Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bernard Rands: Creative Musical Pedagogy

In today's Boston Globe, contemporary composer Bernard Rands explained how musical instruction he received as a child shaped his entire life and career. As someone concerned with teaching and learning, I found this fascinating and inspiring. I'll quote directly from journalist David Weininger's article:
"Bernard Rands began playing piano at age 5. When he was 10, he started working with a new teacher who told his young student to carry a book of manuscript paper with him. At the end of a lesson, after Rands had played the pieces he’d learned and they’d worked on exercises, the teacher would write out a melody — it could have been a popular tune, or the melody of a Bach chorale. Rands’s job would be to harmonize that melody before his next lesson. Another week the teacher might write down a series of a dozen or so chords, the assignment being to turn them into a composition. To this point, Rands had had no instruction in music theory; his farsighted teacher simply wanted to unlock his mind to the experience of musical creation.

"'Can you imagine how many piano teachers on the planet would actually engage a young child that way?' Rands said by phone recently from his home in downtown Chicago. 'That man was unique, and why I’m talking to you today. Having spent 70 years of my life pursuing this is directly because of that man.'

"The 'this' that Rands has been pursuing is an aesthetic ideal that has made him one of the foremost composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Born in England, Rands, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this month, has a lengthy list of accomplishments that includes the Pulitzer Prize for Music, numerous residencies, and 16 years on the faculty of Harvard University. Now retired from teaching, he lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Augusta Read Thomas."
Curiously Rands doesn't mention the name of the teacher. Maybe he doesn't remember! Such is the lot of the educator, influencing young people for the better, often without recognition. At least Rands understood how he was shaped by this instance of creative teaching, not surprising since he himself taught. None of us will never know fully all the ways we have been shaped, influenced, or helped by the teachers and adults in our lives.

Nor will the teacher always know the extent of his or her impact. Sometimes it's the case that the teacher tosses pebbles of learning into the pond and is able to observe the ripples spreading out. Other times the teacher actually is the pebble or stone passing through the surface of the water with ripples spreading out behind in ways never to be known. Good teachers proceed on faith and relinquish control of outcomes. Well, to an extent. Rands' teacher nurtured the boy toward composition, but could not have had a clue what kind of composer he would become, or if in fact he would become one at all.

Prior to reading this article I wasn't familiar with Rands. Here's a performance of one of his "Impromptus." Very nice.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Quote of the Day

Month, year, decade, century, millennium, whatever. Take your pick. It's good advice from the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

“For the world is now too dangerous
for anything but truth;
too small for anything but love.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Misleading Money Trusims

1. Do what you love and the money will follow
It's not many people who make a living by pursuing their passion or "doing what they love."* More likely is to find a regular job, hopefully one for which you are reasonably well-suited and from which you derive some satisfaction**, and pursue your passions outside of work. A person could love sailing or drumming more than anything in the world and not make any money from it, nor would making money from it necessarily be a good thing. A more accurate statement is that you must pursue enthusiasms and passions somewhere in your life, and for as long as you live, if you are to live a happy life that also brings happiness to others.

2. Money can't buy happiness
It's true that if you are a miserable cuss and a self-entitled jerk no amount of money will change that. But it's also true that not having to worry about how you are going to pay your rent and your bills is a really wonderful thing, which lays the groundwork for all sorts of happiness. And it's definitely a source of happiness to be able to afford things like travel and going out to dinner and arts events with friends. When you do have money and security, though, it's crucial to maintain an attitude of gratitude. No one likes someone who thinks they're special because of their wealth, nor will you really like yourself in that case.

* And many who work in mission driven work often have a spouse who has a more money-oriented job.

** Even this is outside of possibility for most workers around the world.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cosmic Inflation for Laymen

You must have seen or heard the stories about the big breakthrough in cosmology that happened last week. It seems that the universe is "only" 14 billion years old so there hasn't been enough time for matter to expand to the current size of the universe, which is 28 billion light years from one end to the other. Now we know, explained the NYT, "that less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Tiny ripples in the violently expanding energy field eventually grew into the large-scale structures of the universe."

Now that's something to try to wrap your mind around. Personally, I can't conceive of one trillionth of a second. I think it would help if they would just round up to something we can understand, maybe an elapsed time of a billionth of a second or so.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Girls Are All Right

The most common criticism of Girls is that the characters are unlikeable and behave horribly. I've got two things to say about that:

1. I don't especially care if characters are likeable. I want to feel that they are well written, well realized, and well directed. For the most part, with some occasional wavering, the girls and guys on Girls score well in these regards (with the guys actually being better written than the girls). Evidence of this is the fact that many of Lena Dunham's best lines are at the expense of her own character. If not necessarily likeable, I do find the characters sympathetic enough to keep watching. This relates to the next point.

2. I actually don't think they are that selfish or ill-behaved. I certainly was no more mature at that age: my relationships were messy. Some people have it together then, but the Girls brand of immaturity rings true to me. I guess people figure that because they are so privileged, they should behave better, but that's not how life works.


And can we just give it up for Andrew Rannells, who, as Hannah's gay ex-boyfriend Elijah, enlivens every scene he's in?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Afaa Michael Weaver: "Thelonious"

The Somerville-based poet Afaa Michael Weaver, who is a professor of poetry at Simmons College in Boston, made headlines last week when he won the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. I guess that one reason that the story made headlines is that being a poet is one of the least lucrative careers there is. All the articles framed the story the same way: Former Baltimore factory worker wins big prize. It is a good story line, made even better because the only life experience poets have now is being in school. So, yes, he is a poet of the working person, and also a poet of the African-American experience. I did a post on him a few months ago. Here's a good article about him in the Boston Globe from December 2007.

Let's let his poetry do the talking. This is from The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005, a really good collection.

for Gene F. Thomas

It's as if you are given the sky to carry,
lift it on your shoulders and take it to lunch,
sit in McDonald's with it weighing you down,
this business of being black, staying black
until the darkness of some eternity kisses you.
Birth gives you something other folk thank
God for not having, or else they pray for it,
to have its gift of a body inclined to touch,
inclined to sing. Yet they will not give back
to God the paleness of being able to touch
absolute power. They envy only for so long,
as being black is being bound to danger.

Among us there are masters like Monk,
who understood the left hand stride
on a brick. In his rapturous dance beside
the piano, he was connected to knowing
the scratch and slide of the shoes leaving
the ground, the shoes of the lynched men. 
He carried this thing that we are,
as the mystic he was, reveling in its magic,
respectful of its anger, mute and unchanged
as the hate and envy surround us.

One day we learn there is no sky above
this trapped air around the earth.
The sky is but a puff of smoke from
this giant head smoking a Lucky Strike,
pretending not to know the truths.
We learn sometimes in the life,
sometimes in what comes after, where
there is really nothing but everything
we never knew. We learn in silence 
the dance Monk knew. We find
secrets for pulling the million arrows
from our soul each time we move
to sleep, to forget that we are both
jewel and jetsam, wanted and unforgiven.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Power of Crackpot #2: "Redemption Song"

Who doesn't love Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"? I would even guess that as the years go by, and the dust settles around his catalog, this might be his most loved and covered song, ahead of "No Woman No Cry," "Get Up, Stand Up," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Waiting in Vain," and classics of that stature. It was one of the last songs the too-soon-gone Joe Strummer recorded.

This solo acoustic version reveals the power and glory of the man and the song. Look at the expressions on the band's faces. What is spirituality in music? I would say this. But like all of his body of work, the song includes Rastafarian religious references that are crackpot. Think of "Get Up." "We know when we understand: Almighty god is a living man." This isn't a metaphor. For Rastas this means Haile Selassie, once the Emperor of Ethiopia. But the way it's phrased it could sound humanistic.

Let's look at the second verse from "Redemption Song," which illustrates the dichotomy in Marley's music.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look,

Some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill the book.
The first half of each rhyming couplet contains sentiments the non-religious can get behind: Freeing our minds. Absolutely. Watch our prophets get killed. That could be JFK or MLK couldn't it? But the second half of each traffics in pure End Times claptrap. What happens is that the humanistic aspects enable us good secular progressives to cozy up to the doctrinaire theology. And many of us find that, having cozied up, it feels pretty good to be in close proximity to absolute faith and assurance, especially given secularism's embrace of qualities such as skepticism. I agree that skepticism is an essential virtue, but as a rallying cry, it's kind of, meh.

And, of course, it doesn't hurt that these religious nut jobs rock awesome dreadlocks, treat ganja as a sacrament, and talk with that wicked hip Jamaican patois that makes all their ideas sound really good, both when they are and when they aren't. Plus, when Bob sings "One love, one heart / let's get together and feel alright" we know we're in the orbit of hippies, not of Pat Robertson and his hard-hearted haters.

Read the Power of Crackpot #1: "Back on the Chain Gang."

Friday, March 14, 2014

How I Feel Virtuous

I walk into a good bookstore, which we have a lot of around here, look around for ten or fifteen minutes, and walk out without buying anything. I step onto the sidewalk invigorated. There is a fair level of righteousness to be gained from resisting the purchase of pleasure reading, such as mysteries. Every time I'm browsing the Michael Connelly books (my airplane reading of choice), I find myself unable to recall if I have read a certain release or not. So far I've successfully avoided getting 30 pages into a book and realizing I already read it. The virtue here is that I'm not merely a vapid consumer of words. (I hope.)

The highest bookstore virtue is resisting the allure of self improvement. How tempting that 800 page history of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. How 'bout a book on String Theory! Maybe a Daniel Dennett book on the nature of consciousness! I really want to be that guy who can chat about important stuff. I want to be that guy who cares about lifelong learning. About becoming a better person. But, no. I've already got enough unread "serious" books around the house, which, if I ever read them, will improve me plenty. The virtue here is in knowing myself, in knowing there's only so much literature I will tackle, and that I will spend many mindless hours watching HGTV with my wife. I'm good with that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Leader

William Merritt Chase, The Leader, 1871
He knows the deal and what the score is. He'll tell you how it's all gonna go down. He's seen it all and that's no lie. He's the bullshitter you can't bullshit, and on top of that, he just doesn't give a shit. He harbors no illusions and he's worldly-wise. Ask him no questions and he'll tell you no lies. He's the man with the plan. If you don't do it, somebody else will, namely: him. He can sell the sizzle or the steak. Makes no difference. He would fire Donald Trump in a heartbeat. He's the first one into the scheme and the first one out. He's always comfortably seated when the music stops. The early bird works for him, and gets to keep a good, not great, cut of the worms.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Actually Not Named "Whistler's Mother"

James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Gray and Black, 1871, 56.8 x 63.9 in.

One of the most famous paintings in the world, "Whistler's Mother" was actually named by the artist "Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother." This name suggests that composition mattered more here to Whistler than did the portrait aspect, which is what the colloquial name erroneously suggests is the main point of the piece. All painting is built on composition, but here the geometry is more upfront, as in many abstract works. Actually this is like a Mondrian with a human figure imposed on top.

What we see is a configuration of rectangles with the only true curves happening with the female form, especially in the upper body and head, which rises into the implied rectangle between the two picture frames. The sedentary woman is actually the most active form in the painting, when considered abstractly. One thing I like is that the top of the head is exactly in line with the vertical center of the painting to her left, a nice mathematical touch. The drapery forms an imperfect rectangle, and the white touches on it are more abstracted than the other elements of the painting.

The grays and blacks are handled beautifully and are not at all a bummer. He loved darker or more muted palettes, as many of his celebrated night and fogbound water scenes show. His paintings in these modes were also sometimes given abstract titles, such as "Variations in Violet and Green," or "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor."

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor, 1870s, 19.8 x 31.6 in.

Variations in Violet and Green, 1871

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lorenz Hart: The Art of Lyric Writing

You're nearer, than my head is to my pillow,
Nearer, than the wind is to the willow.
Dearer, than the rain is to the earth below,
Precious as the sun to the things that grow.

You're nearer, than the ivy to the wall is,
Nearer, than the winter to the fall is.
Leave me, but when you're away, you'll know,
You're nearer, for I love you so!

Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Lorenz Hart

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mindless, Reckless "Leadership"

From the indispensable Daniel Larison writing at the American Conservative, some thoughts on why we should be a lot more careful with the conflation of aggressive posturing and "leadership" in regard to foreign affairs and the internal affairs of other countries. He is speaking, of course, in reference to the liberal hawks and neocons who think every conflict in the world is about American "strength" and "weakness."
"The abuse of “leadership” as a concept is in some ways even more obnoxious and misleading than the reliance on the “isolationist” slur. It’s true that hawks typically assume that real “leadership” requires the use of force or at least the threat to use force, but it can also function as a generic euphemism for U.S. hegemony. In this usage, there is really only one kind of international leadership that qualifies, and this is one in which the U.S. is dominant, preeminent, and preoccupied with policing the globe. This tends to view leadership more as an exercise in giving orders and dictating terms.
"The word also serves as an all-purpose, nebulous placeholder as something that can be demanded and whose absence can be lamented without having to make a coherent argument. Calling for “more leadership” can be a way to demand an aggressive and militarized policy without owning up to what one is demanding, or it can be a way to criticize existing policy decisions without having to explain what ought to be done instead. As with its ugly cousin “resolve,” one can always get away with insisting that a particular president isn’t showing enough “leadership” in the world, because there is no way to measure these things and no way for the complaint be remedied. Because it is so ill-defined and frequently abused, it can be applied to every issue without even having to think about the specific details. “Leadership” is always the correct response, and “leadership” can’t fail, because it means everything and nothing at the same time."
It's also perfectly obvious to all the nations of the world that the things the US usually lectures and warns others about are things we ourselves do. We maintain various fantasies about ourselves because doing otherwise would be "blaming" America. But making a realistic assessment is actually necessary for us if we want to have a greater and more effective impact in the the world.

In another piece he offers 12 questions that should be considered when we think we need to weigh in, condemn, or take sides in a given conflict.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My Advice If Those Laws Pass

Despite Jan Brewer's veto in Arizona, many states are hoping to implement laws protecting business owners' God-given rights to be, um, bigots. Many of these laws will pass, maybe some already have. My big question isn't about the Constitutionality of these laws, but rather how the whole thing will play out in practice. Specifically, I want to know how shop owners will know someone is gay or not gay.

I doubt many of these proprietors have finely-tuned "gaydar." But they still will have to rely on visual impressions, which could have harsh implications for the straight community. Let's say you are a heterosexual guy who works out a lot, in fact are ripped, and you favor a short haircut. Be prepared to be turned away. Or let's say you are a straight woman who drives a Subaru and are going to the dry cleaners. You better park out of sight, that's all I have to say.

Or the shop owner could engage a person in some "innocent" small talk -- about Cher if it's a guy, or, say, Kate Clinton if it's a woman. If the potential costumer perks up, eject them.

Now if two guys come in holding hands, my advice to shop owners is: Don't jump to any conclusions. They could be Arabs. With lots of spending money.