Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I have a hard time relaxing.  There is always something that I think I should be doing.  I often feel guilty when I'm not doing something that could be construed as "productive" on some level.  And there is never a time when the list of potentially productive things runs out.  One friend told me that marathon runners don't train for a marathon all the time.  Balanced training involves periods of activity and periods of inactivity.  That made sense, until I started drawing lines of comparison.

Nothing in my life right now really looks like a marathon.  I don't have an event for which I am aiming, I don't have a destination, an endpoint.  I have several ongoing projects that are literally open-ended, on-my-own-schedule kind of affairs.  I am creating various things, and I am in the enviable position of having a great deal of time to indulge those creative processes.  But during the moments when I am not immersed in the creative process, I have a tendency to beat myself up a bit.  I call it laziness, but it really isn't.  I think part of me at some point in time got confused about the difference between busyness and meaningful activity.

* * * * * * * * *

I said to a close friend, "I have a feeling that I was supposed to be more important."

My friend's reply was, "I've always had the impression that you didn't care what other people think, as long as you're happy with what you're doing."

It seemed like a kind of non sequitur, but I followed his meaning.  If I don't care what other people think, then who am I expecting to be important to, aside from myself?  Well, the truth of the matter is that I do care what other people think.  I want to be connected to other people.  I want what I do to have a positive impact.  I just don't want to make decisions for my life based on what other people believe.

Over the course of a couple of days following that conversation, a few people unexpectedly sought my counsel about different issues in their lives.  So, at least in some moments, I am important to some people.  I felt flattered and honored in those moments, and yet it wasn't quite the answer part of me wanted.  Part of me was defining "important" as "broadly impactful" or something along those lines.  And I don't believe that defines my life right now.  It's an issue of identity.

I've tried making meaningful contributions as a part of other organizations, places where I could have a broader impact because of an existing framework.  Somehow, I've wound up not having the sort of impact I wanted.  A lot of times it can be chalked up to personality clashes, but I also think that there is something more.  I may be dead wrong here, but I think that many people have a difficult time visualizing what something new will be like until it's created.  Once it's created, they don't have to visualize it, because it's right there in front of them.  But a lot of energy gets spent trying to defend an idea to people who simply can't envision what it will look like.  It's hard to have a positive impact on people who are afraid of what they can't imagine.

The direct end result for me is that people often do not see what I have to offer the way I would like them to, and I am unable to rely on participation in an organization as a means of identity.  The organization does not provide a meaningful purpose for me.  Honestly, I believe that some of my ideas could have profoundly positive transformative impact, but I don't enjoy the often exhausting battle of defending myself and my ideas to people who clearly are not open to those possibilities.  It isn't worth it to me, no matter how "important" I think an idea could be.  When I think about it in those terms, I don't really want to be "important" badly enough to define my life by the process of proving myself.  But I do want a clearly-defined over-arching identity than what I've been allowing myself in the enviably nebulous existence I currently inhabit.

* * * * * * * * *

I think one of the reasons I find it so easy to flagellate myself about perceived laziness is that I don't currently have an endpoint, a goal, a clear and overarching sense of purpose behind everything that I do.  Individual projects may have goals and purposes, but they are nebulous or far into the future. What I have sought through my involvement in other organizations is something I can provide for myself.

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron talks about the Creator, and she encourages placing a lot of spiritual value on being both created and creator.  I don't believe in an actual Creator per se, but the poetic example of the act of creation at the very beginning of the Bible has some very valuable tidbits.  Actually, a lot of creation myths do.  They always involve effort on the part of the creator(s), and there is always a process by which that creation takes shape.

I am a creator.  It's what I do.  I create music.  I create sometimes coherent prose.  I use my imagination well.  On a certain level, I think everyone creates, but it isn't everyone's defining characteristic.  That may not make me important to a lot of people.  I'm alright with that, honestly.  What I was couching as a desire for importance was actually a desire for someone else to provide a meaningful identity, and when I am honest about what matters to me, I can do that for myself.  I have done that for myself.

So how does fully claiming my identity as a creator keep me from beating myself up in the times when I am not actively creating?  That's where the creation myths come in handy.  For example, in the biblical myth, God didn't create everything in one fell swoop.  He just did a bit at a time, and then he stood back and acknowledged his work.  And then, as many people have pointed out, he took time to rest.  There are a lot of similar lessons in creation myths from all over the world, and they amount to four basic principles I'm going to be following:

(1) Know what you're creating.  If you don't know what you're making, take a step back and figure that out first.

(2) Be wildly imaginative.  Don't restrain yourself with imaginary judgments and limitations.

(3) Acknowledge what you've created, even mid-process.  Recognize the value of your creation.

(4) Rest.  Rest is not laziness.  Rest is the time when you allow something within you to start creating the things you don't consciously know about yet. 

So, I have had a tendency to want to have an identity handed to me, and I have wrestled with the idea of being important.  I have justified or criticized my existence based on the amount of money I was making, the amount of things I had gotten accomplished, the number of ideas that actually took root somewhere, the number of performances of my music, and on and on. Even when I've realized how ludicrous some of those conclusions are, I have kept going back to them because they are easy judgments.  Now I have one more bit of truth about me, one more turn around the spiral: I am a creator.  I am defined by the fact that I create.  

I know this was a long one.  Hopefully it kept your interest.  I started this blog because I wanted what I see and learn to be able to have a positive impact on other people's lives.  On some level, I wanted to be important.  I assumed that I was not the only person in the process of learning more and creating more in my life, and I still believe that to be the case.  In spite of the value I have gotten from a weekly commitment to write down my thoughts, this will be my last entry for awhile.  I may come back to this venue at some point, in which case it will be tweeted and Facebooked and whatever else technology makes possible for me.  In the meantime, thank you for being along on this leg of the journey.  I hope you have learned as much about yourself as you have about me, and that we will all continue along that path of learning for as far as it carries us.

Farewell for now,
Randy Partain, creator

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Joys and Frustrations of Electronic Music

Even though I graduated with my doctorate in music composition a mere six years ago, the face of electronic music has changed dramatically.  It's become a complex market of software and plug-ins and virtual instruments created from high-quality samples of almost any real-world sound you can imagine.  "Kids" who are barely teenagers are composing artful remixes of popular songs, and professional orchestrators are creating virtual recordings of familiar classical pieces that are in some respects better than a live performance. 
When I compose a piece of music for acoustic performers, I accept that not every note and articulation is going to be the same in every performance.  Not only will different performers put their personality into interpreting a piece, but the same performers won't play a piece exactly the same every time.  It's one of the things that makes live music interesting, actually.  Hearing what a performer brings forth from a piece goes beyond the sterile and absolute ideal of what's on the printed page.

Purely electronic music is different.  There are plenty of pieces (both art music and popular music) that combine the sounds of electronica with aspects of live performance.  My first real exposure to it was Caution to the Winds (James Mobberly) for piano and tape, which I performed on my senior piano recital as an undergraduate.  Since then, the entire "live performer with electronics" genre has grown by leaps and bounds, and it's one of the few areas in which cross-pollination between popular music and academic music makes the boundaries almost too blurry to identify in places.  Some of these pieces incorporate the electronic aspects in such a way that a performer still has a great deal of freedom; a performance of the piece on one night might be completely different from the performance of a piece on the next.  The work that I'm doing right now aims at creating a finished product, though: music to be heard, not performed.

 James Mobberly's Caution to the Winds, as performed by Kristina Sandulova.

Like the music on a CD or one of those orchestrations of a famous symphony with "virtual" instruments, once a piece of purely electronic music is in recorded form, it becomes fixed.  You always know when a particular swell will happen in the tune, because it's recorded and it isn't going to change.  The notes and articulations will always be exactly the same from one listening to the next, although some people may claim that a recorded piece of music can still vary in the impact it has on them, based on their own emotions when they listen to it.  I won't debate that.  I'm concerned with the idea that once the piece is "finished", there is no altering it.  There is no "next performance" to tweak or adjust or "get it right."  There is the obdurate and unchanging sound of the piece, for better or worse, just as it was created.

This has a tremendously attractive side to it.  I can hear what I have created immediately.  When a piece is composed for live performers, there is really no guarantee that it will ever get performed, and in today's bizarre climate of neophilia there is very little chance that a piece will get performed twice.  A performer has to take the music, rehearse it, make some interpretive decisions, and then create something that hopefully has some approximation to the idealized piece on the printed page.  This process could take months.  An electronic piece is immediately available for listening.  I can actually physically hear the piece as I am working on it, and as soon as it's finished, I can send it to other people within minutes.  On top of that, they will hear exactly the same music everything they listen.  They may hear different things within the music, but the music itself will always be available and consistent.
As you might imagine, this changes the way I compose a piece.  When I am writing for a live musician, I actually want some of their personality to enter into the sound of a piece.  I might leave some things a little vague or explicitly improvisatory because I'm interested in giving that performer the space to create.  When I'm working with electronic sounds, I'm not creating something that another person will infuse with their personality.  I'm creating the finished product.  It's up to me to get the sound of the piece exactly how I want it to be, and if there's something I don't like, I can't chalk it up to a performer's interpretation.  In some ways, it's a bit daunting, and in other ways it's very satisfying.  Getting a rhythm just right in a printed piece of music doesn't guarantee that every performer is going to play it just right.  Getting a rhythm just right in a piece of electronica means that it will always and forever be exactly what I intended.

But it's much easier to get bogged down in minutiae.  Sometimes, I feel like I am painting a face, but I get drawn into the details of the ear.  And because of the technology, I can get very, very detailed about how the ear looks.  I can fine tune exactly where a little mole is positioned, or how a tiny sliver of shadow falls within the curvature of cartilage.  Then, I take a step back and remember that I have an entire face to paint, and what I've done to the ear has an impact on how the rest of the face appears.  Besides, what viewer is really going to notice how perfectly positioned a tiny mole or shadow is?  Does it really matter?

That last question gets tricky.  Does it really matter in the grand scheme of life itself?  Probably not.  Does it really matter in the aesthetics of the piece?  Maybe it does.  Does it really matter to me?  And there is the heart of it.  What makes the whole endeavor worthwhile is how satisfied I am at the end of it.  If getting a particular sound just right will increase my enjoyment of what I'm creating, it's worth it.  Even if no one else notices, it's worth the time and effort.  And if a detail isn't important to me--if it doesn't really enhance my enjoyment of the process or the final product--I can learn to let go of the minutiae and move on.

By the way, if you haven't already heard the first bit of electronic music I created for the Status Quo project, you can listen to it via the link below, just so you can hear where I'm setting the bar with my current efforts.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sometimes I Don't Want to Be Polite

Relationships are fertile ground for realizations about how I undermine my own efforts.  It’s easiest to learn from the close relationships with people I see all the time, but the observations apply to a much broader spectrum of connections: people to whom I’ve sent music, people with whom I want to partner on a project, people from whom I want to learn.  I don’t always know what to do differently, but noticing that I am doing something to get in my own way is definitely the first step.

Here’s the deal: I am generally a polite person, a considerate person, a “nice” person.  I am generally tolerant and accepting of people’s idiosyncrasies, and I’m not threatened by points of view that differ from mine.  All that is genuine and real as a personal baseline.  But sometimes it becomes an act. Sometimes, I don’t actually want to be considerate or tolerant.  Sometimes I want to be more direct in what I say, even what I would consider harsh and impolite.  And instead I just pretend to be tolerant and accepting and “nice.”

That only works for so long, though.  Eventually, I get fed up with pretending and decide that I’m through tolerating someone, and I let out the directness and the impoliteness and the harshness I was holding back.  Actually, this very thing has occurred a couple of times in the past couple of weeks.  Both times, I was actually rewarded for it, in a way.  The people to whom I was being direct and harsh and impolite didn’t cut off all contact, they didn’t compete with me to see who could be harshest, and they didn’t throw a guilt trip on me for being impolite.  They heard me through what I thought was a challenging degree of directness, and I got to see a more unguarded side to these people than I am usually granted access.  Not what I expected.

After a lot of thought on these situations, I have come to believe that I was rewarded with people being unguarded with me because I was being unguarded with them.  The “nice” act, when it is pretending and not sincere, is protection.  The directness and harshness is real in that moment--my genuine feelings and thoughts.  By the time I let myself go there, I am so fed up with someone’s behavior that it doesn’t seem like I have anything to lose.  I am invulnerable at that point.  Why bother being polite if I no longer care what somebody thinks or does?  Why bother being nice if I have all but written someone off?

Except that I haven’t.  It’s all an illusion, a trick my mind has played on me.  I’m just as vulnerable (or invulnerable) when I am pretending to be nice as when I am over-the-top harsh and direct.  And I never actually stop caring about what these individuals think or feel.  When I actually stop caring, it’s usually because I am utterly convinced that nothing I can say or do will have any impact whatsoever on the person in question.  I’m not harsh or direct or impolite with those people, I just literally stop trying to be anything at all to them.  When I let myself get direct and impolite and harsh, somewhere inside I still believe that there is something of value to the connection, even if I don’t admit that in the moment so I can feel safe in expressing what I really want to say.  When I’m vulnerable, I have to just pretend to be nice, but when I reach invulnerability, I can say what I really want.  Twisted.

So, it isn’t the sincere and genuine considerate and nice behavior I want to change, and it isn’t really the directness either.  I want to be unguarded enough to have high-quality connections with people, and sometimes that involves being vulnerable and saying something that might seem harsh in my head.  Being polite doesn’t always serve people.  Or me.  And letting perceived vulnerability stand in my way has other adverse effects on what I want, too.  Sometimes I avoid doing things that could build connections and create the opportunities I want for my music and my life, and I hesitate to make those phone calls or write those emails because I don’t want to bother someone.  I want to be polite.  I want to be nice.  Except that I don’t really want to be nice.  What I want in those moments is safety.  I don’t want to be vulnerable.

This isn’t the case all the time, but in those moments when I choose perceived safety over acting on my own behalf, the sacrifice is great.  I want to be a better advocate for myself, for what I see and what I want.  The evidence in front of me is that, at least in close relationships, people value what I actually have to say, even when I let myself reach a point of frustration before I say it.  There are plenty of times when genuine politeness is appropriate, but I don’t think I’m putting myself at risk of losing that quality if I stop pretending.  Maybe I can even start expressing things directly and authentically without harsh tones if I don’t wait until I am fed up with a situation.  Maybe sometimes I just won’t be polite.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Recognizing Opportunity's Knock

Frustrating as it is, it's a bit of a boon when there is too much to write about.  Sometime soon I want to write about the differences between composing electronic music and composing for an actual ensemble of performers.  There are also some other relational lessons I've been getting this week, and I think they could be of value to other people, too.  First and foremost, though, I want to say something about how I got involved with the Status Quo project.

Right out of grad school, I took the first teaching position I was offered, as an adjunct professor making a salary that put me just above the poverty line.  I absolutely loved being in the classroom, although there were some aspects of the environment outside the classroom that were less enjoyable.  When I was offered about three times that salary for a full-time position at a church (based on years of experience and education level), I left that teaching position.  At the time, the head of the music school promised that he would review my curriculum vitae and write a letter of recommendation that would get me hired "at the school of my choice."  After a couple of reminders and gentle inquiries, I gave up on that.

Actually, the whole experience tarnished my impression of academia to the point that my interest in finding another teaching position has been lackluster, even though I have feedback from many students telling me that I did my job well.  I also have very fond memories of the musicians I taught, but instead of focusing exclusively on finding another job in academia, I've spent time searching for other opportunities.

After a year of chasing after a few "career" ideas that were not all I had hoped for, I decided to get specific about what really matters most to me, so I would more easily recognize opportunities that would have real value to me.  What I wound up with was not surprising.  (1) I want to be acknowledged for the things that I do well, for the skills and attributes that set me apart.  After being in unsatisfying situations where I am just a warm body doing the same kinds of tasks that anyone else could do, I know that I want to be using my specific abilities.  I suppose another way of saying it is, I want to be seen for who I am.  (2) I also want to be a part of something bigger than myself.  This seems natural for a composer who writes music for other musicians to perform, but it bears articulating.  Collaboration is energizing to me.  (3) Whatever I'm doing, I want there to be a real potential to make a bit of money.  This seemed shallow to me at first, but some source of money is necessary, whether it's a salary, a commission, ticket sales, or a grant.  Hiring musicians, renting out venues, printing costs, software... everything comes with a price tag.  I want my efforts to at least pay for themselves.

I soon learned that I needed to add another caveat: No church work.  There are plenty of opportunities for me to work in the Christian market, but most of them would require that I pretend to be something that I'm not.  I actually enjoy the sound of a lot of the music, and I enjoy being a part of other people's spiritual growth.  Churches are hotbeds of politics and power-trips, however, and few of them would feel confident with a known atheist at the piano.  So, (4) I won't pretend to be something I'm not.

So, when we moved to Fort Worth in January, my sights were honed in on doing things for which I am specifically skilled, in collaboration with other people, with a real potential to make money, where I don't have to pretend to be something I'm not.  Having that clearly in front of me usually keeps me from being distracted by the idea that I have to put aside what I love in order to do something I don't enjoy to "earn a living".  It also helped me to see a very exciting project that I might not have considered if I wasn't as clear about what I was looking for.  I was actually poking around online looking for other musicians in the Fort Worth area, when I came across an ad for programmers and graphic designers to work on a new video game.  As I read the rather compelling ad, I thought, I wonder if they have someone doing music

It took the initiative to write an email and the willingness to let someone hear my work.  It felt like a bold move in a way, but there was really no risk in it at all.  Now, I am composing music for a video game in development, obviously with a team of other people working on different aspects of the project.  The project just went up on, which is a way for investors to contribute a small amount to get something off the ground in exchange for some very creative perks.  So, more to come about why composing electronic music has some advantages over composing acoustic music, but for now, I'll leave you with the Status Quo project listing on Kickstarter and you can hear a little bit of what I've written for it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wozzeck: Alban Berg Teaches about Creating Deep Understanding

Some people are intimidated by foreign films because they don't understand the language.  Some just say they don't want to read their way through a movie.  I usually read the subtitles, but I also find that the most essential content is conveyed pretty clearly even though I don't understand the actual words.  If I miss a line here or there, I don't find it necessary to rewind the movie in order to read what I missed.  I often think that some people just like what's familiar, and they don't care to risk investing time and energy into an unknown quantity.  There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

People are not all that different about music.  We turn up our noses at music that isn't our preference, and we settle into listening patterns that are comfortable to us.  A new song in a familiar style is only slightly intimidating, if at all.  Throw an entirely unfamiliar style of music at someone and I think most people would be quick to judge it unappealing.  I think this becomes more true if that unfamiliar style of music is somehow challenging to start with.

Which brings me to Wozzeck.  I had the great pleasure of seeing the Santa Fe Opera production of Alban Berg's first opera this week.  The work met with great success during Berg's lifetime, even though it presents some challenges to the audience.  Musically, the opera does not follow a traditional understanding of tonality.  No major or minor keys, and no melodies that sound like ornamented folk songs.  The story itself focuses on poor people and those who take advantage of them.  The main characters of the story are not really likeable, and at the same time there is something captivating about them.

Santa Fe Opera/photo by Ken Howard
If someone knew absolutely nothing about opera, Wozzeck might not be the first performance you'd think of suggesting, but I believe that Berg might be just right for a 21st century opera neophyte.  The composer knew what he was creating held some challenges, and he made some decisions that actually help the listener follow the dramatic and emotional flow of the opera.  For one thing, the music still sounds like the mood of the characters, even if it isn't overtly predictable.  A lullaby still sounds like a lullaby, and someone descending into madness in a tavern sounds like someone descending into madness in a tavern.  Berg also uses recurring melodic patterns (leitmotifs) that become recognizable even though they may not sound "tonal".  Within each scene, there is also a focus to the music that fits the scene, whether it is an ominous focus on a single pitch in the orchestra or a rhythm that defines the scene.  In other words, the music makes sense. 

Santa Fe Opera/photo by Ken Howard
While another composer deciding to create an "atonal" opera might write a frustrating and illogical barrage of unrelated pitches, Berg allows the external and internal drama of the characters' lives to dictate the music.  He introduces musical conventions that are now familiar to anyone who has heard a movie soundtrack in the past 30 years, because they are so incredibly and effectively evocative.  Even though these elements may not sound like Mozart, they are easy to hear, and they help the music create the appropriate mood for what is happening dramatically.  The music creates a depth of understanding instead of merely being an accompaniment or backdrop for the story.

Berg was doing something new, and he did it in such a way that his audience would have some access points.  Yes, he challenged some well-established expectations, but he led listeners into understanding what he was doing rather than daring them to sit through an entire performance.  I have sometimes done the latter, and not just musically.  In expressing new ideas or challenging old ones, I have sometimes thrown down a gauntlet instead of leading people into understanding what I see.  Sometimes I have even convinced myself that blatant opposition is the only way to get someone's attention.  It's more dramatic to spit venom and dare people to oppose us, but that approach rarely actually gets us where we want to go.  Berg managed to create connection, even when what he was doing was bound to challenge some people's way of seeing (or hearing) the world.  So, it's possible.  Perhaps as the visionaries and thought-leaders that we are or can be, we can do the same thing: create connection and lead people into understanding what we see. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Traveling like a Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbirds have captured human imagination for millennia.  In fact, the hummingbird is one of the figures depicted in the Nazca Lines.  While any species of hummingbird is fascinating, the migration of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is especially impressive.  They travel from the Canadian prairies to Central America, crossing the Gulf of Mexico in one 500-mile non-stop trip.  For the rest of their migration, they travel about 20 miles each day, although they can fly at speeds approaching 35 miles per hour.  Unlike some migratory birds, Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly solo, each bird having its own internal map.

A one-hour exploration of the fascinating hummingbird.
Dozens of animals migrate.  Even more have adapted to life in one locale.  If a hummingbird suddenly questioned its internal map (something I don't really think a hummingbird can do, but stay with me here)... If a hummingbird questioned its internal map and looked to some other creature to follow, it would surely die.  A hummingbird can't follow the migratory pattern of a goose or a fruit bat or a dogfish shark.  And although there might be a narrowly-defined territory with the perfect consistent temperature and a plentiful food supply, the hummingbird is not wired to stick around in the same quarter-acre for its entire life.  It has an instinctive drive to make an incredible bi-annual journey (well, maybe the hummingbird doesn't see it as incredible, but from the outside it certainly appears so).

When I look back at the last two years (and beyond), I have taken some direction from different sorts of creatures.  Some creatures have found their meaning in a rigid organizational structure, some creatures have found their meaning in dollar figures, and some creatures have found their meaning in a set of ideals which they may or may not actually practice in everyday life.  Some of the creatures I have looked to for direction run in  packs with clearly defined leaders, some of them wander as herds, and some of them are predatory.  To most of these creatures, their existence makes perfect sense.  It's how they are wired.  It's where they are comfortable.  It's what they are willing to accept.  Whatever.  But a perfect environment for one creature is not a perfect environment for every creature.

A broad-billed hummingbird in flight.
Over the past few months (aided by a slight geographic change to a new city), I have started to recognize just how much I have judged my path by other people's standards.  I invent the game of my life, but for some reason I have wanted to use other people's rules.  Maybe I thought that other people knew more than me or knew better than me, and on some topics that would be absolutely accurate.  On the topic of what makes for a fulfilling life, however, no one else has access to my internal map.  I might be driven to bulk up and fly for 500 miles straight in what seems like a mad proposition (to some creatures), or I might jump from one nectar-rich idea to another so fast that other creatures think I'm inconsistent or unreliable.  I know that I can fly pretty fast sometimes, but there are days when I spend 80% of my time digesting.

Hello, my name is Randy Partain.  I am a composer and pianist who loves collaboration with other creative thinkers.  I am a spiritually-minded atheist who still finds value in ideas from many religious traditions.  I can be an incredible strategist and an insightful critic, and I usually listen well when other people speak.  I have an internal map that may seem bizarre to some, but when I trust it I can travel like a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  It is a genuine pleasure to be able to introduce myself.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Lesson from the Yard of the Month

Yards are very brown right now where we live.  The ground is dry and the grass is burnt.  Signs along the road advise: Extreme Drought Conditions... Conserve Water.  Looking at the yards on our block, the effects of the dry, hot weather are obvious.  Unless you look at the house on the corner, that is.

The house on the corner has lush green grass, blooming flowers, and a sign in the front that proclaims "Yard of the Month" from a local nursery.  I have some rather harsh judgment against a nursery that would encourage using the amount of water necessary to keep plants healthy when everyone is being urged to conserve what resources we have.  It's hard for me not to make assumptions about the people who live in that house, and ultimately they wind up becoming symbolic of an irrational sense of entitlement in my mind.

Really, why do they think it's appropriate for them to waste a resource that we all must share just so their yard can be a little prettier than the yards around it?  OK, it's a lot prettier than the yards around it.  And it's not that I care about the appearance of someone's yard all that much... it's the principle of the thing.  Shouldn't they be fined somehow?  (I mean, over and above the hundreds of dollars they must be spending on their water bill.)

Then, through an interesting bit of synchronicity, I hear a little more about how water gets used in this country.  About 52 percent of fresh surface-water consumed (and about 96 percent of the saline-water we use) goes toward producing electricity.  42 percent of the ground water the U.S. consumes actually irrigates agricultural land.  Only 11 percent of the ground water our country uses goes toward public consumption, which includes water for drinking and bathing as well as washing cars and watering lawns.  In all likelihood, the amount of water the people at the end of block used on their lawn to keep it gorgeous is not going to break the proverbial bank.  They just make easy targets because I see their yard so often and it seems a less worthy recipient of the limited water supply than food-growers and power-producers.

Of course, they still have to pay the price on their water bill.  I'm no more inclined now than I was before to spend hundreds of dollars just to combat nature on the issue of a lush green carpet of grass.  It just doesn't matter that much to me.  It obviously does matter that much to the folks at the end of the block.  It matters enough that they are willing to spend a little (or a lot) more than other people in time, money, and labor.  It matters enough that they are willing to go against the standard practices of the community, potentially making targets of themselves for people like me who drive past and heap judgments and criticisms.  Sure, they may actually have an unwarranted sense of entitlement.  I really don't know.

What I do know is that there are some things that matter that much to me.  I don't always act like it.  Sometimes fear of how much I will have to sacrifice stands in my way.  Sometimes I wrestle with a fear of how other people will see me.  I actually want to be more like those people with the lush lawn.  I want to have the evidence of well-tended ideas and the lush fruits of creative effort, even when it involves doing something counter to what others are doing.  Even if it means placing myself in the firing line for some one else's criticism. 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Changing Horses Midstream

In the midst of composing a theater piece for woodwind quintet and a set of miniatures for chamber ensemble over the past several weeks, I've also started the libretto for a first opera.  The story is familiar, and it's been told many times over on the screen, and that's a good thing for a new opera.  It's also a rather convoluted story, though, which means that a lot of information has to be conveyed to the audience in order for everything to make sense.  That's more of a challenge in an opera. 

Maybe it's worth taking a moment to explain that comment.  In a book or a movie, even in a ballet, a great deal of information can be communicated through visual cues.  When the camera pans to a particularly illuminating piece of evidence in crime drama, no one really has to say anything for the audience to interpret that it's significant.  Some stories are about car chases and explosions and stunning visual effects.  Operas are about emotion.  In an opera, the most significant moments are when the momentum of the story stops and one or more characters reveal emotional responses to their circumstances that the audience relates to on a very deep level.   Those moments are more difficult to plan when a great deal of detailed factual information has to be communicated as well.

It's possible that I chose poorly in terms of opera subject, but as I was thinking of this a few days ago, the thought occurred to me: Well, what story would make for great opera, given this understanding of the art form?  So I outlined a different tale altogether, conscious of where arias and ensembles would work well, and limiting the amount of factual information that would have to be communicated at any given point in the story.  What I wound up with is a compelling and interesting tale with plenty of opportunity for the characters to give us some glimpse into their psyche.  My only concern with its viability at this point is that it's not a story everyone already knows, and most new operas are adaptations of best-selling novels or award-winning films. 

Still, it isn't easy to let go of the original plan.  I had shared the idea with a few trusted people.  I've already done quite a bit of work on it.  It seems like a bit of a failure to give up on the idea and switch to something else.  Of course, I'm not deleting what I've written so far or throwing my hard drive into the fire, and I can come back to it at some later date.  But there are so many societal lessons that I'm ignoring about perseverance, staying the course, sticking with the plan, and on and on.  You aren't supposed to change horses midstream, right?  I know the new story has more potential as an effective opera, and I'm pretty excited about telling that story.  There's just a bit of judgment against changing course that's getting in the way of fully embracing it.

Sometimes changing course is the wisest decision.
Idioms and platitudes aside, the new idea is more workable, and I'm going to follow through and see what I'm able to create with it.  I actually think that starting with the more challenging idea is what got me to the better idea, so it wasn't wasted time in the least.  There are times when the bit about staying the course might make sense, but there is no reason to remain loyal to a plan that is clearly fraught with problems when another plan avoids those problems while still getting to a desired outcome.  After all, my purpose--my desired outcome--is to compose a compelling and enjoyable opera.  Sometimes, radical change to a plan of action just makes the most sense.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Creativity Breeds Creativity

Sometimes creativity is like a
hidden staircase.

Last week, I finished a theater piece for woodwind quintet.  At times during the process of composing it, I struggled with the idea that being creative means not being responsible or dependable.  I have this idea in my head that one can potentially lose oneself in creative pursuits -- that giving in too much to creativity can lead one far from "normal" society.  I know this is a ridiculous thing for a composer to believe, but since I was raised with the idea that it's very important to be a responsible, mature person, it's a challenge when creativity seems to threaten that.

I'm probably a bit more conscientious than necessary most of the time.  Truth be told, I'm not at risk for being labeled unreliable by anyone who knows me.  When I was in the midst of this woodwind quintet piece and I felt that I was limiting myself, caging in what I allowed myself to create, I made a different decision than what I have sometimes made.  I leapt over the precipice of creativity without worrying about any beliefs that might tether me in some imaginary place of safety.

Something happened.  Not only am I very satisfied with the piece I just completed, but in the past few days, I composed a set of improvisatory miniatures.  I just followed a little germ of inspiration and allowed my creativity to be important.  I've also started formulating a plan to find or assemble an ensemble in Fort Worth, I'm continuing to move forward with a libretto for a first opera, and I've begun to assemble some writing for self-publication.  I also started a new blog a couple of weeks back to articulate some thoughts about spirituality.  And all of these projects are stimulating and exciting.

Fully claiming the identity of creator disallows feeble excuses and supercharges intention.  Instead of complaining that a certain situation doesn't exist or may be difficult to find, I'm realizing (again) that I'm responsible for creating the situations I want in my life.  And being creative with one thing has sparked my creativity across the board.  I haven't heard any reports that I've become unreliable or irresponsible.  What I am in this space is more reliable and responsible to myself.  I know that there will be challenges at some point, but it's always easier to return to something once I know what it feels like.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My Own Worst Enemy

As I've mentioned before, learning is like a spiral.  I keep encountering the same issues over and over again, but I usually get to approach them from a slightly new perspective.  This week, it was the idea of asking for what I want (which seems to have been on my mind about a year ago as well).  The challenge hasn't been in knowing what I want or how to articulate it.  Rather, I have this sense that people who are bold about stating what they want are jerks, to put it mildly.

Actually, that's not entirely true.  I respect people who state what they want clearly, and I appreciate knowing what matters to someone.  The option is to play guessing games, and that often winds up just being an exercise in frustration.  So really, my belief about stating what I want is that people are going to think that I am a jerk.  So, it's more about vulnerability and opening myself up to other people's judgment.  And if I'm honest about it, this means I often fear that other people will be a threat to getting what I want rather than a boon.  When I think about it intellectually, this is a silly fear, but it's still a fear.

So, even though I appreciate it when people are clear about what they want, the prospect of clearly expressing what I want has been intimidating.  The way I often perceive it, stating what I want puts me at other people's mercy.  Other people can determine whether I deserve what I want or not, and they get to decide whether they are going to help or hinder.  Of course, the irrational fear is that people are more likely to choose to hinder me than help me.  So, when I state what I want, I have to be strong about it.  Defiant even.  No wonder I'm afraid of coming across like a jerk.

But I don't want to come across as being a jerk, so I just keep my mouth shut about what I actually want and complain under my breath about not getting it.  When I really think about it, there are other options.  Stating what I want doesn't place any responsibility on someone else to make sure I get it.  Creating what I want is still up to me, and being clear about it can make all sorts of decisions easier.  Other people can play a part in that creation, but the responsibility for making what I want important is mine and mine alone.  While a few people have chosen to put obstacles in my path from time to time, others have been invaluable.  And although I don't know this, I suspect that the people who chose to make a situation more difficult than it could have been probably would have done so whether or not they knew what I wanted.

The best way for me to get what I want is to ask for it and trust in my ability to create it.  In personal relationships, this looks like what some people would call defining the relationship, being willing to say what I want clearly and being willing to listen to what the other person wants.  With the music I compose, it means creating without second guessing my vision for a piece, and diligently building relationships with performers so that the music can be heard.  Being honest with myself about what I really want in any given situation might mean setting the bar fairly high.  Personally, I would rather reap the benefits of dedication to a high standard than spend time complaining about not getting what I want.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Creating Experiential Music (as the economy and technology impact art music)

Depending on who you ask, art music faces its share of challenges in America right now.  Popular music also has its share of difficulties, although live concerts are still lucrative enough forms of entertainment to keep booking them.  When the topic turns from popular musicians to orchestras, operas, and other classical musicians, organizations have had an increasingly tough time selling tickets and getting enough revenue to stay in operation.  This is the point at which nearly everyone becomes an economist, at least as far as their own survival in a field goes.  Some people believe in waiting for a return to the way things were, and for some companies this probably makes sense, especially in terms of my personal conclusion: just sitting and listening isn't enough for most people anymore.

The younger the generation, the more likely they are to be in a constant state of activity, perpetually typing or browsing tweets and updates on Facebook, or emails if they're feeling "old school," listening to a carefully selected stream of music that suits their personal tastes, perpetually mentally active in jumping from one focus to another.  This isn't a judgment against anyone, it simply is the way a lot of people operate.  Technology has become more portable, and more pervasive in people's lives, which may be leading to the normalization of shorter attention spans.  It certainly means that people never have to be lacking for a distraction if they get bored for a moment.

No one frowns on a distracted outdoor audience member texting.
At a sporting event or a rock concert, a person can whip out a smartphone and send off pictures of everyone having fun without causing any sort of disturbance.  At a movie theater, it becomes invasive, but some people still can't resist the urge to pull up that bright distraction at a slow moment--or maybe they're just enjoying themselves so much that they feel compelled to share it with someone who isn't there.  Audience members in a concert hall for a classical music performance are not encouraged to exercise the same freedom of distraction.  The music is expected to be engaging enough that people shouldn't have trouble paying attention for an entire symphony.  It almost becomes an unspoken bit of snobbery that if you can't enjoy sitting quietly through a performance, then you don't belong in the classical music audience.

This would be a great perspective if classical music performances were consistently sold out, but the American art music audience is shrinking.  Rather than suggesting that people be encouraged to multi-task themselves through a boring moment in [insert name of well-known dead composer here], I believe that musicians and organizations interested in growing an audience of music lovers can do some things to make performances more consistently engaging.  This belief is informing the music I've been writing.

I've seen plenty of great ideas poorly executed.  I've been to concerts in which some kind of slide show was projected onto a screen while music was performed, "to engage the senses" or something of the sort.  I've also been to small recitals where the live music was alongside experimental film that added another dimension to the subject matter and emotional content of the music.  At a well-choreographed ballet, there is always something to pay attention to.  Even when everything is still, there is an anticipation that something is about to move.  In an opera, audience members are watching a story unfold, and the emotions of the characters get much more attention than the often two-dimensional characters in movies.  So, there are already precedents for art music to be more engaging that just sitting and listening, and some organizations carry it off very effectively.

For the music that I'm composing, I am thinking more in terms of a theater piece than a recital.  When music can be downloaded and heard at the listener's convenience, I think a live performance has to be more than just the sound of a piece.  While a performing ensemble can take steps in that direction, I'm composing more than just notes in my current projects.  It's not a new idea by any means, but it is taking a step beyond where I have previously been as a composer.  It's helping me to think more intentionally about what the audience will experience.

The unknown challenge before me next is to connect with performing ensembles that are interested in going a little beyond the norm in a public performance.  Essentially, that translates to marketing my music.  Even though this requires an entirely different skill set from the actual composition of the piece, it's another vital step in the creation of a compelling performance.  More to come on where that process takes me.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why Christians Should Back Down on Gay Marriage

...confronting a couple of big flaws in the vehement Conservative Christian opposition.

Independence Day is tomorrow, and our country celebrates freedom from tyrannical rule.  Yet there are some who would prefer to enforce tyrannical rule on others.  There are some who seemingly cannot accept the possibility that their perception of things is not the only "right" way.  I am thinking here of those Conservative Christian spokespeople who still argue with great passion against the legalization of gay marriage.  While I am a straight, married man, at various times my wife and I have both worked closely with people who are homosexual, and some of our closest friends are gay.  Some of these individuals have more solid monogamous relationships than some heterosexual couples we know.  It seems at first glance that the issue doesn't really affect me directly, but it also seems incongruous to celebrate historical freedom while ignoring current inequalities.

I don't actually think anyone needs to defend gay marriage.  When people open their eyes and see homosexual couples in the light of truth, I trust that they will find nothing more than people with all the same relationship joys and sorrows as heterosexual couples.  The problem is that ignorance and volatile rhetoric can stand in the way of seeing all people with equal honesty.  As far as I can tell, the Conservative Christian argument against gay marriage is based on two ideas.  The first is that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and the second is that homosexuality is in and of itself sinful.  These somewhat dishonest premises deserve a closer look before anyone uses them to judge a group of human beings.

There is no biblical absolute regarding "one-man, one-woman" marriage.  There may be a legal precedent in this regard, but legal definitions of things are revised as a society evolves.  Basing a concept of what relationships should look like on a culture thousands of years and thousands of miles away seems ludicrous to begin with, but a little reading reveals that the modern Christian idea of marriage is not really a scriptural concept.  At best, it's an interpretation based on cultural norms.

Sure, at the very beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve are touted as the first people in the book of Genesis.  Then, we cover five generations in a single sentence just a few chapters later, and we read that Lamech (Adam's great-great-great-great grandson) married two women.  It isn't judged as to its morality, it is simply a statement of fact.  Lamech doesn't face any particular hardship or punishment because of this polygamy.  A little further along in Genesis, Abraham's wife, Sarai, suggests that he sleep with her handmaiden, as if there's nothing morally problematic about it.  From there on, there is matter-of-fact discussion of men taking multiple wives and concubines throughout the Old Testament.  The children of concubines are considered legitimate heirs, and these women are treated as members of the household.

In fact, the Bible instructs that when a man takes a second wife, he is still obligated to clothe and feed his first one (Exodus 21:10).  Gideon, a righteous man who brought 40 years of peace to Israel, had many wives (Judges 8:30), and Solomon, considered to be the wisest man in the Old Testament, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:2-3).  All of this is before Jesus, though, so it's understandable that Christians would discount the premise of the first two-thirds of a holy book in favor of a concept of marriage proclaimed in the New Testament.  Except that there is nothing in the New Testament proclaiming that marriage must be between one man and one woman either.

Jesus tells a parable about seven virgins who are waiting on a bridegroom, suggesting that a one-man, seven-women marriage was not an unthinkable idea.  Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy that an "overseer" in the church should be (among other things) the husband of but one wife, which implies that there are other reasonable possibilities.  Nearly everything that Christians interpret about one-man, one-woman marriage is external to the actual Bible and then interpreted back into their holy scriptures.

I understand that just because the Bible contains information about something, this does not imply approval.  The challenges and pitfalls of having multiple wives are clearly indicated, just as the challenges and pitfalls of many other situations are illuminated.  Adultery, which would presumably be sexual relations outside of the approved household, is frequently discussed as a sin, but sexual relations within a marriage relationship are never condemned, no matter how many wives one has.  Adultery is actually deemed wrong in one sense because it is equivalent to theft, stealing another man's property (wife).

There is a blatant bias in this discussion, in that a man can have multiple wives (with all of the joy and hardship it may bring), but a woman cannot have multiple husbands.  Culturally, women were not deemed full-fledged people when these scriptures were written, so it's difficult to see how any commentary about marriage between two equal human beings can be entirely based on biblical writings.  It must be accepted that some amount of adjustment and updating is required because our culture is different from the culture of ancient people.  Otherwise, any discussion of marriage based on Christian scripture should assume the reasonableness of polygamy and the status of women as valuable property.  So how does one pick and choose what to update and what to let stand as it is written?  The one-man, one-woman definition of marriage does not hold up to scrutiny as a biblical basis for denying homosexuals the right to marry.

Claiming that homosexuality is sinful also doesn't hold water as a legal argument, since the distinction between absolute legal issues and subjective moral matters is at the heart of the separation of church and state.  Using assumed sinfulness is a bit of a cowardly approach to begin with, since the Christian stance is that everyone is sinful in some way and cannot be otherwise.  According to the actual scriptures, no human being can live a perfect life free of sin, but it makes sense for church leaders seeking power or popularity to pick and choose which sins get the most attention.  I have never heard of protesters picketing public ceremonies with signs reading: GOD HATES THE HEARTLESS or GOD HATES GOSSIPS.

Based on the idea that homosexuals should be denied legal equality because they are sinful, there are a lot of other groups to whom we should deny rights.  Since Jesus never actually spoke against homosexuality, Christians have to use the words of the apostle Paul, who mentioned it in two of his 13 letters which made it into the Bible.  In Paul's letter to the Romans, just after he mentions men "committing indecent acts" with other men, Paul includes among the sinful greedy people, envious people, people who cause strife, deceitful people, arrogant people, people who spread gossip, boastful people, heartless people, ruthless people, and more.  If we took to heart the assumption that we should exclude rights to all those who sin by the standards of the Christian Bible, we would not be able to justify a free society on any level.  Capitalism is, at its very core, sinful by these standards.  And people who are allowed to arrogantly proclaim that they know what God wants have already condemned themselves.

If we just measure by the seven "deadly" sins of greed, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath, it would seem that homosexuals who desire a monogamous marriage relationship are not committing a sin.  People of any sexual persuasion who desire intimacy outside of marriage could be considered lustful, and there are plenty of Conservative Christians who get caught with their proverbial and literal pants down.  Actually, for a religion with a primary mandate to love, the Christian church manages to spew an incredible amount of judgment and hatred, which seems pretty close to pride and wrath from where I'm sitting.

Like everyone else in America, Christians are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn't mean that their opinions should form the foundation of national law, especially when their opinions are based on the flimsiest of premises.  There is no clear "one-man, one-woman" definition of marriage in the Bible, and although homosexual behavior (outside of marriage) is considered sinful by one New Testament writer, so are a multitude of other behaviors practiced by Christians day in and day out.  It is utterly senseless (another sin Paul lists in the first chapter of Romans) to allow for cultural interpretation in the matter of biblical polygamy and to stringently cling to a scriptural condemnation of homosexual relationships.

I find it hard to believe that I am the first person to point out these inconsistencies.  Maybe all of this has been said by others, in which case I am happy to add my words in support.  As a member of the arts community, I operate in close contact with gay people, straight people, and people who don't share that kind of information with me.  They are all people, and I cannot see any rational reason that any of them should have more or less rights than anyone else.  Especially in a country which celebrates freedom from tyranny.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Expert Opinions

In a recent discussion among a group of professional musicians and artists, I was stuck by the comment, We're all experts at something...  It would probably be an accurate statement in any group, but it's quite different from a phrase often used by one of the leaders in another group with which I worked: None of us here is an expert...  I think these two very different perspectives open up possibilities for very different results.

The word "expert" has actually become suspiciously uninformative.  According to Tim Ferris, you can legitimately call yourself an expert if you've read the three top-selling books on a topic.  Perhaps in some situations that's enough, but it isn't always sufficient for me to trust my knowledge of a subject.  I am much more confident claiming to be an expert in the field of music, because I've been doing that for over 30 years.  I guess from my perspective, experience has something to do with the definition of an expert.  There are a few other niches that I feel qualified to call myself an expert as well, but there are also other people from whom I could learn a thing or two.  Even within the broad field of music, there are areas that I don't consider myself expert, like playing bassoon or crafting a violin.  So whether one is legitimately qualified as an expert sometimes depends on the context as well.

For someone to state, "None of us is an expert here," is intended to open up creative and full participation from everyone present.  If no one is an expert, then everyone's opinion is equally valid.  If no one is an expert, then no one can pass judgment on the ideas that are shared.  But if no one is an expert, then everything shared becomes reduced to opinion and decisions get made based on the most powerful personalities rather than the most accurate data.  If no one is an expert, then it actually devalues the collective experiences of the group. This is a great way to preserve the status quo, but not a great way to move forward and grow.

"We are all experts at something," is equally intended to encourage creative and full participation from everyone present, except with a bit more wisdom and insight thrown into the mix.  It begs the question, "What is my area of expertise?  What do I know more about than most people here?"  It means that everyone has something to offer, but it also means that everyone has something to learn.  You are an expert at something, and everyone else here is an expert at something.  No one is better than anyone else in that case.  Everyone simply has something different to bring to the table.

I'm not trying to hide which perspective I respect more.  The most productive, honest, and healthy situation I can imagine for a group is one in which everyone's expertise is acknowledged and valued.  In assembling a group for a special project, it makes sense to bring together people that have different pockets of expertise that are important to the task.  This is obviously more valuable than just a group of willing people without a clue. 

The trick is recognizing one's own strengths and weaknesses and being willing to bring both forward.  Some people don't want to bring their strengths to the foreground because they want to be modest or humble, or they think that their ideas will be shot down, or they doubt the value of their own experience.  Others live under the impression that they don't actually have any weaknesses, that there is nothing they need to learn and no task that someone else could do better.  Both are equally dysfunctional.  As the philosopher admonished, "Know thyself."  A wise person is willing to fully claim their expertise and fully accept the expertise of others.  And a group of people with that attitude in place could do something truly remarkable.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being Wrong

At one point, I worked with an organization whose members endeavored not to make other people wrong. It was an actual agreement among the leadership of the organization, but it was also a practice encouraged among its members. Not making other people wrong may seem like an awkward turn of phrase, but it essentially means accepting the validity of someone else's feelings and perspectives without insisting on being right. When we get into a right and wrong mindset, it is usually ourselves we would prefer to be right and the other person we'd prefer be wrong, so agreeing not to make another person wrong is a way of saying, "I don't need to be right. I'm open to other perspectives and ideas."

The intent, of course, was to encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, as well as receptivity and open-mindedness.  If I won't be criticized for what I say because no one going to make me wrong, then I'll be a lot more likely to contribute my ideas. The problem is that sometimes people are wrong.  Sometimes, people have faulty or incomplete information, and sometimes people draw erroneous conclusions from the information they have.  There are people and groups that continue banging their heads against proverbial walls because no one tells them that they're not looking at useful or accurate data. 

Now, you may conclude that there is a way to indicate that data is inaccurate or incomplete without insisting that an individual is "wrong".  That may have been the whole point of the agreement not to make other people wrong.  But when a person is on the receiving end of that communication, it can be pretty easy for our minds to translate even well-thought-out criticism as, "I'm wrong".  On top of that, one can spend so much effort verbally distinguishing a belief from the believer that any real meaning is lost. 

Of course, belief is the whole issue.  Once I look at a set of numbers and draw a conclusion, that conclusion quickly becomes a belief of mine, whether it's accurate or not.  Challenging someone's beliefs is a big deal.  It's understandable why a person would feel attacked when personal beliefs are on the line.  As you might imagine, many discussions degenerated into whether or not someone had made someone else wrong and never really got back to meaningful topics.  Sometimes everyone just drew different conclusions, and there was no way to reconcile them all into one perspective.  Even when you know that someone's information is inaccurate, if you don't want to be accused of making them wrong, you have to come up with just the right way to convince them to reexamine what they believe without having the tables turned back on your own beliefs. 

The result of that seemingly noble agreement was that everyone's ideas and perspectives were not equally considered, and everyone's conclusions were not equally scrutinized.  Nor should they have been necessarily, except that the claimed framework for interaction suggested otherwise. Just having a policy of honesty and maintaining an open forum where being wrong was OK would have been much easier and, I think, more effective.

I am sometimes wrong.  Everyone I know is sometimes wrong.  We get information and draw conclusions.  When we get more information, we confirm or adjust those conclusions.  We're doing this constantly.  There's no way that anyone can go through life without believing something that's a little bit off at some point.  The challenge for me is not to avoid making other people wrong; it's to be willing to accept when I am wrong about something.  It's not the end of the world.  If it's a big deal not to make someone else wrong, that becomes a threatening situation.  If someone suggests that I'm wrong, I have to defend myself because they're out of line?  Not really.  If we never figure out where we are wrong in our conclusions, we can never improve anything, unless it's sheer luck.  

There isn't necessarily a right and wrong in every situation, and some people will point out a perceived mistake when they don't have accurate information themselves.  Sometimes, there is absolutely a gentle way to let someone else know that they've jumped to a conclusion that doesn't quite make sense, and I'm all in favor of providing more useful data to someone if they're willing to hear.  I think words spoken in love will always be easier to hear.  But the biggest thing is not being afraid to be wrong.  It will happen.  Best to have trustworthy people around you who will send up the red flags rather than perform semantic acrobatics.  

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Taking the Music Where It Wants to Go

Earlier this year, I started work on a woodwind quintet.  I had been thinking about the piece for awhile, but it wasn't until a few months ago that I set aside time to actually put notes down on the page.  For a few weeks, the writing was going well.  We were busy with a move and getting settled in a new city, but I was able to work on the piece consistently enough that the ideas were cohesive.  Since I had a clear impression of the musical ideas I was using, the composition flowed fairly easily.  That is, until it didn't.

At one point, in early May, I hit an obstacle with the piece, and I didn't know what it was.  I was simply dissatisfied with what I was creating.  The piece was becoming complicated, unwieldy to perform, and overly demanding to the listener.  I was not enthusiastic about working on the music, and I found myself making excuses or finding distractions to avoid the piece.   I knew that I had somehow gone astray with the piece, but I wasn't sure what to do about it.

So, I worked on other things for awhile.  I allowed myself to set the quintet on a back burner and started doing more with recording, focusing on a completely different kind of piece.  After a few weeks of wrestling with computer issues, fine-tuning virtual drums, and learning more about vocal recording, I had a good start on a recording of an original song.  Somewhere in the midst of that process, I also realized something about the quintet: I was trying to take the piece in a direction it didn't need (or want) to go.

Although it may be a strange way to look at musical ideas, there are a few natural directions for them to evolve over the course of a piece and there are tons of awkward, tedious, or uninteresting directions they can go.  In working with the quintet, I had begun to make things more complicated than they needed to be, taking the music in directions that were forced and unnatural.  Once I realized that by keeping things simple I could actually create a more effective piece, I was ready to dive back into composing the quintet.

At this point, I'm expecting to complete the writing-the-notes-down-on-the-page portion of the compositional process in the next couple of days.  Then there are some other performance elements of the piece that I am eager to tackle, keeping in mind that these things can be both simple and effective.  Working with creative ideas is a partnership of sorts, whether it's music or color or words or movement.  There are certain traps I sometimes fall into about how complicated or difficult a piece of music has to be in order to be considered "legitimate".  When I remember that I care more about the music being an effective and compelling experience for the listener, my choices almost always become clearer.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lessons from "Hydrogen Jukebox"

Photo by Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Opera
I attended a performance of Hydrogen Jukebox presented as part of Fort Worth Opera's 2011 Festival.  The music is by Philip Glass, and the text is by Allen Ginsberg.  The two of them actually collaborated on the project; it wasn't just a matter of the composer grabbing text he liked and running with it.  I think that sort of partnership can really pay off with presentational art, even though I don't really know how well they worked together.

Truth be told, I don't really like putting on a set of headphones and listening to Philip Glass compositions.  In some institutions of higher learning, his music is ridiculed because of its simplicity.  Heck, I've made fun of his music with a room full of theory students.  Though it may not be explicitly said, the message in some composition programs comes across as, "Write whatever you like, as long as it sounds complicated enough to impress someone."  Minimalism a la Philip Glass certainly does not apply.

What they don't bring into the conversation, though, is the fact that so much of the music Glass writes is only part of the overall experience.  There is also choreography or staging or other engaging presentational elements that go hand-in-hand with the music.   In the context for which it was created, the music becomes not only highly appropriate but incredibly effective.  I walked out of Hydrogen Jukebox thinking (among other things), "How has this work not been programmed in this country for 20 years!?"

The music is rather repetitive, although there is a fair bit of variety over the course of the entire piece.  Still, just looking at the score could trigger all manner of preconceived notions of how boring minimalist music can be.  It is a widely-held belief that if an arts organization dares to program "new" music, it will lose a significant portion of its audience.  I don't know how true that actually is, but if that concern exists, then an organization is likely to consider a minimalist composer so niche within the realm of "new" music that it would have additional hurdles to clear.  Convincing a ticket-buying public to come and see something they start off thinking they'll hate is not an appealing prospect.

It also doesn't have a real plot.  The official term for Hydrogen Jukebox is 'melodrama', and as such there are no clearly-defined stock characters involved in typical operatic relationships.  There are singers, and there is action, but it isn't easy to say what the story is about.  Even the most convoluted traditional opera can be summed up in a couple of sentences well enough for a potential audience member to know what to expect.  It can potentially be more of a challenge to interest people in a relatively unknown work that doesn't fit neatly into a pre-packaged formula.

The subject matter is also mature, which to some people means unsafe.  Ginsberg's poetry challenges society to a potentially uncomfortable level of self-examination which only becomes more poignant when set effectively to music.  Compared to just hearing the poem read, music allows for longer pauses between sung lines.  Instead of waiting for someone to say what comes next in the poem, an audience can accept that instrumental space between the words is part of the setting, and this allows the words a few more moments to sink in.  And what sinks in is challenging.  In a time when some people are looking for a reason to complain, a piece that is blatantly more than sheer entertainment is ripe for criticism.

Don't get me wrong.  People complain plenty when their entertainment isn't exactly how they expect it to be.  Heaven forbid a work of art should actually make them think as well.  Even though that mindset only describes a very small portion of the art-viewing public, it's no fun for an organization to defend itself against such an onslaught of ignorance.  When there are safer works out there with more widespread appeal and less preconceived opinions to fend off, I suppose I can see why Hydrogen Jukebox isn't programmed somewhere in the country every year.  But it should be.

Photo by Ellen Appel/Fort Worth Opera

The themes about war, gender identity, societal values, love, environmentalism, and homosexuality are as appropriate today as they were when the work premiered in 1990, if not more so.  The music is accessible, and as I have said, impeccably engaging in the context of the work.  And whatever fears or preconceived notions may send up red flags for a company considering programming the work, the Fort Worth Opera's production was completely sold out before the festival even opened.  Considering all of the potential challenges that seem inherent with a work like Hydrogen Jukebox, it's worth noting that most of the handful of complaints about the production came from people who didn't even deign to attend a performance.

I take a lot away from all of this.  Once again, I am reminded that music does not need to be complicated in order to be enjoyable or effective or "aesthetically viable," and I have an opportunity to reassess some of my current projects.  I am convinced even more strongly of the power of theatrical elements to attract an audience to a live performance in an age where music can be downloaded for a dollar.  I also see how insignificant potential potholes can turn into mountainous obstacles in my own mind, how a few ridiculous complaints from self-important individuals can cast the illusion that the entire world is against something, and how much more powerful authentic art is than any amount of ignorance or prejudice.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Poem for Memorial Day

[Initially, I had a rather complex indention scheme for this poem, which does not work well in this particular electronic interface.  I learned a bit about indenting lines in html, still was not pleased with the rendering on the screen, and so made some adjustments and adapted.  In any case, it was a short lesson in recognizing when an ideal may be a bit precious when creativity meets practical reality.]
Memorial (for soldiers known and unknown)
I honor you, O soldier,
who has fought and died with impassioned conviction.
I honor your commitment to a purpose, to an unassailable belief,
whether that belief welled up from within your soul
or manifested through intense indoctrination;
I honor the hard and fast lines of your truth,
even as I vehemently disagree with them.

In honoring you, I do not endorse the military industrial complex,
that hydra god
which can never be memorialized in its undying profits.
I honor your humanity,
your finite strength and infinite fallibility,
I honor your humanity,
your reckless courage and poorly hidden fear,
I honor your humanity,
O soldier who has fought and died.

You fought and died
for that elusive ideal labeled Freedom.
You fought and died
for inalienable rights
which can neither be conferred nor revoked by any human endeavor,
you fought and died
that power should remain in the hands of those
with the loudest voices and the deepest pockets,
you fought and died
that people who are as safe as anyone can possibly be
might believe that they are more secure than anyone can possibly be;
you fought and died
that the unborn might have the right to choose oblivion
over childhoods of poverty and neglect;
you fought and died
that consenting adults
might follow their sexual proclivities with impunity;
you fought and died
that any who prefer to do so
may wish a person Happy Holidays without fear of reprisal;
you fought and died
that the wealthy might entice the desperate
to orgiastic acts of depravity,
filmed and broadcast for the working class on pay-per-view;
you fought and died
with a steadfast devotion to people who never cared to know you,
clutching your military rosary beads, the chain of command.

You fought and died,
and the time of accountability for your actions has ended.
You are exonerated, if such a need exists.
You have served well and fully,
and though deserving of rest, you shall instead be immortalized
in the spittle of screed-spewing politicians,
and on the forked tongues
of those power hungry paragons of talk-radio buffoonery,
who confuse hatred for patriotism
and rhetoric for wisdom.
They offer fruit from a tree of jingoism
cloaked in the black-and-white moral absolutism of religion,
fruit to cure the unashamed nakedness of those who believe
that they are free indeed.
You are the branch from which that fruit is so often plucked.
In becoming a shibboleth for national pride,
however warranted or undeserving,
you have become sterile,
automaton, holy, stylized,

I honor you in your frailty,
for in that human susceptibility we are united.

I honor you in your frailty, O grandfather,
who called himself a soldier of the cross.
You fought in no national war, but your battles were manifold.
You were the serenity of Christ,
You were the joy of Christ,
You sang mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy
in the voice of Christ.
In honoring you,
I do not endorse the conservative evangelical Christian institution,
for which hatred and bigotry are justified
toward infidels and nonbelievers,
which cries out for justice for others and grace for itself.
You were the mind of Buddha and the love of Buddha
and the passivity of Buddha,
You were the delight of Krishna and the passion of Krishna
and the wisdom of Krishna.

Buddha Krishna Christ,
whose lap I sat upon to read;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who spoke love
when others spoke admonishment;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who cut down trees with a chainsaw
for his wife to have a better view of the mountains;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who was walked upon
by those whom he loved;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who knew that people never listen
and who spoke anyway.

When you were old, you stretched out your hands
and someone else dressed you
and led you where you did not want to go.
Instead of security,
those whom you held dear placed stones about you
and cast you into a river whose surface you had never breached,
a river with many names,
the foremost among them Ignorance and Greed.
You were the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a few.
You did not rise again after three days,
yet your absolution was immutable love.

I honor you, O soldier,
who fought and died in another’s war,
your true dignity arising not from uniform or adornment,
but from human perseverance and conviction.
I honor you, O soldier,
who has fought and died.
We are not united by cause or belief,
but by something much deeper.

--Randolph Partain
May 29, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Longing to Do Something... Anything

Just this week, we signed the papers to lease our house in Houston.  It's an immense load off of my mind, since it had become frustrating to pay a mortgage on a house we weren't living in.  The place had been on the lease market for just a few weeks, but it was on the sale market since January.  So for the past few months, we have just been waiting, and even though we had a real estate agent, she really didn't give us many suggestions to get the house to sell. Sometimes, I wished for some assignment or recommendation for action, even if it ultimately only served to keep me busy doing something.  Sitting around and waiting with nothing to do felt a bit helpless.

I'm sure there are a lot of people in the same position right now, the housing market being what it is.  Since I'm the kind of person who likes to stay busy, I wanted to know what I could do to improve the chances of the house selling.  What color should I paint the walls?  Should we replace the windows?  What kind of flowers should we plant out front?  Do we need to pressure wash the brick?  Will replacing the carpet make a difference?  Should we stage the house in a particular way?  It ultimately wouldn't have mattered what I was doing exactly, I just wanted to feel like I was doing something to contribute to the house selling.  Maybe one new task every month or something.  Enough for me to have a clear sense of action, plus a little breathing room in between to evaluate if it made a difference.

If it doesn't already exist, it seems to me that there is a great career opportunity for a specialist who crunches the numbers and determines what malleable features are consistent among a high percentage of homes that are bought in a particular geographic area.  The color of the walls, the texture of the carpet, the size of the oven, the type of flowers by the front door.  Sure, a lot of those things can be changed by a new owner, but I know from personal experience that if I decide I can live with something until I have a little extra time and money to fix it, it could be a long time before I have a little extra money and time.  There's a big advantage to having something meet my specifications right out of the gate.

Now, I'm not suggesting that any of the little cosmetic changes I could have made would really have had any impact on whether the house sold or not.  I'm simply saying that a big part of me wanted to have something to do.  I wanted to feel like I was moving toward the goal of selling the house, and sitting back and doing nothing didn't feel like movement at all.  Our real estate agent was trying to save us unnecessary hassle and expense, weighing how much of an impact various factors would have based on a wealth of experience.  I'm grateful for the honest and conscientious feedback about how little control I had in the situation, even though I didn't like it.

Even though I don't consider myself to be a control freak, it still bugs me when I am in a position of just waiting with nothing to do.  Sometimes, though, there really isn't anything meaningful to be done.  Our busyness simply serves the same purpose as blowing on a hot spoonful of food: It doesn't really change the temperature of the food, but it gives us something to do for a moment or two while the food cools off naturally.  If we didn't take that moment of ineffectual activity, we might burn our tongues a lot more often.  I think the trick for me is to honestly recognize the actual value (or lack of value) of my activity and weigh whether that time and effort could be more enjoyably spent doing something else.  I suppose there really is no harm in spending my waiting time in fruitless activity, provided I'm clear that I'm really just keeping myself entertained.