Polyphony (3)

Even though polyphony was no longer in fashion after the Baroque period, composers seemed to understand that it was the highest form of music. Nearly all composers, as they matured, ventured more and more into contrapuntal writing, taking pleasure in having several voice lines going at the same time, operating independent of each other but obeying the rules of harmony. Counterpoint, it turns out, works in any style and period of music.

As a composer myself, I can bear witness to the magnetic appeal of polyphony. The charm of multiple voices sounding at the same time but independent of one another is hard to resist. No composer worth his salt has avoided it for very long.

Polyphony (2)

I interrupted my discussion of polyphony, sometimes called counterpoint, to meditate on my birthday. I now return to the subject of multiple-melody music.

About the fugue, the most complex and sophisticated polyphonic musical form ever devised by man: Composers have varied the form of the fugue. Bach himself showed how much variety could be introduced into the form in his The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das wohltemperierte Klavier in German), two sets of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys for keyboard (a total of 48 different pieces). In Bach’s day, clavier meant “keyboard” and referred to a variety of instruments including the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. So the collection’s title clearly indicates that the pieces were intended to be for keyboard soloists.

By the time Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived on the scene in 1756, the Baroque period had come to an end, and the Classical period had begun. The tastes of listeners had changed. They wanted a clear melody with accompaniment rather than polyphony but demanded greater complexity in the total musical form. The sonata form resulted. Far more complex than any musical form before the Classical period, the sonata consists of three parts, the exposition, development, and recapitulation. Composers of the Classical period (Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven) typically used the form this way: the exposition laid out two themes, one in the tonic (the key of the piece) and one in the dominant (five tones higher than the tonic). The development offered variations on the tonic theme and sometimes on the dominant theme as well. And the recapitulation restated both themes, this time entirely in the tonic key. Often, the composer offered a coda at the very end.

More next time.

My Birthday (3)

Continuing my dissertation on my eighty-fifth birthday: Despite my age, I’m very active. November has been an unusually busy month for me. The first half was filled with presentations (I did my fall of Saigon presentation twice), a parade, several gatherings of veterans to celebrate Veterans Day, a television interview (you can view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FcNLFQovys), and related celebrations. The second half is filled with personal and family festivities. Three of my four children and their families came to visit last Saturday, and Tuesday, on my birthday, a friend and his family came to celebrate with me.

The end result is that November has been a time when my regular, every-other-day workout schedule was regularly interrupted. But I’ll get back to it starting today. Oddly, I have no plans for Thanksgiving Day or the day after. I can finally rest up and return to my routine.

So being old is irrelevant. I don’t have time to slow down. Too much to be done. And I’m enjoying every minute.

My Birthday (2)

In response to my post of yesterday about my birthday, several readers asked if I live alone and what kind of help I depend on. The answer is, yes, I live by myself and rely on no one but myself. I do my own grocery shopping, do my own cooking, and pay my own bills. I live in a medium-size split-level house which I take care of myself, cleaning as needed and doing my own laundry.

I bought this house several years ago because it is so well suited to the way I want and need to live. I have no lawn to care for. The only outside work is pruning overgrown bushes along the walkways several times a year. The beautiful grounds around the house are owned and managed by by the Columbia Association. Inside, cleaning is easy because the only person messing up the house is me. The biggest job I have is keeping my round, white marble dining room table orderly. It invariably gets strewn with newspapers, books, pads, pencils and pens, reading glasses, a wine glass, a bottle of wine, and bowls of popcorn, crackers, and nuts. When company is coming, I have to clear it all off and put everything away.

I spend most of my time in my office on the lowest floor of the split level. It is in the central room which runs the length of the house and is taken up with my u-shaped desk. I sit between the two sides of the desk with my computer on one side and a small writing slope podium (that is, a writing desk) on the other. The walls are covered with book shelves. I make little attempt to keep the clutter under control. I want everything within reach.

One of my favorite spots in the house is my upholstered reading chair close to the gas fireplace in my sun room, adjacent to the deck that runs most the length of the house looking north over a pond surrounded by trees. Since I read so much—partly because I am always reviewing books but also just for pleasure—that chair gets well used.

More next time.

More next time.

My Birthday

Today is my birthday. I turn 85. In 2019, the most recent year for which figures are available, the average life expectancy for American men was 76.3 years. So I’m already past the expected limits. And I’m in perfect health.

Today is also the first day this autumn when temperatures started solidly below freezing. It is currently 29 degrees in Columbia, Maryland where I live. We can speculate on whether there is a causal relation between my birth date and the freezing temperature.

Meanwhile, I claim credit for my healthiness. As noted here in earlier posts, I lift weights for more than two hours every other day, I watch my diet, stressing low-calorie healthy food (mostly vegetables and fruits), and I sleep more than most people, including a nap every afternoon. And my mind stays active with reading and writing. In addition to this blog, I regularly write book reviews and work on my own books. I now have six books and 17 short stories in print with more to come.

But I have to recognize my good luck, too. Because of a generous retirement, I don’t need to exhaust myself with work to earn enough money to survive. Granted, I had to work very hard and at times put my life on the line for my country to be eligible for that annuity. I didn’t do any of that to earn money. I did it out of love of others and love of country. But many people, both men and women, worked as hard as I did and ran risks equal to mine, but they didn’t end up free of money worries. I am truly fortunate. And because I don’t have to earn a living, I can spend full time writing.

So here I am, the most fortunate of men, living as I choose to live in a beautiful house in a magnificent city (Columbia, Maryland), enjoying life to the hilt. I know no one with better luck than me.


As I have noted here before, one of my attempts to escape my fate as a writer—I knew at age six I was born to write—was to compose music. As child, I taught myself to play the piano and read music and learned to write down the music I heard going through my head. I ended up composing many pieces, especially for chorus and folk group when I was music director in various churches. My first college degree, a BA, was in music.

Through it all, I found myself drawn to polyphony, sometimes called counterpoint, which means more than one vocal line going at the same time. Traditionally, melody lines were called vocal lines and thought of as fitting a voice range, that is, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. When more than one vocal line is going at once, the coincidence of tones must fit the rules of harmony. That means deciding whether the musical piece is conventional harmony (in a major or minor key) or if it is modal. There are basically seven modes, each a scale beginning on one of the white keys on modern pianos, called Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The Ionian is the same as the modern major scale, and the Aeolian is the minor scale.

By 1600, with the arrival of the Baroque period of music, composers, players, and listeners had settled on the major and minor scales that we know today as the standard for all music. And harmony emphasized the third (two tones three steps apart sounded simultaneously) and the triad (a chord consisting of three tones a third apart) as the most pleasing. The result was that composers writing more than one melody to be sounded at the same time had to follow the rules of what was harmonically pleasing.

All that led to the fugue, arguably the highest musical form ever invented. In its classic form, as used by Johann Sebastian Bach, probably the greatest composer who ever lived, it uses the four vocal lines (soprano, also, tenor, bass). It starts with a single voice, often the alto, stating a melody. Two or three measure in, another voice repeats the melody, usually starting a fifth above or below the first voice which continues the melody. The remaining two voices enter stating the melody from the beginning, starting on the first or fifth note of the scale.

More next time

Disorder or Injury? (2)

I ended yesterday’s blog post with the sentence: “Sometimes the unbearable memories are so bad that death is preferable to continuous suffering.” In other words, suicide. I know what it feels like to be in such pain from battlefield memories that I don’t see how I can go on living. I choose to bear the pain and try to live life to the fullest. But not all veterans do. In 2019, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, the suicide rate among veterans was 31.6 per 100,000, substantially higher than the rate among non-veteran U.S. adults (16.8 per 100,000). And one study found that at least four times as many active-duty personnel and war veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have died of suicide than have died in combat—an estimated 30,177 have died by suicide as compared with the 7,057 killed in post-9/11 war operations.

So the wounds to the soul inflicted by combat are real and dangerous. PTSI can be a killer. I urge all readers who know anyone suffering from PTSI to show interest and sympathy and to encourage the sufferer to share his memories. By opening up to you, the victim of the disease will face his or her memories and begin to come to terms with them.

That could mean a life saved.

Disorder or Injury?

A reader of my recent blog posts asks why I refer to the malady that results from witnessing or participating in the wounding and death of soldiers as Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and not Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn’t invent the PTSI version of the term. I don’t know who did, but it’s been around for a good many years. I prefer “injury” to “disorder” because I experience the malady as a wound to the soul inflicted by seeing violent death close at hand. That is to say, PTSI is not a disease resulting from the internal problem of the mind going awry; it is an externally inflicted wound.

I have written extensively about the disorder in this blog. Below I quote from a 2018 post on the subject:

“PTSI has a long and inglorious history. The ancient Greeks called it ‘divine madness.’ During and after the U.S. Civil War, the term was ‘Solder’s heart.’ In World War I, it was called ‘shell shock;’ in World War II, ‘combat fatigue;’ and these days the usage favored is ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).’ I call it an injury rather than a disorder because it is the result of an externally inflicted wound to the soul.

“Those who suffer from PTSI are sometime accused of cowardice and weakness. That adds insult to ignorance. Only the brave weather combat, and only the healthy respond with horror to the devastation of the battlefield. The unenlightened about the malady believe that those affected by their combat experience are a danger to others—they are prone to violence. That’s foolishness. The only danger PTSI sufferers pose is to themselves. Sometimes the unbearable memories are so bad that death is preferable to continuous suffering.

More next time.

What Battlefield? (2)

The worst aftermath of my time on the battlefield came in April 1975 when Saigon fell. The helicopter I escaped on after the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city took so much lead that I thought we were going down. But we made it. Once aboard a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea, I realized how sick I was. Two communicators and I had been holed up in our communications center at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, while the North Vietnamese besieged the city. For nearly a week, we were isolated there with almost nothing to eat. We weren’t able to sleep because the North Vietnamese regularly shelled the area, first with rockets, later with artillery. When I got back to the states, I was diagnosed with pneumonia due to muscle fatigue, sleep deprivation, and inadequate diet; amoebic dysentery; and ear damage from the shelling. I still wear hearing aids.

But the worst was the Post-Traumatic Stress In jury (PTSI). I was subject to panic attacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and flashbacks. Because I had top secret codeword plus clearances, I was not allowed to go to a psychotherapist. I had to cope with the disease on my own. And PTSI never goes away. I had to learn to live with it. That meant confronting my memories, forcing myself to relive them, and accepting them as a part of who I am.

To face and come to terms with my memories, I wrote them down. That led to writing books as a way to vent my soul. As a result, I now have six books and seventeen short stories in print, most of them about war and combat or the consequences of surviving on the battlefield.

My most popular book is Last of the Annamese, a novel set during the fall of Saigon. Although the book is fiction, every event described is real and actually happened. I fictionalized the various disasters I faced by attributing experiencing them to fictional characters.

Writing the book helped. I’m better able to live at peace now that I have portrayed to public view what I went through.

But I’m not done yet. I have at least two more books waiting to be written. My work is cut out for me.

What Battlefield?

In yesterday’s post on aloneness, I mentioned supporting troops on the battlefield. That led one reader to ask what battlefield and what did I do. I’ve written about that subject here before, but I’ll risk repeating myself to answer the question.

The battlefields I can talk about are those in Vietnam. But after the fall of Saigon in 1975, I went on assisting troops elsewhere in the world until I retired in 1991. Where and who is still classified, so I can’t discuss it. What’s not classified is the seven languages I was comfortable in: Vietnamese, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Latin. One is free to speculate on where and with whom I might have used those languages.

What I did during combat on the battlefield was to assist friendly troops with signals intelligence against the enemy. That meant using information derived from the intercept and exploitation of the enemy’s radio communications to advise the friendlies on where the enemy was, what he was doing, what his troop strength and weaponry were, and what his plans were.

To do my job, I had to be on the battlefield in the middle of combat. I spent more time on the battlefields of Vietnam than I did anywhere else in the world simply because I was in Vietnam so long—between 1962 and 1975, when Saigon fell and I escaped under fire, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. The miracle is that I was never wounded in combat, even though men next to me were killed in ways too ghastly to describe. I ended up with a roaring case of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) that I will have to contend with as long as I live.

More next time.