Saturday, August 14, 2010

internalizing and externalizing failure

There are many times when I feel that an essential difference between people does not really lay in whether one believes in terms of the old cliche of "worldview"but in how one assess failure. A great deal of wisdom in every stream of human thought lays in acquiring the discernment to understand this single persistent, vexing, bewildering aspect of life. Failure is absolutely inevitable from day to day and in the face of the inevitability of death. Everyone, ultimately, will reach the point of failure. No amount of positive thinking can avert it and no amount of reverse engineering will necessarily reveal a way to prevent it.

What I have noticed over the years is that there are two essential ways one can cope with, address, or explain failure. There are any number of ways to combine these two options, of course, but the two irreducible options are to internalize or externalize failure. These seem to be so self-explanatory and so self evident it would seem there is absolutely nothing that could be said for or against them in the abstract. Yet it is also nearly self evident that all debates about life and ethics amount to parsing the distinctions to be made between these two paths and which option should be chosen to explain what circumstance.

Of course to internalize failure is to account the failure as your own and your responsibility. You are the explanation for your failure. You said something wrong, you did something wrong, you thought something wrong, you failed to measure up, you weren't good enough, strong enough, smart enough, fast enough, and maybe people don't like you because you're just not the right kind of person. So if you can't land a date or a job or a grade it's because you didn't do your best or your best just wasn't good enough. If you'd been a better tenant or a smarter tenant whatever your landlord decided wouldn't have happened or you wouldn't have been laid off from your job. I have known only a few people who consistently internalize their failures.

To externalize failure means that it ultimately must be someone else's fault that things are as they are. You're good enough, smart enough, strong enough, and people OUGHT to like you but they don't because something is wrong with them. This is the man or woman who pins the blame on the exes rather than on himself or herself for having contributed to the situation. The ex-spouse holds the blame for not being sympathetic to your problems or struggles. The boss or landlord should have given you a break because external circumstances mitigated your ability to get the job done or pay the rent.

Now obviously both internal and external explanations for failure can and are valid but the path to pathology (and I realize that pun is unavoidable) lays in unflinchingly leaning toward one or the other to the exclusion of the alternative. Either you tell yourself that you constantly screw things up and deserve to fail or expect to fail at one extreme or at the other you tell yourself and others that you're fine if only people would stop having unrealistic expectations of you or would stop deceiving you or stop having criminal expectations.

What I have noticed over the years is these kinds of stringent attitudes can stay steady in a person even when their fundamental beliefs on issues of religion and politics change. For instance, I knew a fellow who went from being a slightly paranoid right wing charismatic Christian to a slightly paranoid left wing atheist. We still mostly get along, by the way, but I have told him from time to time that his propensity to be an idealogue and freak out manages to get the better of him regardless of his belief or unbelief. For his part he has said that my willingness to be pragmatic is a kind of balancing effect on him. He may sometimes be tempted to write people off because of ideological, political, or religious differences that are considered deal breakers. I refuse to consider any of those differences to be deal breakers.

I tend to internalize failures and assume that if something went wrong I just wasn't good enough. This seems like one of my problems. Other people seem to go very far the other way. A few years ago a fellow I met held forth on the ethical failures of his landlords. I could have taken the account at face value but there's a little proverb that says any account sounds true until you hear the other side. How was I to know that the real issue was the unscrupulous landlord in this person's account and not the fellow's own failures that accounted for being told to move out?

Particularly in a town like Seattle the laws so favor the tenant that as long as you follow the law there's virtually nothing that an ethical landlord could or would do to evict you short of you simply failing to pay the rent or the property having to get sold. This fellow's account about the evils of his landlords evicting him without cause was simply not passing the smell test. I felt bad that his housing situation was so volatile but it didn't seem like this guy was going to own up to having contributed in any way to the situation he was in. He was externalizing everything.

A guy who gets evicted once might have had a corrupt landlord. A guy who gets kicked out of a church once because he ran afoul of leadership might have been dealing with problematic leaders. A guy who gets one restraining order issued against him by an ex-girlfriend may have had the misfortune to pick a bad woman. But once you get to two or three of these kinds of situations and it may well be the problem is not merely the putative wrong-doer. The landlord may not be the bad guy if more than one eviction is involved in your life. If more than one pastor has issues with how you handle yourself and the leaders are at multiple churches then you might be part of the problem. The second restraining order could be a major sign that the ex-girlfriends are not the ones with character problems.

Another fellow had it in his mind that it was a gigantic category mistake to consider any woman out of his league. It would seem cold and unsympathetic to say that this fellow was not a particularly compelling catch either in terms of looks or character but far be it from me to tell someone he's going for a woman who's not a probable match for him. Eventually after a few cases of deciding it was wrong to consider a woman out of his league and managing to not even end up on the woman's radar in the mating dance the fellow began to conclude that maybe he wasn't cut out for marriage because of a few character flaws he knew he hadn't gotten a handle on. I was a little surprised that the fellow came to this conclusion since he betrayed no evidence in his words or actions that he had an introspective bone in his body ... but sometimes we get surprises in life that are not altogether unpleasant.

When I got laid off from my job I couldn't help feeling that if I had been a better employee my job wouldn't have been cut. The idea that my job got cut as the long range effects of policies that couldn't be sustained in light of other policies eventually, even quickly, made itself apparent. In fact a few months before I got laid off I found myself thinking that if anyone on the team I was in were to get laid off it would probably be me because though I had vastly specialized knowledge and training the new systems being put in place would no longer make such specialization as important as it once was. Unfortunately for the sake of my job security even though my supervisors begged to differ about this to some degree it was not in their authority to dispute the uppermost management in cutting my position. So I've been job-hunting over the last ten months ever since.

Looking back I now realize that the problem was not that my work wasn't good enough. Far from it, there were some things were it turned out I was the one person in my field doing things the right way even when dozens of people were saying I was doing things the wrong way. I wanted to internalize my sense of failure out of reflex and began to realize that this wasn't what the deal was.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ten years of obsessing about music, musical form, and theology by way of not finishing a string quartet (yet)

I have returned after many stops, starts, fits of bewilderment, and splurges of invention, returned to a medium I have obsessed with writing for at least half my life. Ever since I heard the string quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich I have wanted to compose not merely one but several string quartets. As I began to explore the string quartet I inevitably got to the works of Haydn and Beethoven as well as dozens of other composers. I have over the years resolved to put my best work and best efforts into one day composing for this medium.

It is, however, supremely easy to feel uneasy and diffident about approaching a medium that was pioneered by one of the great masters in Western music (Haydn) and perfected by his proteges who excelled him either in sheer facility (Mozart) or overwhelming ambition (Beethoven). The quartet in the last two centuries has become an idiom for exceedingly serious thoughts and in the 20th century the advent of works by Bartok, Webern, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich certainly lent more seriousness to the quartet. Certainly the string quartets of Villa-lobos, Ravel, and Debussy offset that sometimes moribund aspect but in the last forty years the string quartet seems to have been dominated by a peculiarly serious sensibility if we look at the works of Elliot Carter and others like him.

So while I am serious about wishing to compose for string quartet and wish to make a serious statement I am torn because that's an element of self-importance I find risky. I may have studied forty-two string quartets by some of the most formidable composers who have ever lived but I hope that if I write a string quartet it will be fun. The quartet I seem to be making the most progress in working on lately, however, is a three movement work composed around Easter weekend and the movement I am making the most progress on is the first movement, corresponding to Good Friday.

It is strange to realize I have been working off and on for an entire decade on a part of a piece of music that will last about nine minutes when it is played, if it is played by an actual string quartet! Even more so than the chamber sonatas for guitar and woodwinds, guitar and strings, and guitar and brass this string quartet in G minor has posed what seem like insuperable challenges for me as a composer. I set before myself the admittedly grisly task of composing a monothematic sonata allegro form for string quartet.

Anyone who has seriously studied sonata form is likely to tell you that monothematic sonata form is the most difficult of all variations of the form to execute properly. You have your single theme and from that everything emerges. Haydn was most famous for using this approach and in most examples of it you will observe that he continually developes his ideas throughout the form even when he is formally recapitulating his material. I have taken much time to consider the advice inherent in his example. I have taken my simple, jagged, piecemeal theme and subjected it to numerous types of variation and alteration. I have even gone so far as to set up the theme with a modal alteration and a descant in the first fiddle that presents the theme in retrograde inversion as a way of decorating the theme in a way that might not be obvious but is still obvious.

At length I began to realize that in so relentless a monothematic sonata form a coda with entirely new material was natural. I didn't realize this in any conscious way but simply have gravitated toward this as a naturally, emotionally satisfying task over time. It was in the middle of developing this coda that I began to realize where I wanted this string quartet to go. I found that by introducing a new idea based on the locrian nature of my primary theme that I could slowly build up to an augmented form of my theme and by sequentially developing THAT I could get to one of the most famous musical quotations in sacred vocal music, the baritone solo in which Christ quotes Psalm 22, "My God, my God ,why have you forsaken me." At that point I discovered what I wanted to do with this string quartet, to have the relentless and aggressive monothematic sonata form build up to a coda in which Christ's word of desolation and accomplishment on the cross are presented in a string quartet.

Of course I can't very well proceed in such an ambitious project now without considering the work of one of my compositional heroes on the lasts words of the Lord. Ergo, I'll be looking into Haydn's Seven Last Words of our Savior on the Cross.

It is in this string quartet that I feel most able to articulate what have been the theological convictions that have driven my creative process. Most of my adult life I have wanted to find a way to obliterate the structural and conceptual boundaries between art music and popular music. I have wanted to immerse myself in both streams of Western music fully enough so as to cross back and forth amongst these two great traditions without compromising my ability to compose persuasively in both styles and, at length, to hybridize and synthesize these styles in a way that is convincing.

I believe Leo Brouwer has been right to point out that one of the great mistakes academic musicologists and theorists have made in the last half century has been to underestimate, sideline, or ignore fusion as a legitimate approach to composition. This attempt at fusion or eclecticism is easy to dismiss. The reasons are fairly simple.

On the rock/pop/jazz side of the divide you get people like Elton John, Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Wynton Marsalis, and Dave Brubeck all shooting for ambitious cyclical forms. With the exceptions of Gershwin and Ellington I would say that for the most part these attempts have fallen short of greatness and in Gershwin and Ellington's case the greatness was achieved by each composer playing to his strengths, which are, trust me, generally agreed to not be command of forms but a genius for tunes.

On the side of classical composers the problem is that a composer like Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein appropriate folksy material to lend street cred to what are finally very formalist approaches to music. I suppose Weill might represent an exception to this approach but the majority of composers on the art music side of things tend to reveal by example that though they may have been conversant in popular styles they had too detached a connection to the idiom. You get a sense that they play with the forms and styles as matters of curiosity along the way to doing whatever other more important things they really had in mind.

So we can get some truly ingenius works like Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto or chestnuts of sentimental expression like Bernstein's Chitchester Psalms. We can get Debussy's experiments of incorporating ragtime into his vocabulary. We have seen composers like Takemitsu and Copland cross beyond concert repertoire into composing soundtracks but notice here that a potent non-musical programmatic foundation drives this work. Far be it from me to begrudge Takemitsu's inspiration to compose a soundtrack to a Kurosawa film! And perhaps the best example of a composer who managed to find a balance between popular and art music in the 20th century for guitarists would be Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose music is so understandably popular is has long since passed into the dangerous territory of being both tritely popular and sidelined by non-guitarists as being wildly uneven in overall quality (because it is!).

For those of us intrigued with the possibility of understanding how such a synthesis of popular and academic styles may be obtained the most compelling answer does not lay in recent history but in the distant past. Here, again, I propose Haydn as the example to be followed for those who would aspire to a fusion of popular and academic styles because arguably the historical case for Haydn achieving the most robust yet most delicate balance of these idioms is stronger than the case to be made for most other composers in Western music. The only other composer in the Western canon whom I might argue achieved a comparable balance of esoteric academics and populist expressionism would probably be J. S. Bach.

All of this is admittedly very abstract and I don't know, really, if I will even finish this string quartet I have been working on for ten years. The more I work on it the more I change things. I originally set on four movements because that was the traditional number of movements in a string quartet. Only in the last month did I begin to realize that if my string quartet in G minor is based on having a movement for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday respectively that there was no point in having a fourth movement. What would a fourth movement correspond to? Why have a scherzo when it serves no programmatic purpose? In fact, why not simply incorporate whatever material I had planned for the scherzo into the opening sonata form? This is what I have resolved to do.

So after ten long years I may be close to having one third of one string quartet finished. The two remaining movements may take me another ten years to compose to my satisfaction because of what I want those two movements to do. The Holy Saturday movement fills me with complete dread because I have decided to compose a fantasia or set of variations on possibly the most notorious lining hymn in the American gospel tradition. Yes, exactly, you know the one fellow music nerds. Yes, you now the definitive recorded performance of this legendary lining hymn, too, don't you? No, there could not be a more compelling candidate for the basis of a Holy Saturday movement in the entirety of American music. Ever. Period. End of story.

The third movement is supposed to begin with a famous Lutheran hymn reflecting upon Christ in the tomb and will later deploy that hymn in inverted form to build a canon. The idea is that as the hymn from Holiday Saturday introduces the final movement it is later revealed in canon based on its inversion to musically depict the manifold consequences of the resurrection. There's no better or more obvious musical depiction of the reversal of Christ's death than to use a canon on the inversion of a Holy Saturday hymn as a way to depict the risen Christ, is there? Well, I'm not going to say which hymn because this is still a massive work in progress and I don't know that this work will get performed. I should leave room for me to get this project done. I know what the plan is but there's a problem of counting chickens before they've hatched.

But you can see from what I have written that there are theological reasons to go for particular musical ideas. A monothematic sonata form best articulates the relentless and painful journey to Golgotha every moment, no matter its emotional or physical aspect, inevitably walks toward or lingers in wait of death. Yet this also entails the accumulation and synthesis of centuries of musical statements and forms developed in the West over the last three centuries. Over time I have not been surprised that the most compelling opportunity to synthesize art music and pop music, art forms and pop forms, has been presenting itself to me in the form of a string quartet that reflects upon Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. To me this seems fitting even if I often feel unworthy of such an ambitious musical task and responsibility. I hope that means that I may, by God's grace, one day accomplish this task precisely because I feel so unfit to accomplish it myself and feel so unstinting in the demands I make on myself to compose in a way that is worthy of the subject. Despite all this I have never lost sight of the fact that I want this to be fun and a source of joy.

Now, you see, it's not enough to compose a nominally neo-classical sonata form that depicts in some way the crucifixion of Christ, this sonata form also has to evolve a musical vocabulary after which a fantasia on a legendary lining hymn becomes not only plausible but compelling. It has taken me some fifteen years to develope and refine a musical vocabulary, a harmonic and melodic and rhythmic lexicon that allows me to even begin to undertake the second and third movements of this string quartet. Attempting to compose what amounts to a passion narrative, a reflection on Christ in the tomb, and subsequent resurrection in a form as miniature as a string quartet is no small feat. Just when I thought that the long-term projects for the guitar would take me the rest of my life I found myself halfway through one project and two thirds of the way through another. This string quartet project is a reminder to me that there will always be something that feels beyond my ability that spurs me to keep trying.

As if all that weren't relentlessly nerdy about music and musicology I might as well link to something theologically nerdy that partly articulates what I realize I have been reflecting upon in the midst of this taxing self-imposed musical challenge.

To consider that in Christ there is now no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, rich or poor but that all are united in Christ compels us to consider how we are all in need of the kindness of the Father given to us through Christ and how we are quickened to that by the work of the Spirit. At the risk of putting it in arcane musical terms, if in Christ all are reconciled then to explore how this literally may be played out and sung forth in music it requires a profound understanding and knowledge of all of the ways in which music may be put to use or not in reflecting upon the nature of ourselves, our lives and deaths, and Yahweh. We are united with Him in His life by being united with Him in His death.

In other words a musical synthesis of high and low, academic and popular, American and European, Western and Eastern, all of this may well be most possible to depict in music by reflecting upon how each tradition and stream has placed Christ on the cross. As I have said both seriously and sarcastically here Christ was crucified by a bipartisan committee. Jesus was crucified by not only rhythm and blues and rock and roll but by the pretensions of the classical music many Christians think more worthily acclaims Him. When we consider that there is nothign that does not need to be reconciled to the Father by Christ we can abandon any pretenses within ourselves that this or that is inherently more worthy of describing the riches of Christ in musical forms. But I have rambled enough on music, musical form, theology, and possibly impossible personal projects for the day.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

forgive the schadenfreude but one of my least favorite comic strips of all time is getting retired

I grew up loathing the comic strip Cathy as much as I loved the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. If you ever in your life enjoyed Cathy then I trust you will not take it personally that I agree with The Comics Journal's sentiment that Cathy and Dilbert together were the apotheosis of all that was necrotic and artistically stillborn about comics in America in the last generation or so. There, I said it. I have never been one to necessarily agree with the stuff said in The Comics Journal and Gary Groth in print can certainly be a gadfly but Gary Groth in person has impressed me as being a passionate and friendly man. He also was kind enough to let me know that the complete Calvin & Hobbes was being prepared for publication when I heard his lecture about Peanuts years ago. I might disagree with Groth about a few things but on the subject of Cathy the Journal crew and I agree.

But mere contentment in the knowledge that a comic I've disliked seems petty, especially since I haven't read ANY comic strip consistently since Calvin & Hobbes was retired. Boondocks was often at least interesting enough to read and I'll remember Huey's thesis "Ward Connerly is a bootlicking Uncle Tom" for some time to come. Then again if Cathy as a strip was about comics as a personal form of therapy I don't see that indie god Art Spiegelmann was above using comics as a cathartic way to vent about what he was unhappy about in his own life.

In some respects it's respectful of a comic strip I never liked to grant that the indie/alt/underground comics ranging from the likes of Spiegelmann to Adrian Tomine are just as much one-trick ponies who hide the limitation of their trick behind brilliant visual sensibility and approaches to design. But simpering about the things that might have been and can't be or the stuff that is lame about life that isn't so different. Years ago Andi Watson once wrote that the lines in the sand people draw are social. It's not that the lines can't be crossed it's that people don't WANT to cross them. I admit I've never much wanted to cross the line and seriously read, let alone enjoy, Cathy! Of course I can be fair-minded enough to grant that the readers of Cathy are not likely to spend a huge chunk of a weekend blitzing through season 2 of Justice League. As the old axiom goes one person's trash is another person's treasure.

two thirds of the way done with 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar

By major project I mean my composing 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar and by two thirds of the way done I mean the obvious, I just finished the sixteenth prelude and fugue. This was a massive project when I started it back in 2007 and was certain it would take me years to finish. Then as time went on I began to imagine I could finish it in about five years, particularly after I began to research how long it took Igor Rekhin to finish his series that I discovered in the last year.

As I began to actually continue doing the work of writing preludes and fugues for the guitar I began to realize that I was pretty far along and now, three years after I first got the idea to begin the project I am two thirds of the way through. I might actually finish this project in five years. I might finish it sooner simply because I've been unemployed for ten months!

I doubt seriously that I could finish the project in under five years even without having a current job because the way I'm tackling the project precludes writing fugues the way most write fugues these days. I have discovered to my partial dismay that most people who write fugues for solo guitar don't bother to compose true countersubjects. In other words, they pile up melodies on top of each other for expressive and textural effect but since the soprano line, alto line, and tenor lines can't be exchanged in every possible permutation while retaining their viability as counterpoint it's counterpoint, you understand, but not the hard-core fully invertible counterpoing that Bach became famous for. When I actually do stuff I don't like to do it by halves (as opposed to my notoriously halfsies approach to housecleaning).

Owing to some practical advice I got from a guitarist over in England (who's also twice my age and far more educated than I am about the repertoire) I am going to be transforming all this knuckle-busting works for solo guitar into duets to ensure they are more likely to get played. At this point I confess to ignorance as to whether or not Igor Rekhin himself is a guitarist. Since in the scores for his works the indication is that all the left hand fingering instructions are by Vladimir Tervo that and the forward strongly suggest that Rekhin is not himself a guitarist or wasn't at the time he began the project. Unfortunately this is something difficult for me to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt. At first I was excited by the possibility that some other fellow guitarist had already composed such an ambitious project but now I am not sure if that's the case. It may turn out that the number of us classical guitarists who have undertaken to compose a giant cycle of fugues for guitar may be even smaller than I thought. I might be it!

Part of me hopes that's not the case because fugues are awesome, the guitar is awesome, and more contrapuntal works for solo guitar ought to be written. I surely can't be the only guitarist who has thought of these kinds of things. On the other hand, if I turn out to be the first guitarist/composer to actually finish this project then that would probably be advantageous to marketing the series ... except for the problem that the technical and interpretive demands of such a series are obviously so collosal I'm not sure I'd have any takers amongst guitarists. I'm more likely to get a series of guitarist interested. You know, maybe divide the entire cycle up into sets of four and then send four preludes and fugues at a time to guitarists.

Were it not for a terrible case of tendonitis I got doing warehouse work fourteen years ago and not having had any formal instruction in playing guitar since 1997 I would be less diffident about attempting to play all this stuff myself. I gotta put in the old college try, at least.

It's weird to realize I'm two thirds of the way through this project. It's also weird to realize that I'm half-way through my planned cycle of chamber sonatas for guitar and woodwinds, guitar and strings, and guitar and brass. I'm just going for the four essential instruments in each family. No firm plans for alto flute, English horn, E flat clarinet, A clarinet, contrabassoon, or cornet and so on. I mean, sure, I've got a sonata for English horn and guitar I'm nearly done with but for practical purposes I'm formally designating the sonata cycle as guitar paired up with flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, bass, trumpet, horn, trombone, and tuba just to stick with the most basic breakdown of family members. That and twelve chamber sonatas for those particular instruments, I thought, would give me so many technical and conceptual challenges I would spend the rest of my life on them. Or so I thought. After ten years' work I am actually half-way through the series and I'm just past the middle of the thirties. I might finish both of these giant projects by the time I'm forty.

The thing is even if I finish these projects, as increasingly seems likely, there's the major hurdle of getting them performed! Contrapuntal works for solo guitar are, to put it delicately, immensely taxing for guitarists to play just at a physical level. Then there's (how do I put this more delicately?) the conceptual limits most guitarists have in truly appreciating and interpreting contrapuntal work. Most professional guitarists eventually get to at least some Bach but I have noticed over the years that most classical guitarists betray a fundamental ignorance about the difference between polyphonic music and homophonic music. To wit, they almost invariably conflate the former with the latter when there is no basis for it. And here guitarists wonder why non-guitarist music critics and musicians can look down on them!

Well, now I have to see if I can not only finish all these projects but get this stuff premiered. I could attempt to explain the theological reasons that inspire me to write but I trust no one much cares about that, especially since no one who has read this blog will likely have heard any of the music I write. I haven't written the long-ago planned giant analysis of cyclical thematic development in Koshkin's sonata for flute and guitar because I realized that there's no point in posting what would amount to a master's thesis in guitar literature when I could be sticking to my day job. Of course ... now I don't HAVE a day job ... so perhaps posting that big analysis might not be altogether a bad idea. But I haven't gotten any further in the apologies for hell series yet. I've got plenty of other stuff to catch on before I write a dissertation on Koshkin's most important chamber work.