Friday, June 11, 2010

Vol. 5: TEDS Year One Wrap-Up, Heading to Points East

It has been an eventful semester, and this can be no more that a quick summary. I got to travel a lot over the last six months, which has been really fun and exciting. I had the unexpected pleasure of getting to take two east coast trips in the space of only three months.

In January, over Christmas break, I got to go to Boston for a couple of days to work with Gemma on the show. This was actually right around the time of the terrible east-coast winter storm, so I decided to fly rather than drive. (Providence granted me a great last-minute deal!) We accomplished several important tasks, including putting up our website,, and making several demo recordings at the Harvard School of Music. It was great to see Gemma after many months of working long-distance (our last writing retreat was spring 2008!) and being together energized the project somewhat, as Gemma followed up quickly with several new scenes. (I wish I had done the same with the music, but when I got back I had to hit the ground running at Trinity—I took 15 hours of coursework this semester. More on that later.) It was also fun to take in the architecture in Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston. Here I am at the entrance to Harvard Yard, in which I was disappointed to learn that you are actually not allowed to “pahk a cah.”

During my spring break in March, I made my second trip to the east coast, this time starting with New York City. My first day in town, I got to see the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is the first revival since the original production in 1973. There was some beautiful singing in this production, especially from the Greek-chorus style “Liebeslieders” quartet. The very small orchestra (“no more than a buskers’ band,” lamented a purchaser of the new Broadway cast album on, no doubt remembering the lush full orchestrations of the 1973 version) played with great precision and sensitivity. Lansbury’s diction was the thing that struck me most about her performance: you could understand every word she said or sang, even from where I was, the back of the balcony. Her timing was also great, as when she deadpans after 20 minutes of non-stop bedroom farce, “A great deal seems to be going on in this house tonight.” Another great moment was seeing the butler whisk her bodily from the stage after she barks, “We can’t be seen squatting on the ground like Bohemians!” Though she was most often confined to Mme. Armfeldt’s signature wheelchair, she was allowed to walk around with a cane during a couple of scenes, including her solo “Liaisons.” It was really fun to be in the same room with a performer I’ve been watching on TV and listening to since I was a kid. As for Zeta-Jones, she was a satisfying DesirĂ©e: good-humored, strong yet vulnerable, with a vocal performance more than solid enough for the role’s uncomplicated material. She turned in a good rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” whose lyrics I found to make much more sense in the context of the show—I had always thought they were bland and generic, but they apply perfectly to DesirĂ©e’s mid-second-act situation. Gemma’s mom told me an interesting bit of ALNM trivia: Ramona Mallory, who plays Anne Eggerman in this new production (about which role Sondheim remarked that it takes a beauty with an octave and six who can pass for 18, and that amateur productions always have to sacrifice one of those three traits—fortunately, Ramona Mallory had to sacrifice none of them) is actually the daughter of Victoria Mallory, who created the same role in the 1973 production. So playing Anne Eggerman on Broadway has become a mother-daughter act!

Speaking of mothers, Gemma and I stayed in her mom’s apartment in Tribeca, and I was grateful for her warm hospitality. Here’s the view of Tribeca from the apartment window:

In between other appointments, Gemma and I had a chance to look around the area, where Gemma grew up. Here we are by the arch in Washington Park:

But our main reason for converging on NYC was to rehearse and perform selections from our musical version of Sense and Sensibility for the Greater New York Region of the Jane Austen Society, at their “Inspired by Austen” conference at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Here’s how things unfolded:

Day 1, Friday, March 5: We rehearsed most of the day in the Upper East Side apartment of the regional coordinator and her husband. Their place was perfect for us, with a beautiful baby grand piano in the living room and enough music stands to go around. Five professional actor/singers (thanks to the networking efforts of Gemma’s mom!) volunteered their time, and we rehearsed five songs and one full scene. (I had been practicing the piano parts for weeks beforehand... I’m not afraid to write beyond my own technical abilities at the keyboard, but that does make it difficult when I am called on to perform my own stuff! Needless to say, I took a few “short cuts” in some of the patterns. Since I’m the composer, I have the right to change the music on the spot, anyway, even during the performance! I just call them “last-minute revisions.”)

Working with these performers was a wonderful experience. It was my first taste of working with professionals. Each person came to the rehearsal having already mastered their notes and rhythms, and we had the luxury of being able to spend our time polishing, tweaking and refining. I was so pleased with their vocal production, acting, talent, hard work, and I remain extremely grateful for their generous donation of two days out of their lives! I would venture to say that the material has never sounded better (and you can hear it online now! Just keep reading.).

By the afternoon, we were in great shape for the performance, and Gemma and I went out for dinner and a show with some of her delightful friends (who graciously paid for the whole evening!). We saw a new piece called “Finn” by the experimental Mabou Mines theater company. Our party agreed that it had a few serious problems in writing and execution, although there were some fascinating moments, mostly due to the technique of integrating digital image projection with live performers.

Day 2, Saturday, March 6: All of us (Gemma and I, and our five performers) got up at the crack of sleepy to board a charter bus in downtown NYC, which took us an hour or so out of town to Purchase, New York. We shared the bus with many of the other conference presenters, including a scholar from the Bodleian Library in England, who came all the way to New York to discuss his work with the original Austen manuscripts (I really enjoyed talking with him!). At Manhattanville College, the S & S crew were made welcome and installed in a practice room, where we spent the morning running our presentation and making some preliminary recordings with my simple but serviceable laptop set-up. We enjoyed a complimentary lunch with everyone at the conference (about 80 in all), and then we had a final rehearsal before the actual performance (we were the last act of the day). Gemma and I each gave a short statement at the end, she talking about her “conversion” to Jane Austen and the process of adaptation, and I about the care we took to use language patterns and vocabulary authentic to the period, and about drawing inspiration for the score from period dance tunes. Everything went very well, and if the audience were a bit reserved during the actual performance, they expressed their appreciation very vocally afterwards. The cast received some very nice compliments (our Lucy Steele was told she was the best Lucy ever, counting the Lucys in all the film adaptations!) We also got lot of helpful suggestions about steps we might take to promote the show, many of which we are still exploring. Here is a shot of the hall where we performed, which was extremely well-suited to the subject of Jane Austen:

The performers generously granted their permission for us to post the audio from the performance on our website, which you can listen to by clicking here. I think that in spite of my simple recording equipment, the tracks came out remarkably well.

Back in the city, Gemma and I met one of her friends for dinner at a very nice restaurant (The National) where yet another friend is the chef. I had my first lobster roll there. Yum!

I must say, I enjoyed NYC more this time than on any of my previous three trips there. Rather than being on a tourist’s schedule of rushing from place to place (without any of my luggage for the duration of my 2006 trip—thank you, American Airlines!) and without a sense of belonging to what was going on around me, this time I had more leisure to enjoy my surroundings. I was in town to do satisfying work that I love. So I actually enjoyed the hustle and bustle, because I felt like I had a real reason to be there... I wasn’t just killing time and spending money.

The next day, Sunday, we slept in much later and then got on another bus, this time to Boston, which is home for Gemma. My dear friends from back in Memphis, the Rainvilles (Paul and Kelly—they were transplants from Boston, and now they are back there), picked us up, took Gemma home, and took me back to their place for three days of catching up. It had been over two years since we had seen each other, and the reunion was a joyful one. I took this picture of Paul and Kelly, and I thought it turned out very well:

I had a number of interesting “first” experiences while I was with them. Here are shots from my first motorcycle ride, thanks to Paul. We zoomed through the picturesque hills in and around Shrewsbury, a suburb of Boston.

My first trip to Cape Cod was really delightful, even though the water was beyond frigid—just look at my face!

We made friends with a baby seal on the beach. At first we thought he was hurt, but it turns out he was only napping. He seemed annoyed when we tried to help him (Paul brought him some water in a shell) so we just let him be. What a cute face!

My first real New England seafood was at the Lobster Pot in Buzzard’s Bay. We were grateful to our lobster for his short but useful life.

Other highlights of the trip included a stop in Providence, RI, where we saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (as a friend of mine observed, I was sort of predestined to like this movie, since I like both Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland), and a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Dr. Hoffmeier had encouraged me to go there to see the largest Egyptian collection in North America, in particular their 4th Dynasty sculpture. The museum did not disappoint! Fresh from a semester of Middle Egyptian, it was fun to try my hand at deciphering the numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions (I have a long way to go, but I was pleased to be able to recognized many signs and groups of words). My most exciting find was a scarab seal of Shoshenq I, the pharaoh who invaded Israel and Judah in 925 B.C. and whose incursion is recorded in the biblical books of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles. I actually did a lot of research into Shoshenq this semester, so it was amazing to see even a small piece that is actually connected to his life.

With my gratuitous fun trips over, I had to redouble my efforts back at Trinity (I didn’t get a single thing done relating to research or studying over spring break!). In particular, I had to finish the final paper for a class called Warfare in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. This was a half-semester course, where we met for five hours every Wednesday morning starting at 7:15 a.m. (A friend and I arranged to have strong coffee brewing in the classroom each week!) But the deadline was March 31, long before the rest of my classes. The subject of the class gave me the scope to explore the abovementioned Shoshenq I, a subject that has fascinated me since I was a kid (see Josh’s Dig Vol. 1: Getting in Touch with my Inner Jones). The research I undertook for this project turned out to be more time-consuming than I had imagined, but it paid off. Dr. Hoffmeier thinks it might be worthy of publication, and he is working with me to refine it before submitting it to a peer-reviewed journal. Exciting! If you are interested, you can read the paper here and the appendix here. Notice the appendix is longer than the paper! (The appendix is the part that really took time and energy.)

Thanks to a birthday present from Mom and Dad (which I supplemented with several add-on packages), my workflow has gotten a lot more streamlined. The Logos software system has made my life so much easier this semester! I think it must be the most amazing digital study tool ever created. It allows me to balance, say, three lexicons, five reference grammars, and 10 Bible versions, all in the same window, and all interlinked in meaningful ways. I have been extremely impressed with it so far, and I know it has saved me countless hours of thumbing through indexes. Of course, it doesn’t do the work for me, but the extra speed is incredible. Here’s a screen shot, just for fun.

I spent Easter break in Linton with my family, and got the privilege of watching Andrew on his first Easter egg hunt! The yard was full of eggs, but each one had only a single “Teddy Graham” inside. He caught on quickly, and had a wonderful time, as did all the adults.

In April and May it was time to wrap up my other three classes: Biblical Aramaic (we read all the Aramaic in the Bible, which is about seven chapters, including the apocalyptic Daniel 7—what a trip! that one is enough of a puzzle in English!), Hebrew II (we translated Ruth 1 and 2. Check out my translation here—what Dad calls the JDTV ), and New Testament Survey. I was grateful that there seemed to be enough time to complete every project, paper and exam prep. Now, no more than enough—just barely enough! There were a few moments when I began to think I would not finish all my course work in time, but after some stressful “photo finishes,” everything was brought to a successful conclusion.

Another success was finishing my first semester of teaching Arabic to a few enthusiastic friends of mine who wanted to learn. We met nearly every Monday morning at 8:30 for about two hours, and had a wonderful time. We covered the alphabet and vowels, a lot of basic vocabulary, some basic building blocks of grammar, and I left them with a partially glossed text of the Arabic version of John chapter 1 to chew on over the summer. This terrific, vibrant group took me out for a delicious Moroccan meal to say thank you, which was a fitting cap for the semester. The “final exam” was to see who could write the waiter’s name correctly in Arabic! Shawn was the winner (far right, long blond hair).

In an unrelated note, fans of the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" will appreciate my parody version, "The Young Earth Theory," set at Trinity. I thought it would be funny to have biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies nerds instead of physics nerds!

With classes, papers and exams out of the way, life became all about preparations: packing, getting stuff put in storage for the summer, and getting ready for the next phase of my life, which is my first trip to Israel. I will be there for six weeks, June 15 to August 2, and that will include two weeks of sightseeing in Jerusalem followed by four weeks of participating in my first archaeological dig. In Jerusalem I will be staying at the Austrian Hospice, right around the corner from the Via Dolorosa (check out their website here–it’s a beautiful place!). The dig is at the biblical city of Gath (hometown of Goliath), modern-day Tel Zafit or Tell es-Safi. You can read more about the site and the project here and get the latest news from the excavation from the director’s blog. All I want is to find something with writing on it. That’s not really such a tall order, do you think? Actually, they have found a couple of important inscriptions at the site, including a personal name remarkably similar to Goliath (although an exact equivalency is unlikely from a linguistic point of view). But it’s enough to make you think. The inscriptions so far have been on potsherds in the Paleo-Hebrew/Proto-Canaanite/Phoenician script, which I have been trying to learn in case my square should produce the coveted inscription of the summer:

So at this point, I am in Linton shopping for the trip, packing, writing, sleeping, letting other people feed me, and generally maintaining a laid back existence. I’m also playing with my nephew (who likes to play with Mom and Dad’s new cats, Lucky and Soon-to-be-named—well, he likes to chase them, to be exact, though he can be induced to pet them gently. Lucky is the black one.).

Here we are in one of Andrew’s favorite places, the front porch swing at Grandpa and Grandma’s house:

I also went to the range with my brother-in-law Lennon and shot my first firearms since I was in the Army seven years ago. Ah, how it brought back memories! There’s nothing like the smell of gunpowder on a hot, dusty day when you can’t see because sweat is dripping into your eyes and you can’t hear anything anyone says because you’re wearing earplugs. We actually had a good time, though I was reminded why I will be applying sunblock religiously while in Israel. I don’t know how Lennon got the “action shot” in the second picture. You can actually see the shell as it is being ejected from the weapon. It’s like the Matrix or something. Good shot, bro! And taken with a cell phone, no less.

So, I’m leaving for Chicago on Monday 6/14 and Tel Aviv on Tuesday 6/15. Lord willing, the next volume of Josh’s Dig will be written from the field, and will be about an actual, as opposed to a metaphorical, dig! I would greatly appreciate your prayers for safe travel and protection in all phases of the trip. As you can see, my most important archaeological tools are ready to be packed:

(Yes, I actually have the whip now, thanks to my Uncle Steve, who bought me a functional bull whip for Christmas.) Those trowels are Marshalltown brand, specifically designed for archaeology. They will be coming with me, the whip and the hat not so much.

Shalom to all, and may God grant you a restful and fulfilling summer, wherever you are.