Friday, October 14, 2011

ACME and Airplanes

Tonight I saw a wonderful concert by the Arizona Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). Pieces and performances were consistently outstanding, but among the works were two classics, Boulez's Dérive and Crumb's Eleven Echoes of Autumn. In addition to my primary reaction — bliss — the concert got me thinking.

A good piece of contemporary art music is like an airplane: it is evidence of the glorious and almost-unbelievably-complex heights people can reach when they aren't devoting all their energies to killing each other. A popular song is like a bike; maybe a techno a groove is a motorcycle. Some people (the Beatles come most immediately to mind, but of course there are many others) have created cars that have endured and become classics in their own right. But art music aims higher.

Think of a symphonic work as a jetliner. Instead of two makers, Boeing and Airbus, here there are thousands. Each one feels a little different, takes you to a different place. Composers try to outdo each other in amenities, meals, and build quality. I think of a big John Adams piece, for instance, as an intercontinental cruiser. It is exquisitely comfortable, features soft-touch interior surfaces, and is polished to a beautiful sheen. And we've all boarded a plane made by one of his competitors — or admirers. They tend to feel plastic-y and decidedly store-brand. But Adams will take you somewhere entirely different from Crumb. And Boulez wants to show you how the machinery and technology works.

In the end, the most important thing is that you are transported to the other side. And what marvelous creations Boulez and Crumb have provided for the journey.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Life Lately

I went to a good show last night: the CD release party for the Sugar Thieves. The Dry River Yacht Club played too (what? violin and cello in a rock band?) and artists painted while the bands played. It was a good show (these are not your average slacker bands — these are seriously talented people), and it was great to get out and see people make something other than money.

I'm grateful, then, to be going to London soon for the Festival Chorus to premiere my Three Wandsworth Songs. In a way, I feel disconnected from the part of me that makes music, that is open to experience, that is unexamined. I think this trip will go a long way toward helping me remember what that feels like.

I'll need to, because as soon as I get back, I'll be hunkering down to work on a new piano piece. I was recently awarded a Renee B. Fisher Composer Award, which is a commission to write a work for their 2012 piano competition. I've started some scratchings, but I'm not sure I trust them yet.

In other news, Teriann and I essentially took off the month of May from life in general to paint/renovate our townhouse (more on this, with pictures, later). We got so burned out on it, in fact, that once we moved in at the end of the month, we didn't really spend any time unpacking or making it a home. We've spent June with friends and family, and frantically trying to get ready for our London trip. Once we're back, though, that will be way we spend our evenings, and I expect to have it done within a couple weeks. Housewarming party at the end of July, perhaps?

Thursday, April 7, 2011


OK, so I really meant "catch-up", but don't you think it just makes a better title this way? Tasty, too.

I haven't been in hiatus — quite the opposite, in fact, I've been busy! In the first three months of the new year, I've composed three new works (one of which was premiered early this month — more on that later) and begun teaching at Paradise Valley Community College. I'm enjoying the teaching and the college itself has a great vibe. I'm glad I managed to wedge my foot in the door.

Budget Woes

I'm now convinced that a large part of the peace I felt in the UK had to do with the distance I put between myself and American politics. Now that the distance has disappeared, I find myself worrying and puzzling at levels not felt since the W years. Congress has reduced itself to a farce (the tragically misguided Tea Party is pushing back on a comically inept and inarticulate left), and Obama has started, or continued, his re-election shift to the center (sure, we can afford another war and to extend the Bush tax cuts another two years, right?).

The flashpoint is the latest tempest in a pot of budget tea: shutting the government down over millions when there are, in fact, trillions that need to be discussed. The whole argument is completely devoid of any kind of reason. That is, until I heard this on NPR today:

Give it a listen. It is, for a moment, cathartic and refreshing: here are two people, Alan Simpson, a prominent Republican, and Kent Conrad, Democratic chair of the Senate Budget Committee, talking sense. They appear to have used reason and logic in coming to their conclusions without forgetting respect for those they don't agree with, compassion for those less fortunate, and a healthy does of common sense.

But the implications — I've decided in my pessimism — are actually pretty terrifying: sadly they spend more time talking about why their plan won't be adopted than they do about the plan itself. Congress has made an absolute farce of itself, where no one seems capable of steering away from the worst possible outcome. This latest battle is largely due, of course, to the Tea Party, who has even taken Speaker Boehner hostage: he now won't even take the $33 billion deal he originally asked for. They dare not peek into the defense budget, but funding for the National Endowment for the Arts must go. It's enough to raise a guy's blood pressure. This guy's.

A Proposition

Now, it's no secret I love NPR. Many conservatives have espoused the viewpoint that if NPR (and for that matter, arts organizations of any kind) is so great, let the free market handle it, and people will donate generously.

To those people, I offer a proposition. If military spending is so vital, so necessary, and so rewarding, then let the free market take care of that, too. Surely people will recognize how much paying for weapons of mass destruction enriches their lives, and the coffers of Lockheed Martin will overflow with the generous outpourings of average Americans. Halliburton, too, would see its true potential reached if only it could loosen the shackles of government support, right?

The truth is that the conservatives want to compel citizens to pay for things that make life awful, like cruise missiles, while eliminating public support for the things that make the world a little less awful, like healthcare and culture.

Some, including myself, may have a different vision of what government should be.

I'll leave you... with this.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

We Need a Little Christmas

I am a sucker for Christmas music. The stuff — especially the old recordings I heard every year as a child — just makes me melt. But this year, while driving home in a particularly melancholy (okay — cranky) mood, a verse of We Need a Little Christmas struck me.

For I've grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
I need a little Christmas now.

For such a peppy, carefree tune (which I will always associate with my Grandma), these are dark sentiments. Suddenly the "need" in the title seems a little gritty. If I follow this thread to its cynical end, the whole reason we throw ourselves at the Christmas season is because regular life is so lousy.

I don't always spend my time souring over the back-handed good wishes in Christmas music, though. In fact, because I am a creature of habit, I'll continue to enjoy and revel in everything Christmas, thank you very much, cheery music and all. It's just that without a bit of melancholy for perspective, happiness is just ignorance.

So with (or perhaps in spite of) all the perspective I can muster, I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas: be nicer than you would be, happier than you should be, and thankful for the opportunity to do so.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hello Again, America

Part of why my transition to American life has been less than smooth probably has to do with politics. A small part, yes, but there's no use in denying that I am a political animal.

Obama's election roughly coincided with me leaving the country, and though I always kept an eye on U.S. news, there's a difference between looking in when you choose and being immersed in it. In my naivety, I thought the U.S. had gotten a little more, well, sensible. We elected a Constitutional Law professor rather than a journalism major without a passport, for example. The public was squarely against the ongoing war in Iraq. I thought things, broadly speaking, had calmed down from the ultra-partisan, bitter, angry mood that characterized the Bush years — a mood that, both in Washington and living rooms, made reasonable discussion about political issues impossible.

Boy was I wrong.

I was airlifted into a jungle of Tea Parties, Rallies (both for sanity and against), and onslaughts of negative, largely untrue campaign ads. The stench of anti-incumbent fervor was as thick in the air as in 2008. Once again, it was impossible (is impossible) to actually discuss issues — like the healthcare reform bill — because stakes had already been immovably planted. And by God if someone had planted their stake across the turf from yours, that's it. No discussion. No debate. Just negativity, and snide gotchas based on grossly untrue assumptions and exaggerations.

I'm not opposed to betraying my bias — this is a blog, not a news outlet — but I am opposed to ideology clouding reason, judgment, and discussion. I'm not so much worried about politeness as I am about closed-mindedness.

So the Republicans were swept into power. They are going to use the skills they demonstrated in the last decade to bring the deficit under control (See? No one cares to remember who started digging the deficit). They are going to re-examine healthcare reform. They are going to use the skills they demonstrated in the last decade to bring unemployment down (See? No one cares to remember under whose watch all those jobs were outsourced).

Fine. I think that compromise is by and large a force for good in politics (and just about everything else in life). If something is actually a good idea, everyone should agree, right? Yes... except when petty, partisan politics gets in the way of real progress.

But I digress; my main intention here is to relay two conversations about Europe I've had lately with people of vastly different backgrounds, perspectives, and — you guessed it — political affiliations. Please put that last bit aside for the moment, though, because which party someone supports is secondary to their way of thinking, and that's what I'm after.

First, a friend told me, "Gosh, you must be glad to be back in America." I asked what he meant, and his response was simple: "After being over there in Europe for two years and seeing what they deal with, it must feel good to be back in the States." No evidence, no argument. Just: America is superior. I was tempted to press him for more, but it's never polite to talk about politics, is it? (see above) so I let him off the hook.

Because I know him and his background as a business owner, I'll go ahead and make a guess: "It must be nice not to have your earnings and everything you buy taxed at such an exorbitant rate." Just in case this isn't what he meant, I've heard this sentiment echoed by others, so I feel safe in saying that this is a view shared by many Americans.

The other conversation, however, was with someone in the classical music industry (as I may be one of these days) who spends a month or two every year in Europe. He complained about the lack of government support for the arts. "The fine arts are worth a 1% sales tax to every Arizonan and to every American. The correction is necessary because our economy has not developed in a way that rewards artists. In bygone centuries it did, but no longer."

The first view is essentially capitalistic, the second, socialist. We have been well-trained to regard the first term with positive and the second with negative connotations. Such connotations aren't of much practical use, though.

At their cores, both ideas are predicated upon ugly concepts: capitalism in its purest form leads to a kind of feudalism. Very few ultra-wealthy, many poor. Socialism in its purest form takes incentive away from creation, from ingenuity, and from personal skill and achievement. Neither is an enticing model of civilization. It's the blend of the two that makes society work.

Roads, firefighters, and national defense are all socialist in nature; anything that is governmental whatsoever goes against pure capitalism. So almost no one thinks that eradicating all traces of socialism is a good idea (except, you know, those fun-loving anarchists), and no one thinks ridding the planet of capitalism will work either.

What we argue about — what we fight and claw each other about — is what the right mix is. Should healthcare be socialized or not? What is the right balance of welfare that reduces crime and the homeless population but maintains incentive for people to get back to work? Sure, there are issues out there that don't fall in this category, but I think you'll find that most of them do: for what issues should there be few shareholders (as in a company) and for what issues should every member of society be a shareholder (as in government)?

People fall over the spectrum: I know a Dutch man who is frustrated with what he considers the 'nanny state' in his country and how it leads people to not work to their full potential. Similar concerns are common in the UK: the government just reformed some policies, for example, by which someone would make less money by getting a job.

It is my opinion, though, that the U.S. has far more to learn from Europe than vice versa. As someone who payed for my healthcare with taxes for the last two years, I have to tell people who are afraid of it (which more often than not means they don't understand it) that it's not a bad thing. The U.S. healthcare system is viewed as barbaric (and rightly so) across the Atlantic: how could someone's medical care depend on how much money they have? And being able to attend concerts, exhibitions, and culture of every kind for little or no money is due in no small part to government support of the arts. Americans marvel at such things on vacation (I heard it constantly: "All these museums, free!") but call it wasteful at home.

The truth is that on many fronts — transport, justice, foreign relations, quality of life — a nation is measured by its government because the government represents all its people, not the privileged few in the board room. Should we choose to invest in that government — in the people — everyone will share in the rewards; and those who choose to invest in the privileged few better hope they're lucky enough to be one of the privileged few.

Europeans have taken this more to heart than Americans (perhaps because they endured centuries of feudalism), and I think their balance of capitalism and socialism is operating better than ours at the moment. In fact, I've only been back a little more than two months now, and O how I miss the place!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Steinbeck's Time

I'm back stateside, and on an American lit. kick to mark my (inconspicuous) return. First up is Steinbeck's East of Eden, a book I wanted to read well before Oprah told me to — Steinbeck is one of my all-time favorites.

I've been hunting around for a universal theory of time perception for the last few years; that is, ever since time slowed to a standstill when I moved to London. And I think I found it in — of all the unlikely places — East of Eden. Near the beginning of chapter 7:

"Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatsoever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that's the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it.— Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Soaking It Up

Strangely, I don't feel like I'm going to move back across the ocean in the morning. I went through a period of being saddened — and oddly worried — by the move, but the closer it gets, the more accepting I am of it.

This has to be at least in part due to our exploits in the city lately: in just two weeks we've rampaged through two Shakespeare plays at the Globe, La Bête, The Woman in Black, and eight concerts at the Proms. Yes: rampaged. And we've been checking off our list of London things-to-do-and-see with equal abandon. One laundry list is enough for one post methinks, but suffice it to say that we've been doing our best to get out and enjoy it while we can.

So long, London. See you again soon, I hope.