Saturday, December 31, 2011

So 2011 wraps up

It was by now more than two years ago I got laid off from my job working for the Salvation Army.  I miss having a normal day job, and I miss having a normal day job in which I got to help keep track of funds raised for helping people.  Believe it or not I still kind of miss audit compliance.  I got used to a high level of personal responsibility and attention to detail for how other people's gifts got used.  I also had fun researching giving patterns so fundraisers could know who to approach for help on giving to particular programs.  Well, that was by now more than two years ago and though there are things about that job I miss I did realize along the way that the recession has been rough.  One of my old coworkers at the Salvation Army was a guy who was born shortly after the Crash of `29 and grew up during the Depression. When he told me in `08 that the last time he saw a downturn this bad was during the Depression years I'm willing to defer to the assessment of an old Salvationist who has worked in the realm of helping people longer than I've been alive.

I could have done without getting the onset of migraines at the same point in my life that I got a nasty growing cataract!  That's a great way to horrify a doctor into thinking you've had an aeneurysm.   I got sent to get a few tests and got some bills for those tests that scared the daylights out of me.  Fortunately after nine years of working with financial institutions and government offices at a major on-profit I was able to call on years of experience in researching foundations and non-profits to consult about charitable assistance.  I realize a LOT of other people who are severely wanting money are not nearly so fortunate as I have been.  I can see with both eyes and read because of the generosity of a foundation and some generous eye surgeons.  I have not really officially resolved to do this but I have informally resolved that for as long as I can see well enough to read and write I would like what I write to in some way be helpful to people or entertaining, whether it's prose or music or whatever.  Whether or not I have succeeded is not mine to guess at. 

I have been grateful for the kindness of family and friends during a time of my life that has often been miserable.  But even though the prospect of a steady job still seems remote I can start 2012 doing more writing and continuing the work of preparing some pieces for performance and a piece for publication.  Now that family visits and the holidays are wrapped up I'll be able to throw myself back into writing projects.  I can't thank everyone who has helped me and encouraged me over the last two years because, in all honesty, I haven't always known who some of these folks have been, but I am thankful for them. 

It's no fun having a cataract in one eye and a macular detachment in the other over the course of one's life and at length I could lose both eyes and can't know for sure what the future holds, but I can be grateful for the present.  I've had some rough times but I don't live in Japan near the reactor disaster, I don't live in Uganda, I just so happen to live in a city where some of the best medical specialists around for my case history (that happens to scare the daylights out of a few people when it comes to vision) have been willing to go to bat for me.  I wish I still had my old job but at least in that job I learned things I needed to know and skills I needed to refine so that I could ask for the help I needed and make a case.  I'm finally at a point where my eyes have stabilized enough that I can go on the quest for a new prescription and new lens.  I certainly need them by now!

I think I may just end 2011 on a light note with a haiku I wrote years ago that pretty much explains itself.  If this has ever happened to you I hope you'll appreciate the dry humor.

Today I got a
fortuneless fortune cookie.
Have I no future?

Happy 2012 to any and all readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Link: J. S. Bang--Honkies Revisited

I keep stumbling on things that make me revise my decision that I was done blogging for 2011 already.  My esteemed associate J. S. Bangs wrote this funny expression of ambivalence about the "What this story needs is a Honky" trope in sci-fi and fantasy.  I don't happen to share that ambivalence myself because while I appreciate his appreciation of the contrast between technocratic "white" culture and more spiritually attuned non-white culture in Western narrative as a shorthand for the contrast within predominantly white culture I still can't give films like Avatar or Windtalkers a pass in the patronizing story line.  If you get Adam Beach and have John Woo directing the movie yet still make the film about Nicholas Cage's character you're going the most pedestrian route possible.  It's only explicable in terms of Hollywood.  You get an Asian directing a film about American Indians playing a role in World War II and it's still about the white dude.  Lame. 

With respect to minorities in Hollywood blacks have made some substantial gains in the last fifty years.  You don't have to actually like Will Smith movies to recognize he's a big box office draw.  I don't always enjoy the movies Denzel Washington is in but he's a reliable actor.  Spike Lee may not be as big a name as Spielberg but he's a name at all.  There may be too few blacks having such prominent places in Hollywood but as tokens go there are more of them than, say, American Indians.  The older I get the more I begin to notice that different racial groups have very different ways of understanding themselves in relationship to white culture.  Blacks "tend" to lean toward Democrats for the reasons that are not that hard to explain. 

American Indian author Sherman Alexie once said, somewhat as a complaint, that American Indians tend to be politically conservative.  If you look at how government activism regarding Indians looks compared to government activism regarding blacks in the last hundred years it's not going to be HUGELY shocking that American Indians might think the better solution is keeping the government further away from them.  Not all racial groups have the same incentive to go with Democrats or with liberal policies and not all racial groups have equally benefited from the progressive gestures.  At the risk of putting it this way, if Hollywood is any measure of the role of non-whites in mainstream society blacks may feel they have more progress to make but they have substantially measurable progress in the form of bankable leading men, directors, and networks.  BET may be offensive to some blacks and some people may think Univision is a bit daft but those networks are here for the long haul.  Asian cinema has completely saturated American film-making in ways that Americans may not even be capable of parsing any moer. 

By contrast, American Indians have got ... what, exactly?  Casinos and a corresponding opprobrium from certain branches of evangelicalism about the badness thereof.  One of the unfortunate side effects of a lot of American discussion about "race" is that it fixates in many settings on white and black, or white and Latino, or white and Asian.  Black and Asian racial strife, let alone animosity between American Indians and Mexicans.  As American Indians can see it EVERYONE else constitutes an illegal immigrant who came and stole their land, stole their jobs, and attempted to wipe them out in the process. 

Of course many of these tribes were also spending time trying to wipe each other out.  Part of the reason the magic Indian trope and the mystical society that accepts the honky outcast is so silly and annoying is because it is so steadily built into an imaginary past.  As a friend of my brother put it, a Hopi man who found Dances with Wolves insulting and tedious, the "heroic" tribe the white man joins spent generations attempting to wipe out the Hopi and take their land.  Even when Hollywood tries to somehow dignify Indians as being nobler than "us" in the "This Story Needs a Honky" trope, it turns out the circumstances of history make it inevitable that something goes off the rails. 

And the end result in the trope is that the magic white boy ends up being the hero. No disrespect to blacks in Hollywood or the struggles they face but if we can have critics complaining about Will Smith as a leading man then there has been measurable progress!  Jackie Chan may be a cinematic one trick pony but the world recognize his one trick has been pretty awesome for decades.  Bollywood has made some inroads.  The more homegrown Indians ... not so much.  They are still only good in Hollywood terms for the magic white boy, "This Story Needs a Honky" approach, it seems.  I'm afraid that the problem as it is will never get fixed by movies at the level of, say, The Business of Fancy Dancing.  Alexie has been an entertaining author but a film director he is not.  But in the end if no one risks in the arts no one can succeed.  A certain amount of trial and error is necessary in the arts.

Meanwhile, lest it seem that I'm only discussing American film and the entrenchment of racial or ethnic concerns, every culture has its own jingoistic expressions.  It's not like Ulysses doesn't come across as a smug, duplicitious creep to anyone who doesn't happen to share Hellenistic values and clan affiliations.  It's not like China hasn't been rolling out action films constantly revisiting the Japanese invasion of China and depicting the Japanese as bloodthirsty rape-happy cretins in the last twenty years.  There are compelling historical reasons for that depiction but it can still be seen as jingoistic in the way that American films about World War II can come off as unflinchingly self-congratulatory. 

But then in a way this all comes down to a more basic narrative trope in humanity, the need to conclude that we chose the 'right' policy in a situation in which the only options were varying degrees of horrific.  The touchstone here from the 20th century is Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb.  That the bomb constituted an unmitigatingly horrifying power to destroy human life cannot be avoided, but it cannot be avoided what the Japanese imperial forces did at Nanking and how far gone the destruction of non-combatants had already gone in the war. 

At the level of national and international policy the lesser of two to five evils can still be nothing less than horrifying to a degree that defies comprehension.  A teacher once put it to me this way, that Americans mistakenly think that the President of the United States has to decide "if" people will die because of a policy decision when the reality is closer to this, the President has to decide how many people dying from a policy decision is the most tolerable option.  This is not jaded cynicism but the miserable reality of politics.  We are constantly caught between wanting to have our cake and eat it, too.  We want to affirm how different we are from our dominant group even as our affirmation affirms our dominance.  We want, even in the midst of our privilege, to be able to embrace the status of outcast.  Evidently in some settings the easiest way to express this emotional and cultural moment is ...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

an overview of structural concerns in the sonata forms of Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli

I know, I know, I mentioned earlier that I was basically done for 2011 in terms of blogging but I'm not, really.  I still have a lot of writing I want to do but as yet incomplete holiday family plans have sidelined my original writerly plans and I've been gearing up for more composing work.  The sonata for double bass and guitar I finished this month was a start; the movement for my sonata for tuba and guitar was getting some momentum going; but I still want to finish my entire cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  That won't happen until 2012 by now.

But I did finish 12 studies in harmonics earlier this year and I have finished a sonatina for guitar in D major inspired by one of my nephews.  Along the way I have spent some time immersing myself in the sonata forms of the early masters of the instrument in the Western tradition.  Thus Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Anton Diabelli (yep, the Diabelli associated with the famous Diabelli Variations). 

A few general remarks about my impressions of these masters.  Angelo Gilardino has written that not even Sor and Giuliani were able to fully balance musical values and an idiomatic command of the guitar.  While many guitarists play the etudes and shorter works the actual longer-form works by Sor and Giuliani only seem to get tackled by a few and classical guitarists seem to generally lack interest in these works as performance pieces or as pieces to listen to.  I could be completely wrong here but in my experience, such as it is, specialists and completists tend to be the ones who dig into the Grand Sonatas of Sor or Giuliani.  it takes even more specialization and interest to go dig up the guitar sonatas of Diabelli!  

I don't wish here to recycle the debunking of folklore about Beethoven disliking Diabelli's music when the reality was Diabelli had good connections and was a trustworthy engraver and all that.  Instead I'd like to tackle a subject I have been giving thought to since I read Gilardino's remark years ago about Sor and Giuliani not quite balancing musical value and idiomatic command of the guitar.  By "musical value" I go on a limb and say that Gilardino is referring to musical form and thematic economy of development.  This is something that has been a hobby of mine for some fifteen years and having compared the sonata forms of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuliani to those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven I think I can explain why non-guitarists have had so few reasons to pay attention to the sonata forms of guitarists.

But first a digression into Charles Rosen's famous book on sonata forms.  He remarks on the wide variety of structural components and approaches that can be taken in sonata form at some length. He also establishes that it was not even normative to always recapitulate the first group from the exposition but that it was normative for the recapitulation to stabilize the harmonic trajectory of the first movement form as a whole.  It is true that many of the best sonata forms recapitulate group 1 and then group 2 but we construe this from the examples of the best of the best, not the average.

Without wishing to completely diminish the sonata forms of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuiliani I would venture to say that they represent the average against which Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven can be understood to be the best of the best the Classic era formal innovators had to offer.  At the risk of providing no examples and trusting you know the literature extensively I could pick any quartet from Haydn's Op. 76 and tell you that it displays a higher and deeper and more varied thematic economy and structural integrity than Sor's best sonata forms.  I am about to tell you why I think this.

Having amassed scores for the sonata forms of the early guitar greats Sor's sonata forms come closest to approaching the archetypal sonata form but they differ from the sonata forms of the Viennese masters in some basic ways. The first and most important difference is that Sor's sonatas lack the contrasting thematic and textural character changes in the exposition that are normal in Haydn or Mozart quartets or piano sonatas.  Even when Haydn employs monothematic sonata forms he retains a higher level of contrast.  It could be suggested, in all fairness, that the guitar is not even close to reaching the variety possible in homophonic or polyphonic textures available to the string quartet or keyboard.  This would be true, but it would also be true that Gilardino was on to something in pointing out that Sor and Giuliani did not balance musical form with idiomatic command.

The Sor Grand Sonatas have, compared to Haydn or Mozart forms, very short development periods.  Though Sor recapitulates his thematic groups in the C major sonata in a normal way the ideas are not particularly well-developed within the development section proper.  The C minor sonata form leads attaca into a dance movement in C major.  The second group is recapitulated in the sonata form while the first group is not quite ever brought back.  Here I confess that Sor seems to have made the mistake of trying to drag out a "grand" form for as long as possible to mimic the bigness of Beethoven.  It would have been better to have aimed for Beethoven's economical development of thematic material, which is why I believe Sor's Op. 14 and Op. 15b experiments in sonata form are more compelling.  They are also, fittingly, closer in mood and scale to lighter works by Haydn or Mozart.

Giuliani's Op. 15 is his most satisfying sonata form because he has his first and second group recapitulating in a "normal" way.  He also developes his ideas more thoroughly in his development section than Sor does in his Grand Sonatas.  But Giuliani in his Grand Overture and his Op. 150 sonata displays a habit that Charles Rosen has described, that of recapitulating group 2 and 3 but omitting 1 in a recapitulation.  This can be done for sensible reasons and even Diabelli drops group 1 from the recapitulation of his first movement in his Sonata in F major for guitar.  But this is where I think the guitar composers become average rather than ingenius like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  It's true that you "can" drop the first theme and merely transpose group 2 and 3 from the exposition down into the tonic key but by doing this what Giuliani and Diabelli lose is the non-modulating transition.

The non-modulating transition is what allows the recapitulation to take on its structural and emotional force.  Diabelli and Giuliani particularly create expositions in which group 1 is in the tonic key while group 2 and 3 are in the dominant key.  To recapitulate only groups 2 and 3 without group 1 in the tonic key is a perfect example of placing idiomatic command of the instrument over a concern about musical values in sonata allegro forms.  To put this rather crudely, recapitulating group 2 and 3 in the tonic key in a recapitulation for the guitar just means you play as open chords the stuff you were probably playing as barre chords in the exposition.  You just knock it down X number of frets and there you go.  Bingo bango.  It makes the piece easier to play but at the expense of completely ignoring the conceptual and artistic point of the recapitulation in Classic era sonata form!

Giuliani does at least have pretty tunes and flash going for him.  He sounds very pretty.  He's easily the flashiest of the trio and while this can make his solo works exciting he can, as listeners discover, lean on the technique a wee bit too much.  On the other hand, what I like about Giuliani was his interest in composing chamber works in which the guitar would be joined to a flute, a violin, or violin and cello.  Each of the "big three" from the early period of the classical guitar has great strengths that offset what I personally consider to be some weaknesses, but the strengths are not always going to be evident if you only search through the solo guitar literature written by Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli respectively.

Sor gets the epic scale of lower-end Beethoven or ambitious Haydn, which is fun, but his epic gesture tends to be sheer scale.  For contrapuntal ingenuity and beauty of material his etudes consistently outstrip his sonata forms (particularly if we're talking about the Op. 6 and Op. 29 etudes compared to the Op. 22 and Op. 25 sonatas).  For what it's worth I think Sor displayed the greatest command of counterpoint when he bothered to write counterpoint. The Op. 14 and Op. 15b sonatas are pretty satisfying, though, as I was writing earlier. 

Diabelli, of the three, displays the most concern about musical form as a goal unto itself and this is why though his sonatas are not as immediately appealing in the ways that a sonata by Giuliani or Sor might be they reward more repeated listenings and study.  To put it in a rather starkly unfair way of the three guitarists and given what I've been able to study about their respective approachs to thematice development and musical form it does not surprise me Beethoven gave us a Diabelli Variations rather than a Sor Variations or Giuliani Variations.  Diabelli's ideas are not always the most inspired but they have the advantage of inviting expansion and development!  If you don't believe me it doesn't matter, Beethoven has already proven the point beyond all doubt!

As a guitarist I would like to say that non-guitarists have all sorts of compelling reasons to listen to the sonatas of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuliani.  I'm afraid I can't really say that if the argument is to listen to the best music of that time period.  But I will take up an idea forwarded by Robert Craft about Vivaldi in the context of Bach, the first rate composers are first rate because they show the greater invention and mastery they attained in contrast to second rate composers, but that does NOT mean we shouldn't appreciate and find value in the second rate. That sounds elitist and, well, Robert Craft was friends with Stravinsky so perhaps there's no point in sugar-coating elitism in the arts.  What I mean to say here is that if Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven represent the apotheosis of sonata form as art and as intellectual/spiritual exploration Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli represent the average.  It is still valuable to study the average to come not only to a fuller appreciation of the great but to also appreciate the reality that most people are average yet unique. 

Now if you have been inspired by this essay to go find the scores and listen to the music I want to make sure I don't disappoint you.  Anthony Glise has recorded all of the Diabelli guitar sonatas.  The recording is no longer in print but if you go to Anthony Glise's website you may be able to purchase both his CD (what's left of the production run) and his wonderful compilation of the complete sonatas of Sor, Giuliani and Diabelli.  Mel Bay printed the book several years ago and it was one of those books to grab while it was in print because if you try to go buy it now you're in for a surprise at how expensive it often is! As comic book nerds might say, there's a time to go buy the latest issue now and not assume it will just get collected into trade paperback format! 

Fortunately, however, the majority of works by Sor and Giuliani have been in the public domain for so long finding facsimiles of the scores is not difficult.  For Diabelli you are not going to be nearly that fortunate. You WILL at some point have to part with your money to get those scores.
The Glise recordings may also be found in places like this if you dig around a bit.

And because all this music is centuries old finding performances of the works on YouTube will be pretty easy.  The works from Sor are Op. 14, Op. 15b, Op. 22, Op. 25
The works from Giuliani are Op. 15, Op. 61 and Op. 150
Diabelli, Op. 29, 1-3

Armed with these opus numbers and a few visits to Naxos and other labels and you should be able to compile a decent set of recordings and scores once you dig up the free facsimiles or can, say, get ahold of Glise's formidable Mel Bay collection.

So this probably "will" be my last entry for the year of 2011.  I had thought about saving it for 2012 but in the end my eagerness to write about these things just got the better of me.  I hope someone out there in internet land finds the essay interesting or perhaps even useful.