Saturday, November 18, 2017

What a Drag


     I play guitar a little bit.
     There’s a piece by Bach I’m working on. I play some blues. I love flamenco. I play most every day, practicing one thing or another. Depending on my mood, it may be classical stuff, or jazz or a bunch of different things.
     When I work on that Bach piece, I don’t wear a white-powdered wig and a long frock coat. 
     When I play the blues, I don’t break out my black-face make-up, shades and stingy-brim fedora. 
     When I play flamenco, I don’t change into a flat-brimmed sombrero, and high-heeled botas.
     You know why not?
     Because playing music is about playing music and playing it well. 
     I’m not practicing the guitar as an exercise in fantasy role-playing, wearing just the right cliché costume for the part. That’s what “air guitar” is about. I don’t want to pretend to play the guitar, I want to actually play the guitar.
     When I play JSB's Chaconne in d minor, I’m not trying to “re-enact” history. I’m playing a piece of music that is just as beautiful and poignant today as when it was written back around 1720. I’m not expressing Bach’s feelings. I can’t. I’m not Bach. I’m expressing my own feelings through Bach’s music.
     If I were to don a white powdered wig to play my Bach piece, would that make my performance any better? Would it render my interpretation any more accurate or “authentic?” Would the piece be any more poignant?
     I think not.
     When I play Born Under a Bad Sign, or T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, should I dress up like Dan Akroyd’s stunt double in a Blues Brothers re-make? Should I put on some Al Jolson black-face make-up? Will that give me a better, more “authentic” sound?  
     I think not.
     I’m not Black. But I’ve sure enough had the blues. 
     Unless I’m getting paid to be an actor, I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not.

     "Okay," you might inquire, "where are you going with all this?"
     Funny you should ask.
     Why is it that just about everyone who claims to be a “serious” student of the sword, finds it impossible to resist playing dress-up? I’m not talking about fantasy role-playing outfits like the SCA. I’m talking about people who claim to be serious students of the sword. They get into their pseudo-medieval attire for long sword, break out the facsimile doublet and trunk hose for rapier, and don their stiffest 1890’s drag to do “classical” fencing.

     Does it make their fencing any better, more accurate, more authentic?
     You know what we wear in my salle when we practice long sword?
     Baggy grey sweats.
     Guess what the uniform is for rapier and dagger?
     Baggy grey sweats.
     Classical fencing?
     Baggy grey sweats.
     We wear what’s comfortable and functional, and yes, we wear what’s protective, too -- a mask and padded jacket. But we don’t do the costume party thing. We don't play dress-up. Period.
     You know why not?
     Because practicing the sword is about practicing the sword and doing it well.
     We’re not learning how to pretend to fight using the sword, we are learning how to actually fight using the sword.
     The sword is every bit as demanding and deadly today as it was in 1660, and the principles of technique, tactics and strategy that the sword can teach are just as vital and relevant today as they ever were.
     We practice the sword to make ourselves better human beings, to change the way we live in the world, and thereby to change the world.
     We’re not “re-enacting” history. We’re making it.
     The sword isn’t about the past.
     It’s about the future.
In Ferro Veritas.
-- aac

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Guitar Contest

            The guitar is a very popular instrument, lots of people play it and it’s been a valuable part of our life and culture for a long time. Guitar-playing skill is something we’ve come to value, because we appreciate the talent and effort it takes to be excellent at it, and also for the richness the music adds to our lives. We love the quality of a memorable melody, the subtle shades of emotion created by astute and articulate harmonies, the primal, enchanting use of rhythm.
     So to recognize excellence in guitar-playing, and to encourage its continuation, we decide to have a guitar-playing contest.

     Someone suggests that we should just let the audience vote. But that would only determine which music is the most popular, not necessarily the best musically. So we decide that the best judges would be the contestants themselves.
     They listen to each others’ playing, evaluate it, discuss it together and arrive a general consensus on who the best player -- or at least, the best player of the moment -- is. While they are candid about the flaws in a contestant’s playing, they are also effusive with praise for others’ talents and modest about their own. The friendly, collegial nature of the contests becomes legendary.
     Guitar fans of all stripes flock to the contests. Even those who don’t personally know any of the contestants. One thing they can be sure of: no matter who eventually wins, they will hear some wonderful guitar music during the course of event.

     Then to make it less of a “burden” on the contestants, and also to add to the stature of the event, we decide to have non-contestants judge the event. We recruit as judges renown guitar teachers,  famous composers of guitar music, and perhaps even some past winners of the contest. Each of them has a slightly different preference: one is a classical guitarist, one is a jazz guitarist, one plays flamenco. But they all still agree on foundational elements like melodic quality, harmonic quality, and rhythmic quality.

     Despite the subjectivity of the process and the lack of absolute and universal agreement, the whole contest thing works out pretty well overall. Excellent guitarists get a little bit of fame and fortune, and fledgling guitarists have a little added incentive to practice --- hoping to playing well enough to enter the contest one day.

     The system certainly isn’t perfect. There aren’t always enough good judges available, it’s hard to get them all together in one place at one time, and it’s pricey to cover their expenses for the job. And there’s that subjective factor that leaves fans of certain players or certain regions or certain styles of music disgruntled when their favorite fails to win the first place prize.  Mind you, a lot of these fans aren’t really fans of the guitar, or guitarists, or even music, but they are most definitely fans of winning; they derive vicarious egotistical satisfaction from having “their” guitarist or “their” town or “their” musical style win the prize.

     Someone -gets the bright idea to eliminate the “subjectivity” from the judging by inventing a machine to take over the job.
     The machine they create does not have the capacity to evaluate melodic quality, or harmonic quality or rhythmic quality. The machine can only measure decibels and count the number of notes played per measure.
     So that becomes the criteria for winning the contest.
     Not melody.
     Not harmony.
     Not rhythm.
     Just how loud you can play and how fast you can play.
     The loudest, fastest guitarist wins the prize.

     Young, up-and-coming guitarists begin to abandon melody, harmony and rhythm because these elements are no longer relevant to winning the contest -- and the fame and fortune that comes with it. They focus on what’s important: play loud and play fast.
     Guitarists who retain an attachment to melody, harmony and rhythm lose interest in the contest now, not just because they can’t play loud enough and fast enough to win it (which is what the louder-faster players claim) but because it simply isn’t pleasant to either play or to listen to. Indeed, they don’t consider it music at all, but noise.
          Playing with articulate melody, adroit harmony, and captivating rhythm requires a much longer time, and particular precision of effort.  Only a relative few can dedicate themselves to it.   But the ability to play loud and fast can be accomplished in very short period of time and almost anyone can learn to do it. So it becomes very popular and guitar playing gets “democratized.”  The louder-faster group points this out as a great progress. “More people are playing the guitar today than ever before,” they cheer.
     Because the loud-fast guitarists don’t have to invest that same time and effort as the “traditional” guitarists, they have no idea what that process entails. They therefore tend to grossly under-estimate what’s involved and grossly under-value it. The result is that the loud-fast guitarist has no particular admiration, regard or respect for traditional guitar players -- or for their own ilk, either for that matter. Their behavior toward each other deteriorates to an infantile level of brooding tantrum when they lose, and displays of narcissistic self-adulation when they win.
     Audiences begin to stay away in droves. A few spectators still attend to “support” a friend (or their guitarist from their town…) but no one comes to listen to the music anymore.  There isn’t any.
     Eventually, all the “traditional” guitarists either retire, or die off. A whole new generation of loud-fast guitarists is born who have never heard any other kind of guitar-playing, can’t even imagine that another kind of guitar-playing  could ever have existed.
     Every once in a while, someone may refer to the “old-fashioned” way of guitar-playing,  a quaint and silly practice based on some odd notions of obsolete things called melody, harmony and rhythm, beyond which we have now thankfully evolved. And all the “modern” guitarists can do is shake their heads in wonder that their foolish forbears could have been so caught up in irrelevancies.