I have learned more from TV Tropes than from any English class I have ever taken

If you aren’t familiar with TV Tropes–(you’ve really been missing out)–it is sort of like Wikipedia, except it deals in tropes: recurring elements in (mostly) works of fiction. The site describes a trope as something that “[conveys] a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details”. The TV part of its name is really a misnomer (or, per the site’s terminology, an Artifact Title), because it touches on movies, books, video games, comics, mythology and religion, and even historical events.

A few examples of tropes from the page for ‘House of Leaves’ are ‘Beast in the Maze’ (the Minotaur), ‘Hooker with a Heart of Gold’ (Thumper), ‘Lysistrata Gambit’ (when Karen won’t have sex with Navidson), and ‘Painting the Medium’ (use of colors throughout). There is a (if you’re unfamiliar with the site, that is) surprisingly sophisticated discussion of the book’s  unconventions, as well as the speculation that Danielewski might just be messing with all of us. The page is probably a more user-friendly and inviting introduction to Postmodern lit than anything else I can think of.

Think about what you learned in English class–plot, characters, style, word choice, symbolism, whatever. TV Tropes covers it all surprisingly well (except grammar/punctuation, but thoughts on that will come later), while also being free, fun, relevant, and a really easy way to waste hours of your life.


Where are the female composers at?


With that out of the way, let’s begin.

Orchestras are struggling. (This will be orchestra-centric, because that’s what I know best). Their core followers will all be dead soon, costs have gone up, and government support has gone down. They need to start attracting millenials. Now, let’s say you’re a creative director/board member for a mid-range orchestra in a decent-sized market with a lot of young people (Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Minnesota come to mind). Which of these themed concerts would you program to attract a younger demographic?

a. Fin-de-siècle Vienna

b. John Williams tribute

c. Video Games Live

d. Female composers of the early 20th century

e. Beethoven with Yefim Bronfman (and free craft beer!)

The answer is b or c. Trust me, I’ve seen this firsthand (I’m on an orchestra association’s board of trustees). Nobody much likes a (which is a shame), and d never seems to occur to anybody. The answer orchestras seem to prefer is e, with b and c reserved for special occasions for which they jack up the ticket price (absolutely true).

But I think the all-female option would go over well. I’m sure it’s been done; I just haven’t heard of anything like that personally. It would also give the orchestra the chance to play more serious music, while still appealing to the millenial sensibility. Old people might like it too.

Go listen to Lili Boulanger’s ‘Vieille prière bouddhique’, then continue reading.

Wasn’t that awesome? Audiences would love it.

Now look up Lili Boulanger on Wikipedia or something, then continue reading.

And she has a compelling backstory! Granted you would need a choir and a decent soloist, but that can be done–and it is done, a lot. Just not for Boulanger.

Performing works by female composers, composers of African descent, composers from Latin America, (all of the above: Tania León) and other historically-underrepresented groups would be a great way for orchestras to maintain their highfalutin artistic integrity while still appealing to a broader demographic.

Conflict is Boring

I hear over and over that fiction needs conflict to be interesting, but I find that it often gets boring. There are a few particular instances I can think of. In the Harry Potter series, the interpersonal squabbling and war against Voldemort (spell check recognizes ‘Voldemort’) were significantly less interesting than Rowling’s fleshing out of the details of her world. Some of my favorite books have basically no conflict–Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’, Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’, Pavić’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’, and many of the short stories of Murakami and Borges (I swear I read books by women too–these just popped into my head as good examples).

With movies, there is often a lull about two-thirds of the way through (big exception–most horror) where whatever contrivance the screenwriter has thrown in to create interest turns into a conflict tumor that turns whatever premise it had started out with into a bland argument/fight/disagreement. Good counterexample in Miyazaki. ‘Bridesmaids’ comes to mind as a hilarious premise and execution that eventually gets bogged down by Wiig’s failing cupcake business and romance with the Irish guy. Melissa McCarthy’s acting was probably the best thing about that movie, and her character was basically comic relief.

The Mermaid’s Urinary Tract Infection

Bull kelp grows off the west coast of the United States and Canada. It forms long conical strands that can get up to 100′ long (or so they say).

I received a grant to write a piece of music for kelp. When cut, it can be played like a horn or trumpet. I hired three brass players to perform the piece, and it went really well.

The most boring question about art is ‘What is art?’ As far as I’m concerned, house painters, cave painters, Bob Ross, Chinese sweatshop workers who paint the eyes on dolls, portrait painters, abstract expressionists, and tile painters are all painters. They just paint different things.

Obviously it’s possible to reduce any activity to absurd basics (look up “explain your job badly”), but there is something to this, so bear with me.

There’s that old complaint about contemporary art–“I could do that!” (NB: try reading that sentence emphasizing different words each time)–and of course, there is truth in that, but it is maybe a little more complicated.

Certainly you (whoever you are) could do that (whatever that is). The cheeky response is this:

Person: “I could do that!”                                  //    (NB: accent on a different word this time)

Other person: “But you didn’t.”

And that is absolutely true as well. You (rhetorical ‘you’) didn’t do that. Somebody else did, and because you would not have had the idea for it without seeing it first, whether or not you could (again, the emphasis is different) do it (or rather, replicate it) is immaterial, because it has already been done.

I really don’t want to talk about contemporary art here, I swear.

Now here’s the kicker: if you really set your mind to it, you could (in theory) paint like Titian. But nobody looks at Titian and says “I could do that” (or maybe they do), because it seems like he had some supernatural painting ability.

But he didn’t. He might have had access to pigments that are hard to come by nowadays, or some other painting thing that I don’t know about, but he was not superhuman. Certainly, different people are good at different things, but when it comes to the physical production of something, whatever that might be, all that you really need are decent motor skills.

I refuse to believe the myth of the Artist as a Great Man (and always a man it seems). None of that Wagnerian egomaniacal arrogance, like how Goethe thought that Mozart was the only person capable of writing music for ‘Faust’.

Here’s how you write music:

  1. Write on paper (or something similar; or transmit it orally [edit: like chlamydia]; notes and rests and dynamics and the like are conventional, but you do you).
  2. There is no step two. You’re done. It might be crappy music, but it’s music (though does it only become music when someone plays it?)

Everything else is just details.