Monday, October 29, 2012

chesterton on mackerels, air, and pleasure

Here's a healthy draught of G. K. Chesterton, from 1905 article.
SUPPOSE, for the sake of argument, that a man were turned into a mackerel. His sentiments touching the change may not be a matter for urgent, but they cannot fail to be a matter for clarifying consideration. There are many things that he would lose by passing into the fishy state; such as the pleasure of being in the neighborhood of a Free Library, the pleasure of climbing the Alps, the pleasure of taking snuff, the pleasure of joining a heroic political minority, and also, I suppose and hope, the pleasure of having mackerel for breakfast.

But there is one pleasure which the man made mackerel would, I think, lose more completely and finally than any of these pleasures: I allude to the pleasure of sea-bathing. To dip his head in cold water would not be something sacred and startling; it would not be to have all stars in his eyes and all song in his ears. For the sea-creature knows nothing of the sea, just as the earth-creature knows nothing of the earth. This forgetfulness of what we have is the real Fall of Man and the Fall of All Things.

The evil which infects the immense goodness of existence does not embody itself in the fact that men are weary of woes and oppressions. It embodies itself in the shameful fact that they are often weary of joys and weary of generosities. Poetry, the highest form of literature, has here its immortal function; it is engaged continually in a desperate and divine battle against things being taken for granted. A fierce sense of the value of things lies at the heart, not merely of optimistic literature, but of much of the best literature which is called pessimistic. Assuredly it lies at the heart of tragedy; for if lives were not valuable tragedies would not be tragic. If life begins by taking things for granted, poetry answers by taking things away. It may be that this is indeed the whole meaning of death; that heaven, knowing how we tire of our toys, forces us to hold this life on a frail and romantic tenure.

Friday, October 26, 2012

beauty, truth, elegance

I've been thinking lately about how the world is beautiful in parallel ways: an idea that is true is often best expressed in a beautiful way. There was a fascinating article on about the Higgs Boson and the fact that back in the Sixties scientists decided that the more beautiful explanation of mass in particles was more likely to be true. They were gloriously vindicated this year by the confirmation of the Higgs Boson's existence.

Scientists and computer programmers and mechanical engineers have a special word that they use to reflect the idea that a good idea is a beautiful idea: "elegance." At large, the word refers to champagne and caviar and evenings at the opera. In these fields, the word refers to a simple, direct, maybe slightly odd idea that expresses everything you want to express in a clean way that somehow appeals to a human sense of beauty. We can get some idea of that connotation by lensing it against our cultural connotation: picture Queen Elizabeth I, resplendent in cinch-waisted brocade, powdered and fluffed, bejeweled and crowned. The word is opulent. Now picture Audrey Hepburn, with a little lipstick, hair cut short, wearing a solid black sleeveless dress, no jewelry but a simple hoop earring. The word is elegant. That's the kind of formula scientists are always looking for, the kind of code programmers are always striving for.

It's also the kind of musical expression composers try for. To see a piece of music represented visually, and to see a sudden beauty in it, is to realize that that thing might have been done right.

In recording the Love Theme from Wings, I noticed something nice. I end with a deceptive cadence: instead of resolving to the tonic chord of F major, I resolve to an F-sharp major 7, a favorite device of mine, then — ahhh — to a clean F major. I express the F-sharp as a low chord, then arpeggiate upward so that the F is high in the sky, a musical expression of the movie's flying theme. (Earlier, going into the final chorus, I mount dissonance on dissonance by pitting upward-rising chords over the solid ground of a low C in the bass, then, instead of the expected crashing cadence, I leave the ground altogether, serenely soaring in the air. It's a musical picture I'm quite pleased with.) The arpeggio quickens a bit as it gets into the meat of it, then toward the end ritards dramatically. It just felt right to do as I played it.

Then I noticed how it looked on the screen. You can see what you've played in a view that's remarkably similar to the player-piano rolls that were popular when Wings came out. Sometimes old technology is hard to improve on: most music software actually refers to this as Piano Roll View. In this screen, you actually see the notes not as written on the page but with the duration and timing you actually use in performance. It's as if a mark is made when you hold a key down, and stopped when you release it. (Colors show how hard you hit the note.)

For this closing gesture, the arpeggio, with its logical direction and slow-quickening-slower pattern, creates a lovely shape, like the stem of some plant. Although in the abstract world of music there's very little real right and wrong, to me it's a visual confirmation that what I played was right in some cosmic sense.

(You can also see in the top of each dyad, at least on the first few iterations, my right hand: first finger taps a little quicker, second and third a little longer, and fourth gets out of the way as the hand moves to the next position. Ha!)

Listen to the whole piece. I hope you like it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

theme from "wings"

I mentioned that I'd been commissioned by Texas Public Radio to do an arrangement of the Love Theme from Wings, the 1927 silent film that won the first Oscar.

For the arrangement, I decided not to simply play it straight, nor to give it the full Brake treatment, but rather to gesture toward the pianistic style of the Twenties, while at the same time giving it some personal flourishes, including an opening flutter that comes from my own original score to the film, also commissioned by TPR back in 2003. The mongrel result was rather pleasing to me, and will be, I hope, to the audience. It's already been broadcast several times on Texas Public Radio's classical station. It's included in a special package they have that ties in to the movie, including interviews with film historian Frank Thompson.

Take a listen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

the old and the new

I was just reading an article whose first paragraph goes like this:
Soul music. Then sings my soul. Soul searching. I've anchored my soul in the haven of rest. Put some soul into your singing. Deep in my soul. Soul Train. (Wow, I've dated myself with that one!)
Besides continuing the tradition of beginning an article with a pseudocatchy paragraph that could be profitably eliminated, the author is doing something interesting here.

Every single reference is to something centuries old — a hymn or term or cliché — except one, which is a reference to a 1970s TV show. And yet that one, the most recent reference in the list, is the one the author knows will communicate to her audience that she is older than 27.

This reminds me of some guests we had several years ago. The American Boychoir was in town, and its members stayed in music-lovers' homes for a night or two. Catherine and I had five boys stay with us. They were looking all up and down our CD shelf, commenting on this and that, and naturally the comments were the kind of thing you'd only hear from classical-music-loving 14-year-olds:

"Oh yeah - the Mahler 3! I sang that in New York with Bernard Haitink." "Awesome."
"Britten's Gloria, done by a men's chorale? That's interesting."
"Hey - Bartoli - the Vivaldi album. She's amazing."
"Backstreet Boys! Backstreet Boys?!?! Man, that is old school!"

These kids were talking about music from a century ago, or many centuries ago, and to them it was something present and living; meanwhile, music from just a little over a half-decade back could be considered "old school," a relic.

Part of that is the simple teenage phenomenon of rejecting one's recent childhood and its accoutrements. The Backstreet Boys would have been associated in their minds with second grade, and they'd probably forgotten all about the group. Meanwhile, they'd been awakened to the world of classical music more recently, reading and rehearsing and performing it just that week.

But I think part of it is that the older music was more pitched to the ages than the moment. As delightful as the Backstreet Boys are, their music is a delicious soda, fizzy and sugary and peppy, and gone in a flash. If any of their songs are performed 75 years from now, it'll be by artistic performers who have completely reimagined them. Meanwhile, Mahler and Vivaldi and (to a much lesser extent) Britten are more like wine: certainly delicious, certainly not lacking in temporal pleasures, but something deeper is going on that brings a different satisfaction.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

civil debate

Watching the commentary about the debate the other night, you'd think it was terrific. One commentator said it was the best debate he'd seen in over 50 years.

Now that is media bias. The fact is that the media are often biased, and that bias goes in one direction: toward sensationalism. They love conflict, they love the race, they love fireworks, they love death and dismemberment. Naturally: look at who pays their bills. (A: both parties' presidential campaigns. The numbers are terrifying.)

Meanwhile, several of my friends have remarked that the debate the other night was a dispiriting mess. Many saw both candidates going at it with passion: what I saw was something else. What I saw was two people vying for the highest office in the land, proving literally every two minutes that they both think the rules don't apply to them.

I can't think of a more perfect snapshot of our polity right now than that, with the representative of the people occasionally raising a pinky (for one candidate, half a pinky for the other) in a weak-tea attempt at discipline, while nonetheless letting both candidates run on roughshod. And then jumping in with completely unnecessary commentary, thus doing what she shouldn't have and not doing what she should have. There were three people abusing the rules, all night.

I got into a trap of thinking that something's gone terribly wrong in recent decades, and that we could search for a better debate model although we'd be searching in vain because we apparently don't want it — after all, the only publicly visible people serious about politics are the ones who shout over each other every Sunday morning. But that is a trap. We've done better, and we've done better recently.

Remember the Kerry-Bush debates? Everybody got to say everything they wanted to, and everybody played by the rules they'd agreed to. I have no idea why. Maybe the rules had teeth; maybe the moderator had a mute button; maybe 8 years ago was a golden time in the ages of man. Whatever the reason, you can go back and look at the results. On at least one night in our recent history, the time ran out and the candidates stopped and let their opponent talk. And it must've been pretty ingrained: most of the time, both Bush and Kerry stopped a second or two early.

We've done it before. Apparently we can do it again. But we won't unless we can get the message across that this last debate was completely unacceptable.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

wings and may

Quick: what arranger has more arrangements published in sheet music than any other person in history?

Give up? Try May Singhi Breen. She wrote the ukulele tabs that appeared on an astonishing majority of sheet music in the 20s and 30s. Rather than telling you what chord you're playing, the tabs are diagrams that simply show you where you should put your fingers on the four strings. Somehow, she convinced publishers that putting ukulele tabs above the written piano music would be a great idea. She achieved total market domination.

I'm finding all this out because Texas Public Radio has commissioned me to do an arrangement of the Love Theme from "Wings," the 1927 film that won the first Oscar. They're tying it in with the current pledge drive. So I'm looking at the original sheet music, cool old fonts and all. What's interesting to me at this point in history is that the music doesn't have chords written above the notes: just uke tabs. To a jazz and pop musician, this makes the music look like a snappily dressed person with no eyes.

So, in the heading, right along with the name of the composer (J. S. Zamecnick) and lyricist (Ballard Macdonald) appears the credit:

Ukulele Arr. by 

That credit appears on thousands of pieces of sheet music, from an era in which sheet music was the way most people heard most popular music on demand. Movies often introduced songs; radio played them, and more and more people in the 20s had radio; but sheet music was how you got to know a piece. You could play it in better-than-Victrola (actually, better-than-CD) quality on your piano. Or ukulele.

So I brushed up on my augmented chords, did a bit of surgery here and there, and turned out a non-uke version for TPR.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

the important things

Greta's grandmother Linda is about to leave town.

Linda: "Don't forget, I love you."

Greta: "Don't forget the ice cream."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

columbus day

In honor of Columbus Day, a synopsis for a really fun romantic comedy. I'm pretty sure that, although this follows the romantic comedy formula very closely, there hasn't been a plot exactly like it. Read it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

education in america