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.