Beethoven Waldstein Sonata Orchestration

As promised, here is the project I’ve been working on the past couple weeks: an arrangement of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata for orchestra. This is a rough beta version of the score and parts; depending on how much time I have and whether there’s much of a response, I may go through and correct errors and make everything look nicer later on. I’m new to notation software and learned a lot during the process of creating this score, so there’s a lot I would do differently in terms of process if I were to do it again. Release notes follow. Continue reading

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The errors of popular criticism, part 1: Tropish Aesthetics

Despite my highbrow pretensions and classical music degree, I’m actually quite steeped in science fiction. This means that I’ve paid close attention to the uproar surrounding the Hugo awards and the Sad/Rabid Puppies campaign. I have little to say about the Rabid Puppies, who are clearly nothing more than shit disturbers. But the Sad Puppies campaign is an instance of an annoyingly prevalent conceptual error that stands in dire need of correction.

My intention here is to focus on the misguided aesthetic concepts in general rather than the specific situation because I don’t give a damn about the Hugos as an award: this story’s status as a Hugo-nominated novelette is sufficient to kill the award’s credibility for a decade, I think.

In many ways I have a background similar to the Sad Puppies campaigners: I’ve never been involved with SFF fandom proper. I started with an interest in video games, which brought me onto the Internet with greater enthusiasm than any of my friends at the time (I remember explaining the concept of a blog to an uncomprehending grade 7 classmate about ten years ago). About the same time I discovered TV Tropes, John Scalzi’s blog and novels, and the work of Richard Dawkins.

This last was particularly influential: I became an atheist and a huge fan of his, which meant I had to pretend to care about science and distrust “intellectuals.” I read Dawkins’s elaborate handjob to Alan Sokal (of the Social Text hoax) and from then on harboured an unhealthy skepticism of anything in the humanities, especially the study of literature. I also discovered the fascinating Singularity and transhumanist website Less Wrong, and while I never drank the Singularity Kool-Aid, I was heavily influenced by their attitude toward academia and traditional knowledge.

The three interests led me inexorably to science fiction: TV Tropes had an SFF-ish bent, Scalzi’s novels were easy to read, and liking science fiction was easier and more fun than learning about science. But like the puppies, science fiction for me was centred on movies and the books that aped them. Fantasy was a little more bookish, since there were never any good fantasy movies: I read the Harry Potter series as it came out, The Golden Compass at age 10, The Lord of the Rings at 13, and went from there into Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher (I know, I know). But it was only much later that I discovered Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, China Mieville, Nick Mamatas, Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin, and all the other SFF-ish writers I know and love today.

Aside from Tolkien, Pullman, and Pratchett, SFF for me was not literary, defined as writing in which the story is created through the use of words which reward study for their own sake. I had gleaned what I now know to be a bizarre aesthetic and literary philosophy from TV Tropes, my atheistic reading, and my overexposure to Hollywood movies. This philosophy precluded any serious analysis of language in novels and militated against taking language seriously as a medium of storytelling.

Atheism and Hollywood movies served to protect the aesthetics by limiting my reading. But TV Tropes was the source of the philosophy’s substance. The TV Tropes model takes atomized bits of story-stuff known as “tropes” and endlessly categorizes them, listing examples and subtropes and variations and inversions. This elaborate taxonomy suggests an aesthetics in which stories are created through a sort of plot and character calculus, and the good stories are all and only the ones that make an interesting and novel pattern with the preexisting plots and characters. A key TV Tropes tenet is a suspicion of originality, construing storytelling as endless variations on a theme. This is what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular, along with its lesser imitators (Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Mike Carey, and God knows how many others): you can always tell what the prime form of the trope is and how it’s been transformed.

Tropish criticism places a story in story space at the intersection of all its tropes and looks at what falls nearby. The unspoken principle, then, is that stories that can be easily placed into story space are the best ones. This spatial concept can be extended to incorporate more unusual works, but it’s never really a good fit. A troper will always see Neil Gaiman as superior to James Joyce.

Certain regions of story space are more interesting than others. This means, if you follow the spatial metaphor, that the aesthetic quality of a work can be evaluated objectively in terms of which areas it explores. If you subscribe to certain key tenets, it’s not hard to prove that Guards! Guards! is better than Jingo but not as good as Men at Arms, and all without quoting a single line. The system probably also explains the Internet’s fascination with extravagantly negative reviews—Doug Walker, Yahtzee Croshaw, Linkara, and the rest are all entertaining performers, but the main reason they caught on is that they flatter the aesthetic beliefs of a large number of people.

This system is extremely comfortable, and many people never do leave it. But needless to say, it is also extremely limiting. It can’t handle any genre fiction that is even slightly unusual—for example, Mamatas’s fiction, which is self-evidently weird and wonderful does pretty badly by any tropish metric (I remember being perplexed by Bullettime, and part of me was strongly inclined to dislike it).

The popular fiction of past centuries—Shakespeare, Austen, Doyle, Wilkie Collins—does all right, but mainstream writers of the twentieth century, Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, Irving, Pynchon, DeLillo, etc., are absolutely reviled. And the system is not really interested in anything beyond assigning a ranking and pointing out the ways in which the plot-character calculus of a work resembles and differs from that of other works. It is medium-agnostic. Most importantly: it almost entirely ignores language.

When people say that they are looking for good stories without anything “pretentious,” this is what they mean: stories with recognizable tropes put through a given set of transformations to yield a pattern that is new but not in any way challenging or surprising (challenge and surprise would be pretentious). The words are secondary, to the extent that they count at all: Jim Butcher is not a shitty writer, he’s an able practitioner of trope calculus. That excruciating kaiju story is not the literary equivalent of my balls, it’s a variation on the kaiju trope in the form of a short story (something that apparently hasn’t been tried before, perhaps because a giant monster destroying a city is such a visual thing).

Again, I know this from the personal experience of having held similar beliefs not too long ago. These errors of popular criticism depend on a dichotomy between the popular and the “pretentious” to such an extent that the beliefs evaporate once their adversary is taken away. This means the adversary must be a shadowy one that can never quite be pinned down to a specific person or work, aside from the occasional scattered reference here and there.

More on this shadowy adversary in part 2. Part 3 will actually look at some genre fiction in detail.

Reed cases

As a reward for getting through the last year without collapsing in a pool of blood, vomit, and whiskey, I bought myself some nice wooden reed cases back in May. They arrived today!

One is for clarinet and one for bass clarinet. My previous clarinet reed case was a very beaten up plastic Rico model (which was actually intended for alto sax reeds) with a manufacturer original humidity pack that was more decorative than anything. As for bass clarinet, I’ve been using a plastic reed since I got my bass last year, and I’m wanting to slowly wean myself off of it. Having a way to store and transport my cane reeds will be helpful.

The cases are custom made by Dave Kennedy of Kenkase Music, which are very reasonably priced considering that each one is handmade to order. He does cases for single reeds of various sizes, small oboe and bassoon reed cases, and guitar pick cases.

I promise non-filler content is coming soon. The first issue of the Manitoban sidetracked me and delayed the musical project I was working on, which is all but finished. I’ve also got some lengthy posts in the works.

Laptop &c

Got my first ever laptop today. I seem to only buy computers in those odd moments where there is no good version of Windows available on the market. I got my desktop when Vista was brand new and Microsoft tried to push it by discontinuing XP. And this laptop runs Windows 8, which has an offensively perverse interface and tries to hard-sell you on touch screens, tablet computing, and cloud integration. All of which I hate.

With a small number of tweaks and the installation of one program (Start8), you can get it to some semblance of functionality. And, happily, this is the most powerful computer I’ve ever owned.

I’ve been using Richard Corbeil’s set of CDs Vocal Integration with the Feldenkrais Method. As a clarinetist I have a serious amateur’s interest in Feldenkrais; it’s helped me clarify the way the body organizes itself to play an instrument. And as a habitually nervous person with a tendency toward awkward dispositions of the body, I will probably have to keep it up for the rest of my life.

Anyway, the CDs are excellent, exactly like getting a real in-person lesson except you can pause, replay, and do it in your underwear. The lessons themselves are hard-hitting. Since they deal with aspects of vocal production there’s a lot of emphasis on the organization of the tongue, neck, and throat, which are very private areas. When you finish one, you feel almost like crying. It’s as if you’ve been smacked in the head with a 2×4 and resolved an anxiety dating back to childhood all at once.

Late spring roundup

Recital finished in April. The program was 1.5 hours and very physically demanding. Never doing that again. I finished all my coursework—including the final project for a course that meets so infrequently I forgot I was in it—and played an obscene number of other concerts. Then, because I hate myself and secretly enjoy seeing myself suffer, I decided to write an essay for a music pedagogy competition rather than take some time to recover. My rationale was it’s an easy $1000 if it happens to win, and I need either an E-flat clarinet or a saxophone. Probably it’ll never see the light of day outside of clarinet pedagogy circles, where it will be roundly mocked. But the joke’s on all of you because I had to give up the copyright.

This is a roundabout way of saying I graduated. I walked across the stage yesterday and now have my B.Mus. in clarinet performance. Now getting the distressing thoughts that everyone must get at this moment: how can I support myself without getting a job in the salt mines? The next year is pretty much set at this point but I can’t help but worry.

I had my first ever hard drive failure, and it happened to the newest hard drive in my computer: a 1TB Seagate, bought at a time when the $20 difference between a Seagate and a WD was insurmountable (Seagate has by far the highest failure rate). The old drive is still intermittently useable, so I didn’t lose any files even though I’m not very good about backing up data.

My new drive is a 3TB WD, which brings its own problems: apparently, as a way of coercing people into upgrading, Microsoft decided not to support 3TB volumes in Vista and 32-bit Windows 7. Since I still use Vista due to poverty and inertia, this means I can’t actually use a chunk of my hard drive space. Or at least I can’t use a 3TB bootable volume; I may be able to do something else with the remaining space.

I updated my resume and applied for a zillion new jobs, and have heard from maybe three of them. I’ve always had terrible luck with getting jobs. When I follow the conventional wisdom, printing out a load of resumes and hustling to various customer service-oriented places, I get a lot of fake smiles and never hear back from anyone. I’ve only ever been hired by or even interviewed for jobs I found and applied for online. Maybe this is because I’m not a very friendly person.

There also seems to be no logic to who hires me and who doesn’t—I had no trouble getting a job in the U of M Libraries, which pays quite well, but have never managed to get so much as an interview at McDonalds. Even call centres are a crapshoot. Anyway, I will be returning to the Manitoban for the coming year as copy editor and will likely be doing various other things as well, which means I still won’t know how to answer when someone asks me where I work.

I played Just Cause 2, which my brother introduced to me on a lark and which hooked me in minutes. It’s sort of like Infamous with a little more detail and a much more inviting sense of humour. You play as Rico “Scorpio” Rodriguez, voiced by a Serbian crack-addict doing a Pacino impression, and try to topple the communist dictatorship on the island of Panau by causing chaos—which amounts to breaking anything you can.

You have unlimited parachutes and grappling hooks, the latter of which can grab almost anything. The physics operate on cartoon logic—if you’re falling from a great height, you can use your grappling hook to pull you to the ground without injury. And the military hardware. Goddamn, the military hardware.

I’ve been busy with a musical project that I hope to reveal here in a couple days. It’s something just a little off the wall, and if I’m being honest the time spent doing it has been more valuable to me than the finished product is likely to be to anyone else. But I think it’s neat.

I also recently got round to Mad Max: Fury Road, which is absolutely everything you’ve been told it is. Interesting how the explicitly feminist slant of this movie fits into the overall slant of the series. It’s gruesome, and a lot more hard-hitting than anything I’ve seen in theatres recently. Themes of bondage and domination are closely bound up with body horror. Ultimately it’s an optimistic film.

Things move fast and some bits are as visceral as a punch to the gut, but Miller has a Brucknerian sense of pacing and architecture, and a loving craftsman’s sense of how to render the fantastic on screen. I recently rewatched The Terminator, which includes some primitive special effects and some rather unsubtle alternation between shots of Schwarzenegger and shots of a vaguely Schwarzenegger-looking dummy. But even with the stop-motion stutter of the fully revealed T-101 at the end, the robot still looks more realistic than today’s CGI creations. Miller appears to have gone light on the CGI in Fury Road; a lot of the movie was done at 60 MPH with cars that they actually built. And the payoff is incredible.

Escape to the Movies and The Big Picture have been cancelled

Bob Chipman, also known as Moviebob and the Game Overthinker, has been let go from the Escapist. His last video for the site appeared this week. The firing is pretty clearly connected to the closure of Joystiq and the firing of a number of other Escapist regulars—it seems like the video game newsmagazine format is not as profitable as it once was.

This is truly sad news. In recent years even the Zero Punctuation videos have begun to lose their sheen, and the main reason to go to the site was Chipman’s criticism in his articles and his two video series—Escape to the Movies, a weekly review series, and The Big Picture, a loosely formatted show that looked both critically and not-so-critically at pop culture.

Chipman has always been a rare breed—a critic well versed in pop culture and with an interest in the sleazy and cheesy world of science fiction and video games, but who has enough in-depth training in an art form that he can bring some intelligent, sensitive critical judgment to the table. When he agrees with the mainstream point of view, he always seems to go one further by stating his points more eloquently than others have. When he disagrees, he usually has an interesting point that others have overlooked.

It was through his shows that I was turned onto films like Cabin in the Woods, The Raid, ParaNorman, Detention—smaller movies I would otherwise never have heard of, let alone seen. If it wasn’t for his review it would never have occurred to me to take Michael Bay seriously enough to watch the astounding Pain and Gain. I believe his takes on the battles and blowups in pop culture criticism have more accurately and regularly captured the lay of the land than anything else, and his explanations of trivial comic book minutiae are always entertaining. The annual Schlocktober event has always been a great pleasure.

Even his misfires—his initial praise of Man of Steel, his mawkish review of Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, his incessant slamming on the beneath-contempt Sony Spider-Man movies—have left him looking pretty good over all. And this is saying nothing about his work on video games, with which I am less familiar (though I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen).

The loss of Chipman’s shows and column should come as a great blow to anyone who wishes to turn a somewhat serious eye to modern pop culture. While the Escapist has to do what they have to do, and Chipman will no doubt find some other outlet soon, one has to wonder about the strategic wisdom of firing the people who make the site worth visiting. Certainly the “journalism” there is largely worthless, and with the recent culling I have to say that the site is of considerably less value to the community than it was in its heyday, and I can’t imagine I’ll be visiting nearly as often as I used to.

Official announcements from Chipman can be found here and here. His site carries a PayPal tip jar for those so inclined, and he also has announced that he will likely be running a Patreon campaign in the near future.

On classical music and listening culture

The other day I found myself in the electronics section at Wal-Mart, as we all do from time to time. In the holiday $5 CD bin there was a “classical favourites” disc. The formula for these CDs is familiar even if you’ve never listened to one: shoddy performances by God knows who. Single movements of symphonies, Brandenburg concertos, and pieces by obscure Baroque one-hit wonders. Famous opera arias, little piano pieces that have become cell phone ringtones. If they’re feeling really fancy there might be a complete overture.

These CDs mine the classical repertoire for pieces that are simple and tuneful in construction, or single movements of pieces that are neither simple nor tuneful but whose opening bars are sufficiently famous to hold the listener’s attention for a few minutes. It is impossible to get enough of this kind of material without taking things out of context, so we see extracts and unrepresentative miniatures.

My dad, incidentally a fan of this kind of music, hates most classical music written post-1900 and likes things that are “melodic”, a word he pronounces so that the middle syllable rhymes with “go”. “Melodic” music, pronounced this way, has become for me a catch-all term for the kind of music that appears on these classical favourites collections. Continue reading

Rituals

I like the air of mysticism surrounding an orchestral concert. The oboe’s first tuning A is a signal that the ritual has begun and we are about to embark on some occult communal experience.

I also like to play solitaire, and it occurred to me several months after first getting a smartphone that there are probably solitaire apps out there. It seems to me that it is a ritual celebration of the power of organization. There is some connection, whether it be sympathetic magic or confirmation bias, between my solitaire prowess and my effectiveness at accomplishing everyday tasks in an orderly fashion.

Sunday nights are a time for reflection. I have a light drink, fold laundry, watch Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and eat junk food. This is a high point of my week and I am severely distressed if events conspire to make me miss it. No other night works as a replacement. Maybe it’s the moon.

Gaming, growing up, and time

Finishing the whole Demon’s Souls business (in however elliptical a form) this past summer was as relieving as exorcising an actual demon. Now I appear to have started the cycle again with a series on Splinter Cell, but I am less emotionally invested in it and I have no illusions that it may involve a wait of months between instalments.

Since I was quite young, video games and writing have been my constant companions. Until late in high school I had nothing resembling a social life. I played hockey but didn’t enjoy it. For a few years I had a web programming phase, but I eventually put away such foolishly practical skills and became a musician. All the while I continued to enjoy video games, and I wrote more as a way of exorcising demons than realistically preparing anything for publication.

Going to university changed that. It was the first time I really exerted myself in an academic setting. In my first year I would get home no sooner than 5 or 6 PM, which at the time seemed shockingly late. By third year I was routinely at school for twelve or more hours at a stretch, with a few hours of work to do once I got home. I’m in classes full time and working three jobs in the off-hours.

All this means that leisure activities are sidelined. I’m lucky if I can get fifteen minutes to read a book before bed, let alone time to play a video game. In the time I’ve been employed by the Manitoban (for which employment I am extremely grateful; don’t get me wrong) it has constituted almost the entirety of my writing output.

The sad fact is that when you’re a staff writer for a publication you sometimes have to write about things you’d rather not and you often can’t do what you’d like to. I can’t recall the last time I tried my hand at fiction, not to mention completing something and submitting it for publication. The kind of non-fiction I prefer to write goes here, but only when I have a large enough stretch of leisure time (articles need room to breathe, I’ve always felt).

A holiday used to mean an unfathomably long period of uninterrupted gaming (probably it was two hours at a time, but these things are perceived differently when you’re younger). Now it just means I get to choose in what order to do the million things I have to do. I play console games in short, infrequent spurts on some weekends. It occurred to me today when dealing with some computer problems that I cannot remember the last time I played a computer game (even my beloved Half-Life series).

Every so often I get nostalgic for those days—the games were better then, too. I hope against hope that when I finally finish school it will give me a little more leisure time, but I think what I miss most of all is a certain kind of innocent conception of time that is wholly lost to me no matter what I do.

I feel like there’s been an oddly shaped divot in my soul since I finished Dark Souls. I reach out to my readers, if they exist: what should I play next?

Left Behind

It’s been a while. I’ve started back at the Manitoban doing something very different, so that’s taken up a lot of time. I’m also applying to grad schools, a process that from what I’ve seen and heard is infinitely more stressful than actually doing a master’s degree.

I managed to steal away enough time to see the movie Left Behind this weekend. It still seems hard to believe that this is a real thing—if you want to give your Rapture movie mainstream credibility (as they apparently did), Nicolas Cage is a puzzling choice for lead actor. He has ascended to a higher plane of existence and cannot appear onscreen with mortal actors, even such luminaries as Chad Michael Murray and what’s her face, without appearing photoshopped in. The ontological whiplash alone is worth the price of admission.

They appear to have blown the entire budget on Cage, which means that there is little room left for such expenses as effects, writing, or a cast. This makes it a B-movie of a kind rarely seen in theatres nowadays, which means that if you’re looking to be entertained by wooden acting, unconvincing graphics, or bathetic and oddly composed shots, then you’re in for a treat.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a minor subplot from the early part of the novel and blows it up into feature length, which means that a lot of the real fun stuff with the Antichrist and the United Nations didn’t make the cut. It also means that the second half of the movie is pretty much a wash, once the characters have accepted that the Rapture has happened and begun to focus on the practical problem of getting the plane back on the ground safely.

Fred Clark has famously dissected the series page by page and frame by frame to show how its literary failings are necessitated by the narcissistic theology underlying belief in the Rapture and the End Times (a couple personal favourites: here, here, and here). There’s not much of that in evidence here, but that’s probably because there is hardly a hint of End Times theology in the movie. The Rapture happens, sure, but it’s treated more as an inexplicable disaster than a religious event. There are Christians, but it seems unlikely that anyone, even the most die-hard Left Behind fan, would not be annoyed by them. They don’t even attempt to make Nicolas Cage’s character seem unsympathetic for distancing himself from his Bible-thumping wife.

The result is a movie that is much more watchable than the 2000 Kirk Cameron vehicle, but that is stripped almost entirely of the peculiar worldview that is what makes the rest of the series so entertaining. It’s good for an evening of laughs, not so good as an entry into the politico-theological bestiary.