Saturday, 23 February 2013

Charles Ives and the Myth of Playing Outside

Last night I went to the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank to hear a concert of American music, as part of the South Bank's The Rest is Noise season, based on Alex Ross's book on the music of the 20th century. On the bill were pieces by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and, as a special encore, James P Johnson.

Generally, Copland featuring on the bill is enough to get me to buy a ticket (and that is, in fact, why I bought tickets for the performance), but it turned out to be a good evening all around. Ever since getting into classical music, I've come to appreciate the American composers in particular (I know they don't fall under that category, but bear with me).

As I said, Copland is my particular favorite, mostly for his ballet suites like Appalachian Spring or Rodeo, but I also love Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which was on last night's bill. But it was good to hear the suite from Joplin's opera Treemonisha, and the closer from Johnson, Victory Stride, was an amazing fusion of jazz and classical that featured spinning cellos and a hilarious back-and-forth between the brass and string sections.

For my purposes here, though, what I want to talk about is Ives and Copland. Not because they were the best parts of the concert (according to a somewhat unscientific survey of my friend and the elderly couple sitting in front of us they were actually the weakest parts), but because they best exemplify what people mean when they refer to "American classical music".

The conductor, Marin Alsop, noted that Copland is particularly associated with a brand of music evoking wide-open skies and prairies, such that his music's been used in Beef Council commercials, presidential campaigns and politicians' hold music (I swear Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi's office plays Copland when they put you on hold, which goes very well with the photos on Enzi's home page). For me, a drive up to the Sierra Nevada or to Yosemite is never complete without listening to Appalachian Spring, and especially the "Simple Gifts" section at the end.

But if Copland evokes wide-open spaces, Ives evokes - at his most listenable - a more suburban sound. I say "listenable" because much of Ives's work skates near the edge of dissonance (I don't mean this in the same way that Schönberg's Second Viennese School would). The best explanation I ever heard of how Ives composed noted that he loved the interplay of two different pieces playing simultaneously. Frankly, at times it can be taxing to listen to.

In between those sections, however, I feel like you can really hear the sounds of summer in New England; which is funny, because I've never spent the summer in New England myself. Nevertheless, I do feel like it's an idiom that's ingrained itself in the American consciousness, so that anything on TV that's set there uses music that has to be heavily influenced by Ives.

It's a sound that I associate with childhood, to a certain extent, and what struck me last night was whether or not mine is the last generation that would make that association. I grew up with Charlie Brown and "Where's the Beef?" and the last gasp of the Western (or not even last gasp, since Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone killed the genre long before I was born), but I don't know if my sisters, who were born around a decade after me, would have those same associations. Whenever I drive around my hometown and see it changing, I kind of regret the destruction of the older buildings; I sometimes feel as if growing up in the 80s was more similar to growing up in the 50s than to the 90s.

Now, I'm aware that the 50s weren't such an idyllic time as they often seem on TV, particularly if you weren't white or middle class or male, and I don't want to minimize the hardships suffered by people outside the "norm" as presented by the popular culture of the time. But I would say that, at the very least, childhood is different now than it was when I was growing up. My sisters experienced very different pressures, and moved through a very different social environment than I did, and I think the changes are just accelerating.

Or maybe I'm getting old. Still, I can't imagine that kids these days (not the first time I've used that phrase, or the last) really have it in their mental programming to go off and play outside without parental supervision, like I did. It could be different in other towns than my own, but then again, it might not.

Monday, 18 February 2013

If This Is Sick, I Don't Wanna Be Well

Anyone who's talked to me in the last year or so will probably be aware that I've been spending a lot of time on self-help stuff - productivity, time management, confidence, talking to people... I've spent a lot of brainpower on getting to where I think I ought to be.

A lot of this advice is good (especially the time management stuff - I can confirm that working from an empty email inbox, both at work and at home, is just about worth the price of admission). Some of it is less good - either hacky or just too broad to be of use to me.

But the thought I've been having a lot lately, and it's echoed in some of the stuff that I listen to or read about, is the connection between unhappiness and creativity.

To be clear, I don't believe in stereotypes of tortured artists - but I also sometimes worry that if I got too happy, would I still be driven to write, or tell jokes, or whatever the hell I do when I'm not in the office?

I've heard it said that those who perform for a living are seeking approval that they were denied when growing up; this has been applied to actors as well as comedians. On the face of it, it rings pretty true to my experience too - as a child I wanted to be a movie star, but having since grown into a face for radio (and, to be less self-deprecating, not really enjoying the terror of being on stage and learning lines), I've found that I wanted to tell stories.

So that's what I've been doing since I was about fourteen. In that time, there have also been instances where I was more or less happy with my station in life. Some of the best times included my first and last years of college; the years in between were worse, as were the years after I left graduate school.

I can say that the very happiest times weren't necessarily my most productive in terms of writing, but neither were my unhappiest times that good for my writing. But I hold onto this fear that if I were ever truly satisfied, that I'd stop, and then my chance at greatness would be gone forever.

But does it matter? If I'm happy with my life, would I really need to leave behind a body of work? Because that's what it comes down to: being remembered, either in the form of children or of my work.

I'm hoping I can manage both, despite suggestions that you have to choose between professional success and personal success. I know which I'd choose (I've effectively chosen already, at least for the moment), but I also hope there's a third alternative.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Pascal's Wager, Revisited

On a recent Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick et al spoke to Community's Yvette Nicole Brown, and eventually, the topic turned to religion. I was a little forewarned to it because as I hit play, I also had a look at some of the comments; there were a few praising her philosophy (ie, this is what I believe and it works for me; you should do whatever works for you), and there were a few who reflexively lashed out at the thought of anyone saying nice things about religion (and took issue with Chris Hardwick for not calling her out on her belief).

I have to place myself firmly in the former camp. Although my father tried to bring me up as a good Catholic, I'm neither religious nor spiritual; I started calling myself a lapsed Catholic around high school, and a couple of years ago stopped doing even that. However, I haven't gone the Richard Dawkins route and taken to calling every religious person an idiot; frankly that sounds too much like religion to me.

What happened? Well, in the first instance I am an extremely stubborn person. If you tell me I have to go to church every week, and I don't want to, then I'm going to come to resent it. Yet I kept calling myself Catholic (even if lapsed), long after I stopped going to Mass regularly, and would argue for faith whenever some of my friends or acquaintances would start in on Christianity's myriad failings (and I would take the opposite side whenever I found myself arguing with people who read the Bible literally).

What eventually persuaded me to drop religion entirely was, nerdily enough, a fantasy novel. Specifically, it was R Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, accompanied by his own blogs, that did the trick. Bakker's position is, everybody thinks they've lucked into the one true belief system; the problem is, not everyone can be right (for the record, he extends this to all beliefs, not just religions). The other point he made was that you can't pick and choose. So I decided to stop picking and choosing, and dropped religion entirely.

But again, I accept that I could be wrong. Which is why people like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens always rubbed me the wrong way when they went on their rants. Dawkins, in particular, reminds me of an angry teenager who's just discovered his parents are fallible; he's so angry about it that he no longer believes anything they have to say, no matter how sensible. Or to follow with how I put it above, he's traded one kind of proselytizing for another, and I'm really not interested.

Also, preaching to the converted (pun intended) gets a little boring after a while. At the same time, telling people they're stupid isn't exactly the way to win them over to your side.

Alain de Botton recently wrote a book called "Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion". I didn't read it, but I flipped through it, and generally agree with the premise - why can't we take the useful parts of religion and leave out the stuff we don't like? Note that when I say useful parts, I mean the central idea of being nicer to the people around us. Religion should be like sexuality - as long as you don't hurt others, why can't you do whatever you want?

Which brings me back to Yvette Nicole Brown and Chris Hardwick. Their approaches to life could not be more different, but they agree on one fundamental point, which is not to judge other people. We all have our paths through life, and they are usually hard enough; people constantly telling us we're doing it wrong only make it harder.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A Radical Price

Recently I read Free, by Wired's Chris Anderson; appropriately enough I borrowed it (from my boss, who passed it over with a deprecatory sniff and said, "A lot of it's bollocks."), so I've managed to check it out at the price Mr Anderson intended. As far as what I thought, maybe I was prejudiced by my boss' succinct review, but I didn't think it was bollocks - as with most books on economics that I've read (eg Freakonomics), the point isn't whether or not you agree, but to look at a problem from a new angle.

Of course, it does help that I'm slowly coming to agree with Chris Anderson's point in the book.

I first heard of Chris Anderson, and Free (as well as his previous book, The Long Tail), on the Nerdist podcast, which is clearly becoming my main link to the outside world. Anderson's point in Free has been echoed repeatedly by Chris Hardwick and many of his guests (including Scott Sigler), and it seems to be working for them.

(Which makes sense; they wouldn't be arguing for a distribution model that didn't work for them, would they?)

The main idea that I've taken from Free is the statement that "Abundance creates new scarcities", and I've been trying to see how I can apply it to my own writing/creative efforts. The problem is, I'm part of the abundance (ie, people who want to be writers), and so I'm subject to the scarcity of editors' and literary agents' time and attention. I've tried to address this by self-publishing stories on Kindle and iBooks (though apparently Amazon doesn't let you set books as free unless you get an ISBN, which sounds like a pain in the ass), and by saying witty (or, if you prefer, half-witty) things on Twitter.

Also, while I accept the idea that the way to get money for doing something creative is to go ahead and do it, I have to admit to a slightly old-fashioned worry in one respect: I'm concerned by the mindset, attributed to young folks these days, that everything should be free. If that's the case, then what hope is there for people like me who are trying to break into the business? I do genuinely believe that piracy hurts creative people and can act as a barrier to creating content (sorry to be so clinical about it, but I do subscribe to the old quip by Samuel Johnson, that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money).

I'm probably over-thinking this (it's what I do), and in any case, both Chris Anderson and Scott Sigler have answers. For the former, it's a question of waiting for illegal downloaders to get to a point in their lives where they're willing to pay for content; more reassuringly Scott Sigler's suggestion is that you should be doing it anyway, because you don't know how it will turn out.

Which means, I guess, that I should be putting content out there rather than sitting here and whining about it on this blog.