Saturday, November 07, 2009

you know how years ago I planned to blog about some stuff?

Well, blogging about how Koshkin uses cross movement motific development in his Sonata for flute and guitar would make a fun blog entry but there's the whole problem of not being in a position to use musical samples. And, to be honest, it occurred to me that I don't REALLY want to write such a lengthy article as a blog, lay out what essentially could be a term paper for an undergrad course .... or maybe even a master's thesis on Koshkin's use of cross-movement thematic mutation as a form of fusion between classical and rock influences ... and then just have some kid out in the blogosphere rip it off as term paper material. Not that that is LIKELY to happen but I want to promote music I care about in a way where I'm not making it too easy for people to take shortcuts but make it "too easy" for people to go find the stuff I'm commending.

For instance, I plan to do a fairly detailed write-up about Atanas Ourkouzounov's new CD when I can finally manage to get it but you'll forgive me for being unemployed and not ideally situated to go buying CDs. I may attempt to research and write about Igor Rekhin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar, however, since I believe such a cycle of pieces deserves more attention in the West on principle. Jack Duarte mentioned it but not a whole lot of other people have mentioned it. So that is something I hope to blog about when time and resources permit. But some of the stuff I set out to blog about would be too time-consuming.

And my attempt to blog about themes like systemic and culturally ingrained child abuse as depicted in Eureka Seven? Well, I love the show but I have better things to do with my time, probably ... even though I'm unemployed and technically "could" devote time to examining those themes. Life has a habit of catching up with you and I, never one to really be "with it" in whatever is of the moment most of the time, can't be bothered. I track Pixar films and, yes, I saw Zombieland, and Up, and the new Trek movie but I have limits. I'm the sort of almost handicapable folks who can't always get out to see this or that and don't have the impulse to just buy new CDs or DVDs because other people are into things. I studious avoided both the Nirvana AND Radiohead fads over the last fifteen or twenty years. Bjork and Weezer and Portishead on the other hand ... .

I'm still a night owl

And sometimes it stinks to be a night owl!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I am a night owl

Yes, this is not hard to discern from some of the times at which I post.

Since I have been job hunting I have tended to stay up late. Staying up late is a little too easy since I have that double whammy known as insomnia and sleep apnea. I have a little "Darth Vader" machine I find helpful. I once gave a demonstration of it to my now eight-year old niece. She heard the air flowing out of the mask and said it didn't sound like Darth Vader. I put the mask on my nose (thankfully it only needs to cover the nose) and she said it still didn't sound like Darth Vader. I asked her to come up very close to me and listen carefully. She did so and after a few seconds sat back and laughed, "Oh! Now I hear it! It DOES sound like Darth Vader!" Yes, well, that's why I call my little machine the "Darth Vader" machine.

And, obviously, I'm not using it right NOW because it would be awkward to use such a thing while blogging.

While I job hunt and consider my options I also blog ... and compose. I am excited about the possibilities of a fugue in A major for solo guitar and have just spent a few hours toiling over a possible fugue in E minor for solo guitar. Of all the preludes and fugues I have composed for the guitar up to this point the one I am most proud of is the one in G major. And I am also willing to admit (or brag) that Atanas Ourkouzounov enjoyed the piece, which means a lot to me. If I thought there was any chance he would play or premiere some of the preludes and fugues for guitar he'd get a dedication ... actually I have found his work inspiring enough I may eventually dedicate something to him anyway. Chamber music for classical guitar by a Bulgarian composer living in Paris is unique, unique in most excellent ways.

Meanwhile, I ply my trade such as I can. At some point I should probably work up the nerve to play my compositions in front of people but I have to confess I often doubt if they are really that good or interesting enough to be played for an audience and, assuming that they are, if I am really the best advocate for my works. I had a repetitive motion injury, a pair of them actually, that messed up my hands badly. It was tendonitis bad enough to get treated like carpal tunnel syndrome and I got it in my early twenties. It was a miserable time and playing the guitar was very difficult. Had I not had some classical training on technique I am honestly not sure my playing would have recovered from the damage my hands and wrists got. I do okay most of the time but juggernauts of data entry such as I had in 1999 remind me that bodies wither and fade with time. I have since then pursued composition with more alacrity than performance by a considerable margin.

Composing music is where I find the most joy. Performing, meh, it's okay. But if I don't perform my prelude and fugue in G major who will?

Perhaps more pertinent, should I not get some sleep? I want the week on week of free nights to end at some point! I need to work more than I have often seriously considered before. The best thing I can do for that is work at finding work and also work at composing music.

To be honest I have abandoned most theological research and study. It is not that I don't love biblical literature, far from it! Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have set aside ACADEMIC reflection on biblical literature and theology. I am considering things from a more personal vantage point and am realizing that emotionally my faith is under-developed and that a lot of zeal has been missing from it. Given the way I threw myself into things at Mars Hill I have come to believe that one of my idols was being immersed in a church culture. I have often wondered if it would not benefit me a great deal to have a more Sunday-only approach to church or to have a Christian walk that involves emotional connections rather than attempting to continue in the more academic vein I was best known for at the church I was a member of for so long.

And appropos of nothing, I am very interested in cooking up spicy pork bulgogi. Even in Seattle four stars is nothing more than a good start in most Asian restaurants.

I'd blog about job hunting but I don't feel like it right now.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

the stories we tell ourselves and why

Years ago I was participating in a discussion forum in which a certain passle of Christians blathered on and on ... and on and on ... about how courtship and marriage happened or were SUPPOSED to happen. Of all the things I have experienced in my life the level of sanctimony I saw was infuriating. People rambled on about how things ought to be and how things were whether or not that had anything to do with reality. There would be an occasional smug testimony about how things aren't that complicated and that people should just chill. Often this turned out to be the pat advice given by a couple where the father didn't even show up at the wedding because he was so offended by the conduct of his child prior to the wedding and the marriage was marriage #2 for one of the people walking the aisle as it stood. Yes, it's all so much simpler than people are making it out to be!

Another case involved a couple where, as the woman outlined things, she sent "signals" to the guy that she was interested and the eventually got to handwriting letters and eventually came the big old engagement and the woman, in her narrative, described her beloved in the terms "he caught me". My sister saw this and snorted (wonderfully) that this woman had not been a case of "he caught me" she practically threw herself at the man but persuaded herself that because she jumped through the right hoops in her mind she had been the one who was pursued and not the pursuer.

I don't quite understand why these sorts of narratives get shared. My instinct is to suspect that this sort of narrative means there is something to hide. It is not without cause that Agur said that one of the things too mysterious for him to understand was the way of a man with a maid but in the evangelical circle I hung out with that was apparently not mysterious, not the way most people talked, whether married or single. To be sure some of the most laughable generalizations I have read have tended to come from some unmarried people but laughable generalizations do not just come in the unmarried variety.

I got more insight into the actual relational challenges of actual married life from Wendy's one post over at Practical Theology for Women then in all the preening and spouting done by married guys on a discussion forum over a four year period. Seeing that one simple reflection on an actual piece of scripture just makes me more furious to look back on those earlier years to see how much that was passed off as "biblical" was just the agenda of a couple of self-impressed men who wanted to be able to say they had it worked out and that THEIR marriages and families were not going to be lack all those OTHER people. It was nonsense at best and self-delusion at worst.

One fellow I know after blogging endlessly about his hatred of the weakness of others justified his blogging on the grounds that though he had gotten himself into the place where he has to manage diabetes in his thirties he was taking responsibility for his actions. Never mind that his failure to be responsible earlier was how he got diabetes to begin with, in his mind he was doing the responsible thing now and felt justified in looking down on others who, in his conviction, were sickening him with their weakness. He bought his own hype, his own bullshit. His diabetes is something he is managing now, I hope, but the fact that he saw no inherent tension between looking down on others as weak and undisciplined while having gotten himself diabetes in his thirties was something he just couldn't see. If he saw it then it would destroy the narrative he has for himself about being the stalwart one who soldiers on despite opposition from the world and sticks to his principles come hell or high water. It's not really true but he believes it, just like other people believe they are victims of abuse when they are abusers and other people believe they are failures because it is safer to not try than to try and risk even small failures.

I am not without sympathy regarding the temptation to believe your own hype. I have gone through life thinking that if I dot all my I's and cross all my T's in theology that I will avoid the madness and hyper-emotionalism I have seen in some of my family, the patently irrational impulses that lead to destruction of various kinds, emotional, physical, or financial. There is a sense in which I realize I was raised to have the kinds of fears I was eventually told I shouldn't have so much of.

If the end times are upon us and Jesus could come back any time there is no point in building a family or getting married or even establishing a career, is there? If there can only be understanding through "rhema" revelation then only the peple who already have it can pass it on, or else you can't really have it unless someone else SAYS you have it. There were times when I was told that God had big plans for me (doesn't that apply to everyone?) and that I was called to ministry before I was born. Well, depends on how one defines ministry.

These kinds of narratives can come off as dubious because other people get these memos and I don't. If you get told you're called for ministry before you were born and find that in your twenties seminary is just not practical and you don't feel called to be a pastor then what point is there in going into ministry? If you have been told that you are going to have a big ministry but you struggle to find a job to keep a roof over your head and can't find a church you feel connected to then that whole ministry thing looks like a pipe dream. In the end it begins to feel like some kind of long-term emotional manipulation better left unsaid. Let God decide what the future of His children will be.

Personally the only thing I can attest so far about these sorts of raised expectations is that they just seem more impossible and improbable over time. They stop seeming like a divine calling they are presented as and look more like the expectation other people have of you as to what kind of person and Christian you should be. It becomes suffocating, profoundly suffocating. If you don't measure up to these lofty prophesies and predictions you feel more miserable than you already felt, more like a failure than you already felt yourself to be. What was no doubt meant to be the most profound sort of blessing ends up feeling like a curse.

This is why understanding ourselves to be part of a story that Christ is telling through the scriptures can be liberating. It means that the accepted narratives I see held up for admiration by others are not finally the narrative that matters. Specious self-congratulating narratives by smug couples who don't want to admit that things are tougher and not simpler than they want them made out to be for the sake of public show don't matter. The narratives asserting that you will be this or that person because people hope for that for you don't matter. Attempts to vicariously discover yourself in the lives and achievements of others don't matter. Christ matters.

And yet even many Christians will say this but with their lives reveal a different story. A pastor who talks about how it is all about Jesus can make it seem, in his practical day-to-day life as though it is all about him, his wife, his job, his kids, his blog, his church, his "friends". A man can proclaim Christ but, as David Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, finally be proclaiming himself. On that day the Lord will say "I never knew you". There is such a thing as a false assurance. Not everyone who gets a direct admonition from the Lord survives in the end. Judas didn't. King Saul was addressed by the Lord through a prophet several times and he didn't make it. Numerous Samarian kings were annihilated by God after getting divine warnings and not heeding them. Yet American Christians can seem more eager to trust in the calling of a pastor if there is some part of a divine narrative built into it. This does not make tha tpastor LESS called but it by itself proves nothing.

It sticks with me that one of the ways we tell ourselves the stories we want to tell ourselves and others is we want to exonerate ourselves. We prefer to be the victim in a tragic or heroic struggle. We prefer to be the ones who are not morally compromised, not abusive of the trust given us, not neglectful of the gifts given us. Well, I do not feel I have that luxury in the end. The gifts that I do have I do not believe I have put to very good use at all or to very positive effect in the lives of others. I am not someone, I think, whom people should look to and say "I want to be like THAT person."

I can't say that I have a particularly heroic or tragic narrative at this stage in my life. I'm simply confused and struggling and that in itself makes me neither honest nor praiseworthy. I am afraid to decide what sort of story I have because I don't know. Men who decide the stories of their lives can be men who wreak havoc on the lives of others and themselves when those narratives don't come to pass. As the scriptures say, men make their plans but the Lord directs their steps.

I have met too many people who have smugly decided that they have planned their steps and the fact that things are going their way means the Lord is in it and blessing it. The narratives I have been suggested to get through my life all look cheap, worn-out, and untrustworthy. Jesus, however, does not seem cheap to me, even though I would be the first person to say I would not want anyone to consider me an exmplary Christian. I often feel like a failure because I beleive I am a failure. I have heard people say with their mouths "Jesus is what matters" and live with their lives statements that say, "My career matters" or "My being married matters" or "My being an individual matters" or "My integrity and honor matters".

I have met people who say that grace can't be explained and has to simply be experienced, as though that excused them from attempting to explain what the mercy of the Lord is, as though Jesus' parables didn't illustrate what that graciousness looks like, as if Jesus' life somehow didn't display that for us. The narrative shared becomes an excuse to not reveal the good news of Christ beyond waiting for other people to somehow "get it". If grace cannot be explained but only experienced why do we have biblical books? Why did people come to know Christ through the reading of the scriptures? If grace cannot be explained but only experienced there wouldn't be four gospels instead of none, would there? If grace cannot be merely explained but must ALSO be experienced then who will demonstrate that graciousness of the Lord to others? As Paul put it so eloquently and urgently, how will they come to faith if they have not heard and how will they hear if no one is sent to speak to them? Who will tell them the story of Christ? Perhaps we are having more fun telling stories that exonerate us than stories that reveal our need for the Lord. It is something I am struggling with.

Johann Hari overviews two biographies of Ayn Rand at Slate

I have had a few people I know get into Ayn Rand, which I consider a sign of their mental and emotional weakness. I am not kidding and I am not underplaying my assessment of their character. It has been my observation that Rand fans are, alas, often essentially parasitic in their capacities. Learning as I go that Rand was an amphetamine addict and prone to paranoia hardly endears her to me. As a friend of mine put it, Rand's mistake was to react to radical collectivism with a radical individualism that is simply the mirror image of the communist problem. And, as Hari observes it as well, it is hardly unusual to notice that more than one person considers that over-reaction significant.

A woman who trafficked in ad hominems regarding those she regarded as lesser people vitiates the power of her critique by having been an amphetamine addict. A woman who died of lung cancer and dismissed research that suggested the harmful effects of smoking vitiates her position of saying that people should only act toward rational self-interest. A woman who claims that sexual bonds are based on intellectual agreement could not abide her lover (25 years younger) falling in love with another woman (10 years younger than he) is someone who did not, perhaps, adequately realize that we have bodies as well as minds. Despite an attempt to articulate that there is no separation between mind and body Rand may have missed the boat when a man twenty-five years younger than she was responsive to a younger and (very probably) more physically attractive and emotionally stable woman.

The ways in which Rand's addictions and paranoia ravaged her reveal that the gap between her convictions and her life was pretty big in the end. Rather than stop smoking because there was evidence it was killing her she dismissed as communist propaganda? That might be comparable to someone going on and on about despising the weakness and lack of discipline about others while eating his way into diabetes. It's the same sort of hypocrisy and it is only hypocrisy because there is no room for graciousness or sympathy for those who are mastered by their appetites. A person who does what they don't really want to do is just someone caught in the vise of what Paul describes in Romans 7, and that's just basically almost anyone. Dying alone but for someone who is only there to care for you because you pay them to might have been success to Rand but it is not heroism in the end, was it?

Even a cursory examination of her life reveals that she was in essential respects a sociopath and her assessment of the human condition marred by a form of class resentment she never overcome. As more than a few people noted Rand was profoundly immoral and, as some have noted, a hypocrite. Her capacity for unfettered dualism and rancor has been surpassed, I suppose, but she is emblematic of a person whose ideas are as bad as the intellectual disease she proposed to cure.

What I have found sad about the admirers of Rand I have known in my relatively short life is how their lives are at odds with their admiration of her work and the values they claim to adhere to. I have seen people who have homes because of the generosity of other people, who have places to stay and in some cases jobs because of the gestures of family and friends. Christians embracing Rand's philosophy is an exercise in peculiarity since Rand's philosophy does not seem to have any use for children and would appear to condone abortion of convenience. If, as some of my Rand-swilling associates contend, integrity and dignity are not inherent and must be earned then there is no basis for allowing a fetus to survive into adulthood if there are "rational" goals for which it is better to sacrifice the unborn. Indeed, the very nature of parenting itself suggests that Rand completely misunderstood the strange and mysterious nexus of selfishness and selflessness.

Most Rand fans I have met are, frankly, the kinds of "looters" who live off the generosity of others and are not particularly productive people that Rand would have despised. They are useless as artists, as writers, and work at relatively menial tasks that can easily be done by others, yet they seem to aspire to being greater than that even though it is not in them. They find comfort in looking down on people who are actually better than them while thinking the roles are reversed.

I don't say this as though I were someone great but because I have observed these people for enough years to see that their convictions of being better than the average herdm, or even merely their belief that they ASPIRE to be better than the common herd, are so manifestly refuted by their wretchedness in actual living that if I were an actual Randian I would be obliged to tell them they are losers whose self-delusion about even their mere competence dooms them to lives of useless parasitism rather than productive work. I am, however, a Christian who thinks that even if this assessment about those people is true I'd rather let them discover their smallness through their attempts at propounding their greatness. I don't need to tell them they are nobodies, the power of the market and their more or less insignificant place within it will eventually tell them that! They will be destroyed by their own folly. We all are eventually. Rand certainly was.

As a review in the National Review put it so long ago, even where one can agree with Rand's assessment of problems, her solution is tantamount to proposing that the way to ensure the failures of doctors are dealt with is by renouncing the Hippocratic oath. Liberals have been claiming for years that the current economic meltdown we are facing is because Rand fans were allowed to have their day during the administration of Bush 2. I am not sure that is all there is to be said on the subject.

HT to Practical Theology for Women: the end of proverbs focuses the beginning

Proverbs 1:6
For understanding proverbs and parables, the words of the wise and their riddles.

Most of my life I have been presented with the book of Proverbs as practical wisdom for daily life. Proverbs has been like one of the books of the Law after the Mosaic Law. A long closing section like Proverbs 31 presents us, we have often been told, with the good wife, the ideal wife. At the risk of overstating things in terms of what I have heard men say, the Proverbs 31 woman is the ideal to shoot for but not an actual woman. Interestingly, the Proverbs 7 woman is considered all too real. One person who said Proverbs 31's woman is an ideal to shoot for who doesn't exist also said, "All women are whores, spiritually speaking." Uh ... problem.

The best way I can articulate the problem, as I perceive it, is that the broader literary context of the discourse on the excellent wife is the advice a mother gives to her son who is going to become a king. She has implored him earlier to not give his strength to women, to those who destroy kings. Obviously a contrast between two women throughout, wisdom and folly, has been a kind of meta-theme in each of the sections of Proverbs. We are introduced to wisdom personified in the first eight chapters and at the end, if you will, we are reintroduced to her through the good wife who Lemuel's mother would consider fit for a king.

Now I'm aware that certain Christians and pastors dislike the idea of seeing allegories in the Old Testament where there is no concrete evidence, but I also see that Christ Himself said that the scriptures point to Him to those who refused to accept him. For as often as I have heard people talk about how husbands are like Jesus and the wife is like the Church I have not stumbled across a whole lot of reflection on how the Proverbs 31 woman, typologically, can indicate what we should be able to say about the Church, since she shall be the bride of the King of Kings. Ihe Law of Moses was binding not only on the nation of Israel but on the individuals thereof, and in a similar way Proverbs can be received not just as axioms regarding the lives of individuals but outlines the causes and considerations of God's people.

But I want to direct attention to Proverbs 1:6 because it reveals that the book is useful not simply for making the simple wise and making the wise wiser but reveals that it will be a helpful aid in understanding proverbs and parables (epigrams), the words of the wise ... and their riddles.

For the years I have had Proverbs presented to me as a rulebook for practical wisdom I often benefited from it but there is another level at which it works, a level of riddles. Consider the Preacher in Ecclesiastes who, in addition to being wise, arranged and compiled many sayings. A way of observing Koholeth's methodology in Ecclesiastes is to see how he weighs one proverb against another and finds the limits of each, and even finds the proverbs wanting. Why, then, have I been so very wise? Does not the wise man die like the fool? Do not both meet the same fate? Do not be overly righteous and do not be overly wise, why die before your time? Do not be wicked and do not be a fool. Why should God strike you down? It is good to hold on to one and not let go of the other for the godly man avoids all extremes.

You see? The Preacher grasped that an unyielding application of proverbs as rules to live by is foolish because the proverbs are not necessarily rules about how to ensure a great life but riddles through which we can understand ourselves and understand that life is mysterious. When you read Proverbs consider the comparisons and contrasts between three types of people, the wise person, the fool, and the person who considers himself wise.

Of the three the person who thinks he is wise is worst off and is the most foolish and, ultimately, doomed. Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him! At the end of Proverbs , for instance, we get Agur, who says he is a fool and does not know the Lord. When Agur asks "Who has ascended and come down?"; when he asks, "Who has wrapped the waters in his garment; and finally asks "What is his son's name?" we are reading the words of a man who says he does not know the Lord. Yet immediately he proceeds to say every word of the Lord is pure.

Now it is helpful to consider that in ancient times it was commonly accepted that kings have divine or divinely sanctioned births. The messiah meant "annointed one" and it was not unheard of to consider the king a son of god. As Christ put it, if those who received the word of God were called gods ... . Before long Agur has presented us with a litany of riddles, of things too marvelous for him to understand, of things that are small but wise, of things under which the weight of things as they become shaken. The end of Proverbs leads us back to the beginning, and we are at the end invited to consider riddles.

I have noticed that among pastors and teachers I have heard in my life people spend plenty of time on the chapters up through the later twenties and, of course, that Proverbs 31 woman ... but no one teaches so much on Proverbs 30. I once observed that Agur said there were three things too mysterious for him, four too wonderful to understand--an eagle in flight, a snake moving along a rock, a ship on the sea, and a how a man has his way with a woman. When I used to observe, with great irritation, the condescension of married people or dating people talking about how "it's all much simpler than you people are making it out to be" I mentioned this proverb. One person said I could be taking that passage out of context. Ha ha, at 0 degrees Celsius.

See, for as long as I have heard Proverbs and read Proverbs as a rule book it seems absurd, impossible. Yes, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and there is a great deal of practical wisdom to be gained from the proverbs. Yet more and more I am struck by the riddle aspect of the wisdom literature, especially when you take it as a whole and not as atomized parts. Don't just read Proverbs, read Proverbs with Ecclesiastes and with Job and with Song of Songs. You will begin to see that as a literary whole the Writings reveal the riddles of the human condition.

Why DOES the fool have money in his hand to buy wisdom when he doesn't really want it? Why DOES the fool care only to vent his own opinion rather than consider the counsel of others? Why does the fool isolate himself to pursue his own desires and rage against all sound wisdom? Why do people forsake their friends and the friends of their fathers to go get help in some faraway land? If the glory of old men is grandchildren why do some grandparents consider their grandchildren to be unruly brutes? If the glory of a child is his father why do so many men in evangelicalism lament the lack of fathers in our time and consider their fathers to be a dubious glory at best?

Proverbs that on their face look like simple declarative statements have within them the element of the riddle. If God does not let the righteous go hungry but denies the wicked what they crave what does this mean, especially in light of Ecclesiastes' lament that the wickeed often prosper, or the lament of the psalmists about the prosperity of the wicked?

Read each proverb as a riddle and not a rule and you will begin to understand how much wisdom there is in them. The answer to the riddle may not be an answer that vindicates you or your friends or your parents or anyone you love but if you read it with regard for the Lord it will be an answer that helps you understand Him and yourself better. By the time you get to Agur at the end of the book and have read "Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him?" you will see that for Agur to say he is a fool who has not attained wisdom and does not know the way of the Lord has an irony to it, because he desires to neither be so rich as to forget the Lord nor so poor as to become a criminal who defames the holy name. Just as there are fools who appear to be wise for as long as they keep their mouths shut there are wise people who appear to be fools because they do not trust in their own wisdom.

I spent years reading Proverbs as a rule book, a supplemental law to other moral teaching in the scriptures. I was advised to read it in this way and I regret that for so long I accepted that advice at face value. I regret that most teaching I heard about the proverbs treated it in that way and did not see the book as truly being full of riddles that God providentially gave us to meditate on to consider the riddles that are within ourselves. If the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond our own understanding then what role do riddles play? Can they not be used by the Lord as clarifying agents to reveal the answer to the riddles in my own heart?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Preludes and Fugues for solo guitar, taking stock of a project nearly one third of the way to completion

I have been researching things musical while on the job hunt and I have discovered that Igor Rekhin composed a set of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar between about 1990-1995. So I realize that I am not the first composer to think of writing an entire set of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. I am not the least bit surprised that the first composer to complete and publish such a set of works is a Russian composer!

I am merely a dilletante and not an expert at guitar literature from Russia or eastern Europe but my experience has been that Russian composers for the guitar retain what I can only call a certain sort of seriousness about the scope of the repertoire, not that that will make any sense or even seem rational. In the golden age of classical guitar repertoire in the West we had a number of composers composing large scale works in contemporary styles (i.e. like Haydn, like Mozart, like Schubert, et al).

Yet by and large contrapuntal works were not being written and don't tend to be written for the guitar, while the pinnacles of the repertoire in keyboard and string literature invariably include fugues. We see fugues in the string quartet repertoire, solo violin repertoire, piano repertoire, symphonic repertoire, and at the risk of overstating a case it would appear that the capacity for polyphonic composition is often a touchstone in establishing the seriousness, academic and otherwise, of much literature. It signals a point of arrival in your ability to conceive of music melodically, harmonically, structurally, and emotionally. One could be forgiven for thinking that the difference between classical guitar and the more popular forms of art music might be the distinction between polyphonic works and homophonic works. A certain levity and liveliness of material may also prejudice non-guitarist music critics in the world of art music from taking guitar repertoire seriously but that is another topic for another time.

A set of preludes and fugues for two guitars was composed by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and I have Delcamper avoz to thank, a great deal, for introducing me to those works. A set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar represents an even more difficult step in the repertoire and it is not too surprising Rekhin's achievent came some thirty years after Tedesco's. I have not, alas, had an opportunity to study Rekhin's work in much detail but I would be pleased to study Tedesco's fugues and compare them to Rekhin's fugues.

Any cursory research into what I do will reveal that I have been composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar since 2007. I have gotten to a point where nearly eight of twenty-four have been completed. When I read that Rekhin has already composed such a set I was encouraged. If a composer can compose and publish a set of such works then this establishes a precedent for my work. What surely amount to essentially little known or unknown works in the West means that while my set, when I finish it, may be unusual, it will not be without precedent.

What is more, having composed nearly a third of the works already it will certainly not be possible for me to somehow emulate Rekhin's style since I have not actually heard any of the works beyond cryptic mp3 samples at the composer's websit.

What I believe can be confidently said about the non-guitar literature and its "serious" element is that a measure of seriousness and artistic weight literally accrues to size. It shouldn't be the case, you may say to yourself, in a fairer and better world, but size basically matters. It takes a greater level of mastery to compose a Mass in B minor, a Passion According to St. Matthew, a Goldberg Variations, an Art of Fugue, or a Musical Offering than it does to compose even a Jupiter Symphony (hey, I do like that one even though I'm not a Mozart fan). It does take a level of mastery to compose a Ninth Symphony, an Op. 111, a B flat quartet with the Grand Fugue in it, and so on. Even in rock music the concept album can often indicate a higher level of musical mastery over emotional content and structure than bagning out 2.5 minute punk screeds.

To be fair this is not the same as saying that different works built around different aesthetic criteria or philosophies of aesthetics don't happen or should be measured by one measure. I'm just pointing out that there are different kinds of mastery in composing a novel, a sonnet, a comic book, a terza rima, or an essay. Guitarist composers and composers who have written for the guitar tend not to write novels and yet it is often, if you will, the critics who absorb novels who shape the tastes of music. Even in rock music this can pervade where the "novel" of the accumulated short stories of an artist like Bob Dylan or Aimee Mann or The Beatles take precedence over, say, The Doors, or The Monkees.

What I have been thinking about for a long time is that guitarist composers tend not to think things through at a cyclical level. Each movement is usually a self-contained entity in a larger work. You see less of this in the masters of the golden age like Giuliani or Sor, for instance, but it is to some degree still true even there. In fact it was arguably non-guitarist composers like Rodrigo, Britten, and others who throughout the twentieth century gave us a sense of what was possible in cyclical works for the guitar. Britten, of course, was particularly a genius about this, as was Takemitsu. I confess to having no real love for Henze and I hate Ginastera's Sonata. I will throw a bone and say that IF someone can play a persuasive account of Ginastera's Sonata I'll give it a shot because I enjoyed his dances for piano ... but I have not had a chance to hear that champion yet.

Koshkin has taken steps toward cross movement cyclical unification that I consider promising but I admit to being a purist or a snob here and note that Charles Rosen pointed out that the contrast within an exposition is less a contrast of thematic characters than of tonal centers. A certain tonal polarity needs to be emphasized between the tonic and dominant so that the resolution in the recapitulation is effective and Koshkin, though I believe he is a brilliant composer, has often taken such a fast and loose approach to sonata form that his dramatic gestures are sometimes robbed of some of the power they might have through a more assured and steady contrast in harmonic anchor points in the exposition.

Alas he has focal dystonia now so we'll never get to know precisely how his composing might tighten up if he integrated his wonderful approach to thmes into a more classically "classical" sonata allegro form. Be that as it may, his Sonata for flute and guitar is a marvelous example of the kind of cross-movement cyclical development of gestures that I submit we see often enough in non-guitar literature but not that often in guitar literature.

For my part, what I hope I can tackle is to compose a set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar that I can compose alongside my sonata cycle of duos pairing the guitar off with each instrument of the orchestra, give or take some less common members of the instrument families. I am not afraid to say that I believe that at some point some guitarist composer should be willing to make a commitment to such a series of cycles. Preludes and fugues for solo guitar obviously look back to the titanic accomplishments of J. S. Bach, while a giant cycle of duo sonatas looks back to the works of Beethoven (and someone else but you either know who that someone else is instantly or you won't figure out who it is).

I don't think that we as guitarists should fret so much about being taken seriously as artists or as composers. If anything I believe that classical guitarists have been so busy hoping to be taken seriously on the world stage no one is paying attention to the ways in which the guitar got more attention when the guitarists paid more attention to everyone else's repertoire. Segovia played transcriptions of Bach and Albeniz, you know, keyboard composers. Instead of the guitarist constantly looking inward at the admittedly beautiful repertoire we have, why not look outward to the string quartet, to the piano literature, to the wealth of choral literature, to music for woodwinds, to the symphonic repertoire, to percussion repertoire?

Now composing a set of preludes and fugues in itself will accomplish nothing for the guitar as a "serious" instrument. The vast majority of guitarists will simply never touch such repertoire. I notice that no Western guitarists seem to have touched Rekhin's work, though a couple of Russian guitarists seem to have ventured to play a few of Rekhin's works on disc. Unfortunately no one has seen to it to play all 24 preludes and fugues, which is too bad. I am not sure I have enough chops to play such works myself or that if I dared to play the cycle that anyone would care in the slightest here in Seattle. On the other hand, I don't know if anyone will much care if I compose a set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar of my own here in Seattle.

But I believe that the challenge of such a cycle is worth the effort. I believe it is worthwhile for a guitarist-composer to tackle such a gigantic challenge because that is what makes life fun. Until I knew of Rekhin's set I supposed that the only reason we did not have word about a set of preludes and fugues was not because such a cycle had not already been written but because it had not been published or published widely enough to get better recognition.

So if I am going to compose a cycle of preludes and fugues for solo guitar what I would LIKE to be able to do is to compose them in such a way that they have an immediate emotional appeal and accessibility. I want to compose, if possible, as much like Bach as possible but to do so with the emotional immediacy and friendliness of Haydn (who also, it must be said, wrote fugues).

Notice I appended Haydn and not Mozart or Beethoven to Bach! As the members of the Emersons put it about Haydn, you never get the sense that he brings his ego into things, that he is showing off to prove how great he is the way you do with Beethoven and even Mozart. His music reveals that he is a man of the people. He has the academic style but the academic style is to better serve you with somethign warm and entertaining.

So many breakthroughs and revolutions have happened in non-guitar repertoire that there are certain projects that have not been undertaken for the sake of comprehensiveness that I think should be undertaken. If, as the axiom has it, the guitar is a miniature orchestra, there is no excuse for guitarists to not be intimately acquainted with the repertoire of the instruments in the orchestra.
The metaphor of the guitar as orchestra has been over-played and has wanted badly for meaningful application. Don't just talk about the guitar being this little orchestra, remember that in the orchestra the strings do a lot of grunt work to support sections that have solos and that huge stretches of music go by where you, in the orhcestra pit, are simply a small part of the music.

Most guitarists would not consent to play this sort of "orchestral" music I have just described. Sure, Yamashita was happy to play the Op. 19 trio by Giuliani, which is an adorable piece and I'm glad he recorded it, but many guitarists would balk at the prospect of goign to so much effort to just be in the background behind the violin and cello. For my part I have not had the fortune to find musicians who want to play that sort of chamber music with me and too often I find what "chamber music" means in the world of classical guitarists is, "Oh, we have TWO guitars ... maybe even MORE." If the guitar in itself is a miniature orchestra what is gained by getting more miniature orchestras? Have that miniature orchestra back up a bona fide soloist already! Find a cellist, find a flutist, find a violist, find a trombone-player. If the guitar is that miniature orchestra there need to be more concertos in which the guitar is the orchestra having a playful, witty conversation with the soloist, working together toward a common end and the pleasure of others.

What is more, if the guitar is really a miniature orchestra then why shouldn't there be an Art of Fugue or Well-Tempered Clavier equivalent for solo guitar? If the guitar is REALLY not limited by this or that as so many idealistic guitarists (who are almost invariably PERFORMERS and not composers) love to say, then let's see people step up and start playing contrapuntal works more consistently, and not just the transcriptions of Bach sonatas and partitas. Seriously, I can pay to hear Hilary Hahn play Bach more brilliantly than the even better-than-average guitarist is probably going to play Bach transcribed from violin to guitar ... and Hahn is (no offense) going to be smarter about it and look better doing it.

But for my part if the axiom among some teachers is that you study Bach and listen to Bach but don't PLAY Bach if you're a guitarist then the solution is to simply write a set of contrapuntal works that AREN'T Bach but that are informed by his works. After all, no one said it couldn't be done and if they did Rekhin has apparently proven that this "couldn't be done" did get done.

Now I may eventually get to study Rekhin's works and I might find I don't like them. A fugue is only as good as its tune, after all, and perhaps Rekhin is the sort of composer who has that kind of contrapuntal control that lacks a winsome, emotional expression. I don't know, I haven't been able to study his work yet, but anyone with the drive and ambition to compose 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar is going to get the benefit of the doubt from me. Besides, if his cycle proves it can be done then to me it is yet more proof that my own project for solo guitar is not absurd.

So as you can see, I have a few years of life ahead of me (I'm in the middle of the 30s) and I have two big old cyclical works to keep me busy, the oft-mentioned preludes and fugues for solo guitar, and the oft-mentioned sonata cycle of duos pairing the guitar up with all sorts of other instruments. I have in the last nine years gotten six of the duo sonatas finished and in the last two years have finished seven of the 24 pairs for solo guitar. God willing and with a lot more work I hope to finish both cycles and I hope that the classical guitar world will hear some of these pieces and that, if things go really well, a lot of people actually like what I write.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Mel Gibson says that Braveheart's William Wallace was pure fantasy ... and swings the pendulum too far the other way

So now Gibson has said that William Wallace was a monster and that he fictionalized all sorts of things about him to make him the hero and easier to root for because someone has to be the good guy and someone has to be the bad guy because that's how stories are told.

Except that, well, no, that doesn't have to be true in the binary terms that Gibson set up in Braveheart. Historical fictions in drama can serve a purpose and it can serve a purpose to consider one person a villian and another person a hero yet to say that Hollywood story-telling requires a clear cut bad guy and good guy is overstating the case a bit much. There is still room for shades of gray, even greatly contrasting shades of gray. I'm going to make my polemic against Gibson extreme to point out what I'm talking about. The last ten years have seen more moral nuance in the character development of superheroes than you see in William Wallace. There's more plausibly psychological tension and ambiguity in Batman, Spiderman, Doctor Octopus, Harvey Dent, Harry Osbourn, or even Hellboy than in William Wallace. There was more pyschological nuance and depth of story-telling in Toy Story that year than in Braveheart.

But for Gibson to go the other way from his simplistic jingoism and say Wallace was a monster is also cheating. As C. S. Lewis used to put it, the mark of a great villain is someone who COULD have been a great hero but chose a different path than the hero's path. It is also a truism with cause that one person's hero is another person's villain. Gibson's simplification comes from what you might expect of a man who spent his life doing action movies where black and white must win out over shades of gray.

Gibson's cartoony depiction of Wallace and "history" is shown for being the cartoon that it is if you compare the moral universe of Braveheart to Toy Story. Yes, I'm going to hammer that one because I have rarely seen a canard more persistent than the idea that cartoons are for children or childish and lack the "adult" sensibility of "adult" story-telling. Most "adult" films are not as well-paced or written as films for children because the adult crutches of sex and violence, sexy violence, or violent sex are not at disposal, devices that Braveheart used lavishly within the realm of a mainstream theatrical release.

I could be more simply dismissive of Gibson's fantasy on William Wallace were it not for the fact that there was a William Wallace II.

Thinking outside the box? Where is the box? What does it look like?

Sometimes I am good at it but many times I'm not. Thinking outside the box is what people have urged me to do in job hunting and I find the older I get the less sense it visibly makes to think outside the box. I'm not old but I'm not young enough to have the world, as it were, before me.

Being young means you can fool yourself into thinking you have more realistic options than you really have. As Joan Didion put it in a certain grimly polemical essay, the dream of going to New York City and becoming a sculptor or painter or famous poet is not a fantasy that figures prominently in the minds of consenting adults. It does, however, figure prominently in the minds of children. The dream of being a rock star, what post-pubescent kid hasn't dreamed of being a rock star of some kind in some field? I admit it was a propensity I had in my youth and as I am somewhat older I may have the problem of overcompensating for that youthful idealism.

I remember being in a band in college and while in college we entered into a talent show. My bandmates thought we did a good job. I thought we did all right but we were playing a cover and it just didn't seem like the kind of cover that would necessarily net a win. My friends in the band thought for sure we were going to win. One of them said that when we won we shouldn't make too much of a thing of it. Being that the setting was what it was I was more glad that we were playing in front of more people than we'd probably ever play the rest of our lives. The MC congratulated me on our band doing a good job and at the end of the day the band didn't win. A few friends told us later that we were robbed. But while it was disappointing to not "win" why should I have thought that winning proved something? I would rather we have won for some original material and not for a cover of someone else's song.

I admit that my whole life I have puzzled over the balance of realistic expectations and following dreams. Are dreams really worth building a life around when dreams can be unattainable through things you have no control over? I dreamed of being a fighter pilot (what American kid didn't at some point consider the possibility), I dreamed of being a pilot. That quickly was revealed to be physically impossible. When I wanted to learn to play the clarinet I was heartbroken to discover that there was just no financial possibility of doing that, it was one of the more memorable moments for me of a long-faded childhood.

It is easier to remember the miseries of discovering something I wanted wasn't possible than to remember the little victories and happier memories of childhood. The disasters loomed so large they dwarfed the happier times and, indeed, made it more painful to remember the good times in the end. I suppose to put it in hyperbolic, maudlin terms, it is a greater sorrow to remember the beauty of Jerusalem by the waters of Babylon than to see the ruins of Jerusalem itself.

For a lot of my life I have felt like I needed to fit inside the boxes other people told me I needed to fit into. Even people who said I shouldn't have to fit into someone else's boxes often seemed to be priming me for the simple bait and switch, that the box I needed to be in was not the box person X was telling me I needed to put myself into to be fully human but the box that he or she, person Y, was telling me would make me truly human.

The phrase thinking outside the box has become inert to me, irrelevant, beyond the point of wearisom. I feel like I have gone through my life not being sure what the box really was, let alone how one was supposed to somehow think outside whatever that box was that people wouldn't tell me about. You can think outside the box if you don't know what the box is and people won't tell you but much of my life I have felt like the problem is that people want me to think INSIDE THE BOX, specifically, their box, the box they feel they shouldn't have to spell out for me because, well, that would be wasting their time.

I'd like to figure out what the boxes are but I don't feel like I'm smart enough. I often wonder if I can even fit inside that box, whatever box people seem to be saying I need to fit into. If I get told I shouldn't think in terms of being in any box at all, well, that's just yet another box. Even people who have told me I need to take risks are still basically telling me what to do. It gets my stymied.