Pierre Bensusan Concert

Well, I drove nearly 6 hours to Seattle yesterday, then immediately drove 6 hours back home to Idaho to make it back in time for Easter Sunday. The reason? To see my guitar hero live. That’s right, the Algerian born Frenchman served up a plate of rich solo guitar harmony, sophisticated compositions and extraordinary virtuosity. It was really a treat to him play first hand and witness the energy put into each piece.

I was first introduced to Pierre when I borrowed the “Best of The Thistle and Shamrock” compilation CD from the local library. This disk was put together by Fiona Richie, who hosts the Celtic music show on NPR under the same name. Since then I’ve waited nearly 3 years to see him in concert. I guess this trip was kind of a spiritual pilgrimage for me. Nah, scratch that. It’s not really spiritual. But a musical/artistic pilgrimage. You see, about the time I discovered Pierre’s music, I was completely burnt out from 13 years of trumpet. I still loved music, but had become very disillusioned with my instrument and with what to “DO” with music in the future. Pierre’s playing really HAS inspired me to keep going. Since then I’ve picked up classical guitar and found it to be quite rich and rewarding.

Anyway, a few comments on the concert:

I’d never seen anyone so at one with their instrument. My guitar professor at our local university is an accomplished classical player with a huge repertoire. However, when he plays, it seems to be that he is just interfacing with his guitar. With Pierre, it was difficult to tell where the man ended and the guitar began. There were occasionally difficult passages where he would slip out of his improvisation driven mode and focus on some tricky fingerings for a few measures. It was during these points that he resembled the musicians I’m usually familiar with. But it was only for a moment and then he was back in the zone.

He played mostly pieces from his last two studio albums: Intuite and Altiplanos. With nearly each song he began by improvising through each piece for several minutes. Then he would launch into the melody or introduction as presented on the album. It was easy to see that he is completely driven by improvisation. Writing the music down is kind of an afterthought. If you’ve ever seen his sheet music, it looks much more like a solo transcription than a music idea translated to paper. I think this is a hurdle to get over if you want to play some of his tunes. If you take a classical approach to it and just force-learn every note, you will be completely missing the point. Yes, there is an underlying chord pattern and especially bass line, but many of the embellishments and extra notes here and there could be played any number of ways.

On a side note, much of Pierre’s early Celtic stuff is much more straight forward and can just be read off the page note-for-note.

His improvisatory style has, I believe, has perennially disqualified him from being taken seriously by classical guitarists. I’m afraid this is a gross oversight. His compositions are very well put together, full of short and extended music ideas, rich in harmony both simple and sophisticated. His playing stretches the limits of the instrument and yet, can be surprisingly idiomatic. It’s made for the guitar from the ground up, not like evil Joquim Rodreguez pieces that were written on a piano. His voicing and self-accompaniment is often reminiscent of Barrios. I think some people are beginning to realize this. Andrew York recently collaborated with him on a concert tour and corresponding album. Classical guitarist James Kline released an album a while back featuring many Bensusan arrangements played on a nylon string. The other thing that has probably turned off people is his near-continuous use of scordatura. Scordatura is just what classical stuff-shirts call it when you use an alternate tuning. Most of his tunes are in DADGAD, as opposed to the standard EADGBE. So if you want to read any of his sheet music, you are probably going to want to look at the tab, not the traditional notation. Oh, but we can’t do that! Tab is for Guitar-World-readin’-metal-head dilettantes. That is just killing the messenger for the sake of being a purist. Get over it.

A side note on his playing being idiomatic. Some who have actually tried to play some of it (and found it very difficult) might have a hard time swallowing that one. Well, it’s just not so apparent at first! One thing to pay attention to is the bass line. He rarely has it on beats 1 or 3 or what you would expect. But he isn’t doing this just to mix it up. It’s actually to keep the notes flowing and make the bass line easier to play. You would come up with his bass lines if you had you’re guitar in hand. If you were writing it down at the desk or the piano, you might put the attacks in much more “logical” places, only to actually find it more difficult to play. I think this also contributes to his “harp effect”. That is, his notes are also placed to provide maximum sustain.

In watching him play, he often would shake his guitar against his body to get a global vibrato. I’ve seen people do this before, but he REALLY put it to good use. Listen to recordings it can be difficult to tell what kind of vibrato is being used (parallel to the string, perpendicular, or this global whammy-bar effect.) I was surprised that he seemed to use this as his PRIMARY form of vibrato. I didn’t see much, if any parallel vibrato going in. This is what classical guitarists and violin players use. There was maybe a little bit of perpendicular (favored by electric players), but usually only bring out a particular note on more sparse passages.

Oh, and he likes to sing with his playing. It’s mostly a kind of soft scat jazz improv. Critics have pointed out over there years that his insistence to keep singing has probably been his largest barrier to commercial success. I think he believes it to be so a part of himself that he would be sacrificing artistic integrity to drop it. That’s just fine, but I have to say I largely prefer his instrumental tracks. There is a reason that Intuite (his only album with no singing) has been his best-selling to date. (Actually, I don’t know if this is true now.)

I know in the past he has used a thumb pick, but now he has all acrylic nails. His right hand position looks to be in a mostly classical position. He rests his guitar on his right leg and kind of leans sideways. It sure looks uncomfortable to me!

Wow, the downtown scene in Seattle on a Saturday night is sure hoppin’! I was on Ballard Ave and every trendy bar was filled. The concert was at the Tractor Tavern, which focuses on music. No tables or pool or TV’s. The bar is against one wall and the rest of the room is open with folding chairs. There is a modest stage at one end. There were about 100 people there. I don’t think you could have had much more than 150 in the room though. It was pretty hot.

On my way back home I hit one of the Chocolati Cafe coffee shops and got a mocha made with their yummy house chocolate. (Not Hershey’s, bleh!). It kept me going on the drive back. Well, most of it anyway. After getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck with 3 flaggers and 2 police cars, I didn’t make it home until 3:40 AM. I wonder what the truck was carrying. Something radioactive maybe?

I think that’s pretty much all I have to say, though I need to go back and spell-check it.

You can’t pin down God.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Throughout church history, Christian leaders have shown an impulse to pin everything down, to reduce behavior and doctrine to absolutes that could be answered on a true-false test. Significantly, I do not find this tendency in the Bible. Far from it, I find instead the mystery and uncertainty that characterize any relationship,l especially a relationship between a perfect God and fallible human beings. (p. 92)

He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Most heresies come from espousing one opposite at the expense of the other.

If there is anything I’ve learned since exploring the many branches of Christianity recently, it is the point expressed above. But what do you do with it? Well, let’s put some numbers on it:

1. Some fundamentalists don’t like this because it means that God can’t be adequately explained. They like to play up the importance of absolute truth (which IS important of course), but they aren’t sure what to do with mystery. So it either gets glossed over, or thrown out as being too (liberal, mystical, fill-in-the-blank).

2. Some Calvinists like to use this kind of material to draw attention to God’s sovereignty (which is great), but then do a u-turn by taking it a step further and trying to precisely define just how sovereign and mysterious and omnipotent and can’t-be-contained he is. They’ve got the Trinity measured down to a micrometer. Before you know it, you’re back to a staggering stack of true and false statements. Oops.

3. Some Charismatics will also appeal to the same idea, often saying, “You can’t put God in a box.” Well, of course you can’t. Yeah, that right! But wait. If I don’t speak in tongues then I can’t possibly have the holy spirit? If I’m sick and didn’t get healed, it MUST be because I didn’t have enough faith? And, prophecy is cool and all, but I’m not so sure about the stuff that one guy was saying yesterday. What, you mean I’m spiritually dead because I’m even questioning it? Huh? Looks like God’s still in the box.

I grew up in the company of #1, though the artist in me was never comfortable with it. For 5 years of college I hung with #3 (and still do sometimes). I have a drink with #2 sometimes and find it a secure and refreshing change. I’m just can’t buy the whole thing though.

Actually, I just can’t buy any of it.
So I guess I’ll take all of it. Woo hoo!

The Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quit in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Grying spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

-William Butler Yeats, 1892

I became fascinated with this poem after hearing the Loreena McKennitt song adaptation of it.
I can just imagine a Christian looking right past the beauty of it and dismissing it as a shallow stack of look-inside-yourself-whitney-houston-hero-feel-good-humanism. Bah! Poetry that is just a little bit vague is always the best. It allows you to give it a very personal meaning. The original intention of the author is not important. I love the imagery of the tree of holiness planted inside us. Laughing and full of life. I relate well to the cynical lens of the despair demons (real or imagined?) hold. One makes my eyes bright and radiating kindness to my wife, kids, friends, and strangers. The other makes them downcast and hard.

“Made when God slept in times of old”. I imagine the giant father time, who sleeps under the earth in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. He is sleeping in the Silver Chair when they pass by his enormous body in the deep. In The Last Battle, his silhouette is seen from hundreds of miles away as he awakes and winds his horn at the passing of the world.

There is more that I can say, but I’ll leave it at that.

Mental Gymnastics

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Some psychologists practice a school of behavior therapy that encourages the client to “act as if” a certain state is true, no matter how unreasonable it seems….If you want to preserve your marriage but are not sure you really love your wife, start acting as if you love her: surprise her, show affection, give gifts, be attentive. You may find that feelings of love materialize as you act out the behavior. If you want to forgive your father but find yourself unable, act as if he is forgiven. Say the words, “I forgive you” or “I love you,” even though you are not entirely convinced you mean them. Often the change in behavior in the one party brings about a remarkable change in the other. Something similar works in my relationship with God. I wish all obedience sprang from an instinctive desire to please God – alas, it does not…I must rely on this technique… (p. 88)

I find this to be one of the fundamental principles of mental gymnastics. One day I’ll write and explain why mental gymnastics are NOT a bad things. I think they get far too much of a bad rap in our circles. As if it were our own striving attempting to make us holy. Of course we should just let go and let god. If sanctification is based 100% on the work of Christ in our heart, then of course it is futile! If it is based in some part on our own works then what is “trying to be nice” or “trying to do the right thing”? Isn’t this what we do every day in our struggle with sin and our journey through life? Of course it is. Anyway, dealing with this fully would take quite a while and I don’t know if I’m prepared to do that. In fact, I am sure that I’m not.

Back to the topic at hand. What do you do when you actually WANT to do something very badly, but you REALLY don’t feel like it at all. So you treat your wife with love because you love her. But what if you’re relationship has broken down (for whatever reason) and at this particular moment, you can’t stand her anymore. Well, instead of ignoring her, punishing her with critical comments, or whatever else people do to spite one another, what if you flip it on it’s head and choose to actively treat her like you’re madly enough. Just pretend for a while, OK? And you know what? The funniest thing happens. This is very well documented. You’re feelings will change and you’re love for her will grow again! Amazing really. This really works, but it isn’t for quitters. Yancy says that the other person’s feelings will change too. I really don’t think you should say that. They may never really change as much as you want them too. As soon as you add that in the mix, even in the back of your mind, than it will undoubtedly make itself some kind of CONDITION for you to continue. I think the part about the other person probably changing needs to be thrown out completely.

This exact same thing could be said about husbands, friends, family, co-workers, etc. I think it’s a special property of human relations. Now, all of this operates independently or IN TANDEM with the holy spirit. Maybe it never operates without the hold spirit. But that work is invisible, so who can say for sure? It might be simply a property of human psychology. It may be God working in our hearts behind the scenes. Maybe it is God working in our hearts behind the scenes THROUGH human psychology. After all, he did make us, right?

Anyway, you can love and then act out in love, or just start with the actions and pick the love back up later. Just jump in.

Defining kept promises

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

I learn about faith by looking back at Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for God proceeded in a most puzzling manner with all three. After God had promised to bring about a people as numerous as the stars in the sky, what followed more resembled a case study in family infertility. Abraham and Sarah entered their nineties before they saw their first child; that son married a barren woman; the grandson Jacob had to wait fourteen years for the wife of his dreams, only to discover her barren as well. This tortuous path toward populating a great nation shows that God operates on a different timetable than impatient human beings expect. Each of those Old Testament characters lived and died in faith, vowing to the end that God had indeed kept his promises. (p. 75)

I think it’s fascinating that the patriarch’s faith is presented as being so loosely tied to tangible results in their lifetime. I wonder if they were like us now: Wanting God to take care of their problems in a relatively short amount of time. (A couple of weeks sounds good.) Then, lying on their bed in their old age, they rally themselves to proclaim their faith, even thought they are about to die without seeing any of the promises come true. OR did they live their day-to-day life with this kind of conviction, not actually expecting God to deliver for a few hundred years or so. When you read about famous characters in an epic, it’s easy to imagine the latter, more mythical faith. However, remembering that Jacob was a guy just like me, I suspect it may have looked more like the former.

I would also like to relate this to eschatology for a moment. The pre-trib, pre-millennial rapture is a future that seems to me to appeal to the impatient Christian. We just hang on for a few more years and then God comes down and whacks everything into shape in a very short amount of time. Only 7 years or so. The post-millennial view sees the power of God working in the hearts of men and growing the church to cover the whole earth over several thousand MORE years from now. This is the slow, patient salvation of our world. When I open the bible, I see God working slowly.

Books to read and blog about

Alright, I always thought that one of the main things I would do with a blog is write about what I was reading. I plan to mostly just include excerpts with little or no commentary from me. I figure that what the author has to say is probably more interesting to say than what I have to say about it! Actually, the main reason I will be blogging about them is to help ME remember what they said later.

So I have been collecting books at used bookstores and such and throwing them in my shelf with the intention of reading them “soon”. Well, I really only get a couple of hours of reading in each week so it’s pretty slow going. I had just finished a book and decided to sit down and write make a list of all the things I wanted to read. That way I could order and and decide what to read next. In my mind was a picture of 5 or 6 books waiting in the queue, but when I went to take a look I was shocked to find the number was closer to 25. Geesh! I’m never going to get these read!

Well, here they are in no particular order. Well, their kind of in order. Oh nevermind.

Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancy – This book was recommended to me by an older Christian man I admire. I’m about half-way though it right now. It’s kind of a hodge-podge of quotes and stores and doesn’t seem very well thought out. I think that’s kind of the point though. How else do you write about something mysterious and confusing, eh?

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis – I see this book quoted all the time. I guess it is one of the great Christian mystic classics.

Contemplating Jesus by Robert Faricy & Robert Wicks – I found this at a yard sale. It’s a very short book on contemplative prayer and meditation. I think it’s Catholic.

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis – Lewis is one of my favs and so I try to snatch up anything by him I can find cheap. This book is a survey or medieval literature. Looks interesting.

Getting Real by 37 Signals – This is a short online book about software development. I’ve read about half of it but need to go back and finish it. Apparently reading it will make me a slick agile programmer like the cool kids.

The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson – This is Tennyson’s great King Arthur epic in verse. I’ve tried to read it before, but got bored. I’d like to try again though.

Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay – My wife read this and found it very helpful. I’ll read it too.

A Serrated Edge by Doug Wilson – This is probably Wilson’s most controversial book. It is a defense of the use of satire by Christians to ridicule, well, all kinds of things. I typically agree with Wilson, but I know from some of his other writings that I don’t buy everything he argues for on this particular topic. But don’t bash it until you’ve read it right? So I’m going to read it so I actually know what I’m talking about.

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Doug Wilson – One of Wilson’s older books advocating classical education. Some of it is kind of dated, but it looks like it has some stuff in it. Coming from both a background of private school, public school, AND home school, I am often thinking about what to do for my own kid’s education. I’m interesting in finding out more about the classical model.

How to Think Straight by Antony Flew – This is an introduction to logic and rhetoric. Yet another topic that I feel deficient in since I’ve never studied it formally.

Poems (no title?) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – I pickup this very old (1850’s era) book at an auction. I remember reading “The Wooing of Hiawatha” in school and thought I should check outs some other stuff from Longfellow. Most of it rimes, so I am cool with that.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare – My first introduction to this book was seeing Patric Stewart playing Jean-Luc Picard playing Prospero in the holideck on Star Trek. when I was young. Now that doesn’t happen every day. It seems that this story in particular resonates with other people I have read. Loreena Mckennitt sang a beautiful piece to part of it’s text as well. I want to find out what all the fuss is about.

Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint by Calvin Johansson – The first thing I did when I saw this book was to use the index to see what he had to say about rock. Since he didn’t take the incredibly silly stance that electric guitars are inherently and abstractly demonic, I decided he probably had his head on straight. Actually, I’ve skimmed though a lot of this book and might just start writing about some of it right away. It is surprisingly well thought out.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis – One of the few Lewis classics that I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Peace Like a River by Lief Enger – I bought this book for my wife after hearing an interview with the author on the Kindling’s Muse Podcast. She read the whole thing in one sitting and really loved it. I haven’t read any fiction for a while, so I thought I would give this a shot.

The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte – I picked this up because I thought it was by the same guy who wrote “The Shadow of the Wind”, but I got the foreign names mixed up. It still looks interesting though.

And now for some books that I’ve read recently and will probably write about first…

The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton – The auto-biography of this early 20th century Trappist monk. I had never heard of him until I started reading Michael Spencer’s blog (www.internetmonk.com).

Against Christianity by Peter Leithart – The first few chapters of this were especially dynamite.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – The classic quirky British apologetic. It’s full of one-liners and everyone likes to quote it to sound clever. Well, actually it is pretty nifty. I’d like to read this one again too.

Fidelity by Doug Wilson – A straight forward and excellent book on morality and the typical troubles that men face.

Wild at Heart by John Eldridge – OK, OK. So there is plenty to bash in this book if you want to. Nonetheless, I think some of his observations are quite keen and he communicates them very well. I’ll have to sort them out again since it’s been a few years since I read this.

Inside Out by Larry Crabb – One of my favorite books. ‘nuf said.

That’s plenty folks.

So my wife made me do this

OK. I read a lot of blogs. I’ve been thinking about starting one for months. I have lots of ideas written down for topics I would like to write about. I have books filled with little Post-It note bookmarks to help me remember important spots I wanted to mention. I think about it a lot, but I have yet to actually start it after nearly 2 years. Why? Oh let me count the ways…

1. I’m afraid to let my thoughts be made public. Some of it is fear of being flamed, but I think I can handle that. Specifically, I fear destroying future job prospects. The field I work in is filled with people that are explicitly anti-Christian. I guess I try to transcend that at the workplace by not being very opinionated about anything. Nonetheless, I have a whole stack of horror stories from places like The Chronicle for Higher Education where a person’s blog got them fired or passed over. I’m not talking about the obvious things like flaming your co-workers online and then reaping the consequences. Those people deserve exactly what they get for letting their tongue slip. I’m talking about more subtle things like political persuasion, religion, etc. So I’m pretty sure I’ll have to always use a pseudonym. The goal isn’t to achieve anonymity’s, but to discourage casual readers from figuring things out without any work at all. I don’t want this to come up if you Google my name.

2. Writing is hard work. I love to read good blogs. I hate reading bad ones. In fact, I don’t read them! I don’t want to post anything that sucks, but that means a lot of time and thought to invest in it. As if I didn’t have plenty of other things to be doing in the meantime, like the dishes. One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” Bad writing is often disguised as long-winded writing. I don’t just want to blah blah blah, I want to say something significant. With every post! Sound too ideal? Yes, I’m sure it is.

3. Software. I’m a programmer. I don’t want to use some prefab blog like LiveJournal, BlogSpot or WordPress, etc. I don’t even want to install an engine on my own hosted site. I want to write a full-featured blog from scratch using Ruby on Rails and Scriptaculous with integrated load balancing and validation in FireFox, IE, Safari, and Konqueror! With a plan like that, I would spend the next year writing code and not actually make a single post!

4. I’m not sure whether to stick to one topic or post on a smattering of interests. Some possible topics? All the wise people out there say that a successful blog should stick with one topic. If you want to write about more than one thing, you should probably have multiple blogs. Nobody cares about your personal little eclectic grotto. I want to do this eventually, but remember this blog here is just to break the cycle of procrastination.

Speaking of how Blogs should be written… A lot of people say that lists are good. Use lots of lists. Here are 10 reasons why you should use lists, etc. OK. So what will I be posting on? Without further ado…

Christian Theology
More specifically…
Ecumenicalism (Church unity)
Christian Mysticism (Along the lines of St. John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, etc.)
My journey from Baptist to Charismatic to partially Reformed to “More confused but more certain”.
Quotes, book excerpts and commentary from authors and speakers I have enjoyed (Larry Crabb, C.S. Lewis, Peter Leithart, could go on and on.)

Music
More specifically…
Classical guitar
Celtic Music
Celtic guitar (of course!) As typified by Pierre Bensusan, Steve Baugman, James Kline, etc.)
Renaissance Lute
Trance techno (Ha! Topic whiplash!)
Music pedagogy

Web application development
More specifically…
My journey from ASP.NET (C#) and MSSQL to Ruby on Rails and MySQL. (Lots to cover here.)
A place to keep a list of by favorite code snippets.
Miscellaneous musings.

Well, that’s all for now. I’m getting tired and my son (who has been on my lap the entire time) keeps falling asleep on me. He thinks blogging is boring. I guess I will sign off for now!