Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Music: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (J.S. Bach)

It's only seven, and I can already tell it is going to be one of those days where I require the calming influence of Bach.  I've always liked Bach - something about the intricacy of his work just makes his music fun to listen to - but I gained a new appreciation for his compositional skill when I studied his fugues in grad school.  Writing a fugue is one of those things that seems incredibly simple on principle (write a theme, then mess around with it) but in reality is really, really hard.  Granted, I've never been much of a composer, but studying the fundamental structure of Bach's fugues was somewhat mind-blowing.  They would start out with these incredibly simple-looking themes, and then you'd get into the development and all of a sudden you'd have three or four lines going and each one had it's own special relationship to the theme but somehow they all fit together like some kind of complex puzzle.  And he always knew just where to break the rules, too.

Anyway, I stand in awe of composers, and even more so of Bach.  So let's have a little Bach this morning - one of my favorites, the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major as performed by cellist Christopher Constanza (be sure to check out his commentary).

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!  Regular posting will resume Wednesday.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Life: Peanut Butter Balls

I ran out of peanut butter crackers earlier in the week and ever since, peanut butter has been on my mind.  It's one of those things that I've warmed to more as I age; even peanut butter cookies, once the second least desirable cookie option (right above oatmeal raisin cookies) now sound pretty good (especially if you dip them in chocolate!)  And peanut butter is so wonderfully adaptable - you can have it on crackers or sandwiches or apples or mixed in with a little melted chocolate depending on whether your tastes run sweet or savory.  Plus, it's got protein, fiber, potassium, and healthy fats.  In moderation, it packs a nutritional wallop!  And what better way to use it than combining it with heart-healthy oats for a quick, no-bake treat?

Peanut Butter Balls

1 c peanut butter (I prefer natural - no added sugar or salt!) 
1 c rolled oats
1 c nonfat dry milk powder
1/4 - 1/2 c honey (to taste) 

Bring peanut butter to room temperature.  If it is still a little stiff, you can heat it gently over the stove on low for a couple minutes or zap it in the microwave until it loosens up just enough that you can stir it.  Combine with honey in a large bowl, then mix in oats and dry milk powder.  The mixture should be thick enough to roll between your hands - if it is too thick, add more peanut butter; if too liquidy, add oats or dry milk, or stick in the fridge for a couple minutes to let the peanut butter firm up.  Roll into balls about an inch in diameter and refrigerate.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Whiplash

To round off the series on the myth of the tortured artist, let's take a look at the film that inspired this conversation: "Whiplash."

"Whiplash" is the story of an ambitious jazz drumming student pushed to greatness by his sadistic, demanding teacher.  (Whether that greatness lasts longer than a single drum solo is anyone's guess, but we'll get to that later.)  It's an intense, breathless movie filled with unlikeable characters and driven by the underlying principle that music is sacrifice and greatness demands suffering.  Throughout the film we see the protagonist verbally, physically, and emotional abused by his teacher; we see him sleeping in the practice room, drumming until his knuckles bleed, and rushing to a performance from a car accident bloodied and battered.  There's a lot of blood for a movie about music, and that only serves to feed into the narrative of sacrifice for greatness.

Like "Black Swan," "Whiplash" is an extreme of conservatory life, and not a particularly accurate one at that.  Music can be a demanding profession - hours of work and practice and painstaking perfectionism go into every performance, and as in any other job, there are decision to be made in terms of what priority the career will take in one's life - but like any other profession, it takes place in the real world.  There is no school I know of that would tolerate the sort of abuse from the teacher in "Whiplash" regardless of the results, and as a general rule, musicians try to avoid injury to both themselves and their instruments while playing.  Along those lines, there's a reason why you don't see musicians in the practice room twelve hours a day.  Playing an instrument is a very physical task, and the repetitive motion can lead to all sorts of long term injuries that might end a career (or at the very least, require a musician to stop playing altogether for weeks or months at a time.)  A serious musician takes care of his or her body.

But more than that, a serious musician learns balance.  Sure, hours in the practice room might be great for nailing that one technical passage, but music isn't just about a perfect technical passage.  Music is the conveyance of emotion and memory and knowledge, all in nonverbal form, and to achieve that you need human contact.  You need theory and history so that you understand what you're playing and why you're playing it; you need other musicians to collaborate and talk music with and stretch your boundaries; and you need a venue for performance.  Skill might land you an audition, but it's your personality that will determine whether you get jobs (or rather, whether you continue to get them.)  I've seen organizations decline to hire musicians because they were difficult to work with, and I know of several players who were released from symphony contracts for similar reasons.  Skill by itself isn't enough.

What I found particularly interesting about "Whiplash" is that, despite the underlying sacrifice narrative that so plagues Hollywood art stories, the movie manages to maintain a relatively neutral look at the situation.  The film tells a story, but it refrains (for the most part) from commenting on it and by the end, the young drummer's victory is left with a question mark.  Yes, the student played the magnificent solo he's worked towards the entire movie - now what?  The movie leaves that open-ended. 

For two other good takes on "Whiplash" check out these review from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Slate.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday Writing: The Myth of the Tortured Artist (Part 3)

Over the last few weeks, we have explored the myth of the tortured artist, the genesis of the myth, and several media portrayals that feed into contemporary beliefs about art and self-sacrifice.  Today I'd like to work on dispelling the idea that an artist can only succeed through suffering.  We've already seen, through "Black Swan," the message that greatness can be achieved through a tearing down of the self, and through "Birdman," the idea that an artist's self-identity and self-worth are defined entirely by the measure of success of that artist's work.  In both films, the main characters achieve a kind of victory at the end - at least, they both get what they originally wanted - but it is at the cost of themselves.

Married to this myth of requisite suffering is the concept that a lack of struggle, particularly financial, or a willingness to work commercially, is somehow a betrayal to art.  This idea of "selling out" is doubly damaging; first, because it implies that financial success is counter to artistic endeavor, and second, because it once again ties the artist's self-identity and worth as a person to a specific kind of work.  Designing a billboard or writing copy is less admirable than painting self-portraits or writing a novel, even if the billboard or copy is necessary to keep you afloat financially.

And yet, despite these ideas that artists must suffer to be great and that money is somehow a barrier to that greatness, a simple glance back into history will show that neither of those requirements is necessary for greatness.  Many of our most famous historical artists led relatively happy, comfortable lives.  Leonardo da Vinci, arguably one of the greatest artists of all time, enjoyed the respect of his contemporaries and a stable income flow from commissioned works - many of which adorn the walls in museums today.  J.S. Bach was educated and worked steadily as an organist or music director for most of his life, for which he was relatively well compensated; he was also happily married and, like da Vinci, he was respected in his own time.  Reading through his biography, his greatest struggles seem to have been largely bureaucratic.  Rubens likewise enjoyed financial stability and moreover, international recognition for his art throughout his lifetime.  Tolkien, considered today the father of high fantasy, had a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and a successful academic career - and while it is true that his experiences in the First and Second World Wars undoubtedly marked him, he reportedly took from his war days a deep sympathy not only for his own men but for the enemy, and found happiness between and after the wars.

The truth is that all human beings suffer, just as all humans experience joy and boredom and contentment and strife.  We can see from historical examples that an artist's suffering is not somehow the key to genius, nor is it required to bring forth a great work.  There can certainly be struggle in an artist's life, as there can be in any profession, but the struggle is not the point, and the idea that one must suffer for art is a damaging one.  Self-sacrifice and suffering can contribute to creative expression, but as we have seen, those methods are not the only way to create great art.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Life: Scones

Scones are a rare treat in my household, usually trotted out to accompany a fancy tea (the kind where I use my nice china and lace tablecloth) or on one occasion, hastily thrown together for a wedding platter.  It's probably just as well that we don't eat them all the time, since they're packed with delicious butter, but every time I make them I wonder why we don't have them more often.  Scones are not only incredibly flexible in flavor, graciously accepting pumpkin or maple or chocolate or dried fruit and nuts of all kinds, but they're also dead simple to make.  They use only the most common pantry ingredients (unless you're getting fancy with flavor) and I can usually whip up a batch in about fifteen to twenty minutes, baking time included.  The recipe below has gotten rave reviews from the ladies at my tea - and they all have exceptionally refined palates, so you know it's good.

Basic Scones
(Makes about 12 large scones or 20-24 mini scones)

2 1/2 cups white all-purpose flour 
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c (8 Tbs) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 c sugar
2/3 c milk 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F and lightly flour a counter top.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Drop in the butter and use your fingers to rub it into the flour mixture, until the flour mixture has a coarse, crumb-like texture.  (You can use a pastry cutter, but I've always had better luck with my fingers.  If you're unsure of how a coarse, crumb-like texture looks, just squeeze the butter into smaller and smaller pieces, making sure each one gets well coated with flour, until there are no large pieces left.)  Stir in the sugar, then add the milk all at once and stir with a fork until the dough comes together.

Turn the now sticky ball of dough onto your floured counter top.  I usually turn it once to get a little flour on both sides so it doesn't stick.  Whatever you do, don't knead.  Gently press the dough out into a round of about 1/2 inches to 3/4 inches thick.  Your scones won't rise a lot in the oven, so don't make them too thin.

You can cut your scones into any shape you like.  For mini scones, I use a glass to make circles and then halve them.  For full-sized scones, I'll usually cut the round into wedges.  You can just lightly score the round and bake it whole, then break off the individual scones later, but I like slightly crispy edges all the way around so I prefer to cut them out individually.

Set the scones onto an ungreased baking pan and bake 12-14 minutes.  They should be a light golden brown and not too soft to the touch.  Immediately turn out onto a cooling rack and try not to devour them until your friends arrive for tea.

Serving suggestions: Try with whipped cream and strawberries, or butter and jam or honey.  Crumble over fresh fruit and pour milk over top, or just eat plain.  Scones are good hot or cold!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

In any cinematic portrayal of the arts, particularly in the portrayal of an artist and the darker side of the industry, the critique most frequently leveled at the film is invariably a complaint that the portrayal is an exaggerated one.  Well - yes, of course it is.  Actors may hold a mirror up to nature, but it's a funhouse mirror, distorted to fit the story that's being told.  Still, there can be grains of truth behind the stretched images.

Birdman is such a film; a film of extremes, but with a great deal of truth behind the almost caricatured personalities.  Acting can be a stressful profession, and one in which one's worth as an artist is not only based largely on intangibles (one is talented or one is not) but intangibles that are for the most part judged almost entirely externally.  For all the work that goes into a show or film, it is the reaction of the audience and the critics that determines a success or a failure - and before that, a director has to deem an actor worthy of the role in the first place.  In Birdman, we see the fallout of these pressures, from the escapism of drug use to the arrogance engendered by a specific type of self-absorption to a pathological need to obtain a measure of success controlled and defined by external sources.

And Birdman provides a clear-eyed look at the question of what happens to an artist who has achieved greatness at the cost of their own happiness.  The main character of Birdman, Riggan, is certainly not a happy (or, arguably, stable) person - his marital relationship has fallen apart, his daughter is hostile, and his once-bright career has faded, leaving him to sink what's left of his money into a desperate attempt to return to the public eye.  His self-identity is so completely wrapped up in his ability as an artist that it more than verges on madness.  We see him levitating, mentally struggling with a former-role-as-alter-ego that seeks to expose all of his insecurities, and flying.  When he assumes responsibility for an accident that injures a costar, we get a glimpse of his desperate grab for some measure of control over his life. 

In the end, Riggan achieves the applause and laudation he desires, but at a high cost.  So what is the lesson we take from the film, ambiguous ending and all?  Perhaps this often cynical look at artistry and success invites us to redefine the meaning of "success" or explore our own measures of success.  Maybe we can take a hard look at the path that has led us to this point of demanding complete self-sacrifice from our artists, and the blurred lines between artistic merit and self-worth that seem to haunt so many artists.  And perhaps we can question why, of all professions, a certain level of unhappiness is expected in art.