Music Plug #6: Ticheli, Schuman

(That's "tih-KAY-lee" for those of you who don't grok Italian, by the way.)

Frank Ticheli is one of those composers that writes the sort of modern stuff that typically only gets played by academic ensembles.  As expected, he gives us lots of atmospherics, mixed measure, drifting tonality, purely rhythmic stuff, etc.  The thing is, while his compositions aren't ground-breaking, some of them are quite exceptional and deserve a wider audience than just the few tens of friends and family who can make it to the Krannert Center for a Thursday night Wind Symphony concert.

While Ticheli follows in the footsteps of the great 20th Century composers, William Schuman is one of those composers.  His works are very cool, very orchestral (even when written for wind band) and a pain in the ass to read, as they're written without key signatures and with rehearsal numbers ever 5 or 10 measures instead of at natural phrase breaks.  Some things I'm glad we've left behind...

This edition of Plugs is a bit of a cop-out since I've recently played two of these pieces, but they're also two of the better wind ensemble compositions from the respective composers.

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Nerd Rage

There's been a lot of whining lately about whether or not Ben Affleck should play Batman, or what role Black Widow (or any female hero) should have in franchises like The Avengers or the upcoming DC Comics movies.  The loudest whining comes from the hardcore fanbase who have strong notions about how these franchises should work.  And it does seem like studios worry about these people when they make creative decisions - there has been talk about walking back "Batfleck".  Wonder Woman movies have been canceled because studios don't feel they can modernize the franchise without losing comic fans.

Mike Lawrence - Sadamantium
Mike Lawrence embodies nerd rage, but at least he's funny when he does it.

But I say, so what if the "hardcore fans" hate a creative decision?  Just ignore them!  Old-guard nerddom makes up a tiny fraction of the current geek and geek-friendly fanbase.  They're also a much narrower demographic, being mostly straight white men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.  The actual audience for these movies - the ones whose butts are going to be in the seats - is much larger and far more diverse.

You have to weigh the effect of listening to the old guard against the benefit of moving in a new direction.  Listening might prevent some short-term blowback, but it also means perpetuating some of the worst parts of geek culture and geek media, including the marginalization and objectification of women, the tokenization and exclusion of minorities, etc.  When hardcore fans argue that any deviation from their established canon is bad, they're really arguing that narratives created in the 1950s and '60s - with all of the cultural baggage that implies - should be continued into the twenty-teens.

The current geek fanbase contains the trend-setters and taste-makers of the next generation.  We had a saying in college: "A tradition is anything that started before your freshman year."  If we take the time to change our stories to be more modern and inclusive now, those changes will be reflected in both the media and the perception of "canon" in five, ten, or twenty years.  We'll look back on the sexism of comics today the same way we look back on the camp of the Superman and Batman stories of the 1960s - as a curious, outdated artifact and nothing more.

So let us reject the calls for sameness, for established understanding of characters and their roles.  We can create new stories - not to cash in on a particular short-lived facet of the zeitgeist, but to be lasting additions that move our beloved franchises in completely new directions.  Let's remember that the best way to avoid negative press is to make a good movie.  And if a bunch of whiny, entitled man-children decide they're going to boycott then let them.  The old-guard nerds can't live without geek culture, but geek culture can certainly live without them.

Morning Roundup

A few things, personal, political, and just general:

We had to euthanize my cat Boss last week.  He had been in renal failure for well over a year, but it was a tumor that finally got him.  We'd been doing everything we could for him, including giving him subcutaneous fluids every other day, putting all sorts of medications in his food, and just generally babying him.  He was feisty to the end.  I like to think that he didn't suffer much; his behavior only really changed the last week or so before we took him to the vet.  Anyway, I'll miss him a lot.  He was a really, really good cat.

It's been a weird weekend.  Karen starts two weeks of night shifts, during which I won't see her very much, so of course the in-laws were here this weekend and I had a concert to play in, making it as difficult as possible to get any alone time together.  What we had we made the most of, though, for which I am very grateful.  We saw Captain Phillips together last night, and it was a very good movie, which brings me to my next point...

Watching Captain Phillips reminded me that the biggest differences between us and the Somalians are that (a) we can afford the trappings of civilization and (b) we have bigger guns and way scarier people than they do.  That is a fact that should not be overlooked - a lot of the horror that takes place in developing nations is borne of desperation, not a desire to harm or terrorize people.  Conversely, the fact that the Navy are the good guys comes from the fact that we Americans - and by extension our military - buy into a modern, egalitarian, patriotic narrative.  The best way to make the world a better place is, therefore, not to kill all the bad guys, but rather to make it a fair, equitable place where good government and responsible power are possible.

One more state joins the 21st Century!  Fifteen down, thirty-five to go.

Finally, I've figured out what it is about Google+ browser interface versus the G+ Hangouts Android app that drives me crazy:

  • With Hangouts in the browser, a green bar means a person is online, and bold means there are unread messages from that person.
  • On mobile, bold means they're online and a green speech bubble on their profile pic means... something (I honestly have no clue).

WTF, Google?


Music Plug #5: Christopher Tin

Many of you may be familiar with the award-winning trailer music for Civilization IV, "Baba Yetu".  In addition to winning a Grammy, it's been featured in a number of video game music concerts alongside classics from Nobuo UematsuKoichi Sugiyama, and Martin O'Donnell.

But Baba Yetu is just the first track on a larger, Grammy-winning album of international orchestral/electronic/choral music titled "Calling All Dawns".  Each of the songs on this album is in a different language, and while many are uplifting, all have strongly different themes.  Some are religious; "Baba Yetu" is a setting of the Lord's Prayer in Swahili.  Some are secular; "Rassemblons-Nous" is a French protest song.  All are powerful, rich, and definitely worth listening to.

You can hear the entire thing in sequence here, but you should really go throw some cash at Mr. Tin so he can keep composing.  Since it's in a single video, here's the track list:

  1. Baba Yetu - 0:00 - "Our Father" (The Lord's Prayer in Swahili)
  2. Mado Kada Mieru - 3:29 - "Through the Window I See" (Japanese seasonal poem)
  3. Dao Zai Fan Ye - 8:15 - "The Path is Returning" (Daoist meditation)
  4. Se É Pra Vir Que Venha - 11:31 - "Whatever Comes, Let It Come" (Portuguese meditation on death)
  5. Rassemblons-Nous - 15:46 - "Let Us Gather" (French protest song)
  6. Lux Aeterna - 20:13 - "Eternal Light" (Last movement of the Latin Requiem)
  7. Caoineadh - 24:12 - "To Cry" (Irish "keen", or funeral lament)
  8. Hymn Do Trojcy Swietej - 29:56 - "Hymn to the Holy Trinity" (Polish inspirational song)
  9. Hayom Kadosh - 36:45 - "This Day Is Sacred" (Hebrew hymn of rebuilding)
  10. Hamsáfár - 38:31 - "Journey Together" (Farsi inspirational song)
  11. Sukla-Krsne - 41:23 - "Light and Darkness" (Excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita)
  12. Kia Hora Te Marino - 43:24 - "May Peace Be Widespread" (Maori benediction)

Tips for running one-shot and convention RPGs

So you're running a game at a con, or at the local store, or for a G+ hangout.  It's only going to be one session, and at least some of the people may not have played (or even heard of) the system before.  What can you do to make the game run more smoothly and be more fun and satisfying for the players?  Here are some good ideas:

Sell the game - don't assume everyone knows what the game is about. Give people the elevator pitch at the beginning, so they know why they should be interested.  (An elevator pitch is a sales pitch that can be delivered on an elevator ride down to the first floor of a decent-sized office building; half a minute or so.)  Also give them an idea of what they'll be expected to do as players.  For example, if you're playing Monsterhearts, tell them that they're teenage monsters in high school, that they're going to be horrible to each other, that they're going to have sex with each other, and that they should aim themselves at each other's characters as aggressively as possible.

Start with character concepts - tell the players the types of characters they'll need to create and walk them through the process.  Focus on themes and archetypes instead of rules or mechanics.  For example, InSpectres says to create "normal people" who used to do other jobs before they became monster hunters.  If a game has playbooks, point them to the one- or two-paragraph summaries of each to see which speaks to them.  In most of the Apocalypse Engine games these are on the playbooks themselves, so it's easy; in Dungeon World there are about four pages of one-paragraph blurbs on each class early in the book.

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The engineering vs. the sales mindset, or "how to avoid impostor syndrome"

One time at a place I worked our CEO brought together all of the software developers and gave us a presentation to help us better understand the other side of the business.

"Engineers," he said, "care about the truth.  Engineers want to know their product is perfect; they want to know it's better than the competition's; that it's bug-free and feature-rich.  Engineers are perfectionists - they're willing to put in extra hours to fix a bug that only they know about and that will never affect a customer, or to complete a feature that will never actually land us a sale.

"Salespeople," he continued, "don't give a damn about the truth.  Don't get me wrong - they don't want to lie. Lying to customers is bad for business. It's just that facts aren't interesting. Stories sell. Value sells. Relationships sell. Salespeople want the story; the angle that will get our product in the door and get us a contract.

"Salespeople don't care about perfection. They're selling imperfect, buggy software, because all software is imperfect and buggy, and they've got no control over that. Most of their leads are dead-ends. Verbal agreements and offers fall through all the time. Salespeople are coin-operated. They want to know what the return on their investment of time and energy is. They'll work overtime - they work a ton of overtime - but only if they think there's something in it for them. And when a sale falls through, they don't take it personally - they get up the next morning and do it again."

I'm not telling you this story because I think you should think like a salesperson all the time. Not everyone is cut out for it - I'm certainly not!  But there is certainly something to learn from the sales mindset, especially for us creative types who tend to be self-critical and constantly question our own success.

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Music Plug #4: Holst, Elgar

Everybody loves The Planets.  Well, more accurately, everyone knows Mars and Jupiter, and probably wouldn't recognize anything else as part the suite even if you told them the name of the movement was "Saturn" or "Venus".  But pimping Uranus (ha ha) isn't the point of this post.  One of the things people don't know about Gustav Holst is that he was a trombone player and did a lot of non-orchestral composition, much of it for wind or military band.  And unless you're a band geek like me, you probably won't be familiar with any of his other literature.

One of Holst's contemporaries was a fellow Briton named Edward Elgar.  Elgar is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches.  (You already know the first one because it's played at every single graduation ceremony in the Anglosphere.)  While the marches are quite good, I'm actually a bigger fan of his other compositions - especially his Enigma Variations, a cryptographic musical love letter to his family, friends, and (in the true hubristic spirit of the 19th Century artist) himself.

Unlike Holst, Elgar never wrote directly for wind band, but his compositions are relatively simple and have been transcribed for (and largely played by) wind ensembles.  I'm going to exclusively use band arrangements for both composers here.  I encourage you to find orchestral versions and listen to those as well.

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Do you see the player or the character?

So here's a weird post-Gen Con thought: when you play tabletop RPGs and you think about the game later, do you ever think about, say, who sat in a particular seat and find yourself picturing the character and not the player?

I am pretty solidly attached to reality, but this is a still thing that sometimes happens to me, to the point where my initial mental image can even get things like the gender of the person wrong.  I can always call up the real person's face, but it's still sort of a strange moment of cognitive dissonance.  It doesn't happen in every game - maybe it depends on the level of role-playing at the table, or how deep I am in my own character...?

Anyway, yeah, that's just a thing I guess.  Any thoughts?

Three Small AW Hacks

Hacking the Apocalypse World system is all the rage these days.  Game designers are using the core framework to create brand new games across multiple genres - from horror to romance to historical fiction.

Many of these hacks are complete re-imaginings that take the game away from its post-apocalyptic roots.  But there's also a lot of room in the AW system for small hacks - things that keep the gritty, desperate feel of the game while changing the focus or tone just enough to make the setting feel different.  Here are three that I've come up with that can be used individually or together.

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Music Plug #3: Brahms

I said last time that I'd been planning on plugging Brahms, but I got a little distracted by some other awesome stuff.  And yeah, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to plug one of the most famous Romantic composers, but compared to his contemporaries, I think Brahms gets short shrift.

Ludwig van Beethoven started in the Classical period but paved the way for musical Romanticism. Johannes Brahms started in the Romantic period but created works with the epic solidity of his Classical forebearers.  Brahms' compositions are deep, patient, and philosophically weighty.  He does more storytelling with color and harmony and dynamics (especially in his vocal compositions) than any of his predecessors and the vast majority of his successors.

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