Friday, March 19, 2010

Classical guitarists seeing other six-stringers as the enemy of real music

I last week finished a prelude and fugue in F minor for solo guitar. It is hardly a long piece, about three and a half minutes, just the right length to be a pop song on the radio. Of course it won't be. Nevertheless I am happy that I finished the 9th of a projected 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar. If I am fortunate I may even find people to perform and publish them and can join Igor Rekhin in being a footnote in the history of guitar repertoire for being the second person to compose a set of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.

I have been considering the attitude those of us who play classical guitar have toward those who play guitar but not the classical kind. It really is frequently a stupid and condescending attitude! The most prominent and flamboyant offender in this mentality would probably have to be Segovia who, in response to some kind words by George Harrison said of the Beatles that even as illegitimate children he could not accept them musically despite them being nice boys and all. Fortunately the Beatles did not have to worry about, as it were, Segovia being a deadbeat dad who refused to pay child support! I'll be first to admit I only really ever liked the album Revolver but the Beatles did a respectable job writing pop songs. I prefer Dylan by far but that's another matter entirely.

It is a relief to know that there are plenty of classical guitarists who don't automatically look with disdain on popular styles of music. We should recall that the gap between popular and "art" styles of music has never been so great or onerous as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century. When famous composers of "classical" music have included musicians who played in street bands ranging from Haydn to Villa-Lobos we ought to know better than to create some silly dichotomy between "high" and "low".

Nevertheless this impulse to distinguish between the two poles permeates humanity. People who prefer high liturgy can often see other churches that have a lower liturgy as not even having liturgy. Conversely people who prefer low liturgy will often convince themselves that they don't HAVE liturgy in their church when they patently do! If you have sacraments of communion or baptism in your services the, congratulations, you've got yourself some liturgy. Do you have public prayers? Reading from scripture? Teaching? Then, yep, you've got liturgy. It might be minimalist or even barely recognizable as liturgy but you've got it.

By the same measure, pop music may not have a lot of complexity in terms of content or form but it's got content and form and is still music. I was noticing over on a discussion forum I'm part of for classical guitarists how people have lamented cliches in pop music lyrics about romantic love. Hey, I resent them, too, but if you've ever actually READ lyrics to songs by John Dowland you'd probably find yourself saying that the people who write songs for Britney Spears are pretty much in the same level. No offense meant to John Downland fans but there's more intellectual substance to lyrics by Rush and I don't even LIKE that band! Respect? Yes. Enjoy? Not really ... except for YYZ. I have to grant them that's a fun instrumental.

Many works for classical guitar are beautiful but many of them can still come across as the sorts of show pieces that show up on rock and pop albums to demonstrate that the pop maestro "could" do the classical thing but prefers to rock out. Billy Joel spent years overcompensating for "the tyranny of the lyric" and about all he proved to me is that if he wanted to get into classical music it would have helped to have been active in that stuff from the start of his career. Old rock and pop stars turn to other styles of music when their careers start to flag. Joel turned to piano music and classical stuff. McCartney wrote an oratoria.

Elton John did musicals and Disney soundtracks. At the risk of indulging in a terrible stereotype Broadway and Disney are gay enough that John has undoubtedly had the smartest alternative to a simple rock career. No disrespect meant, its a move that makes the most sense because it actually fits. It was a natural extension of his artistic temperament. Of the cross-over artists only Elton John has crossed over into an idiom that makes sense and doesn't suggest he's overcompensating for a failure in his original domain of popularity. At the other end of this trying-too-hard witness Phil Colllin's so-called acting career.

This could all still be used to prove Matanya Ophee's axiom that even in the world of popular music everyone else does crossover work IN ADDITION to their established career while classical guitarists are tempted to do it INSTEAD. All of the repertoire tends to be lollipop repertoire anyway so in some ways (in my crankiest moments) I don't see that there's much difference. Serious guitar repertoire is to serious chamber music everywhere else what "pop" music is to "serious" rock--yes, we can say it's technically in the same domain in terms of musical vocabulary but no one within those spheres of creation want to be considered in the same category. If classical guitarists who are snobby about pop music had any notion of how they are looked down as being similarly bereft of musical substance we might be more humble about how "important" the things we do and play really are.

Of ocurse I say all this as a hobbyist and an amateur. Perhaps professionals have the luxury of being snobby because they make a living at it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

And can it be that Benny Hinn
Should, now, against Joel Osteen speak
That all Joel's words are not but sin
and his doctrine of demons reek?

Long Hinn within Orlando played
And said the Trinity was nine
"This is your day" his program said
A best life now no less divine.

Amazing balls, how can it be
That Hinn scolds Osteen's heresy?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Remembering an incident from high school

The incident was that I got some piece of paper that told me (as best I can barely remember it) that I was something like in the top 1 percent of high school students in the United States for academic achievement. My first reaction (in light of my observation that I felt like I had been basically coasting my way through what would turn out to be somewhere around a 3.7 GPA) was "Really? This generation is doomed!" If yours truly was in the upper echelons what hope did my generation have? You could infer from this that I have always had that sunny disposition that appears in these blog entries.

Yet I have been tempered since that time by more than a few readings of Ecclesiastes. The past was not really all that good and it is foolish to ask where the good old days have gone that were better than these. The only thing I'm less optimistic about than the future is to look back fondly on the past. The past was not, really, all that great. If the future is so bright I have to wear shades then that future is the explosion of crisis.

I don't feel particularly bad for what may be considered the decline of Western civilization because I'm no longer convinced that the alternatives are better or that the decline is actually preventable. We are ourselves the decline of western civilization we see in others. Even those who would consider themselves the solution are merely another manifestation of the problem. Hope that things will improve here and now is a luxury for fools. No, I haven't read any Lovecraft and have better things to do with my time. As I was writing earlier, the incident from high school comes to mind as a memory of how I have long had this positive disposition.

Internet Monk and cancer

This is, for those who are familiar with his work, not exactly new news. He has cancer and the news is that he has maybe a few months to live.

This year has already been a year in which I have become acutely aware of death and failure (which are not things I was particularly unaware of before, just in case anyone was wondering). I have been trying and failing in my job hunt for nearly half a year now. I discovered that an old high school associate has come down with cancer. Another person I was acquainted with just after my college days was murdered by her stalker. So I am more than a little acquainted with the reality that even in the midst of life we face death.

I know iMonk is going to die, possibly even before the year is out. I trust the Lord has him in His hands. I have no problem praying the Lord would be gracious enough to heal him of this sickness even as I myself have had family praying for me for decades to be healed of a physical condition that has never actually improved and at one point got catastrophically worse. That Christ Himself prayed in the garden a prayer that was given a resounding 'no' that sent Him to the Cross means I do not have to feel bad praying that the Father would intervene even in a case that is utterly hopeless. As the three young men said, "We are confident that God will deliver us yet even if He does not we will not bow down before that idol." There are reasons that the Gospel is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, even those Gentiles and Jews who, as it were, are within the Christian faith.

What I have most appreciated about Michael's blogging is that he has found ways to articulate what it looks like to be the professing Christian who, nevertheless, when confronted with who Christ is finds His actual teaching to be foolishness or a stumbling block. I have respected him for being able to criticize even those teachers and preachers he respects.

I've never met the man. We've traded emails a handful of times over the years and he is at least acquainted with some people I know, but I have benefited a great deal from his writing over the years. Thanks to a link he posted I found a church in Seattle I have been attending after a significant crisis in my life about where exactly I would fellowship. A friend had advised me around that general period to not leave merely out of dissatisfaction but that if the Lord opens up a positive direction forward (as He did for a friend of mine) that that was a great reason to move into a new direction. Thanks to a link from iMonk, that positive new direction materialized when I heard a sermon that helped me better understand one of the psalms and to have a clear sense of a place where scripture was taught in a way that reached me in areas where I am weak. I have iMonk to thank for that, even though we've never met and at best are merely strangers who have traded a handful of emails.

At some point we all struggle with whether or not the Lord is good, if we are Christians. It is not merely inevitable it is a necessary part of the journey of faith. If we never doubt whether or not God is for us and have no pangs of conscious then how certain can we really be the Lord is actually for us, He who died for our sins out of love? Michael wrote clearly and succinctly about those sorts of struggles, and also wrote clearly and succinctly about how in many ways American evangelicals invite resentment and distrust because we are the Pharisees that we claim to not be like. We are the Sadducees who have traded in the eruptive power of Yahweh for a settled society that gives us what we want and the stability and prosperity we lean on as a gift of God given to those who are wise and prudent. This quality in us is so pernicious we can embrace it fully while being certain we are NOT exemplifying it. We are, like Peter, apt to say "though all others desert you, Lord, I will not forsake you." Michael has done a good job of writing about what it is like to be Peter and to discover that you are not as faithful to the Lord as you imagined you would be.

When Christ comes to you having gone to the cross you have the opportunity to run from Christ or to run to Him. What I have always appreciated about Michael's writing is that he lays out that stark set of options and has always urged people to run to Christ and not from Him. It can be easy to find yourself effectively saying "No" to Christ because of the sinners He keeps company with. This is especially true for those who have been hurt by churches, who would sooner live their lives in a bar picking up people than to set foot in a church after the things they have been hurt by.

It could have been an opportunity for Michael to say something like, "you cannot have God as your father unless you call the Church your mother". He has not, by and large, said that. The mother of God's people is so far from perfection that many of the debates about the Bride more or less center on which limb is less gangrenous than the other! God's bride (Israel) is depicted as a cheating whore who goes so far as to PAY others so that she can commit adultery. That is a bad and pathetic prostitute indeed who has to pay her customers to use her. That is who the Bride of Christ is, ourselves who are being redeemed by Christ from that impulse, from that embrace of death as life.

Michael has, I believe, done an effective job of reminding those of us who are Christians that we badly need the savior we often present as not having so badly been needed. He has been effective in arguing that in many cases we in the Church present ourselves as the mediator of Christ whle little realizing how badly we need Christ to mediate for us, not the other way around. We have often been the very obstacles to Christ that have been stumbling blocks to those who would otherwise come to Him and yet we feel ourselves to be persecuted because of an often listless and lacklustre faith. For all these things I have appreciated Michael's persistence even when he wrote things I didn't agree with or just found a bit dull. I kept returning and keep returning to his blog because his passion for Christ is indisputable.

demagogues and self-exoneration

I have thought lately about how demagogues attain their place. They manage to appeal to our basest instincts while employing our loftiest rhetoric, they delude us with our own delusions and drive us forward by appealing to our basest fears.

What may be considered both a liberal and a conservative canard is formulating an argument that "YOU" are part of an oppressed and beleaguered group of people with whom the speaker identifies. The land and its wealth do not really belong to you until it is you, specifically, who have some kind of ownership in it. You become representative of the whole and the demagogue speaks in such a way as to make the appeal, you feel, directly to you.

He or she proposes to be the fractal image of the whole by example and, if you will, presents himself or herself as a kind of enacted parable to embody those down and out qualities you feel in yourself even while rising steadily through whatever cutthroat measures he or she deems fit to use in ascendency. Cue some smug axiom that you should be thankful for all the little people because it was over them you crawled to get to the top. It sounds cute to say when you're not crushing opposition a la Tianneman Square or Krystalnacht. Everyone who rises to the level of being able to crush someone else's reputation is able to employ the rhetoric of the underdog.

That alpha dog so revel in selling themselves as underdogs regardless of their cause should make us all the more skeptical about its deployment. It is the smartest of smart weapons in rhetoric because it seems so patently dumb! It is the sort of glorious assertion that can appeal to trust fund liberals who believe they should bring some kind of socialist utopia to it just as it can appeal to wage slave conservatives who think that if they just make the case that their overpaid bosses be allowed to speculate with investor capital that that will bring real freedom to them. I, obviously, look with no small amount of suspicion on both directions for using this sort of rhetorical device.

Yet, I suppose, in a sad sort of way it isn't hard to suggest that a great way for a demagogue to become a demagogue is to appeal to young men, particularly because young men who have been stymied or thwarted professionally and sexually are so ready to cast about for something, anything, that can help them attain what they desire. Indeed, anyone who can help them galvanize their desires into what feels like an acceptable outlet becomes a hero no matter how checkered or even dark that person's history and personality may be.

We exonerate our favorite demagogues because through them we exonerate ourselves. This will not do. We should not exonerate the screeds and abuses and harm done by our warriors, whatever those causes and whomever those single combat combatants might be, simply because it helps us to feel we are on the right side. One of the great enemies of integrity manifests in special pleading. If you excuse in your hero rhetoric that you would damn in another, if you excuse in your pet champion what you decry in your self-appointed foe then you've lost the battle in moral terms. This is why I have for years been persuaded that Jesus was crucified by the vote of a bipartisan committee. Neither Democrats nor Republicans would have allowed Him to live. The "Christian nation" would have crucified Christ faster than Israel did and for lesser reasons.

Yet I am immensely grateful to have been born in the United States and to have benefited from the almost limitless beauty of the culture it has embraced. I am pleased that I am able to so thoroughly study works by Shostakovich who lived in a nation Reagan called an evil empire. I am grateful to live in a land where people have developed the internet and mass communication and art in ways that are amazing. The ugliest appeals appeal to our longing for beauty and say that if you just make this sacrifice that beauty can be yours.

The line of a demagogue could be easily summed up in a line from Michael Bay's first Transformers movie, "No sacrifice, no glory." The question can easily become then, "what sacrifice?" and then "what glory?" It may be instructive to ask these questions in another way, "Whose sacRIFICe?" and "For whose glory?" If you sacrifice yourself for your own glory what is left of you to share in that glory? If you sacrifice others for your own glory then you have made a sacrifice of others and what good have you accomplished?

We must recognize the demagogue in ourselves before we can repudiate the demagogue outside us. This doesn't mean that we cannot or should not want the things that tempt us to encourage the demagogue within and without. Satan tempted Jesus to make stones into bread because Jesus was hungry. Christ repudiated the path of the demagogue for our sake. Christ accomplished on our behalf what we continually fail to achieve for ourselves, a sacrifice that revealed His glory. Our sacrifices frequently reveal our shame even in the midst of the things we are most proud of. Our sacrifices reveal our idols. Our sacrifices reveal whom other than Yahweh we value even as we claim to do His will. After all, those who killed Christ and the apostles were, as Jesus warned the disciples, certain that in so doing they were doing God a favor!

God through Ezekiel rebuked shepherds whose ultimate goal was to feed themselves off the flock He appointed them over. It is not merely shepherds who seek to feed themselves and not others. If you go into service amongst God's people seeking to gain something prepare for the bitterest of disappointments. John who said "he must become greater and greater while I must become less and less", even he struggled in the end and asked, "Are you the one we are seeking or should we seek another?" It was to John through his own messengers that Jesus said "blessed is the one who does not take offense at me". Many of us struggle even to muster up the curiosity to ask. John went to his death having the answer that Christ gave him.

Christ is not the demagogue we can turn to so that we may exonerate our own desires and dreams. He is the one who asks us to fail for the sake of the success only He can give us. Who ever loves his life will lose it but whoever hates his life for the sake of Christ will gain it. Certainly as someone who keeps trying to find work this is not merely an abstraction to me. I fail every week I fail to write a cover letter and resume that gets anyone even slightly interested in calling me in for an interview. I do not know what the future holds and the dread of a disastrous future looms more prominently than disappointments of the past.

A demagogue is the sort of person who can sense this general malaise amongst many and capitalize on it. He or she can step into this anxiety and say "If you follow where I am going you will reach the promised land." For young men this temptation is uniquely strong because, it seems to me, we have a job market and have had a job market in which people struggle to find work and where many professions no longer seem to even have a place. It has been ever thus but every generation is bound to feel profoundly lonely in the moment when the moment strikes them. You apply for jobs that other people get, maybe foreigners, maybe people that you are certain can't even be legal citizens. They might be, you can't know for sure.

It is into this sense of anxiety of wanting SOMEONE to be to blame so that you don't feel like you bear the weight of your own failure yourself, that a demagogue becomes useful. It is perhaps the case that were demagogues not volunteering for the position we should have to go nominate them against their wills on the basis of their compelling talent! We can blame the demagogue after the fact for being one ... but do we count ourselves responsible for basking in his or her light? Do we see in him or her the mirror that their vice holds up to ourselves? Does he or she even need to be OUR demagogue to reveal this lack of charity in us?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A pet peeve: "We all have problems"

There has been a discussion over on a php forum I participate in about the least favorite cliches people have. It tends to read more as a litany of colloquialisms people find annoying or offensive rather than a discussion of cliches in their narrative or musical form. No one over there is saying stuff like "Oh how I hate the tear drop motiff in Baroque music! It's so fake and condescending!!" No one has yet opined that they can't stand trite I-IV-V progressions presented as though that were sufficient to be musically compelling. No one has yet groused about the egregious use of the rising major sixth from the tonic to mediant scale degrees after some verklemt chromatic noodling as a way to emotionally manipulate gullible audiences attending Romantic concertos in concert.

By the same measure no one has vented their spleen about the cliche of the lonely special boy or girl who has within themselves the key to unlimited greatness who just needs to withstand all the haters and discover their inner John Galt or Luke Skywalker or Alladin or whatever messiah/chosen one/neo trope you care to employ. No one has complained about the routines of the romantic comedy or the "rebel story". The most pernicous cliches are the ones through which we guide our own lives and understand ourselves, not the figures of speech that streamline and simplify communication. The cliche enquiry of "how was your day?" is not as dangerous as the cliche assumption that you are special and if the world just recognized how special you were life would be better or the cilche assumption that if you just work hard enough you won't really be subject to time and chance as Ecclesiastes warns you that you are.

Perhaps I should suggest that the cliche can be that which aspires to the status of a proverb but is not actually tested and found adequate by the measure of wisdom. Or, perhaps, the cliche does not attain the status of a proverb because it does not contain in it any actual wisdom because it amounts to the sapiential equivalent of "Where ever you go, there you are" or "Things are more like they are now than they have ever been before." A proverb may be a trite expression but a trite expression does not carry the weight of a proverb.

The vituperation over on the forum is generally reserved for the verbal equivalents of "have a nice day". There are comments about how some figure of speech sets their teeth on edge, like "action steps", "corporate speak" or the like. I understand that but none of those are quite on the same level for me as the false empathy and dismissive power of "We all have problems."

Well, I have of late realized that one of my peeves is about a particular rhetorical device that comes up as a blunt change of course in conversation, most often when a person wishes to either redirect a conversation or to tacitly express a lack of empathy in a way that allows them to exonerate themselves. That rhetorical flourish is, "We all have problems."

Yes, but in many cases that gesture can be either the means by which a person chooses not to turn a self-critical eye on themselves or to settle comfortably into not being particularly concerned about someone else. "We all have problems" might better be said as, "Well, see, I don't care because I'm fine, really. We all have problems but mine aren't important and that other person's problems are worse than mine."

You may, perhaps, know how this rhetorical flourish comes up in conversation. It can often come about by way of someone expressing concern about another person's situation (gossip this may be or not). A person might say something fairly dismissive of the person themselves and if you, say, suggest that we also may have similar character flaws and hint that this should give us pause the reply may come forth, "We all have problems."

What it means is "I'm not as bad as the person I'm not caring about." I may have problems but it's more fun to talk about the problems that other person has. That other person has a poor work ethic or has unrealistic standards in the opposite sex or is too fearful. Suppose I am bad at founding businesses that last longer than a couple of years because the basis of my business model needs improving? Suppose I lack empathy for others because I have become too cagey due to feeling used by other people? Suppose I think, mistakenly, that if I just avoid trusting people that people will be less likely to hurt me? All of those are significant, even spectacular problems, and yet I could dismiss all of that by saying "We all have problems." It's a brilliant conversational flourish. I'm not perfect ... but at least I'm better than you or that other person I was possibly just talking about. It is the would-be conversational panacea that accomplishes no healing. It speaks of peace even though there is still war.

The wisdom in Jesus' rebuke to Judas was not in saying "The poor you will always have with you." That by itself would merely be saying, "We all have problems". Jesus went further and said, "But you will not always have me." Now Jesus' observation that there will always be those who are poor IS wise but the crux of Jesus' wisdom in correcting those who looked down on the woman lay in going beyond observing what was obvious. Jesus was killed for telling people they had problems who thought they were the solution to the problems of other people. Jesus was killed by those who believed that they had in themselves the solution to their own problems, and not only those but the problems of the world. They had that solution in the form of what they believed was given to them. It was not, however, merely given to them but also, through Christ, to those whom they thought were not worthy of the gift through a means they considered unworthy of the gift.