Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nooks and crannies

I recently had occasion to be in the Mountain Time Zone with the cost of travel covered by someone else. This was actually the fifth time in five years that I'd had this particular occasion, but this time it was different. I decided to take this particular occasion (and the free flight) to visit family and friends in the Denver area, follow that with a drive to the mountains east of Salt Lake City, and follow that with a drive back. Nefarious, no?

John, Jane, Katie, Jason. They don't all begin with J.
So I visited with my oboe (and English horn and flute and clarinet and, now, saxophone) playing friend Kathryn and spent a little while with my sister Jane and her family (She's the one who doesn't know or care a picture is being taken). They took me to a Colorado Rockies baseball game, where, among other things, I indulged in the highest cost-to-benefit ratio known to man: I bought a cheeseburger at the game. The game was a bit dull and it rained, and of course, there was the matter of the cheeseburger, but of all the ballpark experiences I've had, it was one of them..

There I saw a name playing for the home team that I recognized from the days when the Red Sox were a major league team: Marco Scutaro. Immediately after the game was over, Scutaro was traded to the Giants. So I witnessed history, in a really dumb and pointless way.

I also spent several hours at my sister's weekendly kaffee klatsch (I don't think it is spelled that way, and why not?) playing the part of my sister Jane's weird younger brother. It's a part I spent my entire life inhabiting.

As I play the part of the weird younger brother
Needless to say, I needed driving directions to all the places I was going, and voluminous detailed google maps driving directions were printed and brought with. I also had the option to pay 12 bucks a day to rent a GPS thingy-dingy from the car rental peoples (now there's a racket — they make back their investment in a week and everything else is pure profit) for even more driving directions, with the option for said directions to be chanted robotically in one of three available accents.

Screw that in the polite connotation of the word screw but not really, said I, and for the sake of having a redundant system of driving directions, I packed up the GPS unit from my car and brought it with me.

Now the GPS thingie from my car is a lovely creature to have been beholding. It is HD wide format, it has traffic and construction updates built in, and it comes with a lifetime's worth of free updates. Beff had gotten it for me for my birthday. How did she know to get me such a thing?
Beff: Your birthday's coming up.
Me: My birthday's coming up.
B: What do you want for your birthday?

M: Nothing
B: Nothing?

M: Well, you know that if I think of something I want I just get it. Waiting until a birthday for it is just too long.

B: So is there anything you want right now?

M: (pause) I want to be a cool kid. I want an HD GPS unit like you have in your car.
Thus did I have my Garmin HD within 48 hours of that conversation, and at least a month before my birthday. On my actual birthday I was in Wisconsin, so we celebrated it two and a half weeks late, with Buffalo wings, as we always do. For obvious reasons, it was pretty easy to find the restaurant.

Leaving my sister's house at the beginning of the eight-hour drive to Utah, I duly turned on the Garmin, entered the address of where I was going, and let it take me perilously through Denver suburbia in places I'd never been on purpose. In olden days, taking that same route with typed or handwritten directions would necessitate two things: taking the eye off the road regularly to read the directions and silently screaming aggghhh! I've never been here before! I've never been here before! What if I take a wrong turn and get lost? Somebody will be mean to me! Aggghhh!

There is reason to expect that reaction, of course, because once, in the dark, before the Age of GPS®, Beff and I got completely lost returning from a faculty party in Newton. It was in an area of serpentine paved over cowpaths that made tracing back our exact steps nearly impossible. And it was dark. Luckily for us, it was Christmas time, so at one point, a half hour into our odyssey of where the heck are we and how did we get here, we passed a large illuminated Christmas tree on the right that we'd remembered passing on the right on the way to the party. So we turned around, carefully sought out other milestones, except on the other side of the road, and started to yearn for the beginning of the Age of GPS®. We had to wait.

The path the Garmin took me to Highway 25 was a serpentine one indeed, and I was of course glad that I could understand the American English accent that is the unit's default. On occasion, while we are driving, Beff likes to change its language to Swedish just to hear how they say recalculating, but she always changes it back.

Once on the highway, much sitting back and relaxing could be done by me, except about the part where I was actually driving, and the speed limits kept changing (twice in Wyoming I actually encountered this howler: Variable Speed Limits Strictly Enforced). But the middle seven hours of the trip was easy: 25 north to 80 west. And once I successfully navigated onto 80 in Cheyenne, I was amused to see how many miles it was before the next time I had to pay attention (I'm not going to tell you that I snapped that picture with my iPhone as I was driving). 388 miles hence I had to be sure not to veer mistakenly onto Route 93.

I'm also ambivalent about how the GPS makes a point of telling me when I'm going to arrive. Because the arrival time keeps getting adjusted by a minute or two every once in a while as you are driving, and in a long drive like that, and given that Wyoming radio is largely six C&W stations and two religious stations, you have to start amusing yourself by inventing games like Change the GPS's ETA, which really aren't very much fun at all. For the record, I arrived at 2:15 because I stopped for gas and lunch. Which, in Wyoming, is often the same thing.

I could have set up that joke better.

In Wyoming I got gas where I had lunch.

What is this, third grade?

Thank you very much, one sentence Italic paragraph guy.

Through the many straight lines of Wyoming, and all six C&W stations playing similar cheap imitation Shania Twain, I started to marvel at this GPS HD thing. That teeny little thing that cost less than a nice meal for two can direct me from anywhere I am to anywhere in the continental US. If I had suddenly felt the urge to veer off and visit the north end of Yakima, Washington, or the bench of Boise, Idaho, or the back roads of Island Pond, Vermont, it was just a few programming steps away.

Isn't that awesome?

Isn't that too much power? Did I really need to buy all that data? Do I need the 99.75 percent of it that I'll never ever use? How long would it take me to drive on every road in its database? Would a version with a smaller data chip and only data east of the Monongahela River be cheaper, or faster, or less of a waste of chip data space? Why is it so much fun to say Monongahela?

And why isn't there at least an urban contemporary station, or something?

Users of the current generation of GPS units are like the humans in Defending Your Life that only use like five percent of their brains, right? The smart ones use, like seven percent, and no one can hope to use even as much as fifty percent of our brains.

See, this was a really long drive.

Since Shania-wannabes still dominated the airwaves, then I started thinking about composers, learning to compose, teaching composition, and all the metaphorical connections the would have to the Garmin, no matter how lame or forced.

And finally came in a public radio station from a university. Unfortunately, the program was a roundtable about beekeeping and bee diseases. Back to pointless musing.

Which composers have so much in the way of chops that they are the Garmins of the composer biz?

Whoa, One Sentence Italic Paragraph Guy is thinking way far ahead, and not in a direction I was even intending to go. But now that he's spoken, I guess we can keep that in the back of our minds.

No, I actually want to know the answer to that question.

Wouldn't the question be a little more appropriate to the Garmin metaphor be — which composers know so much music and understand techniques and methods that they can cater to the widest possible range of interests of composition students?

My question is way shorter.

Since the roundtable on beekeeping was still going strong, I thought a bit about philosophies of teaching composition, especially of teaching beginning composers — in my case, usually at the university level with students who cannot resist the urge to give you ultralong disquisitions on their life story and ultralonger lists of excuses why they haven't already become great composers.

That's just mean.

I bring this up because of a conversation I had many years ago with a composer friend about his philosophy of teaching beginning composers. His boiled down to — get to know them, figure out their likes and dislikes, point them in a direction you think will be helpful (which would include suggesting music to listen to), and stay largely hands off. When they bring their work to you, instead of criticizing, point in another direction. Repeat. The method boils down to letting the student acquire exactly and only the chops he or she needs to get the job done. It's efficient, certainly, and it's like buying the Garmin hand-crafted to give you only the directions to work and back, and to a few restaurants that someone said were good.

On principle, I don't have any opinion for or against that philosophy. I myself have experience doing one manifestation of it, and that will involve a first-person narrative from before Madonna had a weird accent.

During my Pacific Time Zone period, a friend shoved a wannabe composer at me for private lessons. The W.C. had a degree from a local college, and didn't think that composition lessons were the sort of thing you had to pay for. I myself was too polite to put the word grease and palm in the same sentence. And since Madonna had a somewhat normal accent, there were no worries on that front, either. I spent time getting to know his musical background and took a look at some of his scribblings, and soon we embarked on his megaproject: a string quartet with a vast story to tell about how the world developed. This is not an uncommon musical metaphor.

He decided one important way to express part of the story metaphorically was to have the string quartet indulge in Renaissance style polyphony that would morph into more modern polyphony. This was a great big idea, of course, and the sort of thing that takes pretty good chops just to get started.

This is boring.

One Sentence Italic Paragraph Guy, I don't need you right now. Especially if you're going to cop an attitude.

I already figured out that the student is going to hit a wall because he's got no chops.

So the student hit a wall because he realized he didn't have the chops either to write Renaissance style polyphony or to write so-called modern counterpoint. My response was that he could listen to a whole bunch of both and figure it out — after all, composition is, and should be, learn by doing.

Learn by doing, such a straightforward way of talking, has been co-opted by edu-people and is now called Experiential Learning, which is one fewer word and one more syllable.

Who's the one with an attitude now?

He asked to be excused from his pay-as-you-go-except-for-the-paying-part lessons in order to get a book and teach himself Renaissance counterpoint. Which was good for me, since I didn't know anything about Renaissance counterpoint, either, except that I could identify it on the radio and probably distinguish between good and bad examples of it. Many weeks later, he returned with a few studenty pages of Renaissance counterpoint for strings, and it didn't suck. I'd like to say he also noted that I should get paid for these lessons and apologized and gave me a check. But that wouldn't be true. But once we got over this wall, then we could get to the next part of the meta-narrative for his string quartet.

Thus did he now have a rudimentary grasp of Renaissance counterpoint in his arsenal, should he need it in a future piece.

Which, hewing to this post's Garmin metaphor, is like my Garmin knowing how to get me to the School of Music at Ithaca College. I have never in my life needed to know that, but I'll need to know it this coming November.

Should I have insisted he learn twelve-tone weighted aggregate counterpoint, too? Wouldn't that have been pointless in his string quartet? Or would that potentially — maybe, just maybe — be a place he'd want to go in his string quartet? Would teaching him that be like stuffing my Garmin full of ways to get around Fargo, North Dakota? Now there's something I don't anticipate ever needing.

Or will I?

Teaching beginning composition in a class is a different kettle of fish, because there is a difference of scale (pause for back-patting on the word play there. In. Out. In. Out.). There isn't time in a class to get to know each person and all their likes and dislikes and to sit through all the ultralong disquisitions about why they aren't already great composers. Instead, it's a bit more like giving out recipes and asking everyone to cook with them.

You're getting a little off topic here.

Which is to say — every week we look at and listen to a piece of music and I talk about the techniques that are most obviously at play, deconstructed and boiled down to a bunch of things they can take home and reconstruct in their own ways. Hey, look how Stravinsky or Debussy constructed these tunes and chords using diatonic or whole-tone or octatonic scales. Write some tunes and chords and give them different scale filters. Or look how a composer used rhythm to create upbeats and downbeats, or how you might use rhythm in a text-setting to impose an actual interpretation of the text. So every week a different topic is given, and the experiential thing invoked, and little by little, compositional technique is built. It's like this week, my Garmin can get me downtown, the second week the Garmin can get me around Waltham, and by the end of the term it can get me to Boston and around all of the suburbs.

Still, if I want to get to Worcester and tool around, I'm on my own. And the beginning students don't know how to write for orchestra yet.

So wait. Becoming a composer — and, uh, being a composer — is like stuffing places into your Garmin? Or your metaphorical Garmin?

That was a simile, not a metaphor.

So yeah, in this lame and very limited metaphorical way. My philosophy of teaching beginners in a class, then is to give the students a bunch of chops and a bunch of thinking about ways to use those chops and let them discover stuff on their own. The good ones will know how to build their chops and get to the next level; many will go to law school. Unless they don't.

Consider, then, just a much shortened list of things that uppercase-C Composers need to know, which I include here only to get some variety of formatting:

  • G, C and F clefs
  • writing for every orchestral instrument
  • writing for saxophones
  • using notation software
  • transpositions
  • writing for piano
  • creating musical phrases
  • creating a larger form from sequences of musical phrases
  • understanding different relative strengths of cadences
  • having a sense of when to let a piece breathe
  • having a sense of large scale gesture and how it relates to large scale form
  • how not to let your day job take over your life
  • what everyone else in the field is doing
  • how to use YouTube and twitter
  • knowing all the different percussion mallets, including superball
  • knowing how to separate the good ideas from the lame ones
  • how to use the ABC Family iPad app to watch Bunheads
  • how to blend flutes and oboes in the same register
  • not to write chromatically on both sides of the break on the clarinet
  • don't write fast slurred chromatic stuff in the lowest third of any wind instrument
  • when bass clarinet is more appropriate than bassoon
  • how to talk about your music to nonspecialists
  • slap tongues on the saxophone and bass clarinet
  • writing for every voice type
  • writing for celesta
  • yoga
  • how to make this piece different from the last five I wrote
  • when to stop

With any luck, each new piece has new challenges that will put more places into the composer's virtual Garmin (sorry, tom tom, I've never had one of you, but here's an advertising phrase you can use for your GPS that brings you to the best restaurants: the tom tom nom nom). Some of those places will be used in a new piece, some won't, and some new places will be added.

Which brings me around to my own stance about new pieces. Give me something hard! What fun is there in doing something I already know how to do?

My first four or five Pierrot ensemble pieces suck because it took me a while to figure out the ensemble. But the sixth one — sounds pretty good, near as I can tell. I don't need or want to write a seventh one. I already figured it out.

It took me three giant pieces to figure out band writing. I don't need to write another band piece. On the other hand ...

Piano technique and the different kinds of sounds the piano can make and how the different registers sound in relation to each other — I haven't figured it all out yet — in fact, it feels to me like I haven't even scratched the surface of what is possible — so 120 pieces in to my giant project, I'm finally starting to get a grip. But I haven't figured it out yet, and it'll take at least another 80 more pieces before I do.

I haven't begun to figure out all the different cool ways a concerto can work.

So why did I just write a symphony with four movements that are all designed to quote well-known tonal music, and get in and out of the quotes gracefully? I didn't already know how to do that. My virtual composer Garmin can now navigate me through Pescadero, California.

And man, that artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern is fantastic.

Beekeeping program on the radio done. Now it's a commentator bemoaning the state of political discourse in this country. And oh, that's a really beautiful vista right here. 73 more miles until I have to pay attention.