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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The problem with American society explained...finally

I have a diverse group of friends which includes some conservatives, some liberals, some moderates, some capitalists, some Marxists, some distributivists, some anarchists, some Christians, some atheists, some Jews, at least one Sikh, a Hari Krishna, and I think there is also a Pastafarian or two. There is one thing they all agree on. American society is headed downhill.

I'm pretty sure that if they were all in one room, they wouldn't be able to agree on what kind of pizza to order, but they can agree that American society is bad and getting worse. It's not just a little bit of it, either. It's the whole damn thing. The government, the education system, the quality of music, the level of discourse, the Church, parenting, public health are pretty much crashing according to my Facebook feed.

The funny thing is, the posts are never written from the first person point of view. It's never, "I, as a member of American society, am getting worse. My taste in music has become terrible. I've ruined my own government, and as for my parenting...don't even get me started. A little Benadryl never killed a child." That would, I think, be more honest. Instead we get the post from someone who has magically lifted themselves out of the society for a moment. It's always, "Your taste is getting worse. My government is getting worse because of what you did. Children are behaving worse because of what you did."

Who is the "you" that is responsible? Quite interestingly, at least according to my Facebook feed, it's the same group of people from the beginning. It's the fault of conservatives, liberals, moderates, capitalists, Marxist, Christians, and atheists. I even occasionally see people posting anti-semitic stuff because, well, the Jews.

Well, if these damn kids and their internets and rap music don't ruin this country, I don't know what will. The problem with the rap is its "heartless sterility, obliteration of all melody, all tonal charm, all music." Of course, that was actually said about Wagner in 1871, and similar things were said about Beethoven 50 years before that, and similar things were said about Bach 100 years before that. People have never liked the next generations music or their kids.

People have been complaining about kids since there were kids. The point is, the country is bigger now than it has ever been. For every (insert group you don't like) there are millions who are of a similar mind to you. The main thing is, you have to change the ones that are different from you by attacking them through social media posts. It worked on me. would have worked on me, but I spent yesterday on the internets and listening to Tupac.

Monday, May 18, 2015

1000 monkeys writing a Beethoven symphony

I guess there is a thing now where you pick a youtube video and send it to me for my commentary. Timothy Tharaldson sent in this one.

This is wrong-headed for several reasons, so it's hard to know where to start. He says so little in so much time, that it is easy to get confused. Let's start with some of the easy surface misconceptions.

We can record music using bits. Recorded music is not that same thing as hearing it in real life. It is easy to mistake the two if you are only used to hearing the kind with zeros and ones, but in real life, music is infinitely more complicated.

He has to force music into discreet components and leave a bunch of stuff out in order to make it calculable. So, for example, he talks about combinations of pitches and rhythms (surprisingly there is no mention of rests so his calculations may be all off!) Notice we don't discuss timbre, volume, attack, decay, portamento, the tender baby's breath of a vibrato change that the violinist put in that turn. Well, if we included all those factors, we would be talking about real music, and then the calculations would be too big, and it would make for a very short video. He would just say, "No, we will never run out of combinations." Instead, he takes a long time to say, "No, we will never run out of combinations."

All of this is a variation of the infinite monkey theorem to me, but it misunderstands the point. Composition is always a very human activity, and composers are not picking notes from an infinite number of combinations.  The monkeys may eventually type Hamlet, but to do so, they would need to type 500,000 copies of Hamlet with one word spelled wrong, and 1,000,000 copies with two. Eventually, there would be infinite Hamlets, but it wouldn't really be Hamlet would it? It wouldn't be what Hamlet really is. The work of William Shakespeare wrestling words into submission until they convey something that can transform those who encounter it is not reducible to infinite chance.

So, he goes on to say that we like certain patterns. 40 songs with 40 chords. Everybody is copying because we only like those patterns.  Blah, blah, blah. There is always a certain amount of imitation that occurs, and to some degree that's a good thing. Imitating is flattery. Stealing is bad. The line is blurry. (Get it. "Blurred Lines". See what I did there.) However, there is a different way to think about this whole problem.

One of the reasons why there are so many 3 and 4 legged chairs is that the 1 and 2 legged chairs were so much less successful. One of the reasons so many buildings hold their roofs up with walls is that the ones that try to hold them up without walls are so much worse. That is to say, art happens in real life with a real person interacting with real materials. Sometimes a structure is discovered that seems innate to the material itself and the artistic merit is in making beautiful 4 legged chairs.

In music, the 12-bar blues is one such structure. It's sturdy foundation is durable enough to allow a surprising amount of variation.  For some people, there is enough freedom in the restrictions of the structure that they can spend their entire lives exploring that little area of the world.  So, you might believe that B.B. King ran out of ideas when he was 20 and just kept copying the same patterns of notes and rhythms. I think that's sort of an ungenerous approach. I prefer to think that he was creating an entire universe inside of a bottle. When you go inside the bottle, it is magically larger than the outside.

Of course, once the folks over at Vsauce get a hold of my blog and see how well it compresses, they'll be able to put it on their graph and tell me that it was either too simple or too complex for people to like. Hopefully, they will make a video that calculates all the possible words that I could have used and then tell me that surprisingly we tend to like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Frank LaRocca and a cappella sacred music on MusicSpoke

I updated the sacred a cappella choral list I made the other day to include the music of Frank LaRocca.  I wanted to do a separate post about it because I'm so excited to have him onboard at MusicSpoke. I seriously love his music. It's the kind of music that I often try to write. I find it exquisitely beautiful, expertly informed by tradition, unmistakably modern, lush, and gorgeous. If you don't know about him, you need to.

O Sacrum Convivium

Miserere click here for a recording

Anima Christi

Ave Maris Stella

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The 38 reasons you need MusicSpoke in your life this week. You won't believe #5!

One of our British MusicSpoke composers, Matthew Cann, asked for a list of the a cappella sacred choral music we now have available on MusicSpoke.

It's wonderful just to use the site to listen to some of this fabulous music. It's even better to buy it and work with the composer.

So, in alphabetical order by composer, I've made a rough list. The catalogue is already getting large, so if I skipped one, let me know.

Flowers for the Altar - Eric Barnum
In Paradisum - Eric Barnum

In Manus Tuas - Matthew Cann
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - Matthew Cann

Fishing in the Keep of Silence - Paul Carey

Alleluia - Saunder Choi

Benediction - John Conahan
Of Man and of Angels - John Conahan

God's Grandeur - Garret Hope

The Holly and the Ivy - Jason Horner
Lo, How a Rose, There is a Flower - Jason Horner
Unison Prayer - Jason Horner

Ayin - Ryan Keebaugh
Our Father - Ryan Keebaugh
The Suffering Servant - Ryan Keebaugh

Ordo Rachelis - Kurt Knecht

Jubilate Deo - Connor Koppin
Vidi Aquam - Connor Koppin
O Vos Omnes - Connor Koppin

O Sacrum Convivium - Frank LaRocca
Miserere - Frank LaRocca
Anima Christe - Frank LaRocca
Ave Maria Stella - Frank LaRocca

Jesus is Mine - Andrew Marshall
Praise to the Lord - Andrew Marshall

Sicut Cervus - David Montoya

Land of Rest - Mona Lyn Reese

The Creation - Tinsley Silcox

And Good in Every Thing - Kile Smith
God So Loved the World - Kile Smith

Alleluia - Joseph Gentry Stephens
Requiem Aeternum - Joseph Gentry Stephens
Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One - Joseph Gentry Stephens
Sing Unto God - Joseph Gentry Stephens

Abun D'bash'maiyo - Mark Templeton

I See His Blood Upon the Rose - Timothy Tharaldson
Nearer, My God, to Thee - Timothy Tharaldson

Blessing - Dale Trumbore
Es Autem Fides Credere - Dale Trumbore
Kyrie Eleison - Dale Trumbore
Sing to the Lord - Dale Trumbore

Cradle Hymn - David von Kampen

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fugue on the NPR theme

Some of my composition students are currently in Gretchen Foley's fiercely graded 18th century counterpoint class.  She asked me if I would pull out my final project and give her a copy. I had a little bit of practice time on Spring Break.

I took the NPR theme and turned it into the kind of subject you would use for a gigue fugue. I then used the Bach G Major fugue BWV 541 as a sort of template for the structure. All of the subject entries are annotated, and I even managed some stretto entrances at the end.

The playing is a little rough in patches, but the beast is dreadfully difficult to play. I originally thought the theme was by the ubiquitous B.J. Liederman, but it turns out it was by Voegeli.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What great musical education looks like

I had another opportunity to find great musical education happening this week. This time, to my great delight, it was my oldest son Zach. He is the executive director of the Academy of Rock here in Lincoln, and I had the chance to watch him work with some middle school boys.

The first thing I look for in a music educator is to check whether they are actually engaging their students. Zach had an immediate rapport with the kids. He was energetic and encouraging.

After hearing them play, he immediately complimented them on what they did well. This is a great best practice for any young educator.

When it comes to problems, here is my ideal.

1. Quickly assess the problem.
2. Explain the problem
3. Demonstrate the right way to do it
4. Let the student try to do it
5. Provide tools and strategies for improvement

I saw all of that, and then he even wrapped up the session by talking about an upcoming performance and how to deal with any stage fright that might be encountered.

I might be biased, but I saw some fabulous educating happening, and I always like to praise that when I see it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Unalienable rights and the cross

It appears that the dreaded election season is already upon us. I'm always taken aback a little when I hear politicians playing like they are theologians — funny, I don't have the same problem when musicians do it.

In any case, I find it odd when people like Ted Cruz claim that we have unalienable rights given by God.  Certainly, Thomas Jeffersons God might have doled out things like that, but I'm not sure the one in the Bible did that stuff.

In Jewish and subsequent Christian thought, the encounter with God results in an ethical demand on us to the world. This outward focus is manifested in the history of art. Chesterton points out that the Buddhist tradition always sculpts Buddha with his eyes closed or half-closed because he is focussing inward. The heroes from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Saints are always wide-eyed and facing out to the world. It's not that there aren't examples of inward focussed saints and outward focussed Buddhas. It's a generalization with all the strengths and weakness of one.  The Judeo-Christian theophany always results in working to repair the world.

The idea that your neighbor has a claim on you, or rather, as Jesus puts it, you are a neighbor to everyone seems a very different concept than an unalienable right. When someone violates my "rights", I need to defend them. When God places an ethical demand on me to love my neighbor as myself, there is no limit to what I may be called to give up in order to love him/her.

So, Hosea may have to suffer the shame of marrying a prostitute. Jeremiah may have to remain alone and without a spouse because his love for his people trumped his "right" to personal happiness. St. Ignatius may have to get chewed up by lions because his love for the eternal trumped his "right" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

When it comes to God, we don't have any rights. We only have a calling. When I think about "rights", I think about how I am being wronged. When I think about my neighbor, I am thinking about what God is calling me to do to love them more.