Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at http://abneypark.com/market/

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Paint Your Wagon

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how my parents loved Westerns on television and at the movies. I’ve also discussed how the classic show The Wild Wild West taught me there was a type of western that I could fall in love with to. However, I may not have been open to even trying The Wild Wild West if it weren’t for another show, and that’s the 1970 movie of Paint Your Wagon starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw the movie, but I was in elementary school and I know my family had recently traveled through Gold Rush country in Northern California. I had been captivated by the forests and mountains of Northern California and this movie captured that and told a story that made me laugh as well. I even enjoyed many of the songs, especially Lee Marvin’s rendition of “Wandrin’ Star” which has always felt like something of an anthem in my own life. The movie Paint Your Wagon doesn’t get a lot of love from musical fans. Now, I’m not one of those people who says that singing should be left to professionals. I think music belongs to everyone and we work a little too hard to keep it away from people who just want to sing on their own and lift their spirits. Even so, I have to admit, Clint Eastwood’s rendition of “I Talk to the Trees” can be a challenge to listen to. The movie was also an almost complete rewrite of the original Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical. Many new songs were written by Alan Jay Lerner and the music was largely re-scoured by Andre Previn.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to play the part of Angus in Lerner and Lowe’s Brigadoon. I had great fun, but thought it would be fun to see my school stage Paint Your Wagon. After all, we went to a mining school and it was a musical about miners. One of the themes of the story is about how few women there are in the camp, an issue we shared on campus back in the day. Never mind that the musical features a very male-heavy cast and even at a campus with a large male to female ratio, it was a challenge to get enough male science students out to try out for parts in any musical. Still, that’s about the point when I first got really curious what the Broadway musical was like and how it differed from the movie.

A couple of years later, I found a CD of the original musical’s soundtrack. It included many familiar songs plus several I hadn’t heard before. I gathered Ben Rumson had a daughter in the musical, which he didn’t in the movie. Also, she was in love with a Latino miner who didn’t appear in the movie. The album from the 50’s was truncated just enough for it to be difficult to glean the musical’s entire plot.

A few weeks ago, I learned about a revival of the musical performed in New York in 2015 starring Keith Carradine. What’s more, I discovered they released a more complete and higher fidelity soundtrack than the original from 1952. So, I gave it a try. There were more songs and I got a better sense of the musical. Over the years I’d learned the musical isn’t performed very often. That said, I did decide to see if the script was available. It turns out Alan Jay Lerner published the book with the script in 1952 and I was able to find a good used copy on line.

I can see why the musical never quite achieved the “classic” status other Lerner and Lowe musicals such as Brigadoon, Camelot, or My Fair Lady. It’s a pretty straight-ahead tale of the rise and fall of a mining camp. Jennifer Rumson falls in love with Julio Valveras on first sight. They only get about one scene and a partial of another scene in the first act. He’s gone for most of the second act as well. It’s not exactly a romance for the ages. We also have a plot about Jennifer’s dad, Ben, marrying a Mormon woman. That part was largely preserved in the movie. Still, I could see it being fun to see and perform, even if it isn’t one of the great musicals.

What really struck me was that certain parts of the musical echoed themes I’ve explored in my own work. The story of miners in a new land echoes themes in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There’s a great line about being Latino in America during the 1800s that echoes themes I explore in my Clockwork Legion novels. Julio says, “One time all this was part of Mexico. I’m a citizen. Suddenly a few years ago they start fighting in some place called Texas. I’m a foreigner.”

You can help support this blog and my rewrite of The Pirates of Sufiro by donating at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers

Back in March, I shared a post about an animated space western I remember fondly called BraveStarr about a Native American marshal on the frontier world of New Texas and the band of desperadoes he had to cope with. Responding to that post, Deby Fredericks recommended another animated space western from about the same time called Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. I finally had a chance to watch a few episodes and I found it to be an interesting, albeit different take on the space western.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers is set in 2086, a century after the show’s production. The galaxy is ruled by an authoritarian regime called the Crown. However, a handful of planets have united against the Crown and have asked Earth to help them fight for freedom, in exchange, the planets united against the Crown have given humans hyperdrive technology. The human armed forces are the Bureau of Extra-Terrestrial Affairs (or BETA). The Galaxy Rangers are an elite corps of BETA operatives. Each of the four Galaxy Rangers have bionic implants that give them superhuman abilities.

The team leader is Zachary Foxx, voiced by Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach. His implant gives him super strength and he can fire energy beams from his arm. Shane Goosman, or simply “Goose,” is modeled on Clint Eastwood. His implant allows him to adapt to dangerous conditions. Niko has some limited psychic abilities and her implants enhance that ability. She also has a limited ability to “communicate” with machines. Walter “Doc” Hartford rounds out the Galaxy Rangers. His implants give him direct control with numerous mobile AIs who can interact with computers and gather information.

Whereas BraveStarr was a literal western set in space, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers reminds me more of Joss Whedon’s show Firefly, where there is a lot of high tech, but frontier worlds are primitive and look like the old west simply because of limited supplies. There are considerable numbers of alien races and factions including criminal gangs and space pirates. The show is best when it creates a serious situation for one or more of the rangers to deal with and lets them solve the problems posed by the situation.

It seems like it took a few episodes for the writers to hit their stride and find a good storytelling formula. Early episodes in particular seemed to break out of action and give us some “cartoon humor” such as when a space pirate captain does a spit take and his minion pops an umbrella out his headgear to keep from getting drenched. It’s cute but it does pull you out of the action and doesn’t really fit the tone of the series as it ultimately developed.

One interesting aspect of the series is that it’s an early collaboration between an American production company and a Japanese animation studio. This kind of collaboration would pave the way for some truly great series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The animation studio is the same one that would go on to create the groundbreaking Akira. As a result, the series has something of an anime feel. What’s more, the voice director was Peter Fernandez who voiced the American dub of Speed Racer. Corinne Orr who voiced Trixie in Speed Racer voices the Queen of the Crown in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.

What is odd is to realize that BraveStarr and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers both came out within a year of each other in the mid 1980s. It’s hard to say what drove the interest in animated space westerns. The only thing I can see is the release of both Silverado and Pale Rider in 1985, which revived an interest in westerns generally, but I can’t remember either film having a strong appeal with young people at the time. Galaxy Rangers also clearly takes a lot of influence from Star Wars. Some ships resemble X-wing fighters. A space pirate has a laser sword and a village of primitives resembles the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi.

Even though BraveStarr was the show that influenced me when I first wrote my novel The Pirates of Sufiro some 25 years ago, I strove to make the space western elements more realistic as they are in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. However, my science fiction influences were shows like Star Trek and Star Blazers along with the writing of authors like Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. One thing that causes Galaxy Rangers to show its age is the very 1980s power ballad soundtrack. I was more influenced by the Texas blues of ZZ Top when I wrote Pirates.

Like BraveStarr, I’m hard pressed to recommend binge watching the entirety of Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers in one go, but if you like space westerns, watching at least a few is a fun way to spend an evening or two. If you want to help me revise The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary, sign on at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Owl Riders in the Sky

While driving up to Kitt Peak National Observatory late on Saturday night, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the great Stan Jones song, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” cycled on my mp3 player. To my mind, the song is a great example of a weird western expressed in music. It tells the story of an old cowhand who rides out on a dark and dusty day and encounters the devil’s own herd being chased by a phantom cowboys.

As I listened, I found myself substituting some images from my own Clockwork Legion novels. In fact, the title of the fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, is kind of an homage to the spooky feelings evoked by the “Ghost Riders.” Different cultures in the southwest often see the appearance of owls as bad omens. As portrayed in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me Ultima, owls are sometimes seen as the familiars of witches. In my novel, the owls themselves are ornithopters, which are craft that fly by flapping their wings. The owl riders of the title are the pilots of these craft. It struck me that with a few tweaks, the song goes from being more of a horror-flavored weird western to more of a science fictional weird western or even a steampunk song.

I don’t feel I can share the full song as I envisioned it since that would include some verbatim lyrics from the original. While it’s part of a discussion of the song and could arguably be “fair use,” quoting complete lines would be a substantial part of the song itself, like quoting an entire chapter from a novel. It’s not my intention to cut into sales of the song. In fact, if you don’t already own a copy of the song, I strongly recommend buying a legal download or a CD of one of the many fine versions. What’s more the lyrics are easily available on the web. Still, I thought it would be fun to describe the song in my revised version and share a few of the altered lyrics.

In the original song, a cowpoke rides out on a stormy day. In my version one of the owl riders is named Billy McCarty and I imagine that he’s a version of Billy the Kid who was diverted off the path to become the infamous outlaw and becomes a hero instead. I could imagine that the cowpoke in my version is one of Billy’s associates who takes shelter to get some rest. He looks up in the sky, “When all at once a parliament of steel-eyed owls he saw.”

As they travel through the clouds, he gets a good look: “Exhaust pipes breathing fire and their talons made of steel. Their beaks were black and shiny and their hot wake he could feel.” Our cowhand shudders as he hears his old friend Billy shout out, “owl riders in the sky!”

Billy’s old friend then sees the determined looks on the riders’ faces. Unlike the original song, these are not desperate men who never hope to reach the end of their quest. These are men and women on the quest for justice. It’s possible it will never end, but the next bad guy they catch makes the world just a little better. It’s at this point that Billy turns to his old companion and warns him to change his ways, otherwise the owl riders will come or him next.

Songs rarely tell a whole story. Like poems, they just present a moment in time or an image. This will go in my mental file as an image that might be part of a story. It may not be used directly, but might inspire something down the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into how I get my ideas. If you want to learn more about the owl riders and how they came to be, read the novel Owl Riders. You can read the first chapter and find places to buy the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

Podcasting about Astronomy, Steampunk and More

This weekend finds me at Wild Wild West Con, which is being held at Old Tucson Studios just outside Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll make time to join us. We’re having an amazing time. You can get more information about the convention at https://www.wildwestcon.com/

In the run-up to the convention, I was interviewed on the podcast, Madame Perry’s Salon. Madame Perry is a little like Barbara Eden’s character in I Dream of Jeannie. After a lead in from Captain Kirk and Mr. Sulu, she invited me to sit on the cushions in her genie’s bottle. We discussed how reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and John Nichols’ The Magic Journey while thinking about the story of my mom’s family set me on the path to writing my first novel The Pirates of Sufiro. We also talked about how working at an observatory and making discoveries in the late twentieth century using nineteenth century instrumentation was an important inspiration for my steampunk writing. Madame Perry asked some great questions. We also had a listener question and a visit from Wild Wild West Con’s programming director James Breen. You can listen to the entire show at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/madameperryssalon/2019/02/28/author-and-astronomer-david-lee-summers-visits-madame-perrys-salon

While you’re at the site, be sure to navigate up to Madame Perry’s main page. In other episodes, she interviews several other Wild Wild West Con featured artists as well, including cosplayer Tayliss Forge, maker Tobias McCurry, and musical guest Professor Elemental among others. If you can’t make it to the convention, the podcast is a great way to get to know some of the people attending. If you were able to make it Wild Wild West Con, you can listen and learn even more about those of us in attendance!

As it turns out, Madame Perry’s Salon wasn’t the only podcast I visited recently to speak about Victorian astronomy. A while back Jeff Davis invited me to speak on his show about something called the Carrington Event. In effect this was a massive solar storm in 1859 that resulted in a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth head on sparking electrical disruption through telegraph lines, triggering auroras and making compasses go crazy. I had to admit that I didn’t know much about the Carrington Event, but Jeff recommended I read a great book called The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark.

The Sun Kings told the story of the Carrington Event and how solar observations in the nineteenth century contributed to the rise of modern astrophysics. Among other things, it discussed the advent of astrophotography and spectroscopy and how astronomers began to notice commonalities between the sun and other stars. This really gets to the root of work I’ve done studying RS CVn stars, which are sun-type binary systems where one or both of the stars have massive spots. It also ties into my work at Kitt Peak where I routinely support spectrographic observations.

Jeff’s show is on the Paranormal UK Radio Network. Despite the network title, we didn’t really get into the paranormal, even though the subject does fascinate me. You can listen to my discussion with Jeff at: http://paranormalukradio.podbean.com/

Revisiting the War of the Worlds

During the run-up to this month’s Wild Wild West Con, I was talking to one of my co-workers about how Victorian science influenced early science fiction novels. During our conversation, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells came up. We spoke a little bit about the famous Orson Welles radio version and the 1953 George Pal film. He also mentioned the Jeff Wayne musical version. As it turns out, I remember seeing ads for this album when it was released, but I never actually listened to it. What’s more, even though the story of The War of the Worlds is well known and almost a part of the collective subconscious, I had never actually read the original novel. I decided it was time to rectify both omissions.

As I say, the story of the novel is familiar and there were, in fact, few surprises. The story is somewhat sparse and very personal, which allows a reader to transport it in time and place. It’s easy to visualize the events happening in your own time to you. This is likely helped because Wells never names his protagonist. Despite all this, I found the novel fit very well in its Victorian period. It loses a little something when it’s transported out of that. I think some of it is that the Martian war machines seem all that more awesome when most people only have horses and buggies for transportation. Also, the story is set in Victorian England at the height of England’s colonial power, so it seems especially frightening to see it brought to its knees so readily.

If anything, one of the elements I did find surprising about the novel is that it appears that the entire Martian invasion is focused on England. It’s never explicitly said Martian vehicles weren’t landing in other places, but we never hear that they are either. It makes an eerie view of the world that a single, powerful country could be attacked like that and the world would be unwilling to come to its aid. There is danger in big colonial powers alienating everyone else! Especially, given that another surprise of the novel is that the Martian War Machines prove to be somewhat vulnerable to the weapons of the time. A massed worldwide front seems like it could have stopped the Martian invasion.

A real weakness of the novel is the way the women get shoved into the background. Our protagonist’s wife is sent off to live with the protagonist’s cousin—then it turns out he may have placed her in greater danger for doing that. The only other women in the novel are a pair encountered by the protagonist’s brother. While one woman is somewhat resourceful, the other is a hysterical mess. This is where the Jeff Wayne musical version does a decent job improving on the original. The protagonist’s wife is given a name. They’re already separated at the start of the story and part of the story is his attempt to get to her. Even then circumstances keep them apart.

In the novel, our protagonist encounters a curate, basically an assistant parson, and the two cower together in an abandoned house. In the album, the curate is now a full parson and he has a wife named Beth, who has one of the album’s greatest songs. I was impressed that the album and the novel generally follow each other pretty well. The album’s music reminds me of works by some of my favorite contemporary steampunk bands. Another high point of the album is Richard Burton’s narration, which mostly follows Wells’s narrative.

One of my big takeaways after reading the novel was that many stories could be told based on the events of The War of the Worlds. One could tell stories set in other countries, or tell a story about the rest of the world watching the attack on Britain and reacting. It seems the protagonist’s wife has a great untold story that could make an outstanding steampunk novel. Of course, there have been a few sequels such as Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, and even Jeff Wayne suggests a sequel of sorts that could make a fascinating story.

Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.