Friday, August 31, 2007

firm support for your dangling participles

Every Thursday, the Calgary Herald sends out a sampler paper they call "Neighbours". It's filled with advertising circulars and articles on domestic subjects - how to pickle cucumbers, pack a healthy lunch for your junior high kid, or shop for a new mattress. Reading it is a bit like talking to actual neighbours, friendly folks who want to tell you all about the new restaurant in town or their herniated discs, or just chat about nothing much at all.

The reason I mention it here, and why I read "Neighbours" with such glee, is that it contains some of the worst editing I've ever come across. Here's an example from part 2 of an ongoing series, "In Search of the Perfect Mattress". This article is headlined:

Couple find ideal sleep solution

Already we're on shaky grammatical ground, wondering whether this is (these are?) some newfangled plural couple or the conventional singular type. As you read on, you find various ingenuous quotes from mattress experts:

"Surprisingly, the choice will be narrowed down quite quickly as customers tend to have their own comfort preference."
You don't say! But the final coup de grace is this astonishing sentence:

He cites some of the important areas that should be covered by a sales person include sleeping patterns, work patterns or strains on the body, physical ailments or concerns, and of course, for whom the bed is.
This is the kind of sentence that keeps me awake at night, delighting in the tortuous syntax. (Maybe I'm unique in having that sleep pattern.) I'm pretty sure the writer was conscientiously avoiding a dangling participle, as she unintentionally suggests a John Donne poem.

For whom the bed is, indeed? Do not ask; it is for thee.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Heaven is a place on earth?

The things of earth are symbols of the things of Heaven: the sun corresponds to the deity. There is no time in Heaven. Things' appearances change to correspond to states of emotion; each Angel's clothing shines in proportion to its intelligence. In Heaven, the rich continue to be richer than the poor, since they are accustomed to wealth. In Heaven, objects, furniture, and cities are more concrete and complex than they are on our earth; colors are more varied and more vivid. Angels of English descent are drawn toward politics; Jews, to the jewel trade; Germans carry books about with them that they consult before answering a question. Since Muslims are in the habit of worshipping Mohammed, God has provided them with an Angel who pretends to be the Prophet. The pleasures of Paradise are withheld from the poor in spirit and all ascetics, because they would not understand them.

- Jorge Luis Borges, from "Swedenborg's Angels" in The Book of Imaginary Beings, p. 8-9

Borges is describing the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), an English philosopher and scientist. What I love about his Heaven, apart from the complex furniture (and who doesn't want some more varied and vivid colors?) is the way it manages to accommodate everyone else's ideas of Heaven as well.

With so many different ideas floating around, you'd think someone is bound to be disillusioned and disappointed. Or even realize their whole belief system was flat-out wrong. Unless, of course, it's all been worked out so that people can keep their illusions, their presumptions, and maybe even their portfolios intact.

So maybe it's a big, jumbled, messy place with no fundamental truth that everyone can agree on - sort of like the pre-afterlife, actually. You didn't think you'd escape politics that easily, did you?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mr. Mensch's "slow bow studies"

I've written here in the past about my former teacher Homer Mensch. One of the first things you learned as a student of Mr. Mensch was to not tell anyone about his methods - the warm-up routines, technique exercises, and those mysterious photocopied etudes he would assign at each lesson. When you had played the etude to his satisfaction, he collected the photocopy back from you - making sure it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands, I guess.

Some of the most important of Mr. Mensch's secret exercises were the "slow bow studies". At our first lesson he explained: I was to spend at least 30 minutes each day drawing the bow as slowly as possible on open strings, right down next to the bridge. I should do 15 minutes as loud as possible, and then 15 minutes as soft as possible. In each case, however, I needed to draw the bow as smoothly and evenly as possible, with the best quality sound I could manage.

Mr. Mensch also gave a standard, a goal I was to achieve: 18 counts at the lowest setting on the metronome. He turned on his metronome, dialed it down to 35, and turned up the volume, as if to dare me to play that loud. I gave it my best shot - 7 and a half beats of open E string. I tried again, slower - this time 9 beats, interrupted by croaking, sticking, squawking.

"My goodness, Matthew, this needs some serious work."

Over the next few weeks, my college suite-mates came to dread the sound of me unpacking my bass. Because every practice session began with the "drill" - actually some of them thought I was literally operating a drill in my room. I hated to disturb their naps and "Worms"-video game marathons, but I had some serious work to do. My bow wasn't going to slow itself down!

It seems silly in retrospect, how I obsessed over those "slow bow studies". But at the time, it was like some miraculous sound-production spell had just been revealed. As I worked at it, I was accessing a depth and focus that I'd never even thought was possible on that bass. My suite-mates were cranking up their Fugees albums to deafening levels, just to drown me out!

Beyond that, it was the first time I'd really made an effort to do something slower - which actually meant reducing the effort and tension, since those only made the bow less cooperative. The slow-bow study became like a sitting meditation for me; focusing on steadying, disciplining, and purifying my sound, I think I discovered my first experience of a pure, steady, disciplined, mind. Of course, I was still a frazzled, confused college freshman when I'd finished, but it seemed to take me away from all that confusion, at least for a half-hour each morning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

more about MoM

For another take on Sunday's concert - and a new blog worth bookmarking - check out "Fiasco! (?)" by Jeff White. Jeff's blog The Philharmonist promises more context and criticism (plus cartoons!) than I'm prepared to give about the CPO. I'm still learning my way around the building!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mozart in a heated tent

"Mozart on the Mountain"
Sunday, August 26th, 2 pm
Roberto Minczuk conducting

Mozart Overture to Don Giovanni
Mozart Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183 (173dB)
I. Allegro con brio
Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622
II. Andante
III. Allegro

Beethoven Symphony No.5 in C Minor, op. 67
I. Allegro con brio
"Lord Strathcona Troop Musical Ride"
marches by Sousa and others,
accompanying horse tricks
Rossini Overture to William Tell
Glinka Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla

Yesterday was my first performance with the CPO - I didn't really have time to get nervous though, since I was too busy trying to keep warm. It was an outdoor concert at the Rafter Six Ranch Resort, out towards Banff, and it would have been a spectacular setting, had the weather cooperated.

Instead, we had a muddy field beneath gray, dreary skies, and an incredibly stoic audience. Even before the orchestra buses arrived, they had encamped with folding chairs, enormous umbrellas, and wind-resistant parkas - it was like playing to a climbing expedition on Mt. Everest. (Actually one of the speakers before the concert was a politician who had climbed Everest.) As the speeches went on, and on, we could see them angling their umbrellas and adjusting their tents to keep off the driving rain. These people were prepared.

Moving up here from Florida, this weather issue is hard to dodge - people want to know whether I've ever worn a sweater, if I'm up on my survival and layering skills, do I know how to defrost my car in 20 below temperatures... I try to reassure people that I lived in Chicago and Boston, I'm familiar with snow and numb fingers, I'm prepared to invest in an engine block heater and long underwear. I just didn't expect I'd need them already in August!

This was definitely a tougher breed of classical music listeners than I'm familiar with from Miami, or Chicago or Boston for that matter. There were people yelling up to the stage to ask for people to take down their umbrellas, so the people in the back could see better. You definitely want to put on a great show, when people are subjecting themselves to extreme conditions to see and hear you - we didn't have it nearly so bad, with heaters and a big tent, but I was still shivering and clutching for blowing-away pages. Luckily, we had a fantastic soloist for the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, Steve Amsel. He's the orchestra's principal clarinetist, and he made a gorgeous arc of the slow movement and a playful chase of the 3rd. (He had some help from Tim Rawlings, our percussionist and personnel manager, holding his pages down.)

For an outdoor concert, this had some substantial repertoire - all those ricochet licks in the William Tell, the lightning-fast scales in Glinka, and some meat and potatoes in the Beethoven. And Mozart is always a test of ensemble, intonation, flexibility. Even with rain pounding on the tent, you still feel exposed. It's hard to judge an orchestra from hearing it in a tent and an acoustically dead rehearsal room, but it's nice to play in a section with strong leaders, and the orchestra generally responds well to RM. He challenged the orchestra to find lightness and character in the Mozart and Rossini, and depth and contrast in the Beethoven. So at least we had a focus, besides holding onto our music and maintaining circulation in our extremities.

The orchestra's next services are recording sessions next week, a film score using music by Tchaikovsky. Those will be indoors and climate controlled!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Juliet winced

When she read the letter, Juliet winced, as anybody does on discovering the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self. She wondered at the sprightly cover-up, contrasting with the pain of her memories. Then she thought that some shift must have taken place, at that time, which she had not remembered. Some shift concerning where home was...

Because it's what happens at home that you try to protect, as best you can, for as long as you can.

- Alice Munro, from the short story "Soon", collected in Runaway, p. 125
I've been reading the Canadian author Alice Munro lately - all these incredibly nuanced stories of closely held secrets and privately lived lives. She makes you see the ultimate absurdity of how we conceal so much within ourselves, just to go on living in our ordinary, tolerable way. And when things become intolerable, how quickly our secrets can collapse in on us!

I don't want to overdramatize my own little secrets - probably I have nothing quite worthy of an Alice Munro story, so far. But since several people made such thoughtful and understanding comments to my post the other day, I wanted to write a little about why I enjoy this sometimes silly hobby, and what I see as this blog's mission, just supposing it were worthy of anything so grand-sounding as a "mission".

The most astonishing thing about blogging is the people who read me - I'm continually amazed at the depth and care put into responses on this blog. While I don't always directly answer each comment, they always seem to make me laugh, wonder, or think again about what I wrote. How often I've just written something on a whim, on any sort of obscure subject matter I might imagine, and then quickly found an answer from some passionate authority on that very subject - Martinu's chamber music, or Schoenberg's personal relationships, or bowings in the Bach cello suites - and realized there's no subject too obscure, too bizarre (or even too personal) - that it won't strike a chord in someone.

Of course, as amazing as can be to reach into cyberspace and discover some kindred soul out there in the void, I don't really write this for strangers or fanatics. (Sorry, strangers and fanatics!) Mostly I think about those readers who I already know well, either from real-life acquaintances or from reading and following their own blogs, sometimes both. It's fascinating to develop that kind of multi-level relationship with someone - discovering that a person you really like in person has whole other dimensions in cyberspace.

And I suppose that writing here gives me a chance to explore dimensions I don't readily show in person. Or even quite realize were there. I love that Walt Whitman line -
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
and I think that blogging is an opportunity to air one's multitudes, try them out on an understanding or indifferent audience.

I suppose that's what makes blogging a bit scary, too. You never know when you might air some aspect of yourself that irritates, displeases, or offends someone. And as much of a pleasure it is to receive a comment, either from an old friend or a complete stranger, as I start to read them I'm always a bit wary that maybe I've rubbed someone the wrong way, or bared a little too much of my soul this time. Thankfully I've very seldom had that experience, but I know many people who have found themselves the target of nasty and personal attacks - and I can understand the chilling effect those voices might have.

I suppose any time we write to express ourselves, it's a more or less fabricated self we express. Even a writer as gifted as Alice Munro can only hint at what goes on inside of us. Still though, I think the writing of which I'm most proud, and wince the least at, is when I've honestly made that effort. It's not easy, and you sometimes have to fight every self-protective instinct to press "publish", but still it can be worth it.

So I think I'll keep writing - maybe I'll have change some names or be coy with some details, but there's no point having an outlet if you can't actually let things out. And if I write enough long, self-conscious posts like this, I might just bore all the critics away! One can hope.

Friday, August 24, 2007

what to do?

I've been thinking lately about whether to close down this blog, and either start it again from scratch or think up a new title or concept. Some of you may remember my last blogicidal episode, last summer. Back then I was getting a bit neurotic about technology and outdoor activities, reading and writing, basically anything that wasn't practicing - I felt like if I didn't crack down right away and get serious about auditions, I was never going to get a job. It's funny, at some point I realized that if anything I was being too serious about auditions, not letting myself escape that "must-get-job-now" mindset and have a life in the meantime.

Anyway, this time it's a little different. I'm wondering if all the stuff I've written here in the past, and ill-advised writings sure to come in the future, are going to get me into trouble. Even if I do my best to be polite and diplomatic at all times, something embarrassing is bound to slip out. I know for a fact there's stuff in the archives here already that I wouldn't want to see quoted in the newspaper - and that's just in the small fraction I can still recall writing.

So I've thought about doing some serious pruning of those archives, and maybe picking out a new title and a new look to this blog. You can always make things seem bright and healthy with a new coat of wallpaper, right? Well, I'm not really sure, and the thought of being all circumspect and careful all the time isn't that appealing either. Maybe I should go incognito?

I'm open to any suggestions from readers. And once I figure out what to do, I'll try to let everyone know, and make everything easy to find - that is, to the extent I want to be found!

Monday, August 06, 2007

on the way to Calgary: Great Falls

Maybe I shouldn't have raved so much about the mountains in Arizona and Utah - today I drove through Montana and it was just freakishly gorgeous. I'm running out of superlatives here. We live in an awesome, breathtaking country, and I could have never imagined a lot of the things I saw today. Of course there's a lot of this country you can't see from an interstate highway - I would have preferred to stop and gawk at some of those canyons and waterfalls for a bit longer. A lot of places in Montana, though, you can't get to except on a freeway. It's just to bad you have to go speeding by it at 75 m.p.h.!

No pictures today, since I'm booked into a motel without internet connections. I went to a local Barnes & Noble to send some e-mails, but I don't have all the cords to hook up my camera. Tonight is my last night in the United States for a while - it's strange to be leaving my country now, after seeing so much of it for the first time! - but I'll post some photos as soon as I can get online in Calgary.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

on the way to Calgary: Salt Lake City

This morning I started the last leg of my move from Miami to Calgary - starting from my parents' house in Las Vegas. You can't really see into the car in this picture, but it's completely packed with stuff, right up to my big clunky stool in the passenger seat. So far the trip has been good. I passed through all these incredible mountains in Arizona and Utah, and tonight I'm staying in Salt Lake City. Here are some pictures from the hotel parking lot:

A lot of my summer so far has been about reconnecting with people and places - I've gotten to see some good friends for the first time since high school, and I've gotten to visit my family all over the country, including my baby niece Ori in Virginia. I'd forgotten how powerful it is to be surrounded by mountains, the sense of wonder and grandeur that these places create. Not that Florida doesn't have its share of wonders as well!

Now that I'm on my way up to Calgary and getting underway with the new job, I'm hoping to pick up with this blog again too. I have lots of notes and ideas to write up - most are crammed in boxes in the back of the car. I get rusty after not writing for a while, though. Better to warm up with a few pictures, and not get too ambitious for a while!