08 November 2016

Waiting For The Singularity

A thought on political dysfunction for this singularly disheartening election season:

Owing to immutable material conditions, the impending technocracy is thought to be already quite well prepared to automate most of what we do with our limbs and yet quite far indeed from automating most of what we do with our brains. Wouldn't we be better off if the reverse were true? Us human grunts have come to so despise manual labor while taking such pride in governing ourselves; and yet we seem to be quite a bit more competent in the former arena than the latter. Perhaps, then, we ought to put the robots in charge NOW, warts and all. Even their not-quite-human level of intelligence should be adequate to notice how close we are to destroying each other and summarily put us all back to work making widgets. Actually, given that "the social animal" is also the cronyist, nepotist, tribalist animal, perhaps being not-quite-human is actually the robots' strongest qualification for the job.

06 November 2016

Opposites Day Every Day

As I heedlessly forge ahead with the transformation from well- to over-educated, it occurs to me that there is great irony in having pursued musicianship within academia and scholarship outside of it. Even as the "mature" one, it would have taken unusual foresight and diligence for my 17 year-old self to fully grasp the tradeoffs lurking in each box of this unholy Punnett square. At 34, meanwhile, I have become a bit more conversant in such matters, and while superficially "the grass is always greener," in reality I'm thankful for and secure in my identity as a disciplined musician + free-wheeling scholar. In fact I'm tempted go even further than that: it's hard not to view both postures as necessary correctives to some troubling larger trends, and as such I'm hard-pressed to conjure any substantive regrets about the methodologies I've stumbled into.

05 November 2016

Escape From The Walled Garden: Honeymoon

I'm typing this latest cursory missive on an Intel NUC i5 running Debian Linux and bearing the full weight of a lifelong desire for a more "stable" computing life than Apple seems willing to provide. Perhaps that's a strange complaint from someone whose 2006 MacBook still runs and has managed to be instrumental in almost everything I've created for the last decade, including this entire blog. My 2001 iMac also ran forever and I expect it would start right up today if I had it handy. But that's not all those two machines have in common: both were left high and dry through planned obsolescence years before any reasonable consumer would have considered replacing them, and I've now had just enough of that song and dance to make a run for it.

In sentiments that I imagine are not particularly unique or interesting, I must confess that I'm not sure what the point is of having superior hardware if the OS and software are designed to stop working with it every few years, and since I've never been willing or able to pay the ever-steeper price of keeping up with the Jobses, the whole thing has been enormously frustrating for a long time. Ditto the wider ambivalence about long-term environmental impacts of all this "consumption," impacts which I trust will come home to roost in a more immediate way just a tick beyond some yet-to-be-understood point of no return. I hate to toe the line of such holier-than-thou hypocrisy, but here's putting it on the record anyway that I've at least considered this side of the issue, albeit while freely admitting that I don't quite have the courage to wholly refuse to participate.

And so while attempting to remain in control of my callow newbie enthusiasm, I'm going to give Linux and it's barely-adequate suite of musical accoutrements a fair shot to prove itself a worthy alternative. Most of that enthusiasm was sapped rather quickly as I attempted to make playdates for my Debian system with various devices, among which the printer and the Zoom H1 have proven amenable while the scanner and bluetooth speaker have not. And yes, gentle composers, I am committing to attempt to survive with MuseScore, at least for a while, and to ponder learning a typesetting program that could handle the thornier jobs. Sibelius has been very much (I'm sure many older folk would say too much) a part of my musical identity since the age of 18, and I'm not sure I've fully grasped what life will look like without it. At the same time, its recent history makes me just as nervous as does Apple's, albeit for rather different reasons; and further, 90% of what I write is "lines and dots" music anyway, even if those lines and dots sometimes come in waves. I will of course be sure to report progress (or lack thereof) as circumstances dictate.

04 November 2016

Armchair Deconstruction: The Sound of Music, and The Silence of Musicians Who Are On Their Way

Before music rescues the von Trapp children from the militaristic tyranny of their grieving father, before it is co-opted to show that "nothing in Austria has changed," and before it serves as a diversionary tactic against Nazi captors frothing at their proverbial mouths, we are reminded, just for good measure, of something we already knew: that the people who actually make the music are quite unreliable in virtually every other way.

In medias res we meet our heroine Maria, lost in song and waxing metaphysical, reciting a relatively recent Alpine gloss on the much more ancient Harmony of the Spheres. It is mid-afternoon by the time her alarm clock finally rings, at which point the daydream gives way to cold reality: She is late. Again. Just like musicians always are.

This prompts the good sisters themselves to break into song and recount for us in exquisite detail the full litany of Maria's dialectical fissures. Neither the abbey walls nor any others can contain Our Lady; rather, she herself is uncontainable, an enigma, as full of good qualities and boundless energy as she is thoroughly unable to harness them to any controlled or rational end, and most especially not toward her chosen vocation. She is a wonderful person, of course, but one we'd rather not be burdened to deal with directly. You might say that it is cleaner and more expedient for all involved that we opt merely to appreciate her from a safe distance in lieu of actually experiencing her in full. We take solace, or so we say, in knowing that such people are out there, somewhere, undoubtedly doing more good than harm, even as we consciously and unconsciously avoid entanglement. After all, "Once entangled, twice a no-show."

Given such a detailed accounting of pros and cons, the unusually sympathetic, enterprising, or just plain perceptive among us may of course be quite capable of drawing their own, more charitable conclusions. Such it is that by the time all is said and done Maria has had her trajectory profitably redirected by an elder who has seen it all before, improbably bringing release (of at least two kinds), nurturance, and mentorship to the von Trapps after such amenities had seemingly died along with their former matriarch. A good-old-fashioned feminist deconstruction would not be out of place here, and it should take priority over the more parochial issue of music's position in society. But like any marginalized group, musicians too can always count on artifacts of mass culture to invoke those timeless archetypes which are most easily recognized by a fearfully conformist bourgeois audience (Seriously, which groups are not marginalized by this demographic?), and indeed to see the fear no less than the archetype itself reflected therein. Here, then, is one more reminder to leave a little extra time in case the traffic is bad.

03 November 2016

Reductionism Lurks at Every Turn

In what goes for recommitment to tuba playing in my world these days, I decided at the beginning of the summer to return to an old incomplete project: the quintuplet, and making it feel and sound natural. This chicken scratch is a (very) rough record of the tasks I devised as they occurred to me.

(Perceptive music-schoolers and others with a taste for flash-and-trash will detect that the Monti Csardas was also on my stand at the inception of this endeavor. Beyond that general confession, I claim the 5th.)

Within the first few days I realized that I'm a very long way from being able to play entire passages in "5 time" against the 2, 3, or 4 time of an obstinate metronome. The need for simplicity and baby steps necessarily led me away from bits of "real" music and precipitously toward material chosen and constructed strictly for it's articulation of the desired rhythmic groups and not at all for its intrinsic qualities as music. And that is to say that this old bugaboo, about which I've spilled so much virtual ink already, applies to rhythm and time as well as it does to pitch material, something I hadn't really stopped to consider until now.

This much should have been obvious, but of course Classical musicians are infamously disinclined to give rhythm its due (specially appointed timekeepers notwithstanding), and even then too often in a mechanical, unaesthetic way. Even in spite of an early interest in jazz, timefeel as an isolable area of inquiry beyond the enforced literalness and rationality of Classical training somehow managed to elude me completely until my brain was no longer plastic enough nor my extremities unbiased enough to facilitate speedy progress. Jazz bass functions have served as a humbling and practical lens through which to attempt improvement, but one very much tied to particular historical styles which I drift in and out of and, sadly, have precious little opportunity to perform. And so in wrestling with fundamental metric modulations vis-a-vis "small whole number ratios," I hope not only to clean up the pulses themselves but also to sear them into my tempo memory as conceptual guideposts between which more fudgy in-between speeds might be located, the latter task being, to me, potentially much more interesting than the Tyranny Of The Grid which seems to prevail among most others who have taken the time to give this kind of thing the attention it deserves.