30 December 2009

(the address is 3506 Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis)

25 December 2009

Concise or Crippled?

Readers of this blog might be surprised to learn that there were few times in either high school or college when I struggled to get a paper under the maximum word or page requirement. More often than not, the opposite was true, and more often than not, I simply could not bring myself to take what I felt was a strong paper and muck it up by B.S-ing my way into a few hundred more words or a couple more pages. I came to take pleasure in daring a teacher to give me a bad grade for a well-written paper that was a page too short, but that's not to say that I ever purposely wrote less than I could have just to find out. At the time, it seemed to me that conciseness was my greatest strength as a writer, and since no teacher of mine ever docked my grade solely because I didn't write enough, I gradually paid less and less attention to what the required length of a paper was, or if there was one at all. This, I think, is the only way to write, at least if you care even a little bit about the product.

It's only as a blogger that I've become the most unlikely of chatterboxes. In my defense, I'd say first and foremost that this is more a consequence of the format and context than of any change in my writing style. A blog post is commonly thought to reach epic, unmanageable proportions before it has become half the length of the average chapter in most any dead-tree scholarly work, a double-standard which everyone acknowledges yet no one seems to be interested in eradicating. In addition, I'm writing here about things I care about, not about the topic du jour in some ancient history class that I'm only taking because I have to. While I have, of course, stood up for breadth in education in this space before, I do have to say that forcing students to write about things they don't care about is the main reason that length requirements are thought to be necessary in the first place, and insofar as writing itself is a discipline which ought to receive substantial emphasis, it certainly would make things easier on everyone concerned if students were given greater leeway in choosing their topics.

I raise these points not to get further mired in the metablogging and navel-gazing that I sometimes lapse into here, but to use them as a jumping off point for discussing the issue of conciseness as it relates to music composition. Much as I've turned in many papers that were a page or so too short, I've also begun quite a few musical compositions with grand expectations only to suddenly realize shortly thereafter that I'm done, often while the piece is still quite short, in terms of real time at least. I've been pondering this quite a bit lately, and it raises the possibility of two interesting discussions, one musico-technical in nature, and the other social.

First things first. By the logic of mainstream academic composition pedagogy, this habit, handicap, conundrum, or whatever it is marks me rather clearly and decisively as someone who just hasn't studied hard enough or studied the right stuff. A composer is worth his salt only if he develops his ideas to their logical conclusion; we won't say exactly what that conclusion is, but since we had better look busy when it comes time for the administration to divide up the money between the composers, the cancer researchers, and the theoretical physicists, let's just say it had better look time-consuming. I'm being just a bit facetious, and about something I'm not exactly an expert on, but this dynamic most certainly exists and is more than negligible, if only a little bit more.

I don't doubt that the ability to maintain coherence across the span of an hour or more is an unusual skill which few composers possess, nor that such work should earn the composer significant status, nor that no one came out of the womb writing music that way, but rather learned to do so by a combination of intense study and trial and error. I also don't deny that I like me an hour-long coherent piece of music from time to time, and hope to write one myself some day. Having said all that, I'm not one bit ashamed of the two minute pieces I've written simply because they are only two minutes long. I believe that while there's no substitute for works like Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony or Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," conciseness can be (though context is indeed everything) a virtue in music much as it is in words.

Because of the odd combination of temperament and circumstance that has kept me from having individual composition lessons with a credentialed academic, I've never gotten a second opinion (actually, I guess it would be a first opinion...) as to whether I'm concise or crippled. What I do have are the opinions of people I work with, which, to state the obvious, are not always candid since most of these people are, to some extent, friends as well as colleagues, but nonetheless undoubtedly have a grain of truth to them. This leads to the second, social aspect of the discussion. Bridging styles artistically means, for better or worse, that you must also bridge them socially, and I'm beginning to feel that this has become an increasingly maddening sideshow to the "real" work of writing music, booking shows, and giving performances. Of all the facets of this dance I do, the length issue is probably one of the more trivial, but it does come up quite often and has now officially joined the growing list of incompatibilities among the various scenes I claim to inhabit.

Most frustrating of all is that, as with blogging, I have by and large ceased to be known as the concise one and instead become known as the verbose one without changing anything about my work except for who's stuck playing it (or, more accurately, going from no one playing it to a few people putting up with it; I suppose a successful career as a composer, then, is when many people have to put up with it?). It seems that on top of all the stylistic and contextual/presentational issues that no two musical cliques can seem to agree upon, there's the issue of attention span, and as with all other such issues, I seem to represent both extremes at once depending on who you talk to.

I attended a concert of John Harbison's music last weekend; the composer was in attendance and stuck around afterwards for a post-concert Q and A session of the type that is all the rage these days. When asked to name the greatest challenge facing young composers today, he cited the need to digest and synthesize the diversity of musical styles that they espouse, a diversity which he implied (and I think he's probably right) either didn't exist or wasn't taken seriously when he was their age. It's hard enough to fathom accomplishing this in the purely artistic sense without layering on top of that the social minefield that must be navigated concurrently. It's something of a paradox that this social minefield exists not because most musicians aren't up to the artistic challenge, but rather because they're simply not interested in taking it in the first place. They each have their "thing" and that's what they do, end of story. Who am I to take issue with that? We all have to do what we love. If you love doing a few different things, though, you're posed with another conundrum: hold out for the chance to work with other like-minded generalists (if there even are any that match your interests that specifically), or work concurrently with different groups of specialists that probably hate each other, and, perhaps, end up hating you as well by virtue of your association with the rival clique.

If nothing else, I would say that I seldom find myself complaining that a piece of music is too short, but that I also reserve a special place in my own personal pantheon for pieces of music which achieve profundity in all the requisite ways and just happen to do so on an epic temporal scale. By virtue of my taste in music, the music I write probably should be moving toward this larger scale, but seeing that this only presents even greater potential to polarize friends, colleagues and listeners alike, I suppose it's not all bad that it hasn't happened yet.

21 December 2009

Generation Gap, and a Credo

There are plenty of things I'll never understand about events that took place before I was born, but I'm having an exceptionally hard time wrapping my head around the way composers who are roughly my parents' age talk about the musical epoch in which they came up, the era where dodecaphonism ruled the day, and where failure to sound "modern" enough would get you burned at the stake. Could it really have been that bad?

I ask this not out of spite but rather curiosity. I could do without dodecaphonism myself, and have no interest in defending it (though atonality broadly construed is another matter). I simply don't understand why it was so hard to grow some balls and do what you wanted to. The arts in general being as marginalized as they are today, it's certainly hard for someone my age to sympathize much with artists who fear marginalization so acutely. If you don't like being tackled, you don't play football. You could become a kicker as a compromise, but it's not your god-given right to make the team. Plus, you might get tackled anyway.

Of course, you can always argue that art isn't a choice, but rather something that chooses you. I hear that on some level, but I'd have to say that's a pretty darn entitled artist who would dare to go that particular route in the course of such a debate. The line between a self-aware purposefulness and a naive sense of entitlement can be hard to see sometimes, and because I wasn't around, I can't know just how truly oppressive things were circa the mid-twentieth century. Since I have been around, though, I've certainly heard a lot of bitching about it. Suffice it to say that my interest is piqued.

Long story short, if you want people to like you, don't become an artist. Just don't. If you do, you will first become bitter and frustrated at how hard it is to find two people who agree on anything, and second, you will end up abandoning your life's work trying to get them to agree on you. It's not popular taste or institutional myopia that's stifling, but rather the artist's desire to appease it at all costs. To do so merely validates its perceived authority, which is otherwise built on quicksand, but which in this way becomes self-fulfilling and is therefore perpetuated.

29 November 2009

Blog Month In Review: By The Numbers

Blog Month 2009 ends today, bringing to a close my somewhat more successful yet still slightly disappointing second effort at impersonating a real blogger (for my first effort, go here). I've not only set a new high water mark for posts in a month (23), but also for self-indulgence and capriciousness, I think. I'm also reasonably certain that I've both written and received more comments (of the thoughtful and thoughtless variety alike) this month than I normally do in a year.

It was a month suitably filled with excess, one during which I realized not only how much fun it can be to simply heap posts on top of posts, but also that I have neither the time to do so consistently nor the patience to do so thoughtfully. The flu-induced doldrums of the first couple of weeks notwithstanding, there were stretches later in the month where I simply could not write fast enough, where I found myself eager to get home from teaching or gigging or rehearsing simply to write the next entry. That happens to me occasionally, but it's quite rare and it doesn't usually last as long or cover as much ground as it did this month. It was quite exciting (yes, I'm easily amused) in a way that this project as a whole has not been since I started it, yet I'm not entirely convinced that's a bad thing. I simply cannot afford to devote this kind of time to blogging every month, but when I can, I prefer to invest in a few thoroughly argued missives on topics near and dear to me rather than simply spewing random thoughts onto my screen and rushing to post them without much revision or fact-checking. There's certainly no shortage of the latter if that's what your after, and so I don't feel the slightest bit guilty for refusing to add to it the other 11 months out of the year. I sure had fun this month, and I'm looking forward to the next one, but rest assured that Blog Month will remain only an occasional indulgence. We hope you'll stay tuned for that, as well as more of the arcane musico-philosophical pontification that has been and will remain our specialty around here.

At the outset, I promised to post at least one picture this month. Seeing that I've basically struck out to this point, I offer instead the following chart comparing my level of productivity this month to that of last year's maiden voyage:

Last year's rate appears in goldenrod and this year's in navy. The ideal rate of posting (daily) is also given, in maroon, for the sake of comparison. From the 14th of this month on, I nearly kept pace, but the flu had already set me back much too far to be able to catch up. In neither case did I keep up with the ideal rate for more than the first few days, although I'd forgotten that at one point last year, a flurry of activity on the 11th of the month actually put me ahead of the pace. In any case, I'm on a trajectory now, and so while I'm content to crawl back under my rock for a few months, I do look forward to next fall, when the pressure will be on, the anticipation will be palpable, and the stakes higher than ever.

As December rolls in and the dust settles, the current project will occupy the front page in its entirety, standing as a monument to self-indulgence, verbosity, and of course, fickleness. If you're a first time reader, please amuse yourself with the content below, but be careful not to form any unreasonable expectations. We reserve the right to break your heart in the unfortunate event that should occur.

28 November 2009


I went to a concert last night and it was really good. The thing is, I almost didn't go. I had no obligations of any kind yesterday, a rare occurrence these days, and one that inevitably leads me to hunker down and get to work on playing and writing things that I actually want to play and write. I'm not always in the mood for that kind of work, nor do I often have a whole lot of time for it, so when those two things align, I can be difficult to roust.

Over the years when these conditions have presented themselves, I've chosen overwhelmingly to stay home and keep working, and this, among other factors, has made me into quite the infrequent concertgoer, so much so apparently that I seem to have acquired exactly that reputation with a few of my colleagues. Things were not always like this. I was an avid and frequent attendee of live music late in high school and into college. I had really just discovered my penchant for music (making it as well as listening to it) for the first time, and the excitement of this stage of my life is something that, sadly, I'll never experience again. After a while, though, that thrill wore off, and I realize now that the biggest mistake I made was not taking it upon myself to go looking for new things to hear. Instead, I simply got bored and mostly stopped going.

That's the short version, but there were (and are) myriad other factors at work. First of all, for many years, I made the mistake of chasing high-profile, big-name, hot-ticket jazz events by so-and-so's latest supergroup. Frankly, most of those concerts absolutely stunk, and I wish I had back the time and money I wasted on them. It has since become obvious to me that I needed to do the work or ferreting out what was worth hearing for myself rather than merely swallowing the promotion, but at the time, I merely got disillusioned with everything and became less and less apt to leave the house. I've since come to say (sarcastically, but only a little bit) that I won't listen to anything by someone I've heard of. It also seems to me that this advice is also increasingly apt in the realm of art.

Secondly, though this took a while to happen, I became profoundly disillusioned with acoustics. For a while, it seemed like every show I went to was an acoustical nightmare. This was partially a result of hearing so many of the afore mentioned nationally touring jazz acts in concert halls rather than clubs, but also of some particularly horrendous club acoustics, as well as the occasional poor decision by a performer. I've come to loathe my own shortcomings in understanding the basic physical principles of sound, as well as the fact that music education, whether at the elementary or the graduate level or anywhere in between, rarely so much as scratches the surface of this topic. I'm coming to believe that this is our greatest shortcoming as musicians, an utter ignorance of how our work is governed by the laws of physics. Even if that's going too far, though, it's safe to say that in absence of better rooms to play in, we really ought to do a better job of managing the ones we have.

Third, I did not turn 21 until I had started my 4th year of college, so up until that time, I wasn't even allowed into some of the places where the real shit was going down. I've never entirely shed my resentment of that fact, and I have always looked forward to a day when I might wield enough credibility to impose an all ages policy on any venue I play at. That may never happen, but even so, it's an issue all of us ought to be more cognizant of, along with the artificially late start times that have become a badge of hipness many circles despite the fact that the musical cultures which spawned them are largely dead.

Fourth, I'll just come right out and say that I went to a music school that treats its students like kindergarteners. Required concert attendance was used as a bludgeon against a student body comprised largely of people who didn't belong there, the vast majority of whom never finished their music degrees. The environment was downright toxic on occasion, and so the naive, self-directed concertgoer I was in high school quickly became a cynical, perfunctory one in college. It's worth noting that performing in these required concerts for an audience comprised exclusively of cynical, perfunctory listeners was even more unpleasant.

Fifth, I've had a couple of different non-musical day jobs after college, and both tended to present me with the same galling choice: practice or go to a concert. Many many days, I simply could not do both, and as my freelance career picked up and my obligations therein became more significant, it became less frequent that choosing the concert was even a tenable option. I've joked before that playing the tuba has ruined my life, and this just is one of those situations that spawned that joke. I was never happy about it, I just didn't really have a choice.

I've shed the day job thing for the moment, and so I've been making more of an effort to get out and hear things. This brings me back, though, to the simple and more important fact that while the things I listed above all played a role, I've always been a full-fledged homebody and a little bit of a workaholic to boot. As such, it only took the slightest bit of cynicism creeping in to almost completely negate my interest in going to hear music in person, and even now that I've emerged from that stage of my life, I still have trouble kicking myself out the door most of the time. When I can buy tickets in advance of the show, that does the trick. The disincentive to waste money is always powerful. Most of the shows I want to hear are not organized that way, however. It's why I've become a marginally more loyal SPCO attendee, for even at the discounted prices I hold out for each year, I still can't justify merely skipping the concert, nor, truthfully, do I really want to anyway. I'm just a little but obsessive about getting things done, and I still enjoy making music enough that sometimes listening falls by the wayside when there is a conflict. I am so very glad I went last night, though. I had it on the calendar for a few weeks to remind myself, but knowing it would be the day after Thanksgiving and I had nothing to do but hole up in my room with my tuba, computer, and iPod, I sensed danger almost as soon as I heard about the gig. It was one of those days where my innate predispositions have so often trumped my acquired interests. I should say also that it's not any easier to get out the door when what stands between you and the concert is a 30 minute bike ride in 30 degree weather. I didn't even have a car until I was 22, and biking to concerts had long since become force of habit, even for most of the winter, so it's amazing to me how soft I've gotten by virtue of having a car for the last several years. Perhaps only a native Minnesotan could think so, but the weather last night was absolutely beautiful, crystal clear and not a breath of wind, at least on the way up there. Coming back, there was indeed just a breath, but it was right in my face and things had cooled off noticeably by that time, so that was less enjoyable. Nevertheless, I got some much needed exercise, reduced my carbon footprint, and saved some cash on gas. I remember when that was the norm, and it scares me how much I sometimes dread cold weather riding these days when I used to just man up and brave it. So, in short, I went primarily to hear good music, and secondarily to get some exercise, and I got exactly what I wanted in both cases. I'm starting to succeed as a concertgoer again, and that's a really good feeling after years of severely premature cynicism. Let me tell you some things that I didn't take into consideration, though. First of all, though these were local artists, I did not go to hear them simply because they were local. I've had enough of the "Buy Local" line being applied to art as if it were food, and though I myself made an analogy above between art and food politics, I think it stops here rather decisively. Art is not to be judged by a standard so unrelated to the aesthetic experience. To do so, one has to believe that art's functional utility reigns supreme over its aesthetic properties, or put more bluntly, that beauty doesn't matter. To support artists for non-aesthetic reasons is merely to enable the perpetuation of mediocrity by rewarding social rather than technical virtuosity. We'd do better by both art and ourselves to simply follow our noses instead.

There are local artists I can't get enough of, and many others where once was enough, but the fact that they live and work in the same general area of the planet as I do is meaningless to me. Each such local scene has its ins and outs, strengths and weaknesses, surpluses and deficits, and it would be ludicrous to expect each and every citizen of such a place to assimilate these precise tastes out of deference to art and artists chosen for them by mere happenstance. Whether or not I can hear Lutoslawski's "Mi-Parti" played by a local orchestra any night of the week has no bearing on my opinion of the piece. To parrot the "Buy Local" line as if the very perpetuation of art depends on it is to endorse an unsustainable, "growth for its own sake" philosophy whereby the total quantity of art is more important than its perceived quality, and to impose an uncomfortable dishonesty on anyone who might be tempted to think for themselves.

27 November 2009

Holi Crap

The holiday season in the U.S. has long since become more trouble than it's worth, and almost no one seems to be shy about saying that anymore. Much has been made of the capitalist co-optation of the season, the fact that most people don't really want to see their extended families, and the weight they end up gaining from gorging on egg nog, candy canes, pies, and smoked ham for weeks on end. I feel much the same way about all of these things, but even in sum, they don't bother me half as much as the simple fact that life gets extraordinarily difficult for the final 6 weeks or so of each calendar year, whether you give a rodent's hind quarters about the holidays or not.

For the people tasked with coordinating and bringing off their family's holiday celebrations, the recuperative, leisure-based aspect of the holidays is sacrificed entirely, and many emerge from it more frazzled than they were when they last left work. But even for the rest of us, who couldn't care less about "the reason for the season" and have few if any significant holiday obligations, the artificially escalated hustle and bustle makes simple things maddeningly complicated. We just want to be left alone to do what we were doing before, but sometimes we can't because the world around us has gone ape shit.

Case in point:

I have a recording session on Monday that requires me to insert and remove my tuba mute silently. The cork on the thing is ancient, and so it squeaks quite loudly when it touches the sides of the bell. You can even get a blood-curdling screech out of it by twisting it from side to side, which can't be good for either the lacquer or the cork, but I am a tuba player after all, and so I sometimes can't resist the perverse attraction to making sounds that will cause anyone within a mile radius to perk up. I've been putting off applying whatever it is I'll eventually decide to apply to the cork to solve this problem. Gluing felt and rubbing charcoal have both been suggested, but it seems to me that the cleanest and easiest solution would simply be pieces of tape. Specifically, white athletic tape would be ideal, since the non-sticky side of it is very fabric-like, but I cannot seem to find mine anywhere in the house. If it fails to materialize soon, I will be forced to travel to a sporting goods store to acquire some more. The problem with that is that this is the busiest shopping weekend of the year and I want no part of it, especially not in a sporting goods store, and not because I don't absolutely love sporting goods stores, but because I don't totally love the kind of people that I'm likely to meet in them. And there will be a lot of them.

Case In Point #2:

I've mostly given up on composition contests at this point, but since a combination of factors have aligned recently resulting in a very good recording of a piece I feel really good about, I'm looking into entering a few of them for the first time in a while. The problem with that? Many of the deadlines fall very early in the new year, meaning that unless I want to mail things last minute, I have to brave the post office at the absolute worst possible time. And it's not just a matter of suffering through the long lines: the only entry to a contest I've ever sent that I know for a fact got lost in the mail was sent at this time of year. I usually just use "Delivery Confirmation," which simply tells you when (and perhaps if) you're stuff was delivered, and doesn't provide any recourse if it's not. After the tracking history had been dormant for a week or so, I contacted the contest coordinator and he confirmed that it was not received. This is the busiest time of year for the post office, and people make mistakes. I'm not out for blood here, I just don't want to have to wait in line forever, pay extra for certified mail, and/or pay to print and send a score more than once. It sucks, and it's all the holidays' fault.

To top it off, I endured a bit of poetic justice yesterday at Thanksgiving dinner. A few years ago, my parents and I officially fell off the holiday boat and began going out for Thanksgiving dinner. We've been to the same place each time, and it's always quite good. We even had the same server this year as last, and she remembered us. What was funny is that for the last half hour or so that we were there, the Muzak machine serenaded us (me, specifically, I'm sure) with an all-Beatles final set. I wasn't miserable, nor was I particularly happy, but I certainly had a private laugh about it in light of recent discussions here. Having worked in a few Muzak-polluted spaces over the years, I'd bet money that there's Christmas music emanating from those very same speakers as I write this. If you've been following things around here, you know that there's some poetic justice in that for me, too.

26 November 2009

Yeah, but is it Pop?

I soon realized that in the course of the previous discussion on pop, I omitted an important predilection of mine that happens to come from the pop world, that being Jimi Hendrix. Not that I'm any kind of Hendrix expert, but I do seriously dig his music. I'd venture that Hendrix's appeal is almost as universal as The Beatles', and also that it's more universal than the Beatles' among people who also happen to like atonal, modernist, and/or avant-garde music (whatever that is). If Dan had asked about Hendrix instead of the Beatles, he would have essentially been asking the same thing about me, I think, but he would have gotten a very different (and yes, probably shorter) answer, and that whole discussion would have gone in a completely different direction. Oh well.

For what it's worth, brass quintets, wedding bands, jazz combos, and pops orchestras don't cover Hendrix nearly as excessively as they cover The Beatles. That's no doubt in large part because they also do so far less successfully and they know it. Rock musicians have significantly less shame about imitating Hendrix, though they probably shouldn't. The Beatles certainly had their extramusical trials and tribulations, but perhaps Hendrix's were more well-known as they happened, and more of the kind that aren't typically discussed in polite company. I think all of these things probably factor into why The Beatles's music is seemingly thought to transcend instrumentation the way Bach's does, while Hendrix is just as popular but not covered as often or as well. I'd like to think that I could separate my own unpleasant experiences with poor imitations of an artist from my overall opinion of them, and certainly that I could prevent extramusical issues from coloring that opinion, but I'm human, and that may not be the case here. I really don't know. Gil Evans did an album of Hendrix's music that left me cold (frigid, in fact), but I still dig the original.

Stevie Wonder is an artist that many jazz musicians have covered, from Dave Pietro to Joe Gilman to The New Power Trio to Dan's own group Frankhouse. I'm not so set in my ways that I ignore and deny these kinds of trends. In fact, as I've said, the more pop music I can find that I actually like, the less I'll feel like a social outcast, and that can only be a good thing. And if so many otherwise like-minded people are into something, you'd think that would be a hint worth taking. To that end, I had the chance to investigate a Stevie Wonder box set while housesitting for a friend last year. When I saw it sitting on the rack, I got really excited. This was my chance! Well, I had to stop listening after a while. It just wasn't for me. It's galling in a way, yet not entirely surprising that while I really dig many of the jazz covers of his music that I've heard, I couldn't make it through an entire disc of the originals. Too bad for me, I guess.

I mentioned before that prog rock seems to float my boat. I'm not sure that really counts as pop music, though. Some pop people spew even more venom at prog rock than they do at classical music and jazz. It not only incorporates many elements of those more high-falutin' styles, but also hits closer to home by virtue of still being rooted, if not in some small way, in the rock and/or pop aesthetic(s). I was perusing some blogs that I don't get around to reading all that often and stumbled on a couple of posts over at Acousmata about a couple of prog groups I didn't know about:


Univers Zero

I dig both of these tracks a lot, and I'll definitely be investigating both of these bands' work more extensively at some point.

It's hard to talk intelligently about structure when you've only listened to something one time, but if there are profound large-scale structural concepts worthy of a classical musicologist's attention at work here, I missed them the first time. In fact, while I definitely dug the Univers Zero track more, the scattered nature of the structure bothered me a bit. That's usually my first and only complaint about the prog bands I'm into, which scares me, because for a long time, I resented the classical approach to form and believed in, essentially, doing what you want in that respect. It's not doing Kyle Gann's writing any sort of justice to lump him in with the clunky statement I just made, but if you read his blog, you know that he's written intelligently and repeatedly about composers (himself included) who have rebelled against such traditional formal strictures. What scares me is that while I nod in agreement when I read things like that, and always have, nonetheless, as I get older and listen to and write more music, I find myself hurtling towards the traditional perspective. It's bizarre.

By virtue of that traditional perspective, my trajectory is wholly unremarkable and quite predictable. Young people don't "get it" because they don't know anything, and once they learn something (if not everything), they see the light. It raises a question that's on the tip of most everyone's tongues these days when the pop and classical worlds collide: is this process an inherently positive, predictable, and universal one by which each and everyone of us can become an astute, structure-oriented listener and musician simply by trying, or does it represent the artificial domestication of the listener, their mere social initiation into a rarefied world of musical elitism where other perspectives are unduly dismissed as too unsophisticated?

I don't have the answer to that. What I do know is that as I gain experience, structure comes to matter more. I'm more aware of it when I listen, and I agonize over it more when I write. In all but the most extreme cases, it's not enough to turn me off entirely from a piece of music that I have only good reactions to otherwise, but I wonder if the current trajectory, assuming it continues, doesn't dictate that sooner or later that will change? That thought scares me a bit, though there's nothing I can do about it. Clinging to previously held beliefs simply to avoid admitting you were wrong is always a bad idea; labeling those who are willing to admit as much as "wishy-washy" also misses the point; and purposely remaining ignorant or cutting oneself off from the learning process when it becomes obvious that this process is changing your long-held beliefs is stooping quite low, dare I say it, in a pop sort of way. That's my philosophy with regard not only to the question of structure, but also of taste. If there's a time in my future when I will worship The Beatles, then so be it.

As a parting shot, check out this band from Vancouver:


A friend hipped me to them the other night, describing it as "Free Emo." That sounds about right. I could listen to this by myself in a quiet, dark room without getting bored, the same way I listen to Lutoslawski, Ives and Monk. But is it Pop?

25 November 2009

...and what a pantheon it is

Someone named Clara at a place called Wikio has contacted me twice within the past couple of weeks to inform me that this blog has attained a ranking of 43rd in the classical music category. I can't figure out if the site offers any way to compare blogs in different categories, but I have to think that 43rd in classical music must be the equivalent of about 10,000th in "Entertainment" or "Politics." If they ever add a "Pan-Stylistic Musico-Philosophical Ramblings" category, I'm sure I'll jump right to the top of that, but I'm not holding my breath.

Though I continue to cling to it as if out of total ignorance, I'm fully aware that my quest to establish an egoless and altruistic blog persona is an overly idealistic proposition if there ever was one. Even so, I could not in good conscience accept the invitation to add a Wikio badge to the sidebar proclaiming my status. I'd much prefer that the reputation of this document be made or unmade by its content. I also think those things are just plain tacky, a tad bit too smug for my taste, and in the case of this particular category and ranking, not necessarily guaranteed to work to your advantage, kind of like advertising the fact that you're the 205,957th coolest person in the Twin Cities.

I suppose this means I'm no longer allowed to lament my small readership, complain about the paucity of comments, or wonder aloud how blogs which seem to me to have no clear identity or focus could be more popular than mine. I could do more to shove this blog in people's faces, but I just don't believe in doing that (and not in music, either). I certainly don't believe in leaving comments on other people's blogs simply to promote my own. That's not only self-serving but downright destructive. Obviously, it's not like I want to hide the blog from people, and I do wonder what the chances are of the random person who goes looking for something just like this actually finding it. You have to have more free time and patience than most anyone has in order to successfully navigate the blogosphere without a compass. In that way, I wonder if the rankings, the blogrolls, and the perfuctory back patting aren't worth something, if not just a little tiny bit. I still don't want the badge, though, and as best I can tell, I won't lose my ranking by turning it down.

It also occurred to me during this time that in a moment of vulnerability, I once tacked a "followers" list onto the sidebar. I'm thankful for the 8 of them, but using them for marketing purposes runs contrary to the M.O. around here, so away it goes. It's not entirely for the same reason that I'm seriously considering abandoning the Postroll as well. I still dig the concept, but I have not invested enough in it for it to work. As such, most of the posts listed were written or originally linked to by the same few bloggers. I envisioned it being a more diverse collection of posts from a wider variety of sources. Those sources, I'm sad to say, have largely failed to materialize, and while I still find time to investigate a few new blogs from time to time, I haven't stumbled on a new "favorite" music blogger for quite some time. If only I could simply hide it without straight up deleting it. I can't seem to figure out if there's a way to do that, which means there probably isn't. That way I could keep open the option of returning to it in the future without merely starting over.

That brings us to one more thing I could do if I really wanted to be a real blogger, and that would be to move to a real platform. The estimable Kris Tiner recently did just that (read his explanation here), with seriously bad ass results. Once again, though, I find myself espousing some lofty conceit of purity, thinking to myself instead that imposing generic templates renders templates moot and allows the document to succeed or fail based on its content rather than its slick packaging. That would work if everyone operated under those restrictions. More likely, though, I'm just shooting myself in the foot.

24 November 2009

All I Had To Do Was Ask

Thanks for the comments y'all. Christmas came early today.

23 November 2009


Getting a comment on something I've written here is like opening an unexpected birthday present, even if the comment is critical. Perhaps my readers are particularly shy, or perhaps my arguments are so earth-shattering and airtight as to preclude further discussion. Far more likely, though, is that no one is reading. I feel like some of the things I post here ought to rile people up a bit more than they do, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I sometimes stoop to that level as much to find out if anyone's actually reading as to get something off my chest.

Spam comments don't count, obviously. I get a good laugh out of some of them, and perhaps even a tiny bit of the same excitement I feel about the legitimate ones. That little bit of excitement has turned to quite a bit of impatience, however, as I've now received over 100 of them within the month. Though I published new posts at a similar rate the first time I ran the Blog Month experiment, I certainly didn't attract this kind of attention last year. Nonetheless, I can't believe it's a coincidence that behaving like a "real" Blogger has earned me an e-heckler. That person must be crapping their pants with delight that I'm taking the time to mention this here. Why not? It's Blog Month, goddammit.

Blogger makes it easy to deal with such things, and while I've previously expressed regret over the need to enable comment moderation, it's more apparent than ever that I have no choice. This whole thing makes me think of Kyle Gann. Though I come from a different planet, I'm an avid reader of his blog, so much so that I've taken it upon myself to start reading it from the beginning. It's brilliant and fascinating stuff the likes of which I wish there was more of of floating around on the musico-interweb, but I can only be disappointed at the fact that not only are new comments disabled in his archives, but old ones are not visible. If you've read Gann, you know that despite his brilliance and his espousal of a "generous" composing style, he has little patience with his readers and can be far from generous when dealing with them. Nothing could be less generous than hiding previous comments, where blogs with an actual readership tend to get really interesting.

Do comment threads get out of hand? Absolutely. Do I really want to read every comment ever made on PostClassic? Probably not. I'd be a month rather than a year into the archives if that were the case. Nonetheless, my bullshit detector is not too shabby, and as the Libertarians among us might point out, the internet in some cases polices itself pretty well. I'd rather make up my own mind if the comments were valid or not. Any lengthy comment thread is bound to suffer from an imbecile or two, but there are more than a few heavies among Gann's readership, and it's too bad the rest of us no longer have access to their off-the-cuff reactions to his often thought-provoking posts. At the very least, current posts still seem to allow comments, though I seem to recall that he once flirted with the idea of dispensing with those as well. Perhaps I'll never understand what a chore it is to administer a blog with that kind of traffic, but from where I sit today, it's tempting to say that if I found myself in that situation, I'd feel that I'd finally succeeded with this project, and that I had a responsibility to see it through. We'll see if I ever get there, and if I feel the same when I do.

Gann's quality is that much more impressive in light of his quantity. I've seldom been able to keep up with his posts, hence the idea of starting from the beginning. I'm finding that to be a much more informative and fulfilling way to approach my favorite blogs, even though it goes against the very core principle of blogging. I've wasted enough time sifting through people's soup recipes and vacation photos in search of their one music-related post of the year. At this point, I'm content to focus on a few writers' entire body of work and miss out on the day-to-day rat race of link dumping and live blogging. I still find time for it occasionally though, and you can bet your ass I'll be leaving comments if I read something that I feel warrants it. I just hope those comments survive as long as the original post.

Pop State of Mind

I have a student, an unusually talented student in fact, who's involved in equal parts classical and pop. We got into a conversation recently about the difference between the two worlds. I told her the things I've observed about pop musicians over the years, most of which are negative, and asked her if any of that resonated with her experience.

Not only did it resonate, in fact, but she told me something that trumps all of my curmudgeonly bellyaching on the subject. She said that her pop music friends make fun of her for having a teacher, because the only people who have to take lessons are people who are too dumb to figure it out for themselves.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, we continued talking and I realized that this bothered me a lot more than it bothered her. She's both unusually mature and profoundly gifted, and so the sheer absurdity of such a statement is as obvious to her as it is to me. Needless to say, though, that this experience did nothing to ingratiate me to the pop music world that many of my peers seem to view as the savior of "serious" music.

I have more firsthand experience with classical music and jazz, and certainly those worlds are no strangers to a variety of equally specious assumptions and social ills, though they couldn't be more different in nature. Even so, the militant ignorance of pop musicians has always struck me as a high crime among misdemeanors. If I found the results compelling, I would feel differently.

21 November 2009

Surveying The Landscape For The Third Time

The Adam Mickiewicz Institute's culture.pl website has a nice biography of Lutoslawski. The final paragraph is an excellent jumping off point for something I've wanted to write about for the last week or so:

Despite all the differences between the works from the various periods of his career, and the fact that he was constantly developing his musical language, Witold Lutoslawski remains in our times a rare example of a composer who has a distinctly defined, very individual style in his compositions. He never belonged to any "school" of composition, he did not succumb to trends and fashions, did not uphold traditions and did not participate in any avantgarde revolutions. He was however both avantgarde, and traditional. Among the aesthetic crossroads of the second half of the twentieth century, he found his own path that he pursued with determination, led by his unfailing artistic sense. His music is a model of the ideal balance between form and content, intellect and emotion. His perfection has secured for Lutoslawski a permanent place among the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

Nationalistic cheerleading aside, if there's any truth at all to this paragraph, then everything suddenly makes perfect sense. Lutoslawski didn't have a "thing," a calling card, a zinger, and therefore he toils in relative obscurity in comparison to Messiaen and his Catholocism, Coltrane and his black nationalism, and so on and so forth. Without a "useful term of abuse" with which to describe his work, it merely falls through the cracks.

This leads us back to the earlier discussion of the internet and the trends I said I perceive emerging from it. For what it's worth, I can't envision myself as an exponent of any of them, whether that be the burgeoning ones or the sputtering ones, the populist ones or the ivory tower ones, uptown or downtown, tonal or atonal. I've previously written about this (rather concisely) here. It seems awfully clear that the blogs and websites which capture the most attention, the most traffic, the most comments, and the most links without exception have a "thing." I occasionally even get e-mails from site ranking companies informing me that my blog has attained this or that rank in the category of "Classical Music Blogs" despite the fact that the content here is disproportionately skewed towards jazz and philosophy rather than classical music. In one case, it was painfully obvious that the reviewer had read only the blog heading and none of the content. It's hardly a revelation to me at this point that stylistic boxes rule the day, yet that doesn't make it any easier to figure out where (or if) I fit into the landscape, nor to forgive fragmented minds their clumsiness.

Actually, I wouldn't necessarily think to label Lutoslawski's music beyond category. The later works are clearly "atonal" as opposed to tonal, and in the figurative sense, "uptown" as opposed to "downtown." You can make those terms fit, but they also invoke connotations that aren't close to relevant. The SPCO recently featured his music on a concert entitled "Echoes of Eastern Europe," and indeed, the other pieces on the program (by Ligeti and Kurtag) fit like a stylistic glove (for the record, this was also one of the 3 best concerts I've ever been to in my life). It made sense as a label, and as a mere geographic truth as opposed to a stylistic box, it was rather innocuous. Problem is it's not nearly as hip as "postminimalism" or "radical music." Those are calling cards while Eastern Europe is, well, Eastern Europe. It belongs to too many people and appeals to too few to be co-opted by a New Music clique. "Yeah, I'm really into Eastern European pan-sympho-toric sound art." Not going to happen.

Of course, it is just as fashionable to make one's self out to be above categorization as it is to acquire or invent your own hipper-than-thou category. My problem is not that I abhor or defy labels (I don't), and even less that I tend to meld styles in my work (I sometimes do, but not often), but that I'm inclined to work concurrently in a few clearly disparate styles at once. Perhaps that's a sign of creative immaturity, or just a "restless mind." For what its worth, I do identify marginally with several well-established styles, but none of them are cool right now, and some of them are decidedly uncool, most especially among practitioners of the other styles. That's what's really tough: working concurrently with groups of people who abhor each other's work. Whoever called music "the social art" should have called it "the art of socializing." But you knew that.


I just found Lutoslawski's fan page on Facebook and joined up. Seeing that some downright obscure musicians flash across my screen virtually every time I log in, I had begun to wonder if he had one at all. It's a relief, but a small one. I was merely the 323rd person to become a fan. In contrast, Messiaen, a composer who one might place in the same general epoch as Lutoslawski if not precisely in the same style, has over 5,000 fans. Ligeti has over 7,000, Wayne Shorter has over 8,000, and Monk over 20,000. While I'm fans of these musicians as well (and not just on Facebook), it's a head-scratcher nonetheless. Vote Witold!


One thing I plan to do more of on this blog as time goes on is share recordings and scores of my compositions. It seems to be de rigeur on blogs such as this one, whether that's because bloggers think people need to be entertained to remain engaged, or whether they think it legitimizes them as commentators to be able to demonstrate that they can do more than merely blow smoke. I have a few things "in the can" so to speak at this very moment, but I'm holding on to them until Blog Month in concluded. They're things that I want people to notice, which means that burying them in the middle of this uncharacteristic flurry of activity isn't the smartest thing to do.

I remember how exciting it was when advances in technology converged with advances in my own financial capabilities to the point where I was able to purchase a serviceable computer and some high end notation software for the first time. I stumbled on sibeliusmusic.com (then called something else), which was at that time brand spankin' new, and silly as it sounds to say it now, it was one of the most exciting times I've had as a composer. Because the site (and the very concept, I think) were so new, there were very few users, and yet, those who did use it knew what they'd stumbled on. That small community of strangers thoughtfully listened to and reviewed each other's works in a way that seldom happens in person, and it was tremendously exciting to see what people came up with next, as well as to post your latest opus and see if anyone liked it. What made all of this possible was that the total quantity of material on the site was of an eminently manageable size, and while one could certainly argue that the value in that was limited because the diversity of perspectives was limited, the truth is that in short order, the quantity became unmanageable, the community fell apart, no one knew which way was up, and pretty soon, I came to miss the days when the world seemed smaller. It simply became impossible to keep up with everything that went up on that site, which I now realize, of course, was just a microcosm for the entire internet in that same regard. I still have my page, but I haven't sold a score or had a review in several years, nor have I done either of those things for another user for the same length of time.

I also remember how anguished my mom was at the time (I was 18 and still living at home). She was convinced that someone was going to steal my compositions and take credit for them. I tried to tell her that it was not worth doing that because there was nothing to be accomplished in the way of selling them or using them to promote oneself, since I was already doing those things and failing miserably. That did not alleviate her worries, for whatever reason. To this day, I'm not aware of anyone plagiarizing any of the work that I've made available on the internet, nor have I read any stories about this happening to others. Many many musicians, composers and performers alike, make work available for free through a variety of outlets, and the prevailing wisdom seems to be that this is not only safe, but downright necessary in the current climate. Sure, I'd like to catch a career break somewhere along the line, but my primary reason for putting things out there in this way is simply to see if anyone cares to notice, and hopefully to reach someone (even just one person) who gets a kick out of the music. Considering the amount of smoke blown 'round these parts, it also can't hurt to remind readers that I'm a musician, too, not just an idle observer.

19 November 2009


Today's entry is hidden among the archives in the form of a response to a comment I received on the post that I consider to by the magnum opus of this blog so far. The comment itself became so magnum, in fact, that Blogger wouldn't accept it, so I broke it into 4 parts. Upon further examination, I realized that it was somehow perceiving HTML somewhere in the text, and that the length limit it was imposing was specifically on the HTML, not on the comment itself. That's a relief, because I seem to recall posting a few epic comments both here and elsewhere over the years, and have never had a problem. I thought maybe things had changed, but more likely, it was just a one-time glitch.

The Original Post

The Comments Thread

17 November 2009

Surveying The Landscape Again

I'm not ashamed to admit that part of what gets me so worked up about the blogospheric trendiness I referred to in the previous post is the utter certainty on the part of the writer that by merely describing their relationship with an artist's work, they're somehow doing the rest of us this huge favor by shaking us out of our ivory tower complacency. Well, since it's Blog Month here at My Fickle Ears Dig, why not take a break from all the bellyaching I do the other 11 (and a half, it seems) months out of the year to advocate rather than castigate?

I really wish I saw Lutoslawski's name on my computer screen more often. In fact, I'm not sure this is even the first time I've said that here, but if it is, I've certainly been thinking it for some time now because it seems like I say it to myself all the time. Lutoslawski is quickly becoming one my of absolute favorite composers, and in fact threatens to be the first composer I'd ever feel comfortable naming as my one favorite composer. As I remarked earlier this month, naming favorites is a tenuous proposition when it comes to composers because few of them are consistent, and hence, most anyone's favorite composer undoubtedly wrote a lot of music that person wouldn't want to have to listen to, or at least not very often. Even so, I'm so consistently enraptured by Lutoslawski's music as to consider going that far.

What prevents me from going there right this minute is that my depth of experience is not yet great enough to warrant it. There could be a bunch of turds lurking around the corner that by sheer happenstance have somehow managed to elude me, though I doubt it. I was first introduced to Lutoslawski's music by attending concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who often programs his music. Later, I started a Pandora station, "Witold Lutoslawski Radio." I primarily use Pandora to investigate pop-oriented music that I'm merely curious about but don't want to pay for, and not usually so much for the jazz and classical idioms that I'm more committed to and perfectly willing to pay for. However, I thought it would be appropriate and funny to have at least one station centered around a thorny new-music type of artist, and Lutoslawski's name was just long enough to make it perfect for the task.

Holy shit was I in for an awakening. Though I'm hard-pressed to name specific pieces (Pandora doesn't allow specific requests; you can "bookmark" songs that pop up simply to remember what they're called, but I neglected to do that), the station seemed to be feeding me mostly pieces for solo string instruments and orchestra, probably because "a prominent cello" is a defining characteristic in their system and once I clicked thumbs up on a cello concerto, that was that. Not that I'm complaining, though; I myself have come to enjoy writing concertos more than simply writing for large ensembles because I feel like having a clear soloist forces me into writing melodies in a way that I've never been inclined to otherwise, or at least thinking more melodically rather than just texturally. This has sparked an interest in various different kinds of pieces for soloist and orchestra, and Lutoslawski's music is a good an argument as any for the continued vitality and viability of the concerto format (he rarely seems to use the word "concerto," so I guess I'm using it more out of convenience).

Most recently, through the miracle of iTunes, I purchased in digital format a 2 disc set of Lutoslawski's orchestral works for less than what a single disc fetches in the physical realm these days. I'm not yet done working through it and am already blown away. The opening track is called "Symphonic Variations for Orchestra." It was the first thing I listened to, and was not what I expected. It is very much a "crowd pleaser," or something like that, a raucous, very accessible concert-opening type of work that one would think could find its way onto programs anywhere and everywhere. Mind you that I forfeited my right to authoritatively label a piece as "accessible" in the abstract sometime around the time I was 17, when my full kookiness began to become apparent, but that fact notwithstanding, I would hope that there's a bright future for pieces like this one, which seems to me to be one of those exceedingly rare pieces that has something for everyone without stooping to the level of mere orchestrational parlor tricks. I wonder if anyone ever plays it?

The "Mi-Parti" is very different, very much what I was expecting out of this set, and a perfect example of what, to me, makes Lutoslawski's music so special. This piece is as modern sounding as anything else, totally "out" in the parlance of the jazz community, and it knocked me out of my chair the very first time I heard it. In fact, that's been the case with the vast majority of Lutoslawski's pieces that I've heard. Even for this avowed new-music kook, that's quite unusual. I can't think of an initial experience I've had with another composer's music that's even close to comparable. Elliott Carter's "Variations for Orchestra" and Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony are two other favorite pieces of mine which I'd locate roughly in the same stylistic ballpark as Lutoslawski, yet I remember vividly that both of them left me rather underwhelmed on first hearing. In fact, the Shostakovich had no impact on me whatsoever, and frankly, being about halfway through his complete symphonies at the moment, that's about as much impact as any of them ever have the first time, or even subsequently. The 4th was different, for whatever reason; hearing it for the second time was probably the most purely flabbergasted I've ever been while listening to music, not only due to the weight of suddenly "getting it" all at once, but from recalling what bits and pieces I remembered clearly from the first hearing and simply wondering how it could be so different the next time.

Something about Lutoslawski is different, and I couldn't possibly try to explain what it is at this point because I don't know. I'd be happy to go on not knowing if the whole thing didn't make me so damn curious. Of course, it's external factors that are responsible for that curiosity, namely the odious bickering over the very validity of atonal music and the specious overgeneralizations about the people who write it, play it and listen to it. Exhibit A amongst those overgeneralizations is the idea that the music cannot be accessible, that it can fruitfully only be studied, not heard, and that it cannot make a positive impression on first hearing. I'm just one person, but those observations simply do not resonate with me, and they never did, even back when my naivete entitled me to quite a bit more authority as a "regular audience member" than I have now that I've been to music school and tried to make a career of it. While in past years I may have searched momentarily for an example, I now have one at the immediate ready. Lutoslawski's music, as atonal and modernist as it gets, is some of the most accessible music I've ever heard. I'm wondering if no one else agrees with me, or if it's just that none of them have a blog.

Surveying The Landscape

The more time I invest in my blogospheric activities, the clearer it becomes to me that I must be the most uncool blogger in the world. I've been scouring the landscape for new and interesting writers for quite a while now, long enough that I'm beginning to perceive trends that I didn't notice before, and although most all of these trends lay bare my extreme uncoolness, the fact that I'm aware of them is a very good thing, for one of my primary purposes in bothering to read music blogs has been to try to get an idea of what's going on everywhere else in the world. I suppose it's possible that the internet, which as we all know is currently ruining society, has merely given me a bunch of false impressions of what and how people think outside of Minneapolis. I find it doubtful, however, that this is entirely the case.

So, in case you don't know, let me tell you what's cool right now. First of all, everyone who you'd never expect seems to have decided that pop music is great, maybe even our only hope. Within that group, it seems to me that there's a rather strong contingent of minimalist and post-minimalists (whatever the hell that is), though the overlap is not strict. While both classical and jazz musicians seem to be looking increasingly to pop music and minimalism for inspiration, the jazz people also seem to be disproportionately adamant about the hybridized jazz-rock and free-jazz music of the 1970's and 80's that the bebop establishment so loathes.

Now, if you're relatively new to everything, don't go generalizing based on that last paragraph. It's just my highly subjective impression of where online musical discourse seems to me to differ most notably from the tiny little world I live in. And if you're older and wiser than I am, don't just dismiss this as some random idiot from fly-over country blowing smoke about people and places he knows nothing about aside from what comes across his computer screen. This is what blogs do, and, at least during Blog Month, this one is no exception. I suspect it would be an overreaction to label these as large-scale trends in the music world, and I also suspect that the reason the internet seems to be teeming with activity in some areas and utterly devoid of it in others is almost entirely attributable to the demographics of who tends to embrace the internet as a tool and who has resisted. If the musico-blogosphere was just a bit older and more (musically) conservative than it is, it would probably better represent the world at large. That is doesn't is nothing to lose sleep over, but it does get those of us who don't fit the mold comfortably thinking about where (or if) we fit into anything in particular.

While I'm under 30, embrace the blog format, use computers many hours a day, and believe that the internet is generally a good thing, I'm also not a minimalist, not a fusion guy, and I absolutely can't stand pop music. As I've become more aware of the trends I mentioned, I've made a certain amount of effort to sample the music that everyone makes such big deal about on their blogs. They make it sound so cool that the letdown when I heard it was pretty severe. The saying goes that the more you know, the more you don't know, and this being the dynamic at work here, I quickly began to feel obligated to educate myself about things that everyone seemed to have in common but me. What I found, though, was that even though I knew few of the artists names, the sounds were in large part not new to me, for whatever reason. Trends being what they were, I assumed that I hadn't embraced them simply because I hadn't heard them, when in fact I knew more than I thought I did.

What I'm getting at here is that there's knowledge for knowledge's sake, and then there's knowledge that is useful or essential to one's very existence. There's plenty that I am interested in, plenty that I know I don't know about things I've already found to be very important to me. Stumbling on this whole other world made me not only feel guilty, but more importantly, made me wonder if perhaps I had missed the boat out of ignorance, and that being both a tragic and embarrassing condition to be in, it seemed necessary to rectify things. I wouldn't want to overstate how much listening I've done; it hasn't been all that much, but it's been enough for me to say that by this time, I would have expected to have found something that really grabbed me if that something exists at all. By the time I had listened to this much Miles Davis Quintet, this much Aaron Jay Kernis, this much Gentle Giant, I was hooked. I'm still waiting for that to happen with the music about which the blogosphere is constantly abuzz, but I'm running out of time to wait, and increasingly wondering if it's worth the wait at all. I think it would have happened by now if it's ever going to.

16 November 2009

Piano Proficiency (iv)

In addition to the general excitement of working towards something new, my piano adventure presents the opportunity to explore two very interesting questions of interest to any music teacher. First off, while I'm one of those twenty-somethings who doesn't quite feel like the word "adult" legitimately applies yet, the truth is that I'm undertaking this project well after science tells us it starts to get harder for people to acquire new muscle memory. Of course, I've dabbled in keyboard technique since I was that young, but none of it was focused or consistent, so while I have some important basic skills (as well as all of my musical experience as a tuba player) to work with, I would expect that if there's something to all the talk of brain cells changing after adolescence, that I'll be facing that challenge as part of this process.

To go along with that, the truth is that while I've become motivated to practice in a way that is focused and goal-oriented rather than aimlessly noodling, I still don't have time to do it every day. I don't have a keyboard at home, and while there are places I can go to use one, making a special trip every day just isn't going to happen with everything else that's going on. Even if I did have one at home, I'm still not sure it would become a daily thing. Hence, while you could say I've been consistent, it has been on a less-than-daily basis.

I experimented on and off for about half a year with practicing tuba only every other day. It worked better than I could reasonably have expected before trying it. Part of my theory was that the extra rest would keep both my chops and mind fresher, hence enabling longer practice sessions on the days that I practiced, which would add up to something close to the total time I was practicing already. While I can't say that my technique stayed right where it was before, it certainly didn't suffer too much, and I made great progress in learning new repertoire, since I was able to focus rather intensely on it one day, and then let it percolate for an extra day before coming back to it.

For better or worse, I could never get away with this now simply because I have to play almost every day either in a rehearsal or gig, which wouldn't allow either for the day of intense practice, or the day of complete rest. However, by default, this is essentially the approach I'm taking to the piano at this point. I'll be curious to see how far I can get this way before I have to make it a daily thing.

15 November 2009

Piano Proficiency (iii)

When I first started composing as a teen, the medium I worked in exclusively for the first several years was essentially the school band medium that I had been exposed to as a budding euphonium player. Even after I became involved in jazz as a player, it wasn't until several years later that I made my first attempts to compose in that idiom, and they were quite awkward and unsuccessful attempts, even in comparison to where my playing was at back then.

As I became more engrossed in jazz, I became more fluent as a jazz composer, and eventually spent some significant chunks of time writing only jazz compositions. Occasionally, lead sheet tunes would just come to me and I would write them down, but most of what I wrote early on had significant structural wrinkles, even if it was not truly through-composed. Coming from essentially a classical music composing background, I often had very specific ideas about how I wanted certain chords to be voiced, too specific for standard jazz notation, and certainly more specific than most players would want to put up with. In short, what this led to was either very dense harmonic structure (i.e. lots of chord symbols changing quickly), written out piano voicings and bass parts, or a combination of the two.

If I had been happy with the results, I would have persevered with this sort of concept, but eventually I became disillusioned with the results anyway, and seeing that they were, on top of everything else, rather unattractive if not downright unapproachable to many players (including myself at times), I began to think twice. My work has definitely become more polished after realizing this, and yet I still can't shake my attachment to very specific voicings, especially in the piano. In fact, even before I had a chance to play many of my tunes with real live people, I considered the piano to be the most important part of the ensemble, I had the most specific idea of how I wanted it to sound of any of the instruments in the band, and I would be apprehensive to bring in a tune of mine at all if there was no pianist in the group.

Similarly, I've often thought that if I, as the composer, could play the most important part in the band, that this would be most conducive to achieving fulfilling and accurate realizations of my tunes. That motivation to clean up my piano playing has always been there, and it remains the strongest motivation that I have. What I have been doing the past several months is mostly learning to play the tunes of mine that I feel will benefit the most from having the composer at the piano. It's quite a roundabout way to catch up on general technique, which is really what I need to do, but to be honest, the copious scale and arpeggio exercises used in traditional piano technique are the kinds of things that would make me absolutely hate to play, and given the fragile balance of circumstances that has inexplicably gotten me motivated to practice piano seriously for the first time, I feel like it's best to leave those alone.

Originally, I was a self-taught tuba player, but I can't really claim to be that anymore. I didn't have much help early on, but eventually I ended up taking quite a few lessons from a variety of tuba teachers with a variety of approaches, and while I've never changed my self-taught embouchure, most every other aspect of my tuba technique is very much by the book. I think it's safe to say that the piano is a far more intuitive instrument to learn than the tuba, and that it has a richer history of a variety of approaches, including the autodidactic, as well as those who simply do more with less. It's an instrument where I can clearly see how a traditional course of study benefits the player, and yet I can also see how the pervasiveness of that particular approach has yielded a certain amount of conformity among players, a conformity the type of which I'm inclined to avoid participating in if I can at all help it. Hence, my approach is to simply focus on learning to play what I want to be able to play, and in doing so, address the technical challenges of those particular pieces as they arise, even if that's not in order of progressive difficulty or an otherwise sensible succession of challenges that build on each other in a clear way.

The one area where I'll be forced to engage in purely technical exercises is independence. I've always felt that if I had great independence, I could do pretty much everything I want to do with the piano using just the minimal technique I already have with each hand on its own. That, however, is nowhere near the case. To this point, I've steadfastly avoided approaching anything that required even a hint of independence simply because I knew it would take longer to learn than the time I had to do it in. For now, at least, I've finally become motivated to do the grunt work required to overcome this barrier. We'll see if it actually works.

12 November 2009

Nothing To Say

So,...yeah. The title says it all. Even taking into account my bout with the flu, I'm a bit shocked at how utterly devoid of blog-worthy topics my brain has been for the past several days, even under the expanded definition of "blog-worthy" which I've decided to allow myself this month. With that in mind, here's some public soul-searching of the type I'm generally not inclined to share.

A couple of weeks ago, another musician who I had not known for very long asked me what my "endgame" is. I could not answer the question coherently. In many ways, I think I'm getting worse at answering that question as time goes on. My definition of success has become more about the quality of my work than about where, when, with whom, and for how much $$$ I get to make it. Perhaps what I'm missing is the connection between those two things, the realization that the circumstances surrounding the creation of a work impact one's success in making it. Then again, comfort and contentedness seem to do nothing for artists but make them lazy, ultimately harming the quality of their work, not helping it. So without necessarily turning against career success in principle, I'm quite content to be guided by a more abstract concept of success rooted in the perceived quality of what I've made rather than my general quality of life at the time. It's hard to fit that into a one sentence answer, so I'll probably continue to trip all over myself when people ask me, but it's the answer nonetheless.

07 November 2009


Apparently, when you save a draft on Blogger and publish it later, it appears under the date of the draft, not the date you clicked "publish." Had I known this, I could have compensated for my flu-induced failures by merely saving a few nonsense words as a draft on each day I missed, then returning to them later when I felt well enough to write coherently again. Oh well. The important thing to note is that the second entry in the "Piano Proficiency" series, my angst-ridden account of unconsummated desire for a forbidden instrument, has just now been completed, but appears under the heading of 3 November. The date of 4 November, meanwhile, remains truly unconsummated.

06 November 2009

A Cry For Attention?

It was a sad day when I realized I had no choice but to enable comment moderation on this blog. Even though I trust myself to be an evenhanded moderator and have never rejected a critical comment here (hell, I'd be happy to receive one at this point), the idea of unmoderated comment threads is certainly more appealing in the abstract.

The comment moderation feature did its job, slowing the influx of spam comments from a moderate trickle to a nearly non-existent one, and this has been the case for some time now. I doubt it's a coincidence, then, that after posting thrice in a span of five days (an unheard of rate of productivity 'round these parts), I've now had to reject two spam comments within the last 24 hours, this after having scarcely encountered a single one for quite a long stretch where I was lucky to post three times a month.

All the more reason why this will remain a once-a-year deal.

05 November 2009

This Project is Cursed

It figures that a mere 2 days into Blog Month 2009, I would come down with a raging case of the flu. Even an action as small as typing felt like running a marathon at the height of it, and hence, I've already fallen short of my goal for this year's project. There's always next year...

I've always displayed a very peculiar synthesis of my parents' personalities when it comes to getting work done, often putting things off for weeks at a time and missing deadlines only to suddenly get possessed by some random shot of adrenaline at the worst possible time and nearly pull an all-nighter completing some project that has no immediate timetable. In the end, it usually works out ok for my career aspirations, but almost never for my health, and this latest episode being in part a result of that phenomenon, I'm again pondering why exactly it is that I can't fall asleep between the hours of 8pm and 2am, no matter how tired I am. It certainly would make things a whole lot easier.

03 November 2009

Piano Proficiency (ii)

I've never been one for favorites, top-ten lists, and the like. As a kid I refused to identify a "best friend," maintaining that all my friends were important to me. These days, I refuse to name favorite composers on the grounds that no composer's output taken collectively could qualify. I think it's infinitely more helpful to name favorite pieces individually, as this paints a much clearer picture (the Postroll exemplifies the same approach taken to bloggers). The favorite instrument question is similarly flawed, and yet, there's been little doubt in my mind for several years that the piano is my favorite instrument. Perhaps a better way to put it is that much of my favorite music is written for the piano, and also that I enjoy writing for the piano myself quite thoroughly. If only I had learned to play it.

I do like the sound of the tuba, and even enjoy playing it from time to time, yet within the last several years, I suddenly haven't been able to shake the feeling that there's more to life, a feeling I wasn't burdened with before, and which afforded me the focus needed to develop my technique quite well, yet which now has made it all but impossible to find the discipline necessary to continue to advance technically on the instrument. Concurrently, whereby the hardest thing about sitting down to play piano has always been the sudden feeling of being handicapped in comparison to the instrument I had invested so much more time in learning, the attraction of more immediate technical advancement per unit of practice on an instrument where I have less experience has become seductive, even if the endgame is inevitably the same.

What's new here is my willingness to oblige this temptation, not its presence. I've always been inclined to pick up new instruments, starting after only a year of playing euphonium in band when I begged my mom to buy me a trumpet, and going through high school, where I often showed up to pep band events with a sousaphone, euphonium, and trumpet in hand, and where I once took a clarinet out of the band room behind the teacher's back and got reasonably competent at it within a couple of weeks in just a few minutes a day at home. I received what I considered to be good advice from many people along the way about the prospect of being a multi-instrumentalist, advice which invariably parroted the "jack of all trades, master of none" zinger. Eventually, I heard it enough that I came to believe it, and in fact, it's undoubtedly for the better that I've at least been as far as I have down the path of specialization, for should I decide to veer off of it, I'm eminently better equipped to do so. Nonetheless, it's hard not to wonder if that impulse couldn't have been turned into something the way my somewhat less acute impulse to rescue the reputation of the tuba has been turned into, well...something else.

While it appeared for some time following my sudden adolescent musical conversion from uncooperative pupil to star student that the tuba was the destination, it's looking more and more like merely part of the journey these days. I'm finding my interests too diverse and my patience too short to continue doing what has to be done to develop my tuba playing to its fullest potential. I feel dirty just writing that, but it's true: I could not see the path to tuba virtuosity more clearly and could not abhor it more thoroughly than I do. That's not because it's not worth it, or because I wouldn't love to have it, but simply because my tolerance for the menial technical work like lip slurs, long tones, and articulation drills which got me ahead of the game in college has been burned to shreds, my resolve to give it another go crushed by too many "square one" moments that I don't feel I've earned, but which the combination of my physique and mental approach have yielded over and over against every effort to the contrary.

I don't expect my piano playing to catch up to my tuba playing anytime soon, and I'm certainly not giving up on the tuba altogether. I've just realized, like many "professionals," that I need a way to make playing tuba fun again. I've also waited way too long to make playing piano fun for the first time.

02 November 2009

Piano Proficiency (i)

I have a complicated relationship with the piano. It should be more complicated, actually, since that's usually what happens when you invest a lot in a relationship; my investment, though, has been made inconsistently, in spates, and in that scattered, dabbling way that yields smaller and more trivial rewards than it would had all that work been more focused and occurred over a shorter period of time.

There were two harpsichords and zero pianos in the household I was raised in. Some of my earliest memories are of jumping on the couch while my dad played the music of Bach, Rameau, and Scarlatti. I called it "Bouncing Music," much to the chagrin of my mother, who had the best interests of the couch in mind. She told me that someday, I would bring my girlfriend over to sit on that couch, and that I wouldn't want it to be saggy and uneven. Predictably, that admonishment had no effect on a 5 year-old.

I came downstairs one day on my birthday and found a handwritten version of "Happy Birthday" waiting for me on the stand of one of the harpsichords. It was my mother's last best effort to get me interested in playing music, but was, like all previous efforts to that end, quite unsuccessful. I think about that day a lot, sometimes every day for stretches of weeks as I now ponder my musical strengths and weaknesses and how they might be different had I not been so decisively scornful of music until I reached junior high school.

Around the time I turned 12, a friend and I took it upon ourselves to investigate a moving sale taking place just up the block, and stumbled on a more-than-serviceable upright piano on sale for $200. It cost $250 to move it down the block, but my parents knew what they had (even if the seller didn't), and so they took the plunge. I was thusly introduced to the piano music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven through my dad's suddenly incessant practice (a neighbor called us on the phone and asked us to stop playing the record we'd been listening to all day, since it was getting late). Because this was around the time I had started playing in the school band (which I only did because we had to join either band or choir, and I was not going to sing), I started to dabble with the various keyboard instruments that now dominated our house, developing what I would later come to understand was a very strong understanding of basic music theory concepts, yet without so much as a hint of proper keyboard technique.

While I've learned quite a bit over the years, and even had to pass a piano test in college, my relationship with the instrument has hardly changed since this early stage. I never invested the least bit of time in developing any real technique, most especially in the area of independence of the two hands. My college piano class for music majors was all about applying theory to the keyboard, not about actually playing the instrument, and I was able to skate by putting forth minimal effort since this was, in fact, the only piano-based skill I already had at that time.

I sat down no fewer than 5 separate times in college and told myself that this was the time when I would get serious about playing piano. It never lasted more than several days, save for one isolated incident where I practiced the first Two-Part Invention religiously for 6 weeks, finally giving up having not once gotten through it at even a moderate tempo without making at least one basic technical mistake. After a while, when the impulse struck me to give the instrument another shot, I simply thought back to all of the previous attempts and how they ended (not well), and simply abandoned the idea. That's where I've been for the past 5 years or so.

The reason I'm taking to time to relate all of this is that, through a combination of many factors, I have as of a few weeks ago finally found whatever it is I needed to find in myself to get serious about the piano for the first time. I plan on sharing more about what exactly these factors have been in the very near future.

01 November 2009

October November Is Blog Month

October November is Blog Month here at My Fickle Ears Dig It. Continuing a tradition that was initiated last year, I will take a brief hiatus from spewing venom about arcane musical preoccupations and instead allow myself the freedom to behave like a "real" blogger. While the content will remain centered around music, I reserve the right to digress into virtually any topic, including (especially) those I know next to nothing about, as well as the barely-Twitter-worthy details of everyday life that people seem to think their friends actually care about. I'll also be using jargon and acronyms liberally, doing away with proofreading, and (mark my words) posting at least one picture. Oh, the humanity...

Last year's half-successful experiment took place in October, a tradition I had hoped to continue this year. October is easily my favorite month, boasting my favorite weather (typically the ONLY good weather we get all year in MN), favorite holiday (Halloween), and to top it off, my birthday. Nonetheless, seeing that I was on tour through the first week of the month*, and also that I managed to straight up forget to blog a number of times last year during which time I had nothing on the order of a tour to distract me, I figured it was prudent to put it off a bit.

I hedged my bets last year and merely aspired to average a post a day. Seeing that I failed to meet that goal, it makes no sense to up the ante this time around. However, given that the point of a "real" blog is to engage in self-centered excess, I hereby aspire to actually post at least once on each calendar day this month, and also to exceed 31 posts for the month (i.e. post twice in a day at least once...which is different from posting once in a day at least twice; think about THAT). Click here to read last year's Blog Month Intro, which captures the raw excitement of the initial experiment in a way which I'm hard-pressed to recreate today.

*I celebrated my birthday in Williston, ND this year with a cake baked for me by total strangers that read "Happy Birthday Tuba Man." Now that's living!

24 October 2009

Hidden Tracks (ii)

As long-time MFEDI readers know, I've been fixated for some time on the question of the inherent value of art considered apart from it's content. This comes as a direct consequence of the frequency with which I encounter people, institutions, theories, philosophies and public policies alike that take art to be an inherently positive thing simply by virtue of its being art. The most obvious flaw in this idea is that we, collectively, cannot seem to agree on what is and is not art in the first place, and hence, a rational debate is impossible because we cannot agree on a definition of our terms. But what if we could define our terms, proceeded to have the debate, and reached the conclusion that all art is, in fact, wholesome, constructive, and valuable (i.e. the way many seem to have concluded anyway, but which I personally disagree with)? Where would that leave us?

More recently, what fascinates me about this idea is the matter of supply and demand. How much of a good thing can we have before that good thing becomes a mediocre thing, or even a bad thing? Is there anything about art that would lead us to expect it to be immune to this mechanism (other than the fact that because we can't define what it is, we can't really know the answer)?

Supply and demand is an economic principle, but there are parallels to this idea in every conceivable facet of life. There's the physical aspect of it, seen in the principle of diffusion; the geographical/migratory aspect of it, seen in people going where the jobs are, where the resources are, or simply trying to get farther and farther from each other (i.e. suburban sprawl); the biological aspect of it, where practically any element in its purest form is toxic to living things, where we know it is possible to die from drinking too much of the substance most essential to survival (water), and where overpopulation ultimately leads to near extinction.

I lack the formal Philosophical grounding to know if there's an established global term for this idea outside the realm of economics, but one can clearly see that it is everywhere, both in nature and in society. It is not only possible to have too much of a good thing, it is virtually always the case that having too much of a good thing is 100 times worse than having just barely enough, and only marginally better than having none at all. Hence, even if we cannot define art, it would be silly to believe that its case would any different. And so I worry about it. A lot.

Art is everywhere. There's more music available for free online than a person could listen to in a thousand lifetimes. It would be a chore to find a vacant storefront in a bad neighborhood to fix up and turn into an art space because most all of them have already been bought up and turned into art spaces. And then there's the relatively recent idea of finding beauty in everyday objects or sounds (i.e. from Cage, et al), something which I embrace wholeheartedly, sometimes against the complaints of acquaintances and colleagues, but which also scares the living crap out of me as an artist because it would seem to render my work irrelevant, even to myself.

Digging even further, there's the "music is for everybody" issue. There's scarcely a saying I feel more conflicted about than that, since, while I (and everyone else) would just love to believe it solely for it's power to validate what we do, we all know it's not true. Speaking in absolutes is a death wish in rational debate, and this saying manages to do it not once but twice, first with "music" (i.e. ALL music? Music generally? What?) and, more obviously, with "everybody." More relevant to the present discussion, though, is that us musicians are literally putting ourselves out of business with this phrase. This is a brutal irony considering that it is most often trotted out as a marketing tool aimed at getting more kids involved in music, and hence yielding more income both for the music teachers who teach them and for the performers whose concerts it is assumed they will then attend for the rest of their lives. I've bellyached before about the soulless cynicism inherent in that thinking, so I'll leave that issue alone for now. The point is that in aiming to create more and more of a good thing, we inevitably create too much of it, and that it's equally inevitable that this will leave us worse off in the long run than we were before.

Some would (and do) argue that we're not creating the same good thing here, since the vast majority of these students don't become professional musicians, and hence don't offer a competing product (i.e. "professional level" performances). In a world with any justice whatsoever, that would indeed be the case, but we do not live in such a world, for in practice, audiences don't choose "professional level" performances over less-than competent performances; they're more interested in their friends' bands than anyone else's band simply because it's their friends, and they largely can't tell the difference in musicianship anyway where there is one. The retort to that is that more music education creates more astute listeners who can tell the difference. Perhaps, but it also creates more friends who continue to perform at a less-than-professional level as adults, creating a product that friendless professional musicians simply can't compete with, no matter how good they are. Further, it is demonstrable that more and more of these students are pursuing professional careers insofar as that entails majoring in music in college. That's the crown jewel of the "music is for everybody" battlecry, and one which is responsible above all else for its exceptional power to induce the opposite of its intended outcome.

Why the extreme cynicism? Because if there's one thing I wasn't prepared for when i left school, it was what audiences everywhere do and don't notice about musical performances. We've all had the experience of playing a less-than-stellar show and subsequently receiving a warm compliment from an oblivious audience member who couldn't tell the difference. That's not really what I'm talking about, though. I'm thinking more of identity: age, gender, dress, manner, politics and social group all seem to have more to do with success than musicianship does. I won't even tack on the seemingly obligatory "...these days" to that last statement, since "these days" are the only ones I know. Who can say if it's ever been any different? I do have a theory, though, which is that the age of musical plenty we live in has made this even worse than it could possibly have been before. Indeed, it would mark a rather momentous break with countless observable phenomena in nature and human society alike if this were not the case.

It's fun (and very blogospheric of me, I must admit) to list off economic, geographic and biological principles as if I know something about them, whereas in truth, I have only a cursory understanding of each phenomenon I listed. Nonetheless, allow me to attempt to spin this cursory understanding into a halfway compelling recommendation for the way forward. As I understand it, the word "sustainability" is on the tips of a lot of people's tongues these days. This is because we're slowly realizing that economic growth is not mediated solely by our desire to make it happen, but by factors beyond our direct control, like the non-renewability of certain natural resources, or the impossibility of technology replacing more workers than there are left to replace. Hence, instead of continued economic growth benefitting everyone, we are finding that the costs of maintaining a certain rate of growth are so severe as to defeat its utilitarian purpose.

It's more than a stretch to lump modern-day arts advocacy in with fascistic global capitalism, but I don't think it's debatable to say that growth-for-growth's-sake describes the philosophy of one as well as the other, or that there's a tipping point right around the corner in both cases. As we know, too much of something portends that thing's imminent starvation or diffusion or migration or explosion. So-called sustainability isn't so much about surviving that endgame as it is about achieving a kind of equilibrium that prevents the situation from ever getting quite so dire in the first place. So what does sustainability mean in the economics of art? A good start would be to abandon citing extrinsic benefits as the primary method of establishing art's value in the public arena. Nothing could be less sustainable than that smoke and mirrors act. A related action would be to embrace the idea of exposure over that of proselytizing, or in other words, to present music one believes strongly in to new audiences without a hint of superiority or moralization. This ensures a sustainable (if small) influx of new listeners who haven't merely been fooled or seduced into showing up. And last, of course, is to abandon the conceit of music being for everyone.

How could I write such a thing? Besides knowing it not to be true, the idea terrifies me, and not because I'm some elitist snob who'd rather be poor and unknown if it means getting the better of my aesthetic enemies. Sign me up for fame and fortune yesterday, but I'm afraid that what's keeping me from getting there isn't a lack of a musical awareness in the world at large, but rather a heaping, volatile, unsustainable pile of it that just keeps on growing, rendering my contribution to it more meaningless by the hour.