A Good Summer for Reading, part 2

As promised, in this entry I’ll finish off the survey of books I’ve read this summer. I’ve had a few good ones sneak in toward the end, and I’m excited to tell you about them.

The very first book I read this summer was C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces. The book takes place in pre-Christian Europe and is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. A few months later, I picked up another book by Lewis, this time his classic The Great Divorce. As a Christian, I found the book to be a moving and insightful fictionalization of people’s reactions to grace. Though I enjoyed both, Till We Have Faces had a stronger impact on me and, of the two, has a more universal message.

Growing up, I had the complete Sherlock Holmes short stories, read them, loved them. Incidentally, from this memory, I decided the new movie didn’t look a thing like the books I loved, so I still haven’t seen it. I did, however, read a couple of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels this summer: first A Study in Scarlet then The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though it was fun learning where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson came from and how they met, I found the first book to be uneven. The second book, was fantastic. In it, Doyle tells the story of a crime eerie enough to be suspenseful, but not so much to be creepy. (I find the bizarre fascinating, but I can’t stand the viscerally creepy.)

Overall, I’d say that my favorites from the summer were Till We Have Faces, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Ender’s Game. Tomorrow, a new semester begins, and with it, I will sadly no longer have time to read three or four novels a month.

Pre-composition and Football

Whenever people find out I’m a composer, they first ask, “What kind of music do you write?”  for which I have yet to come up with a good answer. “Instrumental” and “classical-ish” are my usual responses. The next comment they make is often “I could never write music.”

From what I can tell, many people are under the impression that music just “happens,” like falling in love Disney-style or catching a cold. Zapped by inspiration or transported by emotion, the composer pours out his soul over the keyboard, and soon a new piece of music is born. Not so. For all you who feel they could never write music, I hope to demystify the process somewhat. And to help you understand this, let’s talk about football.

A football team would never dream of walking onto the field and hoping that winning plays would just “come to them.” (Image from directsnapfootball.com)

Next Saturday, BYU will kick off its football season against Washington in what will likely be an emotional rematch, after an excessive celebration call lost Washington the game two years ago. (I’m excited for this year’s game and season!) Now, no one expects that either team will show up on the field without any preparation, physical or strategic. Particularly with strategy, the last thing a football team would dream of doing would be walking onto the field and hoping that winning plays would just “come to them.” So, plays are created and drilled in advance. Their application in the game is flexible, but their existence allows both teams to better meet the demands they’ll face.

Likewise, when I begin a piece, I have dozens of options about how to organize the melodies in the piece—when to present which one, for how long, in what key, and so on. Awareness of all these options means I can’t just plop down at the piano and let the music mystically “flow through me.” Like a football team preparing for a game, I have to make many decisions in advance. Though my compositional “game plans” are often technical (and thus obtuse to most people), there’s nothing mystical about them. After establishing the piece’s rhetorical situation and my performers’ abilities, I identify the technical means suited the situation (the length of the piece, its textures, harmonies, etc.) and choose from among them.

Once made, these decisions—my pre-compositional game plan—give me the tools necessary to fill the needs of the music I write. If I become puzzled about a particular melody or harmony, my game plan will suggest ways to resolve the conundrum. Sometimes it works the other way, too, and melodies suggest ways of enriching the game plan. Again, this is like football. Having planned plays can answer the question of how to get out of tight spots, but observing what the other team is doing—for instance, always throwing to the left or something—can also suggest ways of enriching a team’s strategy.

The moral of the story is, if you understand how the creative process works in football, you understand pretty well by analogy how it works in music. Or at least how it works for me.

Bad Tie Day

My Dad’s in town this week, and it being summer, we wanted to go swimming. Only thing is, he didn’t bring a swim suit, so he, my siblings, and I all went shopping for one. Three stores later, he found a simple red one.

In the process of looking for said swim wear, my brothers and I got distracted by the tie sections in Ross and TJ Maxx. We all served missions, and after two years during which the tie you wear is your only outlet for expressing personality, you get a taste for ties. Naturally, then, we were curious about what was in fashion these days.

1st Runner-up: The “Multi-stripe”

Were we ever surprised: the ties were hideous. And it wasn’t just a few. It was most of them. They were the kind of ties you’d dig up at a secondhand store—only these were new. While I could show you many examples of the awfulness, I thought I’d limit it to three runners up and the hands-down winner.

2nd Runner-up: The “Fish”

First runner-up (left): This beauty chalks its hideousness up to an awkward pattern and color. Instead of being a classy diagonal stripe tie, it tries to be multiple diagonal stripe ties—all in the same tie. To add to its gauche, the monochromatic shadings of purple and gray are more drab and nausea-inducing than they are subtle and refined.

3rd Runner-up: First encounter ...

Second runner-up (right): Speaking of nausea-inducing, this blue and pink fish-scale-esque tie is downright dizzy-ing. Which way is the pattern going? What exactly is the shape of those scales and what’s with the black dots at the end of them? Its attempt to replicate the fish-inspired aesthetics of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao museum simply crashes and burns.

3rd Runners-up: The “Sick Siblings”

Third runners-up (left and right): Admittedly, ugly fish tie was hard to beat, but we found a challenger in this retro-styled Pierre Cardin. Of all the ties we found, this one screamed “thrift store escapee.” Here was a tie so plain ugly that in any Mormon mission it would have become a posterity tie.

. . . then we found its siblings. Apparently, having one “sweet spirit” of a tie in gold isn’t enough—it also needs to exist in pink and purple. It was as if Pierre Cardin took a cue from the ice climbers in Smash Brothers. And while this discovery seemed to be top off the day, nothing could have prepared us for what we would see next.

Grand Prize: the Ugliest Tie

Grand prize: These days, the skinny black tie is coming back into fashion, and I can respect that. A good, skinny black tie projects “smooth” and “hip.” At first glance, the tie to the right fits the bill, yet on closer inspection, it has so many things going wrong.

Vinyl? Are you serious?

While the photo to the left makes it look normal, when I first saw it, I was baffled. It looked like a cross between a belt, a table cloth, and a bicycle inner tube. The thing was made out of a single sheet of vinyl. It didn’t sit flat and felt slippery under your hands. It was, in a word, repulsive.

Now none of us were sure what caused this recent bout of senseless neck ware design. All we could conclude was that right now is not a good time to buy ties. Gentlemen—consider yourselves warned.