Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
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“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

In search of Polkritude

You never know what you will find on blogs, and this blog is no exception.

My semi-regular readers (all three of you) have learned that deconstructing-jim is a place where you can come to learn about the trials and tribulations of the cruel and wacky world of contemporary music composition. It's about the esoteric and the banal as well as impressive accomplishments that occur in the field that receive little or no attention.

Over the course of more than a year, these blog posts have served as inexpensive form of self-therapy, random conceptualizing, and recreational venting. This blog intends serve as an on-going document about the schizoid life of a self-described American composer, if that isn't anachronistic enough for you. My aim is to tell it like I see it: whether you are interested or not. Of course you can always tune out.

"Serious" composers have often tried to emulate the success of their counterparts in the Pop music world by emulating their business practices. In today's environment, this means getting on the web. In the "old days" writing music was the main deal, and publishers and agents (if you were fortunate enough to have one) would handle it form there. Today, I'm told that musical artists of all types need to "webinize" themselves (not to be confused with "weaponize"). Besides writing the music, a successful composer needs to have a web page, blog, and be skilled at the art of Web 2.0 social-networking.

This is the justification for my blog. Although it hasn't seemed to make a damn difference in the number of performances I receive, it helps me to organize my thoughts and state the methodology of my apparent madness. It gives me an opportunity to expose everyday facts as absurd while hinting at the success of an occasional artistic step forward in my work and that of others.

Composing is a mixed bag, comprised mostly of boring and tedious tasks that few normal people have the patience for. But on some rare occasions there are indeterminate punctuations of improbable success that surprise even the most cynical and sceptical among us. I try to write about both types of events swirling around inside of my head: the mundane and the profound.

On the mundane and more absurd side of life (the Circus side show), I received notice from one of the major composer conferences this Spring. It indicated that I was not accepted to the conference and that my work would not be performed. That's fine. I've got tough skin, and after three or four decades of applying, I know that persistence is the name of the game in this business. I'll keep applying in the future. But what caught my eye was the rejection letter that came. It was the standard typed letter they use every year. It always gets sent out with the same wording, but with dates changed. The printed text was photocopied leaving a blank space at the top to hand write in the last name of the composer immediately after "Dear Mr./Ms." Oddly, my notice of non-acceptance was addressed in the letter and on the envelope to Mr. Rice (That's not my name).

Is Mr. Rice another unfortunate composer who's scores and paperwork got misplaced in the big pile? Who knows. Perhaps it was an administrative error, but the person who handles the administrative tasks for this not-for-profit organization earned a Harvard Ph.D. in Musicology. Perhaps I read too much into these mishaps, but the absurdest part of my personality thought it was strangely funny that after all of my years of applying, they still don't know who I am.

Now for a story on the profound side of life (the Circus main act). I'll need to work up to this story in stages...

On August 6th I wrote a post titled Apolkaypse Now. It mentioned that I was researching the Polka in anticipation of composing a modernist version.

I use the term "research" broadly. Researching the Polka brought me to places I've never been. It took me into the world of Kiełbasa and Warkam Beer. It led me to the "Slovenian Style" and hundreds of YouTube videos of Frankie Yankovic (1915-1998). In case you didn't already know, Yankovic was America's Grammy award-winning Polka King.

Here is a video of West Virginia-born Vankovic in his prime around 1960 singing the ever-popular"Hoop-Dee-Doo Polka."

But the Polka haunted me. I kept thinking of a situation in the 1987 movie directed by John Hughes Planes, Trains & Automobiles. (Hughes died suddenly on August 6th at the age of 59). If you have seen the movie, you'll remember that there is a scene where the characters played by Steve Martin and John Candy hitch a ride in a truck with a Polka Band.

Steve Martin and John Candy are opposites. In my warped mind they represent a Yin-Yang of artistic philosophy. I viewed that scene (then and now) in terms of Adorno's Hegelian-influenced post-Marxist aesthetic theory of a dialectics between opposing Dionysian and Apollonian ideals. The role played by Steve Martin represented the logical Apollonian tendency in art, while John Candy functioned as a symbolic representative of the Dionysian form of creative expression.

Finding oneself imprisoned in the back of a moving truck travelling nowhere with members of a Polka band is a great metaphor for the complexity of compositional choice. It was a perplexing thought when I saw the movie in 1987, and it is still stands as a disturbingly perplexing conundrum to me today.

Needless to say, all the Kiełbasa and Warkam beer in the world wouldn't be enough to transform me into a Polka King - not even a Polka Prince. I tried for weeks to immerse myself in Polka music, and failed miserably in any and all attempts to re-tool that rarefied musical form to fit into a modern-day modernist format. I just don't have Polka in my veins.

Sorry folks, I failed at Polka, and failed miserably.

But sometimes when you head off on a journey in one direction, you end up going somewhere else. It's like heading out for Brentwood, and ending up in Burbank. One of my attempts at composing a Polka morphed into a new work that even perplexes little old me. I ended up writing a set of hybrid tonal-atonal variations on the tune "Silent Night." It's Alban Berg meets 1940's Broadway. How I got there is beyond explanation, but apparently it is Xmas in July. And my latest piece (yet untitled) is a work for two flutes. I'm putting the finishing touches on it this week.


Last evening I received an email from a composer who goes by the name of Davey but is known in some circles as the "Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition" at a University that was once lovingly referred to by Milton Babbitt as "an obscure music department in Waltham." Davey is also one of the three known semi-occasional readers of this blog.

The email carried the subject line "Be very afraid" along with two file attachments. There was no accompanying text in the message. I overcame my concerns that it contained a virus, and opened the attached MIDI and PDF files in curiosity.

What I found was a brand new work by this ingenious composer completed just days ago. It was a new Etude added to his mammoth collection of virtuosic works for the piano. The new piece is titled Polkritude - Etude #93. Listed underneath the title I noticed that the new work is dedicated to me (yep, yours truly).

Holy Kiełbasa!

Feeling surprised, greatly honored, and rather "deconstructed," I launched the midi file in Windows media player and followed the music along with the PDF score. (I think the composer knows that I never progressed beyond "Chop Sticks" on the piano).

It's a wonderful work, full of great humor and complex musical ideas. It successfully synthesizes the unlikely bedfellows of the 12-tone musical technique with the classic Polish-American Polka tradition. Both Dionysian and Apollonian ideals are realized. There is a note explaining "Dancing to this polka is not advised unless you have special shoes." Given the tempo and changing time signatures, this is good advice for anyone over 40.


Thank you! I assume that while on vacation in Burlington VT you read my blog post "Apolkaypse Now" and found the idea of composing a modernist Polka to be an enticing challenge. It clearly can be done - although I was not able to make any headway on that project myself. But, you succeeded. My hat is off to you.


Maybe a modernist Tarantella would be more in my bailiwick, but I think Luigi Dallapiccola may have beaten both of us to that game.

So folks, that's how composers make Kiełbasa.