Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Oklahoma Trails" program notes

Bison, mountain lions, wolves and bats are among the many animals that fill the Oklahoma Trails exhibit at the Oklahoma City Zoo. This gathering of Oklahoma’s native creatures provided the inspiration for this new piece, written for the Edmond Memorial High School String Orchestra.

The violins and violas set the tone with quiet tremolos as the piece begins. Soon, the cellos present the main theme - a reflection on the solemn beauty and wildness found in Oklahoma’s rolling landscapes. The violins take up the melody in a different key as it grows into a sudden acceleration. The different sections trade sixteenth note figures as the theme is developed into a frenzied tremolo.

Pizzicato in the cellos begins the second section of the piece. The violins and violas present a simple motif of rising fifths representing the expansiveness of the Oklahoma plains. This idea is passed around until a new, adventurous theme emerges, and a rising dissonance begins to overwhelm its development. The music soon calms again as soloists from each section lead an introspective transition back into the original theme. An aggressive ostinato figure in the basses begins a final swell into the climactic moments of the piece. Tremolos take us back to the solemnity of the opening as the piece quietly fades to its end.

Special thanks to the young musicians of the Edmond Memorial High School Orchestra for approaching this new piece with a dedication to musicality and open mindedness. Thanks to director David Koehn for his excellent preparation and for asking me to compose a piece for his orchestra. Thanks to the Edmond Arts Council and OPUS, the Edmond Memorial Orchestra's parents association, for commissioning this work and thereby providing a new musical experience for all those involved.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


......are going quite well at Edmond Memorial High School. In case you do not know, the orchestra commissioned me to write a string piece for them. The orchestra's parents group wrote a grant to the Edmond Arts Council who generously provided funds. The motivation was to give the kids a chance to work with a real flesh-and-blood composer by rehearsing and premiering a brand spanking new piece of music.

The result is "Oklahoma Trails", a seven minute piece inspired by the native creatures and landscapes of Oklahoma, as represented by the OKC Zoo exhibit bearing the same name. I will post the program notes soon. The premier of the piece will be May 11 at Edmond Memorial. The concert starts at 6 with the high school portion beginning at 7.

Rehearsals have been fantastic so far. David Koehn, the director and idea-man behind this project, called me after the first rehearsal. The kids dutifully played the piece albeit with a couple of raised eyebrows (after all, this isn't Mozart!).

By the time I attended my first rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, the group had rehearsed it a few times. I was greeted with some smiles, and I was absolutely blown away by how well the orchestra was already playing the piece! I received a couple of compliments, and I gave out many more. It really got me excited.

Last week, David let me lead the rehearsal, and we had a great time searching through the music for the themes and working on playing them expressively. I use the term "macro-dynamics" to describe overall volume levels specified for different sections of a piece (forte, piano, etc.). But to play a phrase expressively, one must usually employ "micro-dynamics" - a natural sounding rise and fall in volume, similar to the expressiveness we use in our speech. These micro-dynamics are not usually specified by a composer. Rather it is up to the performers to utilize them in their effort to play expressively. Dynamics are the Z axis of music. X is rhythm, Y is pitch, and Z is the dynamic level employed to reach out to your audience and then back away. It is what makes music 3-D! I listen to music in the car like everyone else, but the volume compression and distracted listening have taken something away from our sensibility about live music's dynamic possibilities.

The young musicians of Edmond Memorial's orchestra have responded beautifully and are capable of playing very expressively!

I look forward to another rehearsal tomorrow. We will continue to follow the melodic lines and play them expressively as they are passed around and developed between the sections.

If you are not busy on May 11, and you live close by, I would love to see you at the concert! These outstanding young musicians will be playing a variety of musical pieces and a world premiere is a pretty unique accomplishment for a high school group - for any group really!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Choice part two

What is a choice? If someone grabs me and forces me to turn to the left instead of the right, was this a free decision? Most people would say no. But if all the atoms which make up “me” (and those around me) have no choices, according to physical laws, then do I still have a free choice as to which direction I turn? Or am I pre-determined to turn a specific way, and then I experience an illusion when I feel that I am choosing?

I didn’t choose my genetics, my parents, the location of my childhood, the beliefs I was taught, etc. etc. Most of the factors which make up my will were not chosen by me - (I wasn’t really around when those choices were made!) So what does this say about the origination of the thoughts, feelings and traits which make up me?

If I choose to stand up and turn to the right, what was the origination of this decision? Was it POOF! out of nowhere? Let’s imagine that it was. Does this fact make me feel that I had more of a choice in the matter? No. That just sounds random, as if I flipped a coin. (did the coin, or the environment, or both, make a choice as to which side landed up?)

So is my choice the result of thought-out reasons? Or feelings? If so, yet again, what was their origin? If I say that the origin of my reasoning is a desire for truth, where did the desire for truth come from? Is it fair to say that my choice is pre-determined by my reasons? And those reasons were pre-determined by others factors, and on and on?

Perhaps all of reality is a constant state of evolving relationship. So an interesting question is “What is the self in all this?”

Some people argue that ultimately there is no self. Perhaps this is true in a sense. I am not something that is completely separate from everything else. Yet, it’s also true that a small bundle of subjective experience, that is me, exists.

I think that perhaps one way to describe what I am is as a kind of meeting place, a lightning rod, for certain causes of the universe to express themselves. Causes inside and outside of me come together and create an outcome which can be described as my decision. This is not to say that all the causes are pre-determined, however. There are many factors which may be indeterminate - fundamental aspects of reality which are unpredictable, no matter how much we know in advance about all the relevant conditions.

So now that there is a little context of what self might be - back to choice. What is the difference between my decision to turn to the right or to the left, and say, an electron’s “decision” to bounce right or left? Or another subatomic particle’s decision to pop in and out of existence? Or the wind’s decision to blow from the North East? Or the universe’s decision to evolve itself slowly in the direction of turning parts of itself into self-reflective life forms? I am not sure.

If we say it was all predetermined by initial conditions, then all things are inevitable (of course, where did the “initial conditions” come from? -but I’ll leave that for now). Choice and self-reflection are illusory, and really they serve no functional purpose at all. If a machine is going to move in one direction no matter what, why does the ability to contemplate different choices need to exist? Why does self-reflective consciousness need to exist at all? It doesn’t make sense.

If there are certain unpredictable aspects to reality, then how does this help things? Is consciousness and true possibility - true choice - dependent on indeterminate aspects of quantum reality? How does this contribute to a free choice, if there is no discernible reason behind any of it? Does an electron indeterminately bouncing right instead of left create more freedom? More choice? Of course if pre-determined atoms can magically create the emergence of unpredictable choice-making, then why couldn’t indeterminate atoms do the same?

But what if choice itself is a fundamental aspect of reality? What if, in some way, all the universe is gradually choosing and finding what it wants to be? Does this mean that anything is possible at any time? No. I am one infinitesimally small part of the universe. I am bound by my relationship to all of physical reality. I have a small parameter of free choice. I can turn to the right or left, but I can’t jump up and out of the atmosphere. The rest of the universe has chosen that I cannot do this!

If this is true, then it makes sense that choice looks a bit paradoxical from our perspective. We are inside the universe doing the choosing - there is no outside measuring stick to compare ourselves against, nothing by which to ultimately judge our methods and progress. If the universe is gradually finding its way, and some degree of freedom, choice and possibility are fundamental to reality, then it will probably look a bit confusing. If it’s all pre-determined, then our self-reflection and our sense of subjective experience is functionally irrelevant. If it’s not determined, then how do certain unpredictable events contribute to a true sense of choice?

So back to me, sitting in my chair, deciding whether to turn to the right or to the left. What would a free choice look like to an observer?

Perhaps it would look like a situation whose results cannot be completely predicted but which will fall within the bounds of physical and logical possibility. And this includes a lot of aspects of the universe besides humans.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Another debate on the Resurrection

I highly recommend listening to the closing statements by Marcus Borg and William Lane Craig in this "debate". The quotes around debate are because Craig approaches this as a traditional philosophical debate, whereas Borg adopts a less argumentative, more pastor-ly tone. I think liberal Christians will be happy with Borg's closing statement and conservatives will probably be happy with Craig's. The whole discussion is pretty interesting, but in the interest of time you can get most of the point from the two five minute closing statements.

Check it out here.

If you like that, then definitely check out the closing remarks of the Bill Craig/John Shelby Spong debate, which I wrote about here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Daoism, Christianity, God and No-thing

These are excerpts from two thinkers considering the nature of something and nothing. The first is a mathematical physicist who loves storytelling and describes the universe more in terms of organism than of machine. The second is a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University who has authored many books attempting to reconcile evolution with religion. This is taken from an interview, so please forgive the grammatically scattershot transcription. The last excerpt is the 11th stanza from the Tao Te Ching. It is something else to ponder.

“Remember how elementary particles spontaneously erupt out of no-thing-ness, the ultimate realm of generation? Emptiness is permeated with the urgency to leap forth. The difficulty is with language: when we say emptiness, we fail to evoke any sense of awe for the truth of the matter.

We can use another word: the ground of being is generosity. The ultimate source of all that is, the support and well of being, is Ultimate Generosity. All being comes forth and shines, glimmers and glistens, because the root reality of the universe is generosity of being. That’s why the ground of being is empty: every thing has been given over to the universe; all existence has been given over to the universe; all existence has been poured forth; all being has gushed forth because Ultimate Generosity retains no thing.”

- Brian Swimme from The Universe is a Green Dragon

“....I'm talking about philosophical Daoism such as you find in the famous classic the Dao De Jing by the famous philosopher Laozi and according to the philosophy of Daoism ultimate reality -- called the Dao -- is humble, is unobtrusive, is not prominent, doesn't stick out but precisely because of that humility of ultimate reality it allows the rest of nature to emerge, and perhaps the best example given by the Dao De Jing is to imagine a circle, a wheel with spokes converging from a center and that center geometrically speaking is essentially nothing but yet this nothingness generates a wheel. Or think of the emptiness of a window which allows light to come in. It's this insight the Daoist philosophy had that that which is most effective is also the most unobtrusive, and they have the notion of the way which simply can be translated as effective non-interference so that which is most effective, most foundational to reality, is not going to be found among the object of ordinary experience, and I correlate this with the Christian notion of the humility of God and that's one of the themes that perhaps you found perhaps a bit strange. It's not one that you you might have grown up with and that many people have not grown up with in their religious experience but yet a case can be made and has been made by contemporary theology that this is the most characteristic feature of the God of Christianity, and the classic text for this is St. Paul's letter to the Philippines in which he puts an early Christian hymn which says Christ was in the form of God but did not want to cling to that status but emptied himself and took on the form of a slave and subsequent theological reflection has taken that to mean that ultimate reality is self-emptying, self-humbling reality and that fits nicely the new understanding of all the universe because a humble God would would not overwhelm the world, would not stick out prominently as one object among others which religion often looks for, and we're disappointed because we don't find that type of God. We find very unavailable that kind of God but the unavailability of God is a correlate of the fact that we find a universe which is constantly striving to become itself, that's how I understand from a religious point of view this is what evolution is about. Even the expanding universe that we live in as Penberg pointed out can be interpreted theologically as consonant with the theme of a God who lets the world become itself. God wills the independence of the world. And this is kind of like the God of Daoism or the ultimate reality.”

  • John Haught, in an interview with Robert Wright. The full interview and many, many more from Wright's Meaning of Life series are here

And finally, a translation by S. Mitchell of stanza 11 from the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu:

“We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space

that makes it livable.

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tea Parties, Health Care and Freedom

The modern day “Tea Party” movement is not modeling itself on the right rebellion. Patriots in Boston, throwing British tea overboard, rallied themselves around the cause of “No taxation without representation.” Fair enough.

Tea party revelers have representation today. They may disagree with many of their representatives’ decisions, but they are free to express themselves at the ballot box. They are also free to gather together and protest, which is a very American thing to do, but to draw inspiration from the Boston Tea Party - a response to a truly unfair situation - rings hollow.

Another recent “assault” on freedom is the new health care bill. It requires Americans to purchase health insurance. I will readily admit that this is a necessary evil. Government coercion always is. Stopping at red lights and paying taxes are also necessary evils, but they are the price we pay for civilization. We trade in some of our freedoms to realize other freedoms.

Requiring health insurance for citizens makes sense. How can we expect the health care system to work when tens of millions either can’t afford insurance or decide not to carry it? When they get sick, hospital emergency rooms are required by law to treat them. And when the hospital is not paid, the price goes up for everyone. As Mit Romney said during the 2008 election (paraphrase) - “We already have universal health care - but not everyone is paying for it.” And without encouraging preventative care and regular check-ups, many people wait until they are really, really sick to seek treatment. This isn’t smart - it’s a waste of human life both for the sick and for those who have to pay for it.

As long as hospital ER’s are required to treat people, regardless of their financial circumstances, then we all must contribute. If we had a single payer system our required “insurance” would be paid through taxes, but private insurance is the way of the land, and that is fine.

Does this infringe on our freedom? In some ways yes it does. We are being required to provide for our own health care by purchasing insurance. But there are other possible assaults on freedom. How free is someone when she is sick, or her children are sick, and she cannot afford a doctor? How free is a person waiting until he is sick enough to go to the ER, rather than making a doctor appointment weeks earlier? How free is the middle class person whose medical bills include the cost of all the free treatments provided by hospitals? How free is a person stuck in a dead end job that she hates because she needs the insurance for her family? How free is the man with asthma who cannot purchase health insurance on his own, so he gives up on his entrepreneurial dream and takes a job with a corporation large enough to insure him? How free is a person in physical pain, who doesn’t know what to do about it?

Can government go too far attempting to provide for its citizens? Of course. But we are not talking about cars, cell phones, or even housing here. We are talking about whether we should systematically do all we can to provide health care to our citizens - to ourselves and to our neighbors. The only other commodity as valuable is education, and we pay our property taxes to educate society. To not do this would be to effectively brainwash children. If we have the ability to provide education and health care to our citizens we must do it. If we do not, then calling this the land of equal opportunity has zero credibility.