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!


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Lazy music, lazy post...

Not a lot of heavy liftin' in this, the first post of summer, but sometimes I think there's too much heavy lifting anyway when it comes to how people think about music.

So, let's call these "semi-random acts of (?) creativity." We start with a few nights back when I had Cecilia Bartoli's wonderful debut CD, Se tu m'ami, playing during dinner. I don't have music playing that often at mealtime, but I'd just re-hooked up my once trusty 'ol Sony 300-disc player. (I know, CDs are so last century.) I'd made a nice (I hope) dinner for our wedding anniversary (we were having a proper night out the next night) and my wife has always loved that CD, so that's basically why it was playing, although I'll admit I wasn't paying much attention...until....

...strange sounds started issuing from the living room, and it soon became evident that either the player or the disc (or Ms. Bartoli) was having some problems. Suddenly, I was paying attention, and I actually kind of liked what I heard. I turned on my handy Zoom recorder and even took this brief iPad video of the player tripping out during Caccini's Amarilli, mia bella.



Here's the longer-form audio recording. The result is a kind of musique concrète which sounds much more like late 20th century Minimalism than Caccini or anything else Bartoli might sing, even though her voice and the piano do play fractured/fragmented roles as source material. The very regular rhythmic pulse could almost be straight out of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. In the case of the audio recording, the changes in the loop occur when I tried to set things right by hitting the fast-forward on the remote. Eventually, Bartoli finds her way and the heartbreakingly beautiful song continues. It's one of my favorite recordings, but I'll admit I hadn't even noticed it had started until the technical disruptions took over.

What's my point? I'm not sure, other than that, from a very personal anthropological point-of-view, it intrigues me that this kind of mistake can be so engaging and, in some ways, more interesting to me than the music I adore. I don't know what that means, though it's not the first time I've had some fun with failing CD technology. (For us old-school, analog musicians, even one who loves technology as much as I, there's maybe something gratifying about this kind of digital failure.) Obviously, to some degree it's about the element of surprise and the appeal of something that's generated in a semi-random way. I'd be less interested, I think, if someone had worked hard to create this or if the source material had been music less lovely than the Caccini/Bartoli, which I guess just affirms how much listening is never just about the sounds one is hearing.

[As it happens, yesterday I turned on the radio in the middle of the first movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet; I could tell it was an older recording and the playing struck me as stodgy and un-involved - that is, until I used my phone to deduce that this was LEONARD BERNSTEIN performing with the Julliard String Quartet. Being a huge admirer of Bernstein, I suddenly found myself hearing what had seemed "stodgy" as "deeply felt" and "interesting." If you don't think listeners' judgments are colored in this way on a regular basis, well...]

But enough about that. Yesterday, on another fine, summer-like day, I was out at the playground with the two younger ones and I happened to have my wife's new iPhone 5s with me. I love the slo-mo video feature of this phone, so I took some video of both kids swinging across a set of monkey bars. The result is hypnotically ballet-like, with a little Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gravity defiance thrown in.

When I got home and decided to make a little Facebook video out of this, it soon occurred to me that the perfect music to accompany the slo-mo effect would be Satie's Gynmnopédie No.1, subject of my most recent blogging obsession. (See here and preceding posts.) Satie's music magically seems to suspend time, and the marriage of sound and image, of gym and playground, worked really well. Unfortunately, since I prefer to give the kids a bit of anonymity, and as there lots of other children in view who I don't even know, I'm posting this video here in a blurred-out version. I'd hoped that would add to the dream-like quality, but the slo-mo effect is much less powerful when you can't see the amazing detail. Still, here it is, with my own solemn Steinway doing the ambient honors:



That would be about it, except that today, while taking a walk, I started wondering:: If Satie's music has the feeling of time slowed down, then what would time slowed down sound like sped up? I didn't spend much time on this, but I arranged for the little pianist inside Finale to play the gynmnopédie at about a triple-time (quarter note=300), which, as I expected, ended up sounding like something Francis Poulenc might've tossed off:



And, in the interest of serving you better, I went ahead and took the next logical step (egged on by the 7-year old Son of MMmusing) and quadrupled that tripled tempo to 1200*:



And finally, to balance things off, here's what it sounds like at quarter-note=30:



Now that's suspending time. What better way to spend a summer day?

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* Incidentally, hearing this music played at warp speed like this give the listener a cool sort of aural overview of the piece which makes Satie's gently asymmetrical phrase structures much more noticeable. This reminds me of my musical "storyboarding" post, which is all about condensing musical time into a virtual snapshot - a very different way to suspend time.