Thursday, February 23, 2006

change and blondness

It's occurred to me that some of you haven't seen me recently.

You'll occasionally hear someone say that although change can be good, change for its own sake isn't. I tend to think, though, that unless a change is actively bad (New Coke, for instance), change itself is an excellent thing. God reveals himself as the God of Change. He makes all things new, he transforms an old covenant into a new one, an old self into a new creature, and, eventually, a weary earth into a New Jerusalem.

I was reflecting on all these things in reading an article in the new Communiqué Journal. The author says, arrestingly, that "Change can be prophetic, for prophecy anticipates change," and concludes that "Innovation is a daring act of hope." When we embrace the new, we are stretching our muscles for the day when we embrace the New.

It wasn't long after reading that article that I got into a couple of conversations, one with Christine Hill and one with Nathan Mustain, friends who had had many hair colors, in which I was encouraged to bleach my hair completely. So I did.

Behold the new:

The picture was taken the other day by Henry Chan, for the Baylor newspaper the Lariat, at the social event that's now known as Dr Pepper Hour. The Lariat being what it is, the photo is, according to the caption, of some fellow named "Blake," who is not one but many "Alumni."

Some things never change.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

davinci, danger, art

A friend just sent me an email he'd received, with links to "resources" for equipping Christians for a particular battle.

What battle, you ask? Fighting temptation, perhaps? The battle against keeping marriages together, attacked as they are by the army of gays that magically cause people to divorce? Nope, these resources were for fighting the lies of The Da Vinci Code.

The thing that's depressing about this is that Da Vinci is such an awful book. It's worse than This Present Darkness. It's worse than Gilligan's Island, which suddenly seems elegant and multilayered.

Not that there's anything wrong with hack fiction per se. It keeps the book industry lubricated. It can be entertaining reading. Dan Brown puts out a great page-turner; even though you don't care about any of the characters, you keep going, through your derisive laughter, to find out what happens. He's a genius at plotting really interesting puzzles. He just needs a ghostwriter. Either way, I find myself wondering why we can't at least be threatened by Philip Pullman.

The other thing that's depressing is what it tells us about the state of the religion. Evangelicals have, for their whole existence, only had two responses to art produced by Christians: they either view it with suspicion, or they view it as an evangelical tool. If it can't be used as an evangelical tool, why have it? What's the use of art that doesn't win souls? (This veering between hostility and utilitarian opportunism explains people's weird opinions about U2, for instance.) Conversely, much of the art that the rest of the world produces is perceived to be evangelical as well. By this light, Da Vinci isn't just an entertaining book (more entertaining if you don't know your church history; if you do you have to squint). It's a Dangerous Tool for winning people's souls to Satan. I can't even count the number of people who say the book is full of lies. Lies?! They're not lies; they're fictions.

The larger narrative I see here is this ratcheting up of the tone in the past ten years: when did conservative Christians begin to feel so threatened? Precisely when they had something to lose. It used to be that evangelicals were the persecuted underdogs in society, and so they could simply press on with what God had them doing. St Paul wrote, "To live is Christ; to die is gain." It's no coincidence that he wrote that in jail. When you're there, literally or metaphorically, you realize the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be damaged by pen or sword. But now that these same people have pens and swords, now that they've taken the place of their former oppressors, they need to retain their earthly power by crushing all dissent, just like their oppressors did.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

repetition and repetition

I'm sitting here listening to some music by the Rurals, a beguiling dance-music group that regularly spins extended meditations out of nothing. I'm struck by how we love to hear some things over and over.

Catherine, with whom I've just spent a couple of beautiful days of repose, loves to hear me repeat things. She loves it when I call her "my Catherine" and when I call her "Darling." She repeats the same squiggles of pleasure every time she hears those things. She sometimes has me tell her again that I have been in many lands and known many people, but I have never seen a woman as fair as she.

And I like saying that, again and again.

Friday, February 17, 2006

great lick

One of the odd things about being a jazz musician is that you never play something the same way twice. Erroll Garner said he never even played something the same way once.

I know how he feels. I regularly play things that I can't really play. I'm much more of a composer than I am an instrumentalist; that's why I move so easily from instrument to instrument. I rarely think pianistically when I'm at a piano. I'm always thinking orchestrally. So, when I get off a really incredible lick, I become jealous of myself, because I know I'll never pass that way again. In general that's good, but I was just listening to a clip I have of one of my first jazz compositions, Lunitude. (I treasure the moment, about halfway through the clip, when the improvisation takes off and the whole thing steps into the room of cool.) Right toward the end, on the most unstable two chords of the thing, a B+7#9 and then a Bb13#11b9, I bip up to a high peak and then toss off a descending right-hand figure that tumbles and trips down to its resolution.

That's one of the coolest things I've ever played; I'm just glad the tape was rolling. I actually captured that and printed it out on a staff, and tried to figure out how to finger it and play it. After several hundred times through it, I was finally able to execute it, but I still can't deliver it like I did just that once, off the cuff.

That's why you have to be there.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

dp hour

Yesterday, I did one of my favorite things. I walked through the impossibly crisp blue Waco day over to the SUB, the Student Union Building, and had my fill of Baylor's Tuesday afternoon social hour. It's held in the drawing room every week from three to four. Toward the head of the room, there's a table with a few giant bowls full of milkshake, which you ladle into a plastic cocktail cup. Then you sit around and socialize with whoever's there, or read, or, as I did yesterday, people-watch.

I've mentioned before how much I like this place and its vaulted ceiling and hardwood floor and ornate rugs and gilt-framed mirrors and paintings. The whole feel of it is comfily different from other, newer parts of the campus, which veer from the office-bland to the mall-spiffy to the faux-hip, but never reach this effortless grace. The students seem to like it, too. Maybe they feel, as I always did, complimented, the way you feel with the great-uncle who always talked to you like a grown-up.

I toured the room several times, and saw a collection of people Tom Wolfe would never recognize. No white cords dangling from the ears, no circles of kids all talking on cell phones, no sign of brute proto-careerism. Just friendly folk chatting and studying. Gathered around the piano were six guys of rugby shirt and shaggy hair, plunking through a hymnlike fraternity Sweetheart Song ("her praise we sing / our song shall ring") for a solid, maddening forty-five minutes. Standing around the drawing room floor and sitting on tapestry couches around old ornate tables were clusters of three or five or eight people of such wholesomeness, and such perfectly varied ethnicity, that any group of them could have stepped straight off the cover of the college brochure.

Much has changed, though little has changed. That there wasn't a single dress or skirt in sight would have been unthinkable twenty years ago when I was a freshman at Baylor and wore crisp khakis and fraternized with bow-haired gals in Laura Ashley print dresses with lace yokes. Of course, jeans and sweats were completely unremarkable by the eighties, but it would have been unusual to see a room devoid of dresses. Even so, if Marie Mathis, the founder of what was at first called Coffee Hour, could be beamed from nineteen fifty-two to now, she'd immediately recognize everything about it.

The word "collegial" kept springing to my mind, gathering richness. What could be more central to a college than this collegiality, this gathering of like- and unlike-minded folk, sharing a moment of calm, a meandering conversation, a laugh? An hour a week that's unprogrammed, unstructured, and unplugged, but nonetheless a formal event, is a civilized blessing. No one uttered a toast, but every drink was a drink to the university's good health.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

nanny state

Half of the people in Great Britain now get all or part of their income from the government. At least they have the decency to call it "the dole." Calling such a vast program "welfare" would result in a one-word oxymoron.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

here's to the crazy ones

In an
critiquing a gargantuan history of music, one tendril struck me:

Bach's great Mass in B minor was never performed during his lifetime: as a Catholic Mass, it could not be played in a Protestant church, and the use of an orchestra was forbidden in Catholic churches during Bach's lifetime, although he hoped it might eventually be possible. His "Goldberg" Variations is the most successful of all his works in concert performance today, yet the kind of concert in which it can be performed did not exist for another century, and it had to wait for recognition and acclaim for still another hundred years. Both these works fascinated many musicians during the long period before they could find a niche in the social world of performance. The first great set of works to become the staple of serious public piano performances was the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas: only two of these were played in a concert hall in Vienna during Beethoven's lifetime.

That sends chills down my spine. It makes my eyes water and my chin tremble. We tend to look back and think of these people as "forward-looking." But they had no idea whether the future they envisioned would ever come to pass. They just created what they envisioned. My suspicion is that, though they would have liked the idea that such a future did come to pass, they didn't really care that much.

In the words of that great old Apple commercial, here's to the crazy ones. The people who can stare at a blank canvas and see shapes and forms never painted before, the ones who can sit in silence and hear melodies never dreamed of.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

one of those interview things

Well, just this once. I've been tagged.

Four places I've lived:
San Antonio
Anchorage, Alaska (if a month counts)
Beijing (if another month counts)

Four jobs I've had:
Real estate receptionist

Four movies I can watch over and over
Lawrence of Arabia
Rear Window
The Fugitive
Groundhog Day

Four contemporary authors I read — everything they publish
J.K. Rowling
Malcolm Gladwell

Four current TV shows I love:
Bleak House
(Twin Peaks)
(My So-Called Life)

Four places I've visited/vacationed:
Boquete, Panama
Ko Chang, an island in the Andaman Sea
Bocszky-Petrovokcs, a tiny village where I stayed with cabbage farmers

Four of my favorite dishes:
Peggy Lee
Lavender steak
Dolores del Rio's polenta with sausage
Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, carrots, celery, and ranch dressing

Four sites I visit daily:
Arts & Letters Daily

Four places I would rather be right now:
by Catherine's side
by Catherine's side, naked
with Catherine, in Vienna
with Catherine, naked or clothed, in Vienna, for a month (this April, baby)

Who's next: Take it, Duane.

Monday, February 6, 2006

a nightmarish dream

Here's a confluence of things that wound up in a slightly nightmarish dream I had last night.

I've been getting to know CSS. Cascading style sheets, that is. It's a way of making your website easier. It's very easy to learn, and I'm already doing some pretty cool stuff with it that I've never seen. Soon this site will be all CSSed up, and it'll be easier to update.

I had several people over for the Super Bowl. I'm the perfect person to host a Super Bowl party, because I don't really start paying attention to football until partway through the Super Bowl. We had rich food, we drank Dunkelweisen, we smoked cigars, we had a great time. Toward the end there, I had some Wayne Shorter on the stereo.

Then I went to bed. Before I had to wake up — at 5 am, mind you — I had a strange dream, no doubt brought on by the combination of chili, cigars, Dunkelweisen, and the presence of eight incorrigible men, in which I was trying to encode the Wayne Shorter song "Ju-Ju" in CSS, coming tantalizingly close with hour after hour of encoding, but never quite getting there.

Friday, February 3, 2006

stupid studio mistake

Don't you hate it when everything goes right, and then the one thing that has to go right goes wrong?

I've done several recording sessions recently with other folks. I played piano and produced and provided backing vocals, melodica, fake kazoo, codfish laughter, and a sea-captain personification for Owen Duggan's new, very successful children's CD An Elephant Never Forgets. I played piano and also gave lots of wanted and unwanted advice on singer-songwriter Doug McNeel's forthcoming CD The Great Awakening. And, just recently, I was the pianist as well as the sole engineer and producer for a new recording by bassist Brandon Rivas.

Rivas is a laid-back perfectionist, a thumpy, groovy string bass player who knows how to solo, and to make his bass sound like a bass — a disturbingly rare thing in an era in which, 30 years after the fact, so many bassists still have Jaco envy.

He asked Darren Kuper and me to join him for a project. He knew how we played, and how we functioned as a unit (even without, for obvious reasons, the thumpy-groovy Greg Norris), and he knew that we preferred simple recording techniques — no fancy gadgets, no studio wizardry, just live without a net. He took us in for a session that lasted a total of 2 hours, which is nearly impossible these days, and said we were going to get set up, one stereo mic and one bass mic, straight to two-track tape, one take for every song. If we mess up, we go on. Then he'll choose the performances he likes from that. We were born ready for that kind of gig.

Anyway, back to the going right/going wrong. The fragment you are about to hear is the final sixteen bars or so of "What a Wonderful World," the sentimental but unsticky ballad that was Louis Armstrong's last hit. We'd come through a very loose interpretation of it — Brandon had encouraged us to get a Keith Jarrett kind of sound, very unravelled-sounding, with complicating, surprising harmonies — and were making the final gestures. It was near-perfect, right down to the last note. I decided to play a flat-VIIM9 chord on the final note of the melody: you'll hear it. It's a common but fresh-sounding way of extending the resolution for just a bit, so that when it finally gets to the home chord you get a nice ahhhh effect. Everyone went with me on this. And then on the final chord, even though we'd rallentandoed to a very very slow, free rhythm, Darren and I struck at precisely the right time. That's exactly the kind of telecommunication that makes playing with him so much fun.

But even in the modern age, jazz brings surprises.

Dang it.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

a groovy 12-tone row

Catherine and I just watched The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. Great movie! and the score is nice and groovy. The first thing that comes at you is a simple bass line and early-70s groove, and the second is a series of distributed, jazzily dissonant melodic bursts by trumpets and saxes.... wait ... yep .... 12 a piece. Twelve-tone rows! Turns out old David Shire actually got out the manuscript paper and made a full chart, with inversions, retrograde, the whole bit. Then he added some chicken grease.

The twelve-tone row is something invented by the composer Arnold Schoenberg back in the early twentieth century. Tonality had come a long way from the old first-base-second-base-third-base-home that we're used to in older classical music (and are still used to in pop and folk and other styles). For instance, sing this:
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday dear Barry,
Happy Birthday to you.

When you get to those "you"s, it feels right. The "you" on the very first line is a trip to the bases, and the next "you" answers it by coming to the home base of whatever key you're in. That's the tonic note, called that because it's the tone that's central to that key. When we say something's "in the key of C," what we mean is that the "you" lands on C.

But picture the more complex music of, say Dmitri Tiomkin's scores for those old Hitchcock movies. Right at the moment the hero and heroine discover they're in anguished love, and exchange a smashy, unpleasurable-looking kiss, the music is probably something you'd find it hard to say is in the key of something — its reaching, yearning, anguished quality is precisely because the writer has carefully avoided even a reference to the tonic home base. Take that kind of stuff to its logical conclusion, and you've got what's called atonal music. It literally has no tonic home base.

So, Schoenberg and company were trying to methodologize this a century ago, and came up with the old twelve-tone row concept: given that there are only twelve notes on a piano keyboard, repeated over and over, you just make sure you've hit every one of the twelve tones before you start repeating. This is as far as you can get from "Happy Birthday." You wind up with those weird leaps and unhummable melodies that people say they don't like about atonal music. It must be said, though, that we accept them without blinking in movie scores — especially, for some reason, cop stuff.

Once you've got your basic melody, you can then do all the stuff the traditional composers have always done to generate more material: turn it upside down, do it backwards, upside-down-and-backwards, slow it down, speed it up.

In Pelham 1-2-3, Shire put that twelve-tone technique to work while still anchoring it to a definitely tonal bass riff. The result is something that doesn't jangle or sound old-timey or sing-songy: it's just what he was looking for.

Take a listen.