Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Irrelevance of Evidence

Speaking as an ex-church-goer (actually I consider myself post-Christian), Easter no longer has much relevance to me as a holiday.  I still value the celebration of rebirth and new life in its manifold expressions, but now I honor those concepts differently than I once did.  Musically speaking, the Passion story is tough to ignore.  In Western art music, there have been an astounding number of compositions written on the theme of the Passion.  Although I haven't done the research, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it is second only to romantic relationships in terms of the number of musical works the story has inspired, many of them profoundly beautiful. 

 What has amazed me in recent years, and this week in particular, are the number of churches and religious programs focused on the historical evidence for Biblical events, as if the factual accuracy of a story has a direct relationship to its value. When one needs to solve a mystery or defend a case in court, certainly factual accuracy and verifiable evidence are necessities. But spiritual mysteries are not intended to be solved, and spiritual truths do not need factual defense.  Reducing one's faith to a belief in provable data removes a large part of the potential for spiritual growth through self-examination.  Why would one be inspired to grow or develop as a human being in response to mere historical fact?

Perhaps my view of the value of spirituality is off-kilter in that regard.  It is highly possible that only a small percentage of people now view religion or spiritual practice as a vessel for growth.  Factual, historical data does not necessarily compel one to treat other people differently, or to focus one's life in a specifically meaningful way, and that may be what some people prefer about the approach.  To me, it always seems that someone is trying to convince me of something when the issue of historical validity enters into a conversation about spirituality.  And the evidence they may present to convince me of facts has no bearing on the spiritual value of the story.

Like most other streams of thought, I've been considering how this relates to creative practice as well.  I believe that every creative person at some point, even if only for a moment, wrestles with the question of whether what s/he creates has value.  There are certainly ways to answer that question based on awards won, commission fees paid, tickets sold, or reviews written.  All of that pales in comparison to whether the creative act has value to the creator, and ultimately I believe that is the most important (and least data-driven) answer.

Milton Babbitt, a sly smile from the Princeton professor
In 1958, the composer Milton Babbitt had an essay published in High Fidelity magazine entitled "Who Cares if You Listen?" (not his original title), in which he advocates the continued support for the development of music as an art form without regard for how large an audience it may attract.  While this may present some practical complications, the underlying principle is really that the creative must ideally be free to create what is personally inspiring, rather than what is deemed popular.  It is through that deep sense of creative freedom that a culture progresses, in art as well as science.  Doing what has received the popular stamp of approval is treading water creatively.  Trusting a personally inspiring means of expression, whether one is painting, composing, programming, or constructing, builds momentum for the individual creative and ultimately everyone in an outward ripple.

It all depends on trusting the personal meaning that one finds in what one is doing, however.  So, on a day when some would convince me of their beliefs with historical data and impersonal facts, however legitimate or skewed they may be to prove a particular point of view, I am turning instead to what is personally meaningful, seeking that inner trust for what I am creating that will best serve what I can contribute in the world without falling back to the illusion that I have something to prove.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Illusion of Duality

Since I enjoy TV series and movies that involve science fiction, I'm happy that stories involving altered realities and quantum physics seem to be en vogue.  There is a somewhat disturbing trend with these stories, though, and I wonder how much is just a matter of convenience for the plot and how much is a fundamental flaw in logic.  It's not my intent to get overly technical, and my thoughts have led me ultimately to a more practical point, so I do hope you'll stick with me through the technical part.  I won't go too much into the plot of Source Code since it's still in theaters, and I don't want to spoil the experience for anyone.  It's safer to address the issue as it manifests in the television show Fringe, in which there is an alternate reality -- a world very much like our own with some subtle differences.
Do we need technology to create another reality?

The storyline of Fringe doesn't go into detail about how this other dimension came into being, but often such a phenomenon would be explained as two different branches splitting off from from the same trunk.  Some event happened one way in one reality and differently in the other, and that distinguishing event was the catalyst for the two alternate versions of the world developing differently.  One determining point split the two different incarnations of reality and sent them off in subtly different directions.  For more detail about the way this is presumed to work, you can check out the Many Worlds Interpretation, which is a thorough and widely accepted model.  Essentially, the assumption is that any time multiple outcomes to a situation are possible, all of the possibilities occur; we just witness one and keep moving forward in our experience.

A "Dual Worlds" model
What you will have a difficult time finding is a "Two Worlds Interpretation."  This is because if one assumes that reality can split into different streams as the result of several possible outcomes occurring simultaneously, one would wind up with many different "dimensions" from any one event.  Very few circumstances operate on a toggle switch, as neat and tidy as that would be.  While we want to see things as black or white, this perspective often does as much to trap us as it does to make our decisions easier.  If one wants to acknowledge the existence of other dimensions, there is no reason to assume just one alternative.  If two dimensions are possible, then a nearly infinite number of dimensions is possible.

Admittedly, that would make for a difficult story on prime time television.  In life, however, it can pay off to recognize that there are more than two possible outcomes.  We often have many more options than what we allow ourselves to consider.  When we look beyond the immediately obvious, our creative minds can get engaged in seeing possibilities that might be more ideal than anything else.  Some people believe that there is no way around their destiny, that Fate will carry them toward whatever is supposed to happen no matter what choices they make.  I prefer to claim a certain amount of personal responsibility for the direction my life takes, and with that in mind, I rather like the idea that there are always more options and possibilities than I might see at first glance.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Musical Safety

Thinking of me only as a pianist and not realizing that I am a composer, another musician told me of his first experience with a professional orchestra.  He was filling in for a member of the orchestra who was away, and he was very anxious about doing well.  A wave of relief came over him when he learned that they were performing a piece by Tan Dun rather than a well-known piece from Mozart or Beethoven.  Why?  Because, according to him, "it didn't matter what I played."  He perceived a certain vulnerability with the standard, familiar works from what is known as the Common Practice Period (roughly from 1600-1900), but there was room to hide in the unfamiliarity of a contemporary piece. 

European music from that three-hundred-year span has become predictable to our ears, we can tell when it sounds "right" and when something sounds a bit off because we have heard enough of it to form clear expectations.  Even when that music takes a surprising turn, it stays within expected parameters.  There is some comfort in that from the perspective of a listener.  Some musicians apparently find it a bit nerve wracking, though. 
Any mistake is much more exposed in music that has such familiar characteristics.  A more contemporary piece that doesn't follow the same expectations can seem safer because most audience members won't detect any missed notes or rhythms.  So a musician's pride is a bit more protected behind unfamiliar music.  Or even music that an audience expects to be dissonant or difficult to appreciate.

As a composer, of course this is all a bit frustrating.  I don't write music with a 17th- or 18th-century mindset, and at the same time, I don't intentionally create music that is challenging to understand.  I want an audience to be able to find value in every moment of a piece, even if different moments evoke different emotions or ideas.  Fortunately, most of the musicians that have programmed my compositions have accurately represented my intentions for the music.  I am grateful for that.  But in that recent conversation I couldn't help but wonder how much public opinion of "modern" art music is influenced by how musicians treat it.

One need not be an advocate of the avant-garde in order to appreciate music, however.  Technology has made it possible for us to have access to an immense diversity of styles, whenever we care to listen.  For many people, there is no need to attend a live musical performance because an mp3 will suffice.  In fact, musicians are gradually becoming obsolete as technology improves as well.  A composer could conceivably record an entire symphony with virtual instruments and never interact with another living musician.  Hatsune Miku, a popular Japanese singer, is actually a hologram whose voice is created by a computer program called Vocaloid, developed by Yamaha.

So where does this leave me as a composer living in a time when some musicians consider new music to demand less accuracy than more familiar works, when audiences are able to get their fill of music without ever attending a live performance (or listening to anything composed past 1920 if they choose), and when computers are beginning to replace flesh and blood musicians?  I start from the purpose(s) behind what I do in the first place:

1. I create because I am creative, and
2. I compose music to share that creativity with other people.

At the end of the day, I hope to have a positive impact on other people, and music is one powerful way I can do that.  Everything beyond that is just details.  There are certainly some things that a computer can do more efficiently than a person.  Embracing that fact offers me a wealth of possibilities.  I believe that live performances can still have great value as well, so I want to distinguish between pieces that lend themselves to meaningful audience experiences and pieces that can be highly satisfying as a downloaded recording.  In other words, I have a purpose for doing what I do generally, and I have a purpose for each individual project.  Beyond that, it comes down to a matter of trust for the musicians and listeners that take over where my part in the process ends.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ghost Stories

Until we sell our house in Houston, our entertainment budget in Fort Worth is a bit scant.  Luckily, when we tire of board games and Netflix, we are easily entertained by free museums, theaters with great matinee prices, and drives down country roads.  As far as the drives go, Joy is enamored with bluebonnets, which are plentiful this time of year, and I am on the lookout for cemeteries and ghost towns.  It seems that every community has its own folklore about hauntings and spooky supernatural occurrences, and although I consider myself to be an open-minded skeptic, those ghost stories are still fascinating to me.  

Thus, when we made the move to Fort Worth, I was given a book all about the area's haunted locales, and when a friend came to visit on Friday, we decided to check out a couple of spots the author highlighted.  The first was Carter, Texas, a town that doesn't exist anymore except for some historical markers, an old church building, and an open-air, tin-roofed gathering area the author calls a "tabernacle".  According to the book, the ghosts of a couple of children supposedly still played in the area, but we discovered something that the author neglected to publicize.  At one end of the tabernacle stood an ancient piano, the victim of weather and neglect.

Ghost town piano detail
An old ghost town piano

Of course, I tried to play a few tunes on the decrepit instrument, and of course, they sounded creepily dissonant.  Although we didn't hear any ghostly children, we did hear sounds of living children and livestock from nearby farms.  It was easy to imagine how such noises, made ethereal by distance and intervening vegetation, could seem like spectral entities on a dark, quiet night in what remains of Carter.  But the fact that the author didn't mention the old piano surprised me.  It's not like anyone would travel miles out of the way to see a broken-down musical instrument, and given that the locals likely already knew about it, that old piano seems a strange thing to keep secret.  Given what I know about children and pianos, if there truly were any juvenile spirits hanging around, they would be hard pressed to resist the urge to play it (or bang on it, depending on your perspective).  Still, prowling around the ghost town and reading the historical markers was quite cool, and the discovery of the poor old piano was indeed a treat.

The author of my Fort Worth ghost book also mentioned a cemetery not far from Carter which boasts a glowing tombstone.  According to what he wrote, "the phenomenon is consistent, night after night, regardless of the weather or any other conditions that might affect it."  From his own personal account, this tombstone, supposedly 50 yards into the graveyard and clearly visible from the road, was "blazing away in ghostly iridescence."  We decided to check out this "consistent phenomenon" for ourselves, since we were already close by.  The experience was somewhat disappointing.  Although we waited outside the cemetery gates for awhile after the sun had completely disappeared, we never saw anything glowing with the intensity the author described.  We chalked up the alleged glow to some kind of optical illusion, but there was simply nothing there for us to see.

Which got me thinking about why a person would publish a story that was so easy to verify as false.  The Carter stories are par for the course: On certain nights, if you listen carefully, you may hear the ghostly voices of the children of Carter.  That kind of story might have people returning and hanging around time and again (although I can't say that such visits would benefit the local economy in any way).  To suggest that one visiting the cemetery would experience something specific with absolute certainty, no matter the time of year or weather conditions, is just a silly claim.  But we accept all kinds of silly claims all the time without verifying them, so stories about glowing tombstones seem like small potatoes.  

In fact, I think I have accepted a great many "ghost stories" as true, without bothering to verify them for myself, and I'm not talking about glowing tombstones and underage specters at this point.  From Hollywood movies to church pulpits to popular songs to adages that are somehow just floating through the collective unconscious of society, there are so many stories about how people should be.  I have fallen prey to other people's beliefs about what a husband should be, what an artist should be, what a responsible adult should be, what a friend should be, what kind of music I should be writing, what kind of connections I should be making, and on and on.  And as many times as I have accepted other people's beliefs, I have rebelled against them just to be defiant.  I know that most people mean well when they share their beliefs about such things, and I know that most people are convinced that what they share is steeped in truth.  Still, it takes a bit of work to peel back all of the layers of ghost stories that have covered my perspective of what my life is supposed to be like.  

Stories about glowing tombstones are easy to verify.  You drive up to the cemetery and you look out across the gravestones and visually determine if one of them has an eerie green ghostly blaze.  It takes an inner eye to verify all of the folktales about more mundane subjects, how men or women are supposed to act, how success should be defined, what one must do in order to be a valued member of society, and why that is of paramount importance.  Maybe some people find it easy to disregard such stories, but I know some people that take such beliefs very seriously.  Some of them might be true for me, but I will only know that for sure if I take those ideas from external sources and verify them against what makes sense to me personally.  If I don't see the glow, then I know that's one more ghost story someone just made up.  Otherwise, I am essentially always measuring my life by someone else's ruler, and sometimes it seems that no two rulers agree.

I will most likely keep enjoying ghost stories and my own amateur investigations of supernatural folklore, but I haven't come across one yet that has turned out to be verifiably accurate.  Likewise, I'll keep testing other people's beliefs that have made their way into my psyche.  Hopefully, I can peel away the ones that don't make sense to me and hang on to the ones that ring true.