Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Something’s Happening Here (and You Don’t Know What It Is)

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2015

Sooner or later, if you’re a musician and if you live long enough, you’ll start to notice that the music the kids are playing is confusing, ugly, and stupid. This happened, I’m sure, to musicians who had been active in 1895, when the big-band swing of 1935 was blazing. It definitely happened to jazz players who had honed their chops in the 1930s, when the Beatles and the Stones turned pop music around in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today it’s happening to me. Looking to hear some fresh sounds, I clicked over to the FL Studio website and had a listen to some of the mixes being produced today by musicians who are 40 years younger than me. I heard a relentless reliance on 4/4 time and drum tracks that bludgeon the listener. I heard music that has no melody, a monotonous bass line, and exactly two chords played over and over.

Okay, two-chord pop music is nothing new. Lou Reed was doing it in the ’70s, and so were a lot of other people. I didn’t like Lou Reed much at the time, and for that precise reason. But I trust my point is clear. I’m no longer in sync with the music of the young.

Me, I like chord progressions. I like odd time signatures. I like melodies and bass lines that move around. I’m classically trained, but that’s not a bad thing in itself. The trouble is, I’ve become an old fogey. Still wallowing contentedly in the hallowed styles of yesteryear.

The other day I launched Reason, came up with a bit that I liked, added a bass line and some drums, added a high pad sound … and suddenly I had an eight-bar synth pop riff straight out of 1983. As embarrassing as that is, I like the riff. It speaks to me in a way that these intense young people’s music doesn’t. Hell, when they rap I can’t even tell what they’re saying. Of course, it wasn’t always clear what Mick Jagger was saying either, and back before Mick there was “Louie, Louie,” a hit song in which, according to the prevailing legend, even the lead vocalist didn’t know what he was saying.

I do like the weird accent patterns of a good rap, though. I just wish they’d write a song that had some damn chords in it.

Where’s my rocking chair? Where did I put my bifocals? Did I take my pills yet today? Phooey.

Posted in music | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

More About Learning More

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2015

I dropped out of college in the Sixties. Long story, and not likely to interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to college to finally get a degree or two. Trying to find an option that actually makes sense turns out to be a bit of a treasure hunt.

Because I’m a musician, it’s natural to think majoring in music would be the right move. Specifically, as I’m an expert in synthesizers and music software, maybe a music degree with a specialization in electronic music.

I found a school back east that has a terrific program in that area — Bard College. I know I’d love being a student at Bard, but there are several not-so-delightful factors to weigh. First, it’s fearfully expensive. We’re talking $50,000 per year, and I’m still a lowly sophomore. That works out to about $6,000 per undergraduate class per semester. Ouch! Then there are the East Coast winters. I’m an old guy, and it’s not clear how well I would handle blizzards. On top of which, it’s a one-way ticket. If I sell my house in California, move back to upstate New York, and buy a house there, I’ll get enough cash out of the deal to pay the tuition — but I’ll be priced out of the California real estate market, so if the winters prove too severe for me, I’m stuck.

How about a music degree from a school near where I live? Well, there’s UC Berkeley. I’m pretty sure they would have to readmit me, because I left in good standing in 1968. But they have no undergraduate electronic music specialization — their music department is entirely performance-oriented. So I’d have to play cello in their orchestra. The orchestra rehearses two nights every week, for 2-1/2 hours a night, and get this — it’s a one-unit class. Five hours of rehearsal, plus all of the hours of practice needed to learn the parts, and you get one lousy unit of credit. Factor in the grotesque process of commuting from Livermore to Berkeley — can’t take BART, because it’s too long a walk uphill from the Berkeley BART station to the music building if you’re over 65 and carrying a cello. So I’d have to drive and deal with the inadequate parking facilities. Not a swell idea.

San Jose State has a nice electronic music curriculum, but here we hit another snag. I was a full-time student at Cal State East Bay for one quarter in 2004, but I’m still a sophomore, and SJ State is not currently accepting lower-division transfer students from the other state universities. I’d have to go back to CSEB for a semester or two and then apply for a transfer. The commute to CSEB is merely bad, not horrendous, and they have capacious parking lots! But no electronic music, of course. Parking at SJSU sucks, and it’s at least as long a commute as Berkeley — a full hour each way on the freeway, basically. For years. Makes me want to drop out, just thinking about it.

How about an online degree program, then? Getting an undergraduate music degree online is all but impossible, because of the performance requirements — a senior recital and all that. I did find one school, Valley City State in North Dakota, that offers an accredited online-only music degree. You take lessons and play in an ensemble in your local area and document it for their faculty to evaluate. But, whoops! They have no string faculty, so you can’t do their online degree if your major instrument is cello.

So maybe a degree in music is a bad idea. Maybe I should major in English, with an emphasis in writing fiction. No performance requirements to sweat over, no lugging a cello around on campus, this could work. Or how about an online degree in English? Could be a winner!

Judging by their own website, Southern New Hampshire University looks good. It’s accredited, affordable, and has an online-only fiction writing degree. But after a quick trip to Yelp, I had to cross SNHU off my list. Although it’s a non-profit, not a for-profit diploma mill like some other online schools, it appears their sales force is very aggressive, their teachers underpaid and forced to adhere to a cookie-cutter curriculum, and their responsiveness to administrative foul-ups deplorable. Some people seem to like SNHU, but it got a lot of one-star reviews.

Right now I’m thinking, maybe an English degree from UC. I could take BART to campus, the cost would be manageable, and I wouldn’t have to sell my house and move to a new town where I know nobody in order to enroll. The English Department seems to have a creative writing specialization, but the course offerings in fiction writing may be a bit skimpy. A cursory reading of the degree requirements suggests that I might have to take a couple of courses in either poetry (ugh) or script-writing (yawn).

Maybe I could troll the poetry-writing class by turning in some of my refrigerator magnet poems. Here’s my latest:

She will shake two easy dreams

and smile at every velvet hand.

In the rain you must trust a window,

but do not lust after the ferocious breeze;

the weak black picture is essential.

She will stop the clouds of time

and voice the power of true honey

as we blaze together,

lick the rhythms of yesterday,

and whisper about our feet.

Do you think they’d believe me if I told them that’s a love poem?

Posted in fiction, society & culture | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

When Bad Things Happen to Good Novels

Posted by midiguru on September 18, 2015

I’ve written two (unpublished) historical novels, one set in Chicago in 1885 and the other in Italy in the early days of the Roman Empire (in 59 A.D.). I love doing historical research … and I also love getting the details right. You can never get everything right, because historians don’t tend to serve up the kind of detail that a fiction writer needs. But at least the writer can strive not to get anything wrong.

Recently I sat down to do a little tidying up on my Rome novel, with the idea of probably self-publishing it and selling six or eight copies. It’s a murder mystery (as is the Chicago book), so naturally I need to know a lot about how the Roman legal system worked. I tracked down an expert in Roman law at the University of Michigan, and he suggested I read The Criminal Law in Ancient Rome by O. F. Robinson. I promptly bought a copy and started underlining salient passages.

My story has a love sub-plot. The widow of the murdered man is in the process of falling in love with a handsome young slave in her father’s household, and of course he ultimately solves the crime, thereby freeing her from the false accusation, so now nature can take its course.

The details of how they become romantically involved are a bit convoluted. The budding of the romance rests, oddly enough, on the nature of her murdered husband’s will, because the disposition of the estate depends on whether his widow is pregnant. She isn’t, but she decides to pretend to be, so now she needs a surreptitious surrogate father.

And this is where the fecal substance encounters the rotating air circulation device. Here is the key passage from Chapter 4 of Robinson’s book: “…all the slaves in the house at the time of the suspicious death were to be tortured in order to find out the murderer, to discover if anyone had incited him, and to make it possible to punish for their failure in their duty all those slaves who had not prevented the murder — for which they were all liable to be put to death…. Until this [the torturing] had been done the dead man’s will was not to be opened…. While the torture was technically interrogation, not punishment, the two concepts were not always clearly distinguished; the whole purpose of the law was to compel slaves to guard their owners both from members of the household and [from] outsiders at the risk of their own lives….” An addition to the law (probably enacted at about the time of my story) “extended the rule so that all the slaves of the surviving spouse would also be tortured.”

Oh, dear. My love sub-plot can’t get under way until after a dozen or so household slaves have been tortured. But I don’t want to write a description of slaves being whipped or subjected to thumbscrews or whatever the Romans liked to do. And I’m pretty sure my six or eight readers would find that chapter and its aftermath unpleasant, if not worse.

I knew that the slaves would be tortured if they were suspected of the murder, but this passage suggests that the torture  could and probably did happen even if they weren’t directly suspected — and in my story, one of them is suspected, because it’s a murder mystery, so I need suspects! But worse, the whole love sub-plot just got breached below the water line and sank to the bottom of the harbor. It can’t get under way until after the torture, because the torture has to happen before the victim’s will is unsealed and read.

I love historical research. I hate historical research.

This is the advantage of writing fantasy novels set on other worlds. Nobody can fact-check you. You can shape the story rather more easily, because you’re not constrained by reality.

Now if only the agent who has my fantasy novel sitting on her desk would get back to me….

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »


Posted by midiguru on August 20, 2015

I love reading mysteries. Lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie jag — bought many of the titles that were not already in my collection.

Her approach to plot is somewhat formulaic, though there are often surprising twists. (That’s part of the formula.) The murderer is usually the person you least suspect. Even if you try to guess based on knowing that’s what she’s going to do, you’ll still guess wrong.

The difficulty with this kind of writing is that in real life, most murders are not very interesting. In order to keep the reader guessing and the police baffled, the author generally has to come up with a truly far-fetched scenario. Sometimes the scenario, when the details are eventually revealed in the last five pages, makes sense. Often, however, it doesn’t withstand even casual scrutiny.

Crooked House is one of Christie’s best. The murderer is, as usual, the person you least suspect, but at least the murderer’s psychology and methods make sense.

On the other side of the coin, we have What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. If you plan to read it, you should proceed no further. Spoilers follow.

Still here? Okay. Leaving aside, for the moment, the business of what Mrs. McGillicuddy saw — it was entirely coincidence, and not part of the murderer’s plans — here’s what the murderer thinks and does. He is estranged from his wife, who is Catholic and won’t divorce him. He wants to marry another woman, who is destined to inherit, sooner or later, a pile of money. In order to avoid bigamy, he decides to murder his wife. This is morally repugnant, but it’s an entirely sensible basis for a mystery plot.

There are any number of ways in which he could accomplish his nefarious ends. He could stab her and bury her in the basement. He could invite her for a weekend at the seaside and push her over a cliff. He could send her a box of poisoned chocolates. But no. He invites her on a short train trip (outward from London) in the direction of his home. He then strangles her on the train and tosses the body out of the railroad car. They’re traveling in a first-class no-corridor coach, so there’s no one to see what he has done.

Mrs. McGillicuddy, however, happens to be looking out the window of a train traveling on a parallel track at nearly the same speed, and she sees the murder committed. She duly reports the crime to the police … but no body is found. Her tale is dismissed by everyone except her friend Jane Marple.

But enough of that. We were talking about the murderer. He has cleverly tossed his wife’s body from the train at a point where it will roll down an embankment onto the country estate where his lady friend lives. He then calmly disembarks at the station and travels back (it is now late at night) to the country estate to dispose of the body. How does he do this? He can’t very well bury it, as there’s a gardener, who would certainly notice a fresh excavation. Ah, but there are quite a lot of ancient, run-down outbuildings on the estate, some of them filled with odd bits of junk. In one barn is a Roman sarcophagus that one of the ancestors brought home from Europe. So the murderer drags or carries the body of his deceased wife into the barn, deposits it in the sarcophagus, puts the heavy lid back on the sarcophagus, and goes home. Mission accomplished.

Of course, Miss Marple’s clever young assistant will eventually find the body. But the murderer has no expectation that that will happen at all — nor, if it is found, how soon that will happen. What if it’s found within days, and can be identified by circulating a photograph, or through fingerprints? (The story takes place in 1957. No DNA.) In that case, the murderer will have some explainin’ to do. Like, how did your wife’s body end up on your lady friend’s property? That’s not the kind of question for which a murderer is likely to have a pat answer.

In fact, his lady friend doesn’t know he has ever been married. If the body is discovered and identified, his romantic plans will go up the spout even if the police can’t prove he murdered her. Yes, this qualifies as poor planning. Nothing in the book suggests that he is impulsive or overly optimistic. He’s a country doctor, not a used car salesman.

Presumably, he intends the sarcophagus to be a permanent, undiscovered resting place for the corpse, though it’s not a very reliable one. He does, however, take precautionary steps. He concocts a fake trail of evidence suggesting that the murdered woman (whose corpse has not yet, at this point, been found, and as far as he knows may never be found) was somebody else entirely. This red herring, which of course fools the reader and also Miss Marple for many pages, directs suspicion at members of the family that owns the country estate. One of whom is his lady friend. But suspicion of what? As far as he knows, nobody even suspects that there has been a murder.

Already his actions are seeming very counter-productive. Rather than dispose of his wife in a sensible way, he has gone far out of his way to involve his lady friend … because, of course, if he didn’t do that, Mrs. Christie wouldn’t have a story to tell. But wait — it’s about to get worse. Much worse.

The provisions of the will and trust under which his lady friend will inherit are, as often happens in Christie’s novels, convoluted. Father (who is elderly and cantankerous) has the estate only in trust, from his father. When he dies, the estate will be divided among his six children, two of whom died years ago. One of the surviving children being, of course, the murderer’s lady friend. But the murderer is not content to expect that his wife-to-be will inherit one fourth of this handsome estate. He wants more. (Why does he want more? Don’t ask.) So he sets out to murder her brothers. The idea is, he has to murder the brothers first, because if they’re still alive when the father dies, the estate will be divided amongst them.

So what does he do? He puts arsenic in the cocktail shaker, of course — at a family dinner party where he is conveniently not present, a detail that I don’t think Christie ever clears up. Everybody gets sick, but only one of the brothers dies. Naturally, suspicion is thrown on the other members of the family. That’s Christie’s plot. But look at it from the murderer’s point of view: One of the people who will drink the poisoned cocktails is his lady friend! If she dies of the arsenic, his whole plan goes belly-up. And if the father is the one who dies, the murderer’s hope of increasing the size of his lady friend’s inheritance will go belly-up. He will have undermined his own grandiose hopes.

This is the fatal flaw in murder mystery plotting. In order to make a good mystery, you need the murderer to act like a total yutz.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Symphony Jam

Posted by midiguru on August 17, 2015

Last week I had a longish conversation with the fellow who will be the new principal cellist this fall for the Livermore Symphony. He’s a much better cellist than I am — to the point where he’s lowering himself a bit to play with the group at all. I’m very happy that he wants to join the group, and I want to support him in whatever way I can. I feel a bit passionate about local community music-making.

During my tenure as principal cellist, I was in the habit of actively providing support for the cello section in the form of weekly emails, suggested fingerings, and even informal sectional rehearsals held in my home. I had, accordingly, sent the new guy an email with a number of questions and suggestions. During our conversation, however, he made it pretty clear (in a friendly way) that he intends to run things his own way. He has specific ideas about how things are to be done in an orchestra — and of course that’s his prerogative as the new section leader. As a result, there’s really nothing for me to do beyond practicing the parts, showing up at rehearsal, and what I call playing the dots. Or dots and squiggles, I suppose, though you’re not supposed to play during the squiggles.

In the course of the conversation, he said, “An orchestra is not a democracy.” His point was, he will be making the decisions for the cello section, in consultation with the concertmaster and, when necessary, the conductor. But as I’ve mulled over the new situation, a subversive thought crept into my mind: Why isn’t an orchestra a democracy? What would it look like if it were a democracy?

It seems to me that many of the ills from which, as an institution, symphonic music suffers may be owing to the fact that an orchestra isn’t a democracy.

The first and most glaring of the ills is that symphonic music is in no sense a creative activity. At best, as an orchestral musician you’re a foot soldier, marching in formation and following orders. At worst you’re a zombie, lurching through hostile terrain and hoping your fingers don’t fall off.

The conductor has some limited creative autonomy, in that she can choose and then tell us how to interpret the music, but the rest of the musicians do nothing but show up and play the dots and squiggles. We have no scope for creative involvement — none. Or, to be absolutely honest, vanishingly close to none; I did in fact attend meetings last winter of the repertoire committee, a volunteer group that any of the musicians can show up for if they want to. At these meetings, the conductor presents a list of possible pieces, and we comment on the list and kick around other ideas while the conductor takes notes. Ultimately, though, she puts together the programs for the season from her short list.

I did object to one piece on her list — Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” better known to fans of Fifties novelty pop as “Hello Mudda, hello Fadda, here I am at Camp Granada.” There was general agreement that that was not a great piece, so the conductor crossed it off the list. That was democracy, of a sort. But other than that, I had no perceptible influence. I kept saying, “Beethoven Sixth, Beethoven Sixth! Or how about Mozart 35?” I might as well have wandered over to the snacks table and munched on Audrey’s very nice brownies. I would have accomplished just as much.

What would a creative, democratic symphony orchestra look like? Well, most of the players don’t improvise, but a few of us do. Shouldn’t musicians who improvise have an opportunity to play a solo here or there during a concert? Or to add improvised ornaments to a written part, if we feel moved to do so?

And what about the repertoire list for the season? Shouldn’t we all get to vote on what we want to play?

What if we don’t want to wear Concert Black attire in the future? I certainly don’t. Wearing black is a holdover from the 19th century. It stinks of aristocracy, and it has no place in a 21st century concert. Shouldn’t the choice of attire be the musicians’ decision?

There may be two or three musicians in the orchestra who have written, or could write, original orchestral scores. Assuming the composer has the ability to produce a playable score and print out parts, shouldn’t the orchestra have the opportunity to play through a colleague’s piece a couple of times and then vote on whether they like it enough to include it in a program? If there aren’t any composers in the orchestra, or even if there are, shouldn’t composers in nearby cities have the same opportunity?

Why is it that after we perform a piece once, it can’t be scheduled again for five or six years? Who makes these decisions? If the orchestra loves a piece, shouldn’t we be able to vote to play it again next year? Bands playing in clubs always repeat their repertoire — they play pretty much the same set at every gig. Why should an orchestra’s programs always have to be changing?

What if a piece is too hard? Shouldn’t the musicians be able to vote to drop it and substitute something else? Or — here’s a radical thought — how about simplifying a daunting piece so as to make it playable by amateurs? Why do we have to play (or attempt to play) every note exactly as written? If it sounds like crap (as the terrifying passages sometimes do), what’s the point of tormenting ourselves trying to fight our way through it? Or what if we do want to play a very tough piece, but need extra rehearsals in order to bring it off? Why is there no discussion of that possibility?

In the past, I’ve agitated for an extra rehearsal, to no effect. I’ve also made specific suggestions to the cello section about how to simplify an impossible part. But no more. At this point, it’s up to the new principal to try to coax an excellent sound out of a group of unpaid amateurs.

The word “unpaid” is significant. If the musicians were being paid, even at a modest (non-union) level, it would be natural that the people writing the checks would make the decisions. But no, this is an all-volunteer group. The folks in the audience shell out money for tickets, but except for the conductor and the concertmaster, the people onstage are working for free.

Some of my ideas about a democratic orchestra might need to be tinkered with in order to be workable. I’m wingin’ it here. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: None of them will ever see the light of day, not in the Livermore Symphony and not in any other orchestra either. Democratic processes are incompatible with the very nature of the symphony orchestra. The symphony is a hierarchical institution that was born in the 18th century, when the king was an absolute monarch appointed by God, and came to fruition in the 19th century during the industrial revolution, when the assembly line was God.

Today, we play the music of dead white guys, most of them European, while wearing clothing that would have been appropriate evening attire for upper-class gentlemen in the 1890s. (As a side note, there were no women in orchestras in the 1890s, except for possibly the harpist. The women in the audience would have been dressed far more elegantly than the women in today’s orchestras, who have more choices than the men — skirt or trousers, long sleeves or short? — but are expected to wear black.)

If you have other ideas about concert attire or anything else, nobody cares. Sit down and be quiet. Play the dots.

Posted in cello, music | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Little Boxes

Posted by midiguru on August 15, 2015

Q: Why aren’t kids taught how to make their own music?

A: Because adults don’t know how to teach them. Most adults don’t make their own music, and they don’t think making your own music is important. Of the few who do think it’s important (or fun), most are sure it’s much too complicated a skill for kids.

I’m a great fan of music software. You don’t need an orchestra to produce magnificent sonorities, dazzling melodies, sophisticated harmonies, and propulsive rhythms. But you have to learn to use software, and that can be quite a challenge in itself. You also have to learn a certain amount of music theory before what the software is doing will make a lick of sense.

Kids can make their own music perfectly well with song flutes and xylophones. No training is required. Oh, and they can sing!

I’m sure rhythm sticks are still used in a few kindergarten classes. I’m sure kindergarten teachers are still teaching kids songs by singing a line and then having the kids sing it back to them. That’s how music-making began, and it’s how our ancestors did it for untold thousands of years.

Once you graduate from kindergarten, though, music becomes a singularly joyless, highly regimented enterprise. To start with, you’re expected to learn to read and understand pages full of dots and squiggles. That’s a useful skill. You really do need to know about the dots and squiggles, in the same way that an aspiring storyteller needs to learn to read, so she can read stories told by others. But once you start learning the dots and squiggles, it is expected — nay, demanded — of you that you ONLY play the dots and squiggles.

At this point, you’re being trained to be not a musician but a corporate zombie.

I think I want to do something about this. Not sure what yet.

Posted in music, teaching | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Bubble Boy

Posted by midiguru on August 14, 2015

Lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m living in a bubble, or on a stage set — as if my life isn’t quite real. For a while I was thinking this is because I have no family. But while that may be a contributing cause, as an analysis of the situation I think it misses the mark.

I’m a musician. I enjoy playing music. Yet I feel almost entirely disconnected in an emotional sense from the music-making in my community. I don’t share the attitudes and expectations of either the audiences or the other musicians.

Our community orchestra has a new conductor. She’s working hard to build up the orchestra, and that’s a wonderful thing. In the past I’ve served as principal cellist in this orchestra, a post that gave me the opportunity to try to help the cello section sound better. My efforts may or may not have been effective, but at least I felt that I had some input in or involvement with the process. Playing orchestral music is not creative in any sense, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers activity, but I was able to go beyond that in certain (very limited) ways.

This year we have a new principal cellist. He’s certainly a better player than I am. (He’s also a friend of mine.) I’m very happy to have him take the post, because I want the orchestra to improve! But he has some very definite ideas about how he would like to interact with the cello section. As a result, I need to get out of the way. There is now little or no room for me to make a contribution to the orchestra (though there was little enough before). All I’ll be doing is showing up and wiggling my fingers so as to execute the dots on the page in whatever manner I’m directed to by the conductor and the section leader.

This is not music-making, not really. It’s a zombie activity.

A few years back, I was playing electric cello in a local band. We played original music and we improvised our solos. This was real music-making! We were playing occasional gigs — Saturday afternoon at a local winery, that type of thing. I suggested to the guys that we could work at really polishing the material and then stage our own concert.

They weren’t interested. Playing winery gigs was fine with them.

Eventually I quit the band. There were other issues — namely, drinking wine at band practice, which seemed flagrantly counter-productive to me. But here again, the underlying issue was the guys’ lack of interest in or commitment to excellence. What they were doing was good enough that they could enjoy doing it, and that was the extent of their ambition.

They’re still doing the same stuff today. Their regular gig is at a local wine bar. They’re a very decent band, and I think they may have accurately gauged their audience’s interest in music listening. Music is, for these audiences, a sort of mildly stimulating social backdrop. The wine audiences don’t really give a damn about music one way or the other, nor do they have the cognitive skills that they would need in order to interact with music in a more meaningful way.

What interests me about my own music-making is explorations of form, texture, melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Whether I’m good at it or whether I’m a dreadful hack is a different question, and not one that I’m qualified to answer. The point is, when I launch my music app (which happens to be Reason, usually) and start working on a new piece, that’s what I’m involved with. That’s what I care about. And I’m quite sure there are no local audiences who would be equipped to discuss or even perceive the processes I’m exploring. What I’m actually doing musically would be entirely opaque to them. If they were to encounter the music (perhaps on a Friday evening at a local coffee house), they would experience it as a mildly stimulating social backdrop — disposable, ignorable, perhaps momentarily enjoyable based on certain surface characteristics (a strong beat, big chords, whatever), but not something to be actively engaged with.

Some people are actively engaged when listening to classical music. Certainly my friend the new principal cellist is actively engaged — not in a creative way, but he does care about interpretation and is very knowledgeable about the repertoire. And he’s not the only fine classical musician in town.

That’s the picture, though: The folks who care about excellence are not doing original music, they’re just painting by numbers. And the folks who are doing original music don’t care about excellence, only about being good enough to play for (and be ignored by) people who are getting drunk.

This is the local and personal manifestation of a larger social process. In a consumer culture, music is a consumable. It’s something that you market, and its success in the market is presumed to dictate its worth. The idea that a musical ensemble would challenge an audience to engage in active, thoughtful listening is pretty much unmentionable.

Part of the blame for this may lie in the excesses of academic classical music during the 20th century. Challenging the audience (by writing 12-tone music or whatever) was pretty much the only thing composers aspired to do. Those who, like Aaron Copland, wrote more accessible music have withstood the test of time far better than have Schoenberg and Berg.

These days, highly abstract music still exists, in the form of experimental improvisation, but now there’s no underlying form or conceptualization that audiences could aspire to grapple with. Experimental improvisation operates pretty much the way pop music operates at a winery gig — you can have an immediate sensory response to it, or your mind may wander for a minute, but if your mind wanders that’s okay, because there’s nothing going on that you could engage with intellectually.

In this month’s Harper’s there’s an article about how colleges are ceasing (or have ceased) to teach the value of thinking. There’s more to the article (“The Neoliberal Arts”) than that. It’s worth reading. But as it relates to my experiences in community, music-making, it shines a spotlight on the fact that neither musicians nor audiences dare engage in the process of developing their own musical values through a careful process of introspection and dialog. People just accept whatever musical values are prevalent in their neighborhood. Nobody questions. If they strive at all, they strive within a narrowly conceived framework that has been set out for them.

We’ll be playing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in the December concert. Not a bad piece. The narrator will be a former mayor of the town. I have no idea whether he’ll be a fine narrator or a stumbling, stammering mistake. But I was at the meeting where the repertoire was being discussed and the topic of asking the mayor to narrate the piece was brought up. Nobody said, “Gee, maybe there’s a fine local actor who could bring the narration to life in a wonderful dramatic way, with gestures and vocal inflections.” Nobody said anything like that. Innovation and excellence were not on the agenda. Bringing in an audience by having the mayor, a (very minor) local celebrity, narrate — that was the whole point.


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Paint Me a Picture

Posted by midiguru on August 1, 2015

I have a number of friends who are amateur classical musicians. Some of them are quite accomplished — but it always astonishes me that they can’t improvise. I mean, how can you not improvise?

It doesn’t really astonish me, though. Improvising is a separate skill, and they never learned it. Nobody taught them how.

Music education, at least as it’s structured in American public schools, is quite different from art education. Remember “paint by numbers,” where you’re given a canvas or a sheet of paper with numbered areas and you’re supposed to fill in each area with the correspondingly numbered paint color? Even in primary school, your art teacher didn’t teach paint by numbers, did she? No, you were given a blank sheet of paper and some paints, or possibly crayons, and you were encouraged to paint a house, or a cat, or a rainbow, or whatever.

Music is taught almost entirely in the form of paint-by-numbers. Here are the dots. You learn what the dots mean, and how to produce on your instrument the sounds that correspond to the dots. If you do a tidy job of it, you’re a talented young musician!

In every art class in school, students produce original work. But with possibly a handful of exceptions here and there, no students are taught to produce original music until they get to college. This is a damn shame.

The first reason for the difference may be neurological. Any six-year-old can look at a picture of a cat and use his or her visual memory to compare the picture to the appearance of an actual cat. The proportions and the parts (ears, tail, paws, whiskers) are all a matter of immediate experience. Music, in contrast, is entirely abstract. There’s no way to tell whether your melody and harmony are well formed without going through a fairly laborious process of learning music theory.

The second reason is practical. Dots on a page make no sound. Unless the student happens to be a pianist, he or she has (historically, at least) no practical way to hear an original piece of music. And nobody else can hear it either. You don’t accomplish anything interesting by putting a bunch of dots on a piece of score paper. If we imagine a ten-year-old showing her mom a picture she drew of a cat, and then imagine her showing her mom a page full of notated music, the difference will be glaringly obvious.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Today it’s eminently practical for any student, from the age of eight or nine up, to create original music that other people can hear. All you need are a computer, a pair of decent speakers, a MIDI keyboard, and some suitable software.

“Mom, come hear the music I just did!” It’s a different picture now, isn’t it?

The reasons why this isn’t happening yet, except in a few isolated schools, are to do with administration. Some schools don’t have the budget for a computer music classroom. If they have the budget, their computer staff may be completely untrained in music software, and may have no idea how to install or maintain it. And of course most school music teachers would have no clue how to teach creative music-making. They grew up playing the dots, and that’s all they know how to teach.

Last year I volunteered to judge the music side of a student art contest. (By now I’ve forgotten who sponsored it.) What struck me as I listened to the entries was the amazing ineptitude of the student compositions. The kids were trying to compose original music, but quite obviously nobody was helping them learn to do it.

Maybe I ought to buy a dozen music computer installations and teach it myself. If I had a great big room to do it in, I’d be tempted. Trying to work within the bureaucracy of the local school district, though — even thinking about that makes me a little crazy. Anyway, they couldn’t hire me. I don’t have a teaching credential, or even a B.A. I’m a dropout. But damn, somebody ought to do something. I purely hate to see the next generation of kids suffering through paint-by-numbers and never knowing that they could actually make their own music.

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Shrill and Over the Hill

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2015

Okay, here’s a considered response to the Paglia interview in Salon.

I agree with her assessment of Bernie Sanders, which is tucked away at the end of the piece. Other than that, it’s pretty much a farrago of nonsense by an over-the-hill media figure who is trying to get back in the spotlight by stirring up some shit.

First paragraph: She goes out of her way to insult her fellow atheists, based not on any specific things they have said, but because she has a deep respect for “the great world religions.” Does that strike anyone as even slightly self-contradictory?

It’s certainly the case, as she then points out, that cultural values have changed over the past century. It’s true that “the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles … no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of Western civilization.” Apparently her objection to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is that they show insufficient respect for religion as a central part of “the heritage of Western civilization.” The difficulty with this line of attack is that their criticism of religion has nothing whatever to do with its importance as part of the heritage of Western civilization. Their criticism of religion is on other grounds entirely. They’re concerned with the negative impact that religion can and often does have on ordinary people’s lives. Culture doesn’t enter into it.

In essence, she’s criticizing them for failing to do what she would have done; yet she fails to address in any way what they are doing. The fact that they have spent years chronicling and railing against the dire abuses of religion is not even on her radar.

She waxes nostalgic about the Sixties, and indeed she’s right that there was a lot more attention being paid (at least in the media) to Eastern religions in the Sixties than there is today. Two observations need to be made about this. First, interest in Eastern religions is still very much with us today — it’s just that she isn’t aware of it, because it’s not in the media the way the Beatles were when they visited the Maharishi. Contrary to her assertion, sitars were not “everywhere in rock music.” There were a maybe three or four hit records that had sitar. Hinduism and Indian influences were a fad, that’s all. And second, who was it that derailed what she calls “this great period of religious syncretism” that was supposedly in the offing? It was the conservatives. She would rather blame pop culture, of course. And hip-hop is not blameless. But who controls pop culture, after all? Multinational corporations, which are the bastion of conservatism.

“There are no truly major stars left,” she complains. Could this possibly be the nostalgic lament of a woman who is getting old, who doesn’t understand what young people are up to these days? Is it possible that pop culture has moved past the need for major stars, or that young people are savvy enough not to trust major stars? Hmm.

She doesn’t like snark. Okay, it’s part of pop culture, and she feels alienated by pop culture, but let’s give her that. She then dismisses God Is Not Great as snark. “He appears to have done very little scholarly study,” she cries. And that’s true enough — but it’s entirely beside the point. Hitchens did not set out to do a scholarly study. His book is frankly a polemic. It was written for the purpose of stating his opinions in a way that would force people to consider them. But Paglia has no interest in actually entering into a dialog with Hitchens’s opinions. She only wants to complain because he didn’t write the scholarly book she would have written.

Paglia claims to be a scholar of pre-Christian religions. Let’s accept that description at face value, though not without noting that her best known book was published 25 years ago, and was as much a polemic as a work of scholarship. It should also be noted that some of the quotes on goodreads.com that are attributed to Paglia seem less scholarly than polemical in the manner of Christopher Hitchens. “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.” One might be forgiven for wondering whether she actually interviewed any prostitutes before writing this. And this: “Gay men are guardians of the masculine impulse. To have anonymous sex in a dark alleyway is to pay homage to the dream of male freedom. The unknown stranger is a wandering pagan god. The altar, as in pre-history, is anywhere you kneel.” This is a shocking stereotype — not at all the sort of thing one would associate with a scholar.

In congratulating herself on her scholarly tendency to do “the necessary research into religion,” she says this: “In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age.  In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view.” This is a bit odd on two levels. First, it’s not possible to study culture as it existed at the close of the Ice Age. There are no written records of the culture. All we can study are the artifacts that were accidentally left behind. We can make guesses about the culture based on the artifacts, but any reputable scholar will tell you how error-prone such a procedure is. How reliably could an archeologist reconstruct the culture of the Sixties (of which Paglia has such fond memories) based on a hash pipe, a bowling trophy, the chassis of a Dodge Dart, and the rabbit ears from a TV? Second, it’s very much open to question whether modern Native American women really know what their own cultural traditions were in the pre-Columbian period, much less ten thousand years ago. Are “a few letters” from unnamed sources whose views may have been contaminated by Anglo writers in the Sixties a reliable indicator that Paglia’s scholarship is solid?

She then turns to Jon Stewart. Okay, she doesn’t like his snarky style of comedy. She thinks he compares unfavorably with Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Joan Rivers. We might be forgiven for asking whether Paglia’s scholarly research into pre-Columbian Native American culture has made her an expert on modern comedy … but let’s not go there. Let’s look instead at this. Jon Stewart, she says, “has debased political discourse…. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.”

Let’s deconstruct that startling assertion a bit. What she’s saying is that if Stewart weren’t criticizing Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, and other conservatives (or were criticizing them more in the manner that Mort Sahl would have done) there would be less polarization in our political discourse. It’s not what they’re actually doing that matters, ordering up trillion-dollar wars and all. It’s Jon Stewart’s tone that is to blame. Or possibly the fact that he has the temerity to bring these issues to our attention at all.

She tells us explicitly that she doesn’t “demonize Fox News.” No matter how consistently they lie, no matter how vociferously they skew the political discourse, they’re not demons in her book. No, it’s Jon Stewart who is to be blamed.

And then this: “Historically, talk radio arose via Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s precisely because of this stranglehold by liberal [media] discourse.” Liberals had a stranglehold on the media until Limbaugh came along? Really? That must have been why Ronald Reagan’s candidacy was so decisively trounced in 1980 and again in 1984.

The essence of her rant, and the main reason a few folks have been commenting on it on Facebook, is this passage: “Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It’s so simplistic!”

Let’s dissect this a little. First we have to ask, what liberals is she talking about? All liberals, or only some of them? Implicitly, she’s talking about all liberals, since she doesn’t bother to qualify her accusation. This is hardly a scholarly analysis, is it? Second, it can hardly be said that Occupy protesters or Black Lives Matter protesters are “barricaded in their comfortable little cells.” She’s not talking about political activist liberals at all — she’s talking about the supposedly liberal professors at universities whom she has encountered. Earlier in the interview, she put it this way: “[I]n the 1990s, I was saying that the academic leftists were such frauds — sitting around applying Foucault to texts and thinking that was leftism! No it wasn’t! It was a snippy, prim, smug bourgeois armchair leftism.” There may be a lot of truth in that; I wasn’t there at the time. But that’s her experience of liberals, in a nutshell, and that seems to be all she knows about liberals.

Given the diversity of opinion in liberal circles, it’s a bit hard to take seriously the idea that she’s talking about “comfortable little cells” in a doctrinal sense. I have liberal friends who love Occupy Democrats. I have liberal friends who despise Occupy Democrats. What “knee-jerk ideology” is she referring to, exactly? We’re not given a clue. She’s not discussing ideas at all; she’s just slinging insults. She has no interest in specifics, or in reasoned discourse. She’s a troll.

She brings up the recent Planned Parenthood video, and slams “liberal thought in the media” for not giving it a big play in the news. She calls this “censorship.” And she complains about this even though she claims to support Planned Parenthood. Does she mention that the video has since proven to have been deceptively edited, or that the practice described in the video is entirely legal and goes to covering their operating costs? It wasn’t news at all, it was a Swift Boat attack. No, she doesn’t bother to mention that. Her real agenda is to slam the supposedly liberal mainstream media for ignoring yet another pointless Benghazi hoo-hah.

The supposedly liberal mainstream media has, meanwhile, given Donald Trump an enormous amount of undeserved coverage. She says, “So far this year, I’m happy with what Trump has done, because he’s totally blown up the media!” She has just contradicted her own view of the media — and now she’s praising Trump (whom she correctly characterizes as “a carnival barker”). She thinks he’s “more of a comedian than Jon Stewart is.” Never mind how dangerous the emotions may be that Trump stirs up among right-wing voters. She doesn’t mind that. It’s not even on her radar.

In sum, Camille Paglia is very, very dishonest intellectually. She’s happy to attack people she doesn’t like without bothering to examine or even mention the content of their ideas. Also, she’s living in the past.

Posted in politics | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Summer Squash

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and I enjoyed his Ysabel, so I figured I’d have a fling at his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Ordered the books from Amazon. Started book 1, The Summer Tree.

Within a few pages, I had realized this must be his first novel. The first-novelness of it fairly leaps off the page. I also had a dim memory of having read the opening at some point in the distant past and having decided not to bother going further. This time, having bought the books, I’m forcing myself to slog through at least a couple of hundred pages.

The premise of the opening is that a wizard from the parallel world of Fionavar shows up in Toronto. He invites five college students to accompany him back to his home world, for reasons that he is rather vague about. And of course they accept the invitation. Not eagerly, but with only the barest of misgivings. And without packing suitcases.

When they arrive in Fionavar, they’re instantly plunged into a maelstrom of courtly intrigue. It’s a stock Medieval fantasy world, pretty much. Swords and longbows and a palace with a wastrel prince and an aged king who is surrounded by duplicitous counselors. Oh, and an ancient evil entity imprisoned by being buried under a mountain. You just know the evil entity is going to get loose before long, if he isn’t loose already. So that’s the story setup.

The first problem is that the two young women and three young men from our own world are not clearly differentiated from one another in the opening. Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave sort of share the spotlight. A better way to handle this type of situation narratively, rather than shuttling back and forth, is to use a single viewpoint character and share his or her views of the others.

The second problem is that the young people are singularly credulous. After one evening’s acquaintance, they hop into the magic circle with the wizard from Fionavar, and off they go. When they arrive at the palace, again they seem content to bumble along, asking few questions in spite of the deep tensions that are immediately apparent, and seeming almost unfazed by the fact that their entire lives have just been turned upside down. One of them has evidently suffered some emotional trauma (still unexplained after the first 75 pages) in the recent past, but emotional depth is not a prominent feature of the narrative.

It seems very possible that they were swept up into this seemingly impromptu expedition for reasons to do with Fate, or hidden magical facets of their personalities, or something of the sort. But really, that’s just the young author playing fast and loose. He wants to toss some modern people into a Medieval epic, so there they are, and because he wants them there and they’re his puppets, they’re not shocked or bewildered, they’re just having an adventure.

The fact that the natives of Fionavar speak English? None of the characters seems to have noticed how odd this is. The king also plays chess, and by the same rules that are used in Europe, which is really as profoundly weird as the linguistic coincidence, because chess was invented in India and underwent various developments over the course of a thousand years or so. It’s still played in somewhat different forms in Japan, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere — so how does the king in far Fionavar happen to be familiar with the European rules?

The third problem is the fantasy premise itself. Fionavar is replete with magic — strange beings, glowing crystals, jealous priestesses, magic bracelets, a Seer, a wolf who is there and then not there. But between that mishmash and the standard literary furniture of a Medieval epic, there’s not, as yet, much promise of originality or depth.

The fourth problem is what we might call the Celtic kitchen sink. Several pages are studded with foreign names, none of which are clearly explained to the reader. It’s as if Kay is expecting, or hoping, to dazzle the reader with epic breadth without bothering to nail anything down the way he ought to. Starting on page 1 (and omitting the names of onstage characters), we have Ginserat, Cathal, Eridu, Revor, Dalrei, Colan, Conary, Paras Derval, the lios affar, Ra-Termaine, Daniloth … and that’s all on page 1. Then Rakoth Maugrim, Seresh, the Summer Tree, the svart affar, and later on, in another saga-flavored info-dump, Rhoden, Saeren, Taerlindel, the River Glein, the Latham, Leinen, Gwen Ystrat, Dun Maura, Brennin, Mornir (with an umlaut over the o, if you please), Delevan, Cathal … is your head spinning? Mine is.

I’m not giving up quite yet. I’ll give him another hundred pages, but as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Kay has some ‘splainin’ to do.

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