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.