Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Popular Tastes and the Recent Election

My entire central nervous system, my soul, my personal dignity, everything that seems to define my existence, is under assault right now.  I am having breakfast at a fast food joint, and using the "free" wi-fi. Free, my butt. Look at the price I am paying for it. A loudspeaker (of rather good quality) is blasting trashy popular music at me, as I try to read, write, and think.

Who selects this music?! But I should stop complaining. It could be rap music. Most of it is just lewd female shrieking in rather standard love songs. Gawd, I hate Whitney Houston.

But from a different angle, this torture is beneficial. Sometimes you need to be shocked into confronting unpleasant truths. Consider the recent elections from the perspective of popular music, movies, or whatever.

If this election did not prove 'Democracy: the God that Failed,' then at the very least it shows that universal suffrage is an absurdity. And yet, in the 1800's it was seen as 'progress' that idealists worked for. How could they be so naive as to believe that Rule-of-the-Most is better than Rule-of-the-Best?

Yea I know, how do you agree on who the 'best' is? But is it good to quit trying, and just accept 'no standards' when it is difficult to agree on standards?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Doing Serious Things In an Un-Serious Way

Wasn't there a best-selling book of the 'self help' type, several years ago, with a title like "Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?" I never read it. Perhaps it referred to the fact that most people agree with many of the general principles and proverbs that are supposed to guide you in living your life. But the trouble is in the applications...

...or rather, putting the moral platitudes into practice. I don't think the main problem is intellectual; rather, it is the inability of a cliché to engage our imaginations and to motivate us to alter our behavior. That is why I was excited about the consequences of failing at reading Dostoevsky for the umpteenth time: for the first time in my life I became wildly appreciative of the principle of doing serious things in a not-so-serious way.

This is not a new idea of course. Essentially it is equivalent to Walt Disney's "whistle while you work" song in one of his animated classics. But what a difference it is to breathe life into an old principle, and to make it yours.

Usually it is 'suffering' or dire necessity that brings a platitude to life for me. I can't think of a better topic to write about on a personal blog. But what if the personal experience that brought the platitude to life for me is uninteresting and useless to the reader?
___________________________________________________

One possible solution is to move the general principle to a more universal context, such as a classic movie or book. Many readers have probably seen or heard about the award-winning movie "Amadeus", made back in the 1980s. Personally, I never appreciated Mozart's music until I saw this wonderful movie, despite being a classical music and opera fan for many years before the movie.

Apparently this happened to many people. To some, listening to Mozart is something you do only when it is homework. Imagine a BBC or NPR program on Mozart: a professor of Musicology or History of the Movies would talk at the camera. A bald, middle-aged, white guy with glasses, lecturing the camera. How exciting! He would bore you with a thousand-and-one historical facts about Mozart and his times, or the technicalities of music, etc. He would condescendingly tell you what the consensus of the experts is, about Mozart. The word 'genius' would be used 15 times. And you would change the channel.

From movies.com
But in the play and the movie, Mozart is presented less as a historical personage than as an object of envy to his rival, Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. (His old man/young Salieri performance is the best I have ever seen in the movies.) 

Before a musical performance there was food, drink, and talk. During this, Salieri tried to guess which young fellow actually was Mozart. The answer astonished Salieri. Salieri then acted out the music that Mozart conducted. I think that this performance (and the writing behind it) converted me to Mozart, once and for all.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is delighted with humor and wit, and visual scenes. The historical buildings in Prague were gorgeous and authentic. Or consider the late 18th century costumes: for male chauvinist pigs there was ample decolletage in the women's dresses, sometimes to the point of making the woman look like toothpaste squirting out the top of the dress. For fools like me, there is a scene between Mozart and dogs! Even the kiddies looked cute in their little 18th century costumes, and I am not prone to calling children cute.

The music was well chosen. Even better, it was made visual: Mozart's operas were featured so the viewer could see something. Just think how easy it would have been to let the camera rest on an orchestra of musicians sawing away on their instruments. Could anything have been more boring?

Thus, every trick of trade was used to delight the movie viewer with Mozart's music. He wasn't homework anymore! That is a significant and serious addition to a person's life, and yet it was accomplished in a delightful way.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Composing Music at a Noisy Fast-Food Outlet

From time to time I fantasize dropping my over-priced wireless internet plan. It is the sort of fantasy that soon melts under the heat of rational scrutiny. Why, all one has to do is consider the cost-shifting from "expensive" internet in my trailer to more expensive driving-to and snacking-in the places that offer "free" wi-fi internet.

Here I am, in a fast food outlet, sucking down senior coffee and "free" wi-fi. I probably shouldn't complain: there is no raucous pop music blaring out of speakers over my head, nor is there the increasingly-common giant television playing some news channel.

But there is another source of noise pollution. There always is, in a city. A couple tables away, a man helps a woman fill out some routine application. He has been talking non-stop for a half hour now. How I am starting to hate the sound of his voice!

What is it about him that makes me want to go over there and strangle him? Besides being non-stop, his voice is effeminate, but there must be more to it than that. Maybe it is the self-importance he projects. He acts like sticking her birthday in this box, and her street address in that box, are great missions.

What do you think his official job title is? Something or other "manager"? Maybe it is "XYZ Account Executive". Did he actually go to college to qualify for this intelligent, Information Age, white-collar work?

There must be something deeper that I resent. He seems to positively glow in his petty task. Maybe I envy him, and that is the source of the anger that is welling up in me. Recall the old story from classical days: 'Is it better to be a discontented Socrates or a contented pig? The answer was, Socrates, because he understood both sides of the issue.'

Contrast this college-boy's job with that of a "mere" blue-collar mechanic that I have stumbled onto lately. The mechanic owns and runs the business with his wife. He is the only mechanic in town, but he charges less than other mechanics in the small city where I am right now. What skill and knowledge he must have to fix so many different cars  made over the last 30 years! And how crucial his work is -- most people's lives simply stop when their car does.

But back to the paper-pusher, who is still talking, by the way. Just before I ran out of the fast food outlet screaming, I popped on some noise-reducing headphones and played some music that I hadn't listened to for awhile. I had been worried that I was tiring of it. But not today.

What instant relief! I enjoyed the music like I was hearing it for the first time. And yet, the paper-pusher's voice did come through, despite the music. At first I was disappointed that my inexpensive noise-cancelling headphone had such mediocre performance on the human voice.

But in fact, it was an advantage. It was like his obnoxious voice had become a member in a small musical ensemble. The ugliness of his noise pollution made the solo piano "background" music seem as powerful as an aria sung by the dying soprano just before the curtain comes down on a Puccini opera. It probably helped that I typed away on a keyboard while all this was happening.

People without musical talent might sometimes fantasize coming back in their next life as a great pianist like George Winston, or as a composer of movie music, like Gabriel Yared or Jan Kaczmarek. If the fantasy stops there, it is sterile. 

But if we imagine that appreciating music is also a valuable talent, and that it is more than a passive act of reception and consumption, then we can choose to listen to the right music at the right time, after certain activities, and overlay it with acoustical competition -- even an ugly one. It becomes our unique "composition" and give us more pleasure than any of its component parts.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

If Eclipses Don't Terrify Anymore, What Good Are They?

Whew, what a relief! Tonight is supposed to be cloudy, so I needn't get up at 425 a.m. MDT to watch the Blood Moon total lunar eclipse.

Now isn't that a terrible thing to say? But admit it, how many times have you watched the media buildup to some celestial event -- be it an eclipse, a comet, or the Northern Lights -- only to be disappointed by the actual event? But like most people, I want the event to be interesting.

Why then are these celestial events such let-downs? We tend to forget that throughout the superstitious and religious period of our history, celestial events were truly frightening. That made them NEWS. But thanks to our scientific knowledge [*], celestial events have devolved into mere visual entertainment. As eye candy goes, they are rather slow and unimpressive. Compare them, as visual entertainment, to action scenes and special effects in a movie.

Perhaps you are dissatisfied with this grim truth. Maybe we can think of some other way to make such events interesting and significant. Consider this quote from John Stuart Mill's famous Autobiography:

He (a certain English intellectual) saw little good in any cultivation of the feelings, and none at all in cultivating them through the imagination, which he thought was only cultivating illusions. It was in vain I urged on him that the imaginative emotion which an idea, when vividly conceived, excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects; and, far from implying anything erroneous and delusive in our mental apprehension of the object, is quite consistent with the most accurate knowledge and most perfect practical recognition of all its physical and intellectual laws and relations.

The intensest feeling of the beauty of a cloud lighted by the setting sun, is no hindrance to my knowing that the cloud is vapour of water, subject to all the laws of vapours in a state of suspension;
This is a fine sentiment of Mill's. So why doesn't it inspire me? It seems so luke-warm and watered-down, so dull compared to the sheer terror about eclipses in a superstitious age. Thus it is not an adequate solution to the blandness of a modern, utilitarian, and scientific age.

The way around this deficiency is to admit that visual beauty is an insipid thing and to stop expecting too much from it. Even if it impacts you with force, it soon fades away -- sooner, in fact, than the total eclipse itself.

If nature isn't terrifying anymore and if mere prettiness is inadequate, in what direction should we move? I don't have a good answer for eclipses in particular, but maybe a bit of progress can be made for natural experiences in general. We need to find tricks-of-the-trade that make nature powerful and serious.

What about the link between music and the landscape? I am not talking about programmatic music, such as Beethoven's Symphony #6 or Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" or anything that school teachers made us listen to in grade school. But there are times when a certain piece of music fits the character and mood of an outdoor experience. Finding such music and making the link could help to put mystery, excitement, and meaning back into nature.

Recently I have been camping and recreating with some other RVers. We have a history of "F Troop" style operations as a group. But the mood and motion of a group can float through your mind during an afternoon nap, after the event. There is something about those naps that seems like a "religious experience", even though your rational mind knows that it isn't. Lately I might have found the perfect piece of music that fits the mood of these group events: it must be a small ensemble piece, not a symphony and not a concerto. Still working on it. 
_______________________________
[*]An early step in this demystification was when philosophers noticed the circular shadow of the earth crossing the moon. You could only conclude that the earth was spherical. I believe Aristotle mentioned that, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. And yet the myth still exists that "people" thought the earth was flat until Columbus.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Music Nominations Wanted

Thanks to the munificence of a long-suffering sibling and a recent birthday I am looking to buy some MP3 music tracks from Amazon. In the past I've gotten some good suggestions, so let's try it again. I am primarily interested in:
  1. Movie musical scores ("soundtracks")
  2. Solo piano or piano concertos. 
  3. Female vocalists.
In the first category are composers like Jan Kaczmarek, Mario Darianelli, Patrick Doyle, and Gabriel Yared among contemporaries. Of course I love the movie composers of an earlier generation, such as Bernard Herrmann, Victor Young, Maurice Jarre, Ennio Morricone, etc.

In the second category I like much, but not Valium-capsule music, or nambi-pambie nature soundtracks, e.g., waves hitting the shore, seagulls squawking, or whales mooing in the ocean.

In the third category, there are divas like the bluesy EmmyLou Harris, moody Celtic lasses, Puccini heroines, or Broadway musicals.

I do not listen to music dominated by electric bass guitars or any kind of thumpah thumpah ghetto crap. On the other hand Caribbean or Cuban music does interest me sometimes.

Classical music and operas interest me, but not gigantic Beethoven/Mahler type symphonies.

As someone who is impatient at doing internet searches, I will be grateful for any ideas.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One of Cinema's Greatest Moments

The local library had a DVD copy of the movie "A Room With a View." Since it had been awhile since last seeing it...

In order to fully appreciate a movie like this, you must look at the overall context of movie-making: the money problems, the tastes of the general public, and the 'Media is the Message' syndrome. There is every reason to expect successes to be rare. But they do happen.

There are hundreds of comments on IMDB or Amazon on this movie. I sighed and then quit, after reading one comment that the Puccini musical score "enhanced the movie." Enhanced, indeed. It stole the show!

Now, long-suffering readers are just going to discount this opinion as that of a Puccini fanboy. But in fact I have seen movies exploit the use of operatic scores to little avail. What I am praising here is not Puccini per se, but rather, the re-combination of his music with the right visual and situational context.

To me, the movie's plot was OK, but I don't go gaga over English accents and genteel manners. The love triangle is as cliche-ridden as they get. But it is always fun to see Mediterranean Europe (Catholic, economically backward, chaotic, sensual, and artistic) contrasted with the repressed, more affluent, orderly, drab and colorless, Protestant drudges of northern Europe. Let's call it the north/south European split, for brevity's sake.

In the movie this Split is brought into focus by a masterful combination of eye-candy and ear-candy. The photography is delicious, both in Florence and in the nearby countryside.  But what really caused an explosion of pleasure for me was Puccini's music. It is indeed true that the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts.'

The climax was 40 minutes into the movie when the uptight English tourists went for a tour in the countryside outside Florence. Something started happening to them, something  unintentional, something that they were powerless to stop. Uptight northern drudges though they may be, they could not resist the living force of landscape and music that imposed itself on them.

 The landscape was one of barley-covered hills, with trees in the background. The music was chosen carefully: the aria started off easily for an audience that presumably does not listen to much opera: it was just a peaceful solo-piano prelude. When the Fat Lady finally sang, she was restrained and soothing; and yet, the audience knew that she could shatter glass anytime she wanted. So as the aria developed, there was suspense, combined with feminine kindliness and grace.

If you have any claim to possessing a soul, you have to be affected by this scene. (grin) 

Why does this matter, especially to a Puccini non-fanboy? Choosing the right music for a movie might be a second-rate skill compared to that of Puccini himself, but 'second-rate' does not mean lowly or unimportant. It is the kind of accomplishment that many of us can understand and therefore aspire to, whereas the accomplishments of a Puccini are too hard to imagine. I can imagine doing something like the music editor did, in various arenas of life. Aren't these humble steps-forward, taken my numerous anonymous people, a big part of the advance of a civilization?  Normally we only think of the gigantic steps of the overtly famous.

Consider the basic form of the music editor's work here:

1. Deconstruction. Removal of the Bad. Identification of the Good. Normally in an opera, magnificent music gets combined with the drivel of some fool of a playwright. Hence love triangles, mistaken identity, revenge, rags-to-riches, True Love overcoming Conventional Love, etc.
2. Appreciation of new potential.
3. Reconstruction. A new combination. Opera is a good idea because instrumental music is combined with the human voice, and with human situations and visual context in the background. In this movie, the background was the Florentine landscape and the story of the North/South split. This is probably a more interesting background than the libretto of the original opera. (I'm not familiar with that of "La Rondine;" but if it was a typical libretto, it was probably idiotic.)

As a consequence of this creative new combination, millions of moviegoers were exposed to the idea that opera was a beautiful thing that they could actually enjoy.  The music-editor's success can be seen as a template-model that millions of people could use in their own lives in any number of ways; so could people who blog. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Time to Drop Verizon Wireless Internet?

Would it pay off to drop my Verizon Wireless internet connection? I'm talking about more than the $53 dollars per month. The main benefit would be the killing off of the bad habit that the internet has become. But there's more: without worrying about internet coverage, North America will be a much bigger and better place to camp.

Does the reader know of anyone who has done this, and whether they are happy they did?

There would still be wi-fi in town or at country stores. I really like the camping-style of coming to town once per week to do the usual errands. Internet usage would just be one more errand. It would be fun to look forward to it. Access once per week would be adequate for paying bills, catching up on the news (mostly just entertainment trivia), and reading websites and blogs (more trivia).

Once per week would be adequate for a little bit of internet shopping.

Nor would dropping Verizon Wireless internet service mean that my computer lies fallow all week. I can still write my blog, although the posts would only be once per week. But maybe it would be a good thing to let an idea marinate in brain-juices for a whole week, before posting.

An offline computer is still good for reading a backlog of eBooks, and for listening to a pile of old music, and for editing photographs. But would I find new stuff easily enough when using wi-fi at, say, a noisy McDonalds or laundromat in town?

For now I'm holding off on this idea because of the fear that I'll "cheat" by driving into town, which would quickly destroy the nominal savings, especially for a rational accounting of the true costs of driving -- say, 50 cents per mile. If that's not bad enough, you'll also squander money for coffee or food.

Once again, I'd like to know if the reader has any direct or second-hand experience with this idea.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"The Artist": Clever and Charming

I'm about to praise a fairly new movie, but in order to appreciate it fully, let's invoke some words from Samuel Johnson, in Adventurer #67: 
Happiness is enjoyed only in proportion as it is known; and such is the state or folly of man, that it is known only by experience of its contrary.
Thus we must contrast this enjoyable movie with the cultural sinkhole that Hollywood has become.


You must be brave enough to look into the abyss and appreciate how truly dreadful most movies are...



...the formulaic date movies, obligatory bedroom scenes, boring computer graphics, the F word in every other sentence, MTV-style of cut-cut-cut action trash...

I really didn't know what to expect when I picked this DVD at the public library. It looked like some kind of furrin' or independent flick. During the opening credits there was mention of several French corporations or government funding agencies -- now that was a scary way to start a movie! (But actually, it was a Hollywood movie.)

It was a black-and-white, "silent" movie, with no spoken dialogue but with a fun musical soundtrack throughout, and a few sound effects. (Such was Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights", made in the early days of "talkies.")

This was a risky movie.The movie challenged the audience to adjust to a past era. How much "retro" would a modern audience be able to play along with? How many of the nuances of a silent film would even be noticed? One scene was reminiscent of the way Judy Garland used to move her head when she was confused or curious. 

The climax had quite an effect on me. Then I realized it was really the soundtrack that was doing it, rather than anything I saw on the screen. I've heard this music before, but where? Finally I realized that it was borrowed from one of the soundtrack-composer-Greats of a few decades ago. What seemed most curious was that cognitive dissonance itself -- and not what was heard or seen -- was the true source of pleasure.

Another odd experience at the movies might be related to this. The only time I ever misted up (heavily!) at the end of a movie was when watching Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" -- you know, the one with the blind girl. To a modern viewer there is a compound layer of cognitive dissonance when watching this movie: he must adjust to a silent movie, firstly. But in addition, the leading character was going through her own cognitive dissonance with being able see after a surgeon restored her vision. Putting yourself in her shoes makes you almost disbelieve how you normally perceive reality.

Perhaps the specialness of these two movies is related to the tricks an outdoorsman can play on his own mind:
  • tricks such as ignoring what your eyes tell you, while emphasizing the texture of the ground as it feels to the naked paws of your dog; 
  • thinking of bird sounds or the kinetic rhythm of its wingbeats, rather than how pretty the bird is; 
  • visualizing the topography in terms of watersheds rather than highways and towns;
  • visualizing the topography in terms of interdigitated ridgelines, as a type of "negative arroyo";
  • or dwelling on the motion of a normally static animal, or vica versa
It is one of the reasons for railing at the passive consumption of postcard scenery. In order for the world to make a big impression on us, we need to be knocked out of, not just daily routines and ordinary locations, but also, the normal patterns of cognition.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Great Charnel Houses in the Cloud

I want to follow up with some suggestions about conquering the Uninterrupted Prose Syndrome, by making verbiage "breathe" with some kind of pictorial illustration, gotten somewhere. (Let's ignore the fact that music might be even better for this purpose, since it's probably more technically difficult to get it into the blog post.) 

So off I will go, searching for shareable photographs in the great charnel houses for internet photographs, such as publicDomainPictures.net, Picasa, or Flickr. Blogs that have a Creative Commons License, such as a commenter's blog, are also worth a serious look.

Oops. There is a likely problem that we must address before rolling up our sleeves. Recall the controversy that good ol' Leo Tolstoy got into in the Colorado arts scene, one summer not so long ago. (grin) By invoking his arguments on "What is Art?" (free on Google Books), I am not trying to con you with an "appeal to Authority," as it might appear at first. A "big name's" theory is not necessarily correct. But can we agree that his is at least worth considering, before making up your own mind?

In short, Tolstoy thought the conventional world of Art was barking up the wrong tree in pursuing Beauty or the Pleasure to be gotten from viewing Beauty. Tolstoy thought that Beauty is just the pompous, but empty, term we use to describe whatever is de mode amongst the smart-set.

He finally answers the question in Chapter 5:
...that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.

And it is on this capacity of man to receive another man's expression of feeling, and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.
Now, I'm not going to use this as an excuse not to go looking for paintings and photographs that I can borrow to help my own blog posts breathe; but much of the art world only cares about Beauty, which in the final analysis, is nothing more than what sells to a bourgeois matron looking to fill empty spaces in her McMansion's living room.

Where can I find a world of illustration that isn't concerned about beauty, but can be used to transfer the emotional content of the thoughts being expressed, per Tolstoy? I'll bet it's the world of cartoons! (Such as they used to put in Barron's or The New Yorker.) Nobody can accuse them of being pretty, since they are just crude line drawings of poor verisimilitude. 

Consider an example. Last post I complained of the tedium of reading uninterrupted prose. Think of how much of human life through the ages has been captured by that one word, 'tedium.' So are artists too busy to bother with something so fundamentally important to the human condition? But just try to imagine a photograph or painting that expresses Tedium. Even if an artist were clever enough to think of one, they wouldn't do it because it wouldn't be beautiful enough. (That ugly word, again.)  Perhaps music could do a better job. Consider Eric Satie's Gnossiennes #1. (I am extremely grateful to a long-lost commenter who once suggested I look into Satie.)

But I can remember a couple cartoons from 20 years ago (!) that expressed tedium/futility in a way that knocked me off my feet.

Aw gee, now I have another internet search project: to find a (shareable) charnel house for cartoons in the cloud.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Part 2 : Beyond Postcards

For years now I've tried to appreciate the beauty of travel on a higher level than the postcard-kindergarten level. (Must I take the time to add the tedious disclaimer that there is nothing wrong or evil about postcard kindergarten, when you're a vacationer or an RV newbie. It's just that years of experience at being a full-time traveler encourages one to progress so that travel remains challenging. That's only natural and healthy. Geesh, the time you have to spend smoothing feathers. 

What I aim to do is replace the "eye as the window of the soul" with a different metaphor: one of trying to imagine "Total Experience" as a real and tangible sensory organ -- the main organ that can truly appreciate this rather different way of life.

Normally my successes on this project are singles, bunts, and sacrifice flies. Home runs are rare indeed. But since one did occur last year near Socorro, NM, I wanted to write about it, but didn't feel up to the task.

One of the difficulties in writing about powerful experiences of any kind is the overuse of the first person pronoun, "I". I saw this, I felt this, thought that, ad nauseum. How can the reader get anything out of writing that seems too egocentric? When the passive voice is used, the first person pronoun is reduced in its obtrusiveness; but remember what was said of the passive voice by Strunk and White. The second person pronoun does help some, although it can come off as accusatory, if you know what I mean. The third person pronoun seems too formal and academic. How does "one" put up with a description of what one sees, described as best one can...

Perhaps a generous reader will just overlook first person pronouns and put himself into the situation being described.

Another trick for transcending the egocentric is the metaphor. Aesop's Fables, Greek mythology, the King James Version of the Bible, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Hans Christian Andersen are the places we used to mine for metaphors. But changes in the educational system have weakened these traditional sources, without offering new ones.

Classic movies are a possible new source of metaphors. But not all readers are familiar with the specific classic movie chosen, unless it be the Wizard of Oz, and most of its metaphors have rusted over into cliches. So this technique has its limitations. Still, classic movies are drastically easier for a broad audience to access than at any other time in history.

The semi-classic movie that I choose is Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duval. (It's an "indie" that won an Oscar for Best Film circa 1980.) There was a scene in the movie that knocked my socks off just as powerfully as my hikes around Socorro, NM. Only later did I realize there was a connection that might be useful for other people to think about.

In the movie, the Duval character was a country-western songwriter who was on his way down in the world, thanks to the bottle. He went to see his ex-wife sing; she was still at the top of her game. Her first song was a bawdy little bar-ditty, that had me rolling my eyes with disdain. Anybody who has a low opinion of "Nashville" would have reacted similarly. 

She finished the song, the hayseeds all applauded and slapped thar sods, and she got ready to sing 'em another one. Aw shee-yit, I thought, they're not really going to make us endure two of these damn things!

She closed her eyes and started singing the second sawng. But it was the opposite of what I expected. I stopped breathing during this second song, even though it was really only a piece of a song.

Only later did I realize what a devious psychological trick the movie-maker had played on us. It had lowered our expectations to such a level that a good song would absolutely knock our socks off. (The female vocalist, although a Texas girl by birth, had amazing musical credentials from Broadway. Fortunately I had no "Memory" of them (ahem) so the surprise and shock wasn't ruined.)

And that's the same trick I had played on myself, accidentally, by reluctantly giving the benefit of the doubt to an unpromising dirt road on BLM land near Socorro. It was an impressive example of how subjective the outdoor experience can be. Your expectation, your preparation, count more than how high the mountain is, or how red the silly arch is.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mountain Biking with Johannes Brahms

A few miles south of Tucson. A friend had camped here recently and warned me how rough the Madera mountain bike trail is. How typical! I've yet to enjoy any "official" mountain bike trail. If there's a sign calling it an official trail, or if it's listed in some book ("Top Ten Mountain Bike Trails in the XYZ Mountains"), you are almost guaranteed to find a rocky single track that will make you worry about falling, instead of enjoying the ride. But you are guaranteed a nice hiking trail as long as mountain bikers aren't using it at the same time.

The "too rough to ride" syndrome is almost universal. So why doesn't the world catch on? Do people believe every brown sign or everything in print? Of course if you had world-class technical riding skills, you might feel differently. But most people don't have such skills.

Why not just ride dirt roads? There are many thousands of miles of such roads on public lands. Occasionally there might be too much motor vehicle traffic. But that's usually limited to weekends or national holidays. It isn't such a bad thing that an occasional pickup or ATV goes by. You might need to use them as a tow truck or ambulance someday.

The only real value added by mountain bike trails that I can think of is the social scene. Young people like to have other birds-of-a-feather congregating at the hotspots for any sport. But mountain biking is dominated by men, as is true of most arduous outdoor sports that involve dirt, blood, and gears, so I suspect that the lads are going to be disappointed socially. Of course racers enjoy having some competition on the same trail.

Since I expected a terrible trail I wasn't disappointed. The question became: how do I salvage the day? On another day I could come back and hike the mountain bike trail. But today pushing the bike for long distances would be no fun. Next idea, please.

I started backtracking, while pushing the bike, and got busy improving the trail by kicking rocks out of the way. I did this over a hundred times. It was surprising how satisfying this was. It was tangible, semi-permanent, and quite noticeable. Compare that to the average work done in a cubicle in a large organization.

From one point of view this was humble, pathetic, solitary, and almost forlorn.  But I was improving the world one rock at a time. Each rock was a humble nugget of hope; they assuaged the anger I felt about the mindless momentum of the world.

Leaving youngsters and racers out of it, why do other mountain bikers get sucked into trying to ride on these dreadful rough trails? Gee, I'll bet it has something to do with media and money. Think of the front cover of a glossy industry magazine. A famously rugged trail justifies spending $4000 on a bike: one with a radical design, and titanium "this" and carbon fiber "that". "I waste more money than you do  -- naa-naa-nuh-NAA-nuh."

The American bicycle design shops are located in places like Boulder, Durango, and Marin County CA. These are not low-cost places to live. They can not compete against East Asia on price. So they sell toys and status symbols to the aspirational consumer -- the standard chump who thinks he can raise his self-esteem by letting others be smarter than he is. Why doesn't it ever occur to these losers that consuming (shopping) is a pretty big part of their lives, and therefore it behooves them to be good at it, and maybe that is the way to raise their self-esteem. That's how housewives of our grandmother's and mother's generation thought.

This is all well and good, you say, but what does it have to do with Johannes Brahms? I was surprised by how moving a certain work of his is. Brahms isn't flashy and noisy enough for some classical music lovers; nor did he write program music. You might even consider him a bit of a downer, moodwise. But what if you've already discounted his austerity and melancholy? Any surprise will then be to the upside, like a momentary break in the clouds on a day socked in with clouds. 

Sometimes it would be useful to know more about music. I don't mean dry technicalities, just more basic vocabulary and categories. The second movement of Brahms's Piano Quintet is slow, quiet, and unflashy, almost to the point of being a bit melancholy. It has that quiet yearning so typical of Brahms (with most of it probably aimed at Clara Schumann).

The second movement then surprises the listener with gentle ascending scales and crescendos, played by the piano soloist. They remind me of walking and breathing; or rather, of sighing over stubbornly-held hopes. That is just what I had experienced, walking back up that dreadful trail while kicking rocks out of the way.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Music of the Night, II

Based on a comment on the last post, perhaps I overemphasized how much noise an RVer has to put up with. It's hard to fairly partition the blame (for poor sleeping) between old age, the Early Bedtime Syndrome, the RV lifestyle, or boondocking, since all of these factors overlap. But for today it doesn't matter which factor is more important; it only matters that poor sleeping -- whatever the cause -- can be mitigated with the right music.

Most people struggling to sleep learn that the worst approach is to lie there concentrating on trying to sleep. Totally self defeating. The mind needs to be kept busy, relaxed, and ultimately tired of it all.

The other day I was watching the audition tape of the female lead for a recent movie version of Madame Butterfly. My gosh, how does a human being learn to do something like that? Emoting, bleeding, and practically dying in front of the camera, followed by instantly relaxing when the audition was over. This was proof -- not that any was really needed -- that listening to Puccini heroines swell and flourish in their death-swoons is not the best music for relaxing at night.

Isn't it also a good bet that the female voice, regardless of the musical genre, is too affective to be effective as a sleeping pill? There might be exceptions. In olden times many of us heard our mothers hum lullabies to us in the cradle. (Do they still do things like that?) I have found that Enya and her music make a good sleeping pill.

Long ago I expostulated on the superiority of the female voice to the male, and was surprised by the opposition in the readership. In either case, if a person does find the male voice unaffective and uninteresting, why not try to use this to advantage? For me, Willie Nelson is easy to sleep to. More generally, shouldn't we see this as a chance to turn lemons into lemonade?

The world is full of music that we pay little attention to because we find it lackluster. In fact that's the usual case. Only a bit of the world's music can cause chills to go up and down our spine, and most of it was written by Puccini, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, and a few others. If we find the tiny fraction of that mountain of lackluster music that is somniferous and soporific, then we have scored a huge victory at little cost.

After writing off opera as a soporific, let's consider instrumental classical music. Instantly we hit roadblocks: Mozart is too sprightly, and Beethoven is too earnest and intense. In fact symphonic music in general is terrible as a soporific: one moment three woodwinds are quietly chirping; a couple seconds later a fumarole of 130 instruments erupts. Not what we want.

In fact, we have arrived at the unpleasant truth that, for sleeptime, musical quality counts less than the music's qualities as sound. During the day a music lover might pine for lush melodies; but overnight, melodies need not be affective. A certain neutrality is better. What you need is evenness of sound volume.

You'd think that New Age music would be the ultimate musical sleeping pill, but not if that means dreamy, musical Valium. Slow moving music doesn't relax me at all. To make things worse this genre sometimes contains "sound recordings of nature".  How can I go to sleep if I'm annoyed with myself for having wasted good money on the maritime mooing of whales or the squawks of seagulls shitting on a beach?

On top of that they sometimes put heavy bass tracks on top of that dreamy New Age drivel. It makes no sense musically, but a great deal of cents, marketing-wise. "See here, Mr. Arkenstone," says the marketing chief at Narada, "Sales are good with white, menopausal women taking yoga lessons after work. But we need to reach a wider audience."

Consider jazz. It's an amorphous category. Let's define it as what you get when real music is subjected to hydraulic frakking, thereby producing a moving slurry of musical pebbles, unconnected by melody. During the day I don't care for jazz but since melody is not so important at night, and perhaps even a negative, maybe jazz is worth a second look.

The jazz that might work best could be described as "easy listening" jazz; yes, I know that conjures up the image of moony-and-swoony, low bandwidth versions of easy-to-recognize lounge standards. But recognizability must be avoided.

Enough of these polemics! Time to discuss what works splendidly. Solo piano music, a la George Winston. It has the all-important property of evenness of sound volume. It isn't recognizable as a ditty or tune, but it isn't cacophonous noise either. Comparing it to sound instead of to music, solo piano music tends to sound like a mountain stream. The relatively fast tempo is most helpful, unless the pianist gets carried away with rubato. The nocturnal and somnolent brain is a funny thing: it hears the nimble tempo and becomes tired just imagining keeping up with it. Ironically, that same brain would be able to keep up with slower music, and thus be kept awake.

Recently I became familiar with mp3.com, Amazon's bargain basement. It has quite a bit of free music to download, from lesser known artists usually. Sometimes the freebies are from well known artists, but why does that matter? There are several reasons why any artist would want to hand out free candy as a loss leader. Between these freebies and CDs at the public library, my Eine Kleine uberNachtMusic playlist is now four hours long.

If a peaceful night weren't precious enough, consider that the speakers, fed from your mp3 player, are only draining a half an amp from the RV battery (plus the parasitic draw of the inverter). If you follow a commenter's advice about noise-cancelling earbuds, you drain zero amps from your RV battery since you can turn off the inverter.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Music of the Night

Or, Eine Kleine (uber)NachtMusik for Kampers.

Most of what you can read about RV travel is just promotionalism, even when it's a blogger who is not being paid to sell anything. Why this is so is the subject of another essay. Today I merely want talk about a challenging reality of RV life. (Wannabees will want to push the "channel" button now; this is not the "RV Dream" channel.)


It's a brutal truth -- and most truths are brutal -- that sleeping on top of noise is something that an RVer has to get good at. This is probably more difficult for an urban boondocker, all in all, than for an urban RV park camper, and it's worse the older you get.

I've been advised to use silicone ear plugs -- not those useless yellow foam things that won't even stay in the ears. I bought some, but haven't tried them yet. In the summer it helps to run a vent fan, and not just for ventilation of course! I used to generate "semi-white noise" by running my satellite radio at night, but didn't like any of the music stations, and the news programs had as many commercials as television.

Then I switched over to DVD movies as my white noise generator of choice. Movies do put you to sleep, but since televisions get larger every year you can hardly avoid sucking down 4 amps (DC) or more, which is more battery drain than most dry campers want at night.

The biggest problem with movies is that the eyes shut easily, long before the ears and brain do. Movies have scary sound effects, suspenseful "something is about to happen" music, and sudden changes in sound volume. Something more relaxing and less disruptive is desirable.

For some reason I had not been fully utilizing an mp3 player. It would be nice if you could pair it with anti-noise headphones, but wouldn't that limit you to sleeping on your back? It's easy to send the mp3 signal to small "computer" speakers or a docking station that uses only a half amp DC.

Next time I'll discuss the success I've had with this experiment, and the pro-s and con-s of different musical genres.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

EmmyLou on a Windy Night

An RVing friend surprised me recently when he confessed that he and his wife just hate camping in wind. It is strange how some flavors of hardship discourage you, while others bring out the best in you. For whatever reason, I rather like rocking and rolling in my trailer in the wind. All RVs, even a cheap cracker box like mine, come with some sort of stabilizing jacks; but years ago I got rid of mine.

Cliffs are certainly good places to experience wind. Wind results from a difference in air pressure, which is connected with sudden altitude changes, or one cliff-face facing the sun while another is in the shadow.

One night I went to sleep listening to EmmyLou Harris singing some of her classics. Ahh dear, a female singer is always at her best when she is wailing about her wounds, be they real or imagined. Can you imagine anything more boring than a country-western diva, a Puccini heroine, or a Celtic lass singing about how reasonably content she was with the universe?

I woke up at just the right moment, when she was weeping into my ears with that tremulous vibrato and falsetto of hers. How it evokes frailty and injury! Outside, the wind was screaming down through the notch in the cliffs, where, four years ago, I imagined my lost little poodle being attacked and disemboweled by coyotes. My trailer rocked annoyingly, and yet, I like being annoyed by it.

The trailer-twitch and her vocal uncertainties and frailties were alike somehow; maybe it was their vulnerability. It's nice being reminded of my rig's vulnerability, like a helpless little sailboat bobbing in the ocean. After all, this is supposed to be camping.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Art and Travel

People who have experienced little sickness or injury in their lives should be expected to over-react to some bad luck. The other night I felt dizzy and nauseous, and am still not sure what it was about. The next day I felt better by the hour, but was still unnerved by being sick for a change.

During the afternoon siesta I grabbed the mp3 music player and punched in some of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack music. It was so medicinal to have something for the mind to focus on, besides discomfort. Some music must be hoarded and rationed, lest repetition destroy its power. It was strange how this familiar piece of music had a different and more powerful effect on this particular day.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Is Beauty Ever General?

Dog owners know that one of their urchin's favorite tricks is falling behind on a walk, supposedly due to some worthy distraction. Then they suddenly look up and realize they're too far away. This brings on a mad dash back to their owner; their paws sound as loud as the hooves of a galloping horse. Coffee Girl, my Australian kelpie, pulled that trick this morning.

But something was a little different this time. There was no wind to disperse her dusty contrail. It stayed intact a few feet off the ground and drifted away, ever so slowly. It seemed too solid for anything airborne, perhaps because the rising sun was illuminating the contrail, but not the field proper. It was cruise missile-like; in an earlier era we would have said that it belonged in a Loonie Toons cartoon. The contrail of dust, el camino del polvo, seemed like it was a part of her streaking body. Sigh, if only it had been possible to film a video of this, backlit by the morning sun.

At first I wondered if it was silly to be so affected by such a thing. Shouldn't I be focusing on loftier and more general forms of beauty?

Since I have little appreciation for the Arts, I can only compare this to a couple other things. Imagine a scholar writing a lengthy tome on humor, say, 549 pages with the last 64 pages being footnotes. He might lay out the history of humor, the main categories and sub-categories, and then contrast and compare one type with the other, and one previous author's opinion with another's. But the reader probably won't get much laughing in, while reading the book.

What if Mozart had preferred to write on musical theory instead of actually writing music and melodies. After all, musical notes are just details -- mere applications of his general theory of music.

The same day I saw one of George Will's editorials in a list of rival editorials on realClearPolitics.com. Regardless of whether you agree with his opinions, you couldn't help but notice how much more local and concrete his theme and treatment were, compared to the "big theme" articles of others. He has been writing editorials before some of the others were born. Maybe he has become bored with the Left versus Right shibboleths of the beginners.

One of Montaigne's translators, Donald Frame, praised him for writing with vivid concreteness. Orwell inveighed against generalities, particularly in political discussions. In Democracy in America, volume 2, de Tocqueville warned that general abstractions would overtake Americans in a way that it had not done to Englishmen.

"General" thinkers have a way of posing as great thinkers, advanced thinkers. In fact they are usually lazy thinkers, content with bandying platitudes and slogans that have grown stale. So I will stop thinking that melodies of light and motion, encountered outdoors, are too trivial to notice or write about.

But how do you tell the difference between "vivid concreteness" and picayune trivia?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Another Curable Syndrome

Seldom do I willingly repeat myself on this blog, although it must happen. My favorite time of the day tempted me once. Coffee Girl (my dog) and I had finished a nice outing in the morning. After taking a shower, we did what we've done so many times: lied down on the bed for an early afternoon siesta. I wanted to write about it, but surely that would be repetition. What is so bad about that?

Where did I get this sick idea that one is supposed to think of something new, new, new all the time? I ridicule the Constant Travel Syndrome -- and its puerile infatuation with novelty -- at every opportunity. Perhaps it is time to choose a new pinata; call it the Constant Thinking Syndrome. How much good has thinking ever done me? Maybe it's over-rated.

Ironically there was something new about this siesta; completely new for me. I was actually enjoying some violin music for the first time in my life: Beethoven's Romance #1 (opus 40), Romance #2 (opus 50) and the famous violin concerto. Of course we've all noticed our tastes change over time, and it's quite rejuvenating for an old boy to suddenly flare up with a new enthusiasm.

Certain changes in musical tastes are explainable. (Didn't I just say that I was going to stop this?) A lad might be exposed to classical music on National Public Radio at State U. They usually only play symphonic music. But if he learns to love it, his taste might improve soon. (For years I had no interest in Mozart because those blockheads at NPR only played his "Jupiter" symphony. It wasn't until I saw the movie Amadeus that I thought about his operas and concertos, which is where he really shines.) In symphonies there are simply too many instruments washing each other out. Learning to appreciate opera is also explainable since the human voice and life-situations are capable of expressing great pathos. It is also explainable why the female voice is superior to the male, or why adagios are more moving than allegros.

But violin music? I had no explanation, nor did I care to think one up. During the siesta the air in my RV was still disappointingly chilly; outdoors it had felt almost warm with all the sun and exercise; there was a subtle hint of spring out there. Then I felt my dog's hot breath against my cold skin. How nice that she honors the occasion by sleeping on the bed during these sacred siestas. (She refuses the bed at night.) I couldn't really think of anything old or new; you need a brain to do that, and "I" was just skin, ears, and relaxed muscles, feeling her hot breath on my arm, listening to Beethoven's violin music, and relaxing into a head-to-toe stupor.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tickling the Ivories

Lately my musical preferences have shifted towards solo piano. The wi-fi in my campground is too slow for internet radio, so I am limited to CDs fom the local library and occasional downloads from Napster. George Winston and Craig Armstrong are my interests right now.

It is too early to tell for sure, but this could turn into one of those lasting transitions that a person has a few times in their life. For the lack of a better term let's call it a musical conversion. I wonder what is true in general about these musical conversions. Does everybody have them? How often? What causes them? I don't even know where to go to learn about this.

Society as a whole went through several musical conversions during my lifetime. I was just old enough to remember watching the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show. I sort of liked them, but wondered what all the fuss was about. I never cared much for rock-pop music, even when I was a kid. Actually nothing is better at convincing me to renounce membership in the human race as the popularity of some kinds of music, particularly urban-rap music. Libertarian though I may be, I'd love to see draconian laws against boom cars playing that filthy crap.

When floundering on a new topic it is natural to fall back on comfortable prejudices: physiological determinism, in my case. Music has more value as a sleeping pill to old men who don't sleep as well as they used to. Earlier in life, the piano music of George Winston might have seemed too somnambulant.

Another example of physiological determinism is the fondness for the female singing voice which dominated my musical preferences in the middle of life. Perhaps that was connected with walking away from the female race in early middle age.

Wikipedia had an article on music and the brain, which referenced a recent Scientific American article. But it didn't help. For the moment it is probably best to enjoy George Winston's piano without ruining it by thinking too hard. The experience is best after a bicycle ride. I lie down in the early afternoon, with the mp3 player and a dog at my left and right sides. The muscles in the face, scalp, and neck turn into pyroclastic silly-putty. I fall semi-unconscious to those magical twinkling ivory keys, while scratching the dogs' ears with my fingers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Movies Enhancing Music

When geezerhood brings a man one step from the glue factory, it's natural
for him to fantasize about being young again. If he were to step into that time-machine and return to youth, what would his greatest pleasure be?

No, not that one. For my part it would be sleeping -- deeply and uninterruptedly -- all night long. Bereft of that sweet pleasure, geezerhood
has at least granted me the post-lunch nap. I'll never tire of saying that half of the reason for being retired is the freedom to lie down for a few minutes after lunch.

Although this blog occasionally throws mud pies at the Idol of Progress, the
modern mp3 player represents true progress. Sometimes lying down for a nap after lunch with music of your own choosing is the best time of the day. What makes it especially sweet is the half-consciousness and dreaminess of it all.

Earlier a friend had introduced me to the Portuguese musical group, Madredeus. They were featured in the movie, The Lisbon Story, by Wim Wenders, which I finally saw. (Wenders is supposed to be a German movie auteur. I'm not familiar enough with his oeuvre to agree or disagree.) The group consisted of male instrumentalists topped off with a lovely young female vocalist. That's probably the ideal demographic for a musical group.

She probably wouldn't be too popular in American pop culture. For one thing she has a feminine voice, not the raunchy, androgynous voice of the modern pop/country diva. Few teenagers would care for her attractive and traditional appearance, or for her lack of "dancing", that is, the lewd pelvic thrusts and hip grinding that are an integral part of MTV culture or boob toob commercials.

In slipping off into half-consciousness while listening to Madredeus, it really helped to imagine them visually as they were in the movie. This isn't the first time that a movie has enhanced my enjoyment of music that wasn't written for a movie. Perhaps I'm a part of music-video culture, after all.
 

Maybe some kind of visual context is necessary for the remarkable concreteness which, together with transcendence, becomes the glory of a dreamy state of mind. By transcendence I mean a type of "travel" experience: listening to Madredeus while snoozing lets you travel through time, and escape the sterile confines of gringo, Yankee, northern European, Protestant culture. Imagine her as a sculpture from classical times, or better yet, a Renaissance Pieta; as stationary as marble, but evoking with her voice and eyes the sad beauty of the older civilization of the Mediterranean.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Uses of Ugliness

Arkansas River Valley, Colorado, a couple summers ago. Believe it or not, I will say something nice about motor-crazed yahoos today. First off, should I use a new name, such as "motorsports enthusiasts?" Actually ATVs aren't that noisy and tend to be operated by responsible adults, which the dogs and I are friendly to, on the trail. But those young guys on their dirt bikes! Growl.

On Friday night they arrived in force, with all the usual commotion and anticipation. They have finished their drive from a population center and to celebrate the occasion they serenade the nearest square mile with ugly, raucous music. One of the cretins camped fifty yards away from me. The next day they buzzed around like insect pests. I kept to short hikes in the dry washes of decomposed granite so I wouldn't have to overlap with them. 

On Sunday morning I played a game with myself, guessing which group of louts would leave first. What a joy it is to see the ramps get put in place at the back of their gigantic toy haulers. Back to the rat race they go.

I had been feeling lazy and unappreciative of my present location before the yahoos showed up. Maybe everything was too nice: the weather, scenery, geology, and trails. After the yahoos left, my appreciation for the local land was rejuvenated. In that sense I owe them gratitude.

This experience reminded me of something else that happened the first couple years of full time RVing. We have all experienced a piece of music, which made chills go up and down the spine when new, become dull through repetition. What a pity.

When I parked my RV near some traffic and listened to the music, something interesting happened. I would lie down on the bed and listen to the music, while the traffic noise half-drowned it out. At first the traffic noise was
ugly and irritating. It partially drowned out the music, which forced me to fill in the gaps with my own memory. Then the traffic noise would relent briefly, letting me hear the music again. This happened several times, and each time it recalibrated my imagination. Eventually I lost track of whether I was actually hearing the music or imagining it. The tired old music was reborn. When it was new, I had only been listening to it; now it seemed like I was half-composing it.