Note: The first bit of this page is what I wrote back in February when I composed this piece of music as part of the annual Song-A-Day challenge in which I take part. It is immediately followed by a coda with my thoughts on Laska and why the music is what it is.
With the frustration of Sineposts not being finished still fresh on my mind, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with today’s song. Many times when I write anger while I’m feeling it, the results aren’t great. I lose any sense of subtlety (what little I already have) and am just thrashing around instead of focusing that emotion into something that speaks to others as well.
But sometimes, thrashing around is exactly what is needed. Break stuff.
- Laska's Dream Ray Toler 3:37
So what an utter and pleasant surprise when I first loaded up the pizzicato strings and played the opening riff. I could tell it had promise, so started throwing other instruments into the mix. I got the main pattern recorded, then the first round of solos for the clarinet, violins, and cello. Next was the first change with those three dancing around each other, and at that point I knew the rest of the track would largely write itself. For the first time this month, I knocked off “early” and watched some TV with Mary, then went to bed just a bit after midnight.
Alas, Mary’s early morning flight meant that I was still up with less sleep than desired. After getting back from the airport, I sat down and worked out the next sections, adding a bassoon, trumpet, and cor anglais. I’m a sucker for woodwinds, but I do love the sound of a soft trumpet taking the melody.
There are two things I think I might fix in the future if this one continues to grow on me. First, the performance programming needs a lot of work. When the samples are this up front, every little flaw is heard. The other is that I might go back in and really clean up the counterpoint. I like what’s going on as it is, but it could be a bit tighter and the various voices could have a more coherent conversation.
Albion Solstice, British Drama Toolkit, Spitfire Solo Strings, Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds and Brass
Mixing & Mastering
Masterworks EQ, Valhalla Plate, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
August 29, 2023
As repeatedly noted, I’ve determined that it’s generally better to be ambiguous about song inspirations and meanings, as I prefer not to impose my meaning on the listener’s experience. There are times, however, where that’s not as important, and times where it’s a disservice to the subject to not provide context. This is one of the latter.
You might be able to tell from the post’s header art that Laska is a dog, and when I wrote Laska’s Dream she was a month shy of turning 12 years old. She’d slowed down some, as we all do crossing the rubicon of middle age into old, but showed none of the signs of even approaching elderly dog status – she was still excited for dinner, walks, naps, movie time, still getting the zoomies, still digging dirt holes in the back yard to lay in on a pretty day after the sunbeam got too hot.
She was in the studio with me while I worked on this piece, once again ignoring the dog bed I’d put in there in favor of laying on the floor directly behind my chair with her back against the wheels, neck craned into what looked like a terribly uncomfortable position, but which she seemed to enjoy. She would often do the same thing while I was gaming, and backing the chair up was always a slow, cautious affair, moving back just far enough that she would know I was getting up, and her grumbling at me while she moved out of the way.
While finishing the composition and production, I wasn’t really thinking about her specifically, instead focusing on the emotional content of the work: a combination of whimsy, adventure, travel, maybe a slight hint of mischief, but mostly taking each moment as it comes and viewing the world and all of its moments with wonder and joy.
Or that’s what it’s come to mean to me over the last several months, even if it wasn’t a conscious idea at the time. This is pretty common for me, especially with instrumental pieces – I write something instinctively and only much later realize what I was actually writing about. Or more accurately, what I think I was writing about.1Here’s what I originally wrote about it: “I like the vibe of this one. It can be a little spooky, or a little off-kilter, or quietly happy, all depending on what you bring to it. I can definitely hear it as the soundtrack to a short film, or a cue in something larger.” On this occasion, though, everything lined up as I reached the “it’s finished for now” point and had to name it.
I sat back in the chair and looked behind me to see if it was safe to roll back. It wasn’t. Laska was in her normal place, blocking the chair and sleeping, her paws twitching, cheeks puffing, hints of barking and her “woo wooooo” howl that greeted any friend she would see in the distance. It looked and sounded like a great dream and, of course, the title immediately popped into my head. I played the piece through once more with the title in mind and it magnified everything I had been working to put into the music. It was now the perfect and only appropriate title for the work.
Instead of an ambiguous whimsy, it was concrete. I pictured what she might consider a perfect day. No leash, roaming the world, choosing where to go based on whatever interested her at that moment; a dumpster full of disgusting tasty things; a patch on the ground that all the other neighborhood dogs had already visited; a rabbit to chase; a cat to try and make friends with (normally unsuccessfully, but she’ll win them over next time); Mary, me, or another loved one walking with her; a long, warm afternoon, lazing in the front yard grass, alternating between sleeping in the sun and shade, punctuated by the occasional interruption of a strange dog or human walking by and becoming a new friend.
Laska is the only dog I’ve ever written music for/about who was still alive when I wrote it.2The other Laska song is “I Know it’s Five O’clock Somewhere from Song-A-Day 2018.The other compositions have all been laments or wistful nostalgia filtered through time. This one, however, was happy and captured her essence so much more clearly than any other piece I’d written about our animal companions. It also made me realize that Laska had become my favorite dog that I’d ever had in my life. Those of you with children or pets know how guilt-laden that realization (and actually acknowledging it as true) can be, as if I were somehow being disloyal to the others or loving them any less, which is silly, but there it was.
It’s always a crap-shoot to try and predict which tracks from a given Song-A-Day will stand out for me after a bit of distance. As the months went by, however, Laska’s Dream quickly emerged as one of my enduring favorites and was often in my head as we’d go on walks. I even started planning an animated video3If you haven’t watched the movie Up, or the series Dug Days yet (Disney), please do. You’ll see more than a tiny bit of Laska in Dug, and it will make you happy. My short film idea is a bit different, but if I never manage to make it, Dug Days is a pretty good substitute. compiled from those moments described above, which all happened except, thankfully, the dumpster.
As I write this coda, it has been just over 24 hours since Mary and I had to say goodbye to Laska. Perhaps mercifully for her and us alike, she had a fairly quick decline over the last three-to-four weeks. The details are unimportant and while we have some suspected causes, we’ll probably never really know what precipitated it all. In fact, the cause is also ultimately unimportant. Only the result – in all its terrible finality – only that matters.
To say I am devastated is so far beyond understatement as to be laughable. I simply don’t have the words, only the crushing grief.4It sucks that I have to keep using this Lemony Snicket quote, but it is simply one of the most profound encapsulations of grief I’ve ever found: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” The uncontrollable moments where emotions flood through, tossing composure, rationality, and logic aside like dandelions in a tornado.
While I hope these last moments fade into those background memories that I don’t think about (but still remember occasionally), I’m grateful that it was her joy and love that are captured in the work… this is who she was. In fact (and I’d said this for many years), Laska was one of those special dogs who was everybody’s dog. When she hung out with you, she was entirely your dog for that moment, but without ever diminishing how much she was still my dog or Mary’s dog, or anyone else’s for that matter. The comments Mary has gotten, some from people who only knew Laska briefly and years ago, indicate that she was a soul that made an impact on the people she met. She loved so openly and so completely that you couldn’t help but return it.
Her name, in fact, is testament to that. When we had lost the last of our previous pets, I asked Mary for a one-year break from having the responsibility of caring for an animal. Mary lasted six months. One day, when I returned from a business trip to China, there was a dog. I was actually introduced to her in the back yard of a friend who was temporarily keeping her. Laska (named “Elgin” at the time of our meeting) was overjoyed to meet me. I sat down in a lawn chair after petting her a bit. She came over, very slowly and cautiously climbed up into my lap (“This is ok for me to do, right? Good.”) and rolled over on her back for belly pats, clearly knowing who it was she had to convince. You could not have asked for a more manipulative employment interview,5Mary swears she didn’t train her to do it. nor for a more effective one. I was still gruff on the outside, but my heart had melted and I agreed she could stay with us on the condition that I chose the name.
I decided that the dog’s name should be “weasel,” both because Mary had weaseled out of our one-year deal6She claims she never agreed to this. and because the dog had been such a weasel about ingratiating herself to me.7I should also give some credit to my former boss, Tim, whose love of weasels and calling people weasels was undoubtedly floating around back in my subconscious. I’ve always had an affinity for Russian names, so when I entered “weasel” into Google Translate and selected Russian, “Laska” is what came up.
And a weasel she was. One of those “bad dogs” that made you laugh at the same time you were mad at her, the rule breaker you couldn’t help but instantly forgive, the lovable scamp. More incredulously, I believe she was genuinely sorry for having done something “wrong,” even if everyone, including her, knew that she would do it again when the moment arrived.8“I am being a bad dog. I am not sure why.” – Dug
She was obstinate and willful. I’d call her upstairs at bedtime and she would often pointedly ignore me, staying in the living room or on the stair landing. Five minutes later, though, I’d hear the soft “click, click, click” of nails on the hardwood, and she’d either jump up in bed, settling down to rest her head on my ankles, or curl up on the floor just to the side, but directly in the way of me getting out.
Quite frequently when returning from a walk, I’d be heading for the front door and she would simply collapse in the yard, going completely rag doll on me because she thought it would be a far better idea to sleep in the grass for awhile than go back inside. I could nudge her, push her, pull her, call her… nothing mattered. If I pressed the issue, she’d roll on her back, legs in the air, kicking around to show how great everything was. One day, I returned the behavior, dropped and rolled around on the grass, making the same noises. She stopped and looked at me strangely for a moment, then joined back with me again, both of us rolling in the grass, limbs flailing, and grunting until we just laid there resting. As can probably guess, we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in the yard, even though I’m sure the neighbors decided I must be crazy.
I’m at a point in my life where the disillusionment of experience has led to me struggling with the cynicism of seeing the stark, smothering, ephemeral pointlessness of reality; the understanding that yes, this really is the worst of times and far worse, it’s always been the worst of times. Our leaders are just the popular ones, the bullies, or the “things should be done my way” kids that we didn’t really like in school. Our communities and movements largely just collections of vindictive prejudices that rationalize a desire to control others by wrapping everything in a benevolent, manipulative haze. We don’t vote for things anymore, we vote against them. Civilization has advanced in spite of all of this, and while it’s the worst of times, it’s still the best time to have been alive in human history. But I’ve become increasingly pessimistic, and have largely responded by acknowledging that I can’t change it and that it’s better to simply do as much as I can to sidestep the circus and live my life the way I want to.
The above paragraph probably seems really out of place in a love letter to my dead dog, but bear with me. There is a point to it, I promise.
In the midst of this encroaching personal darkness, Laska was that sunbeam cutting through storm clouds. Of course, I never actually thought that in any conscious way, nor do I have some unrealistic hippie dream that it’s all going to be fine if we would all just love each other.
Except that maybe I do. Not in the glurgey rom-com way or sanctimonious preachy way so prevalent these days, but in a much more low-level, fundamental way; the “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it”9George Bernard Shaw way. We don’t have to put flowers in our hair and sing Kumbaya, but if we’d all just be a little nicer, a little kinder, a little more tolerant, and a little less rigid by default, the difference would be massive.
Laska was the personifi… caninification of all of this. She was a happy dog. She liked pretty much everyone. Except maybe that one, snooty dog with a beard who never wanted to say hi, or that bulldog from across the street who had it out for her (until thankfully moving away earlier this year). Even so, if either one had stopped by the yard for a quick circling sniff and a zoom or two, all would be forgiven and right with the world.
Love and (the Right) Light and Learning
No, this isn’t the sappy movie ending wrap-up speech where Laska taught me to love and we all learned something today, but she was definitely one of those creatures that inspire sayings like “we don’t deserve dogs.” Which is completely backwards, of course. We absolutely deserve dogs if only we’ll try understanding what they offer… they’re the ones who’ve got it right. Love yourself. Love your friends. Everything is awesome if you just take a moment to see it in the right light. And for Laska, the light was always right. Well, maybe except for a really windy day. She didn’t care for that too much.
Remember gruff, grumpy, old Ray from twelve years ago naming the dog “Weasel?” Well, I found out a few years into Laska’s life that her name actually meant more than “weasel” and that the universe has a funny way of knowing more than we do. “Laska” is also a term of endearment in several slavic languages meaning “love”10It can also mean affection, kindness, tenderness, and odor. Thankfully that last one wasn’t true too often. (in the same way we might say “honey” or “dear”). Yes, she was a weasel, but she was also love. And here, now, at the end of her life, I’m not sure which of those two meanings was the more appropriate.
So in the absence of an appropriate vocabulary, let’s just leave this all at “I am devastated.” The house is too silent. I still step over the now empty space next to the bed in the middle of the night. I find a hair on my shirt and burst into tears. I keep listening for the “click, click, click” of toenails coming down the hall. I know things will get better in time, even if, in this moment, I can’t see how they possibly could. And I’m already feeling sorry for the next dog we share our lives with, because it will be near-impossible to live up to the amazing creature Laska was. Unfair, but true.
But in the midst of all the despair, the emptiness, the hole in my heart, I’m also thinking about Laska’s infectious joie de vivre. I’m finally beginning to understand, just as I finally understood she was my favorite, that while she was with me I was quietly learning from her example. It’s still a long way to me being that carefree, easygoing, spontaneous guy who doesn’t worry about the future,11”Worrying means you suffer twice.” – Newt Scamander/J.K. Rowling but I know that the occasional “what would Laska do?” consideration will help guide me on the path.
And I know what I’ll be whistling as I go.
- 1Here’s what I originally wrote about it: “I like the vibe of this one. It can be a little spooky, or a little off-kilter, or quietly happy, all depending on what you bring to it. I can definitely hear it as the soundtrack to a short film, or a cue in something larger.”
- 2The other Laska song is “I Know it’s Five O’clock Somewhere from Song-A-Day 2018.
- 3If you haven’t watched the movie Up, or the series Dug Days yet (Disney), please do. You’ll see more than a tiny bit of Laska in Dug, and it will make you happy. My short film idea is a bit different, but if I never manage to make it, Dug Days is a pretty good substitute.
- 4It sucks that I have to keep using this Lemony Snicket quote, but it is simply one of the most profound encapsulations of grief I’ve ever found: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”
- 5Mary swears she didn’t train her to do it.
- 6She claims she never agreed to this.
- 7I should also give some credit to my former boss, Tim, whose love of weasels and calling people weasels was undoubtedly floating around back in my subconscious.
- 8“I am being a bad dog. I am not sure why.” – Dug
- 9George Bernard Shaw
- 10It can also mean affection, kindness, tenderness, and odor. Thankfully that last one wasn’t true too often.
- 11”Worrying means you suffer twice.” – Newt Scamander/J.K. Rowling