Thursday, November 29, 2018

some pending music blogging projects probably have to shift into 2019

Obviously I haven't made more headway on the blogging through Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues this year.  That's disappointing but in the offline world all sorts of things can come up that require attention and sometimes you have to settle for doing things in bits and pieces.  We'll have to try tackling that in 2019 is how things are looking now.

Also waiting until 2019 is probably going to have to be blogging about the guitar sonatas of Dusan Bogdanovic.

And blogging about the guitar sonatas of Angelo Gilardino, which I very much want to try to tackle in 2019!

The Matiegka project probably has to wait until 2020 ... probably.

Even some other non-music related blogging probably gets to wait until 2019.  I mean, sure, I could review Spirit-Filled Jesus some time this year but the book hardly seems important enough to bother with just yet.  Same for Doug Wilson and Randy Booth's 2nd edition of A Justice Primer. Maybe they think it's important enough to get a second edition and I admit I picked up a second-hand copy out of curiosity because the first edition got scuttled by the work of a blogger, and I was curious to see if the book could possibly earn the praise lavished upon it by Kevin DeYoung before the first edition got retracted ... but it's another book where I'm curious about it but not nearly so curious as I am to keep reading a couple of books in the musicology vein that I've been wanting to read.  And some stuff by Ellul ... and there's some stuff on Francis Schaeffer I've been meaning to write about. 

So there's some music blogging that has to be tabled if I'm realistic about my time and energy levels.  I don't think I even mentioned earlier part of me wants to blog about the preludes and fugues of Henry Martin for piano, or the cycle of preludes and fugues by Zaderatsky!  There's some charming music in that cycle!  Regular readers must know by now, I hope, that I don't merely pay lip service to some vague idea of having a love of polyphonic music. 

So life happens and sometimes you don't write as much as you hope to.  This year has not felt like a very productive year for me as a blogger but feelings can mislead.  There's, what, 408 posts or so this year?  My idea of a relatively unproductive year is still a lot of posts.  If I were to factor in completing three solo guitar sonatas and four dozen etudes on the compositional side that might go some way to explaining why there hasn't been more writing here. 

And I've managed to complete reading ... like four books by Adorno in the last year or two.  That's not exactly a small feat.  Adorno's prose is not the most inviting. :) 

Not everything I've been incubating may necessarily appear here.  But, anyway, just noting that several projects I wanted to tackle this year were obviously too big to be realistically completed this year.  But writing more about the Koshkin cycle is still on the agenda, as is writing about German Dhzaparidze's cycle of preludes and fugues.  If you've been a regular reader of this blog over the years you may have some idea what level of attention to detail I prefer to give topics when I finally get to them.  I hope when I finally write about all of this stuff it will be up to the standards I've managed to have so far.  A person can always do better but sometimes doing better means trying not to crank out things more quickly than is fit for a thoughtful piece of writing. 

sometimes I get reminders of why I am persuaded that Rachel Held Evans is a hack, a recent tweet on Jesus and the Syro-phoenician woman
It's fear of Jesus' humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man changing his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person. But that's a tricky one...

I would venture to say that an affirmation of hypostatic union might be one reason a traditionalist would not rush to assume Jesus had to change his mind about a racial bias regardless of specific political or social commitments, but if Rachel Held Evans is committed to full on Nestorianism just to make a political point about Jesus then that's what she's aiming for.

But within the progressive branches of Christianity there's still a fairly compelling reason Rachel Held Evans' tweet was a stupid gambit.  One of the conventional battle lines on the atonement between conservatives and progressives has been a preference on the part of American conservatives for a penal substitution atonement paradigm while among progressives perhaps a ransom model is preferred or, perhaps even more often, a christus exemplar paradigm in which Christ came to be our moral example.  Now maybe, just maybe, Rachel Held Evans was trying to run with an idea that Jesus in human terms had to somehow change his mind about his racial bias ... but then she more recently indicated she did not think Jesus in any way sinned or was a racist.  

So, okay, Jesus had to retain the christus exemplar function that would seem to make sense within Evans' general approach, which, if she took that point seriously to begin with, would have precluded her ever trying to make the tweeted point to begin with.  After all, if Christ came to live as our example to be inspired by and follow and he was also not a racist or possessed of a racial bias then Evans' point has become pointless prior to having ever gotten tweeted.  Or as Michael F. Bird put it, if Evans' goal was to have some potentially witty commentary on how Trump voters should be less racist because Jesus, there were plenty of exegetical grounds from which to have gotten to that point without sloppily imputing a racial bias to Jesus along the way.  

You could be as progressive in your politics or economics as you want to be and still stick to affirmations of hypostatic union and christus exemplar.  But perhaps in much the same way that certain types of American complementarians want to reverse engineer subordination within the persons of the Trinity to get what they want for gender roles in contemporary America, there are some more egalitarian sorts who need a quasi-racist Jesus to learn from the example of a Gentile woman so as to explain how and why Jesus had to learn from something the evangelists every so often described as the God who created all things or how apart from him nothing was made that is.  

Had Evans given even a single second's thought to any of the above points that original tweet would never have been written and published.  

I've written in the past about how I find it impossible to take Evans seriously.  Someone who insists on telling people that someone like Mark Driscoll is a bully and that people should stand up to him when it's the season to promote new books and then has basically nothing to say of relevance during a period in which someone like Mark Driscoll is embroiled in controversies about allegations of plagiarism, rigging the New York Times bestseller list to secure a #1 spot for a book of his that ends up embroiled in the plagiarism controversy and afterward muses on lessons to be learned ... I don't regard someone like that as someone to take seriously.  I admit I have a set of convictions and biases on this matter, since I did spend at least half a decade, more or less, chronicling what I regarded as problematic ideas, teachings and behaviors and along the way chronicled what I regarded as a failure to properly cite and credit obvious influences on the Driscoll's thought in one of their books.  But then I live in Seattle and, so to speak, had skin the game.  I was writing to try to catalyze reform in a church I at one point attended.  That is, I'm willing to say, more "standing up to him" than anything Evans did when it was time to promote one of her books that was, if memory serves, published under the umbrella of the same company that published Mark Driscoll's book around the same ... season.

Which is a gentle way of saying I'm going to write more bluntly, that these are the sorts of celebrity hacks who need each other for brand definition.  We would be better off with fewer writers like these.  I can't even really bring myself, at this point, to regard either of them by a colloquialism that reads as "thinkers".  It's not that I can't think of progressive and conservative Christian writers I've read in my lifetime that I can take seriously, it's that (as I've said before) the likes of Rachel Held Evans and Mark Driscoll are the sorts of brands that we could do without.  They seem to show by their tweeting that ... well ... anyway ... there's such a thing as considered restraint.  :)  

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

reading a piece at The New Yorker about Nirvana has reminded me I never enjoyed the band and that it's possible to write a whole article about a band without managing to convey what they sounded like without resorting to non-musical indicators (long digression about Stevie Wonder)

 One of those bands was from Aberdeen, Washington, just outside Seattle, and called itself Nirvana: a sunny, hippie-ish reference to a stage of Buddhist enlightenment. Despite its joke of a name, the group played music that was heavy and deafening—because if failure seemed a foregone conclusion, why not at least have fun?
Nirvana’s sense of playful irony, which you could hear in its music, set the band apart from many of its doom-and-gloom peers in what would become known as the Seattle scene. In 1989, Nirvana signed to Seattle’s Sub Pop Records and released its first studio album, “Bleach.”


This is a rather vivid reminder of how people who write for The New Yorker can completely fail to demonstrate a grasp of Pacific Northwest geography.  It's not as though Aberdeen is really "just outside Seattle" to anyone who has ever taken the hours-long ride it takes to get to there.  If Aberdeen is "just outside of Seattle" so is British Columbia!

But then this is a magazine that published ...

so maybe it's a stretch to expect anyone writing for The New Yorker to have a firm grasp of the Pacific Northwest as a region ...  
Mainstream rock seemed to fit within a limited gradient of American machismo, from fun-loving buffoonery to the serious and virtuosic. This isn’t to say that there were no other options: college radio had fuelled the rise of U2, Depeche Mode, and R.E.M., and punk had seeded small, intrepid, alternative scenes in places like Boston, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and Athens, Georgia. But from my perch in suburban California those other options were still a challenge to find. And it seemed self-evident that musicians who rejected mainstream professionalism would remain on the fringes.

I became invested in the band’s identity as underdogs. As Nirvana became more popular, I remember how strange it was to hear it on drive-time radio, or see the band on MTV during the daytime. I even heard it on the local hip-hop station. Unlike the bands topping the mainstream rock charts, an assembly line of men with enormous, wavy hair and tight leather pants, Nirvana seemed young and spontaneous. Its members looked different from those other rock stars, too. It was much easier to dress like them.
It was exciting to see something so unexpected take off like that. For my friends and me, Nirvana’s unglamorous, D.I.Y. style was a welcome reaction against the groupie-chasing, hard-partying posing that had dominated MTV for so long. Nirvana was like an intruder in the temple, making those bands seem barbaric, and instantly irrelevant. But Nirvana was also tapping into something bigger: an emergent, far-flung world of youth culture that was proudly, at times self-consciously, “alternative.” A new spectrum of identities and creative forms seemed to infiltrate the mainstream, and the possibilities felt thrilling

It may be a testament to the challenge of finding ways to write about music but if you don't scroll over or click on the numerous samples of audio that let you actually hear what Nirvana sounded like would the writing tell you what they sounded like?  Could it?  Or does the writing convey the author's sense of how Nirvana as a group of men did or did not fit into a coded set of expectations of nominally mainstream ideas of masculinity as mediated by rock and roll bands that were popular within the decade before Nirvana became popular?  A lot of writing that is ostensibly about music isn't about the music as organized sound at all; it's more often about the codes and ... I guess I might have to use the term semiotics here ... associated with non-musical indicators regarding language, caste, gender, sex, ethnicity, race, nation-state, region, religion, and other broadly political and social and class indicators with which music is so often associated.  

I never actually enjoyed the band Nirvana.  The only song I ever heard them perform that I thought was actually a solid song turns out to have been a David Bowie cover (I was too busy listening to Pinkfloyd, Bob Dylan and Blind Willie Johnson, U2, and The Who ... and was just starting to get into Duke Ellington and wasn't listening to Bowie at the time).  

I wrote a few thousand words about Beethoven's last piano sonata not too long ago and I more or less took as given that people who read that essay could understand the basic musical terminology I was using, although I didn't think I got too much into jargon.  But I didn't really get into very ... poetic or imagistic language of the sort that is peppered throughout the Nirvana feature.  

Almost two years ago I wrote a few thousand words about just a few seconds of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" and why I regard it as the work of a musical genius.

It's unapologetically technical as essays about music go.  What sticks with me about the verses is that the opening verse has Wonder singing a melody that starts on the sixth scale degree that leaps up to the tonic scale degree and oscillates between the two pitches.  That seems simultaneously esoteric and pointless to mention as a detail but remember, if you read the essay I just linked to, that Wonder vamps between F sharp major and formations of chords that let him shift to a chord where the uppermost note in the accompaniment is a minor third in relationship to the tonic.  What this means is that at both a harmonic and a melodic level Wonder is establishing a stable implicit tonic that is decorated at melodic and harmonic levels by chains of minor thirds.  That's important to keep in mind when the bridge (or, depending on how you interpret it, the chorus or post-chorus) that made the song so legendary kicks in.  

There's nothing about the passage that "breaks all the rules" because at a melodic and harmonic level Wonder has been foreshadowing that magnificent chain of minor third root shifts through the entire song up to that point.  It doesn't really break any rules of voice-leading because the voice-leading, as I hear it, is immaculate!  It doesn't break any rules about harmonic movement because the voicings are tight and the root movements are clear.  The chains of third relationship chord shifts float above a descending octatonic bass line in a way that sounds lik good voice-leading to me.  

If you know from, say, reading about symbolic associations of the octatonic scale in Russian music and in some other contexts you can read of how the scale was often used by composers to indicate that eruption of the supernatural or spiritual forces into an otherwise conventional natural/human world.  The shift from an implicit steady tonic with mediant decorations through to a IV-V "living just enough ... just enough ... for the city" chorus/pre-chorus takes us to a logical harmonic/melodic resolution within conventional major key tonality using circle progressions.  But that bridge/post-chorus shifts us into chains of chromatic mediant shifts, the realm of thirds.  

In other words, there's a range of symbolic meanings associated with the scale in Western and Eastern European musical traditions in which we've broken beyond the mundane world into a realm of supernatural, miraculous possibilities; and as music writers have said of 19th century music, modulations by mediant or submediant key relationships (i.e. thirds rather than fifths for root movement or key shifts) can be said to speak of an "interior" or introspective/spiritual view.  In other words, what has sometimes been written as a an indication of a spiritual or emotional depth in Schubert shows up in Stevie Wonder's song, too.  It may be that Schubert fans don't regard Stevie Wonder as being as brilliant a songwriter or composer as Schubert was ... and that's their problem.

The way so many journalists write about music, though, they make it seem like Stevie Wonder was completely wrong to write the lyrics "music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand."  If it were ... wouldn't we expect to see more music journalists actually discuss the music as music and less through the various extra-musical cultural signifiers so often used as the equivalent of having actually written about the music?