31 May 2020

Three Views on Competition


Mid-quarantine sports media has gone nostagic out of necessity, with the recent Michael Jordan documentary leading the charge, and thereby it has been pointed out that MJ's pathological competitiveness would today run afoul of numerous sensitivities. Leaving aside for now the litigation of those sensitivities and the triteness of the observation, I think it is nonetheless an observation worth dwelling upon and extending: the games are mere escapist entertainment and the Darwinistic element is, unlike the analogous Roman spectacles, more symbolic than real; yet the people are real, and if they are not usually worth truly feeling sorry for, that is not to say that their outrageous salaries somehow void their basic human entitlement to dignity and health. MJ in his more infamous moments undoubtedly created a Hostile Work Environment. Since his playing career ended, American pro sports have seen a handful of high-profile breakdowns, AWOLs, and early retirements which are either partly or wholly attributable to similar behavior by less-revered teammates. The social ground has indeed shifted beneath the feet of bigtime sports, making this human toll seem less collateral and more integral. It is doubly inconvenient, then, to be told that MJ's now-questionable motivational tactics were integral rather than peripheral to his success. I love sports and I also think it is okay to be uneasy with this, i.e. to impose today's standards on yesterday's events. Nothing would ever get better if that type of hindsight was not allowed. The anti-civs can howl all they want about PCness and Revisionist History, but even they know that there is a right and a wrong way to treat people. Some of them may even have had an experience that (gasp!) changed their mind! I certainly have...and somehow I still love watching sports. Love of sports is, paraphrasing a girlfriend-of-a-friend, my only "normal" trait. I take no offense to the comment; rather, taking it at face value, I choose to strategically deploy this aspect of my public-facing self in those tough social situations where it is crucial to seem normal. But of course in my remaining abnormal moments, it has only gotten more difficult with time to ignore everything about sports that is unseemly.

For the most part, even pro sports lockerrooms have at least met the new sensitivities halfway. The greatest countervailing force to this belated enlightenment is not the odd Old School jock, but rather the amount of money at stake. Rule-bending/breaking is itself something of an art form, and exceedingly thin competitive margins in high-stakes endeavors tend to encourage its consolidation and refinement. MJ of course authored the definitive work of contextual rule-bending when he...created separation from Utah's Bryon Russell in the closing seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals (his only signature moment that I vividly remember watching on live TV). It is a "work" without parallel even in MJ's oeuvre, by, of and for that moment and that moment only. Among the commentators I listen to, the ones who not only were there but also have dug deepest into all of this after the fact tend to emphasize a similarly contextual, circumstantial, incentive-driven understanding of MJ's most infamous interpersonal conflicts. Context and circumstance are crucial to the sensitivity question, no matter where you fall on it. It is of course possible for high-stakes athletic competition to unfold with minimal "personal" friction, but it is not possible 100 percent of the time. Similarly, high-level competition might emerge without correspondingly high stakes, but it probably won't. A long-winded way of saying: sports cannot be sanitized much further than they already have without harming their intrinsic appeal to "normal" people (or, as the case may be, to the little tiny "normal" person that lives inside even of weirdos like me).

For now, a basketball game still has a winner and a loser, and the team sports franchise remains nothing less than the contemporary archetype of patriarchal, non-particularistic organization. The Chicago Bulls can turnover personnel a dozen times and still be the Chicago Bulls. If the rarefied air of hyper-thin competitive margins is then thought to be first and foremost hazardous to one's health, and thus unseemly on specifically that basis, this represents a particularistic turn which is anathema to what bigtime sports are. If the human toll is no longer acceptable then I will fall in line with that new reality, but I don't have to enjoy the new sports-like product. I'm not very normal, but I am too normal to enjoy games where no one wins or loses. If we now "root for players, not for teams," as even some of the above-mentioned sports commentators claim to, then it does seem that winning and losing no longer matters. I can't relate to this, but I think I at least understand it. Why we would continue to channel competition-averse desires through sport is, conversely, something I can't even understand.


The current slogan of the North American Scrabble Players Association is, "Making Words, Building Friendships." What exactly does this imply? (Or not?) Perhaps most basically, a matter-of-fact concurrence with reality: even I have made at least two unusually good/close friends on the Scrabble scene, and the proportion of people I find tolerable is non-negligibly greater than the baseline expectation. This being as it may, if an equivalence is what is implied in the slogan, I think this is wholly illogical and dishonest. Certainly it is not in concurrence with the reality I've observed. There is at least as much animosity as friendship in Scrabble; this much was palpable in the room from my very first expedition to a NASPA-sanctioned club. What has only become clear with experience is that this animosity exceeds the mere social background radiation one expects to find everywhere; it is, rather, intrinsic to the game itself. The disproportionately extreme consequences of seemingly marginal strategic decisions make Scrabble as much about mastering one's own emotions as about cognitive ability or competitive spirit, and no one in this pressure-cooker is a perfect master of their emotions, no matter how friendly they are the rest of the time. If you want to engender friendship, you definitely do not place people into this sort of dynamic interaction with chance; and if you have a friend-target in mind, it's best that this friend-target not embody the opposition in a zero-sum test of the two acquaintances' comparative abilities to manage said dynamic interaction with chance. Given some of the dust-ups I've witnessed, I give myself relatively high marks for civility; but mere civility is not friendship. I confess that I find friendship (d)elusive here, not only in the heat of competition, where it is colored by visceral emotion, but also upon distanced reflection, where it is colored by a wider interest in sport as expounded upon above. I grant that the drawing of any analogies between the NBA and the NASPA strains credulity. Nonetheless, both a game of basketball and a game of Scrabble have a winner and a loser; if the analogy can be extended only that far, this is nonetheless quite a significant fact with many significant implications. As such we might add that both are ritualized, sanitized reenactments of base instincts, or some flavor of that old trope. What does this phylogenetically distant basis in primal violence mean? Is it the distance or the violence which is more meaningful? Sensitivity is the obsession of the moment for hard-liners on both sides that question, but I think the answer really depends more on our intelligence than on our sensitivities. (I also believe the covariability of intelligence and sensitivity to be generally overstated1, though I do need to learn more about this and could be swayed.) For the most part, sentient adults are capable of compartmentalizing ritualized reenactments from so-called real life. As a species we are, I think, quite capable of civility per se in this scenario, if not always of friendship; and as the eminently social species, there is much to be gained if we can achieve this, and certainly also lost if we cannot: the ventilating function of such ritualized, non-destructive competitive outlets, the lexico-cognitive dimension of Scrabble as healthy mental exercise, the greater acuity of such exercise-benefits when they are channeled by competition rather than pursued casually, and so on. Call these the Extrinsic Benefits if you insist, though really they are intrinsic to this uniquely human institution. Of course the institution of friendship matters too. But if friendship is your end, tournament Scrabble is a strange choice of means. If friendship were the ultimate aim, what wouldn't we change about Scrabble? And if winning and losing isn't what really matters, what are we doing playing a game that has a winner and a loser?


My 2002 summer expedition to the Aebersold workshop in Louisville was rather fruitless from a playing perspective, but the lengthy evening concerts were, as many others have remarked, themselves worth the trip. By now most of the finer details have blurred, but I specifically recall a Don Braden-Eric Alexander tenor battle not for the music (which I'm sure was fine nonetheless) but for Braden's mid-set remark to the assembled newbs. Paraphrasing: it can't help but be a competition when the two of us are up here together, and this is fine as long as it serves the music. I can't help but agree, which leads us seamlessly back into navel-gazing: is competition thought able to serve a constructive purpose here because there is, metaphors and figures of speech aside, no winner or loser in music? Certainly there is an aesthetic dimension to sport: John Stockton is said to have described the Dream Team scrimmages as "poetry;" and Scrabble played at the highest level certainly has struck many an informed observer as "beautiful." But only in the case of exhibition games can I imagine a convincing argument that aesthetics are essential to sport, even as they are quite essential to my own interest in it. Conversely, as Debussy would have it, "Pleasure is the law" in music. That assertion can be problematized from any number of abstract ethical perspectives, same as can ritualized competition; but the overwhelming thrust of real social practice, rational or not, is on the side of pleasure here. Hence I think the burden is on the ethicizer/moralizer to demonstrate that pleasure and competition alike are entirely about wants and not at all about needs. I do not believe this to be true in either case.

1. Anecdotally, the phenomenon of the pathologically cutthroat pickup basketball player always seemed to me a product of vulnerable class position, not of individual psychology, and certainly not of intelligence. Where individual psychology comes in, I suppose, is in the case of players whose competitive drive stems from perceived vulnerability that is not necessarily real. MJ and Tom Brady are often mentioned in this connection, as is the significance of what I am calling "perceived vulnerability" (as opposed to the real kind) in the realm of politics and demagoguery.

30 May 2020

Conquering Dependence on Necessary Evils

One day as a high-schooler writing music on my Dad's PowerMac, I discovered that ConcertWare had a meter called "Free Time." Thus began an abiding compositional habit of periodically dispensing with barlines. Having now seen much more printed music and made many more forays (not totally successful ones) into hand-written/mind's-ear composition, it is always a bit embarrassing to think back to moments like this, when composing was for me something of a video game. Whether the software thus encouraged that impressionable young person to play fast and loose with convention or whether it merely allowed him to is a question of framing rather than of substance, and one which composers will answer more according to our own orientations rather than according to reality. Since the reality was in my particular case lost to the sands of time without anyone (including myself) caring nearly as much as composers seem to care about this issue in the abstract, perhaps this is just fine. Admittedly, from the perspective of a more experienced quasi-teacher attending to a hypothetical student, I would not be totally at ease with such a process now. Yet the same hindsight shows that there were at least two undeniably propitious elements in my case: (a) the ease and accessibility of this feature exploded a hitherto unquestioned convention rather than rigidifying it, and (b) ConcertWare undeniably handled unmetered notation far more flexibly than Finale, Sibelius or MuseScore do, even now.

It is true that such departures can be made too easy as well as too difficult, depending on the technical intermediary and the cultural atmosphere. It is also true that frequent interface with printed music outside of one's computing life has a way of diluting the computer's influence over notational decisions. I was fortunate as a tween to at least be seeing printed music in band class, and occasionally tripping over stacks of it at home. I suppose it was only later, when I realized that composers, publishers and conductors I had heard of (or at least a few of them) were open (or at least not irrevocably opposed) to temporarily dispensing with barlines, and when I encountered my first gentle opposition to this practice on the part of other musicians, that my decision thereby became something of an informed decision, taken freely. And when a beloved college wind band conductor habitually referred to barlines as "a necessary evil" in rehearsal, as an idealist I of course heard "evil" more than "necessary," and at that point all barline bets were off.

Unmetered notation remains controversial, even among the most seasoned and fluent musicians. Periodically I have occasion to pause and reflect on this situation, and it occurs to me now that there is a significant connection here to another Style Wars polemic which bubbles up occasionally: the question of learning one's part from notation as against learning it via aural transmission. In addition to asking for unmetered music to sound a certain way, by writing unmetered passages composers are asking the player to do some extra work; perhaps to figure out for themselves, by shedding, where the barlines might be if they had been used; perhaps to become familiar enough with (essentially, to memorize) the passage such that the coordinating function of the barline is superfluous; and perhaps therefore not to concern themselves with what other players' parts might be asking of them, nor with how those other players might handle those demands, including the possibility (within reason) of different grouping/phrasing in different parts. There is more to unmetered passages than the possibility of multiple "correct" meterings or the absence of composerly guidance (not to say intent) on said point: there is, more importantly, a practice, rehearsal, and performance process which is mediated by a notational decision. The result of this now-changed process is what I am seeking with unmetered passages. I am not seeking a "perfect" rendition as if barlines had been deployed and subsequently observed by unusually adept players or by a machine. I am, in a sense, actually going out of my way to avoid this.

Process is the only reason that the performance of unmetered music might, potentially (hopefully?), sound different than if the music were metered; getting music to sound a certain way is the only logical reason to depart from received notational convention; and departing from received notational convention is a good way (if not the only way) to shake up the performance process. This is the kind of procedural perfect circle that composers dream about, and usually only dream about. If the "process" merely consists of the performers staying 5 minutes after the first rehearsal to compare parts and draw in uniform barlines, then we can still say that the notation has mediated the process, and that the music might still sound different than if the composer had provided the same information to them from the outset. But this amounts to normalizing/conventionalizing what was non-normative about the piece in order to make it easier to play. That maneuver is the domain of Jobbing, not of Artistry. Shedding also makes any given piece easier to play, regardless of notation, and invites the reflection which breathes life into Dead Tree composition. It is socially ungraceful to point this out in a world where Everyone Is Busy and there is already plenty of music to listen to. I accept that judgment on a cosmic level. On an earthly level, meanwhile, I see unexplored/neglected aesthetic avenues hiding in plain sight and conjecture that they might be fun to explore. So come fly with me, or whatever.

Reflection tends to be baked into the process of aural transmission, and it tends to be eschewed (usually almost totally) by users of notation. This I do not deny, but I do choose to find fault with the users rather than with the notation. Thus for me the basis for preferring one mode of transmission to another is a matter of what I might want to do with it, not what everyone else thinks everyone else is doing with it. Modes of transmission are mere vehicles for the realization of the abstract concept of a work; it is the concept which indicates favorably or poorly for either process, not the other way around. Notation is all about expedience, and this is both its best and worst quality. Notation allows Eye Players to realize music without reflecting on it, perhaps even, as the figure of speech would have it, without even thinking about it. Owing to innumerable big-picture factors which are best set aside for now, this is normally exactly what happens (or doesn't happen). Certainly no one is more puzzled by or discontent with this situation than I am, and I will not be out-discontented by partisans of Ear traditions who choose to resolve this structure-agency question one-sidedly. It is true that the structure here (the notational system) is what enables users to become passive re-creators, but it is not true that it imposes passive re-creation, nor that the etiology of passive re-creation is entirely or even mostly a matter of the notational system, nor that the notational system has nothing more to offer us than the shortest on-ramp to the path of least resistance. If any given Eye Player chooses to reflect upon their Eye Music, they will find every bit as much to reflect upon as will the ear player upon theirs. If they neglect to take this opportunity where it presents itself, then my heart bleeds for them.

Writing without barlines aims at imposing a process that is intermediate between the rhetorical extremes of the Ear Player who is forced into a reflective outlook by the laboriousness of their process and the Eye Player who habitually tears through piles of written music without any reflection whatsoever because Everyone Is Busy and reflection would slow them down. Writing without barlines aims at imposing selective reflection by omitting small pieces of customary information, while nonetheless providing all the other information that written music customarily provides.

Notation doesn't breed soulless performance; rather, soulless performers gives soulless performances. Unfortunately this conclusion has become unavoidable as Ear Playing increasingly carries the day and soullessness remains rampant. Yes, Everyone Is Busy, and so there aren't too many bands around today where everyone really commits to the Mingus process. We're so Busy, actually, that the dwindling repertory has moved decisively away from anything even as structurally specific as Haitian Fight Song. The overdetermination of musical structure by social structure is a material question, not an expressive or metaphysical one. You cannot claim the exquisite-corpse process as an affirmative creative decision when your five band members have moved to five different states! You cannot claim notational or conceptual simplicity as an affirmative creative decision when you know that no one is willing to rehearse! I am not saying that you cannot succeed under these circumstances. What I am saying is that you cannot claim success.

When process is materially circumscribed from the outset, concept can only trail at a distance. It is unideal for process to lead concept in this way because all processes are conceptually limiting. Ideally the creator of the work would have taken account of this from the embryonic stage of creation, identifying a process which best serves their concept while working around the inevitable potholes. That is, ideally the mediation between process and concept takes place though the creative process itself, not in sequence with one consideration leading the other around by the scruff of the neck after the piece is "done." When process dictates to concept, its flaws and slippages are foregrounded anywhere the creator is unwilling to sacrifice concept to expedience. On one hand, this unwillingness is socially maladaptive; on the other hand, it is one leading indicator of the presence of a soul. Hence owing to unconscious self-other identifications that even educated citizens of enlightened post-industrial societies are subject to, this unwillingness to compromise tends to be rewarded by the soulful and punished by the soulless. And that's where we're at!

28 May 2020

Pre-Endgame Strategy

In my current situation I find the long-term rather than the short-term impacts of the quarantine most concerning, and perhaps for this reason I've frequently found myself thinking about one particular long-term concern.

Stay-at-home orders are nearly superfluous in my case, hence the lockdown has, for me, so far been little else than a welcome sabbatical from rat-racing, and a fruitful period of study (both self- and other-). The near-total lack of structure is nonetheless something which I've always found slightly hazardous. And so here is one extrinsic benefit of music education that I'll toast to: as a brass player, I figured out even before the clickbait psychojournalists did that having a routine would be essential not just to parochially musical concerns but to the general preservation of sanity. Thus the tuba hour commences at noon daily. It is really more like 20 minutes and almost never starts before 1pm. I hesitate to call this "discipline," since the timing is too loose and too brief to qualify. If it is "maintenance," then disrepair carries the day. The main objective is not to forget how to play. There are a couple of mild conceptual challenges involved and no technical ones. Part of me laments that this is what it has come to for someone who veritably haunted the practice rooms in college, and who, gun to head, still claims the tuba as the center of his increasingly entropic intellectual and creative universe. All of those misgivings being as they are, I have no doubt that I'm making made good on my frequent admonitions to young students that even this amount of practice, when it is logically structured, narrowly focused, and adhered to daily with the devoutness of a sacred ritual, can be productive and worth the trouble.

It never occurred to me to promote this ritual as a prospective lifeline to structure, invocable if the rest of the world seems to have frozen in time. Maybe I'll try that if and when I next return to teaching, since none of my other spiels have ever been the least bit effective in inspiring commitment where it did not previously exist. I am of course reluctant to expose students to the multi-layered ambivalence of the mid-career professional; that sort of radical honesty might be a bit too radical even for me. To take music and, more specifically, a musical instrument as not just a specialty but an identity, to face society as a tooba player, encompasses, as I have probably already written enough about, quite the dizzying array of privileges, struggles, and absurdities. In the present absurd conditions I do feel quite fortunate to have a readymade vehicle of routine, and I do believe the sanity-preserving function to have been borne out by this experience, but all of that merely represses the reality that it has been a decade and a half since I last found rigid adherence to a practice regimen fun and fulfilling for its own sake, and that both the duration of adherence and the intensity of "fun" have steadily diminished with time. This, taken together with the long-term inevitability of physical and mental decline, paints quite the discouraging picture of the aging brass player. Can this downward curve ever be flattened?

For all that I've invested in book learning, I am guided on the endgame question almost exclusively by two fond anecdotes which I've never bothered to investigate. First: a friend is fond of remarking that 50 year-old drivers have the fewest accidents and the lowest insurance premiums. They sit at an optimal point on the x-y graph of accumulated experience (lots) against physical decline (not yet). This seems to me a supremely relevant consideration for brass players as well, i.e. with an eye toward balancing cumulative achievement with quality of life by determining the optimal time to walk away. On which point the second, more morbid anecdote is salient, a nugget of my mother's dime-store-Marxist antisheltering, and a burden which more conventional American parents would never reveal to a pre-adolescent child: when all people do for 50 years is work, they often don't know what to do with themselves upon retiring, even if they thought they would; and when people don't know what to do with themselves in this profound sort of way, even when they thought they would, they often just die.

If the "x-y graphs" and "optimization" of the first anecdote sound too fully rationalized or mathematical to be useful in Real Life, then the urgency of death inspired by the second anecdote ought to be motivation enough to embrace them. Overlaid on all of that, for me at least, is the question of what Erikson called "generativity," essentially the province of culture's 50 year-old drivers, and for me split (not always happily) into generativity that pays the bills and generativity that feeds the soul. While I certainly tend to look forward to a day when I have played my last corporate ice cream social, even I would grant that a withdrawal from that kind of work represents a certain loss of identity in a society where your work defines you. (I think I want to live in a society that is not like that, but this is unlikely to happen.) By the same token, having developed out of tuba playing all kinds of peripheral intellectual and creative interests, the thought of someday making those peripheral interests central, without the tuba there to ground them, has always been both superficially appealing and deeply scary. Be it a privilege or a chore depending on the day, tuba playing is both the initial inspiration and the ultimate outlet for those other pursuits. Hence I fear equally the old-age regret of having stopped playing too soon, leading to a loss of focus in the other areas, and that of hanging on too long, wasting time doing subpar tuba work when that time could be more fruitfully devoted to the other areas. To be sure, both of these prospective regrets seem, literally, deadly. Thus I think it is reasonable to consider such scenarios ahead of time, before moments of choice are upon you. Tweeting about having a "no regrets" outlook regarding the things you can't control is no substitute for seeking foresight and taking initiative regarding things that are very much within your control.

To wit, I would conjecture that the optimization function f(tuba) is bimodal: either (a) give up playing young enough that a new generative identity can form, or (b) hang on to the one you've got til the bitter end, perhaps reinventing your aesthetic as your declining technique dictates. The third, more conventional option, as mutually determined by social and structural norms, is Retirement at the socio-structurally appointed Retirement Age. Many musicians simply aren't able to pursue this the way people with real jobs can, and some who could and should pursue it neglect to do so. The denouement of COVID will have a lot to do with whether or not this course is even available to me. That aside, I think that Retirement is plainly incoherent with not one but both of the above anecdotes; it is incoherent with considerations of identity, aesthetics, and achievement alike; in a word, it is incoherent with psychobiology itself. And so without denying that Retirement represents a privilege of sorts, I think it is my third choice. I view it as a privilege only relative to the fourth option: working myself into the grave. And so as events continue to unfold, I will be focused on playing a good pre-endgame.

11 May 2020

Bananaphone -- Quarantine Edition