Saturday, May 19, 2007

a battle of will against my old HP all-in-one printer/copier/scanner

HP sucks

I mean they really suck.

Too bad I've got one of their units. It's not that Vista has presented any problems necessarily as that HP hasn't bothered to remedy some things or I'm not aware of the remedies. I just tried printing out bus directions to a friend's house and it's taken two hours to get my machine to interface with machine. It's pretty damn annoying. Now I'm not sure I'll get to sleep in time to go to the friend's place at a semi-reasonable hour for normal people.

Why was I working on this? Well, it's nice to be able to print if you misplace stuff that you printedand want to make new copies. Now that I've discovered where said misplaced printed items were I feel even dumber for not having figured out how to get my special HP beast to work as designed. I'm tired. I have a three-day weekend and for the most part my three-day weekend has not been completely muffed in the first day by HP making crap ... but it was getting close. We'll see if I'm awake enough after noon to visit as planned.

more travels to the city of angels (possibly named Asmodeus)

I have to admit I didn't enjoy Los Angeles much on the business trip last week. There were no clouds, it was too hot, and the tap water was more to die of than to die for. Still, the restaurants were pretty good. Still, $1.50 for pop from a vending machine is insane, especially since up here in the Emerald City you can find ghetto/bargain bin copies of the same soda for 25 cents a pop, literally. I mean, come on, it's all carbonated water and corn syrup, right? Except maybe Mountain Dew, the great wake-me-up that burns as it goes down your gullet.

One thing I have learned is that things have changed a lot since last I rode in an airplane. I am not making this up but fourteen years ago when I last flew from Sea-Tac they let me on the plane even though I had no driver's license and no state identification of any kind. They just let me on the plane! Now I dread the prospect of even having loose change in my pockets! I had to throw away an average sized bottle of shampoo I was foolish enough to have brought because I've never stayed in a hotel where they, you know, have those weird little bottles of shampoo and stuff. And toothpaste? I have to say Colgate must be making a killing now or something. It makes me feel simultaneously old AND naive, not that I have ever been particularly worldly wise or anything.

Being in Los Angeles for one week gave me great appreciation of the beautiful overcasts and mild, regular precipitation in this beautiful, beautiful town.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

an open blog entry to Matanya Ophee, thanks for 'Repertoire Issues'

Here's hoping he doesn't mind that I just blatantly link to his article/lecture transcription.

I doubt we'd ever meet or get along. I've a fairly theologically and politically conservative guy with a white mom and an American Indian dad who has always grown up in the Northwestern United States so if I ever met the guy I don't know if we could have a conversation for long before one of us said something that put the other on edge. Since it's exponentially unlikely I'll ever meet the man that's fine.

But this presentation he gave, this article he published about repertoire issues in classical guitar completely changed the way I think about my instrument, the guitar, and about how I approach composing for it. I went to college and sang in choirs and I learned music from organists and conductors and only eventually did I ever study, for just two quarters, with a classical guitarist. The vast majority of my musical education came through non-guitarists and the most important books I read on music had nothing whatsoever to do with the instrument. How on earth can a guitarist get something out of George Oldroyd's The Technique and Spirit of Fugue? What about Kent Kennan's book on Baroque Counterpoint? Hindemith's Craft of Musical Composition or A Composer's World? Kennan's orchestration treatise? John Verral's monograph on counterpoint?

It would be nice to say the guitar and guitarists had a bigger role in my musical education but Ophee is right, chamber music is where you really learn stuff when you study or play. I learned more about how to approach composition singing in choirs than playing guitar. Studying English sacred choral repertoire, including the remarkable modulatory patterns in William Harris' Faire is the Heaven taught me a lot. My composition instructor was a conductor who played clarinet. But it was studying the quartets of Bartok, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Haydn, and Beethoven where I learned the most about how to put music together. I studied symphonic repertoire, string quartets, piano cycles (Messiaen's Vingt Regards, Ludus Tonalis, Beethoven's Op. 111). Now I can't play any of the stuff to save my life except the first three movements of Ludus Tonalis because as an instrumentalist I am mostly self taught as a guitarist and a pianist.

And the thing is, to me that shows that how you learn your techniques doesn't matter. It has also shown me, alas, that after a decade of studying the greatest chamber music around I am at a loss to think of chamber music for the guitar that is as cool as Bartok's 3rd quartet or Hindemith's Op. 22 quartet (THAT piece is incredible). The thing is there ARE amazing works for guitar that have it playing with other instruments and the pieces that survive long enough to get recorded more than once deserve to be recorded way more often than they are.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Sonatina can't be over-played, not in the way chamber music gets recorded by guitarists.
Ditto for Histoire du Tango, to a lesser degree.
Toward the Sea is wonderful.
When is someone going to record Aubert Lemeland's Duo Variations for viola and guitar again? Seriously, this is a wonderful piece and I have no idea why GSP is still able to sell it year in and year out and yet I've seen no sign of anyone recording it. It deserves to be recorded again even if I think the ending is a little weak.
Koshkin's sonata for flute and guitar is cool and it's actually been recorded twice but to my knowledge never in the United States. Someone should fix that and I don't have the chops for it.
Atanas Ourkouzounov deserves more attention State-side. Then again that could be said about a lot of really good European composers. Thanks to Colt Valenti I am going to have to take his recommendation to explore the works of Angelo Gilardino (sic?) here when I'm not travelling out of state and have some time to pick up a few more recordings and scores.

But for budgetary reasons (planning to get back to my very expensive alma mater) I probably need to do a moratorium on scores and CDs for a while even if I doubt I'll follow through.

And I've gotten sidetracked from my earlier thoughts. Ophee's article seems like it will be as true twenty years from now as it was about seven years ago when I stumbled across it. And it was probably as true the year I was born as it is now.

Anyway, this man's article inspired me to start writing as much chamber music for the guitar as I could . Whether or not it's really any good remains to be seen. I can say that I've found the email addresses of four oboe and guitar duos, two viola and guitar duos, I admit to having not bothered with flute and guitar duos much as yet because that's the one realm of chamber repertoire for guitar that is actually at risk of being over-represented. I've bought a few CDs of flute and guitar music that frankly weren't that interesting. But music for BASSOON and guitar? That's another story. I have a sonata for bassoon and guitar in c minor I still need to work on. If I weren't trying to get on-the-job training out of state and weren't having to brush up on my guitar chops for the wedding of some friends I could probably take the time I need to finish that sonata for bassoon and guitar this year.

And then there's brass instruments. There's nothing. I mean, there's just about nothing. There's a French horn and guitar duo that Volkmar was kind enough to point me toward and I've got that--too bad I don't have a French horn player around to play the piece with because then I'd have a musician I could work with for fine-tuning my still seminal sonata for horn and guitar. I know from Frank Campo's work that even trumpet and classical guitar works are possible, though I can't find Two Studies anywhere and Frank Campo's email doesn't work anymore. I don't even know if he's still alive. This, friends, is why you take aural dictation classes in college! If the composer's work is out of print and he/she isn't even alive anymore how are you going to learn how to play a wonderful piece that exists only on a recording? That's right, you have to transcribe the whole thing yourself, which may be what i have to do!

I told a fellow I know at my church I would eventually write a piece for us to play. He plays tenor trombone. As an American with the complete works of Blind Willie Johnson ... I'll just leave it at that. By now you can figure out what my funnest stunt for THAT sonata is going to be and Nadia Borislove half-way beat me to the punch already. And since this city has a symphony that premiered a great tuba concerto by Samuel Jones you can bet money I've got the study score for that concerto and will one day, I hope, compose a duo for classical guitar and tuba.

And in case it's not obvious how much this resembles the precedent of another composer's work I'm not going to spell it out if it isn't already obvious. Ophee's advice about guitar repertoire happens to coincide with some ideas proposed by a favorite composer of mine, and both together got me thinking that rather than do what all the other guitarists are doing I'd like to see what I can get done by actually not focusing on the usual solo repertoire at all but focusing just on chamber music as much possible. It's obviously one of my pet obsessions besides theology and cartoons.

And as far as that goes I have finished a sonata for clarinet and guitar and have been kind of stuck over the last year because clarinet and guitar duos are astonishingly rare in classical music. In jazz, not so rare and I have started pitching my sonata to the jazz set even though it's not exactly jazz. It's an hommage to Ellington with spots for improvisation so I hope it's close enough to jazz for the jazz set because most classical guitarists I've come across don't necessarily show me that the get what a jazz sound would work out to be. Okay, Tom Baker and Colt Valenti and Michael Niccolela are all local examples of guitarists who can play whatever style they want but that doesn't mean I have reason to think they'd be interested in playing my stuff as such. By the way, brief plug, Colt's CD is fun. Look him up and check out his stuff.

If I have a fantasy of putting out a CD it's to put out a CD of all chamber music. Half the stuff would be mine and half the stuff would be music that has inspired me to write. Then again, I don't have the chops because I've been too lazy to build up my solo technique and because I've been too busy composing. I'm starting to understand what Robert Muczynski was getting at when he said his piano teacher thought he composed too much and his composing teacher thought he practiced piano too much. You can get so bent on one you don't do as well as you could at the other and if you try to split the difference between the two all the time your learning curve is long, slow, and steep.

But when I hear what else is out there in the world of guitar repertoire I don't usually regret taking the long, slow, steep and since 1997 mostly self-taught path. My theory professor and composition professor gave me the tools to figure out my tonal sound as I go and the rest has been following the advice of my guitar teacher that I knew enough after two quarters with her to learn whatever techniques I wanted and that I should only learn techniques when I had something MUSICAL to do with them. Maybe that's why I can't play tremelo and can't play fast but feel comfortable playing a three minute piece in B flat staying close to the nut.

Something I've learned looking at chamber repertoire has me buidling an ad hoc theory for why there's so little of it for guitar compared to solo repertoire. It's not that the chamber music is exactly bad but it does seem like guitarists love to avoid the keys that come most naturally to a lot of other instruments, especially woodwinds, let alone brass (which are avoided for obvious problems of the sheer volume brass instruments produce). But why should that be? Why should there be so many string quartets in B flat major yet any time a violinist and guitarist play together all the pieces seem to stick to keys that can be comfortably executed with a maximum of open strings? It explains why no one plays Lemeland's Duo Variations, which total eight minutes in playing time and are all in D flat. If classical guitarists spent as much time mastering the ability to play in any key as they did in playing fast or flourishing stuff some of these little gems in unfriendly keys could get better represented.

But I'm just ranting beyond any organized thoughts now and I do need to get some sleep. Mr. Ophee, you might never hear my music, and if you hear my music you may not like it, we may never meet and if we do we might not get along but if you're out there and by any chance happen to come across this blog that really has nothing to do with you. Your writing has inspired me to do what a musician in Seattle told me is "filling a vacuum that doesn't exist."

The vacuum does exist because if the measure of a standard for the guitar repertoire is something that has been played to death, or something that is over-represented on CDs then the number of "standard" chamber works for oboe and guitar is pretty small and it's been more than a century since Coste wrote La Montagnard. It's possible no one has written a sonata for tenor trombone and guitar so someone should. My composition professor liked to say that before Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony we in the West didn't know we needed it. Well, at the risk of sounding too confident by light years, maybe the reason we don't have a standard repertoire piece for tenor trombone and guitar is because no one has written it yet. If the piece is worth playing I like to think eventually it will get played. It's at least worth trying for because that's more fun than listening to the same Bach and Albeniz transcriptions year after year, no disrespect meant to either great composer keyboard-player.

So, anyway, thanks Matanya Ophee. Maybe if I'm actually any good at this you may eventually hear a piece of mine.

Jerry Falwell is dead

I didn't care for his style and often thought his substance was problematic, even as a basically conservative Protestant evangelical type who happens to dig an Anglican's work. But it still galls me that Christopher Hitchens is doing his Hitchens thing on Slate, Slate is running the list of all the stuff Falwell said they consider stupid, racist, and whatever else; and it turns out Westboro Baptist Church ... yes THAT Westboro Baptist Church plans to picket Falwell's funeral because they say he was a liar and a false prophet.

Still ... I don't know, even if I grant that Hitchens has a great point ins aying that you can say any dumb-ass thing you want as long as you're a reverend (it's hard to avoid this point when I consider stupid things Sharpten, Jackson, and Robertson have said on different sides of the political divide) ; and even if I were to agree somehow that Westboro Baptist is right to say Falwell made prophecies that didn't come to pass; I still can't muster their enthusiasm. Hitchens is so passionately atheistic he tries doing hatchet jobs on the Salvation Army and his main complaints are that a hundred years ago there was corruption in the ranks and they were stupid-looking uniforms. He also thinks no one should use "charity" to deal with the problem of homelessness or unemployment and that society should take responsibility ... which sounds like something an English immigrant to the United States with heavy socialist leanings would say. With declining birth rates who on earth will pay the taxes needed to subsidize THAT welfare state? If we keep aborting them or forestalling their birth or saying no one should have those kids because of their net lifelong contributions to carbon emissions why not just wipe ourselves out with some genetically modified strain of polio or something? Or just put it on the open market for any freaks with a grudge?

That seems too pessimistic and absurd. How did I get to this from Falwell? Oh, right, Hitchens.
I don't get him. Considering how rabidly he opposed the FIRST Gulf War his support of the second, given that he's still more or less the atheistic liberal in many ways he was fourteen years ago, his zeal for the battle against Islamofascism given his leftist cred has puzzled me. Maybe he's just so anti-religion he's willing to abandon his leftist background so that Islamofascists can get bombed. He makes for interesting reading, though, even when he I think he's totally wrong. I don't think he's wrong about militant Islam by any stretch of the imagination but I've just seen him use some remarkably weird arguments against religion in general that I think hurt rather than help his ideas.

As for Falwell, well, I don't think people should be throwing parties because he's dead or picketing his funeral. If someone at Westboro Baptist dies I guess if everyone who has had a loved one whose funeral was picketed by WBC went and picketed that funeral of a WBC member who died ... that would be a big picket.

What happens when Westboro Baptist reaps what they've sown? It seems too nasty to contemplate, actually.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why do Protestants suck at classical music now?

I have been thinking recently about how in the 20th century the great innovators have been Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican (which is not quite Protestant as American evangelical Protestants identify the Anglican church). So my question of late is why we Protestants are so bad at being musical innovators? Sticking to just the Judeo-Christian side of things for now:

Schoenberg was Jewish, possibly a very secularist Jew but a Jew nonetheless.
Webern was Catholic
Stravinsky was Russian Orthodox
Copland was Jewish (though not really observant)
Gershwin was Jewish (though also not particularly observant)
Benjamin Britten was Anglican (I think), though old-school Anglicans wouldn't likely like him
Messiaen was Catholic
Penderecki was Catholic
Arvo Part is Orthodox
Steve Reich is Jewish
Dave Brubeck (just to pick an unusual case) is Catholic

Of course you get the more Buddhist strain in Cage and Glass and others but I'm not counting them partly because I'm not looking at the role of Eastern Asian religion as such, and because I don't like Cage and I don't like Glass! I also don't count John Tavener as Christian because I've read enough recent interviews with him that he doesn't seem to embrace anything fundamental to any variation of Christian thought. I suppose I could count Boulez, sort of, as having a Catholic background but he's more practically an atheist and here I am interested in considering the works of composers were actually participants in the religion they identified with. Messiaen almost represents an opposite of Boulez by being a child who became attracted to Catholicism in a far more nominal family whereas Boulez rejected the religion of his parents.

What I am wondering lately is who the Protestant innovators in classical music are. Perhaps i should suggest "orthodox" Protestants, that's to say composers whom evangelicals would identify as actually being Christian in life and doctrine (which is why they would discount Britten who was not only gay but had what may have had some tendency toward pedophilia).

So what Protestant composers have made substantial contributions to classical music whom the average evangelical Protestant could look to as having done something noticable? Um, John Rutter? Last I heard anything about him or written by him he seemed to describe himself as agnostic but who knows a good market for mainstream music when he sees one. Frank Martin "might" count if he weren't dead since around the time I was born; and if it weren't for his being so obscure no one knows about him who isn't keenly interested in choral music at some level.
And none of these possible candidates is exactly cutting edge.

So it seems, to risk a generalization, that atheists and Buddhists have their moments but that a lot of far-out classical music still got written by people from within the Christian fold. It doesn't seem to suffice to say that these were all guys rebelling against a particularly old-school church because the composers who did that just disassociated with their church to some level (like Rachmaninov). Stravinsky rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church; Messiaen never left the Catholic Church; Penderecki didn't write that giant Credo setting just to solve a musical problem; and secular Jews are still Jews in terms of heritage because unlike Christians and Christendom a person can often consider themselves Jewish by heritage even if they don't believe in any kind of God, an interesting subject in its own right that I won't get to here.

It just seems to me that Protestants haven't been on the leading edge of classical music since possibly Mendelssohn and Bach. That's a while back! Ours is an era where contemporary classical music is just not very popular compared to older stuff. I see concert halls filling up with more people to hear Beethoven or Brahms than Messiaen or even Bartok. I just can't quite get my head around why Orthodox and Catholic composers, despite seeming to be more parochial in doctrine to Protestants, or just not being "real" Christians to American Protestants, seem to be more capable of producing musical geniuses in classical music.

I don't think the explanation of rebellion against tradition makes sense. Stravinsky did compose Rite of Spring as an imagining of a pagan Russia but when he returned to the Russian Orthodox Church he was serious and he didn't just stop writing music that is now classic stuff. Penderecki writing the Passion According to St. Luke in a Soviet regime wasn't exactly a wimpy gesture, was it?

It's not that Catholics and Orthodox composers have a sense of history Protestants don't. Bach is indisputably the greatest composer the Western heritage has given to us (Beethoven's still a distant second). But what was it about the Lutheranism and German regions of Bach's time that enabled Bach to be Bach? It seems history as institutional memory doesn't explain everything. Family history could explain some aspects of Bach's genius, especially since multiple generations of the Bach family had been professional musicians and Bach had access to music ranging across Western Europe. My speculative guess is that Protestantism produced incredible classical music because it had, not to put too fine a point on it, a more catholic view of the musical legacy of the West in the past than it has now. Bach could assimilate the tonal and pre-tonal harmonic languages of the old and new styles available in the Baroque era.

I think this capability of composing within multiple styles may be some kind of key to a catholic grasp of Western musical culture. Stravinsky was a stylistic chameleon, so much so that Adorno disliked that aspect of his work. Messiaen assimilated such drastically heterogenous influences as Baroque music, late Romantic works, Asian music, bird-song, and the early modernjsts. Penderecki was similar. What enabled them to assimilate such wildly disparate cultural and historical periods of music into what we can now see as unusual but finally coherent musical voices? Well, I'd like to say their faith and I'd say that's true, but it seems Protestants have faith but DON'T accomplish this in classical music very well. I wonder if the problem may be that Protestant pay lip service to the idea that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. This would be a huge irony because Catholic and Orthodox churches aren't exactly as free-wheeling in practice about things like the ordination of women based on what little I know about them.

I suppose it may come down to what Chesterton wrote, that in Christianity the soldier and the pacifist both have their part and by not giving supremacy to either both are given their rightful time and place. Some Christians get this about music ... and some Christians don't. To some degree it seems that Protestant groups rose along nationalist lines. As a reaction to abuses and shortcomings in the Catholic Church's use of power and influence that's understandable but it may have, so to speak, swung too far the other way. And I guess that as the child of an inter-racial marriage I see no inherent value (personally) in being proud of one culture at the expensse of another, or really in seing any particularly huge value in either cultural legacy I got from my white and non-white ancestors. Not that I have no interest at all but to me it is not the essence of the Christian faith, which is that those distinctions we have traditionally divided over as humans don't have to be points of division in Christ.

ah, the virtues of Berkshire Record Outlet

There are some drawbacks. You REALLY have to know exactly what you're looking for if you're going to bother at all. And it's a crapshoot if you don't know what you're looking for or are just experimenting because I've gotten some snoozer CDs through them. And you have to order a minimum amount before they'll let you buy anything.

But it's worth it to have them around because if you're looking for stuff that's out-of-print or overstocked you can save an INCREDIBLE amount of money getting stuff that just slipped off the regular market. What do I mean? Well, I mean that you can (right now at least) get the COMPLETE keyboard works of William Byrd and the COMPLETE piano music of Olivier Messiaen through BRO for about $74 counting shipping and handling and tax. That's FOURTEEN CDs! Wanna know how much it would cost to get the same stuff new through Try $200. Even getting the lowest prices through third-party vendors you'll pay at least $110 not counting shipping and handling, which means that the savings you get for getting the two box-sets through Berkshire are pretty incredible.

Yeah, I know, it's pretty nerdy to make a sales pitch for a website that sells cut-out, overstock, and out-of-print classical CDs on a blog. Oh well, that's what blogs are for and if no one else reads this, big deal.

Of course I don't get most of my CDs from here. Most of what I've picked up is new stuff sold either through huge vendors who need not be named or stuff I have to order directly through tiny labels or even some of the artists themselves. But as the Preacher put it, to everything there is a season and when you want to get box sets of the complete keyboard works of a great English Renaissance composer and a great avant gardist from 20th century France Berkshire Record Outlet is at least worth checking out. By the way, be willing to wait at least a month for delivery. They can deliver things much faster than that but they can't guarantee that they can deliver much faster than that. Comes with the territory of selling what they sell. By the way, their selection of Heinrich Schutz is a bit less than awe-inspiring, though they have a couple of discs that are cool.

Now that I've got so much Messiaen and Byrd I hope to listen to the stuff. THAT will take a while. Since I'm trudging through Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone's book on Messiaen (which I honestly hoped would be more of a page-turner than I had any reason to expect) I figure I can listen to a bunch of the composer's music, too.