Saturday, May 01, 2010

finished some long-standing projects

I finished some arrangements that I have been working on off and on over the last decade. They were challenging pieces to arrange. Music for the piano and for solo viola are not the easiest things to just sit down and translate into the idiom of the guitar. It remains to be seen what the publisher thinks of the arrangements. They could decide that they don't like what they see and that they don't want to publish the arrangements. If they don't I still have the option of at least performing the works at some point, though I am hardly what you would call a performer. If they like the arrangements I won't get paid but these were, as the saying goes, a labor of love.

I also put finishing touches on a chamber sonata, a sonata for bassoon and guitar I finished back in the winter of 2008. I now have a duo sonata pairing the guitar up with the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, and the bassoon, covering all the essential members of the woodwind family. Sure, I could tackle English horn, alto flute, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon. I could even try writing for the heckelphone, I suppose, but I consider the woodwind sonata cycle to be complete for the time being. In the days of Haydn they might be taken together as a group and considered a single opus number like the Op. 76 string quartets. That is, admittedly, how I tend to see the sonatas for woodwinds and guitar, as a single collected work whose individual parts can stand alone.

I'm working on the same paradigm for the sonatas for strings and guitar. The violin, viola, and cello will all get duets with the guitar that are stand-alone works but that are also part of a larger whole.

Friday, April 30, 2010

HT to J.S. Bangs, "Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women"

Having recently been introduced to marathons of the show Scrubs the list of female characters who are strong because they have actual glaring weaknesses stands out. Zhang Ziyi's character is startlingly arrogant in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and she's also super hot, there, I said it, and I'd nominate her for consideration as Catwoman if people weren't going to shoot that down as too Irma Vep). Faye Valentine obviously is bad at gambling away her money which makes the bad-ass poses and attitude more interesting. When Megan Fox claims that her character is a strong female character we all know it's a joke. I hope SHE knows it's a joke, seriously.

Of the characters in Scrubs Elliot Reid is the most memorable female because she always says the worst thing at the worst time and is, per the linked article above, utterly neurotic. But you know what? That's why I like her. Her flaws make her relatable and they don't stop her from being good at what she does, good enough that that even the irascible Dr. Cox will grant that of the imcompetents he works with she's the lesser of many evils.

... Once your female characters have some depth to them, it doesn’t really matter if the male hero saves them or not. For instance, Batman saved Rachel Dawes a couple of times, but I never saw her as only a Damsel in Distress, because she was her own person with her own moral code and own heroic goals to clean up Gotham with her Lawyer Powers. There was nothing in her background that led me to believe she’d be able to fight supervillains single-handedly, so when Batman has to save her (just like he saves everyone else), it’s believable. If, say, she had beaten up the Joker with her super kung fu skills she learned in self-defense class and her super-powered mace she developed in her own chem lab after she got her PhD from Harvard, and her makeup and hair still looked good afterward, then she’d be LESS of a Strong Female Character. She’d just be some image of what the nerdy male audience wants in a damsel.

Oh, and the link about the expired feminism of Joss Whedon is also a worthy read. I've been saying for years that Joss Whedon has gone from making enjoyable shows to proving he's a one-trick pony and I no longer feel as though i'm quite as alone in this disappointment with what Joss-meister is doing.

Now what is interesting that is mentioned in passing in the first linked article is that A.O. Scott pointed out that WALL-E with EVE is like the neighborhood garbage man dating a supermodel with a doctorate and who is adept at firing weapons. Yet paradoxically this works because EVE is a robot and because she still has character flaws. She is so work-obsessed she'll put her boyfriend on hold to get her mission done because that's what her programming does; she can be short-tempered and prone to literally destroying anything that gets between her and what she wants. That makes her relatable because even as a girl robot she is not sold as a "strong female character". That WALL-E is curious and inquisitive and strong in areas where EVE is weak means that they form an unsurprisingly complementary couple and we're all generally suckers for that sort of mating dance in film, the ostensibly opposite types who we understand actually make some sense together. The flaws in WALL-E and EVE are believable and that makes their good traits more believable and this is what is wrong with most "strong" female characters.

In other words this is why I'll never buy any role that Angelina Jolie is ever in because that's all she does, strong female characters I don't believe in because I don't believe they're human. Zhang, on the other hand, plays some profoundly flawed characters, like Weaver plays some profoundly flawed characters, like any number of other actresses play "weak" characters who have flaws. I'd rather see Cate Blanchett in a bad film than see Angelina Jolie or Megan Fox in "good" films because Blanchett is willing to play some characters that screw up. It's kind of like how I'd probably rather see a film with Ellen Page in it than Jennifer Aniston or Meg Ryan because Page seems willing to play characters who are actually unlikable rather than doing the America's sweetheart thing and paradoxically making me not believe her characters are likable at all. Cue the Onion's observations about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the entire career of Ryan and Aniston now.

Link found via Civitatei Dei (City of God), an antidote for yuppie postmillenialism

As an amillenial partial preterist I can't say as I have ever been on the bandwagon for postmillenialism in any form but I admit I can provide a sympathetic "amen" to the views shared in this little sermon linked above.

The most salient point James Jordan makes in the link above is that in Proverbs Solomon makes the case that life makes sense, you can figure it out, and you can do and be the right kind of person and have it all end well. In Ecclesiastes, however, Solomon says that's all a delusion. You CAN'T figure it out and being wise won't keep you from ultimately being a fool. You can build a vast legacy for yourself that goes to some punk kid who doesn't know what he is inheriting and squanders it all, leaving you to wonder while you are still alive why you even bothered!

Jordan points out (rightly) that Ecclesiastes is more desolate than even Job because at least in the end Job gets double back of everything God permitted to be taken from him. There is no assurance of that in Ecclesiastes. God may withhold everything from you or withhold from you the ability to enjoy the wealth you have and nothing you do can change that. If Solomon in Proverbs extols the value of using your free will to be righteous in Ecclesiastes Solomon says it's all a wash and that even if you do your best your best isn't good enough in the wake of how broken the world is.

Postmillenialism is the sort of thing that can appeal to Americans who want a theology that rationalizes them getting what they want. In fact it kind was popular in the nineteenth century. As a certain smart-ass remark in First Things put it, American Protestants were postmillenial in the 19th century when they thought THEY were going to evangelize the world and hand the world to Jesus on a silver platter. Then World War I happened and suddenly churches that had historically been postmillenial in the United States suddenly found the appeal of premillenialism and changed camps. As I have written at length elsewhere there's nothing like eschatology to allow us to put a rubber stamp on the Bible for our interpretations of our own paranoias, fears, and resentments. It is also a way for us to put a rubber stamp on our hopes and our coveting.

The chicken way out is to avoid dealing with schools of thought about eschatology but there is something we can do. When we come to the scriptures we must consider what the scriptures teach and how they are intepreted. That there are three or four ways of interpreting eschatology should warn us against presuming that our school of thought is actually correct. That gets to the next step, moral assessment of yourself. Why do you embrace a particular eschatology?

No, don't come up with the "biblical" or "traditional" arguments for why you hold that view. Get to the personal reasons. If your parents were dispensationalists you'll be a dispensationalist until you think through things and move to a different view. If they were dispensationalists how did that dispensationalism animate their assessment of culture? If the world or the country is going to hell in a handbasket because godless elements in society are winning then perhaps the appeal of the eschatological variation of "we're living in the END TIMES" they have says less about what the scriptures teach and more about their view of culture.

Conversely, a person may have another view that reflects that they believe the current world is inherently stable and not going to go away for centuries. A postmillenialist may believe that Jesus could come any day now but that we need to plan for the likelihood that Christ won't return until millenia after we're dead. This does not, however, imply an automatic optimism about how things will be going now.

For a while postmillenialism in American evangelical Protestantism seemed like nothing more than Obama-style sloganeering "Yes we can" before the Obama campaign ever happened. Other schools of eschatological thought and even intellectually, historically, and biblically honest postmillenialism itself is a reminder that, no, you can't. Trusting in the goodness of God is not the same as trusting in the goodness of yourself and using eschatology as you define or understand it as a patina on what is still you selling yourself to yourself and others as the one designated by Yahweh to make the world a better place for Jesus.

Just as there is a yuppie postmillenialism there is a yuppie premillenialism and a yuppie amillenialism. One posits that we should go win the culture wars for Jesus because Jesus is already victorious, another says that we should win the culture wars to stave off the coming of the antichrist, and another says we should gun for whatever we want in Jesus' name because He's not coming back for a while now and we're the Church which means we have the spiritual authority to do what we want here. Oh, wait, well, that sorta looks like the other versions, doesn't it? The antidote to all of this and where we would take it left or right is to remember that the kingdom is not OUR kingdom but Christ's kingdom.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

teachers. Tevya was always saying "On the other hand ... "

After years of swearing that I hated musicals and would never get into them I saw two musicals that changed my mind. The second movie I ever bought was the second musical I saw that I really liked, Singin' in the Rain. The first musical I saw that persuaded me that musicals were actually works of art and not extravagant exercises in the supremely annoying, however, was Fiddler on the Roof. Tevya managed to encapsulate this with his famous line, "On the other hand ... ." Just as Tevya was persuaded for a time there is no "on the other hand" I had that perspective about musicals. Tevya spent much of the time attempting to balance the pros and cons of decisions based on what he knew was in the good book. In the same way many guitarists I have known swear by the necessity of being taught by a teacher.

... On the other hand, for as many times as I have heard "Find a teacher" there is the other side of things, that music is an art the pursuit of which depends on you more than on who is or isn't your teacher. It is true that without a teacher or a mentor you will not get very far in an art; while it is true that art in even its most solitary forms retains a social and communal element; and it is true that a bad teacher can dissuade you from continuing in an art while a good teacher can spur you on. It is also, nevertheless, true that if you're going to perservere in an art that you will do so because you love the process regardless of whether or not you're getting any significant positive feedback from either friends or family or teachers.

The place of perserverance despite a lack of, if you will, human resources to rely on is admittedly where you have to be at once you've passed the two or three years of thinking it would be really cool to work on something, that phase in which it could simply be a phase where you have convinced yourself this is what you want to do when it isn't. One of the signs that you are seriously interested in pursuing something is that argument and opposition energizes you. I don't mean some conviction of your greatness in the face of opposition, I mean the belief that you being a nobody and sucking at what you do isn't an obstacle but the ground upon which you realize you can improve. I had mentors who were willing to tell me that I had immense talent but that my talent was raw and unformed. Discouragement is in the eye and ear of the beholder.

On the other hand, flagging interest is, too, and it helps to be honest about how committed and interested you really are in something. I went through a phase where I was sure I wanted to be in the visual arts. I outgrew that phase not only because my interest flagged but also because a catastrophic problem with one of my eyes persuaded me that I needed to shift my attention to another art form that would depend on eyes I might lose later in life. I went through a phase where I was sure I wanted to be into poetry and literature and I knew of blind writers but ultimately playing with the conceptual nuts and bolts as well as actual projects in music interested me more than, say, playing with terza rima, villanelle, and free verse.

Everyone has an artistic impulse but some direct that impulse toward being homemakers, husbands, wives, parents, entrepreneurs, welders, mechanics, electricians, politicians, and pastors rather than being artists of a more official kind. Remember that you are an artist at something whether or not you consider yourself an artist at anything. The usefulness of teachers is that they can help you discover where your artistry lies. Contrary to what some people may have told you you actually cannot discover that on your own or merely within yourself. You won't keep doing it for money, you won't keep doing it for glory, you won't do it for a sultan's approval, you will do it because it is your pleasure. And your mother mated with a scorpion, right? ;)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

looking back on things I didn't learn until later about the guitar

There can be disadvantages to being a mostly self-taught guitarist. One is that you may learn improper techniques and this is why any number of guitarists chant the mantra "Find a teacher! Find a teacher! Find a teacher!" Another reason is that some things you will not figure out on your own no matter how much experimentation you do. Someone has to tell you stuff.

In my case I learned about string winding after probably seven years of guitar-playing, from a bassist. :) That's a beautiful irony there for you if you traffic in musician jokes and stereotypes (i.e. "Why did the bassist get angry at the timpanist?" "Because he turned a tuning peg and wouldn't tell which one"). He was able to explain the usefulness of string-winding. It means that you have enough give in the loops of string to keep the string anchored and, what's more, it means that when you want to use alternate tunings there is give and take to tune upward or downward.

I had been simply tuning my strings straight up to concert pitch without winding the string anywhere, clipping the excess length, and going my merry way. This meant that my guitar was in tune but that if I tuned DOWN to drop D tuning the string didn't have any winding to stay in play and the sucker blew off the instrument and dangled from the bridge. These are the sorts of reasons why it can be useful to have a teacher.

Monday, April 26, 2010

From Scotteriology: a lengthy discourse (for him) about intertestamental literature and its connection to scripture

I have written in a few spots on this blog about the significance of intertestamental literature on the development of ideas that are present in the New Testament writings and non-canonical literature from around that time. I grew up in a church tradition where the explanation was that God was silent for centuries and there were no prophets after Malachi.

Well, intertestamental apocalyptic literature suggests that there were actually plenty of would-be prophets of the Lord during this time and plenty of people actively seeking to discern what God's will was. At the risk of simplifying Scott's simplification, two streams of thought about what was wrong with the world were operating in Jewish thought during the intertestamental period. In one corner you had those who thought that if people just observed the Torah and were mindful to be faithful to the covenant that God would eliminate the problems in the world.

There was another stream of thought, perhaps best described as the apocalyptic genre, that saw the problem as not being in the control or influence of human agency. Nothing you could do could make the world not suck because spiritual forces and persons were at work to mess things up. Ergo, the books of Enoch and the legend of the Watchers. This was an example of how and why Genesis 6 tended to be seen as describing angelic/human hybridized breeding. Certain pastors (like Mark Driscoll) may dismiss this as the seed of Chucky theory and it's true Augustine dismissed the theory, and also true that after Jamnia Christians tended to move away from this view.

But, as actual NT scholars like Richard Bauckham have noted, this so-called "seed of Chucky" theory was not only accepted but universally accepted as the way to interpret Genesis 6 during the apostolic period. Citing Jesus' words that in the resurrection we will not marry but will be like the angels in heaven doesn't provide a real rebuttal to this interpretation in the apostolic period because the whole point of the legend of the watchers was that the angels did not keep their place and abandoned their posts in the heavens. As historian Jeffrey Burton Russell points out in his five-book series on the devil, the timeline for the fall of angelic beings shifts in intertestamental literature from the generation before the flood described in Genesis 6 to a point probably sometime before the creation of the earth by the time we get to Revelation and the synoptics.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A little observation about compose "baroque" toccatas for guitar

A teacher of mine once explained that in florid two-voice writing in the Baroque period one way to slice through the apparently opacity and complexity of such writing is to reduce each harmonic incident to a four-part chorale style. In this way you can observe how two-voices can be active and convey the sense of a whole that is harmonically much larger than the sum of the linear parts. This really is one of the most compelling and effective ways to compose a pretty busy work for the keyboard but also, of course, for the guitar.

The finest example of a two-part texture that conveys the fullness of a four-part harmony is Bach's C sharp major prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I could digress into a detailed analysis of the piece but I don't wish to do this. Instead I point you to it for consideration both aural and visual. Go find the score and go find a solid recording of a pianist or harpsichordist playing the big 48 (or half of it). Lately I have been fond of Angela Hewitt's recordings of the WTC. Since I have no problem going cheap when the pocketbook demands it and no reflexive taste that insists on only the finest editions the Dover edition of the WTC is at hand for me.

Your mileage may vary as to editions and performers but the point is to go look at the music and hear how it sounds. See how Bach conveys so much harmonic material by carefully distributing his two lines in ways that outline the whole harmony while also creating two different melodic elements in the treble and bass. Beneath the surface complexity is a surprisingly simple series of harmonic progressions in sequence.

So, suppose you want to compose a toccata of some kind for solo guitar in some particular key. Let's say you want to compose the toccata in A minor. Instead of going for fancy and florid at once start simple. Consider that on the guitar your two outer voices will inevitably have only two possible ways of moving in relationship to each other--similar motion and contrary motion. Your two voices can move in parallel or contrasting motion.

In many cases you will notice that guitarist-composers find parallel/similar motion MUCH easier than contrary/contrasting motion. The limitations the guitar places on you make this approach nearly inevitable even in simpler keys once we try to compose some kind of toccata. The best y ou can realistically hope for is that having established the melodic and harmonic direction for your two outer voices that you convey the sense of contrasting motion in the inner voices. If you don't go for this effect in inner voices then the effect of parallelism becomes so acute in constantly rising patterns that even if your voice-leading is otherwise acceptable within the standards of common practice you're still going to get too much of that power-chord linearity that disrupts the identity of your two or three voices. In other words you'll be working against the effect you might be going for, which is to convey the sense of four unique linear/harmonic elements in a two voice texture.

What can help amplify the effect of contrast is to ensure that one of your two voices actually does contain contrasting movement within it. This is often most easily attained in the bass-line. A hopping pattern is popular in Baroque music for this reason--you can jump around with octaves in a straight line if you want, or if you want variety you can have the jumps create the effect of two voices moving in contrary motion. You could start at the low A, jump to the A on the third string, have the fifth string rise to B natural and then have the third string drop to G sharp. Of course it is perilously easy to have this become cliche, which is why a lot of Baroque pieces that aren't written by absolute masters tend to all blur together and sound like the same stuff.

What the upper voice must often provide is merely the implication of simple linear movement. A single voice that is florid enough may accomplish this as well. Look no further than (surprise!) Bach's sonatas and partitats for solo violin for examples of how this can be accomplished.

Denouncing in others what you have done, part 1: Could you hate most in others the sins you have committed?

Occasionally I hear Christians here and there grandstand about how terrible particular sins are. There are two sorts of sins that easily come under the fire and ire of Christians. The first category are the sins that Christians don't even think of committing or have not the slightest temptation toward that other people either struggle with or are given over to entirely. In this category you could put whatever things Christians think of ranging from consumption of alcohol to dancing to sexual immorality to theft to lying to abusing others for personal gain to delusions of grandeur.

Then the second category of sins are those that Christians have struggled with and have found some measure of success in overcoming (or that they are utterly consumed by) that they now resent and detest in others to the point of making public pronouncements against said sins to ensure that all and sundry know that they consider these sins abhorent. Ted Haggard might merely be an unusually famous example of this. In this category you could put things ranging from consumption of alcohol to dancing to sexual immorality to theft to lying to abusing others for personal gain to delusions of grandeur.

I could write about the first category of people but those do not interest me for the time being. Fear of the unknown or the unnatural as perceived by the first category could explain everything there that is not derived from a reading of a biblical text, a church teaching or tradition, and so on and so forth.

What is the difference between the motive for Christians to rail against sin and sinners in category 1 verses railing against sinners in category 2? Why is it that the least humble people will rail at the sin of pride in others without grasping the level of their own vanity? Why does a pastor who struggles vainly to deal with same sex attraction and activity publicly denounce homosexuals? Why does the most wanton fornicator in his pre-marriage or pre-Christian youth (not to say that these two automatically coincide) feel obliged to consider fornicators the lowest of the low? Why does someone who is obsessed with body image and weight and yo-yo diets herself into physical breakdown look down on other women for somehow being too fat or unhealthy? Why is it that people will berate others for fiscal irresponsibility when they have their wages or bank accounts garnished because they have not been responsible enough to manage their own debt and have had debt troubles year after year? Why, in summary, do people in category 2 find it so easy to berate those who struggle with the same sins as though they themselves were somehow in category 1 and not category 2 with those sinners?

I can understand a Christian, ignorant of the struggles of those they cannot understand, berating sinners for struggling with this or that thing. In other words I can totally understand the moral outrage of a parent that someone is sexually predatory toward children. That makes sense both from the standpoint of protecting the children you love and really not understanding that some people are tempted to have sexual relations with children. Having a difficulty or the complete inability to relate to the temptations a brother or sister in Christ may have in those areas makes sense. It makes sense how one would be unable to have compassion on people who struggle with or commit sins that you don't have any understanding of.

What I find hard to understand is the other impulse, the impulse to demonize a sin in others precisely because it is the one you are most likely to be guilty of. In certain circles this peculiar tendency has led to what some have describes as the "raging closet case". Usually, of course, this parlance refers to a particular kind of sexual behavior but the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual dynamics of the raging closet case can appear for any sort of sin. The vitriol at the particular sin can be seen as a gross form of overcompensation. Your distance from a particular sin is indicated by finding it repulsive to a degree that other people who don't struggle with the sin may find profoundly baffling.

For someone who isn't good at managing money their ability to look down on others for making what they consider to be financially foolish decisions can be far greater than it would be if someone simply lacked discernment about the direction a relationship was going (insert Christianese "relationship" as a euphemism for anything to do with sexual attraction and relationships that have a potential sexual element). Where as a person who does not normally struggle with financial problems could see going into debt over unexpected medical expenses, or having to get loans for school because a person comes from a low-income family, a person overcompensating for his or her own debt management problems may declare that getting loans at all is a sign of moral weakness. Well ... yes, spending someone else's money to invest in your education CAN be a sign of weakness but not necessarily.

A person who has problems with sexual immorality may be all the more vigilant and loud about denouncing it in others. Or, having attained a measure of self-control the person may denounce it in those who are not where he is at now. Paul's counsel was that it is better to marry than to burn, which suggests a startlingly pragmatic view of marriage while having a high view of it. As Tim Keller once said in a sermon, this is a view of human sexuality that properly understood has been and will remain scandalous. A friend of mine recently noted that when it comes to the desires and frustrations of sexuality, sexual desire, and human mating it seems as though the world at large can find ways to transform these yearnings and frustrations into actual art whereas Christians (evangelicals at any rate) seem to do more than to transform these things into bad theology.

A person who has problems with eating or lack of exercise may find it easier to look down on someone else for being overweight or unhealthy even though this is precisely his or her own problem. What is the benefit? Does it make a person feel better to look down on someone else as being a failure in physical health so as to divert attention away from the frailty and mortality of one's own life? People who get themselves to a point where they have to manage diabetes or heart conditions can find it easy to look down on others as bringing their health-doom upon themselves but don't like to consider that by that line of reasoning this is how they should judge themselves.

Some of them DO judge themselves by this measure and it isn't always a certainty that this automatically means it is true. If you don't know anything about half of your family background, for instance, you're at a significant disadvantage for averting major health risks. What if you have never been on speaking terms with one of your parents? Then you won't necessarily know about health risks that, knowing about, would have helped you forestall or avoid health issues you might be dealing with now.

Of course in the midst of all this one can become a hypocrite, someone who pontificates long and loud about the failures of others while exemplifying those failures in your own life. It should not continue to amaze me how profoundly Christians fail to grasp the implications of Romans 2. If you know someone who has experienced the failure of an organ and you have had an organ fail then you could choose to look down on them for their lack of self-control and that might have some truth to it but would you accept that proposal being returned? If not then perhaps a little compassion is in order. Do you know someone who has problems with debt management?

Don't look down on them as some irresponsible lout with no desire to improve and consider that you yourself may end up acquiring massive debts due to unforeseen expenses. Do you know someone tempted toward get-rich schemes? Consider that if you are a workaholic who defines yourself by your work that you are no less defined by your love of money.

Sadly, people who lament injustice can be the most unjust people around. The people who most resent the abuse of power can be the biggest cheerleaders of abusing power when they feel it is in their power. I have known men who had no problem assasinating the character of other men at any opportunity in season or out of season who, when the shoe was on the other foot, deeply resented being the target of suspicion from others. I don't hold to something so simplistic as karma and I agree that "reap what you sow" often doesn't seem to apply, but Jesus did say that the measure you give will be the measure you get, pressed down and presented back to you.

Sometimes we most resent sin in others because it mirrors our motive but does not mirror our method. The single guy who resents married people because they can have sex and emotional bonding may see those people as having what he covets and they may have a codependent marriage with some idolatrous tendencies, but at the same time that guy's own desires for "marriage" may be essentially self-gratifying. The difference between the resentful single guy and the married guy who worships his marriage or his wife may not be the nature of the idolatry but the means through which it operates. Something that sticks with me about Barefoot Gen as I have been reading it is that even though Gen's father is an ardent pacifist he was capable of surprising physical violence toward his children. As Dostoevsky's Zossima once grimly observed a person who professes a love for all of humanity may actually hate everyone he knows. And it may be, oftentimes, that the sin you hate most in others is often the sin you find in yourself but it is easier to condemn your weakness in others than to admit how profound your own weakness actually is.

So these are a few thoughts I have had lately.