The Long and the Short of It

We’re living in an era of different expectations as to the passage of time. Everything is packaged into small chunks, digestible and easily managed. Nothing takes much time to develop; it either happens quickly or not at all. That has been a noticeable tendency throughout the 20th century in the temporal arts such as music. Compositions have become on the whole shorter. There is a tendency to equate short with good: the composer must be structuring everything extremely well in order to be able to do what he wants in such a short time. Thus we arrive at the ultimate expression in composers such as Anton Webern, whose compositions tend to be short to the point of being more or less funny. At least I think most of them are funny.

So it goes with critics who don’t quite understand that composers such as Rachmaninoff lived within a different ethic. During the 19th century there was a constant tendency towards length. Schumann spoke of the “heavenly length” of the last Schubert symphony, which is by modern standards just plain too long: well over an hour, a great deal of it repetitions and some fairly obvious padding. The tendency is to dismiss this as being the result of Schubert’s inability to structure a piece properly. Witness Beethoven, who never seems to be too long. But Beethoven pointed the way with the Ninth Symphony, at 70 minutes the longest symphony ever written up to that time. With so many composers laboring under the Beethoven influence, it wasn’t surprising that length became a preoccupation.

The post-Romantics carried that through to its extreme. Mahler, Bruckner, Richard Strauss all tended to write long works almost exclusively. In that they were aided by the Wagner revolution; Wagner’s time flow is markedly slower than most composers, with many of his operas being noticeably longer than anyone else’s. Except I suppose Berlioz, who wrote Wagner-length operas and might have been one of Wagner’s primary inspirations. I’ve rarely heard the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony without a conductor taking a bunch of cuts in it. That isn’t just recently, either: there is a recording of Alfred Wallenstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic dating from the mid-1950s that takes a lot of cuts. (It’s a splendid recording otherwise.) And yet one must assume that Rachmaninoff is better served by the work complete. Maybe the general audience isn’t given the work’s running time of a good hour.

But I think most audiences will give the Rachmaninoff Second its due. It speaks rather well to the gut instinct, is marvelously vivid. I agree completely with you that those oh-so-snobby commentators are usually more obnoxious than illuminating. Then again, they are in something of a difficult bind. You can’t say a great deal about the work in a completely non-technical way without resorting to a lot of mishy-mashy opinion. Nor is there a great deal to say about a purely abstract composition that can be anything much beyond opinion once you have left the technical behind. So these record jacket writers wind up in something of a mess. Personally I think they would be well advised to stick to the basics: written where, when, under what auspices. Some works have an interesting history of revisions and the like—in fact, the Rachmaninoff Second has a few revisions here and there. Maybe something about famous performances if there is any such thing. Then, let it go.

I have found that English recordings tend to be the worst about that. The English are more openly opinionated about musical compositions, for some odd reason. They also have an unfortunate tendency to write from the assumption that the listener looks down on the composer or the work—which is an odd assumption given that the listener probably doesn’t look down on either since the listener has paid for and is listening to the recording.

I’ve also found that what seems hackneyed when taken out of context ceases to be so when experienced as part of a whole. In my class at Cal I use the “Romeo and Juliet” Overture-Fantasy to present Tchaikovsky. Now, the Tchaik Romeo & Juliet contains the hands-down most hackneyed love theme in the history of Western music. At one point we hear it all by itself and everybody giggles appropriately. But when you hear the thing in the proper context, as Tchaikovsky builds it and structures it and places it within a sonata form and uses it with such mastery, it stops being silly and becomes something much more integral. You can even hear it without thinking of those horrid lyrics that somebody added: Ow..eer looooooooove, is like a meehhh-loooooh-deeeeeeee. Well, almost.

It is ridiculous to tell people what kinds of visual impressions or emotional ideas to have from a piece of music unless the composer wrote a specific program, in which case it can be helpful. The last movement of the Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique” is tons more fun if you know all about his unrequited love for Harriet Smithson and how he turns her into the head witch, leading the festivities for the Black Mass over little Hector’s cold, dead body as it lies on the slab. But you don’t absolutely HAVE to know that: it’s a pretty cool piece all by itself. With Berlioz tossing in the Dies Irae from the liturgy for the requiem, you can make whatever connections you want to make. Ditto with the Mass chimes. So there is something to be said for NOT talking about Berlioz’s motivations for composing the work.

Lava, the Perfect Solution

I have an idea for a novel that could work in a Vonnegut-ish sort of way. Get a big crowd of people involved in the plot; convolute it wildly, keep it properly byzantine. Get yourself to the point where there is really no solution to any of it. Then invoke a natural disaster and kill them all off. Nobody survives, nothing afterwards. Just do it in one sentence: Then, Mount Kraken erupted and buried them all in hot lava.

A good title for the novel would be, I think “Grand Opera”. That’s the usual opera solution to a plot, after all: kill all of them. Tosca is, I think, the best example of that particular plot mess. There just isn’t anything left to do by the third act when you get right down to it. It would take five more acts to unravel it to any degree of satisfaction and by then it would be deadly dull, sort of an OJ Simpson trial stretching on forever and ever more. Hell, I’ve never quite figured out what’s going on in most of the second act anyway. Has anybody? So Puccini/Belasco take the easy way out and kill the principals. Nobody left standing, nothing to worry about. The libretticist of Madame Butterfly doesn’t kill them all, but in my opinion he should. It’s a classic example of a profoundly unsatisfying conclusion. She’s dead but Pinkerton is still alive, and has a lot of explaining to do to his wife who has been hanging around mute for most of the third act. What happens to the baby—who when last seen is sitting there with a little American flag in his hands, presumably unfazed by the bloody gore spilling from his mother’s gut. It isn’t really over at all. Maybe Pinkerton is going to ram the knife into his own gut in remorse. Maybe he’s going to kill his wife. Maybe his wife is going to kill him. Maybe she will actually say something, or sing something. Maybe she’s actually a deaf mute but they never explained it. There is, as I recall, a policeman right on the spot when Butterfly whips out the hari-kiri knive and puts it to proper use. What is he going to do? Is he in trouble for not stopping her? See the problem? Therefore, I propose a new ending for Madame Butterfly: Mount Fuji erupts and buries them all in hot lava. Then nobody worries about anything. They’re cinders, like the cinder statues in Pompeii.

Some tedious, boring shows could be considerably enlivened by the judicious use of hot lava. I don’t know about you but I think that most of “Tristan und Isolde” is pretty ghastly boring stuff. There just isn’t much of anything going on. So we let them fall in love, and then Mount Sneffels erupts and buries them in hot lava. Five hours is shortened to one and there are no messy loose ends.


There has been no lack of experiment in teaching. It still seems to boil down ultimately to the personal: a good teacher will teach, a bad teacher won’t. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and you can’t make a good teacher out of a bad one. Good teachers will be more effective on all students, good or bad, than bad teachers. And it doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with teacher training, either.

That is one of those areas in which I just don’t get it. What on earth is all this teacher training about—courses in education? They seem to learn a great deal about the mechanics of a public school or whatever nonsense is being bandied about in the pseudo-intellectual murkiness of “education” as a discipline that can be pursued. But it does nothing about teaching. Lots of talk about methodologies. I think it’s a miracle that any potentially good teachers actually come out of those systems; they survive it somehow just out of a desire to actually get in there and teach. I never learned a thing from any “pedagogy” classes I took. Going in and teaching was just that: going in and teaching. You take four years of education courses and still you go through an initial period of at least five years of teaching in which you aren’t any good. That’s the same length of time people who don’t take education courses need to adapt and grow in the trade. So the point escapes me, except as some kind of vague credential in some odd concept called “education” which is treated as though it were a thing, like biology. But you aren’t, Blanche, but you aren’t.

Movie Review: Evita

This movie is probably the best illustration I can think of that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. They tried, God knows they tried. There is no faulting the movie, really, in terms of production values, casting, performances, directing, musical direction, the whole thing. It is really fantastically well done. I’ve never been much of a Madonna fan but I will give her full credit to being more or less ideal for this role, as was everyone. Antonio Banderas doesn’t have a bad camera angle and he surprised me by having quite a good singing voice as well. They used a major Broadway star, Jonathan Pryce, for the role of Juan Peron. He played it beautifully.

The problem is that Evita itself is a piece of garbage. It is rambling twaddle with a schizophrenic musical score that never can make up its mind what it is. Is it a rock musical? Is it a rock opera? Is it rock at all? It dumps down into plain old Broadway styles and then it goes into rock styles; sometimes it has an Argentine sound to it and other times it sounds like mid-70s rock. Nor is the plot much better, nor the lyrics. There are constant jarring problems with the song lyrics, a sudden imbecilic turn of phrase in the middle of an otherwise unnoticeable rhythm. That’s typical Tim Rice, definitely a low voltage on the lyric writing scene. Plotwise nothing really much happens besides the historical: she goes to Buenos Aires, sleeps her way to the top, becomes the Imelda Marcos of her day and dies young. The problem here strikes me that most straight-up biographies don’t make very good musicals. There are very few biographical musicals which are any good, and they aren’t inclined toward straight biography: Gypsy is biographical only incidentally, as is Funny Girl. Biography just isn’t well-suited for musical treatment. But Evita is a pretty much straight biography, so much so that it always seems rather detached from the proceedings. Eva Duarte Peron herself is in fact a cipher throughout the thing. She’s in almost every scene and she sings a ton of the show’s score, but there is next to nothing that gives you the slightest sense of what makes her tick. That’s the sort of thing that music can do quite well, but that’s the one thing that this show never did.

I’ve always thought that Evita had only a few things going for it that made it the moderate theatrical success that it was. First and foremost was that it was the show immediately following Jesus Christ, Superstar—so a lot of people were expecting great things from it. There was that dippy song. There was also Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, who knocked ‘em dead on Broadway. Banderas plays the Patinkin part, which isn’t actually a role per se but is a kind of commentator who is always on hand—sort of representing the common people of Argentina. It’s a terribly awkward plot device in the middle of an otherwise completely unaffected linear story.

Sean and I had diametrically opposed reactions. I was enjoying the movie for about the first half hour, and then I realized it wasn’t going to progress any farther than the sterile, showy, super-Hollywood style that was being used. At that point I stopped enjoying and became sharply critical, noting all the pulling out of stops to achieve whatever emotional effects were needed. They fell into cheap MTV tricks far too often during the ensemble numbers. After a while you begin to yearn almost desperately for one song that is performed NOT in montage. I was also able to notice that a great deal of the song lyrics didn’t make any sense to speak of, and the plot line was rather befuddled towards the end. Sean had a glorious time with it and absolutely loved it, for which I’m glad. By the time it was over I was heartily wishing for one of the many bombs that get tossed during the movie to land smack on Madonna and bring the thing to a conclusion, but no such luck. It has a long, drawn-out dying sequence right out of the worst Puccini. She just keeps dying and dying and dying. While the peasants huddle outside and weep.

So, it isn’t a bad movie. It is a good movie of a bad play. Which unfortunately makes it a bad movie in a sense. Lots of high powered talent doing their best to bring it home—but the place the truly high-powered talent was needed was in the original writing of the score, lyrics, and book.

Demonize, then Deify

I wonder if there is anything more paradoxical in human relations than the demonizing of the enemy with its subsequent deifying. I’ve noticed that we tend to think in those terms about the American Indians, the Japanese, and the Germans among others. First they are the devil incarnate; we beat them to a pulp in some kind of war, and then everybody is not only all buddy-buddy but they become objects of our great guilt and admiration.

I can only suppose that this is a natural course of affairs and not out of the ordinary, not a uniquely American sort of thing to do, for example. We’ve knocked ourselves out to convince ourselves that the American Indian is some fine, noble, gentle, blameless creature whose land we stole and whose lives we ruined, etc. Maybe. But the cold hard fact remains that Europeans came to this continent and wanted it; that there were other people living here at the time made no difference. At first they tried to cooperate but eventually the Indians were just too much trouble and were more or less exterminated. It was a conquest, pure and simple. One can think of a conquest as a bad thing or a good thing or as something that doesn’t require a simplistic ethical label. Conquest strikes me as a natural part of settlement: people go places, there are other people there, they have a struggle, one side or the other prevails as a rule although sometimes a balance is achieved. Usually the result is to wipe out one group in favor of another.

The people who really bemoan this sort of stuff strike me as belonging in two predominant groups: 1) remnants from the group that got skunked and 2) human apologists who just don’t want to deal with mother nature’s species-propagation urges. The first group’s rationale is clear enough and requires little comment, but I think the second’s is rather interesting. They would rather we live on a high, lofty ethical plane (their ethics, of course, not just anyone’s) in which human beings acts entirely out of purest altruism and benign tolerance of each other. It is a terrifying sentiment. It strips people of most of their admirable qualities and leaves only the bat-wielding deacon behind. The Calvinist approach refuses to admit the humanity of humankind, and instead wants nothing but those oh-so-serene elongated granite saints hovering around the gates of Chartres. So we should honor the Indian and they, in turn, should tell us (repeatedly) what utter scumbags they think we are.

But, as you said, we are living in a guilt-prone society. Perhaps the US motto should be changed from “e pluribus unum” to “mea culpa.” Beat those breasts, people, yank that hair, flog that back. Perhaps this is a substitute for modern religion. We are bereft our stern, sincere patriarchal priests who toss down their verbal brickbats from high aloft their pulpit in the sky. Thou shalt not, they say, each and every Sunday. Lacking the outlet of hearing ourselves told to behave every Sunday, we create it around ourselves. Thus the seriousness with which people seem to take the hysterical pronouncements of the Center for Science in the Public Interest as they bewail everything from Denny’s GrandSlam breakfasts to movie theater popcorn. Instead of laughing them off the lectern, spanking their fannies good and hard, ordering them sternly to mind their own goddamn business, we put them on the 6:00 news and cluck quietly to ourselves: oh how very important that is; I must never eat movie popcorn ever again. At least they are nice and clear in their pronouncements: thou shalt not eat breakfast at Denny’s because we say they put too much fat in it and we are determined thou shalt eat of lean.

Just Say No to Publicity

I received a notice from the Public Relations office that one of the shows on National Public Radio had requested to broadcast my performance of David’s* fantasy. One of the worker bees in the PR office included a release form with the instructions: sign and return this as soon as possible. I like that assumption in that statement—that you will of course release the performance for broadcast. The instruction didn’t even seem to admit the possibility of anything otherwise. However, I don’t think my performance was broadcast quality. It was fine for its intended venue but not to be plastered out over the national airwaves. So I sent the release form back to PR unsigned, and a little note saying that I would not consent to release the performance. I’ve been on NPR any number of times, sometimes when I had control over the proceedings and sometimes when I didn’t. I really dislike having live performances broadcast; because the performance is emerging from a stereo speaker, people automatically expect it to be blemish-free. That sort of performance is possible if you can do re-takes and do some splices and the like, but it isn’t too likely to be the the case in a live performance. Nor was my performance of the fantasy blemish free. It was generally clean and accurate, but not all the way through.

* David Conte; the "Piano Fantasy" was written for me in 1987.

My First Amazon Experience

Incidentally, I bought the new book via, the giant bookstore on the Web. I have to say that they do precisely what they say they are going to do. The catalog is astonishing—millions of titles—and they send it as they say they will. There is a nice discount which just about balances the shipping cost. Fun to sit at your computer and order a book or two. I’ve already bought some software that way and so I can see that the future lies in this kind of shopping. Well and why not? I who dislike store clerks can have complete control over what I order. And the response time can be pretty quick. Amazon is definitely a wonderful resource.

Raspberries for the Castro

I am an alien in the Castro; I do not belong here. Gay, schmay. The Castro is not about being gay; it is about being young and socially-approved gay. I belong as much here as I do along Telegraph Avenue, which is to say not at all. I am much more at home in a neighborhood that isn’t so desperately trendy, so desperately urban. I realize that I would be perfectly happy living out in the Sunset again, or in the Richmond, or up on Twin Peaks, or in Marin, or whatever. My needs are not for close shopping or excitement or whatever since I don’t use them. My needs are quiet, cleanliness, not feeling out of place. That’s not the Castro. It’s noisy, dirty, uncomfortable. Why I ever wanted to live in the Castro in the first place really does seem like something of a mystery to me: I don’t know if I really did. But it has never meant much of anything to me except crowds, difficult parking, noise levels, alienation. If this weren’t a nice house I wouldn’t remain here, but I am definitely the stick-to-it type as witness my decade lived on this street. Prosper Street is itself very nice, with very little sense of the Castro. Well, next move (whenever) will be to some place quieter, some place that isn’t so damned trendy.

Clones and the Clergy

I was rather horrified and amused all at the same time to read an article that various men of faith had been having an ongoing debate about the cloning issue ever since the announcement was made. My first thought was: what on earth do they think they can do about it. Talk about it, I suppose. Then again that’s really all they ever do anyway. Religion is predominantly a tower of Babel. These various churchmen all get together and decide what cloning has to do with the issue of the immortal soul, I suppose. Seen from the viewpoint of one who considers the notion of soul—immortal or otherwise—to be poppycock, it takes on a remarkably sense-free guise. The theological and soulful aspects of cloning sound to my ear as though they are discussing the price of refried beans in Mongolia and how it will be affected by cloning. But to them it is full of meaning, I suppose. Or fraught with peril, which is as I imagine it closer to the mark. There is a great deal in most revealed religion that remains implacably hostile to the advances of biology and science in general. The Almighty is required to intercede in matters we cannot understand. Since the process of reproduction is an amazingly versatile and complex affair, it is best to hand it over to the Almighty and be done with it. God did it, we can say, and we happy and comforted in our knowledge that we don’t know. Something like cloning isn’t new in essence or even in fact. But the churchmen aren’t necessarily going to know that. I find it intriguing that they got more hot and bothered because it is a mammal that was cloned. Not a frog or drosophilia or whatever. Mammals are reaching up higher on the evolutionary scale and the religionists recognize that. (Yet how many of them would profess anti-Darwin slants if it would enrich the collection plate to do so.) If mankind is a truly special creation and set apart from the animals, then the cloning of a sheep is of no more theological impact than the cross-pollination of a new color of chrysanthemum. In becoming more hot and bothered over the sheep issue, they are giving themselves away. I wonder what they’ll be like when the scientists clone a monkey. That’s probably when the bigger evangelicals will start getting involved.

But I don’t think that any of them will get involved in any really public or meaningful way unless they can get a sniff of public disapproval or fear of the new process. It’s interesting to me that there has been no noticeable public outcry about the sheep cloning; it was, as far as I can tell, accepted as a kind of business as usual thing, well there it is and tra-la. So there is no publicity to be gained by denouncing it, no money to be made. But let the general public start to grumble about it, then the evangelicals will be out in full force: we can help you to stop this terrible menace that is threatening the morals of the country and the education of our children and the sanctity of the Amurrican family, but of course only if you can send money to the address you now see on your screen. And they’ll send it, and send it, and send it.

Too Much Violins on Television

I wonder indeed if the world is going mad. I was attempting to have dinner last night while watching the ABC news at 5:30. Attempt was the word because they insisted on showing absolutely grisly footage of a robbery shootout in Los Angeles. I had to switch channels rather quickly, over to something which wasn’t news. Thank heavens for stations like American Movie Classics; usually dependable for something which isn’t revolting. The Hays Office had a point; I hate to admit it, but they did. A robber being machine-gunned in the head isn’t suitable for any viewing, in my opinion. It doesn’t strike me as newsworthy in the sense of being worth showing—what precisely is the point of the picture? You can say that there was shootout, certain people were killed, and you have imparted the necessary information. Anything beyond that is window dressing.

More and more I am becoming anti-violence in TV and movies. I’ve already discarded going to movies which promise to be violent. I avoid TV shows along the same themes—well I tend to avoid TV in general so I suppose that’s something of a non sequitur. Madness lies in this fascination with violence, this pandering to the masturbatory and macho fantasies of teen-age boys. That’s really what all this stuff is about. Hey, cool, says the teenager. And keeps watching. So the networks show the violence in as much lurid detail as possible, then sell advertising time to teen-oriented advertisers. A world gone mad indeed. So much of American popular culture is twisted by being aimed at the baser instincts of teenage boys. The cycle feeds upon itself; the boys want more and more violence, more and more titillation. And the networks are only too happy to give it to them because it spells out greater advertising revenues. I suppose rock and popular music runs along the same lines; I wouldn’t know since that is one area of popular “culture” that I have avoided to the point of it’s being non-existent from my point of view.

The apologists claim that this is the “price we pay for living in a free society” but it was not a situation that was tolerable until quite recently. I don’t think the United States was any less of a free society for having had fairly strict censorship codes in place until quite recently for mass media. There were lots of things you couldn’t do or say in the movies, on radio, later on TV. Maybe by some standards it was less free. Yet there is a distinction between freedom and anarchy. No society allows complete freedom from all responsibility or ethical behavior. Of course these are difficult topics to pin down. Yet I wonder if our society has stopped trying to do so—a society gone mad, poisoned by its own excesses, its own need for momentary sensationalism.

Reeling, Writhing, and Fainting in Coils

I have often found AOL’s “You’ve got mail” message rather irritating for the precise reason that it is far too colloquial/bad English. One of my little soapboxes (especially when dealing with my students’s poor English as a result of California public school educations) is to point out that, while a substandard expression may be perfectly acceptable in some situations, proper grammar is never a liability. I liken good English to good table manners: might not be required in all places, but never discouraged anywhere.

After that, I have a rabbit up my sleeve that very few teachers are fortunate enough to have. I point out to them that they will be, in their future, obliged to hobnob with people who have money and power, those being the people who support the arts. They will be at a reception, or invited to a luncheon, or be part of a group that is hitting up some elderly crone for part of her stash. At that point, many of the little everyday lessons will become important: proper clothes, good table manners, good English, unoffensive hairstyles. There are some things which simply never go out of style. There is a good reason why classical musicians who are working have a tendency to look extremely middle-American. All of them know how to behave in nice company.

I’ve given up on the distinction between “nauseated” and “nauseous”, however. That one appears to be a lost cause. Nonetheless, I still grin when people say they are feeling nauseous: I want to say something like “no, you aren’t nauseating me at all, really.” Rather like the use of the subjunctive which seems to be disappearing even in its last hideouts, such as the conditional sentence. It is a great pity given the shift of meaning between “If I were…” and “If I was…”, the first allowing the linear aspect of the action and the second requiring a punctual aspect. I find it even more annoying given that there are languages in which such distinctions are quite clearly distinct, even to the extent of being expressed in entirely different verb tenses. Greek makes the distinction most clearly: the aorist tense expresses an action as puntual, whereas the imperfect expresses linear aspect. Greek tenses indicate temporal quality only as a by-product. Thus the imperative mood in Greek is given tense: aorist, perfect, present, or future. That can be troubling to the uninitiated, wondering how on earth you can order somebody to do something in the past. Thus “paué” (aorist) means “stop right now, at this very instant” where as “epaue” (imperfect) means “you have been doing this, now stop doing this” without it having the feel of “this very minute”. Even more fun, “pausei” (future) means “stop this and don’t do it any more.” Only “paue” (present) contains the meaning of “stop” in the rather vague way we might express an imperative in English.

Where Greek is utterly fanatical about all of these distinctions, combining aspect, mood, tense, and voice most carefully (Greek even has a “middle” voice in addition to active and passive, indicating action on oneself, like the reflexive), English is becoming ever-more breezy about such things. The language is growing in many other areas, notably vocabulary (as it must) and with the usual endless parade of colloquial phrases. But grammatically the tendency is to dumb it down. More work is required to string together a spoken phrase that is grammatically sophisticated, while fewer and fewer people are acquiring the education that is necessary to do so. Given that so many of our public schools are falling down on the rudiments of education, it isn’t surprising to me that students are walking out of high school with fifth-grade reading skills and vocabulary. I’m often amazed at the words I use in class that I am obliged to define for my students. We have made something of a game out of it—the word of the day—but still I wonder. These are words I knew perfectly well in high school. But I didn’t go to a California public school through the 1980s and 1990s.

One problem is definitely this “whole language” nonsense. There is more than a touch of the tarbrush at work here, an attempt to teach reading to students who are probably by and large incapable of learning it or who have no intention of cooperating. “Whole language” impresses me as a way of getting around that in a number of interesting ways, using pictures and allowing almost anything pass for comprehension or reading skill. Phonics, being too difficult for some students, is abandoned.

Phonics, whole language, anything. It seems to me that in the final analysis all of these “methods” fail because they don’t do the one thing that is needed: the students don’t spend enough time reading. That’s really all you need to do. Some instruction in the early years as to figuring out the words, help with spelling which is after all nonsensical, but beyond that just read, read, read. Daily reading exercise, lots and lots of it, is really the only way to go. Reasonably interesting reading material is definitely a plus. (Another problem with “method” techniques is that they have a terrible tendency to use the grimmest, most uninteresting drivel for examples.) Adequate reading material can be rather tricky to obtain in today’s public school system what with the various forces arguing vociferously about materials right and left, finding fault with just about everything.

It seems to me that many of us who have become avid readers in life started out by being intrigued by books, primarily due to interesting plots and the like. I went through Bobbsey Twins, Tom Corbett, Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, and some other ones as well—even including some of my sister’s Nancy Drews. There were the old classics like Black Beauty and all that. Some of the “classics” didn’t do much for me like Gulliver’s Travels. Hardly surprising since later on I discovered that it is not a kid’s book at all. I did enjoy Alice in Wonderland although some of it went right over my head. Actually, just about all of it went right over my head but I didn’t realize that at the time. Still, those kids novels were my door. Earlier on there were all those Golden Books and all they contained. But I always had a lot of books around and was always doing a lot of reading. As a result I grew into a reading adult, with a vengeance in fact. There was nothing all that extraordinary about my education in reading, although that was one thing that my mother was quite bit on and did help me with a great deal. I was brighter than most of my classmates but that was also another thing I didn’t really know, either. Still, there was very little in the way of method and a great deal in the way of enjoyment and repetition of the activity. So I became a good reader.

Kunst with a Capital 'K'

I think your comments about Beethoven and the Ninth are intriguing given that Beethoven has never really been one of “my” composers. I’ve played a lot of Beethoven, of course (all pianists do) but he has never been one of the composers I really seek out. I’m not sure if there are any Beethoven works that I really love, for example. There are plenty that I’ve played and studied and all that. But the lust for power is very much there in his writing, that’s for sure. There is a bit of chicken-and-egg aspect to the music as well: we tend to identify the artist as great when the artist is highly revolutionary, an applecart upsetter, a man set apart from the world and the general run of humanity. That’s the Beethoven influence since he was the first truly self-conscious artist who set himself apart from the world, told the world that they must see it his way. But I wonder if that has been a false prophet in some ways. I have always been highly uncomfortable with the notion of the artist as revolutionary simply because none of the great ones ever are. It is perhaps a byproduct of my own musical life—centered within the confines of an institution rather than confronting the world directly—but I tend to think of the artist in much the same terms as an 18th century or earlier artist might think of himself—as a fine craftsman, one who creates fine things, but not as some Godlike omnipotence who must stand apart from the world and thumb his nose at convention.

Part of the problem there is that Beethoven didn’t really thumb his nose very much. He made a great big show of doing that, but even a superficial analysis of his music makes it abundantly clear that there is nothing radical or new in Beethoven, but a strongly individualistic continuation of the Viennese Classical style. So the view of the artist as revolutionary is, to my way of thinking, seriously flawed from the onset. The uber-artist himself wasn’t particularly revolutionary. So where does that lead the rest of the self-proclaimed artists?

Which is a natural segue into one inevitable outcome of this sort of thinking: the lowest common denominator, the “performance artist.” What on earth ever brought this nonsense about, anyway? The airs these people put on. You would think they actually had talent at something. Instead, they are “performance artists” because they don’t have the talent to pursue one of the real arts: they aren’t good actors, singers, dancers, musicians, painters, anything. So they combine a lot of these various crafts and hope that variety will take the place of quality. It doesn’t. I get a certain pleasure out of noting that no “performance artist” ever seems to rise much above the level of the community theater. Community-sponsored “arts festivals” are their natural abode. You find performance artists at the Yerba Buena Center, not at the Opera House or Davies.

It represents some kind of grandiose, if vague, notion of Art with a capital ‘A’. Not a way of thinking to which I aspire; what on earth is this Art with a capital ‘A’, anyway? Oscar Wilde had a lot of fun talking about it, but he never made any sense outside of some vague aesthetic. Besides, Oscar Wilde would have been a “performance artist” in our more hectic, big-money age; I really doubt his oh-so-precious sensibility could survive in today’s entertainment/media world. The performance artist aspires to something high and lofty, something filled with inner meaning, fire and music. I wish I knew what the hell it was they were talking about. I’m just a trained professional musician. I don’t know about all this grandiose ‘art’ stuff they keep babbling on about.

Decadent Christianity

I wonder if it is possible that religions follow the general curve that many of the arts do: a period of building, a period of fulfillment, a slow decay topped off by a thoroughly decadent final period. Christianity would build during the late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages, come into fulfillment with the 11th century through the early Renaissance, and be in decline ever since with the decadence coming during our own time. The Catholic Church abandoned much of its ancient ways within recent memory—dropping the Latin mass, for example. Once the church dropped the language of its forebears, did that raise the final curtain on decadence? All the trappings of the Catholic mystery were stripped off, to reveal a lot of silliness beneath. It had always been there, but at least the pomp and ceremony, not to mention divine gobbledegook of the liturgy, masked it quite beautifully.

Christianity in general, not only Catholicism, strikes me as being horribly decadent. It has never been a religion that is comfortable with anything but the most rigid precepts and guildlines. Jesus was placed in the very difficult position of being the Son of God and therefore immortal, a heavenly being who would return to earth at some future date. As the facts mounted up against this return (he kept failing to show up) the apologists were obliged to invent ever more colorful (and unyielding) circumlocutions that attempted to explain away the failure of those confident dogmata. It’s like trapping a wild animal in a corner. Christianity gives itself very little slack when it comes to its core system of beliefs. So when they fail, as they must, the failure results in greater confusion, greater rigidity. Sooner or later it has to crack. It already cracked once in a fairly spectacular way with the Protestant Reformation as the result.

I’m not at all sure that the human race is, as a whole, eqipped to function well without a religion. We’ve talked about some of this before—the idea that religious impulse might be some kind of hardwired evolutionary trait in people. It is so inexplicable otherwise. But in a society in which religion has become a set of meaningless gestures, what happens then? Perhaps all part and parcel of our current cultural problems. A society adrift, without proper anchor.

Another question I have for myself is whether or not the “freethinker” in terms of religion is really all that free in his thinking. Were I to live in a society in which religious thought was taken for granted, was well-nigh universal, in which conflicting evidence was rarely seen, what then of my “freethinking” ways and non-belief? Would I have come to these same conclusions were it not for the encouragement of a number of non-believing teachers that I had, teachers who took a ribald tone towards religion, if my parents had been strong believers rather than not really caring one way or the other about it, if the world around me had taken a much more strongly belief-oriented tone rather than the secular one it does? I’m not so sure about the concept of freethinking given that it postulates thinking as being able to exist apart from its experiences. That one can deduce a lack of religion right along with deducing the need for religion. I have never considered myself much of an original thinker, anyway—but I wonder if anyone really and truly ever is. Can anything truly exist apart from its environment, or be entirely uninfluenced by the prejudices and thought patterns of its environment. Is true religious belief really possible in a non-believing society—just as is true atheism or agnosticism possible in a closed, believing society.

Fat and Sassy

I am impressed with just how little government decree can do to change anything. It is fashionable these days to promote low weight, low fat, “healthy” living. But the latest skinny would seem to indicate that there are more overweight Americans than ever before. Despite all the spandex-clad 20-ish sprites jumping up and down on their Stairmasters, most people just aren’t going along with the current fad. But the fad gets all the attention. So I look around me and see quite a few young people in particular who are just too damned skinny, who look undernourished in fact. They’re buying into the fad. But in the 19th century, fat was considered healthy. We are assuming we know more these days about diet and cholesterol and all that stuff and therefore we’re right and they were wrong. They didn’t live as long as we do.

But there is no particularly positive role model to follow in these slenderizing fads. The people themselves have a tendency to be patronizing bitches. When it comes out of the mouth of a government official like Donna Shalala I want to run in the kitchen and scarf down every high-fat item I have on hand just to spite her. And then there’s the simple fact that this is a country populated by a hell of a lot of Anglo-Germanic people, who have a tendency to be refrigerator-shaped. We aren’t living in France or Mexico with these Gallic/Hispanic types who have small bones and speedy metabolistic rates. Living in a hot climate they need to burn it off fast, stay as unencumbered as possible. But the Northern types who are built for living in the cool northern forests—fat is a good thing. So in a lot of ways we’re also fighting against the very ethnic makeup of the country. You don’t see a lot of fat Hispanics or Asians. But you do see a lot of fat Germans, Britons, Danes, Russians, and so forth. I wonder if the poll-taking pundits have worked up any breakdown on weight by ethnic groups. Oh, they must have. God knows they’ve taken polls on just about everything else, so why not this.

Perfect vs. Relative Pitch

Issues of relative versus absolute are always interesting. We have that distinction in musicianship: perfect pitch versus relative pitch. The first is being able to draw notes from anywhere, and recognizing them without prior pitches, and the second is knowing your intervals well and being able to find notes relative to each other, but without necessarily knowing precise pitches. Perfect pitch does not seem to be teachable or learnable, despite some snake oil salesmen and their overpriced cassette tape sets. Relative pitch is definitely teachable and is, in fact, what I spend much of my time doing as a teacher. People who do not have perfect pitch are very quick to insist that it isn’t important or even useful. Those who do have it are quietly confident in their ears. Being a person with the naturally perfect pitch I tend to side with the angels, of course.

But that almost begs the issue since Western pitch isn’t something handed down by God almighty and the laws of physics. Nobody is born with it. My impression is that it is acquired early in life, the result of a good pitch memory more than anything else. Why people who do well with relative pitch don’t wind up acquiring perfect pitch in the process is one of those little mysteries—but then again, most of our students have been playing an instrument for most of their lives and if they haven’t acquired perfect pitch by the time we get them I don’t suppose they’re ever going to do so. It isn’t necessarily a handicap not to have perfect pitch: most musicians do not, so obviously it can’t be all that big of a deal. Still, it is an interesting phenomenon.

I might have had some nudge to help me with pitch. My first piano was a ratty little spinet instrument, a Gulbransen that my parents had bought for my sister. (Piano lessons at gunpoint, the usual suburban tragedy.) It was a used piano and had one keytop which was considerably newer than all the others, being therefore whiter. That was the ‘a’ above middle ‘c’. Thus I learned to connect that differently-colored ‘a’ with a particular pitch. Maybe that had something to do with it. There was also the issue that I learned the piano at first mostly by playing by ear, inventing, messing around, improvising. So I think a lot of that paid off in the long run.

It is an interesting trade-off. Many kids are taught to read notes firmly from the beginning, kept playing strictly by the rules. Don’t you dare change one note or the teacher corrects it. I was lucky in that I treated the piano as a creative tool, rather than something to use as a reproduction device. It meant that many of my teachers would despair of my “learned” performances since they tended to be sloppy beyond all belief. Quite a few of them were completely unaware that I could play without music, that I could invent all kinds of interesting things. Some of them only saw that I didn’t practice enough (which was true—I played a lot but didn’t practice) and that I couldn’t be counted on to learn a piece adequately. I had a tough time with most of my teachers. But in the end I think I still had a better time of it. I wound up with a much better ear than most musicians, which is not a trivial matter since I would not characterize myself as having some kind specialized talent beyond my colleagues. But there’s that ear, which is most definitely different.

Probably in a different era I would have wound up as a composer as well as a pianist. But not in this late, competition-mad era with its emphasis on perfect execution of notes, and the compositional world as hideously inverted as it is. Nor did I ever pursue composition as a serious study. I’ve always thought that’s where my musical talent lay, although I never did develop it. Just wasn’t much of a point when you get right down to it. Anything I could write that would really matter to me would be hopeless out of date in the current sense.

One thing I probably could have done under the right circumstances would have been to write for the theater or the movies. Again the circumstances weren’t at all right. So I wound up doing what I’m doing, which has turned out to be just as happy and satisfying as any of the other things might have been. Life is filled with all these could-have-beens.