Driving to the Moon and Back: Interview with Michaelene Pendleton
Today, I am pleased to post an interview with my friend, the writer Michaelene Pendleton. I first met Michaelene in the late 1980s, when she was a guest at Life, the Universe, and Everything, a symposium on science fiction and fantasy held at Brigham Young University. She is a great speaker, and, listening to her I hoped we would become friends. I looked up to her, as she had published in astounding places and had lived an interesting life.
Michaelene lives in Moab, Utah. My buddies and I, in the '90s, often went on expeditions to southern Utah to explore the wonders there—and Michaelene's home became an oasis in the desert for us. Michaelene and her dear mother often welcomed us dusty travelers with a barbecue and drinks on the back porch and good conversation till late hours. Those were good days.
The interview follows:
Y4M: What is your earliest memory of music?
Michaelene Pendleton: I was born in 1946, and grew up in the backseat of a car. My dad had an itchy foot. I had crossed the country a dozen times before I was six. He could talk himself into any job, whether or not he knew how to do it. He could talk the birds out of the trees—our Irish heritage, I suspect. In the late 1940s not many cars had radios, so my dad sang. I remember "Mister & Mississippi," "Lucky Old Sun," "Summertime"—he had a great whisky baritone, and that is still my favorite singing voice. I have a vague feeling, less than memory of white, steepled church hymns. The first piece of popular memory is Frankie Laine singing "Jezebel." We were in Phoenix where my dad was the chef in a restaurant that had a bronze horse with a clock in its body on a mantel. I was fascinated with horses when I was a kid, and I lusted in my heart for that horse. I still see that horse when I hear "Jezebel."
Y4M: "Mister and Mississippi" was written by Irving Gordon in 1951. Patti Page first recorded it, and she sings it for us here (from the album 20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection: Patti Page):
"Lucky Old Sun" was written in 1949 by Beasley Smith (music) and Haven Gillespie (lyrics). There are many outstanding recordings, including notable performances by Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. I picked a rendition by Louis Armstrong; he sings it here, with Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra (from the album Louis Armstrong Sings Back through the Years: A Centennial Celebration ):
"Summertime" is an aria that George Gershwin wrote for his opera Porgy and Bess (1934). It achieved popular success outside of the opera, with many notable performances. Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing "Summertime" (from the album Pure Ella):
"Jezebel" was written by Wayne Shanklin in 1951, and recorded that year by Frankie Laine. Here is Frankie Laine singing it (from the album Frankie Laine's Greatest Hits):
Michaelene Pendleton (Continued): I remember tinky carny music since my parents worked for a carnival when I was four. My dad was the advance man—the fellow who went to the towns to get the permits and spread around a little baksheesh and tickets to the local powers that be. He and Mother also had a knife and whip act. I remember riding a tricycle out on their stage at the beginning of the act. Even then a little kid was a crowd pleaser. I also learned how carny games were rigged and haven’t spent money on them in my adult life. The carny people would usually stay up until dawn, partying and unwinding, and there was always music along with the card games and drinking.
My parents got married when I was four, split when I was five, and divorced when I was six. My dad took me with him for the year they were apart. We went to baseball games and heard "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." We went to powwows in New Mexico, and I heard Indian singing and drumming. One of the seminal images of my childhood is driving through reeds and brush taller than the car down to a river with a gypsy camp. (Mother told me he must have known them from the carnival.) I went to sleep in the lap of a woman with bright lipstick, gold hoop earrings, and masses of heavy black hair, while that gypsy music fleered around me. I have very little musical talent, but someday I would like to head for Eastern Europe to find the source of that music.
Y4M: Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in 1908. Interestingly, neither of them had attended a baseball game before they wrote the song. Here is Gene Kelly singing the song, from the album Baseball's Greatest Hits: Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Other Sports Classics (2013):
Y4M: How much time do you spend with music each day?
Michaelene Pendleton: How long am I awake? If I’m awake, I have music on. Sometimes I really listen to it and sometimes it is just background. I could live without TV or a computer, but not a music source. It keeps me sane. I will use a couple of pieces that feel like what I am writing. And once I have used pieces with a writing project, I never use those for a different piece of writing. I’ll still listen to the music, but it won’t be writing background again. I sold a short story to Asimov’s, "The Great Economy of the Saurian Mode," that was written to a background of Procul Harum reimagining their playbook with a symphony orchestra;
"A Whiter Shade of Pale" makes a great symphonic piece.
Y4M: Here is a version of Procul Harum with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir (from the album Procul Harum: In Concert with the Danish National Orchestra and Choir):
Here is a link to the July 2000 issue of Asimov's, which includes Michaelene's story "The Great Economy of the Saurian Mode." I love this story:
Michaelene Pendleton (Continued): When I had a voice, I always sang along with whatever was on my car music source. I’ve driven the equivalent distance to the moon and back (it took seven cars), and most of that time was spent singing along. When I was in a place where there was nothing on the airwaves, such as the Alcan Highway, I sang by myself. I love music parties: there is nothing better than sitting around a campfire, everyone singing along. That’s one of the reasons I love Ireland: the Irish sing at the drop of a hat. In 1994, I was on a ferry crossing the Irish Sea in a Force Five gale. Most of the passengers were throwing up, but the Irish were singing. I felt at home.
Y4M: Do you have one piece of music that you turn to again and again? Why?
Michaelene Pendleton: I wish I had some esoteric piece that would impress people who are
musically sophisticated, but the piece I would take to a desert island is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Parts of it can make me cry. The music uplifts me, gives me hope for the future. The book I would take to that island is The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The Ninth fulfills the same function: no matter how much I visit it, I find something new in it. It fills my senses and takes me away with it. After listening to it, I feel sated. If I could pack a bigger suitcase, I would also take Kiri Te Kanawa singing Beim Schlafengehen from Strauss’ Four Last Songs. And maybe the duet from Lakmé or Fanfare for the Common Man—truthfully, it would have to be a big suitcase.
Y4M: Michaelene's choice of Beethoven's Ninth impresses me, as it is my choice as well, and not just for the desert island—but also for my last post for this blog nine months from now. I have already decided that. It seems that if Michaelene and I are ever stranded together on a desert island and if we have Beethoven's Ninth with us (plus, perhaps, something to spear fish with) we'll be contented castaways.
To read my previous post about the Four Last Songs of Strauss, click here.
To read my previous post about Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, click here.
Lakmé is an opera by the French composer Léo Delibes (1883). The "Flower Duet," from this opera, is truly lovely. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa and Katharine Jenkins to sing it, with Anthony Inglis conducting the London Philharmonia Orchestra (from the album The 50 Greatest Romantic Pieces by Katharine Jenkins ):
Y4M: What, in music, currently excites you the most?
Michaelene Pendleton: I know very little about current pop music. I must officially be an old fart because most pop music sounds the same to me; it’s like hearing the auto-tune rather than the singer. I never cared for heavy metal or goth genres. But I have discovered a genre I can’t characterize other than say it mixes goth metal with symphonic structures and orchestration. E.S. Posthumus, Two Steps From Hell, Thomas Bergerson, Audiomachine, Mattias Puumala, these amaze me for the liking, but I do.
Y4M: Have you ever come to love a genre of music you did not before?
Michaelene Pendleton: I grew up with Country & Western, and rejected it as soon I left home. Then in the mid-1970s, I discovered Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny
Cash, and Willie Nelson, in their Highwaymen incarnation. I didn’t want to like it, but I did; and after many years I gave them the respect they deserved.
The best stuff I’ve been hearing lately is (God forgive me) music composed for video games. Some of them are fully orchestrated compositions that rival some of the real classical composers. I guess I just like big sounds, big music that can lift you up and carry you off. I loved movie music: Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Alex North, James Horner, Hans Zimmerman, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre.
Y4M: I can second Michaelene's admiration for music written for video games. I had never looked at the enormous online games that involve millions of players, but three years ago I tried my hand at a game like this out of Germany—Forge of Empires. I was hooked! In it, you build a city that advances through the ages. The game features original classical music that changes with each age, but matches the music written during that time period (or at least what we imagine Bronze Age music, for example, might have sounded like). Particularly striking is the martial music written for the battles. Here is a link to a trailer for the game, which features snippets of the game's music:
I plan to feature the works of important composers of film scores in coming posts. Critics seem unanimous in the belief that much of the 20th-century's greatest music is its film scores.
Y4M: If a time traveler came to you and said that she would take you into the past to
hear one musical event or moment—what would you pick to hear, and why?
Michaelene Pendleton: I would like to hear the first performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which was built specifically for the Ring, which was performed the first time in its entirety on 13-17 August, 1876. I know Wagner has fallen out of favor since the Nazi appropriation of his work, but the music is complicated and glorious and grand. The use of leitmotifs makes up most of the orchestral fabric, each so melodically distinct that you know which character is about to appear, and the different leitmotifs twine around each other in the scenes. This music makes good use of the brass instruments, specifically trumpets and French horns, sometimes singly and sometimes en masse. Like the Ninth, it’s music that uplifts me and takes me to another place.
Y4M: If you could change one thing about how you currently interact with music,
what would that be?
Michaelene Pendleton: I’d like to have a Bose radio/CD player. I didn’t believe the hype until I heard a Bose, and now I’m hooked. It’s also portable and will plug into your car’s
port (or cigarette lighter for those of us who have a 22-year old car). So far my hearing is still good and the Bose is the best thing I’ve heard since vinyl. I keep thinking of selling my vinyl collection, but I don’t do it, so I guess I’m still fond of the vinyl sound.
Y4M: What piece of music have you picked for us to hear today, and why did you
Michaelene Pendleton: "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. I think it is the best rock song ever sung. It describes a whole generation and its place in the world. It never goes stale for me. I heard Grace Slick give an interview wherein she said that she didn’t have the greatest voice in music, but she could sing REALLY LOUD. I think there’s something to be said for that. I first heard the song as I was a 22-year-old, newly divorced, and wanting to get as far away from that domestic experience as possible, so I embraced Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Janis, the Doors. I still listen to these songs 48 years later.
Y4M: Grace Slick wrote "White Rabbit" in 1966. It was released as part of the Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow (1967). The song is included on several Rolling Stone lists of important songs. Here is a link to the 1967 version of the song (from the album Surrealistic Pillow):
Michaelene Pendleton (Continued): There are times when music is more important than food or water or human companionship. Music never lets you down: it can always take you to another place. And now I understand there is symphonic music for cats. I’d like to get some of that, because, unfortunately, my cats do not like opera.
Y4M: I want to thank Michaelene Pendleton for this interview, and for the wide-variety of music she has brought into my life. There is no greater gift than that of new songs. My life is richer for them.
I created "The Moon Was but a Chin of Gold," the image above, in 2016. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Emily Dickinson's poem "The Moon":
The Moon was but a chin of gold
A night or two ago,
And now she turns her perfect face
Upon the world below.
Her forehead is of amplest blond;
Her cheek like beryl stone;
Her eye unto the summer dew
The likest I have known.
Her lips of amber never part;
But what must be the smile
Upon her friend she could bestow
Were such her silver will!
And what a privilege to be
But the remotest star!
For certainly her way might pass
Beside your twinkling door.
Her bonnet is the firmament,
The universe her shoe,
The stars the trinkets at her belt,
Her dimities of blue.