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Arts and Crafts with Christian Lauba

“So let me get this straight,” he said. “You can barely play Bach and you work at some bebop with a dash of Glazunov, and you’ve never even heard Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’? What about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ or maybe ‘Happy Birthday’? Do you know how to play those tunes?” My ears were bright red and my face was hot—I was speechless. Americans are supposed to be the kings of sarcasm, not the French! Here I was making the effort to embrace the best of the classical saxophone aesthetic after having moved halfway around the world and my first lesson was a criticism on what I would play if my mother were listening. Clearly, I had missed something.

Music lessons with Christian Lauba rarely produce a dull moment. They are a roller coaster of experiences from elation to despair to relief, especially when you figure out how to realize his musical demands. Working with him carries a two-fold focus: one on fundamental instrumental abilities such as timbre and tuning and the other on ear-training abilities. That’s not transcribing, but rather the ability to immediately recognize the different Brandenbourg Concertos and Kindertotenlieder by ear, for example. Some noteworthy divergences he took from other teachers were a substitution of Bach studies (normally movements from the cellos sonatas) instead of Londeix and Lecour études as well as a focus on the character of a performance of a piece. You played the work happily, with vigor, or angrily according to your desired interpretation or what the composer might call for. Lauba guided me to control my emotions on stage so that I could say what I wanted to say in my own way, any day.

Each week our work together began with the normal regimen of playing a scale, always slowly. Often, saxophone players practice flashy without focusing on fundamental matters of intonation and finger control; this rebuilding work neatly exposed all of the flaws I had simply blown past for years—I was the kind of guy who played his scales as loud as possible to the rhythms of Paul Van Dyk. With Lauba, I would begin with an A major scale (C concert) because this is the most difficult to maintain in tune. Saxophonists quickly learn this because of the naturally kinky open C# and full D notes in the saxophone’s middle register—they’re tuned opposite of the way a major 3rd and perfect 4th ought to sound. Another important hurdle we corrected concerned the naturalizing of the timbre between registers. No longer was it appropriate to fluff my way through the deep register with a woofy Ben Webster sound only to reappear cutting and overblown like Eric Marienthal in the palm keys. I listened to the evenness of Itzakh Perlman’s timbre on the Paganini caprices and learned to play with an even resonance no matter what note I was playing; according to the style called for, I learned to shape an appropriate sound.

Within this warmup exercise Christian would normally harmonize the scale with me on the piano. There was always an emphasis on fitting inside of the sound to create a homogenized effect instead of one instrument layered on top of another. I stopped blowing so hard and placed that energy into listening for the appropriate pocket fit of the two instruments. It’s kind of like sports when a basketball player cannot miss 3-pointers (case in point—Mike Miller, Miami Heat, Game 5 2012 NBA Finals). There is a groove to be found, and I listened to manipulate the materials at hand to catch the sounds we were looking for. From there I would usually simulate a performance situation of the work I was studying. Christian maintains a degree of intensity when it comes to these moments, and so little by little I worked to develop a performance bubble so that musical instincts would play out when the spotlight was on and people were watching.

Lauba also gave me a crash course list of essential works to know by heart on classical music, which you can access here. Put simply, it is a beginner’s anthology for scratching the surface of Lauba’s listening background or perhaps a workman’s guide for classical music dummies. In absorbing this new music, I learned to appreciate some of the most cherished works of the fine art canon. It serves spectacularly as a point of departure in a world glutted with more music than anyone will ever have time to totally listen to.

However, that’s only half the story. Ultimately, studying music with the composer is a lesson in humility. You realize you are not all that, you are blatantly confronted with your weaknesses, and you are forced to come to terms with your listening acumen. In short, studying with Lauba is a musical roast. He cheerfully laughs at you if you play out of the style at hand and holds you to the highest of standards. Friendship is an important matter, but the music is the most important. No element is left un-confronted. A bad lesson with Lauba is the only time in my life where I quite literally wanted to throw my instrument out of the window!

Working with Lauba installs a new mentality inside your sensibilities, a brand of thinking that reflects his economical approach to music. Because he didn’t begin studying music until he was thirty years old, the man simply had little time for extraneous musical efforts. Being the late bloomer that he was, he inherently placed himself in a position where it was important to make quick decisions about the musical issues immediately at hand. As a result, with Lauba, there is good music and bad music; one finds aesthetics that reflect a healthy finesse or approaches that debase the Western fine art form. A good place of departure for understanding this viewpoint is found in my article Art-in-an-ugly-box, which I wrote after a particularly memorable argument at the beginning of the year. Finally, his musical ideas aim for creating new works that embrace the past while pointing forward. Most of his favorite composers come before the 20th century (a notable exception is Ligeti) and fundamentally, I contend that Lauba is at heart a classical composer. But that is an argument for another day.

When it comes to music, Christian carries strong opinions proposed with a smile and defended with a bullwhip. He is particularly critical of classical saxophone teachers in America and Europe who routinely teach students without really helping them, who collect a salary while perpetuating a mediocre performance level, and fail to champion the quality repertory apart from the inferior. He resists such 20th century devices as indeterminacy, expressionism, minimalism and especially free (spectral) improvisation. He is convinced that most concert saxophone players come from the country or some backwoods culture; but then again, perhaps he was just talking about me! At any rate, the point is being musically broad with a well-rounded listening background.

Working with Lauba, nevertheless, will change your life. He is not the shamelessly self-promoting shark trying to overrun the next composer; he would rather let his music speak for itself. Because of him, I learned to play music with greater expression and live life without fear. I laugh more. I take myself less seriously. I hear more details in conversation and in music. I accept risk as the pathway to my goals. His approach to life and music is a bit elementary. You simply listen, perceive, compare, and adjust accordingly. This is the Lauba way. Observe and respond, develop your talents . . . trust your instincts.

Arts and Crafts With Richard Ducros

“Not Amsterdam, not San Sebastián, definitely not Paris,” I repeated over Skype. “I want to work with you guys.” My intentions were clear. Having studied in environments not so well known for saxophone my entire academic life, I wasn’t about to change now. “There will always be plenty of institutionalized saxophone players to fill the educational voids between Europe and the States. I’ve fulfilled my degree duties to the M.M.” For my part, after a master course with Messieurs Lauba and Ducros in Rouffach, France last summer (for me more affectionately known as Christian and Richard), I knew where I wanted to finally polish off my saxophone studies. Bordeaux was calling.

Upon first meeting Richard four months before that time, I had been familiar with his music only through YouTube. I figured he was probably a Lauba spcialist. Of course, that is true. Ducros really is the best interpreter of Christian’s contemporary œuvres, so not surprisingly it’s also true that they work out of the same studio in Bordeaux. I knew there would be no problem getting along with Richard the first time I met him, hanging out at Le Eight pub on the line 3 bus route just at the edge of Bordeaux city limits. Musically, I was all too wary of specialty saxophone players who carried great enthusiasm for one particular style of music and a great deal of ignorance for the rest. So when I finally realized over a beer and game of billiards that we both liked Michael Brecker and had obsessed with playing fusion jazz, I was ready to jump out of my skin. Finally, a hybrid professional saxophonist who embraced Coltrane, Mintzer, Glazunov, Scelsi, and Villa-Lobos alike. In Richard, I found a kindred musical spirit who recognized that ignorance was a ticket to mediocrity. He accepts he may not live to dominate every musical style, but he happily will borrow and utilize diverse influences in his musical personality.

When you walk into his studio, it looks like the typical bachelor pad. There are oranges lying around the occasional empty wine bottle set next to a half-eaten baguette and bar of dark chocolate. The table is filled with odds and ends, mostly knick-knacks. Old concert programs, an Aquitaine color-coded wine region poster, screwdrivers, bottle openers all clutter the table—the occasional CD sent from fellow musicians such as the Birdcatchers and Zzyzx Quartet tend to accumulate here as well. The dishes are always clean for some unfathomable reason. The coffee table is stacked high with MacWorld and Crutchfield magazines and the walls are filled above my head with CD’s.  Brandenburg concertos, Saint-Saëns symphonies, Bill Evans, and Stan Getz are kings of music in this house. Where there is wall-space, I see an enormous promo ad from some early movie music Richard played years ago. In the main room where they work, I find Programming Linux for Dummies, full scores of the Glazunov sax concerto, an occasional music history book, and an ample collection of the Great Adventures of TinTin. At the workstation to my right, I find a couple amplifiers, an E.W.I., a keyboard hooked up to a MacBook station running Logic Pro (Richard likes to write pop music too), and a bunch of reeds with squiggle marks all over them. Clothes in the transition of going from clean to dirty or dirty to clean are draped over armchairs. Two alto saxophones are neatly packed away with one sitting out next to a bass guitar, fax machine, pogoplug web server, and wall piano. In the back room are two dressers filled with saxophone reeds. There must be thousands of them in there, saved over time to ensure the best reed with the best sound is always available—if you can find it.

As a teacher, Richard is focused, almost nervous at all times. He speaks enough English to get by, and little by little I try and employ more of my French to speed the communication. He is sincere and eager, but more than anything he is a fastidious technician in the workplace. He knows the exact sound he wants for himself and for me too for that matter, and he uses his studio to iron the wrinkles out of the music.  He respects the style at hand and of course drives me to do the same. From him, I have developed an obsession for playing with a clear classical sound when required, overall, always in tune. He has helped me realize that my sound is not always consistent, which has interesting implications that extend to all aspects of my life. Working with Richard has taught me that music is not a job, it is an effort in artistry. You breathe this stuff, you obsess about it because you’re passionate for it, and you carry sharp opinions about others who make it. You must listen more than you practice at all times. Classical, jazz, pop, tin pan alley, it all goes in the box to give you a foundation for communication. This is the kind of education I never grasped when I was pursuing degrees, that is to say this emphasis on listening. Musically, they instilled inside of me a passion to hear with more focus and clarity, and without a doubt it accounts for the greatest of debts I owe to both Christian and Richard.

Richard is always respectful. We work in a musical laboratory, and although sometimes he chooses to use the scalpel to make a point, we understand the issue is to fix the music and not degrade a person’s sensibilities. Normally, we eat together afterwards, a simple meal of bread and wine (normally, such a meal is reserved for before the crucifixion), duck and carrots perhaps as well. He is also a generous person. The choices that he makes in helping me include loaning me mouthpieces and reeds, especially at the beginning when I had a great need for settling in and little €. He recognizes the financial price I paid when I came here and jumps at the opportunity to help if he sees a need.

Musically, we have spent more than our fair share of time working on Bach. The evenness of fingers has been a major project, and although I previously regarded this as a strength, I’ve learned to drive myself to technical perfection because of Bach preludes and partitas. Playing Bach has also driven me to improve my tuning. I know of no other music as intonationally delicate due to the fact that each interval requires the utmost of clarity to be within the style. Otherwise, the effect becomes muffled and fuzzy. The implications here are obvious, as playing in tune carries to every style of Western music at varying degrees. Regardless of how well you play in tune, working with Richard has taught me that an acute awareness of it is at all times essential. We have also worked to a lesser degree on the Wiedoeft and Matitia repertoire, which has jazz tendencies with classical sensibilities. It is light. It is fun. It sounds so French to my ears, and it is good for casinos and restaurants. Perhaps surprisingly, we have spent little time on Lauba’s repertoire. I polished Worksong and Balafon, and will meet with them one more time before I return to the United States to play a rough draft version of Bumble Beebop, a new étude Lauba composed in November for me to premiere. For those who are counting, this is the 21st étude of its kind. Within it, I hear Gershwin, Parker, and Coltrane all filtered through a very French sophistication. It swings hard and crooked, and there is no reflective introduction as in most of his études. Finally, we reviewed and rehashed the only great concerto for saxophone written by Alexander Glazunov. Alongside perhaps the Chamber Concertino by Ibert, it is the only classical saxophone work in which you can play it each year and have it worth your time and money as a player. Lauba also wrote an étude dedicated to Richard and intended as a subsitute for that briefly hashed out arpeggio cadenza most people normally play. It has found a degree of success among Russian musicians, and I did take the time to work this up with the two of them as well. It is meant to be spectacular like any good cadenza, but above all, sentimental.

It is a mistake to consider Richard a one-track musician. He is in reality firmly rooted in three styles, able to play the classical saxophone repertoire, early New Orleans jazz charts, and of course contemporary Lauba. He is the only classical saxophonist I am aware of who makes his living almost exclusively off of gigs and the occasional master class—no university or conservatory teaching for him. Like a secretive scientist or even the great Fred Astaire, he works so that noone will know until the time is right and he is ready. If, however, you think his obsession in the studio would lead to boredom on the stage, you might be in for a surprise. From him I have ultimately learned that the stage is the place to let go of yourself and launch your music to the public. Nothing else matters in those moments, it is only you and the music at hand. This is Richard Ducros.

With Love, from Agrabah!

Even today, I remember when Aladdin debuted in theaters in 1992. A fictional Agrabah portrayed through the eyes of Walt Disney captured an entire generation with its quick wit and classic rags-to-riches story. I was fascinated with the entire notion. Magic carpets who played chess, lots of jewels and treasure in caves , and a genie who made good jokes! My 7-year-old imagination ran wild at the idea of having 3 wishes. Of course, the most important part of the plot centered around capturing the heart of Princess Jasmine, something the genie was not allowed to directly manipulate according to the international governing code of genies.

Genie: So what’ll it be, master?

Aladdin: You’re gonna grant me any 3 wishes I want, right?

Genie: [imitating William F. Buckley] Uh, ah, almost. There are a few, uh, provisos. Ah, a couple of quid pro quo.

Aladdin: Like?

Genie: [normally] Uh, rule #1, I can’t kill anybody.

[cuts his head off]

Genie: So don’t ask. A-rule #2!

[fixes his head]

Genie: I can’t make anybody fall in love with anybody else.

[smooches Aladdin]

Genie: You little punim there. RULE #3!

[turns into a slimy Genie, and imitating Peter Lorre]

Genie: I can’t bring people back from the dead. It’s not a pretty picture. I DON’T LIKE DOING IT!

[he returns to normal]

Genie: Other than that, you got it!

Falling in love is quite certainly one of the most bewildering things a human being can subject themself to. There’s a moment where you notice and then a decision to move. Just as in chess, the protagonist makes a gambit of submitting their wit (or lack thereof) for the acceptance of a stranger’s uncontrollable response. It involves a tug-of-war between pretending you don’t care in an effort not to be overbearing (you don’t want to smother the person) and showing just enough that you do care to let matters develop. It’s a dance of euphoria and the script of nightmares. What if things don’t work out? Worse yet, what if they do?

I used to think that love was a task of finding commonalities and shared life goals. It was set-up, won, earned, planned out. Many cultures, even today, observe the tradition of arranged marriages. Even my own Kansan sister has happily married a guy whose meeting was arranged between some intuitive friends. Getting a calculated relationship can be interesting and still holds weight, but it’s a light weight compared to the reality of chemistry. In spite of everything, this is something not even Aladdin’s genie can force. There are simply certain people in life that I am immediately and strongly attracted to. I know when I see them because the hair jumps on the back of my neck. My I.Q. immediately regresses 30 points, and my vocabulary morphs into a series of monkey grunts and awkward smiles. Sometimes I see them on the subway or on the bus, in the supermarket, or even saxophone competitions.

Why is it that some people seem to have magnets inside them? Why do people think about love so much? Aren’t we brought up in Western culture to believe in “the one” and matters of the heart? Why is there just one if there are over 7 billion people in the world? What about the idea of being content with who you are and fulfilled as a single person? After having gone through a forced engagement (totally my bad, see preceding paragraph), I’m quasi-sure that a successful couple is set up by two people who are comfortable in their own skin long before they ever meet each other. If you consider their sense of self-esteem, they are 51% content with themselves yet 49% in need of affirmation. I know it sounds clinical and formulaic, but it’s a solid point of departure. For me, life is full of women I could fall in love with. It’s just a matter of finding one I don’t get bored spending time with. Another way to consider dating could consist of simply saying hello and goodbye to lots of different people until you find someone you can no longer say goodbye to.

So Aladdin, of course, had to turn himself into a prince for Jasmine to even notice him, all the while competing with the evil sorcerer Jafar who was certain Jasmine would fit perfectly in his diabolical plan to steal the kingdom from the sultan:

Princess Jasmine: [to Jafar] At least some good will come of my being forced to marry. When I am Queen, I will have the power to get rid of *you*.

Sultan: Well, now. That’s nice. All settled then. Now, Jasmine, getting back to this suitor business… Jasmine? Jasmine!

[the Sultan notices that Jasmine is running out of the room, and runs after]

Jafar: If only I had gotten that lamp.

Iago: [mocking Jasmine] “I will have the power to get rid of you.” Grrrr. To think we gotta keep kissin’ up to that chump, and his chump daughter, for the rest of our lives…

Jafar: No, Iago. Only until she finds a chump husband. Then she’ll have us banished. Or… beheaded.

Jafar, Iago: Ewwww.

Iago: Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute! Jafar, what if *you* were the chump husband?

Jafar: What?

Iago: Okay, okay. *You* marry the princess, all right? And-and, uh, you- Then *you* become the sultan!

Jafar: Ah. Marry the shrew. I become sultan. The idea has merit.

Iago: Yes, merit. Yes! And then, we drop papa-in-law and the little woman off a cliff… “Yaaaah! Kersplat!”

Jafar: [laughs] I love the way your foul little mind works.

In the end, guy gets the girl and good triumphs over talking parrots and their crazy masters. I think real life should be the same as Aladdin lived. Find what you want, truly desire. Pay attention to your street smarts, sometimes that’s all you have. Get a genie, or at least a good friend (preferably a funny one). Always keep a magic carpet close at hand. Never, ever, ever, give up.

Łódź: Saxophone Face-Off!

Performing music in the 2nd International Saxophone Competition in Lodz was a learning and listening experience. I was the 7th player of 39 in my age group of performers who had come from as far away as Los Angeles and Tokyo. We arrived with hopes to win concerts and prizes. In the end of course, most people won nothing except a lot of fantastic memories and pianist fees.

Musically, I learned the value of playing with excellence, and how playing perfectly can be more important than playing with heart in a competition. I’m not convinced this is a good lesson, but it is the reality of the system. Also, obligatory repertoire is often poor music designed to see if contestants have the stamina to keep up with the rest in a manner as clear as possible. On the other hand, pieces can be chosen to revive lost repertoire or premiere new music. This is reality. After this competition, I’m convinced there are some pieces which may be better lost to history.

Politically, I learned that staff pianists will almost automatically play better for native contestants than foreigners, American or otherwise. It’s unprofessional, but they have the power simply by the fact that we’re on their territory. Also, the most complete player doesn’t always win, especially when saxophone teachers feud—students can get backhanded by matters out of their control. With that in mind, I still happily leave my congratulations to the final winner Xavier Larsson, the kid really played fantastic! The rest of us will get another chance.

Some people say there are competition musicians and concert musicians. You’re amazed by the competitor, but can never get comfortable and enjoy their musical offering. Leonard Bernstein always said he would rather hear an imperfect performance played with heart than a flawless mechanical interpretation. For my part, I want the best of both worlds: a musician who can play clean and also with fullness of depth. For me, this is the most elusive and rare of musicians and my own personal aim.

In spite of having planned the last six months of my life for this saxophone olympics only to have made a quick exit in the first round, I’m reflecting on the best. I met fantastic people, lived like a crazy man, made my personality loud, enjoyed every moment, and left no stone unturned. Travelling to such a contest always leaves room for risk. No matter the result, you must choose to be content with yourself as a musician and person. The very act of trying is a musical upgrade on your abilities. When it’s time, people will start to notice.

Tonight, I close with the words of American comedian and actor Kyle Cease speaking in regards to risk and reward in life. His words, of course, extend way beyond a saxophone competition to life in the normal world. I humbly offer them with the wish that you find the ideas as meaningful as I have.

Seriously, if you want anything, all you have to do is show up. Do what you do, and it will happen. Stop trying to get it. That is cutting corners. That gets in the way. Just do your thing. You keep doing what you do, and you can have anything. Only work on what you can do, and let go. Enjoy doing it in that moment. Stop monitoring while you are doing. Results will show up when its time. Also, the results will be bigger than you can imagine, which is why you should stop deciding how it will go. Want the ultimate career? Become the best in that field. People will notice. Want the ultimate life? Allow. Stop thinking you are in lack without that thing or person. Just create. Don’t know how? Good. Just start. It will answer itself. Just start. That’s it.

Location: Łódź

The more I read about the city of Lodz, the more I discover one could nearly write off the 20th century as a historical gaffe. Yes, Lodz is no stranger to difficulty and development, transformed by industrialists and investors from all over Europe who built factories there throughout the 19th century. By 1914, it served as the most densely populated city in the world at 34,400 people per square mile. The special chemical nature of its water supply allowed it to house the largest textile industry in Europe. It carried the dubious distinction behind Warsaw holding Europe’s second largest ghetto (and most productive) during World War II. As part of the Polish communist state, it saw its private factories nationalized and individual fortunes disintegrate. Finally, in 1990, as the Berlin Wall was falling and the USSR was disintegrating, Lech Walesa became the president of Poland in the country’s first free elections since the end of WW II. Again, life for people in Lodz suddenly got much more complicated. It saw itself restarted by a new regime, and of course, capitalism. Its corner into the Russian market was shattered. Its population was cut down, and its economic stability faltered. Although the country’s overall GDP exceeded pre-communist levels by 1995, 21 years later I still feel like I am walking into the aftermath of a meltdown.

zloty 3,80-€1 was the exchange rate I got at the Lodz airport, the obvious detail I noticed walking out of the international arrivals terminal. For a split second, I felt I had won the lottery. Finally, an exchange rate that plays to the $ instead of taking from it! As my taxi driver took us into the city, I quickly realized why living was so cheap here. I was no longer in the scenic lands of Western Europe, but rather in post-Communist Poland, a hauntingly real image of the not-so-distant-past. Lodz is a scary city at first. You see the run-down buildings, the brick scars on the sides where the concrete has worn away. There are skinheads on the street, mostly passive alone but intimidating in groups. I’m pretty sure most of the tram cars have not been replaced since 1980. When the driver wants to change tracks, he has to stop the tram, get out with a steel rod and push the guide to change his direction. Although the occasional skyscraper pokes its head through the rubble, the ghetto caricature remains—that is, unless you take into account the occasionally neo-gothic architecture. At times covered in grandiose archways and soot-blackened goblins, this city has no lack of striking architecture. It’s something where Jay-Z might walk past Harry Potter on the street—if only there were black people in Lodz. The only non-caucasian people I saw the whole time I was there were the Japanese saxophonists I met at the music competition we had travelled to participate in. Honestly, the beauty of this city never really meets the eye; there isn’t much to see until you start meeting the people. Only then does one begin to discover the richness offered here.

The Polish generally seem to be divided by generations more obviously than many countries I have visited, simply for the fact that most people older than my age don’t seem to speak much English. As a foreigner, that can be quite the challenge as Polish bears 0% resemblance to the Romance languages most Americans grow up studying. Being so dramatically different, Poles somehow manage to speak English with clearer accents than most foreigners I have met. I found it odd sitting in settings where at times nearly everything seemed American-influenced, but with a foreign tongue twist. I found Polish people to be quite friendly, free of grandiosity and excess. They are generally conservative in conversation and lifestlye, probably due to being ±88% Catholic. This is easily the most religious country I have visited in Europe, I could feel it in the air. People will go out of there way to help you, taking time out of their work to make sure your need is met, something I cannot say for many places in the world I’ve been to.

Lodz is rebuilding itself. There are shopping malls and restaurants installed in places formerly holding dilapidated factories such as Manufaktura, one of 19th century Jewish philanthropist Izrael Poznanski’s most notable creations. There is Leon Schiller’s National Higher School of Film and other academies, which foster a burgeoning student population. There is even music, a worthy endeavor in the city the great Artur Rubinstein hails from. I find a cultural renaissance happening in Lodz, in the midst of a global crisis which never really touched Poland in the first place due to its comparatively weak economy (think USA and Eurozone) and in spite of a generally uneducated public. I like this city because I see its citizens working to rebuild anew that which was destroyed by a myriad of obstacles—there is resilience here! Take the time to check it out if you ever get the chance, but take a taxi at night.

16 Philosophers-A Synopsis

The following list is written in no particular order. Consider it a discussion piece for your next coffee break.

Immanuel Kant ~ Focus: Achieving the “Kingdom of Ends” through individuality autonomy and morality. The “Kingdom of Ends” is achieved rationally and voluntarily. This process is inevitable and universal. The “K o E” makes a distinction between sin and crime, and is a republic based on a social contract. The “K o E” must be internationalized.

Jeremy Bentham ~ Focus: Forming a government which maximizes the greatest good of the number of people (UTILITARISM). Utilitarian government is formed rationally and voluntarily, and it is not coercive.

James Mill ~ Focus: Improving Bentham’s ideal government through separation of powers, and greater responsiveness to the people. Power should not be absorbed by any one entity. Calls for greater accountability of elected officials, and more involvement of middle class.

Karl Marx ~ Focus: Achieving the fulfillment of man by meeting his economic needs, which in turn meets all other needs of man. Society must remove the exploitation that the “have-nots” experience.

Friedrich Nietzche ~ Focus: The realization of the “Superman”, who made his own laws, and the abandonment of prevailing political structures, which, thanks to Christianity, protected the weak. Equality, democracy, and socialism should be banned, because it protects the weak. The survival principal is nevertheless supreme; Christianity, and the society it has formed will soon die, and the Superman will emerge. Nihilism and political introversion must be embraced until society falls.

Plato ~ Serving the state obtains the proper means of achieving justice both on a personal level and on the level of society.

Aristotle ~ Believing in what worked best in reality, not ideal circumstances, Aristotle asserts that an aristocracy would be the best regime.

Cicero ~ Believes Mixed government is best, taking from all three types – aristocracy, monarchy, polity (people-led), however, mostly aristocracy. And religion is just a tool of the state.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau ~ Says we need to achieve a civil society based upon the general will. There can be no separation of powers for general will to succeed. The government should have the power to enforce general will.

Niccoló Machiavelli ~ Rule by might to achieve positive results. The state must control the church. (precursor of “Superman” ideal)

Francis Bacon ~ Use of science to achieve the ideal society (as in Utopia). This will create peace at home. However, war abroad also is advocated because it furthers science. Religion is a function of the utopian state.

Thomas Hobbes ~ Use of science to achieve the best commonwealth. Believes that need for survival vs. needs of evil passions is what needs to be determined. The answer is to create a social contract by willful consent of the people, or by force if necessary. Church is controlled by state.

René Descartes ~ One can achieve the “good life” by being generous through controlling their passions. Society should be set up so nations can communicate scientific information for the advancement of all – no matter what form of government it might take. Had a distaste for the church.

Baruch Spinoza ~ The sovereign determines what is in the general interest of society, making the sovereign the absolute. However, democracy must be permitted to allow for diversity. He never explains how the sovereign and democracy are reconciled to each other. Religion is a tool of the state.

David Hume ~ People have the right to overthrow an evil government. He argues against pure monarchies, argues for free government which is mixed. (Much like England today!!) Church and State must be fused together.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel ~ All members of the community are linked together through the state. This is called “Universality”. (Sounds something like socialism or communism.) The State is the source of art, religion, and philosophy. Yet, society must come to a point where it recognizes the freedom of each individual… only to draw them closer to the state.

Wagner vs. Verdi, Mahler vs. Strauss

 Dos ensayos cortos escritos por Prof. Carlos G. Pérez de Aranda y Ramírez en Madrid.

Tema  1) Richard Wagner versus Giuseppe Verdi

Wagner y Verdi fueron dos músicos contemporáneos que desarrollaron, cada uno por su cuenta, el género de la ópera. Aunque cada uno de ellos representa el espíritu del siglo XIX y de sus respectivos países, Alemania e Italia, Wagner compuso su obra dando una nueva dimensión al papel de la orquesta basándose en el leitmotif y en el cromatismo, mientras que Verdi prefirió hacer un homenaje al pueblo italiano más acorde con el romanticismo de su tiempo. No fueron amigos, ni siquiera llegaron a conocerse personalmente. Verdi dijo, a propósito de Wagner, que “siempre elige el camino menos transitado, aunque no sea necesario, y trata de volar donde cualquier otra persona caminaría con mejores resultados”. Después de escuchar el Réquiem de Verdi, Wagner comentó: “sería mejor no decir nada”. A pesar de las grandes diferencias en su tratamiento del género operístico, creo que merece la pena examinar cuáles son los rasgos propios de cada uno de ellos.

Gesamtkunstwerk representa el concepto del arte total al que aspiró Wagner a partir del periodo medio de su vida. En su primera época su carrera fue poco exitosa y no se caracterizaba por el estilo por el que lo conocemos hoy en día. En su ensayo “Eine Mittheilung an meiner Freunde”, escrito en 1851 proponía un arte del drama total que recogía aspectos de la mitología, la política y todo el arte en general, incluyendo la poesía y el aspecto escénico, para redefinir el concepto de la ópera. Así es como consideramos a Wagner: un compositor capaz  no sólo de componer la música sino también el libreto y de controlar el concepto total de su obra hasta el último detalle del escenario (el Ciclo del Anillo, por ejemplo). Con su ópera Tristan und Isolde se adelantó en cincuenta años al lenguaje musical de su tiempo. En ella encontramos que el uso del cromatismo es llevado hasta el límite de la armonía clásica en la que se inspiraban los autores del principio del siglo XX. Así mismo, otorgó a la orquesta un papel más preponderante, llegando a darle un protagonismo similar al de los cantantes. En su obra la orquesta ya no era la acompañante de fondo, ocultada tras las estrellas del escenario. La ópera wagneriana iba a dar como resultado una música épica y dramática que requería una fortaleza vocal del cantante muy distinta a la de la tradición italiana. Su utilización del leitmotif, asociándolo a los personajes, puede considerarse uno de los mayores progresos en la historia de la música.

Por su parte, las óperas de Verdi reconocen el pueblo italiano mediante un desarrollo de carácter nacionalista del melodrama romántico. Llegó a tener tal popularidad que gran parte del público identificaba las ideas de sus primeras óperas con la cuestión del Risorgimento tras la unificación de Italia en 1861. En cualquier caso, es un síntoma de la enorme popularidad del compositor que fue capaz de cautivar tanto el corazón como la mente del pueblo italiano. Al final de muchas interpretaciones a las que asistían oficiales austriacos entre el público italiano, el grito de Viva Verdi servía tanto como apoyo al compositor como una referencia política a Vittorio Emmanuele, Re dItalia. A menudo se critica a Verdi por no evolucionar en su estilo, que permaneció fiel a la escala diatónica. Salvo en el caso de Macbeth, siempre siguió el procedimiento de componer obras basándose en el concepto del amor dramático de la tradición italiana. Sin embargo, su repertorio goza hoy en día de gran popularidad, siendo mucho más interpretado que el de Wagner. También fue más prolífico al componer 28 óperas, más del doble que las 13 de Wagner.

Fundamentalmente, opino que Wagner tuvo más influencia en el mundo de la cultura, en el de la literatura, en el filosófico e incluso en el político a través de personas como T. S. Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche y Adolf Hitler, mientras que Verdi apelaba al sentido de la ópera amorosa y trágica que supera las dificultades. Por supuesto, ambos serán recordados por su gran capacidad para comunicarse con la audiencia, aunque el carácter orgulloso y confiado de Wagner contraste bastante con la vida de sufrimiento de Verdi por la pérdida de su esposa y de su hija.


Selección bibliográfica

Julio César Morán.  Verdi y Wagner: La fuerza de convicción en la madurez artística de dos músicos con estéticas diferentes.

Giuseppe Verdi.  (en castellano e inglés)

Richard Wagner.  (en castellano e inglés)

Tema  2) Gustav Mahler versus Richard Strauss

Las diferencias entre los dos grandes compositores de finales del siglo XIX y del principios del siglo XX quedan subrayadas por el hecho de que Mahler fue un músico judío, que tuvo que renunciar por dicha razón a su puesto como director en Viena, mientras que Strauss mantuvo buenas relaciones con el Tercer Reich llegando a ser nombrado presidente del Reichsmusikkammer durante la II Guerra Mundial. Eran dos seres humanos distintos, Mahler atronador y despótico a la vez que infantil al lado de Strauss, el ejemplo del caballero ideal con una mirada de acero, una persona poco inclinada comentar sobre sí mismo, ni siquiera sobre su música.

Por parte de Mahler, el puesto más importante que consiguió también vino con la obligación oculta de convertirse a la fe católica (un tema de importancia mínima para él) para ser director de la Ópera de Viena; aguantaba desde el ayuntamiento hasta la prensa, el antisemitismo de la comunidad vienesa quienes no creían en la habilidad de un director no alemán para interpretar las obras alemanes. Su exigencia como director en los ensayos, provocó el rencor contra su liderazgo y a pesar de que resucitó la vida musical en Viena y dejó los asuntos empresariales más estables y rentables que antes, no caía bien a la gente. Mahler dijo sobre si mismo: “Soy tres veces extranjero: un bohemio entre austríacos, un austríaco entre alemanes y un judío ante el mundo”. Se especializaba en interpretar las obras de Mozart y Wagner como director y siempre dejaba a los músicos más famosos (Brahms y Chaikovski, por ejemplo) abrumados al ver sus conciertos. Siempre usaba los veranos para componer  música en cabañas solitarias e insistía en ser dejado en paz (un rasgo muy suyo). Componía dos géneros de música: el lieder y sus diez sinfonías y se puede decir que mezclaba muchos características entre ellos. Su repertorio tuvo poco éxito durante su vida (con la excepción de la sinfonía octava) pero gracias a Leonard Bernstein entre otros está de moda hoy en día. Fue maestro de la segunda escuela vienesa y defendía su música con vehemencia especialmente frente a Schönberg incluso peleándose con sus detractores.

Strauss, por otro lado seguía el florecimiento del romanticismo alemán según la tradición operística de Wagner. En 1905 estrenó Salomé, la ópera mejor conocida de su repertorio junto a de Der Rosenkavalier y también la más controvertida por su famosa “danza de los siete velos” debido a su escandalosa representación de los personajes de la biblia. También lleva un lenguaje armónico que adelanta el camino de Tristan und Isolde de manera impactante para cualquier audiencia de  principios del siglo XX , incluso a Hitler quien disfrutó la ópera como joven en 1907. No obstante resulta demasiado fácil proponer que Strauss se alió con la Alemania nazi por su necesidad de proteger a toda su familia contra el genocidio. Se encontró en una situación desagradable, e hizo lo necesario para permanecer fiel a la música y a su familia: un baile de necesidades entre el deseo del gobierno nazi de promover una música pura y corriente a la vez un compositor genuinamente alemán que ya había sobrevivido a muchos cambios del gobierno y simplemente quería seguir viviendo en su tierra natal.

Aunque se puede decir que ambos compositores seguían el camino musical romántico de Wagner, solo Strauss mantuvo  relaciones cercanas con Alemania mientras que Mahler tenía que soportar una vida nómada entre Praga, Budapest, Viena, y Nueva York, entre otros sitios. Por su parte Strauss aprovechó su posición en el Tercer Reich con el propósito de proteger la música de Mahler y otros judíos como Mendelssohn. A final sus trayectorias se separan tanto por sus géneros musicales como el rumbo que tomaron sus vidas y sus patrocinadores. De hecho cada uno promocionaba la música del otro como directores. Los veo como dos músicos separados por el antisemitismo con propósitos musicales muy similares. Mahler comentó sobre sus carreras musicales que “excavamos en lados opuestos de la misma montaña”. A final, los dos se encontraron en el centro.

Selección bibliográfica

Gustav Mahler.  (en castellano e inglés)

Alex Ross.  El ruido eterno: escuchar al siglo XX a través de su música.  Barcelona, Seix Barral, 2009.

Richard Strauss.  (en castellano e inglés)

Statement of Faith

The room was dimly lit with an orange-carpet-candle ambiance. We were all sitting together mostly cross-legged on the floor, 30 strangers in silence meditating on the moment around us. It was a cool Parisian evening so there was that beauty to consider—the shadows cast by the setting sun on the twisted branches discreetly were overtaking the evening along with a wispy incoming fog. There was the upcoming dinner, which, although I could not readily smell it, the mere thought of a freshly cooked meal was enough to make any 20-something bachelor salivate. Finally, and most importantly, there was the focus of our meeting in the front of the room.  A photographic life-size cutout of Sri Ramakrishna dominated our immediate view. He was covered in an orange veiling and bathed in warm flourescent light. Roses and flowers of many kinds filled the front area, and to his left and right were photographs of the two great prophets of Sri Ramakrishna, lastly, covered by a permeating incense that filled the room. We were in a sacred place.

It’s amazing the things your mind considers when confronted by such an experience because the eventual result seems to lead to thinking about nothing. But after a while, I understood that was the objective, relaxing, but in a concious way. In that process, I realized how quickly my mind was wired. Move, move, move, and stop moving so I can rest to move some more. In my estimation, most people in the Western world could benefit greatly from this fundamental tenet of Hinduism: plan time to stop. Sometimes Christians do this too; the Gospels teach Jesus would often climb the surrounding hills early in the morning to pray.

These days, it is easier then ever to be skeptical and even cynical towards religion. Magic brooms, blood and body, sacred fires, and holy stones all lend an aura of mystique and concealed explanation to the mysterious and unexplainable. Some of the elaborate things I saw done in that beautiful sacred orange room had absolutely no meaning to me. Special bells were rang without apparent reason midsong, food was offered to jaya Sri Ramakrishna as blessing to his name, holy water was sprinkled on the faces of fervent believers. I think of growing up in the Christian church with all of our traditions, often equally ritualistic. We ceremonially dunk people in pools of water, offer candles to patron saints, passionately raise our hands, and sometimes speak in invented languages if we’re of a particular standpoint. All of this to an invented god extrapolated from a favored culture and passed down from one generation to the next hermetically sealed inside of a holy book, ultimately set aside from the forum of question and debate. I find it all quite ridiculous.

Playing a devil’s advocate here is too easy, however. What doctrine of the atheistic worldview guides me to live with a bent towards loving my neighbor, much less just living in peace with him/her? We can talk about the selfish gene and egotistic altruism, but at the end of the day I feel as if I’m left scheming and calculating on those around me to get the next leg up. Or imagine how it must sound to console a loved one saying, “Don’t worry, your mother isn’t in a better place, she just doesn’t exist anymore?” Atheism may provide a real solution to the relentless dogma of religion, but it does not provide a poignant framework for living through the messy elements of life, the poverty, the abuse, the depression, the sickness, all the unwanted negatives that humanity never seems to escape. In liberating us from god, atheism leaves us with his opposite—nothing.

At any rate, after 45 minutes of unmoving silence I simply got bored of observing everyone in that incredibly royal orange room and started looking inside myself. Nothing else was going on anyway. I found my hopes, a few of my dreams, my disappointments and mistakes, all the same stuff everyone else has more or less. There was anger and laughter living side by side, memories and ideas, projects and passions. There was life. That Parisian weekend I learned that faith is fluid. It’s always developing, wrapped up in the people around us and packaged in places we usually aren’t looking. Faith and blessings are not in a building or a priest or sacred flowers or a cross. They are in the actions you take when you turn to a brother and say, “I believe in you,” or when you face an enemy and respond with forgiveness. Those kinds of actions take more faith than believing in a cultural deity ever will.

—Many thanks to Salvator Jean Erb for providing me with my peculiarly touching orange room experience at the Hindu ashram in Paris last month.

Fallacy Assumed

The French philosopher Levinas stated that an epiphany brings a disclosure from a deity to the common man. Others may say that it provides a grand revelation giving the individual an additional outlook on life. Whatever the case may be, it never leaves the individual static. Epiphanies do not seem to come expectedly, they are difficult to plan, and they usually leave individuals feeling somewhat humbled. The particular experience I have in mind caught me in a rude sort of way—quite recently, actually. I was going through my daily routine, and I had just finished an hour or two of practicing saxophone in Timko-Barton. As I rushed through the main hall of the building to catch my next class, I saw a couple. They were standing there holding each other and the guy had a very serious look on his face, as if his whole future as a man was teetering on the forefront of his mind, about to spill out of all over the floor in one giant sentimental puddle. Now, many couples attend ORU. Many couples meet at ORU. Most significantly, many couples marry after meeting at ORU. I find nothing inherently wrong with this fact. I am sure marriage is a wonderful thing and I myself would like to be married someday. However, I have heard too many times about the success rates of students who blissfully meet at Oral Roberts Univ., haphazardly fall in love, and impetuously support the careers of aspiring divorce lawyers around the world. So when I saw this impervious island couple standing there, (it was obvious at the time that they were dealing with something) my thoughts ran something in the line of “go away PDA” and “get real.” Their sentimental soppiness was thoroughly irritating. Nevertheless, I continued on my way, trying not to smirk as best as I could. As soon as I got out the door, the epiphany hit me like a jolt of morphine flowing to my mind. Thoughts like, “why do you think that you know so much more about love than them,” and “do you even have a clue what they are going through,” recall especially strongly from that cold Tulsa morning. The more I thought about the couple, the more certain I became, one could feel it radiating it from them like some sort of proud and private aura they held up together: trust—ever elusive, yet priceless in light of so many distractions in this busy world. Earn it, embody it, esteem it.


What is Art?

Here’s my fast definition: art is an artificial act of creation that seeks to communicate subtle concepts to a given public.

Defining art is one of those obnoxious questions that can be so easily over-analyzed that it leaves no semblance of reasonable cognition. You had might as well go try and catch the wind in a basket before you capture a satisfying universal definition for the word. Go ask an Australian. They may talk about the Aussie golden age at the end of the 19th century with painters like Arthur Streeton and William Piguenit—men whose works were inspired by the open air of the great outback. The royal courts of Versailles, home to the great Sun King Louis XIV, point to a most important example of the great and diverse French artistic tradition. The Argentine has a rich independent film background perpetuated today in such films as The Motorcycle Diaries and The Secret in their Eyes. Kansans prefer C. M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker paintings. The point is that each people group carry their own customs for interaction and self-expression, shaped by their family, faith, and government. What’s the point? Aesthetics are relative. Absolutes are elusive. The arts are tricky to define. Nevertheless, I have decided upon a set of absolute rules (if such a thing exists) for defining what makes a work of art.

First, we must always remember the medium is the message. As you dress, smile, and smell, you will be perceived, onstage or on the street. This does not necessarily qualify the validity of your art, but positions the lens through which the work will be perceived. The polish of your shoes, the grade of paints you use, the size and quality of your television, all are important when presenting works of art. The frame around the painting will say as much about the work as the work itself.

Secondly, art is a willing suspension of disbelief. The public must have some sort of intuition that the work at hand does not readily exist in everyday moments. This inverse relationship between reality and presentation heightens the effectiveness of the said medium.

Daily we wake up, shower, eat, work, break, eat some more, maybe break again, go to sleep. This kind of routine surmises 2/3 of our day. Art must break from this sphere of everyday life to give people a taste of class, diversion, identity, and controversy. The best artists will carry an element of each. In my post about Kenny Garrett and Christian Lauba from 20-11-10, I talked about the refinement, invention, and popularity of a given art as the scientific method for determining its cultural impact. Follow the rules, do the math, embrace the system to beat the system.

Nevertheless, up to this point, I have effectively turned the path of an artist into a dictionary-defined, knowledge-based, research-oriented pile of sanitary hogwash.

If someone wants to be an artist, there is really only one rule to follow: be yourself. Find something you are passionate about and do it—really, really well. Understand yourself. Invest time in figuring out what makes you you and what makes you tick. Finally, seek to understand the world around you. It will guide your expressions and add rich sediments of erudition through your chosen medium. For all the analysis, people really don’t care so much about your thick layered paints and virtuosic technique. Hang out your humanity for them to see; the rest will speak for itself.