Friday, November 11, 2011

The semi-scheduled link to Orhocuban
I may be Presbyterian and all but I have relatives and friends who are Eastern Orthodox whose company and friendship I value.  Ergo, I like to link to Orthoduck's blog from time to time because it's a fun blog to read.  Orthoduck, as ever, speaks very eloquently for himself about Veterans Day and his service in uniform and how it's a cheap move to use veterans and soldiers as a shield to justify policy decisions and ideas that soldiers have to implement whether or not they agreed with them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

the Cyborg composer, the laws of music, and the question of "soul"

What do people gain from all their labors
   at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
   but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
   and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
   and turns to the north;
   round and round it goes,
   ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
   yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
   there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
   more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
   nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
   what has been done will be done again;
   there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
   “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
   it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
   and even those yet to come
   will not be remembered
   by those who follow them.

Ecclesiastes 1:3-11

The subject of "soul" in music and musical composition is never really about music itself. Even those of us who do not, as a rule, officially go in for programmatic music, still bring programmatic conceits to our listening experience. Consider all the people who, if you ask them, will say point blank they don't enjoy instrumental music because they want to hear a fellow human singing.

I, however, love instrumental music and yet I think the question of "soul" does not go away when discussing instrumental music. Years ago I wrote about how instrumental rock is a niche market, it rarely takes off. A handful of instrumental pop hits have happened in the last few decades but these are instrumentals that, for want of a better word, sing. If you queue up "Tequila" and listen to that legendary solo you can find it easy to sing along with. Now by contrast try to sing anything by Yngwie Malmsteen. Try to sing guitar solos by Jimmy Page. Try to sing keyboard solos by McCoy Tyner. I'm not saying you CAN'T possibly do it but I'm pointing out that instrumental music comes with a different set of understandings about what constitutes "soul".

But whatever "soul" is, it is still there. Instrumental music frequently trades on the ideal and existence of the individual voice. Popular soloists become popular because they establish a unique musical voice. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Django Rheinhart, Thelonious Monk, these are all instrumentalists who developed an identifiable musical voice. Whether or not we can break down their complete discographies and figure out where and how they copied from everything before them won't change the uniqueness of their voice.

What Cope's sample fugue illustrates is that he may have taught Emmy a few things but he didn't teach Emmy how to keep fugue subjects short and within a relatively narrow range. Contrapunal art developed within the choral idiom before it developed in the instrumental idiom. Bach's legendary C major fugue for solo violin is based on a German language adaptation of the Latin hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus. In the case of emulating the work of a musician and a composer with a Christian faith as serious as Bach's was "soul" is not just a purely academic question about the notes. "soul" becomes a question of extramusical associations that are not only impossible to ignore but are also foundational to Bach's approach to important instrumental works.

Now Cope can make the case that humans are more robotic than machines but he may be making a category mistake here. That much of the human mind/brain reacts and makes decisions that are beyond purely rational observation in the moment of action does not make humans more robotic than robots. What it makes humans is less rational than humans like to tell themselves they are. We like to think a lot of our thinking is more conscious than it necessarily is. There are Spocks who think that they are who they are because of what they think. I tend to fall into this category most of the time. But I at length keep discovering there are deeply emotional and irrational aspects of myself that I'm not usually happy with.

Those at another pole may think they are flying by the seat of their pants and intuitively doing the stuff that "comes naturally". These people are more likely to avoid conceding that "what comes naturally" has some blunt pragmatism and logic to it that may not always be easily explained--or, perhaps more to a particular point, when "the heart wants what the heart wants" there may be reasons that are simple enough to explain but that still elicit the "ew" reaction. I knew a fellow who for years would say there are no aesthetic absolutes. None. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

Some guy may claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that there are no aesthetic absolutes but if he sees a woman who displays a higher than average level of body symmetry; has features that adhere more than usual to the golden proportion; who has what may be considered more hyper-feminine physiology; has large breasts; has "birthin' hips"; and even displays a dark and prominent limbal ring around the iris, what happens? This guy, who previously said there were no aesthetic absolutes and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, very frequently, says "Dude, that woman is hot!" Any woman who has found herself wanting by this aforementioned checklist could probably point out that while all the points in the checklist may "seem" irrational and maybe "are" irrational the foundational assessment and conclusion such a checklist plays in the mating game is bluntly and mercilessly logical and pragmatic. The more biology establishes what signals what in the mating game the less purely cultural and arbitrary male and female standards of beauty turn out to be.

Which is to say that Cope can say what he wants about humans being more robotic than robots. It's easy to say that we're biased as though that were bad. The conundrum of human experience is that our irrationalism can often turn out to be suffused with weirdly rational foundations if we step in close to examine their apparent irrationality. At the same time our rational powers and rationalism can derive from weirdly irrational impulses and concerns. In an epoch in which we learn more about the biological checklists of the mating game and how much is geared toward the mating dance (which evangelicals have essentially capitulated to without recognition), philosphers and neuroscientists have started to kick around the idea that we evolved logic not to actually discover the truth but to win arguments in social settings to work toward this or that policy decision. If our irrationality is more rational on sex than we sometimes like to concede, and if our rationality is not even as rational as we have assumed it ought to be then where is the substance of Cope's reaction to the "no soul" objection? Where, too, is the substance of seeing music written by the cyborg composer as having "no soul"?

The music that moved Cope and was "the orgasm of his life" was Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet. There we already have a musical work that is programmatic and has music with meaning grounded in extra-musical association. When Cope says that if you have to promote your own music to get people to like it what have you really achieved? Well, uh, for one thing, if you promote your music so that people will like it and they like it then that's a self-explanatory answer, isn't it? If a person likes your music they are more likely to love it and music is never merely music.

Music may be individual and yet Cope seems to miss that music is communal, music is shared. Couples have "our song", the song that distills a moment in their relationship or how they feel about each other even if the song itself may have virtually nothing to do with what really happened in their relationship if you looked through the words and music and the sounds themselves. I'm friends with a couple who have been married for years and the personally significant song for them is Portishead's "Glory Box". I've been friends with them a long time so I know the story about how and why the song is significant for them. For another friend of mine, who introduced me to the band Portishead, it was all about "spy-junk guitars" and "this is the soundtrack to a James Bond movie that is so cool no one could possibly make it." And so far my friend has been absolutely right about that! Here a single song by a single band takes on two different meanings through extra-musical association.

Cope says at the end of the article:

“I want that little boy or girl to have access to my music so they can play it and get the same thrill I got when I was a kid,” he says. “And if that isn’t gonna happen, then I’ve completely failed.”

What was that thrill? The thrill of discovering something sublime? The thrill of discovery? The joy of discovering something that was new and yet emotionally engaging and familiar? Of rediscovering an emotional state called home yet finding it in a musical moment for the first time? There are some film critics who have written that there is only one time you can experience the joyful surprise of Singin' in the Rain for the first time. As with so many human experiences, but perhaps most legendarily with sex, there's that one "first time". Many tedious and needless memoirs have apparently been written about first sexual encounters. A sexual encounter with another person is considered powerfully formative. An encounter with a musical work can be similarly formative, indeed, to go by the accounts of musicians who lived fast and free that first life-changing musical encounter is frequently more profound and truly life-changing than the line of abandoned lovers.

If music, as so often seems to be true, is never merely about music but about sharing in the joys and sorrows and desires of life then perhaps the reason Cope hasn't heard that he's touched anyone at a life-changing level is in part because he's so eager to ignore what "soul" in music might be and so focused on the music as music he forgets that's never just the song, there's also usually a dance. If Cope can find a way to assimilate extra-musical, literary, and visual symbolic considerations into his program he might have a better opportunity to create a music that takes on a sublime meaning for a listener out there somewhere. It would also help if he told his programs to do a better job of outlining contrast between a subject and constituent countersubjects (assuming the program puts real countersubjects in there). If he's already got all those Bach chorales entered in as music then maybe he could just expand the project to incorporate all aspects of text-setting for the chorales, if he hasn't done that already.

Epiphany through music is the shock or joy of discovery and if "soul" is what is missing from Cope's, er, programmatic music for a lot of people it may not merely be because a program is creating music. Let me put it this way, the program may create the music based on Cope's discoveries about patterns but perhaps the flaw with Emmy or Emily Howell does reflect back on Cope's observation that humans are more robotic than robots. Or, at least, Cope may himself see himself as more robotic than a robot in some way. As a composer, and as a Christian who has read Ecclesiastes more than a few times, I have no problem with the idea that there is nothing truly original, that no one can create any music in a vacuum, and that ultimately everything that seems new has turned out to be indebted to the old. In the book of Revelation we can read that Christ promises "Behold I make all things new."

The only way all things can ultimately be made new or seem new is a divine grace. This may be what some people are grasping for when they try to explain how this or that music lacks "soul". The hope of accomplishment is not the same as the hope of discovery. As Bach put it, he could put the notes together but God made those notes music. A secular variation might be that you can map out all the right notes and chords but the "divine" moment of musical epiphany is never something you can control or try to control. Cope has no hope of creating a musical work that moves someone the way Romeo and Juliet moved him. It shouldn't even be a goal. What animates musicians and composers, I trust, is that in our work we have moments of joyful discovery that we share in musical form. If other people share in that moment of discovery we have found an audience. If not, well, we can keep making music and keep making discoveries.

If Cope's programs lack "soul" it may have little to do with the program and more to do with the discoveries Cope thought he made about Bach's music that he programmed into his programs. He may be closer to mining the laws and patterns of all music across the world and this is an amazing feat if true. Shouldn't he consider publishing the sum of the results illustrating how there may be fundamental patterns across all world music? Wouldn't such discoveries, if viable, be a great gift to tearing down barriers to musical appreciation and cross-cultural appreciation? I have been writing here at this little blog for years that fusion and synthesis seem to be the future of music. Where Western classical music seemed to be revolutionized by a cosmopolitan transnational style (18th century) that led to an explosion of nationalistic music (19th century) and to furher explosion with unexpected consolidation in pop music (20th century) through the mixing of white and black music, what if the future holds, as Toru Takemitsue predicted it probably would, a still further musical fusion of Asian and Western musical values? Cope's work as a composer hardly needs to be the single thing he should stake his life's work on.

Why, then, would he feel like a failure for not being able to create a sublime piece of music himself? Would it be because once the veil has been sundered the mystery is all gone? Is it like the woman of modernity that H. L. Mencken said would become less attractive because of demystifying sexuality and sex so much, that would cast out poets and painters in exchange for photographers and dermatologists?

The hope of creating a purely musical work that will affect and effect someone if you make it with the help of a computer is not quite the same as some young man nervously playing a song he's written for a young woman he likes in the hope that it will impress her. One of my friends labored for some time on a song that he hoped would please a woman he liked a great deal. The song fell flat. My brother-in-law created a song inspired by meeting my sister. That "might" tell you right there that his musical creation was more effective but my friend has been married for a decade to the woman who didn't care for his song! She discovered more about who he was and is than just that at that time he didn't write the kinds of songs that made a strong impression on her.

If Cope never manages to compose a piece of music that touches anyone it won't even be his fault. You can't control for that sort of thing. It shouldn't even be a goal for any musician. It can be a hope but should not be a goal. If he has discovered, as some have put it, the laws underlying all music, is he unhappy because he has discovered these laws? No, but he seems unhappy that along the way he hasn't managed to create music from these observable patterns that has grabbed someone. If he doesn't believe in such a thing as a soul then there's no trouble in failing to create a musical work that hits someone in the face with the force of a religious conversion experience. As a Lutheran might put it, Cope's work may have uncovered all the Law of music and even keep it perfectly ... but at this point there seems to have been little Gospel in his music.

Performers asking him to have Emily write something more "special" could pretty well spell it out.  Perfectly keeping the rules isn't the same as writing great music and great music is not what happens merely within the mind and experience of the one who makes it.  Back to Bach, as he put it, the composer can put the notes on the page and arrange the sounds but God makes the music.  For the secularist, you can make what you consider to be the best music on earth but if it doesn't touch anyone else then all you've done is please yourself.  In a strange irony Cope has spent time lambasting originality and "soul" and yet what he has failed to obtain is the transcendent moment of his music being accepted as sublime by another.
If the music of Emily Howell has no "soul" this isn't because of Emily Howell, which is just a computer program, it's all on Cope. It's Cope's music, not Emily's, that has no soul. If a man doesn't believe in such a thing as a soul why should he be surprised if people who believe in "soul" (whether they're truly religious or not) don't take to the music? If we don't have souls (or even if we do) why worry about not accomplishing something you can't possibly control for? If you're working toward an ideal I guess that's cool but Cope could provide us wonderful resources by publishing the patterns and analysis of centuries of music and this could be more valuable than him composing one piece of music that moves someone. As Mick Jagger put it in that song, "You can't always get what you want ... ."

Mere Orthodoxy: Are Evangelicals Really Conservative? Not everyone is convinced

And thus to D. G. Hart's case that evangelicalism is ultimately going to move in the direction of progressivism and has never had anything substantial to add intellectually to conservatism as a movement.

Irony of ironies: the Religious Right has spawned the Religious Left. Today in many evangelical circles, especially anywhere in the vicinity of a university community, affiliation with conservatism is viewed like membership in a leper colony.

Really?  I've had the impression the Religious Right didn't spawn the Religious Left (as we know it now).  The Religious Right attempted to replicate what they considered to have been the triumph of the Religious Left for the wrong kinds of causes in a rearguard attempt to move things back toward the right ones.  That's my impression of the history, anyway.  Maybe the Religious Left got mobilized because after Reagan they freaked out that the people they thought would never gain any power or influence actually got power and influence at all.  Maybe it wasn't enough power and influence to get the kinds of theocratic police states lefties keep assuming conservative Christians want but enough to make them use that as a sales pitch to mobilize their own base.  Enough, certainly, for Franky Schaeffer to keep acting like that's what his dad was on about and downplaying his own formative, self-admitted role in the whole affair, sordid or glorious as it may be depending on who you talk to.

Nevertheless, Hart awakens evangelicals to five factors that put them at odds with conservatism: (1) habitual appeal to the Bible as the prescriptive standard for national affairs, which abuses the Reformation principle of sola scriptura; (2) failure to differentiate the norms and tasks of the "little platoons" in society (e.g., family, work, church, neighborhood association, political party); (3) conflation of ultimate and proximate realities, thus neglecting "an older Augustinian view of the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man"; (4) naïveté about human depravity, beholden to a perfectionist model of sanctification; and (5) an anti-formalist attitude, which regards "the American political tradition's conventions of federalism, republicanism, and constitutionalism [as] merely formal arrangements that may be discarded if a better option surfaces." Bottom line:
… after thirty years of laboring with and supposedly listening to political conservatives, evangelicals have not expanded their intellectual repertoire significantly beyond the moral imperatives of the Bible. In fact, born-again Protestants show no more capacity to think conservatively than they did in the age of Billy Graham's greatest popularity. They do not know how to yell "stop" to the engines of modernity the way conservatives typically have. They have not learned to be wary of concentrations of power and wealth, frustrated with mass society and popular culture's distraction from "permanent things," or skeptical about any humanitarian plan to end human misery. Instead, evangelicals are more likely to support political plans to improve society, grow the economy, and expand the United States' global presence as long as doctors are not performing abortions and ministers are not presiding over the marriage of gay couples.
I could write more about this but I kinda don't feel like it.  I do, however, want to mention these links and point them out for your consideration.  Right now I've been more interested in blogging about negative critical responses to Haydn and other stuff.

Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective and some stuff that wasn't covered
... Meanwhile, Slonimsky's Lexicon encouraged composers in their delusion that scabrous reviews are a badge of honor, that if you aren't denounced you aren't any good. When all is said and done, I'd wager that through history the majority of lousy reviews have been bestowed on lousy pieces, but nobody collects the notices of forgotten composers.

A basic oversight on the part of Slonimsky's still very enjoyable book has only dawned on me slowly over the last ten years.  The timeline works from Beethoven through to Schoenberg and other moderns.  Some reference is made to Mozart and criticism of Mozart's work (criticisms that, frankly, I can actually agree with at times).  But it's Romantic and modernist to focus on Beethoven as the beginning of ticking off musical establishments.  Historically musical controversies and objections to a creative approach obviously did not begin with Beethoven, even in the realm of concert music. 

In fact I might suggest here that it can be easy to overlook criticisms of Haydn during his career that anticipated some of the complaints about Beethoven.  Beethoven was complained about by critics who thought he was searching for dissonances and over-heated passion and rambling on and on ... and on ... and on ... and on and on. 

Haydn, however, was subject to ire for different reasons.  There were those, particularly earlier in Haydn's career, who still subscribed to the northern German school of thought and to a lot of Baroque concepts about form, affect, and aesthetics.  In the book Haydn & his world (1997 Princeton University Press) Elaine Sisman points out that the northern German critics and music theorists were unhappy with Haydn's penchant for drastically changing moods within movements.  Haydn was found wanting for breaking rules of decorum and for doubling octaves and using parallelism that in Baroque and Renaissance music was considered very bad.  It is important to stress here how indebted musical theory and practice in earlier epochs of Western theory derived from the limitations and exigencies of choral music.  The development of a purely instrumental concert music idiom didn't develop overnight, it didn't even develop in the ways we're used to in even one generation but throughout a couple of generations with some major innovations happening in each generation.

And if you compare a movement from a Bach violin sonata or partita to a string quartet by Haydn or a piano sonata you'll begin to see that this shift happened, this development of changing moods within a movement.  Haydn wasn't the only composer to introduce mood changes but he was better at introducing abrupt mood changes within movements than others.  Part of his genius at musical comedy is his ability to set up an expectation and subvert that expectation entirely within a musical work.  As the members of the Emerson string quartet may have put it years ago, Mozart was able to be witty but Haydn was able to be genuinely funny. 

A lot of northern German music fans and theorists were like Batman to Haydn's Joker, they got that Haydn sure thought it was funny ... but they weren't laughing.  And they didn't like that the rest of the German-speaking world thought the jokes were funny, too.  It seemed to diminish the seriousness of musical art to watch and hear Haydn cranking out symphonies and chamber works that were basically massive situation comedies like he was some sausage-making factory. 

Yet for centuries Haydn has not only not been seen as some iconoclastic punk messing with the bounds of great art and decorum, he is considered staid, parochial and boring because everyone knows he wrote fun music and it has no seriousness.  As Leon Botstein posed the point in Haydn and his world, Haydn had been revered and lionized into a paradoxically respectable irrelevance among theorists, composers, and performers.  Or in a rare moment of framing a gag well Gallagher once opined that you know you're getting old when you hear "Stairway to Heaven" on easy listening stations. 

Slonimsky did us a service collection critical vitriol against now-celebrated composers but he could have done us a bit more of a service by exploring how critical vitriol derives not merely from reactions to musical works as musical works but musical works as landmarks or boundary indicators of cultural, religious, ethnic, racial, economic, and other forms of social identity.

Now as I have been blogging I think that Haydn's work offers a touchstone for musicians and composers who are interested in exploring how to synthesize apparently contrasting musical styles and concepts.  Bach, and other Baroque composers, worked in a milleu in which there was the "old style" and the "new style".  When we moderns attempt to consider how many musical styles there are and how many regional variations there are in music this is not really that new.  What is new for our time period is that we have recordings and writings and musical examples of nearly every kind of musical culture from every region within the last century and a half, maybe two centuries.  And we have been able to coin phrases like "world music".  Yet this concept is not so new, either.  When J. S. Bach assimilate Italian and French music and Polish folk music into his work as a German composer he was still engaged in what, then, could be considered "world music" now.  And in a perhaps "lesser" but still important way the same could be said about Haydn.

Haydn worked in a period in which there was a kind of stylistic consolidation.  Western music was steadily transitioning out of the dance based, opera-derived, and liturgically-based idioms of the Baroque period into a new and more purely instrumental conception of music thought that benefited from equal temperament and new approaches to musical form.  Certain melodic intervals that were prohibitted (and impractical) in earlier centuries of music were becoming more practical and attainable thanks to newer approaches to temperament and harmonic development.  A great deal was accomplished by the time Haydn was established but Haydn was, in some ways like J. S. Bach, able to employ an encyclopedic awareness of musical possibilities form his time and working with them in a way that became a template for later work.  In Haydn's case he was also able to recognize and encourage people with more raw talent and capability than himself and thus he ended up being a formative influence on both Mozart and Beethoven.

I submit that if we fail to appreciate the ways in which Haydn was revolutionary in his own time we may fail to appreciate that there is more to be learned from Haydn's work than mere as a foundation upon which Beethoven and Mozart built their own masterpieces.  We need to consider what Haydn's proteges learned from their master and how we may learn from that in our time.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Links: Lyric Arts Forum posts audio for my sonata for flute and guitar; Youtube video of my sonata for oboe and guitar, 1st movement
The above link is to the two movements from my sonata for flute and guitar.  I had to record the work on a steel-stringed instrument because I didn't own a classical guitar at the time.  The flute sonata was an idea I took on because I'd been advised by a teacher to write for the musicians you actually know, not for the idealized ensembles you'd like to play your music.  In fact the flute sonata did not even begin as a flute sonata.

The flute sonata began as a guitar sonata with the first movement but something felt off.  I felt that nothing was tuneful enough in the guitar part.  So I sat down one day and decided that I needed to add a flute part and to do that I just started playing through the guitar part and whistling as I played until I found something I liked.  I then went back and revised the guitar part in light of the flute part and refined the first movement until it became what you can hear on the audio file. 

As you'll discover when you listen to the flute sonata's first movement I committed to a monothematic sonata form.  I did this because my teacher told me that monothematic sonata forms are harder to write.  I wanted to do whatever the harder thing to do was.  But I also came to the conclusion that a monothematic sonata form would provide a compositional process that would help me discovers ways in which to blur the distinctions between classical, jazz, blues, and pop. 

As I began to work on the sonata I discovered that a recapitulation in a monothematic form leads to
the main theme being stated four different times.  I began to appreciate why Haydn would frequently continue developing his themes even in recapitulation.  I resolved to do the same thing.  Only what could I do that would both continue developing my one theme yet also wind down the momentum of the sonata as a form? 

My solution was to have the theme played in retrograde on both the flute and the guitar.  If you were to look at the score for the first movement you'd see that I just go note for note in reverse where "theme 2" would appear in the recapitulation.  I settled on this approach because of the predominantly mixolydian cast of the primary theme.  Since there's no leading tone as there normally would be in a major scale mixolydian lends itself nicely to retrograde.  We can think of it as a more chipper form of dorian without being quite so symmetrical as a scale.  Now I'm sure someone else must have composed a sonata form in which a monothematic approach is sued and the one theme is played both forward and backward in a recapitulation.  I just couldn't tell who that person is.  But one thing I do know is that in my sonata having the theme recapitulate fowards and then backwards before having a codetta seemed like the right way to go.

The second movement is a very simple passacaglia.  I began sketching this idea very far back, probably around 1998 or so and I was immersing myself in the works of Takemitsu and Villa-Lobos at that point.  Or maybe it was Bach, and Prokofiev?  My memory is getting fuzzy on that.  I just remember spending a lot of time refining the passacaglia and this was where I went through it with my flutist and made several changes in the score based on her suggestions.  By the time the sonata was done she'd made some valuable suggestions that became the basis for revamping the second movement.   

After I wrote the sonata for flute and guitar I got the idea that it should have a companion piece.  When I completed the flute sonata I thought it would be fun to give to some friends of mine to play.  These friends had been married for a while and the husband plays guitar and the wife plays flute.  The husband played electric guitar rather than classical and didn't feel comfortable tackling a classical guitar piece.  He did, however, play the oboe, English horn, and I think maybe baritone?  His wife and I recorded the sonata for flute and guitar linked to above ten years ago (I think).  But this left me thinking my original goal of writing music that could include both of them had been left incomplete.

That's when I got the idea that I ought to just write a sonata for oboe and guitar.  He and I could play that piece together and by composing a sonata for oboe and guitar I would be writing a companion piece for the flute sonata, a companion piece that was that on as many levels as could be possible.   By the time I finished the sonata for oboe and guitar I realized that I should just go for broke and tackle a duo sonata pairing the guitar up with every instrument I could think of.

The oboe sonata took several years to finish and I started working on it almost as soon as I finished the flute/guitar sonata.  Because it is a companion piece to the flute sonata I resolved that the oboe sonata would operate in a similar mood and have a similar set of procedures and concepts.  I had written a sonata for the flutist wife and so I wanted to create a sonata that captured my impressions of the oboe-playing husband.  And, of course, I was also playing around with ideas that are what I'm into.  So I completed the work over the course of four years. 

This is the first movement from my sonata for oboe and guitar.  The Swede and his comrade were kind enough to play the first movement a few years ago.  The other three movements, as yet, have not been performed but it's not an easy sonata for the guitar. My hope is the sonata as a whole will get a premiere and some exposure. 

There's some wonderful repertoire already written for oboe and guitar but I'd like to see a world in which Coste's sweet duets for oboe and guitar are not the ONLY standard works for the instrument.  We could use more ensembles playing David Evan Thomas' wonderful Sonata for oboe and guitar, for instance.  Andrew Hallyday (sic?) has written a marvelous piece for oboe and guitar called "The Widow, the Orphan, and the Immigrant" for the Mountain Music Duo.  And, yes, I'd also like my sonata to get some play time, too.  My hope is that the best years for oboe/guitar repertoire are still coming along.  I've seen some cute Youtube videos of oboe/guitar adaptations of Weezer and I've got to say that Weezer for that instrumental combination works out nicely.

As I wrote at some length elsewhere in this blog I've been inspired to tackle chamber music for the guitar partly because I've loved ensemble music-making pretty much all my life, and also because I read a transcript of Matanya Ophee's "Repertoire Issues" lecture. That was a eureka moment for me.  I'd spent years singing in choirs.  I'd spent a year or two in a little guitar/cello/harmonic trio that was fun.  I was, at the time, in a rock trio.  I was also wrapping up a sonata form for a string quartet.  I was like someone struck by the lightning of a great idea, it seemed I was already doing pretty much ensemble music in all my musical work and why not just keep that approach going by adding chamber music for classical guitar?  Even though I've had fun composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar

So, after all that blather, here's the Youtube link to the Swede playing movement 1 from my sonata for oboe and guitar.  He and the oboeist did a very good job playing my piece and I'm very grateful to them for playing the first movement, video-taping it, and posting the video to Youtube.

Link: NYT--Don't Blink! The Hazards of Confidence

Here's another fun link over at Mockingbird and a link to the original article.  I have landed upon a different money quote than Mockingbird has:

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do. Many of the professionals we encounter easily pass both tests, and their off-the-cuff judgments deserve to be taken seriously. In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. [emphasis added] Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.       

This is useful advice when considering things said by celebrity rock star pastors as well as stock brokers.  The independent study that comes from investigating biblical literature, historical theological development, and related subjects can reveal that the confident preacher (as well as the bloggers some preachers confidently talk about) don't actually know what they're talking about.  There are people who are not as knowledgeable or informed in things as they imagine they are.  People who subscribe to an axiom that one must not doubt one's own greatness are rarely ever great.  Confidence can be mistaken for competence.

The late Internet Monk, Michael Spenser, wrote years ago about a lower profile form of prosperity gospel that is rampant in evangelicalism.  It holds the idea that if you're just really smart and wise and godly then, basically, you won't be poor.  A contrast to this axiom is the great British pilot's proverb that, if memory serves, may have originated in World War I.

"I'd rather be lucky than good any day."

Which gets me to Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Yep, I have certainly discovered a few things about how evil times can fall unexpectedly upon a person.  My evil times are not as bad as those of others and I still have a lot to be thankful for, not least some generosity extended toward me by many people during a difficult time I've had in the last two years.  When times are good be thankful and when times are bad consider for God has made one as well as the other so that man may not know what is to come after him. You may be Ahithophel ,with wisdom and experience so great that your words are considered like the words of God Himself.  Yet David can pray one day that God might make the wisdom of Ahithophel foolishness and God may answer that prayer.  Then it will be a terrible day to be Ahithophel!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

update on reading Romans: The Righteousness of God by Adolf Schlatter

Oh my!  This book could be the most challenging read I've ever undertaken!  There are sentences where there are no active verbs.  I've been borrowing my sister's copy of Bethghe's biiography on Bonhoeffer and in it he writes that Schlatter was often barely comprehensible even to fellow Germans because of his unusual dialect and way of speaking.  Well I do not doubt this now that I've spent months (yes months) steadily poring through just the first hundred pages of the book.

I've been intended to get into this book more (and more) partly in response to Brooks' suggestion over at City of God but mostly because my pastor has been very, very nice in letting me borrow it for a long time.  He's said that he's spending a year in John so he won't need the Schlatter commentary for a while.  Thank God!  This book is proving to be, as I said, the most challenging read as sheer reading experience I think I"ve had.  On the other hand I have been mentioning that I've got cataracts, right?  I've also got weird black transluscent eel-like floaters mussing about in even my good eye so reading books in my house is sometimes tougher than it used to be.  Fully lit screens, however, I can totally read with ease.  There's a strange irony for people who want to pretend that reading computer screens is somehow inferior to books.  Different people are in different spots.

Anyway, this is all I'm rambling about for this post.  The whole time switch thing did not find my waking up earlier as I anticipated I would so Sundays I'm going to have to build up to.  One thing about staying up late with friends for the better part of a week is it takes time to reset the sleep rhythm for me now. 

That's all for now.

a comment from a discussion at the Wartburg Watch gets me thinking

steve on Sat, Nov 05 2011 at 02:33 pm

In terms of comment deletion, dialogue, and such, here’s an interesting quote from Michel Foucault about the difference between entering into dialogue and being a polemicist.

“I like discussions, and when I’m asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of ‘infantile leftism’, I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other….

….The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consists of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”

Many of us have helped make these folk polemicists. We have hung on their every word, and let them be experts in preaching, theology, ethics, science, politics – basically whatever they have spoken about. Now, we all have opinions about the economy, global warming, the Bible, etc., and usually those opinions are not taken to be canonical. But when some of our evangelical pope/theologian/rock stars speak, we think they must be right, regardless of the topic. People are not supposed to receive that kind of admiration; it really does set people up for a fall. Too many evangelicals have allowed these people to think for them, with the predictable result that those at the top have become unbalanced.
Everything they say is right; therefore true, therefore biblically sound. If someone opposes their opinion, it is tacitly equated with opposing Scriptural insights, which is then opposing God. Why let someone challenge God on your blog? Now, it happens that God’s truth is mediated through the blogger, but that’s not what’s important. How can you not be polemical against wolves who are destroying sheep, the sheep who you must feed with God’s truth?

There is no room for discussion or dialogue because those who aren’t with you are against you, and therefore against Christ. And, to come full circle, since you are an expert about everything you talk about, if people oppose you on any issue or in any way, you don’t need to listen.

There are polemicists in seminaries, pastorates, and on blogs. The sad thing today is that polemicists in evangelicalism are often polemicists against other evangelicals.

It just so happens I read this interesting blog post over at City of God excerpting from Chomsky about Chomsky's dislike of postmodernists.  He made an exception for, of all people, Foucault.
Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English
This didn't mean Chomsky agreed with Foucault necessarily but that he was saying he could an actual conversation with Foucault about actual issues (whatever those were and you may have put together I am not the world's hugest fan of either Chomsky or Foucault myself).  But here wwe have to mentions of Foucault on two blogs I regularly read and Chomsky can be considered an independent witness of Foucault's eagerness to avoid being a mere polemicist.
At the other side of the political spectrum many a liberal said that though they would often vehemently disagree with William F. Buckley it was to his credit that they could have an actual conversation.  Many people who miss Buckley style conservatism may not yet realize they are some of the reasons that style of conservativism isn't around.  Buckley passed and we get Limbaugh and Coulter as prominent public and vocal conservatives?  Well, duh, of course that means the nature of public discourse has just changed.  Anyone who's read maybe ten of my blog posts here probably would have guessed I lean more Buckley in my preference and disposition. 
Now here is where I wish to go a bit with this set-up.  A polemicist, as Foucault put it, argues from a position of privilege which he possesses in advance and will never agree to question.  This is exactly what I have seen, like steve, among neo-Reformed sorts.  But it is also a quality I have seen in people who have set themselves as polemicists against the neo-Reformed sort.   Whether you're in or out it's an all or nothing deal.  You can't say that this is good and that is bad.  You have to say it is all good or all horrid.  This is something I object to.  I have been told by some people that my problem is that I see things in black and white and, if anything, the problem is that those sorts of people insist on seeing everything in terms of black and white and because they disagree with me they read that quality on to me.  People who actually know me know that the last thing I could be accused of being is someone who is utterly Manichean, seeing EVERYTHING in starkly black and white terms. 
I have written at some length about difficulties in a particular church but here I want to reflect a bit on problems I have seen in some polemicists who have set their sights on Mars Hill. The problem, to put it bluntly, is that many of these polemicists against Mars Hill are just that, polemicists of precisely the same sort Driscoll has always been.  I have come to be friends with a number of people who are such polemicists and I sometimes wonder if they always think through their own standards and behaviors in light of their capacity to be firebrands. 
One fellow who initially objected to the courtship fad began to parrot everything the courtship advocates trumpeted hither and yon.  He also went so far as to defend those advocates as always knowing what was going on.  I was convinced otherwise by what I actually observed but the need to keep up appearances was strong.  Years later one of the courtship advocates admitted to what I and probably hundreds of other people noticed, that he was completely blindsided by his daughter being in love with a guy.  He hadn't kept track of things and the facade of being in the know was just that, a facade.  Was it deception?  No, not of anyone else, it was more likely a fear of admitting that the gap between rhetoric and reality was much bigger than advertised.  So when this man eventually became an ex-member of Mars Hill and considered the gap between public rhetoric and private conduct I was disappointed to hear such gaps could be culturally systemic but not entirely shocked.  After all, this man had the same kind of gap between public rhetoric and private reality in his own life on his pet subject of courtship. 
One fellow made a point of pressing me about why I wasn't married even though he was at that point not necessarily keeping track of who his daughter was spending time with.  For this man the polemic of my needing to be married was a sticking point.  I eventually felt obliged to point out that since I'm not his kid and not situated to be married yet it might be better to keep his sights closer to home and keep track of who his daughter was hanging out with.  This is another case where an ex-Mars Hill member engaged in the same sort of polemic for marriage that I'd seen in the Mars Hill culture itself.  If the pot calls the kettle black how guilty is the kettle?  I don't know if there's even an answer for that question.
In another situation a fellow had spent years going along with things he didn't necessarily agree with and, as I saw things, he was not agreeing to these things because he really agreed with them.  He was willing to publicly denounce and attack other people for disagreeing with ideas he wasn't that committed to except on the basis of an utterly pragmatic and self-serving goal.  If he stuck with and defended the courtship fad while attacking people who disputed it he might land a hot wife at the church.  Now he views marriage as an abomination and likes to vent his spleen about the shallowness of women but, all things considered, his mercenary approach to conformity just to land a woman doesn't seem that much more admirable, neither does his pragmatic renunciation of a social relationship he has never seemed particularly well-suited to being part of anyway. 
The men who have been the most angry ex-members have been the same sort of polemicist Driscoll has been.  They invariably deny this but there is a sense in which this denial is a quality cut from the same cloth of Driscoll.  Now there are other ex-members of Mars Hill who can say at some length who they encouraged and participated in things they now deeply regret.  About those people I have nothing critical to say at all!  We are brothers and sisters in recognizing how we had problems in our spiritual lives that led us to unfairly judge others. 
But years after certain debacles happened in a row I still see on-line polemics about Mars Hill and this is where Foucault's observations about the polemicist are pertinent.  Driscoll avails himself the privilege of saying God called him in a way that he would not necessarily grant to other preachers or self-described prophets possessing spiritual super powers.  There is a certain person who has made vigorous claims to spiritual insight and spiritual superpowers who is pretty much insane and has not been at Mars Hill in a few years (that I know of) and yet no one at Mars Hill contests that when Driscoll says "I see things" that this is crazy the way this other person's claims are seen as crazy.  That could be because Driscoll is claiming to see events that happened years ago that just about no one could independently verify or disprove; this other self-described seer has made patently falsifiable claims about who is and isn't really dead.  But the question, for polemicists pro and con, will not exactly go away--however, that question about visions and all is something I'm saving for another time.  As I have been writing here for years my desire is not to be a mere polemicist but to discuss things I appreciate as well as don't appreciate about a certain place.
And what a polemicist against Mars Hill might be tempted to do is fret about how terrible and abusive the place is despite having no less than two in-laws he loves a great deal having married into his family from, of all places, Mars Hill.  Couldn't Driscoll say this proves he's on the right track?  I mean, really, if the church is so evil and terrible and his goals and preaching are so awful how did that manage to produce not one but two sons-in-law?  I'm not saying it justifies Driscoll being an asshole (which I'm sure he still is a good deal of the time) but I am saying that the problem with a polemicist who frames Driscoll and Mars Hill and anyone in its leadership network as being only evil all the time is that if such a polemicist has TWO in-laws (let alone three) who married into the family due to the man's family association with Mars Hill then maybe some nuancing can be considered. 
Steve put it this way in his comment:
Many of us have helped make these folk polemicists. We have hung on their every word, and let them be experts in preaching, theology, ethics, science, politics – basically whatever they have spoken about. Now, we all have opinions about the economy, global warming, the Bible, etc., and usually those opinions are not taken to be canonical. But when some of our evangelical pope/theologian/rock stars speak, we think they must be right, regardless of the topic. People are not supposed to receive that kind of admiration; it really does set people up for a fall. Too many evangelicals have allowed these people to think for them, with the predictable result that those at the top have become unbalanced.
It takes a cult to make a cult of personality and the power at the center of the cult of personality is not one that the idol at its center can create.  Superman gains his powers from the light of a yellow sun and the focal point of a cult of personality derives power from the reality that dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people grant to their idol.  I have been writing a lot about superheroes and cartoons in the last year and there's something about them that I believe is relevant to discussing celebrity pastors--heroes take huge risks, obtain great glory, and then become heroes because they make an offer to share that glory with the people willing to join ranks with them.  The only way to not be tempted by such an offer or to fall prey to such a snare is to not have sharing in glory or obtaining glory as a personal goal. 
The polemicist taps into a capacity to promise to people what they want.  If you don't think a polemicist or teacher can get you something you want, and if you don't see that polemicist as articulating ideas for you that you don't know how to articulate for yourself, then that polemicist has no power over you and no appeal to you. At Mars Hill the courtship fad took hold because it promised a lot of people that if they would just jump through all the right hoops the smoking hot spouse of their dreams was just a few meetings with the future in-law away. This was all nonsense but people chose to believe it, people even chose to believe it was somehow "biblical" when it was just a made-up cherry-picked melange of some 19th century customs limited to a small socio-economic demographic.  It didn't even matter that many of the people stumping most for this fad were fornicators who dated the new-fashioned way and had no experience in even being single at any point in their adult lives.  
A friend of mine once said that his parents' generation got an idea that public schools were so sinful there needed to be private Christian schools.  He saw how bad things were at private Christian schools and concluded that private Christian schools were even worse than public schools.  He decided that homeschooling was a better option.  Well, see, homeschooling won't keep kids from experimenting with drugs or sexual immorality as it turns out.  Courtship, by extension, does not preclude sin.  It may somehow preclude certain sexual sins from being as common but that's only if the parties involved are already resolved to exercise self-control.  In other settings courtship can be a grand opportunity for parents and children to sin in all sorts of other ways that are as bad as sexual impropriety.  
For polemicists who want to paint Mars Hill in only bad colors none of this will convince them.  They already have made-up minds, they can appeal to the privilege of the abuses they have considered themselves or others to have received.  Notice I'm not saying abuses have not happened.  I'm not saying bullying has not happened. 
I'm saying, however, that after a decade I have noticed that some of the people most bitter about things were among the key perpetrators of a bullying sort of church culture themselves.  I have seen men who dismissed any and all concerns as "sour grapes" or having "problems with spiritual authority" while they were in good with the good old boy network who over a few years began to be bitter about the good old boy network they weren't complaining about when they still had more pull, friends, and social capital among the big dogs. 
At the risk of pulling in a commonly repeated meme, those who have been the victims of abuse are more likely themselves to perpetrate cycles of abuse.  When abuse is the "normal" setting you know you are far less likely to step back and consider whether the bullying you dish out is because bullying was what you were used to receiving.  You don't even stop for a second to consider that what you're saying and doing to other people is abusive because while you may be keenly sensitive from experience to what it feels like to be abused you don't understand that there are things you do and say that are abusive. 
A polemicist is frequently able to diagnose spiritual flaws in others that he either does not recognize in himself or is willing to excuse in himself.  This could be described in a few words as the "I never beat up anyone who didn't deserve it" school of self-assessment.  Or "I never belittled anyone who didn't have it coming."  Or,"I'm not emotionally mainlining the high I get from being involved in fights about theology I'm contending for the truth."
At length I came to the conclusion that I could not diagnose a spiritual illness in a local congregation without searching through my heart, considering the scriptures, and recognizing that the disease I saw in others was actually a pernicious spiritual disease in my own heart.  There comes a point where if a church is unable to aid you in repenting of sins X and Y because those sins characterize both you and the church then there is a time to let God open up paths to being part of another spiritual community. It took me a few years to start grasping that the point of theological discussion (and even polemic, when that happens) should not be for me to win, it should be to be of service to the church..  Or the Church, for that matter.  There are some people who don't grasp that and there are others who grasp that but feel obliged to debate two kingdom theology or similar topics thinking they are sincerely doing the church a service when they are mainly stumping for their own social and political pre-convictions. 
Let me end with a potentially weird and unconnected story summary.  God continued to have prophets address Ahab despite Ahab's lack of regard for the Lord.  As king of the northern kingdom he could have been considered, easily, to be no legitimate king and to not be worthy of any warning or consideration from the Lord.  Yet consider the various times at which God relented from destroying Ahab.  Consider the various ways in which God sent prophets to challenge and correct Ahab.  Ahab thought that Elijah was troubling Israel and Elijah said that, no, it was Ahab who troubled Israel.  If Elijah had played the game that some watchbloggers and would-be prophets or polemicists against Israel would have advised him to do he wouldn't have stayed connected enough to Obadiah to have even had a chance to arrange a meeting with Ahab. 
I can't help but note the humor in Obadiah's response to Elijah, "What sin have I committed that you are sending me to my death!?"  Dude, if I do this favor for you Ahab is totally gonna kill me, what evil thing have I done that makes me get this crap job!?  Obadiah feared the Lord greatly and yet served Ahab.  He also hid prophets when Ahab let Jezebel kill prophets of the Lord.  Let us also not forget that besides Obadiah Micaiah was also in the royal court. 
Let me pretend for the sake of some of those polemicists out there in internet land that Driscoll is some kind of Ahab, even if this were somehow the case there are still Obadiahs and Micaiah's in the royal court.  Elijah didn't tell those prophets to leave Ahab's court or to stop hanging around Ahab.  Elijah didn't tell those prophets that they were wrong.  He didn't question the legitimacy of their trust in God or the legitimacy of their positioning in a corrupt regime that we can see recorded anywhere.  He also did not attempt to drag them into his personal ministry campaign against Ahab.  He let them be where they were despite their being installed in key positions in a corrupt regime.  Was Obadiah afraid for his life because he hid and protected a hundred prophets of the Lord?  Yeah.  Was he a worthless coward for fearing for his life because he knew word had gotten back to his masters what he had done?  No. 
Ultimately it was Elijah and not Obadiah or Micaiah who turned out to have the huge attitude problem about needing everything to be about him.  He was fine denouncing Ahab and being the big gun who battled prophets of Ba'al but when the battle began to actually hit home (i.e. Jezebel) he freaked out and fled because he didn't want to die and didn't want to get stuck in a position where he was on the losing side of something. When God gave Elijah direct commands to annoint kings and install his successor Elijah went and found Elisha but never did annoint those kings.  Elijah's career-end was one where he persistently didn't do what God commanded him to do! 
Apparently Elijah was cool with speaking the truth to power and confronting corruption ... just as long as he stayed the center of attention and could call the shots.  When God revealed that Elijah was not the lonely righteous crusader he thought he was Elijah suddenly seemed able to be as petty and cranky as Ahab could be. When the Lord asks Elijah, "What are you doing here?" that is a question anyone who thinks they have a calling or obligation to speak up against corruptions in God's people have to consider.  What, exactly, are you doing here? 
What are you really trying to do here? If your goal is to honor the Lord as best you can despite your failings and to encourage people to seek the Lord, great.  We're brothers and sisters in Christ.  Does some kind of Ahab need to be challenged?  Okay, just remember that in the end what matters is the greatness of Christ not whether or not we see the kinds of results we want. Our goal should be to be iron sharpening iron so that people seek Christ.  Trying to turn people away from this or that teacher isn't the same thing as urging them to Christ. 
We must be vigilant (I must be vigilant) and be on guard that I don't become the sort of polemicist that I so often find annoying.  The apostle wrote that if anyone is trapped in a sin you who are spiritual should come alongside and help them but also be careful that you do not fall prey to the same snare yourself.  If I have observed anything in ten years of reading Christians blogging on the internet it's that this is woefully true.  There are plenty of firebrands and polemicists out there on the internet who are freaking out about firebrands and polemicists.  There are abusers who are worked out that someone else is abusing people. 
Anyway, that's my ramble about polemcists for the day.