Boulez, Looking Back, Looking Forward

I woke up yesterday morning to early posts of Pierre Boulez obituaries. He was nearly 91, a venerable master of his craft and a giant of 20th-century music. Boulez was brilliant—I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. Still, I’ve never cared much for his music. For a time, pieces like Le marteau sans maître represented everything I disliked about being a graduate student in composition. (I appreciate the music better these days, but it’s not something I go out of my way to hear.) I dismissed Boulez as a polemicist, both in the music he wrote and what he wrote about music (in part because as a composition student you don’t hear much about it beyond the infamous “Schoenberg is dead”).

That began to change when it became clear Boulez’s work as music director of the New York Philharmonic would need to feature prominently in my dissertation. He was the counterbalance to “Downtown” composers going “Uptown”—his Prospective Encounters series did something of the opposite. The geographical and musical tension—and the power dynamics that lay beneath it—were the foundation for my research. Without Boulez, my dissertation might have been just another ramble through the youth of minimalism.

It’s been odd to read and hear Boulez stories in the last few days. He eventually made peace with parts of the establishment that he had spent his youth railing against. Especially as a conductor, his reputation blossomed after 1977, the year he left New York (and my dissertation). The remembrances I’ve seen today are colored by his years at IRCAM and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Journalists and friends alike have written about his warmth, his humor, his willingness to take time to talk about his craft.

That’s a mighty contrast to the image of Boulez painted on his arrival in New York. Then, he was the chilly demagogue arriving suddenly from France (only months after saying he would not take the New York Philharmonic job if it was offered), a man who inspired angry letters to the Times, some of them from American composers he’d directly or indirectly insulted. The New York Times published a long piece in 1973 titled “The Iceberg Conducteth.” Philharmonic players spoke anonymously to reporters about how Boulez couldn’t “perform.” (He had the misfortune to succeed the often lax, grandiose Leonard Bernstein at the Phil.) When he departed for IRCAM in 1977, critics tended to damn with faint praise, with Harold Schonberg’s complaint typical: “Going to his concerts was like taking a pill. It was good for you, but not an event you looked forward to with great anticipation.”

On the same occasion, the Village Voice’s Leighton Kerner wrote: “They blew it. The New York Philharmonic blew it. The audiences blew it. The critics blew it. The musicians’ union blew it. And Pierre Boulez blew it.” The title of that piece, though, was “Boulez, the Philharmonic, and What Might Have Been.” Kerner recognized what I eventually came to understand over the course of my research: that Boulez had tried to make a real change in what the Philharmonic meant, what new music meant to New York audiences (and American audiences more generally). I remember being shocked, a year or so into the project, finding myself defending Boulez (whose music I’ve never liked) over Bernstein (who wrote some of my favorite works) in casual conversation. I was defending him not in terms of composition or conducting, but in terms of what he had done to make new music matter to people. Bernstein’s goals always seemed more general to me, more content to leverage existing institutions and practices in the same way that systems had always been worked.

Pierre Boulez tried to change that…and did. The programming changes he made in New York didn’t really survive his departure, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. (It also says nothing about his subsequent work at IRCAM and elsewhere.) I can’t agree with all of his ideas about music, but I admire the conviction with which he pursued putting them into practice.

This all happened the week I bring in the hard copy of my dissertation to wave at my English IV classes. We’re doing research projects and some of my seniors are freaking out because five to eight pages is the most they’ve ever been asked to write. When I show them 392 pages of body text, a nine-page bibliography, and another 20-ish pages of appendices and front material, they look at me like I’m showing them a picture of myself on the moon or riding a narwhal or BASE-jumping off an erupting volcano. It just doesn’t compute. (Incidentally, they did not have nearly the same freak out about my NaNo victory.) With the dissertation at my desk, I was able to reread work that seems surprisingly distant just three years after I finished it.

Skimming through it and reading what I had written about Boulez, I realized something: I want students to share the experience I had with him. It’s not that I want them to go look at 40-year-old newspaper articles or read obituaries about a Frenchman whose music they’re unlikely ever to hear. I want them to have that experience of learning something that changes their thinking. Those old newspapers and concert programs and interviews changed the way I thought about Boulez. Writing a dissertation changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Research matters.

That, I think, is an opinion I can happily share with the late maestro.

NaNoWriMo Reflections, 2015

So the semester is done and I finally have a chance to look back on NaNo.

nano-2015-winner-banner

I won this year, but it was so much different than 2013. I’ve spent the last few weeks (and particularly the evening after our local “TGIO” party) puzzling out which of the differences had to do with me and which had to do with my region. There were a lot of changes in both over the two years between my wins.

Back in 2013, finding the community in the Austin region was super-important to me. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I’d only been in Texas a few months and meeting people who were not in my family circle was novel (sorry). Teaching was still just a stopgap, something I was doing on a substitute basis while looking for a real job. I was still pretty miserable much of the time. I’d also, y’know, never written a novel before. (Never mind that I’d started several going all the way back to third grade.)

That year, write-ins were really social. We spent at least half the time doing word sprints and chattering between them. I went to most of the Saturdays and most of the Wednesdays. A really high percentage of my wordcount came from those write-ins, particularly from the sprints. I remember that most of the people seemed to be writing purely for entertainment. We’d get together, overcaffeinate, and hurl words at our virtual pages.

Last year, I hardly made it to anything. I wanted to, but being a first-year teacher at a poorly-funded middle school was as much as I could handle. The commute did not help, nor did my kids’ challenges adjusting to their new school. I don’t know if the changes I noticed this year were in progress last year or not.

The biggest difference this year is that the community seemed much more…pre-professional. Our new municipal liaisons were great at organizing events. Many of those events, though, aimed directly or indirectly at publishing. The focus on writing for the sake of writing seemed diminished. The write-ins were much quieter. One of the regular ones is at a local gaming store. Back in 2013, it was one of the noisiest write-ins. This year, it was an island of quiet in the otherwise busy store. Don’t get me wrong—I still wrote thousands of words at that write-in. I just wrote them quietly. People said hello when they arrived and goodbye when they left, and occasionally chatted with friends they’d already made when they needed a break. Mostly, though, the write-ins I went to were quiet.

This year, that suited me. That’s the other difference—I’ve written a novel now, even though it’s not quite ready for distribution. I knew going in that I could do it, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to get out of the month. Putting my head down and writing was fine. Really, I needed the time with minimal distractions more than I needed the community this year—I like my job (a lot), my home life is fairly stable, and my stress-happiness balance is tipped very much toward happiness. November was about making time to chase the story and the wordcount.

It was a hell of a chase, too. I was at “par” on two of November’s 30 days: the first and the last. Going into Thanksgiving break, I had over 20,000 words left to write. I spent much of the break writing (including Thanksgiving day). On Black Friday, I hiked downtown and got caught in the rain. (It was bad enough that I had my spouse bring me some dry clothes.) I had about 1800 words left for Monday, and wrote almost 3000 because I was not about to stop in the middle of the climactic chapter.

The end product is, I think, better than the initial version of Ghosts. Most of the story for Spires of Trayan is there, and there are fewer of the scenes where I’m using the characters’ fumbling around to try and figure out where the story needs to go. I’m sure that when I open it back up in a month, I’ll groan and wonder what I was thinking. There will be things that are too obvious, things that are not obvious enough, and a few scenes that will be better off incinerated.

But it’s done. Fifty-one thousand words on the page (61000 including the ones I wrote last year). Words that weren’t there before. It was a quieter, calmer, more focused NaNo, but pulling those words out of nothing makes it a win.

Nicking from Novels: William Gibson’s Neuromancer

Sex, Drugs, and Damaged Souls

Part of the original purpose of this feature was to catch up on books I “ought” to have read years ago. Neuromancer certainly qualifies—William Gibson was one of the first people I followed on Twitter, and until a few weeks ago, I had not read any of his books. One of the many small (and not so small) luxuries that have come with my change in schools is a principal who really advocates for student reading. He gave all the English teachers a budget to start classroom libraries (alongside an academic independent reading initiative). Among the books I bought for mine was Neuromancer.

First: wow. This is a damn fine book. Occasionally, you read something this wildly inventive and wonder “how the hell did the author come up with this?” More rarely, that comes in combination with writing that holds up at the sentence level, with plots that reveal themselves with the right layers at the right pace. Neuromancer does that. It’s that good.

Overview
If you’ve ever played the role-playing game Shadowrun, this is it: a mysterious figure gets a hacker (console cowboy) together with a razor girl (samurai) for some carefully-planned invasions of corporate assets. (Six years before the first edition of Shadowrun.) This is a world where complicated neurosurgery allows people to interface directly with computers, where you can buy cloned replacements for your liver and pancreas when you’ve done too many drugs. It’s world where life is cheap and everything costs something.

It’s a dirtier, busier, more cosmopolitan dystopia than the more recent vintages of the Hunger Games and Divergent series. It is also a dystopia of fragmentation, deep shadows, and decadence rather than simple totalitarianism—one that seems more likely even in the current political climate.

The Plot
Case is an addict with a death wish, a formerly promising cowboy whose ability to flip to the matrix was crippled by drugs as payback for a run gone bad. Molly is the samurai sent to Chiba City to collect him for the mysterious Armitage. Armitage has technology that will restore Case’s damaged nerves. Case leaps at the chance, but after restorative surgery, discovers that Armitage has also laced his blood with slowly dissolving sacs of the poison that crippled him in the first place. He has to go to work for Armitage. Case quickly falls into bed with Molly. (That’s about the only moment in the book that I scratch my head about.)

Case and Molly, assisted by various subcontractors, make a number of intermediate runs—stealing a ROM with the personality and skills of a deceased hacker, collecting an illusion-projecting sociopath named Riviera, and eventually heading for a space station. Along the way, Case and Molly make their own investigations and discover that Armitage has a secret backer. Neither Armitage nor the backer properly exist. (Explaining why would take spoilers.)

The novel’s ending is wonderfully ambiguous—one more delicate grey stroke on a canvas full of them.

The Cool Thing to Consider
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel with a cast of such damaged souls. (Graham Green’s The Third Man comes close.) Nobody is whole. Case has his addiction and the quiet death-wish that underlies it. Molly has skeletons in her closet and has devoted her life to violence. Armitage is built on slender threads of borrowed sanity. Riviera is, as mentioned, a sociopath whose kinks are rather beyond degenerate. The supporting cast is likewise full of flaws: terrorists who consider themselves performance artists (or performance artists who consider themselves terrorists), mangy data cleaners, space Rastas. (I love the space Rastas.)

The remarkable thing about Neuromancer is that Gibson doesn’t make the plot about fixing the characters. The characters have their internal conflicts. Those internal conflicts pull and push on the central plot without needing to resolve themselves neatly. Case might understand his damage better at the end of the book, but he’s not healed.

Nor is it a case, precisely, of fitting together the jagged edges of the characters’ personalities. Molly and Case have a thing. There’s something real in it, but it’s not a fix for either of them. It probably isn’t even love. The characters’ jagged edges cut and scrape against each other.

This all fits hand-in-glove with Neuromancer’s technicolor grays. For all the vivid descriptions of drugged highs and the life of professional criminals, for all the color in the book, there’s no moral black and white. There aren’t heroes; there aren’t villains. There is mystery. There are obstacles for the characters. They face vital decisions with ramifications that extend well beyond the personal…but those questions are never about the “right” thing to do. (I won’t discuss the  brief moral questions toward the climax for the sake of spoilers, but the characters don’t spend much time indulging them.)

What We Nick from this Novel
You don’t have to have heroes (or antiheroes) to tell a good story.
It’s easy, especially for those of us who write imaginative fiction, to fall back on tropes of heroic fantasy and the myths that underlie it—heroes and villains and monsters. I’ve never been a fan of absolute evil in storytelling, but I’ve also never indulged in protagonists as unheroic as Case and Molly. Gibson’s Neuromancer is a fantastic case study in telling a story that’s big not only in its themes, but in the scale of its events. He does that while letting his nominal heroes stay smaller than the story. They barely get what’s going on. They barely get through what’s going on…and the story is all the better for it.

What Can I Do? Redux

Fifteen months ago, I wrote a post titled “What Can I Do?” about Ferguson, Syria, the Ukraine, depression, and trying to make a difference in the world. In the time since that post, the U.S. has experienced nearly 400 mass shootings. Last week, activists (humans!) protesting police brutality in my old Minneapolis neighborhood were shot by white supremacists. Chicago’s police superintendent just resigned over a cover-up of a shooting that has led to murder charges. The U.K. just voted to bomb Syria. France has increased bombing in Syria in the wake of a terrorist murder spree in Paris. U.S. presidential candidates talk glibly about shutting down mosques. There’s a climate conference happening in Paris that, like its predecessors, seems doomed to handwringing and little meaningful action.

Excuse the profanity, but: things fucking suck right now.

That doesn’t mean everything sucks, nor do things suck for everybody. There are a lot of us who are insulated from the direct effects of catastrophe. I’m in an exurban district this year. My students worry about the local cops giving them traffic tickets, not shooting them. I like my job. My personal problems have become, mostly, typical American middle class ones. Hell, I’ve even gotten work under enough control to be blogging again.

This insulation from the direct effect of crisis makes it all too easy for outrage fatigue to set in—especially when social media is filled with people shouting about the (often imaginary) things they’re angry about, or about the things they want you to be angry about. It’s easy to turn media—social and otherwise—off for a while and think instead about what you want for diner, or when you’re going to get the car in for an oil change, or how to get your kids to do their homework. That’s a perfectly human response.

It does not make the problems go away. Really, this is privilege in a nutshell: the ability to choose when to care about crises, to decide whether or not you want to be affected by them.

My old neighbors don’t get that choice.

Syrian civilians don’t get that choice.

Victims of the flooding in Chennai don’t get that choice.

By all means, turn off social media. I had to for a few weeks. But turn if off knowing that changing the channel doesn’t change the problem.

I wrote, back in August of 2014, about choosing hope, that hope is the opposite of despair and depression. What I ask you to do, what I tell myself to do, is this: choose hope. Choose hope every time. Don’t choose to hope that somebody else solves the problem. When you make choices in how to spend your time, in how to treat the people around you, choose hope.

Speak, in the hope that your words will be heard, knowing that words left unsaid never will be.

Act, in the hope that you can make a difference, even though you can’t see the future.

The Nineties were awash in the slogan “think globally, act locally.” As the internet has flattened the media landscape and our sense of the world, it’s worth remembering that. We don’t have a magic wand. We can, as a global community, share our despair, share our concerns, share even our hope. When we act, though, we have to do it locally. That can mean lobbying your elected representatives. That can mean volunteering. It can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors—you know, the ones with the weird flags on their porch.

We will never be able to bomb an idea. As satisfying as fantasies of wiping out the extremism of Daesh or of making police officers into perfect instruments of peace-keeping may be, they’re still fantasies. We can get our world a little closer to those fantasies with the dozens of decisions we make every day, those times when we choose fear or apathy or hope. I ask you, from my tiny internet pulpit, to choose hope.

How can you do that? Look around. See where the people in your community are hurting, and do what you can to help. Neil Gaiman said, of writing, you put one word after another. It is that easy, and that hard. Choosing hope is the same: it is that easy, and it is that hard.

Red Shift Blues

I spent July reminding myself that it’s a lull in everything school related. It’s the one month that administrators and district staff get (partially) off. Jobs don’t get posted. Interviews don’t happen. The summer stretches crazily, which is not a good thing when you’re angling to be employed well before summer ends.

August started, and suddenly jobs were up to apply for. I’d had no traction earlier in the summer—some good interviews in early June, some terrible ones in late June, and nothing in July. Then, in the space of a week, I had three interviews and invitations to two more.  Before I could get to the last two interviews, I had an offer to accept.

Naturally, there were paperwork snafus—a mis-clicked button meant my recommendation didn’t get filed right away. I spent two days in anxious back and forth with the school and the district’s HR department. Wednesday morning I got a call about doing paperwork Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday afternoon my principal called asking if I could be at work the next morning. Just like that, summer was over.

Life kept speeding up—I spent most of the pre-student inservice days trying to sort out my existence with the district, especially my electronic existence. My electronic existence was at least as important as my physical existence, as I needed it to access everything from the building to the gradebook to the e-mails telling me which things I should have already done. Many of the complications stemmed from that “D.J.” part of my name. Let it suffice to say that I am not especially sanguine about changing my name when I got married.

I had an extra prep added the Thursday before those students arrived in my classroom. I had students before I had gradebook access. I didn’t have an ID badge. Still, the show went on. I introduced myself seven times in one day. I rehearsed three syllabi (two of which were effectively shredded by the end of the first month). I assigned things and graded things and listened to the groans when my seniors realized they still have to work even though there isn’t a high stakes test at the end of the year. I planned and improvised.

My kids started school the same week. Through late August and September, everything sped up. The acceleration went in every direction at once, a life-encompassing red shift. Weekday obligations pushed activities and basic househould maintenance into the weekends. Nights were the only thing not getting longer (though they were still getting faster).

…and now the first 400 words of this post have been sitting on my drafting board for two months. I’m going to throw them up on the blog because, at this point, why not. There are more substantive posts coming, on writing sequels, on NaNo 2015, on the despair of looking backward to despair… Walking Ledges is awake now. Welcome back.

Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

Twelve and Two and Two

A dozen years of marriage, two years in Texas, and—in another week or so—two years of Walking Ledges. You’ll never believe what happens next!

Actually, if you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably will: posts on writing and teaching sprinkled with increasingly occasional #postac commentary. Come November I’ll be attempting NaNo again, and probably writing about that. I aim to keep work from devouring the blog the way it did last year. (A shorter commute will help with that, I hope.) At some point there will be something about the availability of Ghosts of the Old City.

In this blog’s first year, I wrote 77 posts. Many of them were about my breakup with academia, about the ways that I dealt with the emotional fallout of quitting and the loneliness of relocating. The second year of the blog has featured half as many posts—my first year of teaching devoured my writing energy, even when it wasn’t devouring my time. Those posts, though, have been…positive. It’s not as if every day has been a happy one. February was rough, and I had some particularly down weeks in the summer when I was spitballing scenarios in which I didn’t get a teaching job for the coming year. Overall, though, life has been good.

Good or bad, life is continuous. The important moments seldom pay attention to the calendar. The less discrete the steps are in a process, the more arbitrary the divisions between them. An 89 is just as far from 87 as it is from 91, but we assign a different letter to the 91 because we have to draw the line somewhere. Anniversaries—of moves, of institutions, of weddings and first dates and birth—are arbitrary markers in a continuous process.

I’m not sure whether that makes them more or less important. On the one hand, my blog is little different at 105 weeks from what it was at 102. On the other, it is much different from what it was at 50 weeks. I still write. I am (somewhat) better adjusted to Texas than I was when we moved. I still think my spouse is one of the best people on the planet. Dividing the time into chunks doesn’t change things.

That anniversaries are arbitrary does not mean they are meaningless. (Language is also arbitrary!) They give us an excuse to reflect. Even artificial divisions are thresholds. Sure, we build the doorways ourselves based on such flimsy things as rotational and revolutionary intervals. When we stand in a doorway, we’re between things—it’s a liminal moment. (I got kind of obsessed with liminal moments after analyzing characters in doorways in Hawthorne.) We can see where we came from and where we’re going, even if we know that the tomorrow will not be so different from yesterday.

So. Twelve and two and two. We count the years, we look forward and we look back. To those of you who are here—whether since the beginning or since yesterday or reading this a week after I type it, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.