The intelligence of dogs

March 19, 2012

This video of a golden retriever getting a B+ in solfege and pitch matching, along with many experiences with our dogs have caused me to completely re-evaluate my opinion about dog intelligence. This dog is doing what music teachers teach their students to do at the very beginning of their musical training. If you can’t match a pitch, you should NOT be a musician. Here, this very interested pair of dogs match first, solfege syllables on a doggie piano, then match pitches when the trainer plays a pitch on a wooden flute. This is a skill that many people cannot do.

When I speak to our dogs, using words they know, and even stringing those words together to create different meanings, they seem to understand. Just now, Andy came up, wanting food or a treat. I said: Andy, no food, no treat; you have to wait. His ears fell and immediately walked away. He understood.

All dog owners can confirm that dogs understand a wide range of human communication, ranging from physical clues: suitcases coming out; exciting word clues: treat, squirrel, walk, hike; terrifying word cues: VET, brush your teeth. take a bath; to actually speaking complete sentences.

I encourage dog owners to imagine their dogs to be even smarter than you think they are, and challenge them in knew ways, teach them new words, introduce them to your friends [Andy, this is DAVID], talk to them as you may a 2 year old.


Interference, part deux

March 15, 2012

I was just writing an ascending bass line in slow half notes, where only the basses have that ascending line. I kept playing it over and over, looking at my orchestration trying to figure out where the damn F# was coming from. I played it five times. Was there some kind of magical acoustical phenomenon I had concocted?


It was the lawnmower next door, with a fixed low F# and a non-harmonic overtone spectrum. I guess it was reality’s way of saying to take a break.



March 13, 2012

The Whisper of the Muse

Composer, Igor Stravinsky once modestly stated that, when composing his famous ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” he was “…but the vessel through which the work passed.” Oh pullease. Igor, get over yourself.

Or perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to condemn that possibility.

Twice this week I felt that I was blatantly interfered with, and both times probably by Berlioz.

In opera, sometimes you have to put on the brakes. A note will sound, signaling some kind of change about to happen. I got the brilliant idea to do just that at one point. In a 3/2 bar, I put in a dotted whole note, played by a solo horn. Playback. Horn plays a whole note. I double check, yes, sure enough, there is a dotted whole note written. I played it again and damned if it didn’t play back a whole note, but damned if I didn’t like THAT better. So I changed it to the whole note. It sounded more like Berlioz now.

I was just now finishing a counterpoint in a line that ended on F#. I was sitting there eating popcorn, cogitating, when all of a sudden WHAM. The F# turned into an A, a minor 3rd higher, and damned, if it didn’t sound better. So I changed it. The rapidity of change before my eyes could only be an impulsive guy like Berlioz, or James Merrill’s Mirabell.

I don’t know, perhaps I have a spiky internet line, or on rainy days, like today, funny things happen to computers. Or people.

Photo: “The Whisper of the Muse“Julia Margaret Cameron, (1815-1879), photographer


Making cuts

March 13, 2012

To once again quote Arnold Schoenberg: [he points to the eraser of a pencil] “THIS is the most important part of the pencil.”

One of the things I learned from scoring motion pictures is that very little is sacred if it gets in the way of the flow or the story. People who work in Hollywood get used to messages like: “We cut the five minute segment in reel 7, so we won’t be needing that music” — and you get over it.

Mitchell and I composed four arias for the character called “Duarte” a year and a half ago as sketches for our opera. We have just revisited three of those arias: the first we left intact; the second we gutted the entire middle “aside” where Duarte questions his motives; the third we are working on today, but it will likely be MUCH shorter. The music we cut isn’t gone, it will live on in DUARTE LOVE SONGS. As for our opera, that character is no longer called Duarte, rather, Julián — things change so quickly around here!

Photo: takomabibelot


I stumbled across a scan of the models for Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” online and have no idea where it came from, but I couldn’t resist posting and saving it here. The caption reads:

On show with the late Grant Wood’s American Gothic, one of the most famed U.S. paintings of its generation, went the models who posed for it, Nan Wood Graham, the painter’s sister, wife of an oil-station operator, and Dr. B. H. McKeeby, a dentist. Occasion was the first showing of the picture in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Wood painted it twelve years ago.

As the painting was done in 1930, “twelve years ago” would put this article and picture in 1942. “Oil-station operator”?


Sitting on your own egg

March 10, 2012

I watched a terrific film this week called “Quantum Activist“:

Dr. Amit Goswami, Ph.D, a pioneer of this revolutionary new perspective within science shares with us his vision of the unlimited potential of consciousness as the ground of all being, and how this revelation can actually help us to live better.

The Quantum Activist tells the story of a man who challenges us to rethink our very notions of existence and reality, with a force and scope not felt since Einstein.

I’ve not felt so optimistic after a film in a long time. At any rate, Dr Goswami points out modern man’s obsession with constantly DOING, stressing the importance of BEING as a counterbalance to doing: Do, Be, Do, Be, etc ha ha… One of the points he makes while explaing the importance of BEING is that, like female birds, when we are working on a project or a problem, we “sit on our egg” until it becomes clear what our path is or the egg hatches. The analogy of sitting on an egg is an amusing one but a useful one in that we can apply it to one aspect or another of our lives.

Analogies aside, I don’t recall any of my teachers ever encouraging me to THINK or PONDER or MEDITATE over a composition I was working on. Schoenberg told us that the eraser is the most important part of the pencil, but he never mentioned putting the pencil down and closing your eyes to think.


The joy of a new dog

March 9, 2012

After our 10 year old dog, Cody, died a month ago, we debated staying with only one for a while. Sadly, I am a very boring animal to live with as far as a dog goes, except when we play ball, tug, go for a walk, give food or affection. Paired species are much happier has far as I’m concerned whether they are mated or not. After much talk, we decided having pairs of species is a good thing for that species as well as for the human owners.

It seems to be a fairly common course of action following the death of a pet, that a person/family gets a new one, whether it be a purebred pup or a rescue mutt. I rediscovered that truth when we decided to adopt a eight and a half year old Italian Greyhound named Indy. We haven’t even had him for a week and it has been a real joy.

Our friend, Rob, told us that we would have great karma for adopting an 8 yr old dog: few do that, so he said. We found that to be true when we took him in to our vet who gave Indy his first exam for free. Cool! I was beyond thrilled to find that as we waited to see the doctor, Andy went up to every dog that came in, ranging from a Newfoundland, a pit bull to an yappy little dog, and got along with all of them. Whew!

And, by the way, we decided to change his name to Andy after my late brother. Daniel tested the name on our two hour drive home from the foster parents: he responded instantly, so we went with it. Speaking of his foster family, he had originally been owned by an elderly woman who died. Indy had been with the foster family for almost five months before we adopted him. Something very cool happened just as we were about to leave: Andy went around and hugged [sic] the the kids and the parents, as though saying “good bye, and thank you” and then he came to us, knowing he was going to a new home. Well, maybe I read that into it, but it sure seemed that way.

A few notes about our first few day, especially for dog lovers:

Andy was a perfect traveller for our two hour trip home.
He has an amazing way of hugging you, rubbing his muzzle on each of your cheeks almost like a cat would.
Andy doesn’t sleep in bed with us, or at least he didn’t. His foster parents have three dogs, all Italian Greyhounds, and the alpha female, Pixel, wouldn’t let Indy in the bed: ever. So he slept alone in a dog bed next to the big bed, that had three IGs and two humans. Two nights ago, all of a sudden, he snuck under the covers around 4 am. He won’t sleep on D’s side of the bed as that is where Giaco sleeps and he won’t DARE invade his space.

Making dogs go away is always important whether it be for romantic reasons or cooking, you don’t want dogs hanging around. Our solution is to use the command SHOO. I taught it by taking a metal baking pan and a large wooden spoon and banging it loudly, saying SHOO! SHOO! They hate it. And they leave. And in the future, all you have to say is SHOO in a civilized but firm manner.

Today, to enforce the pack gravity, we walked around our yard multiple times at a vigorous pace as a pack. They were both very good about keeping even with me. They were puzzled as to what I was doing, but they went along with it.

This afternoon, our dogs realized that they have a great stretch in our upper yard that they can RACE across. Up in the corner, we have a grand old Monterrey Pine, Abraham, and lots of animals get on him. Well, now, whenever the dogs see a bird, squirrel, or rabbit up there, they BOLT out of the house, race across the upper yard and scare the living daylights out of whatever animal was there. The first time Andy did it, he flew into the fence, thinking he could climb it to get the squirrel. No, he didn’t get hurt, but it was hilarious. Just now I saw Giaco racing across chasing something. I went out and saw that Andy was trying to get something out from beneath the wooden platform. Then the dogs started going around the platform, obviously chasing something, when all of a sudden out came a rabbit. Both dogs TORE across the yard — picture the side of the Greyhound bus: that’s what they looked like. The rabbit got away, but they kept sprinting back and forth across the yard, getting in touch with BEING GREYHOUNDS and realizing what a very cool thing it is to be one.

Our last IG had an aversion to food: he would look at his meal as though he were certain we were going to poison him, and then he would gag it back. At the end he at less and less and wasted away. Andy had the opposite problem: he LOVES food and goes wild any time it is in preparation. We have done a pretty good job in cooling his jets in that department.

The continued joy of watching this dog get used to a new house, a new yard, a new dog pal and two new owners is exhilarating and has made me very happy. I’ve read that when people show affection to their pets, they both get oxytocin “highs.” People live longer having pets, and I see why. When Andy gives me his hug, I feel amazing. (Fear not: I have my limits, not it’s not kinky, it’s a very, very sweet affectionate hug — the likes of which I have never received from an animal who was not human.)

Italian Greyhounds are remarkably smart. They really understand words, and the gist of a string of words. Yes, I may becoming a batty old dog nerd, but I think it’s true. They are smarter than we know.

My most amazing accomplishment as a dog trainer, is to teach my dogs the concept of time. When they want something, say a walk or food or ride in the car or someone is coming over, I tell them that such and such is going to happen, they react and leap in the air, and then I say “but you have to WAIT.” When they hear the word, WAIT, their ears go down and they slink off and sit somewhere nearby. I really do that think they know it will happen, and that it is not the equivalent of saying NO.

Foster families was careful to give some but not too much affection to their rescue dogs. So it is the adopting family’s job to do that. But, as Cesar Milan says, only after exercise and discipline. All affection without discipline and exercise makes for a yappy, spoiled over-protective dog. So we go back and forth between giving the dog discipline, exercise, attention and affection, to ignoring him and making him figure things out for himself. His previous owner obviously taught him sit: and HOW! When there is food involved, we say “sit” and BAM — his little grey butt is on the floor. Hilarious. Such a good dog.

Ok, I’ll stop and get back to composing. Here is a picture of the dogs in the morning: it’s their job to find the sunniest spots. (Giaco is 10 and is white and grey; Andy is 8.5 and mostly grey.)

{ 1 comment }

No, this video (the closing of 2001 A Space Odyssey) was not meant to go with Riley’s late 1960’s classic “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” Actually, I think the video artist, John Whitney, would have approved of this mashup. [Embedding is disabled, so click on the title to watch the video.]


I highly recommend watching Norman and Nancy Blake’s video “My Dear Old Southern Home”, a concert that they filmed at home playing old-time music like this. (I rented it on Netflix.)

{ 1 comment }

Value of doubt

March 1, 2012

My father told me that we came from a long line of farmers and preachers. The first Bourland to come to America was my 5th great grandfather, Rev John Bourland (1740 – 1793) who fled religious persecution in Ireland, settled in America and had an enormous family: one of his sons, my 4th GGrandfather, Rev John O Bourland, was also a minister. My father was a minister and his grandfather was a minister.

What does this tell me? That my family has a long-lived tendency to think about spiritual matters, and when they learn about something they believe in, they tell those who are interested.

During high school and college, I failed to remember the last part of the previous sentence: “…tell those who are interested.” For a variety of reasons, and one may be genetic, I developed an early interest in all things having to do with religion, spirituality, metaphysics, mysticism, and the occult. I’ve studied Swedenborg, Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky and all the Theosophists, Anthroposophy, the Urantia Book, the religions of the world, astrology, new age miscellania and whatever else seemed promising. No matter what it was, I had to tell everyone what I had learned. I couldn’t settle for just “faith”–I wanted to know.

Then, about seven years ago, I read a book called DOUBT, that stressed the evolutionary importance of doubt in the world. While reading it, I realized that one thing religions NEVER tell you is what happens if what they teach is NOT true? THen what? It had never occurred to me to doubt what I had learned and believed. Then, like a ton of bricks, doubt hit me full force. I won’t say I became an atheist or agnostic — both of those words have lost their meaning to me — rather, I embraced my fathers advice from long ago: don’t worry about it; it’s a mystery. So I became an IT’S-A-MYSTERY-ist. I just stopped talking about religion and grew increasingly uninterested in it. I went from being interested in all religions to the opposite. If anyone asked me what I believed, I would reply “I don’t know.” Like choosing their hair stylists and dentists, people don’t change their religious views quickly, so I’ve learned to steer clear of religious debate. But ultimately, I had to learn to live with the notion that this life is all there is. That was a tough one, but as a it’s-a-mysteryist, I eventually learned to live with the idea.

Two nights ago, I had an epiphany. It was a combination of getting good work done, having some down-time and alone-time to think about life, and a series of documentaries I happened to see that night. I suddenly realized that I do believe in what I ultimately learned in my spiritual research. And it’s not just faith: it really makes sense and is still a mystery. But I guess I had to learn how to truly doubt it and let it go first before I could realize that. The belief I had before my period of doubt made me a very optimistic person. During my doubt years, I had to learn how to become optimistic again in the face of trying to make sense of a new spiritless world.

I’m still reeling with this change.