A Celebration of Humanity

“Putting people of all shapes, sizes, colors…on stage together and presenting them as equals, another critic might have even called it a celebration of humanity,” newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett tells P.T. Barnum in the film The Greatest Showman.  This comment highlights what I love about this movie and two others that share its spirit.  While quite different, The Greatest Showman, Wonder, and The Music of Silence all have this common spark: a celebration of humanity in the face of social stigmas.

The Greatest Showman poster

The Greatest Showman

Celebrates: equality, the value of humans, beauty in all its forms, family

Premise: A man dreams of delighting the world with exotic shows.  With the help of his wife, two young daughters, and a lot of ingenuity, P.T. Barnum recruits social outcasts to join his cast.  Instead of hiding their physical differences, Barnum invites these people to celebrate who they are and to take their differences to new heights (or girths) on stage—to allow their audience to view the “wonders of the world” in a night of entertainment.  Full of peppy music, gorgeous sets, and breathtaking performances, The Greatest Showman brings this phenomenal circus show to life and weaves in themes about the importance of family, human worth, and realizing one’s dreams.

Further viewing: Here’s the song that sums up how The Greatest Showman is a celebration of humanity.

Wonder family

Wonder

Celebrates: kindness, looking beyond appearances, overcoming disabilities, supportive family and friends, inspirational teachers

Premise: Auggie’s dream is to become an astronaut, and he loves to wear his astronaut helmet.  One reason for this is because he was born with a rare facial deformity caused by a tumor on his face.  After 27 surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie is now starting his first day of fifth grade at a private middle school.  While a cheerful little boy with a devoted mother and loving father and sister, Auggie struggles with fear of rejection and being stared at by strangers.  This film explores how medical disabilities and being physically different can affect not only people like Auggie directly but can impact the lives of family members and friends.  I love how the film presents the story from different perspectives and highlights several characters’ personal struggles.

Further viewing: If you want to read a similar story based on true events, consider checking out the autobiographical children’s book Ugly by Robert Hoge, which I suspect inspired Wonder.  Here’s Robert Hoge’s TEDx about owning your face.

The Music of Silence

The Music of Silence

Celebrates: music, overcoming disabilities, family, inspirational teachers

Premise: This is a beautiful biopic about renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.  Born with congenital glaucoma, Bocelli (who goes by Amos in the story) gradually loses his sight and becomes completely blind by age 12.  Bocelli himself narrates the story, and the script is based on his autobiography.  The film depicts Bocelli’s struggles as he falls in love with music and then loses his voice.  His family, friends, and teachers have a powerful influence on his life as he attempts to find a place for himself in the world, fights for independence despite his disability, and tries to follow his dream of being a singer.  The music and cinematography are stunning, and the movie is touching and inspirational as it deals with a mother’s heartbreak over her young son’s suffering, Bocelli’s depression and frustration with his blindness, and what it takes to become a world-renowned musician.

Further viewing: Watch Bocelli’s performance of Nessun Dorma.

Worldbuilding Resources

What do writers do when they are procrastinating while putting together a story? They go hunting for writing resources to help them with worldbuilding! This is a concept I’ve always struggled with as a writer—I relish the dialogue but drag my feet with the setting. In developing the world for Death and Taxis, I have been researching writing resources for assisting with world development.

Reddit – 100 Worldbuilding Prompts

https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/comments/als11s/100_worldbuilding_prompts/

This seems like a good list, filled with some offbeat questions to get the mind thinking differently about their world – such as question 17:

It’s late at night and I’m hungry, what food venues are still open?

The Novel Factory – The Ultimate World Building Questionnaire (131 questions)

https://www.novel-software.com/theultimateworldbuildingquestionnaire

This resource is broken up by category and therefore gives more structure to the world development than the previous resources. The first section pertains to the physics and nature of the world, the second section to geography and natural resources, etc.

As an added bonus, Brandon Sanderson, one of my favorite fantasy authors, teaches a course at Brigham Young University on novel writing, and all the lectures are available online: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLH3mK1NZn9QqOSj3ObrP3xL8tEJQ12-vL

That’s all for today. Back to procrastinating worldbuilding.

Discovering Diversity

Today, Caroline Bennett discusses music periodizations, pedagogy, and more, while highlighting the importance of studying a variety of musicians and musical styles.


Whenever someone tells a story, reads a textbook, writes an essay, or participates in a discussion, this person inevitably employs a set of preconceptions and a view of the world. In a discussion of periodizations in music history, historian James Webster notes that “periodizations serve the needs and desires of those who make and use them…This is so whoever ‘we’ are, and whether we conceive our historical intentions as ‘objective’ or interest-driven.”[1] Webster’s claim also pertains to the current push to diversify the study of music.  When historians or teachers decide which composers to talk about they have certain objectives, and the attempt to diversify music history is a direct result of the value that American society currently places on inclusivity and diversity. Although this is not necessarily a wrong approach to music history, musicians should be conscious of why they study certain people or compositions. Musicians can actually achieve greater diversity in their view of the past by not making diversity the ultimate objective. Rather, musicians should strive to study and perform music that was impactful at the time that it was written, that serves an important pedagogical function, or that is timely and appropriate in a modern context. This goal, though daunting, is achievable if historians, teachers, and performers expand their knowledge of music and apply it to their respective disciplines.

Maple Leaf Rag coverGiven the immensity of music history, it may appear unfeasible for music historians to talk about music that is not only excellent but also demonstrates diversity. However, this should not be the primary goal of historians. Instead, while conducting research historians should notice any information that is thought-provoking or could potentially connect with other facts.  If the name of an unknown composer is mentioned in a document, a historian should consider going off on a tangent and seeing where else the composer is mentioned or what pieces the person wrote. This may lead to exciting connections between the unknown composer and more famous composers, or occasionally result in the discovery of a truly great or influential artist. Additionally, historians have a second task: they should notice the time periods, countries, and societies that did not have many composers of diverse ethnicities or genders. For example, a prevalent reason why there have been fewer and less-well known female and African-American composers in music history up into the 20th century is because they did not have good educational opportunities.[2] Although this makes it harder for historians to include diverse composers in their writings and presentations, it is wise for historians to inform their audiences of these reasons because it gives context to the narrative and highlights the composers who did manage to overcome racial prejudice or social inequality, such as Scott Joplin, Ethel Smyth, William Grant Still, or Germaine Tailleferre.

Supplied with the wealth of resources that music historians share, music teachers can expand their knowledge of their instrument and its repertoire. It is important for teachers to be familiar with an assortment of pieces that not only come from various time periods but also have different purposes, contexts, and styles. This gives teachers an arsenal of works with which to inspire and challenge their students. Although a majority of the pieces that teachers assign their students will be by standard composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, if teachers are intimately familiar with their instrument’s canon they will have the freedom to choose pieces best suited to their student’s interests and abilities. Likely this will lead to more and more students studying works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, and the like. For example, if a piano student expresses interest in learning a blues or jazz song, a teacher might assign “Saint Louis Blues” by African-American composer W.C. Handy. The benefits of this are twofold. Not only will the student likely be more motivated to practice the piece because it is appealing, but it will also present an opportunity for the teacher to introduce the student to a specific segment of music history. Indeed, teachers ought to always seek to incorporate music history into lessons and expect their students to become well acquainted with the story and repertoire of their instrument.

Amy Beach
Amy Beach

When musicians receive a well-rounded education and are knowledgeable of their instrument and its repertoire, concert programs are more likely to feature unique and lesser-known works. A performer who remembers that she enjoyed studying Amy Beach songs in high school will be more likely search for more good pieces by Beach and include them on concert programs later on in her career. This will in turn introduce audience members to pieces and composers that they may not have been familiar with before and inspire other musicians to study new works. Though not overtly related to diversifying music studies, this process will certainly affect people’s understanding of music history and eventually make a mark on musical canons. The story of how Mendelssohn’s performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the mid-19th century helped instigate renewed interest in Bach’s music,[3] though not an example of diversity,  certainly demonstrates the power of performing uncommon pieces. Even one concert can prompt more and more people to study music by an unfamiliar composer until that composer becomes an established figure in music history.

If music historians are diligent in following tangents in their research and discovering new composers and pieces, and if teachers assign a variety of works to their students and encourage their students’ curiosity about their instrument’s history and repertoire, and if performers constantly present the most innovative, interesting, and compelling works on their instruments, then music history and music canons will naturally become more diverse. Instead of making a conscious effort to change the way people view the past, and in the process imposing current values or agendas, musicians ought to encourage diversity and inclusivity via a different route. They should study and teach and perform the music that is most impactful, most influential, most imaginative, most intriguing. And although this approach demands much from musicians and requires a well-rounded education, the results will be invaluable. Historians, teachers, and performers will have a deeper, richer understanding of music, its history, and the world, and this in turn will make them better able to share music with their audiences.

Further listening: Seeger String Quartet 1931 Mvt IV and Williams Walkin’ and Swingin’


Footnotes

[1]. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.

[2]. Laura Artesani, “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers into General Music Classes,” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).

[3]. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, Ninth edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), 461.

Works Cited

Artesani, Laura. “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers Into General Music Classes.” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Ninth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.

Hymns and new songs

It is not everyday that you find new or interesting takes on classic Christian hymns, and while there have been a plethora of covers in various styles (bluegrass, country, etc) -some quite good, an artist who takes a distinct stylistic road is hard to find. Enter JG Hymns, out of Edinburgh, UK. Combining instrumentation with solo male vocals, he weaves the lyrics of classic hymns to a new and unique sound. While certainly not a style aimed at congregational singing, his musical interpretation of well known songs it quite interesting and insightful, and some of his original works are quite good as well.

Just as I am, without one plea

The Eagle and the Hawk

Seeing a career peak during the 1970’s, John Denver wrote songs with signature acoustic accompaniment and subjects dealing with nature and relationships. Songs such as ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads‘, ‘Rocky Mountain High‘, and ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders‘ put Denver on the charts during the 70’s and remain classics to the present. Characterized by optimism in his music, even more serious songs contain hopeful timbres, and make for excellent easy listening music.

Take Me Home, Country Roads
Rocky Mountain High
Sunshine on My Shoulders
The Eagle and the Hawk

Peculiar Planet

Back in the day, and by that I mean less than a month ago, I was in a position where I had a fair amount of “dead” time on my hands. And, somehow, I honestly don’t recall how, I stumbled upon this zany little website that is now my official recommendation for a time killer: “Amusing Planet,” or www.amusingplanet.com.

Best described by its Twitter bio, “Amazing Places, Wonderful People, Weird Stuff,” this offbeat website is a collection of blog style posts, accompanied by plenty of full-color photographs, detailing the bizarre, extraordinary quirks of planet earth, both natural and manmade. From “rocks that give birth” to decorative Japanese manhole covers, it’s all here.

You can simply scroll down the list of articles, or you can browse by sections: Natural Wonders, Historical Oddities, and Art, and you can view posts by country too, if that floats your boat. As I might write in a work email, “please see below” for a list of just four of of my favorites, aka the ones I remembered without too much effort and could find easily without exerting a ton of patience:

Whether an internet tourist looking for something diverting, or an actual tourist looking for sightseeing inspiration, there’s sure to be an article for you. While today I am the former, perhaps, one day, I’ll visit the Museum of Bad Art myself.

History in Bitesize Pieces

The Thanksgiving to Christmas season means an increase in time spent travelling for most people, and while music or books on tape fill that well, podcasts are another great way to spend the time on the road. One such podcast that is excellent for longer drives is Hardcore History.

dc-about-headshot-350x350

History, along with literature, has always fascinated me. However, pulling out an actual history book after a long day at work is pretty much a futile effort -like the church history book I started months ago and have yet to make major headway in. That being said, much of the time I spend in the car each month driving to see friends or family affords an opportunity to listen, and Dan Carlin’s history series has proved to be infinitely informative….and entertaining. Each podcast or ‘series’ is about 2.5+ hours long covering topics from Genghis Khan, to the Persian Empire, to medieval Europe, to 20th Century history. Also, on his website he lists all of his sources, and provides links to the various books from which his information comes. Much of what he discusses are the less savory or well known aspects of history, hence the title ‘Hardcore’ History. However, as such he provides insight into topics that are rarely covered in-depth elsewhere -like the Persian Empire (and not the Greek interpretation of it).

If you have a long commute, or maybe a weekend trip coming up with the holidays, consider giving Hardcore History a try instead of the book on tape or cd. It will be informative AND entertaining, and is a great way to learn something new about our past without having to pickup a college history book.

A New Sound for the Day

Whenever I discover a new album or group they tend to take up hours worth of listening time over the first weeks after discovery. Following are a few of the groups who have recently made it onto my repeat playlist:

  1. Lish Starshine and the Spirit Animals. Based out of Shreveport, Louisiana, they blend a beautiful classic rock sound with great vocals. Their music is energetic, upbeat, and is enjoyable to listen too while performing a variety of activities.

2. A Hill to Die Upon. Based out of Illinois, this black/death metal band creates songs that are dark, intriguing, and hauntingly beautiful. Given their genre, the style will not appeal to all audiences (harsh vocals), but the style is befitting of the subject matter (e.g. two of my favorite songs of theirs are “Oh Death” and “Satan Speaks”).

3. Lumsk. Hearkening from Norway, this folk metal band features clean Scandinavian vocals, interesting instruments (including pipe organ), and mythically inspired lyrics. The group has produced three albums with the newest one being more rock/pop than metal; however, all three albums feature strong folk elements that create beautiful and fascinating soundscapes.

 

 

Two Podcast Favorites

For those who want something to listen to on the way to work or have some extra time, podcasts may be the answer. Here are a couple podcasts I enjoy listening to:

  1. The Phil Vischer Podcast – a show featuring Phil Vischer (the creator of Veggie Tales), Pastor Skye Jethani, and voice actress Christian Taylor as they discuss a variety of topics, usually related to current events or culture. A fun, thought-provoking show that always concludes with a ukulele song improvised by Phil Vischer in which he summarizes the podcast’s discussion. Released every Tuesday.
  2. Serial – a podcast published in seasons, I have only been listening to Season 2, which documents the story of Bowe Bergdahl–the U.S. soldier who left his post at a camp in eastern Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban. A well-researched story about a controversial figure, this podcast features interviews with people who knew Bowe, shedding light on the events that led to his capture, as well as the political machinations that eventually led to his release.

Beyond these two, there are podcasts out there for all sorts of interests, from minute-by-minute breakdowns of the Star Wars films to lengthy, engaging podcasts about history. I use PlayerFM to manage subscriptions on my phone and receive notifications when new podcasts are released.

Weighing in: Heroes of the Storm

HotS

This past week, Blizzard Entertainment released its new offering into the digital entertainment world in the form of an online, multiplayer battle arena game called Heroes of the Storm. While this is not the first game of this type to be released, it is the first to be released officially by Blizzard Entertainment. This is significant because the multiplayer online battle arena (hereafter called MOBA) genre was created using one of Blizzard’s own games, WarCraft 3. That title included an extensive level editor, and a scenario called “Defense of the Ancients” (DotA) was created by dedicated fans.

The scenario had a punishingly steep learning curve and a large variety of playable characters. It featured a symmetrical map in which up to 10 heroes – 5 for each team – battled along certain pathways to their enemy’s forts in an effort to destroy them. They were supported by randomly spawning computerized ally troops who would attack opposing heroes and structures. Along these paths were guard towers for both teams. One of the key components of this game was teamwork. If you had bad communication and situational awareness, not only would you be hurting your chances of winning, you would also likely be making your enemies stronger – something which happened every time you or an ally bit the dust. This formula – this fan-made map and modification – created an entirely new genre of computer game that is still used as a standard by many today.

Since the development of DotA (circa 2003/2004), many other MOBAs have been made and have folded. Games such as League of Legends (LoL) and DotA2 are currently quite popular, and have a rabid following. Sadly, some similar games which had innovative ideas have fallen by the wayside, such as Gas Powered Games’ Demigod. Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard Entertainment’s foray into this genre, and although the game is not yet a week old, it has a great amount of potential. I’d like to list out my reasons why HotS is at the same time a great release and a worrying release.

The Good

1) The Characters

I won’t bore anyone who is not familiar with Blizzard Entertainment’s works by going into the backstory of the myriads of characters they have created. They have created cartoonish fantasy worlds in which orcs, elves and men battle together; futuristic sci-fi worlds in which humans battle the insect-like Zerg and inscrutable Protoss; and gothic fantasy worlds in which men and angels fight against the incursions of demonic forces. They have brought their heroes, villains, and in-between together for a battle royale. While this means little for someone who doesn’t know who, say, Jim Raynor is, this gives a great amount of variety to those who like characters with swords, guns, lasers, spikes – you name it, there’s a character in the game that will likely appeal to you based on their style of play or by the fact the character models look so polished.

2) Map Variety

This is a big one. The map in DotA and DotA2 is exactly the same. You will fight in the same arena every time you play the game. LoL and Demigod have a greater variety of maps, as does HotS. What HotS has over those games, however, is more interactivity with their maps. In one map, if you collect enough doubloons from chests or the corpses of your enemies, you can bribe a ghost pirate to fire his cannons on your foes’ defenses. In another, you can inhabit an Egyptian type temple and use its sun-powered laser crystals to devastate enemy towers. This sort of interactivity means that where you fight is not simply a backdrop with certain choke-points. The map is a vital part of how you fight, and you ignore that at your peril.

Another major point in HotS’ favor is that instead of having singular guard towers along routes, there are actual towns that need to be defended or conquered. Each town has walls, three guard towers, a gate, a healing fountain, and a keep. These features are useful, and makes defending them seem more important than defending a lone guard tower. It also makes destroying your enemy’s towns more gratifying.

3) Ease of Entry

As stated before, the learning curve for many MOBAs can be very high. This is due to having an overwhelming number of hero options, and not understanding combinations and “meta-game” strategies walking in to the experience. In fact, it’s a common occurrence for new players to be cussed out, ignored, or generally abused by veteran players of most MOBAs. And this is a shame, as it drives people away from the hobby. It lessens the pool of allies and opponents, and destroys the very thing that keeps so many coming back to this genre: fun. HotS does not have this issue. The abilities are easy to understand, and the tutorial does a good job at teaching basic situational awareness. Also, as the game is not even a week old, it has a very clever tactic for keeping totally new players from being muscled out by those who have played MOBAs before:

4) Team Leveling

This is one of the single most important features I can think of for a MOBA. In LoL and DotA2, individual heroes “level up” (i.e. become more powerful) based on the number of kills they accrue, towers they help destroy, etc. In other words, if you are a new player, you are going to be overpowered quite easily because you do not know the ins and outs of the heroes or the map yet, and will be the easiest target for people looking to blame someone for a loss. However, in HotS, what you do and what your teammates do all pools together so that teams “level up” together. Everyone benefits, and nobody is left behind. This means that heroes will unlock skills at the same rate on the same team. The importance of this is that it means if there is a weak link on a team, it’s because they are not playing their hero very well, not because they’re too weak to contribute.

5) Blizzard and Activision Support

The fact that Blizzard and its parent company Activision have released this game means that they believe in the quality of their product and expect it to stay for the long haul. While Activision does have a reputation now of producing what gamers call “shovel-ware” with yearly releases of the Call of Duty franchise, they have allowed Blizzard enough lee-way to make their own decisions about when a product is done. If you ask any fan what the worst part of Blizzard games are, they’ll tell you it’s the wait. There was an 8 year gap between WarCraft 2 and WarCraft 3, and a 14 year gap between StarCraft 1 and 2. The most common response by Blizzard representatives when asked when the next game would be released was “When it’s done.” The length of development time, however, historically has been good for Blizzard, because this allows them to run a lot of quality control. In this business, reputation is everything these days. If you are wondering if Blizzard believes in the long-term survivability of this product, I would suggest you look at how long World of Warcraft has been running – and running successfully – for your answer.

6) The game is truly free-to-play, and is not pay-to-win like many free-to-play games. I don’t think that much more needs to be said on this point.

7) Battles rarely take more than 20 minutes.

I’ve come to appreciate as I get more and more settled in my career, marriage, and graduate work, that when I do have the opportunity to play a game I need to make the most of it. With more responsibilities on their way, it’s for the best that I play a game that is easily interruptable, or can easily be played in short spurts and still feel satisfying. This is definitely that game for me. Battles rarely take more than 20 minutes, and the gratification of victory or sting of defeat is actually quite satisfying.

The Bad

There’s only one thing I have to say in this regard. The game is truly free-to-play, and is not pay-to-win. However, there is one downright dastardly thing I see with HotS. You have to pay for the characters. There two ways to do this: with acquired in-game gold coins, or with real-world money.

The game starts you off with playing a tutorial as heroic commander Jim Raynor, and by the end of the whole thing, you will have 2,000 coins to your name. You have the option of buying 1 of 4 characters for this price, including Raynor. Currently, Blizzard is running a “Free Heroes of the Week” rotation to allow you to test out some of their heroes and see which ones you might like to save coins/pay money for. However, should they cease this practice, if you bought a character because you liked them in previous games and found out they do not fit your play style, you’re up a creek. All those hard-fought gold coins, straight down the tube. This, to me, is grating. I wouldn’t mind this practice if the heroes were not – on average – $9.99 a piece if you choose to buy them with real money. The other option is fight a lot of battles and save as much as you can for a long time to buy another hero for 4, 7, 10, or 15,000 gold coins. The most coins I’ve ever seen from an individual battle was 10. While there are some daily goals you can complete for a few extra coins (on average, 200 to 300) or 2,000 coin boost for reaching certain player levels, I’m afraid it may take an incredibly fun game and turn it into a grind. I would appreciate some kind of starter kit in which you get 2 or 3 heroes for free, rather than rolling the dice later on if they stop the hero rotation.

While I’m on the topic of their marketplace, some things are not purchasable with gold coins, but are only available using real currency. For example, if you want your decked out space warrior to ride a cyber-wolf instead of a horse, that would cost you $9.99, and there is no pay with gold option. BOOOOO!

The Future

I certainly hope – and anticipate – that Heroes of the Storm is going to be a hit in the MOBA community, and have had nothing but good experiences playing with other people. The game is truly free to play, and genuinely fun. It also explains its mechanics well, and has enough variety to keep you coming back. Despite my grumblings about their market mechanics, much of the marketplace can be ignored. I know I’ll be hopping on from time to time for a quick battle, and I hope to see some of you there!