Nut Buster with Loud Report: Fireworks Roundup

AKA "Giant Squirrel vs. Ewok"

AKA “Giant Chipmunk vs. Ewok”

Going to the park or downtown to watch the big professional fireworks show is always an enjoyable spectacle; no patriotic or sporting event is complete without them.  When synchronized with music they can be even more dramatic.

However, I’ve always enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the fireworks you can buy and shoot off yourself.  The sulfurous smell, the shredded paper, and even the burnt fingers bring back memories of family gatherings and idle summer days.  Where I grew up, in Kansas, fireworks were legal for about a week around July 4, although a window has now opened for New Year’s Eve as well; I was both awestruck and jealous when I visited my cousins in Tennessee as a kid and learned that they could buy and shoot off fireworks all year round.

I also enjoyed the packaging and was intrigued by the Chinese script and traditional designs, a vintage commercial style that inspired Salvador Dali to paint his Board of Demented Associations (Fireworks) in the early 1930s.

board-of-demented-associations-fireworks

Fireworks with traditional packaging can still be found, but in recent years I’ve noticed a more trend-driven approach to packaging, with the larger fireworks especially trying to stand out in a crowded marketplace with photoshopped labels that look like movie posters or glossy magazine ads, and names that reflect their Chinese manufacturers’ idea of American pop culture. (They’re even rated, with the “Wizard’s Wrath,” for example, rated “A for Action.”)  Considering how difficult it can be to distinguish between numerous models that all promise to “emit showers of sparks with loud report,” they need any advantage they can get.

Sometimes the result is zany dada poetry, like fireworks named “One Dumb Cousin” and “Massive American.” Others are obvious appeals to things that are current, like the laptop-shaped “iPyro;” a few years ago there were numerous fireworks with “cyber” in their name, but other than the “iPyro” all I saw this year was “Twitter Glitter.”

iPyro

There are also the unauthorized “Captain Americas” (an obvious choice) and illustrations that look sort of like Darth Vader or other characters.  There was a Britney Spears firework for a while but I haven’t seen it recently.

To all my American readers: have a happy and safe Independence Day!

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Art Rules (or, “Freedom! Terrible Freedom!”)

You could say I’m a formalist, both in my work and in how I relate to others’ work.  Formalism has often been a term of abuse, implying a concern only for formula without regard to “content,” as if they could somehow be separated.  But I think my previous posts have made clear my interest in the different ways ideas can be organized and expressed, and the layers of meaning that can be suggested by a smart deployment of familiar elements.  Concern for formal elements doesn’t preclude evaluation of ideas and execution as good or bad, nor need it imply a completely intellectual approach by which quality is an objective truth that can be proven one way or the other.

It does allow for some wiggle room, however.  A symphony, a film, or a comic book can be evaluated on its own terms, asking “What is this work setting out to achieve?” and “Does it succeed?”  Does it work within the established boundaries of the medium and genre or seek to challenge them?  Most people nowadays have varied interests, and are accustomed to engaging works of art or entertainment pitched at different levels, adjusting their expectations based on cues within the work itself (or implied by its marketing or venue, which can lead to disappointment or the occasional pleasant surprise if the work doesn’t match expectations).  In this pluralistic environment, we are all formalists, to a degree.

What does this mean to the process of creation?  Is it just a matter of hitting the right story beats or composing four-bar phrases, of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way?  Obviously not, although those are the starting points of craftsmanship as traditionally understood.  When people dismiss stale or soulless formula, it’s often this kind of basic “how-to-do-it” stuff that they’re referring to: “By the numbers.” “Hackwork.”  Sometimes the contempt is richly deserved, and we’ve all encountered enough impersonal, indifferent work to understand that calling something “merely” professional isn’t meant to be a compliment.  It’s one thing to cling to formula, to imitate, when just starting out; it’s quite another when you feel the artist isn’t trying or thinks you’ll be satisfied with the bare minimum.

The reverse, though, can be a search for “originality” with no foundation of technique or (sometimes) knowledge of what has already been done.  And that contempt for “rules” can lead would-be artists to actively avoid formal training: “You don’t learn what you can do in school, you learn what you can’t do.”  “I don’t want to be made to fit into a box.” “I want to be able to color outside the lines.” Et cetera.  Never mind that any artist worthy of the name should hope to graduate to drawing their own lines to color in (metaphorically or otherwise).

So, yes, I’m on the side of discipline, whether it’s channeled by an established institution or developed individually on one’s own. (The point that is often overlooked in this school vs. autodidact debate is that, when you come down to it, all artistic discipline is self-discipline; no one is going to do it for you, no matter where you are.)

As for rules?  Like any other artistic resource, they can be a help or a hindrance, and this is where the formal approach comes in.  Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music contains a famous passage which nails down the problem with unlimited freedom:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. . . .  I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

For a long time I considered that my mantra, placing sometimes-arbitrary restrictions on my compositions in the name of “structure,” but frequently alternating this approach with an anything-goes, all-inclusive aesthetic.  Thus did I refute Stravinsky!  My guide at this opposite pole was Frank Zappa, who defined his approach as “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere—for No Reason at All,” and who did as much as he could to upend and undermine what he called the “hateful practices” of music.*  Sometimes I found a happy medium between these two extremes, but I caused myself a great deal of trouble by misunderstanding musical rules and how to apply them.

There are negative rules and affirmative rules: rules that say you can’t do something and others that say you must do something.  Unfortunately, the early years of musical training are often filled with the negative kind: don’t have parallel fifths, don’t use retrograde chord progressions, don’t double the leading tone. There are good reasons for all those rules, but it can be awfully restrictive if you see yourself as a loner working outside the system: save those exercises for the sheeple in Theory I—I’m going to do things my own way.  It gets worse when you get into historical counterpoint (in the styles of Palestrina and J. S. Bach), and even Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system had quite a few “don’ts,” as he originally intended it to avoid tonal implications.  It’s not hard to see why school sometimes seems to be all about NO.

It can also be easy to carry that mindset into composition: sometimes the “don’ts” are merely pedagogical tools, obstacles put in the student’s way to make them avoid the obvious, or to prevent bad habits, and as such they are useful.  Many composers (and other artists) never get past those rules they’ve internalized, turning a brace that was meant to make them stronger into a crutch they depend on.  I’ve spoken to many mature composers who said they still heard their teacher’s voice in their heads when working, but whether they heed or ignore it is part of the decision-making process.  I remember vividly the first time I included a bass drum roll in a composition, something that my first composition professor had discouraged me from doing.  I had a good reason for using it, but it still gave me an illicit thrill—and I had been out of school for eight years!  Composition education, at least in schools, is still very much a one-on-one teacher-student relationship; I don’t know if my remarks apply fully to other disciplines, but I’d be surprised if writers and studio artists didn’t have similar stories to tell.

I might have made smoother progress if I had kept in mind a passage from a few pages earlier in Stravinsky’s book (emphasis added):

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out.

An important principal of form that isn’t always obvious is that very often the “rules” of a given work of art are discovered in the process of the “working out” Stravinsky describes.  Rules set out beforehand are apt to be negative: formal boundaries of the sort described in the first passage from the Poetics, and they may or may not fit the material chosen to elaborate.  Rules discovered in the process of creation are more apt to be both affirmative and organically related to the material, leading to the kind of creative freedom that is the goal of all this discipline.  Sometimes the discovery of internal rules is part of a painstaking process at the writing desk or in the studio, and sometimes it takes place on the fly, as in an improvised jazz solo, but either way it comes across to the audience as freshness and spontaneity, in which developments can seem both surprising and inevitable.

As an example, comics writer Alan Moore is known for the tight formal approach and attention to detail he brings to his work; his discovery of the guiding principles he would apply to Watchmen (in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons) is worth quoting at length (from an interview with Tasha Robinson):

I was writing the opening pages [of Watchmen No. 3] and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there’s a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship’s black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we’ve been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. . . . But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.

Thus, Moore and Gibbons developed a visual language in which images are paired, never standing for only one thing, but in relationship with other ideas.  The use of mirrors, symmetry, and double meaning became the underlying formal principle.  In another interview, Moore discusses his series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought characters from nineteenth-century fiction together in a single narrative continuity:

Round about the second issue, I suddenly thought ‘Hey, what if I did this so that any character that’s mentioned by name had got to be a real character from fiction?’ . . . Well, a genuine character from fiction, someone that has existed in other people’s work. And I think that it was when, possibly in the first issue, where I suddenly got to a bit where I realized that I’d got Emile Zola’s Nana being killed on the Rue Morgue by Mister Hyde, I thought, well, ‘This is great! This is going somewhere!’

The relevant point here is that in both cases the rules Moore set for himself, discovered in the process of creation, are affirmative, opening up possibilities rather than closing them off.  They set up challenges, but ones that require invention and creative thinking to overcome.  In the language of improv theater, such rules are the equivalent of “Yes, and . . . “ rather than the “NO” that often comes to mind when the topic of rules comes up.

To bring it back to the audience, does it help to be aware of such processes when reading, watching, or listening? I think it does, but I’ve already revealed myself as someone who geeks out over these things.  Not everyone wants to dig so deeply into their entertainment, and that’s fine. Despite appearances, I’m actually a strong believer in the “gut reaction:” it’s okay to like or dislike something without preparing a thesis about it or reading volumes of background to appreciate it.  Sometimes things just strike us a certain way, and the surface is as legitimate a layer to interact with as any other.  In some cases all that formal scaffolding is for the benefit of the artist, and a façade is erected to hide it from the public.  There’s something to be said for both the “holistic” and “granular” approaches to art—but I think I’ll leave it for another post.

* It is now widely known that Stravinsky wrote very little, if any, of the Poetics published under his name.  Indeed, as Richard Taruskin notes, Stravinsky had a life-long relationship with ghost-writers, and in any case Stravinsky’s public comments were often deliberately misleading, as if to throw armchair analysts off the scent.  Similarly, Zappa (for whom Stravinsky was an important influence) frequently downplayed the rigorous structure of his own compositions, preferring to be seen as an audacious prankster and provocateur. My struggle to reconcile these contradictory teachings was, in part, the price of reading too much at a young age and taking it all at face value.

To Spec or Not to Spec?

There are really two questions intertwined in this subject.  How much time and effort should be invested in “spec” (short for “speculative”) projects? And is it worth it to create original work for contests (or open calls)?

Admittedly, the answer to these questions depends on the stage of one’s career and the medium in which one works.  A poet or writer’s work is essentially fungible: it can be printed anywhere with little change (although something written with a specific audience in mind may have trouble finding a home elsewhere).  A composer who writes notated music, however, still has to get their composition into the hands of performers to bring it to life (a performing composer, or a studio composer who can realize their composition electronically, doesn’t face this hurdle in the same way, of course).  In that sense their “product” is more like the script for a play or movie, and is only finished in performance.  I’m going to speak from my own experience, but I’m interested in viewpoints from other fields, such as film or computer games.  Comments are welcome!

As a composer, I’ve seen this from several different perspectives. I’ve composed pieces that were exactly what I wanted to hear, without any regard to potential performances; I’ve been fortunate to receive offers to write music for specific performers and events.  I’ve had the opportunity to program concert series as a conductor, and been a performing member of chamber groups; in both cases, that gave me the ability to compose or arrange music for a specific ensemble and ensure that it would be performed.  Every piece is different, and not just musically: the known and unknown factors—including the abilities of performers, the amount of rehearsal time, and the nearness of the performance date—influence decisions made in the heat of creation.

When just starting out, almost any work of art is, by necessity, created without knowing whether it will have an audience.*  Art or music schools are, in part, venues where students are expected to create and display or perform, both to develop skills and good work habits and to build a portfolio, a track record for future work.  Whatever you might say about such institutions, I’ve always found it energizing to be surrounded by people with a similar passion for creation and who are actively engaged in projects.  That simple question “What are you working on?” that passes for small talk among artists is a constant reminder that you’re not the only one working to get those ideas that have been rattling around in your head out into the world.  If you’re lucky, you might find a supportive colleague whose enthusiasm for your work can be encouraging when you feel your inspiration or energy flagging.  Whether fueled by competition or camaraderie, motivated people are motivating to be around.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in my very first post here, it’s easy to talk about projects instead of working on them.  Do you know someone who always has great ideas for stories, movies, comics, songs, et cetera?  They want to tell you all about it, but it never seems to materialize.  I’ve been that guy; most of us probably have been at one time or another, and I’ve put myself on guard against talking up ideas that I haven’t put any work into, to the point that I’ve sometimes lost sight of how sharing an idea can build enthusiasm for it.  This is the downside of perfectionism: working in solitude, even secrecy, until everything is just right.  Some of those compositions I wrote with no set performance in mind now reek of the hothouse to me, overwrought and impractical.  At least I was able to cross the hurdle of finishing things, but even that must be learned—it’s hard to let go sometimes.  Again, knowing that someone, somewhere, wants to see or hear your creation is a great incentive to putting a double bar or writing “The End” on your baby.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder and harder for me to pick up the pen to write unless I know there will be someone to perform it.  Many of those youthful pieces were written not just on “spec” but on faith, and were driven by internal necessity.  Most of those pieces got performed eventually, but not all, and ultimately I don’t consider a composition finished unless I can at least get a reading, so it’s in my interest to be realistic.  Ultimately, life’s too short.

So what about contests, or open calls for scores/works?  Twenty years ago, when band composer Francis McBeth visited my college and gave a talk, he singled out competitions as singularly worthless attempts to encourage original composition: composers won’t write new pieces, he said, they’ll just pull something old that fits the contest requirements out of the drawer and send it in.  Commissions, he said, encourage new composition directly, but they represent a greater risk for the organizations running them.  I won’t argue those points; I think they are largely true, and McBeth didn’t even go into the fact that some of these contests have an entry fee, effectively asking the losers to subsidize the contest prize and/or administrative expenses.  (The subject of contest entry fees is a perennial bone of contention over at the Society for Composers, Inc.)

Having said that, there have been numerous times that I’ve read the description of a contest, and, totally against my will and better judgment, had an idea pop into my head that would be just perfect.  Most of the time, I have to let things like that go—see that bit about being realistic, above—but if I think I have enough time, and if it’s something that might have legs apart from the contest itself, I’ve been known to try to pull off original work for things like this.  An idea is an idea, and once it takes hold it’s not always easy to shake.

It doesn’t always work—I once overshot the deadline for a call for wind ensemble works by something like a year, but I was already invested in the composition so I just kept going after the deadline passed.  As for entry fees, that’s part of the calculation as well: if I think I have a really good entry, the fee is reasonable, and the rewards are sufficient, I might take a chance.  (So, you’re probably wondering if I’ve won any of these, and if not, what value my opinion is.  The short answer is yes, I’ve been selected for a few things, but nothing so big you would have heard of it.  It’s really another story which I may go into another time.)

So, what are your thoughts?  Where are you in your career, and to what degree does someone else’s interest in your work influence what you create?  What’s your opinion of contests and open calls in general?  Are they for suckers, or have you been inspired by one to come up with something that fits the requirements? I hope to hear from you in the comments!

* Actually, this never goes away, as the shifting sands of taste and the arts economy can derail the plans of even the most established artist, and the more expensive their medium, the more those outside factors can influence what gets made.  Still, if being “established” counts for anything anymore, it’s having some kind of fan base that can be expected to turn out for your latest project.

My 2013 in Film

As I mentioned last time, the end of the year offers a time to look back at the offerings—be they movies, music, or books—of the last twelve months and evaluate them.  I’m always interested to see what critics hold up as the best of the year, although in most cases I’ll put titles on my mental “to see or read” list rather than compare my opinions directly to theirs.  When it comes to movies, I’ve fallen behind; my wife and I used to be frequent moviegoers, but the arrival of children has an impact in more ways than one.  (I see more animated films, for one thing, and fewer documentaries.)  Not only does a night out at the movies entail getting a sitter, it means giving up precious time (of which I’m now more conscious of the scarcity).  Movies as a whole aren’t trivial, but specific movies—G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I’m looking at you—are another story.  Perhaps that’s why I tend to be more forgiving of movies I watch at home.  Transformers exceeded my expectations as a cable TV offering, but I doubt I would have been as pleased if I’d trekked out to see it at the theater.  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I probably won’t have a very complete picture of 2013 in film until 2016 or so, or possibly never.  The films I saw in the theater this year don’t even add up to ten, so my top ten list would of necessity include some movies I didn’t even like that much, and I had to search my memory to come up with some of them.

Pacific

A few years ago, I was discussing movies with a relative I didn’t see very often.  He revealed that he keeps an ongoing log of every movie he sees, with a numerical rating system of his own device.  Any movie that came up, he was able to tell me what he had rated it, and which movies were adjacent in rankings.  I doubt I could do that: I’m not that compulsive or organized, for one thing.  Asking around online, though, it seems that quite a few film buffs do track their reactions in that kind of detail.

I wonder how much their rankings change over time, though.  Some things I enjoyed the first time around wear thin after just one or two viewings (comedies are especially vulnerable to this).  Others stick with me, even as I’d rather they didn’t: I’ve only seen A.I. Artificial Intelligence once, and I hated it.  Really hated it; it was refreshing, in a way, because how often do we have such pure reactions to things?  Yet, large chunks of it stuck with me: that must be worth something, right?  And even the fact that I had such a strong reaction puts it on a somewhat higher level than the many movies that I’ve occasionally remembered and thought, “Oh yeah, I saw that, I think.”  I’ve read passionate and intelligent defenses of A.I. that have given me different perspectives on it; I don’t think I’d enjoy it any more if I saw it again, but I might appreciate it more.  How do I put a raw number on such an experience?

Professional critics, of course, do it all the time, and they, more than anyone, know the limitations of a star, number, or letter-grade system, boiling their nuanced and (hopefully) insightful consideration of a film down to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”  And critics’ opinions change, as well, so even a listing of their favorite movies of the year won’t necessarily line up with the ratings they originally gave those films.  That’s okay, and as long as we don’t pretend any given opinion is the final word, it’s part of the process of evaluation we all take part in.

In any case, it’s easier than ever for anyone to be a critic, or at least to publicize their opinions.  Amazon and iTunes have featured customer reviews for years, some of them lengthy essays by prolific writers; now services like Letterboxd (“Your life in film”) allow users to keep track of their viewing and ratings, just like my relative (I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a Letterboxd early adopter), with the added benefit of making their reviews public and allowing them to compare them with others’ and cross-reference their film choices with influential lists such as the AFI 100 or the various critics associations’ year-end lists.  Like many other elements of contemporary online life, Letterboxd takes activities that many people were already doing in isolation, and turns it into a social activity.

Another change in recent years is the increasingly narrow gap between the big and small screens.  Many of the films that came out earlier this year are already available on DVD or Blu-ray, and the lead time between theatrical release and home video gets shorter every year.  Streaming and video-on-demand services make it even easier to catch up on the year’s releases at home, something that is increasingly important for those smaller movies that don’t have wide theatrical distribution.  I watched Escape From Tomorrow on Vudu at home; it didn’t make it to a theater near me, as far as I am aware.  This year, Stephen Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, was released in theaters in Europe but made its American debut on HBO.  Although I would have liked to have seen both films on a bigger screen, TV time shifting made them much more accessible to me.

It goes the other way, too, although rarely: this year my wife traveled to Olathe to watch the Doctor Who fiftieth-anniversary special The Day of the Doctor in a movie theater, a rebroadcast of the international simulcast.  While undoubtedly an unusual move designed to mark a significant occasion, special engagements like this will probably become more common as theaters look for ways to create communal “events” and spectacles (like IMAX and 3D) that will bring people to the theater.  Simulcasting of live performances is even farther ahead: concerts and stage shows are available in local theaters.  I can even see performances of the Metropolitan Opera here in Wichita.

So what did I think of the movies I did see? I’m glad you asked me that, Senator:

The Lone Ranger: No, it wasn’t quite as bad as its toxic reception indicated, but it wasn’t very good, either.  I enjoy Westerns, I’m open to the reinterpretation of popular characters, especially of the pulp era, and I even liked Pirates of the Caribbean, at least the first one, so this should have been a slam dunk for me, but The Lone Ranger was mostly a giant mess.  This might be another one that I enjoy more at home, where I can skip or tune out the boring or silly parts (of which there are many) and just focus on the bigger-than-life action sequences.

Oz the Great and Powerful: Another critical bomb that I thought was just okay, not flat-out terrible.  In crafting a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, director Sam Raimi’s appropriation of the 1939 classic film’s art deco and Technicolor visuals was both a strength—I thought it looked fantastic—and a drawback, as it couldn’t help remind viewers of the superior original. Films like this are stuck in a bind: the audiences who would in theory be most interested in it are also going to scrutinize it more than average and hold it to a higher standard before accepting it.  Properties with already-passionate fans are a double-edged sword, as NBC recently found out with The Sound of Music Live!

Oz

Escape From Tomorrow: I’ve already written about this one, so I’ll just add that this is one case where I’m glad I read some reviews before I saw it.  If Escape had been as incredible as its trailer promised, it would probably be my pick of the year, if not the decade.  Although I still enjoyed it and think it’s worth seeing, getting a sense of the buzz around it brought my expectations down to earth.

Speaking of trailers, another one that had me pumped this year was for Pacific Rim.  Personally, I loved it, but I can understand audiences being underwhelmed, as it’s kind of a “fans only” prospect—if you already love giant monsters and robots, the one-dimensional characters are genre conventions, not flaws.  I saw it twice, and took friends with me, both of whom are genre fans: one a fan of action and superheroes, the other a fan of Tolkien-style high fantasy.  They enjoyed it well enough, but weren’t as enthralled as I was.  Oh well, to each their own.  The only plot point that struck me as insultingly dumb was the “Gipsy Danger is somehow ‘analog’ while the other jaegers are ‘digital,’ and that somehow protects it from the electromagnetic pulse” thing. And while it’s kind of a nitpicky complaint, I was very excited to hear GLaDOS (the AI in the Portal video game series, voiced by Ellen McLain) prominently featured in the trailer.  McLain’s voice is heard in the finished film, but the resemblance to GLaDOS is toned down, as confirmed by director and Portal fan Guillermo del Toro for Ain’t It Cool News:

“I called Valve [the makers of Portal] and asked ‘Can you give us the filter?’ so we went full GLaDOS for the first commercial, but I thought it was too much. If you’re a gamer, it’s too distracting so we created our own GLaDOS 2.0 filter that’s a little less full on.”

I get his reasoning, and it’s probably the right call, but as someone who’s been interested in Portal almost completely because of GLaDOS’ lilting, half-mechanical voice, it was a letdown. Finally, although there’s been some criticism of the formulaic rivalry between hero Raleigh Brackett and cocky Chuck Hansen, after ten-plus years of Harry Potter and knock-offs thereof, it’s actually refreshing to have a story that knows the difference between a rival and a villain.  Hansen is abrasive to the end, but ultimately he and Brackett are on the same side, and the two characters are able to set aside their personal differences and work together.  It’s sad that something so simple has become novel.

In Defense of Medleys

As a composer and performer, one aspect of musical composition that has always fascinated me is the mysterious alchemy by which two ideas, which may have little in common (at least superficially), can be joined together simply by their presence in the same piece of music.  This may seem trivial, but the question of why some ideas seem to fit together and others remain stubbornly separate is an important one for composers and songwriters, and the performers and conductors who do their best to interpret their ideas.  It’s taken me a few months to come around to this directly, but I wanted to get some entries under my belt before I tackled the subject.

Although I intend to keep blogging about comics, movies, musical instruments, and anything else that catches my fancy, Medleyana takes its name from an oft-maligned genre of music: the humble medley—you know, the sort of piece that delivers the most exciting or recognizable bits of several songs or pieces in a self-contained arrangement.  It’s not hard to see why the medley form is underappreciated, or not even acknowledged as a legitimate form at all.  Anyone who has played an instrument in a school band or orchestra, or had a child who did, has suffered through watered-down arrangements of movie themes or pop tunes that are too difficult for students to perform in their original form, cementing an association between medleys and amateur music-making.  For the same reason, medleys are considered an essentially “commercial” form, trafficking in the ephemera of songs and movies that are omnipresent for a season and then forgotten.  Even those medleys of evergreen favorites like Christmas carols or patriotic songs are subject to the whims of changing fashion or the vagaries of the publishing business.  (Bob Lowden’s Armed Forces Salute, a well-regarded arrangement of the service songs of the five U. S. armed forces, and one I’ve played countless times, including a half dozen in the last year alone, recently went out of print.)  Nostalgia and pedagogy are not usually respected as serious aesthetic motivation: a form that typically combines both is doomed to be overlooked.

Still, the medley has been surprisingly robust as a genre.  Since the middle ages, dance tunes (at least those that were written down) were often strung together to create longer forms, a practice that has more to do with the necessity of providing accompaniment for an evening of dancing than any overarching compositional philosophy.  In the nineteenth century, possibly the golden age of concertizing, virtuoso performers and conductors would program crowd-pleasing medleys of popular operatic arias, often under the moniker of “fantasy” or “potpourri.”  A savvy self-promoter like Franz Liszt would be sure to have prepared a collection of the appropriate national songs of whatever country he was visiting as a sop to the audience, the equivalent of a rock star’s “Hello, Cleveland!” shout-out.  The concert band developed in this milieu, and its literature has always reflected this populist tendency.  And while ambitious composers have largely left Broadway and popular song medleys to pops concerts and school band publishers, most of the early twentieth century British masterworks that are the foundation of serious band literature—Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suite, and Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posey—are essentially medleys, albeit with a great deal more craft and passion than was normally lavished on compositions for the medium at the time.

In short, the typical medley form—one idea following another, like beads on a string, until it ends—may be simple, but a form it is, and one with a long pedigree in both “serious” and popular music.  Its continued presence is like the survival of those turtles and crocodilians that have remained largely unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs: they may be more modest than the giants they once walked among, but they are a surviving link to those days and worthy of our attention.

Personally, I have always preferred forms with a great deal of contrast; multi-strain forms like the march or piano rag, programmatic works, theatrical and film music, and the like.  In our current referential, sample-driven “remix culture,” there has been a renewed focus on issues of appropriation, quotation and recontextualization.  In the kind of medleys I mentioned, appropriation is less of an issue: songs under copyright must be licensed when included in a published arrangement, and as such the medley is an auxiliary to the original product, in effect an advertisement for the original.  The line is fuzzier when it comes to quotations so brief or so transformed that they fly under the radar of copyright niceties, or when the original work is in the public domain and safely available for anyone to use as they like.  Would the original composer approve of their tune’s new setting?  Is it necessary to observe original intent when combining or rearranging old chestnuts?  Will the audience even be aware of the borrowing?  Does it matter?  To be sure, “spot the reference” can be fun when dealing with magpie composers like Charles Ives or Danny Elfman, but even when the sources are unfamiliar I get a lot of pleasure from the sensory overload that comes from rapid-fire changes of musical texture, and there have been plenty of pop songs that I first heard as part of a medley, mash-up or mix tape, that captivated me enough to look up the original.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the era of “Hooked on Classics,” what writer Noel Murray calls the “Medley Age.”  Or maybe decades of playing medleys in school and community bands have left me with musical Stockholm Syndrome.  It could just be that I’m a hopeless vulgarian with a short attention span.  In any case, the pleasure of recognition is often only the beginning of what a medley or mash-up has to offer.  Readers of this blog will have noted that I am, at best, ambivalent about totalizing theoretical or aesthetic frameworks, whether in music, literary analysis, or comic book continuity: as seductive as they can be, they can be too constricting when taken as a blueprint for the creative act, and when used as an editor’s guiding principle can cut out much that was fresh and vital in the first place.  In my view, it’s better to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” even knowing that the results may be messy, chaotic, and contradictory.  In that sense, they are much more like life as it is lived than as we would like it to be.

Instruments of Death

“The Torture Garden: It’s where the Devil calls the tune . . . to play a concerto of fear!”

–Trailer for Torture Garden, 1967

danceofdeath

In honor of Halloween, it’s time to look at the spookier side of musical instruments, specifically the roles some have played in mystery and horror fiction.  On the one hand, the organ has the most sinister reputation of any instrument through its association with the Phantom of the Opera and his fictional descendants: there’s just something about the full organ’s portentous sound and the gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic cathedral that goes hand in hand with cobwebs and candlelight, so expect to hear many renditions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (or at least the opening bars) during October.  The organ, nicknamed “the king of instruments,” also fits nicely with the popular association of criminal masterminds with classical music: we like our villains to have refined taste, whether played by Vincent Price or Anthony Hopkins.  In the same way, the organist seated at his instrument, surrounded by ranks of keyboards, pedals, and organ stops ready at his command, is a neat visual shorthand for a master manipulator, sitting at the center of a web, controlling everything around him.  (In at least one case, the direct-to-video Disney sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the organ is the villain, conniving to make others to do its will even though it cannot move from its place.)

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Brian De Palma's 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

Brian De Palma’s 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

The violin, on the other hand, is often associated with the Devil, as in such pieces of music as Danse Macabre, L’Histoire du Soldat, and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers, betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents.  He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul, a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Later, the great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of lurid rumors that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story “The Ensouled Violin,” and graphically embroidered on the notion that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.

A similar story is part of the mythology of the Blues: Robert Johnson was supposed to have met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, where he traded his soul for his legendary guitar-playing ability.  The legend formed the basis of the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads and was parodied on Metalocalypse (in the episode “Bluesklok”).  Interestingly, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, has shown that the same story was originally attributed to a Tommy Johnson and then transferred to Robert when his legend outpaced Tommy’s.  Naturally, the whole thing has roots in folklore: Wald points out, “When Harry Middleton Hyatt collected stories of musicians going to the crossroads to gain supernatural skills, as part of a vast study of Southern folk beliefs in the late 1930s, he reported as many banjo players and violinists as guitarists,” as well as an accordionist.

Why is there such a connection between fiddling and death?  In the Middle Ages, instrumental music was considered both profane and frivolous, closely associated with itinerant, always-suspect actors and minstrels and the drunken singers in taverns.  In depictions of Death (usually as a skeleton, the same as now), musical instruments were often a symbol of the sinfulness, vanity, and futility of all human activity, not just music.  (The popular image of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” probably owes much to this symbolism, as the violin had yet to be invented in Nero’s day; likewise, contrast the supposed indolence of grasshoppers with the industry of ants.)   The image of a grinning skeleton “playing” his victims into the grave may have struck the medieval viewer as cruel irony, a just punishment, or as a warning.

The medieval dance of death.

According to one author, the connection between the violin and mortality was more than just poetic: in 2006, Rohan Kriwaczek published An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin.  According to Kriwaczek, there had once been a Guild of Funerary Violinists, whose work, repertoire, and indeed their very existence had been suppressed by the Vatican during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and ‘40s.  After 1846, the few remaining members of the Guild went underground, and Kriwaczek, eventually entrusted with their legacy, was able to piece together this secret history and bring it to the public. Kriwaczek describes the Funerary Violinist as playing a potent intercessionary role:

In his tone the violinist must first convey the deep grief that is present in the gathering, and then transform it into a thing of beauty.  By the time he is finished, a deep and plaintive calm should have descended, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. . . . The violinist’s is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to that of a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.

Alas, the book was a hoax, supposedly concocted by Kriwaczek to increase his bookings as a violinist at—you guessed it—funerals.  Still, I can’t help but feel that Kriwaczek’s story, with its dueling Funerary Violinists, buried secrets, and cameos from outsized characters including composers, Popes, and virtuosi, would make a smashing TV program, a historical saga with more than a touch of gothic intrigue.

Sometimes the instrument is cursed: in the short “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by the master of the English ghost story M. R. James, it’s an ancient bronze whistle (proving that another James title, “A Warning to the Curious,” could equally apply to almost all his stories):

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

Just as frequently it’s a MacGuffin that activates the plot: a Stradivarius is as valuable as a van Gogh, and serves as well as any other objet d’art as the motivation in a murder mystery.  An example is the three-quarter sized Strad, the Piccolino, at the center of Gerald Elias’ mystery Devil’s Trill, the first of a series centered on violinist-sleuth Daniel Jacobus.  And despite its unusual varnish, the titular instrument of the 1998 film The Red Violin is haunted more by tragedy and human foibles than by any supernatural evil.

The weaponized instrument is an infrequent literary device, but there are a few examples: the murder in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death is accomplished by a revolver hidden inside an upright piano, rigged to fire when the pianist plays the third chord of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a Rube Goldberg arrangement that sounds about as practical in real life as this:

Likewise, it doesn’t seem that it would be that hard to escape the vengeance meted out by the grand piano in “Mr. Steinway,” a section of the 1967 anthology film Torture Garden, based on stories by Robert Bloch.  In the story, the piano in question belongs to a prominent virtuoso, a gift from his mother, and his devotion to it is tested when a young lady (played by Barbara Ewing) enters his life.  The black wing shape of the piano is a looming presence in the film version, always in the background or casting its shadow over the doomed couple, and the Oedipal implications of the pianist’s relationship with his mother, never seen but personified by the piano, are left as unspoken subtext.  So far, so good, but by the time the piano lurches into motion and pushes the intruding girl out the window, we’ve entered the realm of delirious high camp.  The lesson: music is a jealous mistress.

Finally, as a bonus, I present one of the most bizarre (and gratuitous) examples of this trope, from the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown: death by trombone.  Happy Halloween!