Saturday, September 25, 2010

First movement for string quartet in G minor, ("Good Friday") is finished

After ten spectacularly long years of labor and toil I think I have finished the first complete draft of the first movement of my string quartet in G minor. I might end up having to revise a bunch of stuff about it now that I have said this! All compositions a composer undertakes are personal at some level or another but this one is more pesonal for me than most projects. The first movement is a sonata form that corresponds with Good Friday and I spent a decade of my life getting it to the point where I can now tentatively say it is finished. Yeah ... that punning allusion is goofy but it's in the wee hours of the morning and I don't feel like avoiding that.

If I keep going at this glacial pace on this G minor string quartet then the other two movements will keep me busy for the next twenty years! May God grant that I live that long if I neeed to in order to see this thing finished! I don't have the mental energy or focus to write a lot about it right now. I can say that a decade of immersion in the string quartets of Bartok, Haydn, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Villa-Lobos, Webern, Rochberg, Carter, Penderecki, and Lutoslawski have gotten me to a point where I finally feel like one third of a string quartet dealing with the weekend of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection is mostly done.

The Holy Saturday movement, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, still fills me with a great deal of anticipation and, well, dread. I spent ten years at Mars Hill. Good Friday music comes easily to a Mars Hillian whether past or present. Holy Saturday music? Ha, well, I'm just Protestant enough that I feel like I'm flying blind on that. But in some ways that is the emotional core of the string quartet and the movement that will present the greatest formal and stylistic challenge. The ten years of writing the sonata form went by slowly but not as slowly as writing a fantasia/variation form is likely to go.

Well, I've written enough about this. There's no way you can hear what it is I have finished composing on a blog like this and I don't have the tools to make the sounds available. At this point I'll be fortunate if I even find a quartet willing to look through it. Especially in a city like Seattle that is, how do I put it, not super-duper religious, a string quartet sonata form that is so reletentlessly programmatic and concerned with a religious subject probably won't get any play time. The movement is too violent and stubbornly 20th century (read Bartok, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Kodaly, later Penderecki and, really, Gershwin, Ellington, Monk, and Blind Willie Johnson) to have any real liturgical use.

Then again, the quartet is, and this is where it risks bloated self-importance and stupidity, a kind of musical manifesto. I believe that what Christ accomplished on the cross not only destroyed the boundaries that separated Jew from Gentile, slave from free, male from female, but also destroyed the walls that separate high and low, art and pop, academic and folk and all this in music.

That these stylistic and formal barriers will continue to exist does not concern me so much as I hope to compose in a way that explores how these barriers can be ameliorated or even eliminated and, obviously, my faith in Christ has guided how I approach this. That is to say, I have faith that in Christ these boundaries are eliminated at the cross and that my opportunity is to explore and stumble through discovering how this has happened and what tools are available for exploring and understanding this. So many better composers and musicians than I have explored this ranging from Ellington to Cash to Bach to others that I cannot pretend to be more than a bumbling amateur but I am still grateful to be able to bumble.

This last year has been a generally miserable and difficult one, possibly the most miserable and difficult one of my life. So I suppose it has been fitting that at a time when I often struggle with feeling forsaken by God either for unfair or, more often, more than fair reasons, that I have found it just easy enough to finish the Good Friday movement.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

negative rights and positive rights

I don't feel like rehearsing everything pertinent to the topic of negative rights and positive rights but over on City of God there have been a few posts on the subject of rights and some comments by J. P. Moreland. One of the issues raised was whether or not negative rights (the right to be protected by the government from harm in pursuit of something that benefits you) and positive rights (a right to something) can't be finessed by semantics. Some folks believe this isn't possible and that that is splitting hairs. The trouble is that it's not splitting hairs in terms of actual law. I know a fellow who adamantly believes it is wrong for any restriction of sale of any violent or sexually explicit video games to minors should be undertaken. It shouldn't be against the law and parents are ultimately responsible for the actions of others.

Oh, but wait, this fellow gladly endorses bans on smoking in public because when the chips are down he is willing to say that other people actually are responsible for his health to the extent that smoking is considered a health hazard. So it would appear that while any appearance of any censorship is bad government restrictions on smokers are totally fine.

In other settings I have seen a Christian conservative argue that abortion is not a right. I agree, completely, that abortion is not a right. But the man making this case fumbled by framing the issue by saying that the fetus has a negative right to not be killed. He could agree with the idea that the negative right to not breath in second hand smoke trumps the smoker's right to smoke in public.

But now we get into a problem of argument in light of precedent. Keep in mind that I can agree that some negative rights definitely trump other negative rights. The problem is that liberals have brought in Roe vs Wade and discussion of negative rights and government interference can't happen in a vacuum where no legal precedents are considered. If the interest of the state is in protecting the negative rights of citizens so that they are able to pursue their own interests without harm, but the citizens in question are not even born yet then what appears to be a consistent, then conservative negative-rights argument flies straight into the loving embrace of all those liberals who support abortion. Why? Simple, because the liberal can say that the negative rights of the would-be mother to abort her child trump the negative rights of the child who is not yet a citizen to have a life untouched by, well, being aborted.

Ironically, without considering legal precedent a negative-rights argument against abortion plays into the liberal's hands to defend abortion. Since Roe vs Wade ruled that the citizen has a negative right to not be barred from access to an abortion without a corresponding positive right to life for the unborn child a conservative attempting to limit abortion on the basis of negative rights and the role of the government toward its citizens is doomed to continually play into the hands of abortion advocates. Someone like Christopher Hitchens who finds abortion repellant but believes the state should not ban it nor promote it ends up being the most consistently libertarian. Social conservatives who would have judicial fiat make abortion illegal again don't seem to realize that the cure for the disease of judicial fiat and over-extension of federal power is ironically more of the same disease in government they were upset about in the form of Roe vs Wade.

Sadly it would appear that based on at least some of the arguments I've seen conservatives come up with about negative rights it would appear liberals have dominance on judicial matters not because they have views that may seem consistent to conservatives who have goals in mind for judicial policies ... but because they have views that can be more consistent in practice with their professed view of government.

Now let's say a woman aborts her child. In her state it is legal so she has done nothing wrong. Let's say she brings the child to term and then in the throes of post-partum depression and despair over some external circumstance kills her baby. Now she is a criminal according to the laws of the land. Why? Well, simple, before the baby was born it was hers to abort per the laws of the state but after the baby was born it became a citizen of the state and the United States and her killing the child became a crime because the state exists, in part, to prevent people from being able to pursue things that would benefit them without harm. What appears to be the hypocrisy of a liberal culture turns out to be, on any real examination, a consistent application of negative rights, That I find this ineffably lame does not change the reality that it is so. In a post Roe vs Wade legal ecology attempting to hang opposition to abortion solely on the basis of a negative rights view of government is doomed.

A conservative who attempts to defend the right to life on purely negative terms has to come up with an explanation for why abortion is wrong and when capital punishment would be considered appropriate. The reasoning "should" be simple, that if you deprive someone else of life you should be deprived of yours but the reality is that if there is no clear articulation in a post-Roe America for a positive right to life than a negative rights only approach to government ensures that there will rather literally be no positive right to life where the unborn are concerned. They aren't citizens yet so who gives a crap about them? If liberals had not been so utterly ingenius about framing abortion rights in negative rights terms all the way back at Roe vs Wade then conservatives might have a leg to stand on trying to argue that abortion is wrong on the basis of negative rights. Obviously that's not how history played out.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's not up to you

The last really great album Bjork ever made was Vespertine but that's neither here nor there where this post is concerned. The title to that song has stuck with me because I think that as we get older and we see our options limited by our decisions and the effects of our decisions we also begin to see that many things in our lives are constrained by the consequences and decisions of actions taken by others. As Bjork sang it, "It's not up to you (oh, it never really was)."

A friend of mine would very much love to no longer be single. He'd love to be married, at least he thinks he'd love to be married. He might worry that he'd end up with a wife who nags him about stuff and, in truth (as best I perceive it) he does NEED someone to remind him that he bought this or that food item and hasn't remembered to cook it or that he doesn't need to buy something because he's got another unopened one of the very same thing at home. What I told him about marriage and dating is what I have observed about my job hunt. We can do our best and get feedback but what can be discouraging is that despite our best efforts and best interests the decision that changes our path ultimately resides in the "yes" or "no" of someone else. It's not up to you.

Even among Christians it would appear that a lot of teaching is hinged upon the premise that it is up to you. In fact it is so up to you that if for some reason you don't pull things off then something must be wrong with you. I can (and plan to!) revise my resume and approach to cover letters. I can wear my best clothes. I can go for jobs that are outside my comfort zone and experience. I can network as best I know how. You could change your hairstyle, change your dress code, change your conversational style, go to different parties but it still doesn't change the fact that if you are gunning for a significant other the emphasis is going to be on the other making the decision and that can't be forced. In the same way, the best that I can do and keep trying to do just means that perhaps, God willing, at some point, someone will gamble that I'm worth hiring for something. That may be a bit too gloomy and fatalistic but it is often on my mind and has been over the last year.

I have never been persuaded that personal optimism translates into significant benefits in material events. You can have a positive disposition toward dealing with junk that might inconvenience you. When I had a macular detachment I realized that since I was already more interested in music than in visual art that I might as well officially drop any interest in working with visual media in favor of working on music. That could be considered taking a positive and constructive approach to a medical disaster. I hasten to add that the disposition did not change the nature of the disaster. I still needed a scleral buckle post-haste! But the disposition allowed me to adapt to the circumstances. The contentment was not with the damage to my eye that works so much as contentment realizing that this, too, could be something that could in time be adapted to. In the grand scheme of things I got about two thirds of my visual acuity back. The bummer is more that I don't qualify for any disability but am disabled enough to not be able to drive. In the last year of job-hunting THAT has been the tougher thing to deal with for me.

And any year now it might be possible that the other eye could experience a catastrophic macular detachment. It just comes with my demographic, I'm afraid. Knowing that my friends who have premature babies will never have to deal with what happened to me is profoundly reassuring. When I see the children of my friends and family I am relieved that what happened to me doesn't have to happen to them. So in a way I've been dealing my whole life with the consequences of medical screw-ups that are irreversible. My brother never had the same problems and he and I were born very close together so I know what I've dealt with is not some inherently genetic limitation. Either way it wasn't up to me.

Sometimes I wish I had more of a "can do" attitude, which often to me seems delusional. Per Mockingbird's entry, though more scientists and philosophers believe free will is illusory it is considered imperative for people to have the illusion of it so as to be more ethical people. Atheists may wonder at the persistence of religious thought and perhaps from a purely sociological perspective one could propose that one of the key values of a religious mindset is that it is often the point of entry for belief in free will that people find useful for encouraging moral behavior. But that is a snide side comment and not the point of this post.

"Do you have any regrets?" "... Garfield, maybe?"

A while back I saw a link to an interview with a relatively famous speaker who was asked if there were any things he said that he regretted over the years. While some folks saw his reply as reflecting a lot of humility (and, I don't know, it could) what the fellow said was more or less the sentiment that he wishes he could go back and erase the tapes of things he said so people wouldn't remember that he said them any more. That is, strictly speaking, not an expression of regretting having said anything. It is, in essence, a non-apology of the sort we who are too cynical come to expect of famous public speaker. I'm glad that some folks wish people could forget certain things they have said but that's not quite the same as coming up with something yourself that, just maybe, you wish you hadn't done.

And that's why the title of this post paraphrases dialogue from Zombieland. When you're about to die, for certain, and are asked if you have any regrets you should be able to come up with something most people, but especially you, could look back on and say, "Wow, I wish I hadn't done that." In our current age of media saturation of non-apologies a real apology in a public setting seems rarer than usual. Then again, there's nothing new under the sun and finessing away the fact that you said a bunch of stupid things by saying that you wish you could hit the reset button so people didn't remember the stupid stuff you actually said isn't quite the same as saying, "You know what? I've said X, Y and Z and those were all amazingly stupid things I should not have said."

Of course most of us can go through life and have to say that without being public figures. The closest thing a public figure can come to hitting the reset button so as to prevent people from remembering that this or that was done or said is to take down websites, call for the suppression of news articles and, oh, yeah, I guess that might look suspiciously like censorship to some people. Now the libertarian theory of the press has been so wildly discredited since the McCarthy period I don't intend to get into that but it does seem worth noting that unless you go to great lengths to suppress things that can be considered said on-record it is impossible for you to pretend that you didn't say stupid A, B, or C. The paradox of our non-apologetic statements in our day and age is that it could scarcely be said that there is an age, given the prevalence of available data, in which it makes less sense to avoid simply saying, "I said something that was wrong."

The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can understand it? Not me.