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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. 

"Lower Town" Goes Public  

"Lower Town" is now out where you can get it!

"Lower Town" is an instrumental piano piece named for the most visited part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: a cluster of old buildings, ruins, shops, and residences hugged by the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Visitors who approach it from either Maryland or Virginia are impressed by the sight of this point of land, with its spires and stoneworks, descending into the confluence of two great channels.


 

This piece captures the energy and pleasantness I felt when first meeting Harpers Ferry, while pausing at points just like I paused to reflect on the somber aspects of this war town's history.

 

Choose your link of choice to listen. If you like it, please share. 

SPOTIFY 

AMAZON 

ITUNES / APPLE 

YOUTUBE

Battlescapes 

The weather was good, we had the time, and my dad liked cycling, so in 2003 we took an excursion from our lodging place in northern Virginia to "thehistoricaltownofHarpersFerry." Unfortunately I was usually rather passive on these excursions, but, as we turned left on Route 340 and approached West Virginia, I was moved despite myself by the view of the Shenandoah River through the trees. It was a wide, shallow, rocky expanse of dappled white-and-gunmetal. We did what most first-time visitors do: walk about the old town, stand on the riverbanks, take pictures. We even carried our bikes down the spiraling staircase to try the C&O canal towpath. Or did we give up when we saw the stairs?

Still, Harpers Ferry never became special to me until Jacob took me there in 2006 and sat us down on a stone ruin atop the river. To my astonishment, he proposed. Then our giddy selves hiked up past Jefferson Rock and sat down with our backs to the setting sun and our faces toward the confluence of the rivers between the heights. Below our feet was a descending hill of gravestones. I can't think of a better thing to do than consider a graveyard after you've pledged your life to someone. We sat, cried, smiled, and wondered what legacy we would have by the time we had our own stones.

We didn't then think we would one day live in Harpers Ferry, but this November will mark our sixth year here. The place is now linked to the themes and events of our lives. But, just like our lives, it's fraught with memories of conflict. John Brown's would-be insurrection was here. The town changed hands at least seven times between North and South during the Civil War. We've dug up heavy white lead bullets from our own backyard.

Every day, literally and figuratively, we see battlescapes. So much beauty, so much battle, neither ever completely safe from the other.

Last Saturday, we spent several hours at a studio tracking six piano pieces commemorating Harpers Ferry. This collection is called Battlescapes, and I can't wait to share it. Quite soon, I will announce the release of a single from this little album. I wish I could give you hard dates, but there's a bit of back-end prep to do first. Rest assured the site and social will be updated when there's more to tell.

Thanks for following this journey.

Surprise 

A few weeks ago there were no plans to distribute "Pensée No. 1." 

Surprise! 

Plans have changed. 

It's now on Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, Spotify, and a number of other platforms. This means you can now follow Vandalia River on Spotify, too. 

Hear on Spotify. 

Get on Apple Music/iTunes. 

Hear on Amazon. 

YouTube (please note, this video is not under Vandalia River's YouTube page, so if you subscribe you won't be subscribing to me):

Becoming Vandalia River 

The Vandalia Room began as an umbrella for a number of pursuits: original music, audiobooks, and a blog. "Vandalia" refers both to home - it was once a contender as the official name of West Virginia - and the woman who bought the piano that is now in my living room.

Since beginning this platform, I've recognized that much home recording is an inefficient use of my time. There won't be more audiobooks anytime soon; and instead of testing and re-testing mic set-ups and mixing techniques I'll focus on writing - and finishing - music to record. New music will be shared under Vandalia River. Why? There are already a couple like-minded groups that use "room" in their name. I like "river" in part because it evokes a sense of natural flow. The creative output of Vandalia River flows from a domestic life. I'm not out to reach some new echelon of brilliant art. My vision is to capture the art that can be distilled from whatever life already is. I guess, in a sense, all creators do just that. But the music teacher in me wants to beat this drum so onlookers can be inspired to produce art in their own way, even if modest. This is why I write about house concerts and classical composers and recipes and how music speaks to us in our circumstances.

So pardon the dust as the site and social get reworked. Vandalia River is now on Instagram, by the way. R. Hall, as a former social media exile, still has some catching up to do, but follow along @vandaliariver!

P.S. How do you listen to music? Pandora? YouTube? Downloads? Getting ready to record some instrumental piano music, and I want to put it where you can get it. Let me know by e-mailing post @ vandaliariver.com.

Bootstrapping Pensée No. 1  

Here's a new little piece written in part to test using three microphones on the idiosyncratic grand piano.

Two problems have haunted previous piano captures: Piano sounds too brittle and distant Too much room noise A warm, close piano sound with resonant bass has eluded me. In the past I was limited to two microphones, but we just got a gizmo that lets us interface with more. So I placed three borrowed mics basically in the three corners of the piano. A large diaphragm condenser mic went into the high end corner; another one was placed above the bass strings at the far back corner of the piano; and a small diaphragm mic was pointed on the left corner toward the low- and mid- range of the piano. I was hoping this would give me more low end flexibility to balance out the brightness of the higher notes. A heavy afghan was placed underneath the piano to diffuse reflections off the hardwood floor. Then a heavy blanket was draped over the lid to reduce some sound escaping from the top.

So, since I used three microphones, I had three audio tracks after recording the raw audio. The ReaFir plug-in in my software reduced some room noise. Then I opened an EQ plug-in. On the track that captured the high end of the piano, I reduced low frequencies; on the low end tracks, I scaled back the higher frequencies. I guessed this would help each track stay in its own lane and enhance clarity. ("Guessed" is a good word; true sound engineers are snickering at me now.) Panning the tracks created some width. What's panning? Well, you know how sometimes you hear sound coming from the left or right on your headphones? There's a knob you can turn on each track to produce that direction. The low end track was panned hard left; high end, hard right; and the low-mid track left in the middle. Maybe I should have used compression, but I didn't want to flatten the dynamics of this piece. The dynamic range, while important, was not that wide any way. I basically used compression in the end by using a limiter plug-in to raise the overall volume. If you ever tried to record something yourself, you probably noticed your recording was quieter than the normal music you listen to. Audiophiles, correct me if I'm wrong - the limiter squashes the loudest parts of the audio so that it can turn up the volume on the whole thing without having parts that are too loud. Here's the track before making any of these changes.

Here's the track now. I think panning made the biggest difference. I have no plans to distribute this piece - it was hurriedly done and the sound isn't where I want it yet.