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Sunday, November 23, 2014

In which I ramble about Reza Aslan and the Islams

I heard Reza Aslan interviewed on Krista Tippet's On Being this week.  I've seen him before on videos that people post on social media. Normally, it is an exchange that goes like this:

Reporter: But, (insert religion) teaches that (insert thing)

Aslan: Actually, (insert scholarly perspective that's 100 years old)

Reporter: But, (insert religion) believes that (insert thing)

Aslan: Actually, (insert specific example that contradicts reporter)

So, I didn't think much of it or him — except that it might be cool to be named Aslan. I think that's a talking Jesus-lion in a C.S. Lewis book that I've never read.

I've seen it happen a million times when kids come to University. If they arrive freshly cut from a pretty conservative religious background, their first exposure to higher criticism can be traumatic and difficult. I had a very tender-hearted teacher who brought me gently through the process.

So, Aslan was kind of a non-story to me. He was just smugly giving the scholarly perspective. I was actually more interested in why the corporate media was interested in him, but since I assiduously avoid info-tainment shows, I wasn't that interested.

This morning, however, he said something that disturbed me a bit. He was talking about the incredible diversity within Islam and the problems with using phrases like "the Muslim world" in order to cover such a diverse group of people and beliefs. Then he said something like, "As a scholar, I'm actually uncomfortable with the word 'Islam'. I would rather use the word 'Islams'."

What a intellectually packed statement that is! It shows the difference (in the Kierkegaardian sense) between the religious scholar (where "religious" is an adjective) and the religious (where "religious" is a noun in the old sense).

People who are in love can't speak about their love objectively without sounding like assholes. People who aren't in love can sit back an analyze it. Those that are in love say, "But, reality is over here." Those who aren't say, "You are biased. If you could see it from the outside, you would know it more objectively." Those who are on the inside say, "But, we would have to leave the inside in order to see the outside, and we would lose something infinite in the process."

So, all that is fine. If Aslan is just trying to clarify language use, no big deal. The question is, if you go down that road, where is the bottom. Walt Whitman — and I'm admittedly not a fan — could say, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself." That's because there was some consistent "self" that remained despite the contradictions. In other words, if we go down this way of thinking, don't we also wind up saying, "As a scholar, I'm actually uncomfortable with 'Reza Aslan'. I would rather use 'Reza Aslans'."

The whole bit put me in mind of a certain passage from Chesterton when he was dealing with some Darwinists. He was not dealing with the theory of evolution as a descriptor of how something happened. He was attacking a problem that we still face today. Scientists with no background in philosophy use Darwinism and the scientific method to self-generate epistemology and ontology. It doesn't really make much sense from a philosophical perspective, but that's not a big concern. (See here the spectacular downfall of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's reputation amongst academics in the humanities!)

Here is the Chesterton passage:

"IF evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about."

I'm not sure what Aslan's motivations are, or what he is really like. I have a feeling though, that we wouldn't be able to have a good argument because we wouldn't be able to pick a term and agree on what it actually meant without him saying, "I prefer the term 'terms'." 

It is a hard problem though. When you look at anything under the microscope of objectivity, it's miraculous multifoliate properties come to the fore. When you look at it from the inside, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of all the tendons holding seemingly disparate hands, and eyeballs, and tender napes of necks together.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why you mistakenly think I've been stepping up my fashion game

My priest said to me yesterday, "What's with all the dressing up lately?"

I had to explain. "You may think I'm stepping up my game, but it's much more complicated. You remember my old sweater that I wasn't allowed to wear anymore?"


"And then I got the new sweater."

"Yes, I helped pay for that sweater."

"Right. And you remember that I accidentally set it on fire?"


"So, now I'm not allowed to wear the new sweater out in public."

"Is it still wearable?"

"Yes, there is just a stove heating element burn mark on it. So I only wear it around the house, but Jenn won't let me wear it in public."

"Probably a good idea."

"Right, so it's been getting a little cooler in the mornings, and I don't have a sweater to wear. I don't want to wear my parka because it's not that cold. The only jackets I have are the 99 cent hounds tooth one I bought at a thrift store and the one that the Russian left for me on the porch in a plastic bag. It's really not that I'm dressing nicer. They are just the only coats I have to keep me warm in the morning."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Kurt Knecht meme contest results

I won two free tickets to the orchestra by finding a stuffed turtle hidden under a sculpture inspired by Monet's Water Lilies.

Coincidentally, this happened only a week after Jennifer had made one of her infamous declarations. In an almost unimaginable confluence of events, Jennifer had to attend one of my organ concerts and "the evil clown music" (Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg) in the same week. Unfortunately, Pierrot was paired with Terry Riley's In C. When it was finally over, she said, "OK, I've been to two concerts. I'm not going to any more for the rest of the year."

With an extra orchestra ticket in my hand, I offered a meme contest for the extra ticket. The winner of the contest is my former student Rachael Kirschenmann who is extremely bright. There is a lot going on here. There is Bun Bun. There is Schoenberg and Schubert. I'm not sure who the other two are, but I want to know. I see a German Augmented 6th and Scriabin's Mystic Chord. Finally, I'm saying, "Hmmm" which I apparently say in class. It is a multivalent sound that my students say can mean, "Oh, that's very thoughtful" or "Oh, you are way off base" or "Oh, that's clever" or "Oh, that's crazy talk."

Second place went to Samantha Peeters. She is another extremely bright former student with an acerbic wit and a gift for language. Samantha is also famous for writing the phrase, "He cured my leprosy" in the comment section of her student evaluation of my history class. Samantha's entry has me, again, as Jesus. I don't hate baths. I think Jennifer says it best when she says that I have "a European sense of personal hygiene."

Next, we have a lovely entry from Katie Cook Wilson who managed to create an entry that won third place even though she just had a baby a few weeks ago.  She sorted through the many, many pictures of me wearing an orange shirt and looking slightly angry while holding a pumpkin. In this picture, the joke is that the pumpkin is my date. I never considered dating a vegetable, but if I did, I would need to find an eggplant colored shirt.

In a surprise entry, the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra submitted there own entry. I'm still working out all the philosophical implications of an Orchestra trying to win tickets to their own concert. It's sending my mind on endless loops and making me think of M.C. Escher. They used the selfie that I had to submit with the turtle.

Super work everyone, and congratulations to Rachael. I'll see you at the concert tomorrow!

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Oscar de la Renta gig and my hair model gig

When you are a professional musician, you sometimes dream about the day that your son will come up to you and say, “Papa, what I really want is a horn.”  You hope that he might want a saxophone.  You pray that he doesn’t have the personality that would ask for a trumpet.  Avi asked for his first horn at a cheap hair salon when we took the boys for haircuts. 

One of the great pleasures of parenthood is being able to force your children to go through the same horrible experiences that you went through when you were a child.  So, we took the boys to a cheap salon, and I got ready to say, “A little boy’s haircut, please.”   The children had different ideas.  Both had announced during the negotiation period that they wanted to grow their hair.  Zach, who has big, curly locks wanted to start working on a Jewfro.  Avi just wanted his hair to hang straight down.  He was sporting a modified bowl cut, and his bangs were dangling down to the bottom of his top eyelids.  Jennifer, when hearing the boy’s announcement, put on her best Jewish accent and said, “What am I going to tell them?  Their father has long hair?”  Thus began the negotiations with eight year-old Avi.

“Avi, how do you want your bangs cut?”

“I don’t want them cut.  I want them to hang down into my eyes,” he said while pressing the bangs flat against his forehead and peering out between strands.

“No, Avi.  You’re not going to have hair in your eyes.”

“I want it in my eyes.”

“No.  You have two choices.  You can get your bangs cut even with your eyebrows, or you can part it like mine,” I said while demonstrating what I intended by parting his bangs.

“I don’t want my bangs cut.”

“Avi, I don’t care if you grow your hair or not, but your not going to have bangs in your eyes.”

“I want it straight down.”

“No.  Either cut up to your eyebrows or parted.”

“Why can’t I have it in my eyes?”

“Because you won’t be able to see.  Son, what’s the long term plan with your hair?  How do you really want it cut?” I asked with mounting frustration.  I prepared to say “no” to the long bangs again.  Avi was quiet for a moment, and his voice took on the tender, vulnerable sonority of honesty.  

“Well, papa, what I really want is a horn.”

Momentarily confused by his unexpected and perplexing statement, I assumed I hadn’t heard correctly.  I said, “A what?”

“What I really want is a horn.”

The thought “Please let it be a saxophone” flashed through my mind as I reiterated, “You want a what?”

“A horn,” said he.  “I want all of my hair cut really short,” he explained, and grabbing about three inches of the bangs in the center of his forehead, he twisted them into a liberty spike and continued, “except for right here.  I want a big horn that I can spike up in the middle of my forehead so that I can run around and ram people with it.”  With that he began a thrusting motion with his head as he pushed his manufactured spike into me.

 I had thought that I was aiming low when I was willing to settle for a trumpet.  I paused as my incredulity passed into exasperation.  The words came flatly, “Avi, you’re not getting a horn.”

“But I want a horn to ram people.”

“Avi…no…you’re not getting a horn.  You go ask that lady over there.  She doesn’t even know how to do a horn haircut.  Watch.”

I marched Avi over to the woman who was to cut his hair.  “Tell her what you want.  Go ahead.”
Suddenly, a timidity that would not normally become a horned creature seized him as he quietly said, “I want a horn” to the kindly hair stylist.

“A what?” she said.

“I want a horn.”

“You want a what?”

“He wants a horn in the middle of his head.  Avi, I told you she wouldn’t know how to do it.  Give him a little boy haircut, please.”

As I turned to walk back to the waiting area, I noticed that our little interaction had attracted the attention of the woman behind the reception desk.  She caught my eye and said, “We need you.”


“We need you.  We are doing a show in a few weeks.  We are flying a Paul Mitchell executive down from Philadelphia to do a trade show, and we need male models with long hair that are willing to do something drastic to their hair.  We need you to be a hair model.”

“You want me to be a what?”

“To be a hair model.  You would get to come to the hotel and get your hair cut for free by a famous stylist on a stage in front of a hundred hair stylists.”

I thought of several times in my life when I have been mistaken for a homeless person.  I thought of the time Brian and I offered a homeless man in New Orleans the opportunity to pick through all of our clothes and take whatever he wanted.  The man rejected our normal clothes outright and picked a blue T-shirt that Brian had brought for sleeping.  Recently, a church secretary insisted I take a bag of groceries because she was convinced I was homeless.

“Look…um…you’ve got the wrong guy.  I haven’t combed my hair in almost seven years.  If it gets washed twice a week, it’s lucky.”

“Come on.  Don’t you want to be on the stage with all of those woman looking at you?”
I could have explained in great detail why I could care less if all of those women were looking at me, but very uncharacteristically, I chose brevity.  “Look.  You’ve got the wrong guy.”

As I turned to walk back to the waiting area, I noticed that our little interaction had attracted the attention of the woman that I had been married to for ten years.  She caught the woman’s eye and said, “When is the show?”

“It’s in a few weeks.  I’ll write the date down.  He would need to come to our other branch for auditions.”

“I’m really not interested.”  I said.

“He’ll be there,” Jenn said.

Jennifer and I worked out another “compromise,” and three weeks later I found myself in a salon with my hair in foils.  The only consolation prize for being selected at the audition was that one of my sisters came along.  She was also selected to be a model.  She was taking absolute delight in the fact that the one person on the whole earth that was the least concerned about personal hygiene and appearance was having blond highlights put into his hair by a Paul Mitchell stylist.  As the stylist prepped our hair for the show, we began to talk.

“Kurt, this is going to be so good for you.  You’re going to have to be concerned about your personal appearance.  You’re even going to have to take a shower.  I know that’s a big sacrifice for you.”

“Kristen, I bathe when I’m dirty.  I can’t believe I’m even here.”

“I know.  Aren’t you excited!?  You get to be part of the fashion world.”

“I was part of the fashion world one time in Dallas.”

You did a fashion show?”

“Not exactly.  I received a call for a gig at the original Nieman Marcus store in downtown Dallas.  I was supposed to play the piano for an Oscar de la Renta show.  I arrived, and there was a space cleared out on one of the floors with a piano off to the side.  As I walked up, employees began to approach me.  One scurried up, took my hand, and said, ‘I’m Noel, and I’m in furs.’  A second immediately followed with, ‘I’m Rene, and I’m in men’s clothing.’

‘I’m just the piano player,’ I responded.

‘Oh.  Go over there.’ They pointed to the piano.  They were obviously disappointed that I wasn’t someone more important.  When the actual Oscar de la Renta representative showed up, he announced himself as they approached.  ‘I’m John, and I’m from New York.’  I started playing ‘Autumn in New York’ and thinking ‘He can’t actually think that people will be impressed with him simply because he lives in New York.’  I was, of course, completely wrong.  Nieman Marcus employees (or Nieman Marcae as I like to call them) began rushing forward to greet him.  ‘Oh, are you really from New York?  Is it so great there?  I went a couple of years ago.’  I finished ‘Autumn in New York’ quickly and switched to ‘’So What’ by Miles Davis.  He regaled them with the tales of the New York life.  Before long, a rather striking blonde walked by, and I started to play Ellington’s ‘’Sophisticated Lady.’  She walked in such a way that everyone on the floor had his or her attention drawn toward her.  She vanished for a moment, and reemerged in a new outfit.  This time, she not only drew everyone’s attention but also began to primp and preen in front of people.  I thought to myself, ‘You’re pretty, but you’re not all that.’ I started to play ‘Doxy’ by Sonny Rollins.  Before long, a stunningly beautiful African American woman was doing the same thing.  Kristen, I had to put in a phone call to our dear sister Kelly later.  ‘Kelly, I played an Oscar de le Renta show, and I swear there were models showing off clothes to old ladies with credit cards.’

‘Kurt, that’s how expensive clothes are sold,’ Kelly responded.  ‘They get models to show you how your fat ass will never look in the outfit, and then you pull out your credit card.’

I went on break and headed over to talk to the girl behind the wine and cheese table.  I usually enjoy talking to the “help’ on gigs because they are the people that are closest to my socio-economic class.  I started eating grapes and talking about the job.  ‘What’s all this about?’ I asked.

‘Oscar de le Renta is coming here in a month for a fundraiser.  This gives people the opportunity to buy one of his outfits and wear it to the event.’

‘Oh.  Well, can’t they just buy one of his outfits any day of the week.’

‘You don’t understand.  He may only make fifty dresses like this one behind me.  You would be one of the only people in the world that would own it.’

‘Hmm.  Can you show up to the event wearing something other than his clothes?’

‘Probably, but these sorts of people don’t want to do that.  Let me ask you something.  How much do you think this dress behind me costs?’

‘I don’t know.  It’s a nice dress.  Maybe three or four hundred dollars.’

She started chuckling to herself as she found the tag and flipped it to reveal a price of $12,000.00

‘Twelve thousand dollars!’ I shrieked.  ‘Twelve thousand dollars for one dress?!  I could put a down payment on a house for that amount!’

‘Not for one of the houses that these people live in you couldn’t.’

‘I could buy a car!  A nice car!  If I ever paid twelve thousand dollars for an article of clothing, I would expect it to get off the hanger, walk out of the closet, wake me up in the morning, make my coffee, and get onto my body!’

She continued chuckling and said, ‘Those pants that the de le Renta rep is wearing go for eight hundred.’

‘Eight hundred for a pair of pants!  They’re nice pants, but not eight hundred dollars nice.’

I walked back over to the piano and started a tradition that I have followed to this day.  Every gig I play in a situation where there is a large amount of wealth exposed, I make sure to play an extended version of ‘God Bless the Child.’  When the notes sound out, I think of that first verse ‘Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose,’ and I mean every pitch and rhythm.”

“Great, Kurt,” Kristen replied.  “Another long story about yourself.  We really have to do something about your ego problem.  I’m worried that sometime soon you won’t be able to go to some of the places you want to go.  Your head almost didn’t fit through the door for this audition.”

“I know, Kristen.  I’m the hero of my own story.”

“But, you have me.  Everyone else is always like, ‘Kurt’s so wonderful,’ but God has placed me in your life to tear you down and make sure your ego is manageable.”

“Thanks so much, but I already have Jenn for that.”

“Seriously, Kurt.  Do you think that there is anything wrong with liking fashion?  I know you could care less about your personal appearance, but do you think it’s overly materialistic for me to care about nice clothes and shoes?”

“I was talking to Marty Barrett about that once.  Pastor Barrett reminded me that Esther saved the Jews by virtue of the fact that she was a hot babe.  Even cheerleaders have their place in the Kingdom.”

Nick, the Paul Mitchell rep, finished our prep work and sent us home with directions to the hotel for the next day.

We arrived at the hotel and pushed our way through one hundred hair burners to the prep room.  We saw Nick.  His outfit startled both of us.  He was wearing something that almost resembled an Episcopal cassock.  It was very like the outfit that Kenau Reeves wore in The Matrix.  The cassock was coupled with a haircut that was walking a dangerous line between seventies rock star and Kentucky waterfall.  The result was that he appeared as a priest of modern hair culture.  Kristen and I had been selected to have our hairs cut and our fashion sins absolved by the priest on stage as part of the demonstration.  Nick was putting the final touches on the models who had already been transformed and simply had to walk the catwalk.  After a brief rehearsal, the show began and we entered into the world of hairstylists.  As the show began, I was amazed that they were concerned with issues of self-expression and artistic integrity.  They were describing the problems of balancing the desires of artistic expression and making enough money.  I had never previously considered hair styling to be among the arts, but I began to reconsider.  There were certainly enough weird haircuts and clothes.  The mix between gay people and straight people was about the same as in the other arts.  They even had the requisite pretension at some of the tables.  In fact, it was the exact same crowd that I had seen at gallery openings.  The only difference was that the canvass of their creations consisted of the dead protein that sprouts from our skullcaps.

They had assembled here to study and improve their craft as taught by a genuine master.  At a Paul Mitchell trade show, you can learn the latest techniques for bouffanting, spiking, mulleting, wedging, buzzing, bobbing, flat topping, feathering, afroing, dreadlocking, Mohawking, weaving, extensioning, bowling, Caesaring, crew-cutting, fading, pompadouring, ducktailing, page-boying, helmet heading, or corn rowing someone’s hair  (Incidentally, little boy haircuts are forbidden at the events).  My specific case this day was going to be a demonstration of (if you will excuse the double entendre) shagging.  He was going to shag me in front of the entire audience.  Like a weird chapter from the Kama Sutra, he was going to shag me while simultaneously pushing Paul Mitchell’s line of pomades, gels, spritzers, creams, emulsions, foams, tonics, lotions, waxes, texturizers, glosses, pastes, whips, and possibly the new Paul Mitchell hair-in-a-can with aloe and citrus extract. 

I walked up to the stage and sat in the barber’s chair.  Since I normally only get a hair cut every two years, I look forward to the conversation with the hairstylist.  I usually like to start with an icebreaker question like, “When did you come out?”  Jennifer always rolls her eyes at me, but my gay friends are usually more than willing to talk about it.  I’m interested in hearing about it.  This time was quite different.  He was miked up so that the audience could hear him.  He was also straight, so my normal icebreaker wouldn’t work.  He whipped out a patented Paul Mitchell razor blade and began chopping off about two feet of hair.  He would spin me to one side and say to the audience, “Do you see how I am establishing the line along the occipital lobe?  I’ll show you guys on the other side what I mean.”  The chair would whip around one hundred and eighty degrees, the razor blade would chop, and he would continue, “We did these highlights yesterday with Paul Mitchell Teasy Lights.  Now I want to be careful as I approach the temporal lobe to keep the line I’ve established even.  Excellent.  Now, I can apply some Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Oil and…finished.  He still looks like a musician doesn’t he?” 

“Yeah, like a seventies rock star,” I heard Kristen mutter.

After the cut, he made me walk down the catwalk, turn, and shake my hair out for the stylists.  Following the trip down the runway, I was then asked to walk around to all thirty tables and allow the stylists to touch my hair and look at the finished product.  As they were inspecting my new “do,” Kristen was on the stage getting a hair-cut called “The Barbie.”  Between “The Barbie” and my new 70s style coif, Paul Mitchell had provided enough ammunition for a continued sibling sparring session.  As we left the building, I turned to Kristen and said, “I’m going to have my children stick with the piano.  I knew that nothing good would come from Avi asking for a horn.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

ESPN post concert interview

I have been imagining what it might be like if classical musicians got a post game concert interview and could respond like athletes. Here is how I imagine it would go.

Erin Andrews: That was quite a performance!

Arthur Rubenstein: I just want to give all the glory to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

EA: In Chopin's Op. 10 No. 4, you accelerated out of the cadence into the coda and still managed to catch all those low C# octaves! What was going through your mind when you did that?

AR: Well, this is what we practice everyday. I thought I should just go for it, and I did. I managed to catch all of them, but I couldn't do it without a great team like my piano tuner and my yoga instructor.

EA: I understand you've had some nagging injury problems with your 4th finger on your left hand. Are you substituting other fingers for that one?

AR: Injuries are part of the reality of being a professional musician. If a finger gets injured, the expectation is that the other ones will step up and execute. We don't use injury as an excuse.

EA: You have an upcoming concert with the Atlanta Symphony. They've been plagued with management problems and lately have been assaulted by naked nymphs in their concert hall. How do you approach a concert like that?

AR: I can only worry about myself and what I can control. As long as I'm playing good piano, that's all I can do. There is no doubt that they are a good band, and they've had some struggles lately; but you shouldn't underestimate them. They will come ready to play, and hopefully so will I.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Band v Orchestra question

I may be kicking a hornets nest, but a thought occurred to me this week. I'm teaching a graduate seminar in Baroque Performance Practice, and I'm delighted to report that students are arguing away about the intentional fallacy, the relationship of the composer to the performer, and what responsibilities the performer has to the composer.

Now, one of the strongest defenders of the "transparent performer" position - that is, the idea that the performer serves as a vehicle to carry out the composer's instructions without imposing his/her own will is a band conductor. I'm very grateful that we have someone like this in class to present that viewpoint.

What struck me though is a possible difference in band and orchestra culture, and I'm wondering if it is true. That is - and of course there are exceptions - we have a tradition of military bands in this country dating back to at least Sousa. Those bands are praised for their "precision", but not necessarily their passion. Orchestral conductors might be praised for "precisions", but there is not as much praise without also having some emotional content.

I've known a few band directors that do work on technical stuff without inspiring anyone. For that matter, I know orchestra and choral directors who do the same. However, I'm wondering if people have thoughts on any significant divide in the culture between the two.

Is there a tradition that values precision without emotional content that is more pervasive in band culture than in orchestral culture?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thomas Weelkes: drunkard, urinator, organist

No matter how good you are at your job, you're probably not as good at Thomas Weelkes. Weelkes was an English organist/composer in the late 16th and early 17th century. In 1616 he was reported as

"noted and famed for a comon drunckard (sic) and notorious swearer & blasphemer"

Around this time, he was fined for urinating on the Dean of the cathedral from the organ loft during Evensong. He was apparently drunk and swearing loudly enough during a service that he was dismissed, but very soon after (!) was reinstated. A report sent to the Bishop says,

"Dyvers tymes & very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein."

Yet he kept his job until he died. It's a new standard of excellence. He literally peed on his boss and showed up to work drunk all the time, and he never lost his job. How good do you have to be as an organist/composer to behave like that?! I mean how do those meetings go? 

The dean says, "Look, he peed on me during the worship service!!!" The senior Warden says, "Yes, but he plays so well. We can overlook it this one time, right?" In any case, I think I need to practice some more.