Saturday, November 20, 2010

Paternal Teachers

I saw my old composer friend Dan Worley a good while ago, and he reminded of a conversation we’d had about the word “paternal” applied to composition teachers. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

His use of the word “paternal” in describing a composition teacher had outraged a student of his—I believe because it came too close to “paternalistic,” which has such a negative connotation, as “patronizing” seems to be lurking in there too close-by for comfort.

If we choose instead to speak of “fatherly” teachers, then that will mean (for some) "domineering and controlling", maybe even "abusive and violent." If you choose to speak of “motherly” teachers, then that will mean (for some) "smothering and overly protective" (and for others it might mean "domineering and controlling," maybe even "abusive and violent.")

“Parental” seems like an uncontroversial choice for an adjective to describe our caring older teachers, but why do we want to describe the student-teacher relationship in terms of generational family relationships anyway? The age difference between teachers and their charges often makes brother-sister parallels a stretch, and of course I’ve had students who were older than me too—am I then the son?

I think the answer lies in the operative truth that we all show up for our music lessons with pretty deeply ingrained reaction patterns to authority stemming directly from our relationships with our parents.

I saw another former student recently who wanted to apologize to me for some of his past behavior, explaining that it had more to do with his parents pushing on him as a child than it did to my teaching. I told him that this was par for the course, and that no apology was necessary, because while I could tell he was struggling in the lessons, and I certainly had to try to work with and around his resistances, he at least wasn’t rude. All the rest can be forgiven as normative.

I think it’s inescapable: many of us just need to work out some issues from our early lives that may be related very closely to our reasons for composing and making music in general. These motivations can be very sensitive to the ways in which we relate to authority however it may be expressed, and those sore points definitely come up in composition lessons. Sometimes I think that finding ways to modulate those relationships might be the real content of our study with a teacher, and that all the tips on how to develop craft might be secondary.

I simply don’t see any way for the process of teaching composition or performance to be a merely technical interchange. Feelings and reaction patterns are inherently involved. It may be that one of the main roles of a creative mentor is to help us break free from the way we were parented by offering a similar but safely different and less crucial relationship that is limited to our musical lives.

While its true that many of us could frankly use a little re-parenting, or perhaps a little continued parenting, there are others of us who might really need instead to enter the vast loneliness of ourselves to try to find something that can’t be coaxed forward with a parent, (even a supportive metaphorical one) standing there watching. (As a teacher, allowing this to happen could also be seen as helping to renegotiate an ingrained parental dynamic, of course...)

But once that something been discovered and coaxed out into the open, we could all use some help and support in creating a shape for that vision from a sympathetic and knowledgeable elder. Every one of us does truly live and work and make music in community, in relationship with others, and not solely in the isolation of the smithy of our souls…even if we might sometimes want to tell ourselves otherwise…

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amateur Blessings

My wife teaches piano—this fact is a great blessing on our house. Our home is already blessed by a lot of music, since between the three of us who live here we have two song writers, a classical composer, two violinists, a fiddle player, and two pianists; the list of additional instruments we play goes on to include accordion, tin whistle, banjo, guitar, and bodhran. There also is a great deal of unrestrained singing of all kinds.

So we have no lack of musical joys.

And to cap it all off, most weekday afternoons there are children here for lessons, all between five and eighteen years old, all of whom are growing up with music as a companion.

My wife’s main goal as a teacher is not to turn out future soloists, or formidable technicians, or hot-shots of any kind; her teaching is aimed at helping people who want to make music for the love of it: true amateur musicians. She concentrates on developing a relationship between her students and music, between new musicians and the piano, working toward building a lifetime of love in making music with their own hands. It’s an entirely non-professional endeavor. Yes, she is being paid to teach, but she’s doing it for the love, and she’s passing that love on to her students.

I think that increasing love might be the most important thing that music offers us. I don’t mean that we should make ourselves more desirable or marriageable by being schooled in the finer points of cultured life, as in Elizabethan England. If music does make us more attractive, then it’s a side benefit achieved by making us kinder and more tender. There’s also a huge difference between love and monomania—an obsessive focus on music-making isn’t the same thing as cultivating through music a heart that softens and fills with emotion. Music can bring us into contact with our urge to share, to participate, and to open to those around us. Regularly engaging in music-love can help us learn to let the fire of enthusiasm rise up in us, to follow it into concentration, and then further into the disciplined abandon through which we can burst into sound.

That’s why I feel blessed by all those little ones tromping through my house and interrupting my workdays—it’s the fact that through the practice of music, love is being nurtured in our house, spread like seeds, and grown like a crop.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Telling Time by Technology II

Every time we use any technology, we are making a choice.

Using a computer, a cell-phone, a car, a television, or a dishwasher, all of these are choices with wide-reaching effects that reach into pollution, depletion of resources, and the exploitation of people and the earth. When we make choices without thought, we are at best being thoughtless. I’d say we are also being irresponsible, ceding our most important choices to corporations, and behaving in their narrow interest, which is of course to control us for their profit.

If you want to tell time by technology, you might imagine that technological time goes on and on, that the power coming through your wall will always be there, that world society and American civilization will continue as they are forever. But great civilizations fall and disappear with their technologies—only 300-400 years ago Mayan civilization just up and disappeared, and I guarantee you we will go the same way.

The conditions that pertain to our present moment, especially the high-technological ones, will vanish, leaving us with just our bodies and our effort with which to make a life. We would do well to remember that, and to consider the benefits of living as closely as possible to those limits.

William Blake wrote “if I only fly with my own wings I will never fly too high.” And yet we continually insist on flying higher than we are meant to, using the vast jury-rigged contraption of our power grid and our electronics and our combustion to extend ourselves into space and time. There is good reason to reflect on the story of Icarus.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Telling Time by Technology I

I was struck last year when I realized that some of my students were marking the seasons of their lives with technology. The most technologically-identified among them framed their childhoods with the progression of computer models and video game-box release numbers, identifying their age by how fast the processors were or how clunky those “old-fashioned” graphics looked. As someone who came to adulthood without a computer, it seemed to me that some of them actually viewed their life as set into relief and contextualized primarily by a parade of technologies that were always getting better and better, not merely faster and more expensive.

Many of them are still young enough to be entirely gripped by this delusion, to see this pattern of planned obsolescence engineered by hardware and software companies as actual improvement, rather than as a scheme for corporate exploitation. Several of them also explicitly expressed the conviction that it is our responsibility to stay on top of the latest technology, that we have no choice in the matter. People who don’t stay on top of the latest technology are losing out, in their minds, and are therefore losers. I think otherwise.

I’d like to refer back to Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and assert that we do indeed have a choice. I’ve been using this essay with my Introduction to Electronic Music course since about 1993 as a way to try to open a space between what are perceived as technological/economic imperatives and considered ethical choices.

In a music technology course, presenting the idea that we might choose not to “buy in” to the latest technology on moral/ethical grounds often brings up strong reactions from the students, as you can imagine. But I’m with Wendell Berry when he asserts that we should choose carefully the limits of our participation in technologies based on the full dimensions of their effects on the world. We would do well to meditate upon the impact of our actions before we give over our faith to the agents of technology, lest we also give ourselves over blindly to unintended exploitation and evil.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A New Bottom Line

Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture and Society) has put forth a list of ten commandments for progressives after tuesday's election, though there are two of those items I'd like to highlight that apply to us all, most especially his call for a New Bottom Line in American Society.

This one, I believe, is the essential shift waiting for us all, no matter what our political party or ideological bent:

"6. Build a unified political movement that calls for A New Bottom Line in American society so that instead of judging institutions, legislation or policies rational or productive only to the extent that they maximize money and power, they are judged by how much they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological behavior and awareness, and the extent to which they tend to encourage us to be more caring toward each other and the earth and more able to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of being and consciousness and to experience true gratitude at being alive."

I've been findining that my ideas have been seeming less and less realistic to me in recent years–I'm becoming impractical, and disillusioned with narrowly defined instrumentality, so I was also quite heartened by the tenth item in Rabbi Lerner's list:

"10. Don't be realistic! The powers that be in the media, politics and economics define "realism." The most important changes in our country have come about because people were willing to fight for what everyone supposedly knew to be "unrealistic" (e.g. ending segregation, ending ten thousand years of unchallenged male supremacy and sexism, legitimating gay and lesbian lives, building an environmental movement, and the list goes on). 

Realism is idolatry -- believing in God is believing that there is some Force in the Universe (some of us call it God) that makes possible the transformation from "that which is" to "that which could and should be." Support a Global Marshall Plan to once and for all end global poverty, hunger, homelessness, insufficient education or health care -- and pay for it through a Tobin tax on all international financial transactions of over $1 million. End the domination of money in politics and challenge the irresponsible environmental policies of corporations -- through the ESRA -- the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New Math II

Substituting Terms, or "freedom" = death

Of course, technology and greed are not the only factors in the larger equation that is presented to us as algebraic truth by our politics and our media, by our pervasive nonsensical “group-think”–

Consider the following terms in use this election season:

If:         freedom ÷ capitalism = “freedom” (since, as we are subject to the markets, our freedom is abridged by them)

And if:     “freedom” = no restraint

And if: “freedom” is equivalent to ‘“freedom” to do business’

It follows that: ‘“freedom” to do business’ is equivalent to unrestrained “freedom”to do

As we reduce the common term “freedom to do” from the equation, it becomes:

Business = unrestrained.

It then follows of course, that since “freedom” = no restraint, and since Business = unrestrained then:

“freedom” = business.

Continuing then:

If:         business = corporations, and business = commerce
Then:         corporations = unrestrained commerce.

And if:      unrestrained commerce = domination of the market

And:        the market = the world (since we routinely collapse all of life down to commodities and exchange value)

And further:         unrestrained = responsible to nothing but profit (remembering that profit = greed)

Then:         “freedom” = unrestrained corporate domination of the world responsible to nothing but greed.

Finally, since it is also true that:      

business = unrestrained commerce = profit = ”freedom”,

And since:     profit = technology x infinite greed, which equals death (see earlier post below),

then by the operations of the capitalist system as we now practice it:

 “freedom” = death.
We can do otherwise. We can create new equations that substitute meaning for profit, and care for the abridged "freedom" offered to us by our dependence on market machinations. We can substitute community for business and commerce, and the work of human hands for technology. Most importantly we can trade in our greed and replace it with love. If we base our economy on love instead of greed, we can all share what we have with open hearts.

We can choose to wake up and step outside the terms of a system that is slowly robbing us of our humanity and killing our planet. If we succeed fully enough in changing the terms of the equation, we can change the result as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

New Math

New Math I: Multiplication

 “Greed eats love.”   (local graffiti wisdom)

Sometimes it seems that everything in our society is multiplied by our one true American cultural imperative: greed. (Except love. Greed eats love, it does not multiply it.)

 Therefore consider the following verifiable mathematical truths from the bizarre world of supercharged capitalism:

If:     work=gain
And:     gain=profit
Then:     work=profit
If technology is a multiplier, then it follows:      

work x technology= greater profit

(This equation explains why we can’t seem to believe Wendell Berry when he says: “faster and easier is not better,” and we see no activity as true work if it makes no money. Of course, however, meaningful work is not the same thing as profit, but we routinely do our math as if it were when we use these words in capitalist terms.)

Further, if:     science x profit =technology,

And if we allow that in the capitalist system, there is a drive to make profit=∞,

And since greed is boundless as well, then:     greed = ∞,

It then follows that:     profit=infinite greed,
it also follows:  technology x greed=profit.

Considering that infinite greed stops at nothing, not even the preservation of life, then it also follows that:
technology x greed = death

We can see how, then, by following capitalist methodologies with profitable (and thereby ostensibly positive) results, we end up instead at the cosmic “Game Over” sign of our individual and our collective deaths, including the slow death of the planet itself.

It does not need to be this way, but these calculations do seem to inform a lot of our communal thinking about our society. In spite of all the explicit rallying cries in favor of greed as a positive motivating force, and the subliminal mathematics that underlies our language, Greed is not good. It eats love, which is the force that can save us.