Friday, June 06, 2008

trust is gained slowly and lost quickly, reflections on a half-true would-be aphorism.

A minor celebrity of a region once said this and I imagine got the aphorism from someone else. It's true, sort of. Trust takes an immense amount of time to be gained. Even in cases where trust is implicitly given quickly it is to someone or something whose trust had to be vetted at so many levels that the implicit trust is warranted. For instance, if you go to's website, you trust quickly that it works because the business has now been around for more than a decade and should have a secure website and ordering process if they're going to have repeat business and not open the floodgates of identity fraud.

Or, to choose another analogy, you trust that your car will start in the morning because you bought the car new and it works and the people who built the truck have almost any given reason to do a good job.

It's when the car shifts in a wonky way that you might begin to wonder if the transmission is working the way it's supposed to. You might find that the brakes don't seem to work as they should and you have a few near misses or a ding or two. Or you might discover that turning is rough or that the power to weight ratio suffers in cold weather or hot weather. Eventually the car fails but if a lot of these little failures happen within a few months of buying a new car you've got a clunker, or a car that was made well, perhaps, but with very bad parts.

The bottom line is that you don't decide the car is busted on the basis of just one drive the way this works. It how it gets you from point A to point B day in and day out. You can't ignore that some of the trouble is that you're a good or bad driver and external circumstances come into play. But there comes a point when you recognize that the car is a good car, perhaps, that needs repairs and that even the worst-made car will not fail you without a number of smaller things accumulating along the way.

In other words, trust is built up slowly and lost slowly ... but that feeling of ultimate and shocking betrayal still seems like it just suddenly HAPPENS. So efforts to assess and refine and cultivate trust are necessary. There's a wonderfully amusing sequence in the comic book and the film Persepolis where Marjane looks back on all the things that seemed wonderful about her beau ... right up until she caught him boffing another woman, and sees in all the things endearing only things that were disgusting. Her perspective changed because of the emotional shock of betrayal and yet in the comic book she's circumspect enough to recognize that everything was there to be seen but she was so desperate to love and be loved she didn't see what was staring her in the face and didn't realize what spectacular expecations and hopes she hung upon a young man who was no more stable nor mature than she. The shock of the betrayal rests on cumulative effects, of hints and grievances overlooked in the hope that what was seen was not what was real.

In Scripture the great betrayal is that of Judas. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, but a lot of little betrayals that escaped the notice of everyone but Jesus came and went to get to that point. But it makes sense that it's shocking once it happens and the apostles who share the betrayal don't beat around the bush. Matthew tips us off in chapter 10 that Jesus will be betrayed. Mark doesn't even wait that long and mentions it by chapter 3. Luke mentions Jesus' revelation that He will be betrayed but doesn't reveal who the betrayer is until quite a bit later. Luke is a more careful dramatist, perhaps, not wanting to give things away too quickly. John gets things out of the way fairly early, like the other Gospel authors but provides a bit more insight into Judas' character. It was only John who had a closer perspective on Judas' pre-betrayal betrayals, and it is Luke who artfully postpones the revelation of the betrayer and helps convey the sense of shock that the other Gospel authors, all having closer apostolic attestation, simply get over with quickly in the interests of getting to Jesus' teaching (or so it would seem).

There was once a neighborhood dog that was rabid and would attack passers by. The owner of the dog would dispute the reputation of the dog to everyone, saying that the dog was just defending himself and defending his territory and that if people would only just UNDERSTAND the dog's motives and what he was REALLY trying to do that it would all make sense. The dog didn't attack anyone who didn't deserve it, more or less.

Then one day the dog wanted more food than the master thought he deserved and bit the dog's owner. The owner said, "Damn! That hurt. You're a bad dog!" But since the dog had been allowed to harass and even bite passers by for years could the owner really suddenly blame the dog for being exactly what the owner let the dog be? Why was it only unjust for the dog to attack and harass his master when his attacks on others had gone by not only without complaint but with defenses? The owner trusted that the dog would NEVER bite him. The truth was simply that the evidence of the dog's cantankerous nature had always been there but the man simply ignored what was before him because so long as the dog was attacking other people and not him the fault was probably that of those who got bitten.

So at question here is whether or not we can meaningfully parse blame now. We can, to be sure, but in a way it is an exercise that is merely Sissyphean. The dog is to blame for choosing to bite even if by nature and permission of his master. Conversely, the master is guilty of not defending those attacked by the dog befire and, while clearly not deserving to get bit by his own dog any more than anyone else, bears culpability. It's sad, but true. The neighbors who wanted the dog's aberrant behavior challenged got ignored and what can they do now that the dog has bitten pretty much everyone in the neighborhood? To say that the dog's behavior is a problem is too late, by now the dog's conduct has become the responsibility of all, in an admittedly broad manner of speaking. The neighbors who decided to not go near the dog turned out to be smarter than all the people who thought the dog would not bite them. By way of caveat, perhaps I should say I've always liked cats better. :)

The dog whose bark was worse than his bite probably didn't invent that saying. It was probably coined by a dog whose bite was much worse than his bark, and whose bark was still pretty nasty.

Aphorisms are peculiar things. I once heard an explanation that to be a peace-maker sometimes only happens when you destroy all your enemies so that there can finally be peace. Yeah, blessed are those peace-makers, eh? An interpretation so spectacularly at odds with nearly two millenia of Christian tradition might go unnoticed by people who heard this interpretation until it were actually applied! Not exactly dipping into the same well that Matthew Henry and Wesley drew from (to pick the most obvious choices of standard free on-line commentary by venerable commentators of the past).

I grant that it is, in the Apocalypse, totally true, but bringing forward that definition of peace-making that is reserved only for Christ is what someone might somewhat laconically call an over-realized eschatology.

Seattle News doesn't get bigger than's website crashing

People who aren't into the big river company may be rejoicing. It's not cool that the company had such a huge crash in the website but things happen. I've liked them because even though their catalog of products is not really as amazing as it once was when they were starting out and put things up that didn't sell a lot, it's still pretty amazing. And since I'm what you might call ecologically "responsible" through means of variables I can't control I prefer to order on-line than go to brick and mortar about half the time because I have to go on-line to find half the stuff that intrigues me. Seriously, virtually no book and mortar shop or even a specialty shop has the kind of chamber music for classical guitar I'm looking for half the time. Why order Atanas Ourkouzounov's Sonatina Bulgarica for violin and guitar at a local shop when I could write the publisher directly by email, set up a wire transfer or use a credit card and have it shipped straight to me by the publisher. We truly live in a economy that is perhaps too consciously and conscientiously aware of being a global one.

Which is why, all things considered, if the big guys have what I'm looking for and the little guy doesn't, I go with the big guy. Sure, it'd be NICE to pay the person who is less of the big elephant in the herd, but I have to confess that the cost of wire transfers to individuals overseas is often the fastest route to paying twice as much again for stuff I could have ordered through the big cats on the fence. Sure, I'm glad to have helped an artist directly ... but, damn, the checkbook feels it! I can only do that in so many cases, which is why I don't mind All of you people who can actually drive can feel smug and self-righteous about their dominance in the market. They know what they sell, delivery of materials ordered. It's like fast food, they're not selling the food they're selling the time. All things being equal time is pretty valuable. Do I wait months for the little dude to get the score I want? Sometimes, but sometimes the big dude has it.

Anyway, a little pointless tangent on and the market. My condolences, really, I've been a customer for quite some time. Hope they get it fixed soon.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

never underestimate the obvious

This was a saying I heard from a choir director in college. I could attempt to write quite a bit about what this little aphorism means to me and how it connects to art and life and Scripture but I don't feel like it. I will simply note that it seems to be the human condition that we are constantly underestimating the obvious.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

not worth the trouble to play it, a short rumination on music that is a pain in the ass to play

It is interesting, in the wake of some personal experience, to consider the statement that declares that this or that piece is impossible to play or that the technical demands of the work outstrip the musical value that could be obtained from playing the thing. To put it in rather crude terms if the thing is going to be a bitch to play it better be a kick-ass piece, right? Well, I just got word through the grapevine that a pair of pieces I composed for solo guitar were run by a guitarist at my alma mater and the guitarist found the pieces very difficult to play and wasn't sure that the pieces were musically worth such trouble as they would impose upon him. Ah ... could be true.

This is the part where as a composer and guitarist I consider some of the works in the past that were considered "unplayable" that are now standards of the repertoire. There's a violin concerto or two and some string quartets that were considered "unplayable". What this usually means is that the pieces were not considered musically worth the technical trouble they caused. And it's true that there are pieces that require more than three or for rehearsals to come off and that by and large those pieces may not be worth the trouble if we're talking about a symphonic piece.

And yet in solo repertoire people seem to aspire to some of the more difficult, even downright brutal pieces like the Hammerklavier. Of course the adage would be that only Beethoven could write something musically worth the trouble the Hammerklavier brings upon anyone who dares to play it. Fair enough. I am hardly ever going to be able to consider the day when I, as a composer, could say that my music is worth that sort of attention century after century.

On the other hand, when I consider music that I have trouble playing that seems to be recorded regularly I end up thinking one of two things.

1. How does anyone attempt to quantify the level of technical difficulty in relationship to the level of rewarding musical substance?
2. Are "unplayable" masterpieces really unplayable or just impractical?

Musical substance is impossible to rationally assess and one of the weird things about music that continues to amaze me is what is considered hard or easy to play. The other weird thing is what is considered musically substantive. There are people in the world who adore the music of Scriabin. Well, uh, thank God SOMEONE likes Scriabin, I guess. There are people who even like Mahler, some of whom are friends of mine. I don't get Mahler and may NEVER get Mahler, just as I may always hate Mahler with a passion for which words often fail me.

It is nonetheless interesting to me that a lot of what is considered "hard" in guitar repertoire is hard not because of the actual technique required by the piece but because of conceptual issues. A guitarist may decide something is difficult simply because of the key the piece is in. Or a piece might be a genuinely brutal piece because of alternating pedal tones arrived at by a portamento of the pinky on an adjacent string while a sustained bass-line is being held down by the 2 finger (I'm not making htis up, it's a basically closed-position pattern that is the reason oen of my pieces was considered to be basically not worth the trouble).

A guitarist who was wrapping up grad school sent me an email once and shared something that is likely to be controversial. He said that most professional guitarists are pussies. Remember folks, he said it, not me, and for sake of avoiding any hating I'm not attributing. The guitarist wrote that a lot of guitarists are not really interested in playing the especially challenging stuff or playing new stuff but going through the standards.

Perhaps not coincidentally this is a guitarist who has gone through my work and said that it's repertoire that requires a somewhat unorthodox approach to technique but that it's all perfectly playable.

So is this some kind of object lesson that some things are hard to play less because they're really impossible or impractical to play, but are instead considered hard because they require unusual deviations from standard pedagogy about instrumental technique? Something I'm mulling over. One thing I do know is that if yours truly can play the piece but with a certain amount of effort it doesn't mean the piece is unplayable. And another thing I hasten to add is that composers who play instruments seem more eager to stretch themselves either in technique or concepts. I make this clarifying point because I've never heard a work by Andrew York yet that I liked but I'm sure that he's written pieces that stretch technique to its outer limits. I'm afraid I have to say I just don't like any of the music he's written that I've heard. But that's veering off what I have been pondering lately.

The "I just believe the Bible" sentiment as an excuse for not thinking

I believe the Bible provides infallible truth about Christ, through whom alone we can truly understand the one true God. And I believe that Scripture will never fail to reveal Christ to us and that the Spirit enables us to understand and love Him.

That said, one of the pet peeves I have about evangelicals of some stripes is that when presented with historical and exegetical arguments against a thoroughly dubious belief like pretribulational, premillenial speculation about the end times to the effect that this or that colored person is a potential antichrist (yes, I'm looking at you, people who forward stuff about Muslims or Obama being the antichrist) a person is apt to just dig in their heels and assume they are right because they trust Jesus. Well, I trust Jesus, too, so the argument goes both ways because ... hey, wait, it's simply an assertion and not an argument. As Internetmonk put it, saying "The Bible is true" doesn't end the discussion even if you want it to. Pulling "I believe the Bible" is a conversation ender, not a point from which to move forward to discuss how the truth revealed in Scripture corrects us, not just the people we want corrected.

I am particularly put off by dispensationalists lately becasue they are so apt to embrace truly assisine ideas that fit their pre-existing prejudices. I will be the first person to say I'm not particularly Democratic in my politics but after ten years the spam about how Clinton was going to enact martial law and suspend the Constitution to make himself ruler for life got pretty stupid. And now that Bush has been in office I hear the same stuff coming from the other side. If it's not that Clinton is going to hand the US to China it's that we're invading Iran tomorrow. Sure, these things are "possible" but how likely are they?

The thing that is depressing to consider is that if you look far enough to the right and left the results are the same, secretive international wealthy evil Jewish bankers are rsponsible for everything! Pat Robertson was predicting the New World Order and the Illuminati and the European Union were the big threats in the 1990s, the signs of the coming Antichrist and the one-world-religion. Clearly these people had not done any real research on how spectacularly inefficient the European Union has often been. I was in my late teens when the Berlin Wall came down and I grew up immersed in an eschatological context where the End Times were at hand. I despaired of doing anything meaningful in this life because Jesus was coming back so soon that I'd never have time to get married or have kids or establish a career because it was all going to Hell and getting handed over to the Evil One after the Secret Rapture anyway.

And this is why I appreciate a youth pastor from a decade or so ago that I knew who introduced me and his other kids to the existence of competing schools of thought in eschatology. It started my slow path toward amillenial partial preterism. :)

But I find that as an American who identifies as essentially Protestant and evangelical (whatever that word means would have to be another blog entry, really!) that if I mention this is my perspective it gets weird reactions from people. One of my friends said that he had to explain to a fellow that, no, I'm not a heretic because I embrace this view of eschatology. It's not typical for an AMERICAN evangelical but that if you read widely of European and older Christian thinkers even with Protestantism you find that it is not that weird or outlandish a position.

But after two or three generations get raised on junk like The Late Great Planet Earth or Tim LaHaye books they don't realize that the eschatology they've been sold (quite literally sold) doesn't add up. How many years ago should Jesus have come back if people weren't recalculating things? Why is it the one world religion shifts and transforms depending on the private paranoias of the Christians who thought that the one-world religion would be the New Age movement in the age of Clinton and now think it may be Islam in the age of Bush?

Does it ever occur to these people that the advantage of the historicist and preterist schools is that they allow us to consider that Scripture was not just a secret code book God slipped to us through the hands of the apostles but something given to the whole Church? The number of the Beast was something a person with wisdom could figure out in the apostle's lifetime. That Nero was commonly attested to fit the number means people DID figure out the number. But no, Christians of this stripe don't need to be confused with the facts of how Christians over the centuries have actually interpreted the Apocalypse, let alone be bothered to recognize that the revelation is singular, not plural. It's enough for them to simply suppose that the book is written specially for them to figure out and that maybe Islam will be the one-world religion.

Comparing the symbolic appropriations John makes from Daniel should be a big, big clue that Revelation is not necessarily literal but, again, some Christians won't be bothered by this because most dispensationalist/futurists hold that Revelation is symbolic of things that have not yet happened so that the locusts might refer to helicopters and the horsemen might refer to tanks. In any event, the events described in Revelation have to refer to something, anything that did not take place in the apostle's lifetime even though Jesus said through the apostle "his number IS 666". Now it's not hard to figure out what the problem is if you suppose the number must refer to, say, a Muslim antichrist. The problem is that ten years ago futurists were agreeing the antichrist would be Jewish. Ha ha ha! The great thing about dispensatioanlists is that they can do complete 180 turnarounds on how they interpret the same, unchanging passage in Scripture that reveals the truth and they just say they believe the Bible.

Nah, they believe their SYSTEM for interpreting the Bible and no matter how great or spectacular the contradictions and changes in how they interpret the Mark or the Beast or the one-world religion over time it's all justified by saying "I just believe what the Bible says" or "God in His wisdom could have planned it so people just knew." Never mind that there is no patristic evidence to suggest that the one-world religion that is coming (allegedly) is Islam or that, say, the antichrist will be Muslim and the false prophet Jewish or the other way around. There isn't any evidence that the earliest Christians took Revelation and Daniel together to refer to Muslims or New Agers. What would be more methodologically accurate is to find out what they WOULD have understood Revelation to be speaking of and find out what the equivalents might be in our day. Exegesis? What's that?

Propose the simple idea that in order for God to be truthful to every generation of the church and not a liar that the number had to mean something to the first recipients of the Apocalypse and the answer you're likely to get is "Doesn't this discount the wisdom of God?" No, it just discounts the stupidity of mortals who like to bring their own customized eschatology in through the back door while pretending to themselves and others that they are "just" interpreting what Scripture says. Fortunately there is a promise of Christ's return in Acts 1 so even if, by some historical happenstance, we didn't even have Revelation, we would have an indisputable canonical promise of Christ's return given to us by Luke.

If we're talking about the hope of Christ's return, I'm totally on board. But I haven't been on board for more than ten years if we're talking about Revelation being transformed into a code book to rationalize the fear of Democrats or people of color who we think will usher in a one-world government and one-world religion that is somehow secretly run by the Illuminati or something. Guess what? Liberals have returned the favor and some have talked about Bush 2 being the antichrist, in all seriousness. Right-wing Christians can't scoff at this if they sent spam about how Clinton would usher in martial law ten years ago. When the shoe was on the other foot they weren't batting an eyelash at suggesting that the American president might play the role of the antichrist.

So let's be consistent, what if America is the Beast and the United States approach to "democracy" as an export is the one-world religion? Don't we have the military might to ensure that those who oppose us will be punished?

... Or might it be more responsible a way of reading Scripture to set aside most of dispensationalism because it's not based on any exegesis at all? The more I saw just how crazy and paranoid most theories springing from dispensationalism actually were the more I realized that the promise of Christ's return is supposed to be a basis for our hope, not fuel for our own paranoia and resentment of our neighbor.