murphy Farm. Lower Town. The Heights. Virginius Island. The Confluence. I look forward to unfolding what these places mean to me in music. 

 If you haven't yet, pre-save "Schoolhouse Ridge" on Spotify. 

If you like the style of these piano pieces so far, let me know if you'd be interested in a Battlescapes CD. If I get enough pre-orders, I'll be able to print a small batch.

Singing Belongs to You - and Some News 

This summer a little dream came true. 

A handful of acquaintances got together in someone's house and learned an a cappella song together. We were college girls, working mothers, empty nesters, and due this fall (well, one of us). Some of us could read music; others not so much. Some of us were known to be gifted vocalists; others were not known to be so (and in my case, was certainly not). We got together once a month three times - the first time to figure out our parts and suggest songs to learn; the other times to come together and sing what we practiced. We couldn't all show up every time, but when we did, we were smiling.

To learn our parts, we had a notated arrangement as well as the parts recorded singly for those who didn't read music. I recorded the tracks and shared them on Soundcloud, but for a lot of arrangements you should be able to buy pre-recorded tracks. 

This was a way to be together and bring music home. This was a way to use the voices we all had regardless of gifting. We didn't produce any record-worthy performances, of course. But that's not why we sing. 

We just might do this again.

 


And Some News!

A few weeks ago I sat down during an evening storm and played a piece from the forthcoming Battlescapes set. It's called "Schoolhouse Ridge" and is named for a series of fields nearby that saw action during the Civil War. Schoolhouse Ridge is preserved today as part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

And "Schoolhouse Ridge" has been preserved in studio. It's coming out as a single on Sep. 20! 

If you like it, you can now pre-save the piece on Spotify.