Saturday, April 14, 2007

bits of stuff to read

I try not to only read just serious stuff and I recently finished a trade paperback of Paul Dini's work on Detective. Yep, in case I hadn't mentioned this anywhere else I'm a Batman fan. I've got all the cartoons for the DC animated universe and while I'm not much of a TV or movie watcher lately I still pop in an episode or two now and then and still like to read a comic book once in a while. My brother recently got me the first three volumes of one of my favorite comic book titltes ever, Maison Ikkoku. See, after about ten years of absorbing Kafka, Dostoesky, Didion, Conrad, and other "serious" authors I finally hit a point where I wanted something that was the complete opposite of that stuff and a fizzy romantic comedy comic book by a Japanese woman is about as opposite as you can get from serious, earnest dead white guys from Eastern Europe!

Hanging out on web forums is interested, sort of. It gives you a chance to see how nostalgia can be unfettered by any sense of proportioning reason. Take a super-geek point of reference, worries that Michael Bay's new Transformers movie is going to disrespect the source material. I just dont see that happening, not because I'm convinced Michael Bay is a great cinematic auteur (or that the auteur explanation holds up in the end) but because I do not have a particular childhood fondness for the original cartoon unqualified by all other ordinary characteristics about being an adult male in his 30s. I mean, yeah, I've got a lot of cartoons but the cartoons are all cartoons I bought after seeing them as an adult and liking them as an adult. I have not bought things exclusively for the reason that I liked the cartoons as a kid and therefore had to be able to show any possible future kids what I grew up watching. Not that people can't do THAT, of course, but the more I see on-line debates suggesting that Bay is going to destroy the potential subtlety and nuance of Transformers or miss how the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons serve as a metaphor for our own battles about energy resources and the environment ...

Sorry guys (and I know most of you ARE guys) but that is a childishly simplistic explanation that ignores the fact that if the ecological motiff is really the thrust of the show why are the good guys a bunch of old vehicles that hog gas while the bad guys are jets. Are the good guys good guys only because they have lower carbon emissions relative to the bad guys? Not saying you can't like the cartoon after all this time but I'm just saying ripping on Bay for being Bay is not going to make the premise of Transformers any more profound than it already is ... which is to say not at all.

Hmm, how did I ... oh, yeah, from one comic book story to a cartoon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why?

I recently joined a discussion board for classical guitarists and one of the questions was (go visit the delcamp forums if you want to find it) why do we do it? Why do we classical guitarists spend weeks or months perfecting a musical performance of something that isn't even our own music and only lasts a few minutes? For me the question is more pressing of why I compose music even though virtually no one listens to it.

I haven't gotten much in the way of feedback from my family about my music over the last six or seven years. My brother likes some of it but admits that he doesn't understand a lot of it and sometimes I'm not sure he really likes a lot of it. Writing song lyrics is immensely time-consuming because I've read too much Eliot, Donne, Stevens, Frost, and poets like that to settle for "moon" and "June" rhymes. And musically, well, it gets worse when you not only the cliches of pop music but the cliches of classical music and want to avoid BOTH sets of cliches if possible. In fifteen years I have written approximately ... 30 to 35 songs that I am not so ashamed of that I would be unwilling to play them now.

But for me that's still good because I remember a band from my college days. They changed their overall sound at least three times and put out three CDs worth of albums and the last phase was, no disrespect meant to them personally, some of the worst stuff I've heard. They went from a Rush knock-off to a Dave-Matthews knock-off to some kind of ambiant electronica outfit that issued what amounted to one tedious song in nine installments. If I wanted that I'd actually go out and buy a Phillip Glass album.

Being able to a write a song and having the feeling that even if you played it for no one but yourself you could do that for the next ten years, that is a feeling you get and you feel like the song is worth while. Music is a gift from the Lord, a gift that we can work on even if no one but the Lord and the individual musician can hear. I'm sure David wrote psalms for corporate worship but he also wrote music as a way to commune with the Lord.

Now because I hate to pump up the creative process because I've seen too many artists of all stripes make art their idol, I hesitate to say this, but when the Lord gives you musical ability and you have cultivated that through discipline (I am at a point where I don't believe there is any thing like a prodigy if you really look at what the so-called prodigies did) then by cultivating the gifts God has given you and dedicating those gifts to Him you get these rare but precious moments where by composing music as an act of devotion to the Lord He meets you where you are at. But like any other act of worship you have to prepare your heart, mind, and body for that. It's mundane stuff. It's setting aside if nothing else one day or night a week where no one and no thing can bother you and that, my fellower readers or bloggers, requires more discipline than possibly anything else. You have to shut out friends and family and your own worries about what the future holds and recognize that because the Lord gave you the opportunity to make music for the Lord you do it for Him and you also do it for you. This isn't selfish if in this process you delight in the Lord.

Now maybe that sounds dumb but it is something I have discovered slowly after sixteen years. But it's also not easy. There are times when I would like to be able to show my music to someone and have them not only like it but understand it. Music conveys very little and music with words, paradoxically, often conveys less than that. I had a friend in college who went for years thinking the song "Lola" was about a guy dancing with a pretty girl and he had a great experience with a girl listening to that song only to find out about ten years later that that was not exactly what the song "Lola" was about! Bummer, man! Finding out that a song you loved for years wasn't what you thought it was about, though, is proof that David Byrn and the rest of Talking Heads were probably right--lyrics are just a trick to get people to listen to music longer.

Of course if you don't want to write lyrics as spotty as those of Talking Heads you take a different approach and that's why I have spent upwards of two and a half years hammering out a lyric for a song that, all told, takes about four and a half minutes. In another case I spent two years working out lyrics that on the page are probably ... what, half a page? Why? I think if there were just one reason any of us did stuff like this we would have stopped doing it long, long ago.

But one thing is certain, if you plan to be any kind of composer or artist you have to make sure you devote yourself to it as a discipline because if you don't, well, it's not even a hobby. It alarms me how much work hobbies really are. I have been working on a piano sonata now for almost ten years and have been having to basically teach myself the piano technique I need to even play the thing. I have had to work on what my composition professor taught me twelve years ago and add to that years of studying counterpoint, form, theory, history, and continuously exploring and re-exploring aspects of my music to achieve what I'm aiming for.

And eventually, the scary thing is, you have to run it by people who won't spare your feelings if they're sensitive. You have to find someone who will savage your work to its core--tell you your lyrics don't make any sense; that the modulations are unconvincing; that your forms are worn-out and cliched; that your music has good themes but the forms are too messy and long for their own good. You have to find people who will kill your darlings for you because you are too afraid to kill them yourself.

But you also have to find people who are willing to do this for you and have the wisdom and experience in what they do to help you make your work better. No artist can possible exist within a vacuum and no artist is evere self-made in any respect. Even if you compose for yourself you are not finally composing just for yourself and you have to interact with people to grow as a musician. I learned a lot being in a band that went absolutely nowhere, and I do mean nowhere. Arguing and debating and rehearsing and discussing all things lyrical and musical with two guys who I often disagreed with taught me invaluable lessons about what does and doesn't come over in music all around.

And despite the possibility that the songs I wrote with that band may never see the light of day beyond a handful of friends and family who have heard those songs, and an even smaller group of people who have told me they really liked the music I worked on, those two or three people gave me feedback that I still treasure. Vaudeville isn't gone at all--everyone has a small group of people they trust to tell them they suck but they're getting better and any artist who can develop or have hopes of developing needs that, chiefly the people who can tell them they're getting better and show them how to get better.

And sometimes when all that is lacking for a time you have to find joy in the very nature of the work itself. The arts just don't seem to be something where it pays to be very goal-oriented. It pays to be process-oriented with the awareness that goals are ways to goad the process along. I don't write music so that I can look back and say I accomplished this or that. I write music because I realize that of all the ways I explored a process in composition A I realize, in hindsight, I neglected all sorts of good possibilities that wouldn't have worked for composition A but would sound pretty neat in composition B. It's what my composition prof once called "a sense of play".

Now, of course, I would eventually like SOMEONE to hear my piano sonata after I've finished working on it and I pray that it doesn't take much longer than ten years. Enjoying the process for its own sake only gets you so far in composing because performing the piece or having it performed is still part of the process. No one writes a symphony or a sonata that they never want performed. Something else happens when other people are involved, which is why music binds us together in strange and unexpected ways. You can write out every note of your piece over a period of years and yet when you sit down with musicians who are rehearsing the piece with you to interact with them you still learn things about the music that you couldn't imagine.

That's what's rewarding to me about classical music and even a pop song that you can play with someone else--it sounds too selfish to make sense in print but when you've written any piece of music that someone else has liked enough to play you begin to realize that you reveal things to others and yourself in your music that even you didn't really know were there. What you write and don't write opens a portal to who you are, especially as you begin to recognize recurring themes, melodies, harmonic progressions. You begin to wonder if anyone will hear or sense in your music what you find in it yourself. I had an associate write to me that he noticed an ironic sense of detachment that I have from my musical material but that's precisely what I don't sense in some music I've written where I have spent four years working on something that is about four minutes long. When the creative process takes that much time there's nothing ironic or detached in it for you! To put that much time, love, and work into a piece and have someone tell you it doesn't make any sense to theme and doesn't seem that good ... well, you can understand why you feel reluctant to share music with that person again! I don't blame anyone for feeling that way!

I recently helped a friend of mine transcribe a song. I won't get into details what the song is about or why the friend is working on it but helping him transcribe the song was a lot of fun for me. It wasn't particularly hard, either, but I had more fun helping him with that song of his than I have had in a while, a musical kind of fun. The reason I just don't relate to so much solo classical guitar repertoire in so many ways, even the great stuff, is that for me there is no sense of making the music together with someone.

Even if I'm helping a friend transcribe a song he wrote I get that feeling, that feeling that I am not just doing this for me but as a way to help someone. When I write sonatas or songs I don't just get a chance to express myself (and, really, is self-expression all that important by itself if everyone can do it anyway?) I have an opportunity to create something that, as I see things, gives me and others an opportunity to see how the way the Lord created things can be mirrored in what I create.

I especially like the idea, as a composer, that the microcosm contains within itself the macrocosm. In other words:

Hidden within Adam's rib, as he sleeps,
the woman with whom he will fill the world.

There, I might as well make a little couplet out of it, while I'm at it. That's quite possibly the shortest poem I've ever written and I can't help but feel I'm unconsciously ripping off Milton or something. Too bad I don't like Milton!

Anyway, the idea that begets of itself more ideas is the greatest thing about composing classical music for me--being able to begin with a 30 second melody and spinning it out into eighteen minutes so that a person who knows what to look for can see how the seed grows into the plant.

The creative process, though, is about how the seed is planted and dies to become the plant and it must be cultivated at every step. It is the discipline of cultivating the plant that is the mark of the artist as I am coming to fairly dimly understand the process. Plenty of people have seeds who never become plants and some people let the plants become whatever they become without cultivation and think that by so doing they are the more "honest" artists when their plants are really weak and the garden that constitutes their total work is, well, not the kind of garden that yields food that other people savor all that much.

We always have to risk having done everything in vain. Even after ten years I have gone back to my piano sonata and rewritten huge sections; cutting off almost all of a recapitulation and slicing off a coda that I thought was nice; even removing an entire theme from a movement because it was beautiful but didn't work where I originally had it. And sometimes you have to step back and admit that you're trying too hard or not trying hard enough. To get to this point where you can do this by yourself as you're alone with your thoughts and with your work ... that's not easy.

The fiancee of a friend of mine said that in her line of work and study (science) failure is the essence of the thing. Most of what you do is a total wash, a failure, a thing that didn't come together. Failure is not something I feel comfortable with in most aspects of my life and that is a big problem because, well, no one succeeds without first failing over and over again. I am most comfortable with failing as an artist in a piece of music or a poem or an essay or blog entry because I have learned how to transform my failures into a way to begin new work. When you learn how to transform failure into a way of restrategizing your art and your artistic vision you begin to learn how to actually be a composer. You learn how to stop forcing the materials you work with to be what you want it to be and find ways to discover what they CAN be.

I remember a fellow I knew in college once said he felt that he was writing too much music and that's why he was burned out and not coming up with ways to finish an assignment. I advised him that if anything the opposite was true: he wasn't writing nearly enough. He was so obsessed with pinning down a sonata allegro form that he wasn't writing songs, he wasn't playing with a fugue exposition for something he might have, he wasn't writing in a style he hadn't worked in before, he wasn't dabbling with old ideas that he thought were finished. Recycling is not just an environmental concept! Pilfering from yourself and regenerating the material or even completely rewriting material from the ground up just using a concept is a good way to refire the creative engine.

For instance, when I was in my teens I wrote a poem that I liked that was a hybrid of Bob Dylan and T. S. Eliot. I had music (awful music) that was built around the text that was a big droning chord/boogie pattern with instrumental breaks that were structured along a series of modal shifts. Blame it on my listening to Kind of Blue and not getting how to get that kind of simple form to work. I think I had a harmonic shift based on the following sequence: mixolydian, dorian, aeolian, phrygian, locrian, lydian, back to major/minor. Now you can see how this "could" have been cool. I start with a hippie type mode that keeps chromatically dropping the seventh, then the sixth, then the second, then the fifth intervals of the mode before returning to the lydian more and raising literally all the modal points I had flattened throughout the solo. In other words, for someone who was listening to how the harmonic language was being compressed out of traditional major/minor harmony the form was easy to perceive. Problem was I sucked so it didn't matter that my idea was great I didn't have the musical skill or sense of broad harmonic understanding to get it to work, let alone any of my musical friends in high school. But I had what I thought would be a good song.

But now, setting aside the whole dubious notion I had of what was musically cool that was just a vamp, I don't like the old song for a completely different reason. I wrote that song sixteen years ago in the throes of premillenial dispensationalism. So about four years ago I scrapped the song at every level except for a handful of lines I liked. Even then I only used those lines as a springboard for a new variation on the theme.

The original lines were roughly:

Now you can say, "Even Lucifer can feel pain."
But can you say, "He didn't get what he deserves"?
Remember that the fate of the master
Is the fate of the one who serves.

And I have retooled it a bit:

How many years has the devil spent
Wondering if he can ever repent?
Do you think he lives life on the run?
Do you think he thinks he's the only one
Who can say, "I don't have what I deserve?"
"Who can say whether I am right or wrong?"
"If I say what I want should that unnerve
When it's all that I've wanted all along?"

Not as good in some ways but still servicable for a song lyric. I guess my real point is to say that even if I don't finish the song I've started as a way of rewriting my old song I can use my reaction to what I feel to be an artistic immaturity in the old stuff as a way to spur the new stuff. So if you're like me and actually feel embarrassed by songs you wrote in your teen years under the sway of Hal Lindsey you can write a new song reacting to your old song by employing an eschatology more informed by partial preterism. I mean, this sort of reacting to misunderstandings or shortcomings in your own work got Sting working, even if I think "Set Them Free" isn't even close to being as good as "Every Breath you Take". The point here isn't to say you shouldn't write songs reacting to your old ones because the new ones will suck!

But it sure does help to have someone to play your music for. In my experience, for better and worse, family is NOT the audience that can help you. Even though I've never dated anyone in my life this will go double for girlfriends or boyfriends or spouses who are probably by and large so enamored of YOU that they're not objectively capable of telling you if there's an actual problem with either the music or text you wrote ... unless they're comparably up on musical or literary forms to point out that you mixed your metaphors or employed a harmonic retrogression that doesn't support the restless, forward thrust of a particular lyric. For instance, take Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". He was a good enough of a poet AND a songwriter to make sure the chords that play under "the minor fall and the major lift" do EXACTLY the same thing musically as the words express textually. Text-painting is a virtually unknown art in pop music, though, and I admit that most of the time I don't care about it but I will say that if you're going to pound away on some thematic notion like "I'm horny" it doesn't hurt to bang away at one chord as a harmonic pedal point for six minutes the way Led Zeppelin did because the musical means will support the literary end. Okay, forget that I put "literary" and Led Zeppelin in the same sentence!

Not that it proves anything since I've never had any music published but all that was to say "That's what you need musician friends for" if you're a musician. In fact the creepy discovery I have made not having my music played or heard by anyone for the most part is that if you DON'T have musical friends then beyond the One who knows all and sees all and you you are, for all intents and purposes, simply not a musician at all! It's the old question about the tree falling in the wilderness and whether there's sound only in this case there's no room for question. Humanly speaking music that is unheard by anyone but Jesus doesn't exist. That's why I hope to exist, so to speak, eventually.

As I was saying before, family can't be objective about the creative process unless they can double up as musical friends. If your dad was J. S. Bach then he's a trustworthy friend indeed! If your dad was Dmitri Shostakovich he might be a jerk about saying amateurs shouldn't play but he would at least let you know when you weren't an amateur anymore, thus his son's career. Mozart's dad rewrote a number of his pieces and I'm willing to bet those rewrites were good but most of us don't have Mozart's dad!

Then again, if you write in more than one style it helps to have friends whose interests reflect that diversity. I can't play my would be rock or pop songs for friends who only listen to classical music and I can't play the classical music for friends who only know pop or jazz and expect them to get what's going on. But that's also part of the fun because the way I see it finding ways to synthesize the vocabularies and forms of both styles helps blur the distinctions so that one day you can write a piece that, Lord willing, the pop fans can like and the classica fans can like. When I heard a co-worker who listened only to rock complement me on a piece I wrote for flute and guitar I really felt like I was getting somewhere as an artist.

But I've rambled about this question of "why" enough for one night.

sundry junk

I picked up a few discs of guitar music by Mertz but mostly Sor. I'm starting to see why Sor is so well respected. He actually tackles some longer-scale forms and has a nice tuneful way about him. I don't remember if it was he or Tarrega who was regarded as the 'Beethoven of the guitar' but I don't quite see it. I mean, I can sort of see how relative to the scale of what the guitar can accomplish compared to what the orchestra accomplishes; and then taking that into consideration in light of what Sor (or Tarrega?) achieved at the time ... yeah, I guess the shoe fits. But it seems Beethoven stretched the boundaries not only of technical accomplishments but of formal and theoretical accomplishments, too, and for this reason no non-guitarist music historian or critic would ever take seriously that being the 'Beethoven of the guitar' was anything more than egregious hyperbolic sucking up to a guitarist composer who doesn't even register beyond the world of the classical guitarists. Which is a little unfair both ways because I can see why Sor is well-regarded and, taking the blinders off folks, Beethoven wrote some pretty awful music along with all that good stuff.

Well, a short update of things that aren't exactly happening but could happen. I've sent off a few music scores to different musicians and while everyone's busy now amongst those folks there's some interest, so that in itself will suffice for now as far as I'm concerned.

For budget reasons and some future plans I'm taking a break from most concerts, or at least specifically symphonic concerts. So far there's just two local shows I plan to see. One is when Seattle Symphony plays Bluebird's Castle and a piece by Kurtag (I've got reasons for that that I won't reveal here); and the other is coming up this Saturday. A Messiaen/Prokofiev/Stravinsky/Debussy concert program is pretty hard for me to resist.