don't usually like to start celebrating Christmas too early. Certainly not before Thanksgiving -- it's almost an insult to the First Thanksgiving's Pilgrims and Native Americans, neither of whom, for their different reasons, believed in celebrating Christmas at all. And, really, even the day after Thanksgiving seems a rush that we could do without. Strictly-strictly speaking, "Christmas" isn't even celebrated until December 25, and for the 12 days that follow. And Advent (the season before Christmas) begins today, on December 3.
One nod to the holidays, however, was to move all my Christmas music from my PC over to my iPod. With my old 40GB iPod, I didn't have enough room for all my music, so I would have to pick and choose which genres to keep on the iPod, usually leaving the Christmas stuff off all year until December, when I'd swap out the classical stuff (5.83GB right there) for the Christmas stuff.
With the 60GB iPod I got this summer, however, I can just barely get everything on there. I know -- does anyone really need 60 gigs' worth of music? And there are admittedly some things on there I either rarely listen to or haven't gotten around to. In fact, I have a playlist I created called "Due for a listen." And, now that I check, I still have 15.8 days worth of music that iTunes says I haven't listened to yet.
Which isn't actually true. Many of those titles are songs that I just haven't listened to on either this iPod or on this PC (both of which are only a few months old at this point). Since I just added the Christmas music to the iPod, for example, that alone accounts for 2.9 days' worth of the "Due for a listen."
Yep. I have 2.9 days -- 1226 items, or 4.59GB -- of music in the genre "Christmas." Much of it came in originally with the genre of "Holiday," but some didn't, and I use the genres so much in my "smart playlists" that I have to make sure they're accurate at least insofar as my own listening is concerned.
Using the "comments" field of each song's tags (in Windows, right-click on a highlighted track or tracks and choose "Get info"), I've broken much of that down even further. For example, I have 17 hours' worth in the "Christmas-Traditional" playlist (Genre contains "Christmas"; Comment contains "traditional"; Comment does not contain "weird").
That playlist covers everything from the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble "Festival of Carols in Brass" and the Julie Andrews/André Previn album (originally a Firestone Tire release!) to things by John Tavener, Herbert Howells, and stuff sung by Chanticleer. Oh, and a Shirley Bassey singing "Ave Maria" is in there, too.
I would have expected more in this vein from my collection, but surprisingly, it's not the Christmas playlist with the most titles. That distinction goes to the playlist "Christmas-Pop," which has a full day's worth of all the Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., The Roches and Sarah McLachlan stuff. So it covers a wide swath, and there's obviously some overlap with both jazz -- Diana Krall shows up in both -- and traditional: the Henry Mancini Orchestra's medley of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Away in a Manger," and "The First Noel" is pretty traditional -- but in a 60s, easy-listenin' way. So for some reason I left him out of "traditional" but put Shirley Bassey in. Go figure.
The "Christmas-Jazz" playlist has 14.2 hours of tunes in it, but in addition to a few overlaps with "Christmas-Pop," there are also a few overlaps here with "Christmas-Piano," such as George Shearing and Liz Story.
Actually, the "Christmas-Piano" playlist is made up almost entirely of cross-listings with either "jazz" or "new age" or both -- all 9.2 hours of it.
And speaking of Liz Story, she may be the most represented on any of my Christmas playlists, which is probably appropriate, because her album The Gift is one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums. Not only does she do some thought-provoking medleys, pairing up carols and hymns that one doesn't hear often recorded ("Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella" and "Il Est Ne, le Divin Enfant"), she even includes some that I've never associated with Christmas at all -- but it works. "Pange Lingua," which I usually think of as a Maundy Thursday hymn, is paired with "A Hymn to the Virgin"; or "The Truth from Above" combined with something she calls "O King of Light and Splendor," which I've only ever heard as "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," a classic Good Friday hymn, but the same tune is apparently used by Bach in his Christmas Oratorio (and again in his St. Matthew Passion).
They're all good, but the best track on that album, in my opinion, is the medley of "In the Bleak Midwinter/O Sanctissima." I have the sheet music for this; someday, I'll take the time to learn it.
As I said, this album The Gift is on several of my Christmas playlists, because it crosses genres, but among those genres I have to admit includes "Christmas-New Age." I hesitate to even mention this playlist (although I do have, uh, 13.5 hours' worth of Christmas music in this category). And some is definitely better than others, but it's almost all from Windham Hill, almost all acoustic, and includes, other than Liz Story, people like George Winston, Alex De Grassi and William Ackerman. So not a Mannheim Steamroller number in the bunch. So get off my back.
Except to hear a few of these tracks here on the computer while I wrote this, I haven't yet played the Christmas music on the iPod yet. I'm just not in the mood yet this year, and not sure how much of a Christmas mood I'll be in this year anyway.
I'm taking a few days of retreat up at a convent north of New York City this week, just to clear the head. I'll take the iPod with me, but we'll see. I imagine the convent is all "decked out" for Advent -- meaning, not at all festive, since it isn't yet Christmas -- so I doubt there will be much inclination to listen to holly and jolly for a little while yet, anyway.
But thanks to iTunes's "smart playlists" and the obsessive-compulsive tendencies they enable and nurture in some of us, I'm ready, just in case that holiday spirit does hit.
From my church's "Artistic Heritage" brochure: "Tower Bells: Given in memory of Mark Thomas Cox and Emily Maria Cox by their daughter, Susan Alfreda Cox, in 1933. The twelve bells, made in Loughborough, England, range from middle C to the second E above the diatonic scale of C, also the raised fourth and flat seventh (F# and B-flat). The memorial tablet in the vestibule for the tower bells was designed by Ruth Brooks."
The Bells in My Head
kay, so that was weird.
I had to get to church early to play the bells last Sunday. It was my first time, actually: the bells are up in the tower, but you play them from one of the ranks on the organ, and we have a small group who volunteer to play two verses of three or four hymns on the bells before the service as people are coming in.
I had gone through my first hymn, and my friend Ned was standing next to me at the organ console giving me encouragement and explaining which switches go on or off before and after, and I get through the second hymn, and it's on the third hymn -- which is the toughest, and I have to transpose it down a key to play on the very limited scale available with our bells -- when I hear Ned whisper, "Oh, my gosh!" I thought I'd done something wrong.
"What??" I say, as I'm playing the hymn "Crown Him With Many Crowns" (we'd be singing it in a few minutes, as one of those traditionally sung on the last Sunday before Advent, sometimes known as the Feast of Christ the King).
"There's a guy who just came up to the altar," he said. I glance quickly to my right and see some young guy in the chancel start to kneel down in front of our communion altar. "I can't really look," I said, "or I'll flub this."
"He's...he's taking off his shirt!" Ned said. So I glanced again to my right, on a whole note, which I could hold a bit longer than even was warranted. And sure enough, he was.
My peripheral vision isn't great with my glasses on, but I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was arching his back with his hands extended, in something like a cross between Alvin Ailey and a yoga move. "This is so bizarre," Ned said.
We're both whispering, of course, but we could probably haved spoken in normal tones of voice at this point and no one would be paying attention to what we were saying -- or to my bell-playing, for that matter.
I gave a quick glance again as I ended the first verse. "He's in remarkably good shape for a crazy person," I observed.
As I started the second verse, I saw one of the assistant sextons come up to the front and approach the man -- not aggressively (we used to have a sexton, who was a wonderful old Haitian guy, who would bodily and forcibly grab and remove disruptive crazy people -- which happens more often than you'd think, even for a church in Greenwich Village in New York City) -- but definitely in a careful way; he may have thought the guy might have a gun or a knife on him, which was perfectly possible.
The guy put his shirt back on and the assistant sexton led him back down the aisle and out of my peripheral view. Apparently, he left the building about as quickly as he had rushed in, and the rector saw him just a few minutes later, headed back up Fifth Avenue, possibly to pull the same stunt at First Presbyterian next door. You never know.
That was my last hymn. Our organist and choirmaster showed up to play the prelude just as I was shutting things down, but he hadn't seen any of the commotion, so we told him. I think he was sorry he'd missed it.
Of course this would happen on my debut on the bells, which is probably the largest audience for which I've ever played keyboards (if you consider the neighborhood that's in earshot), and especially on a hymn (with accidentals, no less) that I was transposing.
The rector, who was standing at the door greeting people as the guy rushed in and was again rushed out, seemed to think, and he's probably right, that the guy was at the end of a long, all-night crystal meth bender, and probably out of his mind. He said he had the jerky walk and mannerisms associated with people he'd seen on speed or maybe acid. (Our rector came of age in the 60s.) While I myself can say the guy was maybe "tweaked out on tina," the truth is, I am so ignorant of drugs and drug culture, I only know lines like that from watching Queer as Folk when it was on Showtime.
When I told my dad on the phone about my bell debut later that evening, I told him that the rector thought the guy probably was on drugs. "Yeah," my dad said, "or else needed to be." Which could also be true. Funny how that brain chemistry stuff works.