Friday, July 30, 2010

I'll get to theology again but, first, more stuff about music

Per my earlier commentary on a long article in Slate (long for slate, not long for Triablogue!) many people view music composition or work in any art to be some spontaneous right-brain mojo that amounts to some kind of sympathetic magic. It's common enough to hear from people that they "let the songs come through" them. I used to work on a student-run literary magazine and one of the variations I came across was "God gave me this poem/song/story/picture/etc." Now my predecessors were the sorts of smart-asses who scoffed at the idea, but then they were generally into the beatniks and therefore I had good reason to question their entire literary/aesthetic taste to begin with but that's another subject for another time.

My response was to reserve judgment about whether or not God really did or didn't inspire someone to create something and to then send that as a submission to the magazine I edited. My take was be that as it might have been my editorial staff and I had decided not to go with it. Earlier iterations of the magazines had conspicuously not bothered to let people know they weren't published so I wanted to change things up in the courtesies department. What ended up happening, of course, was I got angry letters and emails from people who were upset that my editorial team and I had not selected their stuff for publication. If people were going to pull the God card when submitting the piece and get upset that they didn't get published should I have pulled the God card and treated them all like Cain, saying "If you do well then ... "? I didn't do that.

The problem with invoking divine inspiration is that not that it couldn't possibly be true but because if you look at the works we consider divinely inspired they reflect a great deal of thought and editing. This holds true even if you DON'T hold to the documentary hypothesis (sorry, can't resist making a super-nerdy joke about textual and literary criticism and analysis of biblical texts). Too many people don't realize how much work goes into making things that seem effortless and simple.

People like to imagine that music is some right hemisphere thing, some right brain thing. I remember a fellow who when I asked him how he put his songs together told me the words and lyrics all came together all at once. It was never a case of having just one or the other. Given that the most memorable song he ever wrote was something like "Big Times in a Small town" that sounded like a knock-off of a lesser order Steven Curtis Chapman song (which would have burned him a bit to be told since he was an agnostic attending a Christian school, possibly because his parents were paying) I could take him seriously when he said it all came together at once. Much work that seems effortless is the result of immense work while much that is made that seems clumsy or astonishingly trite was more, literally, effortless.

Let me give an example of how composing is a monstrous amount of work. I feel pretty fluent in grasping the structure and conceptual possibilities of sonata allegro form. I also can find my way around pretty decently in fugues. Paradoxically variation form stymies me because, well, it's not even really a FORM. For years I have bungled variation forms by either not varying things enough or by varying things too much. One of my earlier conspicuous attempts at tackling variation form kept foundering and at length I realized that what I was trying to compose was what I thought was a variation form but was really a sonata form.

At length I began to realize that if I was going to get the hang of variation form at any level I was going to have to work my way to variation form from some other form that I DID get. Rondos and binary forms and ternary forms clearly didn't work. Fugues were vastly too complex to offer any parallel or even a rudimentary entry point for the possibility of developing themes. In contrast to all these non-corresponding musical forms I began to realize there was ONE other form that could be used as a gateway to composing in variation form, the monothematic sonata allegro form!

Now if you know anything about musical forms you will tell me, "Hey, isn't monothematic sonata allegro form even harder than a conventional two-themed sonata?" Why, yes it is! In fact pulling off monothematic sonatas is so difficult that my teacher once said that I was welcome to try it but that it would be tough. Monothematic sonatas are hard to write well because you're using the same material at least four times within the form and that strains the limits of what a listener is willing to put up with. It was here that having a background in rock, pop, blues, jazz, gospel and a pinch of country became advantageous for me! There are few works in the broadly classical repertoire that depend on riff-bashing, chord vamping, or repeating choruses to the degree that popular music does. So armed with an eagerness to master monothematic sonata form I set about tackling my real long-term goal, using monothematic sonata form as a way to bridge the distance between sonata form and variation form enough so that I would gain enough experience to write conventional variation movements.

After about seven sonata forms I finally began to feel able to tackle variation form. Along the way I began to subject myself to ever-increasing extensions and mutations of monothematic sonata form to make things both more difficult and more fun. My first form was monothematic but what I ended up doing was having the fourth and final iteration of the theme present all the material backwards. Fortunately for me having a recapitulation where the theme appears in prime and then retrograde form worked out okay because of a strong mixolydian aspect in the theme.

(Three digressions or episodes)
Beginning of first digression: In case you ever want to try this at home retrogrades work more readily if you're using one of the diatonic modes or a melody with a more chromatic approach. Pure major and minor key melodies rarely lend themselves to retrograde because of either the upward resolving tendency of the leading tone in major keys because what works going forward in those keys is generally a harmonic progression that itself is non-retrogradable. Did I just reveal a clue that I've studied Messiaen?

As another aside, dorian is wonderful if you can get it to work because it is a symmetrical scale, same going up as down. You can invert dorian and things will work. I exploited this in a ragtime by having a central idea with a heavy dorian inflection. This allowed me to use the central idea in every strain of the ragtime so that the prime, retrograde, retrograde inversion, and inversion of the four-measure theme appeared in each strain of the ragtime. Eventually I realized that the best way to run with this musical experiment/musical joke was to call the piece Koholeth Rag after the author of Ecclesiastes because the whole novelty piece was a joke that demonstrated that there's nothing new under the sun in this ragtime and that, literally, that which had been would be again. Even the end of the ragtime is nothing more than a reprise of the beginning so naming a sardonic minor-key ragtime after the author of Ecclesiastes seemed like the only thing to do. A friend of mine said that the piece was really, really weird, like what you might get if Shostakovich wrote a ragtime. Since we all know Shostakovich loved incorporating Jewish folk songs into his material I'd say it was serendipitously a success. End of second digression.

The second sonata form had an official theme 2 but it was an official theme 2 that was built from a transposed and then augmented retrograde of a fragment from the original theme. In other words I went from taking the liberty of playing a theme backwards and having it be part of a still strictly monothematic sonata to consciously playing with the precedent established by Haydn's work where thematic ideas continue to develop even within the anchoring points in the structure (i.e. the exposition and development where continuing to develop the material has since become a bit unusual). The third sonata form I went even further and created a countersubject to the primary theme; I harmonized that countersubject as if it were an independent theme; and then in the recapitulation of this new monothematic form I had theme 1 and 2 revealed to be two parts of the same idea by recapitulating them at the same time. By that point I had gotten to a stage where I could comfortable handle fairly simple variation forms.

The third excursus is this: to master development of an idea you must master melody but to master form you must master harmony. This often has to be tackled separately and much as it pains me to say this all those often dull chord studies in guitar repertoire and less-dull chord studies in Baroque keyboard literature can give you a clear grasp of how to create musically compelling works without tunes. We guitarists are brutally handicapped in learning these processes compared to other musicians because we have the miniature orchestra and fool ourselves into thinking that homophony is polyphony but I better end the third digression before it becomes a full-blown rant.

One of the things I think our era, with it's vaguely romanticized notions of art and the artistic process, needs is to be reminded that the Greeks treated music as one of the applied sciences. Now in saying that I don't mean to say everyone should go own the complete works of Elliot Carter. Sorry, I just can't get into his stuff though it's not as though I never gave any of his music a shot. Hindemith, ironically, used to complain that many 20th century approaches to composing had overly intellectualized approaches. This is ironic coming from the guy who created the preludium and postludium for Ludus Tonalis so that you can flip the score upside and the two pieces are revealed to be complementary retrograde inversions of each other as completed pieces! I would say the great composers of each era are those who are able to engage not merely one half of our selves but both halves, the rational as well as the emotional.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An article on slate explains why movies about composers are usually lame

Two basic reasons explain why movies about musicians and composers tend to be lame. The first is simply that a great deal gets made up to make things more interesting. Composers get lives that they didn't really live. Amadeus is one of the most flamboyant examples by giving us a Mozart that wasn't particularly Mozart. He's presented as a punk/rock wonderchild who didn't get a lot of coaching and advice from people like his father or Haydn. The second is that art itself is presented as a kind of savant's game, that there is nothing much to analyze about it or struggle with within in it and that the stuff just magically oozes out of artists/composers/poets et al.

The subsidiary problem in this second difficulty is that you don't really see people slogging through proofreading manuscripts, bantering with editors and publishers, filing paperwork, hiring a copyist, slogging through decades of work on what might be a ten minute piece of music. Three to ten minutes of ostensibly transcendental music is what you get, maybe, when you compress three hours to ten years of your life compressed, distilled, and crystalized into a repeatable musical event. Even that period of the creative process itself is a preliminary compression of the creator's life.

At an emotional level the reason the teleological argument can be so appealing is that we so readily see it in our own lives. We can see how much of our lives we put into investing in a new car or a newly formed relationship or a new child or a new career. Yes, I know where unbelievers will inevitably go with that but I trust you get that's not my essential point--the creative work is essentially a fractal, a microcosm that indicates the macrocosm of the person who made it.

What movies about the arts almost invariably get wrong is working on the assumption that it does not, in fact, actually take a lifetime of discipline and both external and internal exploration to produce a work of art. This is what makes the abrupt flashback in Ratatouille so poignant--Brad Bird, genius that he is, found a way to depict how a recipient of art was able to instantaneously grasp a metaphor from his experience that revealed not merely the finished product but the PROCESS. Ergo, Ratatouille is one of the very few films I've seen about the artist and the artistic process that gets most of the important things right. The film is luminous and beautiful without compromising the awkward and uncomfortable reality that the artist is generally working his or her ass off to arrive at what he or she would often consider mere competence, which, to us, is transcendant.

As an amateur composer and a guitarist I certainly notice how much of my life goes into working on what are surprisingly small pieces of music. I do not have a gift for the gigantic or the epic as those terms are generally understood. If I have any gift at all it is one acquired through decades of slow and tedious work that is nonetheless rewarding. If I were to attempt to describe what my work is like I would have to describe it as the studied epic miniature, a small work consisting of intertwined miniatures that reveal epic processes once you get past the light and fizzy surface of the individual parts.

If art, as Hitchcock reputedly said, is life with all the boring bits taken out of it then films about art and the artistic process are nearly impossible to make. This is because, ironically, to borrow an observation from a film, Russell in the film Up points out that it's all the boring things you do together that end up meaning the most and in the same way it is all the boring things about creating art that end up meaning the most in the actual creation of art, whatever that art may be. In other words whoever is faithful with little will be faithful with much and the popular narratives surrounding art tend make much of narratives of artist being, how do we put this, not very faithful.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

via Orthocuban: Pithless Thoughts: Work and Priesthood

I have never felt "called" to any kind of ministry. I have had people TELL me God has called me to ministry, usually in some hedging and vague way, but I have myself never felt called to what would be called formal ministry. I abhor formal ministry as a personal path not because I do not believe anyone is called to it, or harbor anticlerical sentiment, but because I take the priesthood of believers just seriously enough to realize that it is not necessary for me to have some formal ministry role to be of service to brothers and sisters in Christ.

Being plugged into this or that ministry is not and has not been my goal but this has never stopped me from participating in existing ministries or even working with people to establish new ones. One of the ministries I was involved in for about five years was a ministry I was recruited into by a pastor and a deacon. I joined because I wanted to be helpful and knew that the pastor and deacon trusted me. I took that voluntary responsibility very seriously.
I was involved in another ministry out of friendshiip to the pastor that still runs that ministry. I'd help with set up and propose ideas for discussion topics and was pretty happy to be in the background encouraging people. The most awkward moment in my involvement in that ministry when I was actually in front of people in a cold room and realized that this was not where I belonged. The only times I felt comfortable being in front of people was when I was with other people and basically unrecognizable to anyone who didn't know me. Choirs, you will understand, proved immensely rewarding for a person of my disposition. I had the pleasure of serving in a ministry where there was no inherent need for me to be there.

A ministry that MUST have person X to work well is a ministry that in all probability is built around person X's personality or gifts and is not a ministry or office that will withstand the test of time, let alone persecution. The test of a ministry that will last is one that will outlast you, your personality, your gifts, any need of you even if you started it ... especially if you started it. At the risk of framing this argument in non-trinitarian terms, consider Jesus as the founder of the faith. Yes, I'm fully aware of the role the Father and Spirit play in the continuation of Christ's ministry, but in"earthly" terms there is no sharper indicator of the success of Jesus' earthly ministry than that here we are millenia after his death and people still follow him and his teaching.

A friend of mine once joked that the fastest track for a guy to get married in a church I used to attend was for single guys to dress like pastors. This would generally involve pin-striped shirts or something like that, maybe a choker or a bracelet but only ONE Of these two, some sensible shoes, and ideally some visible role like leading a community group and making some comments and soon enough women would be curious about how this eligible bachelor was. I could write more about spiritual leader as having elevated social status and getting fly honeys but I don't feel like it. Since I never wanted to be a leader of a community group and never saw community groups as settings to meet eligible women (or even, to be rather blunt, form meaningful friendships) that's just not something I have much to say about. I've made friends in community groups but the whole community group dynamic can often work against the formation of friendships as it works toward them, which is obviously another topic for another time.

it's not just Pharisees we need worry about becoming

In American evangelical Protestant discourse it is common to discuss Jesus' clash with the Pharisees as the central conflict of his earthly ministry. This is certain a well-founded observation, generally, but it was when Jesus ran afoul of the temple authorities that his life was most immediately and inevitably in peril. One of the paradoxes about Christian discussions of theological and ethical errors of Jesus' opponents is we tend to mistakenly see them in monolithic terms when the monolithic opposition to Jesus can be seen in what I hesitantly describe as a duality. What I am meaning to say is that we tend to see the mistakes of Jesus' adversaries as a single mistake rather than as two forms of the mistake. Conservative Christians are likely to think the error to avoid is being a Pharisee without considering the full implications of what being a Sadducee in opposition to Jesus entailed.

The Sadducees, to speak a bit too broadly, supported the second temple worship system as the best possible worship option for observant Jews. That this was funded and established by a corrupt regime that was consollidating political power and as a ploy to lend legitimacy to its reign was far from ideal but tolerable. Both the Pharisees and Sadducees could be seen as groups eager to "get back to the Bible" in their own ways. They may be seen, in a nutshell, as exemplifying dangers inherent in reactionary left and right on the theological spectrum. The Pharisees zeal for purity and for adherance to the Law is not the only potential error a Christian can face. The Sadducees had decided what counted and what didn't in ways that limited the scope of discussion. Stick with the Torah and you eliminate the rest of what is now considered scripture. Catholics and Orthodox might joke that this minimalist canon could be indicative of shortcomings in Protestant theology but I digress.

The Sadducees' tolerance/advocacy of temple worship can be seen both as a principled move and as a compromise. The compromise is easier to see than the principled move. They denied the general resurrection many Jews anticipated as a part of the restoration of Israel. As N. T. Wright and others have pointed out this doctrine took on not merely eschatological but political implications and served as a potent metaphor for national renewal. Ergo, Jews who looked forward to a general resurrection and an annointed leader who would crush the Gentiles were seen as religious zealots and terrorists eager to depose the greatest power in the Western world, a power established by the divine order of things when we consider the nature and narrative of the imperial cult. The Sadducees found it useful to deny a doctrine that Jesus said was inherent in the scriptures because it was politically dangerous to do so.

The principled move, however, was in sticking with just what was in the books of Moses. The Sadducees decided that if it wasn't spelled out in the Law given by God then it didn't count. Anything that didn't point back to obedience to the Law was unacceptable. Anything that promoted Torah observance, however problematic it might be in practice, could be acceptable because the main thing was to obey God's commands as much as possible. See, this is in many senses how a conservative Christian can move. If the Pharisees can be seen as the left-wing liberation theologians wanting to depose the status quo through revolution the Sadducees can be seen as the right-wing pragmatists or, neoconservatives who believe that the ends ultimately justify the means, which in the end means that Jesus was crucified by the vote of a bipartisan committee. The Democrats and Republicans of the time and place wanted Jesus dead for different reasons.

The lesson amidst this historical observation, limited as it is, is that we as Christians need to remember that it is too easy for us to be alert to the temptations and sins that we don't think we struggle with. A Sadducee finds it easy to condemn the Pharisee without realizing his or her own propensity to abandon what Christ says is central. A Pharisee may see himself or herself as in the right simply by virtue of not being a Sadducee but this does not make the Pharisee truly in the right. We can find the sins and temptations that we don't relate to more repellant because we can't imagine why anyone would be tempted by those things yet all the while we are given over to temptations that are no less dangerous to ourselves and others. If you fret about how Pharisees ruin things for everyone be careful that you aren't being a Sadducee.

Many American evangelicals are more at risk of being Sadducees than Pharisees when the chips are down but see the Pharisees as the main thing to talk about. And it's easy to do since so much more material is devoted in the gospels to Jesus' conflict with that group. N. T. Wright pointed out in Jesus & the Victory of God that it was once the Pharisees and the temple authorities both agreed Jesus had to be eliminated that his life was forfeit. I find it useful to say it like this, it wasn't until the power blocs of the left AND right in Palestine of that time decided Jesus had to be destroyed that substantive action was taken to kill him. It is a more fruitful meditation on the love of Christ to consider what sins I have done to drive the nails into him than to consider the sins of others. If I consider how someone else's sins put Jesus on the Cross rather than my own then it doesn't matter if I do so as a Pharisee or as a Sadducee my mistake is still the same and my pep talks to myself will not change that error any more than veering to the left or the right means I have stayed on the straight and narrow path.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Are classical guitarists snobs?

Yeah, pretty much. Speaking as a classical guitarist who wasn't always a classical guitarist I've noticed this. We are a sort that can be snobby toward non-classical guitarists. One of the common canards is that the electric guitar, particularly, has no variation of tone or timbre and is an ugly, unmusical instrument. This is the sort of blanket statement that reflects such profound and willful ignorance of the timbrel possibilities of the electric guitar I find it alternately silly and pathetic. I started off playing acoustic guitars, added electric guitars, and got to classical guitar last and contrary to what classical guitarists keep insisting upon, no, they are not fundamentally different kinds of instruments. That would be as silly as saying that an electric violin is not the same as a violin. Sure, there are different kinds of cars suited to different roles but a car is a car is a car to those who don't drive and those who don't drive, in this case, constitute all the non-guitarists who don't patronize classical guitar concerts.

My earliest musical experiences involved choral singing and because choral singing formed a significant part of my teen years and early college years I can speak with some knowledge about one of the most common delusions classical guitarists foist upon themselves to rationalize their sense of superiority about electric guitarists and acoustic guitarists, the delusion that the classical guitar has the better and more musically satisfying repertoire because it is more polyphonic. Since such a view is snobby and unfortunately under-educated I feel obliged to speak up from my years of choral singing experience and jamming in garage bands and folk-pop settings and point out that this isn't the case.

The vast majority of classical guitar repertoire is homphonic in nature. This means that we hear a primary melody that dominates the music texture and that above or beneath this melody there is an accompaniment of some kind. Think of the first prelude in the five preludes by Villa-Lobos and we see both kinds of homophonic texture, the above and below sorts. Truly polyphonic music employs two or more melodic lines that are truly independent of each other but form a musical hole. In this respect most guitar and piano literature is homophonic rather than polyphonic. Pianists by comparison rarely fail to maintain this distinction so why is it that guitarists so often mess this up?

Now the guitar is not a monophonic instrument and we guitarists can be grateful for that but we should not deceive ourselves beyond this rudimentary observation into thinking the beauty of our instrument is its polyphonic richness when the lion's share of what we play isn't even close to polyphonic. Two concurrent musical ideas by themselves do not a polyphonic texture make. Compare a motet by William Byrd or Palestrina to some guitar transcription of Albeniz and the point is easily made, true polyphony and homophony are not even close to being the same in function even though to an under-educated ear they can sound equally fancy. As Ophee put it so bluntly more than ten years ago classical guitarists need to assess the musical value of works by more than how glamorous the guitar part is.

It would be nice to say that non-guitarists are not rightly dismissive of many guitarists and guitar literature for these kinds of things but there are time when I just can't help but feel that if there is a hierarchy of deserved snobbery then just as classical guitarists look down on other guitarists as lesser artists playing lesser art so too it is deserved that they, in turn, be looked down upon by violinists, pianists, and other promulgators of non-guitaristic art music. After all, many of these classical guitarists who look askance on popular music couldn't pull off singing and playing in the style of John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, or Bob Dylan. They are so busy focusing on that miniature orchestra they don't diversify their musical experience enough to recognize that their put-downs are without merit.