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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Saturday, December 30, 2017

unnecessary weaknesses

Here's an idea. I want to rid my musical life of unnecessary weaknesses, like being intimidated by certain keys, or by my slowness at reading music. These are unnecessary because they aren't due to an inherent lack of ability: if I can read music at all I should be able to read notes that far above the staff. I just need to practice more and systematically learn what I need to learn. If I know a key with five flats, then I should be able to learn one with 4 sharps. If my time is weak because I don't practice enough with the metronome, then the solution seems blindingly obvious. These are self-created obstacles, not inherent defects in my musicality.

Of course, this is not a claim that I have no inherent limitations. It may be that I am not a very good musician in numerous ways, some of them correctable with time, others not so much. Some limitations might be correctable, but I might not get there in the time I have left on earth. For example, my piano technique will continue to improve, but I won't become a virtuoso.

It seems obvious that mechanical details that numerous other non-genius musicians have mastered are also accessible to me.  Also, only those things that are possible to improve are worth working on in the first place. In other words, aptitude or raw potential are, by definition, impossible to improve.  


Friday, December 29, 2017

Annals of Casual Misogyny

At the airport bar in LAX, a middle-aged guy talking on cellular at the opposite end from me, but loud enough so I could hear, kept saying that "Jesse" had "too much estrogen in his life." That same phrase, and variations of it, ("an overdose of estrogen") over and over again, maybe a dozen times. The conversation drifted a bit, but at the end came back to the estrogen. I gathered that he was a kid living with his mother and maybe another female relative or two. The cell phone guy was suggesting that he come to visit the kid Jesse, and, I guess, supply some other kind of sex hormones in his life? It was obviously a turn of phrase that he was very proud of, and to make himself understood he had to hammer it home. I have no idea who is was talking to. I don't think estrogen is contagious, nor that you can absorb it by living around women, and the metonymy: women = estrogen is rather lame, especially when repeated 15 damn times.

Monday, December 25, 2017


Yume means dream, but in this dream it meant rain. A little Japanese girl named Yume (or Yube?, evening) rang the doorbell. This was a symbolic act of some kind because it immediately started raining. The rain filled a glass that was in the house, several times, and quenched our thirst.  This was an unusual dream, for me, because of its lyrical quality. I spent a lot of time while still asleep trying to figure out the meaning of the name. It wasn't until I woke up that I was able to disambiguate the words (yube, ame, yume).    

Saturday, December 23, 2017


I knew last year around this time that it would be the last time my sister Debbie recognized me. She seems now to know that I am part of the family, someone of some relevance to her, but I can't tell if she knows I am me, her brother.  Her vocabulary is now severely reduced, though syntax and phonology are largely whole. What she says makes almost no contextual or pragmatic sense, except for a few set phrases. She stands at the window and talks to imaginary interlocutors at great length, and the monologues might make some sense.  She is largely positive, telling the imaginary friends that they are wonderful people, she loves them very much. With some urgency, she tells me it is time to go now. "Right now, hurry."  If I say we are staying she says "why?" but cannot understand the explanation. She gets impatient and frustrated then. She cannot feed herself anymore, or perform other basic functions. She cannot feel hunger or fullness, doesn't know when she is thirsty or tired, seemingly. She has to ride in the back seat of a car with a child safety lock because she will try to get out of the car at a stop light otherwise.

She will explain something to me using a napkin or an onion, or some small ceramic dishes: "This is the thing. This is the best thing ever. This is what we have to do, like this. It is very difficult. It is a problem. I'm sorry.  I'm very sorry. You have to do it this way..." and on and on like that. Then she'll start like this again "you are a wonderful person, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, I love you very very very much."

It is not Alzheimer's, but a frontal temporal lobe dementia that affects language (first) and then other cognitive functions. It is not as common as Alzheimer's, but tends to have an earlier onset and hence is more common in younger people. (She is 60 and has been in noticeable decline for 5 years, with some symptoms before that but nothing you would have noticed.} She is taken care of by her husband and by my 82-year old mother. I see her once a year, on my visits to California, and can see the decline every year. A few years ago she was still playing piano or organ in church a bit, and directing the singing of hymns. Now, of course, not. (She was professional organist her entire adult life.)  

The choir performed some pieces she had composed, and she and her husband were at a rehearsal.  An officious woman shooed them out of the room for no particular reason. When they came back a little later, the officious woman tried to kick them out again and my sister's husband just put up his hand and said: "Stop. Let me explain what we are doing here. The choir has just performed a piece that my wife composed. We wanted to listen to it." The woman just slunk away without a word of apology.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Aspiring to mediocrity

What I mean by this is that we need to achieve competence. For example, I would like to play jazz piano that sounds like generic playing that anyone half-way good would do. The kind of player who would get a one-star review in Downbeat, but that you would recognize someone who knew how to play idiomatically, tastily, and fluently in a jazz style. But if you could really do that, and actually swing, then maybe you would be up to a 2-star player? If what you play is tasty, then maybe you're a 3-star player? At the next level you would need some originality, but I'm still working on sounding good within my very narrow limits. One thing I need to do is practice a little less, rather than obsessively spending hours at the keyboard. Doing more is fine too, but it all needs to be disciplined and patient.  

For my own poetry, though, I want to unlearn the idiomatic, fluent style of contemporary poets, because I think a poem should sound distinctive to its author rather than being written in a period style. I can achieve this in two ways: by parody, and by not giving a shit about those norms. One way is to be reading poetry of the past rather than soaking up the influences that are everyone's influences.  

Scholarly writing is more like mediocre jazz playing. You want to sound like a scholar, rather than deviating too much from the norm. People will assume that you don't know how to do it otherwise. And a basic competence will almost guarantee that you are in the top quarter of published scholars. I had a student quote from a bad study found on line that said "women are oppressed by feminism" when the author of the study meant to say the opposite, that feminism can show how women are oppressed by patriarchy.

I see graduate students struggling to get to that mediocre level, where the paper is well done in a conventional sense, and could be standard paper published in a second-line journal.  This doesn't mean the paper is perfect, but that it is perfectly mediocre, does what a paper ought to do and checks all the right boxes. After that, then we start talking about something more.

Once you achieve mediocrity, then you can work from there toward a more original perspective.  A lot of what I've done on Lorca is simply to assume that we should study him using our knowledge of how literary criticism should best be done, rather than working on him within the distorted baggage-laden framework of Lorca studies.    

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I love theory

I mean music theory, here. It is funny that what goes by the name music theory would be, in literature, the equivalent of prosody and plot construction, not "theory" as it is known to literature folks. (And not in the third sense of a scientific theory meaning a strong and empirically testable explanation that accounts for a set of phenomena in the natural world.) Although classical performers study theory in conservatory, many of them find it unexciting. To write or improvise music, though, you are always thinking about what the chords are. I am constantly making duh discoveries, like the fact that the pentatonic minor scale will have the same notes as the pentatonic major scale of the relative major. It seem kind of obvious, but I just discovered this this week. I also discovered that I was using pentatonic scales in melodies without knowing what it is I was doing.

I like working in Dflat (five flats) for some reason. I think it is because it has chords unrelated to C, so that if I combine those two keys, then I have about 20 chords under my fingers, if I include modulations to other keys related to these two keys, tritone substitutions, secondary dominants... I don't have to learn 12 keys really well; I can have about 3 or 4 I know pretty well and I have most if it covered.

Someone was asking how to memorize all the chords. You don't memorize them, you learn them in relationships to other chords and keys. You know them. If you tried to memorize them by rote out of all context it would be much harder.  A harmonic context distant from C major is simply a different context, where things have a different meaning, but where the relationships are completely commensurate.

A musical composition has to make sense to me, melodic, rhythmic, structural, and harmonic. I have to work on it until it all fits together. The surprising thing is that I know how to do this, that I knew how from my first song, and that more sophisticated harmonies do not make my songs necessarily any better. They are just fun to compose in their own way.  

Everyone who listens to music knows what melody is and can recognize one or have one stuck in the head. There is no actual criterion for what a good melody is except for one that someone responds to subjectively as a melody.  We can say objectively that some music is more complexly organized or longer, but can we say that the Beatles's "Michelle" is better or worse than some other melody that a lot of people like as much? There are melodies from Bach I don't think are great, and others that are.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


I don't base a melody on scale. What I do sometimes is choose one note and play it against chord progression.  It will have a different function depending on what the chords are underneath. Then I can see where that note wants to go at various times, and how it wants to move rhythmically.  If you are thinking of a scale then you are thinking of a chord as statically there for a long time allowing you to create scalar patterns with it, but the chord progression is always moving, even when it is not. Melody has to move horizontally, even when it repeats the same note. I've watched some youtube videos and they say: "don't do this" [plays a scale from top to bottom or bottom to top].  Well no. That's obvious, though of course classical composers do that sometimes.

  If you play a pentatonic scale though it is almost automatically melodic [plays first line of someone to watch over me]. That means leaving out the 4th and the 7th. You can put the seventh back in as a passing tone and you have all you need. You can melodize all day long and never have to use the 4th.

What I feel missing in discussions of melody is the idea of lilt.  This is not up or down, or down then up or up then down, but an engaging "up-down" contour that catches the ear at a certain angle.

Take Ornette's "Latin Genetics" in the last post. The A sections of the tune consists of a series of 7 chords arpeggiated in a downward movement to the same five note rhythm, with another down-up phrase at the end, played twice.  It has a nice lilt to it and part of this is the lack of movement in the first three notes of the motif.  The other part is you never know whether the next phrase will start or end lower or higher than the previous one.  The tune sounds both simplistic and unexpected.

Ornette Coleman - Latin Genetics

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A trick

Take a Bb minor pentatonic scale

[Bb Db Eb F Ab]

Now play these over a progression in the key of Db major. You will find that these notes work well over the chords I IV V ii and vi.  Probably iii and vii as well, though I haven't explored these as much. There is some tension in the tritone sub.

If you play an F minor pentatonic you also get a good set of notes to play in this key.