Don Bluth

© Vince Streano/CORBIS

Don Bluth is another legend in the field of animation. A quick online search also revealed that after leaving the Walt Disney Company in 1979, he went on to direct such notable films as The Secret of NIMHAn American Tail, and The Land Before Time. Currently, he is the owner of his own independent studio, Don Bluth Films.

I wonder if animators were likely to wear down their pencils to the very end. If cost and availability aren’t a factor, how low do you go before you inaugurate a new pencil? In the case of the Blackwing the ferrule almost acts like an extender, i.e. your fingers have a little something extra to grasp.

Musical Barber-ism

Another photograph of Samuel Barber, Blackwing 602 in-hand.

Here is a link to a program from the WPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge, which addresses why it is we seem to love sad music. Featured in the segment is Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

While I can understand and appreciate the author’s sentiment, that Barber’s Adagio is the “saddest music ever written”, I think attempting to affix such a designation only serves to harm: music’s capacity to convey emotion is only limited when such an artificial boundary is imposed upon it. My feeling has always been that music and the rest of the arts in general are resistant to qualifiers such as “best” or “worst” etc. If such a thing as “best” (or any superlative) exists in music aesthetics, that means an immediate and irrevocable limit is in place from the start: as a performer then I’m either consigned to know there is a “best” performance that I haven’t reached, or if I do, it suggests there is nothing more that can be learned from that piece.

Music isn’t compatible with finding limits, superlatives, or absolutes with regard to aesthetics and even if it were, there’s little to be gained in finding them. And to argue such designations is rarely about the music—it’s usually more about the person doing the arguing.

 To suggest that there is some ostensible end to be reached anywhere in music is, I think, to incalculably miss the point.   

Nelson Riddle with Peggy Lee

© EMI Music

Nelson Riddle has already been listed here as being a Blackwing user, but this relatively new photo (with Blackwing in tow) bears mentioning him again. Among well-known Blackwing users Riddle was one of the few who went so far as to mention the 602 as being one of his favorite tools. From Arranged by Nelson Riddle (Alfred Music Publishing, 1985):

Pencils should be of very soft lead, so that a minimum of pressure is needed to convey the marks to the paper, but the lead should be dense enough to be able to carry a sharp point, since clarity is essential. My favorite pencil is the Blackwing #602, by Eberhard Faber, but there may be many brands equal or superior to the Blackwing.

I wonder if Eberhard Faber ever took notice when such endorsements were made, especially since it may have translated into actual sales given Nelson Riddle’s notoriety and popularity.  Let’s hope they at least sent him a few “thank you” boxes.

Ferdie Grofé

© 1963 Bettmann/CORBIS

Ferdie Grofé (1892-1972) was a composer, arranger, and pianist. Known also as the “Prime (or Prince) Minister of Jazz” (working under Paul Whiteman, who was sometimes referred to as the “King of Jazz”), Grofé became widely recognized for his arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. Originally composed for two pianos, the lush, colorful version that most are familiar with is Grofé’s arrangement. His well-rounded career included conducting, teaching at The Juilliard School, and composing for film.

I wonder if the container found between the score and the sharpener is the bottom of the Blackwing box; it looks right.

Whenever I see photographs of people holding a Blackwing and it’s missing an eraser, I often wonder whether it was taken out on purpose. The word that first comes to mind when I think about the Blackwing’s original eraser is “ironic”.

Paul Carlson

The discipline with which the Blackwing is perhaps most strongly associated is animation, about which Chuck Jones once said:

“…a flurry of drawings created by a Blackwing pencil; animation that dignifies itself as craft—a dying craft of aging men.”

Paul Carlson began his career at Disney working in the mailroom, but would eventually rise to the position of assistant director. He worked on such notable films as The Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty. He also worked on Mr. Magoo, and continues to animate today.

Hand-drawn animation, Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils, and “starting in the mailroom”— each artifacts of a bygone America.

Admittedly I know very little about the rich and storied history of animation in the United States, and in particular, the work of the artists at Disney. But as I read more about it I am struck by the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood found among animators, both young and old. And isn’t an exclusionary, “it’s-our-treehouse” sort of thing either—it appears to be very inclusive, with even the most stalwart of computer animators mantling a sense of stewardship for this “dying craft”. Of course, mine is the perception of an interloper who is likely just hoping this is the case. But, if you’re an animator and would be willing to share some of your thoughts, please leave a comment.

Igor Stravinsky

Photos from Bravo Stravinsky © Arnold Newman

I have mentioned to students that, as music teachers, we are sometimes guilty of using superlatives too often. I attribute this (in part) not only to simple enthusiasm but also because the time that we have with students—though it may seem interminable to them—is relatively brief. Teaching the history and context of composers and their compositions become so compacted (if not harried) that qualifying expressions such as “…one of the most influential…”, or “…without peer…”, though meant to elevate, become a kind of counterfeit; a currency of accolades that only wanes in value. Stated another way, constant and over-amplified acclaim can have the unintended effect of desensitizing a student’s imagination—lessening the very impact you’re trying to convey.

This notion especially comes to mind when discussing the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Not because his legacy has been overestimated, but because even the most superlative language still fails to capture the impact his work has had on seemingly every aspect of music and musicians—composers, performers, conductors, theorists, historians, musicologists, etc.—and that it continues to do so today.

The infamous premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps—a piece that still sounds impossibly “modern” despite being nearly 100 years oldis the stuff of music legend. Students who have never known a world without the Internet—whose attention span has become immeasurably small—often have difficulty comprehending the impact of (and therefore, enjoying the study of) such an event, but it’s for a reason that is not necessarily their doing. Rather, it’s due in large part to a consequence of the ‘data-on-demand’ culture fostered in the “Information Generation”: the seemingly unstoppable atrophying of their imagination.

Photos from Bravo Stravinsky © Arnold Newman

What was the musical world like before Le Sacre, when recordings were not immediately available; when hearing a new piece of music meant attending a performance and could only be “re-played” by the listener’s imagination; when the news of a riotous premiere travelled slowly by newspaper and by word-of-mouth; when one waited in a state of wonder and excitement for any news of it; when one waited for anything?

Here is a photograph that captures my imagination:

Photos from Bravo Stravinsky © Arnold Newman

This isn’t a photograph of a Blackwing, another pencil, an eraser, and about 2 1/2 octaves of a piano keyboard. This is a photograph of entire universes of possibility.

Just imagine.


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