Monday, October 20, 2014

Strings and Arrows

Going a month or more without a blog post always seems to result in a kind of self-perpetuating blogjam - the longer I wait, the more pressure I feel to return with something great - or, at least, substantial. Well, I don't know much about true logjams, but presumably they arise where there are too many logs (blog posts?) trying to get through, so maybe if I mix my metaphors and kick the fire here, something will start burning. In other words, I'll post something insubstantial to fan the flames. Le voilĂ .

It's not like I don't often do silly, quasi-creative (?) things with words that might find their way into this blogstream, but they too often get scattered in the margins of Twitter and Facebook; so here's some stream-of-consciousness stuff that I'm moving from the ephemerality of social media to the relative permanence of a blog.

A former student who plays both violin and viola is now studying in London and wrote a Facebook post complaining about the absurd names the British give to note values. After getting some confusing instructions about crotchets and quavers and the like, her lighthearted comment was:
"I'll just pick these notes and start playing here."
To which I reflexively replied (because it's hard-wired in me):
"'I'll just pick these notes and start playing here' - spoken like a true violist."
Truth is, she wasn't even playing viola, but I learned that too late for me to keep from thinking about the intersections of quavers and quivering violists, so I found myself constructing the following bit of verse:
The violist's bow quivers when faced with a quaver,
Any less than a crotchet brings sure misbehavior.
The composer who hopes for such bows to deliver
had best leave those quavers unused in his quiver.
I now found myself in a mental maze of viola/archery connections, and soon took to Twitter with the following set of couplets:
Archers use bows to deliver their arrows,
Violists use bows to deliver their errors. 
Archers keep arrows for later in quivers.
Violists make errors whene’er they see quavers. 
The archer depends on a string that is taut.
Violists are best when they’re taught to play naught. 
The archer’s string sings when an arrow’s dispatched.
The viola sings best when there’s no strings attached.
So there you go. The blog is back.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Turn, turn, turn...

The calendar has turned many times since news broke for me that I haven't shared here on the blog (partly because I've never been quite sure what "here" is); but with a new school year around the corner, August 1 seems as good a time as any to admit that, for the first time in many years, I don't have a school! (It does somehow make those "back to school" commercials less painful - maybe I needed a break.) Although I'm still finishing up an official paid "leave of absence," I've been denied tenure and thus set adrift as a faculty member. Perhaps at some point I'll explore more the painful process which resulted in what seems to (biased) me to be the wrong outcome both for me and the school (the outcome was certainly met with much disappointment by students and most of my colleagues), but I'm not inclined to tell that tale today. I'm certainly not the first to be met with a disappointing tenure outcome.

Coincidentally, my soon-to-be former employer has become the subject of much controversy and derision in the past month to the degree that some of my former colleagues might almost envy me my early exit! I'm also not going to use this post to explore that painful process or pretend that my situation was in any significant way related. The many, many good things about Gordon College remain good and I will miss them terribly. Like any workplace, there are also imperfections and things I won't miss. Although the media attention has in inevitable ways seemed to exaggerate some negatives (and this has been most unfortunate because it's obscured so many good things), I think the negative attention might ultimately be a good thing in helping the college move forward. The controversy has given voice to many who wouldn't otherwise be fairly heard. Gordon has historically been at its best when it invites open inquiry (what used to be advertised as "freedom within a framework of faith"), and though it has factions that are more afraid of true dialogue,* there's real hope where there's actual communication. 

Anyway, it's on to the future. I'll admit that the tenure experience has been harder for me in terms of self-confidence and embarrassment than I would've hoped, and I'm saying that out loud as a way of being open and trying to avoid hiding, as I've more or less been doing. (It's also, quite frankly, hard to just disappear from a much-loved community.) I've never been quite sure about the "what will you do when you grow up?" question even well past the supposed age of growing up. I haven't been particularly interested in specializing, which is why the job that had evolved for me was so gratifying - I got to teach music history, collaborate regularly as a pianist, conduct operas, talk about art, theatre, and film, etc. - and why it's hard to face an uncertain world where no position like the one I had really exists, at least not until I make it exist. I'm both confident in my skill-set and mystified by what to do with it. Though it's hard to imagine working outside of music altogether, I do imagine that every now and then as well. This isn't the easiest age to experience a new beginning, but new beginnings can be exciting as well. At any rate, the academic year ahead will likely be one more of experimentation and discovery than settling in, but we'll see. Maybe I'll really learn to write code!

I am blessed with an embarrassingly wonderful family and am eternally grateful for that. I also still have my job at this old blog, where I get to do whatever I want, so I hope that having gotten this bit of news out of the way, I can at least get back to work here. In future posts, I might be so bold as to discuss the tenure thing more and to discuss the "Gordon" thing more - honestly, I'd love to say more about both today, but I feel it's a bit too opportunistic to spin such discussions out of my own frustrations. For today, I'm just coming out as a former professor who (probably) hopes to be something like a professor again some day.

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* It is regrettable to me that Gordon faculty voices, which could (and should) speak quite eloquently for the wide range of deeply considered thought on these issues, have seemingly been mostly silent in the past month. Though they certainly wouldn't always agree with the administration, they would be helping to project a much more accurate and honest picture of the kind of place Gordon is in a way that might help to disarm some of the simplistic stereotyping that the school has been subjected to.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Muse Your Own Adventure

[If you don't feel like reading all of this, just check out the blog's new interactive table of contents.]

Having been at this blogging thing for more than seven years and almost 500 posts, I often find myself vexed by the question of what a blog is. Specifically, since I'm reasonably proud of what I've got here, what can be done with what I've got? I started blogging as a way of getting myself to write more regularly (like a journal, you might say!), and that has worked. So now I've got all of these words, some of which I even think are worth preserving. What next?

An obvious answer would be to create a book from the blog, and I've definitely thought of doing that (see below). In fact, there are many potential books that could grow out of various posts, but a book implies a kind of linear format that doesn't really capture the spirit of what I'm doing, especially because hyperlinking and multimedia creations are so central to the "writing" I've done here. In fact, as much as I love the written word, it simply doesn't make sense to think of this blog as a collection of essays.

Strangely, I think there's an intellectual bias out there (I know, because I feel it myself) against writing that doesn't stand on its own as "just words," but the most important point I'd want to make is that technology, more than just allowing a platform to publish words, allows one to speak fluently through words-plus-multimedia. (Of course, art in general is often about saying something non-verbally.) This kind of natural integration of words and other media wasn't really possible before the Internet came along. Rather than thinking of blogs as replacements for paper, we should appreciate that blogs and other technology-based platforms provide possibilities for new kinds of communication that can't be housed in a book. I'm not saying such platforms are better than books - just that they can be radically different.

The bias towards the linearity of books is at least as strong as the bias against "words that needs pictures and the like." An authorial voice naturally seems stronger when it leads you inexorably from point to point. But, let's face it, linearity is also a default convention imposed by the classic book platform, for which experiments like Choose Your Own Adventure books are exceptions that prove the rule. As I wrote long ago in Hyperspace (just a click away!), the Internet makes possible a kind of multi-dimensional reading experience which can resemble the creative process itself. I think this is more revolutionary than is generally acknowledged.

As it happens, I did try to turn my blog into a sort of book a few years ago in an effort to showcase it for professional purposes. Well, I tried to turn it into an e-book, but that didn't really solve the multimedia problem. E-books do have lots of multimedia potential, but they're still based more on the idea of replicating a "real" book in paperless form. Because I wanted something that could be read offline (a feature that's becoming increasingly unimportant), I wanted all essential multimedia to be embedded in the "book," so I ended up with a 150MB behemoth (it turns out that a picture really is worth thousands of words in bytes!) of a PDF file, featuring 55 selected posts. You can read this MMreader here, and I am proud of it. It looks kind of like a book, even if the formatting of multimedia content is much less elegant than on the blog itself.

But you know what's elegant? The blog platform itself! And it can be read in tablets, on phones, on laptops, etc. though it wouldn't print out as nicely as the 129 pages of the MMreader. (By the way, I wouldn't expect anyone to print out those pages.) The point is, this isn't a print medium, so why pretend it is? However, the one feature I liked about the MMreader was the idea of highlighting a series of signature posts, so I've taken its table of contents and created something new and fun: a flexible, keyword-searchable table of contents, with brief abstracts for each of the posts. All you have to do is enter a keyword into the search box and the table of contents immediately filters out all the stuff you don't need to see. In fact, I think I can describe this better with...a (moving) picture:



So, you know you want to try it yourself, right? Look at these awesome search terms:  aesthetics, amateur, animation, atonality, bach, beethoven, best, canon, chopin, coding, connections, fragments, fun, hatto, loops, mashup, meaning, mozart, pedagogy, peterman, poetry, program notes, random, recordings, satie, strauss, stravinsky, theory, translation, twitter, viola .... each of which will turn up a customized set of posts. Go here or here (more screen estate) to give it a try. Or just click "A Guide to MMmusing" at the top of the blog.

This "table of contents" doesn't search the entire blog, just the selected signature posts, but it's a nice way to sample a broad range of content. And don't forget, if you really want an adventure, why not just spin MMmusing's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine over there in the margin. Find a book that does that!