Friday, August 27, 2004

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The Urge to Sound Smart

...is very powerful. As I see it, there are two kinds of sins that can arise from surrender to this urge:

Trying to sound smart without distorting the truth,

and

trying to sound smart by distorting the truth.

The first consists in using terminology that one otherwise wouldn't, and in adding or subtracting details that one otherwise wouldn't, without compromising one's message. The second is much more serious of course. One of the ways that it manifests itself, is in an excess of qualification.

This excessive qualification is often prized for its complexity. So far as I can tell, complexity is just a multiplicity of elements in a thing. It has no intrinsic value. If one is describing a complex thing, then the description will benefit from a certain degree of complexity, provided that the complications are the right ones, but there is nothing praiseworthy in exceeding that desirable degree; on the contrary, introducing unwarranted complications will distort the truth at best, and at worst merely fabricate a lie.

Obviously many bald statements deserve qualification, but one must not examine a statement with an eager eye for possible qualifications. People will often make noise about the need for "impartial" reasoning - that is, reasoning without preference for one conclusion over another. This is inhuman and stupid; a man who can successfully reason without ever preferring one conclusion over another, is a lunatic or an idiot. For such "impartiality" is not an aid to reason, but a suspension of it, since it is by reason that we know the better from the worse, and the desirable from the undesirable. But one must consider one's desires - are they reasonable? If you are trying to determine if, for instance, a man has broken a law by accident or with intent, it is reasonable (in the general case) to desire that he did so accidentally, since that would lessen the sinfulness of his transgression. If you desire that he did so intentionally, that is likely rather uncharitable, and so one should address this improper desire in order to best judge the matter at hand.

In other words, reason will not work against reason, and if one sincerely seeks the truth, a reasonable desire as to the answer is not something to fear or abominate. Of course there is, often enough, no reasonable desire as to the answer. In any case, an unreasonable desire - such as, that any given statement should require greater qualification - should be combatted and, as best as one can manage, prevented from interfering with right reason.
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Music

Music is kind of tricky to figure out. It's a bit weird. First of all, it's mostly a quantized, as opposed to continuous, art form. That is, a painting (for instance) is made up of little paint molecules and so forth, but practically speaking it consists of continuous curves and shades, as opposed to music, which consists of notes. To put it differently, you might say that painting is like calculus or something, whereas music is like integer arithmetic.

Furthermore, it is a temporal art form. All the other temporal forms of art are dramatic; thus music is doubly unusual. The most difficult part of music to comprehend is not harmony, nor melody on a small scale. Not that we entirely understand them, but that we do not need to entirely understand them. Somehow or another, one who has developed a talent for striking up tunes can do it quite well without need for anybody's help - and as for harmony, this is clearly the easiest of all subjects. The meeting-point of the two - that is, polyphony - is somewhat more complex. At times, I question the wisdom of employing it at all; so often I hear a tolerable bit of counterpoint by a great master, only to puzzle out the pair of melodies that I am actually hearing, and find that either one of them is far more beautiful by itself than paired with the other. Is this merely a poor application of a perfectly sound method - yet the frequency with which one hits this problem, no matter how exalted the status of the composer, leads me to think rather that it is endemic to the polyphonic approach. Not that a multiplicity of melodies should be ruled out, but it should arise naturally in the course of homophonic accompaniment to the main melody.

But I am not sure about any of this.

The more important question, however, is how to structure music on a large scale. When one is "making up tunes", the things will usually last about thirty seconds. If you do not compose regularly, listening to the main themes in a few great classical pieces will make clear this natural proportion - 20 to 40 seconds is definitely the typical range. In any case, once the tune is finished...what on earth do you do? There is the improvisational approach - that is, you just go on. At first this can be difficult; there is a natural tendency to want to stop the music when you hit a nice stopping place, and you sometimes have to "stretch" things a little to keep from landing on a nice soft tonic and falling asleep. But eventually one gets the hang of doing so without butchering the music. This is certainly a viable approach, and it was favored in Renaissance polyphony.

Then there is the fugal approach - saturating the music, so to speak, with one or two snippets of melody - snippets that are, after a quick "exposition", fragmented, transposed, inverted, and paired with disparate contrapuntal partners to whatever degree the composer wishes.

The problem with both approaches is that of large-scale structure. What you generally get, with these two methods, is around 2-4 minutes long, which is a nice radio length, but in any case a larger work based on these two approaches will generally seem vague and unstructured. The improvisation-style work will seem to meander, and the fugal work seem like an eclectic bag of disconnected episodes. For someone who wishes to write at greater length, what is the solution?

It's at this point that I have to confess I just don't get it. Apparently the "sonata form" was the means by which larger movements became possible in classical music. I understand that the idea here is to have two musical "ideas" (or two collections of little ideas) that contrast nicely with each other, and after playing them out in the exposition, to play around with them in the development for awhile, and then bring back the two ideas, more or less changed from their original form, in a recapitulation and conclusion. But then there's this business about keys, which is integral to the whole idea of a sonata.

Now I'm a classical music buff and a very amateur composer, but I was never seriously trained as a musician. Maybe this is why I just can't be bothered to care about what key the music is in. Certainly a low note has a significance different from a high note, and certainly if you move something from C major to E major, you must either move everything a third higher or a sixth lower, which will effect the...effect...of the music on its hearers. But as far as this goes, B major is much the same as C major - but we are all informed that B major and C major are very different keys.

Which is why I think the whole sonata business a little silly. Because the theory of it is inundated with all this talk of starting in the dominant key, or something like that, then falling to the tonic, then beginning the development in a "far-removed" key (which could easily be, say, a half-tone above the tonic key), and then returning to the tonic in the recapitulation, which is supposed to be some sort of emotional home-coming and we get all teary-eyed or something. Not being a trained musician, the recapitulation could be in any old key and it would all be much the same to me. Mind you, I admit that the actual modulation to a new key is quite significant - but only as a phenomenon at the moment; that is, as a melodic device. I also admit that after we leave a key it lingers for a little while, so that if we return to it, I'll say to myself "ah, we never really left, did we?" But I see no reason to grant the key any importance in a grand structural sense.

So, do you just have to be a trained musician to care about all that tonic and dominant crap? And if you don't care about it - then how does one structure a piece on a large scale? Like I said, music is a tricky thing to figure out.

Friday, August 13, 2004

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ANGER

I've been thinking about anger. Indeed the subject is quite understandably on my mind, for BLOGIMVS MAXIMVS has been deeply irascible ever since his slaves tried to assassinate him in his private vomitorium. There I was, trying to purge my dinner in peace, and suddenly I'm being set upon by my own serving-men! Well, I didn't spend all those years slaughtering barbarians with nothing to show for it; I cut them all to pieces in half a minute but I'm afraid the mess was terrible. Normally I would send in the cleaning crew, but this time the mess *was* the cleaning crew...I wanted to lose my lunch, but I'd done that already. I was deeply frustrated all around, and I've been in a nasty mood ever since.

So, anger. It's occurred to me that one problem some men may experience, in trying to control this emotion, is a certain furtive and perhaps half-conscious pride in their possession of a temper. Okay, it's occurred to me that one problem I experience, etc. But I can't be as weird as all that; the problems of Blogimus are surely, also, the problems of many others.

You see, it would be plainly megalomanic to simply exult, in cold blood, in one's ability to fly off the handle at a moment's notice. But it's a little more subtle to think to oneself, "well, I'm a pretty mild-mannered guy. I don't really let the little stuff get to me - and I can usually swallow the big stuff and grin and bear it. But if you push me too far...well, you don't want to be around when that happens."

That little bit of swaggering may seem rather harmless, a minor little indulgence that will never amount to much. But it definitely makes anger much more difficult to control, because like all of our beliefs and opinions, it has logical implications which, though we may shy away from explicitly working through them, nevertheless affect us in a large way. In this case, the implication is that there is something just a little bit impressive about our rage.

It is true, of course, that rage can elicit an instinctive reaction in its target. But the ability to, basically, play with somebody's reflexes is not something to be proud of.

The fact is, aside from those in the grip of some instinctive reaction, and those who have developed some sort of respect for you - rightly or wrongly - nobody is impressed by the fact that you are pissed-off - or that I am, or whatever. Most importantly, God is not impressed by it - which seems obvious enough, but I know that when in the grip of some passion, it often seems as if the universe itself should "respect" your little tantrum...or at least make some sort of acknowledgement of it. And since the universe isn't going to up and do anything without God making it do so, the implication is clear.

I think that - at least for men - it's important to remember that one's temper is not some sort of ace-in-the-hole, which one can whip out in a tight spot to save the day. Unless one has a real need for a quick rush of adrenaline (at a considerable cost in motor control - or control of any kind), it is a weakness plain and simple.

And for those of you wondering who I just beat the tar out of, or something, rest assured. I was just thinking.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

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A Superior Blog

The blog's appearance is definitely improved. The results are not entirely satisfactory but will suffice.

Now, this blog exists because I seem to have lost my old one. Not content with forgetting my old Blogger password, I also forgot the email address that I gave Blogger for such purposes as, say, reminding me of my old password. Ah well, good riddance old blog, hello new blog! This one shall be superior in any case. I shall no longer be so serious, perhaps because I shall no longer be playing chess. That horrible, mind-draining game - having saved myself from its evil clutches, I seem to have regained many years of youth. My energy, wit, appetite for reading, vague acquaintance with sanity, and all the other qualities that have endeared me to so many, have returned in full force!

That the game is indeed to blame, I have no doubt. Certain nameless wags have dared suggest that any psychic indisposition on my part could be attributed to non-chessic factors. Bah!

Furthermore - as if to prove the "vague acquaintance with sanity" bit - I have undertaken to write a novel. My goal is to write at least a thousand words in it each day. Today I have done this; yesterday I did this. Tomorrow? Who knows?
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Aesthetics

I have decided that my blog should not look like some sterile, white-washed monument to human laziness, so I'm going to be messing with the template for a while. Since I don't know any html this will be slightly challenging; however, I already managed to figure out how to make the comments open in a new window, even though Blogger's "help" thingy doesn't seem to tell you how to do it. Further changes should be forthcoming.
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It begins

Well, let's see how this goes.