Winter Milk

It’s become cold today, in a way that is not unusual in the upper Midwest in January. Throughout the daytime the temperature dropped a degree or so each hour until it’s now three below zero Fahrenheit.

I rode my bike out to breakfast this morning before it broke below zero, but it was still cold enough I had to wear a face mask, which reduces the pleasure of the ride for me. And now tonight, my hearty spouse just came back in from running a short errand, and told me “There’s no reason to go out the rest of this weekend. It’s just too cold.”

I think tonight is a good night for a poem by Carl Sandburg set to music. Carl was Midwesterner, and he knew winter. His Winter Milk is a lovely compressed recounting of his youngest daughter graduating to drinking from a cup. He calls her in the poem by her name, Helga, and as the poem ends with that seemly simple, but wonderful, phrase “dreams with your eyes” I became curious about what Helga in fact dreamed, and did with those dreams, once more that “only a little cup of winter” had touched her lips.

As best as I can figure out, she did plenty. Though she was born at the end of the First World War, she died this month in the winter of 2014 and she lived an active life well into this century. Here’s a link to a piece written a few years back that recounts her life briefly:

Helga Sandburg

So let’s think of Helga and life well spent, and think too of lives now only beginning. We have this human span of living, our redness against winter.

Musically, the setting I wrote for this poem is simple, and though it’s played by the LYL Band, there’s no drums or bass.  As usual, there should be a player gadget that will appear at the bottom of this post so that you can play and hear Winter Milk.




Well here’s the ego-bath piece. I wrote the words and the music, played all the instruments except for drums, and I am the reader. In my plan for the Parlando project, this is not my goal, to be the sole reader or musician, nor do I intend to feature my own work entirely; but as a practical matter, it simplifies things considerably to do so.

I can easily settle the rights to material if it’s mine. Shaping the arrangement and feel and getting the musical parts down is easier to schedule when I only need to book myself. Of course I need to put up with my limitations as a musician, which can frustrate me as a composer, but I can often forgive my mistakes as long as I’m the only one in the room, as long as I’m the only one wasting my time or a “take”.



As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts here, I’m mostly a guitarist, but electronic synthesizers have always attracted me. I’m attracted to diversity in timbre (almost?) to a fault. When I first heard of electronic synthesizers I could hardly contain my wonder and envy at something that promised to make any sound that could be imagined. You could take a raw electronic wave and shape and filter it any which way. I recall trying to convince my father that this was a breakthrough.

“How is that different from a Hammond organ?” he replied.

That was a more trenchant response than I expected. I replied that it was more flexible, that the choices of what it could do with the waveform were endless.

“Any sound,” that was the tantalizing promise, but practically, I couldn’t afford an electronic syth. One of the reasons guitar grew to dominate American music in the 20th century is that it’s radically affordable. Costs for electronic synths eventually came down and now they can be sold as software capable of running on low cost personal computers (personal computers, another technology that offers infinite choice).

What have we done with infinity? In one way: not much. EDM and hip-hop composers will sometimes dip into the outer reaches of sound manipulation, and some of that reaches a substantial and welcoming audience willing to shout “WTF was that?” at a particularly out-there break. But for a lot of music, and Bonds is an example, musicians end up using presets, waveforms that usually sound like a nice rolling sine wave with some historically pleasing harmonic intervals emphasized. In other words, not too far from what a Hammond organ does.

In Bonds the keyboard synth part basically doubles and arpeggiates the electric guitar part. It’s a simple trick, but it’s one that I liked.



I started writing Bonds while my father was approaching dying. Mostly through accident of occupation I have been able to watch a lot of people die “a natural death.” One metaphor that fits the process in many cases is that dying is like birth in reverse. I don’t mean this, mainly, as some kind of new-agey “circle of life” superficial slogan, but rather that the physical travail, the way autonomic nature takes over the body, has striking similarities.

The words also play off the ambiguous relationship we have with the word “bonds”. We use “bonds” to mean family relationships, and the most close kind of connection between mother and infant (mother-child bonding). But we also use it when describing slavery and servitude (bondservant and the bonds of slavery) and more generally when describing moving beyond a limitation or obligation.

Preparing for a parent’s death is a way to prepare for your own death.


As always, you should see a player appear below this, though it may take a bit of time to appear.  Click on the play triangle in the player to hear “Bonds.”


This House Is 100 Years Old

This one isn’t quite as old as yesterday’s post. American poet Dave Moore wrote this only a few years ago.

Americans have a history, but for most of us it’s not a long one. And Dave lives in Minnesota, which was only widely settled by Europeans less than 200 years ago. Even given this short history, people sometimes like to research the history of their homes, and to find out who the former owners and occupants were. I don’t know if Dave did this with his house, but he didn’t, he imagined it well.

I set this to short acoustic guitar tune, and I am again the reader of this piece. Although it may take a moment to load and appear, the player should appear just below this and allow you to hear it.


Cold Is the North Wind

OK, when I say various  words with various music, what do I mean?

I mean no one style of music, no one source or one type of words, no one mood or emotion or thought. If the Parlando project succeeds I think it will succeed in large part because you won’t be able to predict what the next combination will be.

One example can’t show this, but we have to start with one. With a little luck, an audio player will appear just below here which will play “Cold Is the North Wind.”

I recorded this about a year ago. The words are a translation of a poem from the Book of Odes collected by Confucius in the Han dynasty. The poem itself may be from about the 8th century B.C. Maybe you’ve heard of something being “Old School”–almost nothing is more Old School that this!

A good text for anyone in love and missing their loved one on New Year’s Day in upper parts of the northern hemisphere.

I played all the musical parts except for the drums. The first lead instrument you hear in the arrangement is my attempt using a MIDI guitar controller to sound like the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute. Of course this isn’t traditional Chinese music, nor am I a scholar of such things, but you don’t need to study this, you only need to listen and enjoy.