Three Poems of the Atmosphere

1.

When wind
And crescents wax
And bring
The earth to blush,
Arbor silhouettes
Wave in gray
And stoic wonder
Between
Land’s terrestrial breast
And heaven’s astral shield

2.

I want to see the lights
The voices of the stars
Transmitting
To my pale, shuttered eyes
They do not speak or sing,
But hum
Through the black
And aching cosmos
Till their stream of constant
Urgings, flickering and rarefied
By years of space and light
Autonomously guide and find
My seeing ears and hearing eyes

I want to hear them
Now, and then
I want to see them
Humming

3.

Drenched and drowning
in the sunset’s creamy
bliss, I drift
towards the sea
and clutch my heart.
For all this happens
flowing in the masterpiece
of evening’s swirling palette,

and I’m reminded
that we feel
see and touch
in color


Blue Yarn

Blue Yarn Poster

In 2011 I worked with director Chelsea Rebecca and a team of filmmakers in Ann Arbor on the production of the short film “Blue Yarn.” The music I wrote was a combination of solemn piano interludes and early 1960’s country tunes. In addition to composing an original score, I worked on set as a boom operator, and worked in post production as the sound designer and mixer.

I love working with film, and I love being asked to do things that I’ve never done before. I’ll get around to writing more country crooning songs some day, I’m sure. In the meantime, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with such diverse and talented artists and technicians.

Although the entire film isn’t available to the public, the closing credits, with music by yours truly, can be found below.

“Blue Yarn” End Credits from Katt Qian on Vimeo.


Five Birds — Three Poems

The Cardinals

I traced the cardinals’ breasts into the canopy
Red strokes, blurred across
The honey locust’s pinnate feather wings
They were hosted in the leaflets
Stunning one another in vermilion sorcery

Head cocked and saffron crowned
The lady up and dove through the verdant stand
And disappeared into the wood
Darting round the knotted copse
And out, into the silence

The Magpies

A pair of magpies
Startled in the brambles
Flapped and rose out
Of thorns and morning dew
And let me see their
Ghostly eyes, dark-cast beads
Of stoic open wonder

Blinding black and white,
I saw chess upon their wings
And after a mocking dance,
Of knight and stalwart bishop,
They sprung up
Through the canopy
And laughed at me
And dawn’s lost stars

The Sparrow

The sparrow’s path
Hooked through the sun’s
Bright and bleeding rays,
Then burst through
A vast and clouded
Tortured teardrop
To undo the
Groaning
Aches
And pain
And seal his love
upon the world


Poems: A March Triptych

1.

at least oblivion
offers peace,
an unvoided contract
of open sky
and blue bliss
earned by so many
but reached by so few

in that space
between each step

in that space
between each breath

don’t blink

in that space
between each heartbeat
the moment glows

do you see it?

2.

oh, the sinister muse
who takes me away
and shocks with,
demands a sacrifice.
all that it promised
is all it asks
in return.
The mimetic pain
following trails of
the Father of us all

in my hollow core
somehow I am full
or so I hope . . .
and hope
in the end
is all that can fill
and all that fills

 

3.

In the trees
I hear the wind
whisper
even though it’s still
on the plain
I stand stop a peak
and the stars
hang and glow
in the night sky
even though it’s day
the grass greens
beneath us
and curls around
our toes
even though it’s cold
and winter,
and the ice melts
even as it’s made

earth, light, and air
speak to minds
who see and hear
beyond the moment
and there are whispers,
secrets to be told
if we will them in
and release
our imagination’s silk into
that wind
to wisp and glide through
arbor’s arms,
past peaks,
celestial glows,
flowing water,
and verdant, curling, grasses


The Allegory of The Love Doctor

Fascinated with the emotional, social, and expressive dimensions of one of the most complex and ubiquitous human concepts, Philo set out to learn more from one of the earth’s self-proclaimed masters in the subject of Love. Having received numerous degrees from prestigious schools, and having written and published dozens of very well-received books and articles in well-respected publications, the Doctor of Love, or “Love” Theorist, as he called himself, happened to live, teach, and work at an institution of higher learning just a few cities away. The trip was worth the time and energy, as Philo’s passion was understanding the phenomena of Love, its meaning, its uses, its difficulties, and its infinite complexities, and if there was one individual who could help him understand the inherent beauty and inner workings of such a seemingly impenetrable yet pervasive subject, then it would surely be this Doctor of Love.

The plans were set, the trip was made, and soon Philo was shaking hands with and sitting across the desk from this ostensibly brilliant individual. After getting comfortable in the worn leather chair, and exchanging warm salutations with the Doctor and his bushy brows, he eagerly asked the question that he had traveled so far to have answered.

“I’d like to understand Love,” Philo began, rubbing his child-like and humble hands together as he spoke. “I have felt it, I have expressed it, I have given it, I have received it — but how? Why? What makes it tick?” The Doctor was used to responding to such superficial generalities, as there were few other than those in academia’s upper echelon’s who could speak with authority about such a complex subject. He began slowly and meticulously, shaping each phrase as if it were his last.

“First, my son, you need to accept that this is no subject that one can master in a single afternoon,” he flatly stated as Philo nodded his head and scratched his chin waiting for more, “but I see that you are ready to understand this thing called Love, so let’s get to the details.” With that introduction Philo scooted forward to the edge of his seat, his eyes glued and ears cocked, ready and willing to learn. “Let’s dive right in, shall we?” said the Doctor.

“Love consists of L-O-V-E,” he stated with punctilious perfection, clearly hoping to get an enthusiastic rise out of his student right from the start. Any rise, however, was that of fawning educational zeal transforming into skepticism. With hope, however, Philo edged forward waiting for more. The Doctor continued.

“L, you see, is the 12th letter in our English alphabet. O is the 15th. V is the 22nd. And E, ohh! E . . . is the 5th. In fact, let me show you . . .” he said as he leapt out of his chair with a bubbly grin and approached a blackboard to the left of his desk.

“Here!” he said as he drew an L on the blackboard. “Look at the angle of this letter . . . uh huh . . . do you see it? It’s 90 degrees! And this O right here!” he mused as he, like Giotto incarnate, completed the perfect curvature of the letter’s circle. “The V is nothing but a transformation of the L, but turned counter-clockwise 45 degrees,” he remarked, and then suddenly fixing his beady and increasingly maddened eyes on Philo, revealed, “That’s exactly half of 90 degrees, you know . . .”

Philo, couldn’t believe his ears, or his eyes, for that matter. When the good Doctor began waxing about how the numbers corresponding to the alphabetic position of the letters, when summed together (for a grand old stinking total of 54) and divided by their own arithmetic mean (which was 13.5, by the way) gave you 4 (naturally!) he was beginning to shift around in that well-worn leather chair looking for a hidden camera in the room. Was this some kind of joke? Had he strolled into the wrong office and struck up a conversation with the department jester?

“Ergo. . .” the Doctor stated with an emphatic pause, “LOVE!”. He exhaled lovingly in a way which Philo found ironic considering the circumstances, and it cooled his own fuming temper for just long enough to let good ol’ Doctor Lovey Dovey start up again.

“Now, let’s venture to the word’s origins, shall we?” he said, lifting his luxuriant academic eyebrows up and down with such vigor that Philo swore he felt a draft. With that statement Philo actually thought that they might be getting somewhere productive, somewhere insightful, somewhere that would make his journey worthwhile, somewhere that would seal up all of this pseudo-scientific tommyrot and thoroughly defenestrate it.

“First, the Old English: ‘L-U-F-U’,” the Doctor continued, and with that Philo arose and stormed out of the room. “Don’t you want to know about the Greek?!” the Doctor called down the hall after him, but it was too late.

Philo grumbled to himself as he buttoned his coat and walked down the frozen ivory-white steps of the building. After a brief sojourn of city-hopping, he had returned to his home, having puzzled along the way, and was still dumb-struck at how utterly irrelevant the dear Doctor’s professorial postulations were as compared to the experience and act of love in the real world. “Surely, he must realize this,” Philo mused. “Surely, the personal anecdotes and garnered aphorisms of a layperson would be more descriptive, explanatory, and insightful than . . . than THAT.” He sighed heavily, and sunk into his chair, beginning an evening of hypnagogic travel-induced lucubration, eyes focused on the blank wall in front of him, continually passing between sleep and wakefulness.

Philo came to, stood, and began the walk to his bed. While climbing up the stairs, it occurred to him that Love was meaningful to him; he loved love; he loved the feeling; he loved the commitment; he loved the chivalry, the niceties, the traditions; he loved the symbols; he loved the ever-changing newness of it in conjunction with its aging mythic prominence; he loved that everyone loved differently, and that love itself meant different things to everyone while simultaneously being a quintessentially shared phenomenon, to which so many of us could ostensibly relate. In contrast, the explanatory trajectory of the professor, was so unique that it bore virtually no resemblance to the meanings of Love within contemporary culture — or any culture outside of the Doctor’s building, for that matter.

Philo, considering all this, was exhausted. He loosened his tie, collapsed on his bed, and dreamt.


Music Theory Pedagogy 101, continued

This post is an extension of the original Music Theory Pedagogy 101.

1. Music, an artistic discipline which is already struggling socially and economically, ought not further burden itself by educating its future professionals in such a way that its adherents treat ideas as stagnant insipid a priori givens as opposed to fluid and questionable descriptions. As an educator, one of my personal mantras is to equip and encourage my students with the gall to someday perform ideological mutiny. Perpetuating traditions of what has been done while failing to inspire students to explore what can be done is not education, but indoctrination.

2. Music isn’t derived from theory anymore than weather is derived from meteorology. Both music theory and meteorology are attempts to describe and, in some cases, explain preexisting phenomena. To teach or speak as if music “follows” rules, or “adheres” to the predefined aesthetic injunctions of pencil pushers is not only patently false, but also places academics behind in the very game that they need to be ahead in: providing insightful tools for describing, understanding and ultimately enjoying the consumption and practice of music.

3. Tools should always be presented as such. For example: species counterpoint was codified by Fux as a pedagogical tool to essentially mimic the conventions he perceived as being fundamental to Palestrina’s style. Your students need to know this context. Without it, a topic such as species counterpoint appears to be an assumed set of universal and arbitrary rules for composition agreed upon by ivory towered academics. Everyday experience teaches students that the vast majority of music they encounter does not follow these rules. Do not proceed until this apparent incongruence is accounted for.

4. Multiplicities of approaches should always be offered. Specialization is what Ph.D.s are for, and even under the guise of such advanced degree programs, myopia is an ever-present danger.

5. One does not need to “learn the rules before they can break them.” This oft-repeated and markedly corrupt platitude stifles many of our discipline’s best minds. What is so painfully obvious to students, yet is easily forgotten by fusty professors, must be reinforced in the classroom: there are no rules unless we create and enforce them ourselves! This is an extension of what I stated in my original post: there are no rules, only conventions.

6. Put theory in its place; it’s made up; it’s fiction; it’s storytelling, and storytellers always have a role in choosing the kinds of stories they tell and the methods they use to tell them. Even the most essentiallizing and quasi-scientific quantitative theoretical engagements must, before musical analysis even begins, first proceed with a hypothesis. The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask.

Music theory is rarely presented as a cultural construct, incorrectly elevating the level of the discourse to one consisting of supposed facts and figures. Theory textbooks, similarly, in their implicit collusion, more closely resemble pedagogical tools in the field of mathematics than something emerging from the humanities. McClary has claimed that it is in fact this very “tendency [which] permits music to claim to be the result not of human endeavor, but of rules existing independent of humankind.” This psuedo-scientific discourse, as previously stated, contributes to the ersatz dialectical oppositions of which the moralized language of virtually any theory classroom is indicative. Acoustics, perhaps, is the only subject which could properly assume such an ostensibly objective level of discourse, and acoustics unfortunately remains one of the many arenas in which musicians are generally undereducated.

The fact that many of the concepts in music theory (triadic harmony, harmonic progression, counterpoint, structural cohesion, set theory, etc.) are not merely descriptive, but extraordinarily selective in their approach, is extremely problematic, and this is compounded by the persistent modernist streams among theorists in the twentieth century that have occasionally insisted on the primacy and ostensive objectivity of their methods. All of this wouldn’t be nearly as troublesome if it was simply addressed head-on in the classroom, but such engagement with historical ideology and the panoply of perspectives which are possible is rare, indeed. If theoretical tools and their biases were historicized and problematized for students at the outset of their training, and constantly revisited throughout their studies, then creativity and critical thinking would flourish among musicians; instead, rather unfortunately, many of the brightest students only parrot their teacher’s implied and often inherited, aesthetics, as if they were coming from the mouth of Hanslick himself.

Classroom teaching often proceeds in such a manner, engaging in such a biased discourse, that the student is unable to decipher between inalterable givens (properties of acoustics) and cultural constructions (scales, tonic/dominant, counterpoint, and everything else under the sun). It is the strict adherence to these cultural constructions, and the adamant unqualified prohibition of alternate perspectives which effectively generates swaths of music students and professionals who not only fail to actively engage alternative music and music making, but also unnecessarily, and sometimes arrogantly, judge them to be inferior based on outmoded premises and Adornian cultural assumptions that no longer accurately describe mass culture and aesthetic hierarchy in the twenty-first century.

Even the most benign music theory lecture (intervals anyone?) can quickly spiral into a project seemingly obsessed with identification, and “calling” things what they actually are. In this process, the identified often become confused with the identifiers, overlooking the fact that the only reason labels are attached to such things is so that we can clearly and effectively communicate to one another about them. Nothing is actual except the music itself (and what constitutes the “music itself” is a discussion which should be had in every classroom at least once). Reiterating that music theory fundamentals consist primarily of abstracted concepts provides a playing field to students that is open to creativity, interpretation, discussion, and education.

7. Suggest to your students that the elements that “don’t fit” are what generates interesting art. The “difficult” elements are what make us return to art again and again, those elements which are contentious, or foil our neat and tidy systems of categroizaion and labeling. Teaching your students about the beauty of ambiguity can free them from what, to them, may appear to be a dogmatic, rule-ridden enterprise, which, as I’ve already pointed out, is often not very far from the truth.

Although theorists themselves are sometimes fond of those issues that are difficult, and whose multi-dimensionality leaves room for reinterpretation, most theory students, rather, are likely under the impression that theorists, instead, value that which conforms; in the classroom it often appears as if what is valued are those things which are easily digested by our paradigm, and anything that doesn’t fit is, . . . well . . . “wrong”. It’s not.

8. Instead of treating music as if it were merely an embellishment of theory, a construction based on theoretical blueprints, consciously employ the habit of treating theory as a mere construction, a simplified description of music. In the western world we are often faced with the overpowering temptation to create abstractions and then treat the abstractions as more real than reality; it as if the theory itself is somehow actual, and the music is a figment, an ornamental extension of what exists in the Platonic-Pythagorean realm of theory. Turn this tendency on its head. Musical practice is real. Theory is merely an attempt to describe the shadows on the walls of our dimly lit cave.

9. In this vein (see 8), obliterate your students obsession with the actual and replace it with an informed sense of interpretation.