Saturday, December 22, 2012

What Kind of A Wonderful Life Is It?

            We take the kids to a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life at the downtown theater.  I’ve always been ambivalent about the film.  It seems a version of The Giving Tree, a narrative of destructive self-sacrifice.  George Bailey foregoes his own hopes and his future for the needs of his family and community.  Then, what happens to his dreams deferred?  They explode.  George cracks, lashes out, and is driven to the brink of suicide.  But then, the film pulls back, and gives a seemingly happy ending with a deus ex machina.
            Nevertheless, off we went.  I hadn’t seen it for years, never with my children, and never on the big screen.   This combination made the experience much more interesting than I thought it would be.
            I was struck by the way the movie gets some small details about family right.  The putting of tinsel on George’s head even as he’s losing it.  The daily annoyance of the imperfect house that literally comes apart in his hands.
            My children were struck by the fact that George Bailey smoked.  In fact, they were shocked.  How could the hero smoke?  And, from their point of view, he wasn’t much of a hero anyway.  He didn’t seem to do anything (which, of course, is the film’s central theme).  They kept wanting to know when the story was going to start.  And, having been introduced to the idea of the angel from the beginning, my son kept asking, “When’s the angel coming?  Where is he?”  Clarence has very little screen time, but when he does arrive, he’s wonderful with quirky mannerisms, an odd reticence, and old-fashioned charm.  However, I think my son was somewhat bewildered and disappointed.
            Late in the film, when George comes home, frantic, unable to find the money that Potter has stolen, he rages at Mary, “Why did we have to have all these kids anyway?” My wife and I laughed out loud.  We understood the complexity of this moment.  His frustration and ambivalence.  His love and sense of confinement.  It’s more powerful and believable than his attack on Uncle.  (And what is he doing giving Uncle Billy, a life-long air-head, such responsibility anyway?)  Our reaction to George’s poor parenting, however, made our children nervous.  Why were we amused at this attack on the kids?  Nor did they understand why their mother, a teacher, was laughing at the argument between George and Zuzu’s teacher and husband. 
            As with many films, I find myself most intrigued by little details.   There is a skull on Potter’s desk with a chain that leads to George.  When the men watch Violet cross the street and walk up the block, one says something to the effect, “I have to go see my wife.”  There are several references to “potter’s field” – the cemetery of the poor.  Without the Bailey family’s presence, Potter would make the place a graveyard, a dumping ground, one that doesn’t recognize people’s individuality even in death. After all, many are simply “garlic eaters” – a slur against Italians that I had to explain to my wife.
            After having learned that, in a world without George Bailey, his brother would have died, the people on the troopships would have died, the town would be a degraded cesspool of sin, what is revealed to be the worst possible consequence?  Mary’s fate. Without him, this beautiful, educated, intelligent, strong woman would have been a spinster and . . . gasp . . . a librarian.  Oh, the horror.  In a film of fantasy, this seemed hardest to believe.
            Afterwards, when I asked my kids what they liked, the seven year old son said, “When they all jumped into the pool.”  My daughter agreed and added, “And when she lost her robe.  That was funny.”  That was about it.  How this came to be considered a “family film,” one for children, is puzzling.  And what they remember isn’t any supposed message, but the moments of cruelty: spraying seltzer into the face of the drunken broken pharmacist, keeping the money Uncle Billy misplaces, getting punched in the face and thrown into the snow.  It’s the age-old problem of representing evil; it can be more memorable and affect us more.
            Although this won’t end up being a holiday tradition of ours, I am struck by the movie’s audaciousness.  In 1946, immediately after World War II, here is a story offering a complicated examination of the nature of heroism and the way doing “the right thing” can stifle and corrode us.
            Then, it pulls back.  We love snowfalls, in part, because they cover up, temporarily, the ugliness of the world.  Even a garbage dump looks beautiful under a layer of snow.  So, it’s not surprising that the stopping and starting of snow falling is a key concept of the film.  The ending is a willful glossing over of what the story has revealed. 
            Or perhaps this feel-good film, this “inspirational” holiday classic, is actually a masterpiece of irony.  After all, it seems to say that it would take a miracle, a supernatural event, an angel coming from heaven, to understand and appreciate what you have accomplished and to keep even the best of us from jumping off a bridge.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Questions for Musician and Composer Michael Dodds

Michael Dodds serves as Head of Music History at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he also conducts the UNCSA Wind Ensemble. A specialist in Baroque music, Dodds completed his Ph.D. in musicology at the Eastman School of Music.  In addition to his work as a teacher, musician, and director, he currently is writing a book on the role of the organ in Baroque Office liturgy.

How would you describe what you do? 

I express creativity in many ways, but for purposes of this conversation, I compose music, and sacred music in particular. In my “day job” I’m a musicologist, but musicology and composition have always been linked for me. What first drew me to music theory and history as a kid, and what still motivates me, is the desire to understand composers’ compositional processes. That said, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started composing music for public use, so I consider myself a novice. A recent milestone for me was the performance of the first movement of a choral symphony, commissioned for my church’s 150th anniversary. Discussions are currently underway regarding a performance of the full four-movement work at a choral festival in the spring.

Is this different than what other people think you do?

I’m not sure what people think I do, but most people in my life see only one or two of the areas where I express creativity. Probably some people think of me as a musicologist or music history professor, while others think of me mainly as a church musician or a conductor. My roles at UNCSA and my church differ quite a bit, but each nourishes the other in many ways, including compositionally.

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

Early in my compositional process, I begin to hear in my mind what I want the music to be. Increasing confirmation I’m on the right track comes in stages—at the first imagining, at the first notation, upon completing the notation, and then at first hearing and at performance.

How do you go about making choices?

For me, composition (and pre-composition) involves several different mental states, and the nature of choice differs in these different states. Some choices are so intuitive I feel the work is simply finding itself; others require careful analysis and deliberation.

For me the biggest challenge in composing comes with when and how to move from one mental state to another. Too soon, and I get bogged down in the next stage; too late, and I lose good material. If a sacred text is involved, I often employ the monastic practice of lectio divina:  read it over and over, analyze it, pray it, and finally let the text read me, so to speak. That’s mostly pre-compositional, but the music comes out of that. When I am doing what I call dream-work, I open my mind and the music simply comes to me. I’m not really conscious of making choices until I begin to imagine alternative versions; but then I usually find those choices easy to make. Notating what I am hearing in my head requires a different mental state. As I begin to notate what comes into my head, I face lots of little choices that were not necessarily envisioned in my first intuitive imaginings, and I easily get bogged down at this stage, especially if a computer is involved, so paper works best for me until I’ve got a certain amount down. Likewise, for me, writing counterpoint involves a completely different state of mind than writing a melody and finding harmonies for it—there’s a lot of calculating involved. In orchestrating, I usually know early on what colors I want to hear, but at times—particular when figuring out how best to support a choir or achieve a particular, complex effect—I have to think very analytically.

I might add that throughout the whole creative process, my choices are guided by knowing who I’m writing for—these specific singers, this congregation, these particular instrumentalists. My choices are guided by what I think will make them sound their best, and, within the realm of my own imagination, what I think they’ll connect with.

How do you know when you’re done?

When the performance is over. In my recent big piece, I tweaked a few things in the orchestration at the dress rehearsal, and there are a couple of very minor details I’d like to change for the next performance.

What’s your workspace like?

I don’t have just one workspace; each type of mental task I do best in a different place. My best “dream work” I accomplish at the beach—the sound of the surging waves helps me hear my own thoughts like nothing else. When I’m working through harmonies, I often sit at the piano in a beautiful little chapel at my church. The very time-intensive work of orchestration I have to do sitting at my office desk at home—I have to have a computer with a huge screen turned to portrait orientation, or I can’t see the entire orchestral score all at once. When I’m trying to solve a particular harmonic or contrapuntal problem, it often doesn’t matter where I am; a few times, I’ve found solutions to complex contrapuntal or harmonic problems while driving, gardening, or even sleeping.

What are your essential tools?

Pencil, paper, piano, computer with notation software.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

I’ve composed some choral miniatures by singing into a Zoom digital audio recorder, improvising and revising take after take until I get it just right, and then writing down that final version. The audio recorder helps ensure I don’t lose anything, but by the time I’ve improvised my way to the final version, I don’t usually need to actually listen to the recording.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?

One time I was having a trombone ensemble play at my church, so I wrote an anthem for trombone sextet and choir. Quite aside from the challenging instrumentation, my compositional choices were not inspired ones. In particular, I did not spend enough “dream time,” really imagining what I would want to hear from that unusual scoring—I just started writing, falling back on some familiar strategies that fell flat. People were nice but it was a lead balloon. But there was one good bit from that piece, a little Alleluia, which has made it into the worship life of my church as a liturgical response, so it wasn’t a complete failure.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

As a music historian, I know too much for my own good as a composer, and this can get in my way. I’ve read lots of music criticism from all eras, and until recently the values of most critics, especially from 20th century, crippled me as a composer. If you buy into the prevailing critical perspective that you have to be original, you’ll never write anything, because there’s usually going to be someone who’s done it already, and done it better than you could do it. But I’ve come to reject that suffocating notion, and just as painters talk about painting as a way of seeing, I regard composing as a way of hearing—re-expressing past musical languages in my own voice to a community uniquely situated in the present.

What’s the best?

This year, I’ve been holding on to two good bits of advice. Every year at UNCSA commencement, actress Rosemary Harris, the honorary muse of UNCSA, gets up and reads a famous Martha Graham quotation:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Hearing this year after year in UNCSA commencement, it has gradually sunk in, and given me courage to renew my aspirations as a composer, which I’d had since childhood but had shut down for various reasons. I especially like the line “you do not even have to believe in yourself or your work,” because there are times that I haven’t, or don’t, so I trouble myself less with that now, and just compose.

The other good advice was from composer David Maslanka, who reminded me that, as he put it, “no one else is listening.” You don’t have to please anyone except yourself, musically speaking; write what you yourself want to hear, and then you’ll write much better music than if you try to match somebody else’s notion of what’s good. I don’t know any other path toward authenticity in artistic expression.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

American Kite Flyers

            There are two famous kite flyers in American culture, and they stand in contrast to one another.  The first is Benjamin Franklin.  The image of him flying a kite in a thunderstorm has become iconic for a number of reasons.  It is a symbol of curiosity and courage.  It contains the idea of flight and play.  The key is important as Franklin, through ingenuity, unlocks nature’s secrets about electricity.  He is the common man who makes discoveries about the universe using things around the house.  It doesn’t require expensive equipment.  It doesn’t require living in a cultural capitol or having a university education.  It requires a DIY sensibility and an active mind.
            Franklin goes from being an indentured apprentice to one of the most important figures of his time. The exemplar and representative of the self-made man, he is a founding father, diplomat, business person, journalist, inventor, writer, craftsperson, philanthropist, community organizer.  There is little he is not able to do.
            The second American kite flyer is Charlie Brown, and he is not nearly as successful.
            Whenever Charlie Brown tries to fly a kite, it gets eaten by a tree.  Nature, malevolent nature, continually defeats him.
            Growing up I read Peanuts collections like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown over and over.  I loved Charles Schulz's work. Perhaps I instinctively understood I knew these people.  In my thirties, when I went to Brooklyn for the first time, I recognized for the setting of Sesame Street, and, I realized urban kids might have a different understanding and relationship with the show.  The environment of “Peanuts” is Midwestern.  They don’t go hiking in the mountains; they don’t boat or ski.  They don’t live in high rises. The speech is flat, and the land is flat.  They are the solid, flat children of American, struggling to find some kind of meaning and purpose.
            In college, however, I began scorning the strip as "cutesy." I felt it was feel-good humor as opposed to hard-hitting satire.  I became too hip and too intellectual for Charlie Brown.  I lumped "Peanuts" together with those other archaic strips:  "Hagar the Horrible," "Beetle Bailey," "Dennis the Menace," and "Family Circus."  They were a stale, even fossilized, humor.  I still read comics, but my tastes ran to the seemingly more sophisticated "Bloom County," "Calvin and Hobbes," and "Doonesbury." 
            Then, one day, I began glancing at "Peanuts" again, and I noticed the strip was full of oblique humor and non-sequiturs.  I joked to friends that it was improving as Schulz became senile. In a strip I taped to my computer printer, Sally asks Charlie Brown, "Are the days getting longer or shorter?"  He responds, "Actually they're getting narrower.  Some mornings when you get up, the day is so narrow you can hardly squeeze in."  In the last panel, as Sally says "I never know what you're talking about," Charlie Brown notes, "Today seems to be pretty wide."
            Re-watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, with its portrayal of a world of commercialism which reveres pink aluminum Christmas trees, I realized Schulz wasn’t changing; the subtle surreal satire had always been there.  I looked seriously at the strip and began to appreciate the wordplay of miscommunication and non-communication, the unthinking cruelty and self-centeredness of some characters, and the poetic loneliness of others. A sadness permeates his work, and nowhere is it more evident than in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie Brown and Linus try to connect to an authentic emotion.
            Far from being sentimental, Schulz draws characters who are flawed, cruel, deluded, materialistic, and egotistical.  They are vain, dirty, and loud.  They have irrational beliefs, such as The Great Pumpkin, and obsessions.  They are, in short, us.

            In a PBS documentary, Ralph Lerner points out that Franklin never tells us something important in his Autobiography.  He never tells us that he’s a genius.  Consequently being like him is impossible.
            Charlie Brown stands in contrast.  “Peanuts” composed one strip at a time over decades is a monument to failure or, as Schulz said, “rejection” and unrequited love.  It’s key figure, Charlie Brown, cannot fly a kite, cannot kick a football, cannot win a baseball game, cannot get the little red-haired girl to notice him.  No one respects or believes in him.  He could be any of us.
            Ironically, in offering this vision, Schulz, himself, becomes an astounding American success story.  By the end of his life, he has created a beloved cultural institution and a financial and artistic empire.
            Benjamin Franklin flew a kite once and in his autobiography gave us an inspirational story, one that suggested who we could be.  Charlie Brown failed to fly a kite over and over, and in his work Shulz’s gives us a funny, sad, beautiful, story, one that shows who we are.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Next Week Game

            In graduate school, I had to take an American Literature course that I was interested in, but, as it turned out, the professor was not.  Perhaps he had grown tired of teaching or bored with the standard works on the syllabus, or perhaps he had other distractions, but he never made it through the three hour seminar. Each week, after making a half-hearted effort to cover the usual literary elements, such as symbols or characters or clich├ęs like “half-hearted,” he would conclude, "It’s pretty self-explanatory.  Any questions?"  When he said, "For next week...," we knew we would be outside within seconds.
            At some point, as we filled our coffee mugs before class, someone said, "I bet we're done by 6:15" and when another replied, "Or even six," The Next Week game was born.  A half dozen of us would put money into a pool and pick the time we thought the class would end.  From then on, the seminar became much more interesting.
            Like gamblers at a racetrack, each week we would discuss what we thought were the key elements to consider.  What did the day's reading involve?  Was it close to his specialty?  What was the weather?  Was something happening in his personal life that might make him want to go home or avoid going home?  Some of us would wait to pick a time until he came down the hall, hoping to distinguish something in his posture, facial expression, or gait.  (It was, in a way, a practical analysis and application of setting, character, and motivation.)
            I was good at The Next Week Game.  I seemed to sense which days he would end exceptionally early and when he would seem to have resolved to stay a respectable length of time. I even became a little scared by my prowess.  Did I have a special insight into this seemingly burnt-out professor?  If so, what did that say about me?
            As the term progressed, we developed a code.  No questions could be asked which would deliberately prolong the class.  In fact, no questions should be asked at all.  We would sit in silence and look back and forth between the professor, our watches, and the list of bets that each of us had copied.  Of course, thanks to our behavior, classes were let out earlier and earlier.
            Then, one day, I found myself conflicted.  It was a sunny crisp afternoon, so most of us had bet on a particularly early dismissal.  No one would want to stay indoors on such a day.  Except  . . . I did.  I had found the assigned reading fascinating, and I wanted to hear people's ideas about it.  When the professor said, "Any questions?," I felt torn.  I didn't want to violate the unspoken rules of the game, but, yes, I did have a question.  A lot of them.  People began packing their bags, and then, just before the professor said, "For next week. . ." I spoke.  "There was something I was wondering about," I said.  My classmates turned to me in disbelief.  This was an unsporting tampering.
            I wish I could say that we ended up having the best class of the term, that we had a deep, meaningful exchange which crackled with enthusiasm, but that didn't happen.  It was far too late to change the dynamic.  Classes like cakes become set after a while. I asked my questions, but even the one or two people who had read the material didn't want to discuss them.  After a painful few extra minutes, the professor let us go.
            Outside, my colleagues confronted me:  "What were you doing?  You screwed up the game."  Some were convinced I had engaged in a deliberate ploy.  For a moment, I felt a surge of anger and frustration.  I felt like reminding them we weren't spending thousands of dollars for a chance to win six bucks a week. We were there for an education, and maybe we were going to have to insist upon it.  If he didn’t feel like teaching us, for whatever reason, we would have to teach ourselves.  I felt like being sarcastic and saying, "Excuse me for wanting to learn something.  I don't know what I was thinking."  But I also realized this sudden shift to righteousness would be ridiculous. Instead, I shrugged.
            "Sorry," I said.
            The next week we played the game again.  The professor looked at me when he asked if there were any questions; I stayed silent.