The Lies We Tell On Ourselves

There are a few stock phrases floating around out there that I’ve lost patience with.

I’m not a racist, but ….” Let me finish that sentence for you. “I’m not a racist, but I’m going to say something that sounds racist, and would make you think I’m a racist if I hadn’t assured you beforehand that I’m not. Trust me.”

Right. I think it’s a lot more likely you don’t know what “racist” means. But you certainly do know what other people think it means, or you wouldn’t be trying to reassure me in advance that you aren’t one. So no, I don’t trust you, and I don’t especially want to hear your racist statements.

As a Christian, I have no choice other than ….” Let me finish that sentence for you. “As a Christian, I have no choice other than to support some idea that any sane, compassionate person would think is horrible. But I’m not responsible; please don’t blame me.”

You will never hear me say, “As a Druid, I have no choice other than ….” I own my choices. Right or wrong. I don’t blame them on the Devil, or on my religion. And you know what? Since they’re my choices, I can actually discuss them, and even change my mind. You can’t — as you say, you believe you have no choice. Well, I do blame you, and I really don’t want to hear your tortured theological excuses.

We need your contributions to help fight ….” Let me unpack that sentence for you. You are saying that the real decisions are bought.

I have no problem with giving the win to the highest bidder, if it’s a matter of auctioning off Marilyn Monroe’s underwear, or the Mona Lisa. When it’s a matter of justice, or basic human decency, this is a kind of extortion. “Pay us, or bad things will happen.”

Although, perhaps it’s just a scam, if a well-meaning one. Consider a legal defense fund for innocent prisoners on death row. Sounds like a good idea? Not really. It’s a bad legal system that routinely imprisons and executes innocents — bad in the war-crimes sense. And you’re saying it’s a good thing to plaster over this war-crime level of injustice with a few very expensive, case-by-case “corrections” to a few percent of the victims of a corrupt and war-crimes-evil legal process. Sounds to me more like a burned crust of bread thrown to a starving conscience, purchased at a premium price. ConscienceCrusts™, only $99,999,999.95 each. Prices are rising daily, so get yours NOW!

What would be good? Correcting the corrupt system, which is (ultimately) merely a matter of changing the laws to protect rather than prosecute the innocent, a process that is also called “legislation.” But that also takes lots of money, because the real decisions are bought. And my desire for protecting the innocent is up against a prisons-for-profit industry that doesn’t care who fills its beds.

Contributing money to organizations that claim to influence legislation is participating in a scam, or an extortion scheme. It won’t help correct a legislative process gone rancid; it will only speed the spoilage. So don’t come to me for money for political causes. I’m not interested.

Piano Concerto Second Movement

concerto-iiI’ve just posted the second movement of the Piano Concerto, remixed using my latest instrument samples. It’s as big an improvement over the previous mix I posted, as that mix was over the one before that.

I took a painting class ‘way back during one of the summers between my junior-high-school years. At one point, we were painting clouds, and the instructor told us, “Sometimes when you’re painting a cloud, you’ll start to see shapes in the clouds you’ve painted — houses, faces, animals. When that happens, the best thing to do is to paint over the whole thing, and start over. Because no matter how many times you try to paint the face out of the cloud, it will still be there, and it will drive you crazy.”

It’s the little things that make you crazy when you’re remixing music. I thought I had a good mix at one point, created a full mixdown track, and then, when I listened to it — for probably the hundredth time this week — the piano had this one note that was too loud. It poked me in the ear.

“Nah,” I told myself. “No one will hear that. There are dozens of little errors in this performance, things that aren’t as smooth as they should be, phrases that aren’t as expressive as I’d like, other choices with the instrumentation that might have worked out better. This is just one more little thing.”

I listened again. It poked me in the ear. In fact, now I couldn’t hear anything else in that section.

It was a face in the cloud.

I went back and fixed that note. And two more that were bothering me.

I’ve been doing that for a couple of weeks, now. 

There comes a point where you just have to let it go. So here it is.

This mix actually comes fairly close to the way I’ve heard it in my head all these years. I really am pleased with it.

Enjoy!


Postscript: I got up this morning and re-listened with fresh ears, and there’s another spot that poked me in the ear, where I needed to exchange the viola and cello parts. Just one phrase. One tiny phrase. But now it won’t bother me.

Death of a Nation

Last Wednesday, in shock, I wrote on Facebook: “What do you do, the day your country dies?”

My personal answer turned out to be, “Go to work, like any other day.” I simply didn’t know what else to do with myself. I’ve learned through the experience of similar shocks — like losing a daughter in the middle of the night — that sometimes it’s best to just run on autopilot for a little while.

It may still be too soon for me to write, but I’m feeling that familiar pressure to put thoughts and feelings into words.

So let me start by linking to a post I wrote a little over a year ago. It’s hardly “prescient” — my observations were entirely too obvious and derivative for that. The question hanging in my mind a year ago was not whether Trump could become President, but whether the US electorate was ready to embrace Fascism. The answer has turned out to be, “Yes.”

We are now living in the early stages of a typical Fascist State.

I think it’s extremely important to point out that this isn’t about Trump. Trump is a venal opportunist who serves as the focal point to what the Germans call a “Zeitgeist,” literally “Time Ghost,” more correctly, “Spirit of the Age.” This isn’t about Trump, or his deplorable lack of character, or what he will or will not do. It is about the American People, and they have called for a “strong leader” to remove the constraints of law and punish the scapegoats they have chosen to blame their troubles on. Remove Trump from office (by fair means, or foul) and another “strong leader” will be called up in his place. Exterminate one set of scapegoats, and we will choose another.

There must be a bloodbath. The People demand it.

A year ago, I thought — I hoped — that Bernie Sanders represented a possible alternative to this. Fascism doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It happens whenever the majority of the reasonably prosperous citizens start “taking hits for the team,” yet the team keeps losing, the hits keep escalating until they threaten homes and families, and no one in power listens to them. This all started in the US in the collapse of small farms and the loss of US manufacturing jobs, back in the 1970’s. That decline, in turn, was built into the weakened but still-deadly capitalist economic system we chose to retain in the 1930’s. We came very, very close to Fascism in the US the 1930’s — it was all the fashionable rage in Europe at that time — but we instead adopted an attenuated form of Democratic Socialism that soothed the angry beast that the American public had become. That peace lasted for two generations, before capitalism began, again, to erode prosperity in favor of wealth.

I fully expected Bernie to be written off as a Socialist crank a year ago, and was both surprised and deeply encouraged when he wasn’t — instead, he became a populist figurehead for a countervailing Zeitgeist: a vision that did not involve a bloodbath.

I believe he would have won this election. I do not think the majority of people in the US were hurting badly enough, or were angry enough, to reject a peaceful real hope for the future — or even a Hail-Mary hope.

The broken two-party system didn’t support him; instead, it locked him out and confirmed all the worst fears and contempt of the electorate. The Democrats, caught up in far-less-important liberal social issues rather than hard-rock economic issues that meant food on people’s tables, decided that they must now put a woman in the White House, by fair means or foul: and the only possible candidate was a woman who was a quintessential avatar of the existing dysfunction. Republicans dismissed the existing dysfunction early in the game, and turned with open arms to Fascism.

So where this election could have been a referendum between two Zeitgeists for change, a peaceful one versus a bloody one, it instead became a referendum between slow starvation and a bloodbath.

The People chose the bloodbath.

Yes, Hillary won the majority vote, by the teensiest of margins. She lost the election because a huge percentage of the population abstained entirely. Most of the uninvolved doubtless abstained because they’ve abstained for decades — they had long ago given up on politics as meaningful in any positive way, the clear consequence of our multi-generational political failure as a nation — but many of the newest recruits to political indifference simply could not endorse either starvation or bloodbath, and stayed home.

We must now endure the bloodbath. The People have demanded it.

I want to think it could be over relatively quickly. The Axis powers in Europe lasted less than a generation. But it took a World War to stop them. I think this will soon end up in yet another World War, and I strongly suspect it will involve a major nuclear exchange. The US may throw the first nuke, it may not — but it will certainly be one of the targets, and will just as certainly strike back.

That seems to me now to be the most probable way this nation, and modern civilization, will end.

I really, really hope I’m wrong.

I’m not even close to thinking through other scenarios. I’m still in shock that it happened as it did, in a single day, though I’ve been writing about this subject for a couple of years.

It feels to me a lot like 9/11/2001 felt, but where we will go, as a nation, will be a far, far darker place.

Beauty Born in Tragedy

 

concerto-iI’m posting yet another remix of the first movement of my Piano Concerto. It is, again, a vast improvement over the previous mixes. I still hope to hear the music performed someday by a real orchestra, and a real pianist.

Why?

I’m one guy with a few years experience of fooling around with a computer disk drive containing a handful of captured sounds that some sound engineer thought were “representative” of the instrument. They’re nice samples. Really nice samples. But they’re only samples. I piece them together like Lego blocks into something that sounds like music.

A real symphony orchestra is made up of fifty-some-odd people who have each been mastering their single instrument all their lives, conducted by a master musician who merely directs these other musicians to apply their human, musical minds and hearts toward making music together. They understand music — and they have the knowledge and skill to get just the right sound out of their instrument. A dramatic horn swell. A light violin spiccato. A mysterious timpani roll.

There is, in the end, no contest.

The piano concerto is my first major work, and like a first date, a first kiss, a first love, there is something about this music that has become an irreplaceable part of my being. It will never be quite right. It will never be entirely wrong.

It was born in tragedy, finished in calamity, and has always been solace.

The concerto began on a dark night sometime in 1986. In January of 1985, our almost-three-month-old daughter, Christina, died of SIDS in the middle of the night. As I fell apart, then slowly put myself back together (with help) and moved on with life, I would occasionally console myself by trying to recover some skill with the piano, which I’d stopped studying in high school.

One night my fingers started playing a rhythmic little tune. It was a strange experience: I heard the music in my head, and my fingers almost knew how to play it. I knew two things intuitively and instantly: I had never heard or played this music before, and it was the opening to the third movement of a piano concerto. It grew from there.

The second movement came next, a few years later, as a lullaby for my two sons.

The first movement came to me last, well into the mid-1990’s, as the sound of horns blowing through my mind. I had by then written my own MIDI sequencer for the Amiga computer, playing through a Korg M-1 keyboard, which allowed me to do very simple polyphonic orchestrations.

I remember walking across a frozen parking lot to meet friends for a New Year’s Eve drink (or three) in 1994 at an upscale little Italian bistro near my home. I needed a haircut. On a whim, I decided in the middle of that parking lot, between one step and the next, to let my hair grow until the concerto was finished.

My hair was almost shoulder-length in late 1995 when I cut a digital audio tape of original compositions, and made 100 copies through a little commercial studio in LaPorte Colorado, to give out as Christmas presents. I didn’t include the concerto: it wasn’t finished, and I didn’t have nearly enough raw processing power on the computer or the keyboard to perform it, anyway.

I got busy with other things, cut my hair, and stopped composing.

I finally finished the concerto in 2003.

I had bought a new keyboard, a Roland XV-88, and a new PC with a commercial sequencer, Cakewalk. I had all the good intentions in the world, but I was very busy with work.

I went in to see the doctor about a little problem with bleeding hemorrhoids. They told me it was colon cancer.

That’s a hell of a thing to be told on a Thursday afternoon. They wanted me in surgery Friday morning, but could not make it work with their schedules. So I was scheduled for Monday morning, first thing.

I knew that, though the odds were small, I might not wake up on Monday afternoon. What do you do with your last three days of life? My answer was: pretty much the same thing you’d do anyway. Three days isn’t enough time to write out your bucket list and do anything about it. You really don’t want to run around to all your friends and say, “I love you, good-bye.” You aren’t going to “get your affairs in order,” and besides, the last thing you want to be doing with your last three days is paperwork.

After surgery, and throughout chemo, I had a great deal of time to ponder my life, which at that point, consisted mostly of promises of great things yet to come. Promises that might not be kept, now, and by the way, weren’t all that great when you looked at them closely as an epitaph. As the chemo deepened and I found myself with less and less energy, I decided I’d use my good days to finally finish the concerto. I’d worked out all the piano parts by then by playing them over and over: I could almost perform the work, though now I didn’t have the stamina to get through more than a few measures at a time. So I recorded (as MIDI) in little manageable sections, and orchestrated it, and cut myself a CD.

As early summer moved into late summer and the chemo started truly kicking my ass, I would lie in bed, with my crappy little recording on my crappy little boom-box playing quietly into the night as I drifted somewhere between waking and restless sleep, and I would say to myself, “I wrote that.” It seemed like the one unambiguously beautiful accomplishment in my life. Everything else was tarnished or in doubt. My marriage had ended. My mother was gone, my father was slipping into dementia, my sister was long-since estranged. My kids were not doing well in school, and I wondered how badly I’d already failed them, and how much worse it would be if I up and died on them. My career — bah. A bunch of technical challenges solved to make someone else rich selling gizmos to the morally incompetent to increase their power over the rest of us, to be replaced at the first opportunity with the next new gizmo and forgotten.

But this — this was unambiguous. It was beautiful, certainly as I heard it in my mind through the muddled samples and the poor sound reproduction. Even if it was never heard by anyone but me, even if it was a sand castle washed away without a trace, I wrote this.

And yet, I also feel I didn’t write it, I merely wrote it down. It came from someplace outside me, yet inside me, in a way that’s impossible to adequately describe. Those of you who have been seduced by a Muse will know what I’m talking about.

I remixed the concerto a few years ago with Garritan sound samples on my brand new iMac. That’s the mix that has been up on this site for some time, and it’s a lot closer to what I hear in my head than the crappy little recording from 2003. But it’s still not right.

This one is a little closer.

Technical features. I’m still using Cuebase 7.5. These are the East West Sound samples, the Platinum Orchestra and Platinum Pianos collections. This piano is a Steinway D, and it’s pure chocolate gorgeousness.

I’m driving them, interestingly enough, with the same MIDI sequences dating back to my original 2003 performance, cleaned up here and there. I had to do finer cleanup on the piano part this time, because this sampled piano is so much more responsive to touch. A real Steinway keyboard feels nothing like a weighted electronic keyboard, and my fingering in 2003 was — well, sloppy. Lots of weak notes with the fourth finger.

As the samples become clearer and more realistic, I find that I need to do fewer audio tricks to try to get the sound close to right, and I’ve even been able to consolidate or cut parts.

Cutting parts is good if I hope to have it performed live at any point. Most conductors scowl when you call for two glass harmonica and choir of castrati. I think you have to be Andrew Lloyd Weber to get away with that.

Enjoy.

And I’m very much looking forward to remixing the second movement, to which I’ve never done justice: I think this electronic orchestra can handle it.

Two for the Sink

This has not been an auspicious day.

Teddy is an early riser, and we are trying to figure out how to teach him not to greet us in the morning with his front paws on the bed. Well, actually, paws on the bed would be better: he just gets up on his hind legs — standing, he’s a little shorter than Marta — and then flops his paws down on whatever is near the edge of the bed, a kind of hail-fellow-well-met crushing handshake, slap on the back, and kick down the stairs all rolled into one.

Five-thirty this morning. Even God is only starting to twitch.

Then, as I’m trying to find the shower, Marta tells me the microwave is not working. Which is not good, not because it’s expensive (though it’s not cheap to replace a microwave), but because it’s plugged into some slightly dodgy wiring that could be very expensive to replace. It’s too dark, yet, to even try to go out and check the breaker box. So I pour out the last of the coffee and start a new pot.

When God finally gets up and turns on the lights, I go out, and sure enough, the breaker is tripped. And it won’t re-engage. So the breaker is bad, or there’s a dead short somewhere in the house wiring. Which was working just fine yesterday.

I could go on and on, but it was just one of those days. You’ve all had them.

So then the day was over, the electrician had fixed everything, and I went to pour myself a glass of wine. It continued to be one of those days.

The first try was the Francis Coppola 2014 Chardonnay. When you’re driving up 101 from San Francisco to Ukiah, you can’t miss seeing the Coppola Winery on your left just north of Santa Rosa, between Healdsburg and Geyserville. It’s pretty much the Six Flags of wineries, with everything from tasting rooms to swimming pools. Do check out the website: it’s phenomenal!

The Chardonnay — not so much. It has bitter notes.

Now, there is bitter, and there is bitter. Dark chocolate and coffee are bitter and delicious. This is the other kind. It embraced my tongue like a lover looking forward to starting yet another argument during make-up sex. Yes, all the basic elements are there: the lush body, the long legs, the floral notes, the memory of the sweetness of the past, when the grapes were young and unfermented. But underneath is the kind of bitterness that poisons all pleasure.

I passed it to Marta, and it almost didn’t make it past the sniff-and-swallow test. I think she regretted that it got as far as it did.

So my next try was the 2014 Old Soul Zinfandel, from Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi just south of Sacramento. I fell in love with Old Vine Zinfandels a long time ago. One of the best I ever tasted was something called Mersa, from somewhere near Healdsburg, and it’s on my list to find them now that we’re out here. Old vine Zins are dark, dark as black earth, black chocolate, black licorice, full of cherry and fig and raisin in the slow currents beneath the fruity surface of the Zinfandel grape.

This one — well, earth is a good description. Again, there is a bitterness, this time not of poisoned love, but of the grave. Old Soul indeed. Very old.

Marta trusted her nose this time, and barely touched the wine to her lips before wincing.

Now, had Marta not been tracking my impressions so closely, I’d have kept both bottles for another day, to see if the problem was me. Perhaps my too-early rising had left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Nah. Life is too short and great wines are far too numerous to give any of them second and third chances. Maybe I’ll try the brands again in a better year. Maybe I won’t.

At that point I decided it was a beer night. PranQster is from North Coast Brewing, up in Fort Bragg (an hour west of here), and it’s one of those Belgian monstrosities that doesn’t apologize for putting allspice and cream cheese into the brew.

This one is done very, very well. It isn’t a beer to chug with your buddies on a hot afternoon of working outside. But it’s a truly fine anodyne to bruised taste buds.