Let's Have A Partita!

Get the respite you deserve another time.

Location: Cantonment, Florida, United States

Well, uh, hmm...

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Website is Up!

It's up! After fierce battles with CuteFTP and Dreamweaver, I have come out victorious. Paulstadden.com is now a site which you can visit. So please, go check out my website if you please. It would mean a great deal to me. Thanks for reading...

Friday, July 27, 2007

On the Debate

Well, many of you, and by that I mean, all one of you, will notice there wasn't a post today on the debate on art. First, I've been very busy because I just bought a nice chunk of hosting for a website. I've been working on that pretty much since I got up this morning. Then I watched Apocalypto with my family. Second, I'm getting tired of debating. I'm not sure what else I can put into this argument, at least in terms of my energy and time. This is something that easily could go on forever, and I just don't feel like it. Think what you want on the subject, folks. I have to work on my voice work and production because I want to get a job so I can raise my bank account above double digit numbers, so that's where my focus has to lie. My apologies to all who enjoyed reading what's been said, and my especial apologies to Ted, whom I made a deal with to keep it going as long as we felt like. I'm tired and I have lots of work to do in other areas, particularly my new website.

On another note, I'm not sure how much I'm going to continue updating this blog now that I have a website proper. If you'd like to keep reading (and I hope you do), then start checking paulstadden.com by next week. I've already begun designing the site, but I still have a lot of work to do.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cartoon Rhythm

After the last post, I started thinking about how voice actors must perform appropriate to the characters as they appear on screen. Then I remembered something from John Kricfalusi's blog about animating to a beat. Here's the quote verbatim:

"All classic cartoons were timed to musical rhythms or tempos. That's why they automatically feel good when you watch them. Most modern animation is timed straight ahead and actions fall haphazardly with no definite or structural relationship to each other. They feel jerky and not as fun as old cartoons.

"A real cartoon is like music. It should feel good, no matter what the content or subject matter is about. It should make you bounce to it.

"Genndy Tartakovsky times his cartoons to tempos and so do I. We are among the last holdouts to this tradition."

That got me thinking about the voice over aspect. Today, voice artists record the dialogue, and then animators fit the visuals overtop. This is unlike the cartoons of the thirties (and almost all Japanese cartoons with the exception of Katsuhiro Otomo's work) where the animation is done first and the voice artists record their dialogue overtop. This meant the animators had almost total freedom regarding the rhythm and flow of the animation because they'd never have to fudge around the vocal tracks. Now, if the voice artist has an idea for how a line must be delivered and that idea is completely different from the rhythm that the animation director had in mind, there's a conflict. If an animation director wants to keep an authentic 1930's "bounce" to his cartoon, he'll have to give very specific directions to the voice actor or accept the performance he gets and animate around it.

I like the idea of the voice talent and the animators working closely because the end product is more complete. Since the characters in cartoons are not actors with mind and voice combined, rather a combination of the ideas of the voice actor and the animator, it only makes sense that the two have similar ideas for the performance of the character. This is especially important if an animator wants to retain the traditional animation "bounce" without making it into a parody.

What do I mean by bounce? Well, as Kricfalusi said, "A real cartoon is like music. It should feel good, no matter what the content or subject matter is about. It should make you bounce to it." The characters bounced to the rhythm of the music. To see what he's talking about, watch Bimbo's Initiation, one of the greatest cartoons ever made and practically the defining work of the medium. The characters bounce and sway to the music, giving the characters life and visual interest.

Now, watch this modern take on the concept, an episode of the fantastic Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat from 1995 entitled, Space-Time Twister. This episode was directed by Lynne Nailor, formerly of Spumco and ex-girlfriend of John Kricfalusi. The Spumco influence is everywhere, from the authentic bounce and rhythm to the surreal yet believable cartooniness. It is an excellent piece of art that somehow slipped past the studio heads. Well, didn't slip past for long because later episodes of the series are far more conservative and much less cartoony, and aren't as fun to watch. Space-Time Twister works because it's much like the human imagination: based on reality, but it bends and twists because it's not wholly bound by earthly physics. The later episodes are more "realistic," in terms of the characters having less stretch and squash and no exclamation points jutting from their heads, but they're less beautiful because they abandon their cartooniness. The jokes are more arbitrary, the colors are more haphazard, and the characters are less flexible. Still, I'm glad we have the first season to cherish.

As much as I love Charlie Adler, I'm afraid The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat went downhill in the last season when Charlie Adler took over the voice of Felix from Thom Adcox-Hernandez. It's not Charlie's fault at all, he was in the weakest season of the show. The cartooniness was gone by that point and there wasn't as much for him to work with. Anyway, I'll bet the directors in the first season worked closely with Adcox-Hernandez and the other voice actors to make sure they got that bounce in their voice to match the bouncy imagery. When watching the episode, Now Playing Felix, I conducted along with some of the dialogue and found that the writers had written the dialogue (and the voice actors performed it) with music in mind. They weren't singing, but the words with emphasis came on downbeats, the sentences were more like operatic recitative. This combined with the animation to make something that was very comfortable and very fun. It's not reality, but a shadow of reality. It's based on how we think and feel.

Now, let's look at something that tries the traditional bounce, but fails because the bounce is intended as parody. Parody of the 1930's style is obvious because the bounce is arbitrary and overdone. The dialogue is also in parody, with the voice actors either calling too much attention to the rhythm and thus make the speech stilted, or by imitating the nasal sounding 1930's radio announcer voice. The best example of this I can think of is an episode of Disney's House of Mouse that featured genuine 1930's Disney cartoons. The episode also featured a Mickey Mouse cartoon that was meant to emulate the 1930's style. It fell flat, especially next to the real cartoons that were in the episode. The reason the cartoon failed was it was parody rather than imitation. Lynne Nailor captured the spirit of the old Felix the Cat cartoons even if they weren't exactly like the Otto Messmer shorts of the 1920's. She respected the old style and added her own touches. Disney, however, thinks that the old ways of animating are antiquated and the only reason anyone could enjoy them is to laugh at how primitive they were. Well, Disney is wrong, I'm afraid. There is far more artistry in Otto Messmer's limited animation Felix the Cat shorts from the 1920's than any of Disney's toons. Messmer appealed to our imaginations, whereas Disney tried to make things "realistic." Instead of making cartoons that related to the audience better, he removed everything that makes cartoons fun. He removed the magic.

I wish I had a link for you to this cartoon, but I don't. I tried to find it on Youtube, but it's not there. I even tried finding the name to the episode, but there are no descriptions to any of the shows on Wikipedia, IMDb, or Disney.com. You'll just have to find it yourself. Sorry.

So, in short, we must have respect for the cartoons of yore and take cues from them when we work on a cartoon. Make your voices appealing. Use rhythm. If the animators aren't going to talk to you, try to infuse the dialogue with good rhythm and flow and force them to animate your characters with that same bounce. Better yet, hook up with an animator that does use rhythm and bounce in his toons. I guarantee that even if your cartoon is cancelled after half a season, those cartoons will live on and inspire the next generation of good artists.

Time To Absorb Some Great Voice Work!

I'm willing to bet you know the name, Mel Blanc. "Hey, that's Bugs Bunny, right?" Yes, yes it is. Now, do you know why you know Mel Blanc's name? "Uh, because he did Bugs Bunny?" Well, yes, that's part of it, but not the whole story. You see, I always took for granted that the name, Mel Blanc, was synonymous for "Voice Actor" just because he was so good and so prolific. I mean, how could the guy who did the majority of the voices for Warner Brothers' cartoons not be famous?

There's a problem with this theory, however. Let's explore that. You've heard of Yogi Bear, right? "Yup!" Well, who did his voice? "...uh, Mel Blanc?" Sorry, incorrect. It was Daws Butler. How about Rocky the Flying Squirrel? "Mel... Blanc...?" Nope, it was June Foray, the most important living voice actress, possibly the most important of all time. Oh, and who did Elmer Fudd? "Ok, now I know that was Mel Blanc!" Well, that's true, Mel Blanc did voice Elmer. "Yes! Got one!" At least, he voiced Elmer in maybe 10% of Elmer's appearances in the classic cartoons. Most of the time it was Arthur Q. Brian, and when he died, Hal Smith. "Oh."

There's a reason Mel is famous beyond his being the best and being prolific; He was a marketing genius. When he was negotiating with Leon Schlesinger for more money from his Warner Brothers cartoons, Leon refused. So, Mel got an idea that would make him far more money than pay raises from Schlesinger; Credit. In the 1940's, nobody but the studio heads got much credit for what they did. If you were a lowly animator or voice actor, you were unknown to the public because "Leon Schlesinger" or "Pat Sullivan" were all the public ever saw on the cartoons. This is why Felix the Cat fans had no idea, for decades, that Otto Messmer was the real genius that drove the animated shorts. Pat Sullivan's name was all they ever saw. But Mel knew getting credit was the future if he wanted more money. So, he asked Schlessinger if they could put "Voice Characterizations by Mel Blanc" in front of all the cartoons, and they did. Even if people like Bea Benaderet, June Foray, Stan Freberg, Arthur Q. Brian, and Kent Rogers starred in the cartoons, too, Mel was the only name they saw.

The fact that the original Warner Brothers shorts were aimed at adults, not kids, didn't hurt, either. While a kid may have seen Daws Butler or Don Messick's name at the beginning of a Hanna Barbera short, he probably wouldn't have remembered unless he were a voice over geek. People in positions to hire voice actors, namely adults, were the ones who were seeing that "Voice Characterizations by Mel Blanc" credit. So, they did hire Mel. Lots of 'em. In fact, Mel would even go to work at Hanna Barbera alongside fellow actors Butler and Messick, his biggest competition, in shows like The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and Secret Squirrel. He was also on Jack Benny's TV program and even landed some work in Spike Jones' orchestra, singing in songs like, "Clink, Clink, Another Drink."

While Mel's deal seems a bit self serving, it has aided in raising the level of voice over art in the past eighty years to something beyond, "Hey, let's get somebody to give Felix some cat sounds. Larry, get in here!" Thanks to his stroke of genius, voice actors have realized that what they do is pretty special and deserves recognition. Now, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) have thousands of voice performers signed up.

Let's not forget in all this that Mel was also the best of the best. Yes, in the early days, he did alter tape speed to create new voices. For example: at first, his Daffy Duck voice was just his Sylvester the Cat voice sped up a few cents. He later learned to replicate this speed trick with his voice because of having to do the characters live. But, that aside, his choices for the characters were nothing short of genius. Let's just take Bugs Bunny for a second. I believe he changed the characterization for Bugs slightly depending on who the director was. Listen to the Bob Clampett Bugs and then listen to the Chuck Jones Bugs. The difference is striking, I find. The Clampett Bugs voice matched the visual. While Rod Scribner was making Bugs look like a stretchy, squashy ball of manicness, Mel matched that with his loose, crazed vocalization. When Bugs was under the direction and pen of more conservative animators like Bob McKimson and Chuck Jones, the voice became more serious, more collected, more street smart than wacky. I have to believe that Mel knew the styles of the people who made the cartoons and let that influence his take on the voice.

We, as voice actors, need to understand how our voice will fit the final product, and Mel Blanc is the best example I can think of. If we get to do a cartoon, we need to pour over pictures of our characters, and even test animation if we can. Get to know the animators, understand how they're going to make your character move. Unfortunately, much of the voice over work these days is rather impersonal. Unlike the 1940's, there aren't going to be any "house voice actors" for the major studios anymore. Theatrical shorts with high budgets are a thing of the past, and almost all cartoons are either aimed toward children and are bland "purple and pink" monstrosities, or are ultra vulgar flash based mutations made for Adult Swim. Very cookiecutter. What will most likely happen is that you'll get a gig after nightmarish networking, walk into the studio, get handed a script, and do a reading that's over in as few takes as possible. That doesn't mean you'll never get to work with the animators on a project. John Kricfalusi, for example, makes sure he gets voice actors whom he works with during the recording so they'll deliver the right reading for a given character, and even does voice work himself (Ren in Ren and Stimpy, Citricet in The Ripping Friends). Also, his work is the most artistic and cartoony of all current animation. Doug Lawrence (better known as Mr. Lawrence) does the big three in cartooning; Writing, Directing, acting. He's written, directed, and acted in Rocco's Modern Life, Spongebob Squarepants, and Camp Lazlo (my favorite cartoon on TV right now).

I don't want to get off topic, the genius of Mel Blanc, but I wanted to show you that pockets of the old ways can be found in the modern system. Now, what you need to do is get onto Youtube and Google video to look up the following cartoons:

1. Falling Hare. This is my favorite Bugs cartoon of all time. It was directed by Bob Clampett and animated by Rod Scribner. Mel at his finest, too.
2. Fresh Hare.
3. Southern Fried Rabbit. I warn you though, this cartoon is one of the infamous "Censored 11," a list of cartoons banned from television because of their racist nature. In other words, lots of Blackface and cultural stereotypes. Just watch the cartoon as a cartoon, leave your easily offended sensibilites at the door and watch it for Mel Blanc's brilliant Bugs Bunny. It's also the last Bugs short directed by Tex Avery.
4. Baseball Bugs.
5. Case of the Missing Hare.
6. Wackiki Rabbit.

Once you're done watching these public domain shorts, and your appetite is whetted, go out and buy the DVD's of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Anonymity, Thou Art A Sweet Friend...

The other week, I made a huge change in my career direction. Rather than go the route of teaching for the rest of my life, which would result in me becoming a walking ball of stress and rage, I have decided to go into voice over, and everything that comes with it.

Despite what you may think, voice over is not just talking or doing funny voices (you wouldn't think that, of course, if you've ever read my blog before). No, a "good voice," like Orson Welles' or Gary Owens' is not necessary, or in some cases, even desirable. A good voice actor must convince the audience that he is the character in the copy. All that without the audience even seeing the performer.

In many ways, voice work is the quintessence of how I feel about art in general:

1. Present a shadow of the world without being an exact mirror of the world. Hence the terms "Suspension of Disbelief" and "Escapism." We paint worlds with only our voices. We don't talk how normal people talk, we talk how they think and remember. The way we remember conversations happening is in gross charicature, "He was so angry, steam came out his ears!" That sort of thing. People believe the world in the copy if we appeal to their emotions and perception. If we don't, then we are just reading words on a page.

2. It takes the focus off the performer and puts it on the performance. The person listening isn't wrapped up in, "Hey, that's _______ doing that voice!" When the audience is wrapped up in who is performing rather than whether the actors are any good, then the art has suffered. Voice over artists must "get outside" themselves and portray a character that will reach the audience. Let me give some examples.

Lorenzo Music, the voice actor behind Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda, Pete Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters, and, of course, Garfield the cat, was the distilled essence of what it means to be a voice over performer: invisible. He prided himself on never being seen by his audience, yet his voice was on a cartoon every Saturday morning that featured a fat, orange cat. He got inside the character and made sure that the audience would believe Garfield really sounded like that and said such things.

In Dreamworks' Sinbad of the Seven Seas, Brad Pitt weaved elaborate tapestries of blandness with his voice. I never believed the character, not just because I couldn't get past the fact that the voice was Brad Pitt's, but because he was so bad. While the animated character of Sinbad waved his arms and flitted about, making grandiose gestures, the voice that came out of him sounded like a prepubescant Ben Stein: Flat, directionless, and disconnected from the words he said as well as the character that we saw. A good voice actor makes you forget that he's there. He speaks as the character, from inside the character, rather than "at" the character like Brad Pitt did for Sinbad.

Now, I have by no means "arrived" in my abilities to represent a believable character. I have much training to do. But, natural ability combined with passion, focus, training, and good opportunities will result in someone who can convince an audience that the voice they hear is talking just to them, or that the characters they see on screen are real and exist somewhere.

You'll notice I took my picture off the top of the page. It was unnecessary. Why do you need to know what I look like? When I work on voice over, I want the image in your head to fit with the voice. If you picture me, then what's the point? If I do a character in a cartoon, look at the cartoon, not me. If my voice can't convince you that the "being" you see onscreen is real, then I have failed my job.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Objectivity Or Subjectivity Of Art

Today's post is part of the continuing debate with my good friend, Ted Stoltz, over at Notablogtm.com. You'll notice a change in the title of my post from last week. I realized that the title, "Objective of the Imagination" is not a very debatelike title. Since this is a debate, I want to reflect that.

Now, as per our rules, we have a 1,500 word limit. I usually start out way over and have to pare down. This week, I'm doing something a bit different. I used quotes from Ted's posts and put in responses to specific points. I am not counting the quotes from Ted's post as part of my word count. Cry foul if you must, folks, I had no other way of getting my points in and the responses wouldn't make much sense without Ted's part. Besides, this makes it seem a bit more like a live debate, so it'll flow better. The only problem is, unlike a real debate, Ted can't immediately respond to one of my points, so you'll just have to wait until Monday for his end. Because I am taking this tactic, I won't count against Ted when he uses quotes from my post. He usually comes under the word limit by a bit more, anyway, so it's not as big a deal for him. If you add up the words that I wrote, you'll find they come in under 1,500 words.

Also, I used material from his Wednesday post, I Just Got To Level 20 in Sending Email. There are no rules against this, but I want to play fair, so I'm just letting you know. Ted, if you like, grab anything from any of my other posts.


Ted: I asked about the absolute standards of beauty, not beauty itself. While a working definition of beauty is helpful, it is not where the disagreement lies. Since Paul’s argument is that beauty in art is based on objective standards, we need to know what these objective standards are. Paul attempts to define one of them by saying, “Men find fertile women beautiful because we have a natural instinct to produce offspring.”

Paul: Our sense of what's beautiful arrives to us from the outside world. Instinctually, what we find beautiful is what will do us good. Ugly, what will do us harm. Consistency and comfort we find beautiful, which is why soft pillowy clouds are beautiful. Jaggedness and hardness we find ugly, such as sharp rocks at the bottom of a chasm. In art, we can represent an ugly subject in a beautiful way, using our skill at our craft to make use of symmetry, the golden mean, balance, what have you. We can also represent beautiful things in an ugly way, such as a poor drawing of a large eyed puppy. Just because someone sucks at representing something doesn't mean that thing isn't beautiful. The poor drawing of the puppy may be horrible to us because of its poor lines, jagged edges, and lack of balance. It has become a monster. The technical cannot be separated form the conceptual without both suffering. A person must have the technique to represent his idea accurately, and he must have a good idea to execute.

"Yes, but what about things that can do us harm but we still find beautiful, like an erupting volcano?" Alright, good point. Here we deal with a mixture of several aspects. One, we probably do not find it beautiful, per se, but perhaps "powerful" and "awe inspiring." I would find a 3,000 foot tall pile of rotting corpses really impressive ("How on earth did they do that?"), but I certainly wouldn't find it beautiful. Besides, if we are there to actually witness a volcano erupting, assuming we were from a far away vantage point and wouldn't get hurt, there are aspects we would find beautiful. The roundness and softness of the billowing cloud, the symmetry and balance of the mountain, etc. These aspects by themselves are beautiful, though we would be terrified out of our wits at what they combined into.

Ted: The “normalcy” of humanity is not borne of some objectivity existing either inside or outside the brain. The normalcy in the human condition is nothing more than the hump of the bell curve. We define normal by looking at the traits that most people have. But the standard distribution itself yields extremes—which must also be considered normal. A world which did not have a standard distribution—where everyone is the same—would be the abnormal world. It wouldn’t correspond with our observations. To say that someone’s standards are abnormal because they fall outside the “normal” range (whatever that is) may be true in the semantic sense, but it certainly should not be used as leverage against them. These people will always exist, and the fact that they do exist in a certain percentage is normal. Furthermore, they must be taken into account, and not simply dismissed as abnormal.

Paul: Ok, if you want the word "normal" to mean "mathematical average." I'm using normal to mean "functions well." Sure, everyone being the same would be a strange world. The people in our world have wide ranges of being smart/stupid, tall/short, that sort of thing. Some people have good imaginations, some don't. Life ain't fair. Some people can more easily recognize beauty, some can't. Ed Wood wouldn't know a good film if it bit him in the can. Orson Welles did. What's the difference? Something objective because we're rating them as artists. Anytime we say something is "good," "bad," "right," or "wrong," we are appealing to something from without.

John Williams is a superior guitarist to, say, me. It's not just craft, he makes superior choices to myself when playing a piece of music. He knows that to affect an audience, he must perform a piece with "hills and valleys," in other words, slight changes in tempo, dynamics, and tambre. If I believe that the same piece must be performed flat throughout, I am not just an inferior player, I am an inferior artist. The piece will not affect the audience as well as if it were performed by him. Now, I know that pieces must be performed with such hills and valleys, but that may not be the case for someone else. Is his artistic vision inferior? Sure. Until he learns what it takes to write or perform a piece that will move an audience, he ain't goin' anywhere artistically. He'll play to a small fraction of people who also don't grow and perform pieces very flat. And yes, their experience of the music will be worse, because without those hills and valleys, they won't be carried anywhere by the music.

Ted: Furthermore, this view point could be argued to confirm my initial claim, not refute it. Whether or not you personally agree with other people’s standards is completely beside the point. Paul said, “Sure, we can say we believe everything’s subjective, but we sure don’t function that way.” Disregarding the fact that I made no such claim as “everything” being subjective—who sure doesn’t function that way? Obviously some people do; you just called them a problem! The standards must be subjective, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this “problem”.

Paul: I meant "function well." Sure, insane people function. People who mutilate themselves for fun function. They don't function well.

Ted: Couldn’t two people with subjective opinions of beauty still find some common ground, and thereby not be lonely?

Paul: Yes, but they're appealing to something outside of themselves to do it! They're saying, "Hey, I enjoy this thing, and you enjoy this thing, let's both enjoy it!" It's no longer just in their individual heads (if it ever was), but between them for both of them to look at outside of themselves.

Ted: The utter chaos that happens in games doesn’t really get recognized for what it is because there’s no real risk there. I know the study talks about how games prepare one to be a risk-taker, but let’s be honest. They don’t. There isn’t really a real risk in an online game. There’s a lot of inconvenience, but it never impacts your real-life life. Because of this, the game is hugely tolerant of error. It has to be, not just because there are a lot of stupid people playing, but because it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. Nobody would play a game where, when you die, you’re dead and that’s it. That’s no fun, and nobody plays games to have not-fun. So in games today, you can screw around all day—you can have your utter chaos—and still get things accomplished with cursing and an utter lack of organization and only the most rudimentary chain of command because the game is extremely forgiving.

Paul: Are video games art with objective standards for enjoyment? You bet. Someone makes a game where you die once and that's it? I agree with you, that guy's an idiot who made poor art. *PS, this is the one taken from the Wednesday post.

Ted: I don’t understand the claim that we’d be able to literally do anything. (We’d be able to do literally everything? Fly, perhaps? Why should this be true?)

Paul: I meant "literally anything in art." If I take a tree and plant it in my living room, is it my work? Nope, that tree was made by nature, not me. If it's art, it's God's art, not mine.

Ted: Why should you be concerned about what other people’s standards of beauty are?

Paul: Because people with inferior conceptions of what is beautiful try to tell us that the 5,000 years of artists believing in something outside themselves that compels them to make art is resulting from a false philosophy (though that philosophy produced the greatest works of art this world has ever seen) and we need to accept that Fountain and 4'33" are just as good because human thought has really advanced in the last 30 years. Second, these same people are becoming in charge of the art world and are telling people that they can do what they like, as long as it makes them feel good. I'm all for feeling good, but I'm also for growing intellectually and artistically, which ultimately results in my feeling better than if I lived in the narrow conceptions of my own mind.

Sometimes we don't like what's best for us at first, but we learn to like it and eventually like it better than what we liked before. If someone tells me McDonald's hamburgers are better than filet mignons, I don't deny that he feels that they taste better. I also believe that he has an inferior palate and would benefit in the long run from trying out filet mignons. If he still doesn't like them, then I won't use him as my restaurant guide. Nor will I ask him where to take my boss for lunch.

Ted: It doesn’t matter how much you study the masters, or drive for that “objective standard” because there is no objective standard. You can’t make work everyone likes. So you make work for you.

Paul: Calling them "the Masters" means they have something the rest of us don't have. Do they not only have better skill, but better imaginations? Sure. Not only do they represent images better, but they also pick images depending on their beauty (if they use images at all, abstractionists take the parts down to their core: Light, Shade, Texture, but still rely on the standards of beauty). Is a well executed painting of a puppy more beautiful than a well executed painting of a rotting corpse? Sure. The pic of the corpse may be beautiful, but it's not as beautiful, because it has an ugly subject.

I won't be able to make work everyone likes. In fact, there are plenty of people I hope don't like my work. I want my work to appeal to people with high levels of imagination as well as craft. Whether I will achieve that, I don't know. I am certainly not (at least right now) on the level of people like Johann Sebastian Bach, Mel Blanc, or Ernest Hemingway. I may never be, but it is the high level that they attained that pushes me to continue.

Ted: Is there ugliness? Sure. Is it full of amateurish mistakes? Of course. Does some of this ugly, amateur work get picked up and make it big? Absolutely. This doesn’t mean there is a more noble standard to which we should all be striving, but it may mean that you find yourself unable rest until you get recognition for your not-ugly, not-amateur work. If you truly have great work, the ugly stuff shouldn’t bother you. But even if you have the greatest work of all, you will still have people who find your stuff ugly, boring, or trite.

Paul: So there are objective standards in art? If we can say something us ugly, there is an objective standard of beauty to which we aspire. The ugly stuff bothers me because the average person 100 years ago could identify something as good art. In J.S. Bach's time, average people could play an instrument, read sheet music, and compose music, as well. Artists from every field were reaching to the world as fellow artists, something which has been lost. Now, the average musician plays to people who don't know anything about music, and therefore they cannot critique his performance and aid him in improving. If the average artist shows someone a picture, the person says, "I don't know art, but that looks good to me." The average beer drinker thinks Miller Lite is "the good stuff." It drags down the overall quality of what we do, and people can't tell the difference anymore. Art has suffered. I have no problem with certain people finding my art crappy, if they're poor artists. If an artist is good enough, his work will appeal to experts and laymen alike, and aid in restoring the artist's place in reaching out to fellow artists.

Now, when I talk about what art is and what it is not, I refer mostly to the involvement of the "artist," not just the quality of the end product. John Cage did not "write" 4'33'' because any aspects of performance are totally out of his control. The credit for the "performances" should go to the audience shifting in their chairs, and the traffic going by the theater. His prepared piano material, however, is art. It's just bad art. Besides, sometimes the propaganda surrounding a great piece of art is true. We see it and say to ourselves, "Wow, this is beautiful. How could anyone not find this beautiful?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Guitar Lesson #2

Time for your second guitar lesson! Last time we discussed the basics - how to hold the guitar comfortably, how to agress upon the guitar (play the thing), and some rudimentary note identification. Now, we're going to get into sheet music.

Here's a handy diagram that demonstrates how to find the notes in sheet music on the neck of a guitar. Let's define some terms. When I say, "string one," that's the thinnest string, the one closest to the floor. "String six" is the thickest string, the one closest to your head. When I say "up the neck," that means you are getting closer to the body of the guitar. "Down the neck" means you are getting closer to the headstock. When you think "up," think about the notes getting higher in pitch, not necessarily a physical direction.

Now, using the legend you have here, let's learn a simple piece of music.

I have written out the first half of Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony. Let me give some explanation as the difference between lengths of notes. When I write that quarter notes are "one beat," that corresponds to one pulse, or, if you have a metronome handy, one metronome click. If you're counting to yourself (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4...) you would play a note every time you said a number. Half notes last for two beats. So, if I were to write out a line of half notes, you would only strike the strings every other beat. The emphasis would be on beats 1 and 3. Some people play half notes as if they were just two quarter notes back to back, striking the strings on both beats of the half note. If this were the case, wouldn't I just write a pair of quarter notes? We need notes that indicate longer and shorter periods of time. We'll get into longer and shorter notes in another lesson.

As you learn this, do not just "play through" at performance speed until you "get it." I guarantee you will make mistakes the first time you play it, everyone does. If you play the same mistakes over and over, you will just reinforce those mistakes and they will become habit. Unlearning mistakes takes much more energy and work than just learning things right the first time. So, start slow. Very slow. So slow, you have to think about each note as you play it. Compare this to reading a book one word at a time, absorbing and studying each word as you see it. You'll get faster over time, don't just start out at breakneck speed. Yeah, it's boring, but this is where we separate the people who really want to learn from those who think they'll be Eddie Van Halen after a week.

Now, in addition to starting out slow, making sure you have the correct notes from the very start, we're going to learn the piece in a different way from how most people are used to memorizing material. I want you to focus on just the first two measures (measures are the spaces between the vertical bars in the sheet music). Get those perfect in one lesson, then put the guitar down. Don't go any farther. The next day, sit down with your guitar and play what you have learned. If you notice you've made any mistakes, correct them by playing it as you learned it, the wrong way, and then correct it. You must bring mistakes to the surface and understand what you did wrong before you can correct anything. Now, once you're satisfied that you learned yesterday's two measures, learn the next two. Repeat this process until you have the whole piece.

The reason we learn pieces of music like that is that every part must be strong. When the audience goes home, they are going to remember the beginning and end (mostly the end), the rest is glorified filler. If your piece begins and ends strong, the audience will forgive mistakes made in the middle. You can even learn the piece backwards, focusing on the last two mesaures, then working on the previous two, etc. That way, you'll always know where the piece is going, and it will be easier to memorize. That's a trick that my guitar teacher, Jimmy Chandler, taught me, and David Russell reinforced when I saw him at the 2006 GFA Competition.

Practice well, learn the piece, and we'll pick up another day!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Vicarious Manhood 3000

Beer. Cars. Guns. These are things men want, but can't buy because their wives won't let them. Now you can add the new Vicarious Manhood 3000 to that list. According to all modern advertising, men are knuckle dragging simpletons who watch football, drink watery beer, and live in their garages. Whereas women are portrayed as divinely infallible sarcastic goddesses who know they can control their husbands by withholding love, something men think they need 24/7 thanks to a culture that tells them so. So, if you don't want to sleep on the couch tonight, even if you actually bought that Swedish memory foam mattress and have chronic, debilitating back problems that can become permanent thanks to a night on a futon, don't, and we mean don't, buy our product. Just listen to some of our testimonials.

Man 1- I bought a Vicarious Manhood 3000 and my life has been misery and woe ever since.

Man 2- I do not deserve a Vicarious Manhood 3000 because I am a man and men have constant dirty thoughts and I need to start sharing my feelings instead of playing with icky fossil fuel guzzling toys. My wife told me to say that.

Man 3- I tell you what, I would love one. But, I just spent all my money on a Prius. Man, I hate those things.

Why do we advertise something you can't buy? Because we're jerks. We're Men.


*Brought to you by a guy who thinks modern television commercials are indicative of cultural decline.

Yeah, this was a pretty easy one to write. I think I wrote it after watching one of those "dumb dad can't stand up to his own kids so the mom has to take charge" commercials or tv shows. This is getting pretty irritating. Somehow, the idea has wormed its way into the culture that it's ok to make fun of the things men like, but it's sexist and wrong to make fun of anything women like. Boys on tv shows do "dumb boy things" like playing cowboys and indians, building soap box derby racers, and generally being little boys. The girls, however, pursue more intellectual pursuits like brushing their dolls' hair and having tea parties. Aren't these things merely different? Aren't men and women here on earth because they fulfill specific roles? Why put the other sex down for doing stuff that they like? If a woman wants to go buy shoes, I don't say, "Huh, dumb woman off to satiate her need for shopping." No, she wants some dang shoes because, thank goodness, she can afford them and wants them. So why put down men because we like beer, guns, and motorcycles?

Why does it seem safe to make fun of men? Is it because we're generally too polite to say anything? Is this principle the same reason we can get away with shows like Moral Orel, but a Norwegian newspaper runs a comic depicting Mohammed and the middle eastern world is ready to tear people apart? Or is it that people have a knee jerk reaction to perceived patriarchal patronizing from fifty years ago and feel that we must swing the other way just to make things fair? Why don't we stop knee jerking and saying, "let's see how you like it" and just show things the way they are? Commercials, movies, and tv shows would be a lot more relatable.

One of the biggest aggravators for me is the show, Johnny Test. Pretty standard fare; a boy who's a spy owns a talking tog and they go on adventures together. The thing that bothers me is the dad in the show is an effeminate stay at home dad, and the mom is a type A, no nonsense business-woman. No problem with a strong mother, mine is. She's helped me and pushed me when I didn't give my best, also she's the hardest working person I know. In fact, pushover mothers are unpleasant to watch, too. That's why I don't like the comic strip, Zits. But why the effeminate dad in this series? He's emasculated and very hard to look at. He's a freakin' castrati. How on earth does his son respect him? The show also features Johnny Test's twin sisters, who are brilliant scientists. Is anyone else getting tired of the "I can do anything you can do" agenda crammed down our throats? This show features almost every liberal agenda I can think of, though they haven't made Johnny and his dog lovers yet.

What the **** happened to cartoons being funny? Cartoons fill a gap between literature and visual art. They are supposed to be fun to look at and tell a compelling narrative with funny characters. Now, they seem to be conveyances for indoctrinating children. And lest you think I'm being one sided, I'm not too fond of most "Christian" cartoons, either. Most of them are preachy, but contentless. They tell a moral, but the art suffers. I agree with the message, but the message is all there is. It doesn't come across because I'm too wrapped up in the poor animation, poor voice acting, poor dialogue. There are a few exceptions, I like Veggie Tales, for instance. But that series isn't preachy, it exists in a world which presupposes Christian Morals, rather than trying to overtly preach for 22 minutes, hitting the viewer over the head with the blunt end of the premise. Ultimately, though, if I am going to watch something preachy (there seems little choice these days), I'd like to watch something with which I agree.

I think my point is best summed up in the "Star Trash" episode of The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. Felix is on board a ship bearing a strong resemblance to the USS Enterprise, which is dumping garbage on our planet. The captain, in response to Felix complaining about this, says, "Why should you care? You people use it as a dump, anyway." Felix responds, "Oh, no. We're in a cartoon with a moral."