Classic Lichtenbergianism

So I have two options this morning: pound out another 3 Old Men post, or implement an idea I stole from another composer to solve the “reboot” problem in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 1.

If you guessed “None of them, Katie,” you are our daily winner!

The timer went off on my phone, which meant I had to go downstairs, remove the sheets from the dryer, and get them on the guest bed so they “won’t be wrinkled.”


Anyway, as I was preparing to finish getting the top sheet on, I was struck by the morning light.







So there’s that hour gone.

I suppose I should head back over to the Symphony now…

Today in crapping out music

Yes, I know it’s Thanksgiving, but I woke up from dreaming about a) men getting tattoos, and b) the symphony.

Leaving aside the tattooed men for the moment—oh, GROW UP YOU PEOPLE—I decided to slip upstairs while I could and crap out some notes.  I had gotten the fourth movement nicely started, and then it nicely ground to a silence, which was my intent.  The problem with grinding to a silence is that then one must start back up.  That’s where the dilemma is, and that’s what I woke up dreaming.  If I had actually dreamed a solution, that would have been fantastic, but I didn’t.  I just awoke to the need to do something about it.

For the moment, I’ve been falling back on my “abortive attempts” strategy: putting in a double bar (to mark my place) and just plopping out new sounds to see if I can trigger something that works.  I’ve also been going back into the file of the original fourth movement and stealing stuff I liked from there to see if it will fit in with the new stuff.  Which it should, because as I said previously I’m not starting from scratch, just rewriting what I’ve already done.  So far, it’s a good stopgap measure: the old work is not bad stuff, and it may get me started when I’m actually able to sit down and work all day on it.

You will have noticed that I have not shared any of this.

So, tattooed men.

Let’s see if I can find a nice, pretty, safe-for-work image of what was running through my head last night…

That’s kind of it, although I recall the tattoos as being more geometric than tribal, just big blocks of black.  We were at some kind of social gathering, and all the men had these tattoos on their arms.  (Click on the image to see the whole page of some very nice tattoos.  And then click on this link to see some absolutely beautiful tattoos!)

Other than my long-term fascination with tattoos, I don’t have any explanation for the dream.  The whole concept of marking oneself appeals to me, and it would be disingenuous of me not to recognize that part of the appeal lies in what I take to be an inherent masculinity in the concept.  (Certainly the young men on the tribal page are healthy exemplars of manly manliness.)

However, I’ve always shied away from the idea of large tattoos on my own personal body.  The two I have are small and discreet.  If you didn’t know I had them, you’d never know.  I think it’s because I have no confidence in my ability to carry it off, masculinity-speaking-wise.  I don’t have the broad chest or shapely biceps that the specimens you see on the internet have, and I never did.  One doesn’t want to look ludicrous, after all.

I’ve been forbidden to get more tattoos because some of us don’t find them appealing so it’s kind of a moot point to think about the topic, but there are at least three that I would get if I could.

The first is my lovely first wife’s signature.  You’d think that one would be appealing, but no.  I’ve informed her that if she dies, I’m showing up at the funeral with her name tattooed on me and everyone will think it’s sweet.  Probably I’d want that one on the inside of my wrist.  (FYI, I have a sheet with her signature already filed away.)

The second is a lizard.  I hesitate to use the term “spirit animal” out in public, but it’s an animal that has recurred in my meditations and in my art collecting, and one day I realized that I have half a dozen of the critters sitting around my study and the labyrinth.  It must mean something.  I don’t have a design picked out, and I’m not sure where I’d put it.  Maybe as I continue to evolve into an Old Man, I’ll get a rather large one on my chest.  Break down that particular barrier. (For a very interesting explication of what tattoos can mean, I highly recommend Seven Tattoos by Peter Trachtenberg.)

The third one is the Lichtenbergian motto, Cras melior est, which translates as “Tomorrow is better.”  This is my friend Kevin’s idea for his tattoo, and I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me previously.  Upper arm, perhaps, or my shoulder blade?  As I said, it’s a moot point, so I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the issue.

There may be others.  I seem to recall wanting four, but nothing is bubbling to the surface at the moment.  The important thing for me is that none of them are decoration.  The tattoos on the two pages to which I’ve linked are beautiful, but many of them seem to be sheerly decorative, “tribal” in the sense of “trendy/in-crowd.”  That’s not what I’m after.

I think that the best word to describe what I hope for in getting a tattoo is incorporation.  (I will now pause to let Marc shiver with a frisson of sinthome or whatever it is he shivers with.)  The marks I want on my body—permanently—are markers: some thing, some idea, some force that I want embodied on my body and in my living.  I crave the commitment.

Hm.  I did not plan to write about tattoos this morning.   Wonder what that’s about?


I did an odd thing today.  I pulled out the fourth movement of the Symphony No. 1 in G and started over on it.

Started over.

My original plan this morning was to open the old file and do some Things to it to fix it, the first of which was to expand the note values of the lento section to be more legible: 32nd note triplets in an extremely slow tempo (as in, 12 notes to a single beat) were simply too hard to read. The plan was to use a built-in utility to make each 32nd note into a 16th note and redistribute All The Notes into new measures.

However, since none of the empty measures up and down the orchestra were real rests, those measures didn’t get doubled and redistributed.  Therefore, on playback, nothing was aligned—woodwinds were wandering in and out when they should have been in sync with the strings—and though it might have been “interesting” it was not good.

So I used a utility to make all the empty measures real rests and tried again.  (There was also an issue with the pickup measure not doubling.)

Now everything lined up, but none of the dynamics moved with their notes, i.e., ffs and pps and pizzicatos were way off.

Finally, after giving it a good listen, I decided that everything I’ve done since April 2008—and here I am referring to my entire life, not just my composition—has made it necessary for me to scrap the old stuff and start over.

I’m not starting from scratch. The opening mood and main theme will remain the same, but I’m rewriting it from the ground up.  Literally: the swirling triplets that were in the violins are now in the celli and basses and are actually completely different notes.  There’s a new countertheme that probably will grow in importance, and harmonies are a little different—and likely to become even more different—than before.  It’s an adventure.

What prompted this?

Yesterday my lovely first wife and I went to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to hear a concert that featured a kinda-premiere of a symphony by Richard Prior, a professor at Emory.  It was competent but not thrilling, and while I don’t think I’m at the same technical level as Dr. Prior, the experience made me think that I should take another look at my own symphony in the belief that it might actually be more interesting.

So there we go.  The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last.

Symphony No. 1 in G major

I know—two posts in one day!

I’ve been cleaning up both my study and my hard drive, rearranging both to be more efficient.  One thing I’m doing on the hard drive is to update all my old music files into the new Finale so that nothing gets left behind. Some pretty old stuff in there, too!

One of those items was the Symphony No. 1 in G major.  I was asked to write it by the strings teacher at GHP in 2007 to be performed the following summer.  (I won’t name him here since I don’t want to embarrass him, since he should already be embarrassed about never playing the Cello Sonata Stephen Czarkowski!!)  When he decided to not to return to GHP for the next summer, I abandoned the work.  I was past the point of putting that much work into something that would never be performed.

Now that I’m retired, however, things are different.  Who cares if it’s never performed?  If it’s worth finishing, then it will give me something to do.

And I think it’s worth finishing.

Here’s the third movement, Allegro gracioso, which I had finished the day before I abandoned the work.  It’s rather nice.

And then there was the fourth movement. Problematic, resistant to completion or even to persuasion, it was a problem child.

But my, there’s some lovely stuff in there. I will post it here, but you have to realize that it’s a pastiche, just stuff I was throwing at the wall to see what stuck.  You will hear passages with just a piano; those are sketches for what might come next or bridge a gap.  You will hear gaps: my method was to skip a few measures and plop some new section in and worry about getting from point A to point B later.  There is no ending.  And Finale is its usual less-than-subtle self in translating an old file to the new format. But there is some nice stuff going on.

IV. Lento; allegro mp3

Art & Fear: 2

And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work, for the place their work belongs. [p. 9]

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the creative crisis precipitated by the decision of my friend Stephen Czarkowski’s not to return to GHP in the summer of 2008. He had asked me to try my hand at writing a symphony for the orchestra, and I had reached a point of having finished (i.e., stopped) the third movement and being stuck with the final movement when the news reached me. (The first two movements never got written.)

For most of my creative life, I have been guarded in my output. I am not a fast composer; I have to struggle for everything I write. And so it has almost never made sense for me to attempt to write something that I know will never be performed. A full-scale symphony? Who would play it?

So Stephen’s offer was a gift from the heavens. If I wrote it, they would perform it. I could write without holding back. In fact, having heard Stephen conduct GHP students in playing Strauss’s Death & Transfiguration, I figured there was nothing that came out of my head which would pose any difficulties whatsoever. The news that it would not be performed that summer was like hitting a brick wall. It meant that it would never be performed.

Whoever the new strings person was (and it turned out to be a former GHP student of mine), I would be his boss and not his friend: I could not ask him to devote so much class time to the performance of my piece without a very real appearance of impropriety.

It was more than a year before I wrote another note of music. The 24 Hour Challenge was an effort to move myself out of that dreadful stasis, and I think it succeeded in many ways. For one thing, I was able to take one of the pieces, “Club-Foot Waltz,” and turn it into the “Waltz for Bassoon & String Quartet,” which then became this spring’s “Pieces for Bassoon & String Quartet,” and which I printed out as soon as I got home on Tuesday and mailed to my former GHP student at GHP, since I am not his boss for the summer (and am in fact now his friend) and can ask him to read through a piece just as boldly as any other third-class first-rate composer.

The problem of destination is illustrated in my work by A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. As much trouble as I had finishing that, particularly the epic “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way”, thoroughly documented on this fine blog, I persevered to the astonishing conclusion, because I believed that it would be performed. I believed that it had a destination. If I had known that no one would have the slightest interest in it, I would have shelved it.

Now you would think that I would learn the lesson from these two episodes that Bayles and Orland try to teach in Art & Fear, that you have to aim your work at a destination that may not exist in your current universe, but I have not. Maybe as I progress through the summer and knock out the Ayshire Fiddle Orchestra piece in no time flat, and suddenly have the skills and inspiration to finish the Epic Lichtenbergian Portrait (not to mention the necessary reference photographs (ahem, Mike, Kevin, Matthew, et al.)), then perhaps I will look around me and decide, hey, why not? I can throw myself into projects that don’t have a light at the end of the tunnel: the Symphony in G, the mini-opera Simon’s Dad, and whatever else I can imagine.

But it’s going to take a lot of success with projects that do have a destination before I trust the universe to create things that don’t.

An anniversary

It was one year ago today that I stopped working on the Symphony No. 1 in G major. And since that day, I have written no music.

Yes, I’ve done a few exercises, one of which is promising, but on the whole I just haven’t been able to get back into that part of my brain. It’s not that I haven’t tried, although of course I have not tried very assiduously, it’s just that I’ve not been “inspired.”

And so I’ve piddled around, revising “Sir Christémas” and arranging “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way” for two-piano accompaniment; I’m supposed to be revising the orchestral score as a standalone piece. But new, exciting work? Nada.

It’s not that I haven’t been creative, because I have. I have been taken aback at how strongly my interest in painting has elbowed its way into my brain. Probably a Lichtenbergian strategy to keep me from writing music. We got Coriolanus up and running, and Lacuna keeps plugging along on Wednesdays. I write. I sing in Masterworks.

But I haven’t written any music for a year. Maybe I can make myself feel bad enough about it to want to do something.


I worked for an hour and a half this morning with some music, and despite my best efforts to piddle with fragments, no pressure, I ended up solving a couple of problems with the first movement of the Symphony. Nothing to share yet, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Short version: the main motif has been reimagined as an opening fanfare/intro, and what used to be the B theme is now the A theme, since it opened with the same notes.

And as I am typing this, it occurs to me that a further part of a solution to the thematic material is to re-declare the key of the thing. I’ve been thinking of it as in G major, but it might suit my purposes better to have it in C major, if my purposes are defined as maintaining the actual notes of the main motif (hereafter known as the Motif) as the opening of the theme.

There are a couple of reasons I don’t want to do this. One is the fourth movement, which is in G. Yes, I know, it’s a disaster and I might as well go rewrite it in C. (It actually opens in C minor, so the transition to C major would actually be easier.)

Another reason is that everyone’s first symphony is in C major. And almost no one writes in G major. Actually, almost no one writes in anything major these days, because it just sounds so damned cheerful and we all know the music can’t be serious if it’s cheerful. At any rate, I’m unreasonably stubborn about this. But something tells me I’m going to take the easy way out.

Yesterday, we went to the High Museum to see the First Emperor exhibit. Go, if you have the opportunity. It’s truly magnificent. There’s something awe-inspiring about the whole thing: the artistry that the culture brought to everything it touched, the craftsmanship, and above all, the incredible hubris of the project. The emperor in question, having united the Warring States under Qin, began immediately to construct this enormous tomb from which he could continue his glorious and blessed reign after death. It’s like 27 square miles of buried stuff: larger-than-life-size soldiers, yes, but also musicians, animals, acrobats, carts, banquets, temples, palaces–it’s literally an entire city for the emperor’s eternal use. (The half-size cart, which surprised me, because everything else was larger than life, was actually positioned next to a ramp, so the emperor could actually be driven up and out to travel around his domain.)

Equally impressive, though, were the two exhibits in the lower level, one of the sculptures of Ulysses Davis, and the other of works on paper from the folk art collection.

Ulysses Davis was an barber in Savannah, black, who carved amazing sculptures. Especially interesting to me was the way that he developed from very literal carvings and bas-reliefs to highly symbolic and imaginative pieces. He made a creative journey that trained artists can only pray for. He did it through the work, of course, although he did apparently study books on African art on his own. Follow the work, follow the work.

The drawings from the folk art collection is all “outsider” stuff, and like most of the genre is hallucinogenic in the extreme. I’ve never read of any of these artists ingesting entheogenic substances, yet there they are, acid trips and mushroom journeys, all on paper.

Many were schizophrenic and that’s usually credited with their bizarre visions, but having read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, my question is whether they are actually perceiving the world visually in ways that the rest of us have to take drugs to see.

The complexity of their visions is astounding. Can any trained artist achieve this? Part of the awful beauty of the work is the un-academic clumsiness, which the artists apparently recognized at some level because there is always a compensation in the balance of the composition to make up for the lack of draftsmanship, perspective, etc.

The very existence of the works is one proof of the evolutionary nature of artistic creativity. Two drawings struck me in this regard. I don’t remember anything about the artist other than his being male. They were two large pieces of drawing paper, and the drawings were pencil. There were straight lines drawn in regular graphite, with tiny little Klee-like, or perhaps Tanguy-like, blodgets extending from either side of the lines. These blodgets were all red or blue. Very nervous, frantic pieces, and their titles were like “Demon House,” very ominous.

It occured to me as I examined the drawings that he must have used one of those double-ended pencils that have red lead on one end and blue on the other. Remember those? Do they even make them any more? I remember thinking how neat they were when I used to see them in Woolworth’s over in the old Eastgate shopping center (where the Justice Center is now), and I know I owned at least one in my childhood.

Without knowing anything about the artist, I am imagining that he created these drawings with the only materials available to him. He had no choice about any of it: the paper, the medium, even whether or not to draw, or indeed what to draw. He had to do what he had to do. (Lacunans, refer to my piece from last week.)

The power of all the works in this exhibit was overwhelming to me, for some reason. As I start/continue my sketching/painting, I would love to produce something like these: simple, complex, untrained, chthonic in its source. The irony is that with my music, my lack of training is a real stumbling block, yet with my art, what little training I have will derail my ambitions.


I don’t have a coherent post to offer today, just random thoughts.

I’ve been having a recurring dream for the past few days. It’s annoying and I can’t figure out why I’m fixating on this particular image. It involves the Union Jack and its components somehow: I am usually trying to explain the pieces, or assemble the pieces, or explain how to assemble the pieces, or something. I’m not clear on what’s going on, and I’m thinking the dream itself is not very linear.

Sometimes a little girl is involved (hush, Jeff), sometimes a large group (hush, Jobie). The overriding feeling is one of frustration, but since I don’t have any clear (waking) idea of what I’m trying to accomplish, I’m not sure what the frustration is about. It’s entirely possible that not knowing what I’m trying to do in the dream is the frustration.

The easy symbolism is that it’s a metaphor for my composing. I know what the pieces are and have some idea of how they go together, but I don’t know enough to actually assemble them. What the little girl has to do with it, I have no idea. It’s like Faulkner’s Little Sister Death that I mentioned the other night at the Lichtenbergian Annual Meeting: in the face of some college student’s question, he claimed not even to remember the character in The Sound and the Fury. (I think I placed her in Absalom, Absalom at the meeting, but I got the character Quentin Compson right.)

As for the Lichtenbergian Annual Meeting, let’s just say that I was the essential Lichtenbergian: of the seven goals that I had listed at last year’s meeting, I had accomplished not one. The ones I can remember are picking up painting again; completing the symphony; completing the songs for A Day in the Moonlight; writing a trio for piano, trombone and saxophone; and getting some pieces done for a couple of choral competitions. There were two more, but I can’t remember even what they are.

I put off working on Moonlight to work on the symphony. That was scuttled when Czarkowski decided not to return to GHP. I didn’t have time during the summer to work on the trio, and no drive to work on the choral works, and then everything was subordinated to the labyrinth. So there you go.

All the non-Lichtenbergians in my life ask if I just rolled them all over to next year, and the answer is, of course, no. I’m pulling back in a lot of ways. Fewer goals, smaller goals, baby steps. Who knows? Perhaps the symphony will come bursting out of me in January, but I’m not planning for it.

A step forward?

Next Thursday, May 15, I’ll be heading down to LaGrange to meet with Lee Johnson, composer. He was recommended by Jeff Baxter as a potential instructor for me, and he’s agreed to meet with me and discuss it. I’m taking the score to IV. Lento with me to amuse him.

In other news, last night I received an offer that was very difficult to turn down: the opportunity to collaborate on a musical version of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Dracula, for performance this Halloween in Grantville or environs. Because of my longstanding commitment to A Day in the Moonlight, I felt I had to decline. But you can understand how tempting it was, from so many perspectives.

45 days

I don’t even know how to begin this post. I thought about something like, “You know why George Lichtenberg gives up on his symphony?” or something about the number of days left in the countdown, but I’m not up to being clever.

Stephen Czarkowksi, GHP’s fabulous string teacher/orchestral conductor, who requested I write this piece, will not be returning this summer, having other opportunities he should not pass up. There is no reason for me to keep working on Symphony in G major.

I’ve just been kind of numb, kind of nauseated, since this afternoon when I got Stephen’s email. This is a huge disappointment for me, needless to say, and coming on the heels of the news about the theatre losing the building, I’ve been thrown for a loop.

Oh well, easy come, easy go. I can at least get back to work on A Day in the Moonlight, I guess.