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Book Commentary/Review – STANCE OF WONDER by Mark Rodell March 24, 2013

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, climbing, Mark Rodell, novels, Stance of Wonder, Thailand, Yosemite.
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Stance of Wonder by Mark Rodell is an engaging novel that tells the fictional biography of virtuoso climber Conrad Flowers. The book delivers authentic detail surrounding various climbing adventures reflecting Rodell’s own experiences and intimate knowledge of climbing. But like any good novel, Stance of Wonder is about more than climbing. It is about fascinating characters and their intertwined lives, and about ideas that provoke consideration of larger themes.

We meet Conrad Flowers in adolescence during the 1960s as he faces the consequences of losing his parents in a climbing accident. He joins his eccentric uncle in the mountains of eastern California where he comes of age moving back and forth between Bishop and Yosemite. He hones his climbing skills in Yosemite, building a reputation, and building friendships with a cast of characters whose stories also resonate with quirky details. This cast includes the ballerina from San Francisco, with a Bolivian father and Russian mother, who comes to Yosemite and falls in love with climbing. Rodell draws us into these characters, and has us wondering how they will come together, suspecting we will follow them into young adulthood and see how they will mature from their colorful teen backgrounds. But Stance of Wonder does not stay on that predictable course. Because successful novels are also about plot.

About two-thirds of the way through, Stance of Wonder takes off in a totally unanticipated direction. Conrad Flowers finds himself assaulted with a catastrophe that threatens to destroy the essence of who he is. At first he seems to succumb to the terrible blow life has dealt him. But from the verge of imminent death, with an apathetic Flowers far from the mountains he loves to climb, sinking into reckless self-destruction, he emerges with his core intact. Stance of Wonder then shifts back to where we suspected we were going in the first place, but taking us on a ride we had not anticipated. Conrad Flowers’ life concludes in the only way possible for this character, but with an ending satisfying for its eccentric flourishes and exotic setting.

There is an element of understatement, of sublime subtlety in Rodell’s style of narrative and story-telling that brings extra intensity and power to the events and internal lives of the characters. Rodell illuminates the Conrad Flowers character through the eyes of a narrator telling his fictional biography. Rodell also uses fictional journal entries and letters to delve deeper into the internal insights of the characters. Stance of Wonder will appeal to readers who like a good story dealing with life’s detours and the struggle to overcome the consequences those detours create. And climbing enthusiasts should have a hard time putting it down!

Full disclosure: Mark Rodell was a close high school friend of mine, but a friend I lost contact with for nearly forty years as our lives spun off in completely different directions. Through the connective power of the internet, we recently reestablished contact, though Mark lives over 8,000 miles away from me in Thailand. As Mark pointed out during our recent exchanges, we both ended up embracing writing—we apparently shared a common connection with this form of expression though neither of us hinted at this during our high school friendship. I am genuinely thrilled to spread the word about Stance of Wonder—though he is my friend, I would not write so glowingly about his writing if I did not mean every word.


Amazon link to the paperback edition:


Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part II November 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Andrew Shahriari, Bali, Balinese, book review, books, ethnomusicology, gamelan music, Indonesia, Java, music, Southeast Asia, Terry E. Miller, Thailand, Vietnam, world music.
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I indicated that my final blog post on this subject would be about Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, a discussion of tonality and the nature of music. We will get there, but after a ten-part detour into commentaries on the book World Music: A Global Journey by Terry E. Miller and Andrew Shahriari. This is a logical detour after absorbing Bruno Nettl’s information about ethnomusicology. I will do individual blog posts about each of the areas covered in the book, focusing mainly on the musical examples provided. I will first comment on general observations about the area and the selections provided. I will then post specific notes on each individual selection. These comments are not intended in any way to be definitive exhaustive examinations of the types of music discussed. They are just my comments on the musical examples provided in the context of my discussion of music, physics and metaphysics. (Also, this study will contribute to the new music I am in the process of creating, an effort to meld many international styles together. This is not some politically correct effort to create a global music for humanity. It is simply my fascination, as a composer/music creator, with all the different sorts of musical approaches available to humans. Technology allows me to explore this fascination and create based on it.)

Previous posts from World Music: A Global Journey
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part I

Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Northeast Thailand, Indonesia (Java and Bali) 

General Comments: I think other cultures can offer “Western” music (my own culture’s music) a lot of ideas when it comes to timbre. We have been steeped in the “Western” symphony orchestra for so long that we have become accustomed to a narrow set of timbres.  Popular music has expanded this; electronics even more. But there is so much more to explore. Pentatonic scales crop up over and over again in most cultures and are evident in a lot of this music. (Let’s face it; pentatonic scales are almost a cliché of what we think of when we hear “Oriental” music, though the scales are everywhere.)  But Gamelan music? Throw out conventional pentatonics for this stuff. It is easy to see why “Western” composers for over a century have been going to this well to expand musical visions.

CD 1, Track 9 from World Music: A Global Journey
Vietnam: Central Highlands Bronze Gong Ensemble
A clanging chorus of metallic instruments with a clear pulse and with a simple melodic motif characterizes this music. It is the sounds and timbres that make this music distinctive. The only scale notes I discerned were the first five notes of the major scale. My ears heard a tonal center but with the emphasis on a cadence from 5 to 4 to 3.

CD 1, Track 10 from World Music: A Global Journey
Vietnam: Nhac Tai Tu Amateur Chamber Music
A number of string instruments, plucked and bowed, move up and down in pentatonic scales, revolving around a clear I and V. The “bowed lute” slides through pitches, though staying with the notes of the scale as primary. Pitch bends are also used on the “plucked lute” and the “plucked zither.” A subtle percussion instrument, a click-sounding instrument, like a finger snap, or a tongue against the roof of the mouth, signals phrases. The rhythm is well-defined, and the notes played by the strings are on and off the beat, giving the music an energetic, syncopated feel.

CD 1, Track 11 from World Music: A Global Journey
Thailand: Classical Piphat Music
Xylophones pound out a steady patter of notes in rhythm while a thin, reedy sound gives us a pentatonic scale line over this setting. The xylophones migrate through clusters based on the scale. I read in World Music: A Global Journey that some of this music is based on the octave subdivided differently than seven tones between the octave. (A major pentatonic scale is formed by the elimination of the 4th and 7th tones of the major scale.) My ears hear a conventional pentatonic scale, with changes in what note of the scale the music revolves around. But the exotic, possibly “out of tune” sound implied in an octave subdivided differently is not evident to me here. This music speeds up as we go, then slows suddenly to a cadence, followed by a short coda. It is not far from the feel of a Scottish or Irish fiddle ditty.

CD 1, Track 12 from World Music: A Global Journey
Thailand: Lam Klawn Repartee Singing
The khaen (a “free-reed aerophone”) sounds like it could be at home playing Cajun music in New Orleans! The khaen gives us a rhythmic and harmonic underpinning, sliding through clusters on a pentatonic scale, moving focus from I to V (but with a very clear I delineated).  The vocalist sings phrases in the scale, with turns, and with the singing almost evolving to spoken word in places.

CD 1, Track 13 from World Music: A Global Journey|
Thailand (Northeast): Luk Thung Popular Song
This is a pop song in a minor key, Thai sounds clearly “Westernized” with a bass and drums rhythm section. Over this are Thai vocal stylings and Thai instruments. It is the bass/drums rhythm section, providing a clear 4/4 time-signature, and a clear i, iv, v chord progression (occasional III adds in) that gives the song its “Western” feel. There is even a cheesy synth- sounding solo at the end.

CD 1, Track 14 from World Music: A Global Journey
Indonesia: Javanese Court Gamelan
Different levels of metallic percussion sounds (maybe a few not metallic) build a basic tonal center, but the center shifts, often ambiguous. We have notes sounding to my “Western” perspective as if they are in a “minor” key. But the bottom notes, slower moving, in the lower pitched metallic instruments, change pitches, sometimes along the flat 6th of that minor tonality, and staying there long enough to cause me to wonder where we are tonally. There are layers of rhythm that give this music its unusual (to “Western” ears) sound. There are certainly melodic ideas to pick out, but not melody and harmony in phrases as we are used to hearing them. And it is the multitude of timbres, correctly described in the book as collectively making a “shimmering” sound that set this music apart.

CD 1, Track 15 from World Music: A Global Journey
Indonesia: Balinese Gamelan Gong Kebyar
This is a quicker paced selection that starts and stops, bringing a frenetic “shimmer” in the upper notes when it is moving. I hear roughly a major scale idea here, with a lot of cadences on the 7th. Pentatonic scales avoid the tritone. Not this piece! There are many melodic moves back and forth from the 4-5-4-5 them to 7, and sitting on 7, that give us that feel.

Personal Compositional Note: I can see many possibilities for the “shimmer” idea presented by this music. Harnessed within harmonic and melodic structures familiar to cross-cultural ears, this music presents a plethora of possibilities. The bell sounds are easily sampled and/or produced on synthesizers and samplers. And the metallic quality of the tones also creates some imprecision when rendering pitches. This is another contributor to the exotic nature of this music. This allows the modern music creator a chance to juxtapose many varied tones in the “shimmer” effects mentioned above. That 4-5-4-5 to 7 move mentioned in the last piece also could lead to something. I do expect to use characteristics of this music in my upcoming new music.

The next post will move to East Asia.

Previous posts on this topic:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain

Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr

Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker

Measured Tones by Ian Johnston

Exploring Music by Charles Taylor

Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, edited by John Fauvel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson

Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Joscelyn Godwin

The Study of Ethnomusicology by Bruno Nettl