Friday, July 29, 2011

Too Big to Fail?

Extremely principled members of Congress are going to push the government past the deadline to raise the debt limit. That seems inevitable. Whether you agree with them or not, the Tea Party faction of the Republican majority is going to take us all along on their experiment in economics.

Some economists predict dire consequences. Others are less concerned. I've heard a lot more shooting around my rural neighborhood as the deadline approaches, so maybe the survivalist demographic thinks we'll face real social breakdown. Or maybe they finally saved up enough money to buy some ammo after a very quiet early summer.

Because the government's financial obligations won't disappear just because the Tea Party wishes it were so, expenses will rise, further straining the middle class. Because the middle class has been deemed unnecessary, this will be no loss. However, the bottom layer of the top class will start to crumble away as it takes more and more money to maintain a lifestyle that will have to include privately purchased replacements for many services government currently provides.

I'm not sure how much longer we could have afforded ourselves anyway. China is rising, but what will they stand above when civilization as we've come to know it is no longer affordable? We could have staved off a massive change in the not-too-distant future with some small changes back when a nerdy peanut farmer from Georgia suggested them in the late 1970s, but why dwell in the past? We are a nation that has been well served by charging obstinately forward for about three centuries. It's not like the whole thing will come crashing down immediately. Disruption creates opportunity. It doesn't guarantee that everyone will see an opportunity. Change is not always good, and certainly not always good for everyone.

We don't even know how much will change, how quickly.

We do know that there will not be another bailout. We're going to ride this one down to the ground for better or for worse. Happy landings!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Periodic Fiddle Report

Beginning musicians go through two phases. In the first phase, you can't recognize what they're trying to play. In the second phase you can recognize it, but you wish you couldn't. Your mind supplies the rest of the phrase as the player still gropes to pull it out. It's like listening to someone with a stammer. As a player, it's like having a stammer. The thought is there, it just gets jammed up in processing.

Most music students get to the second phase. A certain number never get past it. In a way it never ends. As one fiddle player I know says, "you never get to the finish line in music." A musician pushing further will attempt more difficult music. It will come out mangled a few times before it comes out right.

For the most part, teachers and better players have been very encouraging. Once in a while, though, someone makes a remark that makes me wonder how well I might ever play.

The phrase, "as long as you're enjoying yourself" serves not only as permission to dabble in the province of real musicians, but also a hint that it's not only okay to sound tentative and incompetent, it may be all you can hope for. But "as long as you enjoy it" it's okay.

More ominously, at String Band one night, someone said something about playing a tune well and Seth said, "it's an accomplishment just to play it recognizably." All I could think of was identifying a mangled accident victim from a tiny scrap of visible tattoo or dental records. Wow. Is that all there is?

The leader of the adult classical ensemble I play with said something similar that sounded kind of like, "learn to enjoy being mediocre." She wants us to try our hardest and not to run ourselves down for our musical disabilities, but then the veil seems to slip and we see the inscription on the wall behind it: "Don't kid yourselves."

In the past couple of years I have focused on practicing frequently and well. Last fall I started attending a weekly session run by a local musician and teacher who specializes in folk music.

The term folk music conjures up images of the commercial product in the 1960s, but it really encompasses the indigenous music of the people wherever "folk" gather. Instruments range from recognizable implements one could buy or rent from a music store to weird objects pieced together in places remote from formal music education. It can also include formalized traditions quite different from the music most familiar to people living in Europe and countries derived primarily from European culture.

Most of what we play on Thursday nights in String Band comes from old-time and Celtic genres.

Folk music was the popular music before commercial pop music became widespread in the second half of the 20th Century. Modern popular music owes a lot to various tributary streams from all over the world, mixed together and fed into a microphone during the rise of radio. Because of this, a little or a lot of any given folk tune might have a familiar ring to it. Also, since much of folk music is meant to be dance music, it has the same earworm potential as many modern popular tunes. Like it or not, the pattern digs into part of your brain and won't leave. It may subside, but it is seldom eradicated.

If I like a tune it takes root more quickly in my brain. Unfortunately, all these tunes get into my mind far sooner than they get into my fingers. I can't play a single one as fast as I can hear it in my mind.

On the classical training side, the music is more complex. I find it more difficult to pull off the page than the simple patterns of the fiddle tunes. I could probably turn into a reasonably competent hack fiddler. Becoming a violinist is a lot harder. The two tracks appear to support each other. Fiddle playing, as long as I maintain posture and technique, provides a lot of mechanical practice. The reward is a tune. On the other side, reading more complicated pieces off the page reinforces technique and pattern recognition.

Music is a vast universe. Many modern musicians combine formal training in the classical tradition with explorations in the genres that transmit knowledge with no written notation or with specialized notation developed within a musical subculture. This approach, that blurs boundaries, makes it all accessible. That would seem good. However, some adherents to specific traditions will say that the global musician who drops in, soaks up a few things and moves on, doesn't get the full cultural basis and significance the tradition represents.

I don't know enough to pick a side. Exploratory musicians generally seem like pretty cool people, and I'm all about sharing culture and fun, so I'll try whatever comes my way. It might even come out recognizably.