Moral Dilemmas and Human Weakness

Warning: This essay brings up quite a few questions, but it doesn’t really give any clear-cut answers. So if you hate it when an author does that to you, don’t read it! Also, I’m writing to a Christian audience that already believes we should, more or less, take the Bible literally. So I’m not going to take time arguing for why to believe this; I’m just going to assume that you do already and work from there. Of course, even if you don’t believe in Biblical literalism, you might still enjoy the essay.

Imagine that you are a Christian living in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. You have compassion on the Jews there that are suffering under the Nazis, so, wishing to help the poor and oppressed as the Bible charges you to, you hide a Jewish family in your home. Now imagine a group of Nazi secret police show up at your door one day and ask flat-out, “Are there any Jews in this house?” Well, yes, there are. But are you going to tell them and so compromise the safety of the people you are trying to protect? Or will you lie? You could try to avoid the question or answer it in a misleading way – for instance, you could say, “No, there are no Jews here,” reasoning to yourself that “here” doesn’t necessarily mean the whole house. But if the police are being careful, they will keep pressing until you have to give a straight answer or else reveal that you’re trying to hide something. And you may not be able to think of a cleverly misleading response in the heat of the moment. So what should you do? Lie and presumably save a life? Or tell the truth and presumably condemn a life?

The world is full of confusing moral questions like this. You might be able to somehow explain away the lying problem above – for instance, by citing the example of the Hebrew midwives that “feared God” who lied to Pharaoh when he asked why they were letting the Hebrew baby boys live. But even if you can deal with one question, there are many, many more that still remain. For instance, is it alright to kill an evil man – say, a ruler who is executing thousands of people without any justification – in order to save other people’s lives? Is it right under God’s law to abort a baby if, as far as you can see, both the mother and the baby will die if you don’t? What can you do to answer these difficult questions in a way that glorifies God and upholds His truth and law?

Many people argue that we must just follow the law literally and trust God to work out everything for good. After all, you can’t be completely sure that telling the truth to the secret police, or letting the evil ruler live, or not aborting the baby will end badly, because God can take care of those situations and make them work out for good. And even if things do turn out badly, God won’t hold you responsible according to this way of looking at things, since you did your part and obeyed the law in faith. When you decide to take things into your own hands and lie or kill or do something else against the law, on the other hand, you are not having faith in God, one could say. Rather, you’re relying on your own prediction of what bad thing will happen and your own judgment of what wrong thing is therefore right to do, and so trying to do good by your own strength. You could see it this way: God gave us a set of laws that serve as limits to what we can righteously do. If we cannot achieve a worthy goal – such a stopping the murderous activities of an evil ruler – within those limits, then evidently God doesn’t mean for us to achieve it. So instead we should in faith leave it to God to figure out another way to further good, whether that involves accomplishing the goal some other way or not. If we rather insist on reaching that goal, even though it requires breaking God’s law, we are, according to this view, arrogantly putting our judgment of what’s important to accomplish above the limits God has established.

The problem with this response is that it tells us to ignore our God-given common sense in order to stick to a literal law – a law that we may very well be misinterpreting in an effort to have faith in God without allowing ourselves to be led astray by our fallen intellect! Now, we are indeed fallen, and so our minds are corrupted and tend towards evil. But God gave us minds back in the day before the Fall, so there must be something good about them. And even now after the Fall, God very often appeals to our sense of logic and reason in the Bible – take Paul’s careful theological arguments in his epistles, for one. And we are to love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. So while we need to be careful to not let our minds get in the way of faith, we must also be careful to not let our concern with maintaining our faith to get in the way of using our minds for good. It is a delicate balance. The above response to moral dilemmas, now, encourages us to suppress our minds in an effort to have faith. Is this a time when we should be keeping our minds from obstructing our faith? It’s hard to know, for, as I said, it is a delicate balance.

Some other people fall on the opposite side of the balance and say that this business of following the law literally is ridiculous. We’ll cause much harm by taking everything literally, they say, missing the spirit of the law in order to follow the letter of the law. In this way they commendably try to prevent the foolish, empty legalism that God so often condemns in the Bible. But many of these people then throw out absolute morality altogether and say that good and evil is completely relative – sometimes killing someone is evil, and sometimes it’s good; sometimes lying is evil and sometimes it’s good; etc. – nothing is innately good or evil. And when you say that anything can be either right or wrong, it just depends on the context, eventually you have to ask, “Well, what makes something right or wrong in the first place?” But in this system there are no absolutes of rightness and wrongness…so is there really any right or wrong in the first place? If you take this relativistic morality to its natural extent, you end up having no right or wrong at all. And that definitely contradicts the Bible, which is full of moral judgments and statements of absolute truth. Relativism also puts our sinful minds in charge of what’s right and wrong, and ignores or at least sidelines what God has to say on the issue. So while the approach of following the Bible literally and blindly trusting God may be foolishly suppressing our minds, this approach elevates our reason to a point where we must dispose of absolute right and wrong altogether. Neither is fully satisfactory.

Still other people, not wanting to have the shortsightedness that seems to result from a strictly literal obedience, but also not wanting to succumb to relativism, try another route. They rank God’s commands by importance – for instance, they might rank “Do not murder” above “Speak the truth to each other” – and then say that when we are faced with a situation where two commands seem to conflict, the right thing to do is to disobey the lesser one in order to follow the higher one. But disobeying the lesser one is not wrong, since we are only obligated to pursue the greater good. Quoting Norman L. Geisler: “God does not blame us for what we could not avoid. Thus he exempts us from responsibility to follow the lower law in view of the overriding obligation to obey the higher law.” (From http://equip.org/articles/any-absolutes-absolutely-/) In this view, there are still absolutes, since there is an absolute hierarchy of laws. Others say that there is only one absolute law – the law of love – and so that always comes first.

But these approaches nevertheless put an outside, human-created framework on the laws of the Bible. The system of ranking God’s commands imposes a hierarchy on His laws that Scripture never fully develops, if at all, and the “law of love” system demotes the other laws given in the Bible. They say, “Well, the Word of God seems to say this, but we smart and reasonable humans have figured out that actually you should interpret it like this.” Again we are forced to ask: how much should we use our God-given but fallen minds, and how much should we set them aside and focus on having a simple faith? And again I say: it is a delicate balance. Our arrogance constantly pushes us towards saying, “No! We can figure things out with our own minds!”, while our tendency to control and regulate ourselves in a hopeless effort to combat sin, to say “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as Paul writes in Colossians 2:21, pushes us towards restraining our minds and fearfully enslaving ourselves to worthless rules. What is tipping is the balance? What is crossing the line? Different people come to different conclusions.

To me, it seems that the relativistic approach is definitely out; taken to its logical conclusion, it flaunts the moral judgments that pervade the Bible and just does not fit with our natural sense of right and wrong, the law written on our hearts discussed in Romans 2:15. The approach of literally following the Bible and seeking faith over reason, on the other hand, appears much more Biblical. After all, there are many times in the Bible when God tells people who believe in Him to do things that seem foolish or even evil, requiring them to have faith. Consider the story in Genesis 22 where God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for instance. But this approach is still is difficult for me to accept. It seems foolish and legalistic to insist on following rules such as those to not deceive when things that seem more important are at stake, like people’s lives. Yet when I find this approach difficult to accept, is it because God has gifted me with a thoughtful mind, or is it because my sinful nature is resisting the idea of having to trust God more and trust myself less? How can I tell? Meanwhile, the approaches I discussed that try to take the middle road – the system of hierarchical commands and the “law of love” – also seem much more Scripturally tenable than relativism. But they still do not satisfy me because they, like relativism, elevate humans to a position where we can interpret the law in non-obvious ways. Is this a right position? Maybe. I don’t know.

Or maybe I’m approaching this issue in an unhelpful way in the first place; maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Perhaps there is not One Big Answer to these moral dilemmas, one all-purpose strategy for dealing with them. Perhaps we should approach each separately, studying the morality of lying to save lives apart from the morality of killing to save lives, for instance. Or maybe God meant to not give us all the answers, so we would have to rely on Him in moments of crisis instead of comfortably working out a whole ethical system beforehand. But again, I don’t know.

This brings me once more to the theme that seems to pervade this question of how to handle moral dilemmas: should we rely more on intellect or on faith? How much should we second-guess and re-interpret and explain ourselves out of literalness and build fallible human systems for understanding the Bible, and how much should we set aside logic and the principles of the world and go forth in blind faith and stubbornly stick to literalness even when it goes against common sense? How much should we qualify God’s commands and say, “Well, you don’t have to do it in this situation” and build systems of exceptions and special cases, and how much should we insist on absolute, literal obedience even when it seems downright stupid? How much should we trust in our predictions of the future and our ability to successfully avert “greater” evil by doing “lesser” evil, and how much should we just do whatever we’re sure we should be doing and leave the future entirely to God and rely on Him to work everything out? How much is arrogance and how much is foolishness? How much is indifference and how much is fanaticism? How much is eleven divided by zero?

Clearly, these questions are not easy to answer. But they can make us aware of one of our human weaknesses: our tendency to either arrogantly elevate our minds or foolishly and fearfully suppress them. And when we are aware of our weaknesses, we can more easily take them to God and say: “Look, here I am, a very messed up human being. Can You please give me the grace to deal with these weaknesses? Because I know I can’t.” Unfathomable questions like these can remind us that we can’t do everything and remind us to ultimately rely on God. And so however we choose to explore them, and however we try to answer them, we should do it in a humble manner, sensitive to what God is saying, aware of our weaknesses, eager to seek grace to compensate for them. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we can never find all the answers, God will ultimately be glorified.

I’m doing Camp NaNo!

2014-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Every year, a bunch of insane writers like myself spend November trying to write a 50,000-word novel. The people behind this challenge, NaNoWriMo, are probably part of a giant conspiracy with psychiatrists to make people crazy so they can all get more money, because they also run sessions in April and July! And what’s more, they call it “Camp NaNoWriMo” as if it were some sort of happy adventurous nature thing, instead of a tense, caffeinated race played inside, hunched over a screen. Fortunately, they are a bit kinder to us during Camp NaNo than during NaNo proper, since you can set your goal word count during Camp, and during NaNo you just have got to do 50,000 words.

This year I’m going to be doing Camp NaNoWriMo in July, writing a novel called And Then We Can Finish the Story and aiming for 30,000 words. I’m not done planning it yet, for sure, but it’s already taking shape as a rather convoluted story, filled with a little too much symbolism, set in my imaginary world, and having a great deal to do with the themes of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Well, that’s very nice, you say, but why are you telling us this in May? Because, dear Reader, I’m so busy with school and the like that I’m going to have to do extra school in June (which is fast approaching) so I’m freed up to write during July. And because I’ll be doing extra school in June, I won’t be posting as often. I usually try to post every week, but during June and July I’ll only be aiming to post every other week, and I can’t promise anything really long or complex. (No humongous treatises on music, thank you very much.)

And when can we read your novel? you ask. Well, I’m hoping that my book will turn out nicely and be something that I’m eager to share, but I really can’t be sure how things will actually go. It might crash and burn in the first week of Camp NaNo; it might end up being horrendously long; it might end up being really, really boring; it might end up being so convoluted that I start melting my own brain; etc., etc. However, even if things go reasonably well, don’t expect to be able to read it anytime soon – I’ll want to edit it quite thoroughly before I ever put any bits up on my website. You can keep an eye on its page on Camp NaNoWriMo, though, for a more thorough description, an excerpt (eventually), and stats on how far I am.

Arandui music

This post has been a long, long time in coming! I usually try to post something every week, but this article has taken so long to produce, and I’ve had so many unexpected complications and technical difficulties along the way, that I decided to chuck the posting goal while I finished it. And now it’s finally here! I hope somebody enjoys it. I also hope that I haven’t made any big, stupid mistakes, especially considering that I haven’t been studying music for very long…but if you catch any, please comment or contact me and let me know!

So, in the past few weeks my roving curiosity has gotten stuck on random subjects relating to music. I spent a few days reading everything I could about Pythagorean tuning, then I read about chords and harmony and counterpoint, then I went back to the subject of tuning and read about meantone and well-tempered tuning, then I investigated different types of scales, then I tried to wrap my mind about what a mode was. (Thankfully now I’m down to only one browser tab relating to music, but if I think about it too much I’ll end up with more.) So naturally I not only ended up with some understanding of historical Western tuning systems, I also ended up with a musical system for Arandu, my favorite Sheesanian country at the moment. And here it is.

I’ll start with an overview of the history of Arandu and Arandui music and how it developed, then discuss some of the more theoretical aspects of Arandui music – the tuning systems (of course!) and the scales and modes – then talk about the different instruments used in Arandu, and finally show a few examples of complete Arandui songs. (In English, since I haven’t worked on the Arandui language enough yet for me to translate a song into it.) Two notes: Firstly, the Arandui musical system is, admittedly, very close to the modern Western system. As I was thinking about it, I decided that since I don’t even know that much about Western music, it would probably be a bit too ambitious to try to come up with something really alien. But later on, once I understand Western music better, I can come up with weird musical systems for other Sheesanian countries. Secondly, if you’re curious about how I made all the examples throughout this article, I did them by writing a small program in Java, using the excellent JFugue library, to produce MIDI files with the proper tuning. Then I used TiMidity++ to generate .wav files from the MIDI’s. But where’s all that music from in the first place? All of it was written by either me or my sister – some of the examples are mutations of songs my sister and I have made up; other examples I wrote on the fly.

Background: Egeldish Music

Arandu was originally settled by religious refugees from Egeld, and so naturally they brought their Egeldish musical traditions with them. Now, Egeldish music is very strictly segregated between sacred music, which involves a variety of instruments (particularly string instruments), but is only played by certain priests; and popular music, which is not allowed to involve any instruments other than drums, a certain type of crude vessel flute similar to an ocarina, and foreign instruments (even then, if a foreign instrument is too close to one used in Egeldish sacred music, it’s not allowed). The priests that play sacred music have very jealously guarded their instruments and their techniques for centuries, warning people that they will incur the wrath of the gods if a non-priest tries to produce music in a sacred style. Foreigners visiting Egeld have at times been killed for playing music too similar to Egeldish sacred music without the authorization of these priests. Today many parts of Egeld are a bit looser about these restrictions, and certainly nobody will get killed nowadays for bowing a violin, but most Egeldish people are still very nervous about sacred-style music that isn’t authorized by the priests. You might not get killed for bowing a violin, yes, but you will make everybody afraid to associate with you.

Well, the Egeldish refugees that settled in Arandu had very little concern for these restrictions, because they had an entirely different religion and thought that all the priests’ warnings about divine retribution were a bunch of hogwash. Indeed, they were quite eager to defy the restrictions on Egeldish music now that they were out of Egeld and out of reach of the priests. The problem? Most of the refugees were low-class peasants who rarely even got to hear the priests’ special music, and certainly never got to study the priests’ carefully guarded instruments and techniques. While there were a few men among the refugees who had once been priests, none of them had ever studied the sacred music. But the refugees had stolen quite a few sacred instruments as they left Egeld, as part of a larger effort to take revenge on people who had opposed their religion (lords and landowners were also targeted). And so now they had a few different stringed instruments and flutes and other miscellaneous things that they had almost no idea how to play. (Sometimes they didn’t even know what they were. There was one particular miscellaneous thing that the Egeldish refugees just could not figure out how to play. Eventually a former priest realized that it wasn’t an instrument at all; it was a doodad used in certain rituals.)

So what did they do? They messed around with the instruments and invented their own new musical system based on what they could make the instruments do, and, of course, based on what little understanding of music they already had from Egeldish popular music. In the end, two main types of music developed in Arandu, loosely based on the Egeldish distinction: sacred music, which mostly uses instruments based on those stolen Egeldish sacred ones; and popular music, which uses the instruments from Egeldish popular music, refined and improved, as well a few new ones borrowed from the sacred musical tradition. In general, however, there’s a lot more overlap between Arandui sacred and popular music than between Egeldish sacred and popular music. And in Arandu, anyone can buy a sacred instrument and play it however they want without their neighbors killing or ostracizing them. Not so in Egeld!

As I continue the rest of this article, I’ll note what different scales or tuning systems or instruments are used in sacred music or popular music. The examples section will also have examples of both.

The Theory

The Arandui octave is divided into seven notes; starting from one note, a whole step up, then a whole step, then a half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, and finally a half step to reach the note an octave above the first – the same as our major scale. So if you look at part of a typical piano keyboard (original image found here)…

Western octave

…we have twelve notes in an octave – seven white keys and five black keys. The Arandui octave is equivalent to the seven white keys.

Arandui octave

The Arandui notes are usually called, starting at the note closest to our D, fińa, hula, civoor, tyiis, sroi, para and lia. These names come from the first words of each line of an old Arandui hymn. They’re also occasionally called jueńśa, parazune, talianpara, zune, cyiru, hool and tamaanpara after their corresponding popular modes (or, in the case of zune and cyiru, the names of the other keys of the jueńśa mode), and these names are sometimes shortened to ju, pa, ta, zu, cyi, ho and ma.

Tuning

How this octave is tuned depends on what sort of music you’re playing. Popular music uses straightforward Pythagorean tuning, which I’ll explain a minute; sacred music uses a variation on Pythagorean tuning that allows for different sorts of harmonies. This means that you can’t really use popular-tuned instruments and sacred-tuned instruments together. For this reason, instruments that aren’t easy to tune (like flutes) are usually either only used in one style, or are sold in two different types, one for popular and one for sacred.

So, Pythagorean tuning! This tuning system was initially developed by, surprise, Pythagoras and was used in medieval church music. It’s based on the fact that a note played at the same time as a note seven half-steps up (so a C and a G, or a D and an A, or a B and an F#) – a perfect fifth – sounds quite smooth, restful, and generally pleasingly harmonic. Pythagorean tuning uses a series of these perfect fifths to produce the notes of a scale. So, say you were going to tune an Arandui cumaas, a type of stringed instrument that looks a bit like a dulcimer. You’d start out by tuning one string using something like a tuning fork; this is just a basis to start from. Let’s say you tune the first string to D. You’d next tune the A string – a perfect fifth up – adjusting it until it sounds good with the D string. Then you’d tune the E string, another perfect fifth up, adjusting it until it sounds good with the A. And then you’d do the B string until it sounds good with the E string, and the F# string until it sounds good with the B string, and so on – that’s the basic idea.

With this tuning system, perfect fifths sound very nice, so popular Arandui harmony tends to use a lot of perfect fifths. Fourths (notes five half-steps up, so D and G, or C and F) also sound good. Major thirds (notes four half-steps up, so C and E or D and F#), however, don’t sound very harmonic, so they’re used in popular Arandui music to create dissonance. Arandui sacred music, on the other hand, does use major thirds as harmonic (like modern Western music does). So the tuning system for sacred music basically adjusts the popular Pythagorean tuning in order to get nice, smooth thirds (minor as well as major, actually). The main downside is that one fifth, E and B, ends up sounding pretty bad. But this particular combination of notes isn’t used that often in sacred music, so it works pretty well.

A last note on Arandui tuning: both popular and sacred tuning is based on the note fińa at 300 Hz. Standard modern Western tuning, on the other hand, is based on A = 440 Hz. In Arandui tuning, both popular and sacred, the note closest to A is 450 Hz.

Finally, nerd alert: here are two big tables of Arandui popular and sacred tunings. First there’s the popular tuning, which is really just straightforward Pythagorean…
Arandui Note Closest Western Note Frequency (Hz) Ratio to Fińa Cents from Fińa
Fińa D 300.00 1:1 0.00
Hula E 337.50 9:8 203.91
Civoor F# 379.69 81:64 407.82
Tyiis G 400.00 4:3 498.04
Sroi A 450.00 3:2 701.96
Para B 506.25 27:16 905.87
Lia C# 569.53 243:128 1109.78
Fińa D 600.00 2:1 1200.00

…and then we have the sacred tuning, which is a tad more interesting.

Arandui Note Closest Western Note Frequency (Hz) Ratio to Fińa Cents from Fińa
Fińa D 300.00 1:1 0.00
Hula E 337.50 9:8 203.91
Civoor F# 374.93 5:4 386.00
Tyiis G 400.00 4:3 498.04
Sroi A 450.00 3:2 701.96
Para B 499.91 close to 5:3 884.05
Lia C# 562.40 703:375 1087.96
Fińa D 600.00 2:1 1200.00

Scales, Modes and Keys

Arandui sacred music almost always uses a nice, straightforward heptatonic scale (one with seven pitches to the octave) made up of all seven Arandui notes. Here’s a recording of two Arandui church instruments, a syiđa and a petashuisplaying this scale.

Arandui popular music, on the other hand, uses five different types of pentatonic (five pitches to the octave) scales, each with different characteristic melody types and behaviors – in other words, five different modes. And one of them is also used in multiple keys. Much more interesting! Each mode is associated with a different type of music, and each one is named after a different time of day. I’ll go through each one and explain the structure of the mode, its name, and the type of music it’s used for, and provide an example recording of the scale of that mode and a short example of a song using it. First, we have…

Tamaanpara (Sunrise)

Starting from lia, this mode is composed of a semitone, a tone, a tone plus a semitone, a tone, and two tones. In Arandui notes, lia fińa hula tyiis sroi lia, or in Western equivalents, C# D E G A C#. An Arandui cuśa playing this scale:

This mode is used often for love songs and also for enéntanoa (or in the singular, entanoa), “walking songs,” which are traditionally sung by travelers as they walk to their destination. Here’s a part of one traditional entanoa using the tamaanpara mode.

Jueńśa (Day)

Starting from fińa, tyiis or sroi, this mode is composed of a tone, a tone, a tone plus a semitone, a tone, and a tone plus a semitone. So, for instance, in Arandui notes, fińa hula civoor sroi para fińa, or in Western equivalents, D E F# A B D. If the jueńśa scale starts from fińa, it’s called jueńśa lane or just lane; if it starts from tyiis it’s called jueńśa zune or zune; and if it starts from sroi it’s called jueńśa cyiru or cyiru. A cumaas playing the jueńśa lane scale:

Jueńśa is most often used for happy songs and children’s songs, and it’s one of the most common Arandui modes. There will be a full example of a jueńśa song at the end of this article, so I won’t show an example now.

Parazune (Noon)

Starting from hula, this mode is composed of a tone, a semitone, two tones, a tone, and a tone. In Arandui notes, hula civoor tyiis para lia hula; in Western equivalents, E F# G B C E. A cuśa playing the scale:

This mode is fairly unusual in Arandui music, but it’s used occasionally in music supposed to evoke tension or mystery. In modern music it’s sometimes used as an intermediary when changing between talianpara and jueńśa. Here’s an example using parazune, part of a larger work that eventually resolves to jueńśa lane. This example is played by a cuśashoi.

Talianpara (Sunset)

Starting from civoor, this mode is composed of a semitone, a tone, two tones, a semitone, and two tones. In Arandui notes, civoor tyiis sroi lia fińa civoor, and in Western equivalents, F# G A C# D F#. A cumaas playing the scale:

This mode is almost always used for sad songs. Here’s a bit of one played by an ilanydriis.

Hool (Night)

Starting from para, this mode is composed of a tone, a semitone, two tones, a semitone, and two tones. In Arandui notes, para lia fińa civoor tyiis para; Western equivalents, B C# D F# G B. A cuśashoi playing the scale:

This mode is also used for sad songs, but talianpara and hool have different connotations of “sad.” Talianpara is considered tragic, weepy, emotional; hool is more mournful and despairing. So say you had an Arandui tragic play where the hero loses his love. When he first hears the news and is going through a lot of emotions, he might sing a song in talianpara. At the end, when he’s finally resigned to his loss and is quietly despairing, he might sing a song in hool. Of course, this is just the general difference; both talianpara and hool are used all sorts of ways in Arandui music. Here’s one bit of a song using hool.

The Instruments

Now that we’re done looking at the theory I’ve come up with for Arandui music, let’s look at the instruments that Aranduis use to play such music! For each instrument, I’ll explain what it is, where it’s from and how it’s used, and then give an example of the instrument being played.

Cuśa

The cuśa is a four-holed fipple flute; similar to a recorder, but, again, with only four holes. The design is based off a similar Väolki instrument, but it’s played much like flutes are in Egeldish sacred music. Cuśas are generally only used in popular music, as they can only play pentatonic scales. They’re made in all the different popular modes, and they’re the most popular and well-known Arandui instrument. People generally play them with one hand while accompanying themselves on a drum or a cumaas with the other hand. Here’s an example of a solo cuśa playing a short jueńśa lane tune.

Cumaas

The cumaas is a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a dulcimer. It’s most likely based on violin-like instruments that are used in Egeldish sacred music, but it could have also been based on the Hysleft guitar, an instrument from Carafilier. Cumaases come in two types: five-stringed versions, which are made in different modes and have a string for each note in the scale; and a seven-stringed version that has one string for each note in the full Arandui octave. The five-stringed versions are generally played at the same time as a cuśa; the player plucks strings on the cumaas to add harmony to the cuśa’s melody. The eight-stringed versions are usually plucked or strummed to play both notes and chords, with the player using two hands. However, five-stringed cumaases are sometimes played solo, and eight-stringed cumaases are sometimes used to accompany a cuśa. In general, the cumaas is most popular as accompaniment for a cuśa. In such a situation, the cumaas & cuśa player will often have multiple cumaases of different ranges so they can play more than just five notes.

Here’s an example of a cumaas playing solo.

Cumaas ihiisleve (or Hysleft guitar)

The cumaas ihiisleve is a direct borrowing of the Hysleft guitar, which was invented by the Hysleft people of Carafilier and Latrigle. While the cumaas ihiisleve is basically identical to the Hysleft guitar, it’s played a bit differently. Hyslefts play both chords and individual notes on their guitars; Aranduis generally use cumaas ihiisleves only to play chords (because if you need to play individual notes, well, that’s what a cumaas is for!). Cumaas ihiisleves are also only used in popular music, never in sacred music. As for an example…well, I would show an example, but it would be quite difficult to produce a proper one using my program, so I’m afraid there will be none for now.

Cuśashoi

The cuśashoi is quite like a pan flute, and was probably derived from similar Väolki instruments. Cuśashois are made in both ten-tubed versions, which are used in popular music, and fourteen-tubed versions, which are used in church music. Both kinds are usually constructed out of wood. The ten-tubed cuśashoi is fairly common in Arandui popular music, but it’s certainly not as popular as the cuśa. The fourteen-tubed cuśashoi is common in northern Arandui sacred music, often replacing the much more complex and expensive petashuis, but it’s fairly rare in sacred music from the rest of Arandu. Here’s an example of two cuśashois playing a bit of northern Arandui church music.

Ilanydriis

The ilanydriis is a vessel flute similar to an ocarina. It’s descended from the crude clay vessel flutes that were used in Egeldish popular music, but it’s far more capable and much better sounding than these Egeldish instruments. Ilanydriises are still usually made out of clay, however, though you might occasionally come across a ceramic one. There are two types: the plain “ilanydriis” can only play a pentatonic scale, and is made in all the different modes. However, this type is actually quite unusual nowadays. Modern players usually play what’s specifically the “church ilanydriis” instead, which can play a full heptatonic scale and has a large range. Such church ilanydriises are used in both popular and sacred music. In sacred music, they usually play harmony (the idea being that they’re quiet enough to play harmony without messing up the people trying to sing the melody); in popular music, they’re used for both harmony and melody.

Here’s an example of three ilanydriises playing a bit of sacred music together; one’s playing the melody and the other two are adding harmony.

Syiđa

The syiđa is a stringed instrument similar to a violin, and almost identical to the seneduā that’s used in Egeldish sacred music. Because it’s expensive and much more difficult to play than popular instruments like the cuśa and cumaas, usually only churches are willing to pay to buy syiđas and train people to play them. So it’s almost exclusively used in Arandui sacred music. In such sacred music, the syiđa usually plays the main melody, and so often has an important role. Here’s a syiđa playing a bit of a classic Arandui hymn.

Petashuis

The petashuis is a double-reed woodwind instrument much like an oboe, based off a similar Egeldish sacred instrument. Like the syiđa, it’s fairly expensive and difficult to play, and so it also is usually only found in Arandui sacred music. It often plays the melody with the syiđa or occasionally by itself, or sometimes it plays a simple harmony. Here’s an example of two petashuises playing some sacred music together.

Ńeregoi

The ńeregoi is a type of natural trumpet constructed out of brass, derived from a similar Egeldish sacred instrument. Unlike most modern Western brass instruments, it isn’t curled up, so it’s rather long and unwieldy. It also has no valves, fingerholes, or other such mechanisms, so it’s difficult for a player to produce standard Arandui scales without a great deal of training and practice. So, in general, the ńeregoi is only found in rich churches that can afford to train people to play it.

Here’s a sample of a ńeregoi playing part of a hymn.

Tadudú

“Tadudú” is an all-purpose Arandui term for a drum played with the hands (instead of with drumsticks). There are many, many types of tadudú – some derived from Egeldish instruments, some from Väolki ones, some from Suclapoi ones, some originally Arandui. Some particularly popular types are the tadudú jianame, a tall, slim drum with a deep sound; the tadudú nicone, a smaller version of the tadudú jianame that produces higher-pitched sounds; the tadudú shizhae, a drum the size and shape of the tadudú nicone but with a thinner skin stretched across the top and with a body that’s always constructed out of metal, producing a different sort of sound; and the tadudú soonane, a drum that looks like a huge tambourine without the metal jingles (rather like a bodhrán). All are used in both popular and sacred music.

Unfortunately, since I don’t think I could produce proper examples of all those drums, I’m afraid the sounds of Arandui tadudús will be have to left to your imagination for now.

Sozózona

The sozózona is a pitched percussion instrument composed of a number of small metal disks, much like little cymbals or the jingles you would find on a tambourine. It’s played by hitting the disks with a wooden mallet. Most sozózonas have a range of about two octaves, with disks for each note in the standard heptatonic scale used in Arandui sacred music. The sozózona was probably invented in Arandu (though similar instruments are played in other parts of Sheesania), and it’s very common in Arandui church music – it often plays arpeggios in a steady rhythm to accompany other instruments. Here’s a sozózona playing some arpeggios (though a real sozózona’s sound resonates for quite a bit longer than the fake one in the example).

Shelala

The shelala is a percussion instrument very much like a tambourine, though it’s usually quite large. It was based on the tadudú soonane (which itself was based on a type of Egeldish drum) with added metal jingles probably inspired by the sozózona. It’s common in northern Arandui sacred music as well as popular music, but outside of northern Arandu, you’ll only see it in popular music. As with the tadudús, I’m afraid I couldn’t produce a proper example, so just imagine a deep-sounding tambourine.

The Examples

And finally, at long last, we have reached the full examples of Arandui songs! First we have an Arandui hymn – so sacred music, of course – based on Psalm 43, written by a man from northern Arandui, Hitrial Dohona Haellimoon (you can see his hometown, Haellimoon, on my map of Arandu). It’s a type of song, a lament, traditionally sung during what we call Holy Week, the time before Easter.* Men sing one part; women sing another part (though the parts rarely overlap – they mostly take turns), but you’ll hear me singing both parts since I don’t have any men handy. A petashuis and a syiđa carry the melody, with the petashuis playing the men’s part and the syiđa playing the women’s part; this is quite normal for songs like this. There there’s an ilanydriis and a sozózona playing harmony to round it off.

Here’s the recording! If you’d like to see the sheet music I wrote up for this song, which includes the words, I have a PDF of it here.

Secondly, here’s a song in the popular Arandui style using jueńśa lane, one of those old children’s songs that you learn when you’re little and play when you’re first getting the hang of an instrument. I sing the melody along with a cuśa while a cumaas plays harmony. You can find the sheet music of this song (and the words!) here.

*Yes, the Arandui religion is more or less Christian. And yes, I do have an explanation for how people on another planet are following Christianity, but that’s out of the scope of this already very long article. If you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll write up the story!

“Amazing Grace” with three Alisons and four pennywhistles

I didn’t have much free time this weekend, but I really wanted to spend some time playing pennywhistle, and I really wanted to post something on my website…so I decided to record myself playing and singing a song from the hymnbook and post that. This arrangement of “Amazing Grace” is nice because I can play all four parts on the pennywhistle…but I can only sing three, as I decided that you probably do not want to be subjected to my rendition of a high G. So in the end, the pennywhistles do the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts, and I just sing the soprano, alto and tenor parts. I initially planned to just sing the melody, but since I’m only singing one verse, the whole thing is quite short. So I thought I might as well sing some other parts, too, and I quite like the result. Though there’s a weird buzz going on in some bits that I’m not sure how to combat. Hmm.

Hope you enjoy!

An experimentation with chords on the piano

For almost a year now, I’ve been learning to play piano, going through a normal piano instruction book but also playing songs on my own just using chords. Per my usual habit of messing around with things and making up my own stuff whenever I’m learning anything, I started to play different random chord progressions, inventing arpeggio patterns, improvising a song to sing along while I went, seeing what interesting effects I could achieve by doing different things with either hand. I became especially fond of the Bm – A – G chord progression for no particular reason, so I did a lot of playing around with that.

Then eventually I started to put together all my different arpeggio patterns and harmonies and the like into a song, and then I played around with the song until it began to take own its own life. That’s always what happens with the best things I make up. Take my languages – I mess around with a few linguistic features, draw a phoneme chart, bat around some ideas for the morphosyntax. But then eventually I get this feeling of what the language should be, and the language just takes on its own personality and life. Same with characters and stories I create. I can do all sorts of things with the characters and the story, but it’s only when they start to come alive and seem to think for themselves that things really get good. So anyhow, the song started to take on its own shape and feeling, and then it started to take on a feeling that reminded me very much of the feeling of the books I’d been reading. This, also, is normal – my stories always have bits of theme and character that come from what I’ve been reading, and my languages always have bits of phonology or morphosyntax that come from languages I’ve been researching. And eventually, after a lot of messing around with it, I felt like I had reached a good finishing point with the song. Here’s a recording of me playing the result.

This song is, naturally, not very exciting or amazing or anything of the sort. And my performance of it is certainly lacking. Indeed, I’m not even sure there’s much of a point in putting it up on my website for the world to see. But I have to admit that I rather like it, and I love the distinct feeling it has…though more likely than not that’s just because it brings back memories of the books I was reading as I worked on it, not because it itself has much emotive power. At any rate, I decided to put it up in case any of my readers should be interested in the music I’ve been making. I hope you find it at least mildly pleasant.

I call this song “an experimentation with chords in D” because, well, that’s what it is. But if I thought it was decent enough to merit a dramatic name, I think I’d call it “The Corruption of Innocence,” as that’s the story I hear, at any rate, when I play it. If you’re curious about the books it makes me think of…well, honestly, it makes me think of A Series of Unfortunate Events, most particularly The Penultimate PerilThough the bit near the beginning where the right hand is playing “ACB ACB AC…” makes me think of The Wide Window, for some reason.

By the way, I also wrote up the sheet music for it, really just as an exercise for myself, but I have a link to it below in case anybody is curious.


The sheet music

The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket – A brief, emotional response

The Penultimate Peril – A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12
Author: Lemony Snicket
Pub Date: 2005
Pages: 368
Format: Audiobook

Wow.

All I can say is, I did not expect anything like this when I started A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I first came to this series after reading and enjoying a number of other books that reviewers said were similar – The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and others. I read reviews of The Bad Beginning, the first book of the series, but came away thinking that it sounded rather mediocre. And besides, I thought, if I read the first book, I’d probably want to read the other twelve, and thirteen books is an awful lot to read just for one mediocre series! So I didn’t pursue getting it. But then my sister also read reviews of The Bad Beginning and decided on her own to borrow it from the library and read it. And then it was left sitting out. And, well, if a book is sitting out that I’m at least mildly interested in, and it’s entertaining, and especially if it’s short, well, I’ll end up reading it. So I did. And then my sister borrowed the next few books and left them sitting out, and I read them too. They were short, they were entertaining, they were fun, but they weren’t particularly exciting. It was only around book 6, The Ersatz Elevator, that I became really interested. And then I was the one who convinced my sister to borrow book 7, and then once we were done with that, I convinced her to borrow book 8… Well. At that point I was indeed quite curious as to what was going to happen, and I felt the books were getting more clever, but the series was still rather…well, flat. Small. It was only later on that things began to grow into something genuinely engaging. Book 9 had some wonderfully chilling moments. And then book 10, The Slippery Slope, was the first book of the series that I found truly beautiful. Book 12, The Penultimate Peril, far surpasses that.

But why do I find it beautiful? What do I find beautiful in a book, anyway? Consider this.

The fact is that the world is full of light and dirt. Love and disease. Beauty and death. In other words, wonderful things and horrible things.

The world is also full of emotions and mathematics. Whimsy and science. Randomness and fractals. In other words, messy, confusing things and neat, orderly things.

Bad books ignore this multifacetedness. They focus too much on the light and the emotions, maybe, resulting in something fluffily idealistic. Others maybe focus on the dirt and the emotions, resulting in shallow angst. Or perhaps it’s an overemphasis on dirt and mathematics, resulting in a coldly, voidly horrifying dissection of evil. Or light and mathematics, resulting in an unbelievably orderly piece of soulless theory.

Good books, on the other hand, recognize both the light and the dirt, both the emotions and the mathematics. They look them in the face. They may not look them completely in the face, or very obviously in the face. But they accept the world as it is. And then, acknowledging that huge, messy storm of light and dirt, emotions and mathematics, they say something. They find meaning; they find a theme running through the storm.

That’s why I love books that have elements of darkness in them. Yes, a book that is all sweetness can have good points in it, can have truth. But I will be far more willing to listen to a book that can see the darkness, because I feel that it actually acknowledges the world as it really is. It is not creating some idealized fantasy and then getting a message out of that, a message that the author has only proved to me will work in that idealized fantasy. No, a good book takes a real world and gets a message out of that. And by using a real world, the author has said to me, “Look, this is important for you, because you live in a real world. You need to pay attention, because this is your reality.” *

I loved The Penultimate Peril, and more than that, I found it beautiful, because it does this. It acknowledges the ugliness of the real world even as it portrays its loveliness and humor. And then, from that picture, it gets a message, it finds a meaning, it traces a theme.

Now, it’s not perfect, of course. After all, perhaps the most distinct meaning one gets out of The Penultimate Peril is that there is no meaning in the world – it’s just a terrible, chaotic conglomeration of unfathomable mysteries. And it has other flaws, too. The Penultimate Peril is not going to become my favorite book. It’s probably not even going to go on my (very informal) list of favorite books. Rather, it will join many other books I’ll read this year that I found beauty in; books that left me with a feeling, a feeling, a very powerful feeling that there’s something deep and intense inside, even if I don’t understand it quite yet. Something deep and intense under all the random funny bits and sad bits and good bits and bad bits. Much like the world itself, I’d say. And that’s what makes those books beautiful. They mirror the world. Imperfect, lovely, chaotic, hilarious, sad, happy – messy. But with something meaningful, perhaps many things meaningful, just underneath.

There. Now you’ve seen my light-and-emotions side. Hopefully once I’m actually done with the series I’ll write a more full, analytical, dirt-and-mathematics review. But for now, I’m enjoying the thrill of a book that has really made me feel something.

And so…go forth and read!

*Now, when I say “real world,” I don’t mean to say that fantasy novels or other books set in imaginary worlds can’t achieve this. Not at all! Rather consider this: A good fantasy world is realistic, no? And what does realistic mean? It mean it’s believable. It means it fits with our experience. And if it fits with our experience – well, then maybe it has relevance to our experience. It has applicability. And so if an author creates a believable fantasy world and gets a message out of that, when I see the realism of the imaginary world, I see the parallels to my own world, and I see the need for me to listen to the message.

I sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” with 3 pennywhistles

I’ve recently been experimenting a bit with singing and playing harmony, so for a fun project, I took “Angels We Have Heard on High” from a hymnbook and arranged it so I could play three of the parts on my pennywhistle and sing one. Here’s my final performance (if you want to call it that!) of the piece, made by playing/singing each part separately and combining them with Audacity.

The soprano, alto and tenor parts are pennywhistle; the bass part is me. I would have preferred to sing the melody and let the pennywhistles take care of the rest, but the bass part doesn’t fit very well into the pennywhistle’s rather limited range, so I did it that way instead. If you’re curious, my pennywhistle is a Susato, not tunable, in the key of D. I really love how it sounds, but then, the only other wind instrument I’ve played is a very cheap recorder, so pretty much anything would sound beautiful compared to that.

Hope you enjoy!

Updates, as you may have noticed!

While I was recently traveling in America, I kept meeting people and thinking of referring them to my website, but not really wanting to because I knew a lot of it had been written many years ago and didn’t accurately reflect my current far more witty and intelligent self. And I also kept wanting to write book reviews and things about video games and other such stuff that didn’t really fit on my old website. And I was tired of having to maintain three websites and all their plugins and themes and whatnot. So I decided to do a big redesign and rewrite, which is what you’re looking at right now!

So, first of all, I’ve completely redone this site as a blog. The various categories on the left-hand sidebar are various categories of posts – on my old website, I only had a little blurb about how I liked so-and-so and any random things I wanted to put up about it at the time. I still have little blurbs (though they were all more or less rewritten), but now I also have posts relating to that topic. So in the “Writing” section, I have a bunch of posts of my poetry; in the “Books” section (which is NEW!) I have a book review at the moment.

And so now, finally, all my stuff…okay, fine, almost, barely-not-quite all my stuff is now on one website, making it easier for you to navigate and me to maintain. By the time you see this, I’ll probably have taken down the other discontinued parts of my website. But don’t fear! I still have all their old content, &c, so if you really need something from an older version of this website – contact me.

Speaking of older versions, I have removed some things I used to have – for instance, the archives of the very first version of this website, and some programs I doubt anybody will ever use. Again, if you for some reason want this stuff, you can contact me! There is just one thing I haven’t fully reposted yet, but will soon: the pictures and info about my knitting projects. I should have this done by the next decade at most, hopefully sooner.

With this new website, I’m hoping to post about all the other things I’m interested in as well as posting poetry and bits about Sheesania. Right now I’m working on a series of posts about Super Paper Mario, my favorite Wii game, though I think there are very few people in the world who are seriously silly enough to appreciate them.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy the new website!

Flipside from Super Paper Mario on pennywhistle

Update as of 10 Feb 2014: I had some major errors in the sheet music…bother…so I uploaded a revised version, as well as a new recording of me playing it using a much better (if still not impressive) microphone.

Wikipedia informs me that the pennywhistle is “closely associated with Celtic music,” which would naturally include this piece from the Wii game Super Paper Mario, right? Right…? Okay, fine, maybe not. But Flipside does sound quite nice on a pennywhistle, and it makes for an amusing break from practicing more normal tunes for this instrument, so why not?

A few notes: I am definitely playing this in a non-traditional way – I’m tonguing every note, not using any of the ornaments, etc. I did try playing it in a more normal style for the pennywhistle, and trust me, this way sounds better for this particular piece! Also, contrary to the sheet music, I only repeated the main part once. I figure that if you’ve played Super Paper Mario you’ve already heard Flipside enough times. (I certainly have.)

The arrangement I used is my own variation on a piano arrangement from NinSheetMusic – in the end, it’s fairly different from the original in Super Paper Mario, but to me it’s still definitely Flipside. I have a PDF of it below. You can hear the original music from Super Paper Mario here.

And so, I present to you, Flipside! Now without free background static included thanks to my favorite disappearing microphone!

PDF of my updated Flipside arrangement for pennywhistle

 

How I think

This was originally an essay I wrote for school, meant to be a self-portrait.

I cannot enjoy anything without creating something with it. I can’t read stories without writing stories; I can’t sing songs without making up songs; I can’t knit things without writing knitting patterns; I can’t study languages without constructing languages; I can’t learn history without creating imaginary histories for fantasy worlds. But for me, creativity is not limited to the realm of play. It is a central part of how I learn and how I think. Creating – languages, worlds, whatever it happens to be – helps me learn; the creating and the learning both feed into each other and improve each other.

For instance, perhaps I want to study some large, tricky historical question in depth. Maybe I want to explore the question of whether democracy is a good form of government. I would begin my study by looking for facts pertinent to this question – statistics and first-hand accounts that showed where and when democracy was successful or unsuccessful. But if I were being a true scholar, I would not just glance at the facts and come up with a simplistic analysis, such as “Democracy works well in America.” I would try to find all the small ways it has succeeded or failed, and more than that, the cases where one could see it either way. In other words, I would have to look for complexity, not shy away from it, in order to properly address the question. Creating things has helped me realize and appreciate the complexity of the real world, and has made me eager to search it out. For instance, when I construct languages, I do extensive research on how natural languages work so I can create realistic – but unique – structures in my own languages. I want to find all that complexity because I want to mirror it myself; I want to understand it so I can then play with it. And it is the same when I seek to answer a difficult question: I try to understand the facts so I can “play with them” – think them over, move them around, try different arrangements to find an explanation that fits them. Creating languages has given me both practice with this process and a delight in those details.

The next step in a study of something controversial would be to look for the varying opinions on the issue and how they consider it differently. But again, I could not fall back to simplistic analyses and decide that one faction’s opinion is all wrong and another’s is all right. Most likely, both have their strong and weak points. And I must suspend judgment for a time in order to fairly listen to their arguments, putting myself in their shoes and trying to perceive how they see the facts fit together. When I work on my imaginary world, I do much the same thing. I create a fanciful political issue, then imagine how different parties might respond to it. I try to think like the different segments of my imaginary populations, exploring how they could see the same issue in different lights. In this way, I can practice my ability to see what another person sees with imaginary issues that are generally not emotionally charged. Then, when I need to consider contentious questions, I am better prepared to calmly and fairly explore even offensive opinions. Again, creating has given me practice and an interest in how people can see things differently.

After this, I would judge the opinions I have seen, considering them critically now that I feel I understand how somebody could believe them. And once I have done that, I can draw a conclusion, picking and choosing among the opinions I have found to build an idea that most comfortably fits with the facts. I have found my imaginary world to be helpful for exploring the ramifications of various ideas and so coming closer to forming my opinion. For instance, I have created countries with all sorts of governments, including many different shades of democracy. Whenever I focus on one imaginary country to develop it more, I try to thoroughly investigate its government and determine what its strong and weak points would be. Then I imagine what the social consequences of these strengths and weaknesses would be. Naturally, I can never be completely right – only studying real countries will yield true results of what happens with different governmental systems. But the exercise of trying to find the positive and negative aspects of imaginary political systems has helped me to be able to better analyze real political systems, as well as ones in the real world that have so far only been proposed. So in this way my imaginary world has once more proven itself to be useful as a testing ground to explore ideas, this time critically.

Finally, once I have taken a position about a difficult question, I want to express it. Normally I will write an essay or a research paper explaining my thought process and the judgment I came to. But my imaginary world lets me additionally express my opinion in an artistic way, much like I could through a story. Even though I can’t easily show other people my imaginary worlds and let them see the ideas contained within them, it is still fulfilling to create something beautiful to myself with truth I believe I have discovered. These two forms of expression, then, academic and creative, complement each other well.

It is definitely the case that I could learn and analyze without creating in tandem. And I could also create imaginary worlds without learning and analyzing. But I find both much more rewarding and interesting when they interact. Learning often just involves ingesting facts, but when I create with what I have learned, I involve myself with it and so remember and enjoy it more. Similarly, creating worlds can be a process of pure fantasy, but when I integrate things I have learned from the real world, the final product is more believable and speaks more clearly as a work of art.