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Aspiring to mediocrity

What I mean by this is that we need to achieve competence. For example, I would like to play jazz piano that sounds like generic playing tha...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Aspiring to mediocrity

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I love theory

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


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

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

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

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

Ornette Coleman - Latin Genetics

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A trick

Take a Bb minor pentatonic scale

[Bb Db Eb F Ab]

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

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


What bugs me about this is that it is an application of English-language concepts of gender to a word in Spanish.

So in Spanish you would say: "literatura latina." That would be literature written by Latinos and Latinas: the adjective modifies the noun, which happens to be feminine in gender. The x is a way of neutering the gender. If the noun happened to be feminine, then you would say "feminismo latino."

From the perspective of speaking English, gender is only applied to persons and animals with a designated sex. So people think of Latino / Latina as only applying to people. Hence you need to say "Latinex" to keep things gender neutral. The word was invented by someone who doesn't think in Spanish.

Monday, November 27, 2017

La La Land

I saw this movie about a jazz pianist, La La Land. There wasn't a hip jazz piano lick in the whole movie. It was a highly acclaimed movie and won awards for its music--which sucked to high heavens.