Thursday, 25 January 2018

Edmonton: Unbound book launch

Edmonton: Unbound is a new book published by my writer's group, the Edmonton Writers Group. Our launch was on Sunday, January 8, at Edmonton Public Library's Enterprise Square branch, the temporary home of the main downtown branch while the downtown library is under renovation.

All the stories are set in Edmonton. Not surprisingly, The Talus Dome inspired two of the stories.

As was the case for EWG's previous book, Between the Shelves, all proceeds go to Edmonton Public Library.

The book is for sale at Amazon. Getting in touch with Edmonton Writers Group (or with me, for that matter) can also get you a copy.

Brad OH Inc has posted interviews with the authors. I am among one of those authors. My contribution to the anthology is called "The Lot."

Friday, 29 December 2017

Major Light, Minor Shadows: Changing a Song from Comedy to Tragedy, Part One

Years ago on a CBC Radio 2 show, the host Tom Allen played a transposition of REM's "Losing My Religion," written in a minor key, into a major key. Tom giggled, and so did I. Long ago I took some music theory, and I remembered transposing melodies from one key to another, and I remember learning about the different modes of western music with exotic names like Dorian, Lydian, and Mixolydian.

Scholarly journals such as Psychomusicology and Music Perception operate on the assumptions that music and mind have a relationship and that the scholarly study of such a relationship is worthwhile. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book, Musicophilia, about the ways that music perception is influenced by neurological conditions.

The idea that a specific key can have a specific meaning and emotional effect is something that western composers took for granted, at least until the twentieth century, when the idea of keys were called into question. Beginning in the eleventh century, western musical theorists associated different modes with different emotions, though the different theorists didn't necessarily agree (Temperley and Tan 239). Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries gives examples of these emotion-key mappings. Here is one specific scheme in Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806), where, for example, C major connotes "innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children's talk" and F# Minor, the "gloomy key," "tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language."

David Temperley and Daphne Tan of the Eastman School of Music did research whose aims and conclusions are nicely summarized in the article's title, "Emotional Connotations of Diatonic Modes"  (DOI 10.1525/mp.2012.30.3.237) published in Music Perception in 2012. on the emotional reactions of non-musicians on hearing pairs of same melody written in two different modes, specific patterns of whole tones and half tones.

The mode most people call the major key is in the exotic naming I learned as a teenager called Ionian, while the Aeolian mode is similar to the type of minor key called descending melodic minor (Temperley and Tan 238). According to tradition, the major key has positive connotations and the minor key has negative connotations (Temperley and Tan 239).

In their acknowledgement of their predecessors in the study of music and emotions, Temperley and Tan make the distinction between perceived emotion and felt emotion. A song may sound sad, but the listener may nevertheless feel happy when they hear it (239). For example, I feel happy when I hear the song "Tennessee Waltz" by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart because I think the melody is beautiful, but the song sounds sad to me, perhaps because I am influenced by the lyrics, or perhaps for another reason.

Thus  a few difficulties arise with my experiment to add "shadow" to a song that seems "light." What do I want to do: make a song that sounds "tragic" or a song that makes me feel "tragic"? Besides that distinction, what is it that a song must to be "tragic"? In their research, Temperley and Tan asked participants to classify songs on how they sounded, rather than how the songs made them feel. They also simplified the categories of emotional reaction to two: happy and sad.

Temperley and Tan's participants were fairly consistent with their categorizations. They identified the Ionian mode, the familiar major key, as "happy." That result confirmed Temperley and Tan's prediction. Ionian mode is extremely familiar to begin with in popular music, for one thing, so they result may come from the comfort afforded to something familiar. As for the results generally, Temperley and Tan acknowledged that, generally speaking, modes considered to be "far away" from Ionian were classified as "sad." The researchers noted, however, that the nonmusicians were quite able to distinguish between different modes, despite their lack of music training, and that familiarity with certain modes that often used in popular music, did not explain their preference for some modes over others, beyond their shared preference for Ionian mode (the major key). The researchers played six different modes (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian) of the same melody, and reactions to the modes suggested that the participants had the ability to distinguish them, to the point that participants' reactions to a specific mode was fairly consistent. Participants didn't necessarily prefer modes that should be more familiar, either. Temperley and Tan wondered if a mode that sounded "sharper" than others made people sense it as sadder.

For my experiment, I have  only myself and my limited musical abilities (two years' worth of music theory and several years, long ago, of accordion lessons). I read and listened to a good tutorial of the modes, and then I decided to play around with Audacity, a free music editing program.Audacity can certainly change pitches, but it can't autogenerate a transposition such that some notes are dropped by a semitone while others remain as it. I frankly was hoping for autogeneration.

The easiest thing, at least for my talents, to do is to take a tune I know and transpose it myself. As part of my novelty year (which  I have posted about), I wrote a tune called "Walk On By." It is in G major. My goal, then is to transpose it to a minor key and see what happens. I am tickled by the list of keys and emotions on David Loberg Code's website, so my plan is to transpose my G major tune to G minor, which Christian Stubart describes as "Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike." To me, this characteristic is close to what tragedy often derives from: a plan to ameliorate one's condition through a plan that ultimately fails.

That transposition will take me some time to do.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Shadows and Light

My first "change of lighting" experiment will use a photograph that I have taken. Some time ago I bought a decent digital camera, and I have been taking photos as a way to expand my creative output and stretch those creative muscles.

I selected a bright photograph and changed its lighting digitally to create a comedy/tragedy pairing from the same image. The experiment will involve me making a formal change and see what "content" changes result.

Before I select a technique, I must decide what I mean by comedy and tragedy. I look at these words in terms of drama, particularly Greek drama and its re-uptake in Renaissance drama. 

Comedies begin with disorder and end with harmony. In comedic drama, the initial disorder derives from scenarios such as mistaken identity, ambitious goals that are poorly planned or that fall victim to the unpredictability of human will, or protagonists trying to mitigate their powerlessness against antagonists and making mistakes as a result. Eventually, the problem is solved and the disorder is halted.People reveal their true identities, goals are achieved, and the powerless gain power over the antagonists: they convince antagonists to release their hold or they usurp the antagonists and take their power away.  Marriage is the traditional outcome of comedy. In Shakespeare's comedies, three or even four couples will become engaged. Dancing and music signals the good social relations that arise when people learn to get along and be fair and honest with each other.

Tragedy is the reverse of comedy in some ways. In tragedy, protagonists pit their will against the world. The desire to achieve goals creates disorder, at first only in the community, but later in the protagonists themselves. The protagonist's goals are destructive and selfish even if the goals didn't start out that way. A good person may get bad advice from a bad person (think of Othello and Iago), or a  good person may be put in a bad situation that the good person cannot full rise to the occasion to combat (think of Hamlet), or the community as a whole is to blame for harming good people (as in Romeo and Juliet). Death and disintegration signal a tragedy, but not all death is tragic. Death in tragedy is unnecessary and wasteful rather than natural. Even if the community rights itself after the death, the sense is that the deaths were unnecessary. 

My pairing will attempt to show this contrast between comedy and tragedy through lighting. In the term "lighting" I include colour, since colour is an aspect of lighting.

What does light change do in a photograph?  I looked at a book on photography called Stoppees' Guide to Photography and Light to see what I could do. I learned that in photography, light can emphasize some details over others, whether positively (increased light on an area) or negatively (decreased light on an area). Some lighting seems more familiar and thus natural or normal. Darkness created by shadows and dark backgrounds obscure details and create a sense of depth (complexity) or danger (lack of knowledge about the subject). 

Colours also play a role in what a photography can seem to mean. Bright colours  tend to be seen positively, but colours that are too bright for the subject at hand or are an unusual shade or tint create unease. 

My goal, then is to create a sense of unease by using colours that are unnaturally bright or tinted an unnatural colour but that are accompanied by heavy shadow. I also want to emphasize unusual details that seem off-putting or somehow "incorrect."

I chose a bright photo of a bridge in my city that crosses the North Saskatchewan River. Using photoeditng software that came with my camera, I changed the photo to emphasize the posts of the bridge rather than the span. I decided to keep the colour in the tragedy photo instead of using heavily shadowed black and white, an obvious choice for tragedy.  I chose filters that minimized contrasts and maximized shadows. The image is tinted an unnatural blue-green, the river is too bright a blue, and the sky is nearly white, as though something bright has just exploded in the sky. I wanted the shadow under the bridge to seem darker.

The result may not seem obviously "sad" but I didn't want to go with simply sad. I wanted some eeriness as well.

Monday, 16 October 2017

A Change of Lighting

The next few entries will be inspired by the following excerpt from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus:

"We might laugh, but there was no amusement in the virtuous roar that went up from a stunned world at this execution of a cut-and-dried plan of campaign, knowledge of which had long been public property. However, I saw that our host liked this line much better and was glad of the chance to laugh, so I willingly joined in, not without recalling what Plato had said of comedy and tragedy: how they grow on the same tree and a change of lighting suffices to make one into the other" (Chapter 30, 295)

I am going to try to change the lighting for some works of art to see what happens. "What happens" means "assessment or analysis," and I know that my assessment will differ from other people's.

1. Change of "Lighting" on a photograph from shade-busting to shade-enhancing.

2. Transposition from a major key to a minor key.

3. Diction Switch up from positive connotations of a word to a negative connotation.

4. Translucent sculpture into an opaque sculpture.

5. Recoloration of a film snippet from high key to low key.

6. Recasting of a short play so good guys are bad guys (but with the same dialogue)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Follow Virginia Woolf's Advice

I am re-reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and I found a few things relevant to this blog's mission. Woolf is a writer, and her long essay is, understandably, about writing, but her advice can be transposed to other creative endeavours.

1. A creative person requires solitude and a modicum of financial independence.

"[A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (Chapter One). 

2. Don't bow down to critics.

"[D]elightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bit in comparison" (Chapter Six).

3. If good art is important, then someone must create it. That someone is you.

"[G]ood books are desirable and . . . good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings. Thus when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large" (Chapter Six).

4.  "Greatness" is not inherent in individual people. Greatness is a potential that exists in society. Only when people exercise this potential can it ever become reality.

 "[G[reat poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh" (Chapter Six).

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Interdisciplinarity for Art's Sake

To stretch myself creatively, I have been sketching and drawing.

I started with a book called Basic Drawing Techniques by Richard Box.  It was short and simple. Mostly I appreciated its emphasis on materials. I went out and bought charcoal pencils, conté sticks, graphite pencils, and two kinds of paper. I happened to have oil pastel sticks and colour pencils because of many years' worth of unused school supplies for my son when he was in elementary school.

I am not a visual artist and make no claims for my abilities. I do make a claim, however, for the principle of my objective, which is that stretching myself creatively will improve my skills in my chosen specialization, writing.

My interest lies here in multidisciplinarity in the arts: do artists gain strength in some way if they work in more than one discpline? 

Academics have looked at this question through various points of view. 

I have started to look at this idea through the lens of multipotentiality, an educational idea that argues that some students have the potential to excel in in more than one kind of skill. Such people should be encouraged to develop these skills, to be, as Robert Twigger argues in his article "Master of Many Trades," a polymath rather than a monomath.

Multipotentiality has a relationship with interdisciplinarity. People with multipotentiality may engage in interdisciplinarity. When I think of interdisciplinary artists, I come up with a long list of  people across time and geography: William Blake, Joni Mitchell, David Lynch, Margaret Atwood, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, Julian Schnabel, and Tom Ford.

I could have added to this list. I avoided thinking about high-profile celebrities who put their names on products that they had little hands-on contact with.  

My search for information about these artists made me realize that few artists remain in one genre. Sometimes the genre-jumping is more extreme. Tom Ford's shift from fashion designer to director is one such example. Even within a  genre normally considered to be "one thing," such as drama, shifts in roles can put the artists on different sides of an art form's production and reception. I think of the wide difference between being an actor on stage and writing a stage play, a shift that Sam Shepard made frequently. 

The benefits for interdisciplinarity must be balanced, mind you, with an awareness of the benefits of specialization. In "Creativity and Interdisciplinarity: One Creativity or Many Creativities?" (ZDM Vol. 41, no. 1-2, 2009, 5-13), Jonathan Plucker and Dasha Zabelina review the literature on teaching creativity and conclude that neither a generalist approach nor a specialist approach in education helps students develop their potential in terms of creativity. Plucker and Zabelina define creativity, by the way, as "the interplay between ability and process by which an individual or group produces an outcome or product that is both novel and useful as defined within some social context." To foster creativity, education must allows students to sample both generalist and specialist foundations, since overly general learning does not give enough context for students to transfer their knowledge, and overly specialized learning does not encourage students to look outside the bounds of a narrow discipline.

This area of study will take me more than one post to consider, so expect more on the subject of multipotentiality and interdisciplinarity.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Quiet Creativity

Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking posits that introverts, people who find the social world overstimulating and hence prefer solitude and small group interactions, are nevertheless vital components of the social world despite being in the minority. Like many popular books of this kind, Quiet directs its attention towards the usefulness of such persons in organizations. Nevertheless, Cain devotes one chapter specifically to creativity, so I have gleaned some information relevant to this blog.

Cain uses published research to bolster her claims. One such study was conducted in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Berkeley's Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, which compared well-known creative people (people who have made a name for themselves) in engineering, science, math, architecture and writing with others deemed "less groundbreaking" in the same fields. The well-known creative people tended to be "interpersonally skilled but 'not of an especially sociable or participative temperament" (74). Cain notes that current management models value social cooperation over  solitude, a style that Cain nicknames the New Groupthink (75). By borrowing George Orwell's term for the authoritarian suppression of intellectual individualism, Cain reveals her skepticism about management strategies such as open-plan offices and team-based organizational structures.

Many such management models like to use the idea of "networking," a term popularized by computer technology, but as Cain notes, technologies such as the Internet allow people to work alone in rooms that are geographically dispersed rather than crammed into a cubicle farm in a highrise. Computer scientists tend to be introverted people, after all. Even management styles tend to value the extrovert. Not surprisingly, Cain questions extrovert-centred ideas of leadership. She quotes Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg in their own book Leadership Development for the Gifted and Talented that some famously introverted people, such as Charles Darwin and Marie Curie, have contributed massively to the world.

Apple founder Steve Wozniak is Cain's exemplar of the social value of introversion, a man who, though he helped design the type of personal computers that made the Internet a world-wide phenomenon, developed his best ideas when he was alone.

The ideal quiet person that Cain describes is not a shy person, someone who is anxious in groups. A quiet person will think and wait before speaking up rather than bolt forward at the head of the line.  Noisy groups irritate this kind of person, so time alone gives a low-stimulus environment better suited to permit the quiet person to think clearly.