Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Artifical Intellegence and the Classical Guitar: An Experiment

The idea behind websites like Pandora is to help music lovers use technology to take more control of their listening experiences. One inputs the name of a favorite artist and the service then plays music that fits what appeals to someone who listens to that group or musician. This, one would assume, comes in the form of other music in the same genre. In other words, if I input Earl Scruggs, I don't expect to get Run DMC or Kathleen Battle. Also, the "station" is supposed to "learn" from the listeners preferences. Don't like a song you hear? You can click or tap a button and you should not hear it anymore. Love something? You can click or tap something else to make sure music like that gets played more often. (You can also find a link to purchase said music, but that isn't what this discussion is about.)

I have three apps on my phone for this purpose, from three services that can be accessed from the Internet: Slacker, Myxer, and the ever-popular Pandora.

I loved Slacker when I first started using it, particularly because of my interest in jazz. Almost without fail, I hear the music I was hoping for. Surprises came in the form of deep cuts from classic and not so well known albums. Until I was interested in hearing some classical guitar, the only glitch I ran into was when I input Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and an hour later was treated to Jerry Garcia's plodding, achingly long, and horrifyingly dull rendition of "Shining Star."

I figured that if I wanted to hear classical guitar, the best bet would be to input the name of the great Andres Segovia. What came out was all fine music, but not what I wanted. After a piece played by the Spanish master, I go something from John Williams -- the composer, not the guitarist. Then there was a tune by Michael Hedges. Over the next few minutes I heard from only one other classical guitar player, Christopher Parkening. Tunes came from Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Leo Kottke, Al Di Meola, Yo Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman. At least some of it was classical.

I was drawn to Myxer because I liked the idea of creating a "room" where I could invite friend to enjoy the music I was listening to. The rooms allow one to list up to five artists, which would, one would presume, increase the odds of getting one's desired listening experience.

Alas, it is not to be. The jazz "rooms" were okay, but often went into eras and sub genres I was not expecting. Not always bad stuff, but sometimes this made for a jarring moments and annoying interruptions to my routine. But it was worse when I input the names of Mr. Segovia and others of his ilk.

The only classical guitarists I heard in the next hour were Segovia and Pepe Romero. Perhaps one could say Paco de Lucia plays classical, but none of the pieces I heard were. Again, Django Reinhardt came up, but so did Ottmar Liebert, Badi Assad, Lee Ritenour, and folk musician John Renboum. The biggest surprise came when the sounds of Spanish metal band Epilogo came through my speakers.

Pandora, which was painfully awful when I first tried them out years ago, was the best of the bunch. After several hours of listening, the only non-classical music I heard was an acoustic piece by Al Di Meola. There was great variety, from different periods and different albums, some solo work and some with ensembles, but only the one cut was not from a classical guitar. Songs segued with each other easily and there was a minimal amount of commercials (I'm too cheap to, as of yet, pay for the non-commercial versions of these). Yet after awhile, or perhaps because my body was beginning to reject the experiment, things started to sound the same.

Of course, by Sunday afternoon, I was ready to listen to something else, and I don't know that anything significant came of my little experiment, except I added to my list of life's little disappointments. Perhaps I learned not so much about the services themselves as about the expectations of a lover of great music. We want surprises, something new or something old performed in a fresh way. But we want things to fall into certain parameters, even when we are, as I am, eclectic in our tastes, and those parameters are not always the same each time we make listening choices. So if I cannot completely choose myself material which fits both needs when I create a playlist from my own collection in something like Winamp, then how can I fully expect it from those services with more extensive libraries than I can possibly own?

That I cannot quite answer that question won't keep me from complaining however.

Meditation VI -- Belief

"having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you."

"these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name"

Perhaps because Jesus was a teacher and because he continues to teach us, we think of belief as something that can be learned as one learns a formula or a process. Yet life itself instructs us that this is not so. Even math can get messy, but we are (at least I am) so hard headed and hard hearted as to expect belief to be simple where it is complicated and difficult where it is simple.

We forget the role of grace in belief. Paul prayed for the Ephesians, not that they learn their Sunday School lessons, but that their spiritual eyes be opened to the hope of God. John's Gospel tells us that the story of Jesus has been told that we might believe not only "that Jesus is the Christ" -- a fact we are given no logical progression for -- but also that we "may have life in his name."

What a magnificent leap! I confess there are concepts which are not fully clear to me. But I have hope I did not once have. I have life I could not otherwise attain or even aspire toward, believing in Jesus. This I can testify to.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bookmarks -- Anna Karenina

When I received my Nook, I promised myself that I would use it and other devices (now my phone and an iPad) to read a number of classic works that have, for one reason or another, passed me by. The most recently completed of these, read almost entirely on my iPhone, is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

One reason I think I waited so long to read Anna Karenina is because it is a story about adultery. Or so I thought. Adultery is fine for subject matter, but I don't like that with even many supposedly great works, the reader is manipulated into feeling sorry for the woman who has cheated on her husband (who is often portrayed, in varying ways, as a louse). Anna's husband is not all that good a person, but he has his moments where he tries to be. In the end, he proves too weak-willed, ironically, to strive toward goodness, but one can see his side from time to time.

Anna may seem like a strong, sometimes courageous woman. But on the whole, she is a nut-dog with crazy relish. I can't say what makes her insane, but by the time she throws herself under a train (knowing this fact should not ruin the novel for you), she has isolated herself from everyone and proven to have no love or loyalty, not for her lover, her children, or any high ideas. She might love herself.

Her story is interesting, but the story that captured my attention is that of Levin, the philosophical farmer, whose love and courtship of Kitty baffles him as it gives purpose to his life, as his vocation and his attempts to better the world around him have not. Levin tries to revolutionize the agrarian system, and finds himself attracted and repulsed by the peasants whose lives he is trying to improve. He is more comfortable with his books and farm, but desperate to win approval for the book he writes, expecting his ideas to set the world on its head. He doesn't believe in God, thinking himself too intelligent for such things, but is moved by the faith of his young wife and others he encounters. In the end, he is strong enough to be what others might see as weak, but he comes to his proclamation of faith honestly, after deep struggle.

This is a thrilling, fascinating book of parallel stories (The draft title was Two Marriages.). It took sometime to finish it, but I am very glad I took the time to do it.

Music Notes – Guitar Man

George Benson’s latest album is called Guitar Man,  and it is a typical mix of Benson’s excellent playing  and his smooth singing on a couple of numbers.

"Tenderly" opens the album with some gorgeous interplay of chords and melody. May be a little mellow for some, but I liked it quite a bit. The Coltrane standard "Naima" gets the same treatment, and I wonder if I might have liked the project more, if it had been there were more songs arranged and performed as solo pieces, or as this eventually becomes, a trio effort. The solo guitar on "Danny Boy" is gorgeous, bringing a sense of joy to what is typically a sad tune. This is one of the best pieces on the album.

There are three vocal tracks on Guitar Man. The first is a nice rendition of the Stevie Wonder classic, “My Cherie Amour.” It isn’t particularly special despite Benson’s usually distinctive voice, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. The others are “Since I Fell For You” and “My One and Only Love.” Both sound really good, especially with the stripped down sound. And I love the piano work of Joe Sample on “My One and Only Love,” but I would hope an album called Guitar Man" might feature Benson’s main instrument. “Since I Fell For You” has a couple nice guitar runs, but too few for me.

Benson plays a swinging rendition of the classic tune, "Tequila."  The full band clearly is having a lot of fun. "Don't Know Why," which follows, is nice, but sounds much like every other smooth jazz version of the song. "The Lady In My Life" is pretty good, spoiled only by the string sound that makes it too close to smooth jazz and too far from the beautiful melody making that Benson can manage on his own.

One thing Benson does very well is scat along with his lead lines. However, the only song we get much of that is "Fingerloo." At first, I thought it a poor choice to end the album, but after repeated listenings, I am pleased to see the project close with the sort of sounds I associate with this great guitarist and fine singer.

The album has many terrific moments and I sometimes wished I could get a whole disc of pieces like “Fingerloo” or “Danny Boy.” It is still a good listening experience, and I do not think Benson fans are going to be disappointed. But I also think he is better than this outing shows.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Meditation V -- Not a Map

"And you know the way to where I am going."

Thomas, ever faithful, but perhaps over-literal, asks Jesus, "How can we know the way?" For Thomas, like so many of us, is expecting a map, perhaps a formula, to get to Heaven. but if Christ had come to give us a map, he'd be no better than those who sought His demise; He would be less than even the prophets who told of his coming; He would not have needed to die.

For Jesus is not a map, and He brought no formula for salvation. He said He is the way. There is no rule except to look on Him and follow.

Later in this conversation with His disciples, Jesus would tell them, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." But these are not rules or a path to Heaven. In context, we see that this is what Jesus gives us in order for our relationships to God to grow and bear the fruit of peace and joy.

He does not say, "Do this and you will be saved from fire." He does not promise an end to pain or oppression (as the world sees them). He promises peace and he promises joy. He promises the Holy Spirit who will "teach [us] all things and bring to remembrance all that [Jesus has] said to [us]."

Help me, Lord, to rejoice in my troubles as I look on you and find peace and joy.

Bookmarks -- What It Used To Be Like

In piecing together the life of one of my literary heroes, one thing was always missing: a specific picture of Raymond Carver's first marriage, when poverty and alcoholism coincided (or perhaps collided) with his rising reputation. What It Used To Be Like begins to fill in this gap.

Raymond Carver's first wife clearly loved and supported him long past the point he deserved it. Maryann Carver is honest about their troubled marriage. At the height of her husband's drinking, he was physically abusive and unfaithful, and often was unrepentant about his actions. Several times, when life began to get better for them, Carver would uproot the family.

Maryann Carver's portrait is also tender. Even through most of the rough times, she remembered the sometimes generous and thoughtful boy she fell in love with. She played the part -- to a fault -- of a devoted wife who sacrifices her own ambitions and dreams so that the great writer could fulfill his. And while in some passages she unsuccessfully suppresses her bitterness and disappointment, in others she is happy to give everything to the man she fell in love with when she was fifteen and never stopped, even after they had been divorced for years.

There are parts of the book, sentences here and there, which are not well written, and some that are poorly edited. Some prose reads like a freshman composition, and not like what one would expect from someone as intelligent and well-read. The section on the 1970s (the book is divided by decades) seems to go back and forth when the rest of the memoir is chronological.

Overall, What It Used To Be Like provides a fine picture of the seriously flawed man who also was the genius writer. But it also gives the reader an insight into codependency as well as a changing culture from the perspective of one who was too busy holding her family together to do more than watch the country that seemed to be falling apart. And yet Raymond Carver's life, short as it was, might well be a kind of trope for an America wrestling with its demons while finding its greatness.

Meditation IV -- Weakness

You told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Am I weak enough, Lord?

We may not always seek pleasure, but we avoid pain as quickly as possible. I have heard, "No pain, no gain." When is it no longer pain or suffering for our own good (sacrifice), but oppression and/or self-mortification? Most would rather stay as they are, satisfied that they are as good as they will be, and consequently as good as they need be. Some will sacrifice everything for a goal that brings nothing substantial.

Perhaps I digress. We do not need to seek weakness or suffering. It finds us, whether or not we desire holiness. And if we desire holiness -- and every Christian should examine her/his heart to determine if she/he really does -- then we need not desire suffering, but learn to recognize God's grace in these difficult moments.

I say "moments" knowing that our troubles do not last a short time. Perhaps if they were short, they would not trouble us. No. Sometimes our pain lasts a lifetime. However, we must work in the faith that in comparison to eternity this time will be briefer than thought.

I have digressed again. Paul tells us, "when I am weak, then I am strong." Often, I believe, we confuse this sentence to mean that the strength comes from us. With exercise, we tear the muscle fibers, and they are rebuilt stronger. We might think our exercise increased us, made us spiritually stronger. But it is God who created the body to work in such a way. It is not our strength which powers us after weakness, but God's strength which sustains and powers us during and through weakness.

Lord, you gave Paul a thorn to sustain his humility. Help us to recognize your grace in our trials and in this painful life, and to rest in your mercy and joy. Amen.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Meditation III -- Hearing

The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me.

Not long after saying this, Jesus would ask, "I have show you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" But the words (not deeds) that convicted them in their eyes were, "I and the Father are one." For Christ had already been charged and found guilty by those who did not want Him or support Him. They only wanted some words to pull from out of context -- out of the context of this speech and out of the context of all Scripture -- to serve their purpose in condemning Him.

He had been drawing a distinction between himself and those who would lead his sheep astray. Could they see the connection that not only was Jesus the True Shepherd, but that they were thieves, who come "to steal and kill and destroy"? For we belong to no one but Christ.

We deceive ourselves when we listen to the voices of the world and the voice of the flesh which tell us everything we like to hear, which tells us that we do belong to God, but to ourselves. His Voice is hard to hear with so many noises in the way. Mammon is quite loud. Christ whispers comfort to our hearts, and even when he shouts to our souls, we do not recognize Him. The world, as the poet says, is too much with us.

We are lost without You, Lord. Help us to know Your Voice.