Saturday, July 23, 2011

an observation from George Oldroyd about putting together fugue expositions

I don't have the page number reference handy but in his book The Technique and Spirit of Fugue George Oldroyd gave a bit of advice that I have found valuable that I think anyone attempting to write a fugue should consider. He wrote that too many students think they have done their work in writing a fugue if they simply have a bunch of melodies that all happen to keep the rules for counterpoint. He said that this is the difference between a merely competent writer of fugues and an actually good one.

His advice is that if you have yourself a subject and two countersubjects then lay them all out in sequence in the order in which they appear in your exposition as a continuous melodic line. Then sing that. If you have written a good fugue exposition then you will yourself happy with that melodic line. If you have ostensibly good counterpoint but you find that your three of our successive tunes don't form a musically pleasing single line then you had probably better go back to the drawing board. Somewhere along the way you wrote a merely perfunctory countersubject or maybe even have some problems in your subject itself. As someone who was steeped in choral music in college and even a bit in high school I find this test prescribec by Oldroyd to be immensely valuable. In fact I would say its value is impossible to overstate.

As a guitarist I feel it's even more important to put the whole issue of developing contrapuntal music in these terms because it can seem as though guitarists, when it comes to counterpoint, can be a bit easily pleased. By that I mean that we have a history of occasionally writing fugues while not working on aspects such as the interchangeable aspect of the voices in the exposition. If we compose expositions with no countersubjects and our middle entries employ long strips of free material then, yes, we've written ourselves some fugues because multiple melodies are moving around but my hope is that we guitarists can, over time, expand our approach to counterpoint as both a discipline and an art to incorporate more than simply having a few melodies going on at the same time that, were we to switch around their relationships, would reveal parlalel fifths and octaves. Our instrument is not a particularly forgiving one, I know! But we can still try.

That said, go get the fugal cycles of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Rekhin, and Koshkin's (when those get published). When you stop to think about it we guitarists have seen only in the last fifty years the creation of a systematic approach to the art of counterpoint that has been with keyboard literature for centuries. We have reason for cautious optimism. Our instrument's limitations may always remain severe but it is good to know there are guitarists and composers willing to tackle this as yet rarely explored possibility for our instrument. In fact Koshkin is the first guitarist-composer I know of to directly tackle the project. He's the first because he finished his cycle and is getting it published. I may be second or third. We'll see. I still am hunting for a regular job and am not a professional so I have a few different circumstances than Koshkin. I am, however, very much looking forward to studying and listening to his set!

Friday, July 22, 2011

HT: City of God: Girls Gone Mad

http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2011/07/the-wild-eyed-lunacy-of-bachmann-palin-pelosi-clinton-etc/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Bagnewsnotes+%28BAGnewsNotes%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

This link I discovered courtesy of Dan over at City of God.

What is interesting to me about the use of photos of wide-eyed or wiled-eyed female politicians is how shamelessly the tactic is employed not only by conservatives on Obama, Clinton, and Pelosi, but also by liberals. What is consistent is a very selective and often double-standardized outrage. "We"can employ the tactic of the hysterical woman politician (with all the implications of madness inherent in the word "hysteria" which suggests a madness deriving from having a womb, as etymology goes). But "you" can't and if you do it is proof of your mental and moral inferiority. What is dirty pool applied to Clinton or Obama or Pelosi should be dirty pool applied to Bachmann, Palin, or Malkin.

Now for the sorts of devoted complementarians who think no women should be fit for public office unless all the males have failed (thus various explanations for how and why Debra and Esther can't count in matters of public discourse if we were "really" a Christian society) all of the above is merely a matter of course. Of course Palin shouldn't be president, of course Hilary Clinton having public office is proof of how degenerate America has become. These sorts of folks probably wish Lincoln hadn't done anything, too, but that is, for the time being, a separate discussion.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

a contrarian review of Transformers Dark of the Moon

http://www.slate.com/id/2299346/pagenum/all/#p2


Now a great many bad reviews of Michael Bay's Transformers movie released this year have come out. In light of a recent article in Slate discussing what a book review ought to do I wish to consider that the rules laid out for a book review apply equally well to reviews of films.

A review should say what the movie is about; a review should say what the filmmaker says about the thing the movie is about; the reviewer should then go on to say what he/she thinks about what the filmmaker has said about the thing the movie is about.

Notice that if these are the three rules about how to write a proper book review that the vast majority of film critics did not bother to even discuss the first thing about the Michael Bay movie. They assume the film is about nothing, assume that Bay is incapable of saying anything they care about or agree with about that aforementioned nothing, and then proceed to dismiss the whole affair as beneath discussion but not beneath contempt. Now I would hardly say that Michael Bay is the best film-maker out there but he is not even so lazy as the majority of critics who dismiss his films are. Were I asked to decide who is the more lazy and imcompetent artist within one's chosen field I would be forcecd to say that the majority of critics who have given poor notices (probably in advance) about Transformers Dark of the Moon are lesser critics for this than Bay is a film-maker.

So, if the first rule about a proper review is to say what the film is about then here's a spoiler-laden discussion of what Dark of the Moon is about. It turns out that by the third Transformers movie we are told a story by Optimus Prime. This framing story is important in the set up for two reasons. The first is that it proposes to tell us important history in the Cybertronian war but the second is more important and it is the part that movie reviewers did not generally bother to discuss.

Thematically it is important to note that in each movie the introduction has been narrated by Optimus Prime, the Autobot leader. He describes how the planet Cybertron was once a peaceful place full of robots called Autobots and how the robots calling themselves Decepticons began a war believing conquest was their right and destiny. In the first two Transformers movies Optimus Prime reliably tells us the set-up for the things that are about to transpire in the movie. We find out what the appropriate McGuffins are that will drive the plot along whether the thing is a magical cube called the AllSpark in the first film or a Sun Harvester or a key in Revenge of the Fallen (which is still an utterly terrible film, by the way).

At the start of the third film Prime tells us that there was an Autobot ship called the Ark that fled Cyberton with important Autobot technology that would have changed the course of the war. To keep it out of Decepticon hands, Optimus tells us, the devices were placed on the Ark but as the Ark made its escape from Cybertron it was damaged and the devices were lost along with the ship and crew. The technology was invented by the former Autobot leader Sentinel Prime and would create a space bridge across space and time that would permit transportation of resources to change the course of the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. Being outgunned and outnumbered would no longer be a problem once the Autobots established this multidimensional logistics advantage.

In the present the Autobots are still doing a clean-up operation with humans to wipe out the Decepticons remaining from the battles in Revenge of the Fallen. Apparently there are still a whole bundle of them out there. Investigating reports of alien robots at Chernobyl Optimus Prime discovers a Decepticon named Shockwave. Prime and the Autobots return to the United States and Optimus Prime speaks with humans about how humanity lied about how much they knew about Cybertronians. A human explains that the whole space race in the Cold War was in response to the crash landing of a space ship on the dark side of the moon in the 1960s. Optimus Prime states that the ship was the Ark and goes to retrieve its crew and contents. The crew leader turns out to be Sentinel Prime and the contents the devices for the space bridge.

Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky, who has saved the day twice in the previous films, is done with college. He's living with a supermodel girlfriend (not Mikaela) who is the source of income for both of them. Sam by this point has become a rage baby with a huge chip on his shoulder and a massive sense of entitlement. His girlfriend being the income for the two of them is a point of resentment for him. He also can't manage to line up any work and feels that he isn't doing anything that matters. He thinks he should be working with the Autobots and the government to track down the Decepticons. His girlfriend sets him up with connections to get work. Eventually he gets work but it's bottom-rung work in a firm. His employer tells him that he can tell what kind of job he really wants but that between the job he wants and the reality of his career is another job. The old man (the employer) offers Sam that bottom-level job, which Sam accepts.

Now a good deal has been written to summarize the plot points elsewhere so I don't wish to rehearse every single plot point. It turns out that the man who employs Sam's girlfriend Carly has been part of a family that has made deals for generations with Decepticons. It also turns out that Sentinel Prime made a deal with Megatron. The nature of the deal was that Sentinel Prime and Megatron would meet up on earth where Sentinel's space bridge technology would be used to help revive Cybertron with the natural resources of earth and using humanity as slave labor. Sentinel reveals his betrayal and kills several Autobots in the process.

The Decepticons and Sentinel Prime set up the space bridge and build their base of operations in Chicago, where Sam's girlfriend is held as a hostage/reward to the human bad guy in exchange for his running the human slave project. The Autobots are commanded to leave the planet, which they do on a shuttle. The Autobot shuttle is shot down by Starscream and it appears there are no Autobots left to battle the evil Decepticons. Of course this isn't true and after some time it is revealed the Autobots have stayed behind to plan a way to destroy the Decepticons. Of course in the end they do. Megatron and the other Decepticons are slaughtered after a long battle in Chicago. Humans destroy Shockwave and Starscream. Optimus Prime kills Megatron in battle and then kills Sentinel Prime. Sentinel pleads that he was just doing what was necessary to save the Cybertronian race. Optimus Prime says that Sentinel has betrayed himself and not the Autobots and shoots Sentinel Prime's head off. Sam is reunited with his supermodel girlfriend and all is well.

Now that is what the film is about, broadly. What do Michael Bay and screenwriter Ehrin Kruger attempt to tell us about what the film is about? What do they seem to think Transformers Dark of the Moon is about? This is the stage at which the majority of critics just throw up their hands in disgust and resentment and say there's nothing to discuss. It's just another stupid imcomprehensible Michael Bay movie and the jerk promoting the military and objectifying women can't possibly have anything like a theme and he's just a nasty piece of work. But if an author on Slate can seriously propose that there is a thematic seriousness to the 1986 cinematic travesty Transformers then I can propose that Bay actually has themes in his film.

The theme of "no sacrifice no glory" could not really have been more obvious in the first film. In the second film the battle was between Optimus Prime and the Decepticons, led by the oldest Decepticon of all, the Fallen, who once was one with the original race of robots known as the Primes. The Fallen was willing to use a sun harvester on planets full of life to drain a star which would then revive and power the All-Spark, the life-giving cub McGuffin from the first film. If the first film was about a race to get the magic cube the second film was about the race to get the key to the machine that would rebuild and renew the magic cube. By the end of the second film the magic cube no longer existed. There was no possibility of the All-Spark being used to create new Cybertronians, what was left was to see how the war between Autobots and Decepticons would play out on earth. The fate of Cybertron itself seemed moot.

Except that the fate of Cybertron is ultimately what the war began over. Thematically Bay and company couldn't NOT go back to the fate of Cybertron. Transformers was nothing if not a blunt metaphor for how people in the 1980s were battling over how to make use of Earth's natural resources and what political philosophies were the ones to embrace in deciding the future of humanity. When Megatron in the second film asks Optimus Prime rhetorically, "Is the preservation of our race not worth a single human life?" Optimus Prime replies "You'll never stop at one, Megatron." The Autobots do not want the lives and welfare of other races compromised so that their own planet can be preserved. The Decepticons cheerfully consider humans an inferior race that not only can but must be subjugated so that the superior race, Cybertronians, can regain their lost glory.

By the third film we are presented with a narrative wrinkle. It turns out that with Sentinel Prime's betrayal the previously wise and informed Optimus Prime has been duped. The earnest prologue turns out to be one not of an Optimus Prime who knows everything and reliably tells us what's waht, it is the prologue of an Optimus Prime who is both ignorant and has been deceived. Now there are all kinds of plot continuity problems since the Fallen needed Optimus Prime to be dead to rise while Megatron needed Optimus Prime alive to revive Sentinel Prime.

But we'll just skip that part for now and focus on thematic points in the third film. Optimus Prime turns out to have been profoundly wrong about Sentinel Prime's character and this naivete and ignorance proves costly. In the end he must resort to a ruse and to brute force. Fans of Optimus Prime have said that it was good to see he was the badass warrior he was supposed to be but there's a sense in which Optimus Prime's righteous anger could be seen as compensation for his being made to look the fool. Thematically this is the story where Optimus Prime is brought low for assuming the best about his fellow Autobot and it turns out that Sentinel Prime has been in league with Megatron the whole time.

This is a game-changing reveal about the nature of the war. If Sentinel Prime was the previous Autobot leader then the nature of the war is no longer revealed to be a war in which the Autobots and Decepticons are fighting over Cybertron; it is revealed to be a war between Optimus Prime's party and both Autobots and Decepticons who believe that Cybertronian survival is more important than human welfare. In the past movies Optimus could believe that the war was between Cybertronians about the fate of humanity since Cybertron was lost to them. Now he recognizes that the decision must be about which planet must survive at the expense of the other.

Sam, for his part, begins the film with a whiny, furious sense of entitlement and along the way loses his girlfriend. He also gets into an argument with his parents. Now many viewers said the scene was terrible and Sam's parents are annoying. Of course they are annoying but it is actually in that scene where Sam's character arc happens. Sam gets told by his mother that he managed to lose the hottie girlfriend. Sam assumes this is referring to Mikaela (played by professional coathanger Megan Fox) and not to Carly (played by professional coathanger Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Sam says of Mikaela "She dumped me and now I've got something better."

But it turns out Sam's mom hasn't been talking about Mikaela at all but about Carly. She tells Sam that he's stupid if he think she'll get a THIRD girl now that Carly has broken things off with him. Reviewers and viewers could choose to ignore this but it is in this scene that Sam is forced to deal with his problem. Carly has broken things off with him because Sam's a jealous boyfriend and a resentful tool. His rage baby sense of entitlement shows up that at this point, after two and a half movies he thinks he's made enough sacrifices that he should be able to bask in glory. Optimus Prime scolds humans for lying about how much they know about Cybertronian history when, ironically, it is what he doesn't know about Cybertronian history and can't tell humanity that will nearly cause the demise of the human race, not the secrets they kept from him. Sam, for his part, is so obsessed with the entitlement to glory he thinks he has earned he nearly loses his girlfriend.

So it would appear that Bay and company have something to say, after all, about the story they have told us. Things that are taken for granted as known and deserved are things that can and will undo us. Megatron takes for granted that he is the best and most powerful of all the Cybertronians but his summary defeat at the hands of Optimus Prime and his sidelined role in Sentinel Prime's plan reveal that he is not the big badass he has imagined himself to be. Megatron's presumption costs him his life. Sentinel Prime's presumption that Cybertron is so worth reviving that humanity can be sacrificed reveals that he is even worse than Megatron because Megatron has made no claims of altruistic motive in subjugating other races for his own glory. Megatron's evil is that of a self-aware thug who craves power, Sentinel Prime's evil is that of a self-deluded idealogue whose pragmatism prevents him from recognizing his own character.

Optimus Prime must finally confront the reality that his decision to never sacrifice humanity means that he has consigned the Cybertronian race and world to its end. There can be no new Cybertronians without the All-Spark and Cybertron will not be revived because hardly anyone is left who could revive its ruins. If Sentinel Prime and Megatron were willing to sacrifice humans to revive their world Optimus Prime has revealed that he is so unwilling to sacrifice anyone that ultimately he is willing to sacrifice the entire planet Cybertron and all Cybertronians willing to sacrifice humans. He is principled, to be sure, but his decisions doom his planet and his race to living in a subordinate role to humanity. This is, paradoxically, what makes him the hero in the films.

Or ... does it? It is at this point that discussing what I think about what Bay says about what the film is about comes in. This is where film critics could go if they weren't so lazy. Bay's stories give as an altruistic, noble, self-sacrificing Optimus Prime who is a righteous robot. Yet thematically the three films together reveal that if the meme of "no sacrifice, no glory" holds steady not all sacrifices lead to glory. Some sacrifices lead to fading away. Some sacrifices are not the kind that can lead to glory. In fact one of Sam's biggest points of resentment is that he got a medal for serving his country that he can't explain to people. And even if he could what exactly is so glorious about running in the desert with a tube sock full of magic pixie dust?

For a lot of critics who are, well, pretty liberal, Michael Bay's films may be offensive for any number of reasons. He objectifies women relentlessly (and having actresses like Megan Fox even attempt to claim that a character like Mikaela is a "strong female character" just reinforces the problem). He is disliked for having blatantly sympathetic depictions of soldiers and even civilian military advisors. He's belittled for indulging in racial stereotypes (though the reality is that ethnic stereotyping was inherent in the two-dimensional characters of the original Transformers cartoon run and toy branding). Bay is seen as the evil Republican mindless horndog super-jock film-maker and there's a sense in which all that can be said to be true.

But Optimus Prime is shown to be touting the idea that freedom is the right of all sentient beings. Optimus Prime is also shown to be the reluctant but ultimately unstoppable bad-ass with a sacrificial motive. Optimus Prime gets described as being like Jesus as a robot. Fanboys have been saying that Spielberg should have directed these films. Fanboys have been calling for a reboot. Critics have assumed the movies have no deeper themes or ideas about the human condition to explore but this has less to do with what the films do than what critics have decided in advance about Michael Bay. Thus most negative reviews of Dark of the Moon reveal a great deal more about the reviewers than about the film itself. Anton Ego's observation still applies, that the average piece of common junk involved more thought and care and work than the review that designates it as such. If this is not axiomatic about bad reviews of Michael Bay movies then I don't know how it could be considered true.

I'm not saying Dark of the Moon is a "good" movie. It's long and the humor is often tedious and overdrawn. The battles still don't seem that organized and characterization is unusually weak for nearly all the robots. The only robot characters that matter are Optimus Prime and Sentinel Prime. Clearly Transformers is thematically a one trick pony where Optimus Prime is the good guy and all the other big gun bigshot leaders suck. There's a sense in which Dark of the Moon is just a variation on Revenge of the Fallen where Optimus Prime must fight an evil Prime, only this time the evil Prime is his predecessor played as evil Spock.

What makes this third film thematically different is that Optimus Prime's character flaws are highlighted. He presumes upon knowledge he does not adequately verify. He trusts people based on reputation rather than established actions (which might explain why he thinks Sam is worth consulting about anything, maybe?). He can get indignant and become as bloodthirsty as Megatron when he is betrayed and humiliated. It's true that he kills all his enemies in battle and has effectively won the war but at the cost of both his race and his homeworld. Where Megatron was willing to sacrifice human lives to revie Cybertron Optimus Prime has been shown willing to ultimately sacrifice the entire Cybertronian world and race to save humanity.

If you think about it Optimus Prime is sort of like a white guy a la Dances with Humans. He's like Jake Sully in Avatar. What appears to be altruistic and sacrificial can still be seen as that but it can also be seen as being so hidebound to a methodology that it sacrifices one's entire race for the sake of an abstract principle. I propose that this relatively unexamined issue in Optimus Prime as a character could be why so many critics who aren't Transformers fans find the character tedious and the conflicts uninspiring and to be fair I think the non-fans have a point. The fans won't see this because they have seen Transformers as a self-contained quasi-religious entity. Messing up Optimus Prime becomes sacrilege even if it's over something as silly as flames on the paint job or the lack of a faceplate. Fans ultimately don't want an Optimus Prime who makes mistakes, dies because of poorly thought-out battles, or displays any of the character flaws that can make a character interesting. They want Jesus as a robot and I have spent plenty of time discussing that problem over at Mockingbird.

But what critics equally fail to grasp is that there is a brand of criticism so inveterately lazy as to presume there is nothing to discuss, that is not only isn't possible for a film-maker like Bay to traffic in themes but that it is insulting to anyone with any intellect to even attempt such a thing. The fanboy desire that a Spielberg would handle Transformers than a Bay can be seen as getting to the heart of this. Critics can, if they bother to pay attention, recognize Optimus Prime as one of those true blood old school 18th to 19th century political liberals but they find it stupid that he is presented on the screen by someone they consider a doyenne of utterly red state politics and aesthetics in popcorn movies. Michael Bay can be described, if a bit polemically, as the red state James Cameron.

But it would appear that the Optimus Prime we're "supposed to" get as fanboys wish it and as Optimus' speeches would seem to suggest, is a totally blue state praxis. If Optimus Prime were a human he'd be a human who would be willing to kill people to make sure that seals and sea otters don't get harmed by humans who don't care if those animals survive in industrial development. Optimus Prime is sort of like a prototype Captain Planet. Attempts to reframe all of the battles on Cybertron shift the focus on political theory and away from environmental subjects.

Cybertronian mythology/psuedo-religion essentially hinges on Cold War political ideas and on American debates about what and how governance should be played out. I could discuss it further but it isn't germane to a discussion of Michael Bay's films except in as much as Transformers fans insist that Bay has not done justice to the mythology. That forces us to ask, if we bother, what the mythology is even attempting to discuss. I say that the would-be mythology of Transformers is not a truly mythological explanation of anything so much as a savvy yet crude exploitation of the monomyth as a marketing device.

Ultimately a battle between Autobots and Decepticons that never reaches earth is a pointless exercise since Cybertron would be a stand-in for earth anyway. But more critically, the whole premise of Transformers lore is that the battle for Cybertron eventually comes here where the Cybertronian conflict is revealed as the McGuffin for the debate about what the fate of humanity and its natural resources should be. Fanboy rage about Transformers films by Bay shows that they are too obsessed with details of the signified to remember the signifier.

Transformers fans who are annoyed that humans are the focus in Bay's movies have failed to realize that a story that is not about the human condition is ultimately not a story worth telling. Just as Sam Witwicky in the third film must recognize that his ideas of his sacrifices do not entitle him to glory, so Optimus Prime must confront the reality that what he assumes to be true at the start of the story about the Cybertonian war is not necessarily what the truth of the situation is. What Sam does not realize is that all those sacrifices he made that ostensibly saved humanity were sacrifices made within the realm of Cybertronians. The reasons his sacrifices don't matter to Carly or humans in the long run is not because they don't matter at all but because Sam does not realize that the greatness he thinks he is entitled to is based on his greatness amongst giant talking robots not on what he does in day to day life among his own race.

Optimus Prime must confront the reality that though he has been a hero in saving humanity he has done this at the expense of what other Cybertronians ranging from Megatron to the Fallen to Sentinel Prime have considered the last best shot at reviving Cybertron. Optimus Prime's heroism has been revealed to be for another race at the expense of doing things that would make him a hero to his own race rather than aliens.

Sam and Optimus Prime may be heroes but they are heroes who have done so by abandoning strict identification with their own group and by melding their individual identities across races. Ironic that, particularly since Transformers trafficks in some of the most tedious and annoying ethnic and racial stereotypes of just about any big budget popcorn blockbuster. Both Sam and Optimus, we may propose, obtain a heroic glory that matters little to their own people because it was obtained in a battle over the fate of another group. Megatron and Sentinel Prime find Optimus Prime's exploits in battle no more relevant nor impressive than humans find Sam's exploits with Autobots even remotely relevant to normal human life.

If we were invited in the first film to go with "no sacrifice, no glory" the films fall short because the sacrifices made have lacked permanence. Yes, Optimus Prime died in the second film but he was revived before the second movie was done. Yes, we can suppose Sam made sacrifices of some sort to work with the Autobots but was his sacrifice really all that huge? So he had knowledge that was planted in his brain through the All-Spark that was important in the second film? Is that a sacrifice? No, not really. It's a special status gained because he is a human who got to touch the All-Spark. He got to wield the Matrix of Leadership supposedly because of his good character but there's not a whole lot of evidence that he was particularly courageous or noble or self-sacrificing since he kept waiting for Mikaela to say she loved him first before he said "I love you" back.

The problem with the Transformers movies as a franchise may be more rudimentary than most critics were willing to pay attention to because they were so incensed at having to watch them at all--the Witwicky motto proposes "no sacrifice, no glory" but Sam spends a good deal of time by the third film wanting glory for sacrifices he thinks he's made and we can see that so far as that goes he hasn't really made any sacrifices at all. His victories are all, ultimately, unearned by anything other than having other people gain those victories for him whether it was Optimus Prime or even his by now ex-girlfriend Mikaela reviving him from near death or his current girlfriend landing him a job through her social connections.

Instead he has been conferred with a special status of uber-boy by simple circumstance and the generosity of others. He is yet another everyman who has greatness and the hot chick foisted upon him by happening to be in a certain place at a certain time. The reason one of the most panned scenes in Dark of the Moon is actually one of the more effective scenes in the film, for anyone who actually paid attention to the earlier films, is that Sam's parents scold him for what is ultimately true--Sam is a whiny brat thinking things should go better for him because of all the stuff he's done when his sense of entitlement is based on unearned victories and his idea of his courage is based not on his own sacrifice but the sacrifice of others.

Props could go to Bay and Kruger for playing with the idea that in the third film Sam is squealing with a raging sense of entitlement over stuff he thinks he did that wasn't that special but it's a little tough to tell if that's a consciously chosen narrative direction. Most critics have been content to just dismiss the franchise with disdain or anger. I don't begrudge them that but if criticism is to be criticism then the three rules of writing a book review can still be followed even in a review of a film like Transformers Dark of the Moon.

Obviously my contrarian review of Dark of the Moon is not to tell you this is a good movie; the contrarian part is attempting to deal with actual themes and character arcs in the Transformers trilogy precisely because most critics are so resentful toward Bay as a filmmaker and the toy line they won't even attempt to think through this film the way they obviously will for, say, a Terrance Malick film or a film by Stanley Kubrick. But film crticisim as an art is not necessarily just about considering the implications of films that would be considered "worthy". There are still things that can be learned and observed about the human condition even in the reception and concepts of popcorn movies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Another fine little entry from Carl Trueman

http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/07/preaching-and-selfreference.php

If somebody spends more time in the pulpit talking about themselves than about the Bible and Christ, then they are preaching themselves and not Christ crucified. If they talk about themselves for twenty minutes and expound the Bible for twenty minutes, that is a twenty minute sermon, not a forty minute one; and it feeds the cult of personality, not the body of Christ.

Here's a little experiment you can do from home or at your church. Go to church with a stopwatch or a stopwatch function on your iPod or iPhone or whatever Mac product you have. Track how long the sermon is from start to finish and along the way time how long your pastor spends directly discussing the biblical text and its application. Time how long your pastor spends sharing anecdotes about his wife or kids or pets or house. Time how long your pastor spends talking about books or movies or TV or politics or anything else. Don't count those as part of the application of a biblical text even if your pastor says that's what he's doing. Time, if possible, how much time in a sermon is spent actually quoting biblical texts.

Then when you're home (or after you've downloaded the sermon from hom) check the ratio. As Trueman puts it, if you've got a sermon with twenty minutes of stories and personal commentary with twenty minutes of discussing a biblical text then what you really got was a twenty minute sermon. The other twenty minutes were filler. They didn't need to be there and they do you, as a church attender, a disservice. Now if your pastor preaches for an entire hour and spends that whole time discussing the biblical text that's fine. I would rather have a twenty minute sermon from a pastor only discussing the significance of a biblical text than a forty minute sermon in which half of the sermon is a series of anecdotes about the pastor's family, jokes, or cultural commentary about things that have nothing properly connected to the biblical text that is supposed to be the subject of the sermon.

To put things another way, if when someone asks you how the sermon was and you say it was good what's the first thing you find yourself remembering in conversations? The text itself? The significance of the text? What about the pastor's anecdotes or funny one-liners? What about the pastor's digression on to this or that cultural subject?

So if the sermon is about spiritual warfare is the most talked about thing the substance of an hour long sermon or seven minutes of digression about a recently released film? A church that caters to the controversial soundbite may not have leaders that are responsible for the dumbing down of the art of preaching as a whole; and their pastor may not automatically be guilty of mere shameless self-promotion; but the technical crew that puts up the seven minute soundbite via video and audio that only focuses on the film commentary and not the substance of the teaching are not doing anyone any favors. If they get upset that the blogosphere explodes with condemnation of the commentary they need to get over themselves and their indignation and repent of their stupid habit of putting soundbites about movies up instead of actually talking about Christ. There's people wrong here and it's not the blogging pundits but the people who think the selling point for a sermon that's supposedly all about Jesus is going to be sold on the basis of comments about movies that don't matter.

There are many sermons I have heard in my life that I thought were good sermons because my interest never flagged but that was often because I did not realize that what was holding my interest was the style rather than the substance of the speaker. Now I'd prefer to hear a blandly preached sermon with an actual discussion of biblical texts than an entertaining hour-long ramble where maybe half the material is directly discussing the biblical text. Different strokes for different folks but the older I get the more I appreciate a comment from a public speaking teacher I had in high school who told me that if a pastor can't make his point in thirty minutes he's feeding his own ego and wasting everyone's time. It's not that I'm unaware of exceptions it's that the more I think about it even those "exceptions" prove the rule.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Carl Trueman: Public Figures and Celebrities

http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/07/public-figures-and-celebrities.php

I would argue that being a celebrity, though, involves more than performing public actions, more than being widely known and more than simply being popular. It also carries with it connotations of branding and marketing: just as J-Lo will have her line of perfumes, so certain writers and speakers come to carry the sense of being a brand: hence, study Bibles named after church leaders; popular devotional commentary series at least notionally authored by a specific name so that they can therefore be sold; ghost writers who produce the goods that are then sold under a famous name; ministries and conferences focused on personalities etc. This is not to say that any of these things are necessarily bad (though some may be more questionable than others). As with shoes, ties, computers and washing machines, it is genuinely helpful to the consumer to know that some brands are worthy of trust. It is merely to point out that there is a difference between someone who writes and speaks, even one who is very popular, and someone who has actually achieved a level of popularity combined with particular market appeal and particular marketing mechanisms.

I might add that there is a practical difference between a public figure and a private citizen with respect to libel and slander. The public figure owing to the capacity to publicly influence through actual power or social influence events in society is considered to have a heftier case to mount with respect to a libel or slander case. The public figure makes decisions, especially in government, that can substantially and adversely effect the well-being of citizens who have no direct contact with the person.

This is why political cartoons permit a level of vitriol that would be unthinkable were the same level of vitriol directed at a person who does not hold public office. A public figure who is the manager of a company of some kind can manage a company that makes decisions that can effect the lives of people who use its products. Thus civil class action lawsuits against computer companies and auto companies are warranted and a public figure cannot merely say that he or she or the company is being subjected to libel or slander. The brand, so to speak, is robust enough that a very compelling case has to be made that a person's material well-being and social standing has been substantiallly damaged.

As we've seen from various blogs and spams and email forwards all sorts of falsehoods can and are circulated about politicians but these are not considered grounds for libel or slander in the vast majority of cases because these things, put a bit too crudely, don't matter one way or the other about whether or not a person can do one's job. So whether or not it is actually true that George W. Bush had the election stolen for him and whether or not he and his administration planned 9/11/2001 so as to subjugate the witless American populace there is no way that spreading such ideas in any way impinged upon Bush's capacity to do or not do his job. So that one of the magazines called Pravda made this case is especially irrelevant. What does the POTUS care what an on-line far right Russian publication says about him anyway?

Further, celebrity is often accompanied by a strange familiarity whereby the celebrities are referred to in quite intimate terms by people who have never met them or have only the most passing of connections with them. I do not mean the irritating habit some have, of addressing people by their first names in emails when they have never before had contact of any form with them. That is more a function of the casual erosion of formality, politeness and intimacy which email access has brought in its wake (I'm generally with Lawrence of Arabia on that front: `My name is for my friends'). I mean conversations whereby people really seem to think they know somebody they have never met. For example, after the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Michael Jackson, the television carried many interviews with random members of the public who talked emotionally about what lovely people they had been, even though Di and Jacko would certainly not have had the foggiest idea who these people were. Being the object of such pseudo-familiarity is often a sign of the possession of celebrity status.

This does seem to be a line of demarcation between someone who is merely a public figure and someone who is a celebrity. It is perhaps exemplified by those who can confidently talk about what they are sure a person "really" meant by something having never actually met the person face to face, and certainly having never actually discussed anything of any consequence with the person in person. Let me give a very obvious for instance. I've met lots of people in the last ten years who can very confidently talk about what they think Mark meant by saying this or that.

Yes, that Mark. People who never had dinner with him at a Denny's talking about John Murray or Gordon Fee or N. T. Wright and haven't heard him talk about how surprisingly energetic Fee is given his age; but who think they can talk about what he must have meant by a comment about video games or about Twilight are talking about the celebrity. Now, sure, he's definitely a celebrity but I have since discovered that I had a rare opportunity, there are pastors who have worked (or work) at the place who have never actually had a meal with the man.

Now it is true that with the proliferation of preaching that litters a sermon with anecdotes about domestic misadventures and children it can easily seem as though one knows the celebrity but that is the whole distinction between person and persona. You know the persona but not the person, as is the case with me for the vast majority of celebrity types, too.

The great illusion and temptation is precisely supposing that one knows a person intimately when one knows nothing more than one's confirmation about them. You don't know that celebrity but you convince yourself you do. People do not convince themselves so often they know mere public figures because public figures do not invite this. Even among politicians it is easier to find actors and directors and various people who claim to have had some insight into the mind of "Jack" who would merely say of another politician (Bush 1) that he has no soul. Neither is empirically provable and both can arguably be disproven (as in Oliver Stone can put down the doobies and stop acting like he's got some line on either politician). There, I just demonstrated how one may speak about a public figure speaking about other public figures, one of whom arguably became a celebrity.

But as Bob Dylan put it, John Lennon was killed by one of his fans. The fan confirms his or her own confirmation bias regarding the celebrity. This is one of the primary problems in blogs or public criticism or defense of this or that celebrity--what's going on his virtually nothing to do with a defense or critique of the actual person so much as one's own assumptions, biases, and symbolic associations. As I was saying earlier, this becomes about personas and not the actual individual.

This capacity to speak about those you don't know is pervasive. It is perhaps necessary for public discussion of public figures but in most cases the difference between a public figure and a celebrity can be described as a difference that can be summed up like this:

John Doe said X.

That's how a public figure would be described, give or take a higher or lower degree of detail. A person might ask what X means and what the practical implications are but there would be a discussion about WHAT the person said and why it matters. A public figure is like that.

What John (Doe) said was so spot on! He summed up exactly what I was feeling about this situation

What John (Doe) said was so stupid. He's an idiot!

No, no, what John REALLY meant is .... you're so stupid and judgmental and being a hater.

Bull

Bull corn!

I trust you get the idea, crude though it is. A public figure is a person whose decisions and ideas toward whom we may react without having a particularly personal investment. A celebrity is one with whom we conflate a bit of our identity either in admiration or loathing. This is how megachurch pastors are able to develop such massive followings. It is also how so man Randroids imagine they are thinking for themselves when they are still Randroids. Not to put too fine a point on it, after all, Jesus is a celebrity depending on how we approach Jesus' teaching. We have all sorts of people who are totally confident they know exactly what Jesus would and would not approve of and are willing to correct other people about this and yet what may be happening is they are reading themselves on to Jesus and not necessarily basing what their conclusions are, as followers of Christ, on how Jesus' words might really be taken.

Experimental Theology: Calvin & Hobbes

http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2008/11/theology-of-calvin-and-hobbes-table-of.html

And, per the last post, this warrants a link in itself.

HT Mockingbird: Bill Watterson on Wandering Minds, Imaginary Ladders and Happiness

http://www.mbird.com/2011/07/bill-watterson-on-wandering-minds-imaginary-ladders-and-happiness/

Follow the link, it's worth it, especially if you're a Watterson fan and love Calvin & Hobbes.

the quest for chamber ensembles continues

Chamber music for classical guitar is, to put it mildly, a rarified niche in concert music. When once you commit to exploring this part of the guitar's repertoire you begin to see how very small the world is.

The number of guitar duets is so massive it does not warrant an attempt to list them all. I'm not saying that guitar duets are bad by any means but that when I say "chamber music" I mean music in which the guitar is not only not playing alone but is also not playing music with just other guitars.

Now the truth is there are numerous flute and guitar duets, so many I couldn't attempt to list them all. There are a decent number of violin and guitar duets, though Duo 46 seems to be the highest profile and longest-lasting of them. I frequently wish I had a steady job so that I could buy their CDs because I made the mistake of not picking up some of their CDs earlier when I had work.

Once you get past the obvious pairings of the guitar with the flute or violin things shrink.

I think there are probably five oboe and guitar duos active the world over.

the d'Amore Duo
Cordover Karney Duo
Mountain Music Duo
Absolute Duo

There may be a few more but those are the ones I know about

Clarinet and guitar becomes even rarer. There's Duo Guitarinet (I have a couple of their albums) but I'm not sure how many other active clarinet/guitar duets have had a chance to celebrate a 10 year anniversary. I sincerely hope we get a few more dedicated and successfull clarinet/guitar duets. By "successful", obviously, I mean able to keep making music even if you've never heard of them. Success hardly means fame in chamber music for classical guitar, though fame probably can't hurt.

There are a few cello/guitar duets, I think. I've been sidetracked just enough by the quest for work that I don't have nearly as comprehensive a knowledge of what chamber ensembles are active for any given combination of instruments as I would like.

What is encouraging to learn from the research I have managed to do is that there are a number of newly formed ensembles open to what some might call "crossover". In the past various music pundits and critics, perhaps most notably Norman Lebrecht, have been unhappy with the commercial aspects of crossover. I respect Hilary Hahn a great deal for moving from Sony to DG and explaining that she was not interested in tackling crossover when so much great established repertoire is available to be performed. She went on to record Schoenberg's violin concert, no less. I hear she's preparing a CD of the Charles Ives violin sonatas now. So non-crossover artists certainly have my respect but Hahn has crossed over, just not made it an official selling point of her career just now. She's played soundtrack music and played with a non-classical ensemble.

But I digress (and you'd expect that from a Hahn fan). What I mean to say is that the thing about "crossover" is that it assumes a performer or composer exists in an essentially static relationship to either concert or popular music. Crossover implies that one stays predominantly in one style or the other and crosses over. I believe Leo Brouwer was right to say in an interview years ago that the big movement that critics and historians of concert music have failed to take into account is fusion. Fusion is, dare I say, not the same as eclecticism. Penderecki can be very eclectic but he stays firmly on the side of concert music. Messiaen, the same thing. George Rochberg or Luciano Berio, pretty much the same. A musician who is committed to improvised music, whether classical or jazz or avant any of the above, is apparently a crossover artist but is ultimately not crossing over in the core thing that matters, the improv/avant part. But that gets at what the difference between eclecticism and fusion is, it's not crossover if whatever it is that defines you is sticking within the spectrum.

But if specializing in a genre is being at one point in the spectrum and moving around to other colors occasionally, then fusion is recognizing that the entire light spectrum is, at least in principle, available. When Billy Joel tried selling us his classical thing he talked about how he'd always liked the classics and wanted to play classical music and write it. The reason I doubted him was not that I thought he never played the stuff. I could tell from his music that he'd been influenced by some classical stuff (just not necessarily classical composers I like!) I doubted his bona fides more because he spent decades only marketing pop music. Perhaps he was unfairly constrained by his place in time and style. Fair enough (or unfair enough). If people worry that the collapse of the old recording industry standards for music is a disaster and that the star system is falling apart for classical music, particularly for chamber music, this may be the best of all possible worlds.

A star is both defined and confined by the nature of stardom. The brightest stars in the sky become fixed points of navigation for sailors but they are also, so to speak, not situated to move. The earth rotates differently at different points but the stars themselves are so high up there, so to speak, that they are immutable. There may seem to be no advantage to being an obscure musician but obscurity can permit permeability. You are not obligated by some marketing process or studio to restrict yourself to one style.

I do not see it as surprising that in the last ten years with the various falls in the studio system and more conventional music marketing that it has become tougher for musicians to become famous or stars but there has been a corresponding freedom in, say, classical musicians who are not just classical musicians to play whatever they want. They don't have as big a market share but there is an artistic autonomy and freedom that I'm not sure would be worth trading away for bigger sales. Whereas the Emerson string quartet said straight up they can't possibly move enough units to justify to their label recording Paul Hindemith's string quartets less famous string quartets who have the chops and moxy to perform and record the quartets can (and have). So depending on how you define success or failure selling a lot of CDs with a major label but being unable to gamble on more obscure repertoire can be either success or failure, just as being able to gamble on obscure and new repertoire but, say, never winning a Grammy could be considered a success or failure.

I have figured out that one of my overriding passions as a composer and musician is to tackle chamber music for guitar as a composer and even as a performer. In a way I could rhetorically say that any guitarist can aspire to be a soloist and play concertos and play the warhorses of the repertoire. A guitarist-composer can aspire to write solo repertoire and that's cool. I've been writing 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar myself. But what continues to intrigue me is writing to fill in gaps that I feel shouldn't be there. A musician once told me that I've been working to fill a vacuum that doesn't exist.

I think that's the point, that's the fun of the enterprise. That's why I've written a cycle of duo sonatas for guitar and wind instruments, precisely because I have searched through the chamber music options and have discovered along the way that for whatever reason guitarist composers have just never tackled such a project at such a scale. There's Jim Clarke's cycle but I'm afraid I haven't had the opportunity to really get to hear those works. I can still confidently say that Jim's project is a move in the kind of direction I think composers for the guitar should be willing to move, a direction guitarists and other performers should be looking at.

As Matanya Ophee proposed in 1999 if we guitarists want to get and keep the attention of non-guitarist musicians we should create and perform music that earns their attention and respect. The challenge before us is not to impress each other as fellow guitarists but to get the non-guitarists to care that we exist. Ophee proposed that it was chamber music that will make this possible. I happen to agree. Whether or not I am a composer and guitarist capable of contributing to that mission proposed by Ophee I cannot say. I can do my best work but it will ultimately be something that is decided not merely by my work and the promotion of my work but others. In the midst of a music industry where the star and studio system seems to be in a decline it would appear that there are more rather than fewer opportunities for this kind of project to be fruitful.