Medleyana: Year One

Apparently, this is who I am.

Apparently, this is who I am.


Wow, it’s been a whole year already! Medleyana became a part of my life so quickly that it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t trying to shape my thoughts into blog posts on a regular basis. In a lot of ways, this has been good for me to undertake, even though it’s been a lot of work. I probably should have started blogging a long time ago: there’s a big difference between having a thought and putting it in a form for others to read. There is often research involved, and it’s surprising how many leaps in logic one can make that only come to light when trying to write an idea down or explain it to somebody else. As someone who often reaches conclusions by intuition or lateral thinking, blogging has kept me honest and forced me to support my opinions in a more rigorous way.


The reality of blogging has also been different from my expectations. I at first conceived of Medleyana as mostly an essay series, one entry building on another until I had gotten all of my thoughts out, presenting an overarching argument made from many angles. I quickly realized that most people, including myself, don’t read blogs in that way: the format lends itself to browsing, with the expectation that not all readers will be interested in every subject a writer chooses to explore (especially true for a blog like mine, tackling a variety of subjects), and each entry needs to be able to stand on its own rather than building directly on its predecessor (not that I haven’t had some threads running through). In some cases I’ve responded to current events or arguments, but mostly I don’t consider Medleyana to be a “headline news” kind of blog; perhaps that is something to consider expanding into in its second year.

Overall, although some entries didn’t quite get where I wanted them to go, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made as a writer, and I’ve proven to myself that I can stay on a schedule (most of the time). I’ve also found it necessary to branch out in search of new subjects to write about, after exhausting most of the things that had been building up inside, the ideas that drove me to start blogging in the first place.

Fates Worse Than Death, for example, my exploration of movie serials, was a product of happy circumstance: I had a few serials on DVD but was having a hard time committing to watch them. So, like so many bloggers before me, I began a series, thinking that the summer would provide the free time to watch them with the side effect of providing a little content for the blog. How wrong I was! It turns out that watching and writing about a four-hour long movie, even on a biweekly basis, is rather time-consuming! As I often tell my wife, I don’t really take on big projects anymore: I just take on projects that I think will be small, and wait for them to expand! It has been an enjoyable process, however, and I’ve even made some friends in researching and discussing this material (and I still have plenty to look at for next summer!).

The most surprising development of the last year is how quickly I have been able to find other outlets for my writing, including The Solute (for which I will have some pieces upcoming, I promise!) and The Wichita Eagle. I’m also still awaiting publication of The Lost Worlds of Power (now expected at the end of October) and I’ve got a few other projects in the works. Some of them are larger in scale (so maybe I exaggerated when I said I never take on big projects) and might demand more of my time. My goal is to keep posting at least once a week here, but after proving I could do it for one year I’m going to be more forgiving of myself if I don’t, and I’ve got an ample backlog of material for anyone who gets impatient for more reading.

Finally, if there is one thing I appreciate from readers, it’s feedback. I have a general idea of readership through the number of “hits” this site gets each day; I can see what search terms are leading readers here (and frankly, some of you should be ashamed of yourselves). I’m aware of which posts are the most popular (for the record, it’s “Instruments of Death” by a long shot), but unless I hear from you, I don’t really know what you think. If you’re reading this, why not consider commenting and letting me know you’re there? If the commenting system is too restrictive or you just prefer to remain private, drop me a line through my Contact page. Criticism is as welcome as praise, as long as it will help me make this a blog that you will want to keep reading.

To all of you, thanks for a great first year.

Dole/Darko ’88

I used to be a real pack rat when it came to newspapers (used to, I hear my wife saying).  While going through some boxes that had been at my parents’ house for about twenty years, I found quite a few papers and magazines that I had saved for one reason or another: historical value (“Clinton Sweep,” read the headline of the Wichita Eagle the day after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election) and souvenirs of places I’d been, but also stories that seemed dramatic or exciting to me, and which, in those heady days, I thought might be the basis for a dramatic work.  I was very much under the spell of contemporary dramas like David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China; it seemed that any out-of-the-ordinary story might have sufficient conflict or resonance to turn into an opera or play.  I was fairly susceptible to any kind of cultural theory that came along, so my early thoughts about aesthetics were a jumble of second-hand Marshall McLuhan, Peter Sellars, and Gilbert Seldes, cut liberally with the provocative Dadaism of the Residents and Frank Zappa.  At one point I set a few comic strip texts to music, partially as an exercise, but also believing that “mass media” sources were the natural successor to the communal folk sources that had informed the classical tradition from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.  Don’t get me wrong, those are still areas of interest to me, but like a lot of teenage “artistes” I was trying way too hard.  In any case, my own subsequent experience, not to mention the flood of shallow, hacky biographical operas that became trendy after Nixon‘s success, showed me that it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and not every news story held a grain of dramatic truth waiting to be turned into poetry.

One article I found that I still remembered vividly appeared in the Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, October 15, 1991: “Odd Tales of UFOs And Sen. Bob Dole Visit Russell, Kan.” by staff reporter (now WSJ editor) Kevin Helliker.  The disappearance of four women from Russell cast a spotlight on local writer Donna R. Butts, who had published a book about her contact with space aliens (and who was among the missing). According to her book, the Second Coming would begin as soon as Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who grew up in Russell, was elected president and moved the White House to his hometown, among other apocalyptic prophecies.  Members of Butts’ group of believers included local art teacher Gertrude “Trudy” Furney, whose public sculpture of the Seventh Trumpeter from the Book of Revelation sat (and still sits) in Russell’s Lincoln Park.  According to Rural Kansas Tourism, the sculpture (now popularly known as the Angel in the Park) “was constructed in 1988 to symbolize a turnaround of the local economy and a new beginning.  The artist’s idea was to portray that when the angel blows the 7th trumpet, better times and new beginnings were ahead.”

angel websize

It was apparently not unusual for the sculpture to be interpreted in more literal terms, however: according to Helliker’s article, the disappearances set off a wave of anxiety.  “Students at Bickerdyke Elementary School, located across the street from the Seventh Trumpeter sculpture, swore they saw the angel’s trumpet move.”  Psychologists were brought in to counsel the panicked students.  The public library was overwhelmed with requests for Butts’ book, and UFO sightings in the area spiked.

UFOcontact

I didn’t live in Russell, but the atmosphere of expectant foreboding described in the article felt familiar.  In the fall of my freshman year in high school, a brilliant light on the horizon convinced a number of people in my hometown that the Second Coming had arrived, or so I heard; it was the lights from the football stadium for the first home game, seen through an unseasonal haze.  There was a lot of that going around in the late 1980s and early ’90s, enough that director Richard Kelly’s decision to set his spooky 2001 film Donnie Darko on the eve of the 1988 presidential election felt weirdly appropriate.  In hindsight, this story, and several others that I collected, pointed to a convergence of two trends that would go mainstream in the 1990s: interest in UFOs and paranormal activity, and millennial fundamentalism.  The popularity of The X-Files gave a boost to the former, and the political ascendance of the latter is a reality that is still with us; in both cases, the Internet’s ability to connect like-minded people surely contributed to the trends.  The fact that “rational explanations” were forthcoming–pranksters confessed to faking UFOs with road flares tied to helium balloons, and the four missing women had undertaken a pilgrimage to Israel without telling anyone–makes it conveniently easy to dismiss the whole thing, leaving aside the question of why people get swept up in these manias in the first place.

Donnie Darko, 2001

Donnie Darko, 2001

I don’t have an answer to that, at least nothing that would go beyond the volumes that sociologists and philosophers have already written.  Perhaps, in addition to my dramatic ambitions, I was simply trying to make sense of the data, like that other famous clipper, Charles Fort.  Fort spent years arranging the “damned facts,” weird happenings and sightings culled from newspapers from all over the world, into his four books; the cumulative force of his observations asserts a loose philosophy of skepticism toward both unsubstantiated myth and scientific orthodoxy, putting his faith in facts without jumping to conclusions about how they fit together.  The Internet has made it both easier and more difficult to follow the weird happenings in the world: easier because we have greater access than Fort, sitting at a table in the New York Public Library, could have imagined, and more difficult because of the sheer scope of the information available.  Ultimately, the lack of a definitive conclusion is what makes this sort of story less satisfying for dramatic purposes than we might desire: we’re left either exaggerating the reality of the aliens’ presence, as in a Hollywood blockbuster, or dismissing it altogether, as most outside observers would.  The ambiguity and misdirection, the need to believe without being able to prove anything, was something The X-Files would get right, for the most part, and as Donnie Darko would demonstrate, sometimes the most captivating aspect of a case like this isn’t a story at all, but a mood.

And with that, I leave you with Donald Erb’s 1969 composition The Seventh Trumpet, appropriate mood music for this article.

Am I the only one who goes back to read my old comments on online forums?

I’ve been active to varying degrees on a few different websites over the years (no, I’m not saying which ones—those things are pseudonymous for a reason!), and most commenting systems have the option to look at all of the comments made by an account at once.  A few years ago, I mentioned to a colleague that while commenting online includes being part of a conversation, it is also something like a mirror.  It was difficult to explain what I meant by that, but I think I had the review function in mind: going back (sometimes years, in the case of a few websites I’ve spent way too much time on), I can see a clear picture of who I was, what I was doing, and what my thoughts were.

As I mentioned before, I was once a regular journal-keeper and diarist, recording my thoughts for posterity.  Part of the appeal of journaling is the idea that someone in the future might want to read your writing, perhaps because your thought process and opinions would be worth knowing, or at least because your observations are clear enough to give an accurate picture of the world you live in, for history’s sake.  In that sense it’s just a few drafts away from being a memoir, composed one day at a time.  There’s also the more immediate pleasure of revisiting your own thoughts: very often I’ll encounter a detail in my writing that I had completely forgotten, and the written word will cause a flood of memories.

Reading my comments online can be like that, but very often it’s less like a diary and more like the conversation books left by Beethoven’s visitors late in his life: because of the composer’s deafness, visitors had to write their side of the conversation for him to read, leaving a record of only half the discussion.  It’s one thing to reread a comment that contains a fully-formed opinion and think, “Ah! Yes, that sums it up!” or “I remember that!”  It’s quite another to look at a comment reading “I agree!” (or, God forbid, “LOL”) and not remember what it was in response to, or read a comment that was obviously a real zinger in context, knowing it was part of a very funny comment thread, but falls flat or simply makes no sense in isolation.  Online interactions may be saved on servers forever, but not all exchanges were meant to be timeless: sometimes you just had to be there.

Taking part in online conversations has also helped me to sharpen and clarify my opinions: one can hardly write anything on the internet without facing disagreement, so writing (and defending) opinions, and accepting that others will see things differently, is an excellent spine-strengthening exercise.  I’ve seen more than one forum poster claim that taking part in the forum helped them to become a better writer, and to the extent that participating helped them solidify their point of view and express it clearly, I believe it.

Of course, all of this assumes a certain level of civility, not always easy to come by online.  I’m not sure the internet has truly lowered the level of discourse, as is sometimes claimed, or if it just allows us to see more of it than we would normally encounter without the flood of information coming to us through Facebook, Twitter, et al.  (And of course, even traditional media outlets now expect that their audience will want to talk back, a development that is mostly positive but which is also an open invitation to kooks everywhere.)  I avoid the comments sections of news sites like I would avoid bad neighborhoods; I resist the quixotic urge to correct every misinformed thinker I encounter online.  In retrospect, there are a few occasions I wish I had spoken up, but mostly I just get worked up and agitated arguing with people I don’t even know, and the well of ignorance sometimes seems bottomless: arguing with people could be a full-time job, and for some people it apparently is. I’ve come to believe that strong moderators are essential for preserving lively discussion without descending into flaming and abuse, especially in the early going; after a forum has been around a while, with a number of regular posters, a tone is established, in general set by the content of the site and the guidelines set by the moderators.  To state the obvious, speech online isn’t that different from everyday speech: you aren’t free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  The website isn’t “censoring” anyone: as a private enterprise, it is free to set its own standards of conduct.

I’m not as active in forums as I once was, and for some of the same reasons I don’t journal: I don’t have the time, and If I’m going to spend time writing I’d rather put the energy into something more permanent.  Being able to comment online is like having a bar or coffee shop in your home, open twenty-four hours a day, where you can always get into a conversation (or pick a fight).  That’s a strong temptation, and for most websites it comes hand in hand with a continuous flow of new content to spark discussion.  In that sense it’s not that different from the way I used to watch television, but it can feed into the feeling that I need to be entertained every moment, that I can never be alone with my thoughts.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way (witness the productivity programs whose selling point is the ability to lock you out of your email and social media so you can get some work done); it’s a battle I keep waging, even if I know I’ll be more successful some days than others.

Introduction

Welcome to my blog!  To explain what Medleyana is, it’s probably easier to explain what it isn’t.  Medleyana is not going to be a personal diary.  When I was a young boy I kept a diary, and I did my best to stay true to the “daily” aspect of the root word dies, even going so far as to backtrack and write entries for days I skipped writing, until I was trying to remember what I had been doing on days weeks before to catch up, and the whole thing started to seem ridiculous.  Life sometimes moves too quickly to record everything.

As a teenager, I tried again, this time with a “journal,” which sounded more serious and grown up to me, and which I told myself I wouldn’t feel compelled to write in every day (even though its root word, jour, also implies a daily use).  I would only write in it when I had something to say.  In addition to personal reflection, I wrote about musical or literary projects I was involved with, explored my creative process, and recorded my reactions to books I read and movies I watched.  With that freedom in mind, I was able to keep a journal into my late twenties; I might go weeks or months without writing, but when I did I felt confident I was creating something substantial instead of simply recording mundane details out of a sense of duty (although there were also plenty of mundane details recorded along the way).  The only real restriction I placed upon myself was that I wouldn’t go back and change or erase anything from a previous day: it would be a record of the moment, not an exercise in hindsight.

The end of this journaling phase came one day when my composition professor pointed out that I was spending more time and energy recording my ideas about writing music than actually composing.  At the time, I couldn’t deny the truth of that: I’ve always enjoyed talking shop with other composers and creators, and reading and writing about the process, and when you’re doing that it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being creative and doing great work without actually finishing anything.  Perhaps that insight should have led me to change my major to journalism or creative writing, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and I put the journal away and committed to pouring that energy into music.

So why blog now?  In part, my life has changed so much since then that I feel more confident I can balance creative work and commentary; a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to focus on finishing smaller projects so that I didn’t have a new piece only once a year, and these short articles fit right into that ethos.  Also, a public blog is quite a different matter than a personal diary: I hope to begin a discussion, and my focus will be on aesthetic issues rather than my personal life or what I had for breakfast.  I won’t deny that shifting my work to the internet age has been awkward for me: I’m not too old to use computers by any means, but just old enough to be uncomfortable with the “share everything” spirit of the twenty-first century.  I can be a perfectionist, which is okay, but it has led me to keep a lot of work under wraps that I should probably just release to the world and accept that some of it will be liked, some disliked, and a great deal ignored.  That is simply the way things are now.

Perhaps more importantly, I am no longer teaching in the classroom.  In addition to teaching music theory and aural skills (ear training), the bread and butter of composers who are otherwise unemployable, I spent several years teaching music appreciation and music literature.  These classes were wonderful arenas for discussion and exploration (on my part, at least, even if students dragging themselves in at 8:30 am didn’t always feel that way), and I now find myself in need of a comparable outlet.  (Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with rhetoric about the internet being the world’s biggest classroom, or anything like that, nor do I mention my teaching experience to claim any special authority: on the internet, I’m just another voice.)

Okay, Medleyana isn’t a diary, or a classroom syllabus.  What is it?  I’ve subtitled it “In Praise of the Eclectic,” which sums up my interest in “inclusive” aesthetics, artistic and musical styles that draw influence and ideas from lots of different sources.  My interest is twofold. First, I’ve always been a sucker for formats that bring a variety of items under one roof: anthologies, omnibuses, samplers, miscellanies, and medleys.  Second, I’m intrigued by artistic styles that do the same thing, but which may appear on the surface to be unified, either transformed by technique or by the strong personality of a single creator.  There will be more on these subjects to come.  And in that grab-bag spirit, I reserve the freedom to throw in whatever else I might feel like writing (convenient, no?), but I’ll use tags to keep things organized as we go.

I’ll leave this thought in conclusion: I try to approach eclecticism, both as an audience member and as a creator, with the kind of attitude attributed to the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in an oft-repeated anecdote (this version of the story is from Sally Wendkos Olds’ A Balcony in Nepal):

 I remember a story I heard about a young monk who saw his teacher in the dining room reading a book while eating his lunch.  The novice stood quietly by the older monk until he raised his head from his book.  “Yes?” “Excuse me, roshi,” the young monk said.  “But in your teaching this morning, did you not tell us, ‘When you eat, eat.  And when you read, read?’” “Yes, of course, I did.” “But, roshi here you are eating and reading!” “Yes, of course,” the elder replied calmly. “When you eat and read, eat and read.”  And he went back to his soup and his book.