Thursday, September 30, 2010

Musicspeak: Real art and popular art*

Commercial. Literary.

Designations of fiction: what do you think of them? What are you reactions to authors Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel protesting the labels given to their novels? No, seriously, without the snickering and the eye-rolling?

Publishing professionals talk about the sweet spot where commercial and literary intersect. Authors try to figure out where their work fits. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weine
r respond to the publicity surround Jonathan Frazen's new book.

This age-old dichotomy between art and popularity rears its head in many art forms. In music, the words "classical" and "pop" seem to do a decent job defining particular types of music. Yet doesn't it seem questionable to put Bach and Debussy in the same lot, and Iron Maiden and Lionel Ritchie in another? And where does jazz go? Straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz, fusion jazz?

Years ago, I heard a definition of art music that has made me think. It was given by the keynote speaker at a piano pedagogy conference. Speaking
to a ballroom full of conservatively dressed piano teachers, this pony-tailed, jean-clad, soft-spoken man described his journey of coming up with a way to think about art music. And this is his conclusion (my paraphrase):

Art music is music that requires knowledge and experience to appreciate.

That works really well for me; even if it may place Iron Maiden next to Bach. And this is not to say music outside this realm has no place. It just means that some music requires work and study to be understood and enjoyed fully.

I am still thinking about whether this definition works as well in fiction.
What do you think?

*Please don't shoot me for seemingly denigrating popular art. This is an attempt at speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. See that bulge on my left cheek?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Web presence, blog tours and social sites for authors

Two of my favorite blogs seem to be taking two sides of an argument, with regards to authors promoting their books:

Sarah Prineas, author of The Magic Thief, was the guest on Shrinking Violets Promotions yesterday, and she doesn't care for authors using social sites to promote their books. She doesn't think blog tours work.

Over at Writers Unboxed,
Crystal Patriarche, publicist for BookSparksPR outlines the ways an author should approach blog tours. She doesn't specifically mention the effectiveness of blog tours, but the post assume that they are.

I find myself in an unusual situation: I don't really disagree, not too much anyway, with either of their positions. What about you?

Be sure to read the comments on the SVP blog. A lively conversation has sprung up primarily between Greg Pincus, a book marketing guru, and Sarah. A few other book people turned up with their contributions: agent Jennifer Laughran, authors Tanita Davis and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Putting aside the question of social sites, at least the internet enables online communities in which thoughtful people who care can engage in meaningful discussions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Musicspeak: walking into love

One of my most trying times at the conservatory was the semester we studied 20th Century music. Lectures and tutorials weren't the problem; it was the Weekly Tape. You see, for every period in history we studied, we had to listen to a cassette tape (yes, it was that long ago) containing music from that time. Listening to music as an assignment was usually my favorite part; it was like reading To Kill A Mockingbird for school.

But that was before I was required to listen to 120 minutes of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, followed by Steve Reich and other avant garde composers every week. (John Cage's 4'33'' was especially uncomfortable. Was I supposed to sit with the earphones in my head, listening to silence for exactly 4'33"? At least White On White doesn't demand its viewer to be still for a specific length of time.)

Did you follow the links? Did you listen to the music? What do you think?

I felt tortured.

But a strange thing happened after I listened to each tape multiple times; some of the music began to make sense. I started to enjoy, and later, love some of what was initially meaningless noise, such as Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, and Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht

This didn't happen to every piece of music. I remained unmoved by some of the compositions, despite acquiring familiarity and knowledge about them. I understood the purpose of their composers, appreciate their ideas, and maybe even admire the results at an intellectual manner, but I never sought out those pieces after that semester.

The many hours spent listening and re-listening to all that music was necessary. To be a musician, I had to know how the story of music has continued in the 20th Century.

Writers read. We do it because that's probably the reason we became writers. We do it because we love it. We do it to learn about other writers.

And we do it because we need to know the traditions on which our art is based.

I have a number of books I feel I need to read but find it difficult / intimidating. This post is primarily a pep-talk to myself, that I should put in the extra effort and time to read these not-super-accessible books.

Falling in love is exhilarating. Within a heart beat we completely embrace the object of our affection. Sometimes the feeling can even turn into something less exciting but longer lasting. Sometimes it doesn't.

Walking into love: taking slow, occasionally painful, steps, isn't as exciting. But it can lead to something deep and stable, something that makes us better writers, richer people.

Do you have books that are on the TBR, but also SI (Somewhat Intimidating) list? Have you had the experience of falling in love with a book that your originally could not get through? I would love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Black Belts and Food Trucks

So I got my black belt.

The next morning, Saturday, I competed as a
black belt for the first time--in a ring with 2nd- and 3rd-degrees who were mostly teenagers with a few state champions thrown in. Nothing quite like jumping into new challenges with both feet!

On Sunday, all adrenalin and energy deserted me all at once, it seemed, at 2:08 p.m., and I collapsed on the couch. Yes, you may watch TV, I told the kids. They chose the Food Network, which was running a marathon of the Great Food Truck Race as a lead up to their grand finale. And wouldn't you know it, several episodes later, I came away with some lessons learned that apply to writing and publishing.

A bit about the show. 7 teams set up their trucks for two days in different cities across the country. The team with the least sales amount in each city is eliminated. As with other reality shows, the producers throw in twists and turns in the forms of different challenges.

One team, the Nom-Nom truck, won in every single city. The reason was clear: they played smart. For example, before arriving at their first city, they called ahead to place an ad and had lines waiting for them before their competitors could even set up shop. In another city, every team was given a frozen quarter of beef as a challenge and many of those teams knew nothing about butchering. Some of them simply did the best they could, wasting precious time and not doing a good job. But the Nom-Nom team knew their limitations, and asked/hired a butcher to cut it all to specs.

After a few cities, a number of the other teams started to figure out their strategies and stepped their own game up. One team, Grill 'Em All, in particular tried to beat the Nom-Nom team at their own game. In one challenge, Grill 'Em All and Nom-Nom had to prepare each other's food: Vietnamese Bahn mi sandwich and hamburgers. The GEL guys hunted down a Bahn mi shop and bought all the ingredients: marinated beef, sauces, veggies, already cut up. Unfortunately, they still lost that challenge.

Every team had a good product. Each was given the same information and seed money. Why did the teams fare so differently?

Many unpublished writers have the message and the craft, why do some succeed, and others not? Some of the reasons are out of our control. The leader of the Nom-Nom team had probably the most photogenic face. And much as we like to pretend beauty makes no difference, it does. But no one on the other teams begrudged (out loud, at least) her good genes. They did their thing as best as they knew how, work hard, tried to be open to new ideas.

Then there was the Ragin' Cajun incident. This team parked at a horrible spot in one of the cities and had no customers. The leader freaked out and tried to drum up sales by using his megaphone and calling out to passers-by, but to no avail. The next morning, he started at it again, but he was much more successful, primarily because he quit being the crazy guy on the street yelling at you to go eat his food. He became the charmingly wacky guy doing his best to persuade you.

I could so relate to that poor, desperate man going red in the face on that first evening, Please, gentle readers, if you sense a whiff of my going insane in public, please stop me.

What this show reaffirms to me is that, to be successful, I have to:
  • have an excellent product
  • not bury my head in only creating this product
  • get the message out there
  • learn about my customers
  • realize that strategies and careful planning can have a lot of impact
  • be willing to adapt
But this is not the end of the story.

The Nom-Nom truck had been the clear favorite. But in the end, they lost the final challenge to Grill 'Em All, a team that makes hamburgers.

This team was almost always at the bottom in every city, yet they scrounged up new enthusiasm after every setback. Nobody on their team would make it to the cover of GQ magazine, and the one time they felt super confident about winning a challenge--by getting the ingredients for making Bahn Mi ready made--they didn't. They were definitely the underdogs. And I love it when underdogs win.

To all my fellow pursuers of a seemingly unattainable goal, to all my fellow underdogs, to all my fellow dreamers: here's to a rich journey and a satisfying end.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stay tuned for the next installment of musicspeak

...which will air in its regular time next Thursday. Right now, I can't focus very well on anything besides Tae Kwon Do. You see, I am testing for my first degree black belt tomorrow.

[Hopefully I will be able to post a picture of me wearing the black belt soon]

I just completed a paper as part of its requirement, and passed the most nerve-wrecking segment of the test: the all-or-nothing test. As the name suggests, if I don't do everything completely well, I lose all the stripes that I had been gradually collecting over the last few months. Tomorrow evening, I will test in front of all my fellow candidates, family and friends. There will be three Masters among the panel and assorted other high-rank black belts.

So, yes. Efforts to point my mind towards music and writing have lost dismally to the self-preservation mode of preparing mentally and physically for TKD.

If you're interested, here's an older post I wrote when I first got my brown belt and the challenges that followed.

Wish me lots of stamina and balance and speed and power and no creaky joints!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Banned Books Week: my list

After looking through several lists that described the reasons for specific books being banned (and getting mildly depressed each time), I have decided on this list for my participation this year:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Young Adult
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

e Grade
Alice books by Phyllis Naylor

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Musicspeak: our audience

After my first public recital at college, I wrote home to say how disappointed I was. The audience had been small and it seemed almost meaningless to have spent all those hours in the practice room just to perform to a few people.

In her reply to me, my very wise mother said something that has stayed with me till today.
If even one person has enjoyed or understood my performance, I would have succeeded.

The Chinese has a term for such a person: zhiyin. The first character, "zhi" means "know" and the second, "yin "means "music" or "sound." Someone who is a zhiyin, in its literal sense, is someone who knows your voice, your sound, your music.

As a performer, It is not possible to know how a performance affects anyone. I don't know if, in all my years of performing, I have found any zhiyin, but the notion that such a person could exist has definitely given me a much better attitude toward performing.

An elderly gentleman used to frequent the lunch-time recitals of my conservatory. I didn't know him, but he was almost always at my recitals. As part of my psyche-myself-up-to-perform routine, I would imagine him as a zhiyin.

Initially, the thought helped focus my intentions. As the years went on, as I became increasingly frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary judging by the professors based on obstinate ideas about how certain pieces should be performed--Bach should never be played with the damper pedal, there should be no rubato in Mozart, and the only way to achieve the effect Debussy wanted was by using the sostenuto pedal (the one in the middle on a grand piano) and no other way--that I eventually gave up being the compliant and correct student because, first of all, I couldn't keep straight which professor held which opinion, and I really didn't want to perform within such narrow parameters.

So in my last year at the conservatory, when I employed subtle rubato in Mozart or used the damper pedal in Bach, I would direct the performance toward the gentleman, and imagined that he understood what I was trying to do musically.

Maybe a person should only write for herself. But I have to admit that one of the purposes of my writing is to share something of myself with others. Otherwise I would not seek publication and I would not need this blog. I may never reach a large audience with my writing, but the notion that a zhiyin could exist out there, who will "get" my writing, is a strong motivator.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Banned Books week

To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, The Handmaid's Tale, Speak: these are but some of the books that have opened my mind, affected my soul, made me ponder the wonders and abominations of life. To think that I might not have had the opportunity to read them makes me sad. I can only imagine how much poorer I would have been had not been for these books.

The people who want to ban books have one thing right: they know the power of ideas. But they also fear. What do they fear? On a day when I feel charitable, I think they fear the susceptibility of the naive. On a day when I am less so, I think they fear that their own belief system will be challenged.

Harsh? Perhaps. But in a democracy, where some of the most important decisions are made by by individual votes, why are we not given the same courtesy to choose the
ideas we want to explore?

As a parent, I am acutely aware of ideas that are not (yet) appropriate for the absorbent and young minds of my children. And I do censor: books, TV shows, movies. But those decisions are borne out of my responsibility as a parent and based not just on the princ
iples/beliefs our family adheres to, but also on my knowledge of my children. The fact that I choose for my children while they are still young doesn't mean I will tell other parents what their children should or should not read.

September 25th till October 2nd is designated Banned Books Week. Here is the American LIbrary Association's page with helpful information and links. Librarians and bloggers everywhere highlighting banned books in the next few weeks and I am going to participate in the Banned Books Challenge hosted by Steph Su Reads. For this challenge, I will read at least one banned book for general audience, and one for children's/YA and post my reviews here between now and October 15th.

Join me, if you're so inclined, and let me know after you sign up at Steph's. And even if you're not participating, do tell me which, among the banned books you have read, is one that you can't imagine not reading.