Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, July 30, 2004


Professional harpist Helen Radice and playwright George Hunka have gone beyond the simple “my fave albums/books/whatever of all time” catalogues and made lists of, in Helen’s words, “some things, musical or otherwise, the experience of which I feel has made me a better human being.” I admire the bluntness and ambition of the project, as well as George’s admission that “we NEED some improvement,” an admission I endorse as applying to me big time.

My list:

* Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Exuberance is beauty, all religion is metaphor, life is holy.

* Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and other poems. He is the man, he suffered, he was there.

* The speeches of Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. -- they make me cry and cry.

* Jesus’ Last Supper and the Bible’s four Creation stories. All religion is metaphor, life is holy, what we eat is God, and whom we feed when we feed someone is God.

* Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” The philosophy of lyricism. Life is holy. “Smell me!”

* “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Life is freaky and inexplicable and unpredictable and gorgeous and sexy and funny and scary; people can be noble and dishonest and forgivable all at once; life is UNCANNY.

* Paintings by Rembrandt.

* Music. (On record: Bach, Debussy, Ives, Coltrane, Armstrong, Lennon & McCartney, Ellington, Gershwin, Rosetta Tharpe; countless others. Live: Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Television, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Olatunji, Abdullah Ibrahim, musicians of Siwa, Al Green’s church, Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”; countless others.) All religions are metaphors for the unnameable, incomprehensible, divine. Music is my metaphor.

* Playing in bands, writing songs, singing with my grandpa, singing with my mom, singing to my son.

* Sandlot softball.

* Making theater with my friends in college and after -- acting, writing plays, writing music for plays. (All a long time ago.) Political street theater.

* Chuang Tzu. The limits of reason and knowledge.

* My wedding and my marriage and my spouse.

* 1999 Seattle WTO protests.

* The poems of Basho and early writings of John Cage.

* “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

* “Apocalypse Now.”

* Working in homeless shelters. Humility and trauma.

* Dropping out of college for 10 years. Going back and finishing.

* Traveling in Egypt, Jordan, Israel & the West Bank for 6 weeks in 1999. Climbing Mt. Sinai to greet the rising son. Swimming in the Dead Sea. Sleeping under the stars on the Great Sand Sea. Hitching rides on crowded group cabs. Hearing the donkeys pray to their god.

* Duke Ellington's musical vision of intensely individualistic players coming together in common cause. “Groove as niche,” music as dwelling.

Thursday, July 29, 2004


When we were in 6th grade my friends Rodney Webb and Rob K. and I started writing a novel together. The three of us would go to Rodney’s house after school and he would say what to write and I would write it down and Rob would agree. All I remember is that Rob was the main character, and that he would say stuff to his girlfriend Pauline, and Pauline would say OK.

In 8th grade Rodney and I had a class called “Creative Dramatics,” which was basically an hour of hanging out and making up skits. Rodney was the funniest person in the class. One skit was a take-off on the margarine commercial where the tub of margarine muttered “butter” whenever someone barely opened it. Rodney opened the tub of margarine and a friend offstage muttered “butter.” Rodney freaked out and closed the tub, eventually tentatively opening it again only to be greeted by “butter.” This repeated with Rodney growing more and more hysterical and eventually stomping the crap out of the margarine tub. Pretty funny when you’re 13.

8th grade was about the time that people started becoming conscious of what music was cool. I probably liked groups like Emerson Lake & Palmer and Kansas by then, as well as old groups like the Beatles and Beach Boys, and the classical music my mom and grandma loved and played at home. I’ll never forget Rodney saying, enthusiastically, his favorite music was Christmas music.

Maybe it’s because Rodney died, probably of a drug overdose, before we were out of our 20s that my memories of him stick so much. We had met in 5th grade and become friends immediately. My family had moved to a new neighborhood the summer after 4th grade, and a week or 2 after we moved I had been run over by a motorboat and lost several teeth and the use of some of my facial muscles. So I was starting a new school with a newly scarred face, and Rodney was in my class and friendly and sympathetically curious about my accident though not obtrusively so. But after 8th grade we drifted apart, as by high school he got on a path of armed robbery and drugs and I stayed on my family’s white collar college-bound path. That path would have been possible for him if he’d wanted it, but he would have been the first in his family to follow it. And he didn’t. 

Rodney’s love of Christmas music is deep in me, and I treasure seasonal and ceremonial music. I love Christmas music. I grew up going to U-Michigan football games once or twice a fall with my dad and his brothers and uncles and aunts, and so marching band music is part of me, and every 4th of July (at least) I dig up Sousa. On Memorial Day this year I listened to Ives’s “Holidays Symphony.” I’ll only listen to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in the spring and Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Beach Boys’ early records in the summer.

Now it’s summer.

After having craved it for weeks, last night I finally put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunks 1965 recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik. The group gets the diaphanous and flighty (fairylike!) quality of the music beautifully. Mendelssohn wrote the overture at the age of 17, and several years later a theater commissioned him to write a whole set of incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s play. Mendelssohn used themes from the overture and wrote new ones, including a joyous and buoyant wedding march that has become a central piece of ceremonial music in America, played as the recessional of countless weddings. (Wagner’s slow and stately wedding march has been used as a processional in countless weddings.)

There are boodles of recordings of Mendelssohn’s suite, some providing only the overture and wedding march and 2 or 3 other pieces, some with 15 tracks. The Kubelik recording has 10. I hadn’t listened to a version with so many selections in several years.

The overture starts with 4 quiet, mysterious, expectant chords, evoking -- since the play is about love & magic -- hope and the casting of a spell. The overture ends with the same four chords, in a neatly satisfying symmetry. What I had forgotten -- or never noticed -- is that the suite’s finale ends with the same four chords, and last night, it gave me chills. The closing of the curtain. The ending of the spell. The spell of the fairies & of the music & of Shakespeare’s play being the most gentle, delicate thing in the world, even as it contains raucousness within its bounds. (Shakespeare’s play contains violence and dread as well, but I don’t really hear that in Mendelssohn’s music.)

Tonight while washing the dishes I listened again, and this time the opening four chords gave me chills, the spell working deeper with repetition, and the finale’s closing repeat gave me deeper chills still and a broad satisfied smile. The fairies are leaving, flying away, hovering slightly at the edge of perception and then -- poof! -- they’re gone.

Like all of us will be someday, and many of us already are. Here’s to absent friends.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


While camping in Canada last week I reread “The Counterfeiters,” Hugh Kenner’s odd and wonderful book of cultural criticism from 1968. In the book's epilogue from 1985, Kenner, who’s best known as Ezra Pound’s best explicator, says that “The Counterfeiters” was his favorite of his books (at least up to that time); that it had baffled librarians as to how to categorize a 150-page essay that threw Buster Keaton, 17th and 18th century poetry and prose, and artificial intelligence into the air and kept them all aloft with deft rhetorical juggling; and that he shared the librarians’ bafflement.

Nowadays we’d say it’s about the history of ideas, or the history of consciousness. (“Hiss con,” I heard it called when my friends studied it in grad school -- the only academic field to have a name to rival "cult studs.") Kenner would probably prefer “history of ideas,” since he observes that after the 17th century Cartesian revolution, poets no longer conceived of poems as being a representation of a man speaking, but of a consciousness observing.

The opposition of “a consciousness observing” and “a man speaking” helped me get at my Bob Dylan problem. As a teen-ager, 10 years after Bob’s glory years, I thrilled to the rock-rollin’ energy noise of his first classic folk-rock records -- loved the sound of the bands, loved the noise of his voice & harmonica. It was only later that I got into his words, and the satires blew me away -- still do. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is probably my favorite -- just an amazing song -- freaked out, funny, vivid and teeming. He’s the greatest epigrammatist of the 20th century, and a great satirist, and a great great singer, one of the great masters of phrasing and a wild innovator and experimenter in timbre. That said, I’m not much of a fan of his love songs, with some “Blood on the Tracks” exceptions, and some Tin Pan Alley-esque exceptions (“If Not For You”; “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”). Nor do I care for his hate songs, though they usually seem more inspired. “I love and I hate” summarizes the “I-Thou” field of the lyric mode, which is the genre of a person speaking par excellence. When Bob presents himself as a person speaking to another person (I love you, I hate you), more often than not I don’t like him. Nothing to do with his biography -- the “him” in his songs -- or the “I” -- is whom I don’t like. Richard Rodgers was said to have been an arrogant jerk; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Johnny Mercer are reported to have been mean drunks -- but in their works they sway me with their charm charm charm -- charm and wit and beauty. And it’s not that I recoil against hate songs per se; hate is real stuff; but when Bob’s contemptuous I almost always get the impression that his disdain and anger are out of proportion to the offense. But Dylan’s consciousness -- his smarts, his insight, his doesn’t-miss-a-thing vision -- well, that spectackles me, in the satires. The observing consciousness in the contempt songs is mightily impressive too -- “Like a Rolling Stone” is brilliant, but the meanness tires me; and “Idiot Wind” is brilliant too, and for once the contempt ends up leavened with compassion and self-examination.

The only Bob album I listen to much is “Self-Portrait,” where he nakedly reveals the maskishness of his masks. When in his cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” his smooth “Lay Lady Lay” voice duets with his raspy “The Times They Are A-Changin’” voice, it sends me. The man is an artist. Dylan wrote songs I love more than anything on “S-P,” but none of his other albums stand up as albums for me. On “S-P,” he honestly presents himself as a chameleon and a con. It’s his free-est record.

When the post-17th century Cartesian dissociated consciousness splits off from a person’s whole humanity, the heart, the emotions, and the imaginative sympathy can get left behind. Kenner’s “Counterfeiters” gives plenty of examples of resulting poetical catastrophes, mostly borrowed from Kenner’s acknowledged inspiration, Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee’s amusing 1930 collection “The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse.” What the dissociated consciousness observes are dissociated facts. Hence Kenner’s title: once the Cartesian consciousness reduces experience to a more-or-less comprehensive collection of facts and behaviors, a person, according to the Cartesians, becomes counterfeitable. Kenner argues that humanity goes deeper than observable facts and behaviors -- the wellsprings of imagination and desire-for-learning and emotion lie beneath what the eye can see. Kenner makes some by-the-way allusions to Cicero’s definition of humanity as bound up in culture and learning and sympathy and character. These asides reveal his book to be surreptitious philosophy: he loves wisdom.

Dylan in his songs doesn’t reduce people to observable facts and behaviors, but too often his songs fail in sympathy and humanity. For me, he’s the Picasso of rock -- brilliant and shattering and showing a deep mean streak. I love him when his humanity breaks through his arrogance and cruelty; I love him for bringing surrealism into rock; I love him for his singing and for his mid-’60s bandleading. He’ll do fine without my unconditional love.

While thinking about this I googled Kenner and learned he died last November at the age of 80. I’m glad I read his book in Canada, because he was Canadian. RIP, and thanks for the great read.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


. . . is the name of a book by the 20th century American composer and astrologist Dane Rudhyar, which Jon Hassell's notes to his gorgeous and brilliant Fascinoma turned me onto. I've only barely dipped into Rudhyar's book, which I found somewhere used and cheap a couple years ago, but the phrase has really stuck with me.

On July 14 I said that rhythm and timbre define genre more than any other musical characteristics. A silly generalization about to get sillier: of the two, timbre is the more important. Country shows this most strongly -- you can rap over electronic drums and a funky beat and still get played on country radio as long as your words are intelligible and high in the mix and you sing with a southern accent. Hard rock guitar, bittersweet fiddle, extrasweet string section, rock beats, polka, brass sections, waltzes -- it can all be country as long as it has those two characteristics, which are qualities of timbre. At the Vancouver Folk Music Festival my beloved spouse and I heard a rural Canadian First Nations hip hop act whose members sounded like black men from New York City, in the local accent of their words and the weight and tone "color" of their voices. They adopted the vocal tone of their chosen genre.

Timbre is the most mysterious, least understood quality of music. Melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, and dynamics can all be communicated fairly effectively with the written language of musical notation. To the extent that timbre can be communicated effectively in written language, it is only in abstruse computer code that no composer to my knowledge has taken the trouble to learn to the extent that they would be able to create and predict new sounds based on their mind's ear's mastery of the code.

Something in us craves beautiful sounds and leads us as a species to devise ways of making them. To paraphrase Shakespeare (because I can't find the original): What is it about horsehair scraping against catgut that causes a man's soul to leap out of his body?

Rhythm and melody are still my main gods, but timbre is the secret god.

(These reflections were occasioned by having heard Brian Wilson's recent version of "God Only Knows" from "Pet Sounds Live" the other day. It's note-perfect and tonally way way off. I saw that tour, without the string and brass sections, and live and in person it all worked movingly.)

Sunday, July 25, 2004


While I was away from the computer for a week, 119 pieces of e-mail came. One from a friend, one from a friendly fellow blogger, and 117 solicitations from the usual gang of diploma millers, penis enlargers, pornographers, and mortgagers, many of them in Japanese, which I’ve never claimed to have been able to read.


Did I miss blogging?

Not at all, except for one intense morning of longing. While the folk festival ran from Friday night through Sunday night I was too absorbed in music and family and friends to miss anything. Monday morning though, while packing up in the motel to get ready to go camping, I really really wanted to write the fest up. Three nights of camping on the beach and days of walking and reading books (no newspapers, no mags, no web) drained the itch out of me. Got back home Thursday night & read my e-mail & had no urge to write at all until Saturday night.


Was it a good time?

Yeah. Absolutely.


Item. I’ve been complaining hereabouts of classical snobbery. Folky snobbery is no better. “Real music in a sea of shit” said one of the MCs. To use the current vernacular, Cheney me.

Item. Wavy Gravy was another of the MCs. I saw him at a free concert in Golden Gate Park 20 years ago during the Democratic National Convention in Frisco. In showbiz terms he was a serious has-been, coasting on a few mildly witty remarks he made in auspicious circumstances 15 to 20 years before. Last week-end he was still repeating the same remarks, and they’re no funnier now than they were 20 years ago, though they were probably passably good lines in context, 35 to 40 years ago.

Item. One of the festival’s draws for me is that it creates a context for the spontaneous interaction of really good musicians to play together who have never met and may not even speak a language in common. A couple years ago the festival decided to institutionalize the practice and invite musicians to work together for a few days before the festival. It doesn’t work. The spontaneous interactions still happen, fortunately. When one musical act is doing their thing, and another musical act jumps in and finds a way to fit their thing into the first act’s thing, it can excite and move everybody. The planned collaborations end up being lowest common demoninator common ground jams, with nobody’s committed musical vision coming through. The local flavors disappear in tentativeness. One of the planned collaborations we heard Saturday morning was just awful, good players marring themselves with ugly sarcasm -- a bunch of “alt” musicians deciding to play “the worst wedding songs we could think of.” A request: If you think it’s garbage, don’t play it, unless you need the money.


Lots of great music.

The toddling dude danced a lot and had a great time. And he slept fine -- afternoon nap & going to sleep before the end of the concert.

Beautiful weather in a beautiful park.


Autorickshaw is a four-piece band from Ontario: a singer of the traditional music of her parents’ birthplace of South India, a tabla player, a trap drummer, and a six-string electric bassist. Stripped minimal sound, high energy -- loved it. The singer sat while singing in traditional Indian style. She stood when they played the Ellington standard, a piece of exotica he wrote with his Puerto Rican valve-trombonist Juan Tizol, “Caravan.” A moto-riffic bass & popping percussion underscore the Indian-flavored jazz and scat singing. When I heard them play this on Saturday they shared the stage with a Turkish band from Quebec, and the ney (Middle Eastern reed instrument) player jumped in with a Turkish sounding solo, the members of Autorickshaw looked very happy. Just wonderful is how it sounded.

The next day they shared a stage with Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, a traditional Pakistani Qawwali band led by two nephews of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and played “Caravan” again. This time the singer sat in deference to the Qawwali players, who sit in order to be closer to God, and after her scat solo the harmonium player jumped in with a fine solo & then the Qawwali singers kicked in & it was ecstatic. Nusrat Fateh’s nephews bring no shame to his name, and I can’t think of a higher compliment. Amazing. I couldn’t help but think that Duke would have been well pleased. Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali’s own material was wonderful too.

Warsaw Village Band kicks it. Two violins, cello, hammer dulcimer, a standing bass drummer, and a tambourinist who plays with a mallot. The bass drummer has a cymbal mounted on his drum and occasionally a triangle hanging from it; one violinist doubles on hurdy-gurdy; the other violinist doubles on a 16th century Polish 6-string fiddle between a viola and cello in size; the three women in the band sing with a tone reminiscent of the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria. Tremendous rhythms and great sounds. This was the toddling dude’s favorite band to dance to, in 4/4, 6/4, or 7/4 meter -- didn’t matter.

Los de Abajo, a 10-piece Latin ska band from Mexico City, put on one of the most energetic sets I’ve ever seen. “Up from Below” is how their name translates & it’s the title of a revolutionary novel. 3 horns (trumpet, trombone, tenor sax), 3 percussion, 2 lead vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards. Mad!

Fiamma Fumana from Italy wove traditional rural Italian melodies with electronic beats, lovely sounds, and great charm. On one song they were joined by a teen-age (or maybe barely older), unrecorded traditional Scottish Gaelic singer named James Graham who has a beautiful voice similar to that of Lorin Sklamberg’s but with a softer edge. I had always thought that bagpipes were native only to Scotland and Ireland until I heard a traditional piper from Spain at this fest a few years ago; Fiamma Fumana has traditional Italian pipes. James Graham’s solo sets were just lovely.

The evening concerts always close with a loud danceably rockin’ band, usually Celtic (or Celtic-Quebecois), except Sunday night, when a mellow folkie follows the party band to send everyone home sweetly. The last four years it’s been the great story teller, anarchist, singer-songwriter-guitarist Utah Phillips, who in good communitarian spirit always shares the stage with other singers. He hosts and they all trade songs. The first two times he closed the festival, he had someone on stage with him who equalled him in experience and venerability, and he graciously offered the last song to whoever that happened to be. But the last two years he’s been up there with people in their 20s and 30s, and so he’s closed it himself. And it touches me deeply to see such a sweet sense of decorum.

It was a great week-end.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

My beloved spouse, the toddling dude, and I are off to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and then more computer-less vacationing.  Here's what I wrote about it last year's fest to an e-discussion group called PopTalk.  See you when we get back!
Last week-end I went to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, a few hours drive and a whole country away from Seattle.  I know this isn't FolkTalk, but the etymological similarity between folk music ("music of the people") and pop music ("music of the people") always strikes me.  The word "folk" is from German; "pop" is from Latin; I don't know the history of the distinction, unless an aura of Germanic scholarliness has hovered around everybody's understanding of folk music since forever, which wouldn't surprise me.
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival has an elastic definition of "folk music" -- a good thing.  Michael Franti and Spearhead headlined Saturday night, and the crowd of folkies loved them.  (My wife and I had to leave, because they were too loud, too late for our 6-month-old, but I dug the groovy beats and the hooks from half a mile or so away, where we parked.)
I rarely listen to contemporary pop radio.  My drive-time formats tend toward new country, classic country, "oldies," "quality rock" (hilarious notion -- I think the format is also known as Adult Contemporary Rock, or something like that), college radio rock, college radio folk and jazz, and pre-rock pop.  (In Seattle, the pre-rock pop station's slogan is "Great Songs, Great Memories," always said with a spritz of merriment; a similar AM station that I heard once years ago in the San Jose area had a DJ who grimly called it, "OUR kind of music," very culture war-like.)  And occasionally I check in with a high-energy high-school-student run dance music station.  So I don't know if Michael Franti makes it onto top 40, but I have heard him on college stations, which leads me to believe that the folks in Vancouver define folk music as anything you're more likely to hear on public radio than commercial -- jazz and western classical music mostly excluded.
Like many folk music festivals, or so I'm told, the "workshop" stages during the day throw together musicians who have never met before, and those at Vancouver often don't speak the same language.  Saturday morning, the great traditionalist Quebecois accordianist-singer-revelmaster Yves Lambert surprised everybody by playing an understated, stylistically idiomatic, and perfectly lovely chromatic harmonica solo when a Portuguese-Canadian "fado" singer decided to sing the jazz standard "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."  When the next performer on the stage, the virtuoso Brazilian-born and -styled guitarist Celso Machado, started off his number with a jaw harp solo, Monsieur Lambert surprised everybody again by pulling out his own jaw harp and setting in for a spontaneous, lively, surprising, and humorous mouth-percussion duet.  Had the jam been recorded, it might not have stood up as "music that lasts," but the expression of joy and surprise on Celso Machado's face, the joy and surprise of creativity and spontaneity, will last with me for a long, long time.
Every year, something at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival strikes me this way, which is why I always go back.
Other highlights this year included Billy Bragg's rewrite of "Great Leap Forward" to make it about "New World Order," and his new verses to Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues":  "He's got [something something] / he's got wavy hair / It's George Dubya's poodle / -- Tony Blair!"
White Cockatoo, a traditional group from Arnhem Land Australia, did some compelling song-and-dance to didjiridoo and rhythm-stick accompaniment, and took part in a memorable question-and-answer session. Q:  What animals do you hunt, and how do you hunt them? A (from the group's white Australian MC/spokesperson -- the members of the band laughed at people's jokes but refused to talk to the audience):  "Well, that's an interesting question.  They hunt fish in the rivers with spears.  They dig lizards out of the ground and beat them with sticks.  They shoot kangaroos with rifles.  And they hunt a species of Asian buffalo with their 4-wheel-drives.  They run the bastards over until they're dead, and let me tell you, it's a sight to see."
And the great storyteller and moral exhorter Utah Phillips is always great to hear.  He sang a song a capella about how his experience as a grunt in Korea turned him into a pacifist.  "The enemy is within," he sang.  I'm not purely a pacifist, but the honesty and complexity of the emotion -- bitterness and horror and self-critical awareness -- made me cry.
It was a great week-end.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Is there a hierarchy of sunsets? A hierarchy of landscapes? We think of the glorious and hideous things we humans do as something other than nature, but isn’t that a little haughty of us? Are we not animals too, and hasn’t everything we’ve done been an expression of nature’s power? Sure, we’re alienated, but that’s our problem, that’s just emotion.


On the quality rock station this morning, someone phoned in his top 3 albums -- Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper’s, and the Doors’ first album. I can’t really relate, but who am I to say the dude is wrong?


Rhythm and timbre define genre more than anything else. They speak to the listener’s social and private identities. Some sounds just say “home” to some people and “stay the hell away” to others.


A couple years ago I made a list of favorite albums to compare with a friend. Started with Top 100. Then Top 10. I tried to remember my Top 10 tonight, but only remembered 9. I made a new list, about half overlap. The only thing recorded since I turned about 5 years old was an album by a Hungarian Roma band that friends who were living in Hungary bought for me.


Armstrong, Banfa and Jobim and others, Beatles, Beach Boys, Howlin’ Wolf, Ella, Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Kalyi Jag, Gershwin, and the 10th? Do I have to decide?


Wallace Stevens: “Happens to like is one of the ways things happen to fall.”


I wrote to a friend the other day: “Been on a serious Basie-Pres kick the last week.  Jonesing for that too.  Probably should blog about it. 
“Basie’s style is essence-of-Fats – Waller was his idol (Waller, who was a few months older) – and Basie’s touch & melodic sense are Fatsian, though minimalized.  Early Basie, with the Bennie Moten Orch., is less minimalized – he seriously pared, pared, pared it down.  & it’s gorgeous & inimitable & timeless.

“Timeless, because – Because! – when you listen to Pres with the Basie Orchestra, the soloists all sound like ‘30s or even ‘20s guys, except Lester Young, who sounds ‘50s.  And except Basie, who only sounds Basie.  It took me about 2 decades of listening to Pres to understand how revolutionary he was – his innovations were so deeply assimilated that he just sounded “nice,” “fine,” “pretty” and didn’t register with me.  And then I noticed how beautiful the melodies are, and how light & airy & dancy twisty turny his phrasing.  And then I noticed – he sounds ‘50s!  It’s a whole new Thang with him.  Trumbauer’s lightness inspired his own, but that combined with his phrasing just catapults him over contemporary stylishness. 

“Fats’s piano-isms outshone Basie’s (and just about anybody’s) and his songwriting was topnotch and hugely popular.  His singing was a kick and a half.  But Basie had the Audio-Vision to make a new orchestral SOUND.  Bandleading is a great, delicate, complex art.  Lately I’m digging Basie at least as much as Duke.  If Duke outshines him in sound-color (and just about everybody), Basie outswings.”


So there’s been this discussion among classical music bloggers about whether classical partisans should present themselves as explicitly elitist.  Pretty much the only blogger taking the explicitly pro-elitism position is a hepcat named A. C. Douglas, who blows his cool by suggesting that there’s a clear hard line between works of art that aim for transcendence and works that aim to be merely boffo contemporary megahits, and that the transcendence game is what high culture’s all about.

As evidence that such a line is subjectively drawn at best and most likely illusory, I offer the obvious name of Shakespeare.  Big boffo megahit maker who didn’t even see to it that his manuscripts were preserved, just made his pile of cash and retired to the country like some prior-day J. D. Salinger.  Despite his obvious commercial bent, his penchant for stupid jokes, his weakness for weak puns, his often ridiculous plots, his unhesitancy in offering buckets of blood if he thinks that’s what the audience wants, he’s at the center of the canon of English poetry, some say Western poetry, some say world poetry.  Dude could write him some hella transcendent iambics.  Word.

Amazingly, a THEATER blogger named George Hunka backs Mr. Douglas up and gets in some nice arguments about how transcendence’s where it’s at!  Transcendent artworks allow spectators to perceive, “through the artist, escape from will in the act of contemplating the will.”  In an unfortunate display of ill-informed elitist snobbery, he then remarks as to how if you ain’t gone to college you probably won’t understand him.

One needn’t even resort to Shakespeare to realize, good golly, probably most artists, popular or otherwise, aspire to timelessness, universality, and grace; those who've achieved it are legion. Speaking for my own demotic songs, heavens yes. Grounded in the daily grind and hoping to reveal the foot of god pumping the treadle of existence.

The elitist position as essayed by Messrs. Hunka and Douglas is a butt-centric view. They assume that the audience of transcendent art is in repose, sitting down, in a contemplative mood. I submit that the foot of god pumping the treadle may be revealed equally gloriously in more participatory modes, such as dancing, and that indeed Mr. Hunka’s Schopenhaurean will-lessness might be readily found at a rave.

Fortunately for classical music, Alex Ross, Helen Radice, and Greg Sandow argue for classical and against elitism.  Except that Sandow, in his populism, like many self-described rock-populists, posits a new elitism, an elitism within pop.  He asks rhetorically of a different classical elitist (not Mr. Douglas), “Can't he tell the difference between Celine Dion and Max Roach?”  From a sonic standpoint, that’s like asking, “Can’t you tell the difference between Scarlatti and Schoenberg?”  Sandow knows this; his point is, Roach is great (I agree), and Dion is the musical equivalent of an airport novel (an elitist designation that Sandow adopts from the polemic of his adversary).  Later Sandow lists his top pop musicians of the last 50 years:  “Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. Bob Dylan. Duke Ellington (even if he might have done even more memorable work earlier). Prince. Bruce Springsteen. Sondheim, for sure. Public Enemy. Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys. Or add your own names.”  He adds:  “You don't think Springsteen is a serious musical artist? Fine, but tell me why.”  But Sandow hasn’t told us why Celine Dion’s music is disposable. He assumes it’s self-evident.

Now, the little I’ve heard of Celine Dion, I don’t much like her.  Her stuff has struck me as monochromatic.  But she has pipes, and I have no doubt that she’s trying to make something beautiful when she sings. Just as airport novelists are trying to write as well as they can. Robert Walser has said it well -- I can only paraphrase -- music that lots of people like, there’s something musically interesting going on there whether you like it or not. It’s soul-limiting to dismiss it, and it’s stereotyped thinking to assume base motives in its creator.

I can applaud Mr. Sandow for trying to escape from his elitism. I know I got mine, which I struggle to transcend. Struggle, fail, and fall, and then, as Fred Astaire sang in that Kern-Fields song, "I pick myself up, Dust myself off, Start All over again."

Monday, July 12, 2004


In answer to Mr. Sasha Frere-Jones’s question of a week or so ago:

It’s like Emily Dickinson’s “letter to the world,” sent sometimes more than twice as often as the Brownings’ bi-diurnal post, with hopes that the world writes back.

Like notes passed back and forth at school that you want everybody to read.

Like the stuff quoted in a treatise in my university library by a 6th grade teacher who required his students to keep a record of at least one new thought or observation per day, blowing away aesthetically and imaginatively the coaxed poeticisms of Kenneth Koch’s kiddies. (Though I have to admit the linked example has a certain Bly-esque pathos.)

O. Wilde: criticism is spiritual autobiography.

Like late-medieval Japanese linked verse, each link standing on its own while simultaneously completing what precedes or follows, often while alluding to by-wayed erudition.

Like the conversation of the Borg.

Like pasted up pamphleteering, like virtual graffiti.

Sunday, July 11, 2004


By bloggy standards, responding to a post by Kyle Gann that's almost three weeks old is, like, so last millenium, but since my relationship with modernism -- and, I suspect, almost everybody's if not everybody's -- is so riddled with irony, my woeful slowness feels right. It's not as though I just got around to reading Kyle's post -- I read him almost daily.

There's a new biography of Dylan Thomas out, and reading reviews of it sent me back to his poems, and to commentary on them. An essay by the poet Karl Shapiro from his 1960 prose collection "In Defense of Ignorance" made the claim that Thomas's poetry was distinctive but lacked originality. The distinction between originality and distinctiveness knocked over a block I'd been stumbling over while trying to think about modernism.

The line between "distinctiveness" and "originality" isn't hard or fast. But it's there, and it refers to whether the composer (or poet, painter, playwright, and so on) develops what David Antin would call new tools to create the art -- new techniques, new forms. Someone who does that is "original." But one can still make art that is distinctively one's own while using nothing but inherited forms and techniques.

To take examples I've written about recently, Britney Spears's current hit, "Toxic" is distinctive. I don't know her oeuvre, so I couldn't say whether it's distinctively *hers*, but it doesn't sound like anything else I've heard -- it doesn't even *remind* me of any other songs. Or, rather, because it's a masterpiece of pastiche, it reminds me of lots of other music I've heard, but generically -- early '80s Prince, White Album Beatles, Egyptian disco, '60s instrumental spy-surf guitar -- not any song in particular. (Though it shares a lyric with a current hit by Eminem, "I'm addicted to you" -- don't know which song came first.) But I'd say it's distinctive and not original because all of its technical and formal features are inherited (though not, to my knowledge, plagiarized).

Usher's current hit, "Burn," is original. The way he writes melody to the rhythm of virtuoso fast rapping is unlike anything I've ever heard. (Disclaimer: I'd been tuned out of Top 40 radio for many years before tuning back in again a few months ago. So maybe Usher is one of a whole school of fast rap-rhythm singers, and I just haven't heard the others.) You could make a case that he's merely pastiche-ing R&B melody with rap rhythm, and therefore he's not original, but I can't imagine agreeing with you if you did. To me, he's combined the techniques in such a way as to constitute a new tool, a new technique, a new color (if you will), not just a distinctive way of combining inherited colors. To reiterate: the line between distinctiveness and originality is not hard or fast.

With its baffling longevity, the atonal serialist school of composing that Kyle and I have complained about can no longer be considered modernist. It's not forward-looking. Good God, we're coming hard upon its centennial! That its latter-day practioners consider themselves "modernist" is academic self-parody. It's almost as though the members of Gilbert & Sullivan Societies were congratulating themselves for being up-to-date. I suspect Gilbert himself -- if he were around -- could have some fun with today's atonalist schools.

Modernism -- innovation -- is the ideology of capitalism. It should be no surprise that among the most commercial music is some of the most innovative.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Unhappy about the contempt and anger I felt toward the singer of a cruel, “humorous” song and toward the audience laughing at it, which I wrote about last night, I continue to mull, try to figure why I got mad.

Cruelty and humor have always gone together.  The German word is Schadenfreude -- joy in the sorrow of others.

People used to go to public executions for entertainment.  The clown tradition has roots in the tarring and feathering of social outcasts and criminals.

Part of the story told in the cruel, “humorous” song: someone was injured in an accident and taken away by ambulance; a train hit the ambulance and killed the EMT workers but left the originally injured man still alive and brain damaged. I can imagine myself reacting to this narrative with a rueful grim irony grin.

The anxiety of suffering, the guilt and anxiety and relief of not being the one suffering -- maybe that’s a source of the laughter.  I consider that maybe I have my own anxiety about being cruel – knowing that I can be cruel – tonight I don’t feel so angry at schadenfreude anxious humor. 

Circumstances: I heard the song while still winding down from my own performance. I was still in a state of emotional binge. 

Complicated questions of manipulation and rhetoric in the song.  The heroic melodic rhetoric of the chorus, “crazy crazy Davey” – the deliberate emotional out-of-scaleness being a source of the humor.  Catchy tune.  But an emotionally superficial way to tell the story.  How to tell the story?  Heck if I know.  The emotions are complex, and finding a workable musical and verbal rhetoric – or tone – to tell it in a way that did it justice would be difficult.  Sorrow, fear, shock, guilt, loathing --

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


Show last night was fun but puzzling.  My friends came & paid five bucks to hear the same stuff Jake & John & I are going to play for free & unamplified at a party at Slim’s house Saturday night. The people there who aren’t my friends -- I did my best for them, and I enjoy trying to overcome the difficulties of playing solo in a noisy bar. It forces me to a higher intensity.  I'm a decent dramatic or comic actor-singer if you're paying attention already, but I just don't have the voice or the charisma to make it past the first couple rows of glass-clinking talkers.  So I turn it up a notch for the people who are paying attention, both to give them their time's worth and in hopes that someone who's only half-listening may catch something after all. My friends Jake London and John de Roo sat in on a funky version of a one-chord holler song I wrote a long time ago (they’d both played it with me before), and it was fun to drone with two guitars (me & Jake) and 2 harmonicas (me & John) and 2 or 3 voices (Jake joined me & John once or twice) and build a big (amplified) acoustic wall of sound.

Jake sang some nice duets with his friend and co-host John Ramberg. John de Roo sang his moody introspective songs beautifully -- he’s a beautiful singer, much better than me -- but the moody introspection wasn’t overcoming the talky glass-clinking any much better than I had.

After John’s set a good accordian player with a beautiful husky voice sang a terrific Eastern European-style waltz with interesting words (“Inside every bird there’s another bird”; “Behind every word is another word”). His 2nd song, I joined the glass-clinking talkers and missed it -- something about thanking St. Judas for taking the rap. His 3rd song tried to evoke laughs from a story of an accident that killed two people and left a third person brain damaged. The manipulatively cruel “humor” pissed me off and I left to get something to eat. He got laughs; Jake explained afterwards that the laughs were probably intended to draw people in and then make them feel bad for having laughed. But I didn’t get drawn in and went straight to feeling bad. I have the same problem with Coen Bros. movies. Stuffing a woman into a wood chipper isn’t funny, and it doesn’t get funnier when you portray her terror as ridiculous. My contempt for artists who play these games transfers over to contempt for an audience who laughs at them. And that troubles me, and I don’t know what to do with it. Paraphrase that Roman Polanski movie and say, “Forget it, dude. It’s po-mo-town.”

I’m really looking forward to Saturday night’s party, which will probably turn into a late-night informal house concert. Get a chance to really hear John and Jake, up close and unamplified; get a chance to play some of my own stuff ditto. Sweet.


An e-mail from my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, Friday July 2:

We went to see our local fireworks display last night, in Astoria Park, which is on the East River between the TriBoro bridge and the East River Arch Bridge, a beautiful 1911 cast iron train bridge. There's also a giant '30s era pool there. It's a great park, and there is always a stiff, off-river breeze that cools it down on hot days and eves.

The warmup for the fireworks was music. First, a big band, bland and not too precise, that nonetheless sounded good on some Harry James-esqe ballads (the leader played trumpet). The girl singer was disappointing. They were not helped by spotty amplification, nor an attempt to involve the crowd w/ a bad chart of the disco hit "Last Dance."

Next were two doo-wop groups. Randy and the Rainbows (1963 hit "Denise") w/ the original Randy but with young, hunky Rainbows. They were good and kept it basic and true to the era, despite some reckless Clapton-esque soloing on a too-fast version of "Kansas City." Lenny Coco and the Chimes followed, slicked-up and Vegas-styled with none of the loose, rockin' playfulness of Randy and Co. Still, their hit "Once in a While" is a really cool song and they had a horn section w/ better chops than the big band.

The fireworks were one of these buy-it-already-programmed deals, with a short customized voice over intro. The choice of accompanying music was interesting. It opened w/ a John Williams-inspired heroic orchestral piece (w/ trap kit) and segued into Ray Charles' "America." This got a big cheer, though I'm sure that the programmers had been using this for awhile and it was probably not a tribute. Anyway, the crowd was into Ray, and I noticed for the first time that his version includes the introductory verse. This melted into a contemporary gospel-ish choral version of the same. Next was the odd bit, three of these generic, purportedly patriotic pop-country tunes -- can't say by whom, but full of red-white-blue, down-home, you-can't-keep-us-down, gung-ho imagery. Totally lost on the Astoria crowd. Strangely, this led to an excerpt from Aretha's "Think," starting right in on the “freedom, freedom,” bridge section. This got the crowd going again. Her exhortation to "think!" I thought appropriate, and her defiance much more believable and true than than Nashville's cynical pandering. Lastly, a drawn out Star Spangled Banner by one of those pop opera singers -- much over-arranged, but because of its length, reliant on the more obscure verses. Not much of a climax. No Sousa! No pounding, Germanic symphonic finality. Just a long-held, screeching high-note. The works themselves were quite good, though the thundering finale scared Lilly. [Ed. note: Lilly is Jay’s 16-month-old.]

The crowd was in good spirits. Astoria is like small town within the City, and, despite the outline of skyscrapers in the dusk, it could have been in America somewhere. Great fun.

AND ANOTHER e-mail from Jay, sent Tuesday, July 06:

On the radio, upon the mythic b-day, Pops all weekend and Monday w/ Phil Schaap on WKCR seemingly off the air only a couple of hours out of 72. I caught big and little bits here and there, in the car, in the kitchen. Phil: "Armstrong is, in fact, THE musician of the 20th century."  Was most eloquent about the voice and its overwhelming influence. "Bing would say Armstrong, Mick doesn't know it, but he would say Armstrong, Sinatra might say Billie Holiday but Billie would say Armstrong." I can't translate his singular delivery. I've come to savor his radio talk. That loveable know-it-all.

Oldies had Beach Boys as a focus; cranked "God Only Knows." In the book I sent you the accordionist talks about faking the strings on that. For the life of me, it sounds like fiddle and violas. Classic Rock station missed the point entirely and had a Zeppelin weekend.

Looking for military band music, I switched on PBS. Got pop country and one BeeGee doing staying alive. Never did hear any Sousa.

JOHN REPLIES: You gotta take the Sousa into your own hands. Lots of Sousa on the CD player over the holiday week-end here. Sousa -- he wrote some TUNES.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


Alex Ross and Felix Salmon have been discussing the musical processes which produce chills -- tingling in the neck, literal goosebumps -- in the listener. Interesting description of a solo instrument emerging from a musical sound-mass, a solo oboe, say, over a string background: one suggestion is that the solo instrument recalls the cry of a lone animal on a plain, separated from the herd, calling up primal mammal memories.

Yesterday, after having read this a few days before, I came across a reference to a new Cole Porter bio-pic, which made me want to hear Barbra Streisand’s version of “You’re the Top,” which she recorded for the opening and closing credits of her 1972 comedy with Ryan O’Neal, “What’s Up, Doc?” It’s on a best-of compilation I found used a while ago, and it’s great -- she displays her whole voice, from the top to the bottom of her range, from a lilting flirty whisper to a hysterical roar, from intense drama to goofy humor. When the hysterical roar came in, suddenly, I got literal goosebumps. Chills. The sudden shift in timbre, and the intense emotion communicated -- cannily, it comes on the line, “you’re sublime” -- overtook my expectations, even though I’d heard the record many times before.

Chills may be too subjective an experience to systematize the cause, but I’d guess that a sudden shift in timbre, even if it’s subtle, may be key, which is not unlike the solo oboe suggestion. In any case, I’m happy to read other people’s thoughts on the matter.


Article in Sunday’s NY Times says that conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim gets paid more than $2,000,000 a year for his part-time conducting gig with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Base pay for players in the New York Philharmonic is over a hundred grand. The Philharmonic’s conductor, Lorin Maazel, makes more than Barenboim.

Salaries like that, man, and people worry that classical is dying.

Note, however: the conductors make a lot more. When Barenboim said in his book of conversations with Edward Said, “Parallels and Paradoxes,” that orchestral players have among the lowest job satisfaction of any professional class, he didn’t mention that he got paid 20 times more than they did for the same night’s music. Money can’t buy me love, no, but money changes everything.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, July 01, 2004


I heard one of the lengthy 1930s Benny Goodman recordings of the Louis Prima song “Sing Sing Sing” on the way to work today. Gene Krupa keeps it cookin’ hot and Benny and the horn players wail. Krupa’s solos get repetitive, the same tom-tom figure over and over, but it’s a great figure & it works. “Always glad to hear about that kind of carrying on.”

On the way home it was the Beatles, “A Day in the Life,” which I hadn’t heard in years. I remember having liked Ringo’s drums, but this afternoon they almost brought tears to my eyes -- Lennon’s beautifully textured vocals, and Ringo’s drums the most melodic instrument in the song, answering every phrase of Lennon’s with a sense of epic sorrow and comprehensive compassion. George Martin’s tremendous orchestration deserves its raves, and the song as a whole, including McCartney's interlude, is huge. But Ringo’s drums -- they’re IT.


If you're in Seattle Tuesday night, I'll be playing a few songs at the Sunset Tavern on Ballard Avenue, a few doors south of Market Street. My friends John de Roo and Jake London will be on the bill -- I've played with John since we were 15 and Jake since we were 18, and they're two of my favorite musicians in the world right now. John's a poet; one of maybe a handful of songwriters going now who writes lines that make me wanna holler, "I wish I'd written that!" Jake is a superbly imaginative guitarist and beautiful singer with a melodic gift. There are a couple other people on the bill (whom I don't know but whom Jake, the organizer, vouches for); we'll get started around 9. Should be a treat, especially since John lives in Tucson and hardly ever makes it up to these parts.

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